I have just read among the General News in one of the papers, a drama of passion. He killed her and then he killed himself, so he must have loved her. What matter He or She? Their love alone matters to me; and it does not interest me because it moves me or astonishes me, or because it softens me or makes me think, but because it recalls to my mind a remembrance of my youth, a strange recollection of a hunting adventure where Love appeared to me, as the Cross appeared to the early Christians, in the midst of the heavens.
I was born with all the instincts and the senses of primitive man, tempered by the arguments and the feelings of a civilized being. I am passionately fond of shooting, and the sight of the bleeding animal, with the blood on its feathers and on my hands, affect my heart so, as almost to make it stop.
That year the cold weather set in suddenly towards the end of autumn, and I was invited by one of my cousins, Karl de Rauville, to go with him and shoot ducks on the marshes, at daybreak.
My cousin, who was a jolly fellow of forty, with red hair, very stout and bearded, a country gentleman, an amiable semi-brute, of a happy disposition and endowed with that Gallic wit which makes even mediocrity agreeable, lived in a house, half farmhouse, half château, situated in a broad valley through which a river ran. The hills right and left were covered with woods, old seignorial woods where magnificent trees still remained, and where the rarest feathered game in that part of France was to be found. Eagles were shot there occasionally, and birds of passage, those which rarely come into our over-populated part of the country, almost infallibly stopped amid these branches, which were centuries old, as if they knew or recognized a little corner of a forest of ancient times which had remained there to serve them as a shelter during their short nocturnal halting place.
In the valley there were large meadows watered by trenches and separated by hedges; then, further on the river, which up to that point had been canalized, expanded into a vast marsh. That marsh, which was the best shooting ground which I ever saw, was my cousin’s chief care, who kept it like a park. Among the number of rushes that covered it, and made it living, rustling and rough, narrow passages had been made, through which the flat-bottomed boats, which were impelled and steered by poles, passed along silently over the dead water, brushed up against the reeds and made the swift fish take refuge among the weeds, and the wild fowl dive, whose pointed, black heads disappeared suddenly.
I am passionately fond of the water; the sea, although it is too vast, too full of movement, impossible to hold, the rivers, which are so beautiful, but which pass on, flee away and go, and above all the marshes, where the whole unknown existence of aquatic animals palpitates. The marsh is an entire world to itself on earth, a different world which has its own life, its settled inhabitants and its passing travelers, its voices, its noises, and above all its mystery. Nothing is more disturbing, nothing, more disquieting, more terrifying occasionally, than a fen. Why should this terror hang over these low plains covered with water? Is it the vague rustling of the rushes, the strange Will-o’-the-wisps, the profound silence which envelops them on calm nights, or is it the strange mists, which hang over the rushes like a shroud; or else it is the imperceptible splashing, so slight and so gentle, and sometimes more terrifying than the cannons of men or the thunders of skies, which make these marshes resemble countries which none has dreamed of, terrible countries concealing an unknown and dangerous secret.
No, something else belongs to it, another mystery, more profound and graver floats amid these thick mists, perhaps the mystery of the creation itself! For was it not in stagnant and muddy water, amid the heavy humidity of moist land under the heat of the sun, that the first germ of life vibrated and expanded to the day?
I arrived at my cousin’s in the evening. It was freezing hard enough to split stones.
During dinner, in the large room whose sideboards, walls and ceilings were covered with stuffed birds, with extended wings or perched on branches to which they were nailed, hawks, herons, owls, nightjars, buzzards, tiercels, vultures, falcons, my cousin, who himself resembled some strange animal from a cold country, dressed in a sealskin jacket, told me what preparations he had made for that same night.
We were to start at half past three in the morning, so as to arrive at the place which he had chosen for our watching place at about half past four. On that spot a hut had been built of lumps of ice, so as to shelter us somewhat from the terrible wind which precedes daybreak, that wind which is so cold that it tears the flesh as if with a saw, cuts it like the blade of a knife and pricks it like a poisoned sting, twists it like a pair of pincers, and burns it like fire.
My cousin rubbed his hands: “I have never known such a frost,” he said; “it is already twelve degrees below zero at six o’clock in the evening.”
I threw myself onto my bed immediately after we had finished our meal, and I went to sleep by the light of a bright fire burning in the grate.
At three o’clock he woke me. In my turn, I put on a sheepskin, and I found my cousin Karl covered with a bearskin. After having each of us swallowed two cups of scalding coffee, followed by glasses of liqueur brandy, we started, accompanied by a gamekeeper and our dogs, Plongeon and Pierrot.
From the first moment that I got outside, I felt chilled to the very marrow. It was one of those nights on which the earth seems dead with cold. The frozen air becomes resisting and palpable, such pain does it cause; no breath of wind moves it, it is fixed and motionless; it bites, pierces through you, dries, kills the trees, the plants, the insects, the small birds themselves that fall from the branches onto the hard ground, and become hard themselves under the grip of the cold.
The moon, which was in her last quarter and was inclining all to one side, seemed fainting in the midst of space, and so weak that she did not seem able to take her departure, and so she remained up yonder, also seized and paralyzed by the severity of the weather. She shed a cold, mournful light over the world, that dying and wan light which she gives us every month, at the end of her resurrection.
Karl and I went side by side, our backs bent, our hands in our pockets and our guns under our arms. Our boots, which were wrapped in wool, so that we might be able to walk without slipping on the frozen river, made no sound, and I looked at the white vapor which our dogs’ breath made.
We were soon on the edge of the marsh, and we went into one of these lanes of dry rushes which ran through this low forest.
Our elbows, which touched the long, ribbonlike leaves, left a slight noise behind us, and I was seized, as I had never been before, by the powerful singular emotion which marshes cause in me. This one was dead, dead from cold, since we were walking on it, in the middle of its population of dried rushes.
Suddenly, at the turn of one of the lanes, I perceived the ice-hut which had been constructed to shelter us. I went in, and as we had nearly an hour to wait before the wandering birds would awake, I rolled myself up in my rug in order to try and get warm.
Then, lying on my back, I began to look at the misshapen moon, which had four horns, through the vaguely transparent walls of this polar house.
But the frost of the frozen marshes, the cold of these walls, the cold from the firmament penetrated me so terribly, that I began to cough.
My cousin Karl became uneasy. “So much the worse if we do not kill much today,” he said, “I do not want you to catch cold; we will light a fire.” And he told the gamekeeper to cut some rushes.
We made a pile in the middle of our hut, which had a hole in the middle of the roof to let out the smoke, and when the red flames rose up to the clear, crystal cloisons they began to melt, gently, imperceptibly, as if these stones of ice had sweated. Karl, who had remained outside, called out to me: “Come and look here!” I went out of the hut and remained, struck with astonishment. Our hut, in the shape of a cone, looked like an enormous diamond with a heart of fire, which had been suddenly planted there in the midst of the frozen water of the marsh. And inside we saw two fantastic forms, those of our dogs, who were warming themselves at the fire.
But a peculiar cry, a lost, a wandering cry, passed over our heads, and the light from our hearth showed us the wild birds. Nothing moves one so much as the first clamor of life which one does not see, and which is passing through the somber air so quickly and so far off, before the first streak of the winter’s day appears on the horizon. It seems to me at this glacial hour of dawn, as if that passing cry which is carried away by the wings of a bird, is the sigh of a soul from the world!
“Put out the fire,” Karl said. “It is getting daylight.”
The sky was, in fact, beginning to grow pale, and the flights of ducks made long, rapid spots, which were soon obliterated, on the sky.
A stream of light burst out into the night; Karl had fired, and the two dogs ran forward.
And then, nearly every minute, now he, now I, aimed rapidly as soon as the shadow of a flying flock appeared above the rushes. And Pierrot and Plongeon, out of breath but happy, retrieved the bleeding birds for us, whose eyes still, occasionally, looked at us.
The sun had risen, and it was a bright day with a blue sky, and we were thinking of taking our departure, when two birds with extended necks and outstretched wings, glided rapidly over our heads. I fired, and one of them fell almost at my feet. It was a teal, with a silver breast, and then, in the blue space above me, I heard a voice, the voice of a bird. It was a short, repeated, heartrending lament; and the bird, the little animal that had been spared began to turn round in the blue sky, over our heads, looking at its dead companion which I was holding in my hand.
Karl was on his knees, his gun to his shoulder watching it eagerly, until it should be within shot. “You have killed the duck,” he said, “and the drake will not fly away.”
He certainly did not fly away; he turned round over our heads continually, and continued his cries. Never have any groans of suffering pained me so much as that desolate appeal, as that lamentable reproach of this poor bird which was lost in space.
Occasionally he took a flight under the menace of the gun which followed his flight, and seemed ready to continue his flight alone, but as he could not make up his mind to this, he soon returned to find his mate.
“Leave her on the ground,” Karl said to me, “he will come within shot by and by.” And he did indeed come near us, careless of danger, infatuated by his animals’ love, by his affection for that other animal which I had just killed.
Karl fired, and it was as if somebody had cut the string which held the bird suspended. I saw something black descend, and I heard the noise of a fall among the rushes. And Pierrot brought it to me.
I put them — they were already cold — into the same bag, and I returned to Paris the same evening.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11