MORE than two months slipped by before the time came when Des Esseintes found it feasible to immerse himself definitely in the peace and silence of his house at Fontenay; purchases of all kinds still kept him perambulating the Paris streets, tramping the town from end to end.
And yet, what endless inquiries had he not instituted, what lengthy lucubrations had he not indulged in, before finally entrusting his new home to the hands of the upholsterers! He had long been an expert in the right and wrong combinations and contrasts of tints. In other days, when he was still in the habit of inviting women to his house, he had fitted up a boudoir where, amid dainty carved furniture of the light-yellow camphor-wood of Japan, under a sort of tent of pink Indian satin, the flesh tints borrowed a soft, warm glow from the artfully disposed lights sifting down through the rich material.
This room, where mirrors hung on every wall, reflecting backwards and forwards from one to another an infinite succession of pink boudoirs, had enjoyed a great renown among his various mistresses, who loved to bathe their nakedness in this flood of warm crimson amid the aromatic odours given off by the Oriental wood of the furniture.
But, quite apart from the miracles wrought by this artificial atmosphere in the way of transfusing, or so it seemed, a new blood into tired veins and freshening up complexions tarnished and worn by the habitual use of cosmetics and too frequent nights of love, he also tasted in his own person, in this luxurious retreat, special and peculiar satisfactions, pleasures exaggerated and rendered in a way more entrancing by the recollections of evil days overpast and vexations now outlived.
So, in a spirit of hate and scorn of his unhappy boyhood, he had suspended from the ceiling of the room we speak of, a little cage of silver wire in which a cricket was kept prisoner to chirp as they had been used to do in old days among the cinders in the great fireplaces at the Château de Lourps. Whenever he heard this sound, which he had so often listened to on many an evening of constraint and silence in his mother’s chamber, all the miseries of a wretched and neglected childhood would come crowding before the eye of memory. At such times, roused from his reveries by the movements of the woman he was fondling mechanically at the moment and whose words and laughter interrupted his thoughts of the past and recalled him to reality, there as he lay in the pink boudoir, a sudden commotion would shake his soul, a longing for revenge on dreary hours endured in former times, a mad craving to befoul with base and carnal acts his recollections of bygone family life, an overmastering temptation toassuage his lustful propensities on the soft cushion of a woman’s body, to drain the cup of sensuality to its last and bitterest dregs.
Other times again, when despondency weighed heavy on his spirit, when on rainy Autumn days he felt a sick aversion for everything, — for the streets, for his own house, for the dingy mud-coloured sky, for the stony-looking clouds, he would fly to this refuge, set the cricket’s cage swinging gently to and fro and watch its movement repeated ad infinitum in the surrounding mirrors, till at last his eyes would grow dazed and he seemed to see the cage itself at rest, but all the room tossing and turning, filling the whole apartment with a dizzy whirl of pink walls.
Then, in the days when Des Esseintes still deemed it incumbent on him to play the eccentric, he had also installed strange and elaborate dispositions of furniture and fittings, partitioning off his salon into a series of niches, each differently hung and carpeted, and each harmonizing in a subtle likeness by a more or less vague similarity of tints, gay or sombre, refined or barbaric, with the special character of the Latin and French books he loved. He would then settle himself down to read in whichever of these recesses displayed in its scheme of decoration the closest correspondence with the intimate essence of the particular book his caprice of the moment led him to peruse.
Last fancy of all, he had prepared a lofty hall in which to receive his tradesmen. These would march in, take seats side by side in a row of church stalls; then he would mount an imposing pulpit and preach them a sermon on dandyism, adjuring his bookmakers and tailors to conform with the most scrupulous fidelity to his commandments in the matter of cut and fashion, threatening them with the penalty of pecuniary excommunication if they failed to follow out to the letter the instructions embodied in his monitories and bulls.
He won a great reputation as an eccentric, — a reputation he crowned by adopting a costume of black velvet worn with a gold-fringed waistcoat and sticking by way of cravat a bunch of Parma violets in the opening of a very low-necked shirt. Then he would invite parties of literary friends to dinners that set all the world talking. In one instance in particular, modelling the entertainment on a banquet of the eighteenth century, he had organized a funeral feast in celebration of the most unmentionable of minor personal calamities. The dining-room was hung with black and looked out on a strangely metamorphosed garden, the walks being strewn with charcoal, the little basin in the middle of the lawn bordered with a rim of black basalt and filled with ink; and the ordinary shrubs superseded by cypresses and pines. The dinner itself was served on a black cloth, decorated with baskets of violets and scabiosae and illuminated by candelabra in which tall tapers flared.
While a concealed orchestra played funeral marches, the guests were waited on by naked negresses wearing shoes and stockings of cloth of silver besprinkled with tears.
The viands were served on black-bordered plates, — turtle soup, Russian black bread, ripe olives from Turkey, caviar, mule steaks, Frankfurt smoked sausages, game dished up in sauces coloured to resemble liquorice water and boot-blacking, truffles in jelly, chocolate-tinted creams, puddings, nectarines, fruit preserves, mulberries and cherries. The wines were drunk from dark-tinted glasses, — wines of the Limagne and Roussillon vintages, wines of Tenedos, the Val de Penas and Oporto. After the coffee and walnuts came other unusual beverages, kwas, porter and stout.
The invitations, which purported to be for a dinner in pious memory of the host’s (temporarily) lost virility, were couched in the regulation phraseology of letters summoning relatives to attend the obsequies of a defunct kinsman.
But these extravagances, that had once been his boast, had died a natural death; nowadays his only feeling was one of self-contempt to remember these puerile and out-of-date displays of eccentricity, — the extraordinary clothes he had donned and the grotesque decorations he had lavished on his house. His only thought henceforth was to arrange, for his personal gratification only and no longer in order to startle other people, a home that should be comfortable, yet at the same time rich and rare in its appointments, to contrive himself a peaceful and exquisitely organized abode, specially adapted to meet the exigencies of the solitary life he proposed to lead.
When at length the new house at Fontenay was ready and fitted up in accordance with his wishes and intentions by the architect he had engaged; when nothing else was left save to settle the scheme of furniture and decoration, once again he passed in review, carefully and methodically, the whole series of available tints.
What he wanted was colours the effect of which was confirmed and strengthened under artificial light; little he cared even if by daylight they should appear insipid or crude, for he lived practically his whole life at night, holding that then a man was more truly at home, more himself and his own master, and that the mind found its only real excitant and effective stimulation in contact with the shades of evening; moreover, he reaped a special and peculiar satisfaction from finding himself in a room brilliantly lighted up, the only place alive and awake among surrounding houses all buried in sleep and darkness, — a sort of enjoyment that is not free from a touch of vanity, a selfish mode of gratification familiar enough to belated workers when, drawing aside the window curtains, they note how all about them the world lies inert, dumb and dead.
Slowly, one by one, he sifted out the different tones.
Blue, by candle light, assumes an artificial green tinge; if deep blue, like cobalt or indigo, it becomes black; if light, it changes to grey; it may be as true and soft of hue as a turquoise, yet it looks dull and cold.
Yes, it could only be employed as a supplement to help out some other colour; there could be no question of making blue the dominating note of a whole room.
On the other hand, the iron greys are even more sullen and heavy; the pearl greys lose their azure tinge and are metamorphosed into a dirty white; as for the deep greens, such as emperor green and myrtle green, these suffer the same fate as the blues and become indistinguishable from black. Only the pale greens therefore remained, peacock green for instance, or the cinnabars and lacquer greens, but then in their case lamplight extracts the blue in them, leaving only the yellow, which for its part shows only a poor false tone and dull, broken sheen.
Nor was it any use thinking of such tints as salmon-pink, maize, rose; their effeminate note would go dead against all his ideas of self-isolation; nor again were the violets worth considering, for they shed all their brightness by candle light; only red survives undimmed at night, — but then what a red! a sticky red, like wine-lees, a base, ignoble tint! Moreover, it struck him as quite superfluous to resort to this colour, inasmuch as after imbibing a certain small dose of santonin, a man sees violet, and it becomes the easiest thing in the world to change about at will and without ever altering the actual tint of his wall hangings.
All these colours being rejected, three only were left, viz. red, orange, yellow.
Of these three, he preferred orange, so confirming by his own example the truth of a theory he used to declare was almost mathematically exact in its correspondence with the reality, to wit: that a harmony is always to be found existing between the sensual constitution of any individual of a genuinely artistic temperament and whatever colour his eyes see in the most pronounced and vivid way.
In fact, if we leave out of account the common run of men whose coarse retinas perceive neither the proper cadence peculiar to each of the colours nor the subtle charm of their various modifications and shades; similarly leaving on one side those bourgeois eyes that are insensible to the pomp and splendour of the strong, vibrating colours; regarding therefore only persons of delicate, refined visual organs, well trained in appreciation by the lessons of literature and art, it appeared to him to be an undoubted fact that the eye of that man amongst them who has visions of the ideal, who demands illusions to satisfy his aspirations, who craves veils to hide the nakedness of reality, is generally soothed and satisfied by blue and its cognate tints, such as mauve, lilac, pearl-grey, provided always they remain tender and do not overpass the border where they lose their individuality and change into pure violets and unmixed greys.
The blustering, swaggering type of men, on the contrary, the plethoric, the sanguine, the stalwart go-ahead fellows who scorn compromises and by-roads to their goal, and rush straight at their object whatever it is, losing their heads at the first go-off, these for the most part delight in the startling tones of the reds and yellows, in the clash and clang of vermilions and chromes that blind their eyes and surfeit their senses.
Last comes the class of persons, of nervous organization and enfeebled vigour, whose sensual appetite craves highly seasoned dishes, men of a hectic, over-stimulated constitution. Their eyes almost invariably hanker after that most irritating and morbid of colours, with its artificial splendours and feverish acrid gleams, — orange.
What Des Esseintes’ final choice then would be hardly admitted of a doubt; but indubitable difficulties still remained unsolved. If red and yellow are accentuated under artificial light, this is not always the case with their composite, orange, which is a hot-headed fellow and often blazes out into a crimson or a fire red.
He studied carefully by candle light all its different shades, and finally discovered one he thought should not lose equilibrium or refuse to fulfil the offices he claimed of it.
These preliminaries disposed of, he made a point of eschewing, so far as possible, at any rate in his study, the use of Oriental stuffs and rugs, which in these days, when rich tradesmen can buy them in the fancy shops at a discount, have become so common and so much a mark of vulgar ostentation.
Eventually he made up his mind to have his walls bound like his books in large-grained crushed morocco, of the best Cape skins, surfaced by means of heavy steel plates under a powerful press.
The panelling once completed, he had the mouldings and tall plinths painted a deep indigo, a blue lacquer like what the coach-builders use for carriage bodies, while the ceiling, which was slightly coved, was also covered in morocco, displaying, like a magnified oeil-de-boeuf, framed in the orange leather, a circle of sky, as it were, of a rich blue, wherein soared silver angels, figures of seraphim embroidered long ago by the Weavers’ Guild of Cologne for an ancient cope.
After the whole was arranged and finished, all these several tints fell into accord at night and did not clash at all; the blue of the woodwork struck a stable note that was pleasing and satisfying to the eye, supported and warmed, so to say, by the surrounding shades of orange, which for their part shone out with a pure, unsullied gorgeousness, itself backed up and in a way heightened by the near presence of the blue.
As to furniture, Des Esseintes had no long or laborious searches to undertake, inasmuch as the one and only luxury of the apartment was to be books and rare flowers; while reserving himself the right later on to adorn the naked walls with drawings and pictures, he confined himself for the present to fitting up almost all round the room a series of bookshelves and bookcases of ebony, scattering tiger skins and blue-foxes’ pelts about the floor: and installing beside a massive money-changer’s table of the fifteenth century, several deep-seated, high-backed armchairs, together with an old church lectern of wrought iron, one of those antique service-desks whereon the deacon of the day used once to lay the Antiphonary, and which now supported one of the ponderous volumes of du Cange’s Glossarium medaie et infimae Latinitatis.
The windows, the glass of which was coarse and semiopaque, bluish in tinge and with many of the panes filled with the bottoms of bottles, the protuberances picked out with gilt, allowed no view of the outside world and admitted only a faint dim "religious" light. They were further darkened by curtains made out of old priestly stoles, the dull dead gold of whose embroideries faded off into a background of a subdued, almost toneless red.
To complete the general effect, above the fireplace, the screen of which was likewise cut from the sumptuous silk of a Florentine dalmatic, midway between two monstrances of gilded copper in the Byzantine style which had come originally from the Abbaye-aux-Bois at Bièvre, stood a marvellously wrought triptych, each of the three separate panels carved with a lacelike delicacy of workmanship; this now contained, guarded under glass let into the triple frame, copied on real vellum in beautiful missal lettering and adorned with exquisite illuminations, three pieces of Baudelaire’s: right and left, the sonnets called "The Lovers’ Death" and "The Enemy," in the middle, the prose poem that goes by the English title of "Anywhere out of the World."
AFTER the sale of his household goods, Des Esseintes kept on the two old servants who had looked after his invalid mother and between them had filled the double office of general factotum and hall-porter at the Château de Lourps. The latter had, up to the date of its being put up for sale, remained empty and untenanted.
He took with him to Fontenay this pair of domestics broken in to play the part of sick-nurses, trained to the methodical habits of wardsmen at a hospital, accustomed to administer at stated hours spoonfuls of physic and doses of medicinal draughts, subdued to the rigid quietude of cloistered monks, shut off from all communication with the outer world, content to spend their lives in close rooms with doors and windows always shut.
The husband’s duty was to keep the rooms clean and fetch the provisions, the wife’s to attend to the cooking. Their master gave up the first floor of the house for their accommodation, made them wear thick felt shoes, had double doors installed with well-oiled hinges and covered the floors with heavy carpeting so as to prevent his hearing the faintest sound of their footsteps overhead.
Then he arranged with them a code of signals, fixing the precise significance of different rings on his bell, few or many, long or short, and appointed a particular spot on his writingdesk where each month the account books were to be left; in fact, made every possible disposition so as to avoid the obligation of seeing them or speaking to them more often than was absolutely indispensable.
More than this, as the woman must needs pass along the front of the house occasionally on her way to an outhouse where the wood was stored and he was resolved not to suffer the annoyance of seeing her commonplace exterior, he had a costume made for her of Flemish grogram, with a white mutch and a great black hood to muffle face and head, such as the Béguines still wear to this day at Ghent. The shadow of this mediaeval coif gliding by in the dusk gave him a conventual feeling, reminding him of those peaceful, pious settlements, those abodes of silence and solitude buried out of sight in a corner of the bustling, busy city.
He fixed the hours of meals, too, in accordance with a never varying schedule; indeed his table was of the plainest and simplest, the feebleness of his digestion no longer permitting him to indulge in heavy or elaborate repasts.
At five o’clock in winter, after dusk had closed in, he ate an abstemious breakfast of two boiled eggs, toast and tea; then came dinner at eleven; he used to drink coffee, sometimes tea or wine, during the night, and finally played with a bit of supper about five in the morning, before turning in.
These meals, the details and menu of which were settled once for all at the beginning of each season of the year, he took on a table placed in the middle of a small room communicating with his study by a padded corridor, hermetically closed and allowing neither smell nor sound to penetrate from one to the other of the two apartments it served to connect.
The dining-room in question resembled a ship’s cabin with its wooden ceiling of arched beams, its bulkheads and flooring of pitch-pine, its tiny window-opening cut through the woodwork as a porthole is in a vessel’s side.
Like those Japanese boxes that fit one inside the other, this room was inserted within a larger one, — the real dining-room as designed by the architect.
This latter apartment was provided with two windows; one of these was now invisible, being hidden by the bulkhead or partition wall, which could however be dropped by touching a spring, so that fresh air might be admitted to circulate freely around and within the pitch-pine enclosure; the other was visible, being situated right opposite the porthole contrived in the woodwork, but was masked in a peculiar way, a large aquarium filling in the whole space intervening between the porthole and the real window in the real house-wall. Thus the daylight that penetrated into the cabin had first to pass through the outer window, the panes of which had been replaced by a single sheet of plain mirror glass, then through the water and last of all through the glazing of the porthole, which was permanently fixed in its place.
At the hour when the steaming samovar stood on the table, the moment when in Autumn the sun would be setting in the west, the water in the aquarium, dull and opaque by daylight, would redden and throw out fiery flashes as if from a glowing furnace over the light-coloured walls.
Sometimes, of an afternoon, if Des Esseintes happened to be up and about at that time of day, he would turn the taps connected with a system of pipes and conduits that enabled the tank to be emptied and refilled with fresh water, and then by pouring in a few drops of coloured essences, he could enjoy at his pleasure all the tints, green or grey, opaline or silvery, that real rivers assume according to the hue of the heavens, the greater or less ardour of the sun’s rays, the more or less threatening aspect of the rain-clouds, in a word according to the varying conditions of season and weather.
This done, he could picture himself in the ’tween-decks of a brig as he gazed curiously at a shoal of ingenious mechanical fishes that were wound up and swam by clockwork past the port-hole window and got entangled in artificial water-weeds; at other times, as he inhaled the strong smell of tar with which the room had been impregnated before he entered it, he would examine a series of coloured lithographs on the walls, of the sort one sees in packet-boat offices and shipping agencies, representing steamers at sea bound for Valparaiso or the River Plate, alongside framed placards giving the itineraries of the Royal Mail Steam Packet services and of the various Ocean liners, freighting charges and ports of call of the Transatlantic mail boats, etc.
Then presently, when he was tired of consulting these time tables, he would rest his eyes by looking over the collection of chronometers and mariner’s compasses, sextants and dividers, binoculars and charts scattered about the table, whereon figured only a single book, bound in sea-green morocco, the "Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym," specially printed for his behoof on pure linen-laid paper, hand picked, bearing a sea-gull for water mark.
In the last resort, he could turn his gaze upon a litter of fishing-rods, brown tanned nets, rolls of russet-coloured sails, a miniature anchor made of cork painted black, all heaped together near the door that communicated with the kitchen by a passage padded, like the corridor joining the dining-room and study, in such a way as to absorb every unpleasant smell and disturbing noise.
By these means he could procure himself, without ever stirring from home, in a moment, almost instantaneously, all the sensations of a long voyage; the pleasure of moving from place to place, a pleasure which indeed hardly exists save as a matter of after recollection, almost never as a present enjoyment at the moment of the actual journey, this he could savour to the full at his ease, without fatigue or worry, in this improvised cabin, whose ordered disorder, whose transitional look and temporary arrangement, corresponded closely enough with the nature of the flying visits he paid it and the limited time he devoted to his meals, while it offered an absolute contrast to his working-room, — a fixed and final spot, a place of system and settled habit, a room manifestly contrived for the definite enjoyment of a life of cloistered and learned leisure. In fact it appeared to him a futile waste of energy to travel when, so he believed, imagination was perfectly competent to fill the place of the vulgar reality of actual prosaic facts. To his mind it was quite possible to satisfy all the cravings commonly supposed to be the hardest to content under the normal conditions of life, and this merely by a trifling subterfuge, by a more or less close simulation of the object aimed at by these desires. Thus it is a sufficiently well-known fact that in these days the epicure who frequents those restaurants that have a reputation for the excellence of their cellars is really and truly gratifying his palate by drinking rare vintages artificially manufactured out of common, cheap wines treated after M. Pasteur’s methods. Now, whether genuine or faked, these wines have the same aroma, the same colour, the same bouquet, whence it follows that the pleasure experienced in imbibing these fictitious, doctored beverages is absolutely identical with the satisfaction that would be enjoyed from tasting the pure, unsophisticated liquor now unprocurable even at its weight in gold.
Transferring this artful sophistication, this clever system of adulteration, into the world of the intellect, there is no doubt we can, and just as easily as in the material world, enjoy false, fictitious pleasures every whit as good as the true; no doubt, for instance, a man can undertake long voyages of exploration sitting in his armchair by the fireside, helping out, if needful, his recalcitrant or sluggish imagination by the perusal of some work descriptive of travels in distant lands; no doubt again that it is quite possible, — without ever stirring from Paris, — to obtain the health-giving impression of sea-bathing. In two words, all that is required in this last case is simply to take a walk to the "Bain Vigier," on a pontoon moored right out in the middle of the Seine.
There, by just salting your bath and mixing with the water, according to the formula given in the Pharmacopoeia, a compound of sulphate of soda, hydrochlorate of magnesia and lime; by drawing from a box carefully secured by a screw-top a ball of twine or a scrap of rope’s end bought for the purpose at one of those great marine store dealers’ emporiums whose huge warehouses and cellars reek with the salty smell of the sea and sea-ports; by inhaling these odours which the twine or ropes end are bound to retain; by examining a lifelike photograph of the casino and industriously reading the "Guide Joanne" describing the beauties of the seaside resort where you would like to be; by letting yourself be lulled by the waves raised in the bath by the passing river steamers as they steer close past the bathing pontoon, by listening to the sobbing of the wind as it blusters through the arches of the bridges and the dull rumble of the omnibuses rolling six feet above your head across the Pont Royal; just by doing and suffering these simple things, the illusion is undeniable, overmastering,perfect; you are as good as at the seaside.
The whole secret is to know how to set about it, to be able to concentrate the mind on a single point, to attain to a sufficient degree of self-abstraction to produce the necessary hallucination and so substitute the vision of the reality for the reality itself.
To tell the truth, artifice was in Des Esseintes’ philosophy the distinctive mark of human genius.
As he used to say, Nature has had her day; she has definitely and finally tired out by the sickening monotony of her landscapes and skyscapes the patience of refined temperaments. When all is said and done, what a narrow, vulgar affair it all is, like a petty shopkeeper selling one article of goods to the exclusion of all others; what a tiresome store of green fields and leafy trees, what a wearisome commonplace collection of mountains and seas!
In fact, not one of her inventions, deemed so subtle and so wonderful, which the ingenuity of mankind cannot create; no Forest of Fontainebleau, no fairest moonlight landscape but can be reproduced by stage scenery illuminated by the electric light; no waterfall but can be imitated by the proper application of hydraulics, till there is no distinguishing the copy from the original; no mountain crag but painted pasteboard can adequately represent; no flower but well chosen silks and dainty shreds of paper can manufacture the like of!
Yes, there is no denying it, she is in her dotage and has long ago exhausted the simple-minded admiration of the true artist; the time is undoubtedly come when her productions must be superseded by art.
Why, to take the one of all her works which is held to be the most exquisite, the one of all her creations whose beauty is by general consent deemed the most original and most perfect, — woman to wit, have not men, by their own unaided effort, manufactured a living, yet artificial organism that is every whit her match from the point of view of plastic beauty? Does there exist in this world of ours a being, conceived in the joys of fornication and brought to birth amid the pangs of motherhood, the model, the type of which is more dazzlingly, more superbly beautiful than that of the two locomotives lately adopted for service on the Northern Railroad of France?
One, the Crampton, an adorable blonde, shrill-voiced, slender-waisted, with her glittering corset of polished brass, her supple, catlike grace, a fair and fascinating blonde, the perfection of whose charms is almost terrifying when, stiffening her muscles of steel, pouring the sweat of steam down her hot flanks, she sets revolving the puissant circle of her elegant wheels and darts forth a living thing at the head of the fast express or racing seaside special!
The other, the Engerth, a massively built, dark-browed brunette, of harsh, hoarse-toned utterance, with thick-set loins, panoplied in armour-plating of sheet iron, a giantess with dishevelled mane of black eddying smoke, with her six pairs of low, coupled wheels, what overwhelming power when, shaking the very earth, she takes in tow, slowly, deliberately, the ponderous train of goods waggons.
Of a certainty, among women, frail, fair-skinned beauties or majestic, brown-locked charmers, no such consummate types of dainty slimness and of terrifying force are to be found. Without fear of contradiction may we say: man has done, in his province, as well as the God in whom he believes.
Thoughts like these would come to Des Esseintes at times when the breeze carried to his ears the far-off whistle of the baby railroad that plies shuttlewise backwards and forwards between Paris and Sceaux. His house was within a twenty minutes’ walk or so of the station of Fontenay, but the height at which it stood and its isolated situation left it entirely unaffected by the noise and turmoil of the vile hordes that are inevitably attracted on Sundays by the neighbourhood of a railway station.
As for the village itself, he had hardly seen it. Only at night, from his window, he had looked out over the silent landscape that stretches down to the foot of a hill on the summit of which rise the batteries of the Bois de Verrieres.
In the shadow, to right and left, loomed other dimly seen masses, terracing the hillside and dominated by other far-off batteries and fortifications, the high revetments of which seemed in the moonlight as if washed in with silver pigment upon a dark background of sky.
The plain lay partly in the shadows cast by the hills, while the centre, where the moonlight fell, looked as if it were powdered with starch and smeared with cold-cream; in the warm air that fanned the pale grass and brought with it a spicy perfume, the trees stood out clearly silhouetted with their shaggy leaves and thin stems, which threw black bars of shadow across the chalky earth strewed with pebbles that sparkled like shards of broken crockery.
The artificial, rather theatrical air of this landscape was to Des Esseintes’ taste; but after that one afternoon devoted to the search for a house at the hamlet of Fontenay, he had never again trodden its streets by daylight. In fact, the green-cry of this district inspired him with no sort of interest, not offering even the dainty, melancholy charm to be found in the pitiful, sickly vegetation that has so sore a struggle to live on the rubbish-heaps of suburban spots near the ramparts.
Besides, on that memorable day, he had caught sight of paunchy citizens with flowing whiskers and smartly dressed individuals with moustaches, carrying their heads high, as if they were something sacrosanct, evidently magistrates or military officers; and after such a sight, his usual horror of the human face had been still further accentuated.
During the last months of his residence in Paris, at the period when, utterly disillusioned, depressed by hypochondria, eaten up by spleen, he had reached such a pitch of nervous irritability that the mere sight of an unpleasant object or disagreeable person was deeply graven on his brain and several days were needed to efface the impress, even to a slight degree, of the human form that had formed one of his most agonizing torments when passed casually in the street.
In positive fact, he suffered pain at the sight of certain types of face, resented almost as insults the condescending or crabbed expressions of particular visages, and felt himself sorely tempted to box the ears of such and such a worthy citizen who strolled by with half closed lids and a magisterial air, another who stood swinging his cane and admiring himself in the shop windows, or yet another who seemed to be pondering the fate of the universe, as he absorbed with frowning brows the titbits and gossipy paragraphs of his morning paper.
He scented such a depth of stupidity, such a lively hatred of all his own ideals, such a contempt for literature and art and everything he himself adored, implanted and profoundly fixed in the meagre brains of these tradesmen preoccupied to the exclusion of all else by schemes of swindling and money-grubbing and only accessible to the ignoble distraction that alone appeals to mean minds, politics, that he would rush back home in a fury and lock himself up with his books.
Worst of all, he loathed with all his powers of hate the new types of self-made men, the hideous boors who feel themselves bound to talk loud and laugh uproariously in restaurants and cafés, who elbow you, without apology, on the pavements, who, without a word of polite excuse or so much as a bow, drive the wheels of a child’s go-cart between your legs.