The Inferno
Henri Barbusse

Part 3 out of 3

converts and giving absolution. He had said everything that a priest
cannot help saying. Every dogma had come out clearly and definitely
from the mouth of this rough, common hewer of wood and drawer of water
for his religion. If the sick man was right, so was the priest.

. . . . .

What was that thing near the bed, that thing which loomed so high and
did not stir and had not been there a moment before? It stood between
me and the leaping flame of the candle placed near the sick man.

I accidentally made a little noise in leaning against the wall, and
very slowly the thing turned a face toward me with a frightened look on
it that frightened me.

I knew that head. Was it not the landlord himself, a man with peculiar
ways, whom we seldom saw?

He had been walking up and down the hall, waiting for the sick man to
be left alone. And now he was standing beside him as he lay in bed
either asleep or helpless from weakness.

He stretched his hand out toward a bag. In doing so, he kept his eyes
on the dying man, so that his hand missed the bag twice.

There was a creaking on the floor above, and both the man and I
trembled. A door slammed. He rose as if to keep back an exclamation.

He opened the bag slowly, and I, no longer myself, I was afraid that he
would not have time.

He drew a package out of the bag. It made a slight sound. When he saw
the roll of banknotes in his hand, I observed the extraordinary gleam
on his face. All the sentiments of love were there, adoration,
mysticism, and also brutal love, a sort of supernatural ecstasy and the
gross satisfaction that was already tasting immediate joys. Yes, all
the loves impressed themselves for a moment on the profound humanity of
this thief's face.

Some one was waiting for him behind the half-open door. I saw an arm
beckoning to him.

He went out on tiptoe, first slowly, then quickly.

I am an honest man, and yet I held my breath along with him. I
/understood/ him. There is no use finding excuses for myself. With a
horror and a joy akin to his, I was an accomplice in his robbery.

All thefts are induced by passion, even that one, which was cowardly
and vulgar. Oh, his look of inextinguishable love for the treasure
suddenly snatched up. All offences, all crimes are outrages
accomplished in the image of the immense desire for theft, which is the
very essence and form of our naked soul.

Does that mean that we must absolve criminals, and that punishment is
an injustice? No, we must protect ourselves. Since society rests upon
honesty, we must punish criminals to reduce them to impotence, and
above all to strike them with terror, and halt others on the threshold
of evil deeds. But once the crime is established, we must not look for
excuses for it. We run the danger then of always finding excuses. We
must condemn it in advance, by virtue of a cold principle. Justice
should be as cold as steel.

But justice is not a virtue, as its name seems to indicate. It is an
organisation the virtue of which is to be feelingless. It does not aim
at expiation. Its function is to establish warning examples, to make
of the criminal a thing to frighten off others.

Nobody, nothing has the right to exact expiation. Besides, no one can
exact it. Vengeance is too remote from the act and falls, so to speak,
upon another person. Expiation, then, is a word that has no
application in the world.


He was very, very weak and lay absolutely still and silent, chained
fast by the baleful weight of his flesh. Death had already put an end
to even his faintest quiverings.

His wonderful companion sat exactly where his fixed eyes fell on her,
at the foot of the bed. She held her arms resting on the base board of
the bed with her beautiful hands drooping. Her profile sloped downward
slightly, that fine design, that delicate etching of eternal sweetness
upon the gentle background of the evening. Under the dainty arch of
her eyebrows her large eyes swam clear and pure, miniature skies. The
exquisite skin of her cheeks and forehead gleamed faintly, and her
luxuriant hair, which I had seen flowing, gracefully encircled her
brow, where her thoughts dwelt invisible as God.

She was alone with the man who lay there as if already in his grave--she
who had wished to cling to him by a thrill and to be his chaste widow
when he died. He and I saw nothing on earth except her face. And in
truth, there was nothing else to be seen in the deep shadows of the

A voice came from the bed. I scarcely recognised it.

"I haven't said everything yet that I want to say," said the voice.

Anna bent over the bed as if it were the edge of a coffin to catch the
words that were to issue for the last time, no doubt, from the
motionless and almost formless body.

"Shall I have the time? Shall I?"

It was difficult to catch the whisper, which almost stuck in his
throat. Then his voice accustomed itself to existence again and became

"I should like to make a confession to you, Anna. I do not want this
thing to die with me. I am sorry to let this memory be snuffed out. I
am sorry for it. I hope it will never die.

"I loved once before I loved you.

"Yes, I loved the girl. The image I have left of her is a sad, gentle
one. I should like to snatch it from death. I am giving it to you
because you happen to be here."

He gathered himself together to have a clear vision of the woman of
whom he was speaking.

"She was fair-haired and fair-skinned," he said.

"You needn't be jealous, Anna. (People are jealous sometimes even when
they are not in love.) It was a few years after you were born. You
were a little child then, and nobody turned to look at you on the
streets except the mothers.

"We were engaged in the ancestral park of her parents. She had bright
curls tied with ribbons. I pranced on horseback for her. She smiled
for me.

"I was young and strong then, full of hope and full of the beginning of
things. I thought I was going to conquer the world, and even had the
choice of the means to conquer it. Alas, all I did was to cross
hastily over its surface. She was younger than I, a bud so recently,
blown, that one day, I remember, I saw her doll lying on the bench that
we were sitting on. We used to say to each other, 'We shall come back
to this park when we are old, shall we not?' We loved each other--you
understand--I have no time to tell you, but you understand, Anna, that
these few relics of memory that I give you at random are beautiful,
incredibly beautiful.

"She died the very day in spring when the date of our wedding was set.
We were both taken sick with a disease that was epidemic that year in
our country, and she did not have the strength to escape the monster.
That was twenty-five years ago. Twenty-five years, Anna, between her
death and mine.

"And now here is the most precious secret, her name."

He whispered it. I did not catch it.

"Say it over again, Anna."

She repeated it, vague syllables which I caught without being able to
unite them into a word.

"I confide the name to you because you are here. If you were not here,
I should tell it to anyone, no matter whom, provided that would save

He added in an even, measured voice, to make it hold out until the end:

"I have something else to confess, a wrong and a misfortune."

"Didn't you confess it to the priest?" she asked in surprise.

"I hardly told him anything," was all he replied.

And he resumed, speaking calmly, with his full voice:

"I wrote poems during our engagement, poems about ourselves. The
manuscript was named after her. We read the poems together, and we
both liked and admired them. 'Beautiful, beautiful!' she would say,
clapping her hands, whenever I showed her a new poem. And when we were
together, the manuscript was always with us--the most beautiful book
that had ever been written, we thought. She did not want the poems to
be published and get away from us. One day in the garden she told me
what she wanted. 'Never! Never!' she said over and over again, like an
obstinate, rebellious child, tossing her dainty head with its dancing

The man's voice became at once surer and more tremulous, as he filled
in and enlivened certain details in the old story.

"Another time, in the conservatory, when it had been raining
monotonously since morning, she asked, 'Philip'--she used to pronounce
my name just the way you do."

He paused, himself surprised by the primitive simplicity of what he had
just expressed.

"'Do you know,' she asked, 'the story of the English painter Rossetti?'
and she told me the episode, which had so vividly impressed her, how
Rossetti had promised the lady he loved to let her keep forever the
manuscript of the book he had written for her, and if she died, to lay
it beside her in her coffin. She died, and he actually carried out his
promise and buried the manuscript with her. But later, bitten by the
love of glory, he violated his promise and the tomb. 'You will let me
have your book if I die before you, and will not take it back, will
you, Philip?' And I promised laughingly, and she laughed too.

"I recovered from my illness slowly. When I was strong enough, they
told me that she had died. When I was able to go out, they took me to
the tomb, the vast family sepulchre which somewhere hid her new little

"There's no use my telling you how miserable I was and how I grieved
for her. Everything reminded me of her. I was full of her, and yet
she was no more! As I recovered from the illness, during which my
memory had faded, each detail brought me a recollection. My grief was
a fearful reawakening of my love. The sight of the manuscript brought
my promise back to me. I put it in a box without reading it again,
although I had forgotten it, things having been blotted out of my mind
during my convalescence. I had the slab removed and the coffin opened,
and a servant put the book in her hands.

"I lived. I worked. I tried to write a book. I wrote dramas and
poems. But nothing satisfied me, and gradually I came to want our book

"I knew it was beautiful and sincere and vibrant with the two hearts
that had given themselves to each other. Then, like a coward, three
years afterward, I tried to re-write it--to show it to the world. Anna,
you must have pity on us all! But I must say it was not only the
desire for glory and praise, as in the case of the English artist,
which impelled me to close my ears to the sweet, gentle voice out of
the past, so strong in its powerlessness, 'You will not take it back
from me, will you, Philip?' It was not only for the sake of showing
off in a book of great beauty. It was also to refresh my memory, for
all our love was in that book.

"I did not succeed in reconstructing the poems. The weakening of my
faculties soon after they were written, the three years afterward
during which I made a devout effort not to revive the poems even in
thought, since they were not to keep on living--all this had actually
wiped the book out of my mind. It was with difficulty that I recalled--
and then only by chance--the mere titles of some of the poems, or a few
of the verses. Of some parts, all I retained was just a confused echo.
I needed the manuscript itself, which was in the tomb.

"One night, I felt myself going there.

"I felt myself going there after periods of hesitation and inward
struggles which it is useless to tell you about because the struggles
themselves were useless. I thought of the other man, of the
Englishman, of my brother in misery and crime as I walked along the
length of the cemetery wall while the wind froze my legs. I kept
saying to myself it was not the same thing, and this insane assurance
was enough to make me keep on.

"I asked myself if I should take a light. With a light it would be
quick. I should see the box at once and should not have to touch
anything else--but then I should see /everything!/ I preferred to grope
in the dark. I had rubbed a handkerchief sprinkled with perfume over
my face, and I shall never forget the deception of this odour. For an
instant, in the stupefaction of my terror, I did not recognise the
first thing I touched--her necklace--I saw it again on her living body.
The box! The corpse gave it to me with a squashing sound. Something
grazed me faintly.

"I had meant to tell you only a few things, Anna. I thought I should
not have time to tell you how everything happened. But it is better
so, better for me that you should know all. Life, which has been so
cruel to me, is kind at this moment when you are listening, you who
will live. And my desire to express what I felt, to revive the past,
which made of me a being accursed during the days I am telling you
about, is a benefit this evening which passes from me to you, and from
you to me."

The young woman was bending toward him attentively. She was motionless
and silent. What could she have said, what could she have done, that
would have been sweeter than her silent attention?

"The rest of the night I read the stolen manuscript. Was it not the
only way to forget her death and think of her life?

"I soon saw that the poems were not what I had thought them to be.

"They game me a growing impression of being confused and much too
lengthy. The book so long adored was no better than what I had done
afterwards. I recalled, step by step, the background, the occasion,
the vanished gesture that had inspired these verses, and in spite of
their resurrection, I found them undeniably commonplace and

"An icy despair gripped me, as I bent my head over these remains of
song. Their sojourn in the tomb seemed to have deformed and crushed
the life out of my verses. They were as miserable as the wasted hand
from which I had taken them. They had been so sweet! 'Beautiful,
beautiful!' the happy little voice had cried so many times while she
clasped her hands in admiration.

"It was because her voice and the poems had been vibrating with life
and because the ardour and delirium of our love had adorned my rhymes
with all their charms, that they seemed so beautiful. But all that was
past, and in reality our love was no more.

"It was oblivion that I read at the same time as I read my book. Yes,
death had been contagious. My verses had remained there too long,
sleeping down below there in awful peace--in the sepulchre into which I
should never have dared to enter if love had still been alive. She was
indeed dead.

"I thought of what a useless and sacrilegious thing I had done and how
useless and sacrilegious everything is that we promise and swear to
here below.

"She was indeed dead. How I cried that night. It was my true night of
mourning. When you have just lost a beloved there is a wretched
moment, after the brutal shock, when you begin to understand that all
is over, and blank despair surrounds you and looms like a giant. That
night was a moment of such despair when I was under the sway of my
crime and the disenchantment of my poems, greater than the crime,
greater than everything.

"I saw her again. How pretty she was, with her bright, lively ways,
her animated charm, her rippling laugh, the endless number of questions
she was always asking. I saw her again in the sunlight on the bright
lawn. She was wearing a dress of old rose satin, and she bent over and
smoothed the soft folds of her skirt and looked at her little feet.
(Near us was the whiteness of a statue.) I remembered how once I had
for fun tried to find a single flaw in her complexion. Not a spot on
forehead, cheek, chin--anywhere. Her skin was as smooth as if it had
been polished. I felt as though that exquisite delicate face were
something ever in flight that had paused for an instant for my sake,
and I stammered, almost with tears in my voice, 'It is too much! It is
too much!' Everybody looked on her as a princess. In the streets of
the town the shopkeepers were glad to see her pass by. Did she not
have a queenly air as she sat half-reclining on the great carved stone
bench in the park, that great stone bench which was now a kind of empty

"For a moment in the midst of time I knew how much I had loved her, she
who had been alive and who was dead, who had been the sun and who was
now a kind of obscure spring under the earth.

"And I also mourned the human heart. That night I understood the
extremes of what I had felt. Then the inevitable forgetfulness came,
the time came when it did not sadden me to remember that I had mourned.

. . . . .

"That is the confession I wanted to make to you, Anna. I wanted this
story of love, which is a quarter of a century old, never to end. It
was so real and thrilling, it was such a big thing, that I told it to
you in all simplicity, to you who will survive. After that I came to
love you and I do love you. I offer to you as to a sovereign the image
of the little creature who will always be seventeen."

He sighed. What he said proved to me once more the inadequacy of
religion to comfort the human heart.

"Now I adore you and you alone--I who adored her, I whom she adored.
How can there possibly be a paradise where one would find happiness

His voice rose, his inert arms trembled. He came out of his profound
immobility for a moment.

"Ah, /you/ are the one, /you/ are the one--/you/ alone."

And a great cry of impotence broke from him.

"Anna, Anna, if you and I had been really married, if we had lived
together as man and wife, if we had had children, if you had been
beside me as you are this evening, but really beside me!"

He fell back. He had cried out so loud that even if there had been no
breach in the wall, I should have heard him in my room. He voiced his
whole dream, he threw it out passionately. This sincerity, which was
indifferent to everything, had a definite significance which bruised my

"Forgive me. Forgive me. It is almost blasphemy. I could not help

He stopped. You felt his will-power making his face calm, his soul
compelling him to silence, but his eyes seemed to mourn.

He repeated in a lower voice, as if to himself, "You! You!"

He fell asleep with "You" on his lips.

. . . . .

He died that night. I saw him die. By a strange chance he was alone
at the last moment.

There was no death rattle, no death agony, properly speaking. He did
not claw the bedclothes with his fingers, nor speak, nor cry. No last
sigh, no last flash.

He had asked Anna for a drink. As there was no more water in the room
and the nurse happened to be away at that moment, she had gone out to
get some quickly. She did not even shut the door.

The lamplight filled the room. I watched the man's face and felt, by
some sign, that the great silence at that moment was drowning him.

Then instinctively I cried out to him. I could not help crying out so
that he should not be alone.

"I see you!"

My strange voice, disused from speaking, penetrated into the room.

But he died at the very instant that I gave him my madman's alms. His
head dropped back stiffly, his eyeballs rolled. Anna came in again.
She must have caught the sound of my outcry vaguely, for she hesitated.

She saw him. A fearful cry burst from her with all the force of her
healthy body, a true widow's cry. She dropped on her knees at the

The nurse came in right after her and raised her arms. Silence
reigned, that flashing up of incredible misery into which you sink
completely in the presence of the dead, no matter who you are or where
you are. The woman on her knees and the woman standing up watched the
man who was stretched there, inert as if he had never lived. They were
both almost dead.

Then Anna wept like a child. She rose. The nurse went to tell the
others. Instinctively, Anna, who was wearing a light waist, picked up
a black shawl that the nurse had left on a chair and put it around her.

. . . . .

The room, so recently desolate, now filled with life.

They lit candles everywhere, and the stars, visible through the window,

They knelt down, and cried and prayed to him. The dead man held
command. "He" was always on their lips. Servants were there whom I
had not yet seen but whom he knew well. These people around him all
seemed to be lying, as though it was they who were suffering, they who
were dying, and he were alive.

"He must have suffered a great deal when he died," said the doctor, in
a low voice to the nurse, at a moment when he was quite near me.

"But he was so weak, the poor man!"

"Weakness does not prevent suffering except in the eyes of others,"
said the doctor.

. . . . .

The next morning the drab light of the early day fell upon the faces
and the melancholy funeral lights. The coming of the day, keen and
cold, had a depressing effect upon the atmosphere of the room, making
it heavier, thicker.

A voice in a low apologetic tone for a moment interrupted the silence
that had lasted for hours.

"You mustn't open the window. It isn't good for the dead body."

"It is cold," some one muttered.

Two hands went up and drew a fur piece close. Some one rose, and then
sat down again. Some one else turned his head. There was a sigh.

It was as if they had taken advantage of these few words to come out of
the calm in which they had been concealed. Then they glanced once more
at the man on the bier--motionless, inexorably motionless.

I must have fallen asleep when all at once I heard the church bells
ringing in the grey sky.

After that harassing night there was a relaxation from rigid attention
to the stillness of death, and an inexplicable sweetness in the ringing
of the bells carried me back forcibly to my childhood. I thought of
the countryside where I used to hear the bells ringing, of my native
land, where everything was peaceful and good, and the snow meant
Christmas, and the sun was a cool disk that one could and should look

The tolling of the bells was over. The echo quietly died away, and
then the echo of the echo. Another bell struck, sounding the hour.
Eight o'clock, eight sonorous detached strokes, beating with terrible
regularity, with invincible calm, simple, simple. I counted them, and
when they had ceased to pulsate in the air, I could not help counting
them over again. It was time that was passing--formless time, and the
human effort that defined it and regularized it and made of it a work
as of destiny.


I was alone. It was late at night, and I was sitting at my table. My
lamp was buzzing like summer in the fields. I lifted my eyes. The
stars studded the heavens above. The city was plunged at my feet. The
horizon escaped from nearby into eternity. The lights and shadows
formed an infinite sphere around me.

I was not at ease that night. I was a prey to an immense distress. I
sat as if I had fallen into my chair. As on the first day I looked at
my reflection in the glass, and all I could do was just what I had done
then, simply cry, "I!"

I wanted to know the secret of life. I had seen men, groups, deeds,
faces. In the twilight I had seen the tremulous eyes of beings as deep
as wells. I had seen the mouth that said in a burst of glory, "I am
more sensitive than others." I had seen the struggle to love and make
one's self understood, the refusal of two persons in conversation to
give themselves to each other, the coming together of two lovers, the
lovers with an infectious smile, who are lovers in name only, who bury
themselves in kisses, who press wound to wound to cure themselves,
between whom there is really no attachment, and who, in spite of their
ecstasy deriving light from shadow, are strangers as much as the sun
and the moon are strangers. I had heard those who could find no crumb
of peace except in the confession of their shameful misery, and I had
seen faces pale and red-eyed from crying. I wanted to grasp it all at
the same time. All the truths taken together make only one truth. I
had had to wait until that day to learn this simple thing. It was this
truth of truths which I needed.

Not because of my love of mankind. It is not true that we love
mankind. No one ever has loved, does love, or will love mankind. It
was for myself, solely for myself, that I sought to attain the full
truth, which is above emotion, above peace, even above life, like a
sort of death. I wanted to derive guidance from it, a faith. I wanted
to use it for my own good.

I went over the things I had seen since living in the boarding-house.
They were so numerous that I had become a stranger to myself. I
scarcely had a name any more. I fairly listened to the memory of them,
and in supreme concentration I tried to see and understand what I was.
It would be so beautiful to know who I was.

I thought of all those wise men, poets, artists before me who had
suffered, wept, and smiled on the road to truth. I thought of the
Latin poet who wished to reassure and console men by showing them truth
as unveiled as a statue. A fragment of his prelude came to my mind,
learned long ago, then dismissed and lost like almost everything that I
had taken the pains to learn up till then. He said he kept watch in
the serene nights to find the words, the poem in which to convey to men
the ideas that would deliver them. For two thousand years men have
always had to be reassured and consoled. For two thousand years I have
had to be delivered. Nothing has changed the surface of things. The
teachings of Christ have not changed the surface of things, and would
not even if men had not ruined His teachings so that they can no longer
follow them honestly. Will the great poet come who shall settle the
boundaries of belief and render it eternal, the poet who will be, not a
fool, not an ignorant orator, but a wise man, the great inexorable
poet? I do not know, although the lofty words of the man who died in
the boarding-house have given me a vague hope of his coming and the
right to adore him already.

But what about me--me, who am only a glance from the eye of destiny? I
am like a poet on the threshold of a work, an accursed, sterile poet
who will leave no glory behind, to whom chance /lent/ the truth that
genius would have /given/ him, a frail work which will pass away with
me, mortal and sealed to others like myself, but a sublime work
nevertheless, which will show the essential outlines of life and relate
the drama of dramas.

. . . . .

What am I? I am the desire not to die. I have always been impelled--
not that evening alone--by the need to construct the solid, powerful
dream that I shall never leave again. We are all, always, the desire
not to die. This desire is as immeasurable and varied as life's
complexity, but at bottom this is what it is: To continue to /be,/ to
/be/ more and more, to develop and to endure. All the force we have,
all our energy and clearness of mind serve to intensify themselves in
one way or another. We intensify ourselves with new impressions, new
sensations, new ideas. We endeavour to take what we do not have and to
add it to ourselves. Humanity is the desire for novelty founded upon
the fear of death. That is what it is. I have seen it myself.
Instinctive movements, untrammelled utterances always tend the same
way, and the most dissimilar utterances are all alike.

. . . . .

But afterwards! Where are the words that will light the way? What is
humanity in the world, and what is the world?

Everything is within me, and there are no judges, and there are no
boundaries and no limits to me. The /de profundis,/ the effort not to
die, the fall of desire with its soaring cry, all this has not stopped.
It is part of the immense liberty which the incessant mechanism of the
human heart exercises (always something different, always!). And its
expansion is so great that death itself is effaced by it. For how
could I imagine my death, except by going outside of myself, and
looking at myself as if I were not I but somebody else?

We do not die. Each human being is alone in the world. It seems
absurd, contradictory to say this, and yet it is so. But there are
many human beings like me. No, we cannot say that. In saying that, we
set ourselves outside the truth in a kind of abstraction. All we can
say is: I am alone.

And that is why we do not die.

Once, bowed in the evening light, the dead man had said, "After my
death, life will continue. Every detail in the world will continue to
occupy the same place quietly. All the traces of my passing will die
little by little, and the void I leave behind will be filled once

He was mistaken in saying so. He carried all the truth with him. Yet
we, /we/ saw him die. He was dead for us, but not for himself. I feel
there is a fearfully difficult truth here which we must get, a
formidable contradiction. But I hold on to the two ends of it, groping
to find out what formless language will translate it. Something like
this: "Every human being is the whole truth." I return to what I
heard. We do not die since we are alone. It is the others who die.
And this sentence, which comes to my lips tremulously, at once baleful
and beaming with light, announces that death is a false god.

But what of the others? Granted that I have the great wisdom to rid
myself of the haunting dread of my own death, there remains the death
of others and the death of so many feelings and so much sweetness. It
is not the conception of truth that will change sorrow. Sorrow, like
joy, is absolute.

And yet! The infinite grandeur of our misery becomes confused with
glory and almost with happiness, with cold haughty happiness. Was it
out of pride or joy that I began to smile when the first white streaks
of dawn turned my lamp pale and I saw I was alone in the universe?


It was the first time I had seen her in mourning, and that evening her
youth shone more resplendent than ever.

Her departure was close at hand. She looked about to see if she had
left anything behind in the room, which had been made ready for other
people, the room which was already formless, already abandoned.

The door opened. The young woman turned her head. A man appeared in
the sunny doorway.

"Michel, Michel, Michel!" she cried.

She stretched out her arms, hesitated, and for a few seconds remained
motionless as light, with her full gaze upon him.

Then, in spite of where she was and the purity of her heart and the
chastity of her whole life, her legs shook and she was on the verge of
falling over.

He threw his hat on the bed with a sweeping romantic gesture. He
filled the room with his presence, with his weight. His footsteps made
the floor creak. He kept her from falling. Tall as she was, he was a
whole head taller. His marked features were hard and remarkably fine.
His face under a heavy head of black hair was bright and clean, as
though new. He had a drooping moustache and full red lips.

He put his hands on the young woman's shoulders, and looked at her, in
readiness for his eager embrace.

They held each other close, staggering. They said the same word at the
same time, "At last!" That was all they said, but they said it over
and over again in a low voice, chanting it together. Their eyes
uttered the same sweet cry. Their breasts communicated it to each
other. It seemed to be tying them together and making them merge into
one. At last! Their long separation was over. Their love was victor.
At last they were together. And I saw her quiver from head to foot. I
saw her whole body welcome him while her eyes opened and then closed on
him again. They made a great effort to speak to each other. The few
shreds of conversation held them back a moment.

"How I waited for you! How I longed for you!" he stammered. "I
thought of you all the time. I saw you all the time. Your smile was
everywhere." He lowered his voice and added, "Sometimes when people
were talking commonplaces and your name happened to be mentioned, it
would go through my heart like an electric current."

He panted. His deep voice burst into sonorous tones. He seemed unable
to speak low.

"Often I used to sit on the brick balustrade at the top of the terrace
of our house overlooking the Channel, with my face in my hands,
wondering where you were. But it did not matter how far away you were,
I could not help seeing you all the same."

"And often I," said Anna, bending her head, "would sit at the open
window warm evenings, thinking of you. Sometimes the air was of a
suffocating sweetness, as it was two months ago at the Villa of the
Roses. Tears would come to my eyes."

"You used to cry?"

"Yes," she said in a low voice, "for joy."

Their mouths joined, their two small purple mouths of exactly the same
colour. They were almost indistinguishable from each other, tense in
the creative silence of the kiss, a single dark stream of flesh.

Then he drew away a little to get a better look at her, and the next
moment caught her in his arms and held her close.

His words fell on her like hammer blows.

"Down there the scent of the sap and the flowers from the many gardens
near the coast used to intoxicate me, and I wanted to burrow my fingers
in the dark burning earth. I would roam about and try to remember your
face, and draw in the perfume of your body. I would stretch my arms
out in the air to touch as much as possible of your sunlight."

"I knew you were waiting for me and that you loved me," she said, in a
voice gentler but just as deep with emotion. "I saw you in your
absence. And often, when the light of dawn entered my room and touched
me, I thought of how completely consecrated I was to your love.
Thinking of you sometimes in my room in the evening, I would admire

A thrill went through him, and he smiled.

He kept saying the same things in scarcely different words, as if he
knew nothing else. He had a childish soul and a limited mind behind
the perfect sculpture of his forehead and his great black eyes, in
which I saw distinctly the white face of the woman floating like a

She listened to him devoutly, her mouth half open, her head thrown back
lightly. Had he not held her, she would have slipped to her knees
before this god who was as beautiful as she.

"The memory of you saddened my joys, but consoled my sorrows."

I did not know which of the two said this. They embraced vehemently.
They reeled. They were like two tall flames. His face burned hers,
and he cried:

"I love you, I love you! All through my sleepless nights of longing
for you--oh, what a crucifixion my solitude was!

"Be mine, Anna!"

She radiated consent, but her eyes faltered, and she glanced round the

"Let us respect this room," she breathed. Then she was ashamed at
having refused, and immediately stammered, "Excuse me."

The man also looked around the room. His forehead darkened with a
savage frown of suspicion, and the superstition of his race shone in
his eyes.

"It was here--that he died?"

"No," she said.

* * * * * * * * *

Afterwards they did as the others had done, as human beings always do,
as they themselves would do many times again in the strange future--they
sat with their eyes half-closed and the same uneasy look of shame and
terror in them as Amy and her lover.

But these two required no artificial stimulus for their love. They had
no need of the night. And they felt no culpability. They were two
grand young creatures, driven together naturally by the very force of
their love, and their ardour cleansed everything, like fire. They were
innocent. They had no regrets and felt no remorse. They thought they
were united.

He took her soft hand in his dark hand, and said: "Now you are mine for
always. You have made me know divine ecstasy. You have my heart and I
have yours. You are my wife forever."

"You are everything to me," she answered.

They went forth into life like a couple in legend, inspired and rosy
with anticipation--he, the knight with no shadows falling on him except
the dark of his hair, helmeted or plumed, and she, the priestess of the
pagan gods, the spirit of nature.

They would shine in the sunlight. They would see nothing around them,
blinded by the daylight. They would undergo no struggles except the
strife of the sexes and the spying of jealousy; for lovers are enemies
rather than friends.

I followed them with my eyes going through life, which would be nothing
to them but fields, mountains, or forests. I saw them veiled in a kind
of light, sheltered from darkness, protected for a time against the
fearful spell of memory and thought.

. . . . .

I sat down and leaned on my elbows. I thought of myself. Where was I
now after all this? What was I going to do in life? I did not know.
I would look about and would surely find something.

So, sitting there, I quietly indulged in hopes. I must have no more
sadness, no more anguish and fever. If the rest of my life was to pass
in calm, in peace, I must go far, far away from all those awful serious
things, the sight of which was terrible to bear.

Somewhere I would lead a wise, busy life--and earn my living regularly.

And you, you will be beside me, my sister, my child, my wife.

You will be poor so as to be more like all other women. In order for
us to be able to live together I shall work all day and so be your
servant. You will work affectionately for us both in this room, and in
my absence there will be nothing beside you but the pure, simple
presence of your sewing machine. You will keep the sort of order by
which nothing is forgotten, you will practice patience which is as long
as life, and maternity which is as heavy as the world.

I shall come in, I shall open the door in the dark, I shall hear you
come from the next room, bringing the lamp. A dawn will announce you.
You will tell me the quiet story of your day's work, without any object
except to give me your thoughts and your life. You will speak of your
childhood memories. I shall not understand them very well because you
will be able to give me, perforce, only insufficient details, but I
shall love your sweet strange language.

We shall speak of the child we shall have, and you will bend your head
and your neck, white as milk, and in our minds we shall hear the
rocking of the cradle like a rustling of wings. And when we are tired
out, and even after we have grown old, we shall dream afresh along with
our child.

After this revery our thoughts will not stray, but linger tenderly. In
the evening we shall think of the night. You will be full of a happy
thought. Your inner life will be gay and shining, not because of what
you see, but because of your heart. You will beam as blind people

We shall sit up facing each other. But little by little, as it gets
late, our words will become fewer and less intelligible. Sleep will
lay bare your soul. You will fall asleep over the table, you will feel
me watching over you more and more.

Tenderness is greater than love. I do not admire carnal love when it
is by itself and bare. I do not admire its disorderly selfish
paroxysms, so grossly short-lived. And yet without love the attachment
of two human beings is always weak. Love must be added to affection.
The things it contributes to a union are absolutely needed--exclusiveness,
intimacy, and simplicity.


I went out on the street like an exile, I who am an everyday man, who
resemble everybody else so much, too much. I went through the streets
and crossed the squares with my eyes fixed upon things without seeing
them. I was walking, but I seemed to be falling from dream to dream,
from desire to desire. A door ajar, an open window gave me a pang. A
woman passing by grazed against me, a woman who told me nothing of what
she might have told me. I dreamed of her tragedy and of mine. She
entered a house, she disappeared, she was dead.

I stood still, a prey to a thousand thoughts, stifled in the robe of
the evening. From a closed window on the ground floor floated a strain
of music. I caught the beauty of a sonata as I would catch distinct
human words, and for a moment I listened to what the piano was
confiding to the people inside.

Then I sat down on a bench. On the opposite side of the avenue lit by
the setting sun two men also seated themselves on a bench. I saw them
clearly. They seemed overwhelmed by the same destiny, and a mutual
sympathy seemed to unite them. You could tell they liked each other.
One was speaking, the other was listening.

I read a secret tragedy. As boys they had been immensely fond of each
other. They had always been of the same mind and shared their ideas.
One of them got married, and it was the married one who was now
speaking. He seemed to be feeding their common sorrow.

The bachelor had been in the habit of visiting his home, always keeping
his proper distance, though perhaps vaguely loving the young wife.
However, he respected her peace and her happiness. The married man was
telling him that his wife had ceased to love him, while he still adored
her with his whole being. She had lost interest in him, and turned
away from him. She did not laugh and did not smile except when there
were other people present. He spoke of this grief, this wound to his
love, to his right. His right! He had unconsciously believed that he
had a right over her, and he lived in this belief. Then he found out
that he had no right.

Here the friend thought of certain things she had said to him, of a
smile she had given him. Although he was good and modest and still
perfectly pure, a warm, irresistible hope insinuated itself into his
heart. Listening to the story of despair that his friend confided to
him, he raised his face bit by bit and gave the woman a smile. And
nothing could keep that evening, now falling grey upon those two men,
from being at once an end and a beginning.

A couple, a man and a woman--poor human beings almost always go in
pairs--approached, and passed. I saw the empty space between them. In
life's tragedy, separation is the only thing one sees. They had been
happy, and they were no longer happy. They were almost old already.
He did not care for her, although they were growing old together. What
were they saying? In a moment of open-heartedness, trusting to the
peacefulness reigning between them at that time, he owned up to an old
transgression, to a betrayal scrupulously and religiously hidden until
then. Alas, his words brought back an irreparable agony. The past,
which had gently lain dead, rose to life again for suffering. Their
former happiness was destroyed. The days gone by, which they had
believed happy, were made sad; and that is the woe in everything.

This couple was effaced by another, a young one, whose conversation I
also imagined. They were beginning, they were going to love. Their
hearts were so shy in finding each other. "Do you want me to go on
that trip?" "Shall I do this and that?" She answered, "No." An
intense feeling of modesty gave this first avowal of love so humbly
solicited the form of a disavowal. But yet they were already thinking
of the full flower of their love.

Other couples passed by, and still others. This one now--he talking,
she saying nothing. It was difficult for him to master himself. He
begged her to tell him what she was thinking of. She answered. He
listened. Then, as if she had said nothing, he begged her again, still
harder, to tell him. There he was, uncertain, oscillating between
night and day. All he needed was for her to say one word, if he only
believed it. You saw him, in the immense city, clinging to that one
being. The next instant I was separated from these two lovers who
watched and persecuted each other.

Turn where you will, everywhere, the man and the woman ever confronting
each other, the man who loves a hundred times, the woman who has the
power to love so much and to forget so much. I went on my way again.
I came and went in the midst of the naked truth. I am not a man of
peculiar and exceptional traits. I recognise myself in everybody. I
have the same desires, the same longings as the ordinary human being.
Like everybody else I am a copy of the truth spelled out in the Room,
which is, "I am alone and I want what I have not and what I shall never
have." It is by this need that people live, and by this need that
people die.

But now I was tired of having desired too much. I suddenly felt old.
I should never recover from the wound in my breast. The dream of peace
that I had had a moment before attracted and tempted me only because it
was far away. Had I realised it, I should simply have dreamed another

. . . . .

Now I looked for a word. The people who live my truth, what do they
say when they speak of themselves? Does the echo of what I am thinking
issue from their mouths, or error, or falsehood?

Night fell. I looked for a word like mine, a word to lean upon, a word
to sustain me. And it seemed to me that I was going along groping my
way as if expecting some one to come from round the corner and tell me

I did not return to my room. I did not want to leave the crowds that
evening. I looked for a place that was alive.

I went into a large restaurant so as to hear voices around me. There
were only a few vacant places, and I found a seat in a corner near a
table at which three people were dining. I gave my order, and while my
eyes mechanically followed the white-gloved hand pouring soup into my
plate from a silver cup, I listened to the general hubbub.

All I could catch was what my three neighbours were saying. They were
talking of people in the place whom they knew, then of various friends.
Their persiflage and the consistent irony of their remarks surprised

Nothing they said was worth the while, and the evening promised to be
useless like the rest.

A few minutes later, the head waiter, while serving me with filets of
sole, nodded his head and winked his eye in the direction of one of the

"M. Villiers, the famous writer," he whispered proudly.

I recognised M. Villiers. He resembled his portraits and bore his
young glory gracefully. I envied that man his ability to write and say
what he thought. I studied his profile and admired its worldly
distinction. It was a fine modern profile, the straightness of it
broken by the silken point of his well-kept moustache, by the perfect
curve of his shoulder, and by the butterfly's wing of his white

I lifted my glass to my lips when suddenly I stopped and felt all my
blood rush to my heart.

This is what I heard:

"What's the theme of the novel you're working on?"

"Truth," replied Pierre Villiers.

"What?" exclaimed his friend.

"A succession of human beings caught just as they are."

"What subject?" somebody asked.

People turned and listened to him. Two young diners not far away
stopped talking and put on an idling air, evidently with their ears
pricked. In a sumptuous purple alcove, a man in evening clothes, with
sunken eyes and drawn features, was smoking a fat cigar, his whole life
concentrated in the fragrant glow of his tobacco. His companion, her
bare elbow on the table, enveloped in perfume and sparkling with
jewels, and overloaded with the heavy artificiality of luxury, turned
her simple moon-like face toward the speaker.

"This is the subject," said Pierre Villiers. "It gives me scope to
amuse and tell the truth at the same time. A man pierces a hole in the
wall of a boarding-house room, and watches what is going on in the next

. . . . .

I must have looked at the speakers just then with a rather sorry
expression of bewilderment. Then I quickly lowered my head like a
child afraid to be seen.

They had spoken for /me,/ and I sensed a strange secret service
intrigue around me. Then, in an instant this impression, which had got
the better of my common sense, gave way. Evidently a pure coincidence.
Still I was left with the vague apprehension that they were going to
notice that I /knew,/ and were going to recognise me.

One of the novelist's friends begged him to tell more of his story. He

He was going to tell it in my presence!

. . . . .

With admirable art in the use of words, gestures, and mimicry, and with
a lively elegance and a contagious laugh, he described a series of
brilliant, surprising scenes. Under cover of his scheme, which brought
all the scenes out into peculiar relief and gave them a special
intensity, he retailed a lot of amusing oddities, described comical
persons and things, heaped up picturesque and piquant details, coined
typical and witty proper names, and invented complicated and ingenious
situations. He succeeded in producing irresistible effects, and the
whole was in the latest style.

They said, "Ah!" and "Oh!" and opened their eyes wide.

"Bravo! A sure success! A corking funny idea!"

"All the characters who pass before the eyes of the man spying upon
them are amusing, even the man who kills himself. Nothing forgotten.
The whole of humanity is there."

But I had not recognized a single thing in the entire show.

A stupor and a sort of shame overwhelmed me as I heard that man trying
to extract the utmost entertainment possible from the dark happenings
that had been torturing me for a month.

I thought of that great voice, now silenced, which had said so clearly
and forcefully that the writers of to-day imitate the caricaturists.
I, who had penetrated into the heart of humanity and returned again,
found nothing human in this jiggling caricature! It was so superficial
that it was a lie.

He said in front of me--of me the awful witness:

"It is man stripped of all outward appearances that I want people to
see. Others are fiction, I am the truth."

"It has a philosophical bearing, too."

"Perhaps. But that wasn't my object. Thank God, I am a writer, and
not a thinker."

And he continued to travesty the truth, and I was impotent--the truth,
that profound thing whose voice was in my ears, whose shadow was in my
eyes, and whose taste was in my mouth.

Was I so utterly forsaken? Would no one speak the word I was in search

. . . . .

The Room was flooded with moonlight. In that magnificent setting there
was an obscure white couple, two silent human beings with marble faces.

The fire was out. The clock had finished its work and had stopped, and
was listening with its heart.

The man's face dominated. The woman was at his feet. They did
nothing. An air of tenderness hovered over them. They looked like
monuments gazing at the moon.

He spoke. I recognised his voice. It lit up his face for me, which
had been shrouded from my sight before. It was /he,/ the nameless
lover and poet whom I had seen twice before.

He was telling Amy that on his way that evening he had met a poor
woman, with her baby in her arms.

She walked, jostled and borne along by the crowd returning home from
work, and finally was tossed aside up against a post under a porch, and
stopped as though nailed there.

"I went up to her," he said, "and saw she was smiling.

. . . . .

"What was she smiling at? At life, on account of her child. Under the
refuge where she was cowering, facing the setting sun, she was thinking
of the growth of her child in the days to come. However terrible they
might be, they would be around him, for him, in him. They would be the
same thing as her breath, her walk, her look.

"So profound was the smile of this creator who bore her burden and who
raised her head and gazed into the sun, without even looking down at
the child or listening to its babbling.

"I worked this woman and child up into a poem."

He remained motionless for a moment, then said gently without pausing,
in that voice from the Beyond which we assume when we recite, obeying
what we say and no longer mastering it:

"The woman from the depths of her rags, a waif, a martyr--smiled. She
must have a divine heart to be so tired and yet smile. She loved the
sky, the light, which the unformed little being would love some day.
She loved the chilly dawn, the sultry noontime, the dreamy evening.
The child would grow up, a saviour, to give life to everything again.
Starting at the dark bottom he would ascend the ladder and begin life
over again, life, the only paradise there is, the bouquet of nature.
He would make beauty beautiful. He would make eternity over again with
his voice and his song. And clasping the new-born infant close, she
looked at all the sunlight she had given the world. Her arms quivered
like wings. She dreamed in words of fondling. She fascinated all the
passersby that looked at her. And the setting sun bathed her neck and
head in a rosy reflection. She was like a great rose that opens its
heart to the whole world."

The poet seemed to be searching for something, to be seeing things, and
believing infinitely. He was in another world where everything we see
is true and everything we say is unforgettable.

Amy was still on her knees with eyes upraised to his. She was all
attention, filled with it like a precious vase.

"But her smile," he went on, "was not only in wonder about the future.
There was also something tragic in it, which pierced my heart. I
understood it perfectly. She adored life, but she detested men and was
afraid of them, always on account of the child. She already disputed
over him with the living, although he himself was as yet scarcely among
the living. She defied them with her smile. She seemed to say to
them, 'He will live in spite of you, he will use you, he will subdue
you either to dominate you or to be loved by you. He is already
braving you with his tiny breath, this little one that I am holding in
my maternal grasp.' She was terrible. At first, I had seen her as an
angel of goodness. Now, although she had not changed, she was like an
angel of mercilessness and vengeance. I saw a sort of hatred for those
who would trouble him distort her face, resplendent with superhuman
maternity. Her cruel heart was full of one heart only. It foresaw sin
and shame. It hated men and settled accounts with them like a
destroying angel. She was the mother with fearful nails, standing
erect, and laughing with a torn mouth."

Amy gazed at her lover in the moonlight. It seemed to me that her
looks and his words mingled.

"I come back as I always do to the greatness of mankind's curse, and I
repeat it with the monotony of those who are always right--oh, without
God, without a harbour, without enough rags to cover us, all we have,
standing erect on the land of the dead, is the rebellion of our smile,
the rebellion of being gay when darkness envelops us. We are divinely
alone, the heavens have fallen on our heads."

The heavens have fallen on our heads! What a tremendous idea! It is
the loftiest cry that life hurls. That was the cry of deliverance for
which I had been groping until then. I had had a foreboding it would
come, because a thing of glory like a poet's song always gives
something to us poor living shadows, and human thought always reveals
the world. But I needed to have it said explicitly so as to bring
human misery and human grandeur together. I needed it as a key to the
vault of the heavens.

These heavens, that is to say, the azure that our eyes enshrine,
purity, plenitude--and the infinite number of suppliants, the sky of
truth and religion. All this is within us, and has fallen upon our
heads. And God Himself, who is all these kinds of heavens in one, has
fallen on our heads like thunder, and His infinity is ours.

We have the divinity of our great misery. And our solitude, with its
toilsome ideas, tears and laughter, is fatally divine. However wrong
we may go in the dark, whatever our efforts in the dark and the useless
work of our hearts working incessantly, and whatever our ignorance left
to itself, and whatever the wounds that other human beings are, we
ought to study ourselves with a sort of devotion. It is this sentiment
that lights our foreheads, uplifts our souls, adorns our pride, and, in
spite of everything, will console us when we shall become accustomed to
holding, each at his own poor task, the whole place that God used to
occupy. The truth itself gives an effective, practical, and, so to
speak, religious caress to the suppliant in whom the heavens spread.

. . . . .

"I have such respect for the actual truth that there are moments when I
do not dare to call things by their name," the poet ended.

"Yes," said Amy, very softly, and nothing else. She had been listening
intently. Everything seemed to be carried away in a sort of gentle

"Amy," he whispered.

She did not stir. She had fallen asleep with her head on her lover's
knees. He looked at her and smiled. An expression of pity and
benevolence flitted across his face. His hands stretched out part way
toward the sleeping woman with the gentleness of strength. I saw the
glorious pride of condescension and charity in this man whom a woman
prostrate before him deified.


I have given notice. I am going away to-morrow evening, I with my
tremendous memory. Whatever may happen, whatever tragedies may be
reserved for me in the future, my thought will not be graver or more
important when I shall have lived my life with all its weight.

But my whole body is one pain. I cannot stand on my legs any more. I
stagger. I fall back on my bed. My eyes close and fill with smarting
tears. I want to be crucified on the wall, but I cannot. My body
becomes heavier and heavier and filled with sharper pain. My flesh is
enraged against me.

I hear voices through the wall. The next room vibrates with a distant
sound, a mist of sound which scarcely comes through the wall.

I shall not be able to listen any more, or look into the room, or hear
anything distinctly. And I, who have not cried since my childhood, I
cry now like a child because of all that I shall never have. I cry
over lost beauty and grandeur. I love everything that I should have

Here they will pass again, day after day, year after year, all the
prisoners of rooms will pass with their kind of eternity. In the
twilight when everything fades, they will sit down near the light, in
the room full of haloes. They will drag themselves to the window's
void. Their mouths will join and they will grow tender. They will
exchange a first or a last useless glance. They will open their arms,
they will caress each other. They will love life and be afraid to
disappear. Here below they will seek a perfect union of hearts. Up
above they will seek everlastingness among the shades and a God in the

. . . . .

The monotonous murmur of voices comes through the wall steadily, but I
do not catch what is being said. I am like anybody else in a room.

I am lost, just as I was the evening I came here when I took possession
of this room used by people who had disappeared and died--before this
great change of light took place in my destiny.

Perhaps because of my fever, perhaps because of my lofty pain, I
imagine that some one there is declaiming a great poem, that some one
is speaking of Prometheus. He has stolen light from the gods. In his
entrails he feels the pain, always beginning again, always fresh,
gathering from evening to evening, when the vulture steals to him as it
would steal to its nest. And you feel that we are all like Prometheus
because of desire, but there is neither vulture nor gods.

There is no paradise except that which we create in the great tomb of
the churches. There is no hell, no inferno except the frenzy of

There is no mysterious fire. I have stolen the truth. I have stolen
the whole truth. I have seen sacred things, tragic things, pure
things, and I was right. I have seen shameful things, and I was right.
And so I have entered the kingdom of truth, if, while preserving
respect to truth and without soiling it, we can use the expression that
deceit and religious blasphemy employ.

. . . . .

Who shall compose the Bible of human desire, the terrible and simple
Bible of that which drives us from life to life, the Bible of our
doings, our goings, our original fall? Who will dare to tell
everything, who will have the genius to see everything?

I believe in a lofty form of poetry, in the work in which beauty will
be mingled with beliefs. The more incapable of it I feel myself, the
more I believe it to be possible. The sad splendour with which certain
memories of mine overwhelm me, shows me that it is possible. Sometimes
I myself have been sublime, I myself have been a masterpiece.
Sometimes my visions have been mingled with a thrill of evidence so
strong and so creative that the whole room has quivered with it like a
forest, and there have been moments, in truth, when the silence cried

But I have stolen all this, and I have profited by it, thanks to the
shamelessness of the truth revealed. At the point in space in which,
by accident, I found myself, I had only to open my eyes and to stretch
out my mendicant hands to accomplish more than a dream, to accomplish
almost a work.

What I have seen is going to disappear, since I shall do nothing with
it. I am like a mother the fruit of whose womb will perish after it
has been born.

What matter? I have heard the annunciation of whatever finer things
are to come. Through me has passed, without staying me in my course,
the Word which does not lie, and which, said over again, will satisfy.

. . . . .

But I have finished. I am lying stretched out, and now that I have
ceased to see, my poor eyes close like a healing wound and a scar forms
over them.

And I seek assuagement for myself. I! The last cry, as it was the

As for me, I have only one recourse, to remember and to believe. To
hold on with all my strength to the memory of the tragedy of the Room.

I believe that the only thing which confronts the heart and the reason
is the shadow of that which the heart and the reason cry for. I
believe that around us there is only one word, the immense word which
takes us out of our solitude, NOTHING. I believe that this does not
signify our nothingness or our misfortune, but, on the contrary, our
realisation and our deification, since everything is within us.



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