In the early days of December an old man of some seventy years of age pursued his way along the Rue de Varenne, in spite of the falling rain. He peered up at the door of each house, trying to discover the address of the Marquis Raphael de Valentin, in a simple, childlike fashion, and with the abstracted look peculiar to philosophers. His face plainly showed traces of a struggle between a heavy mortification and an authoritative nature; his long, gray hair hung in disorder about a face like a piece of parchment shriveling in the fire. If a painter had come upon this curious character, he would, no doubt, have transferred him to his sketchbook on his return, a thin, bony figure, clad in black, and have inscribed beneath it: “Classical poet in search of a rhyme.” When he had identified the number that had been given to him, this reincarnation of Rollin knocked meekly at the door of a splendid mansion.
“Is Monsieur Raphael in?” the worthy man inquired of the Swiss in livery.
“My Lord the Marquis sees nobody,” said the servant, swallowing a huge morsel that he had just dipped in a large bowl of coffee.
“There is his carriage,” said the elderly stranger, pointing to a fine equipage that stood under the wooden canopy that sheltered the steps before the house, in place of a striped linen awning. “He is going out; I will wait for him.”
“Then you might wait here till tomorrow morning, old boy,” said the Swiss. “A carriage is always waiting for monsieur. Please to go away. If I were to let any stranger come into the house without orders, I should lose an income of six hundred francs.”
A tall old man, in a costume not unlike that of a subordinate in the Civil Service, came out of the vestibule and hurried part of the way down the steps, while he made a survey of the astonished elderly applicant for admission.
“What is more, here is M. Jonathan,” the Swiss remarked; “speak to him.”
Fellow-feeling of some kind, or curiosity, brought the two old men together in a central space in the great entrance-court. A few blades of grass were growing in the crevices of the pavement; a terrible silence reigned in that great house. The sight of Jonathan’s face would have made you long to understand the mystery that brooded over it, and that was announced by the smallest trifles about the melancholy place.
When Raphael inherited his uncle’s vast estate, his first care had been to seek out the old and devoted servitor of whose affection he knew that he was secure. Jonathan had wept tears of joy at the sight of his young master, of whom he thought he had taken a final farewell; and when the marquis exalted him to the high office of steward, his happiness could not be surpassed. So old Jonathan became an intermediary power between Raphael and the world at large. He was the absolute disposer of his master’s fortune, the blind instrument of an unknown will, and a sixth sense, as it were, by which the emotions of life were communicated to Raphael.
“I should like to speak with M. Raphael, sir,” said the elderly person to Jonathan, as he climbed up the steps some way, into a shelter from the rain.
“To speak with my Lord the Marquis?” the steward cried. “He scarcely speaks even to me, his foster-father!”
“But I am likewise his foster-father,” said the old man. “If your wife was his foster-mother, I fed him myself with the milk of the Muses. He is my nursling, my child, carus alumnus! I formed his mind, cultivated his understanding, developed his genius, and, I venture to say it, to my own honor and glory. Is he not one of the most remarkable men of our epoch? He was one of my pupils in two lower forms, and in rhetoric. I am his professor.”
“Ah, sir, then you are M. Porriquet?”
“Exactly, sir, but ——”
“Hush! hush!” Jonathan called to two underlings, whose voices broke the monastic silence that shrouded the house.
“But is the Marquis ill, sir?” the professor continued.
“My dear sir,” Jonathan replied, “Heaven only knows what is the matter with my master. You see, there are not a couple of houses like ours anywhere in Paris. Do you understand? Not two houses. Faith, that there are not. My Lord the Marquis had this hotel purchased for him; it formerly belonged to a duke and a peer of France; then he spent three hundred thousand francs over furnishing it. That’s a good deal, you know, three hundred thousand francs! But every room in the house is a perfect wonder. ‘Good,’ said I to myself when I saw this magnificence; ‘it is just like it used to be in the time of my lord, his late grandfather; and the young marquis is going to entertain all Paris and the Court!’ Nothing of the kind! My lord refused to see any one whatever. ’Tis a funny life that he leads, M. Porriquet, you understand. An inconciliable life. He rises every day at the same time. I am the only person, you see, that may enter his room. I open all the shutters at seven o’clock, summer or winter. It is all arranged very oddly. As I come in I say to him:
“‘You must get up and dress, my Lord Marquis.’
“Then he rises and dresses himself. I have to give him his dressing-gown, and it is always after the same pattern, and of the same material. I am obliged to replace it when it can be used no longer, simply to save him the trouble of asking for a new one. A queer fancy! As a matter of fact, he has a thousand francs to spend every day, and he does as he pleases, the dear child. And besides, I am so fond of him that if he gave me a box on the ear on one side, I should hold out the other to him! The most difficult things he will tell me to do, and yet I do them, you know! He gives me a lot of trifles to attend to, that I am well set to work! He reads the newspapers, doesn’t he? Well, my instructions are to put them always in the same place, on the same table. I always go at the same hour and shave him myself; and don’t I tremble! The cook would forfeit the annuity of a thousand crowns that he is to come into after my lord’s death, if breakfast is not served inconciliably at ten o’clock precisely. The menus are drawn up for the whole year round, day after day. My Lord the Marquis has not a thing to wish for. He has strawberries whenever there are any, and he has the earliest mackerel to be had in Paris. The programme is printed every morning. He knows his dinner by rote. In the next place, he dresses himself at the same hour, in the same clothes, the same linen, that I always put on the same chair, you understand? I have to see that he always has the same cloth; and if it should happen that his coat came to grief (a mere supposition), I should have to replace it by another without saying a word about it to him. If it is fine, I go in and say to my master:
“‘You ought to go out, sir.’
“He says Yes, or No. If he has a notion that he will go out, he doesn’t wait for his horses; they are always ready harnessed; the coachman stops there inconciliably, whip in hand, just as you see him out there. In the evening, after dinner, my master goes one day to the Opera, the other to the Ital —— no, he hasn’t yet gone to the Italiens, though, for I could not find a box for him until yesterday. Then he comes in at eleven o’clock precisely, to go to bed. At any time in the day when he has nothing to do, he reads — he is always reading, you see — it is a notion he has. My instructions are to read the Journal de la Librairie before he sees it, and to buy new books, so that he finds them on his chimney-piece on the very day that they are published. I have orders to go into his room every hour or so, to look after the fire and everything else, and to see that he wants nothing. He gave me a little book, sir, to learn off by heart, with all my duties written in it — a regular catechism! In summer I have to keep a cool and even temperature with blocks of ice and at all seasons to put fresh flowers all about. He is rich! He has a thousand francs to spend every day; he can indulge his fancies! And he hadn’t even necessaries for so long, poor child! He doesn’t annoy anybody; he is as good as gold; he never opens his mouth, for instance; the house and garden are absolutely silent. In short, my master has not a single wish left; everything comes in the twinkling of an eye, if he raises his hand, and instanter. Quite right, too. If servants are not looked after, everything falls into confusion. You would never believe the lengths he goes about things. His rooms are all — what do you call it? — er — er — en suite. Very well; just suppose, now, that he opens his room door or the door of his study; presto! all the other doors fly open of themselves by a patent contrivance; and then he can go from one end of the house to the other and not find a single door shut; which is all very nice and pleasant and convenient for us great folk! But, on my word, it cost us a lot of money! And, after all, M. Porriquet, he said to me at last:
“‘Jonathan, you will look after me as if I were a baby in long clothes,’ Yes, sir, ‘long clothes!’ those were his very words. ‘You will think of all my requirements for me.’ I am the master, so to speak, and he is the servant, you understand? The reason of it? Ah, my word, that is just what nobody on earth knows but himself and God Almighty. It is quite inconciliable!”
“He is writing a poem!” exclaimed the old professor.
“You think he is writing a poem, sir? It’s a very absorbing affair, then! But, you know, I don’t think he is. He often tells me that he wants to live like a vergetation; he wants to vergetate. Only yesterday he was looking at a tulip while he was dressing, and he said to me:
“‘There is my own life — I am vergetating, my poor Jonathan.’ Now, some of them insist that that is monomania. It is inconciliable!”
“All this makes it very clear to me, Jonathan,” the professor answered, with a magisterial solemnity that greatly impressed the old servant, “that your master is absorbed in a great work. He is deep in vast meditations, and has no wish to be distracted by the petty preoccupations of ordinary life. A man of genius forgets everything among his intellectual labors. One day the famous Newton ——”
“Newton? — oh, ah! I don’t know the name,” said Jonathan.
“Newton, a great geometrician,” Porriquet went on, “once sat for twenty-four hours leaning his elbow on the table; when he emerged from his musings, he was a day out in his reckoning, just as if he had been sleeping. I will go to see him, dear lad; I may perhaps be of some use to him.”
“Not for a moment!” Jonathan cried. “Not though you were King of France — I mean the real old one. You could not go in unless you forced the doors open and walked over my body. But I will go and tell him you are here, M. Porriquet, and I will put it to him like this, ‘Ought he to come up?’ And he will say Yes or No. I never say, ‘Do you wish?’ or ‘Will you?’ or ‘Do you want?’ Those words are scratched out of the dictionary. He let out at me once with a ‘Do you want to kill me?’ he was so very angry.”
Jonathan left the old schoolmaster in the vestibule, signing to him to come no further, and soon returned with a favorable answer. He led the old gentleman through one magnificent room after another, where every door stood open. At last Porriquet beheld his pupil at some distance seated beside the fire.
Raphael was reading the paper. He sat in an armchair wrapped in a dressing-gown with some large pattern on it. The intense melancholy that preyed upon him could be discerned in his languid posture and feeble frame; it was depicted on his brow and white face; he looked like some plant bleached by darkness. There was a kind of effeminate grace about him; the fancies peculiar to wealthy invalids were also noticeable. His hands were soft and white, like a pretty woman’s; he wore his fair hair, now grown scanty, curled about his temples with a refinement of vanity.
The Greek cap that he wore was pulled to one side by the weight of its tassel; too heavy for the light material of which it was made. He had let the paper-knife fall at his feet, a malachite blade with gold mounting, which he had used to cut the leaves of the book. The amber mouthpiece of a magnificent Indian hookah lay on his knee; the enameled coils lay like a serpent in the room, but he had forgotten to draw out its fresh perfume. And yet there was a complete contradiction between the general feebleness of his young frame and the blue eyes, where all his vitality seemed to dwell; an extraordinary intelligence seemed to look out from them and to grasp everything at once.
That expression was painful to see. Some would have read despair in it, and others some inner conflict terrible as remorse. It was the inscrutable glance of helplessness that must perforce consign its desires to the depths of its own heart; or of a miser enjoying in imagination all the pleasures that his money could procure for him, while he declines to lessen his hoard; the look of a bound Prometheus, of the fallen Napoleon of 1815, when he learned at the Elysee the strategical blunder that his enemies had made, and asked for twenty-four hours of command in vain; or rather it was the same look that Raphael had turned upon the Seine, or upon his last piece of gold at the gaming-table only a few months ago.
He was submitting his intelligence and his will to the homely common-sense of an old peasant whom fifty years of domestic service had scarcely civilized. He had given up all the rights of life in order to live; he had despoiled his soul of all the romance that lies in a wish; and almost rejoiced at thus becoming a sort of automaton. The better to struggle with the cruel power that he had challenged, he had followed Origen’s example, and had maimed and chastened his imagination.
The day after he had seen the diminution of the Magic Skin, at his sudden accession of wealth, he happened to be at his notary’s house. A well-known physician had told them quite seriously, at dessert, how a Swiss attacked by consumption had cured himself. The man had never spoken a word for ten years, and had compelled himself to draw six breaths only, every minute, in the close atmosphere of a cow-house, adhering all the time to a regimen of exceedingly light diet. “I will be like that man,” thought Raphael to himself. He wanted life at any price, and so he led the life of a machine in the midst of all the luxury around him.
The old professor confronted this youthful corpse and shuddered; there seemed something unnatural about the meagre, enfeebled frame. In the Marquis, with his eager eyes and careworn forehead, he could hardly recognize the fresh-cheeked and rosy pupil with the active limbs, whom he remembered. If the worthy classicist, sage critic, and general preserver of the traditions of correct taste had read Byron, he would have thought that he had come on a Manfred when he looked to find Childe Harold.
“Good day, pere Porriquet,” said Raphael, pressing the old schoolmaster’s frozen fingers in his own damp ones; “how are you?”
“I am very well,” replied the other, alarmed by the touch of that feverish hand. “But how about you?”
“Oh, I am hoping to keep myself in health.”
“You are engaged in some great work, no doubt?”
“No,” Raphael answered. “Exegi monumemtum, pere Porriquet; I have contributed an important page to science, and have now bidden her farewell for ever. I scarcely know where my manuscript is.”
“The style is no doubt correct?” queried the schoolmaster. “You, I hope, would never have adopted the barbarous language of the new school, which fancies it has worked such wonders by discovering Ronsard!”
“My work treats of physiology pure and simple.”
“Oh, then, there is no more to be said,” the schoolmaster answered. “Grammar must yield to the exigencies of discovery. Nevertheless, young man, a lucid and harmonious style — the diction of Massillon, of M. de Buffon, of the great Racine — a classical style, in short, can never spoil anything —— But, my friend,” the schoolmaster interrupted himself, “I was forgetting the object of my visit, which concerns my own interests.”
Too late Raphael recalled to mind the verbose eloquence and elegant circumlocutions which in a long professorial career had grown habitual to his old tutor, and almost regretted that he had admitted him; but just as he was about to wish to see him safely outside, he promptly suppressed his secret desire with a stealthy glance at the Magic Skin. It hung there before him, fastened down upon some white material, surrounded by a red line accurately traced about its prophetic outlines. Since that fatal carouse, Raphael had stifled every least whim, and had lived so as not to cause the slightest movement in the terrible talisman. The Magic Skin was like a tiger with which he must live without exciting its ferocity. He bore patiently, therefore, with the old schoolmaster’s prolixity.
Porriquet spent an hour in telling him about the persecutions directed against him ever since the Revolution of July. The worthy man, having a liking for strong governments, had expressed the patriotic wish that grocers should be left to their counters, statesmen to the management of public business, advocates to the Palais de Justice, and peers of France to the Luxembourg; but one of the popularity-seeking ministers of the Citizen King had ousted him from his chair, on an accusation of Carlism, and the old man now found himself without pension or post, and with no bread to eat. As he played the part of guardian angel to a poor nephew, for whose schooling at Saint Sulpice he was paying, he came less on his own account than for his adopted child’s sake, to entreat his former pupil’s interest with the new minister. He did not ask to be reinstated, but only for a position at the head of some provincial school.
QRaphael had fallen a victim to unconquerable drowsiness by the time that the worthy man’s monotonous voice ceased to sound in his ears. Civility had compelled him to look at the pale and unmoving eyes of the deliberate and tedious old narrator, till he himself had reached stupefaction, magnetized in an inexplicable way by the power of inertia.
“Well, my dear pere Porriquet,” he said, not very certain what the question was to which he was replying, “but I can do nothing for you, nothing at all. I wish very heartily that you may succeed ——”
All at once, without seeing the change wrought on the old man’s sallow and wrinkled brow by these conventional phrases, full of indifference and selfishness, Raphael sprang to his feet like a startled roebuck. He saw a thin white line between the black piece of hide and the red tracing about it, and gave a cry so fearful that the poor professor was frightened by it.
“Old fool! Go!” he cried. “You will be appointed as headmaster! Couldn’t you have asked me for an annuity of a thousand crowns rather than a murderous wish? Your visit would have cost me nothing. There are a hundred thousand situations to be had in France, but I have only one life. A man’s life is worth more than all the situations in the world. — Jonathan!”
“This is your doing, double-distilled idiot! What made you suggest that I should see M. Porriquet?” and he pointed to the old man, who was petrified with fright. “Did I put myself in your hands for you to tear me in pieces? You have just shortened my life by ten years! Another blunder of this kind, and you will lay me where I have laid my father. Would I not far rather have possessed the beautiful Foedora? And I have obliged that old hulk instead — that rag of humanity! I had money enough for him. And, moreover, if all the Porriquets in the world were dying of hunger, what is that to me?”
Raphael’s face was white with anger; a slight froth marked his trembling lips; there was a savage gleam in his eyes. The two elders shook with terror in his presence like two children at the sight of a snake. The young man fell back in his armchair, a kind of reaction took place in him, the tears flowed fast from his angry eyes.
“Oh, my life!” he cried, “that fair life of mine. Never to know a kindly thought again, to love no more; nothing is left to me!”
He turned to the professor and went on in a gentle voice —“The harm is done, my old friend. Your services have been well repaid; and my misfortune has at any rate contributed to the welfare of a good and worthy man.”
His tones betrayed so much feeling that the almost unintelligible words drew tears from the two old men, such tears as are shed over some pathetic song in a foreign tongue.
“He is epileptic,” muttered Porriquet.
“I understand your kind intentions, my friend,” Raphael answered gently. “You would make excuses for me. Ill-health cannot be helped, but ingratitude is a grievous fault. Leave me now,” he added. “To-morrow or the next day, or possibly to-night, you will receive your appointment; Resistance has triumphed over Motion. Farewell.”
The old schoolmaster went away, full of keen apprehension as to Valentin’s sanity. A thrill of horror ran through him; there had been something supernatural, he thought, in the scene he had passed through. He could hardly believe his own impressions, and questioned them like one awakened from a painful dream.
“Now attend to me, Jonathan,” said the young man to his old servant. “Try to understand the charge confided to you.”
“Yes, my Lord Marquis.”
“I am as a man outlawed from humanity.”
“Yes, my Lord Marquis.”
“All the pleasures of life disport themselves round my bed of death, and dance about me like fair women; but if I beckon to them, I must die. Death always confronts me. You must be the barrier between the world and me.”
“Yes, my Lord Marquis,” said the old servant, wiping the drops of perspiration from his wrinkled forehead. “But if you don’t wish to see pretty women, how will you manage at the Italiens this evening? An English family is returning to London, and I have taken their box for the rest of the season, and it is in a splendid position — superb; in the first row.
Raphael, deep in his own deep musings, paid no attention to him.
Do you see that splendid equipage, a brougham painted a dark brown color, but with the arms of an ancient and noble family shining from the panels? As it rolls past, all the shop-girls admire it, and look longingly at the yellow satin lining, the rugs from la Savonnerie, the daintiness and freshness of every detail, the silken cushions and tightly-fitting glass windows. Two liveried footmen are mounted behind this aristocratic carriage; and within, a head lies back among the silken cushions, the feverish face and hollow eyes of Raphael, melancholy and sad. Emblem of the doom of wealth! He flies across Paris like a rocket, and reaches the peristyle of the Theatre Favart. The passers-by make way for him; the two footmen help him to alight, an envious crowd looking on the while.
“What has that fellow done to be so rich?” asks a poor law-student, who cannot listen to the magical music of Rossini for lack of a five-franc piece.
Raphael walked slowly along the gangway; he expected no enjoyment from these pleasures he had once coveted so eagerly. In the interval before the second act of Semiramide he walked up and down in the lobby, and along the corridors, leaving his box, which he had not yet entered, to look after itself. The instinct of property was dead within him already. Like all invalids, he thought of nothing but his own sufferings. He was leaning against the chimney-piece in the greenroom. A group had gathered about it of dandies, young and old, of ministers, of peers without peerages, and peerages without peers, for so the Revolution of July had ordered matters. Among a host of adventurers and journalists, in fact, Raphael beheld a strange, unearthly figure a few paces away among the crowd. He went towards this grotesque object to see it better, half-closing his eyes with exceeding superciliousness.
“What a wonderful bit of painting!” he said to himself. The stranger’s hair and eyebrows and a Mazarin tuft on the chin had been dyed black, but the result was a spurious, glossy, purple tint that varied its hues according to the light; the hair had been too white, no doubt, to take the preparation. Anxiety and cunning were depicted in the narrow, insignificant face, with its wrinkles incrusted by thick layers of red and white paint. This red enamel, lacking on some portions of his face, strongly brought out his natural feebleness and livid hues. It was impossible not to smile at this visage with the protuberant forehead and pointed chin, a face not unlike those grotesque wooden figures that German herdsmen carve in their spare moments.
An attentive observer looking from Raphael to this elderly Adonis would have remarked a young man’s eyes set in a mask of age, in the case of the Marquis, and in the other case the dim eyes of age peering forth from behind a mask of youth. Valentin tried to recollect when and where he had seen this little old man before. He was thin, fastidiously cravatted, booted and spurred like one-and-twenty; he crossed his arms and clinked his spurs as if he possessed all the wanton energy of youth. He seemed to move about without constraint or difficulty. He had carefully buttoned up his fashionable coat, which disguised his powerful, elderly frame, and gave him the appearance of an antiquated coxcomb who still follows the fashions.
For Raphael this animated puppet possessed all the interest of an apparition. He gazed at it as if it had been some smoke-begrimed Rembrandt, recently restored and newly framed. This idea found him a clue to the truth among his confused recollections; he recognized the dealer in antiquities, the man to whom he owed his calamities!
A noiseless laugh broke just then from the fantastical personage, straightening the line of his lips that stretched across a row of artificial teeth. That laugh brought out, for Raphael’s heated fancy, a strong resemblance between the man before him and the type of head that painters have assigned to Goethe’s Mephistopheles. A crowd of superstitious thoughts entered Raphael’s sceptical mind; he was convinced of the powers of the devil and of all the sorcerer’s enchantments embodied in mediaeval tradition, and since worked up by poets. Shrinking in horror from the destiny of Faust, he prayed for the protection of Heaven with all the ardent faith of a dying man in God and the Virgin. A clear, bright radiance seemed to give him a glimpse of the heaven of Michael Angelo or of Raphael of Urbino: a venerable white-bearded man, a beautiful woman seated in an aureole above the clouds and winged cherub heads. Now he had grasped and received the meaning of those imaginative, almost human creations; they seemed to explain what had happened to him, to leave him yet one hope.
But when the greenroom of the Italiens returned upon his sight he beheld, not the Virgin, but a very handsome young person. The execrable Euphrasia, in all the splendor of her toilette, with its orient pearls, had come thither, impatient for her ardent, elderly admirer. She was insolently exhibiting herself with her defiant face and glittering eyes to an envious crowd of stockbrokers, a visible testimony to the inexhaustible wealth that the old dealer permitted her to squander.
Raphael recollected the mocking wish with which he had accepted the old man’s luckless gift, and tasted all the sweets of revenge when he beheld the spectacle of sublime wisdom fallen to such a depth as this, wisdom for which such humiliation had seemed a thing impossible. The centenarian greeted Euphrasia with a ghastly smile, receiving her honeyed words in reply. He offered her his emaciated arm, and went twice or thrice round the greenroom with her; the envious glances and compliments with which the crowd received his mistress delighted him; he did not see the scornful smiles, nor hear the caustic comments to which he gave rise.
“In what cemetery did this young ghoul unearth that corpse of hers?” asked a dandy of the Romantic faction.
Euphrasia began to smile. The speaker was a slender, fair-haired youth, with bright blue eyes, and a moustache. His short dress coat, hat tilted over one ear, and sharp tongue, all denoted the species.
“How many old men,” said Raphael to himself, “bring an upright, virtuous, and hard-working life to a close in folly! His feet are cold already, and he is making love.”
“Well, sir,” exclaimed Valentin, stopping the merchant’s progress, while he stared hard at Euphrasia, “have you quite forgotten the stringent maxims of your philosophy?”
“Ah, I am as happy now as a young man,” said the other, in a cracked voice. “I used to look at existence from a wrong standpoint. One hour of love has a whole life in it.”
The playgoers heard the bell ring, and left the greenroom to take their places again. Raphael and the old merchant separated. As he entered his box, the Marquis saw Foedora sitting exactly opposite to him on the other side of the theatre. The Countess had probably only just come, for she was just flinging off her scarf to leave her throat uncovered, and was occupied with going through all the indescribable manoeuvres of a coquette arranging herself. All eyes were turned upon her. A young peer of France had come with her; she asked him for the lorgnette she had given him to carry. Raphael knew the despotism to which his successor had resigned himself, in her gestures, and in the way she treated her companion. He was also under the spell no doubt, another dupe beating with all the might of a real affection against the woman’s cold calculations, enduring all the tortures from which Valentin had luckily freed himself.
Foedora’s face lighted up with indescribable joy. After directing her lorgnette upon every box in turn, to make a rapid survey of all the dresses, she was conscious that by her toilette and her beauty she had eclipsed the loveliest and best-dressed women in Paris. She laughed to show her white teeth; her head with its wreath of flowers was never still, in her quest of admiration. Her glances went from one box to another, as she diverted herself with the awkward way in which a Russian princess wore her bonnet, or over the utter failure of a bonnet with which a banker’s daughter had disfigured herself.
All at once she met Raphael’s steady gaze and turned pale, aghast at the intolerable contempt in her rejected lover’s eyes. Not one of her exiled suitors had failed to own her power over them; Valentin alone was proof against her attractions. A power that can be defied with impunity is drawing to its end. This axiom is as deeply engraved on the heart of woman as in the minds of kings. In Raphael, therefore, Foedora saw the deathblow of her influence and her ability to please. An epigram of his, made at the Opera the day before, was already known in the salons of Paris. The biting edge of that terrible speech had already given the Countess an incurable wound. We know how to cauterize a wound, but we know of no treatment as yet for the stab of a phrase. As every other woman in the house looked by turns at her and at the Marquis, Foedora would have consigned them all to the oubliettes of some Bastille; for in spite of her capacity for dissimulation, her discomfiture was discerned by her rivals. Her unfailing consolation had slipped from her at last. The delicious thought, “I am the most beautiful,” the thought that at all times had soothed every mortification, had turned into a lie.
At the opening of the second act a woman took up her position not very far from Raphael, in a box that had been empty hitherto. A murmur of admiration went up from the whole house. In that sea of human faces there was a movement of every living wave; all eyes were turned upon the stranger lady. The applause of young and old was so prolonged, that when the orchestra began, the musicians turned to the audience to request silence, and then they themselves joined in the plaudits and swelled the confusion. Excited talk began in every box, every woman equipped herself with an opera glass, elderly men grew young again, and polished the glasses of their lorgnettes with their gloves. The enthusiasm subsided by degrees, the stage echoed with the voices of the singers, and order reigned as before. The aristocratic section, ashamed of having yielded to a spontaneous feeling, again assumed their wonted politely frigid manner. The well-to-do dislike to be astonished at anything; at the first sight of a beautiful thing it becomes their duty to discover the defect in it which absolves them from admiring it — the feeling of all ordinary minds. Yet a few still remained motionless and heedless of the music, artlessly absorbed in the delight of watching Raphael’s neighbor.
Valentin noticed Taillefer’s mean, obnoxious countenance by Aquilina’s side in a lower box, and received an approving smirk from him. Then he saw Emile, who seemed to say from where he stood in the orchestra, “Just look at that lovely creature there, close beside you!” Lastly, he saw Rastignac, with Mme. de Nucingen and her daughter, twisting his gloves like a man in despair, because he was tethered to his place, and could not leave it to go any nearer to the unknown fair divinity.
Raphael’s life depended upon a covenant that he had made with himself, and had hitherto kept sacred. He would give no special heed to any woman whatever; and the better to guard against temptation, he used a cunningly contrived opera-glass which destroyed the harmony of the fairest features by hideous distortions. He had not recovered from the terror that had seized on him in the morning when, at a mere expression of civility, the Magic Skin had contracted so abruptly. So Raphael was determined not to turn his face in the direction of his neighbor. He sat imperturbable as a duchess with his back against the corner of the box, thereby shutting out half of his neighbor’s view of the stage, appearing to disregard her, and even to be unaware that a pretty woman sat there just behind him.
His neighbor copied Valentin’s position exactly; she leaned her elbow on the edge of her box and turned her face in three-quarter profile upon the singers on the stage, as if she were sitting to a painter. These two people looked like two estranged lovers still sulking, still turning their backs upon each other, who will go into each other’s arms at the first tender word.
Now and again his neighbor’s ostrich feathers or her hair came in contact with Raphael’s head, giving him a pleasurable thrill, against which he sternly fought. In a little while he felt the touch of the soft frill of lace that went round her dress; he could hear the gracious sounds of the folds of her dress itself, light rustling noises full of enchantment; he could even feel her movements as she breathed; with the gentle stir thus imparted to her form and to her draperies, it seemed to Raphael that all her being was suddenly communicated to him in an electric spark. The lace and tulle that caressed him imparted the delicious warmth of her bare, white shoulders. By a freak in the ordering of things, these two creatures, kept apart by social conventions, with the abysses of death between them, breathed together and perhaps thought of one another. Finally, the subtle perfume of aloes completed the work of Raphael’s intoxication. Opposition heated his imagination, and his fancy, become the wilder for the limits imposed upon it, sketched a woman for him in outlines of fire. He turned abruptly, the stranger made a similar movement, startled no doubt at being brought in contact with a stranger; and they remained face to face, each with the same thought.
Each surveyed the other, both of them petrified with astonishment. Raphael noticed Pauline’s daintily simple costume. A woman’s experienced eyes would have discerned and admired the outlines beneath the modest gauze folds of her bodice and the lily whiteness of her throat. And then her more than mortal clearness of soul, her maidenly modesty, her graceful bearing, all were unchanged. Her sleeve was quivering with agitation, for the beating of her heart was shaking her whole frame.
“Come to the Hotel de Saint–Quentin tomorrow for your papers,” she said. “I will be there at noon. Be punctual.”
She rose hastily, and disappeared. Raphael thought of following Pauline, feared to compromise her, and stayed. He looked at Foedora; she seemed to him positively ugly. Unable to understand a single phrase of the music, and feeling stifled in the theatre, he went out, and returned home with a full heart.
“Jonathan,” he said to the old servant, as soon as he lay in bed, “give me half a drop of laudanum on a piece of sugar, and don’t wake me tomorrow till twenty minutes to twelve.”
“I want Pauline to love me!” he cried next morning, looking at the talisman the while in unspeakable anguish.
The skin did not move in the least; it seemed to have lost its power to shrink; doubtless it could not fulfil a wish fulfilled already.
“Ah!” exclaimed Raphael, feeling as if a mantle of lead had fallen away, which he had worn ever since the day when the talisman had been given to him; “so you are playing me false, you are not obeying me, the pact is broken! I am free; I shall live. Then was it all a wretched joke?” But he did not dare to believe in his own thought as he uttered it.
He dressed himself as simply as had formerly been his wont, and set out on foot for his old lodging, trying to go back in fancy to the happy days when he abandoned himself without peril to vehement desires, the days when he had not yet condemned all human enjoyment. As he walked he beheld Pauline — not the Pauline of the Hotel Saint–Quentin, but the Pauline of last evening. Here was the accomplished mistress he had so often dreamed of, the intelligent young girl with the loving nature and artistic temperament, who understood poets, who understood poetry, and lived in luxurious surroundings. Here, in short, was Foedora, gifted with a great soul; or Pauline become a countess, and twice a millionaire, as Foedora had been. When he reached the worn threshold, and stood upon the broken step at the door, where in the old days he had had so many desperate thoughts, an old woman came out of the room within and spoke to him.
“You are M. Raphael de Valentin, are you not?”
“Yes, good mother,” he replied.
“You know your old room then,” she replied; “you are expected up there.”
“Does Mme. Gaudin still own the house?” Raphael asked.
“Oh no, sir. Mme. Gaudin is a baroness now. She lives in a fine house of her own on the other side of the river. Her husband has come back. My goodness, he brought back thousands and thousands. They say she could buy up all the Quartier Saint–Jacques if she liked. She gave me her basement room for nothing, and the remainder of her lease. Ah, she’s a kind woman all the same; she is no more proud today than she was yesterday.”
Raphael hurried up the staircase to his garret; as he reached the last few steps he heard the sounds of a piano. Pauline was there, simply dressed in a cotton gown, but the way that it was made, like the gloves, hat, and shawl that she had thrown carelessly upon the bed, revealed a change of fortune.
“Ah, there you are!” cried Pauline, turning her head, and rising with unconcealed delight.
Raphael went to sit beside her, flushed, confused, and happy; he looked at her in silence.
“Why did you leave us then?” she asked, dropping her eyes as the flush deepened on his face. “What became of you?”
“Ah, I have been very miserable, Pauline; I am very miserable still.”
“Alas!” she said, filled with pitying tenderness. “I guessed your fate yesterday when I saw you so well dressed, and apparently so wealthy; but in reality? Eh, M. Raphael, is it as it always used to be with you?”
Valentin could not restrain the tears that sprang to his eyes.
“Pauline,” he exclaimed, “I——”
He went no further, love sparkled in his eyes, and his emotion overflowed his face.
“Oh, he loves me! he loves me!” cried Pauline.
Raphael felt himself unable to say one word; he bent his head. The young girl took his hand at this; she pressed it as she said, half sobbing and half laughing:—
“Rich, rich, happy and rich! Your Pauline is rich. But I? Oh, I ought to be very poor today. I have said, times without number, that I would give all the wealth upon this earth for those words, ‘He loves me!’ O my Raphael! I have millions. You like luxury, you will be glad; but you must love me and my heart besides, for there is so much love for you in my heart. You don’t know? My father has come back. I am a wealthy heiress. Both he and my mother leave me completely free to decide my own fate. I am free — do you understand?”
Seized with a kind of frenzy, Raphael grasped Pauline’s hands and kissed them eagerly and vehemently, with an almost convulsive caress. Pauline drew her hands away, laid them on Raphael’s shoulders, and drew him towards her. They understood one another — in that close embrace, in the unalloyed and sacred fervor of that one kiss without an afterthought — the first kiss by which two souls take possession of each other.
“Ah, I will not leave you any more,” said Pauline, falling back in her chair. “I do not know how I come to be so bold!” she added, blushing.
“Bold, my Pauline? Do not fear it. It is love, love true and deep and everlasting like my own, is it not?”
“Speak!” she cried. “Go on speaking, so long your lips have been dumb for me.”
“Then you have loved me all along?”
“Loved you? Mon Dieu! How often I have wept here, setting your room straight, and grieving for your poverty and my own. I would have sold myself to the evil one to spare you one vexation! You are MY Raphael today, really my own Raphael, with that handsome head of yours, and your heart is mine too; yes, that above all, your heart — O wealth inexhaustible! Well, where was I?” she went on after a pause. “Oh yes! We have three, four, or five millions, I believe. If I were poor, I should perhaps desire to bear your name, to be acknowledged as your wife; but as it is, I would give up the whole world for you, I would be your servant still, now and always. Why, Raphael, if I give you my fortune, my heart, myself today, I do no more than I did that day when I put a certain five-franc piece in the drawer there,” and she pointed to the table. “Oh, how your exultation hurt me then!”
“Oh, why are you rich?” Raphael cried; “why is there no vanity in you? I can do nothing for you.”
He wrung his hands in despair and happiness and love.
“When you are the Marquise de Valentin, I know that the title and the fortune for thee, heavenly soul, will not be worth ——”
“One hair of your head,” she cried.
“I have millions too. But what is wealth to either of us now? There is my life — ah, that I can offer, take it.”
“Your love, Raphael, your love is all the world to me. Are your thoughts of me? I am the happiest of the happy!”
“Can any one overhear us?” asked Raphael.
“Nobody,” she replied, and a mischievous gesture escaped her.
“Come, then!” cried Valentin, holding out his arms.
She sprang upon his knees and clasped her arms about his neck.
“Kiss me!” she cried, “after all the pain you have given me; to blot out the memory of the grief that your joys have caused me; and for the sake of the nights that I spent in painting hand-screens ——”
“Those hand-screens of yours?”
“Now that we are rich, my darling, I can tell you all about it. Poor boy! how easy it is to delude a clever man! Could you have had white waistcoats and clean shirts twice a week for three francs every month to the laundress? Why, you used to drink twice as much milk as your money would have paid for. I deceived you all round — over firing, oil, and even money. O Raphael mine, don’t have me for your wife, I am far too cunning!” she said laughing.
“But how did you manage?”
“I used to work till two o’clock in the morning; I gave my mother half the money made by my screens, and the other half went to you.”
They looked at one another for a moment, both bewildered by love and gladness.
“Some day we shall have to pay for this happiness by some terrible sorrow,” cried Raphael.
“Perhaps you are married?” said Pauline. “Oh, I will not give you up to any other woman.”
“I am free, my beloved.”
“Free!” she repeated. “Free, and mine!”
She slipped down upon her knees, clasped her hands, and looked at Raphael in an enthusiasm of devotion.
“I am afraid I shall go mad. How handsome you are!” she went on, passing her fingers through her lover’s fair hair. “How stupid your Countess Foedora is! How pleased I was yesterday with the homage they all paid to me! SHE has never been applauded. Dear, when I felt your arm against my back, I heard a vague voice within me that cried, ‘He is there!’ and I turned round and saw you. I fled, for I longed so to throw my arms about you before them all.”
“How happy you are — you can speak!” Raphael exclaimed. “My heart is overwhelmed; I would weep, but I cannot. Do not draw your hand away. I could stay here looking at you like this for the rest of my life, I think; happy and content.”
“O my love, say that once more!”
“Ah, what are words?” answered Valentin, letting a hot tear fall on Pauline’s hands. “Some time I will try to tell you of my love; just now I can only feel it.”
“You,” she said, “with your lofty soul and your great genius, with that heart of yours that I know so well; are you really mine, as I am yours?”
“For ever and ever, my sweet creature,” said Raphael in an uncertain voice. “You shall be my wife, my protecting angel. My griefs have always been dispelled by your presence, and my courage revived; that angelic smile now on your lips has purified me, so to speak. A new life seems about to begin for me. The cruel past and my wretched follies are hardly more to me than evil dreams. At your side I breathe an atmosphere of happiness, and I am pure. Be with me always,” he added, pressing her solemnly to his beating heart.
“Death may come when it will,” said Pauline in ecstasy; “I have lived!”
Happy he who shall divine their joy, for he must have experienced it.
“I wish that no one might enter this dear garret again, my Raphael,” said Pauline, after two hours of silence.
“We must have the door walled up, put bars across the window, and buy the house,” the Marquis answered.
“Yes, we will,” she said. Then a moment later she added: “Our search for your manuscripts has been a little lost sight of,” and they both laughed like children.
“Pshaw! I don’t care a jot for the whole circle of the sciences,” Raphael answered.
“Ah, sir, and how about glory?”
“I glory in you alone.”
“You used to be very miserable as you made these little scratches and scrawls,” she said, turning the papers over.
“My Pauline ——”
“Oh yes, I am your Pauline — and what then?”
“Where are you living now?”
“In the Rue Saint Lazare. And you?”
“In the Rue de Varenne.”
“What a long way apart we shall be until ——” She stopped, and looked at her lover with a mischievous and coquettish expression.
“But at the most we need only be separated for a fortnight,” Raphael answered.
“Really! we are to be married in a fortnight?” and she jumped for joy like a child.
“I am an unnatural daughter!” she went on. “I give no more thought to my father or my mother, or to anything in the world. Poor love, you don’t know that my father is very ill? He returned from the Indies in very bad health. He nearly died at Havre, where we went to find him. Good heavens!” she cried, looking at her watch; “it is three o’clock already! I ought to be back again when he wakes at four. I am mistress of the house at home; my mother does everything that I wish, and my father worships me; but I will not abuse their kindness, that would be wrong. My poor father! He would have me go to the Italiens yesterday. You will come to see him tomorrow, will you not?”
“Will Madame la Marquise de Valentin honor me by taking my arm?”
“I am going to take the key of this room away with me,” she said. “Isn’t our treasure-house a palace?”
“One more kiss, Pauline.”
“A thousand, mon Dieu!” she said, looking at Raphael. “Will it always be like this? I feel as if I were dreaming.”
They went slowly down the stairs together, step for step, with arms closely linked, trembling both of them beneath their load of joy. Each pressing close to the other’s side, like a pair of doves, they reached the Place de la Sorbonne, where Pauline’s carriage was waiting.
“I want to go home with you,” she said. “I want to see your own room and your study, and to sit at the table where you work. It will be like old times,” she said, blushing.
She spoke to the servant. “Joseph, before returning home I am going to the Rue de Varenne. It is a quarter-past three now, and I must be back by four o’clock. George must hurry the horses.” And so in a few moments the lovers came to Valentin’s abode.
“How glad I am to have seen all this for myself!” Pauline cried, creasing the silken bed-curtains in Raphael’s room between her fingers. “As I go to sleep, I shall be here in thought. I shall imagine your dear head on the pillow there. Raphael, tell me, did no one advise you about the furniture of your hotel?”
“No one whatever.”
“Really? It was not a woman who ——”
“Oh, I know I am fearfully jealous. You have good taste. I will have a bed like yours tomorrow.”
Quite beside himself with happiness, Raphael caught Pauline in his arms.
“Oh, my father!” she said; “my father ——”
“I will take you back to him,” cried Valentin, “for I want to be away from you as little as possible.”
“How loving you are! I did not venture to suggest it ——”
“Are you not my life?”
It would be tedious to set down accurately the charming prattle of the lovers, for tones and looks and gestures that cannot be rendered alone gave it significance. Valentin went back with Pauline to her own door, and returned with as much happiness in his heart as mortal man can know.
When he was seated in his armchair beside the fire, thinking over the sudden and complete way in which his wishes had been fulfilled, a cold shiver went through him, as if the blade of a dagger had been plunged into his breast — he thought of the Magic Skin, and saw that it had shrunk a little. He uttered the most tremendous of French oaths, without any of the Jesuitical reservations made by the Abbess of Andouillettes, leant his head against the back of the chair, and sat motionless, fixing his unseeing eyes upon the bracket of the curtain pole.
“Good God!” he cried; “every wish! Every desire of mine! Poor Pauline! ——”
He took a pair of compasses and measured the extent of existence that the morning had cost him.
“I have scarcely enough for two months!” he said.
A cold sweat broke out over him; moved by an ungovernable spasm of rage, he seized the Magic Skin, exclaiming:
“I am a perfect fool!”
He rushed out of the house and across the garden, and flung the talisman down a well.
“Vogue la galere,” cried he. “The devil take all this nonsense.”
So Raphael gave himself up to the happiness of being beloved, and led with Pauline the life of heart and heart. Difficulties which it would be somewhat tedious to describe had delayed their marriage, which was to take place early in March. Each was sure of the other; their affection had been tried, and happiness had taught them how strong it was. Never has love made two souls, two natures, so absolutely one. The more they came to know of each other, the more they loved. On either side there was the same hesitating delicacy, the same transports of joy such as angels know; there were no clouds in their heaven; the will of either was the other’s law.
Wealthy as they both were, they had not a caprice which they could not gratify, and for that reason had no caprices. A refined taste, a feeling for beauty and poetry, was instinct in the soul of the bride; her lover’s smile was more to her than all the pearls of Ormuz. She disdained feminine finery; a muslin dress and flowers formed her most elaborate toilette.
Pauline and Raphael shunned every one else, for solitude was abundantly beautiful to them. The idlers at the Opera, or at the Italiens, saw this charming and unconventional pair evening after evening. Some gossip went the round of the salons at first, but the harmless lovers were soon forgotten in the course of events which took place in Paris; their marriage was announced at length to excuse them in the eyes of the prudish; and as it happened, their servants did not babble; so their bliss did not draw down upon them any very severe punishment.
One morning towards the end of February, at the time when the brightening days bring a belief in the nearness of the joys of spring, Pauline and Raphael were breakfasting together in a small conservatory, a kind of drawing-room filled with flowers, on a level with the garden. The mild rays of the pale winter sunlight, breaking through the thicket of exotic plants, warmed the air somewhat. The vivid contrast made by the varieties of foliage, the colors of the masses of flowering shrubs, the freaks of light and shadow, gladdened the eyes. While all the rest of Paris still sought warmth from its melancholy hearth, these two were laughing in a bower of camellias, lilacs, and blossoming heath. Their happy faces rose above lilies of the valley, narcissus blooms, and Bengal roses. A mat of plaited African grass, variegated like a carpet, lay beneath their feet in this luxurious conservatory. The walls, covered with a green linen material, bore no traces of damp. The surfaces of the rustic wooden furniture shone with cleanliness. A kitten, attracted by the odor of milk, had established itself upon the table; it allowed Pauline to bedabble it in coffee; she was playing merrily with it, taking away the cream that she had just allowed the kitten to sniff at, so as to exercise its patience, and keep up the contest. She burst out laughing at every antic, and by the comical remarks she constantly made, she hindered Raphael from perusing the paper; he had dropped it a dozen times already. This morning picture seemed to overflow with inexpressible gladness, like everything that is natural and genuine.
Raphael, still pretending to read his paper, furtively watched Pauline with the cat — his Pauline, in the dressing-gown that hung carelessly about her; his Pauline, with her hair loose on her shoulders, with a tiny, white, blue-veined foot peeping out of a velvet slipper. It was pleasant to see her in this negligent dress; she was delightful as some fanciful picture by Westall; half-girl, half-woman, as she seemed to be, or perhaps more of a girl than a woman, there was no alloy in the happiness she enjoyed, and of love she knew as yet only its first ecstasy. When Raphael, absorbed in happy musing, had forgotten the existence of the newspaper, Pauline flew upon it, crumpled it up into a ball, and threw it out into the garden; the kitten sprang after the rotating object, which spun round and round, as politics are wont to do. This childish scene recalled Raphael to himself. He would have gone on reading, and felt for the sheet he no longer possessed. Joyous laughter rang out like the song of a bird, one peal leading to another.
“I am quite jealous of the paper,” she said, as she wiped away the tears that her childlike merriment had brought into her eyes. “Now, is it not a heinous offence,” she went on, as she became a woman all at once, “to read Russian proclamations in my presence, and to attend to the prosings of the Emperor Nicholas rather than to looks and words of love!”
“I was not reading, my dear angel; I was looking at you.”
Just then the gravel walk outside the conservatory rang with the sound of the gardener’s heavily nailed boots.
“I beg your pardon, my Lord Marquis — and yours, too, madame — if I am intruding, but I have brought you a curiosity the like of which I never set eyes on. Drawing a bucket of water just now, with due respect, I got out this strange salt-water plant. Here it is. It must be thoroughly used to water, anyhow, for it isn’t saturated or even damp at all. It is as dry as a piece of wood, and has not swelled a bit. As my Lord Marquis certainly knows a great deal more about things than I do, I thought I ought to bring it, and that it would interest him.”
Therewith the gardener showed Raphael the inexorable piece of skin; there were barely six square inches of it left.
“Thanks, Vaniere,” Raphael said. “The thing is very curious.”
“What is the matter with you, my angel; you are growing quite white!” Pauline cried.
“You can go, Vaniere.”
“Your voice frightens me,” the girl went on; “it is so strangely altered. What is it? How are you feeling? Where is the pain? You are in pain! — Jonathan! here! call a doctor!” she cried.
“Hush, my Pauline,” Raphael answered, as he regained composure. “Let us get up and go. Some flower here has a scent that is too much for me. It is that verbena, perhaps.”
Pauline flew upon the innocent plant, seized it by the stalk, and flung it out into the garden; then, with all the might of the love between them, she clasped Raphael in a close embrace, and with languishing coquetry raised her red lips to his for a kiss.
“Dear angel,” she cried, “when I saw you turn so white, I understood that I could not live on without you; your life is my life too. Lay your hand on my back, Raphael mine; I feel a chill like death. The feeling of cold is there yet. Your lips are burning. How is your hand? — Cold as ice,” she added.
“Mad girl!” exclaimed Raphael.
“Why that tear? Let me drink it.”
“O Pauline, Pauline, you love me far too much!”
“There is something very extraordinary going on in your mind, Raphael! Do not dissimulate. I shall very soon find out your secret. Give that to me,” she went on, taking the Magic Skin.
“You are my executioner!” the young man exclaimed, glancing in horror at the talisman.
“How changed your voice is!” cried Pauline, as she dropped the fatal symbol of destiny.
“Do you love me?” he asked.
“Do I love you? Is there any doubt?”
“Then, leave me, go away!”
The poor child went.
“So!” cried Raphael, when he was alone. “In an enlightened age, when we have found out that diamonds are a crystallized form of charcoal, at a time when everything is made clear, when the police would hale a new Messiah before the magistrates, and submit his miracles to the Academie des Sciences — in an epoch when we no longer believe in anything but a notary’s signature — that I, forsooth, should believe in a sort of Mene, Tekel, Upharsin! No, by Heaven, I will not believe that the Supreme Being would take pleasure in torturing a harmless creature. — Let us see the learned about it.”
Between the Halle des Vins, with its extensive assembly of barrels, and the Salpetriere, that extensive seminary of drunkenness, lies a small pond, which Raphael soon reached. All sorts of ducks of rare varieties were there disporting themselves; their colored markings shone in the sun like the glass in cathedral windows. Every kind of duck in the world was represented, quacking, dabbling, and moving about — a kind of parliament of ducks assembled against its will, but luckily without either charter or political principles, living in complete immunity from sportsmen, under the eyes of any naturalist that chanced to see them.
“That is M. Lavrille,” said one of the keepers to Raphael, who had asked for that high priest of zoology.
The Marquis saw a short man buried in profound reflections, caused by the appearance of a pair of ducks. The man of science was middle-aged; he had a pleasant face, made pleasanter still by a kindly expression, but an absorption in scientific ideas engrossed his whole person. His peruke was strangely turned up, by being constantly raised to scratch his head; so that a line of white hair was left plainly visible, a witness to an enthusiasm for investigation, which, like every other strong passion, so withdraws us from mundane considerations, that we lose all consciousness of the “I” within us. Raphael, the student and man of science, looked respectfully at the naturalist, who devoted his nights to enlarging the limits of human knowledge, and whose very errors reflected glory upon France; but a she-coxcomb would have laughed, no doubt, at the break of continuity between the breeches and striped waistcoat worn by the man of learning; the interval, moreover, was modestly filled by a shirt which had been considerably creased, for he stooped and raised himself by turns, as his zoological observations required.
After the first interchange of civilities, Raphael thought it necessary to pay M. Lavrille a banal compliment upon his ducks.
“Oh, we are well off for ducks,” the naturalist replied. “The genus, moreover, as you doubtless know, is the most prolific in the order of palmipeds. It begins with the swan and ends with the zin-zin duck, comprising in all one hundred and thirty-seven very distinct varieties, each having its own name, habits, country, and character, and every one no more like another than a white man is like a negro. Really, sir, when we dine off a duck, we have no notion for the most part of the vast extent ——”
He interrupted himself as he saw a small pretty duck come up to the surface of the pond.
“There you see the cravatted swan, a poor native of Canada; he has come a very long way to show us his brown and gray plumage and his little black cravat! Look, he is preening himself. That one is the famous eider duck that provides the down, the eider-down under which our fine ladies sleep; isn’t it pretty? Who would not admire the little pinkish white breast and the green beak? I have just been a witness, sir,” he went on, “to a marriage that I had long despaired of bringing about; they have paired rather auspiciously, and I shall await the results very eagerly. This will be a hundred and thirty-eighth species, I flatter myself, to which, perhaps, my name will be given. That is the newly matched pair,” he said, pointing out two of the ducks; “one of them is a laughing goose (anas albifrons), and the other the great whistling duck, Buffon’s anas ruffina. I have hesitated a long while between the whistling duck, the duck with white eyebrows, and the shoveler duck (anas clypeata). Stay, that is the shoveler — that fat, brownish black rascal, with the greenish neck and that coquettish iridescence on it. But the whistling duck was a crested one, sir, and you will understand that I deliberated no longer. We only lack the variegated black-capped duck now. These gentlemen here, unanimously claim that that variety of duck is only a repetition of the curve-beaked teal, but for my own part,”— and the gesture he made was worth seeing. It expressed at once the modesty and pride of a man of science; the pride full of obstinacy, and the modesty well tempered with assurance.
“I don’t think it is,” he added. “You see, my dear sir, that we are not amusing ourselves here. I am engaged at this moment upon a monograph on the genus duck. But I am at your disposal.”
While they went towards a rather pleasant house in the Rue du Buffon, Raphael submitted the skin to M. Lavrille’s inspection.
“I know the product,” said the man of science, when he had turned his magnifying glass upon the talisman. “It used to be used for covering boxes. The shagreen is very old. They prefer to use skate’s skin nowadays for making sheaths. This, as you are doubtless aware, is the hide of the raja sephen, a Red Sea fish.”
“But this, sir, since you are so exceedingly good ——”
“This,” the man of science interrupted, as he resumed, “this is quite another thing; between these two shagreens, sir, there is a difference just as wide as between sea and land, or fish and flesh. The fish’s skin is harder, however, than the skin of the land animal. This,” he said, as he indicated the talisman, “is, as you doubtless know, one of the most curious of zoological products.”
“But to proceed ——” said Raphael.
“This,” replied the man of science, as he flung himself down into his armchair, “is an ass’ skin, sir.”
“Yes, I know,” said the young man.
“A very rare variety of ass found in Persia,” the naturalist continued, “the onager of the ancients, equus asinus, the koulan of the Tartars; Pallas went out there to observe it, and has made it known to science, for as a matter of fact the animal for a long time was believed to be mythical. It is mentioned, as you know, in Holy Scripture; Moses forbade that it should be coupled with its own species, and the onager is yet more famous for the prostitutions of which it was the object, and which are often mentioned by the prophets of the Bible. Pallas, as you know doubtless, states in his Act. Petrop. tome II., that these bizarre excesses are still devoutly believed in among the Persians and the Nogais as a sovereign remedy for lumbago and sciatic gout. We poor Parisians scarcely believe that. The Museum has no example of the onager.
“What a magnificent animal!” he continued. “It is full of mystery; its eyes are provided with a sort of burnished covering, to which the Orientals attribute the powers of fascination; it has a glossier and finer coat than our handsomest horses possess, striped with more or less tawny bands, very much like the zebra’s hide. There is something pliant and silky about its hair, which is sleek to the touch. Its powers of sight vie in precision and accuracy with those of man; it is rather larger than our largest domestic donkeys, and is possessed of extraordinary courage. If it is surprised by any chance, it defends itself against the most dangerous wild beasts with remarkable success; the rapidity of its movements can only be compared with the flight of birds; an onager, sir, would run the best Arab or Persian horses to death. According to the father of the conscientious Doctor Niebuhr, whose recent loss we are deploring, as you doubtless know, the ordinary average pace of one of these wonderful creatures would be seven thousand geometric feet per hour. Our own degenerate race of donkeys can give no idea of the ass in his pride and independence. He is active and spirited in his demeanor; he is cunning and sagacious; there is grace about the outlines of his head; every movement is full of attractive charm. In the East he is the king of beasts. Turkish and Persian superstition even credits him with a mysterious origin; and when stories of the prowess attributed to him are told in Thibet or in Tartary, the speakers mingle Solomon’s name with that of this noble animal. A tame onager, in short, is worth an enormous amount; it is well-nigh impossible to catch them among the mountains, where they leap like roebucks, and seem as if they could fly like birds. Our myth of the winged horse, our Pegasus, had its origin doubtless in these countries, where the shepherds could see the onager springing from one rock to another. In Persia they breed asses for the saddle, a cross between a tamed onager and a she-ass, and they paint them red, following immemorial tradition. Perhaps it was this custom that gave rise to our own proverb, ‘Surely as a red donkey.’ At some period when natural history was much neglected in France, I think a traveler must have brought over one of these strange beasts that endures servitude with such impatience. Hence the adage. The skin that you have laid before me is the skin of an onager. Opinions differ as to the origin of the name. Some claim that Chagri is a Turkish word; others insist that Chagri must be the name of the place where this animal product underwent the chemical process of preparation so clearly described by Pallas, to which the peculiar graining that we admire is due; Martellens has written to me saying that Chaagri is a river ——”
“I thank you, sir, for the information that you have given me; it would furnish an admirable footnote for some Dom Calmet or other, if such erudite hermits yet exist; but I have had the honor of pointing out to you that this scrap was in the first instance quite as large as that map,” said Raphael, indicating an open atlas to Lavrille; “but it has shrunk visibly in three months’ time ——”
“Quite so,” said the man of science. “I understand. The remains of any substance primarily organic are naturally subject to a process of decay. It is quite easy to understand, and its progress depends upon atmospherical conditions. Even metals contract and expand appreciably, for engineers have remarked somewhat considerable interstices between great blocks of stone originally clamped together with iron bars. The field of science is boundless, but human life is very short, so that we do not claim to be acquainted with all the phenomena of nature.”
“Pardon the question that I am about to ask you, sir,” Raphael began, half embarrassed, “but are you quite sure that this piece of skin is subject to the ordinary laws of zoology, and that it can be stretched?”
“Certainly —— oh, bother! ——” muttered M. Lavrille, trying to stretch the talisman. “But if you, sir, will go to see Planchette,” he added, “the celebrated professor of mechanics, he will certainly discover some method of acting upon this skin, of softening and expanding it.”
“Ah, sir, you are the preserver of my life,” and Raphael took leave of the learned naturalist and hurried off to Planchette, leaving the worthy Lavrille in his study, all among the bottles and dried plants that filled it up.
Quite unconsciously Raphael brought away with him from this visit, all of science that man can grasp, a terminology to wit. Lavrille, the worthy man, was very much like Sancho Panza giving to Don Quixote the history of the goats; he was entertaining himself by making out a list of animals and ticking them off. Even now that his life was nearing its end, he was scarcely acquainted with a mere fraction of the countless numbers of the great tribes that God has scattered, for some unknown end, throughout the ocean of worlds.
Raphael was well pleased. “I shall keep my ass well in hand,” cried he. Sterne had said before his day, “Let us take care of our ass, if we wish to live to old age.” But it is such a fantastic brute!
Planchette was a tall, thin man, a poet of a surety, lost in one continual thought, and always employed in gazing into the bottomless abyss of Motion. Commonplace minds accuse these lofty intellects of madness; they form a misinterpreted race apart that lives in a wonderful carelessness of luxuries or other people’s notions. They will spend whole days at a stretch, smoking a cigar that has gone out, and enter a drawing-room with the buttons on their garments not in every case formally wedded to the button-holes. Some day or other, after a long time spent in measuring space, or in accumulating Xs under Aa–Gg, they succeed in analyzing some natural law, and resolve it into its elemental principles, and all on a sudden the crowd gapes at a new machine; or it is a handcart perhaps that overwhelms us with astonishment by the apt simplicity of its construction. The modest man of science smiles at his admirers, and remarks, “What is that invention of mine? Nothing whatever. Man cannot create a force; he can but direct it; and science consists in learning from nature.”
The mechanician was standing bolt upright, planted on both feet, like some victim dropped straight from the gibbet, when Raphael broke in upon him. He was intently watching an agate ball that rolled over a sun-dial, and awaited its final settlement. The worthy man had received neither pension nor decoration; he had not known how to make the right use of his ability for calculation. He was happy in his life spent on the watch for a discovery; he had no thought either of reputation, of the outer world, nor even of himself, and led the life of science for the sake of science.
“It is inexplicable,” he exclaimed. “Ah, your servant, sir,” he went on, becoming aware of Raphael’s existence. “How is your mother? You must go and see my wife.”
“And I also could have lived thus,” thought Raphael, as he recalled the learned man from his meditations by asking of him how to produce any effect on the talisman, which he placed before him.
“Although my credulity must amuse you, sir,” so the Marquis ended, “I will conceal nothing from you. That skin seems to me to be endowed with an insuperable power of resistance.”
“People of fashion, sir, always treat science rather superciliously,” said Planchette. “They all talk to us pretty much as the incroyable did when he brought some ladies to see Lalande just after an eclipse, and remarked, ‘Be so good as to begin it over again!’ What effect do you want to produce? The object of the science of mechanics is either the application or the neutralization of the laws of motion. As for motion pure and simple, I tell you humbly, that we cannot possibly define it. That disposed of, unvarying phenomena have been observed which accompany the actions of solids and fluids. If we set up the conditions by which these phenomena are brought to pass, we can transport bodies or communicate locomotive power to them at a predetermined rate of speed. We can project them, divide them up in a few or an infinite number of pieces, accordingly as we break them or grind them to powder; we can twist bodies or make them rotate, modify, compress, expand, or extend them. The whole science, sir, rests upon a single fact.
“You see this ball,” he went on; “here it lies upon this slab. Now, it is over there. What name shall we give to what has taken place, so natural from a physical point of view, so amazing from a moral? Movement, locomotion, changing of place? What prodigious vanity lurks underneath the words. Does a name solve the difficulty? Yet it is the whole of our science for all that. Our machines either make direct use of this agency, this fact, or they convert it. This trifling phenomenon, applied to large masses, would send Paris flying. We can increase speed by an expenditure of force, and augment the force by an increase of speed. But what are speed and force? Our science is as powerless to tell us that as to create motion. Any movement whatever is an immense power, and man does not create power of any kind. Everything is movement, thought itself is a movement, upon movement nature is based. Death is a movement whose limitations are little known. If God is eternal, be sure that He moves perpetually; perhaps God is movement. That is why movement, like God is inexplicable, unfathomable, unlimited, incomprehensible, intangible. Who has ever touched, comprehended, or measured movement? We feel its effects without seeing it; we can even deny them as we can deny the existence of a God. Where is it? Where is it not? Whence comes it? What is its source? What is its end? It surrounds us, it intrudes upon us, and yet escapes us. It is evident as a fact, obscure as an abstraction; it is at once effect and cause. It requires space, even as we, and what is space? Movement alone recalls it to us; without movement, space is but an empty meaningless word. Like space, like creation, like the infinite, movement is an insoluble problem which confounds human reason; man will never conceive it, whatever else he may be permitted to conceive.
“Between each point in space occupied in succession by that ball,” continued the man of science, “there is an abyss confronting human reason, an abyss into which Pascal fell. In order to produce any effect upon an unknown substance, we ought first of all to study that substance; to know whether, in accordance with its nature, it will be broken by the force of a blow, or whether it will withstand it; if it breaks in pieces, and you have no wish to split it up, we shall not achieve the end proposed. If you want to compress it, a uniform impulse must be communicated to all the particles of the substance, so as to diminish the interval that separates them in an equal degree. If you wish to expand it, we should try to bring a uniform eccentric force to bear on every molecule; for unless we conform accurately to this law, we shall have breaches in continuity. The modes of motion, sir, are infinite, and no limit exists to combinations of movement. Upon what effect have you determined?”
“I want any kind of pressure that is strong enough to expand the skin indefinitely,” began Raphael, quite of out patience.
“Substance is finite,” the mathematician put in, “and therefore will not admit of indefinite expansion, but pressure will necessarily increase the extent of surface at the expense of the thickness, which will be diminished until the point is reached when the material gives out ——”
“Bring about that result, sir,” Raphael cried, “and you will have earned millions.”
“Then I should rob you of your money,” replied the other, phlegmatic as a Dutchman. “I am going to show you, in a word or two, that a machine can be made that is fit to crush Providence itself in pieces like a fly. It would reduce a man to the conditions of a piece of waste paper; a man — boots and spurs, hat and cravat, trinkets and gold, and all ——”
“What a fearful machine!”
“Instead of flinging their brats into the water, the Chinese ought to make them useful in this way,” the man of science went on, without reflecting on the regard man has for his progeny.
Quite absorbed by his idea, Planchette took an empty flower-pot, with a hole in the bottom, and put it on the surface of the dial, then he went to look for a little clay in a corner of the garden. Raphael stood spellbound, like a child to whom his nurse is telling some wonderful story. Planchette put the clay down upon the slab, drew a pruning-knife from his pocket, cut two branches from an elder tree, and began to clean them of pith by blowing through them, as if Raphael had not been present.
“There are the rudiments of the apparatus,” he said. Then he connected one of the wooden pipes with the bottom of the flower-pot by way of a clay joint, in such a way that the mouth of the elder stem was just under the hole of the flower-pot; you might have compared it to a big tobacco-pipe. He spread a bed of clay over the surface of the slab, in a shovel-shaped mass, set down the flower-pot at the wider end of it, and laid the pipe of the elder stem along the portion which represented the handle of the shovel. Next he put a lump of clay at the end of the elder stem and therein planted the other pipe, in an upright position, forming a second elbow which connected it with the first horizontal pipe in such a manner that the air, or any given fluid in circulation, could flow through this improvised piece of mechanism from the mouth of the vertical tube, along the intermediate passages, and so into the large empty flower-pot.
“This apparatus, sir,” he said to Raphael, with all the gravity of an academician pronouncing his initiatory discourse, “is one of the great Pascal’s grandest claims upon our admiration.”
“I don’t understand.”
The man of science smiled. He went up to a fruit-tree and took down a little phial in which the druggist had sent him some liquid for catching ants; he broke off the bottom and made a funnel of the top, carefully fitting it to the mouth of the vertical hollowed stem that he had set in the clay, and at the opposite end to the great reservoir, represented by the flower-pot. Next, by means of a watering-pot, he poured in sufficient water to rise to the same level in the large vessel and in the tiny circular funnel at the end of the elder stem.
Raphael was thinking of his piece of skin.
“Water is considered today, sir, to be an incompressible body,” said the mechanician; “never lose sight of that fundamental principle; still it can be compressed, though only so very slightly that we should regard its faculty for contracting as a zero. You see the amount of surface presented by the water at the brim of the flower-pot?”
“Very good; now suppose that that surface is a thousand times larger than the orifice of the elder stem through which I poured the liquid. Here, I am taking the funnel away ——”
“Well, then, if by any method whatever I increase the volume of that quantity of water by pouring in yet more through the mouth of the little tube; the water thus compelled to flow downwards would rise in the reservoir, represented by the flower-pot, until it reached the same level at either end.”
“That is quite clear,” cried Raphael.
“But there is this difference,” the other went on. “Suppose that the thin column of water poured into the little vertical tube there exerts a force equal, say, to a pound weight, for instance, its action will be punctually communicated to the great body of the liquid, and will be transmitted to every part of the surface represented by the water in the flower-pot so that at the surface there will be a thousand columns of water, every one pressing upwards as if they were impelled by a force equal to that which compels the liquid to descend in the vertical tube; and of necessity they reproduce here,” said Planchette, indicating to Raphael the top of the flower-pot, “the force introduced over there, a thousand-fold,” and the man of science pointed out to the marquis the upright wooden pipe set in the clay.
“That is quite simple,” said Raphael.
Planchette smiled again.
“In other words,” he went on, with the mathematician’s natural stubborn propensity for logic, “in order to resist the force of the incoming water, it would be necessary to exert, upon every part of the large surface, a force equal to that brought into action in the vertical column, but with this difference — if the column of liquid is a foot in height, the thousand little columns of the wide surface will only have a very slight elevating power.
“Now,” said Planchette, as he gave a fillip to his bits of stick, “let us replace this funny little apparatus by steel tubes of suitable strength and dimensions; and if you cover the liquid surface of the reservoir with a strong sliding plate of metal, and if to this metal plate you oppose another, solid enough and strong enough to resist any test; if, furthermore, you give me the power of continually adding water to the volume of liquid contents by means of the little vertical tube, the object fixed between the two solid metal plates must of necessity yield to the tremendous crushing force which indefinitely compresses it. The method of continually pouring in water through a little tube, like the manner of communicating force through the volume of the liquid to a small metal plate, is an absurdly primitive mechanical device. A brace of pistons and a few valves would do it all. Do you perceive, my dear sir,” he said taking Valentin by the arm, “there is scarcely a substance in existence that would not be compelled to dilate when fixed in between these two indefinitely resisting surfaces?”
“What! the author of the Lettres provinciales invented it?” Raphael exclaimed.
“He and no other, sir. The science of mechanics knows no simpler nor more beautiful contrivance. The opposite principle, the capacity of expansion possessed by water, has brought the steam-engine into being. But water will only expand up to a certain point, while its incompressibility, being a force in a manner negative, is, of necessity, infinite.”
“If this skin is expanded,” said Raphael, “I promise you to erect a colossal statue to Blaise Pascal; to found a prize of a hundred thousand francs to be offered every ten years for the solution of the grandest problem of mechanical science effected during the interval; to find dowries for all your cousins and second cousins, and finally to build an asylum on purpose for impoverished or insane mathematicians.”
“That would be exceedingly useful,” Planchette replied. “We will go to Spieghalter tomorrow, sir,” he continued, with the serenity of a man living on a plane wholly intellectual. “That distinguished mechanic has just completed, after my own designs, an improved mechanical arrangement by which a child could get a thousand trusses of hay inside his cap.”
“Then good-bye till tomorrow.”
“Till tomorrow, sir.”
“Talk of mechanics!” cried Raphael; “isn’t it the greatest of the sciences? The other fellow with his onagers, classifications, ducks, and species, and his phials full of bottled monstrosities, is at best only fit for a billiard-marker in a saloon.”
The next morning Raphael went off in great spirits to find Planchette, and together they set out for the Rue de la Sante — auspicious appellation! Arrived at Spieghalter’s, the young man found himself in a vast foundry; his eyes lighted upon a multitude of glowing and roaring furnaces. There was a storm of sparks, a deluge of nails, an ocean of pistons, vices, levers, valves, girders, files, and nuts; a sea of melted metal, baulks of timber and bar-steel. Iron filings filled your throat. There was iron in the atmosphere; the men were covered with it; everything reeked of iron. The iron seemed to be a living organism; it became a fluid, moved, and seemed to shape itself intelligently after every fashion, to obey the worker’s every caprice. Through the uproar made by the bellows, the crescendo of the falling hammers, and the shrill sounds of the lathes that drew groans from the steel, Raphael passed into a large, clean, and airy place where he was able to inspect at his leisure the great press that Planchette had told him about. He admired the cast-iron beams, as one might call them, and the twin bars of steel coupled together with indestructible bolts.
“If you were to give seven rapid turns to that crank,” said Spieghalter, pointing out a beam of polished steel, “you would make a steel bar spurt out in thousands of jets, that would get into your legs like needles.”
“The deuce!” exclaimed Raphael.
Planchette himself slipped the piece of skin between the metal plates of the all-powerful press; and, brimful of the certainty of a scientific conviction, he worked the crank energetically.
“Lie flat, all of you; we are dead men!” thundered Spieghalter, as he himself fell prone on the floor.
A hideous shrieking sound rang through the workshops. The water in the machine had broken the chamber, and now spouted out in a jet of incalculable force; luckily it went in the direction of an old furnace, which was overthrown, enveloped and carried away by a waterspout.
“Ha!” remarked Planchette serenely, “the piece of skin is as safe and sound as my eye. There was a flaw in your reservoir somewhere, or a crevice in the large tube ——”
“No, no; I know my reservoir. The devil is in your contrivance, sir; you can take it away,” and the German pounced upon a smith’s hammer, flung the skin down on an anvil, and, with all the strength that rage gives, dealt the talisman the most formidable blow that had ever resounded through his workshops.
“There is not so much as a mark on it!” said Planchette, stroking the perverse bit of skin.
The workmen hurried in. The foreman took the skin and buried it in the glowing coal of a forge, while, in a semi-circle round the fire, they all awaited the action of a huge pair of bellows. Raphael, Spieghalter, and Professor Planchette stood in the midst of the grimy expectant crowd. Raphael, looking round on faces dusted over with iron filings, white eyes, greasy blackened clothing, and hairy chests, could have fancied himself transported into the wild nocturnal world of German ballad poetry. After the skin had been in the fire for ten minutes, the foreman pulled it out with a pair of pincers.
“Hand it over to me,” said Raphael.
The foreman held it out by way of a joke. The Marquis readily handled it; it was cool and flexible between his fingers. An exclamation of alarm went up; the workmen fled in terror. Valentin was left alone with Planchette in the empty workshop.
“There is certainly something infernal in the thing!” cried Raphael, in desperation. “Is no human power able to give me one more day of existence?”
“I made a mistake, sir,” said the mathematician, with a penitent expression; “we ought to have subjected that peculiar skin to the action of a rolling machine. Where could my eyes have been when I suggested compression!”
“It was I that asked for it,” Raphael answered.
The mathematician heaved a sigh of relief, like a culprit acquitted by a dozen jurors. Still, the strange problem afforded by the skin interested him; he meditated a moment, and then remarked:
“This unknown material ought to be treated chemically by re-agents. Let us call on Japhet — perhaps the chemist may have better luck than the mechanic.”
Valentin urged his horse into a rapid trot, hoping to find the chemist, the celebrated Japhet, in his laboratory.
“Well, old friend,” Planchette began, seeing Japhet in his armchair, examining a precipitate; “how goes chemistry?”
“Gone to sleep. Nothing new at all. The Academie, however, has recognized the existence of salicine, but salicine, asparagine, vauqueline, and digitaline are not really discoveries ——”
“Since you cannot invent substances,” said Raphael, “you are obliged to fall back on inventing names.”
“Most emphatically true, young man.”
“Here,” said Planchette, addressing the chemist, “try to analyze this composition; if you can extract any element whatever from it, I christen it diaboline beforehand, for we have just smashed a hydraulic press in trying to compress it.”
“Let’s see! let’s have a look at it!” cried the delighted chemist; “it may, perhaps, be a fresh element.”
“It is simply a piece of the skin of an ass, sir,” said Raphael.
“Sir!” said the illustrious chemist sternly.
“I am not joking,” the Marquis answered, laying the piece of skin before him.
Baron Japhet applied the nervous fibres of his tongue to the skin; he had skill in thus detecting salts, acids, alkalis, and gases. After several experiments, he remarked:
“No taste whatever! Come, we will give it a little fluoric acid to drink.”
Subjected to the influence of this ready solvent of animal tissue, the skin underwent no change whatsoever.
“It is not shagreen at all!” the chemist cried. “We will treat this unknown mystery as a mineral, and try its mettle by dropping it in a crucible where I have at this moment some red potash.”
Japhet went out, and returned almost immediately.
“Allow me to cut away a bit of this strange substance, sir,” he said to Raphael; “it is so extraordinary ——”
“A bit!” exclaimed Raphael; “not so much as a hair’s-breadth. You may try, though,” he added, half banteringly, half sadly.
The chemist broke a razor in his desire to cut the skin; he tried to break it by a powerful electric shock; next he submitted it to the influence of a galvanic battery; but all the thunderbolts his science wotted of fell harmless on the dreadful talisman.
It was seven o’clock in the evening. Planchette, Japhet, and Raphael, unaware of the flight of time, were awaiting the outcome of a final experiment. The Magic Skin emerged triumphant from a formidable encounter in which it had been engaged with a considerable quantity of chloride of nitrogen.
“It is all over with me,” Raphael wailed. “It is the finger of God! I shall die! ——” and he left the two amazed scientific men.
“We must be very careful not to talk about this affair at the Academie; our colleagues there would laugh at us,” Planchette remarked to the chemist, after a long pause, in which they looked at each other without daring to communicate their thoughts. The learned pair looked like two Christians who had issued from their tombs to find no God in the heavens. Science had been powerless; acids, so much clear water; red potash had been discredited; the galvanic battery and electric shock had been a couple of playthings.
“A hydraulic press broken like a biscuit!” commented Planchette.
“I believe in the devil,” said the Baron Japhet, after a moment’s silence.
“And I in God,” replied Planchette.
Each spoke in character. The universe for a mechanician is a machine that requires an operator; for chemistry — that fiendish employment of decomposing all things — the world is a gas endowed with the power of movement.
“We cannot deny the fact,” the chemist replied.
“Pshaw! those gentlemen the doctrinaires have invented a nebulous aphorism for our consolation — Stupid as a fact.”
“Your aphorism,” said the chemist, “seems to me as a fact very stupid.”
They began to laugh, and went off to dine like folk for whom a miracle is nothing more than a phenomenon.
Valentin reached his own house shivering with rage and consumed with anger. He had no more faith in anything. Conflicting thoughts shifted and surged to and fro in his brain, as is the case with every man brought face to face with an inconceivable fact. He had readily believed in some hidden flaw in Spieghalter’s apparatus; he had not been surprised by the incompetence and failure of science and of fire; but the flexibility of the skin as he handled it, taken with its stubbornness when all means of destruction that man possesses had been brought to bear upon it in vain — these things terrified him. The incontrovertible fact made him dizzy.
“I am mad,” he muttered. “I have had no food since the morning, and yet I am neither hungry nor thirsty, and there is a fire in my breast that burns me.”
He put back the skin in the frame where it had been enclosed but lately, drew a line in red ink about the actual configuration of the talisman, and seated himself in his armchair.
“Eight o’clock already!” he exclaimed. “To-day has gone like a dream.”
He leaned his elbow on the arm of the chair, propped his head with his left hand, and so remained, lost in secret dark reflections and consuming thoughts that men condemned to die bear away with them.
“O Pauline!” he cried. “Poor child! there are gulfs that love can never traverse, despite the strength of his wings.”
Just then he very distinctly heard a smothered sigh, and knew by one of the most tender privileges of passionate love that it was Pauline’s breathing.
“That is my death warrant,” he said to himself. “If she were there, I should wish to die in her arms.”
A burst of gleeful and hearty laughter made him turn his face towards the bed; he saw Pauline’s face through the transparent curtains, smiling like a child for gladness over a successful piece of mischief. Her pretty hair fell over her shoulders in countless curls; she looked like a Bengal rose upon a pile of white roses.
“I cajoled Jonathan,” said she. “Doesn’t the bed belong to me, to me who am your wife? Don’t scold me, darling; I only wanted to surprise you, to sleep beside you. Forgive me for my freak.”
She sprang out of bed like a kitten, showed herself gleaming in her lawn raiment, and sat down on Raphael’s knee.
“Love, what gulf were you talking about?” she said, with an anxious expression apparent upon her face.
“You hurt me,” she answered. “There are some thoughts upon which we, poor women that we are, cannot dwell; they are death to us. Is it strength of love in us, or lack of courage? I cannot tell. Death does not frighten me,” she began again, laughingly. “To die with you, both together, tomorrow morning, in one last embrace, would be joy. It seems to me that even then I should have lived more than a hundred years. What does the number of days matter if we have spent a whole lifetime of peace and love in one night, in one hour?”
“You are right; Heaven is speaking through that pretty mouth of yours. Grant that I may kiss you, and let us die,” said Raphael.
“Then let us die,” she said, laughing.
Towards nine o’clock in the morning the daylight streamed through the chinks of the window shutters. Obscured somewhat by the muslin curtains, it yet sufficed to show clearly the rich colors of the carpet, the silks and furniture of the room, where the two lovers were lying asleep. The gilding sparkled here and there. A ray of sunshine fell and faded upon the soft down quilt that the freaks of live had thrown to the ground. The outlines of Pauline’s dress, hanging from a cheval glass, appeared like a shadowy ghost. Her dainty shoes had been left at a distance from the bed. A nightingale came to perch upon the sill; its trills repeated over again, and the sounds of its wings suddenly shaken out for flight, awoke Raphael.
“For me to die,” he said, following out a thought begun in his dream, “my organization, the mechanism of flesh and bone, that is quickened by the will in me, and makes of me an individual MAN, must display some perceptible disease. Doctors ought to understand the symptoms of any attack on vitality, and could tell me whether I am sick or sound.”
He gazed at his sleeping wife. She had stretched her head out to him, expressing in this way even while she slept the anxious tenderness of love. Pauline seemed to look at him as she lay with her face turned towards him in an attitude as full of grace as a young child’s, with her pretty, half-opened mouth held out towards him, as she drew her light, even breath. Her little pearly teeth seemed to heighten the redness of the fresh lips with the smile hovering over them. The red glow in her complexion was brighter, and its whiteness was, so to speak, whiter still just then than in the most impassioned moments of the waking day. In her unconstrained grace, as she lay, so full of believing trust, the adorable attractions of childhood were added to the enchantments of love.
Even the most unaffected women still obey certain social conventions, which restrain the free expansion of the soul within them during their waking hours; but slumber seems to give them back the spontaneity of life which makes infancy lovely. Pauline blushed for nothing; she was like one of those beloved and heavenly beings, in whom reason has not yet put motives into their actions and mystery into their glances. Her profile stood out in sharp relief against the fine cambric of the pillows; there was a certain sprightliness about her loose hair in confusion, mingled with the deep lace ruffles; but she was sleeping in happiness, her long lashes were tightly pressed against her cheeks, as if to secure her eyes from too strong a light, or to aid an effort of her soul to recollect and to hold fast a bliss that had been perfect but fleeting. Her tiny pink and white ear, framed by a lock of her hair and outlined by a wrapping of Mechlin lace, would have made an artist, a painter, an old man, wildly in love, and would perhaps have restored a madman to his senses.
Is it not an ineffable bliss to behold the woman that you love, sleeping, smiling in a peaceful dream beneath your protection, loving you even in dreams, even at the point where the individual seems to cease to exist, offering to you yet the mute lips that speak to you in slumber of the latest kiss? Is it not indescribable happiness to see a trusting woman, half-clad, but wrapped round in her love as by a cloak — modesty in the midst of dishevelment — to see admiringly her scattered clothing, the silken stocking hastily put off to please you last evening, the unclasped girdle that implies a boundless faith in you. A whole romance lies there in that girdle; the woman that it used to protect exists no longer; she is yours, she has become you; henceforward any betrayal of her is a blow dealt at yourself.
In this softened mood Raphael’s eyes wandered over the room, now filled with memories and love, and where the very daylight seemed to take delightful hues. Then he turned his gaze at last upon the outlines of the woman’s form, upon youth and purity, and love that even now had no thought that was not for him alone, above all things, and longed to live for ever. As his eyes fell upon Pauline, her own opened at once as if a ray of sunlight had lighted on them.
“Good-morning,” she said, smiling. “How handsome you are, bad man!”
The grace of love and youth, of silence and dawn, shone in their faces, making a divine picture, with the fleeting spell over it all that belongs only to the earliest days of passion, just as simplicity and artlessness are the peculiar possession of childhood. Alas! love’s springtide joys, like our own youthful laughter, must even take flight, and live for us no longer save in memory; either for our despair, or to shed some soothing fragrance over us, according to the bent of our inmost thoughts.
“What made me wake you?” said Raphael. “It was so great a pleasure to watch you sleeping that it brought tears to my eyes.”
“And to mine, too,” she answered. “I cried in the night while I watched you sleeping, but not with happiness. Raphael, dear, pray listen to me. Your breathing is labored while you sleep, and something rattles in your chest that frightens me. You have a little dry cough when you are asleep, exactly like my father’s, who is dying of phthisis. In those sounds from your lungs I recognized some of the peculiar symptoms of that complaint. Then you are feverish; I know you are; your hand was moist and burning —— Darling, you are young,” she added with a shudder, “and you could still get over it if unfortunately —— But, no,” she cried cheerfully, “there is no ‘unfortunately,’ the disease is contagious, so the doctors say.”
She flung both arms about Raphael, drawing in his breath through one of those kisses in which the soul reaches its end.
“I do not wish to live to old age,” she said. “Let us both die young, and go to heaven while flowers fill our hands.”
“We always make such designs as those when we are well and strong,” Raphael replied, burying his hands in Pauline’s hair. But even then a horrible fit of coughing came on, one of those deep ominous coughs that seem to come from the depths of the tomb, a cough that leaves the sufferer ghastly pale, trembling, and perspiring; with aching sides and quivering nerves, with a feeling of weariness pervading the very marrow of the spine, and unspeakable languor in every vein. Raphael slowly laid himself down, pale, exhausted, and overcome, like a man who has spent all the strength in him over one final effort. Pauline’s eyes, grown large with terror, were fixed upon him; she lay quite motionless, pale, and silent.
“Let us commit no more follies, my angel,” she said, trying not to let Raphael see the dreadful forebodings that disturbed her. She covered her face with her hands, for she saw Death before her — the hideous skeleton. Raphael’s face had grown as pale and livid as any skull unearthed from a churchyard to assist the studies of some scientific man. Pauline remembered the exclamation that had escaped from Valentin the previous evening, and to herself she said:
“Yes, there are gulfs that love can never cross, and therein love must bury itself.”
On a March morning, some days after this wretched scene, Raphael found himself seated in an armchair, placed in the window in the full light of day. Four doctors stood round him, each in turn trying his pulse, feeling him over, and questioning him with apparent interest. The invalid sought to guess their thoughts, putting a construction on every movement they made, and on the slightest contractions of their brows. His last hope lay in this consultation. This court of appeal was about to pronounce its decision — life or death.
Valentin had summoned the oracles of modern medicine, so that he might have the last word of science. Thanks to his wealth and title, there stood before him three embodied theories; human knowledge fluctuated round the three points. Three of the doctors brought among them the complete circle of medical philosophy; they represented the points of conflict round which the battle raged, between Spiritualism, Analysis, and goodness knows what in the way of mocking eclecticism.
The fourth doctor was Horace Bianchon, a man of science with a future before him, the most distinguished man of the new school in medicine, a discreet and unassuming representative of a studious generation that is preparing to receive the inheritance of fifty years of experience treasured up by the Ecole de Paris, a generation that perhaps will erect the monument for the building of which the centuries behind us have collected the different materials. As a personal friend of the Marquis and of Rastignac, he had been in attendance on the former for some days past, and was helping him to answer the inquiries of the three professors, occasionally insisting somewhat upon those symptoms which, in his opinion, pointed to pulmonary disease.
“You have been living at a great pace, leading a dissipated life, no doubt, and you have devoted yourself largely to intellectual work?” queried one of the three celebrated authorities, addressing Raphael. He was a square-headed man, with a large frame and energetic organization, which seemed to mark him out as superior to his two rivals.
“I made up my mind to kill myself with debauchery, after spending three years over an extensive work, with which perhaps you may some day occupy yourselves,” Raphael replied.
The great doctor shook his head, and so displayed his satisfaction. “I was sure of it,” he seemed to say to himself. He was the illustrious Brisset, the successor of Cabanis and Bichat, head of the Organic School, a doctor popular with believers in material and positive science, who see in man a complete individual, subject solely to the laws of his own particular organization; and who consider that his normal condition and abnormal states of disease can both be traced to obvious causes.
After this reply, Brisset looked, without speaking, at a middle-sized person, whose darkly flushed countenance and glowing eyes seemed to belong to some antique satyr; and who, leaning his back against the corner of the embrasure, was studying Raphael, without saying a word. Doctor Cameristus, a man of creeds and enthusiasms, the head of the “Vitalists,” a romantic champion of the esoteric doctrines of Van Helmont, discerned a lofty informing principle in human life, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon which mocks at the scalpel, deceives the surgeon, eludes the drugs of the pharmacopoeia, the formulae of algebra, the demonstrations of anatomy, and derides all our efforts; a sort of invisible, intangible flame, which, obeying some divinely appointed law, will often linger on in a body in our opinion devoted to death, while it takes flight from an organization well fitted for prolonged existence.
A bitter smile hovered upon the lips of the third doctor, Maugredie, a man of acknowledged ability, but a Pyrrhonist and a scoffer, with the scalpel for his one article of faith. He would consider, as a concession to Brisset, that a man who, as a matter of fact, was perfectly well was dead, and recognize with Cameristus that a man might be living on after his apparent demise. He found something sensible in every theory, and embraced none of them, claiming that the best of all systems of medicine was to have none at all, and to stick to facts. This Panurge of the Clinical Schools, the king of observers, the great investigator, a great sceptic, the man of desperate expedients, was scrutinizing the Magic Skin.
“I should very much like to be a witness of the coincidence of its retrenchment with your wish,” he said to the Marquis.
“Where is the use?” cried Brisset.
“Where is the use?” echoed Cameristus.
“Ah, you are both of the same mind,” replied Maugredie.
“The contraction is perfectly simple,” Brisset went on.
“It is supernatural,” remarked Cameristus.
“In short,” Maugredie made answer, with affected solemnity, and handing the piece of skin to Raphael as he spoke, “the shriveling faculty of the skin is a fact inexplicable, and yet quite natural, which, ever since the world began, has been the despair of medicine and of pretty women.”
All Valentin’s observation could discover no trace of a feeling for his troubles in any of the three doctors. The three received every answer in silence, scanned him unconcernedly, and interrogated him unsympathetically. Politeness did not conceal their indifference; whether deliberation or certainty was the cause, their words at any rate came so seldom and so languidly, that at times Raphael thought that their attention was wandering. From time to time Brisset, the sole speaker, remarked, “Good! just so!” as Bianchon pointed out the existence of each desperate symptom. Cameristus seemed to be deep in meditation; Maugredie looked like a comic author, studying two queer characters with a view to reproducing them faithfully upon the stage. There was deep, unconcealed distress, and grave compassion in Horace Bianchon’s face. He had been a doctor for too short a time to be untouched by suffering and unmoved by a deathbed; he had not learned to keep back the sympathetic tears that obscure a man’s clear vision and prevent him from seizing like the general of an army, upon the auspicious moment for victory, in utter disregard of the groans of dying men.
After spending about half an hour over taking in some sort the measure of the patient and the complaint, much as a tailor measures a young man for a coat when he orders his wedding outfit, the authorities uttered several commonplaces, and even talked of politics. Then they decided to go into Raphael’s study to exchange their ideas and frame their verdict.
“May I not be present during the discussion, gentlemen?” Valentin had asked them, but Brisset and Maugredie protested against this, and, in spite of their patient’s entreaties, declined altogether to deliberate in his presence.
Raphael gave way before their custom, thinking that he could slip into a passage adjoining, whence he could easily overhear the medical conference in which the three professors were about to engage.
“Permit me, gentlemen,” said Brisset, as they entered, “to give you my own opinion at once. I neither wish to force it upon you nor to have it discussed. In the first place, it is unbiased, concise, and based on an exact similarity that exists between one of my own patients and the subject that we have been called in to examine; and, moreover, I am expected at my hospital. The importance of the case that demands my presence there will excuse me for speaking the first word. The subject with which we are concerned has been exhausted in an equal degree by intellectual labors — what did he set about, Horace?” he asked of the young doctor.
“A ‘Theory of the Will,’”
“The devil! but that’s a big subject. He is exhausted, I say, by too much brain-work, by irregular courses, and by the repeated use of too powerful stimulants. Violent exertion of body and mind has demoralized the whole system. It is easy, gentlemen, to recognize in the symptoms of the face and body generally intense irritation of the stomach, an affection of the great sympathetic nerve, acute sensibility of the epigastric region, and contraction of the right and left hypochondriac. You have noticed, too, the large size and prominence of the liver. M. Bianchon has, besides, constantly watched the patient, and he tells us that digestion is troublesome and difficult. Strictly speaking, there is no stomach left, and so the man has disappeared. The brain is atrophied because the man digests no longer. The progressive deterioration wrought in the epigastric region, the seat of vitality, has vitiated the whole system. Thence, by continuous fevered vibrations, the disorder has reached the brain by means of the nervous plexus, hence the excessive irritation in that organ. There is monomania. The patient is burdened with a fixed idea. That piece of skin really contracts, to his way of thinking; very likely it always has been as we have seen it; but whether it contracts or no, that thing is for him just like the fly that some Grand Vizier or other had on his nose. If you put leeches at once on the epigastrium, and reduce the irritation in that part, which is the very seat of man’s life, and if you diet the patient, the monomania will leave him. I will say no more to Dr. Bianchon; he should be able to grasp the whole treatment as well as the details. There may be, perhaps, some complication of the disease — the bronchial tubes, possibly, may be also inflamed; but I believe that treatment for the intestinal organs is very much more important and necessary, and more urgently required than for the lungs. Persistent study of abstract matters, and certain violent passions, have induced serious disorders in that vital mechanism. However, we are in time to set these conditions right. Nothing is too seriously affected. You will easily get your friend round again,” he remarked to Bianchon.
“Our learned colleague is taking the effect for the cause,” Cameristus replied. “Yes, the changes that he has observed so keenly certainly exist in the patient; but it is not the stomach that, by degrees, has set up nervous action in the system, and so affected the brain, like a hole in a window pane spreading cracks round about it. It took a blow of some kind to make a hole in the window; who gave the blow? Do we know that? Have we investigated the patient’s case sufficiently? Are we acquainted with all the events of his life?
“The vital principle, gentlemen,” he continued, “the Archeus of Van Helmont, is affected in his case — the very essence and centre of life is attacked. The divine spark, the transitory intelligence which holds the organism together, which is the source of the will, the inspiration of life, has ceased to regulate the daily phenomena of the mechanism and the functions of every organ; thence arise all the complications which my learned colleague has so thoroughly appreciated. The epigastric region does not affect the brain but the brain affects the epigastric region. No,” he went on, vigorously slapping his chest, “no, I am not a stomach in the form of a man. No, everything does not lie there. I do not feel that I have the courage to say that if the epigastric region is in good order, everything else is in a like condition ——
“We cannot trace,” he went on more mildly, “to one physical cause the serious disturbances that supervene in this or that subject which has been dangerously attacked, nor submit them to a uniform treatment. No one man is like another. We have each peculiar organs, differently affected, diversely nourished, adapted to perform different functions, and to induce a condition necessary to the accomplishment of an order of things which is unknown to us. The sublime will has so wrought that a little portion of the great All is set within us to sustain the phenomena of living; in every man it formulates itself distinctly, making each, to all appearance, a separate individual, yet in one point co-existent with the infinite cause. So we ought to make a separate study of each subject, discover all about it, find out in what its life consists, and wherein its power lies. From the softness of a wet sponge to the hardness of pumice-stone there are infinite fine degrees of difference. Man is just like that. Between the sponge-like organizations of the lymphatic and the vigorous iron muscles of such men as are destined for a long life, what a margin for errors for the single inflexible system of a lowering treatment to commit; a system that reduces the capacities of the human frame, which you always conclude have been over-excited. Let us look for the origin of the disease in the mental and not in the physical viscera. A doctor is an inspired being, endowed by God with a special gift — the power to read the secrets of vitality; just as the prophet has received the eyes that foresee the future, the poet his faculty of evoking nature, and the musician the power of arranging sounds in an harmonious order that is possibly a copy of an ideal harmony on high.”
“There is his everlasting system of medicine, arbitrary, monarchical, and pious,” muttered Brisset.
“Gentlemen,” Maugredie broke in hastily, to distract attention from Brisset’s comment, “don’t let us lose sight of the patient.”
“What is the good of science?” Raphael moaned. “Here is my recovery halting between a string of beads and a rosary of leeches, between Dupuytren’s bistoury and Prince Hohenlohe’s prayer. There is Maugredie suspending his judgment on the line that divides facts from words, mind from matter. Man’s ‘it is,’ and ‘it is not,’ is always on my track; it is the Carymary Carymara of Rabelais for evermore: my disorder is spiritual, Carymary, or material, Carymara. Shall I live? They have no idea. Planchette was more straightforward with me, at any rate, when he said, ‘I do not know.’”
Just then Valentin heard Maugredie’s voice.
“The patient suffers from monomania; very good, I am quite of that opinion,” he said, “but he has two hundred thousand a year; monomaniacs of that kind are very uncommon. As for knowing whether his epigastric region has affected his brain, or his brain his epigastric region, we shall find that out, perhaps, whenever he dies. But to resume. There is no disputing the fact that he is ill; some sort of treatment he must have. Let us leave theories alone, and put leeches on him, to counteract the nervous and intestinal irritation, as to the existence of which we all agree; and let us send him to drink the waters, in that way we shall act on both systems at once. If there really is tubercular disease, we can hardly expect to save his life; so that ——”
Raphael abruptly left the passage, and went back to his armchair. The four doctors very soon came out of the study; Horace was the spokesman.
“These gentlemen,” he told him, “have unanimously agreed that leeches must be applied to the stomach at once, and that both physical and moral treatment are imperatively needed. In the first place, a carefully prescribed rule of diet, so as to soothe the internal irritation”— here Brisset signified his approval; “and in the second, a hygienic regimen, to set your general condition right. We all, therefore, recommend you to go to take the waters in Aix in Savoy; or, if you like it better, at Mont Dore in Auvergne; the air and the situation are both pleasanter in Savoy than in the Cantal, but you will consult your own taste.”
Here it was Cameristus who nodded assent.
“These gentlemen,” Bianchon continued, “having recognized a slight affection of the respiratory organs, are agreed as to the utility of the previous course of treatment that I have prescribed. They think that there will be no difficulty about restoring you to health, and that everything depends upon a wise and alternate employment of these various means. And ——”
“And that is the cause of the milk in the cocoanut,” said Raphael, with a smile, as he led Horace into his study to pay the fees for this useless consultation.
“Their conclusions are logical,” the young doctor replied. “Cameristus feels, Brisset examines, Maugredie doubts. Has not man a soul, a body, and an intelligence? One of these three elemental constituents always influences us more or less strongly; there will always be the personal element in human science. Believe me, Raphael, we effect no cures; we only assist them. Another system — the use of mild remedies while Nature exerts her powers — lies between the extremes of theory of Brisset and Cameristus, but one ought to have known the patient for some ten years or so to obtain a good result on these lines. Negation lies at the back of all medicine, as in every other science. So endeavor to live wholesomely; try a trip to Savoy; the best course is, and always will be, to trust to Nature.”
It was a month later, on a fine summer-like evening, that several people, who were taking the waters at Aix, returned from the promenade and met together in the salons of the Club. Raphael remained alone by a window for a long time. His back was turned upon the gathering, and he himself was deep in those involuntary musings in which thoughts arise in succession and fade away, shaping themselves indistinctly, passing over us like thin, almost colorless clouds. Melancholy is sweet to us then, and delight is shadowy, for the soul is half asleep. Valentin gave himself up to this life of sensations; he was steeping himself in the warm, soft twilight, enjoying the pure air with the scent of the hills in it, happy in that he felt no pain, and had tranquilized his threatening Magic Skin at last. It grew cooler as the red glow of the sunset faded on the mountain peaks; he shut the window and left his place.
“Will you be so kind as not to close the windows, sir?” said an old lady; “we are being stifled ——”
The peculiarly sharp and jarring tones in which the phrase was uttered grated on Raphael’s ears; it fell on them like an indiscreet remark let slip by some man in whose friendship we would fain believe, a word which reveals unsuspected depths of selfishness and destroys some pleasing sentimental illusion of ours. The Marquis glanced, with the cool inscrutable expression of a diplomatist, at the old lady, called a servant, and, when he came, curtly bade him:
“Open that window.”
Great surprise was clearly expressed on all faces at the words. The whole roomful began to whisper to each other, and turned their eyes upon the invalid, as though he had given some serious offence. Raphael, who had never quite managed to rid himself of the bashfulness of his early youth, felt a momentary confusion; then he shook off his torpor, exerted his faculties, and asked himself the meaning of this strange scene.
A sudden and rapid impulse quickened his brain; the past weeks appeared before him in a clear and definite vision; the reasons for the feelings he inspired in others stood out for him in relief, like the veins of some corpse which a naturalist, by some cunningly contrived injection, has colored so as to show their least ramifications.
He discerned himself in this fleeting picture; he followed out his own life in it, thought by thought, day after day. He saw himself, not without astonishment, an absent gloomy figure in the midst of these lively folk, always musing over his own fate, always absorbed by his own sufferings, seemingly impatient of the most harmless chat. He saw how he had shunned the ephemeral intimacies that travelers are so ready to establish — no doubt because they feel sure of never meeting each other again — and how he had taken little heed of those about him. He saw himself like the rocks without, unmoved by the caresses or the stormy surgings of the waves.
Then, by a gift of insight seldom accorded, he read the thoughts of all those about him. The light of a candle revealed the sardonic profile and yellow cranium of an old man; he remembered now that he had won from him, and had never proposed that the other should have his revenge; a little further on he saw a pretty woman, whose lively advances he had met with frigid coolness; there was not a face there that did not reproach him with some wrong done, inexplicably to all appearance, but the real offence in every case lay in some mortification, some invisible hurt dealt to self-love. He had unintentionally jarred on all the small susceptibilities of the circle round about him.
His guests on various occasions, and those to whom he had lent his horses, had taken offence at his luxurious ways; their ungraciousness had been a surprise to him; he had spared them further humiliations of that kind, and they had considered that he looked down upon them, and had accused him of haughtiness ever since. He could read their inmost thoughts as he fathomed their natures in this way. Society with its polish and varnish grew loathsome to him. He was envied and hated for his wealth and superior ability; his reserve baffled the inquisitive; his humility seemed like haughtiness to these petty superficial natures. He guessed the secret unpardonable crime which he had committed against them; he had overstepped the limits of the jurisdiction of their mediocrity. He had resisted their inquisitorial tyranny; he could dispense with their society; and all of them, therefore, had instinctively combined to make him feel their power, and to take revenge upon this incipient royalty by submitting him to a kind of ostracism, and so teaching him that they in their turn could do without him.
Pity came over him, first of all, at this aspect of mankind, but very soon he shuddered at the thought of the power that came thus, at will, and flung aside for him the veil of flesh under which the moral nature is hidden away. He closed his eyes, so as to see no more. A black curtain was drawn all at once over this unlucky phantom show of truth; but still he found himself in the terrible loneliness that surrounds every power and dominion. Just then a violent fit of coughing seized him. Far from receiving one single word — indifferent, and meaningless, it is true, but still containing, among well-bred people brought together by chance, at least some pretence of civil commiseration — he now heard hostile ejaculations and muttered complaints. Society there assembled disdained any pantomime on his account, perhaps because he had gauged its real nature too well.
“His complaint is contagious.”
“The president of the Club ought to forbid him to enter the salon.”
“It is contrary to all rules and regulations to cough in that way!”
“When a man is as ill as that, he ought not to come to take the waters ——”
“He will drive me away from the place.”
Raphael rose and walked about the rooms to screen himself from their unanimous execrations. He thought to find a shelter, and went up to a young pretty lady who sat doing nothing, minded to address some pretty speeches to her; but as he came towards her, she turned her back upon him, and pretended to be watching the dancers. Raphael feared lest he might have made use of the talisman already that evening; and feeling that he had neither the wish nor the courage to break into the conversation, he left the salon and took refuge in the billiard-room. No one there greeted him, nobody spoke to him, no one sent so much as a friendly glance in his direction. His turn of mind, naturally meditative, had discovered instinctively the general grounds and reasons for the aversion he inspired. This little world was obeying, unconsciously perhaps, the sovereign law which rules over polite society; its inexorable nature was becoming apparent in its entirety to Raphael’s eyes. A glance into the past showed it to him, as a type completely realized in Foedora.
He would no more meet with sympathy here for his bodily ills than he had received it at her hands for the distress in his heart. The fashionable world expels every suffering creature from its midst, just as the body of a man in robust health rejects any germ of disease. The world holds suffering and misfortune in abhorrence; it dreads them like the plague; it never hesitates between vice and trouble, for vice is a luxury. Ill-fortune may possess a majesty of its own, but society can belittle it and make it ridiculous by an epigram. Society draws caricatures, and in this way flings in the teeth of fallen kings the affronts which it fancies it has received from them; society, like the Roman youth at the circus, never shows mercy to the fallen gladiator; mockery and money are its vital necessities. “Death to the weak!” That is the oath taken by this kind of Equestrian order, instituted in their midst by all the nations of the world; everywhere it makes for the elevation of the rich, and its motto is deeply graven in hearts that wealth has turned to stone, or that have been reared in aristocratic prejudices.
Assemble a collection of school-boys together. That will give you a society in miniature, a miniature which represents life more truly, because it is so frank and artless; and in it you will always find poor isolated beings, relegated to some place in the general estimations between pity and contempt, on account of their weakness and suffering. To these the Evangel promises heaven hereafter. Go lower yet in the scale of organized creation. If some bird among its fellows in the courtyard sickens, the others fall upon it with their beaks, pluck out its feathers, and kill it. The whole world, in accordance with its character of egotism, brings all its severity to bear upon wretchedness that has the hardihood to spoil its festivities, and to trouble its joys.
Any sufferer in mind or body, any helpless or poor man, is a pariah. He had better remain in his solitude; if he crosses the boundary-line, he will find winter everywhere; he will find freezing cold in other men’s looks, manners, words, and hearts; and lucky indeed is he if he does not receive an insult where he expected that sympathy would be expended upon him. Let the dying keep to their bed of neglect, and age sit lonely by its fireside. Portionless maids, freeze and burn in your solitary attics. If the world tolerates misery of any kind, it is to turn it to account for its own purposes, to make some use of it, saddle and bridle it, put a bit in its mouth, ride it about, and get some fun out of it.
Crotchety spinsters, ladies’ companions, put a cheerful face upon it, endure the humors of your so-called benefactress, carry her lapdogs for her; you have an English poodle for your rival, and you must seek to understand the moods of your patroness, and amuse her, and — keep silence about yourselves. As for you, unblushing parasite, uncrowned king of unliveried servants, leave your real character at home, let your digestion keep pace with your host’s laugh when he laughs, mingle your tears with his, and find his epigrams amusing; if you want to relieve your mind about him, wait till he is ruined. That is the way the world shows its respect for the unfortunate; it persecutes them, or slays them in the dust.
Such thoughts as these welled up in Raphael’s heart with the suddenness of poetic inspiration. He looked around him, and felt the influence of the forbidding gloom that society breathes out in order to rid itself of the unfortunate; it nipped his soul more effectually than the east wind grips the body in December. He locked his arms over his chest, set his back against the wall, and fell into a deep melancholy. He mused upon the meagre happiness that this depressing way of living can give. What did it amount to? Amusement with no pleasure in it, gaiety without gladness, joyless festivity, fevered dreams empty of all delight, firewood or ashes on the hearth without a spark of flame in them. When he raised his head, he found himself alone, all the billiard players had gone.
“I have only to let them know my power to make them worship my coughing fits,” he said to himself, and wrapped himself against the world in the cloak of his contempt.
Next day the resident doctor came to call upon him, and took an anxious interest in his health. Raphael felt a thrill of joy at the friendly words addressed to him. The doctor’s face, to his thinking, wore an expression that was kind and pleasant; the pale curls of his wig seemed redolent of philanthropy; the square cut of his coat, the loose folds of his trousers, his big Quaker-like shoes, everything about him down to the powder shaken from his queue and dusted in a circle upon his slightly stooping shoulders, revealed an apostolic nature, and spoke of Christian charity and of the self-sacrifice of a man, who, out of sheer devotion to his patients, had compelled himself to learn to play whist and tric-trac so well that he never lost money to any of them.
“My Lord Marquis,” said he, after a long talk with Raphael, “I can dispel your uneasiness beyond all doubt. I know your constitution well enough by this time to assure you that the doctors in Paris, whose great abilities I know, are mistaken as to the nature of your complaint. You can live as long as Methuselah, my Lord Marquis, accidents only excepted. Your lungs are as sound as a blacksmith’s bellows, your stomach would put an ostrich to the blush; but if you persist in living at high altitude, you are running the risk of a prompt interment in consecrated soil. A few words, my Lord Marquis, will make my meaning clear to you.
“Chemistry,” he began, “has shown us that man’s breathing is a real process of combustion, and the intensity of its action varies according to the abundance or scarcity of the phlogistic element stored up by the organism of each individual. In your case, the phlogistic, or inflammatory element is abundant; if you will permit me to put it so, you generate superfluous oxygen, possessing as you do the inflammatory temperament of a man destined to experience strong emotions. While you breath the keen, pure air that stimulates life in men of lymphatic constitution, you are accelerating an expenditure of vitality already too rapid. One of the conditions for existence for you is the heavier atmosphere of the plains and valleys. Yes, the vital air for a man consumed by his genius lies in the fertile pasture-lands of Germany, at Toplitz or Baden–Baden. If England is not obnoxious to you, its misty climate would reduce your fever; but the situation of our baths, a thousand feet above the level of the Mediterranean, is dangerous for you. That is my opinion at least,” he said, with a deprecatory gesture, “and I give it in opposition to our interests, for, if you act upon it, we shall unfortunately lose you.”
But for these closing words of his, the affable doctor’s seeming good-nature would have completely won Raphael over; but he was too profoundly observant not to understand the meaning of the tone, the look and gesture that accompanied that mild sarcasm, not to see that the little man had been sent on this errand, no doubt, by a flock of his rejoicing patients. The florid-looking idlers, tedious old women, nomad English people, and fine ladies who had given their husbands the slip, and were escorted hither by their lovers — one and all were in a plot to drive away a wretched, feeble creature to die, who seemed unable to hold out against a daily renewed persecution! Raphael accepted the challenge, he foresaw some amusement to be derived from their manoeuvres.
“As you would be grieved at losing me,” said he to the doctor, “I will endeavor to avail myself of your good advice without leaving the place. I will set about having a house built tomorrow, and the atmosphere within it shall be regulated by your instructions.”
The doctor understood the sarcastic smile that lurked about Raphael’s mouth, and took his leave without finding another word to say.
The Lake of Bourget lies seven hundred feet above the Mediterranean, in a great hollow among the jagged peaks of the hills; it sparkles there, the bluest drop of water in the world. From the summit of the Cat’s Tooth the lake below looks like a stray turquoise. This lovely sheet of water is about twenty-seven miles round, and in some places is nearly five hundred feet deep.
Under the cloudless sky, in your boat in the midst of the great expanse of water, with only the sound of the oars in your ears, only the vague outline of the hills on the horizon before you; you admire the glittering snows of the French Maurienne; you pass, now by masses of granite clad in the velvet of green turf or in low-growing shrubs, now by pleasant sloping meadows; there is always a wilderness on the one hand and fertile lands on the other, and both harmonies and dissonances compose a scene for you where everything is at once small and vast, and you feel yourself to be a poor onlooker at a great banquet. The configuration of the mountains brings about misleading optical conditions and illusions of perspective; a pine-tree a hundred feet in height looks to be a mere weed; wide valleys look as narrow as meadow paths. The lake is the only one where the confidences of heart and heart can be exchanged. There one can live; there one can meditate. Nowhere on earth will you find a closer understanding between the water, the sky, the mountains, and the fields. There is a balm there for all the agitations of life. The place keeps the secrets of sorrow to itself, the sorrow that grows less beneath its soothing influence; and to love, it gives a grave and meditative cast, deepening passion and purifying it. A kiss there becomes something great. But beyond all other things it is the lake for memories; it aids them by lending to them the hues of its own waves; it is a mirror in which everything is reflected. Only here, with this lovely landscape all around him, could Raphael endure the burden laid upon him; here he could remain as a languid dreamer, without a wish of his own.
He went out upon the lake after the doctor’s visit, and was landed at a lonely point on the pleasant slope where the village of Saint–Innocent is situated. The view from this promontory, as one may call it, comprises the heights of Bugey with the Rhone flowing at their foot, and the end of the lake; but Raphael liked to look at the opposite shore from thence, at the melancholy looking Abbey of Haute–Combe, the burying-place of the Sardinian kings, who lie prostrate there before the hills, like pilgrims come at last to their journey’s end. The silence of the landscape was broken by the even rhythm of the strokes of the oar; it seemed to find a voice for the place, in monotonous cadences like the chanting of monks. The Marquis was surprised to find visitors to this usually lonely part of the lake; and as he mused, he watched the people seated in the boat, and recognized in the stern the elderly lady who had spoken so harshly to him the evening before.
No one took any notice of Raphael as the boat passed, except the elderly lady’s companion, a poor old maid of noble family, who bowed to him, and whom it seemed to him that he saw for the first time. A few seconds later he had already forgotten the visitors, who had rapidly disappeared behind the promontory, when he heard the fluttering of a dress and the sound of light footsteps not far from him. He turned about and saw the companion; and, guessing from her embarrassed manner that she wished to speak with him, he walked towards her.
She was somewhere about thirty-six years of age, thin and tall, reserved and prim, and, like all old maids, seemed puzzled to know which way to look, an expression no longer in keeping with her measured, springless, and hesitating steps. She was both young and old at the same time, and, by a certain dignity in her carriage, showed the high value which she set upon her charms and perfections. In addition, her movements were all demure and discreet, like those of women who are accustomed to take great care of themselves, no doubt because they desire not to be cheated of love, their destined end.
“Your life is in danger, sir; do not come to the Club again!” she said, stepping back a pace or two from Raphael, as if her reputation had already been compromised.
“But, mademoiselle,” said Raphael, smiling, “please explain yourself more clearly, since you have condescended so far ——”
“Ah,” she answered, “unless I had had a very strong motive, I should never have run the risk of offending the countess, for if she ever came to know that I had warned you ——”
“And who would tell her, mademoiselle?” cried Raphael.
“True,” the old maid answered. She looked at him, quaking like an owl out in the sunlight. “But think of yourself,” she went on; “several young men, who want to drive you away from the baths, have agreed to pick a quarrel with you, and to force you into a duel.”
The elderly lady’s voice sounded in the distance.
“Mademoiselle,” began the Marquis, “my gratitude ——” But his protectress had fled already; she had heard the voice of her mistress squeaking afresh among the rocks.
“Poor girl! unhappiness always understands and helps the unhappy,” Raphael thought, and sat himself down at the foot of a tree.
The key of every science is, beyond cavil, the mark of interrogation; we owe most of our greatest discoveries to a Why? and all the wisdom in the world, perhaps, consists in asking Wherefore? in every connection. But, on the other hand, this acquired prescience is the ruin of our illusions.
So Valentin, having taken the old maid’s kindly action for the text of his wandering thoughts, without the deliberate promptings of philosophy, must find it full of gall and wormwood.
“It is not at all extraordinary that a gentlewoman’s gentlewoman should take a fancy to me,” said he to himself. “I am twenty-seven years old, and I have a title and an income of two hundred thousand a year. But that her mistress, who hates water like a rabid cat — for it would be hard to give the palm to either in that matter — that her mistress should have brought her here in a boat! Is not that very strange and wonderful? Those two women came into Savoy to sleep like marmots; they ask if day has dawned at noon; and to think that they could get up this morning before eight o’clock, to take their chances in running after me!”
Very soon the old maid and her elderly innocence became, in his eyes, a fresh manifestation of that artificial, malicious little world. It was a paltry device, a clumsy artifice, a piece of priest’s or woman’s craft. Was the duel a myth, or did they merely want to frighten him? But these petty creatures, impudent and teasing as flies, had succeeded in wounding his vanity, in rousing his pride, and exciting his curiosity. Unwilling to become their dupe, or to be taken for a coward, and even diverted perhaps by the little drama, he went to the Club that very evening.
He stood leaning against the marble chimney-piece, and stayed there quietly in the middle of the principal saloon, doing his best to give no one any advantage over him; but he scrutinized the faces about him, and gave a certain vague offence to those assembled, by his inspection. Like a dog aware of his strength, he awaited the contest on his own ground, without necessary barking. Towards the end of the evening he strolled into the cardroom, walking between the door and another that opened into the billiard-room, throwing a glance from time to time over a group of young men that had gathered there. He heard his name mentioned after a turn or two. Although they lowered their voices, Raphael easily guessed that he had become the topic of their debate, and he ended by catching a phrase or two spoken aloud.
“I dare you to do it!”
“Let us make a bet on it!”
“Oh, he will do it.”
Just as Valentin, curious to learn the matter of the wager, came up to pay closer attention to what they were saying, a tall, strong, good-looking young fellow, who, however, possessed the impertinent stare peculiar to people who have material force at their back, came out of the billiard-room.
“I am deputed, sir,” he said coolly addressing the Marquis, “to make you aware of something which you do not seem to know; your face and person generally are a source of annoyance to every one here, and to me in particular. You have too much politeness not to sacrifice yourself to the public good, and I beg that you will not show yourself in the Club again.”
“This sort of joke has been perpetrated before, sir, in garrison towns at the time of the Empire; but nowadays it is exceedingly bad form,” said Raphael drily.
“I am not joking,” the young man answered; “and I repeat it: your health will be considerably the worse for a stay here; the heat and light, the air of the saloon, and the company are all bad for your complaint.”
“Where did you study medicine?” Raphael inquired.
“I took my bachelor’s degree on Lepage’s shooting-ground in Paris, and was made a doctor at Cerizier’s, the king of foils.”
“There is one last degree left for you to take,” said Valentin; “study the ordinary rules of politeness, and you will be a perfect gentlemen.”
The young men all came out of the billiard-room just then, some disposed to laugh, some silent. The attention of other players was drawn to the matter; they left their cards to watch a quarrel that rejoiced their instincts. Raphael, alone among this hostile crowd, did his best to keep cool, and not to put himself in any way in the wrong; but his adversary having ventured a sarcasm containing an insult couched in unusually keen language, he replied gravely:
“We cannot box men’s ears, sir, in these days, but I am at a loss for any word by which to stigmatize such cowardly behavior as yours.”
“That’s enough, that’s enough. You can come to an explanation tomorrow,” several young men exclaimed, interposing between the two champions.
Raphael left the room in the character of aggressor, after he had accepted a proposal to meet near the Chateau de Bordeau, in a little sloping meadow, not very far from the newly made road, by which the man who came off victorious could reach Lyons. Raphael must now either take to his bed or leave the baths. The visitors had gained their point. At eight o’clock next morning his antagonist, followed by two seconds and a surgeon, arrived first on the ground.
“We shall do very nicely here; glorious weather for a duel!” he cried gaily, looking at the blue vault of sky above, at the waters of the lake, and the rocks, without a single melancholy presentiment or doubt of the issue. “If I wing him,” he went on, “I shall send him to bed for a month; eh, doctor?”
“At the very least,” the surgeon replied; “but let that willow twig alone, or you will weary your wrist, and then you will not fire steadily. You might kill your man instead of wounding him.”
The noise of a carriage was heard approaching.
“Here he is,” said the seconds, who soon descried a caleche coming along the road; it was drawn by four horses, and there were two postilions.
“What a queer proceeding!” said Valentin’s antagonist; “here he comes post-haste to be shot.”
The slightest incident about a duel, as about a stake at cards, makes an impression on the minds of those deeply concerned in the results of the affair; so the young man awaited the arrival of the carriage with a kind of uneasiness. It stopped in the road; old Jonathan laboriously descended from it, in the first place, to assist Raphael to alight; he supported him with his feeble arms, and showed him all the minute attentions that a lover lavishes upon his mistress. Both became lost to sight in the footpath that lay between the highroad and the field where the duel was to take place; they were walking slowly, and did not appear again for some time after. The four onlookers at this strange spectacle felt deeply moved by the sight of Valentin as he leaned on his servant’s arm; he was wasted and pale; he limped as if he had the gout, went with his head bowed down, and said not a word. You might have taken them for a couple of old men, one broken with years, the other worn out with thought; the elder bore his age visibly written in his white hair, the younger was of no age.
“I have not slept all night, sir;” so Raphael greeted his antagonist.
The icy tone and terrible glance that went with the words made the real aggressor shudder; he know that he was in the wrong, and felt in secret ashamed of his behavior. There was something strange in Raphael’s bearing, tone, and gesture; the Marquis stopped, and every one else was likewise silent. The uneasy and constrained feeling grew to a height.
“There is yet time,” he went on, “to offer me some slight apology; and offer it you must, or you will die sir! You rely even now on your dexterity, and do not shrink from an encounter in which you believe all the advantage to be upon your side. Very good, sir; I am generous, I am letting you know my superiority beforehand. I possess a terrible power. I have only to wish to do so, and I can neutralize your skill, dim your eyesight, make your hand and pulse unsteady, and even kill you outright. I have no wish to be compelled to exercise my power; the use of it costs me too dear. You would not be the only one to die. So if you refuse to apologize to me, not matter what your experience in murder, your ball will go into the waterfall there, and mine will speed straight to your heart though I do not aim it at you.”
Confused voices interrupted Raphael at this point. All the time that he was speaking, the Marquis had kept his intolerably keen gaze fixed upon his antagonist; now he drew himself up and showed an impassive face, like that of a dangerous madman.
“Make him hold his tongue,” the young man had said to one of his seconds; “that voice of his is tearing the heart out of me.”
“Say no more, sir; it is quite useless,” cried the seconds and the surgeon, addressing Raphael.
“Gentlemen, I am fulfilling a duty. Has this young gentleman any final arrangements to make?”
“That is enough; that will do.”
The Marquis remained standing steadily, never for a moment losing sight of his antagonist; and the latter seemed, like a bird before a snake, to be overwhelmed by a well-nigh magical power. He was compelled to endure that homicidal gaze; he met and shunned it incessantly.
“I am thirsty; give me some water ——” he said again to the second.
“Are you nervous?”
“Yes,” he answered. “There is a fascination about that man’s glowing eyes.”
“Will you apologize?”
“It is too late now.”
The two antagonists were placed at fifteen paces’ distance from each other. Each of them had a brace of pistols at hand, and, according to the programme prescribed for them, each was to fire twice when and how he pleased, but after the signal had been given by the seconds.
“What are you doing, Charles?” exclaimed the young man who acted as second to Raphael’s antagonist; “you are putting in the ball before the powder!”
“I am a dead man,” he muttered, by way of answer; “you have put me facing the sun ——”
“The sun lies behind you,” said Valentin sternly and solemnly, while he coolly loaded his pistol without heeding the fact that the signal had been given, or that his antagonist was carefully taking aim.
There was something so appalling in this supernatural unconcern, that it affected even the two postilions, brought thither by a cruel curiosity. Raphael was either trying his power or playing with it, for he talked to Jonathan, and looked towards him as he received his adversary’s fire. Charles’ bullet broke a branch of willow, and ricocheted over the surface of the water; Raphael fired at random, and shot his antagonist through the heart. He did not heed the young man as he dropped; he hurriedly sought the Magic Skin to see what another man’s life had cost him. The talisman was no larger than a small oak-leaf.
“What are you gaping at, you postilions over there? Let us be off,” said the Marquis.
That same evening he crossed the French border, immediately set out for Auvergne, and reached the springs of Mont Dore. As he traveled, there surged up in his heart, all at once, one of those thoughts that come to us as a ray of sunlight pierces through the thick mists in some dark valley — a sad enlightenment, a pitiless sagacity that lights up the accomplished fact for us, that lays our errors bare, and leaves us without excuse in our own eyes. It suddenly struck him that the possession of power, no matter how enormous, did not bring with it the knowledge how to use it. The sceptre is a plaything for a child, an axe for a Richelieu, and for a Napoleon a lever by which to move the world. Power leaves us just as it finds us; only great natures grow greater by its means. Raphael had had everything in his power, and he had done nothing.
At the springs of Mont Dore he came again in contact with a little world of people, who invariably shunned him with the eager haste that animals display when they scent afar off one of their own species lying dead, and flee away. The dislike was mutual. His late adventure had given him a deep distaste for society; his first care, consequently, was to find a lodging at some distance from the neighborhood of the springs. Instinctively he felt within him the need of close contact with nature, of natural emotions, and of the vegetative life into which we sink so gladly among the fields.
The day after he arrived he climbed the Pic de Sancy, not without difficulty, and visited the higher valleys, the skyey nooks, undiscovered lakes, and peasants’ huts about Mont Dore, a country whose stern and wild features are now beginning to tempt the brushes of our artists, for sometimes wonderfully fresh and charming views are to be found there, affording a strong contrast to the frowning brows of those lonely hills.
Barely a league from the village Raphael discovered a nook where nature seemed to have taken a pleasure in hiding away all her treasures like some glad and mischievous child. At the first sight of this unspoiled and picturesque retreat, he determined to take up his abode in it. There, life must needs be peaceful, natural, and fruitful, like the life of a plant.
Imagine for yourself an inverted cone of granite hollowed out on a large scale, a sort of basin with its sides divided up by queer winding paths. On one side lay level stretches with no growth upon them, a bluish uniform surface, over which the rays of the sun fell as upon a mirror; on the other lay cliffs split open by fissures and frowning ravines; great blocks of lava hung suspended from them, while the action of rain slowly prepared their impending fall; a few stunted trees tormented by the wind, often crowned their summits; and here and there in some sheltered angle of their ramparts a clump of chestnut-trees grew tall as cedars, or some cavern in the yellowish rocks showed the dark entrance into its depths, set about by flowers and brambles, decked by a little strip of green turf.
At the bottom of this cup, which perhaps had been the crater of an old-world volcano, lay a pool of water as pure and bright as a diamond. Granite boulders lay around the deep basin, and willows, mountain-ash trees, yellow-flag lilies, and numberless aromatic plants bloomed about it, in a realm of meadow as fresh as an English bowling-green. The fine soft grass was watered by the streams that trickled through the fissures in the cliffs; the soil was continually enriched by the deposits of loam which storms washed down from the heights above. The pool might be some three acres in extent; its shape was irregular, and the edges were scalloped like the hem of a dress; the meadow might be an acre or two acres in extent. The cliffs and the water approached and receded from each other; here and there, there was scarcely width enough for the cows to pass between them.
After a certain height the plant life ceased. Aloft in air the granite took upon itself the most fantastic shapes, and assumed those misty tints that give to high mountains a dim resemblance to clouds in the sky. The bare, bleak cliffs, with the fearful rents in their sides, pictures of wild and barren desolation, contrasted strongly with the pretty view of the valley; and so strange were the shapes they assumed, that one of the cliffs had been called “The Capuchin,” because it was so like a monk. Sometimes these sharp-pointed peaks, these mighty masses of rock, and airy caverns were lighted up one by one, according to the direction of the sun or the caprices of the atmosphere; they caught gleams of gold, dyed themselves in purple; took a tint of glowing rose-color, or turned dull and gray. Upon the heights a drama of color was always to be seen, a play of ever-shifting iridescent hues like those on a pigeon’s breast.
Oftentimes at sunrise or at sunset a ray of bright sunlight would penetrate between two sheer surfaces of lava, that might have been split apart by a hatchet, to the very depths of that pleasant little garden, where it would play in the waters of the pool, like a beam of golden light which gleams through the chinks of a shutter into a room in Spain, that has been carefully darkened for a siesta. When the sun rose above the old crater that some antediluvian revolution had filled with water, its rocky sides took warmer tones, the extinct volcano glowed again, and its sudden heat quickened the sprouting seeds and vegetation, gave color to the flowers, and ripened the fruits of this forgotten corner of the earth.
As Raphael reached it, he noticed several cows grazing in the pasture-land; and when he had taken a few steps towards the water, he saw a little house built of granite and roofed with shingle in the spot where the meadowland was at its widest. The roof of this little cottage harmonized with everything about it; for it had long been overgrown with ivy, moss, and flowers of no recent date. A thin smoke, that did not scare the birds away, went up from the dilapidated chimney. There was a great bench at the door between two huge honey-suckle bushes, that were pink with blossom and full of scent. The walls could scarcely be seen for branches of vine and sprays of rose and jessamine that interlaced and grew entirely as chance and their own will bade them; for the inmates of the cottage seemed to pay no attention to the growth which adorned their house, and to take no care of it, leaving to it the fresh capricious charm of nature.
Some clothes spread out on the gooseberry bushes were drying in the sun. A cat was sitting on a machine for stripping hemp; beneath it lay a newly scoured brass caldron, among a quantity of potato-parings. On the other side of the house Raphael saw a sort of barricade of dead thorn-bushes, meant no doubt to keep the poultry from scratching up the vegetables and pot-herbs. It seemed like the end of the earth. The dwelling was like some bird’s-nest ingeniously set in a cranny of the rocks, a clever and at the same time a careless bit of workmanship. A simple and kindly nature lay round about it; its rusticity was genuine, but there was a charm like that of poetry in it; for it grew and throve at a thousand miles’ distance from our elaborate and conventional poetry. It was like none of our conceptions; it was a spontaneous growth, a masterpiece due to chance.
As Raphael reached the place, the sunlight fell across it from right to left, bringing out all the colors of its plants and trees; the yellowish or gray bases of the crags, the different shades of the green leaves, the masses of flowers, pink, blue, or white, the climbing plants with their bell-like blossoms, and the shot velvet of the mosses, the purple-tinted blooms of the heather — everything was either brought into relief or made fairer yet by the enchantment of the light or by the contrasting shadows; and this was the case most of all with the sheet of water, wherein the house, the trees, the granite peaks, and the sky were all faithfully reflected. Everything had a radiance of its own in this delightful picture, from the sparkling mica-stone to the bleached tuft of grass hidden away in the soft shadows; the spotted cow with its glossy hide, the delicate water-plants that hung down over the pool like fringes in a nook where blue or emerald colored insects were buzzing about, the roots of trees like a sand-besprinkled shock of hair above grotesque faces in the flinty rock surface — all these things made a harmony for the eye.
The odor of the tepid water; the scent of the flowers, and the breath of the caverns which filled the lonely place gave Raphael a sensation that was almost enjoyment. Silence reigned in majesty over these woods, which possibly are unknown to the tax-collector; but the barking of a couple of dogs broke the stillness all at once; the cows turned their heads towards the entrance of the valley, showing their moist noses to Raphael, stared stupidly at him, and then fell to browsing again. A goat and her kid, that seemed to hang on the side of the crags in some magical fashion, capered and leapt to a slab of granite near to Raphael, and stayed there a moment, as if to seek to know who he was. The yapping of the dogs brought out a plump child, who stood agape, and next came a white-haired old man of middle height. Both of these two beings were in keeping with the surroundings, the air, the flowers, and the dwelling. Health appeared to overflow in this fertile region; old age and childhood thrived there. There seemed to be, about all these types of existence, the freedom and carelessness of the life of primitive times, a happiness of use and wont that gave the lie to our philosophical platitudes, and wrought a cure of all its swelling passions in the heart.
The old man belonged to the type of model dear to the masculine brush of Schnetz. The countless wrinkles upon his brown face looked as if they would be hard to the touch; the straight nose, the prominent cheek-bones, streaked with red veins like a vine-leaf in autumn, the angular features, all were characteristics of strength, even where strength existed no longer. The hard hands, now that they toiled no longer, had preserved their scanty white hair, his bearing was that of an absolutely free man; it suggested the thought that, had he been an Italian, he would have perhaps turned brigand, for the love of the liberty so dear to him. The child was a regular mountaineer, with the black eyes that can face the sun without flinching, a deeply tanned complexion, and rough brown hair. His movements were like a bird’s — swift, decided, and unconstrained; his clothing was ragged; the white, fair skin showed through the rents in his garments. There they both stood in silence, side by side, both obeying the same impulse; in both faces were clear tokens of an absolutely identical and idle life. The old man had adopted the child’s amusements, and the child had fallen in with the old man’s humor; there was a sort of tacit agreement between two kinds of feebleness, between failing powers well-nigh spent and powers just about to unfold themselves.
Very soon a woman who seemed to be about thirty years old appeared on the threshold of the door, spinning as she came. She was an Auvergnate, a high-colored, comfortable-looking, straightforward sort of person, with white teeth; her cap and dress, the face, full figure, and general appearance, were of the Auvergne peasant stamp. So was her dialect; she was a thorough embodiment of her district; its hardworking ways, its thrift, ignorance, and heartiness all met in her.
She greeted Raphael, and they began to talk. The dogs quieted down; the old man went and sat on a bench in the sun; the child followed his mother about wherever she went, listening without saying a word, and staring at the stranger.
“You are not afraid to live here, good woman?”
“What should we be afraid of, sir? When we bolt the door, who ever could get inside? Oh, no, we aren’t afraid at all. And besides,” she said, as she brought the Marquis into the principal room in the house, “what should thieves come to take from us here?”
She designated the room as she spoke; the smoke-blackened walls, with some brilliant pictures in blue, red, and green, an “End of Credit,” a Crucifixion, and the “Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard” for their sole ornament; the furniture here and there, the old wooden four-post bedstead, the table with crooked legs, a few stools, the chest that held the bread, the flitch that hung from the ceiling, a jar of salt, a stove, and on the mantleshelf a few discolored yellow plaster figures. As he went out again Raphael noticed a man half-way up the crags, leaning on a hoe, and watching the house with interest.
“That’s my man, sir,” said the Auvergnate, unconsciously smiling in peasant fashion; “he is at work up there.”
“And that old man is your father?”
“Asking your pardon, sir, he is my man’s grandfather. Such as you see him, he is a hundred and two, and yet quite lately he walked over to Clermont with our little chap! Oh, he has been a strong man in his time; but he does nothing now but sleep and eat and drink. He amuses himself with the little fellow. Sometimes the child trails him up the hillsides, and he will just go up there along with him.”
Valentin made up his mind immediately. He would live between this child and old man, breathe the same air; eat their bread, drink the same water, sleep with them, make the blood in his veins like theirs. It was a dying man’s fancy. For him the prime model, after which the customary existence of the individual should be shaped, the real formula for the life of a human being, the only true and possible life, the life-ideal, was to become one of the oysters adhering to this rock, to save his shell a day or two longer by paralyzing the power of death. One profoundly selfish thought took possession of him, and the whole universe was swallowed up and lost in it. For him the universe existed no longer; the whole world had come to be within himself. For the sick, the world begins at their pillow and ends at the foot of the bed; and this countryside was Raphael’s sick-bed.
Who has not, at some time or other in his life, watched the comings and goings of an ant, slipped straws into a yellow slug’s one breathing-hole, studied the vagaries of a slender dragon-fly, pondered admiringly over the countless veins in an oak-leaf, that bring the colors of a rose window in some Gothic cathedral into contrast with the reddish background? Who has not looked long in delight at the effects of sun and rain on a roof of brown tiles, at the dewdrops, or at the variously shaped petals of the flower-cups? Who has not sunk into these idle, absorbing meditations on things without, that have no conscious end, yet lead to some definite thought at last. Who, in short, has not led a lazy life, the life of childhood, the life of the savage without his labor? This life without a care or a wish Raphael led for some days’ space. He felt a distinct improvement in his condition, a wonderful sense of ease, that quieted his apprehensions and soothed his sufferings.
He would climb the crags, and then find a seat high up on some peak whence he could see a vast expanse of distant country at a glance, and he would spend whole days in this way, like a plant in the sun, or a hare in its form. And at last, growing familiar with the appearances of the plant-life about him, and of the changes in the sky, he minutely noted the progress of everything working around him in the water, on the earth, or in the air. He tried to share the secret impulses of nature, sought by passive obedience to become a part of it, and to lie within the conservative and despotic jurisdiction that regulates instinctive existence. He no longer wished to steer his own course.
Just as criminals in olden times were safe from the pursuit of justice, if they took refuge under the shadow of the altar, so Raphael made an effort to slip into the sanctuary of life. He succeeded in becoming an integral part of the great and mighty fruit-producing organization; he had adapted himself to the inclemency of the air, and had dwelt in every cave among the rocks. He had learned the ways and habits of growth of every plant, had studied the laws of the watercourses and their beds, and had come to know the animals; he was at last so perfectly at one with this teeming earth, that he had in some sort discerned its mysteries and caught the spirit of it.
The infinitely varied forms of every natural kingdom were, to his thinking, only developments of one and the same substance, different combinations brought about by the same impulse, endless emanations from a measureless Being which was acting, thinking, moving, and growing, and in harmony with which he longed to grow, to move, to think, and act. He had fancifully blended his life with the life of the crags; he had deliberately planted himself there. During the earliest days of his sojourn in these pleasant surroundings, Valentin tasted all the pleasures of childhood again, thanks to the strange hallucination of apparent convalescence, which is not unlike the pauses of delirium that nature mercifully provides for those in pain. He went about making trifling discoveries, setting to work on endless things, and finishing none of them; the evening’s plans were quite forgotten in the morning; he had no cares, he was happy; he thought himself saved.
One morning he had lain in bed till noon, deep in the dreams between sleep and waking, which give to realities a fantastic appearance, and make the wildest fancies seem solid facts; while he was still uncertain that he was not dreaming yet, he suddenly heard his hostess giving a report of his health to Jonathan, for the first time. Jonathan came to inquire after him daily, and the Auvergnate, thinking no doubt that Valentin was still asleep, had not lowered the tones of a voice developed in mountain air.
“No better and no worse,” she said. “He coughed all last night again fit to kill himself. Poor gentleman, he coughs and spits till it is piteous. My husband and I often wonder to each other where he gets the strength from to cough like that. It goes to your heart. What a cursed complaint it is! He has no strength at all. I am always afraid I shall find him dead in his bed some morning. He is every bit as pale as a waxen Christ. Dame! I watch him while he dresses; his poor body is as thin as a nail. And he does not feel well now; but no matter. It’s all the same; he wears himself out with running about as if he had health and to spare. All the same, he is very brave, for he never complains at all. But really he would be better under the earth than on it, for he is enduring the agonies of Christ. I don’t wish that myself, sir; it is quite in our interests; but even if he didn’t pay us what he does, I should be just as fond of him; it is not our own interest that is our motive.
“Ah, mon Dieu!” she continued, “Parisians are the people for these dogs’ diseases. Where did he catch it, now? Poor young man! And he is so sure that he is going to get well! That fever just gnaws him, you know; it eats him away; it will be the death of him. He has no notion whatever of that; he does not know it, sir; he sees nothing —— You mustn’t cry about him, M. Jonathan; you must remember that he will be happy, and will not suffer any more. You ought to make a neuvaine for him; I have seen wonderful cures come of the nine days’ prayer, and I would gladly pay for a wax taper to save such a gentle creature, so good he is, a paschal lamb ——”
As Raphael’s voice had grown too weak to allow him to make himself heard, he was compelled to listen to this horrible loquacity. His irritation, however, drove him out of bed at length, and he appeared upon the threshold.
“Old scoundrel!” he shouted to Jonathan; “do you mean to put me to death?”
The peasant woman took him for a ghost, and fled.
“I forbid you to have any anxiety whatever about my health,” Raphael went on.
“Yes, my Lord Marquis,” said the old servant, wiping away his tears.
“And for the future you had very much better not come here without my orders.”
Jonathan meant to be obedient, but in the look full of pity and devotion that he gave the Marquis before he went, Raphael read his own death-warrant. Utterly disheartened, brought all at once to a sense of his real position, Valentin sat down on the threshold, locked his arms across his chest, and bowed his head. Jonathan turned to his master in alarm, with “My Lord ——”
“Go away, go away,” cried the invalid.
In the hours of the next morning, Raphael climbed the crags, and sat down in a mossy cleft in the rocks, whence he could see the narrow path along which the water for the dwelling was carried. At the base of the hill he saw Jonathan in conversation with the Auvergnate. Some malicious power interpreted for him all the woman’s forebodings, and filled the breeze and the silence with her ominous words. Thrilled with horror, he took refuge among the highest summits of the mountains, and stayed there till the evening; but yet he could not drive away the gloomy presentiments awakened within him in such an unfortunate manner by a cruel solicitude on his account.
The Auvergne peasant herself suddenly appeared before him like a shadow in the dusk; a perverse freak of the poet within him found a vague resemblance between her black and white striped petticoat and the bony frame of a spectre.
“The damp is falling now, sir,” said she. “If you stop out there, you will go off just like rotten fruit. You must come in. It isn’t healthy to breathe the damp, and you have taken nothing since the morning, besides.”
“Tonnerre de Dieu! old witch,” he cried; “let me live after my own fashion, I tell you, or I shall be off altogether. It is quite bad enough to dig my grave every morning; you might let it alone in the evenings at least ——”
“Your grave, sir! I dig your grave! — and where may your grave be? I want to see you as old as father there, and not in your grave by any manner of means. The grave! that comes soon enough for us all; in the grave ——”
“That is enough,” said Raphael.
“Take my arm, sir.”
The feeling of pity in others is very difficult for a man to bear, and it is hardest of all when the pity is deserved. Hatred is a tonic — it quickens life and stimulates revenge; but pity is death to us — it makes our weakness weaker still. It is as if distress simpered ingratiatingly at us; contempt lurks in the tenderness, or tenderness in an affront. In the centenarian Raphael saw triumphant pity, a wondering pity in the child’s eyes, an officious pity in the woman, and in her husband a pity that had an interested motive; but no matter how the sentiment declared itself, death was always its import.
A poet makes a poem of everything; it is tragical or joyful, as things happen to strike his imagination; his lofty soul rejects all half-tones; he always prefers vivid and decided colors. In Raphael’s soul this compassion produced a terrible poem of mourning and melancholy. When he had wished to live in close contact with nature, he had of course forgotten how freely natural emotions are expressed. He would think himself quite alone under a tree, whilst he struggled with an obstinate coughing fit, a terrible combat from which he never issued victorious without utter exhaustion afterwards; and then he would meet the clear, bright eyes of the little boy, who occupied the post of sentinel, like a savage in a bent of grass; the eyes scrutinized him with a childish wonder, in which there was as much amusement as pleasure, and an indescribable mixture of indifference and interest. The awful Brother, you must die, of the Trappists seemed constantly legible in the eyes of the peasants with whom Raphael was living; he scarcely knew which he dreaded most, their unfettered talk or their silence; their presence became torture.
One morning he saw two men in black prowling about in his neighborhood, who furtively studied him and took observations. They made as though they had come there for a stroll, and asked him a few indifferent questions, to which he returned short answers. He recognized them both. One was the cure and the other the doctor at the springs; Jonathan had no doubt sent them, or the people in the house had called them in, or the scent of an approaching death had drawn them thither. He beheld his own funeral, heard the chanting of the priests, and counted the tall wax candles; and all that lovely fertile nature around him, in whose lap he had thought to find life once more, he saw no longer, save through a veil of crape. Everything that but lately had spoken of length of days to him, now prophesied a speedy end. He set out the next day for Paris, not before he had been inundated with cordial wishes, which the people of the house uttered in melancholy and wistful tones for his benefit.
He traveled through the night, and awoke as they passed through one of the pleasant valleys of the Bourbonnais. View after view swam before his gaze, and passed rapidly away like the vague pictures of a dream. Cruel nature spread herself out before his eyes with tantalizing grace. Sometimes the Allier, a liquid shining ribbon, meandered through the distant fertile landscape; then followed the steeples of hamlets, hiding modestly in the depths of a ravine with its yellow cliffs; sometimes, after the monotony of vineyards, the watermills of a little valley would be suddenly seen; and everywhere there were pleasant chateaux, hillside villages, roads with their fringes of queenly poplars; and the Loire itself, at last, with its wide sheets of water sparkling like diamonds amid its golden sands. Attractions everywhere, without end! This nature, all astir with a life and gladness like that of childhood, scarcely able to contain the impulses and sap of June, possessed a fatal attraction for the darkened gaze of the invalid. He drew the blinds of his carriage windows, and betook himself again to slumber.
Towards evening, after they had passed Cesne, he was awakened by lively music, and found himself confronted with a village fair. The horses were changed near the marketplace. Whilst the postilions were engaged in making the transfer, he saw the people dancing merrily, pretty and attractive girls with flowers about them, excited youths, and finally the jolly wine-flushed countenances of old peasants. Children prattled, old women laughed and chatted; everything spoke in one voice, and there was a holiday gaiety about everything, down to their clothing and the tables that were set out. A cheerful expression pervaded the square and the church, the roofs and windows; even the very doorways of the village seemed likewise to be in holiday trim.
Raphael could not repress an angry exclamation, nor yet a wish to silence the fiddles, annihilate the stir and bustle, stop the clamor, and disperse the ill-timed festival; like a dying man, he felt unable to endure the slightest sound, and he entered his carriage much annoyed. When he looked out upon the square from the window, he saw that all the happiness was scared away; the peasant women were in flight, and the benches were deserted. Only a blind musician, on the scaffolding of the orchestra, went on playing a shrill tune on his clarionet. That piping of his, without dancers to it, and the solitary old man himself, in the shadow of the lime-tree, with his curmudgeon’s face, scanty hair, and ragged clothing, was like a fantastic picture of Raphael’s wish. The heavy rain was pouring in torrents; it was one of those thunderstorms that June brings about so rapidly, to cease as suddenly. The thing was so natural, that, when Raphael had looked out and seen some pale clouds driven over by a gust of wind, he did not think of looking at the piece of skin. He lay back again in the corner of his carriage, which was very soon rolling upon its way.
The next day found him back in his home again, in his own room, beside his own fireside. He had had a large fire lighted; he felt cold. Jonathan brought him some letters; they were all from Pauline. He opened the first one without any eagerness, and unfolded it as if it had been the gray-paper form of application for taxes made by the revenue collector. He read the first sentence:
“Gone! This really is a flight, my Raphael. How is it? No one can tell me where you are. And who should know if not I?”
He did not wish to learn any more. He calmly took up the letters and threw them in the fire, watching with dull and lifeless eyes the perfumed paper as it was twisted, shriveled, bent, and devoured by the capricious flames. Fragments that fell among the ashes allowed him to see the beginning of a sentence, or a half-burnt thought or word; he took a pleasure in deciphering them — a sort of mechanical amusement.
“Sitting at your door — expected — Caprice — I obey — Rivals — I, never! — thy Pauline — love — no more of Pauline? — If you had wished to leave me for ever, you would not have deserted me — Love eternal — To die ——”
The words caused him a sort of remorse; he seized the tongs, and rescued a last fragment of the letter from the flames.
“I have murmured,” so Pauline wrote, “but I have never complained, my Raphael! If you have left me so far behind you, it was doubtless because you wished to hide some heavy grief from me. Perhaps you will kill me one of these days, but you are too good to torture me. So do not go away from me like this. There! I can bear the worst of torment, if only I am at your side. Any grief that you could cause me would not be grief. There is far more love in my heart for you than I have ever yet shown you. I can endure anything, except this weeping far away from you, this ignorance of your ——”
Raphael laid the scorched scrap on the mantelpiece, then all at once he flung it into the fire. The bit of paper was too clearly a symbol of his own love and luckless existence.
“Go and find M. Bianchon,” he told Jonathan.
Horace came and found Raphael in bed.
“Can you prescribe a draught for me — some mild opiate which will always keep me in a somnolent condition, a draught that will not be injurious although taken constantly.”
“Nothing is easier,” the young doctor replied; “but you will have to keep on your feet for a few hours daily, at any rate, so as to take your food.”
“A few hours!” Raphael broke in; “no, no! I only wish to be out of bed for an hour at most.”
“What is your object?” inquired Bianchon.
“To sleep; for so one keeps alive, at any rate,” the patient answered. “Let no one come in, not even Mlle. Pauline de Wistchnau!” he added to Jonathan, as the doctor was writing out his prescription.
“Well, M. Horace, is there any hope?” the old servant asked, going as far as the flight of steps before the door, with the young doctor.
“He may live for some time yet, or he may die to-night. The chances of life and death are evenly balanced in his case. I can’t understand it at all,” said the doctor, with a doubtful gesture. “His mind ought to be diverted.”
“Diverted! Ah, sir, you don’t know him! He killed a man the other day without a word! — Nothing can divert him!”
For some days Raphael lay plunged in the torpor of this artificial sleep. Thanks to the material power that opium exerts over the immaterial part of us, this man with the powerful and active imagination reduced himself to the level of those sluggish forms of animal life that lurk in the depths of forests, and take the form of vegetable refuse, never stirring from their place to catch their easy prey. He had darkened the very sun in heaven; the daylight never entered his room. About eight o’clock in the evening he would leave his bed, with no very clear consciousness of his own existence; he would satisfy the claims of hunger and return to bed immediately. One dull blighted hour after another only brought confused pictures and appearances before him, and lights and shadows against a background of darkness. He lay buried in deep silence; movement and intelligence were completely annihilated for him. He woke later than usual one evening, and found that his dinner was not ready. He rang for Jonathan.
“You can go,” he said. “I have made you rich; you shall be happy in your old age; but I will not let you muddle away my life any longer. Miserable wretch! I am hungry — where is my dinner? How is it? — Answer me!”
A satisfied smile stole over Jonathan’s face. He took a candle that lit up the great dark rooms of the mansion with its flickering light; brought his master, who had again become an automaton, into a great gallery, and flung a door suddenly open. Raphael was all at once dazzled by a flood of light and amazed by an unheard-of scene.
His chandeliers had been filled with wax-lights; the rarest flowers from his conservatory were carefully arranged about the room; the table sparkled with silver, gold, crystal, and porcelain; a royal banquet was spread — the odors of the tempting dishes tickled the nervous fibres of the palate. There sat his friends; he saw them among beautiful women in full evening dress, with bare necks and shoulders, with flowers in their hair; fair women of every type, with sparkling eyes, attractively and fancifully arrayed. One had adopted an Irish jacket, which displayed the alluring outlines of her form; one wore the “basquina” of Andalusia, with its wanton grace; here was a half-clad Dian the huntress, there the costume of Mlle. de la Valliere, amorous and coy; and all of them alike were given up to the intoxication of the moment.
As Raphael’s death-pale face showed itself in the doorway, a sudden outcry broke out, as vehement as the blaze of this improvised banquet. The voices, perfumes, and lights, the exquisite beauty of the women, produced their effect upon his senses, and awakened his desires. Delightful music, from unseen players in the next room, drowned the excited tumult in a torrent of harmony — the whole strange vision was complete.
Raphael felt a caressing pressure on is own hand, a woman’s white, youthful arms were stretched out to grasp him, and the hand was Aquilina’s. He knew now that this scene was not a fantastic illusion like the fleeting pictures of his disordered dreams; he uttered a dreadful cry, slammed the door, and dealt his heartbroken old servant a blow in the face.
“Monster!” he cried, “so you have sworn to kill me!” and trembling at the risks he had just now run, he summoned all his energies, reached his room, took a powerful sleeping draught, and went to bed.
“The devil!” cried Jonathan, recovering himself. “And M. Bianchon most certainly told me to divert his mind.”
It was close upon midnight. By that time, owing to one of those physical caprices that are the marvel and the despair of science, Raphael, in his slumber, became radiant with beauty. A bright color glowed on his pale cheeks. There was an almost girlish grace about the forehead in which his genius was revealed. Life seemed to bloom on the quiet face that lay there at rest. His sleep was sound; a light, even breath was drawn in between red lips; he was smiling — he had passed no doubt through the gate of dreams into a noble life. Was he a centenarian now? Did his grandchildren come to wish him length of days? Or, on a rustic bench set in the sun and under the trees, was he scanning, like the prophet on the mountain heights, a promised land, a far-off time of blessing.
“Here you are!”
The words, uttered in silver tones, dispelled the shadowy faces of his dreams. He saw Pauline, in the lamplight, sitting upon the bed; Pauline grown fairer yet through sorrow and separation. Raphael remained bewildered by the sight of her face, white as the petals of some water flower, and the shadow of her long, dark hair about it seemed to make it whiter still. Her tears had left a gleaming trace upon her cheeks, and hung there yet, ready to fall at the least movement. She looked like an angel fallen from the skies, or a spirit that a breath might waft away, as she sat there all in white, with her head bowed, scarcely creasing the quilt beneath her weight.
“Ah, I have forgotten everything!” she cried, as Raphael opened his eyes. “I have no voice left except to tell you, ‘I am yours.’ There is nothing in my heart but love. Angel of my life, you have never been so beautiful before! Your eyes are blazing —— But come, I can guess it all. You have been in search of health without me; you were afraid of me —— well ——”
“Go! go! leave me,” Raphael muttered at last. “Why do you not go? If you stay, I shall die. Do you want to see me die?”
“Die?” she echoed. “Can you die without me? Die? But you are young; and I love you! Die?” she asked, in a deep, hollow voice. She seized his hands with a frenzied movement. “Cold!” she wailed. “Is it all an illusion?”
Raphael drew the little bit of skin from under his pillow; it was as tiny and as fragile as a periwinkle petal. He showed it to her.
“Pauline!” he said, “fair image of my fair life, let us say good-bye?”
“Good-bye?” she echoed, looking surprised.
“Yes. This is a talisman that grants me all my wishes, and that represents my span of life. See here, this is all that remains of it. If you look at me any longer, I shall die ——”
The young girl thought that Valentin had grown lightheaded; she took the talisman and went to fetch the lamp. By its tremulous light which she shed over Raphael and the talisman, she scanned her lover’s face and the last morsel of the magic skin. As Pauline stood there, in all the beauty of love and terror, Raphael was no longer able to control his thoughts; memories of tender scenes, and of passionate and fevered joys, overwhelmed the soul that had so long lain dormant within him, and kindled a fire not quite extinct.
“Pauline! Pauline! Come to me ——”
A dreadful cry came from the girl’s throat, her eyes dilated with horror, her eyebrows were distorted and drawn apart by an unspeakable anguish; she read in Raphael’s eyes the vehement desire in which she had once exulted, but as it grew she felt a light movement in her hand, and the skin contracted. She did not stop to think; she fled into the next room, and locked the door.
“Pauline! Pauline!” cried the dying man, as he rushed after her; “I love you, I adore you, I want you, Pauline! I wish to die in your arms!”
With unnatural strength, the last effort of ebbing life, he broke down the door, and saw his mistress writhing upon a sofa. Pauline had vainly tried to pierce her heart, and now thought to find a rapid death by strangling herself with her shawl.
“If I die, he will live,” she said, trying to tighten the knot that she had made.
In her struggle with death her hair hung loose, her shoulders were bare, her clothing was disordered, her eyes were bathed in tears, her face was flushed and drawn with the horror of despair; yet as her exceeding beauty met Raphael’s intoxicated eyes, his delirium grew. He sprang towards her like a bird of prey, tore away the shawl, and tried to take her in his arms.
The dying man sought for words to express the wish that was consuming his strength; but no sounds would come except the choking death-rattle in his chest. Each breath he drew sounded hollower than the last, and seemed to come from his very entrails. At the last moment, no longer able to utter a sound, he set his teeth in Pauline’s breast. Jonathan appeared, terrified by the cries he had heard, and tried to tear away the dead body from the grasp of the girl who was crouching with it in a corner.
“What do you want?” she asked. “He is mine, I have killed him. Did I not foresee how it would be?”
“And what became of Pauline?”
“Pauline? Ah! Do you sometimes spend a pleasant winter evening by your own fireside, and give yourself up luxuriously to memories of love or youth, while you watch the glow of the fire where the logs of oak are burning? Here, the fire outlines a sort of chessboard in red squares, there it has a sheen like velvet; little blue flames start up and flicker and play about in the glowing depths of the brasier. A mysterious artist comes and adapts that flame to his own ends; by a secret of his own he draws a visionary face in the midst of those flaming violet and crimson hues, a face with unimaginable delicate outlines, a fleeting apparition which no chance will ever bring back again. It is a woman’s face, her hair is blown back by the wind, her features speak of a rapture of delight; she breathes fire in the midst of the fire. She smiles, she dies, you will never see her any more. Farewell, flower of the flame! Farewell, essence incomplete and unforeseen, come too early or too late to make the spark of some glorious diamond.”
“You do not see, then? I will begin again. Make way! make way! She comes, she is here, the queen of illusions, a woman fleeting as a kiss, a woman bright as lightning, issuing in a blaze like lightning from the sky, a being uncreated, of spirit and love alone. She has wrapped her shadowy form in flame, or perhaps the flame betokens that she exists but for a moment. The pure outlines of her shape tell you that she comes from heaven. Is she not radiant as an angel? Can you not hear the beating of her wings in space? She sinks down beside you more lightly than a bird, and you are entranced by her awful eyes; there is a magical power in her light breathing that draws your lips to hers; she flies and you follow; you feel the earth beneath you no longer. If you could but once touch that form of snow with your eager, deluded hands, once twine the golden hair round your fingers, place one kiss on those shining eyes! There is an intoxicating vapor around, and the spell of a siren music is upon you. Every nerve in you is quivering; you are filled with pain and longing. O joy for which there is no name! You have touched the woman’s lips, and you are awakened at once by a horrible pang. Oh! ah! yes, you have struck your head against the corner of the bedpost, you have been clasping its brown mahogany sides, and chilly gilt ornaments; embracing a piece of metal, a brazen Cupid.”
“But how about Pauline, sir?”
“What, again? Listen. One lovely morning at Tours a young man, who held the hand of a pretty woman in his, went on board the Ville d’Angers. Thus united they both looked and wondered long at a white form that rose elusively out of the mists above the broad waters of the Loire, like some child of the sun and the river, or some freak of air and cloud. This translucent form was a sylph or a naiad by turns; she hovered in the air like a word that haunts the memory, which seeks in vain to grasp it; she glided among the islands, she nodded her head here and there among the tall poplar trees; then she grew to a giant’s height; she shook out the countless folds of her drapery to the light; she shot light from the aureole that the sun had litten about her face; she hovered above the slopes of the hills and their little hamlets, and seemed to bar the passage of the boat before the Chateau d’Usse. You might have thought that La dame des belles cousines sought to protect her country from modern intrusion.”
“Well, well, I understand. So it went with Pauline. But how about Foedora?”
“Oh! Foedora, you are sure to meet with her! She was at the Bouffons last night, and she will go to the Opera this evening, and if you like to take it so, she is Society.”
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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05