Library Of The World's Best Literature, Ancient And Modern, Vol 3
Part 10 out of 11
all truly great writers he never forgets his ideals; but he is too
impartial to his characters and has too fast a grip on life to fall into
the unrealities of sentimentalism. It is true that he lacked the
spontaneity that characterized his great forerunner, Shakespeare, and
his great contemporary, George Sand; but this loss was made up by the
inevitable and impersonal character of his work when once his genius was
thoroughly aroused to action. His laborious method of describing by an
accumulation of details postponed the play of his powers, which are at
their height in the action of his characters; yet sooner or later the
inert masses of his composition were fused into a burning whole. But if
Balzac is primarily a dramatist in the creation and manipulation of his
characters, he is also a supreme painter in his presentation of scenes.
And what characters and what scenes has he not set before us! Over two
thousand personages move through the 'Comedie humaine,' whose
biographies MM. Cerfberr and Christophe have collected for us in their
admirable 'Repertoire de la comedie humaine,' and whose chief types M.
Paul Flat has described in the first series of his 'Essais sur Balzac.'
Some of these personages are of course shadowy; but an amazingly large
number live for us as truly as Shakespeare's heroes and heroines do. Nor
will any one who has trod the streets of Balzac's Paris, or spent the
summer with him at the chateau des Aigues ('Les Paysans'), or in the
beautiful valleys of Touraine, ever forget the master's pictures.
Yet the Balzac who with intangible materials created living and
breathing men and women and unfading scenes, has been accused of
vitiating the French language and has been denied the possession of
verbal style. On this point French critics must give the final verdict;
but a foreigner may cite Taine's defense of that style, and maintain
that most of the liberties taken by Balzac with his native language were
forced on him by the novel and far-reaching character of his work. Nor
should it be forgotten that he was capable at times of almost perfect
passages of description, and that he rarely confounded, as novelists are
too apt to do, the provinces of poetry and prose.
But one might write a hundred essays on Balzac and not exhaust him. One
might write a volume on his women, a volume to refute the charge that
his bad men are better drawn than his good, a volume to discuss Mr.
Henry James's epigrammatic declaration that a five-franc piece may be
fairly called the protagonist of the 'Comedie humaine.' In short one
might go on defending and praising and even criticizing Balzac for a
lifetime, and be little further advanced than when one began; for to
criticize Balzac, is it not to criticize life itself?
[Illustration: Signature W.P. Trent]
THE MEETING IN THE CONVENT
From 'The Duchess of Langeais'
In a Spanish town on an island of the Mediterranean there is a convent
of the Barefooted Carmelites, where the rule of the Order instituted by
Saint Theresa is still kept with the primitive rigor of the reformation
brought about by that illustrious woman. Extraordinary as this fact may
seem, it is true. Though the monasteries of the Peninsula and those of
the Continent were nearly all destroyed or broken up by the outburst of
the French Revolution and the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, yet on
this island, protected by the British fleets, the wealthy convent and
its peaceful inmates were sheltered from the dangers of change and
general spoliation. The storms from all quarters which shook the first
fifteen years of the nineteenth century subsided ere they reached this
lonely rock near the coast of Andalusia. If the name of the great
Emperor echoed fitfully upon its shores, it may be doubted whether the
fantastic march of his glory or the flaming majesty of his meteoric life
ever reached the comprehension of those saintly women kneeling in their
A conventual rigor, which was never relaxed, gave to this haven a
special place in the thoughts and history of the Catholic world. The
purity of its rule drew to its shelter from different parts of Europe
sad women, whose souls, deprived of human ties, longed for the death in
life which they found here in the bosom of God. No other convent was so
fitted to wean the heart and teach it that aloofness from the things of
this world which the religious life imperatively demands. On the
Continent may be found a number of such Houses, nobly planned to meet
the wants of their sacred purpose. Some are buried in the depths of
solitary valleys; others hang, as it were, in mid-air above the hills,
clinging to the mountain slopes or projecting from the verge of
precipices. On all sides man has sought out the poesy of the infinite,
the solemnity of silence: he has sought God; and on the mountain-tops,
in the abysmal depths, among the caverned cliffs he has found Him. Yet
nowhere as on this European islet, half African though it be, can he
find such differing harmonies all blending to lift the soul and quell
its springs of anguish; to cool its fevers, and give to the sorrows of
life a bed of rest.
The monastery is built at the extremity of the island at its highest
part, where the rock by some convulsion of Nature has been rent sharply
down to the sea, and presents at all points keen angles and edges,
slightly eaten away at the water-line by the action of the waves, but
insurmountable to all approach. The rock is also protected from assault
by dangerous reefs running far out from its base, over which frolic the
blue waters of the Mediterranean. It is only from the sea that the
visitor can perceive the four principal parts of the square structure,
which adheres minutely as to shape, height, and the piercing of its
windows to the prescribed laws of monastic architecture. On the side
towards the town the church hides the massive lines of the cloister,
whose roof is covered with large tiles to protect it from winds and
storms, and also from the fierce heat of the sun. The church, the gift
of a Spanish family, looks down upon the town and crowns it. Its bold
yet elegant facade gives a noble aspect to the little maritime city. Is
it not a picture of terrestrial sublimity? See the tiny town with
clustering roofs, rising like an amphitheatre from the picturesque port
upward to the noble Gothic frontal of the church, from which spring the
slender shafts of the bell-towers with their pointed finials: religion
dominating life: offering to man the end and the way of living,--image
of a thought altogether Spanish. Place this scene upon the bosom of the
Mediterranean beneath an ardent sky; plant it with palms whose waving
fronds mingle their green life with the sculptured leafage of the
immutable architecture; look at the white fringes of the sea as it runs
up the reef and they sparkle upon the sapphire of its wave; see the
galleries and the terraces built upon the roofs of houses, where the
inhabitants come at eve to breathe the flower-scented air as it rises
through the tree-tops from their little gardens. Below, in the harbor,
are the white sails. The serenity of night is coming on; listen to the
notes of the organ, the chant of evening orisons, the echoing bells of
the ships at sea: on all sides sound and peace,--oftenest peace.
Within the church are three naves, dark and mysterious. The fury of the
winds evidently forbade the architect to build out lateral buttresses,
such as adorn all other cathedrals, and between which little chapels are
usually constructed. Thus the strong walls which flank the lesser naves
shed no light into the building. Outside, their gray masses are shored
up from point to point by enormous beams. The great nave and its two
small lateral galleries are lighted solely by the rose-window of stained
glass, which pierces with miraculous art the wall above the great
portal, whose fortunate exposure permits a wealth of tracery and
dentellated stone-work belonging to that order of architecture
The greater part of the three naves is given up to the inhabitants of
the town who come to hear Mass and the Offices of the Church. In front
of the choir is a latticed screen, within which brown curtains hang in
ample folds, slightly parted in the middle to give a limited view of the
altar and the officiating priest. The screen is divided at intervals by
pillars that hold up a gallery within the choir which contains the
organ. This construction, in harmony with the rest of the building,
continues, in sculptured wood, the little columns of the lateral
galleries which are supported by the pillars of the great nave. Thus it
is impossible for the boldest curiosity, if any such should dare to
mount the narrow balustrade of these galleries, to see farther into the
choir than the octagonal stained windows which pierce the apse behind
the high altar.
At the time of the French expedition into Spain for the purpose of
re-establishing the authority of Ferdinand VII., and after the fall of
Cadiz, a French general who was sent to the island to obtain its
recognition of the royal government prolonged his stay upon it that he
might reconnoitre the convent and gain, if possible, admittance there.
The enterprise was a delicate one. But a man of passion,--a man whose
life had been, so to speak, a series of poems in action, who had lived
romances instead of writing them; above all a man of deeds,--might well
be tempted by a project apparently so impossible. To open for himself
legally the gates of a convent of women! The Pope and the Metropolitan
Archbishop would scarcely sanction it. Should he use force or artifice?
In case of failure was he not certain to lose his station and his
military future, besides missing his aim? The Duc d'Angouleme was still
in Spain; and of all the indiscretions which an officer in favor with
the commander-in-chief could commit, this alone would be punished
without pity. The general had solicited his present mission for the
purpose of following up a secret hope, albeit no hope was ever so
despairing. This last effort, however, was a matter of conscience. The
house of these Barefooted Carmelites was the only Spanish convent which
had escaped his search. While crossing from the mainland, a voyage which
took less than an hour, a strong presentiment of success had seized his
heart. Since then, although he had seen nothing of the convent but its
walls, nothing of the nuns, not so much as their brown habit; though he
had heard only the echoes of their chanted liturgies,--he had gathered
from those walls and from these chants faint indications that seemed to
justify his fragile hope. Slight as the auguries thus capriciously
awakened might be, no human passion was ever more violently roused than
the curiosity of this French general. To the heart there are no
insignificant events; it magnifies all things; it puts in the same
balance the fall of an empire and the fall of a woman's glove,--and
oftentimes the glove outweighs the empire. But let us give the facts in
their actual simplicity: after the facts will come the feelings.
An hour after the expedition had landed on the island the royal
authority was re-established. A few Spaniards who had taken refuge there
after the fall of Cadiz embarked on a vessel which the general allowed
them to charter for their voyage to London. There was thus neither
resistance nor reaction. This little insular restoration could not,
however, be accomplished without a Mass, at which both companies of the
troops were ordered to be present. Not knowing the rigor of the
Carmelite rule, the general hoped to gain in the church some information
about the nuns who were immured in the convent, one of whom might be a
being dearer to him than life, more precious even than honor. His hopes
were at first cruelly disappointed. Mass was celebrated with the utmost
pomp. In honor of this solemn occasion the curtains which habitually
hid the choir were drawn aside, and gave to view the rich ornaments, the
priceless pictures, and the shrines incrusted with jewels whose
brilliancy surpassed that of the votive offerings fastened by the
mariners of the port to the pillars of the great nave. The nuns,
however, had retired to the seclusion of the organ gallery.
Yet in spite of this check, and while the Mass of thanksgiving was being
sung, suddenly and secretly the drama widened into an interest as
profound as any that ever moved the heart of man. The Sister who played
the organ roused an enthusiasm so vivid that not one soldier present
regretted the order which had brought him to the church. The men
listened to the music with pleasure; the officers were carried away by
it. As for the general, he remained to all appearance calm and cold: the
feelings with which he heard the notes given forth by the nun are among
the small number of earthly things whose expression is withheld from
impotent human speech, but which--like death, like God, like
eternity--can be perceived only at their slender point of contact with
the heart of man. By a strange chance the music of the organ seemed to
be that of Rossini,--a composer who more than any other has carried
human passion into the art of music, and whose works by their number and
extent will some day inspire an Homeric respect. From among the scores
of this fine genius the nun seemed to have chiefly studied that of Moses
in Egypt; doubtless because the feelings of sacred music are there
carried to the highest pitch. Perhaps these two souls--one so gloriously
European, the other unknown--had met together in some intuitive
perception of the same poetic thought. This idea occurred to two
officers now present, true _dilettanti_, who no doubt keenly regretted
the Theatre Favart in their Spanish exile. At last, at the Te Deum, it
was impossible not to recognize a French soul in the character which the
music suddenly took on. The triumph of his Most Christian Majesty
evidently roused to joy the heart of that cloistered nun. Surely she was
a Frenchwoman. Presently the patriotic spirit burst forth, sparkling
like a jet of light through the antiphonals of the organ, as the Sister
recalled melodies breathing the delicacy of Parisian taste, and blended
them with vague memories of our national anthems. Spanish hands could
not have put into this graceful homage paid to victorious arms the fire
that thus betrayed the origin of the musician.
"France is everywhere!" said a soldier.
The general left the church during the Te Deum; it was impossible for
him to listen to it. The notes of the musician revealed to him a woman
loved to madness; who had buried herself so deeply in the heart of
religion, hid herself so carefully away from the sight of the world,
that up to this time she had escaped the keen search of men armed not
only with immense power, but with great sagacity and intelligence. The
hopes which had wakened in the general's heart seemed justified as he
listened to the vague echo of a tender and melancholy air, 'La Fleuve du
Tage,'--a ballad whose prelude he had often heard in Paris in the
boudoir of the woman he loved, and which this nun now used to express,
amid the joys of the conquerors, the suffering of an exiled heart.
Terrible moment! to long for the resurrection of a lost love; to find
that love--still lost; to meet it mysteriously after five years in which
passion, exasperated by the void, had been intensified by the useless
efforts made to satisfy it.
Who is there that has not, once at least in his life, upturned
everything about him, his papers and his receptacles, taxing his memory
impatiently as he seeks some precious lost object; and then felt the
ineffable pleasure of finding it after days consumed in the search,
after hoping and despairing of its recovery,--spending upon some trifle
an excitement of mind almost amounting to a passion? Well, stretch this
fury of search through five long years; put a woman, a heart, a love in
the place of the insignificant trifle; lift the passion into the highest
realms of feeling; and then picture to yourself an ardent man, a man
with the heart of lion and the front of Jove, one of those men who
command, and communicate to those about them, respectful terror,--you
will then understand the abrupt departure of the general during the Te
Deum, at the moment when the prelude of an air, once heard in Paris with
delight under gilded ceilings, vibrated through the dark naves of the
church by the sea.
He went down the hilly street which led up to the convent, without
pausing until the sonorous echoes of the organ could no longer reach his
ear. Unable to think of anything but of the love that like a volcanic
eruption rent his heart, the French general only perceived that the Te
Deum was ended when the Spanish contingent poured from the church. He
felt that his conduct and appearance were open to ridicule, and he
hastily resumed his place at the head of the cavalcade, explaining to
the alcalde and to the governor of the town that a sudden indisposition
had obliged him to come out into the air. Then it suddenly occurred to
him to use the pretext thus hastily given, as a means of prolonging his
stay on the island. Excusing himself on the score of increased illness,
he declined to preside at the banquet given by the authorities of the
island to the French officers, and took to his bed, after writing to the
major-general that a passing illness compelled him to turn over his
command to the colonel. This commonplace artifice, natural as it was,
left him free from all duties and able to seek the fulfilment of his
hopes. Like a man essentially Catholic and monarchical, he inquired the
hours of the various services, and showed the utmost interest in the
duties of religion,--a piety which in Spain excited no surprise.
The following day, while the soldiers were embarking, the general went
up to the convent to be present at vespers. He found the church deserted
by the townspeople, who in spite of their natural devotion were
attracted to the port by the embarkation of the troops. The Frenchman,
glad to find himself alone in the church, took pains to make the clink
of his spurs resound through the vaulted roof; he walked noisily, and
coughed, and spoke aloud to himself, hoping to inform the nuns, but
especially the Sister at the organ, that if the French soldiers were
departing, one at least remained behind. Was this singular method of
communication heard and understood? The general believed it was. In the
Magnificat the organ seemed to give an answer which came to him in the
vibrations of the air. The soul of the nun floated towards him on the
wings of the notes she touched, quivering with the movements of the
sound. The music burst forth with power; it glorified the church. This
hymn of joy, consecrated by the sublime liturgy of Roman Christianity to
the uplifting of the soul in presence of the splendors of the
ever-living God, became the utterance of a heart terrified at its own
happiness in presence of the splendors of a perishable love, which still
lived, and came to move it once more beyond the tomb where this woman
had buried herself, to rise again the bride of Christ.
The organ is beyond all question the finest, the most daring, the most
magnificent of the instruments created by human genius. It is an
orchestra in itself, from which a practiced hand may demand all things;
for it expresses all things. Is it not, as it were, a coign of vantage,
where the soul may poise itself ere it springs into space, bearing, as
it flies, the listening mind through a thousand scenes of life towards
the infinite which parts earth from heaven? The longer a poet listens to
its gigantic harmonies, the more fully will he comprehend that between
kneeling humanity and the God hidden by the dazzling rays of the Holy of
Holies, the hundred voices of terrestrial choirs can alone bridge the
vast distance and interpret to Heaven the prayers of men in all the
omnipotence of their desires, in the diversities of their woe, with the
tints of their meditations and their ecstasies, with the impetuous
spring of their repentance, and the thousand imaginations of their
manifold beliefs. Yes! beneath these soaring vaults the harmonies born
of the genius of sacred things find a yet unheard-of grandeur, which
adorns and strengthens them. Here the dim light, the deep silence, the
voices alternating with the solemn tones of the organ, seem like a veil
through which the luminous attributes of God himself pierce and radiate.
Yet all these sacred riches now seem flung like a grain of incense on
the frail altar of an earthly love, in presence of the eternal throne of
a jealous and avenging Deity. The joy of the nun had not the gravity
which properly belongs to the solemnity of the Magnificat. She gave to
the music rich and graceful modulations, whose rhythms breathed of human
gayety; her measures ran into the brilliant cadences of a great singer
striving to express her love, and the notes rose buoyantly like the
carol of a bird by the side of its mate. At moments she darted back into
the past, as if to sport there or to weep there for an instant. Her
changing moods had something discomposed about them, like the agitations
of a happy woman rejoicing at the return of her lover. Then, as these
supple strains of passionate emotion ceased, the soul that spoke
returned upon itself; the musician passed from the major to the minor
key, and told her hearer the story of her present. She revealed to him
her long melancholy, the slow malady of her moral being,--every day a
feeling crushed, every night a thought subdued, hour by hour a heart
burning down to ashes. After soft modulations the music took on slowly,
tint by tint, the hue of deepest sadness. Soon it poured forth in
echoing torrents the well-springs of grief, till suddenly the higher
notes struck clear like the voice of angels, as if to tell to her lost
love--lost, but not forgotten--that the reunion of their souls must be
in heaven, and only there: hope most precious! Then came the Amen. In
that no joy, no tears, nor sadness, nor regrets, but a return to God.
The last chord that sounded was grave, solemn, terrible. The musician
revealed the nun in the garb of her vocation; and as the thunder of the
basses rolled away, causing the hearer to shudder through his whole
being, she seemed to sink into the tomb from which for a brief moment
she had risen. As the echoes slowly ceased to vibrate along the vaulted
roofs, the church, made luminous by the music, fell suddenly into
The general, carried away by the course of this powerful genius, had
followed her, step by step, along her way. He comprehended in their full
meaning the pictures that gleamed through that burning symphony; for him
those chords told all. For him, as for the Sister, this poem of sound
was the future, the past, the present. Music, even the music of an
opera, is it not to tender and poetic souls, to wounded and suffering
hearts, a text which they interpret as their memories need? If the heart
of a poet must be given to a musician, must not poetry and love be
listeners ere the great musical works of art are understood? Religion,
love, and music: are they not the triple expression of one fact, the
need of expansion, the need of touching with their own infinite the
infinite beyond them, which is in the fibre of all noble souls? These
three forms of poesy end in God, who alone can unwind the knot of
earthly emotion. Thus this holy human trinity joins itself to the
holiness of God, of whom we make to ourselves no conception unless we
surround him by the fires of love and the golden cymbals of music and
light and harmony.
The French general divined that on this desert rock, surrounded by the
surging seas, the nun had cherished music to free her soul of the excess
of passion that consumed it. Did she offer her love as a homage to God?
Did the love triumph over the vows she had made to Him? Questions
difficult to answer. But, beyond all doubt, the lover had found in a
heart dead to the world a love as passionate as that which burned
within his own.
When vespers ended he returned to the house of the alcalde, where he was
quartered. Giving himself over, a willing prey, to the delights of a
success long expected, laboriously sought, his mind at first could dwell
on nothing else,--he was still loved. Solitude had nourished the love of
that heart, just as his own had thriven on the barriers, successively
surmounted, which this woman had placed between herself and him. This
ecstasy of the spirit had its natural duration; then came the desire to
see this woman, to withdraw her from God, to win her back to himself,--a
bold project, welcome to a bold man. After the evening repast, he
retired to his room to escape questions and think in peace, and remained
plunged in deep meditation throughout the night. He rose early and went
to Mass. He placed himself close to the latticed screen, his brow
touching the brown curtain. He longed to rend it away; but he was not
alone, his host had accompanied him, and the least imprudence might
compromise the future of his love and ruin his new-found hopes. The
organ was played, but not by the same hand; the musician of the last two
days was absent from its key-board. All was chill and pale to the
general. Was his mistress worn out by the emotions which had wellnigh
broken down his own vigorous heart? Had she so truly shared and
comprehended his faithful and eager love that she now lay exhausted and
dying in her cell? At the moment when such thoughts as these rose in the
general's mind, he heard beside him the voice beloved; he knew the clear
ring of its tones. The voice, slightly changed by a tremor which gave it
the timid grace and modesty of a young girl, detached itself from the
volume of song, like the voice of a prima donna in the harmonies of her
final notes. It gave to the ear an impression like the effect to the eye
of a fillet of silver or gold threading a dark frieze. It was indeed
she! Still Parisian, she had not lost her gracious charm, though she had
forsaken the coronet and adornments of the world for the frontlet and
serge of a Carmelite. Having revealed her love the night before in the
praises addressed to the Lord of all, she seemed now to say to her
lover:--"Yes, it is I: I am here. I love forever; yet I am aloof from
love. Thou shalt hear me; my soul shall enfold thee; but I must stay
beneath the brown shroud of this choir, from which no power can tear me.
Thou canst not see me."
"It is she!" whispered the general to himself, as he raised his head and
withdrew his hands from his face; for he had not been able to bear erect
the storm of feeling that shook his heart as the voice vibrated through
the arches and blended with the murmur of the waves. A storm raged
without, yet peace was within the sanctuary. The rich voice still
caressed the ear, and fell like balm upon the parched heart of the
lover; it flowered in the air about him, from which he breathed the
emanations of her spirit exhaling her love through the aspirations of
The alcalde came to rejoin his guest, and found him bathed in tears at
the elevation of the Host which was chanted by the nun. Surprised to
find such devotion in a French officer, he invited the confessor of the
convent to join them at supper, and informed the general, to whom no
news had ever given such pleasure, of what he had done. During the
supper the general made the confessor the object of much attention, and
thus confirmed the Spaniards in the high opinion they had formed of his
piety. He inquired with grave interest the number of the nuns, and asked
details about the revenues of the convent and its wealth, with the air
of a man who politely wished to choose topics which occupied the mind of
the good old priest. Then he inquired about the life led by the sisters.
Could they go out? Could they see friends?
"Senhor," said the venorable priest, "the rule is severe. If the
permission of our Holy Father must be obtained before a woman can enter
a house of Saint Bruno [the Chartreux] the like rule exists here. It is
impossible for any man to enter a convent of the Bare-footed Carmelites,
unless he is a priest delegated by the archbishop for duty in the House.
No nun can go out. It is true, however, that the Great Saint, Mother
Theresa, did frequently leave her cell. A Mother-superior can alone,
under authority of the archbishop, permit a nun to see her friends,
especially in case of illness. As this convent is one of the chief
Houses of the Order, it has a Mother-superior residing in it. We have
several foreigners,--among them a Frenchwoman, Sister Theresa, the one
who directs the music in the chapel."
"Ah!" said the general, feigning surprise: "she must have been gratified
by the triumph of the House of Bourbon?"
"I told them the object of the Mass; they are always rather curious."
"Perhaps Sister Theresa has some interests in France; she might be glad
to receive some news, or ask some questions?"
"I think not; or she would have spoken to me."
"As a compatriot," said the general, "I should be curious to see--that
is, if it were possible, if the superior would consent, if--"
"At the grating, even in the presence of the reverend Mother, an
interview would be absolutely impossible for any ordinary man, no matter
who he was; but in favor of a liberator of a Catholic throne and our
holy religion, possibly, in spite of the rigid rule of our Mother
Theresa, the rule might be relaxed," said the confessor. "I will speak
"How old is Sister Theresa?" asked the lover, who dared not question the
priest about the beauty of the nun.
"She is no longer of any age," said the good old man, with a simplicity
which made the general shudder.
The next day, before the _siesta_, the confessor came to tell the
general that Sister Theresa and the Mother-superior consented to receive
him at the grating that evening before the hour of vespers. After the
_siesta_, during which the Frenchman had whiled away the time by walking
round the port in the fierce heat of the sun, the priest came to show
him the way into the convent.
He was guided through a gallery which ran the length of the cemetery,
where fountains and trees and numerous arcades gave a cool freshness in
keeping with that still and silent spot. When they reached the end of
this long gallery, the priest led his companion into a parlor, divided
in the middle by a grating covered with a brown curtain. On the side
which we must call public, and where the confessor left the general,
there was a wooden bench along one side of the wall; some chairs, also
of wood, were near the grating. The ceiling was of wood, crossed by
heavy beams of the evergreen oak, without ornament. Daylight came from
two windows in the division set apart for the nuns, and was absorbed by
the brown tones of the room; so that it barely showed the picture of the
great black Christ, and those of Saint Theresa and the Blessed Virgin,
which hung on the dark panels of the walls.
The feelings of the general turned, in spite of their violence, to a
tone of melancholy. He grew calm in these calm precincts. Something
mighty as the grave seized him beneath these chilling rafters. Was it
not the eternal silence, the deep peace, the near presence of the
infinite? Through the stillness came the fixed thought of the
cloister,--that thought which glides through the air in the half-lights,
and is in all things,--the thought unchangeable; nowhere seen, which yet
grows vast to the imagination; the all-comprising phrase, _the peace of
God_. It enters there, with living power, into the least religious
heart. Convents of men are not easily conceivable; man seems feeble and
unmanly in them. He is born to act, to fulfil a life of toil; and he
escapes it in his cell. But in a monastery of women what strength to
endure, and yet what touching weakness! A man may be pushed by a
thousand sentiments into the depths of an abbey; he flings himself into
them as from a precipice. But the woman is drawn only by one feeling;
she does not unsex herself,--she espouses holiness. You may say to the
man, Why did you not struggle? but to the cloistered woman life is a
The general found in this mute parlor of the seagirt convent memories of
himself. Love seldom reaches upward to solemnity; but love in the bosom
of God,--is there nothing solemn there? Yes, more than a man has the
right to hope for in this nineteenth century, with our manners and our
customs what they are.
The general's soul was one on which such impressions act. His nature was
noble enough to forget self-interest, honors, Spain, the world, or
Paris, and rise to the heights of feeling roused by this unspeakable
termination of his long pursuit. What could be more tragic? How many
emotions held these lovers, reunited at last on this granite ledge far
out at sea, yet separated by an idea, an impassable barrier. Look at
this man, saying to himself, "Can I triumph over God in that heart?"
A slight noise made him quiver. The brown curtain was drawn back; he saw
in the half-light a woman standing, but her face was hidden from him by
the projection of a veil, which lay in many folds upon her head.
According to the rule of the Order she was clothed in the brown garb
whose color has become proverbial. The general could not see the naked
feet, which would have told him the frightful emaciation of her body;
yet through the thick folds of the coarse robe that swathed her, his
heart divined that tears and prayers and passion and solitude had
wasted her away.
The chill hand of a woman, doubtless the Mother-superior, held back the
curtain, and the general, examining this unwelcome witness of the
interview, encountered the deep grave eyes of an old nun, very aged,
whose clear, even youthful, glance belied the wrinkles that furrowed her
"Madame la duchesse," he said, in a voice shaken by emotion, to the
Sister, who bowed her head, "does your companion understand French?"
"There is no duchess here," replied the nun. "You are in presence of
Sister Theresa. The woman whom you call my companion is my Mother in
God, my superior here below."
These words, humbly uttered by a voice that once harmonized with the
luxury and elegance in which this woman had lived queen of the world of
Paris, that fell from lips whose language had been of old so gay, so
mocking, struck the general as if with an electric shock.
"My holy Mother speaks only Latin and Spanish," she added.
"I understand neither. Dear Antoinette, make her my excuses."
As she heard her name softly uttered by a man once so hard to her, the
nun was shaken by emotion, betrayed only by the light quivering of her
veil, on which the light now fully fell.
"My brother," she said, passing her sleeve beneath her veil, perhaps to
wipe her eyes, "my name is Sister Theresa."
Then she turned to the Mother, and said to her in Spanish a few words
which the general plainly heard. He knew enough of the language to
understand it, perhaps to speak it. "My dear Mother, this gentleman
presents to you his respects, and begs you to excuse him for not laying
them himself at your feet; but he knows neither of the languages which
The old woman slowly bowed her head; her countenance took an expression
of angelic sweetness, tempered, nevertheless, by the consciousness of
her power and dignity.
"You know this gentleman?" she asked, with a piercing glance at the
"Yes, my Mother."
"Retire to your cell, my daughter," said the Superior in a tone of
The general hastily withdrew to the shelter of the curtain, lest his
face should betray the anguish these words cost him; but he fancied that
the penetrating eyes of the Superior followed him even into the shadow.
This woman, arbiter of the frail and fleeting joy he had won at such
cost, made him afraid; he trembled, he whom a triple range of cannon
could not shake.
The duchess walked to the door, but there she turned. "My Mother," she
said, in a voice horribly calm, "this Frenchman is one of my brothers."
"Remain, therefore, my daughter," said the old woman, after a pause.
The jesuitism of this answer revealed such love and such regret, that a
man of less firmness than the general would have betrayed his joy in the
midst of a peril so novel to him. But what value could there be in the
words, looks, gestures of a love that must be hidden from the eyes of a
lynx, the claws of a tiger? The Sister came back.
"You see, my brother," she said, "what I have dared to do that I might
for one moment speak to you of your salvation, and tell you of the
prayers which day by day my soul offers to heaven on your behalf. I have
committed a mortal sin,--I have lied. How many days of penitence to wash
out that lie! But I shall suffer for you. You know not, my brother, the
joy of loving in heaven, of daring to avow affections that religion has
purified, that have risen to the highest regions, that at last we know
and feel with the soul alone. If the doctrines--if the spirit of the
saint to whom we owe this refuge had not lifted me above the anguish of
earth to a world, not indeed where she is, but far above my lower life,
I could not have seen you now. But I can see you, I can hear you, and
"Antoinette," said the general, interrupting these words, "suffer me to
see you--you, whom I love passionately, to madness, as you once would
have had me love you."
"Do not call me Antoinette, I implore you: memories of the past do me
harm. See in me only the Sister Theresa, a creature trusting all to the
divine pity. And," she added, after a pause, "subdue yourself, my
brother. Our Mother would separate us instantly if your face betrayed
earthly passions, or your eyes shed tears."
The general bowed his head, as if to collect himself; when he again
lifted his eyes to the grating he saw between two bars the pale,
emaciated, but still ardent face of the nun. Her complexion, where once
had bloomed the loveliness of youth,--where once there shone the happy
contrast of a pure, clear whiteness with the colors of a Bengal
rose,--now had the tints of a porcelain cup through which a feeble light
showed faintly. The beautiful hair of which this woman was once so proud
was shaven; a white band bound her brows and was wrapped around her
face. Her eyes, circled with dark shadows due to the austerities of her
life, glanced at moments with a feverish light, of which their habitual
calm was but the mask. In a word, of this woman nothing remained but
"Ah! you will leave this tomb--you, who are my life! You belonged to me;
you were not free to give yourself--not even to God. Did you not promise
to sacrifice all to the least of my commands? Will you now think me
worthy to claim that promise, if I tell you what I have done for your
sake? I have sought you through the whole world. For five years you have
been the thought of every instant, the occupation of every hour, of my
life. My friends--friends all-powerful as you know--have helped me to
search the convents of France, Spain, Italy, Sicily, America. My love
has deepened with every fruitless search. Many a long journey I have
taken on a false hope. I have spent my life and the strong beatings of
my heart about the walls of cloisters. I will not speak to you of a
fidelity unlimited. What is it?--nothing compared to the infinitude of
my love! If in other days your remorse was real, you cannot hesitate to
follow me now."
"You forget that I am not free."
"The duke is dead," he said hastily.
Sister Theresa colored. "May Heaven receive him!" she said, with quick
emotion: "he was generous to me. But I did not speak of those ties: one
of my faults was my willingness to break them without scruple for you."
"You speak of your vows," cried the general, frowning. "I little thought
that anything would weigh in your heart against our love. But do not
fear, Antoinette; I will obtain a brief from the Holy Father which will
absolve your vows. I will go to Rome; I will petition every earthly
power; if God himself came down from heaven I--"
"Do not blaspheme!"
"Do not fear how God would see it! Ah! I wish I were as sure that you
will leave these walls with me; that to-night--to-night, you would
embark at the feet of these rocks. Let us go to find happiness! I know
not where--at the ends of the earth! With me you will come back to life,
to health--in the shelter of my love!"
"Do not say these things," replied the Sister; "you do not know what you
now are to me. I love you better than I once loved you. I pray to God
for you daily. I see you no longer with the eyes of my body. If you but
knew, Armand, the joy of being able, without shame, to spend myself upon
a pure love which God protects! You do not know the joy I have in
calling down the blessings of heaven upon your head. I never pray for
myself: God will do with me according to his will. But you--at the price
of my eternity I would win the assurance that you are happy in this
world, that you will be happy in another throughout the ages. My life
eternal is all that misfortunes have left me to give you. I have grown
old in grief; I am no longer young or beautiful. Ah! you would despise a
nun who returned to be a woman; no sentiment, not even maternal love,
could absolve her. What could you say to me that would shake the
unnumbered reflections my heart has made in five long years,--and which
have changed it, hollowed it, withered it? Ah! I should have given
something less sad to God!"
"What can I say to you, dear Antoinette? I will say that I love you;
that affection, love, true love, the joy of living in a heart all
ours,--wholly ours, without one reservation,--is so rare, so difficult
to find, that I once doubted you; I put you to cruel tests. But to-day I
love and trust you with all the powers of my soul. If you will follow me
I will listen throughout life to no voice but thine. I will look on
"Silence, Armand! you shorten the sole moments which are given to us to
see each other here below."
"Antoinette! will you follow me?"
"I never leave you. I live in your heart--but with another power than
that of earthly pleasure, or vanity, or selfish joy. I live here for
you, pale and faded, in the bosom of God. If God is just, you will
"Phrases! you give me phrases! But if I will to have you pale and
faded,--if I cannot be happy unless you are with me? What! will you
forever place duties before my love? Shall I never be above all things
else in your heart? In the past you put the world, or self--I know not
what--above me; to-day it is God, it is my salvation. In this Sister
Theresa I recognize the duchess; ignorant of the joys of love, unfeeling
beneath a pretense of tenderness! You do not love me! you never
"Oh, my brother!--"
"You will not leave this tomb. You love my soul, you say: well! you
shall destroy it forever and ever. I will kill myself--"
"My Mother!" cried the nun, "I have lied to you; this man is my lover."
The curtain fell. The general, stunned, heard the doors close with
"She loves me still!" he cried, comprehending all that was revealed in
the cry of the nun. "I will find means to carry her away!"
He left the island immediately, and returned to France.
Translation copyrighted by Roberts Brothers.
'AN EPISODE UNDER THE TERROR'
On the 22d of January, 1793, towards eight o'clock in the evening, an
old gentlewoman came down the sharp declivity of the Faubourg
Saint-Martin, which ends near the church of Saint-Laurent in Paris. Snow
had fallen throughout the day, so that footfalls could be scarcely
heard. The streets were deserted. The natural fear inspired by such
stillness was deepened by the terror to which all France was then
The old lady had met no one. Her failing sight hindered her from
perceiving in the distance a few pedestrians, sparsely scattered like
shadows, along the broad road of the faubourg. She was walking bravely
through the solitude as if her age were a talisman to guard her from
danger; but after passing the Rue des Morts she fancied that she heard
the firm, heavy tread of a man coming behind her. The thought seized her
mind that she had been listening to it unconsciously for some time.
Terrified at the idea of being followed, she tried to walk faster to
reach a lighted shop-window, and settle the doubt which thus assailed
her. When well beyond the horizontal rays of light thrown across the
pavement, she turned abruptly and saw a human form looming through the
fog. The indistinct glimpse was enough. She staggered for an instant
under the weight of terror, for she no longer doubted that this unknown
man had tracked her, step by step, from her home. The hope of escaping
such a spy lent strength to her feeble limbs. Incapable of reasoning,
she quickened her steps to a run, as if it were possible to escape a man
necessarily more agile than she. After running for a few minutes, she
reached the shop of a pastry-cook, entered it, and fell, rather than
sat, down on a chair which stood before the counter.
As she lifted the creaking latch of the door, a young woman, who was at
work on a piece of embroidery, looked up and recognized through the
glass panes the antiquated mantle of purple silk which wrapped the old
lady, and hastened to pull open a drawer, as if to take from thence
something that she had to give her. The action and the expression of the
young woman not only implied a wish to get rid of the stranger, as of
some one most unwelcome, but she let fall an exclamation of impatience
at finding the drawer empty. Then, without looking at the lady, she came
rapidly from behind the counter, and went towards the back-shop to call
her husband, who appeared at once.
"Where have you put ---- ----?" she asked him, mysteriously, calling his
attention to the old lady by a glance, and not concluding her sentence.
Although the pastry-cook could see nothing but the enormous black-silk
hood circled with purple ribbons which the stranger wore, he
disappeared, with a glance at his wife which seemed to say, "Do you
suppose I should leave _that_ on your counter?"
Surprised at the silence and immobility of her customer, the wife came
forward, and was seized with a sudden movement of compassion as well as
of curiosity when she looked at her. Though the complexion of the old
gentlewoman was naturally livid, like that of a person vowed to secret
austerities, it was easy to see that some recent alarm had spread an
unusual paleness over her features. Her head-covering was so arranged as
to hide the hair, whitened no doubt by age, for the cleanly collar of
her dress proved that she wore no powder. The concealment of this
natural adornment gave to her countenance a sort of conventual severity;
but its features were grave and noble. In former days the habits and
manners of people of quality were so different from those of all other
classes that it was easy to distinguish persons of noble birth. The
young shop-woman felt certain, therefore, that the stranger was a
_ci-devant_, and one who had probably belonged to the court.
"Madame?" she said, with involuntary respect, forgetting that the title
The old lady made no answer. Her eyes were fixed on the glass of the
shop-window, as if some alarming object were painted upon it.
"What is the matter, _citoyenne_?" asked the master of the
establishment, re-entering, and drawing the attention of his customer
to a little cardboard box covered with blue paper, which he held out
"It is nothing, nothing, my friends," she answered in a gentle voice, as
she raised her eyes to give the man a thankful look. Seeing a phrygian
cap upon his head, a cry escaped her:--"Ah! it is you who have
The young woman and her husband replied by a deprecating gesture of
horror which caused the unknown lady to blush, either for her harsh
suspicion or from the relief of feeling it unjust.
"Excuse me," she said, with childlike sweetness. Then taking a gold
_louis_ from her pocket, she offered it to the pastry-cook. "Here is the
sum we agreed upon," she added.
There is a poverty which poor people quickly divine. The shopkeeper and
his wife looked at each other with a glance at the old lady that
conveyed a mutual thought. The _louis_ was doubtless her last. The hands
of the poor woman trembled as she offered it, and her eyes rested upon
it sadly, yet not with avarice. She seemed to feel the full extent of
her sacrifice. Hunger and want were traced upon her features in lines as
legible as those of timidity and ascetic habits. Her clothing showed
vestiges of luxury. It was of silk, well-worn; the mantle was clean,
though faded; the laces carefully darned; in short, here were the rags
of opulence. The two shopkeepers, divided between pity and
self-interest, began to soothe their conscience with words:--
"_Citoyenne_, you seem very feeble--"
"Would Madame like to take something?" asked the wife, cutting short her
"We have some very good broth," he added.
"It is so cold, perhaps Madame is chilled by her walk; but you can rest
here and warm yourself."
"The devil is not so black as he is painted," cried the husband.
Won by the kind tone of these words, the old lady admitted that she had
been followed by a man and was afraid of going home alone.
"Is that all?" said the man with the phrygian cap. "Wait for me,
He gave the _louis_ to his wife. Then moved by a species of gratitude
which slips into the shopkeeping soul when its owner receives an
exorbitant price for an article of little value, he went to put on his
uniform as a National guard, took his hat, slung on his sabre, and
reappeared under arms. But the wife meantime had reflected. Reflection,
as often happens in many hearts, had closed the open hand of her
benevolence. Uneasy, and alarmed lest her husband should be mixed up in
some dangerous affair, she pulled him by the flap of his coat, intending
to stop him; but the worthy man, obeying the impulse of charity,
promptly offered to escort the poor lady to her home.
"It seems that the man who has given her this fright is prowling
outside," said his wife nervously.
"I am afraid he is," said the old lady, with much simplicity.
"Suppose he should be a spy. Perhaps it is a conspiracy. Don't go. Take
back the box." These words, whispered in the pastry-cook's ear by the
wife of his bosom, chilled the sudden compassion that had warmed him.
"Well, well, I will just say two words to the man and get rid of him,"
he said, opening the door and hurrying out.
The old gentlewoman, passive as a child and half paralyzed with fear,
sat down again. The shopkeeper almost instantly reappeared; but his
face, red by nature and still further scorched by the fires of his
bakery, had suddenly turned pale, and he was in the grasp of such terror
that his legs shook and his eyes were like those of a drunken man.
"Miserable aristocrat!" he cried, furiously, "do you want to cut off our
heads? Go out from here; let me see your heels, and don't dare to come
back; don't expect me to supply you with the means of conspiracy!"
So saying, the pastry-cook endeavored to get back the little box which
the old lady had already slipped into one of her pockets. Hardly had the
bold hands of the shopkeeper touched her clothing, than, preferring to
encounter danger with no protection but that of God rather than lose the
thing she had come to buy, she recovered the agility of youth, and
sprang to the door, through which she disappeared abruptly, leaving the
husband and wife amazed and trembling.
As soon as the poor lady found herself alone in the street she began to
walk rapidly; but her strength soon gave way, for she once more heard
the snow creaking under the footsteps of the spy as he trod heavily upon
it. She was obliged to stop short: the man stopped also. She dared not
speak to him, nor even look at him; either because of her terror, or
from some lack of natural intelligence. Presently she continued her walk
slowly; the man measured his step by hers, and kept at the same distance
behind her; he seemed to move like her shadow. Nine o'clock struck as
the silent couple repassed the church of Saint-Laurent. It is the nature
of all souls, even the weakest, to fall back into quietude after moments
of violent agitation; for manifold as our feelings may be, our bodily
powers are limited. Thus the old lady, receiving no injury from her
apparent persecutor, began to think that he might be a secret friend
watching to protect her. She gathered up in her mind the circumstances
attending other apparitions of the mysterious stranger as if to find
plausible grounds for this consoling opinion, and took pleasure in
crediting him with good rather than sinister intentions. Forgetting the
terror he had inspired in the pastry-cook, she walked on with a firmer
step towards the upper part of the Faubourg Saint-Martin.
At the end of half an hour she reached a house standing close to the
junction of the chief street of the faubourg with the street leading out
to the Barriere de Pantin. The place is to this day one of the loneliest
in Paris. The north wind blowing from Belleville and the Buttes Chaumont
whistled among the houses, or rather cottages, scattered through the
sparsely inhabited little valley, where the inclosures are fenced with
walls built of mud and refuse bones. This dismal region seems the
natural home of poverty and despair. The man who was intent on following
the poor creature who had had the courage to thread these dark and
silent streets seemed struck with the spectacle they offered. He stopped
as if reflecting, and stood in a hesitating attitude, dimly visible by a
street lantern whose flickering light scarcely pierced the fog. Fear
gave eyes to the old gentlewoman, who now fancied that she saw something
sinister in the features of this unknown man. All her terrors revived,
and profiting by the curious hesitation that had seized him, she glided
like a shadow to the doorway of the solitary dwelling, touched a spring,
and disappeared with phantasmagoric rapidity.
The man, standing motionless, gazed at the house, which was, as it were,
a type of the wretched buildings of the neighborhood. The tottering
hovel, built of porous stone in rough blocks, was coated with yellow
plaster much cracked, and looked ready to fall before a gust of wind.
The roof, of brown tiles covered with moss, had sunk in several places,
and gave the impression that the weight of snow might break it down at
any moment. Each story had three windows whose frames, rotted by
dampness and shrunken by the heat of the sun, told that the outer cold
penetrated to the chambers. The lonely house seemed like an ancient
tower that time had forgotten to destroy. A faint light gleamed from the
garret windows, which were irregularly cut in the roof; but the rest of
the house was in complete obscurity. The old woman went up the rough and
clumsy stairs with difficulty, holding fast to a rope which took the
place of baluster. She knocked furtively at the door of a lodging under
the roof, and sat hastily down on a chair which an old man offered her.
"Hide! hide yourself!" she cried. "Though we go out so seldom, our
errands are known, our steps are watched--"
"What has happened?" asked another old woman sitting near the fire.
"The man who has hung about the house since yesterday followed me
At these words the occupants of the hovel looked at each other with
terror in their faces. The old man was the least moved of the three,
possibly because he was the one in greatest danger. Under the pressure
of misfortune or the yoke of persecution a man of courage begins, as it
were, by preparing for the sacrifice of himself: he looks upon his days
as so many victories won from fate. The eyes of the two women, fixed
upon the old man, showed plainly that he alone was the object of their
"Why distrust God, my sisters?" he said, in a hollow but impressive
voice. "We chanted praises to his name amid the cries of victims and
assassins at the convent. If it pleased him to save me from that
butchery, it was doubtless for some destiny which I shall accept without
a murmur. God protects his own, and disposes of them according to his
will. It is of you, not of me, that we should think."
"No," said one of the women: "what is our life in comparison with that
of a priest?"
"Ever since the day when I found myself outside of the Abbaye des
Chelles," said the nun beside the fire, "I have given myself up
"Here," said the one who had just come in, holding out the little box to
the priest, "here are the sacramental wafers--Listen!" she cried,
interrupting herself. "I hear some one on the stairs."
At these words all three listened intently. The noise ceased.
"Do not be frightened," said the priest, "even if some one asks to
enter. A person on whose fidelity we can safely rely has taken measures
to cross the frontier, and he will soon call here for letters which I
have written to the Duc de Langeais and the Marquis de Beauseant,
advising them as to the measures they must take to get you out of this
dreadful country, and save you from the misery or the death you would
otherwise undergo here."
"Shall you not follow us?" said the two nuns softly, but in a tone of
"My place is near the victims," said the priest, simply.
The nuns were silent, looking at him with devout admiration.
"Sister Martha," he said, addressing the nun who had fetched the wafers,
"this messenger must answer '_Fiat voluntas_' to the word '_Hosanna_.'"
"There is some one on the stairway," exclaimed the other nun, hastily
opening a hiding-place burrowed at the edge of the roof.
This time it was easy to hear the steps of a man sounding through the
deep silence on the rough stairs, which were caked with patches of
hardened mud. The priest slid with difficulty into a narrow
hiding-place, and the nuns hastily threw articles of apparel over him.
"You can shut me in, Sister Agatha," he said, in a smothered voice.
He was scarcely hidden when three knocks upon the door made the sisters
tremble and consult each other with their eyes, for they dared not
speak. Forty years' separation from the world had made them like plants
of a hot-house which wilt when brought into the outer air. Accustomed to
the life of a convent, they could not conceive of any other; and when
one morning their bars and gratings were flung down, they had shuddered
at finding themselves free. It is easy to imagine the species of
imbecility which the events of the Revolution, enacted before their
eyes, had produced in these innocent souls. Quite incapable of
harmonizing their conventual ideas with the exigencies of ordinary life,
not even comprehending their own situation, they were like children who
had always been cared for, and who now, torn from their maternal
providence, had taken to prayers as other children take to tears. So it
happened that in presence of immediate danger they were dumb and
passive, and could think of no other defence than Christian resignation.
The man who sought to enter interpreted their silence as he pleased; he
suddenly opened the door and showed himself. The two nuns trembled when
they recognized the individual who for some days had watched the house
and seemed to make inquiries about its inmates. They stood quite still
and looked at him with uneasy curiosity, like the children of savages
examining a being of another sphere. The stranger was very tall and
stout, but nothing in his manner or appearance denoted that he was a bad
man. He copied the immobility of the sisters and stood motionless,
letting his eye rove slowly round the room.
Two bundles of straw placed on two planks served as beds for the nuns. A
table was in the middle of the room; upon it a copper candlestick, a few
plates, three knives, and a round loaf of bread. The fire on the hearth
was very low, and a few sticks of wood piled in a corner of the room
testified to the poverty of the occupants. The walls, once covered with
a coat of paint now much defaced, showed the wretched condition of the
roof through which the rain had trickled, making a network of brown
stains. A sacred relic, saved no doubt from the pillage of the Abbaye
des Chelles, adorned the mantel-shelf of the chimney. Three chairs, two
coffers, and a broken chest of drawers completed the furniture of the
room. A doorway cut near the fireplace showed there was probably an
The inventory of this poor cell was soon made by the individual who had
presented himself under such alarming auspices. An expression of pity
crossed his features, and as he threw a kind glance upon the frightened
women he seemed as much embarrassed as they. The strange silence in
which they all three stood and faced each other lasted but a moment; for
the stranger seemed to guess the moral weakness and inexperience of the
poor helpless creatures, and he said, in a voice which he strove to
render gentle, "I have not come as an enemy, _citoyennes_."
Then he paused, but resumed:--"My sisters, if harm should ever happen to
you, be sure that I shall not have contributed to it. I have come to ask
a favor of you."
They still kept silence.
"If I ask too much--if I annoy you--I will go away; but believe me, I am
heartily devoted to you, and if there is any service that I could
render you, you may employ me without fear. I, and I alone, perhaps, am
above law--since there is no longer a king."
The ring of truth in these words induced Sister Agatha, a nun belonging
to the ducal house of Langeais, and whose manners indicated that she had
once lived amid the festivities of life and breathed the air of courts,
to point to a chair as if she asked their guest to be seated. The
unknown gave vent to an expression of joy, mingled with melancholy, as
he understood this gesture. He waited respectfully till the sisters were
seated, and then obeyed it.
"You have given shelter," he said, "to a venerable priest not sworn in
by the Republic, who escaped miraculously from the massacre at the
Convent of the Carmelites."
"_Hosanna_," said Sister Agatha, suddenly interrupting the stranger, and
looking at him with anxious curiosity.
"That is not his name, I think," he answered.
"But, Monsieur, we have no priest here," cried Sister Martha, hastily,
"Then you should take better precautions," said the unknown gently,
stretching his arm to the table and picking up a breviary. "I do not
think you understand Latin, and--"
He stopped short, for the extreme distress painted on the faces of the
poor nuns made him fear he had gone too far; they trembled violently,
and their eyes filled with tears.
"Do not fear," he said; "I know the name of your guest, and yours also.
During the last three days I have learned your poverty, and your great
devotion to the venerable Abbe of--"
"Hush!" exclaimed Sister Agatha, ingenuously putting a finger on her
"You see, my sisters, that if I had the horrible design of betraying
you, I might have accomplished it again and again."
As he uttered these words the priest emerged from his prison and
appeared in the middle of the room.
"I cannot believe, Monsieur," he said courteously, "that you are one of
our persecutors. I trust you. What is it you desire of me?"
The saintly confidence of the old man, and the nobility of mind
imprinted on his countenance, might have disarmed even an assassin. He
who thus mysteriously agitated this home of penury and resignation stood
contemplating the group before him; then he addressed the priest in a
trustful tone, with these words:--
"My father, I came to ask you to celebrate a mass for the repose of the
soul--of--of a sacred being whose body can never lie in holy ground."
The priest involuntarily shuddered. The nuns, not as yet understanding
who it was of whom the unknown man had spoken, stood with their necks
stretched and their faces turned towards the speakers, in an attitude of
eager curiosity. The ecclesiastic looked intently at the stranger;
unequivocal anxiety was marked on every feature, and his eyes offered an
earnest and even ardent prayer.
"Yes," said the priest at length. "Return here at midnight, and I shall
be ready to celebrate the only funeral service that we are able to offer
in expiation of the crime of which you speak."
The unknown shivered; a joy both sweet and solemn seemed to rise in his
soul above some secret grief. Respectfully saluting the priest and the
two saintly women, he disappeared with a mute gratitude which these
generous souls knew well how to interpret.
Two hours later the stranger returned, knocked cautiously at the door of
the garret, and was admitted by Mademoiselle de Langeais, who led him to
the inner chamber of the humble refuge, where all was in readiness for
the ceremony. Between two flues of the chimney the nuns had placed the
old chest of drawers, whose broken edges were concealed by a magnificent
altar-cloth of green moire. A large ebony and ivory crucifix hanging on
the discolored wall stood out in strong relief from the surrounding
bareness, and necessarily caught the eye. Four slender little tapers,
which the sisters had contrived to fasten to the altar with sealing-wax,
threw a pale glimmer dimly reflected by the yellow wall. These feeble
rays scarcely lit up the rest of the chamber, but as their light fell
upon the sacred objects it seemed a halo falling from heaven upon the
bare and undecorated altar.
The floor was damp. The attic roof, which sloped sharply on both sides
of the room, was full of chinks through which the wind penetrated.
Nothing could be less stately, yet nothing was ever more solemn than
this lugubrious ceremony. Silence so deep that some far-distant cry
could have pierced it, lent a sombre majesty to the nocturnal scene. The
grandeur of the occasion contrasted vividly with the poverty of its
circumstances, and roused a feeling of religious terror. On either side
of the altar the old nuns, kneeling on the tiled floor and taking no
thought of its mortal dampness, were praying in concert with the priest,
who, robed in his pontifical vestments, placed upon the altar a golden
chalice incrusted with precious stones,--a sacred vessel rescued, no
doubt, from the pillage of the Abbaye des Chelles. Close to this vase,
which was a gift of royal munificence, the bread and wine of the
consecrated sacrifice were contained in two glass tumblers scarcely
worthy of the meanest tavern. In default of a missal the priest had
placed his breviary on a corner of the altar. A common earthenware
platter was provided for the washing of those innocent hands, pure and
unspotted with blood. All was majestic and yet paltry; poor but noble;
profane and holy in one.
The unknown man knelt piously between the sisters. Suddenly, as he
caught sight of the crape upon the chalice and the crucifix,--for in
default of other means of proclaiming the object of this funeral rite
the priest had put God himself into mourning,--the mysterious visitant
was seized by some all-powerful recollection, and drops of sweat
gathered on his brow. The four silent actors in this scene looked at
each other with mysterious sympathy; their souls, acting one upon
another, communicated to each the feelings of all, blending them into
the one emotion of religious pity. It seemed as though their thought had
evoked from the dead the sacred martyr whose body was devoured by
quicklime, but whose shade rose up before them in royal majesty. They
were celebrating a funeral Mass without the remains of the deceased.
Beneath these rafters and disjointed laths four Christian souls were
interceding with God for a king of France, and making his burial without
a coffin. It was the purest of all devotions; an act of wonderful
loyalty accomplished without one thought of self. Doubtless in the eyes
of God it was the cup of cold water that weighed in the balance against
many virtues. The whole of monarchy was there in the prayers of the
priest and the two poor women; but also it may have been that the
Revolution was present likewise, in the person of the strange being
whose face betrayed the remorse that led him to make this solemn
offering of a vast repentance.
Instead of pronouncing the Latin words, "Introibo ad altare Dei" etc.,
the priest, with divine intuition, glanced at his three assistants, who
represented all Christian France, and said, in words which effaced the
penury and meanness of the hovel, "We enter now into the sanctuary
At these words, uttered with penetrating unction, a solemn awe seized
the participants. Beneath the dome of St. Peter's in Rome, God had never
seemed more majestic to man than he did now in this refuge of poverty
and to the eyes of these Christians,--so true is it that between man and
God all mediation is unneeded, for his glory descends from himself
alone. The fervent piety of the nameless man was unfeigned, and the
feeling that held these four servants of God and the king was unanimous.
The sacred words echoed like celestial music amid the silence. There was
a moment when the unknown broke down and wept: it was at the Pater
Noster, to which the priest added a Latin clause which the stranger
doubtless comprehended and applied,--"Et remitte scelus regicidis sicut
Ludovicus eis remisit semetipse" (And forgive the regicides even as
Louis XVI. himself forgave them). The two nuns saw the tears coursing
down the manly cheeks of their visitant, and dropping fast on the
The Office of the Dead was recited. The "Domine salvum fac regem," sung
in low tones, touched the hearts of these faithful royalists as they
thought of the infant king, now captive in the hands of his enemies, for
whom this prayer was offered. The unknown shuddered; perhaps he feared
an impending crime in which he would be called to take an
When the service was over, the priest made a sign to the nuns, who
withdrew to the outer room. As soon as he was alone with the unknown,
the old man went up to him with gentle sadness of manner, and said in
the tone of a father,--
"My son, if you have steeped your hands in the blood of the martyr king,
confess yourself to me. There is no crime which, in the eyes of God, is
not washed out by a repentance as deep and sincere as yours appears
At the first words of the ecclesiastic an involuntary motion of terror
escaped the stranger; but he quickly recovered himself, and looked at
the astonished priest with calm assurance.
"My father," he said, in a voice that nevertheless trembled, "no one is
more innocent than I of the blood shed--"
"I believe it!" said the priest.
He paused a moment, during which he examined afresh his penitent; then,
persisting in the belief that he was one of those timid members of the
Assembly who sacrificed the inviolate and sacred head to save their own,
he resumed in a grave voice:--
"Reflect, my son, that something more than taking no part in that great
crime is needed to absolve from guilt. Those who kept their sword in the
scabbard when they might have defended their king have a heavy account
to render to the King of kings. Oh, yes," added the venerable man,
moving his head from right to left with an expressive motion; "yes,
heavy, indeed! for, standing idle, they made themselves the accomplices
of a horrible transgression."
"Do you believe," asked the stranger, in a surprised tone, "that even an
indirect participation will be punished? The soldier ordered to form the
line--do you think he was guilty?"
The priest hesitated. Glad of the dilemma that placed this puritan of
royalty between the dogma of passive obedience, which according to the
partisans of monarchy should dominate the military system, and the other
dogma, equally imperative, which consecrates the person of the king, the
stranger hastened to accept the hesitation of the priest as a solution
of the doubts that seemed to trouble him. Then, so as not to allow the
old Jansenist time for further reflection, he said quickly:--
"I should blush to offer you any fee whatever in acknowledgment of the
funeral service you have just celebrated for the repose of the king's
soul and for the discharge of my conscience. We can only pay for
inestimable things by offerings which are likewise beyond all price.
Deign to accept, Monsieur, the gift which I now make to you of a holy
relic; the day may come when you will know its value."
As he said these words he gave the ecclesiastic a little box of light
weight. The priest took it as it were involuntarily; for the solemn tone
in which the words were uttered, and the awe with which the stranger
held the box, struck him with fresh amazement. They re-entered the outer
room, where the two nuns were waiting for them.
"You are living," said the unknown, "in a house whose owner, Mucius
Scaevola, the plasterer who lives on the first floor, is noted in the
Section for his patriotism. He is, however, secretly attached to the
Bourbons. He was formerly huntsman to Monseigneur the Prince de Conti,
to whom he owes everything. As long as you stay in this house you are in
greater safety than you can be in any other part of France. Remain
here. Pious souls will watch over you and supply your wants; and you
can await without danger the coming of better days. A year hence, on the
21st of January" (as he uttered these last words he could not repress an
involuntary shudder), "I shall return to celebrate once more the Mass of
He could not end the sentence. Bowing to the silent occupants of the
garret, he cast a last look upon the signs of their poverty and
To the two simple-minded women this event had all the interest of a
romance. As soon as the venerable abbe told them of the mysterious gift
so solemnly offered by the stranger, they placed the box upon the table,
and the three anxious faces, faintly lighted by a tallow-candle,
betrayed an indescribable curiosity. Mademoiselle de Langeais opened the
box and took from it a handkerchief of extreme fineness, stained with
sweat. As she unfolded it they saw dark stains.
"That is blood!" exclaimed the priest.
"It is marked with the royal crown!" cried the other nun.
The sisters let fall the precious relic with gestures of horror. To
these ingenuous souls the mystery that wrapped their unknown visitor
became inexplicable, and the priest from that day forth forbade himself
to search for its solution.
The three prisoners soon perceived that, in spite of the Terror, a
powerful arm was stretched over them. First, they received firewood and
provisions; next, the sisters guessed that a woman was associated with
their protector, for linen and clothing came to them mysteriously, and
enabled them to go out without danger of observation from the
aristocratic fashion of the only garments they had been able to secure;
finally, Mucius Scaevola brought them certificates of citizenship.
Advice as to the necessary means of insuring the safety of the venerable
priest often came to them from unexpected quarters, and proved so
singularly opportune that it was quite evident it could only have been
given by some one in possession of state secrets. In spite of the famine
which then afflicted Paris, they found daily at the door of their hovel
rations of white bread, laid there by invisible hands. They thought they
recognized in Mucius Scaevola the agent of these mysterious
benefactions, which were always timely and intelligent; but the noble
occupants of the poor garret had no doubt whatever that the unknown
individual who had celebrated the midnight Mass on the 22d of January,
1793, was their secret protector. They added to their daily prayers a
special prayer for him; night and day these pious hearts made
supplication for his happiness, his prosperity, his redemption. They
prayed that God would keep his feet from snares and save him from his
enemies, and grant him a long and peaceful life.
Their gratitude, renewed as it were daily, was necessarily mingled with
curiosity that grew keener day by day. The circumstances attending the
appearance of the stranger were a ceaseless topic of conversation and of
endless conjecture, and soon became a benefit of a special kind, from
the occupation and distraction of mind which was thus produced. They
resolved that the stranger should not be allowed to escape the
expression of their gratitude when he came to commemorate the next sad
anniversary of the death of Louis XVI.
That night, so impatiently awaited, came at length. At midnight the
heavy steps resounded up the wooden stairway. The room was prepared for
the service; the altar was dressed. This time the sisters opened the
door and hastened to light the entrance. Mademoiselle de Langeais even
went down a few stairs that she might catch the first glimpse of their
"Come!" she said, in a trembling and affectionate voice. "Come, you are
The man raised his head, gave the nun a gloomy look, and made no answer.
She felt as though an icy garment had fallen upon her, and she kept
silence. At his aspect gratitude and curiosity died within their hearts.
He may have been less cold, less taciturn, less terrible than he seemed
to these poor souls, whose own emotions led them to expect a flow of
friendship from his. They saw that this mysterious being was resolved to
remain a stranger to them, and they acquiesced with resignation. But the
priest fancied he saw a smile, quickly repressed, upon the stranger's
lip as he saw the preparations made to receive him. He heard the Mass
and prayed, but immediately disappeared, refusing in a few courteous
words the invitation given by Mademoiselle de Langeais to remain and
partake of the humble collation they had prepared for him.
After the 9th Thermidor the nuns and the Abbe de Marolles were able to
go about Paris without incurring any danger. The first visit of the old
priest was to a perfumery at the sign of the "Queen of Flowers," kept
by the citizen and _citoyenne_ Ragon, formerly perfumers to the Court,
well known for their faithfulness to the royal family, and employed by
the Vendeens as a channel of communication with the princes and royal
committees in Paris. The abbe, dressed as the times required, was
leaving the doorstep of the shop, situated between the church of
Saint-Roch and the Rue des Fondeurs, when a great crowd coming down the
Rue Saint-Honore hindered him from advancing.
"What is it?" he asked of Madame Ragon.
"Oh, nothing!" she answered. "It is the cart and the executioner going
to the Place Louis XV. Ah, we saw enough of that last year! but now,
four days after the anniversary of the 21st of January, we can look at
the horrid procession without distress."
"Why so?" asked the abbe. "What you say is not Christian."
"But this is the execution of the accomplices of Robespierre. They have
fought it off as long as they could, but now they are going in their
turn where they have sent so many innocent people."
The crowd which filled the Rue Saint-Honore passed on like a wave. Above
the sea of heads the Abbe de Marolles, yielding to an impulse, saw,
standing erect in the cart, the stranger who three days before had
assisted for the second time in the Mass of commemoration.
"Who is that?" he asked; "the one standing--"
"That is the executioner," answered Monsieur Ragon, calling the man by
his monarchical name.
"Help! help!" cried Madame Ragon. "Monsieur l'Abbe is fainting!"
She caught up a flask of vinegar and brought him quickly back to
"He must have given me," said the old priest, "the handkerchief with
which the king wiped his brow as he went to his martyrdom. Poor man!
that steel knife had a heart when all France had none!"
The perfumers thought the words of the priest were an effect of
Translation copyrighted by Roberts Brothers.
A PASSION IN THE DESERT
"The sight was fearful!" she exclaimed, as we left the menagerie of
She had been watching that daring speculator as he went through his
wonderful performance in the den of the hyena.
"How is it possible," she continued, "to tame those animals so as to be
certain that he can trust them?"
"You think it a problem," I answered, interrupting her, "and yet it is a
"Oh!" she cried, an incredulous smile flickering on her lip.
"Do you think that beasts are devoid of passions?" I asked. "Let me
assure you that we teach them all the vices and virtues of our own state
She looked at me in amazement.
"The first time I saw Monsieur Martin," I added, "I exclaimed, as you
do, with surprise. I happened to be sitting beside an old soldier whose
right leg was amputated, and whose appearance had attracted my notice as
I entered the building. His face, stamped with the scars of battle, wore
the undaunted look of a veteran of the wars of Napoleon. Moreover, the
old hero had a frank and joyous manner which attracts me wherever I meet
it. He was doubtless one of those old campaigners whom nothing can
surprise, who find something to laugh at in the last contortions of a
comrade, and will bury a friend or rifle his body gayly; challenging
bullets with indifference; making short shrift for themselves or others;
and fraternizing, as a usual thing, with the devil. After looking very
attentively at the proprietor of the menagerie as he entered the den, my
companion curled his lip with that expression of satirical contempt
which well-informed men sometimes put on to mark the difference between
themselves and dupes. As I uttered my exclamation of surprise at the
coolness and courage of Monsieur Martin, the old soldier smiled, shook
his head, and said with a knowing glance, 'An old story!'
"'How do you mean an old story?' I asked. 'If you could explain the
secret of this mysterious power, I should be greatly obliged to you.'
"After a while, during which we became better acquainted, we went to
dine at the first cafe we could find after leaving the menagerie. A
bottle of champagne with our dessert brightened the old man's
recollections and made them singularly vivid. He related to me a
circumstance in his early history which proved that he had ample cause
to pronounce Monsieur Martin's performance 'an old story.'"
When we reached her house, she was so persuasive and captivating, and
made me so many pretty promises, that I consented to write down for her
benefit the story told me by the old hero. On the following day I sent
her this episode of a historical epic, which might be entitled, 'The
French in Egypt.'
* * * * *
At the time of General Desaix's expedition to Upper Egypt a Provencal
soldier, who had fallen into the hands of the Maugrabins, was marched by
those tireless Arabs across the desert which lies beyond the cataracts
of the Nile. To put sufficient distance between themselves and the
French army, the Maugrabins made a forced march and did not halt until
after nightfall. They then camped about a well shaded with palm-trees,
near which they had previously buried a stock of provisions. Not
dreaming that the thought of escape could enter their captive's mind,
they merely bound his wrists, and lay down to sleep themselves, after
eating a few dates and giving their horses a feed of barley. When the
bold Provencal saw his enemies too soundly asleep to watch him, he used
his teeth to pick up a scimitar, with which, steadying the blade by
means of his knees, he contrived to cut through the cord which bound his
hands, and thus recovered his liberty. He at once seized a carbine and a
poniard, took the precaution to lay in a supply of dates, a small bag of
barley, some powder and ball, buckled on the scimitar, mounted one of
the horses, and spurred him in the direction where he supposed the
French army to be. Impatient to meet the outposts, he pressed the horse,
which was already wearied, so severely that the poor animal fell dead
with his flanks torn, leaving the Frenchman alone in the midst of
After marching for a long time through the sand with the dogged courage
of an escaping galley-slave, the soldier was forced to halt, as darkness
drew on: for his utter weariness compelled him to rest, though the
exquisite sky of an eastern night might well have tempted him to
continue the journey. Happily he had reached a slight elevation, at the
top of which a few palm-trees shot upward, whose leafage, seen from a
long distance against the sky, had helped to sustain his hopes. His
fatigue was so great that he threw himself down on a block of granite,
cut by Nature into the shape of a camp-bed, and slept heavily, without
taking the least precaution to protect himself while asleep. He accepted
the loss of his life as inevitable, and his last waking thought was one
of regret for having left the Maugrabins, whose nomad life began to
charm him now that he was far away from them and from every other hope
He was awakened by the sun, whose pitiless beams falling vertically upon
the granite rock produced an intolerable heat. The Provencal had
ignorantly flung himself down in a contrary direction to the shadows
thrown by the verdant and majestic fronds of the palm-trees. He gazed at
these solitary monarchs and shuddered. They recalled to his mind the
graceful shafts, crowned with long weaving leaves, which distinguish the
Saracenic columns of the cathedral of Arles. The thought overcame him,
and when, after counting the trees, he threw his eyes upon the scene
around him, an agony of despair convulsed his soul. He saw a limitless
ocean. The sombre sands of the desert stretched out till lost to sight
in all directions; they glittered with dark lustre like a steel blade
shining in the sun. He could not tell if it were an ocean or a chain of
lakes that lay mirrored before him. A hot vapor swept in waves above the
surface of this heaving continent. The sky had the Oriental glow of
translucent purity, which disappoints because it leaves nothing for the
imagination to desire. The heavens and the earth were both on fire.
Silence added its awful and desolate majesty. Infinitude, immensity
pressed down upon the soul on every side; not a cloud in the sky, not a
breath in the air, not a rift on the breast of the sand, which was
ruffled only with little ridges scarcely rising above its surface. Far
as the eye could reach the horizon fell away into space, marked by a
slender line, slim as the edge of a sabre,--like as in summer seas a
thread of light parts this earth from the heaven it meets.
The Provencal clasped the trunk of a palm-tree as if it were the body of
a friend. Sheltered from the sun by its straight and slender shadow, he
wept; and presently sitting down he remained motionless, contemplating
with awful dread the implacable Nature stretched out before him. He
cried aloud, as if to tempt the solitude to answer him. His voice, lost
in the hollows of the hillock, sounded afar with a thin resonance that
returned no echo; the echo came from the soldier's heart. He was
twenty-two years old, and he loaded his carbine.
"Time enough!" he muttered, as he put the liberating weapon on the sand
Gazing by turns at the burnished blackness of the sand and the blue
expanse of the sky, the soldier dreamed of France. He smelt in fancy the
gutters of Paris; he remembered the towns through which he had passed,
the faces of his comrades, and the most trifling incidents of his life.
His southern imagination saw the pebbles of his own Provence in the
undulating play of the heated air, as it seemed to roughen the
far-reaching surface of the desert. Dreading the dangers of this cruel
mirage, he went down the little hill on the side opposite to that by
which he had gone up the night before. His joy was great when he
discovered a natural grotto, formed by the immense blocks of granite
which made a foundation for the rising ground. The remnants of a mat
showed that the place had once been inhabited, and close to the entrance
were a few palm-trees loaded with fruit. The instinct which binds men to
life woke in his heart. He now hoped to live until some Maugrabin should
pass that way; possibly he might even hear the roar of cannon, for
Bonaparte was at that time overrunning Egypt. Encouraged by these
thoughts, the Frenchman shook down a cluster of the ripe fruit under the
weight of which the palms were bending; and as he tasted this
unhoped-for manna, he thanked the former inhabitant of the grotto for
the cultivation of the trees, which the rich and luscious flesh of the
fruit amply attested. Like a true Provencal, he passed from the gloom of
despair to a joy that was half insane. He ran back to the top of the
hill, and busied himself for the rest of the day in cutting down one of
the sterile trees which had been his shelter the night before.
Some vague recollection made him think of the wild beasts of the desert,
and foreseeing that they would come to drink at a spring which bubbled
through the sand at the foot of the rock, he resolved to protect his
hermitage by felling a tree across the entrance. Notwithstanding his
eagerness, and the strength which the fear of being attacked while
asleep gave to his muscles, he was unable to cut the palm-tree in pieces
during the day; but he succeeded in bringing it down. Towards evening
the king of the desert fell; and the noise of his fall, echoing far,
was like a moan from the breast of Solitude. The soldier shuddered, as
though he had heard a voice predicting evil. But, like an heir who does
not long mourn a parent, he stripped from the beautiful tree the arching
green fronds--its poetical adornment--and made a bed of them in his
refuge. Then, tired with his work and by the heat of the day, he fell
asleep beneath the red vault of the grotto.
In the middle of the night his sleep was broken by a strange noise. He
sat up; the deep silence that reigned everywhere enabled him to hear the
alternating rhythm of a respiration whose savage vigor could not belong
to a human being. A terrible fear, increased by the darkness, by the
silence, by the rush of his waking fancies, numbed his heart. He felt
the contraction of his hair, which rose on end as his eyes, dilating to
their full strength, beheld through the darkness two faint amber lights.
At first he thought them an optical delusion; but by degrees the
clearness of the night enabled him to distinguish objects in the grotto,
and he saw, within two feet of him, an enormous animal lying at rest.
Was it a lion? Was it a tiger? Was it a crocodile? The Provencal had not
enough education to know in what sub-species he ought to class the
intruder; but his terror was all the greater because his ignorance made
it vague. He endured the cruel trial of listening, of striving to catch
the peculiarties of this breathing without losing one of its
inflections, and without daring to make the slightest movement. A strong
odor, like that exhaled by foxes, only far more pungent and penetrating,
filled the grotto. When the soldier had tasted it, so to speak, by the
nose, his fear became terror; he could no longer doubt the nature of the
terrible companion whose royal lair he had taken for a bivouac. Before
long, the reflection of the moon, as it sank to the horizon, lighted up
the den and gleamed upon the shining, spotted skin of a panther.
The lion of Egypt lay asleep, curled up like a dog, the peaceable
possessor of a kennel at the gate of a mansion; its eyes, which had
opened for a moment, were now closed; its head was turned towards the
Frenchman. A hundred conflicting thoughts rushed through the mind of the
panther's prisoner. Should he kill it with a shot from his musket? But
ere the thought was formed, he saw there was no room to take aim; the
muzzle would have gone beyond the animal. Suppose he were to wake it?
The fear kept him motionless. As he heard the beating of his heart
through the dead silence, he cursed the strong pulsations of his
vigorous blood, lest they should disturb the sleep which gave him time
to think and plan for safety. Twice he put his hand on his scimitar,
with the idea of striking off the head of his enemy; but the difficulty
of cutting through the close-haired skin made him renounce the bold
attempt. Suppose he missed his aim? It would, he knew, be certain death.
He preferred the chances of a struggle, and resolved to await the dawn.
It was not long in coming. As daylight broke, the Frenchman was able to
examine the animal. Its muzzle was stained with blood. "It has eaten a
good meal," thought he, not caring whether the feast were human flesh or
not; "it will not be hungry when it wakes."
It was a female. The fur on the belly and on the thighs was of sparkling
whiteness. Several little spots like velvet made pretty bracelets round
her paws. The muscular tail was also white, but it terminated with black
rings. The fur of the back, yellow as dead gold and very soft and
glossy, bore the characteristic spots, shaded like a full-blown rose,
which distinguish the panther from all other species of _felis_. This
terrible hostess lay tranquilly snoring, in an attitude as easy and
graceful as that of a cat on the cushions of an ottoman. Her bloody
paws, sinewy and well-armed, were stretched beyond her head, which lay
upon them; and from her muzzle projected a few straight hairs called
whiskers, which shimmered in the early light like silver wires.
If he had seen her lying thus imprisoned in a cage, the Provencal would
have admired the creature's grace, and the strong contrasts of vivid
color which gave to her robe an imperial splendor; but as it was, his
sight was jaundiced by sinister forebodings. The presence of the
panther, though she was still asleep, had the same effect upon his mind
as the magnetic eyes of a snake produce, we are told, upon the
nightingale. The soldier's courage oozed away in presence of this silent
peril, though he was a man who gathered nerve before the mouths of
cannon belching grape-shot. And yet, ere long, a bold thought entered
his mind, and checked the cold sweat which was rolling from his brow.
Roused to action, as some men are when, driven face to face with death,
they defy it and offer themselves to their doom, he saw a tragedy
before him, and he resolved to play his part with honor to the last.
"Yesterday," he said, "the Arabs might have killed me."
Regarding himself as dead, he waited bravely, but with anxious
curiosity, for the waking of his enemy. When the sun rose, the panther
suddenly opened her eyes; then she stretched her paws violently, as if
to unlimber them from the cramp of their position. Presently she yawned
and showed the frightful armament of her teeth, and her cloven tongue,
rough as a grater.
"She is like a dainty woman," thought the Frenchman, watching her as she
rolled and turned on her side with an easy and coquettish movement. She
licked the blood from her paws, and rubbed her head with a reiterated
movement full of grace.
"Well done! dress yourself prettily, my little woman," said the
Frenchman, who recovered his gayety as soon as he had recovered his
courage. "We are going to bid each other good-morning;" and he felt for
the short poniard which he had taken from the Maugrabins.
At this instant the panther turned her head towards the Frenchman and
looked at him fixedly, without moving. The rigidity of her metallic eyes
and their insupportable clearness made the Provencal shudder. The beast
moved towards him; he looked at her caressingly, with a soothing glance
by which he hoped to magnetize her. He let her come quite close to him
before he stirred; then with a touch as gentle and loving as he might
have used to a pretty woman, he slid his hand along her spine from the
head to the flanks, scratching with his nails the flexible vertebrae
which divide the yellow back of a panther. The creature drew up her tail
voluptuously, her eyes softened, and when for the third time the
Frenchman bestowed this self-interested caress, she gave vent to a purr
like that with which a cat expresses pleasure: but it issued from a
throat so deep and powerful that the sound echoed through the grotto
like the last chords of an organ rolling along the roof of a church. The
Provencal, perceiving the value of his caresses, redoubled them until
they had completely soothed and lulled the imperious courtesan.
When he felt that he had subdued the ferocity of his capricious
companion, whose hunger had so fortunately been appeased the night
before, he rose to leave the grotto. The panther let him go; but as soon
as he reached the top of the little hill she bounded after him with the
lightness of a bird hopping from branch to branch, and rubbed against
his legs, arching her back with the gesture of a domestic cat. Then
looking at her guest with an eye that was growing less inflexible, she
uttered the savage cry which naturalists liken to the noise of a saw.
"My lady is exacting," cried the Frenchman, smiling. He began to play
with her ears and stroke her belly, and at last he scratched her head
firmly with his nails. Encouraged by success, he tickled her skull with
the point of his dagger, looking for the right spot where to stab her;
but the hardness of the bone made him pause, dreading failure.
The sultana of the desert acknowledged the talents of her slave by
lifting her head and swaying her neck to his caresses, betraying
satisfaction by the tranquillity of her relaxed attitude. The Frenchman
suddenly perceived that he could assassinate the fierce princess at a
blow, if he struck her in the throat; and he had raised the weapon, when
the panther, surfeited perhaps with his caresses, threw herself
gracefully at his feet, glancing up at him with a look in which, despite
her natural ferocity, a flicker of kindness could be seen. The poor
Provencal, frustrated for the moment, ate his dates as he leaned against
a palm-tree, casting from time to time an interrogating eye across the
desert in the hope of discerning rescue from afar, and then lowering it
upon his terrible companion, to watch the chances of her uncertain
clemency. Each time that he threw away a date-stone the panther eyed the
spot where it fell with an expression of keen distrust; and she examined
the Frenchman with what might be called commercial prudence. The
examination, however, seemed favorable, for when the man had finished
his meagre meal she licked his shoes and wiped off the dust, which was
caked into the folds of the leather, with her rough and powerful tongue.
"How will it be when she is hungry?" thought the Provencal. In spite of
the shudder which this reflection cost him, his attention was attracted
by the symmetrical proportions of the animal, and he began to measure
them with his eye. She was three feet in height to the shoulder, and
four feet long, not including the tail. That powerful weapon, which was
round as a club, measured three feet. The head, as large as that of a
lioness, was remarkable for an expression of crafty intelligence; the
cold cruelty of a tiger was its ruling trait, and yet it bore a vague
resemblance to the face of an artful woman. As the soldier watched her,
the countenance of this solitary queen shone with savage gayety like
that of Nero in his cups: she had slaked her thirst for blood, and now
wished for play. The Frenchman tried to come and go, and accustomed her
to his movements. The panther left him free, as if contented to follow
him with her eyes, seeming, however, less like a faithful dog watching
his master's movements with affection, than a huge Angora cat uneasy and
suspicious of them. A few steps brought him to the spring, where he saw
the carcass of his horse, which the panther had evidently carried there.
Only two-thirds was eaten. The sight reassured the Frenchman; for it
explained the absence of his terrible companion and the forbearance
which she had shown to him while asleep.
This first good luck encouraged the reckless soldier as he thought of
the future. The wild idea of making a home with the panther until some
chance of escape occurred entered his mind, and he resolved to try every
means of taming her and of turning her good-will to account. With these
thoughts he returned to her side, and noticed joyfully that she moved
her tail with an almost imperceptible motion. He sat down beside her
fearlessly, and they began to play with each other. He held her paws and
her muzzle, twisted her ears, threw her over on her back, and stroked
her soft warm flanks. She allowed him to do so; and when he began to
smooth the fur of her paws, she carefully drew in her murderous claws,
which were sharp and curved like a Damascus blade. The Frenchman kept
one hand on his dagger, again watching his opportunity to plunge it into
the belly of the too-confiding beast; but the fear that she might
strangle him in her last convulsions once more stayed his hand.
Moreover, he felt in his heart a foreboding of a remorse which warned
him not to destroy a hitherto inoffensive creature. He even fancied that
he had found a friend in the limitless desert. His mind turned back,
involuntarily, to his first mistress, whom he had named in derision
"Mignonne," because her jealousy was so furious that throughout the
whole period of their intercourse he lived in dread of the knife with
which she threatened him. This recollection of his youth suggested the
idea of teaching the young panther, whose soft agility and grace he now
admired with less terror, to answer to the caressing name. Towards
evening he had grown so familiar with his perilous position that he was
half in love with its dangers, and his companion was so far tamed that
she had caught the habit of turning to him when he called, in falsetto
As the sun went down Mignonne uttered at intervals a prolonged, deep,
"She is well brought up," thought the gay soldier. "She says her
prayers." But the jest only came into his mind as he watched the
peaceful attitude of his comrade.
"Come, my pretty blonde, I will let you go to bed first," he said,
relying on the activity of his legs to get away as soon as she fell
asleep, and trusting to find some other resting-place for the night. He
waited anxiously for the right moment, and when it came he started
vigorously in the direction of the Nile. But he had scarcely marched for
half an hour through the sand before he heard the panther bounding after
him, giving at intervals the saw-like cry which was more terrible to
hear than the thud of her bounds.
"Well, well!" he cried, "she must have fallen in love with me! Perhaps
she has never met any one else. It is flattering to be her first love."
So thinking, he fell into one of the treacherous quicksands which
deceive the inexperienced traveler in the desert, and from which there
is seldom any escape. He felt he was sinking, and he uttered a cry of
despair. The panther seized him by the collar with her teeth, and sprang
vigorously backward, drawing him, like magic, from the sucking sand.
"Ah, Mignonne!" cried the soldier, kissing her with enthusiasm, "we
belong to each other now,--for life, for death! But play me no tricks,"
he added, as he turned back the way he came.
From that moment the desert was, as it were, peopled for him. It held a
being to whom he could talk, and whose ferocity was now lulled into
gentleness, although he could scarcely explain to himself the reasons
for this extraordinary friendship. His anxiety to keep awake and on his
guard succumbed to excessive weariness both of body and mind, and
throwing himself down on the floor of the grotto he slept soundly. At
his waking Mignonne was gone. He mounted the little hill to scan the
horizon, and perceived her in the far distance returning with the long
bounds peculiar to these animals, who are prevented from running by the
extreme flexibility of their spinal column.
Mignonne came home with bloody jaws, and received the tribute of
caresses which her slave hastened to pay, all the while manifesting her
pleasure by reiterated purring.
Her eyes, now soft and gentle, rested kindly on the Provencal, who spoke
to her lovingly as he would to a domestic animal.
"Ah! Mademoiselle,--for you are an honest girl, are you not? You like to
be petted, don't you? Are you not ashamed of yourself? You have been
eating a Maugrabin. Well, well! they are animals like the rest of you.
But you are not to craunch up a Frenchman; remember that! If you do, I
will not love you."
She played like a young dog with her master, and let him roll her over
and pat and stroke her, and sometimes she would coax him to play by
laying a paw upon his knee with a pretty soliciting gesture.
Several days passed rapidly. This strange companionship revealed to the
Provencal the sublime beauties of the desert. The alternations of hope
and fear, the sufficiency of food, the presence of a creature who
occupied his thoughts,--all this kept his mind alert, yet free: it was a
life full of strange contrasts. Solitude revealed to him her secrets,
and wrapped him with her charm. In the rising and the setting of the sun
he saw splendors unknown to the world of men. He quivered as he listened
to the soft whirring of the wings of a bird,--rare visitant!--or watched
the blending of the fleeting clouds,--those changeful and many-tinted
voyagers. In the waking hours of the night he studied the play of the
moon upon the sandy ocean, where the strong simoom had rippled the
surface into waves and ever-varying undulations. He lived in the Eastern
day; he worshiped its marvelous glory. He rejoiced in the grandeur of
the storms when they rolled across the vast plain, and tossed the sand
upward till it looked like a dry red fog or a solid death-dealing vapor;
and as the night came on he welcomed it with ecstasy, grateful for the
blessed coolness of the light of the stars. His ears listened to the
music of the skies. Solitude taught him the treasures of meditation. He
spent hours in recalling trifles, and in comparing his past life with
the weird present.
He grew fondly attached to his panther; for he was a man who needed an
affection. Whether it were that his own will, magnetically strong, had
modified the nature of his savage princess, or that the wars then raging
in the desert had provided her with an ample supply of food, it is
certain that she showed no sign of attacking him, and became so tame
that he soon felt no fear of her. He spent much of his time in sleeping;
though with his mind awake, like a spider in its web, lest he should
miss some deliverance that might chance to cross the sandy sphere marked
out by the horizon. He had made his shirt into a banner and tied it to
the top of a palm-tree which he had stripped of its leafage. Taking
counsel of necessity, he kept the flag extended by fastening the corners
with twigs and wedges; for the fitful wind might have failed to wave it
at the moment when the longed-for succor came in sight.
Nevertheless, there were long hours of gloom when hope forsook him; and
then he played with his panther. He learned to know the different
inflections of her voice and the meanings of her expressive glance; he
studied the variegation of the spots which shaded the dead gold of her
robe. Mignonne no longer growled when he caught the tuft of her
dangerous tail and counted the black and white rings which glittered in
the sunlight like a cluster of precious stones. He delighted in the soft
lines of her lithe body, the whiteness of her belly, the grace of her
charming head: but above all he loved to watch her as she gamboled at
play. The agility and youthfulness of her movements were a constantly
fresh surprise to him. He admired the suppleness of the flexible body as
she bounded, crept, and glided, or clung to the trunk of palm-trees, or
rolled over and over, crouching sometimes to the ground, and gathering
herself together as she made ready for her vigorous spring. Yet, however
vigorous the bound, however slippery the granite block on which she
landed, she would stop short, motionless, at the one word "Mignonne."
One day, under a dazzling sun, a large bird hovered in the sky. The
Provencal left his panther to watch the new guest. After a moment's
pause the neglected sultana uttered a low growl.
"The devil take me! I believe she is jealous!" exclaimed the soldier,
observing the rigid look which once more appeared in her metallic eyes.
"The soul of Sophronie has got into her body!"
The eagle disappeared in ether, and the Frenchman, recalled by the
panther's displeasure, admired afresh her rounded flanks and the perfect
grace of her attitude. She was as pretty as a woman. The blonde
brightness of her robe shaded, with delicate gradations, to the
dead-white tones of her furry thighs; the vivid sunshine brought out the
brilliancy of this living gold and its variegated brown spots with
indescribable lustre. The panther and the Provencal gazed at each other
with human comprehension. She trembled with delight--the coquettish
creature!--as she felt the nails of her friend scratching the strong
bones of her skull. Her eyes glittered like flashes of lightning, and
then she closed them tightly.
"She has a soul!" cried the soldier, watching the tranquil repose of
this sovereign of the desert, golden as the sands, white as their
pulsing light, solitary and burning as they.
* * * * *
"Well," she said, "I have read your defense of the beasts. But tell me
what was the end of this friendship between two beings so formed to
understand each other?"
"Ah, exactly," I replied. "It ended as all great passions end,--by a
misunderstanding. Both sides imagine treachery, pride prevents an
explanation, and the rupture comes about through obstinacy."
"Yes," she said, "and sometimes a word, a look, an exclamation suffices.
But tell me the end of the story."
"That is difficult," I answered. "But I will give it to you in the words
of the old veteran, as he finished the bottle of champagne and
"'I don't know how I could have hurt her, but she suddenly turned upon
me as if in fury, and seized my thigh with her sharp teeth; and yet (as
I afterwards remembered) not cruelly. I thought she meant to devour me,
and I plunged my dagger into her throat. She rolled over with a cry that
froze my soul; she looked at me in her death struggle, but without
anger. I would have given all the world--my cross, which I had not then
gained, all, everything--to have brought her back to life. It was as if
I had murdered a friend, a human being. When the soldiers who saw my
flag came to my rescue they found me weeping. Monsieur,' he resumed,
after a moment's silence, 'I went through the wars in Germany, Spain,
Russia, France; I have marched my carcass well-nigh over all the world;
but I have seen nothing comparable to the desert. Ah, it is grand!
"'What were your feelings there?' I asked.
"'They cannot be told, young man. Besides, I do not always regret my
panther and my palm-tree oasis: I must be very sad for that. But I will
tell you this: in the desert there is all--and yet nothing.'
"'Well, then,' he said, with a gesture of impatience, 'God is there, and
man is not.'"
FROM 'THE COUNTRY DOCTOR'
THE NAPOLEON OF THE PEOPLE
"Let us go to my barn," said the doctor, taking Genestas by the arm,
after saying good-night to the curate and his other guests. "And there,
Captain Bluteau, you will hear about Napoleon. We shall find a few old
cronies who will set Goguelat, the postman, to declaiming about the
people's god. Nicolle, my stable-man, was to put a ladder by which we
can get into the hay-loft through a window, and find a place where we
can see and hear all that goes on. A _veillee_ is worth the trouble,
believe me. Come, it isn't the first time I've hidden in the hay to hear
the tale of a soldier or some peasant yarn. But we must hide; if these
poor people see a stranger they are constrained at once, and are no
longer their natural selves."
"Eh! my dear host," said Genestas, "haven't I often pretended to sleep,
that I might listen to my troopers round a bivouac? I never laughed more
heartily in the Paris theatres than I did at an account of the retreat
from Moscow, told in fun, by an old sergeant to a lot of recruits who
were afraid of war. He declared the French army slept in sheets, and
drank its wine well-iced; that the dead stood still in the roads; Russia
was white, they curried the horses with their teeth; those who liked to
skate had lots of fun, and those who fancied frozen puddings ate their
fill; the women were usually cold, and the only thing that was really
disagreeable was the want of hot water to shave with: in short, he
recounted such absurdities that an old quarter-master, who had had his
nose frozen off and was known by the name Nez-restant, laughed himself."
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