Produced by David S. Miller
BY HENRI BARBUSSE AUTHOR OF "UNDER FIRE"
TRANSLATED FROM THE 100TH FRENCH EDITION WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY
EDWARD J. O'BRIEN 1918
In introducing M. Barbusse's most
important book to a public already familiar with "Under Fire," it seems well to
point out the relation of the author's philosophy to his own time, and the
kinship of his art to that of certain other contemporary French and English
"L'Enfer" has been more widely read and discussed in France than
any other realistic study since the days of Zola. The French sales of the
volume, in 1917 alone, exceeded a hundred thousand copies, a popularity all the
more remarkable from the fact that its appeal is based as much on its
philosophical substance as on the story which it tells.
Although M. Barbusse is one of the most distinguished
contemporary French writers of short stories, he has found in the novel form the
most fitting literary medium for the expression of his philosophy, and it is to
realism rather than romanticism that he turns for the exposition of his special
imaginative point of view. And yet this statement seems to need some
qualification. In his introduction to "Pointed Roofs," by Dorothy Richardson,
Mr. J.D. Beresford points out that a new objective literary method is becoming
general in which the writer's strict detachment from his objective subject
matter is united to a tendency, impersonal, to be sure, to immerse himself in
the life surrounding his characters. Miss May Sinclair points out that writers
are beginning to take the complete plunge for the first time, and instances as
examples, not only the novels of Dorothy Richardson, but those of James Joyce.
Now it is perfectly true that Miss Richardson and Mr. Joyce have
introduced this method into English fiction, and that Mr. Frank Swinnerton has
carried the method a step further in another direction, but before these writers
there was a precedent in France for this method, of which perhaps the two chief
exemplars were Jules Romains and Henri Barbusse. Although the two writers have
little else in common, both are intensely conscious of the tremendous, if
imponderable, impact of elemental and universal forces upon personality, of the
profound modifications which natural and social environment unconsciously
impress upon the individual life, and of the continual interaction of forces by
which the course of life is changed more fundamentally than by less
imperceptible influences. Both M. Romains and M. Barbusse perceive, as the
fundamental factor influencing human life, the contraction and expansion of
physical and spiritual relationship, the inevitable ebb and flow perceived by
the poet who pointed out that we cannot touch a flower without troubling of a
M. Romains has found his literary medium in what he calls
unanimism. While M. Barbusse would not claim to belong to the same school, and
in fact would appear on the surface to be at the opposite pole of life in his
philosophy, we shall find that his detachment, founded, though it is, upon
solitude, takes essentially the same account of outside forces as the philosophy
of M. Romains.
He perceives that each man is an island of illimitable forces
apart from his fellows, passionately eager to live his own life to the last
degree of self-fulfilment, but continually thwarted by nature and by other men
and women, until death interposes and sets the seal of oblivion upon all that he
has dreamed and sought.
And he has set himself the task of disengaging, as far as
possible, the purpose and hope of human life, of endeavouring to discover what
promise exists for the future and how this promise can be related to the
present, of marking the relationship between eternity and time, and discovering,
through the tragedies of birth, love, marriage, illness and death, the ultimate
possibility of human development and fulfilment.
"The Inferno" is therefore a tragic book. But I think that the
attentive reader will find that the destructive criticism of M. Barbusse, in so
far as it is possible for him to agree with it, only clears away the dead
undergrowth which obscures the author's passionate hope and belief in the
Although the action of this story is spiritual as well as
physical, and occupies less than a month of time, it is focussed intensely upon
reality. Everything that the author permits us to see and understand is seen
through a single point of life—a hole pierced in the wall between two rooms of a
grey Paris boarding house. The time is most often twilight, with its romantic
penumbra, darkening into the obscurity of night by imperceptible degrees.
M. Barbusse has conceived the idea of making a man perceive the
whole spiritual tragedy of life through a cranny in the wall, and there is a
fine symbolism in this, as if he were vouchsafing us the opportunity to perceive
eternal things through the tiny crack which is all that is revealed to us of
infinity, so that the gates of Horn, darkened by our human blindness, scarcely
swing open before they close again.
The hero of this story has been dazzled by the flaming ramparts
of the world, so that eternity is only revealed to him in fiery glimpses that
shrivel him, and he is left in the dark void of time, clinging to a dream which
already begins to fail him.
And the significant thing about this book is that the final
revelation comes to him through the human voices of those who have suffered
much, because they have loved much, after his own daring intellectual flights
have failed him.
So this man who has confronted the greatest realities of life,
enabled to view them with the same objective detachment with which God sees
them, though without the divine knowledge which transmutes their darkness, comes
to learn that we carry all heaven and hell within ourselves, and with a
relentless insight, almost Lucretian in its desperate intensity, he cries: "We
are divinely alone, the heavens have fallen on our heads." And he adds: "Here
they will pass again, day after day, year after year, all the prisoners of rooms
will pass in their kind of eternity. In the twilight when everything fades, they
will sit down near the light, in the room full of haloes; they will drag
themselves to the window's void. Their mouths will join and they will grow
tender. They will exchange a first or a last useless glance. They will open
their arms, they will caress each other. They will love life and be afraid to
"I have heard the annunciation of whatever finer things are to
come. Through me has passed, without staying me in my course, the Word which
does not lie, and which said over again, will satisfy."
Truly a great and pitiless book, but there is a cleansing wind
running through it, which sweeps away life's illusions, and leaves a new hope
for the future in our hearts.
EDWARD J. O'BRIEN.
BASS RIVER, MASS.,
July, 10, 1918.
The landlady, Madame Lemercier, left me
alone in my room, after a short speech impressing upon me all the material and
moral advantages of the Lemercier boarding-house.
I stopped in front of the glass, in the middle of the room in
which I was going to live for a while. I looked round the room and then at
The room was grey and had a dusty smell. I saw two chairs, one
of which held my valise, two narrow-backed armchairs with smeary upholstery, a
table with a piece of green felt set into the top, and an oriental carpet with
an arabesque pattern that fairly leaped to the eye.
This particular room I had never seen before, but, oh, how
familiar it all was—that bed of imitation mahogany, that frigid toilet table,
that inevitable arrangement of the furniture, that emptiness within those four
The room was worn with use, as if an infinite number of people
had occupied it. The carpet was frayed from the door to the window—a path
trodden by a host of feet from day to day. The moulding, which I could reach
with my hands, was out of line and cracked, and the marble mantelpiece had lost
its sharp edges. Human contact wears things out with disheartening slowness.
Things tarnish, too. Little by little, the ceiling had darkened
like a stormy sky. The places on the whitish woodwork and the pink wallpaper
that had been touched oftenest had become smudgy—the edge of the door, the paint
around the lock of the closet and the wall alongside the window where one pulls
the curtain cords. A whole world of human beings had passed here like smoke,
leaving nothing white but the window.
And I? I am a man like every other man, just as that evening was
like every other evening.
. . . . .
I had been travelling since morning. Hurry, formalities,
baggage, the train, the whiff of different towns.
I fell into one of the armchairs. Everything became quieter and
My coming from the country to stay in Paris for good marked an
epoch in my life. I had found a situation here in a bank. My days were to
change. It was because of this change that I got away from my usual thoughts and
turned to thoughts of myself.
I was thirty years old. I had lost my father and mother eighteen
or twenty years before, so long ago that the event was now insignificant. I was
unmarried. I had no children and shall have none. There are moments when this
troubles me, when I reflect that with me a line will end which has lasted since
the beginning of humanity.
Was I happy? Yes, I had nothing to mourn or regret, I had no
complicated desires. Therefore, I was happy. I remembered that since my
childhood I had had spiritual illuminations, mystical emotions, a morbid
fondness for shutting myself up face to face with my past. I had attributed
exceptional importance to myself and had come to think that I was more than
other people. But this had gradually become submerged in the positive
nothingness of every day.
. . . . .
There I was now in that room.
I leaned forward in my armchair to be nearer the glass, and I
examined myself carefully.
Rather short, with an air of reserve (although there are times
when I let myself go); quite correctly dressed; nothing to criticise and nothing
striking about my appearance.
I looked close at my eyes. They are green, though, oddly enough,
people usually take them for black.
I believed in many things in a confused sort of way, above all,
in the existence of God, if not in the dogmas of religion. However, I thought,
these last had advantages for poor people and for women, who have less intellect
As for philosophical discussions, I thought they are absolutely
useless. You cannot demonstrate or verify anything. What was truth, anyway?
I had a sense of good and evil. I would not have committed an
indelicacy, even if certain of impunity. I would not have permitted myself the
If everyone were like me, all would be well.
. . . . .
It was already late. I was not going to do anything. I remained
seated there, at the end of the day, opposite the looking-glass. In the setting
of the room that the twilight began to invade, I saw the outline of my forehead,
the oval of my face, and, under my blinking eyelids, the gaze by which I enter
into myself as into a tomb.
My tiredness, the gloominess (I heard rain outside), the
darkness that intensified my solitude and made me look larger, and then
something else, I knew not what, made me sad. It bored me to be sad. I shook
myself. What was the matter? Nothing. Only myself.
I have not always been alone in life as I was that evening. Love
for me had taken on the form and the being of my little Josette. We had met long
before, in the rear of the millinery shop in which she worked at Tours. She had
smiled at me with singular persistence, and I caught her head in my hands,
kissed her on the lips—and found out suddenly that I loved her.
I no longer recall the strange bliss we felt when, we first
embraced. It is true, there are moments when I still desire her as madly as the
first time. This is so especially when she is away. When she is with me, there
are moments when she repels me.
We discovered each other in the holidays. The days when we shall
see each other again before we die—we could count them—if we dared.
To die! The idea of death is decidedly the most important of all
ideas. I should die some day. Had I ever thought of it? I reflected. No, I had
never thought of it. I could not. You can no more look destiny in the face than
you can look at the sun, and yet destiny is grey.
And night came, as every night will come, until the last one,
which will be too vast.
But all at once I jumped up and stood on my feet, reeling, my
heart throbbing like the fluttering of wings.
What was it? In the street a horn resounded, playing a hunting
song. Apparently some groom of a rich family, standing near the bar of a tavern,
with cheeks puffed out, mouth squeezed tight, and an air of ferocity,
astonishing and silencing his audience.
But the thing that so stirred me was not the mere blowing of a
horn in the city streets. I had been brought up in the country, and as a child I
used to hear that blast far in the distance, along the road to the woods and the
castle. The same air, the same thing exactly. How could the two be so precisely
And involuntarily my hand wavered to my heart.
Formerly—to-day—my life—my heart—myself! I thought of all this
suddenly, for no reason, as if I had gone mad.
. . . . .
My past—what had I ever made of myself? Nothing, and I was
already on the decline. Ah, because the refrain recalled the past, it seemed to
me as if it were all over with me, and I had not lived. And I had a longing for
a sort of lost paradise.
But of what avail to pray or rebel? I felt I had nothing more to
expect from life. Thenceforth, I should be neither happy nor unhappy. I could
not rise from the dead. I would grow old quietly, as quiet as I was that day in
the room where so many people had left their traces, and yet no one had left his
This room—anywhere you turn, you find this room. It is the
universal room. You think it is closed. No, it is open to the four winds of
heaven. It is lost amid a host of similar rooms, like the light in the sky, like
one day amid the host of all other days, like my "I" amid a host of other I's.
I, I! I saw nothing more now than the pallor of my face, with
deep orbits, buried in the twilight, and my mouth filled with a silence which
gently but surely stifles and destroys.
I raised myself on my elbow as on a clipped wing. I wished that
something partaking of the infinite would happen to me.
I had no genius, no mission to fulfil, no great heart to bestow.
I had nothing and I deserved nothing. But all the same I desired some sort of
Love. I dreamed of a unique, an unheard-of idyll with a woman
far from the one with whom I had hitherto lost all my time, a woman whose
features I did not see, but whose shadow I imagined beside my own as we walked
along the road together.
Something infinite, something new! A journey, an extraordinary
journey into which to throw myself headlong and bring variety into my life.
Luxurious, bustling departures surrounded by solicitous inferiors, a lazy
leaning back in railway trains that thunder along through wild landscapes and
past cities rising up and growing as if blown by the wind.
Steamers, masts, orders given in barbarous tongues, landings on
golden quays, then strange, exotic faces in the sunlight, puzzlingly alike, and
monuments, familiar from pictures, which, in my tourist's pride, seem to have
come close to me.
My brain was empty, my heart arid. I had never found anything,
not even a friend. I was a poor man stranded for a day in a boarding-house room
where everybody comes and everybody goes. And yet I longed for glory! For glory
bound to me like a miraculous wound that I should feel and everybody would talk
about. I longed for a following of which I should be the leader, my name
acclaimed under the heavens like a new clarion call.
But I felt my grandeur slip away. My childish imagination played
in vain with those boundless fancies. There was nothing more for me to expect
from life. There was only I, who, stripped by the night, rose upward like a cry.
I could hardly see any more in the dark. I guessed at, rather
than saw, myself in the mirror. I had a realising sense of my weakness and
captivity. I held my hands out toward the window, my outstretched fingers making
them look like something torn. I lifted my face up to the sky. I sank back and
leaned on the bed, a huge object with a vague human shape, like a corpse. God, I
was lost! I prayed to Him to have pity on me. I thought that I was wise and
content with my lot. I had said to myself that I was free from the instinct of
theft. Alas, alas, it was not true, since I longed to take everything that was
The sound of the horn had ceased for
some time. The street and the houses had quieted down. Silence. I passed my hand
over my forehead. My fit of emotion was over. So much the better. I recovered my
balance by an effort of will-power.
I sat down at the table and took some papers out of my bag that
I had to look over and arrange.
Something spurred me on. I wanted to earn a little money. I
could then send some to my old aunt who had brought me up. She always waited for
me in the low-ceilinged room, where her sewing-machine, afternoons, whirred,
monotonous and tiresome as a clock, and where, evenings, there was a lamp beside
her which somehow seemed to look like herself.
Notes—the notes from which I was to draw up the report that
would show my ability and definitely decide whether I would get a position in
Monsieur Berton's bank—Monsieur Berton, who could do everything for me, who had
but to say a word, the god of my material life.
I started to light the lamp. I scratched a match. It did not
catch fire, the phosphorous end breaking off. I threw it away and waited a
moment, feeling a little tired.
Then I heard a song hummed quite close to my ear.
. . . . .
Some one seemed to be leaning on my shoulder, singing for me,
only for me, in confidence.
Ah, an hallucination! Surely my brain was sick—my punishment for
having thought too hard.
I stood up, and my hand clutched the edge of the table. I was
oppressed by a feeling of the supernatural. I sniffed the air, my eyelids
blinking, alert and suspicious.
The singing kept on. I could not get rid of it. My head was
beginning to go round. The singing came from the room next to mine. Why was it
so pure, so strangely near? Why did it touch me so? I looked at the wall between
the two rooms, and stifled a cry of surprise.
High up, near the ceiling, above the door, always kept locked,
there was a light. The song fell from that star.
There was a crack in the partition at that spot, through which
the light of the next room entered the night of mine.
I climbed up on the bed, and my face was on a level with the
crack. Rotten woodwork, two loose bricks. The plaster gave way and an opening
appeared as large as my hand, but invisible from below, because of the moulding.
I looked. I beheld. The next room presented itself to my sight
It spread out before me, this room which was not mine. The voice
that had been singing had gone, and in going had left the door open, and it
almost seemed as though the door were still swinging on its hinges. There was
nothing in the room but a lighted candle, which trembled on the mantelpiece.
At that distance the table looked like an island, the bluish and
reddish pieces of furniture, in their vague outline, like the organs of a body
I looked at the wardrobe. Bright, confused lines going straight
up, its feet in darkness. The ceiling, the reflection of the ceiling in the
glass, and the pale window like a human face against the sky.
I returned to my room—as if I had really left it—stunned at
first, my thoughts in a whirl, almost forgetting who I was.
I sat down on my bed, thinking things over quickly and trembling
a little, oppressed by what was to come.
I dominated, I possessed that room. My eyes entered it. I was in
it. All who would be there would be there with me without knowing it. I should
see them, I should hear them, I should be as much in their company as though the
door were open.
. . . . .
A moment later I raised my face to the hole and looked again.
The candle was out, but some one was there. It was the maid. No
doubt she had come in to put the room in order. Then she paused.
She was alone. She was quite near me. But I did not very well
see the living being who was moving about, perhaps because I was dazzled by
seeing it so truly—a dark blue apron, falling down from her waist like rays of
evening, white wrists, hands darker than her wrists from toil, a face undecided
yet striking, eyes hidden yet shining, cheeks prominent and clear, a knot on top
of her head gleaming like a crown.
A short time before I had seen the girl on the staircase bending
over cleaning the banisters, her reddened face close to her large hands. I had
found her repulsive because of those blackened hands of hers and the dusty
chores that she stooped over. I had also seen her in a hallway walking ahead of
me heavily, her hair hanging loose and her body giving out an unpleasant odour,
so that you felt it was obnoxious and wrapped in dirty underwear.
. . . . .
And now I looked at her again. The evening gently dispelled the
ugliness, wiped out the misery and the horror, changed the dust into shadow,
like a curse turned into a blessing. All that remained of her was colour, a
mist, an outline; not even that; a thrill and the beating of her heart. Every
trace of her had disappeared save her true self.
That was because she was alone. An extraordinary thing, a dash
of the divine in it, to be actually alone. She was in that perfect innocence,
that purity which is solitude.
I desecrated her solitude with my eyes, but she did not know it,
and so /she/ was not desecrated.
She went over to the window with brightening eyes and swinging
hands in her apron of the colour of the nocturnal sky. Her face and the upper
part of her body were illuminated. She seemed to be in heaven.
She sat down on the sofa, a great low red shadow in the depths
of the room near the window. She leaned her broom beside her. Her dust cloth
fell to the floor and was lost from sight.
She took a letter from her pocket and read it. In the twilight
the letter was the whitest thing in the world. The double sheet trembled between
her fingers, which held it carefully, like a dove in the air. She put the
trembling letter to her lips, and kissed it. From whom was the letter? Not from
her family. A servant girl is not likely to have so much filial devotion as to
kiss a letter from her parents. A lover, her betrothed, yes. Many, perhaps, knew
her lover's name. I did not, but I witnessed her love as no other person had.
And that simple gesture of kissing the paper, that gesture buried in a room,
stripped bare by the dark, had something sublime and awesome in it.
She rose and went closer to the window, the white letter folded
in her grey hand.
The night thickened—and it seemed to me as if I no longer knew
her age, nor her name, nor the work she happened to be doing down here, nor
anything about her—nothing at all. She gazed at the pale immensity, which
touched her. Her eyes gleamed. You would say she was crying, but no, her eyes
only shed light. She would be an angel if reality flourished upon the earth.
She sighed and walked to the door slowly. The door closed behind
her like something falling.
She had gone without doing anything but reading her letter and
. . . . .
I returned to my corner lonely, more terribly alone than before.
The simplicity of this meeting stirred me profoundly. Yet there had been no one
there but a human being, a human being like myself. Then there is nothing
sweeter and stronger than to approach a human being, whoever that human being
This woman entered into my intimate life and took a place in my
heart. How? Why? I did not know. But what importance she assumed! Not of
herself. I did not know her, and I did not care to know her. She assumed
importance by the sole value of the momentary revelation of her existence, by
the example she gave, by the wake of her actual presence, by the true sound of
It seemed to me as if the supernatural dream I had had a short
while before had been granted, and that what I called the infinite had come.
What that woman, without knowing it, had given me by showing me her naked
kiss—was it not the crowning beauty the reflection of which covers you with
. . . . .
The dinner bell rang.
This summons to everyday reality and one's usual occupations
changed the course of my thoughts for the moment. I got ready to go down to
dinner. I put on a gay waistcoat and a dark coat, and I stuck a pearl in my
cravat. Then I stood still and listened, hoping to hear a footstep or a voice.
While doing these conventional things, I continued to be
obsessed by the great event that had happened—this apparition.
I went downstairs and joined the rest of my fellow-boarders in
the brown and gold dining-room. There was a general stir and bustle and the
usual empty interest before a meal. A number of people seated themselves with
the good manners of polite society. Smiles, the sound of chairs being drawn up
to the table, words thrown out, conversations started. Then the concert of
plates and dishes began and grew steadily louder.
My neighbours talked to those beside them. I heard their murmur,
which accentuated my aloneness. I lifted my eyes. In front of me a shining row
of foreheads, eyes, collars, shirtfronts, waists, and busy hands above a table
of glistening whiteness. All these things attracted my attention and distracted
it at the same time.
I did not know what these people were thinking about. I did not
know who they were. They hid themselves from one another. Their shining fronts
made a wall against which I dashed in vain.
Bracelets, necklaces, rings. The sparkling of the jewels made me
feel far away from them as do the stars. A young girl looked at me with vague
blue eyes. What could I do against that kind of sapphire?
They talked, but the noise left each one to himself, and
deafened me, as the light blinded me.
Nevertheless, at certain moments these people, because in the
course of conversation they thought of things they had at heart, revealed
themselves as if they were alone. I recognized the revelation of this truth, and
felt myself turning pale on remembering that other revelation.
Some one spoke of money, and the subject became general. The
assembly was stirred by an ideal. A dream of grasping and touching shone through
their eyes, just as a little adoration had come into the eyes of the servant
when she found herself alone.
They recalled military heroes triumphantly, and some men
thought, "Me, too!" and worked themselves up into a fever, showing what they
were thinking of, in spite of their ridiculously low station and the slavery of
their social position. One young girl seemed dazzled, looked overwhelmed. She
could not restrain a sigh of ecstasy. She blushed under the effect of an
inscrutable thought. I saw the surge of blood mount to her face. I saw her heart
They discussed the phenomena of occultism and the Beyond. "Who
knows?" some one said. Then they discussed death. Two diners, at opposite ends
of the table, a man and a woman who had not spoken to each other and seemed not
to be acquainted, exchanged a glance that I caught. And seeing that glance leap
from their eyes at the same time, under the shock of the idea of death, I
understood that these two loved each other.
. . . . .
The meal was over. The young people went into the parlour. A
lawyer was telling some people around him about a murder case that had been
decided that day. The nature of the subject was such that he expressed himself
very cautiously, as though confiding a secret. A man had injured and then
murdered a little girl and had kept singing at the top of his voice to prevent
the cries of his little victim from being heard. One by one the people stopped
talking and listened with the air of really not listening, while those not so
close to the speaker felt like drawing up right next to him. About this image
risen in their midst, this paroxysm so frightful to our timid instincts, the
silence spread in a circle in their souls like a terrific noise.
Then I heard the laugh of a woman, of an honest woman, a dry
crackling laugh, which she thought innocent perhaps, but which caressed her
whole being, a burst of laughter, which, made up of formless instinctive cries,
was almost fleshy. She stopped and turned, silent again. And the speaker, sure
of his effect, continued in a calm voice to hurl upon these people the story of
the monster's confession.
A young mother, whose daughter was sitting beside her, half got
up, but could not leave. She sat down again and bent forward to conceal her
daughter. She was eager and yet ashamed to listen.
Another woman was sitting motionless, with her head leaning
forward, but her mouth compressed as if she were defending herself tragically.
And beneath the worldly mask of her face, I saw a fanatical martyr's smile
impress itself like handwriting.
And the men! I distinctly heard one man, the man who was so calm
and simple, catch his breath. Another man, with a characterless business man's
face, was making a great effort to talk of this and that to a young girl sitting
next to him, while he watched her with a look of which he was ashamed and which
made him blink. And everybody condemned the satyr in terms of the greatest
And so, for a moment, they had not lied. They had almost
confessed, perhaps unconsciously, and even without knowing what they had
confessed. They had almost been their real selves. Desire had leaped into their
eyes, and the reflection passed—and I had seen what happened in the silence,
sealed by their lips.
It is this, it is this thought, this kind of living spectre,
that I wished to study. I rose, shrugging my shoulders, and hurried out,
impelled by eagerness to see the sincerity of men and women unveiled before my
eyes, beautiful as a masterpiece in spite of its ugliness. So, back in my room
again, I placed myself against the wall as if to embrace it and look down into
There it was at my feet. Even when empty, it was more alive than
the people one meets and associates with, the people who have the vastness of
numbers to lose themselves in and be forgotten in, who have voices for lying and
faces to hide themselves behind.
Night, absolute night. Shadows thick as
velvet hung all around.
Everything sank into darkness. I sat down and leaned my elbow on
the round table, lighted by the lamp. I meant to work, but as a matter of fact I
I had looked into the Room a short time before. No one had been
there, but no doubt some one was going to come.
Some one was going to come, that evening perhaps, or the next
day, or the day after. Some one was bound to come. Then other human beings would
follow in succession. I waited, and it seemed to me as if that was all I was
I waited a long time, not daring to go to sleep. Then, very
late, when silence had been reigning so long that it paralysed me, I made an
effort. I leaned up against the wall once more and looked prayerfully. The Room
was black, all things blending into one, full of the night, full of the unknown,
of every possible thing. I dropped back into my own room.
. . . . .
The next day I saw the Room in the simplicity of daylight. I saw
the dawn spread over it. Little by little, it began to come out of its ruins and
It was arranged and furnished on the same plan as my own room.
Opposite me was the mantelpiece with the looking-glass above. On the right was
the bed, and on the left, on the same side as the window, a sofa, chairs,
armchairs, table, wardrobe. The rooms were identical, but the history of mine
was finished while the history of the other one had not yet begun.
After an insipid breakfast, I returned to the spot that
attracted me, the hole in the partition. Nothing. I climbed down again.
It was close. A faint smell from the kitchen lingered even here.
I paused in the infinite vastness of my empty room.
I opened my door a little bit, then all the way. In the hall the
door of each room was painted brown, with numbers carved on brass plates. All
were closed. I took a few steps, which I alone heard—heard echoing too loudly in
that house, huge and immobile.
The passage was very long and narrow. The wall was hung with
imitation tapestry of dark green foliage, against which shone the copper of a
gas fixture. I leaned over the banister. A servant (the one who waited at the
table and was wearing a blue apron now, hardly recognisable with her hair in
disorder) came skipping down from the floor above with newspapers under her arm.
Madame Lemercier's little girl, with a careful hand on the banister, was coming
upstairs, her neck thrust forward like a bird, and I compared her little
footsteps to fragments of passing seconds. A lady and a gentleman passed in
front of me, breaking off their conversation to keep me from catching what they
were saying, as if they refused me the alms of their thoughts.
These trifling events disappeared like scenes of a comedy on
which the curtain falls.
I passed the whole afternoon disheartened. I felt as if I were
alone against them all, while roaming about inside this house and yet outside of
As I passed through the hallway, a door went shut hastily,
cutting off the laugh of a woman taken by surprise. A senseless noise oozed from
the walls, worse than silence. From under each door a broken ray of light crept
out, worse than darkness.
I went downstairs to the parlour, attracted by the sound of
A group of men were talking, I no longer remember about what.
They went out, and I was alone. I heard them talking in the hall. Then their
voices died away.
A fashionable lady came in, with a rustle of silk and the smell
of flowers and perfume. She took up a lot of room because of her fragrance and
elegance. She carried her head held slightly forward and had a beautiful long
face set off by an expression of great sweetness. But I could not see her well,
because she did not look at me. She seated herself, picked up a book, and turned
the pages, and the leaves cast upon her face a reflection of whiteness and
I watched her bosom rising and falling, and her motionless face,
and the living book that was merged with her. Her complexion was so brilliant
that her mouth seemed almost dark. Her beauty saddened me. I looked at this
unknown woman with sublime regret. She caressed me by her presence. A woman
always caresses a man when she comes near him and they are alone. In spite of
all sorts of separation, there is always an awful beginning of happiness between
But she went out. That was the end of her. Nothing had happened,
and now it was over. All this was too simple, too hard, too true.
A gentle despair that I had never experienced before troubled
me. Since the previous day I had changed. Human life, its living truth, I knew
it as we all know it. I had been familiar with it all my life. I believed in it
with a kind of fear now that it had appeared to me in a divine form.
I went for several days without seeing
anything. Those days were frightfully warm. At first the sky was grey and rainy.
Now September was flaming to a close. Friday! Why, I had been in that house a
One sultry morning I sat in my room and sank into dreamy musings
and thought of a fairy tale.
The edge of a forest. In the undergrowth on the dark emerald
carpet, circles of sunlight. Below, a hill rising from the plain, and above the
thick yellow and dark-green foliage, a bit of wall and a turret as in a
tapestry. A page advanced dressed like a bird. A buzzing. It was the sound of
the royal chase in the distance. Unusually pleasant things were going to happen.
. . . . .
The next afternoon was also hot and sunny. I remembered similar
afternoons, years before and the present seemed to be that past, as if the
glowing heat had effaced time and had stifled all other days beneath its
The room next to mine was almost dark. They had closed the
shutters. Through the double curtains made out of some thin material I saw the
window streaked with shining bars, like the grating in front of a fire.
In the torrid silence of the house, in the large slumber it
enclosed, bursts of laughter mounted and broke, voices died away, as they had
the day before and as they always would.
From out of these remoter sounds emerged the distinct sound of
footsteps, coming nearer and nearer. I propped myself up against the wall and
looked. The door of the Room opened, as if pushed in by the flood of light that
streamed through it, and two tiny shadows appeared, engulfed in the brightness.
They acted as though they were being pursued. They hesitated on
the threshold, the doorway making a frame around those little creatures. And
then they entered.
The door closed. The Room was now alive. I scrutinised the
newcomers. I saw them indistinctly through the dark red and green spots dancing
in front of my eyes, which had been dazzled by the flood of light. A little boy
and a little girl, twelve or thirteen years old.
They sat down on the sofa, and looked at each other in silence.
Their faces were almost alike.
. . . . .
The boy murmured:
"You see, Hélène, there is no one here."
And a hand pointed to the uncovered bed, and to the empty table
and empty clothes-racks—the careful denudation of unoccupied rooms.
Then the same hand began to tremble like a leaf. I heard the
beating of my heart. The voices whispered:
"We are alone. They did not see us."
"This is about the first time we've ever been alone together."
"Yet we have always known each other."
A little laugh.
They seemed to need solitude, the first step to a mystery toward
which they were travelling together. They had fled from the others. They had
created for themselves the forbidden solitude. But you could clearly tell that
now that they had found solitude, they did not know what else to look for.
. . . . .
Then I heard one of them stammer and say sadly, with almost a
"We love each other dearly."
Then a tender phrase rose breathlessly, groping for words,
timidly, like a bird just learning to fly:
"I'd like to love you more."
To see them thus bent toward each other, in the warm shadow,
which bathed them and veiled the childishness of their features, you would have
thought them two lovers meeting.
Two lovers! That was their dream, though they did not yet know
what love meant.
One of them had said "the first time." It was the time that they
felt they were alone, although these two cousins had been living close together.
No doubt it was the first time that the two had sought to leave
friendship and childhood behind them. It was the first time that desire had come
to surprise and trouble two hearts, which until now had slept.
. . . . .
Suddenly they stood up, and the slender ray of sunlight, which
passed over them and fell at their feet, revealed their figures, lighted up
their faces and hair, so that their presence brightened the room.
Were they going away? No, they sat down again. Everything fell
back into shadow, into mystery, into truth.
In beholding them, I felt a confused mingling of my past and the
past of the world. Where were they? Everywhere, since they existed. They were on
the banks of the Nile, the Ganges, or the Cydnus, on the banks of the eternal
river of the ages. They were Daphnis and Chloë, under a myrtle bush, in the
Greek sunshine, the shimmer of leaves on their faces, and their faces mirroring
each other. Their vague little conversation hummed like the wings of a bee, near
the freshness of fountains and the heat that consumed the meadows, while in the
distance a chariot went by, laden with sheaves.
The new world opened. The panting truth was there. It confused
them. They feared the brusque intrusion of some divinity. They were happy and
unhappy. They nestled as close together as they could. They brought to each
other as much as they could. But they did not suspect what it was that they were
bringing. They were too small, too young. They had not lived long enough. Each
was to self a stifling secret.
Like all human beings, like me, like us, they wished for what
they did not have. They were beggars. But they asked /themselves/ for charity.
They asked for help from their /own/ persons.
The boy, a man already, impoverished already by his feminine
companion, turned, drawn towards her, and held out his awkward arms, without
daring to look at her.
The girl, a woman already, leaned her face on the back of the
sofa, her eyes shining. Her cheeks were plump and rosy, tinted and warmed by her
heart. The skin of her neck, taut and satiny, quivered. Half-blown and waiting,
a little voluptuous because voluptuousness already emanated from her, she was
like a rose inhaling sunlight.
And I—I could not tear my eyes from them.
. . . . .
After a long silence, he murmured:
"Shall we stop calling each other by our first names?"
He seemed absorbed in thought.
"So as to begin over again," he said at last.
"Shall we, Miss Janvier?" he asked again.
She gave a visible start at the touch of this new manner of
address, at the word "Miss," as if it were a kind of embrace.
"Why, Mr. Lecoq," she ventured hesitatingly, "it is as though
something had covered us, and we were removing—"
Now, he became bolder.
"Shall we kiss each other on our mouths?"
She was oppressed, and could not quite smile.
"Yes," she said.
They caught hold of each other's arms and shoulders and held out
their lips, as if their mouths were birds.
"Jean!" "Hélène!" came softly.
It was the first thing they had found out. To embrace the
embracer, is it not the tiniest caress and the least sort of a bond? And yet it
is so sternly prohibited.
Again they seemed to me to be without age.
They were like all lovers, while they held hands, their faces
joined, trembling and blind, in the shadow of a kiss.
. . . . .
They broke off, and disengaged themselves from their embrace,
whose meaning they had not yet learned.
They talked with their innocent lips. About what? About the
past, which was so near and so short.
They were leaving their paradise of childhood and ignorance.
They spoke of a house and a garden where they had both lived.
The house absorbed them. It was surrounded by a garden wall, so
that from the road all you could see was the tip of the eaves, and you couldn't
tell what was going on inside of it.
"The rooms, when we were little and they were so big—"
"It was easier to walk there than anywhere else."
To hear the children talk, you would have thought there was
something benevolent and invisible, something like the good God of the past,
behind those walls. She hummed an air she had heard there, and said that music
was easier to remember than people. They dropped back into the past easily and
naturally. They wrapped themselves up in their memories as though they were
"The other day, just before we left, I took a candle and walked
alone through the rooms, which scarcely woke up to watch me pass."
In the garden, so prim and well kept, they thought only of the
flowers, and little else. They saw the pool, the shady walk, and the cherry
tree, which, in winter when the lawn was white, they made believe had too many
The day before they had still been in the garden, like brother
and sister. Now life seemed to have grown serious all at once, and they no
longer knew how to play. I saw that they wanted to kill the past. When we are
old, we let it die; when we are young and strong, we kill it.
She sat up straight.
"I don't want to remember any more," she said.
"I don't want us to be like each other any more. I don't want us
to be brother and sister any more."
Gradually their eyes opened.
"To touch nothing but each other's hands," he muttered,
It had come—the hour of beautiful, troubled decisions, of
forbidden fruits. They had not belonged to each other before. The hour had come
when they sought to be all in all to each other.
They were a little self-conscious, a little ashamed of
themselves already. A few days before, in the evening, it had given them
profound pleasure to disobey their parents and go out of the garden although
they had been forbidden to leave it.
"Grandmother came to the top of the steps and called to us to
"But we were gone. We had slipped through the hole in the hedge
where a bird always sang. There was no wind, and scarcely any light. Even the
trees didn't stir. The dust on the ground was dead. The shadows stole round us
so softly that we almost spoke to them. We were frightened to see night coming
on. Everything had lost its colour. But the night was clear, and the flowers,
the road, even the wheat were silver. And it was then that my mouth came closest
to your mouth."
"The night," she said, her soul carried aloft on a wave of
beauty, "the night caresses the caresses."
"I took your hand, and I knew that you would live life whole.
When I used to say 'Hélène,' I did not know what I was saying. Now, when I shall
say 'she,' it will be everything."
Once more their lips joined. Their mouths and their eyes were
those of Adam and Eve. I recalled the ancestral lesson from which sacred history
and human history flow as from a fountain. They wandered in the penetrating
light of paradise without knowledge. They were as if they did not exist.
When—through triumphant curiosity, though forbidden by God himself—they learned
the secret, the sky was darkened. The certainty of a future of sorrow had fallen
upon them. Angels pursued them like vultures. They grovelled on the ground from
day to day, but they had created love, they had replaced divine riches by the
poverty of belonging to each other.
The two little children had taken their parts in the eternal
drama. By talking to each other as they did they had restored to their first
names their full significance.
"I should like to love you more. I should like to love you
How could I?"
. . . . .
They said no more, as though there were no more words for them.
They were completely absorbed in themselves, and their hands trembled.
Then they rose, and as they did so, the door opened. There stood
the old stooping grandmother. She came out of the grey, out of the realm of
phantoms, out of the past. She was looking for them as if they had gone astray.
She called them in a low voice. She put into her tone a great gentleness, almost
sadness, strangely harmonising with the children's presence.
"You are here, children?" she said, with a kind little laugh.
"What are you doing here? Come, they are looking for you."
She was old and faded, but she was angelic, with her gown
fastened up to her neck. Beside these two, who were preparing for the large
life, she was, thenceforth, like a child, inactive, useless.
They rushed into her arms, and pressed their foreheads against
her saintly mouth. They seemed to be saying good-by to her forever.
. . . . .
She went out. And a moment afterwards they followed her,
hastily, as they had come, united now by an invisible and sublime bond. On the
threshold, they looked at each other once more.
And now that the room was empty like a deserted sanctuary, I
thought of their glance, their first glance of love, which I had seen.
No one before me had ever seen a first glance of love. I was
beside them, but, far away. I understood and read it without being part of the
infatuation myself, without being lost in the sensation. That is why I saw that
glance. They did not know when it began, they did not know that it was the
first. Afterwards they would forget. The urgent flowering of their hearts would
destroy those preludes. We can no more know our first glance of love than our
last. I shall remember it when they will have forgotten it.
I do not recall my own first glance of love, my own first gift
of love. Yet it happened. Those divine simplicities are erased from my heart.
Good God, then what do I retain that is of value? The little boy that I was is
dead forever, before my eyes. I survived him, but forgetfulness tormented me,
then overcame me, the sad process of living ruined me, and I scarcely know what
he knew. I remember things at random only, but the most beautiful, the sweetest
memories are gone.
Well, this tender canticle that I overheard, full of infinity
and overflowing with fresh laughter, this precious song, I take and hold and
cherish. It pulses in my heart. I have stolen, but I have preserved truth.
For a day, the Room remained vacant.
Twice I had high hopes, then disillusionment.
Waiting had become a habit, an occupation. I put off
appointments, delayed my walks, gained time at the risk of losing my position. I
arranged my life as for a new love. I left my room only to go down to dinner,
where nothing interested me any more.
The second day, I noticed that the Room was ready to receive a
new occupant. It was waiting. I had a thousand dreams of who the guest would be,
while the Room kept its secret, like some one thinking.
Twilight came, then evening, which magnified the room but did
not change it. I was already in despair, when the door opened in the darkness,
and I saw on the threshold the shadow of a man.
. . . . .
He was scarcely to be distinguished in the evening light.
Dark clothing, milky white cuffs from which his grey tapering
hands hung down; a collar a little whiter than the rest. In his round greyish
face I could see the dusky hollows of his eyes and mouth, under the chin a
cavity of shadow. The yellow of his forehead shone unclearly. His cheekbone made
an obscure bar in the dusk. You would have called him a skeleton. What was this
being whose physiognomy was so monstrously simple?
He came nearer, and his face kindled, assumed life. I saw that
he was handsome.
He had a charming serious face, fringed with a fine black beard,
a high forehead and sparkling eyes. A haughty grace guided and refined his
He came forward a step or two, then returned to the door, which
was still open. The shadow of the door trembled, a silhouette appeared and took
shape. A little black-gloved hand grasped the knob, and a woman stole into the
room, with a questioning face.
She must have been a few steps behind him in the street. They
had not wished to enter the room together, in which they both sought refuge to
She closed the door, and leaned her whole weight against it, to
close it still tighter. Slowly she turned her head to him, paralysed for a
moment, it seemed to me, with fear that it was not he. They stared into each
other's faces. A cry burst from them, passionate, restrained, almost mute,
echoing from one to the other. It seemed to open up their wound.
She almost fainted. She dropped on his breast as though swept by
a storm. She had just strength enough to fall into his arms. I saw the man's two
large pale hands, opened but slightly crooked, resting on the woman's back. A
sort of desperate palpitation seized them, as if an immense angel were in the
Room, struggling and making vain efforts to escape. And it seemed to me that the
Room was too small for this couple, although it was full of the evening.
"They didn't see us!"
It was the same phrase which had come the other day from the two
He said, "Come!" leading her over to the sofa, near the window,
and they seated themselves on the red velvet. I saw their arms joined together
as though by a cord. They remained there, engrossed, gathering about them all
the shadow of the world, reviving, beginning to live again in their element of
night and solitude.
What an entry, what an entry! What an irruption of anathema!
I had thought, when this form of sin presented itself before me,
when the woman appeared at the door, plainly driven toward him, that I should
witness bliss in its plenitude, a savage and animal joy, as momentous as nature.
On the contrary, I found that this meeting was like a heart-rending farewell.
"Then we shall always be afraid?"
She seemed just a little more tranquil, and said this with an
anxious glance at him, as if really expecting a reply.
She shuddered, huddled in the shadows, feverishly stroking and
pressing the man's hand, sitting upright, stiffly. I saw her throat rising and
falling like the sea. They stayed there, touching one another; but a lingering
terror mingled with their caresses.
"Always afraid—always afraid, always. Far from the street, far
from the sun, far from everything. I who had so much wanted full daylight and
sunlight!" she said, looking at the sky.
They were afraid. Fear moulded them, burrowed into their hearts.
Their eyes, their hearts were afraid. Above all, their love was afraid.
A mournful smile glided across the man's face. He looked at his
friend and murmured:
"You are thinking of /him."/
She was sitting with her cheeks in her hands and her elbows on
her knees and her face thrust forward. She did not reply.
She /was/ thinking of him. Doubled up, small as a child, she
gazed intently into the distance, at the man who was not there. She bowed to
this image like a suppliant, and felt a divine reflection from it falling upon
her—from the man who was not there, who was being deceived, from the offended
man, the wounded man, from the master, from him who was everywhere except where
they were, who occupied the immense outside, and whose name made them bow their
heads, the man to whom they were a prey.
Night fell, as if shame and terror were in its shadows, over
this man and woman, who had come to hide their embraces in this room, as in a
tomb where dwells the Beyond.
. . . . .
He said to her:
"I love you!"
I distinctly heard those grand words.
I love you! I shuddered to the depths of my being on hearing the
profound words which came from those two human beings. I love you! The words
which offer body and soul, the great open cry of the creature and the creation.
I love you! I beheld love face to face.
Then it seemed to me that sincerity vanished in the hasty
incoherent things he next said while clasping her to him. It was as though he
had a set speech to make and was in a hurry to get through with it.
"You and I were born for each other. There is a kinship in our
souls which must triumph. It was no more possible to prevent us from meeting and
belonging to each other than to prevent our lips from uniting when they came
together. What do moral conventions or social barriers matter to us? Our love is
made of infinity and eternity."
"Yes," she said, lulled by his voice.
But I knew he was lying or was letting his words run away with
him. Love had become an idol, a thing. He was blaspheming, he was invoking
infinity and eternity in vain, paying lip service to it by daily prayer that had
They let the banality drop. The woman remained pensive for a
while, then she shook her head and she—/she/ pronounced the word of excuse, of
glorification; more than that, the word of truth:
"I was so unhappy!"
. . . . .
"How long ago it was!" she began.
It was her work of art, her poem and her prayer, to repeat this
story, low and precipitately, as if she were in the confessional. You felt that
she came to it quite naturally, without transition, so completely did it possess
her whenever they were alone.
She was simply dressed. She had removed her black gloves and her
coat and hat. She wore a dark skirt and a red waist upon which a thin gold chain
She was a woman of thirty, perhaps, with regular features and
smooth silken hair. It seemed to me that I knew her, but could not place her.
She began to speak of herself quite loudly, and tell of her past
which had been so hard.
"What a life I led! What monotony, what emptiness! The little
town, our house, the drawing-room with the furniture always arranged just so,
their places never changed, like tombstones. One day I tried to put the table
that stood in the centre in another place. I could not do it."
Her face paled, grew more luminous.
He listened to her. A smile of patience and resignation, which
soon was like a pained expression of weariness, crept across his handsome face.
Yes, he was really handsome, though a little disconcerting, with his large eyes,
which women must have adored, his drooping moustache, his tender, distant air.
He seemed to be one of those gentle people who think too much and do evil. You
would have said that he was above everything and capable of everything.
Listening to her with a certain remoteness, but stirred by desire for her, he
had the air of waiting.
And suddenly the veil fell from my eyes, and reality lay
stripped before me. I saw that between these two people there was an immense
difference, like an infinite discord, sublime to behold because of its depths,
but so painful that it bruised my heart.
/He/ was moved only by his longing for her; /she,/ by her need
of escaping from her ordinary life. Their desires were not the same. They seemed
united, but they dwelt far apart.
They did not talk the same language. When they spoke of the same
things, they scarcely understood each other, and to my eyes, from the very
first, their union appeared to be broken more than if they had never known each
But he did not say what was really in his mind. You felt it in
the sound of his voice, the very charm of his intonation, his lyrical choice of
words. He thought to please her, and he lied. He was evidently her superior, but
she dominated him by a kind of inspired sincerity. While he was master of his
words, she offered her whole self in her words.
She described her former life.
"From the windows in my room and the dining-room, I could look
out on the square. The fountain in the centre, with its shadow at its base. I
watched the day go round there, on that little, white, round place, like a
"The postman crossed it regularly, without thinking. At the
arsenal gate stood a soldier doing nothing. Nobody else ever came there. When
noon rang like a knell, still no one. What I remember best of all was the way
noon rang like a knell—the middle of the day, absolute ennui.
"Nothing ever happened to me, nothing ever would happen to me.
There was nothing for me. The future no longer existed for me. If my days were
to go on like that, nothing would separate me from my death— nothing! Not a
thing! To be bored is to die! My life was dead, and yet I had to live. It was
suicide. Others killed themselves with poison or with a revolver. I killed
myself with minutes and hours."
"Amy!" said the man.
"Then, by dint of seeing the days born in the morning and
miscarrying in the evening, I became afraid to die, and this fear was my first
"Often, in the middle of a visit I was paying, or in the night,
or when I came home after a walk, the length of the convent wall, I shuddered
with hope because of this passion.
"But who would free me from it? Who would save me from this
invisible shipwreck, which I perceived only from time to time? Around me was a
sort of conspiracy, composed of envy, meanness and indifference. Whatever I saw,
whatever I heard, tended to throw me back into the narrow road, that stupid
narrow road along which I was going.
"Madame Martet, the one friend with whom I was a little bit
intimate, you know, only two years older than I am, told me that I must be
content with what I had. I replied, 'Then, that is the end of everything, if I
must be content with what I have. Do you really believe what you say?' She said
she did. Oh, the horrid woman!
"But it was not enough to be afraid. I had to hate my ennui. How
I come to hate it? I do not know.
"I no longer knew myself. I no longer was myself. I had such
need of something else. In fact, I did not know my own name any more.
"One day, I remember (although I am not wicked) I had a happy
dream that my husband was dead, my poor husband who had done nothing to me, and
that I was free, free, as large as the world!
"It could not last. I couldn't go on forever hating monotony so
much. Oh, that emptiness, that monotony! Of all the gloomy things in the world
monotony is the darkest, the gloomiest. In comparison night is day.
"Religion? It is not with religion that we fill the emptiness of
our days, it is with our own life. It was not with beliefs, with ideas that I
had to struggle, it was with myself.
"Then I found the remedy!"
She almost cried, hoarsely, ecstatically:
"Sin, sin! To rid myself of boredom by committing a crime, to
break up monotony by deceiving. To sin in order to be a new person, another
person. To hate life worse than it hated me. To sin so as not to die.
"I met you. You wrote verses and books. You were different from
the rest. Your voice vibrated and gave the impression of beauty, and above all,
you were there, in my existence, in front of me! I had only to hold out my arms.
Then I loved you with all my heart, if you can call it love, my poor little
She spoke now in a low quick voice, both oppressed and
enthusiastic, and she played with her companion's hand as if it were a child's
"And you, too, you loved me, naturally. And when we slipped into
a hotel one evening, the first time, it seemed to me as if the door opened of
itself, and I was grateful for having rebelled and having broken my destiny. And
then the deceit—from which we suffer sometimes, but which, after reflection, we
no longer detest—the risks, the dangers that give pleasure to each minute, the
complications that add variety to life, these rooms, these hiding-places, these
black prisons, which have fled from the sunlight I once knew!
"Ah!" she said.
It seemed to me that she sighed as if, now that her aspiration
was realized, she had nothing so beautiful to hope for any more.
. . . . .
She thought a moment, and then said:
"See what we are. I too may have believed at first in a sort of
thunderbolt, a supernatural and fatal attraction, because of your poetry. But in
reality I came to you—I see myself now—with clenched fists and closed eyes."
"We deceive ourselves a good deal about love. It is almost never
what they say it is.
"There may be sublime affinities, magnificent attractions. I do
not say such a love may not exist between two human beings. But we are not these
two. We have never thought of anything but ourselves. I know, of course, that I
am in love with you. So are you with me. There is an attraction for you which
does not exist for me, since I do not feel any pleasure. You see, we are making
a bargain. You give me a dream, I give you joy. But all this is not love."
He shrugged his shoulders, half in doubt, half in protest. He
did not want to say anything. All the same, he murmured feebly:
"Even in the purest of loves we cannot escape from ourselves."
"Oh," she said with a gesture of pious protest, the vehemence of
which surprised me, "that is not the same thing. Don't say that, don't say
It seemed to me there was a vague regret in her voice and the
dream of a new dream in her eyes.
She dispelled it with a shake of her head.
"How happy I was! I felt rejuvenated, like a new being. I had a
sense of modesty again. I remember that I did not dare to show the tip of my
foot from under my dress. I even had a feeling about my face, my hands, my very
. . . . .
Then the man continued the confession from the point where she
had left off, and spoke of their first meetings. He wished to caress her with
words, to win her over gradually with phrases and with the charm of memories.
"The first time we were alone—"
She looked at him.
"It was in the street, one evening," he said. "I took your arm.
You leaned more and more upon my shoulder. People swarmed around us, but we
seemed to be quite alone. Everything around us changed into absolute solitude.
It seemed to me that we were both walking on the waves of the sea."
"Ah!" she said. "How good you were! That first evening your face
was like what it never was afterwards, even in our happiest moments."
"We spoke of one thing and another, and while I held you close
to me, clasped like a bunch of flowers, you told me about people we knew, you
spoke of the sunlight that day and the coolness of the evening. But really you
were telling me that you were mine. I felt your confession running through
everything you said, and even if you did not express it, you actually gave me a
confession of love.
"Ah, how great things are in the beginning! There is never any
pettiness in the beginning.
"Once when we met in the public garden, I took you back at the
end of the afternoon through the suburbs. The road was so peaceful and quiet
that our footsteps seemed to disturb nature. Benumbed by emotion, we slackened
our pace. I leaned over and kissed you."
"There," she said.
She put her finger on his neck.
"Gradually the kiss grew warmer. It crept toward your lips and
stopped there. The first time it went astray, the second time it pretended it
went astray. Soon I felt against my mouth"—he lowered his voice—"your mouth."
She bowed her head, and I saw her rosy mouth.
"It was all so beautiful in the midst of the watchfulness
imprisoning me," she sighed, ever returning to her mild, pathetic preoccupation.
How she needed the stimulus of remembering her emotions, whether
consciously or not! The recalling of these little dramas and former perils
warmed her movements, renewed her love. That was the reason why she had had the
whole story told her.
And he encouraged her. Their first enthusiasm returned, and now
they tried to evoke the most exciting memories.
"It was sad, the day after you became mine, to see you again at
a reception in your own home—inaccessible, surrounded by other people, mistress
of a regular household, friendly to everybody, a bit timid, talking
commonplaces. You bestowed the beauty of your face on everybody, myself
included. But what was the use?
"You were wearing that cool-looking green dress, and they were
teasing you about it. I did not dare to look at you when you passed me, and I
thought of how happy we had been the day before."
"Ah," she sighed, as the beauty widened before her of all her
memories, her thoughts, of all her soul, "love is not what they say it is. I,
too, was stirred with anguish. How I had to conceal it, dissimulating every sign
of my happiness, locking it hastily away within the coffer of my heart. At first
I was afraid to go to sleep for fear of saying your name in a dream, and often,
fighting against the stealthy invasion of sleep, I have leaned on my elbow, and
remained with wide-open eyes, watching heroically over my heart.
"I was afraid of being recognised. I was afraid people would see
the purity in which I was bathed. Yes, purity. When in the midst of life one
wakes up from life, and sees a different brilliance in the daylight, and
recreates everything, I call that purity.
. . . . .
"Do you remember the day we lost our way in the cab in Paris—the
day he thought he recognised us from a distance, and jumped into another cab to
She gave a start of ecstasy.
"Oh, yes," she murmured, "that was the great day!"
His voice quivered as if shaken by the throbbing of his heart,
and his heart said:
"Kneeling on the seat, you looked out of the little window in
the back of the cab and cried to me, 'He is nearer! He is further off! He will
catch us. I do not see him any more. He has lost us.' Ah!"
And with one and the same movement their lips joined.
She breathed out like a sigh:
"That was the one time I enjoyed."
"We shall always be afraid," he said.
These words interlaced and changed into kisses. Their whole life
surged into their lips.
Yes, they had to revive their past so as to love each other,
they had constantly to be reassembling the pieces so as to keep their love from
dying through staleness, as if they were undergoing, in darkness and in dust, in
an icy ebbing away, the ruin of old age, the impress of death.
They clasped each other.
They were drowned in the darkness. They fell down, down into the
shadows, into the abyss that they had willed.
"I will love you always."
But she and I both felt that he was lying again. We did not
deceive ourselves. But what matter, what matter?
Her lips on his lips, she murmured like a thorny caress among
"My husband will soon be home."
How little they really were at one! How, actually, there was
nothing but their fear that they had in common, and how they stirred their fear
up desperately. But their tremendous effort to commune somehow was soon to be
They stopped talking. Words had already accomplished the work of
reviving their love. She merely murmured:
"I am yours, I am yours. I give myself to you. No, I do not give
myself to you. How can I give myself when I do not belong to myself?"
"Are you happy?" she asked again.
"I swear you are everything in the world to me."
* * * * * * * * *
Now, she felt, their bliss had already become a mere memory, and
she said almost plaintively:
"May God bless the bit of pleasure one has."
A doleful lament, the first signal of a tremendous fall, a
prayer blasphemous yet divine.
I saw him look at the clock and at the door. He was thinking of
leaving. He turned his face gently away from a kiss she was about to give him.
There was a suggestion of uneasiness, almost disgust, in his expression.
"No," she said, "you are not going to love me always. You are
going to leave me. But I regret nothing. I never will regret anything.
Afterwards, when I return from—/this/—for good, to the great sorrow that will
never leave me again, I shall say, 'I have had a lover,' and I shall come out
from my nothingness to be happy for a moment."
He did not want to answer. He could not answer any more. He
"Why do you doubt me?"
But they turned their eyes toward the window. They were afraid,
they were cold. They looked down at the space between the two houses and saw a
vague remnant of twilight slip away like a ship of glory.
It seemed to me that the window beside them entered the scene.
They gazed at it, dim, immense, blotting out everything around it. After the
brief interval of sinful passion, they were overwhelmed as if, looking at the
stainless azure of the window, they had seen a vision. Then their eyes met.
"See, we stay here," she said, "looking at each other like two
They separated. He seated himself on a chair, a sorry figure in
His mouth was open, his face was contracted. His eyes and his
jaw were self-condemnatory. You expected that in a few moments he would become
emaciated, and you would see the eternal skeleton.
And at last both were alike in their setting, made so as much by
their misery as by their human form. The night swallowed them up. I no longer
. . . . .
Then, where is God, where is God? Why does He not intervene in
this frightful, regular crisis? Why does He not prevent, by a miracle, that
fearful miracle by which one who is adored suddenly or gradually comes to be
hated? Why does he not preserve man from having to mourn the loss of all his
dreams? Why does he not preserve him from the distress of that sensuousness
which flowers in his flesh and falls back on him again like spittle?
Perhaps because I am a man like the man in the room, like all
other men, perhaps because what is bestial engrosses my attention now, I am
utterly terrified by the invincible recoil of the flesh.
"It is everything in the world," he had said. "It is nothing,"
he had also said, but later. The echo of those two cries lingered in my ears.
Those two cries, not shouted but uttered in a low scarcely audible voice, who
shall declare their grandeur and the distance between them?
Who shall say? Above all, who shall know?
The man who can reply must be placed, as I am, above humanity,
he must be both among and apart from human beings to see the smile turn into
agony, the joy become satiety, and the union dissolve. For when you take full
part in life you do not see this, you know nothing about it. You pass blindly
from one extreme to the other. The man who uttered the two cries that I still
hear, "Everything!" and "Nothing!" had forgotten the first when he was carried
away by the second.
Who shall say? I wish some one would tell. What do words matter
or conventions? Of what use is the time-honoured custom of writers of genius or
mere talent to stop at the threshold of these descriptions, as if full
descriptions were forbidden? The thing ought to be sung in a poem, in a
masterpiece. It ought to be told down to the very bottom, if the purpose be to
show the creative force of our hopes, of our wishes, which, when they burst into
light, transform the world, overthrow reality.
What richer alms could you bestow on these two lovers, when
again love will die between them? For this scene is not the last in their double
story. They will begin again, like every human being. Once more they will try
together, as much as they can, to seek shelter from life's defeats, to find
ecstasy, to conquer death. Once more they will seek solace and deliverance.
Again they will be seized by a thrill, by the force of sin, which clings to the
flesh like a shred of flesh.
Yet once again, when once again they see that they put infinity
into desire all in vain, they will be punished for the grandeur of their
I do not regret having surprised this simple, terrible secret.
Perhaps my having taken in and retained this sight in all its breadth, my having
learned that the living truth is sadder and more sublime than I had ever
believed, will be my sole glory.
All was silent. They were gone. They had
hidden elsewhere. The husband was coming. I gathered that from what they had
said. But did I really know what they had said?
I paced up and down in my room, then dined, as in a dream, and
went out, lured by humanity.
A cafe! The bright lighting beckoned to me to enter. Calm,
simple, care-free people, who have no task like mine to accomplish.
Sitting by herself at a table, constantly looking around, was a
girl with a painted face. A full glass was set in front of her and she held a
little dog on her lap. His head reached over the edge of the marble table, and
he comically sued on behalf of his mistress for the glances, even the smiles of
The woman looked at me with interest. She saw I was not waiting
for anybody or anything.
A sign, a word, and she, who was waiting for everybody, would
come over to me with a smile. But no! I was simpler than that. If love troubled
me, it was because of a great thought and not a mere instinct.
It was my misfortune to have a dream greater and stronger than I
Woe to those who dream of what they do not possess! They are
right, but they are too right, and so are outside of nature. The simple, the
weak, the humble pass carelessly by what is not meant for them. They touch
everything lightly, without anguish. But the others! But I!
I wanted to take what was not mine. I wanted to steal. I wanted
to live all lives, to dwell in all hearts.
Ah! I saw now how I should be punished for having entered into
the living secrets of man. My punishment would fit my crime. I was destined to
undergo the infinite misery I read in the others. I was to be punished by every
mystery that kept its secret, by every woman who went by.
Infinity is not what we think. We associate it with heroes of
legend and romance, and we invest fiery, exceptional characters, like a Hamlet,
with infinity as with a theatrical costume. But infinity resides quietly in that
man who is just passing by on the street. It resides in me, just as I am, with
my ordinary face and name, in me, who want everything I have not. And there is
no reason why there should be any limits to what I want.
So, step by step, I followed the track of the infinite. It made
me suffer. Ah, if I did wrong, that great misery of mine, the tragedy of
striving for the impossible, redeemed me. But I do not believe in redemption. I
was suffering, and doubtless I looked like a martyr.
I had to go home to fulfil my martyrdom in the whole of its
wretched duration. I had to go on looking. I was losing time in the world
outside. I returned to my room, which welcomed me like a living being.
. . . . .
I passed two idle days, watching fruitlessly.
I took to my hasty pacing to and fro again and succeeded, not
without difficulty, in gaining a few days of respite, in making myself forget
for a while.
I dwelt within these walls quiet in a feverish sort of way and
inactive as a prisoner. I walked up and down my room a great part of the day,
attracted by the opening in the wall and not daring to go away to a distance
from it again.
The long hours went by, and in the evening I was worn out by my
. . . . .
The room was in disorder. Amy was there with her husband. They
had come back from a journey.
I had not heard them enter. I must have been too tired.
He had his hat on and was sitting on a chair beside the bed. She
was dressing. I saw her disappear behind the washroom door. I looked at the
husband. His features were regular and even seemed to show a certain nobility.
The line of his forehead was clear cut. Only his mouth and moustache were
somewhat coarse. He had a healthier, stronger appearance than her lover. His
hand, which was toying with a cane, was fine, and there was a forceful elegance
about his whole personality.
That was the man she hated and was deceiving. It was that head,
that face, that expression which had lowered and disfigured themselves in her
eyes, and were synonymous with her unhappiness.
All at once she was there in full view. My heart stood still and
contracted and drew me toward her. She had nothing on but a short, thin chemise.
She had come back a bit tired out by the thousands of little nothings she had
already done. She had a toothbrush in her hand, her lips were moist and red, her
hair dishevelled. Her legs were dainty, and the arch of her little feet was
accentuated by her high- heeled shoes.
The air in the closed room was heavy with a mixture of
odours—soap, face powder, the pungent scent of cologne.
She went out and came back again, warm and soapy, drying her
This time she was all fresh and rosy.
He was talking about something, with his legs stretched out a
little, sometimes looking at her, sometimes not looking at her.
"You know, the Bernards have not accepted."
He glanced at her, then looked down at the carpet and gave a
disappointed cluck with his tongue, absorbed in this matter that interested him,
while she kept going and coming, showing the lovely curves of her body.
She /was/ lovely. But her husband went on droning his
commonplaces, phrases that meant nothing to her, that were strange to her, and
that seemed blasphemous in the room which held her beauty.
She put her garments on, one by one. Her husband continued in
his bestial indifference, and dropped back into his reflections.
She went to the mirror over the mantelpiece with toilet articles
spread out before her. Probably the mirror in the washroom was too small.
While keeping on with her toilet, she spoke as if to herself in
a gay, animated, chatty way, because it was still the springtime of the day. She
gave herself careful attention and took much time to groom herself. But this was
an important matter, and the time was not lost. Besides, she was really
Now she went to a wardrobe and took out a light dress of
delicate texture, which she held out in her arms carefully.
She started to put the dress on, then an idea suddenly occurred
to her and she stopped.
"No, no, no, decidedly not," she said.
She put the dress back and looked for another one, a dark skirt
and a blouse.
She took a hat, fluffed the ribbon a bit, then held the trimming
of roses close to her face in front of the mirror. Then she began to sing,
. . . . .
He did not look at her, and when he did look at her, he did not
It was a solemn spectacle, a drama, but a drama dismal and
depressing. That man was not happy, and yet I envied him his happiness. How
explain this except by the fact that happiness is within us, within each of us,
and is the desire for what we do not possess?
These two were together, but in reality far apart. They had left
each other without leaving each other. A sort of intrigue about nothing held
them together. They would never come nearer again, for between them lay the
impassable barrier of love over and done with. This silence and this mutual
ignorance are the cruelest things in the world. To cease to love is worse than
to hate, for say what you will, death is worse than suffering.
I am sorry for the men and women who go through life together in
the chains of indifference. I am sorry for the poor heart that has what it has
for so short a time. I am sorry for the men who have the heart not to love any
And for a moment, seeing this simple harrowing scene, I
underwent a little of the enormous suffering of those innumerable people who
. . . . .
Amy finished dressing. She put on a coat to match her skirt,
leaving it partly open to show her transparent flesh-coloured lingerie waist.
Then she left us—her husband and me.
He, too, made ready to leave, but the door opened again. Was it
Amy coming back? No, it was the maid, who, seeing the room was occupied, started
"Excuse me, sir. I came to put the room in order, but I don't
want to disturb you."
"You may stay."
She began to pick things up and close drawers. He raised his
head and looked at her out of the corner of his eye. Then he rose and went over
to her awkwardly, as though fascinated. A scuffling and an outcry, stifled by a
coarse laugh. She dropped her brush and the gown she was holding. He caught her
from behind and put his arms around her waist.
"Oh, go on! Stop! What-che doing?"
He did not say anything, but pressed her closer to him.
She laughed. Her hair came partly undone and fell down over her
blowsy face. He trod on Amy's gown, which had dropped from the girl's hand. Then
she felt the thing had gone far enough.
"Now, that'll do, that'll do," she said.
Since he still said nothing and brought his jaw close to her
neck, she got angry.
"I told you, that'll do. Stop, I say. What's the matter with
At length he let her go, and left, laughing a devilish laugh of
shame and cynicism.
He went out, his passion still seething. But it was not only the
overwhelming instinct that was stirring in him. A moment before that exquisite
woman had unfolded herself in his presence in all her exquisite beauty, and he
had not desired her.
Perhaps she denied herself to him. Perhaps they had an agreement
with each other. But I plainly saw that even his eyes did not care, those same
eyes which kindled at the sight of the servant girl, that ignoble Venus with
untidy hair and dirty finger nails.
Because he did not know her, because she was different from the
one whom he knew. To have what one has not. So, strange as it may seem, it was
an idea, a lofty, eternal idea that guided his instinct.
I understood—I to whom it was given to behold these human
crises—I understood that many things which we place outside ourselves are really
inside ourselves, and that this was the secret.
How the veils drop off! How the intricacies unravel, and
. . . . .
One dark stormy night two women came and occupied the Room. I
could not see them and caught only fragments of their strange, whispered talk of
love. From that time on the meals of the boarding-house had a magic attraction
for me. I studied all the faces, trying to identify those two beings.
But I questioned pairs of faces in vain. I made efforts to
detect resemblances. There was nothing to guide me. I knew them no more than if
they had been buried in the dark night outside.
There were five girls or young women in the dining-room. One of
them, at least, must have been an occupant of the Room that night. But a
stronger will than mine shut off her countenance. I did not know, and I was
overwhelmed by the nothingness of what I saw.
They left, one at a time. I did not know. My hands twitched in
the infinity of uncertainty, and my fingers pressed the void. My face was there,
my face, which was a definite thing, confronting everything possible, everything
. . . . .
The lady there! I recognised Amy. She was talking to the
landlady beside the window. I did not notice her at first, because of the other
boarders between us.
She was eating grapes, daintily, with a rather studied manner.
I turned towards her. Her name was Madame Montgeron or
Montgerot. It sounded funny to me. Why did she have that name? It seemed not to
suit her, or to be useless. It struck me how artificial words and signs are.
The meal was over. Almost everybody had gone out. Coffee cups
and sticky little liqueur glasses were scattered on the table on which a sunbeam
shone, mottling the tablecloth and making the glasses sparkle. A coffee stain
had dried on the cloth and gave out fragrance.
I joined in the conversation between Amy and Madame Lemercier.
She looked at me. I scarcely recognised her look, which I had seen so clearly
The man-servant came in and whispered a few words to Madame
She rose, excused herself, and went out of the room. I was left with
Amy. There were only two or three people in the dining-room, who were
discussing what they were going to do in the afternoon.
I did not know what to say to her. The conversation flagged and
died out. She must have thought that she did not interest me—this woman, whose
heart I had seen, and whose destiny I knew as well as God Himself.
She reached for a newspaper lying on the table, read a line or
two, then folded it, rose and also left the room.
Sickened by the commonplaceness of life and dull from the
heaviness of the after-lunch hour, I leaned drowsily on the long, long table,
the sunlit table disappearing into infinity, and I made an effort to keep my
arms from giving way, my chin from dropping, and my eyes from closing.
And in that disorderly room, where the servants were already
hastening quietly to clear the table and make ready for the evening meal, I
lingered almost alone, not knowing whether I was happy or unhappy, not knowing
what was real and what was supernatural.
Then I understood. It came upon me softly, heavily. I looked
around at all those simple, peaceful things. Then I closed my eyes, and said to
myself, like a seer who gradually becomes conscious of the nature of the
revelation he has seen, "The infinite—why, this is the infinite. It is true. I
can no longer doubt." It came upon me with force that there is nothing strange
on earth, that the supernatural does not exist, or, rather, that it is
everywhere. It is in reality, in simplicity, in peace. It is here, inside these
walls. The real and the supernatural are one and the same. There can no more be
mystery in life than there can be a fourth dimension.
I, like other men, am moulded out of infinity. But how confused
it all was to me! And I dreamed of myself, who could neither know myself well
nor rid me of myself—myself who was like a deep shadow between my heart and the
The same background, the same half-light
tarnishing them as when I first saw them together. Amy and her lover were seated
beside each other, not far from me.
They seemed to have been talking for some time already.
She was sitting behind him, on the sofa, concealed by the shadow
of the evening and the shadow of the man. He was bending over, pale and vaguely
outlined, with his hands on his knees.
The night was still cloaked in the grey silken softness of
evening. Soon it would cast off this mantle and appear in all its bare darkness.
It was coming on them like an incurable illness. They seemed to have a
presentiment of it and sought refuge from the fatal shadows in talking and
thinking of other things.
They talked apathetically about this and that. I heard the names
of places and people. They mentioned a railway station, a public walk, a
All at once she stopped and hid her face in her hands.
He took her wrists, with a sad slowness that showed how much he
was used to these spells, and spoke to her without knowing what to say,
stammering and drawing as close as he could to her.
"Why are you crying? Tell me why you are crying."
She did not answer. Then she took her hands away from her eyes
and looked at him.
"Why? Do I know? Tears are not words."
. . . . .
I watched her cry—drown herself in a flood of tears. It is a
great thing to be in the presence of a rational being who cries. A weak, broken
creature shedding tears makes the same impression as an all- powerful god to
whom one prays. In her weakness and defeat Amy was above human power.
A kind of superstitious admiration seized me before this woman's
face bathed from an inexhaustible source, this face sincere and truthful.
. . . . .
She stopped crying and lifted her head. Without his questioning
her again she said:
"I am crying because one is alone.
"One cannot get away from one's self. One cannot even confess
anything. One is alone. And then everything passes, everything changes,
everything takes flight, and as soon as everything takes flight one is alone.
There are times when I see this better than at other times. And then I cannot
She was getting sadder and sadder, but then she had a little
access of pride, and I saw a smile gently stir her veil of melancholy.
"I am more sensitive than other people. Things that other people
would not notice awaken a distinct echo in me, and in such moments of lucidity,
when I look at myself, I see that I am alone, all alone, all alone."
Disturbed to see her growing distress, he tried to raise her
"We cannot say that, we who have reshaped our destiny. You, who
have achieved a great act of will—"
But what he said was borne away like chaff.
"What good was it? Everything is useless. In spite of what I
have tried to do, I am alone. My sin cannot change the face of things.
"It is not by sin that we attain happiness, nor is it by virtue,
nor is it by that kind of divine fire by which one makes great instinctive
decisions and which is neither good nor evil. It is by none of these things that
one reaches happiness. One /never/ reaches happiness."
She paused, and said, as if she felt her fate recoiling upon
"Yes, I know I have done wrong, that those who love me most
would detest me if they knew. My mother, if she knew—she who is so
indulgent—would be so unhappy. I know that our love exists with the reprobation
of all that is wise and just and is condemned by my mother's tears. But what's
the use of being ashamed any more? Mother, if you knew, you would have pity on
"You are naughty," he murmured feebly.
She stroked the man's forehead lightly, and said in a tone of
"You know I don't deserve to be called naughty. You know what I
am saying is above a personal application. You know better than I do that one is
alone. One day when I was speaking about the joy of living and you were as sad
as I am to-day, you looked at me, and said you did not know what I was thinking,
in spite of my explanations. You showed me that love is only a kind of festival
of solitude, and holding me in your arms, you ended by exclaiming, 'Our love—I
am our love,' and I gave the inevitable answer, alas, 'Our love—I am our love.'"
He wanted to speak, but she checked him.
"Stop! Take me, squeeze my hands, hold me close, give me a long,
long kiss, do with me what you want—just to bring yourself close to me, close to
me! And tell me that you are suffering. Why, don't you feel /my/ grief?"
He said nothing, and in the twilight shroud that wrapped them
round, I saw his head make the needless gesture of denial. I saw all the misery
emanating from these two, who for once by chance in the shadows did not know how
to lie any more.
It was true that they were there together, and yet there was
nothing to unite them. There was a void between them. Say what you will, do what
you will, revolt, break into a passion, dispute, threaten—in vain. Isolation
will conquer you. I saw there was nothing to unite them, nothing.
She kept on in the same strain.
He seemed to be used to these sad monologues, uttered in the
same tone, tremendous invocations to the impossible. He did not answer any more.
He held her in his arms, rocked her quietly, and caressed her with delicate
tenderness. He treated her as if she were a sick child he was nursing, without
telling her what was the matter.
But he was disturbed by her contact. Even when prostrate and
desolate, she quivered warm in his arms. He coveted this prey even though
wounded. I saw his eyes fixed on her, while she gave herself up freely to her
sadness. He pressed his body against hers. It was she whom he wanted. Her words
he threw aside. He did not care for them. They did not caress him. It was she
whom he wanted, she!
Separation! They were very much alike in ideas and temperament,
and just then they were helping each other as much as they could. But I saw
clearly—I who was a spectator apart from men and whose gaze soared above
them—that they were strangers, and that in spite of all appearances they did not
see nor hear each other any more. They conversed as best they could, but neither
could yield to the other, and each tried to conquer the other. And this terrible
battle broke my heart.
. . . . .
She understood his desire. She said plaintively, like a child at
"I am not feeling well."
Then, in a sudden change of mood, she gave herself up to love,
offering her whole self with her wounded woman's heart.
* * * * * * * * *
They rose and shook off the dream that had cast them to the
He was as dejected as she. I bent over to catch what he was
"If I had only known!" he breathed in a whisper.
Prostrated but more distrustful of each other with a crime
between them, they went slowly over to the grey window, cleansed by a streak of
How much they were like themselves on the other evening. It
/was/ the other evening. Never had the impression been borne in upon me so
strongly that actions are vain and pass like phantoms.
The man was seized with a trembling. And, vanquished, despoiled
of all his pride, of all his masculine reserve, he no longer had the strength to
keep back the avowal of shamed regret.
"One can't master one's self," he stammered, hanging his head.
"It is fate."
They caught hold of each other's hands, shuddered slightly,
panting, dispirited, tormented by their hearts.
. . . . .
In so speaking they saw further than the flesh. In their remorse
and disgust it was not mere physical disillusionment that so crushed them. They
saw further. They were overcome by an impression of bleak truth, of aridity, of
growing nothingness, at the thought that they had so many times grasped,
rejected, and vainly grasped again their frail carnal ideal.
They felt that everything was fleeting, that everything wore
out, that everything that was not dead would die, and that even the illusory
ties holding them together would not endure. Their sadness did not bring them
together. On the contrary, they were separated by all the force of their two
sorrows. To suffer together, alas, what disunion!
And the condemnation of love itself came from her, in a cry of
"Oh, our great, our immense love! I feel that little by little I
am recovering from it!"
. . . . .
She threw back her head, and raised her eyes.
"Oh, the first time!" she said.
She went on, while both of them saw that first time when their
hands had found each other.
"I knew that some day all that emotion would die, and, in spite
of our promises, I wanted time to stand still.
"But time did not stand still, and now we scarcely love each
He made a gesture as of denial.
"It is not only you, my dear, who are drifting away," she
continued. "I am, too. At first I thought it was only you. But then I understood
my poor heart and realised that in spite of you, I could do nothing against
She went on slowly, now with her eyes turned away, now looking
"Alas, some day, I may say to you, 'I no longer love you.' Alas,
alas, some day I may say to you, 'I have never loved you!'
"This is the wound—time, which passes and changes us. The
separation of human beings that deceive themselves is nothing in comparison. One
can live even so. But the passage of time! To grow old, to think differently, to
die. I am growing old and I am dying, I. It has taken me a long time to
understand it. I am growing old. I /am/ not old, but I am growing old. I have a
few grey hairs already. The first grey hair, what a blow!
"Oh, this blotting out of the colour of your hair. It gives you
the feeling of being covered with your shroud, of dry bones, and tombstones."
She rose and cried out into the void:
"Oh, to escape the network of wrinkles!"
. . . . .
"I said to myself, 'By slow degrees you will get there. Your
skin will wither. Your eyes, which smile even in repose, will always be
watering. Your breasts will shrink and hang on your skeleton like loose rags.
Your lower jaw will sag from the tiredness of living. You will be in a constant
shiver of cold, and your appearance will be cadaverous. Your voice will be
cracked, and people who now find it charming to listen to you will be repelled.
The dress that hides you too much now from men's eyes will not sufficiently hide
your monstrous nudity, and people will turn their eyes away and not even dare to
think of you.'"
She choked and put her hands to her mouth, overcome by the
truth, as if she had too much to say. It was magnificent and terrifying.
He caught her in his arms, in dismay. But she was as in a
delirium, transported by a universal grief. You would have thought that this
funereal truth had just come to her like a sudden piece of bad news.
"I love you, but I love the past even more. I long for it, I
long for it, I am consumed with longing for it. The past! I shall cry, I shall
suffer because the past will never come back again.
"But love the past as much as you will, it will never come back.
Death is everywhere, in the ugliness of what has been too long beautiful, in the
tarnishing of what has been clean and pure, in the forgetfulness of what is long
past, in daily habits, which are the forgetfulness of what is near. We catch
only glimpses of life. Death is the one thing we really have time to see. Death
is the only palpable thing. Of what use is it to be beautiful and chaste? They
will walk over our graves just the same.
"A day is coming when I shall be no more. I am crying because I
shall surely die. There is an invincible nothingness in everything and
everybody. So when one thinks of that, dear, one smiles and forgives. One does
not bear grudges. But goodness won in that way is worse than anything else."
. . . . .
He bent over and kissed her hands. He enveloped her in a warm,
respectful silence, but, as always, I felt he was master of himself.
"I have always thought of death," she continued in a changed
voice. "One day I confessed to my husband how it haunted me. He launched out
furiously. He told me I was a neurasthenic and that he must look after me. He
made me promise to be like himself and never think of such things, to be healthy
and well-balanced, as he was.
"That was not true. It was he who suffered from the disease of
tranquillity and indifference, a paralysis, a grey malady, and his blindness was
an infirmity, and his peace was that of a dog who lives for the sake of living,
of a beast with a human face.
"What was I to do? Pray? No. That eternal dialogue in which you
are always alone is crushing. Throw yourself into some occupation? Work? No use.
Doesn't work always have to be done over again? Have children and bring them up?
That makes you feel both that you are done and finished and that you are
beginning over again to no purpose. However, who knows?"
It was the first time that she softened.
"I have not been given the chance to practise the devotion, the
submission, the humiliation of a mother. Perhaps that would have guided me in
life. I was denied a little child."
For a moment, lowering her eyes, letting her hands fall,
yielding to the maternal impulse, she only thought of loving and regretting the
child that had not been vouchsafed to her—without perceiving that if she
considered it her only possible salvation, it was because she did not have it.
"Charity? They say that it makes us forget everything. Oh, yes,
to go distributing alms on the snowy streets, in a great fur cloak," she
murmured and made a tired gesture, while the lover and I felt the shiver of the
cold rainy evening and of all the winters past and yet to come.
"All that is diversion, deception. It does not alter the truth a
particle. We shall die, we are going to die."
She stopped crying, dried her eyes and assumed a tone so
positive and calm that it gave the impression that she was leaving the subject.
"I want to ask you a question. Answer me frankly. Have you ever
dared, dear, even in the depths of your heart, to set a date, a date relatively
far off, but exact and absolute, with four figures, and to say, 'No matter how
old I shall live to be, on that day I shall be dead—while everything else will
go on, and little by little my empty place will be destroyed or filled again?'"
The directness of her question disturbed him. But it seemed to
me that he tried most to avoid giving her a reply that would heighten her
And all at once, she remembered something he had once said to
her, and cleverly reminded him of it so as to close his mouth in advance and
torture herself still more.
"Do you remember? One evening, by lamplight. I was looking
through a book. You were watching me. You came to me, you knelt down and put
your arms around my waist, and laid your head in my lap. There were tears in
your eyes. I can still hear you. 'I am thinking,' you said, 'that this moment
will never come again. I am thinking that you are going to change, to die, and
go away. I am thinking so truly, so hotly, how precious these moments are, how
precious you are, you who will never again be just what you are now, and I adore
your ineffable presence as it is now.' You looked at my hand, you found it small
and white, and you said it was an extraordinary treasure, which would disappear.
Then you repeated, 'I adore you,' in a voice which trembled so, that I have
never heard anything truer or more beautiful, for you were right as a god is
"Alas!" he said.
He saw the tears in her eyes. Then he bowed his head. When he
lifted it again, I had a vague intuition that he would know what to answer, but
had not yet formulated how to say it.
"Poor creatures, a brief existence, a few stray thoughts in the
depths of a room—that is what we are," she said, lifting her head and looking at
him, hoping for an impossible contradiction, as a child cries for a star.
"Who knows what we are?"
. . . . .
She interrupted him with a gesture of infinite weariness.
"I know what you are going to say. You are going to talk to me
about the beauty of suffering. I know your noble ideas. I love them, my love,
your beautiful theories, but I do not believe in them. I would believe them if
they consoled me and effaced death."
With a manifest effort, as uncertain of himself as she was of
herself, feeling his way, he replied:
"They would efface it, perhaps, if you believed in them."
She turned toward him and took one of his hands in both of hers.
She questioned him with inexorable patience, then she slipped to her knees
before him, like a lifeless body, humbled herself in the dust, wrecked in the
depths of despair, and implored him:
"Oh, answer me! I should be so happy if you could answer me. I
feel as though you really could!"
He bent over her, as if on the edge of an abyss of questioning:
"Do you know what we are?" he murmured. "Everything we say, everything
we think, everything we believe, is fictitious. We know nothing.
Nothing is sure or solid."
"You are wrong," she cried. "There /is/ something absolute, our
sorrow, our need, our misery. We can see and touch it. Deny everything else, but
our beggary, who can deny that?"
"You are right," he said, "it is the only absolute thing in the
. . . . .
"Then, /we/ are the only absolute thing in the world," he
He caught at this. He had found a fulcrum. "We—" he said. He had
found the cry against death, he repeated it, and tried again. "We—"
It was sublime to see him beginning to resist.
"It is we who endure forever."
"Endure forever! On the contrary, it is we who pass away."
"We see things pass, but we endure."
She shrugged her shoulders with an air of denial. There almost
was hatred in her voice as she said:
"Yes—no—perhaps. After all, what difference does it make to me?
That does not console me."
"Who knows—maybe we need sadness and shadow, to make joy and
"Light would exist without shadow," she insisted.
"No," he said gently.
"That does not console me," she said again.
. . . . .
Then he remembered that he had already thought out all these
"Listen," he said, in a voice tremulous and rather solemn as if
he were making a confession. "I once imagined two beings who were at the end of
their life, and were recalling all they had suffered."
"A poem!" she said, discouraged.
"Yes," he said, "one of those which might be so beautiful."
It was remarkable to see how animated he became. For the first
time he appeared sincere—when abandoning the living example of their own destiny
for the fiction of his imagination. In referring to his poem, he had trembled.
You felt he was becoming his genuine self and that he had faith. She raised her
head to listen, moved by her tenacious need of hearing something, though she had
no confidence in it.
"The man and the woman are believers," he began. "They are at
the end of their life, and they are happy to die for the reasons that one is sad
to live. They are a kind of Adam and Eve who dream of the paradise to which they
are going to return. The paradise of purity. Paradise is light. Life on earth is
obscurity. That is the motif of the song I have sketched, the light that they
desire, the shadow that they are."
"Like us," said Amy.
He told of the life of the man and the woman of his poem. Amy
listened to him, and accepted what he was saying. Once she put her hands on her
heart and said, "Poor people!" Then she got a little excited. She felt he was
going too far. She did not wish so much darkness, maybe because she was tired or
because the picture when painted by some one else seemed exaggerated.
Dream and reality here coincided. The woman of the poem also
protested at this point.
I was carried away by the poet's voice, as he recited, swaying
slightly, in the spell of the harmony of his own dream:
"At the close of a life of pain and suffering the woman still
looked ahead with the curiosity she had when she entered life. Eve ended as she
had begun. All her subtle eager woman's soul climbed toward the secret as if it
were a kind of kiss on the lips of her life. She wanted to be happy."
Amy was now more interested in her companion's words. The curse
of the lovers in the poem, sister to the curse she felt upon herself, gave her
confidence. But her personality seemed to be shrinking. A few moments before she
had dominated everything. Now she was listening, waiting, absorbed.
"The lover reproached the woman for contradicting herself in
claiming earthly and celestial happiness at the same time. She answered him with
profundity, that the contradiction lay not in herself, but in the things she
"The lover then seized another healing wand and with desperate
eagerness, he explained, he shouted, 'Divine happiness has not the same form as
human happiness. Divine happiness is outside of ourselves.'
"The woman rose, trembling.
"'That is not true! That is not true!' she exclaimed. 'No, my
happiness is not outside of me, seeing it is /my/ happiness. The universe is
God's universe, but I am the god of my own happiness. What I want,' she added,
with perfect simplicity, 'is to be happy, I, just as I am, and with all my
Amy started. The woman in the poem had put her problem in a
clearer and deeper manner, and Amy was more like that woman than herself.
"'I, with all my suffering,' the man repeated.
"Suffering—important word! It leads us to the heart of reality.
Human suffering is a positive thing, which requires a positive answer, and sad
as it is, the word is beautiful, because of the absolute truth it contains. 'I,
with all my suffering!' It is an error to believe that we can be happy in
perfect calm and clearness, as abstract as a formula. We are made too much out
of shadow and some form of suffering. If everything that hurts us were to be
removed, what would remain?
"And the woman said, 'My God, I do not wish for heaven!'"
"Well, then," said Amy, trembling, "it follows that we can be
miserable in paradise."
"Paradise is life," said the poet.
Amy was silent and remained with her head lifted, comprehending
at last that the whole poem was simply a reply to her question and that he had
revived in her soul a loftier and a juster thought.
"Life is exalted to perfection as it ends," the poet went on.
"'It is beautiful to reach the end of one's days,' said the lover. 'It is in
this way that we have lived paradise.'
"There is the truth," the poet concluded. "It does not wipe out
death. It does not diminish space, nor halt time. But it makes us what we are in
essential. Happiness needs unhappiness. Joy goes hand in hand with sorrow. It is
thanks to the shadow that we exist. We must not dream of an absurd abstraction.
We must guard the bond that links us to blood and earth. 'Just as I am!'
Remember that. We are a great mixture. We are more than we believe. Who knows
what we are?"
On the woman's face, which the terror of death had rigidly
contracted, a smile dawned. She asked with childish dignity:
"Why did you not tell me this right away when I asked you?"
"You would not have understood me then. You had run your dream
of distress into a blind alley. I had to take the truth along a different way so
as to present it to you anew."
. . . . .
After that they fell silent. For a fraction of time they had
come as close to each other as human beings can come down here below—because of
their august assent to the lofty truth, to the arduous truth (for it is hard to
understand that happiness is at the same time happy and unhappy). She believed
him, however, she, the rebel, she, the unbeliever, to whom he had given a true
heart to touch.
The window was wide open. In the dusty
rays of the sunset I saw three people with their backs to the long reddish-brown
beams of light. An old man, with a care-worn, exhausted appearance and a face
furrowed with wrinkles, seated in the armchair near the window. A tall young
woman with very fair hair and the face of a madonna. And, a little apart, a
woman who was pregnant.
She held her eyes fixed in front of her, seeming to contemplate
the future. She did not enter into the conversation, perhaps because of her
humbler condition, or because her thoughts were bent upon the event to come. The
two others were conversing. The man had a cracked, uneven voice. A slight
feverish tremour sometimes shook his shoulders, and now and then he gave a
sudden involuntary jerk. The fire had died out of his eyes and his speech had
traces of a foreign accent. The woman sat beside him quietly. She had the
fairness and gentle calm of the northern races, so white and light that the
daylight seemed to die more slowly than elsewhere upon her pale silver face and
the abundant aureole of her hair.
Were they father and daughter or brother and sister? It was
plain that he adored her but that she was not his wife.
With his dimmed eyes he looked at the reflection of the sunlight
"Some one is going to be born, and some one is going to die," he
The other woman started, while the man's companion cried in a
low tone, bending over him quickly.
"Oh, Philip, don't say that."
He seemed indifferent to the effect he had produced, as though
her protest had not been sincere, or else were in vain.
Perhaps, after all, he was not an old man. His hair seemed to me
scarcely to have begun to turn grey. But he was in the grip of a mysterious
illness, which he did not bear well. He was in a constant state of irritation.
He had not long to live. That was apparent from unmistakable signs—the look of
pity in the woman's eyes mingled with discreetly veiled alarm, and an oppressive
atmosphere of mourning.
. . . . .
With a physical effort he began to speak so as to break the
silence. As he was sitting between me and the open window, some of the things he
said were lost in the air.
He spoke of his travels, and, I think, also of his marriage, but
I did not hear well.
He became animated, and his voice rose painfully. He quivered. A
restrained passion enlivened his gestures and glances and warmed his language.
You could tell that he must have been an active brilliant man before his
He turned his head a little and I could hear him better.
He told of the cities and countries that he had visited. It was
like an invocation to sacred names, to far-off different skies, Italy, Egypt,
India. He had come to this room to rest, between two stations, and he was
resting uneasily, like an escaped convict. He said he would have to leave again,
and his eyes sparkled. He spoke of what he still wanted to see. But the twilight
deepened, the warmth left the air, and all he thought of now was what he had
seen in the past.
"Think of everything we have seen, of all the space we bring
They gave the impression of a group of travellers, never in
repose, forever in flight, arrested for a moment in their insatiable course, in
a corner of the world which you felt was made small by their presence.
. . . . .
Not daring to advance into the future, he intoxicated himself
with these recollections. I saw the effort he was making to draw near to some
luminous point in the days gone by.
"Carpi, Carpi," he cried. "Anna, do you remember that wonderful
brilliant morning? The ferryman and his wife were at table in the open air. What
a glow over the whole country! The table, round and pale like a star. The stream
sparkling. The banks bordered with oleander and tamarisk. The sun made a flower
of every leaf. The grass shone as if it were full of dew. The shrubs seemed
bejewelled. The breeze was so faint that it was a smile, not a sigh."
She listened to him, placid, deep, and limpid as a mirror.
"The whole of the ferryman's family," he continued, "was not
there. The young daughter was dreaming on a rustic seat, far enough away not to
hear them. I saw the light-green shadow that the tree cast upon her, there at
the edge of the forest's violet mystery.
"And I can still hear the flies buzzing in that Lombardy summer
over the winding river which unfolded its charms as we walked along the banks."
"The greatest impression I ever had of noonday sunlight," he
continued, "was in London, in a museum. An Italian boy in the dress of his
country, a model, was standing in front of a picture which represented a
sunlight effect on a Roman landscape. The boy held his head stretched out. Amid
the immobility of the indifferent attendants, and in the dampness and drabness
of a London day, this Italian boy radiated light. He was deaf to everything
around him, full of secret sunlight, and his hands were almost clasped. He was
praying to the divine picture."
"We saw Carpi again," said Anna. "We had to pass through it by
chance in November. It was very cold. We wore all our furs, and the river was
"Yes, and we walked on the ice."
He paused for a moment, then asked:
"Why are certain memories imperishable?"
He buried his face in his nervous hands and sighed:
"Why, oh, why?"
"Our oasis," Anna said, to assist him in his memories, or
perhaps because she shared in the intoxication of reviving them, "was the corner
where the lindens and acacias were on your estate in the government of Kiev. One
whole side of the lawn was always strewn with flowers in summer and leaves in
"I can still see my father there," he said. "He had a kind face.
He wore a great cloak of shaggy cloth, and a felt cap pulled down over his ears.
He had a large white beard, and his eyes watered a little from the cold."
"Why," he wondered after a pause, "do I think of my father that
way and no other way? I do not know, but that is the way he will live in me.
That is the way he will not die."
. . . . .
The day was declining. The woman seemed to stand out in greater
relief against the other two and become more and more beautiful.
I saw the man's silhouette on the faded curtains, his back bent,
his head shaking as in a palsy and his neck strained and emaciated.
With a rather awkward movement he drew a case of cigarettes from
his pocket and lit a cigarette.
As the eager little light rose and spread like a glittering
mask, I saw his ravaged features. But when he started to smoke in the twilight,
all you could see was the glowing cigarette, shaken by an arm as unsubstantial
as the smoke that came from it.
It was not tobacco that he was smoking. The odour of a drug
He held out his hand feebly toward the closed window, modest
with its half-lifted curtains.
"Look—Benares and Allahabad. A sumptuous
ceremony—tiaras—insignia, and women's ornaments. In the foreground, the high
priest, with his elaborate head-dress in tiers—a vague pagoda, architecture,
epoch, race. How different we are from those creatures. Are /they/ right or are
Now he extended the circle of the past, with a mighty effort.
"Our travels—all those bonds one leaves behind. All useless.
Travelling does not make us greater. Why should the mere covering of ground make
The man bowed his wasted head.
. . . . .
He who had just been in ecstasy now began to complain.
"I keep remembering—I keep remembering. My heart has no pity on
"Ah," he mourned, a moment afterwards, with a gesture of
resignation, "we cannot say good-by to everything."
The woman was there, but she could do nothing, although so
greatly adored. She was there with only her beauty. It was a superhuman vision
that he evoked, heightened by regret, by remorse and greed. He did not want it
to end. He wanted it back again. He loved his past.
Inexorable, motionless, the past is endowed with the attributes
of divinity, because, for believers as well as for unbelievers, the great
attribute of God is that of being prayed to.
. . . . .
The pregnant woman had gone out. I saw her go to the door,
softly with maternal carefulness of herself.
Anna and the sick man were left alone. The evening had a
gripping reality. It seemed to live, to be firmly rooted, and to hold its place.
Never before had the room been so full of it.
"One more day coming to an end," he said, and went on as if
pursuing his train of thought:
"We must get everything ready for our marriage."
"Michel!" cried the young woman instinctively, as if she could
not hold the name back.
"Michel will not be angry at us," the man replied. "He knows you
love him, Anna. He will not be frightened by a formality, pure and simple— by a
marriage /in extremis,"/ he added emphatically, smiling as though to console
They looked at each other. He was dry, feverish. His words came
from deep down in his being. She trembled.
With his eyes on her, so white and tall and radiant, he made a
visible effort to hold himself in, as if not daring to reach her with a single
word. Then he let himself go.
"I love you so much," he said simply.
"Ah," she answered, "you will not die!"
"How good you were," he replied, "to have been willing to be my
sister for so long!"
"Think of all you have done for me!" she exclaimed, clasping her
hands and bending her magnificent body toward him, as if prostrating herself
You could tell that they were speaking open-heartedly. What a
good thing it is to be frank and speak without reticence, without the shame and
guilt of not knowing what one is saying and for each to go straight to the
other. It is almost a miracle.
They were silent. He closed his eyes, though continuing to see
her, then opened them again and looked at her.
"You are my angel who do not love me."
His face clouded. This simple sight overwhelmed me. It was the
infiniteness of a heart partaking of nature—this clouding of his face.
I saw with what love he lifted himself up to her. She knew it.
There was a great gentleness in her words, in her attitude toward him, which in
every little detail showed that she knew his love. She did not encourage him, or
lie to him, but whenever she could, by a word, by a gesture, or by some
beautiful silence, she would try to console him a little for the harm she did
him by her presence and by her absence.
After studying her face again, while the shadow drew him still
nearer to her in spite of himself, he said:
"You are the sad confidante of my love of you."
He spoke of their marriage again. Since all preparations had
been made, why not marry at once?
"My fortune, my name, Anna, the chaste love that will be left to
you from me when—when I shall be gone."
He wanted to transform his caress—too light, alas—into a lasting
benefit for the vague future. For the present all he aspired to was the feeble
and fictitious union implied in the word marriage.
"Why speak of it?" she said, instead of giving a direct answer,
feeling an almost insurmountable repugnance, doubtless because of her love for
Michel, which the sick man had declared in her stead. While she had consented in
principle to marrying him and had allowed the preliminary steps to be taken, she
had never replied definitely to his urgings.
But it looked to me as if she were about to make a different
decision, one contrary to her material interests, in all the purity of her soul,
which was so transparent—the decision to give herself to him freely.
"Tell me!" he murmured.
There was almost a smile on her mouth, the mouth to which
supplications had been offered as to an altar.
The dying man, feeling that she was about to accept, murmured:
"I love life." He shook his head. "I have so little time left,
so little time that I do not want to sleep at night any more."
Then he paused and waited for her to speak.
"Yes," she said, and lightly touched—hardly grazed—the old man's
hand with her own.
And in spite of myself, my inexorable, attentive eye could not
help detecting the stamp of theatrical solemnity, of conscious grandeur in her
gesture. Even though devoted and chaste, without any ulterior motive, her
sacrifice had a self-glorifying pride, which I perceived—I who saw everything.
. . . . .
In the boarding-house, the strangers were the sole topic of
conversation. They occupied three rooms and had a great deal of baggage, and the
man seemed to be very rich, though simple in his tastes. They were to stay in
Paris until the young woman's delivery, in a month or so. She expected to go to
a hospital nearby. But the man was very ill, they said. Madame Lemercier was
extremely annoyed. She was afraid he would die in her house. She had made
arrangements by correspondence, otherwise she would not have taken these people
in—in spite of the tone that their wealth might give to her house. She hoped he
would last long enough to be able to leave. But when you spoke to her, she
seemed to be worried.
When I saw him again, I felt he was really going to die soon. He
sat in his chair, collapsed, with his elbows on the arms of the chair and his
hands drooping. It seemed difficult for him to look at things, and he held his
face bowed down, so that the light from the window did not reveal his pupils,
but only the edge of the lower lids, which gave the impression of his eyes
having been put out. I remembered what the poet had said, and I trembled before
this man whose life was over, who reviewed almost his entire existence like a
terrible sovereign, and was wrapped in a beauty that was of God.
Some one knocked at the door.
It was time for the doctor. The sick man raised himself
uncertainly in awe of the master.
"How have you been to-day?"
"Well, well," the doctor said lightly.
They were left alone together. The man dropped down again with a
slowness and awkwardness that would have seemed ridiculous if it had not been so
sad. The doctor stood between us.
"How has your heart been behaving?"
By an instinct which seemed tragic to me, they both lowered
their voices, and in a low tone the sick man gave his daily account of the
progress of his malady.
The man of science listened, interrupted, and nodded his head in
approval. He put an end to the recital by repeating his usual meaningless
assurances, in a raised voice now and with his usual broad gesture.
"Well, well, I see there's nothing new."
He shifted his position and I saw the patient, his drawn
features and wild eyes. He was all shaken up by this talking about the dreadful
riddle of his illness.
He calmed himself, and began to converse with the doctor, who
let himself down squarely into a chair, with an affable manner. He started
several topics, then in spite of himself returned to the sinister thing he
carried within him, his disease.
"Disgusting!" he said.
"Bah!" said the doctor, who was blasé.
Then he rose.
"Well, till to-morrow!"
"Yes, for the consultation."
"Yes. Well, good-by!"
The doctor went out, lightly carrying the burden of misery and
cruel memories, the weight of which he had ceased to feel.
. . . . .
Evidently the consulting physicians had just finished their
examination of the patient in another room. The door opened, and two doctors
Their manner seemed to me to be stiff. One of them was a young
man, the other an old man.
They looked at each other. I tried to penetrate the silence of
their eyes and the night in their heads. The older man stroked his beard, leaned
against the mantelpiece, and stared at the ground.
"Hopeless," he said, lowering his voice, for fear of being
overheard by the patient.
The other nodded his head—in sign of agreement—of complicity,
you might say. Both men fell silent like two guilty children. Their eyes met
"How old is he?"
"Lucky to live so long," the young doctor remarked.
To which the old man retorted philosophically:
"Yes, indeed. But his luck won't hold out any longer."
A silence. The man with the grey beard murmured:
"I detected sarcoma." He put his finger on his neck. "Right
The other man nodded—his head seemed to be nodding
"Yes. There's no possibility of operating."
"Of course not," said the old specialist, his eyes shining with
a kind of sinister irony. "There's only one thing that could remove it—the
guillotine. Besides, the malignant condition has spread. There is pressure upon
the submaxillary and subclavicular ganglia, and probably the axillary ganglia
also. His respiration, circulation and digestion will soon be obstructed and
strangulation will be rapid."
He sighed and stood with an unlighted cigar in his mouth, his
face rigid, his arms folded. The young man sat down, leaning back in his chair,
and tapped the marble mantelpiece with his idle fingers.
"What shall I tell the young woman?"
"Put on a subdued manner and tell her it is serious, very
serious, but no one can tell, nature is infinitely resourceful."
"That's so hackneyed."
"So much the better," said the old man.
"But if she insists on knowing?"
"Don't give in."
"Shall we not hold out a little hope? She is so young."
"No. For that very reason we mustn't. She'd become too hopeful.
My boy, never say anything superfluous at such a time. There's no use. The only
result is to make them call us ignoramuses and hate us."
"Does he realise?"
"I do not know. While I examined him—you heard—I tried to find
out by asking questions. Once I thought he had no suspicion at all. Then he
seemed to understand his case as well as I did."
"Sarcoma forms like the human embryo," said the younger doctor.
"Yes, like the human embryo," the other assented and entered
into a long elaboration of this idea.
"The germ acts on the cell, as Lancereaux has pointed out, in
the same way as a spermatozoon. It is a micro-organism which penetrates the
tissue, and selects and impregnates it, sets it vibrating, gives it /another
life./ But the exciting agent of this intracellular activity, instead of being
the normal germ of life, is a parasite."
He went on to describe the process minutely and in highly
scientific terms, and ended up by saying:
"The cancerous tissue never achieves full development. It keeps
on without ever reaching a limit. Yes, cancer, in the strictest sense of the
word, is infinite in our organism."
The young doctor bowed assent, and then said:
"Perhaps—no doubt—we shall succeed in time in curing all
diseases. Everything can change. We shall find the proper method for preventing
what we cannot stop when it has once begun. And it is then only that we shall
dare to tell the ravages due to the spread of incurable diseases. Perhaps we
shall even succeed in finding cures for certain incurable affections. The
remedies have not had time to prove themselves. We shall cure others—that is
certain—but we shall not cure him." His voice deepened. Then he asked:
"Is he a Russian or a Greek?"
"I do not know. I see so much into the inside of people that
their outsides all look alike to me."
"They are especially alike in their vile pretense of being
dissimilar and enemies."
The young man seemed to shudder, as if the idea aroused a kind
of passion in him. He rose, full of anger, changed.
"Oh," he said, "what a disgraceful spectacle humanity presents.
In spite of its fearful wounds, humanity makes war upon humanity. We who deal
with the sores afflicting mankind are struck more than others by all the evil
men involuntarily inflict upon one another. I am neither a politician nor a
propagandist. It is not my business to occupy myself with ideas. I have too much
else to do. But sometimes I am moved by a great pity, as lofty as a dream.
Sometimes I feel like punishing men, at other times, like going down on my knees
The old doctor smiled sadly at this vehemence, then his smile
vanished at the thought of the undeniable outrage.
"Unfortunately you are right. With all the misery we have to
suffer, we tear ourselves with our own hands besides—the war of the classes, the
war of the nations, whether you look at us from afar or from above, we are
barbarians and madmen."
"Why, why," said the young doctor, who was getting excited, "why
do we continue to be fools when we recognise our own folly?"
The old practitioner shrugged his shoulders, as he had a few
moments before when they spoke of incurable diseases.
"The force of tradition, fanned by interested parties. We are
not free, we are attached to the past. We study what has always been done, and
do it over again—war and injustice. Some day perhaps humanity will succeed in
ridding itself of the ghost of the past. Let us hope that some day we shall
emerge from this endless epoch of massacre and misery. What else is there to do
than to hope?"
The old man stopped at this. The young man said:
The other man made a gesture with his hand.
"There is one great general cause for the world's ulcer," the
younger one kept on. "You have said it—servility to the past, prejudice which
prevents us from doing things differently, according to reason and morality. The
spirit of tradition infects humanity, and its two frightful manifestations are—"
The old man rose from his chair, as if about to protest and as
if to say, "Don't mention them!"
But the young man could not restrain himself any more.
"—inheritance from the past and the fatherland."
"Hush!" cried the old man. "You are treading on ground on which
I cannot follow. I recognise present evils. I pray with all my heart for the new
era. More than that, I believe in it. But do not speak that way about two sacred
"You speak like everybody else," said the young man bitterly.
"We must go to the root of the evil, you know we must. /You/ certainly do." And
he added violently, "Why do you act as if you did not know it? If we wish to
cure ourselves of oppression and war, we have a right to attack them by all the
means possible—all!—the principle of inheritance and the cult of the
"No, we haven't the right," exclaimed the old man, who had risen
in great agitation and threw a look at his interlocutor that was hard, almost
"We have the right!" cried the other.
All at once, the grey head drooped, and the old man said in a
"Yes, it is true, we have the right. I remember one day during
the war. We were standing beside a dying man. No one knew who he was. He had
been found in the debris of a bombarded ambulance—whether bombarded purposely or
not, the result was the same. His face had been mutilated beyond recognition.
All you could tell was that he belonged to one or other of the two armies. He
moaned and groaned and sobbed and shrieked and invented the most appalling
cries. We listened to the sounds that he made in his agony, trying to find one
word, the faintest accent, that would at least indicate his nationality. No use.
Not a single intelligible sound from that something like a face quivering on the
stretcher. We looked and listened, until he fell silent. When he was dead and we
stopped trembling, I had a flash of comprehension. I understood. I understood in
the depths of my being that man is more closely knit to man than to his vague
"Yes, we have a right to attack oppression and war, we have a
I saw the truth several times afterward again, but I am an old man, and
I haven't the strength to stick to it."
"My dear sir," said the young man, rising, with respect in his
Evidently he was touched.
"Yes, I know, I know," the old scientist continued in an
outburst of sincerity. "I know that in spite of all the arguments and the maze
of special cases in which people lose themselves, the absolute, simple truth
remains, that the law by which some are born rich and others poor and which
maintains a chronic inequality in society is a supreme injustice. It rests on no
better basis than the law that once created races of slaves. I know patriotism
has become a narrow offensive sentiment which as long as it lives will maintain
war and exhaust the world. I know that neither work nor material and moral
prosperity, nor the noble refinements of progress, nor the wonders of art, need
competition inspired by hate. In fact, I know that, on the contrary, these
things are destroyed by arms. I know that the map of a country is composed of
conventional lines and different names, that our innate love of self leads us
closer to those that are like-minded than to those who belong to the same
geographical group, and we are more truly compatriots of those who understand
and love us and who are on the level of our own souls, or who suffer the same
slavery than of those whom we meet on the street. The national groups, the units
of the modern world, are what they are, to be sure. The love we have for our
native land would be good and praiseworthy if it did not degenerate, as we see
it does everywhere, into vanity, the spirit of predominance, acquisitiveness,
hate, envy, nationalism, and militarism. The monstrous distortion of the
patriotic sentiment, which is increasing, is killing off humanity. Mankind is
committing suicide, and our age is an agony."
The two men had the same vision and said simultaneously:
"A cancer, a cancer!"
The older scientist grew animated, succumbing to the evidence.
"I know as well as you do that posterity will judge severely
those who have made a fetich of the institutions of oppression and have
cultivated and spread the ideas supporting them. I know that the cure for an
abuse does not begin until we refuse to submit to the cult that consecrates it.
And I, who have devoted myself for half a century to the great discoveries that
have changed the face of the world, I know that in introducing an innovation one
encounters the hostility of everything that is.
"I know it is a vice to spend years and centuries saying of
progress, 'I should like it, but I do not want it.' But as for me, I have too
many cares and too much work to do. And then, as I told you, I am too old. These
ideas are too new for me. A man's intelligence is capable of holding only a
certain quantum of new, creative ideas. When that amount is exhausted, whatever
the progress around you may be, one refuses to see it and help it on. I am
incapable of carrying on a discussion to fruitful lengths. I am incapable of the
audacity of being logical. I confess to you, my boy, I have not the strength to
"My dear doctor," said the young man in a tone of reproach,
meeting his older colleague's sincerity with equal sincerity, "you have publicly
declared your disapproval of the men who publicly fought the idea of patriotism.
The influence of your name has been used against them."
The old man straightened himself, and his face coloured.
"I will not stand for our country's being endangered."
I did not recognise him any more. He dropped from his great
thoughts and was no longer himself. I was discouraged.
"But," the other put in, "what you just said—"
"That is not the same thing. The people you speak of have defied
us. They have declared themselves enemies and so have justified all outrages in
"Those who commit outrages against them commit the crime of
ignorance," said the young man in a tremulous voice, sustained by a kind of
vision. "They fail to see the superior logic of things that are in the process
of creation." He bent over to his companion, and, in a firmer tone, asked, "How
can the thing that is beginning help being revolutionary? Those who are the
first to cry out are alone, and therefore ignored or despised. You yourself just
said so. But posterity will remember the vanguard of martyrs. It will hail those
who have cast a doubt on the equivocal word 'fatherland,' and will gather them
into the fold of all the innovators who went before them and who are now
"Never!" cried the old man, who listened to this last with a
troubled look. A frown of obstinacy and impatience deepened in his forehead, and
he clenched his fists in hate. "No, that is not the same thing. Besides,
discussions like this lead nowhere. It would be better, while we are waiting for
the world to do its duty, for us to do ours and tell this poor woman the truth."
The two women were alone beside the wide
open window. In the full, wise light of the autumn sun, I saw how faded was the
face of the pregnant woman.
All of a sudden a frightened expression came into her eyes. She
reeled against the wall, leaned there a second, and then fell over with a
Anna caught her in her arms, and dragged her along until she
reached the bell and rang and rang. Then she stood still, not daring to budge,
holding in her arms the heavy delicate woman, her own face close to the face
with the rolling eyes. The cries, dull and stifled at first, burst out now in
The door opened. People hurried in. Outside the door the
servants were on the watch. I caught sight of the landlady, who succeeded ill in
concealing her comic chagrin.
They laid the woman on the bed. They removed ornaments, unfolded
towels, and gave hurried orders.
The crisis subsided and the woman stopped shrieking. She was so
happy not to be suffering any more that she laughed. A somewhat constrained
reflection of her laugh appeared on the faces bending over her. They undressed
her carefully. She let them handle her like a child. They fixed the bed. Her
legs looked very thin and her set face seemed reduced to nothing. All you saw
was her distended body in the middle of the bed. Her hair was undone and spread
around her face like a pool. Two feminine hands plaited it quickly.
Her laughter broke and stopped.
"It is beginning again."
A groan, which grew louder, a fresh burst of shrieks. Anna, her
only friend, remained in the room. She looked and listened, filled with thoughts
of motherhood. She was thinking that she, too, held within her such travail and
This lasted the whole day. For hours, from morning until
evening, I heard the heart-rending wail rising and falling from that pitiful
At certain moments I fell back, overcome. I could no longer look
or listen. I renounced seeing so much truth. Then once more, with an effort, I
stood up against the wall and looked into the Room again.
Anna kissed the woman on her forehead, in brave proximity to the
When the cry was articulate, it was: "No, no! I do not want to!"
Serious, sickened faces, almost grown old in a few hours with
fatigue, passed and repassed.
I heard some one say:
"No need to help it along. Nature must be allowed to take her
Whatever nature does she does well."
And in surprise my lips repeated this lie, while my eyes were
fixed upon the frail, innocent woman who was a prey to stupendous nature, which
crushed her, rolled her in her blood, and exacted all the suffering from her
that she could yield.
The midwife turned up her sleeves and put on her rubber gloves.
She waved her enormous reddish-black, glistening hands like Indian clubs.
And all this turned into a nightmare in which I half believed.
My head grew heavy and I was sickened by the smell of blood and carbolic acid
poured out by the bottleful.
At a moment when I, feeling too harrowed, was not looking, I
heard a cry different from hers, a cry that was scarcely more than the sound of
a moving object, a light grating. It was the new being that had unloosened
itself, as yet a mere morsel of flesh taken from her flesh— her heart which had
just been torn away from her.
This shook me to the depths of my being. I, who had witnessed
everything that human beings undergo, I, at this first signal of human life,
felt some paternal and fraternal chord—I do not know what— vibrating within me.
She laughed. "How quickly it went!" she said.
. . . . .
The day was coming to a close. Complete silence in the room. A
plain night lamp was burning, the flame scarcely flickering. The clock, like a
poor soul, was ticking faintly. There was hardly a thing near the bed. It was as
in a real temple.
She lay stretched out in bed, in ideal quiet, her eyes turned
toward the window. Bit by bit, she saw the evening descending upon the most
beautiful day in her life.
This ruined mass, this languid face shone with the glory of
having created, with a sort of ecstasy which redeemed her suffering, and one saw
the new world of thoughts that grew out of her experience.
She thought of the child growing up. She smiled at the joys and
sorrows it would cause her. She smiled also at the brother or sister it would
have some day.
And I thought of this at the same time that she did, and I saw
her martyrdom more clearly than she.
This massacre, this tragedy of flesh is so ordinary and
commonplace that every woman carries the memory and imprint of it, and yet
nobody really knows it. The doctor, who comes into contact with so much of the
same sort of suffering, is not moved by it any more. The woman, who is too
tender-hearted, never remembers it. Others who look on at travail have a
sentimental interest, which wipes out the agony. But I who saw for the sake of
seeing know, in all its horror, the agony of childbirth. I shall never forget
the great laceration of life.
The night lamp was placed so that the bed was plunged in shadow.
I could no longer see the mother. I no longer knew her. I believed in her.
The woman who had been confined was
moved with exquisite care into the next room, which she had occupied previously.
It was larger and more comfortable.
They cleaned the room from top to bottom, and I saw Anna and
Philip seated in the room again.
"Take care, Philip," Anna was saying, "you do not understand the
Christian religion. You really do not know /exactly/ what it is. You speak of
it," she added, with a smile, "as women speak of men, or as men when they try to
explain women. Its fundamental element is love. It is a covenant of love between
human beings who instinctively detest one another. It is also a wealth of love
in our hearts to which we respond naturally when we are little children. Later
all our tenderness is added to it bit by bit, like treasure to treasure. It is a
law of outpouring to which we give ourselves up, and it is the source of that
outpouring. It is life, it is almost a work, it is almost a human being."
"But, my dear Anna, that is not the Christian religion. That is
. . . . .
In the middle of the night, I heard talking through the
partition. I struggled with my sleepiness and got up.
The man was alone, in bed. A lamp was burning dimly. He was
asleep and talking in his sleep.
He smiled and said "No!" three times with growing ecstasy. Then
his smile at the vision he saw faded away. For a moment his face remained set,
as if he were waiting, then he looked terrified, and his mouth opened. "Anna!
Ah, ah!—Ah, ah!" he cried through gaping lips. At this he awoke and rolled his
eyes. He sighed and quieted down. He sat up in bed, still struck and terrified
by what had passed through his mind a few seconds before.
He looked round at everything to calm himself and banish his
nightmare completely. The familiar sight of the room, with the lamp, so wise and
motionless, enthroned in the middle, reassured him. It was balm to this man who
had just seen what does not exist, who had just smiled at phantoms and touched
them, who had just been mad.
. . . . .
I rose the next morning, all broken up. I was restless. I had a
severe headache. My eyes were bloodshot. When I looked at them in the mirror, it
was as if I saw them through a veil of blood.
When I was alone, free from the visions and scenes to which I
devoted my life, all kinds of worries assailed me—worry about my position, which
I was risking, worry about the steps I ought to be taking and yet was not
taking, worry over myself that I was so intent upon casting off all my
obligations and postponing them, and repudiating my wage-earning lot, by which I
was destined to be held fast in the slow wheelwork of office routine.
I was also worried by all kinds of minutiæ, annoying because
they kept cropping up every minute—not make any noise, not light a light when
the Room was dark, hide myself, and hide myself all the time. One evening I got
a fit of coughing while listening at the hole. I snatched up my pillow and
buried my head in it to keep the sound from coming out of my mouth.
Everything seemed to be in a league to avenge itself upon me for
I did not know what. I felt as though I should not be able to hold out much
longer. Nevertheless, I made up my mind to keep on looking as long as my health
and my courage lasted. It might be bad for me, but it was my duty.
. . . . .
The man was sinking. Death was evidently in the house.
It was quite late in the evening. They were sitting at the table
opposite each other.
I knew their marriage had taken place that afternoon, and that
its purpose had been only to solemnise their approaching farewell. Some white
blossoms, lilies and azaleas, were strewn on the table, the mantelpiece, and one
armchair. He was fading away like those cut flowers.
"We are married," he said. "You are my wife. You are my wife,
It was for the sweetness of saying, "You are my wife," that he
had so longed. Nothing more. But he felt so poor, with his few days of life,
that it was complete happiness to him.
He looked at her, and she lifted her eyes to him—to him who
adored her sisterly tenderness—she who had become devoted to his adoration. What
infinite emotion lay hidden in these two silences, which faced each other in a
kind of embrace; in the double silence of these two human beings, who, I had
observed, never touched each other, not even with the tips of their fingers.
The girl lifted her head, and said, in an unsteady voice:
"It is late. I am going to sleep."
She got up. The lamp, which she set on the mantelpiece, lit up
She trembled. She seemed to be in a dream and not to know how to
yield to the dream. Then she raised her arm and took the pins out of her hair.
It fell down her back and looked, in the night, as if it were lit by the setting
The man made a sudden movement and looked at her in surprise.
Not a word.
She removed a gold brooch from the top of her blouse, and a bit
of her bosom appeared.
"What are you doing, Anna, what are you doing?"
She wanted to say this in a natural voice, but had not
succeeded. He replied with an inarticulate exclamation, a cry from his heart,
which was touched to the quick. Stupefaction, desperate regret, and also the
flash of an inconceivable hope agitated him, oppressed him.
"You are my husband."
"Oh," he said, "you know I am nothing." He spoke feebly in a
tragic tone. "Married for form's sake," he went on, stammering out fragmentary,
incoherent phrases. "I knew it, I knew it—formality—our conventions—"
She stopped, with her hand hesitating on her blouse like a
flower, and said:
"You are my husband. It is your right."
He made a faint gesture of denial. She quickly corrected
"No, no, it is not your right. I want to do it."
I began to understand how kind she was trying to be. She wished
to give this man, this poor man who was sinking at her feet, a reward that was
worthy of her. She wanted to bestow upon him the gift of the sight of her body.
But the thing was harder than the mere bestowal of a gift. It
must not look like the mere payment of a debt. He would not have consented to
that. She must make him believe it was a voluntary wifely act, a willing caress.
She must conceal her suffering and repugnance like a vice. Feeling the
difficulty of giving this delicate shade to her sacrifice, she was afraid of
"No, Anna—dear Anna—think—" He was going to say, "Think of
Michel," but he did not have the strength at that moment to use this one
decisive argument, and only murmured, "You, you!"
"I want to do it," she repeated.
"But I do not want you to. No, no."
He said this in a weaker voice now, overcome by love. Through
instinctive nobility, he covered his eyes with his hand, but gradually his hand
surrendered and dropped.
She continued to undress, with uncertain movements that showed
she hardly knew what she was doing. She took off her black waist, and her bust
emerged like the day. When the light shone on her she quivered and crossed her
shining arms over her chest. Then she started to unhook the belt of her skirt,
her arms curved, her reddened face bent down and her lips tightly compressed, as
if she had nothing in mind but the unhooking of her skirt. It dropped to the
ground and she stepped out of it with a soft rustle, like the sound the wind
makes in a leafy garden.
She leaned against the mantelpiece. Her movements were large,
majestic, beautiful, yet dainty and feminine. She pulled off her stockings. Her
legs were round and large and smooth as in a statue of Michael Angelo's.
She shivered and stopped, overcome by repugnance.
"I feel a little cold," she said in explanation and went on
undressing, revealing her great modesty in violating it.
"Holy Virgin!" the man breathed in a whisper, so as not to
. . . . .
I have never seen a woman so radiantly beautiful. I had never
dreamed of beauty like it. The very first day, her face had struck me by its
regularity and unusual charm, and her tall figure—taller than myself— had seemed
opulent, yet delicate, but I had never believed in such splendid perfection of
In her superhuman proportions she was like some Eve in grand
religious frescoes. Big, soft and supple, broad-shouldered, with a full
beautiful bosom, small feet, and tapering limbs.
In a dreamy voice, going still further in the bestowal of her
supreme gift, she said:
"No one"—she stressed these words with an emphasis amounting to
the mention of a certain name—"/no one/—listen—no one, no matter what happens,
will ever know what I have just done."
And now she, the giver of a gift, knelt—knelt to her adorer who
was prostrated before her like a victim. Her shining knees touched the cheap
common carpet. Her chastity clothed her like a beautiful garment. She murmured
broken words of gratitude, as though she felt that what she was doing was higher
than her duty and more beautiful, and that it glorified her.
. . . . .
After she dressed and left the room without their having dared
to say anything to each other, I wavered between two doubts. Was she right, or
was she wrong? I saw the man cry and I heard him mutter:
"Now I shall not be able to die."
The man was lying in bed. They moved
about him carefully. He stirred faintly, said a few words, asked for a drink,
smiled and then became silent under the rush of thoughts.
That morning they had seen him fold his hands, and they had
asked him whether he wanted them to send for a priest.
"Yes—no," he said.
They went out, and a few minutes later, as if he had been
waiting outside the door, a dark-robed priest entered. The two were left alone
The dying man turned his face toward the newcomer.
"I am going to die," he said.
"What is your religion?" asked the priest.
"The religion of my own country, the Greek Orthodox Church."
"That is a heresy which you must instantly abjure. There is only
one true religion, the Roman Catholic religion. Confess now. I will absolve you
and baptise you."
The other did not reply.
"Tell me what sins you have committed. You will repent and
everything will be forgiven you."
"Try to remember. Shall I help you?" He nodded toward the door.
"Who is that person?"
"My—wife," said the man with slight hesitation, which did not
escape the priest, who was leaning over him with ears pricked. He smelt a rat.
"How long has she been your wife?"
"Oh, two days! Now I have struck it. And before that, you sinned
"No," said the man.
The priest was put out of countenance.
"Well, I suppose you are not lying. Why didn't you sin? It is
unnatural. After all," he insisted, "you are a man."
The sick man was bewildered and began to get excited. Seeing
this, the priest said:
"Do not be surprised, my son, if my questions are direct and to
the point. I ask you in all simplicity, as is my august duty as a priest. Answer
me in the same simple spirit, and you will enter into communion with God," he
added, not without kindness.
"She is a young girl," said the old man. "I took her under my
protection when she was quite a child. She shared the hardships of my
traveller's life, and took care of me. I married her before my death because I
am rich and she is poor."
"Was that the only reason—no other reason at all?"
He fixed his look searchingly on the dying man's face, then
said, "Eh?" smiling and winking an eye, almost like an accomplice.
"I love her," said the man.
"At last, you are confessing!" cried the priest. He buried his
eyes in the eyes of the dying man. The things he said fairly hit him as he lay
"So you desired this woman, the flesh of this woman, and for a
long time committed a sin in spirit? Didn't you? Eh?
"Tell me, when you were travelling together, how did you arrange
for rooms and beds in the hotels?
"You say she took care of you? What did she have to do for you?"
The two men scanned each other's faces keenly, and I saw the
misunderstanding between them growing.
The dying man withdrew into himself and became hardened,
incredulous before this stranger, with the vulgar appearance, in whose mouth the
words of God and truth assumed a grotesque aspect.
However, he made an effort:
"If I have sinned in spirit, to use your words," he said, "it
proves that I have not sinned in reality, and why should I repent of what was
suffering pure and simple?"
"No theories now. We are not here for theorising. I tell you, a
sin committed in spirit is committed in intention, and therefore in effect, and
must be confessed and redeemed. Tell me how often you succumbed to guilty
thoughts. Give me details."
"But I resisted," moaned the unfortunate man. "That is all I
have to say."
"That is not enough. The stain—you are now convinced, I presume,
of the justice of the term—the stain ought to be washed out by the truth."
"Very well," said the dying man. "I confess I have committed the
sin, and I repent of it."
"That is not a confession, and is none of my business," retorted
the priest. "Now tell me, under exactly what circumstances did you yield to
temptation with that person, to the suggestions of the evil spirit?"
The man was swept by a wave of rebellion. He half rose and
leaned on his elbow, glaring at the stranger, who returned his look steadily.
"Why have I the evil spirit in me?" he demanded.
"You are not the only one. All men have it."
"Then it is God who put it into them, since it is God who made
"Ah, you are a debater! Well, if it gives you pleasure, I will
answer you. Man has both the spirit of good and the spirit of evil in him, that
is to say, the possibility of doing the one or the other. If he succumbs to
evil, he is damned. If he triumphs over it, he is rewarded. To be saved, he must
earn salvation by struggling with all his powers."
"Virtue and faith."
"And if he does not have enough virtue and faith, is that his
"Yes, because that comes from his having too much iniquity and
blindness in his soul."
The man sat up again, seized by a new fit of anger which
consumed him like a fever.
"Ah," he said, "original sin! There's nothing that can excuse
the suffering of good people on earth. It is an abomination."
The priest looked at the rebellious man blankly.
"How else could souls be tried?" he said quite calmly.
"Nothing can excuse the suffering of the good."
"God's designs are inscrutable."
The dying man flung out his emaciated arms. His eyes became
"You are a liar!"
"Enough," said the priest. "I have listened patiently to your
ramblings and feel sorry for you. But there's no good arguing. You must prepare
to appear before God, from whom you seem to have lived apart. If you have
suffered, you will be consoled in His bosom. Let that suffice for you."
The invalid fell back and lay still for a while. He remained
motionless under the white spread, like a reclining sepulchral statue of marble
with a face of bronze.
He regained his voice.
"God cannot console me."
"My son, my son, what are you saying?"
"God cannot console me, because He cannot give me what I want."
"Ah, my poor child, how far gone you are in your blindness! Why
did you have me summoned?"
"I had hopes, I had hopes."
"Hopes? Hopes of what?"
"I do not know. The things we hope for are always the things we
do not know."
His hands wavered in the air, then fell down again.
"Time is passing," said the priest and began all over again.
"Tell me the circumstances of your sin. Tell me. When you were
alone with this person, when you two were close together, did you talk to each
other, or did you keep quiet?"
"I do not believe in you," said the man.
The priest frowned.
"Repent, and tell me that you believe in the Catholic religion,
which will save you."
But the other man shook his head in utter anguish and denied all
"Religion—" he began.
The priest interrupted brutally.
"You are not going to start over again! Keep quiet. All your
arguments are worthless. Begin by /believing/ in religion and then you will see
what it means. I have come to force you to believe."
It was a duel to the end. The two men at the edge of the grave
glared at each other like enemies.
"You must believe."
"I do not believe."
"You would make truth different from what it is by threats."
"Yes." He stressed the clear, elementary command. "Whether you
are convinced or not, believe. Evidence does not count. The one important thing
is faith. God does not deign to convince the incredulous. These are no longer
the days of miracles. The only miracle is in our hearts, and it is faith.
Believe!" He hurled the same word ceaselessly, like stones.
"My son," he continued, more solemnly, standing up, with his
large fat hand uplifted, "I exact of you an act of faith."
"Get out!" said the man, with hatred.
But the priest did not stir. Goaded by the urgence of the case,
impelled by the necessity of saving this soul in spite of itself, he became
"You are going to die," he said, "you are going to die. You have
only a few more minutes to live. Submit."
"No," said the man.
The black-robed priest caught hold of both his hands.
"Submit. No discussion. You are losing precious time. All your
reasoning is of no account. We are alone, you and I before God."
He shook his head with the low bulging forehead, the prominent
fleshy nose, wide moist nostrils dark with snuff, thin yellow lips like twine
tight across two projecting teeth that showed by themselves in the darkness.
There were lines on his forehead and between his eyebrows and around his mouth.
His cheeks and chin were covered with a grey layer.
"I represent God," he said. "You are in my presence as if you
were in the presence of God. Simply say 'I believe,' and I will absolve you. 'I
believe,' that is all. The rest makes no difference to me."
He bent lower and lower, almost gluing his face to that of the
dying man, trying to plant his absolution like a blow.
"Simply say with me, 'Our Father, who art in heaven.' I do not
ask you to do anything else."
The sick man's face contracted.
Suddenly the priest rose with a triumphant air.
"At last! You have said it."
"Ah!" muttered the priest between his teeth.
He twisted the man's hands in his. You felt he would have put
his arms around him to stifle him, assassinate him if his death rattle would
have brought a confession—so possessed was he with the desire to persuade him,
to snatch from him the words he had come to seek on his lips.
He let the withered hands go, paced the room like a wild beast,
then came back and stationed himself in front of the bed again.
"Remember—you are going to die," he stammered to the miserable
man. "You will soon be in the earth. Say, 'Our Father,' just these two words,
He hung over him with his eyes on his mouth, his dark, crouching
figure like a demon lying in wait for a soul, like the whole Church over dying
"Say it! Say it! Say it!"
The sick man tried to wrest himself free. There was a rattle of
fury in his throat. With the remnant of his voice, in a low tone, he gasped:
"Scoundrel!" cried the priest.
And he struck him in the face. After that neither man made a
move for a while. Then the priest went at it again.
"At least you will die holding a crucifix," he snarled.
He drew a crucifix from his pocket, and put it down hard on his
The other man shook himself in a dull horror, as if religion
were contagious, and threw the crucifix on the floor.
The priest stooped, mumbling insults. "Carrion, you want to die
like a dog, but I am here!" He picked up the crucifix, and with a gleam in his
eyes, sure of crushing him, waited for his final chance.
The dying man panted, completely at the end of his strength. The
priest, seeing him in his power, laid the crucifix on his breast again. This
time the other man let it stay there, unable to do anything but look at it with
eyes of hatred. But his eyes did not make it fall.
. . . . .
When the black man had gone out into the night, and the patient
little by little recovered from the struggle and felt free once more, it
occurred to me that the priest in his violence and coarseness was horribly
right. A bad priest? No, a good priest, who spoke strictly according to his
conscience and belief, and tried to apply his religion simply, such as it was,
without hypocritical concessions. Ignorant, clumsy, gross—yes, but honest and
logical even in his fearful attempt. In the half-hour that I had listened to
him, he had tried by all the means that religion uses and recommends to follow
his calling of making converts and giving absolution. He had said everything
that a priest cannot help saying. Every dogma had come out clearly and
definitely from the mouth of this rough, common hewer of wood and drawer of
water for his religion. If the sick man was right, so was the priest.
. . . . .
What was that thing near the bed, that thing which loomed so
high and did not stir and had not been there a moment before? It stood between
me and the leaping flame of the candle placed near the sick man.
I accidentally made a little noise in leaning against the wall,
and very slowly the thing turned a face toward me with a frightened look on it
that frightened me.
I knew that head. Was it not the landlord himself, a man with
peculiar ways, whom we seldom saw?
He had been walking up and down the hall, waiting for the sick
man to be left alone. And now he was standing beside him as he lay in bed either
asleep or helpless from weakness.
He stretched his hand out toward a bag. In doing so, he kept his
eyes on the dying man, so that his hand missed the bag twice.
There was a creaking on the floor above, and both the man and I
trembled. A door slammed. He rose as if to keep back an exclamation.
He opened the bag slowly, and I, no longer myself, I was afraid
that he would not have time.
He drew a package out of the bag. It made a slight sound. When
he saw the roll of banknotes in his hand, I observed the extraordinary gleam on
his face. All the sentiments of love were there, adoration, mysticism, and also
brutal love, a sort of supernatural ecstasy and the gross satisfaction that was
already tasting immediate joys. Yes, all the loves impressed themselves for a
moment on the profound humanity of this thief's face.
Some one was waiting for him behind the half-open door. I saw an
arm beckoning to him.
He went out on tiptoe, first slowly, then quickly.
I am an honest man, and yet I held my breath along with him. I
/understood/ him. There is no use finding excuses for myself. With a horror and
a joy akin to his, I was an accomplice in his robbery.
All thefts are induced by passion, even that one, which was
cowardly and vulgar. Oh, his look of inextinguishable love for the treasure
suddenly snatched up. All offences, all crimes are outrages accomplished in the
image of the immense desire for theft, which is the very essence and form of our
Does that mean that we must absolve criminals, and that
punishment is an injustice? No, we must protect ourselves. Since society rests
upon honesty, we must punish criminals to reduce them to impotence, and above
all to strike them with terror, and halt others on the threshold of evil deeds.
But once the crime is established, we must not look for excuses for it. We run
the danger then of always finding excuses. We must condemn it in advance, by
virtue of a cold principle. Justice should be as cold as steel.
But justice is not a virtue, as its name seems to indicate. It
is an organisation the virtue of which is to be feelingless. It does not aim at
expiation. Its function is to establish warning examples, to make of the
criminal a thing to frighten off others.
Nobody, nothing has the right to exact expiation. Besides, no
one can exact it. Vengeance is too remote from the act and falls, so to speak,
upon another person. Expiation, then, is a word that has no application in the
He was very, very weak and lay
absolutely still and silent, chained fast by the baleful weight of his flesh.
Death had already put an end to even his faintest quiverings.
His wonderful companion sat exactly where his fixed eyes fell on
her, at the foot of the bed. She held her arms resting on the base board of the
bed with her beautiful hands drooping. Her profile sloped downward slightly,
that fine design, that delicate etching of eternal sweetness upon the gentle
background of the evening. Under the dainty arch of her eyebrows her large eyes
swam clear and pure, miniature skies. The exquisite skin of her cheeks and
forehead gleamed faintly, and her luxuriant hair, which I had seen flowing,
gracefully encircled her brow, where her thoughts dwelt invisible as God.
She was alone with the man who lay there as if already in his
grave—she who had wished to cling to him by a thrill and to be his chaste widow
when he died. He and I saw nothing on earth except her face. And in truth, there
was nothing else to be seen in the deep shadows of the evening.
A voice came from the bed. I scarcely recognised it.
"I haven't said everything yet that I want to say," said the
Anna bent over the bed as if it were the edge of a coffin to
catch the words that were to issue for the last time, no doubt, from the
motionless and almost formless body.
"Shall I have the time? Shall I?"
It was difficult to catch the whisper, which almost stuck in his
throat. Then his voice accustomed itself to existence again and became distinct.
"I should like to make a confession to you, Anna. I do not want
this thing to die with me. I am sorry to let this memory be snuffed out. I am
sorry for it. I hope it will never die.
"I loved once before I loved you.
"Yes, I loved the girl. The image I have left of her is a sad,
gentle one. I should like to snatch it from death. I am giving it to you because
you happen to be here."
He gathered himself together to have a clear vision of the woman
of whom he was speaking.
"She was fair-haired and fair-skinned," he said.
"You needn't be jealous, Anna. (People are jealous sometimes
even when they are not in love.) It was a few years after you were born. You
were a little child then, and nobody turned to look at you on the streets except
"We were engaged in the ancestral park of her parents. She had
bright curls tied with ribbons. I pranced on horseback for her. She smiled for
"I was young and strong then, full of hope and full of the
beginning of things. I thought I was going to conquer the world, and even had
the choice of the means to conquer it. Alas, all I did was to cross hastily over
its surface. She was younger than I, a bud so recently, blown, that one day, I
remember, I saw her doll lying on the bench that we were sitting on. We used to
say to each other, 'We shall come back to this park when we are old, shall we
not?' We loved each other—you understand—I have no time to tell you, but you
understand, Anna, that these few relics of memory that I give you at random are
beautiful, incredibly beautiful.
"She died the very day in spring when the date of our wedding
was set. We were both taken sick with a disease that was epidemic that year in
our country, and she did not have the strength to escape the monster. That was
twenty-five years ago. Twenty-five years, Anna, between her death and mine.
"And now here is the most precious secret, her name."
He whispered it. I did not catch it.
"Say it over again, Anna."
She repeated it, vague syllables which I caught without being
able to unite them into a word.
"I confide the name to you because you are here. If you were not
here, I should tell it to anyone, no matter whom, provided that would save it."
He added in an even, measured voice, to make it hold out until
"I have something else to confess, a wrong and a misfortune."
"Didn't you confess it to the priest?" she asked in surprise.
"I hardly told him anything," was all he replied.
And he resumed, speaking calmly, with his full voice:
"I wrote poems during our engagement, poems about ourselves. The
manuscript was named after her. We read the poems together, and we both liked
and admired them. 'Beautiful, beautiful!' she would say, clapping her hands,
whenever I showed her a new poem. And when we were together, the manuscript was
always with us—the most beautiful book that had ever been written, we thought.
She did not want the poems to be published and get away from us. One day in the
garden she told me what she wanted. 'Never! Never!' she said over and over
again, like an obstinate, rebellious child, tossing her dainty head with its
The man's voice became at once surer and more tremulous, as he
filled in and enlivened certain details in the old story.
"Another time, in the conservatory, when it had been raining
monotonously since morning, she asked, 'Philip'—she used to pronounce my name
just the way you do."
He paused, himself surprised by the primitive simplicity of what
he had just expressed.
"'Do you know,' she asked, 'the story of the English painter
Rossetti?' and she told me the episode, which had so vividly impressed her, how
Rossetti had promised the lady he loved to let her keep forever the manuscript
of the book he had written for her, and if she died, to lay it beside her in her
coffin. She died, and he actually carried out his promise and buried the
manuscript with her. But later, bitten by the love of glory, he violated his
promise and the tomb. 'You will let me have your book if I die before you, and
will not take it back, will you, Philip?' And I promised laughingly, and she
"I recovered from my illness slowly. When I was strong enough,
they told me that she had died. When I was able to go out, they took me to the
tomb, the vast family sepulchre which somewhere hid her new little coffin.
"There's no use my telling you how miserable I was and how I
grieved for her. Everything reminded me of her. I was full of her, and yet she
was no more! As I recovered from the illness, during which my memory had faded,
each detail brought me a recollection. My grief was a fearful reawakening of my
love. The sight of the manuscript brought my promise back to me. I put it in a
box without reading it again, although I had forgotten it, things having been
blotted out of my mind during my convalescence. I had the slab removed and the
coffin opened, and a servant put the book in her hands.
"I lived. I worked. I tried to write a book. I wrote dramas and
poems. But nothing satisfied me, and gradually I came to want our book back.
"I knew it was beautiful and sincere and vibrant with the two
hearts that had given themselves to each other. Then, like a coward, three years
afterward, I tried to re-write it—to show it to the world. Anna, you must have
pity on us all! But I must say it was not only the desire for glory and praise,
as in the case of the English artist, which impelled me to close my ears to the
sweet, gentle voice out of the past, so strong in its powerlessness, 'You will
not take it back from me, will you, Philip?' It was not only for the sake of
showing off in a book of great beauty. It was also to refresh my memory, for all
our love was in that book.
"I did not succeed in reconstructing the poems. The weakening of
my faculties soon after they were written, the three years afterward during
which I made a devout effort not to revive the poems even in thought, since they
were not to keep on living—all this had actually wiped the book out of my mind.
It was with difficulty that I recalled— and then only by chance—the mere titles
of some of the poems, or a few of the verses. Of some parts, all I retained was
just a confused echo. I needed the manuscript itself, which was in the tomb.
"One night, I felt myself going there.
"I felt myself going there after periods of hesitation and
inward struggles which it is useless to tell you about because the struggles
themselves were useless. I thought of the other man, of the Englishman, of my
brother in misery and crime as I walked along the length of the cemetery wall
while the wind froze my legs. I kept saying to myself it was not the same thing,
and this insane assurance was enough to make me keep on.
"I asked myself if I should take a light. With a light it would
be quick. I should see the box at once and should not have to touch anything
else—but then I should see /everything!/ I preferred to grope in the dark. I had
rubbed a handkerchief sprinkled with perfume over my face, and I shall never
forget the deception of this odour. For an instant, in the stupefaction of my
terror, I did not recognise the first thing I touched—her necklace—I saw it
again on her living body. The box! The corpse gave it to me with a squashing
sound. Something grazed me faintly.
"I had meant to tell you only a few things, Anna. I thought I
should not have time to tell you how everything happened. But it is better so,
better for me that you should know all. Life, which has been so cruel to me, is
kind at this moment when you are listening, you who will live. And my desire to
express what I felt, to revive the past, which made of me a being accursed
during the days I am telling you about, is a benefit this evening which passes
from me to you, and from you to me."
The young woman was bending toward him attentively. She was
motionless and silent. What could she have said, what could she have done, that
would have been sweeter than her silent attention?
"The rest of the night I read the stolen manuscript. Was it not
the only way to forget her death and think of her life?
"I soon saw that the poems were not what I had thought them to
"They game me a growing impression of being confused and much
too lengthy. The book so long adored was no better than what I had done
afterwards. I recalled, step by step, the background, the occasion, the vanished
gesture that had inspired these verses, and in spite of their resurrection, I
found them undeniably commonplace and extravagant.
"An icy despair gripped me, as I bent my head over these remains
of song. Their sojourn in the tomb seemed to have deformed and crushed the life
out of my verses. They were as miserable as the wasted hand from which I had
taken them. They had been so sweet! 'Beautiful, beautiful!' the happy little
voice had cried so many times while she clasped her hands in admiration.
"It was because her voice and the poems had been vibrating with
life and because the ardour and delirium of our love had adorned my rhymes with
all their charms, that they seemed so beautiful. But all that was past, and in
reality our love was no more.
"It was oblivion that I read at the same time as I read my book.
Yes, death had been contagious. My verses had remained there too long, sleeping
down below there in awful peace—in the sepulchre into which I should never have
dared to enter if love had still been alive. She was indeed dead.
"I thought of what a useless and sacrilegious thing I had done
and how useless and sacrilegious everything is that we promise and swear to here
"She was indeed dead. How I cried that night. It was my true
night of mourning. When you have just lost a beloved there is a wretched moment,
after the brutal shock, when you begin to understand that all is over, and blank
despair surrounds you and looms like a giant. That night was a moment of such
despair when I was under the sway of my crime and the disenchantment of my
poems, greater than the crime, greater than everything.
"I saw her again. How pretty she was, with her bright, lively
ways, her animated charm, her rippling laugh, the endless number of questions
she was always asking. I saw her again in the sunlight on the bright lawn. She
was wearing a dress of old rose satin, and she bent over and smoothed the soft
folds of her skirt and looked at her little feet. (Near us was the whiteness of
a statue.) I remembered how once I had for fun tried to find a single flaw in
her complexion. Not a spot on forehead, cheek, chin—anywhere. Her skin was as
smooth as if it had been polished. I felt as though that exquisite delicate face
were something ever in flight that had paused for an instant for my sake, and I
stammered, almost with tears in my voice, 'It is too much! It is too much!'
Everybody looked on her as a princess. In the streets of the town the
shopkeepers were glad to see her pass by. Did she not have a queenly air as she
sat half-reclining on the great carved stone bench in the park, that great stone
bench which was now a kind of empty tomb?
"For a moment in the midst of time I knew how much I had loved
her, she who had been alive and who was dead, who had been the sun and who was
now a kind of obscure spring under the earth.
"And I also mourned the human heart. That night I understood the
extremes of what I had felt. Then the inevitable forgetfulness came, the time
came when it did not sadden me to remember that I had mourned.
. . . . .
"That is the confession I wanted to make to you, Anna. I wanted
this story of love, which is a quarter of a century old, never to end. It was so
real and thrilling, it was such a big thing, that I told it to you in all
simplicity, to you who will survive. After that I came to love you and I do love
you. I offer to you as to a sovereign the image of the little creature who will
always be seventeen."
He sighed. What he said proved to me once more the inadequacy of
religion to comfort the human heart.
"Now I adore you and you alone—I who adored her, I whom she
adored. How can there possibly be a paradise where one would find happiness
His voice rose, his inert arms trembled. He came out of his
profound immobility for a moment.
"Ah, /you/ are the one, /you/ are the one—/you/ alone."
And a great cry of impotence broke from him.
"Anna, Anna, if you and I had been really married, if we had
lived together as man and wife, if we had had children, if you had been beside
me as you are this evening, but really beside me!"
He fell back. He had cried out so loud that even if there had
been no breach in the wall, I should have heard him in my room. He voiced his
whole dream, he threw it out passionately. This sincerity, which was indifferent
to everything, had a definite significance which bruised my heart.
"Forgive me. Forgive me. It is almost blasphemy. I could not
He stopped. You felt his will-power making his face calm, his
soul compelling him to silence, but his eyes seemed to mourn.
He repeated in a lower voice, as if to himself, "You! You!"
He fell asleep with "You" on his lips.
. . . . .
He died that night. I saw him die. By a strange chance he was
alone at the last moment.
There was no death rattle, no death agony, properly speaking. He
did not claw the bedclothes with his fingers, nor speak, nor cry. No last sigh,
no last flash.
He had asked Anna for a drink. As there was no more water in the
room and the nurse happened to be away at that moment, she had gone out to get
some quickly. She did not even shut the door.
The lamplight filled the room. I watched the man's face and
felt, by some sign, that the great silence at that moment was drowning him.
Then instinctively I cried out to him. I could not help crying
out so that he should not be alone.
"I see you!"
My strange voice, disused from speaking, penetrated into the
But he died at the very instant that I gave him my madman's
alms. His head dropped back stiffly, his eyeballs rolled. Anna came in again.
She must have caught the sound of my outcry vaguely, for she hesitated.
She saw him. A fearful cry burst from her with all the force of
her healthy body, a true widow's cry. She dropped on her knees at the bedside.
The nurse came in right after her and raised her arms. Silence
reigned, that flashing up of incredible misery into which you sink completely in
the presence of the dead, no matter who you are or where you are. The woman on
her knees and the woman standing up watched the man who was stretched there,
inert as if he had never lived. They were both almost dead.
Then Anna wept like a child. She rose. The nurse went to tell
the others. Instinctively, Anna, who was wearing a light waist, picked up a
black shawl that the nurse had left on a chair and put it around her.
. . . . .
The room, so recently desolate, now filled with life.
They lit candles everywhere, and the stars, visible through the
They knelt down, and cried and prayed to him. The dead man held
command. "He" was always on their lips. Servants were there whom I had not yet
seen but whom he knew well. These people around him all seemed to be lying, as
though it was they who were suffering, they who were dying, and he were alive.
"He must have suffered a great deal when he died," said the
doctor, in a low voice to the nurse, at a moment when he was quite near me.
"But he was so weak, the poor man!"
"Weakness does not prevent suffering except in the eyes of
others," said the doctor.
. . . . .
The next morning the drab light of the early day fell upon the
faces and the melancholy funeral lights. The coming of the day, keen and cold,
had a depressing effect upon the atmosphere of the room, making it heavier,
A voice in a low apologetic tone for a moment interrupted the
silence that had lasted for hours.
"You mustn't open the window. It isn't good for the dead body."
"It is cold," some one muttered.
Two hands went up and drew a fur piece close. Some one rose, and
then sat down again. Some one else turned his head. There was a sigh.
It was as if they had taken advantage of these few words to come
out of the calm in which they had been concealed. Then they glanced once more at
the man on the bier—motionless, inexorably motionless.
I must have fallen asleep when all at once I heard the church
bells ringing in the grey sky.
After that harassing night there was a relaxation from rigid
attention to the stillness of death, and an inexplicable sweetness in the
ringing of the bells carried me back forcibly to my childhood. I thought of the
countryside where I used to hear the bells ringing, of my native land, where
everything was peaceful and good, and the snow meant Christmas, and the sun was
a cool disk that one could and should look at.
The tolling of the bells was over. The echo quietly died away,
and then the echo of the echo. Another bell struck, sounding the hour. Eight
o'clock, eight sonorous detached strokes, beating with terrible regularity, with
invincible calm, simple, simple. I counted them, and when they had ceased to
pulsate in the air, I could not help counting them over again. It was time that
was passing—formless time, and the human effort that defined it and regularized
it and made of it a work as of destiny.
I was alone. It was late at night, and I
was sitting at my table. My lamp was buzzing like summer in the fields. I lifted
my eyes. The stars studded the heavens above. The city was plunged at my feet.
The horizon escaped from nearby into eternity. The lights and shadows formed an
infinite sphere around me.
I was not at ease that night. I was a prey to an immense
distress. I sat as if I had fallen into my chair. As on the first day I looked
at my reflection in the glass, and all I could do was just what I had done then,
simply cry, "I!"
I wanted to know the secret of life. I had seen men, groups,
deeds, faces. In the twilight I had seen the tremulous eyes of beings as deep as
wells. I had seen the mouth that said in a burst of glory, "I am more sensitive
than others." I had seen the struggle to love and make one's self understood,
the refusal of two persons in conversation to give themselves to each other, the
coming together of two lovers, the lovers with an infectious smile, who are
lovers in name only, who bury themselves in kisses, who press wound to wound to
cure themselves, between whom there is really no attachment, and who, in spite
of their ecstasy deriving light from shadow, are strangers as much as the sun
and the moon are strangers. I had heard those who could find no crumb of peace
except in the confession of their shameful misery, and I had seen faces pale and
red-eyed from crying. I wanted to grasp it all at the same time. All the truths
taken together make only one truth. I had had to wait until that day to learn
this simple thing. It was this truth of truths which I needed.
Not because of my love of mankind. It is not true that we love
mankind. No one ever has loved, does love, or will love mankind. It was for
myself, solely for myself, that I sought to attain the full truth, which is
above emotion, above peace, even above life, like a sort of death. I wanted to
derive guidance from it, a faith. I wanted to use it for my own good.
I went over the things I had seen since living in the
boarding-house. They were so numerous that I had become a stranger to myself. I
scarcely had a name any more. I fairly listened to the memory of them, and in
supreme concentration I tried to see and understand what I was. It would be so
beautiful to know who I was.
I thought of all those wise men, poets, artists before me who
had suffered, wept, and smiled on the road to truth. I thought of the Latin poet
who wished to reassure and console men by showing them truth as unveiled as a
statue. A fragment of his prelude came to my mind, learned long ago, then
dismissed and lost like almost everything that I had taken the pains to learn up
till then. He said he kept watch in the serene nights to find the words, the
poem in which to convey to men the ideas that would deliver them. For two
thousand years men have always had to be reassured and consoled. For two
thousand years I have had to be delivered. Nothing has changed the surface of
things. The teachings of Christ have not changed the surface of things, and
would not even if men had not ruined His teachings so that they can no longer
follow them honestly. Will the great poet come who shall settle the boundaries
of belief and render it eternal, the poet who will be, not a fool, not an
ignorant orator, but a wise man, the great inexorable poet? I do not know,
although the lofty words of the man who died in the boarding-house have given me
a vague hope of his coming and the right to adore him already.
But what about me—me, who am only a glance from the eye of
destiny? I am like a poet on the threshold of a work, an accursed, sterile poet
who will leave no glory behind, to whom chance /lent/ the truth that genius
would have /given/ him, a frail work which will pass away with me, mortal and
sealed to others like myself, but a sublime work nevertheless, which will show
the essential outlines of life and relate the drama of dramas.
. . . . .
What am I? I am the desire not to die. I have always been
impelled— not that evening alone—by the need to construct the solid, powerful
dream that I shall never leave again. We are all, always, the desire not to die.
This desire is as immeasurable and varied as life's complexity, but at bottom
this is what it is: To continue to /be,/ to /be/ more and more, to develop and
to endure. All the force we have, all our energy and clearness of mind serve to
intensify themselves in one way or another. We intensify ourselves with new
impressions, new sensations, new ideas. We endeavour to take what we do not have
and to add it to ourselves. Humanity is the desire for novelty founded upon the
fear of death. That is what it is. I have seen it myself. Instinctive movements,
untrammelled utterances always tend the same way, and the most dissimilar
utterances are all alike.
. . . . .
But afterwards! Where are the words that will light the way?
What is humanity in the world, and what is the world?
Everything is within me, and there are no judges, and there are
no boundaries and no limits to me. The /de profundis,/ the effort not to die,
the fall of desire with its soaring cry, all this has not stopped. It is part of
the immense liberty which the incessant mechanism of the human heart exercises
(always something different, always!). And its expansion is so great that death
itself is effaced by it. For how could I imagine my death, except by going
outside of myself, and looking at myself as if I were not I but somebody else?
We do not die. Each human being is alone in the world. It seems
absurd, contradictory to say this, and yet it is so. But there are many human
beings like me. No, we cannot say that. In saying that, we set ourselves outside
the truth in a kind of abstraction. All we can say is: I am alone.
And that is why we do not die.
Once, bowed in the evening light, the dead man had said, "After
my death, life will continue. Every detail in the world will continue to occupy
the same place quietly. All the traces of my passing will die little by little,
and the void I leave behind will be filled once more."
He was mistaken in saying so. He carried all the truth with him.
Yet we, /we/ saw him die. He was dead for us, but not for himself. I feel there
is a fearfully difficult truth here which we must get, a formidable
contradiction. But I hold on to the two ends of it, groping to find out what
formless language will translate it. Something like this: "Every human being is
the whole truth." I return to what I heard. We do not die since we are alone. It
is the others who die. And this sentence, which comes to my lips tremulously, at
once baleful and beaming with light, announces that death is a false god.
But what of the others? Granted that I have the great wisdom to
rid myself of the haunting dread of my own death, there remains the death of
others and the death of so many feelings and so much sweetness. It is not the
conception of truth that will change sorrow. Sorrow, like joy, is absolute.
And yet! The infinite grandeur of our misery becomes confused
with glory and almost with happiness, with cold haughty happiness. Was it out of
pride or joy that I began to smile when the first white streaks of dawn turned
my lamp pale and I saw I was alone in the universe?
It was the first time I had seen her in
mourning, and that evening her youth shone more resplendent than ever.
Her departure was close at hand. She looked about to see if she
had left anything behind in the room, which had been made ready for other
people, the room which was already formless, already abandoned.
The door opened. The young woman turned her head. A man appeared
in the sunny doorway.
"Michel, Michel, Michel!" she cried.
She stretched out her arms, hesitated, and for a few seconds
remained motionless as light, with her full gaze upon him.
Then, in spite of where she was and the purity of her heart and
the chastity of her whole life, her legs shook and she was on the verge of
He threw his hat on the bed with a sweeping romantic gesture. He
filled the room with his presence, with his weight. His footsteps made the floor
creak. He kept her from falling. Tall as she was, he was a whole head taller.
His marked features were hard and remarkably fine. His face under a heavy head
of black hair was bright and clean, as though new. He had a drooping moustache
and full red lips.
He put his hands on the young woman's shoulders, and looked at
her, in readiness for his eager embrace.
They held each other close, staggering. They said the same word
at the same time, "At last!" That was all they said, but they said it over and
over again in a low voice, chanting it together. Their eyes uttered the same
sweet cry. Their breasts communicated it to each other. It seemed to be tying
them together and making them merge into one. At last! Their long separation was
over. Their love was victor. At last they were together. And I saw her quiver
from head to foot. I saw her whole body welcome him while her eyes opened and
then closed on him again. They made a great effort to speak to each other. The
few shreds of conversation held them back a moment.
"How I waited for you! How I longed for you!" he stammered. "I
thought of you all the time. I saw you all the time. Your smile was everywhere."
He lowered his voice and added, "Sometimes when people were talking commonplaces
and your name happened to be mentioned, it would go through my heart like an
He panted. His deep voice burst into sonorous tones. He seemed
unable to speak low.
"Often I used to sit on the brick balustrade at the top of the
terrace of our house overlooking the Channel, with my face in my hands,
wondering where you were. But it did not matter how far away you were, I could
not help seeing you all the same."
"And often I," said Anna, bending her head, "would sit at the
open window warm evenings, thinking of you. Sometimes the air was of a
suffocating sweetness, as it was two months ago at the Villa of the Roses. Tears
would come to my eyes."
"You used to cry?"
"Yes," she said in a low voice, "for joy."
Their mouths joined, their two small purple mouths of exactly
the same colour. They were almost indistinguishable from each other, tense in
the creative silence of the kiss, a single dark stream of flesh.
Then he drew away a little to get a better look at her, and the
next moment caught her in his arms and held her close.
His words fell on her like hammer blows.
"Down there the scent of the sap and the flowers from the many
gardens near the coast used to intoxicate me, and I wanted to burrow my fingers
in the dark burning earth. I would roam about and try to remember your face, and
draw in the perfume of your body. I would stretch my arms out in the air to
touch as much as possible of your sunlight."
"I knew you were waiting for me and that you loved me," she
said, in a voice gentler but just as deep with emotion. "I saw you in your
absence. And often, when the light of dawn entered my room and touched me, I
thought of how completely consecrated I was to your love. Thinking of you
sometimes in my room in the evening, I would admire myself."
A thrill went through him, and he smiled.
He kept saying the same things in scarcely different words, as
if he knew nothing else. He had a childish soul and a limited mind behind the
perfect sculpture of his forehead and his great black eyes, in which I saw
distinctly the white face of the woman floating like a swan.
She listened to him devoutly, her mouth half open, her head
thrown back lightly. Had he not held her, she would have slipped to her knees
before this god who was as beautiful as she.
"The memory of you saddened my joys, but consoled my sorrows."
I did not know which of the two said this. They embraced
vehemently. They reeled. They were like two tall flames. His face burned hers,
and he cried:
"I love you, I love you! All through my sleepless nights of
longing for you—oh, what a crucifixion my solitude was!
"Be mine, Anna!"
She radiated consent, but her eyes faltered, and she glanced
round the room.
"Let us respect this room," she breathed. Then she was ashamed
at having refused, and immediately stammered, "Excuse me."
The man also looked around the room. His forehead darkened with
a savage frown of suspicion, and the superstition of his race shone in his eyes.
"It was here—that he died?"
"No," she said.
* * * * * * * * *
Afterwards they did as the others had done, as human beings
always do, as they themselves would do many times again in the strange
future—they sat with their eyes half-closed and the same uneasy look of shame
and terror in them as Amy and her lover.
But these two required no artificial stimulus for their love.
They had no need of the night. And they felt no culpability. They were two grand
young creatures, driven together naturally by the very force of their love, and
their ardour cleansed everything, like fire. They were innocent. They had no
regrets and felt no remorse. They thought they were united.
He took her soft hand in his dark hand, and said: "Now you are
mine for always. You have made me know divine ecstasy. You have my heart and I
have yours. You are my wife forever."
"You are everything to me," she answered.
They went forth into life like a couple in legend, inspired and
rosy with anticipation—he, the knight with no shadows falling on him except the
dark of his hair, helmeted or plumed, and she, the priestess of the pagan gods,
the spirit of nature.
They would shine in the sunlight. They would see nothing around
them, blinded by the daylight. They would undergo no struggles except the strife
of the sexes and the spying of jealousy; for lovers are enemies rather than
I followed them with my eyes going through life, which would be
nothing to them but fields, mountains, or forests. I saw them veiled in a kind
of light, sheltered from darkness, protected for a time against the fearful
spell of memory and thought.
. . . . .
I sat down and leaned on my elbows. I thought of myself. Where
was I now after all this? What was I going to do in life? I did not know. I
would look about and would surely find something.
So, sitting there, I quietly indulged in hopes. I must have no
more sadness, no more anguish and fever. If the rest of my life was to pass in
calm, in peace, I must go far, far away from all those awful serious things, the
sight of which was terrible to bear.
Somewhere I would lead a wise, busy life—and earn my living
And you, you will be beside me, my sister, my child, my wife.
You will be poor so as to be more like all other women. In order
for us to be able to live together I shall work all day and so be your servant.
You will work affectionately for us both in this room, and in my absence there
will be nothing beside you but the pure, simple presence of your sewing machine.
You will keep the sort of order by which nothing is forgotten, you will practice
patience which is as long as life, and maternity which is as heavy as the world.
I shall come in, I shall open the door in the dark, I shall hear
you come from the next room, bringing the lamp. A dawn will announce you. You
will tell me the quiet story of your day's work, without any object except to
give me your thoughts and your life. You will speak of your childhood memories.
I shall not understand them very well because you will be able to give me,
perforce, only insufficient details, but I shall love your sweet strange
We shall speak of the child we shall have, and you will bend
your head and your neck, white as milk, and in our minds we shall hear the
rocking of the cradle like a rustling of wings. And when we are tired out, and
even after we have grown old, we shall dream afresh along with our child.
After this revery our thoughts will not stray, but linger
tenderly. In the evening we shall think of the night. You will be full of a
happy thought. Your inner life will be gay and shining, not because of what you
see, but because of your heart. You will beam as blind people beam.
We shall sit up facing each other. But little by little, as it
gets late, our words will become fewer and less intelligible. Sleep will lay
bare your soul. You will fall asleep over the table, you will feel me watching
over you more and more.
Tenderness is greater than love. I do not admire carnal love
when it is by itself and bare. I do not admire its disorderly selfish paroxysms,
so grossly short-lived. And yet without love the attachment of two human beings
is always weak. Love must be added to affection. The things it contributes to a
union are absolutely needed—exclusiveness, intimacy, and simplicity.
I went out on the street like an exile,
I who am an everyday man, who resemble everybody else so much, too much. I went
through the streets and crossed the squares with my eyes fixed upon things
without seeing them. I was walking, but I seemed to be falling from dream to
dream, from desire to desire. A door ajar, an open window gave me a pang. A
woman passing by grazed against me, a woman who told me nothing of what she
might have told me. I dreamed of her tragedy and of mine. She entered a house,
she disappeared, she was dead.
I stood still, a prey to a thousand thoughts, stifled in the
robe of the evening. From a closed window on the ground floor floated a strain
of music. I caught the beauty of a sonata as I would catch distinct human words,
and for a moment I listened to what the piano was confiding to the people
Then I sat down on a bench. On the opposite side of the avenue
lit by the setting sun two men also seated themselves on a bench. I saw them
clearly. They seemed overwhelmed by the same destiny, and a mutual sympathy
seemed to unite them. You could tell they liked each other. One was speaking,
the other was listening.
I read a secret tragedy. As boys they had been immensely fond of
each other. They had always been of the same mind and shared their ideas. One of
them got married, and it was the married one who was now speaking. He seemed to
be feeding their common sorrow.
The bachelor had been in the habit of visiting his home, always
keeping his proper distance, though perhaps vaguely loving the young wife.
However, he respected her peace and her happiness. The married man was telling
him that his wife had ceased to love him, while he still adored her with his
whole being. She had lost interest in him, and turned away from him. She did not
laugh and did not smile except when there were other people present. He spoke of
this grief, this wound to his love, to his right. His right! He had
unconsciously believed that he had a right over her, and he lived in this
belief. Then he found out that he had no right.
Here the friend thought of certain things she had said to him,
of a smile she had given him. Although he was good and modest and still
perfectly pure, a warm, irresistible hope insinuated itself into his heart.
Listening to the story of despair that his friend confided to him, he raised his
face bit by bit and gave the woman a smile. And nothing could keep that evening,
now falling grey upon those two men, from being at once an end and a beginning.
A couple, a man and a woman—poor human beings almost always go
in pairs—approached, and passed. I saw the empty space between them. In life's
tragedy, separation is the only thing one sees. They had been happy, and they
were no longer happy. They were almost old already. He did not care for her,
although they were growing old together. What were they saying? In a moment of
open-heartedness, trusting to the peacefulness reigning between them at that
time, he owned up to an old transgression, to a betrayal scrupulously and
religiously hidden until then. Alas, his words brought back an irreparable
agony. The past, which had gently lain dead, rose to life again for suffering.
Their former happiness was destroyed. The days gone by, which they had believed
happy, were made sad; and that is the woe in everything.
This couple was effaced by another, a young one, whose
conversation I also imagined. They were beginning, they were going to love.
Their hearts were so shy in finding each other. "Do you want me to go on that
trip?" "Shall I do this and that?" She answered, "No." An intense feeling of
modesty gave this first avowal of love so humbly solicited the form of a
disavowal. But yet they were already thinking of the full flower of their love.
Other couples passed by, and still others. This one now—he
talking, she saying nothing. It was difficult for him to master himself. He
begged her to tell him what she was thinking of. She answered. He listened.
Then, as if she had said nothing, he begged her again, still harder, to tell
him. There he was, uncertain, oscillating between night and day. All he needed
was for her to say one word, if he only believed it. You saw him, in the immense
city, clinging to that one being. The next instant I was separated from these
two lovers who watched and persecuted each other.
Turn where you will, everywhere, the man and the woman ever
confronting each other, the man who loves a hundred times, the woman who has the
power to love so much and to forget so much. I went on my way again. I came and
went in the midst of the naked truth. I am not a man of peculiar and exceptional
traits. I recognise myself in everybody. I have the same desires, the same
longings as the ordinary human being. Like everybody else I am a copy of the
truth spelled out in the Room, which is, "I am alone and I want what I have not
and what I shall never have." It is by this need that people live, and by this
need that people die.
But now I was tired of having desired too much. I suddenly felt
old. I should never recover from the wound in my breast. The dream of peace that
I had had a moment before attracted and tempted me only because it was far away.
Had I realised it, I should simply have dreamed another dream.
. . . . .
Now I looked for a word. The people who live my truth, what do
they say when they speak of themselves? Does the echo of what I am thinking
issue from their mouths, or error, or falsehood?
Night fell. I looked for a word like mine, a word to lean upon,
a word to sustain me. And it seemed to me that I was going along groping my way
as if expecting some one to come from round the corner and tell me everything.
I did not return to my room. I did not want to leave the crowds
that evening. I looked for a place that was alive.
I went into a large restaurant so as to hear voices around me.
There were only a few vacant places, and I found a seat in a corner near a table
at which three people were dining. I gave my order, and while my eyes
mechanically followed the white-gloved hand pouring soup into my plate from a
silver cup, I listened to the general hubbub.
All I could catch was what my three neighbours were saying. They
were talking of people in the place whom they knew, then of various friends.
Their persiflage and the consistent irony of their remarks surprised me.
Nothing they said was worth the while, and the evening promised
to be useless like the rest.
A few minutes later, the head waiter, while serving me with
filets of sole, nodded his head and winked his eye in the direction of one of
"M. Villiers, the famous writer," he whispered proudly.
I recognised M. Villiers. He resembled his portraits and bore
his young glory gracefully. I envied that man his ability to write and say what
he thought. I studied his profile and admired its worldly distinction. It was a
fine modern profile, the straightness of it broken by the silken point of his
well-kept moustache, by the perfect curve of his shoulder, and by the
butterfly's wing of his white necktie.
I lifted my glass to my lips when suddenly I stopped and felt
all my blood rush to my heart.
This is what I heard:
"What's the theme of the novel you're working on?"
"Truth," replied Pierre Villiers.
"What?" exclaimed his friend.
"A succession of human beings caught just as they are."
"What subject?" somebody asked.
People turned and listened to him. Two young diners not far away
stopped talking and put on an idling air, evidently with their ears pricked. In
a sumptuous purple alcove, a man in evening clothes, with sunken eyes and drawn
features, was smoking a fat cigar, his whole life concentrated in the fragrant
glow of his tobacco. His companion, her bare elbow on the table, enveloped in
perfume and sparkling with jewels, and overloaded with the heavy artificiality
of luxury, turned her simple moon-like face toward the speaker.
"This is the subject," said Pierre Villiers. "It gives me scope
to amuse and tell the truth at the same time. A man pierces a hole in the wall
of a boarding-house room, and watches what is going on in the next room."
. . . . .
I must have looked at the speakers just then with a rather sorry
expression of bewilderment. Then I quickly lowered my head like a child afraid
to be seen.
They had spoken for /me,/ and I sensed a strange secret service
intrigue around me. Then, in an instant this impression, which had got the
better of my common sense, gave way. Evidently a pure coincidence. Still I was
left with the vague apprehension that they were going to notice that I /knew,/
and were going to recognise me.
One of the novelist's friends begged him to tell more of his
story. He consented.
He was going to tell it in my presence!
. . . . .
With admirable art in the use of words, gestures, and mimicry,
and with a lively elegance and a contagious laugh, he described a series of
brilliant, surprising scenes. Under cover of his scheme, which brought all the
scenes out into peculiar relief and gave them a special intensity, he retailed a
lot of amusing oddities, described comical persons and things, heaped up
picturesque and piquant details, coined typical and witty proper names, and
invented complicated and ingenious situations. He succeeded in producing
irresistible effects, and the whole was in the latest style.
They said, "Ah!" and "Oh!" and opened their eyes wide.
"Bravo! A sure success! A corking funny idea!"
"All the characters who pass before the eyes of the man spying
upon them are amusing, even the man who kills himself. Nothing forgotten. The
whole of humanity is there."
But I had not recognized a single thing in the entire show.
A stupor and a sort of shame overwhelmed me as I heard that man
trying to extract the utmost entertainment possible from the dark happenings
that had been torturing me for a month.
I thought of that great voice, now silenced, which had said so
clearly and forcefully that the writers of to-day imitate the caricaturists. I,
who had penetrated into the heart of humanity and returned again, found nothing
human in this jiggling caricature! It was so superficial that it was a lie.
He said in front of me—of me the awful witness:
"It is man stripped of all outward appearances that I want
people to see. Others are fiction, I am the truth."
"It has a philosophical bearing, too."
"Perhaps. But that wasn't my object. Thank God, I am a writer,
and not a thinker."
And he continued to travesty the truth, and I was impotent—the
truth, that profound thing whose voice was in my ears, whose shadow was in my
eyes, and whose taste was in my mouth.
Was I so utterly forsaken? Would no one speak the word I was in
. . . . .
The Room was flooded with moonlight. In that magnificent setting
there was an obscure white couple, two silent human beings with marble faces.
The fire was out. The clock had finished its work and had
stopped, and was listening with its heart.
The man's face dominated. The woman was at his feet. They did
nothing. An air of tenderness hovered over them. They looked like monuments
gazing at the moon.
He spoke. I recognised his voice. It lit up his face for me,
which had been shrouded from my sight before. It was /he,/ the nameless lover
and poet whom I had seen twice before.
He was telling Amy that on his way that evening he had met a
poor woman, with her baby in her arms.
She walked, jostled and borne along by the crowd returning home
from work, and finally was tossed aside up against a post under a porch, and
stopped as though nailed there.
"I went up to her," he said, "and saw she was smiling.
. . . . .
"What was she smiling at? At life, on account of her child.
Under the refuge where she was cowering, facing the setting sun, she was
thinking of the growth of her child in the days to come. However terrible they
might be, they would be around him, for him, in him. They would be the same
thing as her breath, her walk, her look.
"So profound was the smile of this creator who bore her burden
and who raised her head and gazed into the sun, without even looking down at the
child or listening to its babbling.
"I worked this woman and child up into a poem."
He remained motionless for a moment, then said gently without
pausing, in that voice from the Beyond which we assume when we recite, obeying
what we say and no longer mastering it:
"The woman from the depths of her rags, a waif, a martyr—smiled.
She must have a divine heart to be so tired and yet smile. She loved the sky,
the light, which the unformed little being would love some day. She loved the
chilly dawn, the sultry noontime, the dreamy evening. The child would grow up, a
saviour, to give life to everything again. Starting at the dark bottom he would
ascend the ladder and begin life over again, life, the only paradise there is,
the bouquet of nature. He would make beauty beautiful. He would make eternity
over again with his voice and his song. And clasping the new-born infant close,
she looked at all the sunlight she had given the world. Her arms quivered like
wings. She dreamed in words of fondling. She fascinated all the passersby that
looked at her. And the setting sun bathed her neck and head in a rosy
reflection. She was like a great rose that opens its heart to the whole world."
The poet seemed to be searching for something, to be seeing
things, and believing infinitely. He was in another world where everything we
see is true and everything we say is unforgettable.
Amy was still on her knees with eyes upraised to his. She was
all attention, filled with it like a precious vase.
"But her smile," he went on, "was not only in wonder about the
future. There was also something tragic in it, which pierced my heart. I
understood it perfectly. She adored life, but she detested men and was afraid of
them, always on account of the child. She already disputed over him with the
living, although he himself was as yet scarcely among the living. She defied
them with her smile. She seemed to say to them, 'He will live in spite of you,
he will use you, he will subdue you either to dominate you or to be loved by
you. He is already braving you with his tiny breath, this little one that I am
holding in my maternal grasp.' She was terrible. At first, I had seen her as an
angel of goodness. Now, although she had not changed, she was like an angel of
mercilessness and vengeance. I saw a sort of hatred for those who would trouble
him distort her face, resplendent with superhuman maternity. Her cruel heart was
full of one heart only. It foresaw sin and shame. It hated men and settled
accounts with them like a destroying angel. She was the mother with fearful
nails, standing erect, and laughing with a torn mouth."
Amy gazed at her lover in the moonlight. It seemed to me that
her looks and his words mingled.
"I come back as I always do to the greatness of mankind's curse,
and I repeat it with the monotony of those who are always right—oh, without God,
without a harbour, without enough rags to cover us, all we have, standing erect
on the land of the dead, is the rebellion of our smile, the rebellion of being
gay when darkness envelops us. We are divinely alone, the heavens have fallen on
The heavens have fallen on our heads! What a tremendous idea! It
is the loftiest cry that life hurls. That was the cry of deliverance for which I
had been groping until then. I had had a foreboding it would come, because a
thing of glory like a poet's song always gives something to us poor living
shadows, and human thought always reveals the world. But I needed to have it
said explicitly so as to bring human misery and human grandeur together. I
needed it as a key to the vault of the heavens.
These heavens, that is to say, the azure that our eyes enshrine,
purity, plenitude—and the infinite number of suppliants, the sky of truth and
religion. All this is within us, and has fallen upon our heads. And God Himself,
who is all these kinds of heavens in one, has fallen on our heads like thunder,
and His infinity is ours.
We have the divinity of our great misery. And our solitude, with
its toilsome ideas, tears and laughter, is fatally divine. However wrong we may
go in the dark, whatever our efforts in the dark and the useless work of our
hearts working incessantly, and whatever our ignorance left to itself, and
whatever the wounds that other human beings are, we ought to study ourselves
with a sort of devotion. It is this sentiment that lights our foreheads, uplifts
our souls, adorns our pride, and, in spite of everything, will console us when
we shall become accustomed to holding, each at his own poor task, the whole
place that God used to occupy. The truth itself gives an effective, practical,
and, so to speak, religious caress to the suppliant in whom the heavens spread.
. . . . .
"I have such respect for the actual truth that there are moments
when I do not dare to call things by their name," the poet ended.
"Yes," said Amy, very softly, and nothing else. She had been
listening intently. Everything seemed to be carried away in a sort of gentle
"Amy," he whispered.
She did not stir. She had fallen asleep with her head on her
lover's knees. He looked at her and smiled. An expression of pity and
benevolence flitted across his face. His hands stretched out part way toward the
sleeping woman with the gentleness of strength. I saw the glorious pride of
condescension and charity in this man whom a woman prostrate before him deified.
I have given notice. I am going away
to-morrow evening, I with my tremendous memory. Whatever may happen, whatever
tragedies may be reserved for me in the future, my thought will not be graver or
more important when I shall have lived my life with all its weight.
But my whole body is one pain. I cannot stand on my legs any
more. I stagger. I fall back on my bed. My eyes close and fill with smarting
tears. I want to be crucified on the wall, but I cannot. My body becomes heavier
and heavier and filled with sharper pain. My flesh is enraged against me.
I hear voices through the wall. The next room vibrates with a
distant sound, a mist of sound which scarcely comes through the wall.
I shall not be able to listen any more, or look into the room,
or hear anything distinctly. And I, who have not cried since my childhood, I cry
now like a child because of all that I shall never have. I cry over lost beauty
and grandeur. I love everything that I should have embraced.
Here they will pass again, day after day, year after year, all
the prisoners of rooms will pass with their kind of eternity. In the twilight
when everything fades, they will sit down near the light, in the room full of
haloes. They will drag themselves to the window's void. Their mouths will join
and they will grow tender. They will exchange a first or a last useless glance.
They will open their arms, they will caress each other. They will love life and
be afraid to disappear. Here below they will seek a perfect union of hearts. Up
above they will seek everlastingness among the shades and a God in the clouds.
. . . . .
The monotonous murmur of voices comes through the wall steadily,
but I do not catch what is being said. I am like anybody else in a room.
I am lost, just as I was the evening I came here when I took
possession of this room used by people who had disappeared and died—before this
great change of light took place in my destiny.
Perhaps because of my fever, perhaps because of my lofty pain, I
imagine that some one there is declaiming a great poem, that some one is
speaking of Prometheus. He has stolen light from the gods. In his entrails he
feels the pain, always beginning again, always fresh, gathering from evening to
evening, when the vulture steals to him as it would steal to its nest. And you
feel that we are all like Prometheus because of desire, but there is neither
vulture nor gods.
There is no paradise except that which we create in the great
tomb of the churches. There is no hell, no inferno except the frenzy of living.
There is no mysterious fire. I have stolen the truth. I have
stolen the whole truth. I have seen sacred things, tragic things, pure things,
and I was right. I have seen shameful things, and I was right. And so I have
entered the kingdom of truth, if, while preserving respect to truth and without
soiling it, we can use the expression that deceit and religious blasphemy
. . . . .
Who shall compose the Bible of human desire, the terrible and
simple Bible of that which drives us from life to life, the Bible of our doings,
our goings, our original fall? Who will dare to tell everything, who will have
the genius to see everything?
I believe in a lofty form of poetry, in the work in which beauty
will be mingled with beliefs. The more incapable of it I feel myself, the more I
believe it to be possible. The sad splendour with which certain memories of mine
overwhelm me, shows me that it is possible. Sometimes I myself have been
sublime, I myself have been a masterpiece. Sometimes my visions have been
mingled with a thrill of evidence so strong and so creative that the whole room
has quivered with it like a forest, and there have been moments, in truth, when
the silence cried out.
But I have stolen all this, and I have profited by it, thanks to
the shamelessness of the truth revealed. At the point in space in which, by
accident, I found myself, I had only to open my eyes and to stretch out my
mendicant hands to accomplish more than a dream, to accomplish almost a work.
What I have seen is going to disappear, since I shall do nothing
with it. I am like a mother the fruit of whose womb will perish after it has
What matter? I have heard the annunciation of whatever finer
things are to come. Through me has passed, without staying me in my course, the
Word which does not lie, and which, said over again, will satisfy.
. . . . .
But I have finished. I am lying stretched out, and now that I
have ceased to see, my poor eyes close like a healing wound and a scar forms
And I seek assuagement for myself. I! The last cry, as it was
As for me, I have only one recourse, to remember and to believe.
To hold on with all my strength to the memory of the tragedy of the Room.
I believe that the only thing which confronts the heart and the
reason is the shadow of that which the heart and the reason cry for. I believe
that around us there is only one word, the immense word which takes us out of
our solitude, NOTHING. I believe that this does not signify our nothingness or
our misfortune, but, on the contrary, our realisation and our deification, since
everything is within us.