AFTER this evening when, without any apparent cause, he had dwelt upon the melancholy memory of Auguste Langlois, Des Esseintes lived his whole life over again.
He was now incapable of understanding one word of the volumes he perused; his eyes themselves refused to read; it seemed to him that his mind, satiated with literature and art, declined absolutely to absorb any more.
He lived on himself, fed on his own substance, like those hibernating animals that lie torpid in a hole all the winter; solitude had acted on his brain as a narcotic. At first, it had nerved and stimulated him, but its later effect was a somnolence haunted by vague reveries; it checked all his plans, broke down his will, led him through a long procession of dreams which he accepted with passive endurance without even an attempt to escape them.
The confused mass of reading and meditation on artistic themes which he had accumulated since he had lived alone as a barrier to arrest the current of old recollections, had been suddenly carried away, and the flood was let loose, sweeping away present and future, submerging them under the waves of the past, drowning his spirit in a vast lake of melancholy, on the surface of which floated, like grotesque derelicts, trivial episodes of his existence, ridiculously unimportant incidents.
The book he was holding tumbled on to his knees; he did not try to resume it, but sat reviewing, full of fear and disgust, the years of his dead past; his thoughts pivoted, like swirling waters round a stake that stands firm and immovable in their midst, about the memories connected with Madame Laure and Auguste. What a time that was! — the period of evening parties, of race-meetings, of card-playing, of love scenes, ordered in advance and served to the minute, at the stroke of midnight, in his pink boudoir! His mind was obsessed by glimpses of faces, looks, unmeaning words that stuck in his memory in the way popular tunes have of doing, which for a while you cannot help humming over and over, but are as suddenly forgotten without your being aware of it.
This epoch was of short duration; then followed a siesta of memory, during which he buried himself once more in his Latin studies, anxious to efface every last trace of these recollections of by-gone years.
But the game was fairly started; a second phase followed almost immediately on the first, when his thoughts clung persistently about his boyhood, and especially the part of it spent with the Jesuit fathers.
These memories were more distant, yet clearer than the others, engraved on his heart more deeply and more ineffaceably; the leafy park, the long garden walks, the flower beds, the benches, all the material details rose before him.
Then the gardens filled with a throng of boys and masters; he could hear the former’s shouts at play, the latter’s laughter as they mingled in the lads’ sports, playing tennis with tucked-up cassocks, the skirts passed between their legs, or else talking under the trees to their pupils without the least affectation of superiority, as if conversing with comrades of their own age.
He recalled that paternal yoke which discountenanced any form of punishment, declined to inflict impositions of five hundred or one thousand lines, was content to have the unsatisfactory task done over again while the rest of the class were at recreation, more often than not preferred a mere reprimand, watched over the growing child with an active but loving care, striving to please his tastes, agreeing to walks in whatever direction he liked on Wednesday half-holidays, seizing the opportunity offered by all the little semi-official feast-days of the Church to add to the ordinary fare at meals a treat of cakes and wine or organize a country expedition, — a yoke under which the pupil was never brutalized, but was admitted to open discussion, was treated in fact like a grown man, while still being pampered like a spoilt child.
In this way the Fathers succeeded in gaining a real ascendancy over the young, moulded to some extent the minds they cultivated, guided them in the desired direction, engrafted particular modes of thought on their intelligence, secured thedevelopment of their character after the required pattern by an insinuating, wheedling method of treatment which they continued to pursue afterwards, making a point of following their subsequent course of life, backing them in their career, keeping up an affectionate correspondence with them, — letters of the sort the Dominican Lacordaire knew well how to write to his former pupils at Sorrèze.
One by one, Des Esseintes went over the points of the training he had undergone, as he himself supposed without result; he quite appreciated its merits, albeit his temperament, recalcitrant and stubborn, carping and critical, eager to argue out every proposition, had prevented his being modelled by their discipline or ruled by what they taught him. Once outside the College walls, his scepticism had grown more acute; his intercourse with legitimist society, intolerant and narrow to the last degree, his talks with puzzle-headed church officials and half educated priests whose blunders tore away the veil so cleverly contrived by the Jesuits, had still further fortified his spirit of independence and increased his distrust in any and every form of belief.
He deemed himself, in a word, released from every tie, free from every obligation; all he had hitherto preserved, differing herein from all his friends who had been educated at Lycées or lay boarding-schools, was a highly favourable memory of his school and school-masters; yet now, he was actually examining his conscience, beginning to ask himself if the seed heretofore fallen on barren ground was not showing signs of fructifying.
The fact is for some days he had been in an indescribably strange state of mind. For a brief moment he was a believer, an instinctive convert to religion; then, after the shortest interval of reflexion, all his attraction towards the Faith would evaporate. But all the time and in spite of everything, he was anxious and disturbed in spirit.
Yet he was perfectly well aware, if he looked into his own heart, that he could never have the humility and contrition of a truly Christian soul; he knew beyond all possibility of doubt that the moment of which Lacordaire speaks, the moment of grace, "when the final ray of right penetrates the soul and draws together to a common centre the truths that lie dispersed therein," would never come for him; he experienced none of that craving for prayer and mortification without which, if we are to listen to the majority of priests, no conversion is possible; he felt no wish to supplicate a God, whose loving-kindness seemed to him highly problematical. At the same time the sympathy he still had for his former instructors was sufficient to interest him in their works and teachings; the inimitable accents of conviction he remembered, the ardent voices of men of superior intelligence he recalled, haunted his mind and made him doubt his own ability and strength of intellect. Living the lonely life he now did, with no fresh food for thought, no novel impressions to stimulate imagination, no exchange of sensations coming from outside, from meeting friends or society, from living the same life as other men, confined within an unnatural prison-house which he refused to escape from, all sorts of problems, never thought of during his residence in Paris, demanded a solution with irritating persistency.
His study of the Latin works he delighted in, works almost without exception written by bishops and monks, had no doubt played their part in determining this crisis. Surrounded by a cloistered atmosphere, wrapt in a fragrance of incense that intoxicated his brain, he had got into an overwrought condition of nerves, and then, by a natural association of ideas, these books had ended by dimming his recollections of his life as a young man, while throwing into high relief those connected with his boyhood among the Fathers.
"There is no difficulty," Des Esseintes told himself with an effort after self-examination, "in accounting for this irruption of the Jesuit element at Fontenay; ever since I was a child, and without my knowing it myself, I have had this leaven, which had not previously fermented; is not this inclination I have always felt towards religious thoughts and things perhaps a proof of this?"
But his efforts were all directed to persuading himself of the contrary, annoyed as he was to find himself no longer absolute master of his own soul. He sought for motives to account for the change in himself; yes, he must have been forcibly drawn in the direction of the priesthood because the Church, and the Church only, has preserved the art, the lost beauty of the centuries; she has stereotyped, even in the cheap modern reproductions, the patterns of metal work, preserved the charm of chalices slim and tall as petunias, of sacred vessels of exquisite curves and contours, safeguarded, even in aluminium, in sham enamel, in coloured glass, the grace of the models of olden days. As a matter of fact, the main part of the precious objects exhibited in the Musée de Cluny, having escaped by a miracle the foul savagery of the sans-culottes, come from the old Abbeys of France. Just as in the Middle Ages the Church saved from barbarism, philosophy, history and letters, so she has saved plastic art, brought down to our own days those wondrous patterns in ecclesiastical robes and jewelry which the manufacturers of Church furniture and ornaments do their best to spoil, though they can never quite ruin the original beauty of form and colour. There was therefore no cause for surprise in the fact that he had sought eagerly for these antique curios, that like many another collector, he had acquired suchlike relics from the shops of the Parisian antiquaries and the stores of country dealers.
But, despite all the good reasons he could call up to his aid, he could not quite manage to convince himself. No doubt, after due consideration, he still continued to look upon religion merely as a superb myth, as a magnificent imposture; and yet, heedless of all his excuses and explanations, his scepticism was beginning to wear thin.
There was the fact, odd as it might seem: he was less confident at the present moment than he had been in his boyhood, in the days when the Jesuits exercised direct supervision over his training, when their teaching had to be received, when he was entirely in their hands, was theirs, body and soul, without family ties, without any outside influences of any kind to react against their ascendancy. Moreover, they had instilled in him a certain taste for the marvellous that had slowly and stealthily taken root in his soul, and was now coming to a head in this solitary life that could not but exert its influence on his silent, self-centred nature, for ever moving within the narrow limits of certain fixed ideas.
By dint of examining the processes of his thought, of striving to connect its threads together and discover its causes and conditioning circumstances, he eventually persuaded himself that its activities during his life in the world of men had their origin in the education he had received. Thus, his tendencies to artificiality, his longings for eccentricity, were these not, after all, results of plausible studies, supra-terrestrial refinements, semi-theological speculations; in ultimate analysis they amounted to the same thing as religious enthusiasms, aspirations towards an unknown universe, towards a far-off beatitude, just as ardently to be desired as that promised to believers by the Scriptures.
He pulled himself up short, broke off the thread of his reflexions. "Come, come," he chid himself angrily, "I am more seriously hit than I thought: here I am argufying with myself, like a casuist."
He remained pensive, troubled by a secret fear. No doubt, if Lacordaire’s theory was correct, he had nothing to dread, seeing that the magic touch of conversion does not come about in an instant; to produce the explosion, the ground must have been long and systematically mined. But if the novelists talk about the thunderclap of love at first sight, there is also a certain number of theologians who speak of the thunderclap of religion. Admitting the truth of this doctrine, no man then was safe against succumbing. There was no room left for self-analysis, no use in weighing presentiments, no object gained by taking preventive measures; the psychology of mysticism was futile. It was so because it was so, and there was no more to be said.
"Why, I am growing crazy," Des Esseintes told himself; "the dread of the disease will end by bringing on the disease itself, if this goes on."
He managed to shake off the influence of these preoccupations to some extent, but other morbid symptoms supervened. Now it was the subject matter of various discussions that haunted him to the exclusion of everything else. The College garden, the school lessons, the Jesuit Fathers sank into the remote background, his whole mind was dominated by abstractions, his thoughts were busy, in spite of himself, with contradictory interpretations of dogmas, with long forgotten apostasies, denounced in his work on the Councils of the Church by Père Labbe. Fragments of these schisms, scraps of these heresies, which for centuries divided the Western and the Eastern Churches, haunted his memory. Here it was Nestorius, protesting against the Virgin’s bearing the title of Mother of God, because in the mystery of the Incarnation, it was not God, but rather the human creature, she had carried in her womb; there it was Eutyches, maintaining that the image of Christ could not be like that of the rest of mankind, inasmuch as the Divinity had been domiciled in his body and had thereby changed its nature utterly and entirely; elsewhere again other quibblers would have it that the Redeemer had had no human body at all, that the language of the Holy Books on this point must be understood figuratively, while yet again Tertullian was found positing his famous quasi-materialistic axiom: "Nothing is incorporal save what is not; whatever is, has a body that is proper toitself," till finally we come to the old, old question debated for years: was the Christ bound alone to the cross, or did the Trinity, one in three persons, suffer, in its threefold hypostasis, on the gibbet of Calvary? All these difficulties tormented him, pressing for an answer, — and mechanically, like a lesson already learnt by rote, he kept asking himself the questions and repeating the replies.
For several succeeding days, his brain was seething with paradoxies and subtleties, puzzling over a host of hairsplitting distinctions, wrestling with a tangle of rule as complicated as so many points of law, open to any and every interpretation, admitting of every sort of quirk and quibble, leading up to a system of celestial jurisprudence of the most tenuous and burlesque subtlety. Then the abstract side fell in its turn into abeyance, and a whole world of plasticimpressions took its place, under the influence of the Gustave Moreaus hanging on the walls.
He beheld a long procession pass before his eyes of prelates, archimandrites, patriarchs, blessing the kneeling multitudes with uplifted arms of gold, wagging their white beards in reading of the Scriptures and in prayer; he saw dim crypts receive the silent ranks of innumerable penitents; he looked on while men raised vast cathedrals where white-robed monks thundered from the pulpit. In the same fashion as de Quincey, after a dose of opium, would at the mere sound of the words "Consul Romanus" recall whole pages of Livy, would see the consuls coming on in solemn procession and the pompous array of the Roman legionaries marching stately by, so Des Esseintes, struck by some theological phrase, would halt in breathless awe as he pondered the flux and reflux of Nations, and beheld the forms of bishops of other days standing forth in the lamplit gloom of basilicas; visions like these kept him entranced, travelling in fancy from age to age, coming down at last to the religious ceremonies of the present day, enfolded in an endless flood of music, mournful and tender. Now he was beyond all self-justification, the thing was decided beyond appeal; it was just an indefinable impression of veneration and fear; the artistic sense was dominated by the well-calculated scenes of Catholic ceremonial. At these memories his nerves quivered; then, in a sudden mood of revolt, of swift revolution, ideas of monstrous depravity would attack him, — thoughts of the profanities foreseen in the Confessors’ Manual, degraded and filthy abuses of the holy water and the consecrated oil. Face to face with an omnipotent God now stood up a rival full of energy, the Demon; and he thought a hideous glory must needs result from a crime committed in open church by a believer fiercely resolved, in a mood of horrid merriment, of a sadic satisfaction, to blaspheme, to overwhelm with insult and recrimination the things most deserving veneration; mad doings of magic, the black mass, the witches’ sabbath, horrors of demoniac possession and exorcism rose before his imagination; he began to ask himself if he were not guilty of sacrilege in possessing articles once consecrated to holy uses, — church service-books, chasubles, pyx-covers. And, strange to say, this notion of living in a state of sin afforded him a sense of proud satisfaction and pleasure; he found a delight in these acts of sacrilege, — after all a possibly innocent sacrilege; in any case not a very serious offence, seeing he really loved these articles and put them to no base usage. Thus he comforted himself with prudent, coward considerations, his half-hearted condition of soul forbidding open crimes, robbing him of the needful courage to accomplish real sins, deliberate, damning iniquities.
Eventually, little by little, these casuistries disappeared. He looked out, as it were, from the summit of his mind, over the panorama of the Church and her hereditary influence over humanity, as old as the centuries; he pictured her to himself, solitary and impressive, proclaiming to mankind the horror of life, the inclemency of fate; preaching patience, contrition, the spirit of sacrifice; essaying to heal men’s sores by exhibiting the bleeding wounds of the Christ; guaranteeing divine privileges, promising the best part of paradise to the afflicted; exhorting the human creature to suffer, to offer to God as a holocaust his tribulations and his offences, his vicissitudes and his sorrows. He saw her truly eloquent, a mother to the unfortunate, a pitiful father to the oppressed, a stern judge to oppressors and tyrants.
At this point, Des Esseintes recovered footing. Doubtless he was content to accept this admission of social rottenness, but his mind revolted against the vague remedy offered, the hope of another life. Schopenhauer was more exact; his doctrine and the Church’s started from a common point of view; he, too, took his stand on the wickedness and baseness of the world; he, too, cried out, with the Imitation of Our Lord, in bitterness of spirit: "Verily it is a pitiful thing to be alive on the earth!" He, too, preached the nullity of existence, the advantages of solitude; warned humanity that, whatever it did, whichever way it turned, it must still be unhappy, — the poor man, because of the sufferings that spring from privations; the rich, by reason of the invincible ennui engendered by abundance. But he proclaimed no panacea, consoled you, as a cure for inevitable evils, with no alluring bait.
Nor did he maintain the revolting dogma of original sin; did not try to convince you of the existence of a God supremely good and kind who protects the scoundrel, succours the fool, crushes infancy, brutalizes old age, chastises the innocent; he did not extol the benefits of a Providence which has invented that abomination, useless, incomprehensible, unjust and inept, physical pain; far from endeavouring, like the Church, to justify the necessity of torments and trials, he exclaimed in his indignant pity: "If a God had made this world, I should not like to be that God; the misery of the world would break my heart."
Schopenhauer had seen the truth! What were all the evangelical pharmacopoeias beside his treatises of spiritual hygiene? He made no professions of healing, offered the sick no compensation, no hope; but his theory of Pessimism was, after all, the great consoler of chosen intellects, of lofty souls; it revealed society as it was, insisted on the innate foolishness of women, pointed you out the beaten tracks, saved you from disillusions by teaching you to restrict, so far as possible, your expectations; never, if you felt yourself strong enough to check theimpulse, to let yourself come to the state of mind of believing yourself happy at last if only, when you least expected it, heaven did not send crashing on your head some murderous tile from the housetops.
Setting out from the same starting-point as the Imitation, this theory found the very same goal, but without losing itself on the road among mysterious mazes and impossible bypaths, in resignation and passivity.
Only, if this resignation, frankly based on the observation of a deplorable condition of things and the impossibility of effecting any alteration in them, was accessible to the rich in spirit, it was only the more hardly to be received by the poor, whose grievances and indignation the kindly hand of Religion was better adapted to appease.
These reflexions relieved Des Esseintes of a heavy burden; the aphorisms of the great German thinker calmed the tumult of his thoughts, while at the same time the points of similarity between the two doctrines mutually helped each other to find a firm place in his memory, and he could never forget Catholicism, so poetical, so touching, in which he had been bathed as a boy and whose essence he had absorbed through every pore.
These returns towards religious convictions, these fears and doubts of uncertain faith had tormented him, especially since new complications had begun to show themselves in his health; they coincided with certain nervous disturbances that had lately arisen.
Since his earliest childhood he had been tormented by inexplicable repulsions, shuddering spasms that froze his backbone and clenched his teeth, whenever, for instance, he saw a servant-maid in the act of wringing out wet linen. These instinctive dislikes had never changed, and to that day it caused him genuine suffering to hear a piece of stuff torn in two, to rub his finger over a lump of chalk, to stroke the surface of watered silk.
The excesses of his bachelorhood, the abnormal strains put upon his brain had extraordinarily aggravated his original nervous weakness, still further impoverished the exhausted blood of his race; in Paris he had been obliged to resort to hydropathic treatment for trembling of the hands, for atrocious pains, for neuralgic agonies that seemed to cut his face in two, that beat with a never-ceasing hammering at his temples, sent stabbing throbs through his eyelids, provoked fits of nausea he could only subdue by stretching himself flat on his back in the dark.
These inconveniences had gradually disappeared, thanks to a better regulated and quieter life; now they were making themselves felt again, though in a different shape, diffused through the body generally; the pain left the head and attacked the stomach, which was swollen and hard; scorched the inwards as with a red-hot iron, brought on a condition of the bowels at once uneasy and constipated. Presently a nervous cough, dry and hacking, beginning always exactly at a set hour and lasting for precisely the same number of minutes, woke him half choking in his bed. Finally he lost all appetite; hot, gassy eructations rose like fire in his throat; the stomach was distended; he felt stifled, after each attempt to eat; he could not endure the least constriction about the body, a buttoned trouser-belt or a buckled waistcoat.
He gave up spirituous liquors, coffee and tea, confined himself to a milk diet, resorted to bathing the body with cold water, stuffed himself with assafoetida, valerian and quinine; he even consented to leave the house and take strolls in the country when the days of rain came that make the roads silent and deserted; he forced himself to walk, to take exercise; as a last resource, he renounced reading altogether for the time being and, consumed with ennui, determined by way of filling up this time of enforced leisure to carry out a project the execution of which he had again and again postponed out of laziness and dislike of change since the first day of his settling at Fontenay.
No longer able to intoxicate himself afresh with the magical enchantments of style, to fall into an ecstasy over the delicious witchery of the rare and well-chosen epithet that, while still definite and precise, yet opens infinite perspectives, to the imagination of the initiate he resolved to complete the decoration of his dwelling, to fill it with costly hothouse flowers and so procure himself a material occupation that should distract his thoughts, calm his nerves and rest his brain. Moreover, he had hopes that the sight of their strange and magnificent colours might console him somewhat for the loss of the fancied or real shades of literary style which his abstention from all reading was to make him forget for the moment or lose altogether.
HE had always been madly fond of flowers, but this passion which, during his residence at Jutigny, had at the first embraced all flowers without distinction of species or genus, had in the end grown more discriminating and precise, limiting itself to a single type.
For a long time now he had scorned the everyday plants that blossom on the counters of Parisian florists, in dripping flowerpots, under green awnings or red umbrellas.
At the same time that his literary tastes, his preferences in art, had become more refined, no longer caring for any works but such as had been tried and sifted, the distillation of overwrought and subtle brains; at the same time that his disgust with generally accepted notions had reached its height, simultaneously his love of flowers had rid itself of all base residuum, all dregs of commonness, had been clarified, as it were, and purified.
He pleased his fancy by likening a horticulturist’s shop to a microcosm wherein were represented all the different categories of society — poor, vulgar flowers, hovel flowers, so to speak, that are really in their proper place only on the window-sill of a garret, roots that are crammed in milk-tins and old earthen pots, the gilliflower for instance; pretentious, conventional, silly flowers, whose only place is in porcelain vases painted by young ladies, such as the rose; lastly, flowers of high lineage, such as the orchids, dainty and charming, trembling and delicate, such as the exotic flowers, exiles in Paris, kept in hothouses, in palaces of glass, Princesses of the vegetable world, living apart, having nothing whatever in common with the flowers of the street, the blossoms that are the delight of grocers’ wives.
In a word, he could do no more than feel a trivial interest, a slight pity, for the people’s flowers, fading under the poisonous breath of sewers and sinks in squalid districts; to make up, he loathed those that go with the cream and gold reception-rooms in new houses; he reserved, in fact, for the full and perfect delectation of his eyes, rare plants of high-bred type, coming from distant lands, kept alive by skill and pains in an artificial equatorial temperature maintained bycarefully regulated furnaces.
But this choice of his, that had deliberately fallen on greenhouse flowers, had itself been further modified under the influence of his general ideas, his opinions that had now come to definite conclusions on all matters. In former days, in Paris, his innate preference for the artificial had led him to neglect the real flower for its copy, faithfully executed thanks to india-rubber and twine, glazed cotton and lustring, paper and velvet.
He possessed in accordance with this taste a marvellous collection of tropical plants, produced by the cunning fingers of supreme masters of the craft, following Nature step by step, recreating her, taking the flower from its birth, carrying it to maturity, imitating it to its final decease, observing every shade of its infinite variety, the most fleeting changes of its awakening and its sleep, noting the pose of its petals blown back by the wind or beaten down by the rain, sprinkling on its morning leaves little drops of gum to represent dew, fashioning it according to every season, — in full bloom, when the twigs bend under the weight of sap; or when it lifts its parched stem and ragged corolla as the petals drop away and the leaves fall.
This admirable art had long fascinated him; but now he was dreaming of the construction of another sort of flora.
He had done with artificial flowers aping the true; he wanted natural flowers imitating the false.
He set himself to work out this problem, nor had he to search long or go far, for was not his house situated in the very middle of the district specially favoured by the great flower-growers? He went straight off to pay a visit to the hot-houses of the Avenue de Châtillon and the valley of Aunay, to return tired out and his purse empty, thinking of nothing but the strange species he had bought, ceaselessly haunted by his memories of superb and extraordinary blooms.
Two days later the carts arrived.
List in hand, Des Esseintes called the roster, verified his purchases one by one.
The gardeners unloaded from their vans a collection of Caladiums whose swollen, hairy stalks carried enormous leaves, shaped like a heart; while keeping a general look of kinship, they were every one different.
They included some extraordinary specimens, — some rosy-red, like the Virginale which seemed cut out in glazed cloth, in shiny court-plaster; some all white, like the Albane, that looked as if made of the semi-transparent membrane that lines an ox’s ribs, or the diaphanous film of a pig’s bladder. Others again, especially the one called Madame Maine, mimicked zinc, parodied pieces of stencilled metal coloured emperor-green, blotched with drops of oil paint, streaks of red-lead and ceruse: these, — the Bosphorus was an example, — gave the illusion of starched calico, spotted with crimson and myrtle-green; those, the Aurora Borealis for instance, had broad leaves the colour of raw meat, intersected by striations of a darker red and purplish threads, leaves that seemed swollen and sweating with dark liquor and blood.
This plant, the Aurora Borealis, and the Albane between them displayed the two opposite poles of constitution, the former bursting with apoplexy, the latter pallid with bloodlessness.
The men brought other and fresh varieties, in this case presenting the appearance of a fictitious skin marked by an imitation network of veins. Most of them, as if disfigured by syphilis or leprosy, displayed livid patches of flesh, reddened by measles, roughened by eruptions; others showed the bright pink of a half-closed wound or the red brown of the crusts that form over a scar; others were as if scorched with cauteries blistered with burns; others again offered hairy surfaces eaten into holes by ulcers and excavated by chancres. To finish the list, there were some that had just come from the doctor’s hands, it seemed, plastered with black mercury dressing, smeared with green belladonna ointment, dusted over with the yellow grains of iodoform powder.
Thus assembled all together, these strange blossoms struck Des Esseintes as more monstrous yet than when he had first seen them ranged side by side with others, like patients in a hospital ward, down the long conservatories.
"Sapristi!" he exclaimed, stirred to the depths.
A new plant, of a type similar to the Caladiums, the "Alocasia Metallica," moved his enthusiasm to a still higher pitch. Its leaves were overlaid with a layer of green bronze, shot with gleams of silver; it was the masterpiece, the fine flower of counterfeit; you might have thought it a bit of stove-pipe, cut out of sheet iron in the shape of a spear-head, by a jobbing blacksmith.
Next the men unloaded a tangled mass of leaves, lozenge-shaped, bottle-green in hue; from their midst rose a switch on top of which trembled a great ace of hearts, as smooth and shiny as a capsicum; then, as if to defy all the familiar aspects of plants, from the middle of this ace of hearts, of an intense vermillion, sprang a fleshy tail, downy, white and yellow, upright in some cases, corkscrewed above the heart, like a pig’s tail, in others.
It was the Anthurium, one of the arum family, recently imported from Colombia; it formed part of a section of the same family to which also belonged an Amorphophallus, a plant from Cochin China, with long black stalks seamed with scars, like a negro’s limbs after a thrashing.
Des Esseintes’ cup of joy was brimming over.
Then they got out of the carts a fresh batch of monstrosities, the Echinopsis, showing a pink blossom like the stump of an amputated limb rising out of a compress of cotton-wool; the Nidularium, displaying in its sword-like leaves gaping, ragged hollows; the "Tillandsia Lindeni," like a broken-toothed cury-comb, of the colour of wine-must: the Cypripedium, with its involved, incoherent, incongruous contours that seem the invention of a madman. It was shaped like a wooden shoe, or a little rag-bag, above which was a human tongue retracted, with the tendon drawn tight, as you may see it represented in the plates of medical works treating of diseases of the throat and mouth; two miniature wings, of a jujube red, that seemed borrowed from a child’s toy windmill, completed this grotesque conjunction of the underside of a tongue, colour of wine-lees and slate, and a little glossy pocket, the lining of which distilled a viscous glue.
He could not take his eyes off this impossible-looking orchid, indigenous to India, till the gardeners, exasperated by these delays, began to read out aloud for themselves the labels fixed in the pots as they carried them in.
Des Esseintes looked on in wonder, listened open-mouthed to the barbarous names of the herbaceous plants, — the "Encephalartos horridus," a gigantic artichoke, an iron spike painted rust colour, like the ones they stick on the top of park gates to prevent intruders climbing over; the "Cocos Micania," a sort of palm, with a notched and slender stem, everywhere surrounded with tall leaves like paddles and oars; the "Zamia Lehmanni," a huge pineapple, like an immense Cheshire cheese, growing in peaty soil and bristling at the apex with barbed spears and cruel looking arrows; the "Cibotium Spectabile," going one better ever than its congeners in the wild caprice of its structure, defying the maddest nightmare, throwing out from amid a clustered foliage of palm leaves a prodigious orang-outang’s tail, a brown, hairy tail curling over at the tip like a bishop’s crozier.
These, however, he barely glanced at, waiting impatiently for the series of plants that particularly fascinated him, those vegetable ghouls, the carnivorous plants, — the Flycatcher of the Antilles, with its shaggy edge, secreting a digestive liquid, provided with curved thorns folding into each other to form a barred grating over the insect it imprisons; the Drosera of the peat mosses, furnished with rows of stiff, glandulous hairs; the Sarracena; the Cephalothus, with deep, voracious cups capable of absorbing and digesting actual lumps of meat; last, but not least amazing, the Nepenthes whose eccentricity of shape overpasses all known limits.
It seemed as though he could never weary of turning about in his hands the pot in which trembled this extravagant vagary of the flower tribe. It resembled the gum-tree in its long leaves of a sombre, metallic green, but from the end of these leaves depended a green string, a sort of umbilical cord, carrying a greenish coloured urn, veined with purple, a sort of German pipe in porcelain, a strange kind of bird’s nest, that swung quietly to and fro, exhibiting an interior carpeted with a hairy growth.
"That one is a veritable miracle," Des Esseintes murmured to himself.
But he was forced to cut short his manifestations of delight, for now the gardeners, in a hurry to be gone, were unloading the last of their wares and setting down side by side tuberous Begonias and black Crotons, flecked with red-lead spots, like rusty iron.
Then he noticed that one name was still left on the list, the Cattleya of New Granada. They pointed out to him a little winged bell-flower of a pale lilac, an almost invisible mauve; he drew near, put his nose to it and started back; it exhaled an odour of varnished deal, just the smell of a new box of toys, recalling irresistibly all the horrors of the New Year and New Year’s presents.
It struck him it would be well for him to beware of it, almost regretted having admitted among the scentless plants he had become possessor of the orchid that brought up the most unpleasant associations.
He cast only one glance over this flood-tide of vegetation that swelled in his vestibule; there they were, all confounded together, intercrossing their sword-blades, their kreeses, their lance-heads, forming a tangled mass of green weapons of war, over which floated like barbarian pennons of battle, blossoms dazzling and cruel in their brilliance.
The atmosphere of the room was clearer by now, and soon, in a dark corner, just above the floor, a light crept out, soft and white.
He went up to it, to discover it was a cluster of Rhizomorphs, each of which, as it breathed, was shedding this gleam like that cast by nightlights.
"All the same, these plants are amazing things," he muttered to himself; then he stepped back and embraced in one view the whole collection. Yes, his object was attained; not one of them looked real; cloth, paper, porcelain, metal seemed to have been lent by man to Nature to enable her to create these monstrosities. When she had found herself incapable of copying human workmanship, she had been reduced to mimick the membranes of animals’ insides, to borrow the vivid tints of their rotting flesh, the superb horrors of their gangrened skin.
"It is all a matter of syphilis," reflected Des Esseintes, his eyes attracted, riveted on the hideous marking of the Caladiums, lit up at that moment by a shaft of daylight. And he had a sudden vision of the human race tortured by the virus of long past centuries. Ever since the beginning of the world, from sire to son, all living creatures were handing on the inexhaustible heritage, the everlasting malady that has devastated the ancestors of the men of to-day, has eaten to the very bone old fossil forms which we dig up at the present moment.
Never wearying, it had travelled down the ages, to this day it was raging everywhere, disguised under ordinary symptoms of headache or bronchitis, hysteria or gout; from time to time, it would climb to the surface, attacking for choice badly cared-for, badly-fed people breaking out in gold pieces, setting, in horrid irony, a Nautch-girl’s parure of sequins on its wretched victim’s brows, inscribing their skin, for a crown to their misery, with the very symbol of wealth and well-being.
And lo! here it was reappearing, in its pristine splendour, on the bright-coloured petals of flowers!
"It is true," pursued Des Esseintes, going back to the starting point of his argument, "it is true that, for most of the time, Nature is by herself incapable of producing species so morbid and perverse; she supplies the raw material, the germ and the soil, the procreative womb and the elements of the plant, which mankind rears, models, paints, carves afterwards to suit his caprice."
Obstinate, confused, limited though she be, she has at last submitted, and her master has succeeded in changing by chemical reactions the substances of the earth, to utilize combinations long ripened for use, crossings slowly prepared for, to employ artful buddings, systematic graftings, so that nowadays he can make her produce blooms of different colours on the same bough; invents new hues for her; modifies, at his good pleasure, the age-old shapes of her plants. He clears off the rough from her half-hewn blocks, puts the finishing touches to her rude sketches, marks them with his signet, impresses on them his sign-manual of art.
"There is no more to be said," he cried, resuming his train of thought; "mankind is able in the course of a few years to bring about a selection which sluggish Nature can never effect but after centuries of time; no doubt of it, in these present times, the gardeners are the only and the true artists."
He was a little weary and felt stifled in this atmosphere of hothouse plants; the walks he had taken during the last few days had exhausted him; the change from the open air to the warmth of the house, from the sedentary life of a recluse to the free activity of an outdoor existence, had been too sudden. He left the hall and went to lie down on his bed; but, bent on one single absorbing subject, as if wound up with a spring, the mind, though asleep all the while, went on paying out its chain, and he was soon wallowing in the gloomy fancies of a nightmare.
He was standing in the middle of a ride in a great forest at dusk; he was walking side by side with a woman he did not know, had never seen before; she was tall and thin, had pale flaxen hair, a bulldog face, freckled cheeks, irregular teeth projecting below a flat nose. She wore a servant’s white apron, a long kerchief crossed like a soldier’s buff-belt over her chest, a Prussian grenadier’s half-boots, a black bonnet trimmed with ruchings and a big bow.
She had the look of a show-woman at a fair, a travelling mountebank or the like.
He asked himself who the woman was whom he somehow knew to have been a long while in the room, to have long been an intimate part of his life; in vain he strove to remember her origin, her name, her business, the explanation of her presence; no recollection would come to him of this inexplicable liaison, of which however there could be no doubt.
He was still searching his memory when suddenly a strange figure appeared in front of them; it was on horseback and trotted on for a minute, then turned round in the saddle.
His blood gave one bound within him and he remained nailed to the spot in utter horror. The ambiguous, sexless creature was green, and from under purple lids shone a pair of pale blue eyes, cold and terrible; two arms of an inordinate leanness, like a skeleton’s bare to the elbows, shaking with fever, projected from ragged sleeves, and the fleshless thighs shuddered in churn-boots, a world too wide.
The awful eyes were fixed on Des Esseintes, piercing him, freezing him to the marrow of his bones; more terrified still, the bulldog woman pressed against him and yelled death and destruction, her head thrown back, her neck stiffened with a spasm of wild terror.
And lo! in an instant he knew the meaning of the appalling vision. He had before his eyes the image of the Pox.
Mad with fear, beside himself with consternation, he dashed into a side path, ran at headlong speed to a summer-house standing among laburnums to the left of the road, where he dropped into a chair in a passage.
In a few minutes when he was beginning to get his breath, the sound of sobs made him look up. The bulldog woman was before him; a piteous, grotesque spectacle. She stood weeping hot tears, declaring she had lost her teeth in her panic, and, drawing from the pocket of her servant’s apron a number of clay pipes, she proceeded to break them and stuff bits of the stems into the holes in her gums.
"Come now, she’s quite ridiculous," Des Esseintes kept telling himself; "the pipes will never stick in," — and as a matter of fact, they all came tumbling out of her jaws one after the other.
At that moment, a galloping horse was heard approaching. A paralysing fear seized Des Esseintes; his limbs failed him. But the sound of hoofs grew momentarily louder; despair stung him to action like the lash of a whip; he threw himself upon the woman, who was now trampling the pipe bowls underfoot, beseeching her to be quiet and not betray him by the noise of her boots. She struggled; but he dragged her to the end of the passage, throttling her to stop her crying out. Suddenly, he saw an ale-house door, with green painted shutters, pushed it open, darted in and stopped dead.
In front of him, in the middle of a vast clearing in the woods, enormous white pierrots were jumping like rabbits in the moonlight.
Tears of disappointment rose to his eyes; he could never, no, never cross the threshold of the door. — "I should be dashed to pieces," he thought, — and as if to justify his fears, the troop of giant pierrots was reinforced; their bounds now filled the whole horizon, the whole sky, which they knocked alternately with their heels and their heads.
The horse came to a standstill, it was there, close by, behind a round window in the passage; more dead than alive, Des Esseintes turned round and saw through the circular opening two pricked ears, two rows of yellow teeth, nostrils breathing clouds of vapour that stank of phenol.
He sank to the earth, abandoning all idea of resistance or even of flight; he shut his eyes so as not to see the dreadful eyes of the Syphilis glaring at him through the wall, which nevertheless forced their way under his lids, glided down his spine, enveloped his body, the hairs of which stood up on end in pools of cold sweat. He expected any and every torment, only hoped to have done with it with one final annihilating blow; an age, that beyond a doubt lasted a whole minute, went by; then he opened his eyes again with a shudder.
All had vanished; without transition, as if by a change of scene, by a stage delusion, a hideous metallic landscape was disappearing in the distance, a landscape wan, desert, cloven with ravines, dead and dreary; a light illumined this desolate place, a calm, white light, recalling the glint of phosphorus dissolved in oil.
On the surface, something moved which took a woman’s shape, a pallid, naked woman, green silk stockings moulding the legs.
He gazed at her curiously. Like horsehair curled by over-hot irons, her locks were frizzled, with broken ends; urns of the Nepenthes hung at her ears; tints of boiled veal showed in her half-opened nostrils. With entranced eyes, she called him in a low voice.
He had no time to answer, for already the woman was changing; gleams of iridescent colours flashed in her eyes; her lips assumed the fierce red of the Anthuriums; the nipples of her bosom blazed out like two bright red pods of capsicum.
A sudden intuition came to him; it is the Flower, he told himself; and the spirit of reasoning still persisted in the nightmare, drew the same conclusions as he had already in the daytime from the plants as the malevolence of the Virus.
Then he noticed the terrifying irritation of the bosoms and of the mouth, discovered on the skin of the body stains of bistre and copper, and recoiled in horror; but the woman’s eye fascinated him, and he crept slowly, reluctantly towards her, trying to drive his heels into the ground to stay his advance, dropping to the earth, only to rise again to go to her. He was all but touching her when black Amorphophalli sprang up on every side, and made darts at her belly that was rising and falling like a sea. He put them away from him, pushed them back, feeling an infinite loathing to see these hot, moist, firm stems coiling between his fingers. Then, in a moment, the odious plants disappeared, and two arms were seeking to wind themselves about him. An agony of terror set his heart beating wildly, for the eyes, the dreadful eyes of the woman, had become pale, cold blue, terrible to look at. He made a superhuman effort to free himself from her embraces, but with an irresistible gesture she seized and held him, and haggard with horror, he saw the savage Nidularium blossom under her meagre thighs, with its sword blades gaping in blood-red hollows.
His body was almost in contact with the hideous open wound of the plant; he felt himself a dying man, and awoke with a start, choking, frozen, frantic with fear, sobbing out: "Thank God, thank God! it is only a dream."