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Chapter 13

 

As the season advanced, the weather, far from improving, grew worse. Everything seemed to go wrong that year. After the squalls and mists, the sky was covered with a white expanse of heat, like plates of sheet iron. In two days, without transition, a torrid heat, an atmosphere of frightful heaviness, succeeded the damp cold of foggy days and the streaming of the rains. As though stirred by furious pokers, the sun showed like a kiln-hole, darting a light almost white-hot, burning one's face. A hot dust rose from the roads, scorching the dry trees, and the yellowed lawns became a deep brown. A temperature like that of a foundry hung over the dwelling of Des Esseintes.

Half naked, he opened a window and received the air like a furnace blast in his face. The dining room, to which he fled, was fiery, and the rarefied air simmered. Utterly distressed, he sat down, for the stimulation that had seized him had ended since the close of his reveries.

Like all people tormented by nervousness, heat distracted him. And his anæmia, checked by cold weather, again became pronounced, weakening his body which had been debilitated by copious perspiration.

The back of his shirt was saturated, his perinæum was damp, his feet and arms moist, his brow overflowing with sweat that ran down his cheeks. Des Esseintes reclined, annihilated, on a chair.

The sight of the meat placed on the table at that moment caused his stomach to rise. He ordered the food removed, asked for boiled eggs, and tried to swallow some bread soaked in eggs, but his stomach would have none of it. A fit of nausea overcame him. He drank a few drops of wine that pricked his stomach like points of fire. He wet his face; the perspiration, alternately warm and cold, coursed along his temples. He began to suck some pieces of ice to overcome his troubled heart—but in vain.

So weak was he that he leaned against the table. He rose, feeling the need of air, but the bread had slowly risen in his gullet and remained there. Never had he felt so distressed, so shattered, so ill at ease. To add to his discomfort, his eyes distressed him and he saw objects in double. Soon he lost his sense of distance, and his glass seemed to be a league away. He told himself that he was the play-thing of sensorial illusions and that he was incapable of reacting. He stretched out on a couch, but instantly he was cradled as by the tossing of a moving ship, and the affection of his heart increased. He rose to his feet, determined to rid himself, by means of a digestive, of the food which was choking him.

He again reached the dining room and sadly compared himself, in this cabin, to passengers seized with sea-sickness. Stumbling, he made his way to the closet, examined the mouth organ without opening any of the stops, but instead took from a high shelf a bottle of benedictine which he kept because of its form which to him seemed suggestive of thoughts that were at once gently wanton and vaguely mystic.

But at this moment he remained indifferent, gazing with lack-lustre, staring eyes at this squat, dark-green bottle which, at other times, had brought before him images of the medieval priories by its old-fashioned monkish paunch, its head and neck covered with a parchment hood, its red wax stamp quartered with three silver mitres against a field of azure and fastened at the neck, like a papal bull, with bands of lead, its label inscribed in sonorous Latin, on paper that seemed to have yellowed with age: Liquor Monachorum Benedictinorum Abbatiae Fiscannensis.

Under this thoroughly abbatial robe, signed with a cross and the ecclesiastic initials ‘D.O.M.’, pressed in between its parchments and ligatures, slept an exquisitely fine saffron-colored liquid. It breathed an aroma that seemed the quintessence of angelica and hyssop blended with sea-weeds and of iodines and bromes hidden in sweet essences, and it stimulated the palate with a spiritous ardor concealed under a virginal daintiness, and charmed the sense of smell by a pungency enveloped in a caress innocent and devout.

This deceit which resulted from the extraordinary disharmony between contents and container, between the liturgic form of the flask and its so feminine and modern soul, had formerly stimulated Des Esseintes to revery and, facing the bottle, he was inclined to think at great length of the monks who sold it, the Benedictines of the Abbey of Fécamp who, belonging to the brotherhood of Saint-Maur which had been celebrated for its controversial works under the rule of Saint Benoît, followed neither the observances of the white monks of Cîteaux nor of the black monks of Cluny. He could not but think of them as being like their brethren of the Middle Ages, cultivating simples, heating retorts and distilling faultless panaceas and prescriptions.

He tasted a drop of this liquor and, for a few moments, had relief. But soon the fire, which the dash of wine had lit in his bowels, revived. He threw down his napkin, returned to his study, and paced the floor. He felt as if he were under a pneumatic clock, and a numbing weakness stole from his brain through his limbs. Unable to endure it longer, he betook himself to the garden. It was the first time he had done this since his arrival at Fontenay. There he found shelter beneath a tree which radiated a circle of shadow. Seated on the lawn, he looked around with a besotted air at the square beds of vegetables planted by the servants. He gazed, but it was only at the end of an hour that he really saw them, for a greenish film floated before his eyes, permitting him only to see, as in the depths of water, flickering images of shifting tones.

But when he recovered his balance, he clearly distinguished the onions and cabbages, a garden bed of lettuce further off, and, in the distance along the hedge, a row of white lillies recumbent in the heavy air.

A smile played on his lips, for he suddenly recalled the strange comparison of old Nicandre, who likened, in the point of form, the pistils of lillies to the genital organs of a donkey; and he recalled also a passage from Albert le Grand, in which that thaumaturgist describes a strange way of discovering whether a girl is still a virgin, by means of a lettuce.

These remembrances distracted him somewhat. He examined the garden, interesting himself in the plants withered by the heat, and in the hot ground whose vapors rose into the dusty air. Then, above the hedge which separated the garden below from the embankment leading to the fort, he watched the urchins struggling and tumbling on the ground.

He was concentrating his attention upon them when another younger, sorry little specimen appeared. He had hair like seaweed covered with sand, two green bubbles beneath his nose, and disgusting lips surrounded by a dirty white frame formed by a slice of bread smeared with cheese and filled with pieces of scallions.

Des Esseintes inhaled the air. A perverse appetite seized him. This dirty slice made his mouth water. It seemed to him that his stomach, refusing all other nourishment, could digest this shocking food, and that his palate would enjoy it as though it were a feast.

He leaped up, ran to the kitchen and ordered a loaf, white cheese and green onions to be brought from the village, emphasizing his desire for a slice exactly like the one being eaten by the child. Then he returned to sit beneath the tree.

The little chaps were fighting with one another. They struggled for bits of bread which they shoved into their cheeks, meanwhile sucking their fingers. Kicks and blows rained freely, and the weakest, trampled upon, cried out.

At this sight, Des Esseintes recovered his animation. The interest he took in this fight distracted his thoughts from his illness. Contemplating the blind fury of these urchins, he thought of the cruel and abominable law of the struggle of existence; and, although these children were mean, he could not help being interested in their futures, yet could not but believe that it had been better for them had their mothers never given them birth.

In fact, all they could expect of life was rash, colic, fever, and measles in their earliest years; slaps in the face and degrading drudgeries up to thirteen years; deceptions by women, sicknesses and infidelity during manhood and, toward the last, infirmities and agonies in a poorhouse or asylum.

And the future was the same for every one, and none in his good senses could envy his neighbor. The rich had the same passions, the same anxieties, the same pains and the same illnesses, but in a different environment; the same mediocre enjoyments, whether alcoholic, literary or carnal. There was even a vague compensation in evils, a sort of justice which re-established the balance of misfortune between the classes, permitting the poor to bear physical suffering more easily, and making it difficult for the unresisting, weaker bodies of the rich to withstand it.

How vain, silly and mad it is to beget brats! And Des Esseintes thought of those ecclesiastics who had taken vows of sterility, yet were so inconsistent as to canonize Saint Vincent de Paul, because he brought vain tortures to innocent creatures.

By means of his hateful precautions, Vincent de Paul had deferred for years the death of unintelligent and insensate beings, in such a way that when they later became almost intelligent and sentient to grief, they were able to anticipate the future, to await and fear that death of whose very name they had of late been ignorant, some of them going as far to invoke it, in hatred of that sentence of life which the monk inflicted upon them by an absurd theological code.

And since this old man's death, his ideas had prevailed. Abandoned children were sheltered instead of being killed and yet their lives daily became increasingly rigorous and barren! Then, under pretext of liberty and progress, Society had discovered another means of increasing man's miseries by tearing him from his home, forcing him to don a ridiculous uniform and carry weapons, by brutalizing him in a slavery in every respect like that from which he had compassionately freed the negro, and all to enable him to slaughter his neighbor without risking the scaffold like ordinary murderers who operate single-handed, without uniforms and with weapons that are less swift and deafening.

Des Esseintes wondered if there had ever been such a time as ours. Our age invokes the causes of humanity, endeavors to perfect anæsthesia to suppress physical suffering. Yet at the same time it prepares these very stimulants to increase moral wretchedness.

Ah! if ever this useless procreation should be abolished, it were now. But here, again, the laws enacted by men like Portalis and Homais appeared strange and cruel.

In the matter of generation, Justice finds the agencies for deception to be quite natural. It is a recognized and acknowledged fact. There is scarcely a home of any station that does not confide its children to the drain pipes, or that does not employ contrivances that are freely sold, and which it would enter no person's mind to prohibit. And yet, if these subterfuges proved insufficient, if the attempt miscarried and if, to remedy matters, one had recourse to more efficacious measures, ah! then there were not prisons enough, not municipal jails enough to confine those who, in good faith, were condemned by other individuals who had that very evening, on the conjugal bed, done their utmost to avoid giving birth to children.

The deceit itself was not a crime, it seemed. The crime lay in the justification of the deceit.

What Society considered a crime was the act of killing a being endowed with life; and yet, in expelling a foetus, one destroyed an animal that was less formed and living and certainly less intelligent and more ugly than a dog or a cat, although it is permissible to strangle these creatures as soon as they are born.

It is only right to add, for the sake of fairness, thought Des Esseintes, that it is not the awkward man, who generally loses no time in disappearing, but rather the woman, the victim of his stupidity, who expiates the crime of having saved an innocent life.

Yet was it right that the world should be filled with such prejudice as to wish to repress manoeuvres so natural that primitive man, the Polynesian savage, for instance, instinctively practices them?

The servant interrupted the charitable reflections of Des Esseintes, who received the slice of bread on a plate of vermeil. Pains shot through his heart. He did not have the courage to eat this bread, for the unhealthy excitement of his stomach had ceased. A sensation of frightful decay swept upon him. He was compelled to rise. The sun turned, and slowly fell upon the place that he had lately occupied. The heat became more heavy and fierce.

“Throw this slice of bread to those children who are murdering each other on the road,” he ordered his servant. “Let the weakest be crippled, be denied share in the prize, and be soundly thrashed into the bargain, as they will be when they return to their homes with torn trousers and bruised eyes. This will give them an idea of the life that awaits them!”

And he entered the house and sank into his armchair.

“But I must try to eat something,” he said. And he attempted to soak a biscuit in old Constantia wine, several bottles of which remained in his cellar.

That wine, the color of slightly burned onions, partaking of Malaga and Port, but with a specially luscious flavor, and an after-taste of grapes dried by fiery suns, had often comforted him, given a new energy to his stomach weakened by the fasts which he was forced to undergo. But this cordial, usually so efficacious, now failed. Then he thought that an emollient might perhaps counteract the fiery pains which were consuming him, and he took out the Nalifka, a Russian liqueur, contained in a bottle frosted with unpolished glass. This unctuous raspberry-flavored syrup also failed. Alas! the time was far off when, enjoying good health, Des Esseintes had ridden to his house in the hot summer days in a sleigh, and there, covered with furs wrapped about his chest, forced himself to shiver, saying, as he listened attentively to the chattering of his teeth: “Ah, how biting this wind is! It is freezing!” Thus he had almost succeeded in convincing himself that it was cold.

Unfortunately, such remedies as these had failed of their purpose ever since his sickness became vital.

With all this, he was unable to make use of laudanum: instead of allaying the pain, this sedative irritated him even to the degree of depriving him of rest. At one time he had endeavored to procure visions through opium and hashish, but these two substances had led to vomitings and intense nervous disturbances. He had instantly been forced to give up the idea of taking them, and without the aid of these coarse stimulants, demand of his brain alone to transport him into the land of dreams, far, far from life.

“What a day!” he said to himself, sponging his neck, feeling every ounce of his strength dissolve in perspiration; a feverish agitation still prevented him from remaining in one spot; once more he walked up and down, trying every chair in the room in turn. Wearied of the struggle, at last he fell against his bureau and leaning mechanically against the table, without thinking of anything, he touched an astrolabe which rested on a mass of books and notes and served as a paper weight.

He had purchased this engraved and gilded copper instrument (it had come from Germany and dated from the seventeenth century) of a second-hand Paris dealer, after a visit to the Cluny Museum, where he had stood for a long while in ecstatic admiration before a marvelous astrolabe made of chiseled ivory, whose cabalistic appearance enchanted him.

This paper weight evoked many reminiscences within him. Aroused and actuated by the appearance of this trinket, his thoughts rushed from Fontenay to Paris, to the curio shop where he had purchased it, then returned to the Museum, and he mentally beheld the ivory astrolabe, while his unseeing eyes continued to gaze upon the copper astrolabe on the table.

Then he left the Museum and, without quitting the town, strolled down the streets, wandered through the rue du Sommerard and the boulevard Saint-Michel, branched off into the neighboring streets, and paused before certain shops whose quite extraordinary appearance and profusion had often attracted him.

Beginning with an astrolabe, this spiritual jaunt ended in the cafés of the Latin Quarter.

He remembered how these places were crowded in the rue Monsieur-le-Prince and at the end of the rue de Vaugirard, touching the Odeon; sometimes they followed one another like the old riddecks of the Canal-aux-Harengs, at Antwerp, each of which revealed a front, the counterpart of its neighbor.

Through the half-opened doors and the windows dimmed with colored panes or curtains, he had often seen women who walked about like geese; others, on benches, rested their elbows on the marble tables, humming, their temples resting between their hands; still others strutted and posed in front of mirrors, playing with their false hair pomaded by hair-dressers; others, again, took money from their purses and methodically sorted the different denominations in little heaps.

Most of them had heavy features, hoarse voices, flabby necks and painted eyes; and all of them, like automatons, moved simultaneously upon the same impulse, flung the same enticements with the same tone and uttered the identical queer words, the same odd inflections and the same smile.

Certain ideas associated themselves in the mind of Des Esseintes, whose reveries came to an end, now that he recalled this collection of coffee-houses and streets.

He understood the significance of those cafés which reflected the state of soul of an entire generation, and from it he discovered the synthesis of the period.

And, in fact, the symptoms were certain and obvious. The houses of prostitution disappeared, and as soon as one of them closed, a café began to operate.

This restriction of prostitution which proved profitable to clandestine loves, evidently arose from the incomprehensible illusions of men in the matter of carnal life.

Monstrous as it may appear, these haunts satisfied an ideal.

Although the utilitarian tendencies transmitted by heredity and developed by the precocious rudeness and constant brutalities of the colleges had made the youth of the day strangely crude and as strangely positive and cold, it had none the less preserved, in the back of their heads, an old blue flower, an old ideal of a vague, sour affection.

Today, when the blood clamored, youths could not bring themselves to go through the formality of entering, ending, paying and leaving; in their eyes, this was bestiality, the action of a dog attacking a bitch without much ado. Then, too, vanity fled unsatisfied from these houses where there was no semblance of resistance; there was no victory, no hoped for preference, nor even largess obtained from the tradeswoman who measured her caresses according to the price. On the contrary, the courting of a girl of the cafés stimulated all the susceptibilities of love, all the refinements of sentiment. One disputed with the others for such a girl, and those to whom she granted a rendezvous, in consideration of much money, were sincere in imagining that they had won her from a rival, and in so thinking they were the objects of honorary distinction and favor.

Yet this domesticity was as stupid, as selfish, as vile as that of houses of ill-fame. Its creatures drank without being thirsty, laughed without reason, were charmed by the caresses of a slut, quarrelled and fought for no reason whatever, despite everything. The Parisian youth had not been able to see that these girls were, from the point of plastic beauty, graceful attitudes and necessary attire, quite inferior to the women in the bawdy houses! “My God,” Des Esseintes exclaimed, “what ninnies are these fellows who flutter around the cafés; for, over and above their silly illusions, they forget the danger of degraded, suspicious allurements, and they are unaware of the sums of money given for affairs priced in advance by the mistress, of the time lost in waiting for an assignation deferred so as to increase its value and cost, delays which are repeated to provide more tips for the waiters.”

This imbecile sentimentality, combined with a ferociously practical sense, represented the dominant motive of the age. These very persons who would have gouged their neighbors' eyes to gain ten sous, lost all presence of mind and discrimination before suspicious looking girls in restaurants who pitilessly harassed and relentlessly fleeced them. Fathers devoted their lives to their businesses and labors, families devoured one another on the pretext of trade, only to be robbed by their sons who, in turn, allowed themselves to be fleeced by women who posed as sweethearts to obtain their money.

In all Paris, from east to west and from north to south, there existed an unbroken chain of female tricksters, a system of organized theft, and all because, instead of satisfying men at once, these women were skilled in the subterfuges of delay.

At bottom, one might say that human wisdom consisted in the protraction of all things, in saying “no” before saying “yes,” for one could manage people only by trifling with them.

“Ah! if the same were but true of the stomach,” sighed Des Esseintes, racked by a cramp which instantly and sharply brought back his mind, that had roved far off, to Fontenay.