THE STORY OF AN INDEPENDENT SPIRIT DURING THE WAR
TO THE READER
This book is not a novel, but rather the confession of a free spirit
telling of its mistakes, its sufferings and its struggles from the
midst of the tempest; and it is in no sense an autobiography either.
Some day I may wish to write of myself, and I will then speak without
any disguise or feigned name. Though it is true that I have lent
some ideas to my hero, his individuality, his character and the
circumstances of his life are all his own; and I have tried to give a
picture of the inward labyrinth where a weak spirit wanders, feeling
its way, uncertain, sensitive and impressionable, but sincere and
ardent in the cause of truth.
Some chapters of the book have a family likeness to the meditations
of our old French moralists and the stoical essays of the end of the
XVIth century. At a time resembling our own but even exceeding it
in tragic horror, amid the convulsions of the League, the
Chief-Magistrate Guillaume Du Vair wrote his noble Dialogues, "De la
Constance et Consolation ès Calamités Publiques," with a steadfast
mind. While the siege of Paris was at its worst he talked in his
garden with his friends, Linus the great traveller, Musée, Dean of the
Faculty of Medicine, and the writer Orphée. Poor wretches lay dead of
starvation in the streets, women cried out that pike-men were eating
children near the Temple; but with their eyes filled with these
horrible pictures these wise men sought to raise their unhappy
thoughts to the heights where one can reach the mind of the ages
and reckon up that which has survived the test. As I re-read these
Dialogues during the war I more than once felt myself close to that
true Frenchman who wrote: Man is born to see and know everything, and
it is an injustice to limit him to one place on the earth. To the wise
man the whole world is his country. God lends us the world to enjoy in
common on one condition only, that we act uprightly.
[Footnote 1: This Introduction was published in the Swiss newspapers
in December, 1917, with an episode of the novel and a note explaining
the original title, L'Un contre Tous. "This somewhat ironical name
was suggested—with a difference—by La Boëtie's Le Contr' Un; but
it must not be supposed that the author entertained the extravagant
idea of setting one man in opposition to all others; he only wishes
to summon the personal conscience to the most urgent conflict of our
time, the struggle against the herd-spirit."]
This book is not written about the war, though the shadow of the war
lies over it. My theme is that the individual soul has been swallowed
up and submerged in the soul of the multitude; and in my opinion such
an event is of far greater importance to the future of the race than
the passing supremacy of one nation.
I have left questions of policy in the background intentionally, as I
think they should be reserved for special study. No matter what causes
may be assigned as the origins of the war, no matter what theses
support them, nothing in the world can excuse the abdication of
individual judgment before general opinion.
The universal development of democracies, vitiated by a fossilized
survival, the outrageous "reason of State," has led the mind of Europe
to hold as an article of faith that there can be no higher ideal than
to serve the community. This community is then defined as the State.
I venture to say that he who makes himself the servant of a blind or
blinded nation,—and most of the states are in this condition at the
present day,—does not truly serve it but lowers both it and himself;
for in general a few men, incapable of understanding the complexities
of the people, force thoughts and acts upon them in harmony with their
own passions and interests by means of the falsehoods of the press and
the implacable machinery of a centralised government. He who would be
useful to others must first be free himself; for love itself has no
value coming from a slave.
Independent minds and firm characters are what the world needs most
today. The death-like submission of the churches, the stifling
intolerance of nations, the stupid unitarianism of socialists,—by all
these different roads we are returning to the gregarious life. Man has
slowly dragged himself out of the warm slime, but it seems as if the
long effort has exhausted him; he is letting himself slip backward
into the collective mind, and the choking breath of the pit already
rises about him. You who do not believe that the cycle of man
is accomplished, you must rouse yourselves and dare to separate
yourselves from the herd in which you are dragged along. Every man
worthy of the name should learn to stand alone, and do his own
thinking, even in conflict with the whole world. Sincere thought,
even if it does run counter to that of others, is still a service to
mankind; for humanity demands that those who love her should oppose,
or if necessary rebel against her. You will not serve her by flattery,
by debasing your conscience and intelligence, but rather by defending
their integrity from the abuse of power. For these are some of her
voices, and if you betray yourself you betray her also.
SIERRE, March, 1917.
Agénor Clerambault sat under an arbour in his garden at St. Prix,
reading to his wife and children an ode that he had just written,
dedicated to Peace, ruler of men and things, "Ara Pacis Augustae." In
it he wished to celebrate the near approach of universal brotherhood.
It was a July evening; a last rosy light lay on the tree-tops, and
through the luminous haze, like a veil over the slopes of the hillside
and the grey plain of the distant city, the windows on Montmartre
burned like sparks of gold. Dinner was just over. Clerambault leaned
across the table where the dishes yet stood, and as he spoke his
glance full of simple pleasure passed from one to the other of his
three auditors, sure of meeting the reflection of his own happiness.
His wife Pauline followed the flight of his thought with difficulty.
After the third phrase anything read aloud made her feel drowsy, and
the affairs of her household took on an absurd importance; one might
say that the voice of the reader made them chirp like birds in a cage.
It was in vain that she tried to follow on Clerambault's lips, and
even to imitate with her own, the words whose meaning she no longer
understood; her eye mechanically noted a hole in the cloth, her
fingers picked at the crumbs on the table, her mind flew back to a
troublesome bill, till as her husband's eye seemed to catch her in the
act, hastily snatching at the last words she had heard, she went into
raptures over a fragment of verse,—for she could never quote poetry
accurately. "What was that, Agénor? Do repeat that last line. How
beautiful it is." Little Rose, her daughter, frowned, and Maxime,
the grown son, was annoyed and said impatiently: "You are always
Clerambault smiled and patted his wife's hand affectionately. He
had married her for love when he was young, poor, and unknown, and
together they had gone through years of hardship. She was not quite
on his intellectual level and the difference did not diminish with
advancing years, but Clerambault loved and respected his helpmate, and
she strove, without much success, to keep step with her great man of
whom she was so proud. He was extraordinarily indulgent to her. His
was not a critical nature—which was a great help to him in life in
spite of innumerable errors of judgment; but as these were always to
the advantage of others, whom he saw at their best, people laughed
but liked him. He did not interfere with their money hunt and his
countrified simplicity was refreshing to the world-weary, like a
wild-growing thicket in a city square.
Maxime was amused by all this, knowing what it was worth. He was a
good-looking boy of nineteen with bright laughing eyes, and in the
Parisian surroundings he had been quick to acquire the gift of rapid,
humorous observation, dwelling on the outside view of men and things
more than on ideas. Even in those he loved, nothing ridiculous escaped
him, but it was without ill-nature. Clerambault smiled at the youthful
impertinence which did not diminish Maxime's admiration for his father
but rather added to its flavour. A boy in Paris would tweak the Good
Lord by the beard, by way of showing affection!
Rosine was silent according to her habit; it was not easy to know her
thoughts as she listened, bent forward, her hands folded and her arms
leaning on the table. Some natures seem made to receive, like the
earth which opens itself silently to every seed. Many seeds fall and
remain dormant; none can tell which will bring forth fruit. The soul
of the young girl was of this kind; her face did not reflect the words
of the reader as did Maxime's mobile features, but the slight flush on
her cheek and the moist glance of her eyes under their drooping lids
showed inward ardour and feeling. She looked like those Florentine
pictures of the Virgin stirred by the magical salutation of the
Archangel. Clerambault saw it all and as he glanced around his little
circle his eye rested with special delight on the fair bending head
which seemed to feel his look.
On this July evening these four people were united in a bond of
affection and tranquil happiness of which the central point was the
father, the idol of the family.
He knew that he was their idol, and by a rare exception this knowledge
did not spoil him, for he had such joy in loving, so much affection
to spread far and wide that it seemed only natural that he should be
loved in return; he was really like an elderly child. After a life of
ungilded mediocrity he had but recently come to be known, and though
the one experience had not given him pain, he delighted in the other.
He was over fifty without seeming to be aware of it, for if there
were some white threads in his big fair moustache,—like an ancient
Gaul's,—his heart was as young as those of his children. Instead of
going with the stream of his generation, he met each new wave; the
best of life to him was the spring of youth constantly renewed, and he
never troubled about the contradictions into which he was led by this
spirit always in reaction against that which had preceded it. These
inconsistencies were fused together in his mind, which was more
enthusiastic than logical, and filled by the beauty which he saw all
around him. Add to this the milk of human kindness, which did not mix
well with his aesthetic pantheism, but which was natural to him.
He had made himself the exponent of noble human ideas, sympathising
with advanced parties, the oppressed, the people—of whom he knew
little, for he was thoroughly of the middle-class, full of vague,
generous theories. He also adored crowds and loved to mingle with
them, believing that in this way he joined himself to the All-Soul,
according to the fashion at that time in intellectual circles. This
fashion, as not infrequently happens, emphasised a general tendency of
the day; humanity turning to the swarm-idea. The most sensitive among
human insects,—artists and thinkers,—were the first to show these
symptoms, which in them seemed a sort of pose, so that the general
conditions of which they were a symptom were lost sight of.
The democratic evolution of the last forty years had established
popular government politically, but socially speaking had only brought
about the rule of mediocrity. Artists of the higher class at first
opposed this levelling down of intelligence,—but feeling themselves
too weak to resist they had withdrawn to a distance, emphasising their
disdain and their isolation. They preached a sort of art, acceptable
only to the initiated. There is nothing finer than such a retreat when
one brings to it wealth of consciousness, abundance of feeling and
an outpouring soul, but the literary groups of the end of the XIXth
century were far removed from those fertile hermitages where robust
thoughts were concentrated. They cared much more to economise their
little store of intelligence than to renew it. In order to purify it
they had withdrawn it from circulation. The result was that it ceased
to be perceived. The common life passed on its way without bothering
its head further, leaving the artist caste to wither in a make-believe
refinement. The violent storms at the time of the excitement about the
Dreyfus Case did rouse some minds from this torpor, but when they came
out of their orchid-house the fresh air turned their heads and they
threw themselves into the great passing movement with the same
exaggeration that their predecessors had shown in withdrawing from
it. They believed that salvation was in the people, that in them was
virtue, even all good, and though they were often thwarted in their
efforts to get closer to them, they set flowing a current in the
thought of Europe. They were proud to call themselves the exponents
of the collective soul, but they were not victors but vanquished;
the collective soul made breaches in their ivory tower, the feeble
personalities of these thinkers yielded, and to hide their abdication
from themselves, they declared it voluntary. In the effort to convince
themselves, philosophers and aesthetics forged theories to prove that
the great directing principle was to abandon oneself to the stream
of a united life instead of directing it, or more modestly following
one's own little path in peace. It was a matter of pride to be no
longer oneself, to be no longer free to reason, for freedom was an old
story in these democracies. One gloried to be a bubble tossed on the
flood,—some said of the race and others of the universal life. These
fine theories, from which men of talent managed to extract receipts
for art and thought, were in full flower in 1914. The heart of the
simple Clerambault rejoiced in such visions, for nothing could have
harmonised better with his warm heart and inaccurate mind. If one has
but little self-possession it is easy to give oneself up to others, to
the world, to that indefinable Providential Force on whose shoulders
we can throw the burden of thought and will. The great current swept
on and these indolent souls, instead of pursuing their way along the
bank found it easier to let themselves be carried …Where? No one
took the trouble to ask. Safe in their West, it never occurred to them
that their civilisation could lose the advantages gained; the march of
progress seemed as inevitable as the rotation of the earth. Firm in
this conviction, one could fold one's arms and leave all to nature;
who meanwhile was waiting for them at the bottom of the pit that she
As became a good idealist, Clerambault rarely looked where he was
going, but that did not prevent him from meddling in politics in a
fumbling sort of way, as was the mania of men of letters in his day.
He had his word to say, right or wrong, and was often entreated to
speak by journalists in need of copy, and fell into their trap, taking
himself seriously in his innocent way. On the whole he was a fair poet
and a good man, intelligent, if rather a greenhorn, pure of heart
and weak in character, sensitive to praise and blame, and to all the
suggestions round him. He was incapable of a mean sentiment of envy or
hatred, and unable also to attribute such thoughts to others. Amid the
complexity of human feelings, he remained blind towards evil and
an advocate of the good. This type of writer is born to please the
public, for he does not see faults in men, and enhances their small
merits, so that even those who see through him are grateful. If we
cannot amount to much, a good appearance is a consolation, and we love
to be reflected in eyes which lend beauty to our mediocrity.
This widespread sympathy, which delighted Clerambault, was not less
sweet to the three who surrounded him at this moment. They were as
proud of him as if they had made him, for what one admires does seem
in a sense one's own creation, and when in addition one is of the same
blood, a part of the object of our admiration, it is hard to tell if
we spring from him, or he from us.
Agénor Clerambault's wife and his two children gazed at their great
man with the tender satisfied expression of ownership; and he, tall
and high-shouldered, towered over them with his glowing words and
enjoyed it all; he knew very well that we really belong to the things
that we fancy are our possessions.
Clerambault had just finished with a Schilleresque vision of the
fraternal joys promised in the future. Maxime, carried away by his
enthusiasm in spite of his sense of humour, had given the orator a
round of applause all by himself. Pauline noisily asked if Agénor
had not heated himself in speaking, and amid the excitement Rosine
silently pressed her lips to her father's hand.
The servant brought in the mail and the evening papers, but no one was
in a hurry to read them. The news of the day seemed behind the times
compared with the dazzling future. Maxime however took up the popular
middle-class sheet, and threw his eye over the columns. He started
at the latest items and exclaimed; "Hullo! War is declared." No one
listened to him: Clerambault was dreaming over the last vibrations of
his verses; Rosine lost in a calm ecstasy; the mother alone, who could
not fix her mind on anything, buzzing about like a fly, chanced to
catch the last word,—"Maxime, how can you be so silly?" she cried,
but Maxime protested, showing his paper with the declaration of war
between Austria and Servia.
"War with whom?"—"With Servia?"—"Is that all?" said the good woman,
as if it were a question of something in the moon.
Maxime however persisted,—doctus cum libro,—arguing that from one
thing to another, this shock no matter how distant, might bring about
a general explosion; but Clerambault, who was beginning to come out
of his pleasant trance, smiled calmly, and said that nothing would
"It is only a bluff," he declared, "like so many we have had for the
last thirty years; we get them regularly every spring and summer; just
bullying and sabre-rattling." People did not believe in war, no one
wanted it; war had been proved to be impossible,—it was a bugbear
that must be got out of the heads of free democracies … and he
enlarged on this theme. The night was calm and sweet; all around
familiar sounds and sights; the chirp of crickets in the fields, a
glow-worm shining in the grass,—delicious perfume of honey-suckle.
Far away the noise of a distant train; the little fountain tinkled,
and in the moonless sky revolved the luminous track of the light on
the Eiffel Tower.
The two women went into the house, and Maxime, tired of sitting down,
ran about the garden with his little dog, while through the open
windows floated out an air of Schumann's, which Rosine, full of timid
emotion, was playing on the piano. Clerambault left alone, threw
himself back in his wicker chair, glad to be a man, to be alive,
breathing in the balm of this summer night with a thankful heart.
Six days later … Clerambault had spent the afternoon in the woods,
and like the monk in the legend, lying under an oak tree, drinking in
the song of a lark, a hundred years might have gone by him like a day.
He could not tear himself away till night-fall. Maxime met him in the
vestibule; he came forward smiling but rather pale, and said: "Well,
Papa, we are in for it this time!" and he told him the news. The
Russian mobilisation, the state of war in Germany;—Clerambault stared
at him unable to comprehend, his thoughts were so far removed from
these dark follies. He tried to dispute the facts, but the news was
explicit, and so they went to the table, where Clerambault could eat
He sought for reasons why these two crimes should lead to nothing.
Common-sense, public opinion, the prudence of governments, the
repeated assurances of the socialists, Jaurès' firm stand;—Maxime let
him talk, he was thinking of other things,—like his dog with his ears
pricked up for the sounds of the night …Such a pure lovely night!
Those who recall the last evenings of July, 1914, and the even more
beautiful evening of the first day of August, must keep in their
minds the wonderful splendour of Nature, as with a smile of pity she
stretched out her arms to the degraded, self-devouring human race.
It was nearly ten o'clock when Clerambault ceased to talk, for no
one had answered him. They sat then in silence with heavy hearts,
listlessly occupied or seeming to be, the women with their work,
Clerambault with his eyes, but not his mind, on a book. Maxime went
out on the porch and smoked, leaning on the railing and looking down
on the sleeping garden and the fairy-like play of the light and
shadows on the path.
The telephone bell made them start. Someone was calling Clerambault,
who went slowly to answer, half-asleep and absent so that at first he
did not understand; "Hullo! is that you, old man?" as he recognised
the voice of a brother-author in Paris, telephoning him from a
newspaper office. Still he could not seem to understand; "I don't
hear,—Jaurès? What about Jaurès?…Oh, my God!" Maxime full of a
secret apprehension had listened from a distance; he ran and caught
the receiver from his father's hand, as Clerambault let it drop with
a despairing gesture. "Hullo, Hullo! What do you say? Jaurès
assassinated!…" As exclamations of pain and anger crossed each other
on the wire, Maxime made out the details, which he repeated to his
family in a trembling voice. Rosine had led Clerambault back to the
table, where he sat down completely crushed. Like the classic Fate,
the shadow of a terrible misfortune settled over the house. It was
not only the loss of his friend that chilled his heart,—the kind gay
face, the cordial hand, the voice which drove away the clouds,—but
the loss of the last hope of the threatened people. With a touching,
child-like confidence he felt Jaurès to be the only man who could
avert the gathering storm, and he fallen, like Atlas, the sky would
Maxime rushed off to the station to get the news in Paris, promising
to come back later in the evening, but Clerambault stayed in the
isolated house, from which in the distance could be seen the far-off
phosphorescence of the city. He had not stirred from the seat where
he had fallen stupified. This time he could no longer doubt, the
catastrophe was coming, was upon them already. Madame Clerambault
begged him to go to bed, but he would not listen to her. His thought
was in ruins; he could distinguish nothing steady or constant, could
not see any order, or follow an idea, for the walls of his inward
dwelling had fallen in, and through the dust which rose, it was
impossible to see what remained intact. He feared there was nothing
left but a mass of suffering, at which he looked with dull eyes,
unconscious of his falling tears. Maxime did not come home, carried
away by the excitement at Paris.
Madame Clerambault had gone to bed, but about one o'clock she came and
persuaded him to come up to their room, where he lay down; but when
Pauline had fallen asleep—anxiety made her sleepy—he got up and went
into the next room. He groaned, unable to breathe; his pain was so
close and oppressive, that he had no room to draw his breath. With
the prophetic hyper-sensitiveness of the artist, who often lives in
tomorrow with more intensity than in the present moment, his agonised
eyes and heart foresaw all that was to be. This inevitable war between
the greatest nations of the world, seemed to him the failure of
civilisation, the ruin of the most sacred hopes for human brotherhood.
He was filled with horror at the vision of a maddened humanity,
sacrificing its most precious treasures, strength, and genius, its
highest virtues, to the bestial idol of war. It was to him a moral
agony, a heart-rending communion with these unhappy millions. To what
end? And of what use had been all the efforts of the ages? His heart
seemed gripped by the void; he felt he could no longer live if his
faith in the reason of men and their mutual love was destroyed, if he
was forced to acknowledge that the Credo of his life and art rested on
a mistake, that a dark pessimism was the answer to the riddle of the
He turned his eyes away in terror, he was afraid to look it in the
face, this monster who was there, whose hot breath he felt upon him.
Clerambault implored,—he did not know who or what—that this might
not be, that it might not be. Anything rather than this should be
true! But the devouring fact stood just behind the opening door….
Through the whole night he strove to close that door …
At last towards morning, an animal instinct began to wake, coming from
he did not know where, which turned his despair towards the secret
need of finding a definite and concrete cause, to fasten the blame on
a man, or a group of men, and angrily hold them responsible for the
misery of the world. It was as yet but a brief apparition, the first
faint sign of a strange obscure, imperious soul, ready to break forth,
the soul of the multitude … It began to take shape when Maxime came
home, for after the night in the streets of Paris, he fairly sweated
with it; his very clothes, the hairs of his head, were impregnated.
Worn out, excited, he could not sit down; his only thought was to go
back again. The decree of mobilisation was to come out that day, war
was certain, it was necessary, beneficial; some things must be put an
end to, the future of humanity was at stake, the freedom of the world
was threatened. "They" had counted on Jaurès' murder to sow dissension
and raise riots in the country they meant to attack, but the entire
nation had risen to rally round its leaders, the sublime days of the
great Revolution were re-born …Clerambault did not discuss these
statements, he merely asked: "Do you think so? Are you quite sure?" It
was a sort of hidden appeal. He wanted Maxime to state, to redouble
his assertions. The news Maxime had brought added to the chaos, raised
it to a climax, but at the same time it began to direct the distracted
forces of his mind towards a fixed point, as the first bark of the
shepherd's dog drives the sheep together.
Clerambault had but one wish left, to rejoin the flock, rub himself
against the human animals, his brothers, feel with them, act with them….
Though exhausted by sleeplessness, he started, in spite of his
wife, to take the train for Paris with Maxime. They had to wait a
long time at the station, and also in the train, for the tracks were
blocked, and the cars crowded; but in the common agitation Clerambault
found calm. He questioned and listened, everybody fraternised, and
not being sure yet what they thought, everyone felt that they thought
alike. The same questions, the same trials menaced them, but each man
was no longer alone to stand or fall, and the warmth of this contact
was reassuring. Class distinctions were gone; no more workmen or
gentlemen, no one looked at your clothes or your hands; they only
looked at your eyes where they saw the same flame of life, wavering
before the same impending death. All these people were so visibly
strangers to the causes of the fatality, of this catastrophe, that
their innocence led them like children to look elsewhere for the
guilty. It comforted and quieted their conscience. Clerambault
breathed more easily when he got to Paris. A stoical and virile
melancholy had succeeded to the agony of the night. He was however
only at the first stage.
The order for general mobilisation had just been affixed to the doors
of the Mairies. People read and re-read them in silence, then went
away without a word. After the anxious waiting of the preceding
days, with crowds around the newspaper booths, people sitting on
the sidewalk, watching for the news, and when the paper was issued
gathering in groups to read it, this was certainty. It was also a
relief. An obscure danger, that one feels approaching without knowing
when or from where, makes you feverish, but when it is there you can
take breath, look it in the face, and roll up your sleeves. There had
been some hours of deep thought while Paris made ready and doubled up
her fists. Then that which swelled in all hearts spread itself abroad,
the houses were emptied and there rolled through the streets a human
flood of which every drop sought to melt into another.
Clerambault fell into the midst and was swallowed up. All at once.
He had scarcely left the station, or set his foot on the pavement.
Nothing happened; there were no words or gestures, but the serene
exaltation of the flood flowed into him. The people were as yet pure
from violence; they knew and believed themselves innocent, and in
these first hours when the war was virgin, millions of hearts
burned with a solemn and sacred enthusiasm. Into this proud, calm
intoxication there entered a feeling of the injustice done to them, a
legitimate pride in their strength, in the sacrifices that they were
ready to make, and pity for others, now parts of themselves, their
brothers, their children, their loved ones. All were flesh of their
flesh, closely drawn together in a superhuman embrace, conscious of
the gigantic body formed by their union, and of the apparition above
their heads of the phantom which incarnated this union, the Country.
Half-beast, half-god, like the Egyptian Sphinx, or the Assyrian Bull;
but then men saw only the shining eyes, the feet were hid. She was the
divine monster in whom each of the living found himself multiplied,
the devouring Immortality where those about to die wished to believe
they would find life, super-life, crowned with glory. Her invisible
presence flowed through the air like wine; each man brought something
to the vintage, his basket, his bunch of grapes;—his ideas, passions,
devotions, interests. There was many a nasty worm among the grapes,
much filth under the trampling feet, but the wine was of rubies and
set the heart aflame;—Clerambault gulped it down greedily.
Nevertheless he was not entirely metamorphosed, for his soul was not
altered, it was only forgotten; as soon as he was alone he could hear
it moaning, and for this reason he avoided solitude. He persisted in
not returning to St. Prix, where the family usually stayed in summer,
and reinstalled himself in his apartment at Paris, on the fifth floor
in the Rue d'Assas. He would not wait a week, or go back to help in
the moving. He craved the friendly warmth that rose up from Paris, and
poured in at his windows; any excuse was enough to plunge into it, to
go down into the streets, join the groups, follow the processions, buy
all the newspapers,—which he despised as a rule. He would come back
more and more demoralised, anaesthetised as to what passed within
him, the habit of his conscience broken, a stranger in his house, in
himself;—and that is why he felt more at home out of doors than in.
Madame Clerambault came back to Paris with her daughter, and the first
evening after their arrival Clerambault carried Rosine off to the
Boulevards. The solemn fervour of the first days had passed. War had
begun, and truth was imprisoned. The press, the arch-liar, poured into
the open mouth of the world the poisonous liquor of its stories of
victories without retribution; Paris was decked as for a holiday; the
houses streamed with the tricolour from top to bottom, and in the
poorer quarters each garret window had its little penny flag, like a
flower in the hair.
On the corner of the Faubourg Montmartre they met a strange
procession. At the head marched a tall old man carrying a flag. He
walked with long strides, free and supple as if he were going to leap
or dance, and the skirts of his overcoat flapped in the wind. Behind
came an indistinct, compact, howling mass, gentle and simple, arm in
arm,—a child carried on a shoulder, a girl's red mop of hair between
a chauffeur's cap and the helmet of a soldier. Chests out, chins
raised, mouths open like black holes, shouting the Marseillaise. To
right and left of the ranks, a double line of jail-bird faces, along
the curbstone, ready to insult any absent-minded passer-by who failed
to salute the colours. Rosine was startled to see her father fall into
step at the end of the line, bare-headed, singing and talking aloud.
He drew his daughter along by the arm, without noticing the nervous
fingers that tried to hold him back.
When they came in Clerambault was still talkative and excited. He kept
on for hours, while the two women listened to him patiently. Madame
Clerambault heard little as usual, and played chorus. Rosine did not
say a word, but she stealthily threw a glance at her father, and her
look was like freezing water.
Clerambault was exciting himself; he was not yet at the bottom, but he
was conscientiously trying to reach it. Nevertheless there remained to
him enough lucidity to alarm him at his own progress. An artist yields
more through his sensibility to waves of emotion which reach him from
without, but to resist them he has also weapons which others have
not. For the least reflective, he who abandons himself to his lyrical
impulses, has in some degree the faculty of introspection which it
rests with him to utilise. If he does not do this, he lacks good-will
more than power; he is afraid to look too clearly at himself for
fear of seeing an unflattering picture. Those however who, like
Clerambault, have the virtue of sincerity without psychological gifts,
are sufficiently well-equipped to exercise some control over their
One day as he was walking alone, he saw a crowd on the other side of
the street, he crossed over calmly and found himself on the opposite
sidewalk in the midst of a confused agitation circling about an
invisible point. With some difficulty he worked his way forward, and
scarcely was he within this human mill-wheel, than he felt himself a
part of the rim, his brain seemed turning round. At the centre of the
wheel he saw a struggling man, and even before he grasped the reason
for the popular fury, he felt that he shared it. He did not know if
a spy was in question, or if it was some imprudent speaker who had
braved the passions of the mob, but as cries rose around him, he
realised that he, yes he, Clerambault, had shrieked out: … "Kill
A movement of the crowd threw him out from the sidewalk, a carriage
separated him from it, and when the way was clear the mob surged on
after its prey. Clerambault followed it with his eyes; the sound
of his own voice was still in his ears,—he did not feel proud of
From that day on he went out less; he distrusted himself, but he
continued to stimulate his intoxication at home, where he felt himself
safe, little knowing the virulence of the plague. The infection came
in through the cracks of the doors, at the windows, on the printed
page, in every contact. The most sensitive breathe it in on first
entering the city, before they have seen or read anything; with others
a passing touch is enough, the disease will develop afterwards alone.
Clerambault, withdrawn from the crowd, had caught the contagion from
it, and the evil announced itself by the usual premonitory symptoms.
This affectionate tender-hearted man hated, loved to hate. His
intelligence, which had always been thoroughly straightforward, tried
now to trick itself secretly, to justify its instincts of hatred by
inverted reasoning. He learned to be passionately unjust and false,
for he wanted to persuade himself that he could accept the fact
of war, and participate in it, without renouncing his pacifism of
yesterday, his humanitarianism of the day before, and his constant
optimism. It was not plain sailing, but there is nothing that the
brain cannot attain to. When its master thinks it absolutely necessary
to get rid for a time of principles which are in his way, it finds
in these same principles the exception which violates them while
confirming the rule. Clerambault began to construct a thesis,
an ideal—absurd enough—in which these contradictions could be
reconciled: War against War, War for Peace, for eternal Peace.
The enthusiasm of his son was a great help to him. Maxime had
enlisted. His generation was carried away on a wave of heroic joy;
they had waited so long—they had not dared to expect an opportunity
for action and sacrifice.
Older men who had never tried to understand them, stood amazed; they
remembered their own commonplace, bungling youth, full of petty
egotisms, small ambitions, and mean pleasures. As they could not
recognise themselves in their children they attributed to the war this
flowering of virtues which had been growing up for twenty years around
their indifference and which the war was about to reap. Even near
a father as large-minded as Clerambault, Maxime was blighted.
Clerambault was interested in spreading his own overflowing diffuse
nature, too much so to see clearly and aid those whom he loved: he
brought to them the warm shadow of his thought, but he stood between
them and the sun.
These young people sought employment for their strength which really
embarrassed them, but they did not find it in the ideals of the
noblest among their elders; the humanitarianism of a Clerambault was
too vague, it contented itself with pleasant hopes, without risk or
vigour, which the quietude of a generation grown old in the talkative
peace of Parliaments and Academies, alone could have permitted. Except
as an oratorical exercise it had never tried to foresee the perils of
the future, still less had it thought to determine its attitude in the
day when the danger should be near. It had not the strength to make
a choice between widely differing courses of action. One might be a
patriot as well as an internationalist or build in imagination peace
palaces or super-dreadnoughts, for one longed to know, to embrace, and
to love everything. This languid Whitmanism might have its aesthetic
value, but its practical incoherence offered no guide to young people
when they found themselves at the parting of the ways. They pawed
the ground trembling with impatience at all this uncertainty and the
uselessness of their time as it went by.
They welcomed the war, for it put an end to all this indecision,
it chose for them, and they made haste to follow it. "We go to our
death,—so be it; but to go is life." The battalions went off singing,
thrilling with impatience, dahlias in their hats, the muskets adorned
with flowers. Discharged soldiers re-enlisted; boys put their names
down, their mothers urging them to it; you would have thought they
were setting out for the Olympian games.
It was the same with the young men on the other side of the Rhine, and
there as here, they were escorted by their gods: Country, Justice,
Right, Liberty, Progress of the World, Eden-like dreams of re-born
humanity, a whole phantasmagoria of mystic ideas in which young men
shrouded their passions. None doubted that his cause was the right
one, they left discussion to others, themselves the living proof, for
he who gives his life needs no further argument.
The older men however who stayed behind, had not their reasons for
ceasing to reason. Their brains were given to them to be used, not for
truth, but for victory. Since in the wars of today, in which entire
peoples are engulfed, thoughts as well as guns are enrolled. They slay
the soul, they reach beyond the seas, and destroy after centuries have
passed. Thought is the heavy artillery which works from a distance.
Naturally Clerambault aimed his pieces, also the question for him was
no longer to see clearly, largely, to take in the horizon, but to
sight the enemy,—it gave him the illusion that he was helping his
With an unconscious and feverish bad faith kept up by his affection,
he sought in everything that he saw, heard, or read, for arguments
to prop up his will to believe in the holiness of the cause, for
everything which went to prove that the enemy alone had wanted war,
was the sole enemy of peace, and that to make war on the enemy was
really to wish for peace.
There was proof enough and to spare; there always is; all that is
needed is to know when to open and shut your eyes …But nevertheless
Clerambault was not entirely satisfied. These half-truths, or truths
with false tails to them, produced a secret uneasiness in the
conscience of this honest man, showing itself in a passionate
irritation against the enemy, which grew more and more. On the same
lines—like two buckets in a well, one going up as the other goes
down—his patriotic enthusiasm grew and drowned the last torments of
his mind in a salutary intoxication.
From now on he was on the watch for the smallest newspaper items
in support of his theory; and though he knew what to think of the
veracity of these sheets, he did not doubt them for an instant when
their assertions fed his eager restless passion. Where the enemy was
concerned he adopted the principle, that the worst is sure to be
true—and he was almost grateful to Germany when, by acts of cruelty
and repeated violations of justice, she furnished him the solid
confirmation of the sentence which, for greater security, he had
pronounced in advance.
Germany gave him full measure. Never did a country at war seem more
anxious to raise the universal conscience against her. This apoplectic
nation bursting with strength, threw itself upon its adversary in a
delirium of pride, anger and fear. The human beast let loose, traced
a ring of systematic horror around him from the first. All his
instinctive and acquired brutalities were cleverly excited by those
who held him in leash, by his official chiefs, his great General
Staff, his enrolled professors, his army chaplains. War has always
been, will forever remain, a crime; but Germany organised it as she
did everything. She made a code for murder and conflagration, and over
it all she poured the boiling oil of an enraged mysticism, made up of
Bismarck, of Nietzsche, and of the Bible. In order to crush the world
and regenerate it, the Super-Man and Christ were mobilised. The
regeneration began in Belgium—a thousand years from now men will tell
of it. The affrighted world looked on at the infernal spectacle of
the ancient civilisation of Europe, more than two thousand years old,
crumbling under the savage expert blows of the great nation which
formed its advance guard. Germany, rich in intelligence, in science
and in power, in a fortnight of war became docile and degraded; but
what the organisers of this Germanic frenzy failed to foresee was
that, like army cholera, it would spread to the other camp, and once
installed in the hostile countries it could not be dislodged until it
had infected the whole of Europe, and rendered it uninhabitable for
centuries. In all the madness of this atrocious war, in all its
violence, Germany set the example. Her big body, better fed, more
fleshly than others, offered a greater target to the attacks of the
epidemic. It was terrible; but by the time the evil began to abate
with her, it had penetrated elsewhere and under the form of a slow
tenacious disease it ate to the very bone. To the insanities of German
thinkers, speakers in Paris and everywhere were not slow to respond
with their extravagances; they were like the heroes in Homer; but if
they did not fight, they screamed all the louder. They insulted not
only the adversary, they insulted his father, his grandfather, and
his entire race; better still they denied his past. The tiniest
academician worked furiously to diminish the glory of the great men
asleep in the peace of the grave.
Clerambault listened and listened, absorbed, though he was one of the
few French poets who before the war had European relations and whose
work would have been appreciated in Germany. He spoke no foreign
language, it is true; petted old child of France that he was, who
would not take the trouble to visit other people, sure that they would
come to him. But at least he welcomed them kindly, his mind was free
from national prejudices, and the intuitions of his heart made up for
his lack of instruction and caused him to pour out without stint his
admiration for foreign genius. But now that he had been warned to
distrust everything, by the constant: "Keep still,—take care," and
knew that Kant led straight to Krupp, he dared admire nothing without
official sanction. The sympathetic modesty that caused him in times
of peace to accept with the respect due to words of Holy Writ the
publications of learned and distinguished men, now in the war took on
the proportions of a fabulous credulity. He swallowed without a gulp
the strange discoveries made at this time by the intellectuals of his
country, treading under foot the art, the intelligence, the science
of the enemy throughout the centuries; an effort frantically
disingenuous, which denied all genius to our adversary, and either
found in its highest claims to glory the mark of its present infamy
or rejected its achievements altogether and bestowed them on another
Clerambault was overwhelmed, beside himself, but (though he did not
admit it), in his heart he was glad.
Seeking for someone to share in his excitement and keep it up by fresh
arguments, he went to his friend Perrotin.
Hippolyte Perrotin was of one of those types, formerly the pride of
the higher instruction in France but seldom met with in these days—a
great humanist. Led by a wide and sagacious curiosity, he walked
calmly through the garden of the centuries, botanising as he went. The
spectacle of the present was the object least worthy of his attention,
but he was too keen an observer to miss any of it, and knew how to
draw it gently back into scale to fit into the whole picture. Events
which others regarded as most important were not so in his eyes, and
political agitations appeared to him like bugs on a rose-bush which he
would carefully study with its parasites. This was to him a constant
source of delight. He had the finest appreciation of shades of
literary beauty, and his learning rather increased than impaired the
faculty, giving to his thought an infinite range of highly-flavoured
experiences to taste and compare. He belonged to the great French
tradition of learned men, master writers from Buffon to Renan and
Gaston Pâris. Member of the Academy and of several Classes, his
extended knowledge gave him a superiority, not only of pure and
classic taste, but of a liberal modern spirit, over his colleagues,
genuine men of letters. He did not think himself exempt from study,
as most of them did, as soon as they had passed the threshold of the
sacred Cupola; old profesor as he was, he still went to school. When
Clerambault was still unknown to the rest of the Immortals, except to
one or two brother poets who mentioned him as little as possible with
a disdainful smile, Perrotin had already discovered and placed him in
his collection, struck by certain pictures, an original phraseology,
the mechanism of his imagination, primitive yet complicated by
simplicity. All this attracted him, and then the man interested him
too. He sent a short complimentary note to Clerambault who came to
thank him, overflowing with gratitude, and ties of friendship were
formed between the two men. They had few points of resemblance;
Clerambault had lyrical gifts and ordinary intelligence dominated by
his feelings, and Perrotin was gifted with a most lucid mind, never
hampered by flights of the imagination. What they had in common were
dignity of life, intellectual probity, and a disinterested love of art
and learning, for its own sake, and not for success. None the less as
may be seen, this had not prevented Perrotin from getting on in the
world; honours and places had sought him, not he them; but he did not
reject them; he neglected nothing.
Clerambault found him busy unwinding the wrappings with which the
readers of centuries had covered over the original thought of a
Chinese philosopher. At this game which was habitual with him, he came
naturally to the discovery of the contrary of what appeared at first
to be the meaning; passing from hand to hand the idol had become
Perrotin received Clerambault in this vein, polite, but a trifle
absent-minded. Even when he listened to society gossip he was inwardly
critical, tickling his sense of humour at its expense.
Clerambault spread his new acquisitions before him, starting from
the recognised unworthiness of the enemy-nation as from a certain,
well-known fact; the whole question being to decide if one should see
in this the irremediable decadence of a great people, or the proof,
pure and simple, of a barbarism which had always existed, but hidden
from sight. Clerambault inclined to the latter explanation, and full
of his recent information he held Luther, Kant and Wagner responsible
for the violation of Belgian neutrality, and the crimes of the German
army. He, however, to use a colloquial expression, had never been to
see for himself, being neither musician, theologian, or metaphysician.
He trusted to the word of Academicians, and only made exceptions in
favour of Beethoven, who was Flemish, and Goethe, citizen of a free
city and almost a Strassburger, which is half French,—or French and a
half. He paused for approbation.
He was surprised not to find in Perrotin an ardour corresponding to
his own. His friend smiled, listened, contemplated Clerambault with an
attentive and benevolent curiosity. He did not say no, but he did not
say yes, either, and to some assertions he made prudent reservations.
When Clerambault, much moved, quoted statements signed by two or three
of Perrotin's illustrious colleagues, the latter made a slight gesture
as much as to say: "Ah, you don't say so!"
Clerambault grew hotter and hotter, and Perrotin then changed his
attitude, showing a keen interest in the judicious remarks of his good
friend, nodding his head at every word, answering direct questions
by vague phrases, assenting amiably as one does to someone whom one
Clerambault went away out of countenance and discontented, but a few
days later he was reassured as to his friend, when he read Perrotin's
name on a violent protestation of the Academies against the
barbarians. He wrote to congratulate him, and Perrotin thanked him in
a few prudent and sibylline words:
"DEAR SIR,"—he affected in writing the studied, ceremonious formulas
of Monsieur de Port-Royal—"I am ready to obey any suggestions of my
country, for me they are commands. My conscience is at her service,
according to the duty of every good citizen."
One of the most curious effects of the war on the mind, was that it
aroused new affinities between individuals. People who up to this time
had not a thought in common discovered all at once that they thought
alike; and this resemblance drew them together. It was what people
called "the Sacred Union." Men of all parties and temperaments,
the choleric, the phlegmatic, monarchists, anarchists, clericals,
Calvinists, suddenly forgot their everyday selves, their passions,
their fads and their antipathies,—shed their skins. And there before
you were now creatures, grouped in an unforeseen manner, like metal
filings round an invisible magnet. All the old categories had
momentarily disappeared, and no one was astonished to find himself
closer to the stranger of yesterday than to a friend of many years'
standing. It seemed as if, underground, souls met by secret roots that
stretched through the night of instinct, that unknown region, where
observation rarely ventures. For our psychology stops at that part
of self which emerges from the soil, noting minutely individual
differences, but forgetting that this is only the top of the plant,
that nine-tenths are buried, the feet held by those of other plants.
This profound, or lower, region of the soul is ordinarily below the
threshold of consciousness, the mind feels nothing of it; but the war,
by waking up this underground life, revealed moral relationships
which no one had suspected. A sudden intimacy showed itself between
Clerambault and a brother of his wife whom he had looked upon until
now, and with good reason, as the type of a perfect Philistine.
Leo Camus was not quite fifty years old. He was tall, thin, and
stooped a little; his skin was grey, his beard black, not much hair on
his head,—you could see the bald spots under his hat behind,—little
wrinkles everywhere, cutting into each other, crossing, like a
badly-made net; add to this a frowning, sulky expression, and a
perpetual cold in the head. For thirty years he had been employed by
the State, and his life had passed in the shadow of a court-yard at
the Department. In the course of years he had changed rooms, but not
shadows; he was promoted, but always in the court-yard, never would he
leave it in this life. He was now Under-Secretary, which enabled him
to throw a shadow in his turn. The public and he had few points of
contact, and he only communicated with the outside world across a
rampart of pasteboard boxes and piles of documents. He was an old
bachelor without friends, and he held the misanthropical opinion
that disinterested friendship did not exist upon earth. He felt no
affection except for his sister's family, and the only way that he
showed that was by finding fault with everything that they did. He was
one of those people whose uneasy solicitude causes them to blame those
they love when they are ill, and obstinately prove to them that they
suffer by their own fault.
At the Clerambaults no one minded him very much. Madame Clerambault
was so easy-going that she rather liked being pushed about in this
way, and as for the children, they knew that these scoldings were
sweetened by little presents; so they pocketed the presents and let
the rest go by.
The conduct of Leo Camus towards his brother-in-law had varied with
time. When his sister had married Clerambault, Camus had not hesitated
to find fault with the match; an unknown poet did not seem to him
"serious" enough. Poetry—unknown poetry—is a pretext for not
working; when one is "known," of course that is quite another thing;
Camus held Hugo in high esteem, and could even recite verses from the
"Châtiments," or from Auguste Barbier. They were "known," you see, and
that made all the difference…. Just at this time Clerambault himself
became "known," Camus read about him one day in his favourite paper,
and after that he consented to read Clerambault's poems. He did not
understand them, but he bore them no ill will on that account. He
liked to call himself old-fashioned, it made him feel superior, and
there are many in the world like him, who pride themselves on their
lack of comprehension. For we must all plume ourselves as we can; some
of us on what we have, others on what we have not.
Camus was willing to admit that Clerambault could write. He knew
something of the art himself,—and his respect for his brother-in-law
increased in proportion to the "puffs" he read in the papers, and he
liked to chat with him. He had always appreciated his affectionate
kind-heartedness, though he never said so, and what pleased also in
this great poet, for great he was now, was his manifest incapacity,
and practical ignorance of business matters; on this ground Camus
was his superior, and did not hesitate to show it. Clerambault had a
simple-hearted confidence in his fellow-man, and nothing could have
been better suited to Camus' aggressive pessimism, which it kept in
working order. The greater part of his visits was spent in reducing
Clerambault's illusions to fragments, but they had as many lives as
a cat, and every time he came it had to be done over again. This
irritated Camus, but secretly pleased him for he needed a pretext
constantly renewed to think the world bad, and men a set of imbeciles.
Above all he had no mercy on politicians; this Government employee
hated Governments, though he would have been puzzled to say what
he would put in their places. The only form of politics that he
understood was opposition. He suffered from a spoiled life and
thwarted nature. He was a peasant's son and born to raise grapes, or
else to exercise his authoritative instincts over the field labourers,
like a watch-dog. Unfortunately, diseases of the vines interfered and
also the pride of a quill-driver; the family moved to town, and now he
would have felt it a derogation to return to his real nature, which
was too much atrophied, even if he had wished it. Not having found his
true place in society, he blamed the social order, serving it, as do
millions of functionaries, like a bad servant, an underhand enemy.
A mind of this sort, peevish, bitter, misanthropical, it seems would
have been driven crazy by the war, but on the contrary it served to
tranquilise it. When the herd draws itself together in arms against
the stranger it is a fall for those rare free spirits who love the
whole world, but it raises the many who weakly vegetate in anarchistic
egotism, and lifts them to that higher stage of organised selfishness.
Camus woke up all at once, with the feeling that for the first time he
was not alone in the world.
Patriotism is perhaps the only instinct under present conditions which
escapes the withering touch of every-day life. All other instincts and
natural aspirations, the legitimate need to love and act in social
life, are stifled, mutilated and forced to pass under the yoke of
denial and compromise. When a man reaches middle life and turns to
look back, he sees these desires marked with his failures and his
cowardice; the taste is bitter on his tongue, he is ashamed of them
and of himself. Patriotism alone has remained outside, unemployed
but not tarnished, and when it re-awakes it is inviolate. The soul
embraces and lavishes on it the ardour of all the ambitions, the
loves, and the longings, that life has disappointed. A half century of
suppressed fire bursts forth, millions of little cages in the social
prison open their doors. At last! Long enchained instincts stretch
their stiffened limbs, cry out and leap into the open air, as of
right—right, do I say? it is now their duty to press forward all
together like a falling mass. The isolated snow-flakes turned
Camus was carried away, the little bureaucrat found himself part of it
all and without fury or futile violence he felt only a calm strength.
All was "well" with him, well in mind, well in body. He had no more
insomnia, and for the first time in years his stomach gave him no
trouble—because he had forgotten all about it. He even got through
the winter without taking cold—something that had never been heard of
before. He ceased to find fault with everything and everybody, he no
longer railed at all that was done or undone, for now he was filled
with a sacred pity for the entire social body—that body, now his, but
stronger, better, and more beautiful. He felt a fraternal bond with
all those who formed part of it by their close union, like a swarm of
bees hanging from a branch, and envied the younger men who went to
defend it. When Maxime gaily prepared to go, his uncle gazed at him
tenderly, and when the train left carrying away the young men, he
turned and threw his arms round Clerambault, then shook hands with
unknown parents who had come to see their sons off, with tears of
emotion and joy in his eyes. In that moment Camus was ready to give
up everything he possessed. It was his honey-moon with Life—this
solitary starved soul saw her as she passed and seized her in his
arms…. Yes, Life passes, the euphoria of a Camus cannot last
forever, but he who has known it lives only in the memory of it, and
in the hope that it may return. War brought this gift, therefore Peace
is an enemy, and enemies are all those who desire it.
Clerambault and Camus exchanged ideas, and to such an extent that
finally Clerambault could not tell which were his own, and as he lost
footing he felt more strongly the need to act; for action was a kind
of justification to himself…. Whom did he wish to justify? Alas, it
was Camus! In spite of his habitual ardour and convictions he was a
mere echo—and of what unhappy voices.
He began to write Hymns to Battle. There was great competition in this
line among poets who did not fight themselves. But there was little
danger that their productions would clog men's memories in future
ages, for nothing in their previous career had prepared these
unfortunates for such a task. In vain they raised their voices and
exhausted all the resources of French rhetoric, the "poilus" only
shrugged their shoulders.
However people in the rear liked them much better than the stories
written in the dark and covered with mud, that came out of the
trenches. The visions of a Barbusse had not yet dawned to show
the truth to these talkative shadows. There was no difficulty for
Clerambault, he shone in these eloquent contests. For he had the fatal
gift of verbal and rhythmical facility which separates poets from
reality, wrapping them as if in a spider's web. In times of peace this
harmless web hung on the bushes, the wind blowing through it, and the
good-natured Arachne caught nothing but light in her meshes. Nowadays,
however, the poets cultivated their carniverous instincts—fortunately
rather out of date—and hidden at the bottom of their web one could
catch sight of a nasty little beast with an eye fixed on the prey.
They sang of hatred and holy butchery, and Clerambault did as they
did, even better, for he had more voice. And, by dint of screaming,
this worthy man ended by feeling passions that he knew nothing of. He
learned to "know" hatred at last, know in the Biblical sense, and it
only roused in him that base pride that an undergraduate feels when
for the first time he finds himself coming out of a brothel.
Now he was a man, and in fact he needed nothing more, he had fallen as
low as the others.
Camus well deserved and enjoyed the first taste of each one of these
poems and they made him neigh with enthusiasm, for he recognised
himself in them. Clerambault was flattered, thinking he had touched
the popular string. The brothers-in-law spent their evenings alone
together. Clerambault read, Camus drank in his verses; he knew them by
heart, and told everyone who would listen to him that Hugo had come
to life again, and that each of these poems was worth a victory. His
noisy admiration made it unnecessary for the other members of the
family to express their opinion. Under some excuse, Rosine regularly
made a practice of leaving the room when the reading was over.
Clerambault felt it, and would have liked to ask his daughter's
opinion, but found it more prudent not to put the question. He
preferred to persuade himself that Rosine's emotion and timidity put
her to flight. He was vexed all the same, but the approval of the
outside world healed this slight wound. His poems appeared in
the bourgeois papers, and proved the most striking success of
Clerambault's career, for no other work of his had raised such
unanimous admiration. A poet is always pleased to have it said that
his last work is his best, all the more when he knows that it is
inferior to the others.
Clerambault knew it perfectly well, but he swallowed all the fawning
reviews of the press with infantile vanity. In the evening he made
Camus read them aloud in the family circle, beaming with joy as he
listened. When it was over he nearly shouted:
In this concert of praise one slightly flat note came from Perrotin.
(Undoubtedly he had been much deceived in him, he was not a true
friend.) The old scholar to whom Clerambault had sent a copy of his
poems did not fail to congratulate him politely, praising his great
talent, but he did not say that this was his finest work; he even
urged him, "after having offered his tribute to the warlike Muse, to
produce now a work of pure imagination detached from the present."
What could he mean? When an artist submits his work for your approval,
is it proper to say to him: "I should prefer to read another one quite
different from this?" This was a fresh sign to Clerambault of the
sadly lukewarm patriotism that he had already noticed in Perrotin.
This lack of comprehension chilled his feeling towards his old friend.
The war, he thought, was the great test of characters, it revised all
values, and tried out friendships. And he thought that the loss of
Perrotin was balanced by the gain of Camus, and many new friends,
plain people, no doubt, but simple and warm-hearted.
Sometimes at night he had moments of oppression, he was uneasy,
wakeful, discontented, ashamed; … but of what? Had he not done his
The first letters from Maxime were a comforting cordial; the first
drops dissipated every discouragement, and they all lived on them
in long intervals when no news came. In spite of the agony of these
silences, when any second might be fatal to the loved one, his perfect
confidence (exaggerated perhaps, through affection, or superstition)
communicated itself to them all. His letters were running over with
youth and exuberant joy, which reached its climax in the days that
followed the victory of the Marne. The whole family yearned towards
him as one; like a plant the summit of which bathes in the light,
stretching up to it in a rapture of mystic adoration.
People who but yesterday were soft and torpid, expanded under the
extraordinary light when fate threw them into the infernal vortex of
the war, the light of Death, the game with Death; Maxime, a spoiled
child, delicate, overparticular, who in ordinary times took care
of himself like a fine lady, found an unexpected flavour in the
privations and trials of his new life, and wondering at himself he
boasted of it in his charming, vainglorious letters which delighted
the hearts of his parents.
Neither affected to be cast in the mould of one of Corneille's heroes,
and the thought of immolating their child on the altar of a barbaric
idea would have filled them with horror; but the transfiguration
of their petted boy suddenly become a hero, touched them with a
tenderness never before felt. In spite of their anxiety, Maxime's
enthusiasm intoxicated them, and it made them ungrateful toward their
former life, that peaceful affectionate existence, with its long
monotonous days. Maxime was amusingly contemptuous of it, calling it
absurd after one had seen what was going on "out there."
"Out there" one was glad to sleep three hours on the hard ground, or
once in a month of Sundays on a wisp of straw, glad to turn out at
three o'clock in the morning and warm up by marching thirty kilometres
with a knapsack on one's back, sweating freely for eight or ten hours
at a time…. Glad above all to get in touch with the enemy, and rest
a little lying down under a bank, while one peppered the boches….
This young Cyrano declared that fighting rested you after a march, and
when he described an engagement you would have said that he was at a
concert or a "movie."
The rhythm of the shells, the noise when they left the gun and when
they burst, reminded him of the passage with cymbals in the divine
scherzo of the Ninth Symphony. When he heard overhead as from an
airy music-box the buzzing of these steel mosquitoes, mischievous,
imperious, angry, treacherous, or simply full of amiable carelessness,
he felt like a street boy rushing out to see a fire. No more fatigue;
mind and body on the alert; and when came the long-awaited order
"Forward!" one jumped to one's feet, light as a feather, and ran to
the nearest shelter under the hail of bullets, glad to be in the open,
like a hound on the scent. You crawled on your hands and knees, or on
your stomach, you ran all bent doubled-up, or did Swedish gymnastics
through the underbrush … that made up for not being able to walk
straight; and when it grew dark you said: "What, night already?—What
have we been doing with ourselves, today?" … "In conclusion," said
this little French cockerel, "the only tiresome thing in war is what
you do in peace-time,—you walk along the high road."
This was the way these young men talked in the first month of the
campaign, all soldiers of the Marne, of war in the open. If this
had gone on, we should have seen once more the race of barefooted
Revolutionaries, who set out to conquer the world and could not stop
They were at last forced to stop, and from the moment that they were
put to soak in the trenches, the tone changed. Maxime lost his spirit,
his boyish carelessness. From day to day he grew virile, stoical,
obstinate and nervous. He still vouched for the final victory, but
ceased after a while to talk of it, and wrote only of duty to be done,
then even that stopped, and his letters became dull, grey, tired-out.
Enthusiasm had not diminished behind the lines, and Clerambault
persisted in vibrating like an organ pipe, but Maxime no longer gave
back the echo he sought to evoke.
All at once, without warning, Maxime came home for a week's leave. He
stopped on the stairs, for though he seemed more robust than formerly,
his legs felt heavy, and he was soon tired. He waited a moment to
breathe, for he was moved, and then went up. His mother came to the
door at his ring, screaming at the sight of him. Clerambault who was
pacing up and down the apartment in the weariness of the long waiting,
cried out too as he ran. It was a tremendous row.
After a few minutes there was a truce to embraces and inarticulate
exclamations. Pushed into a chair by the window with his face to the
light, Maxime gave himself up to their delighted eyes. They were in
ecstasies over his complexion, his cheeks more filled out, his healthy
look. His father threw his arms around him calling him "My Hero"—but
Maxime sat with his fingers twitching nervously, and could not get out
At table they feasted their eyes on him, hung on every word, but he
said very little. The excitement of his family had checked his first
impetus, but luckily they did not notice it, and attributed his
silence to fatigue or to hunger. Clerambault talked enough for two;
telling Maxime about life in the trenches. Good mother Pauline was
transformed into a Cornelia, out of Plutarch, and Maxime looked at
them, ate, looked again…. A gulf had opened between them.
When after dinner they all went back to his father's study, and they
saw him comfortably established with a cigar, he had to try and
satisfy these poor waiting people. So he quietly began to tell them
how his time was passed, with a certain proud reserve and leaving out
tragical pictures. They listened in trembling expectation, and when
he had finished they were still expectant. Then on their side came a
shower of questions, to which Maxime's replies were short—soon he
fell silent. Clerambault to wake up the "young rascal" tried several
"Come now, tell us about some of your engagements…. It must be fine
to see such joy, such sacred fire—Lord, but I would like to see all
that, I would like to be in your place."
"You can see all these fine things better from where you are," said
Maxime. Since he had been in the trenches he had not seen a fight,
hardly set eyes on a German, his view was bounded by mud and
water—but they would not believe him, they thought he was talking
"contrariwise" as he did when he was a child.
"You old humbug," said his father, laughing gaily, "What does happen
then all day long in your trenches?"
"We take care of ourselves; kill time, the worst enemy of all."
Clerambault slapped him amicably on the back.
"Time is not the only one you kill?"—Maxime drew away, saw the kind,
curious glances of his father and mother, and answered:
"Please talk of something else," and added after a pause:
"Will you do something for me?—don't ask me any more questions
They agreed rather surprised, but they supposed that he needed care,
being so tired, and they overwhelmed him with attentions. Clerambault,
however, could not refrain from breaking out every minute or two in
apostrophes, demanding his son's approbation. His speeches resounded
with the word "Liberty." Maxime smiled faintly and looked at Rosine,
for the attitude of the young girl was singular. When her brother came
in she threw her arms round his neck, but since she had kept in the
background, one might have said aloof. She had taken no part in her
parents' questions, and far from inviting confidence from Maxime she
seemed to shrink from it. He felt the same awkwardness, and avoided
being alone with her. But still they had never felt closer to each
other in spirit, they could not have borne to say why.
Maxime had to be shown to all the neighbours, and by way of amusement
he was taken out for a walk. In spite of her mourning, Paris again
wore a smiling face; poverty and pain were hidden at home, or at the
bottom of her proud heart; but the perpetual Fair in the streets and
in the press showed its mask of contentment.
The people in the cafés and the tea-rooms were ready to hold out for
twenty years, if necessary. Maxime and his family sat in a tea-shop at
a little table, gay chatter and the perfume of women all about
him. Through it he saw the trench where he had been bombarded for
twenty-six days on end, unable to stir from the sticky ditch full of
corpses which rose around him like a wall…. His mother laid her
hand on his, he woke, saw the affectionate questioning glances of his
people, and self-reproached for making them uneasy, he smiled and
began to look about and talk gaily. His boyish high spirits came back,
and the shadow cleared away from Clerambault's face; he glanced simply
and gratefully at Maxime.
His alarms were not at an end, however. As they left the tea-shop—he
leaning on the arm of his son—they met a military funeral. There were
wreaths and uniforms, a member of the Institute with his sword between
his legs, and brass instruments braying out an heroic lamentation.
The crowd drew respectfully to either side, Clerambault stopped and
pointedly took off his hat, while with his left hand he pressed
Maxime's arm yet closer to his side. Feeling him tremble, he turned
towards his son, and thought he had a strange look. Supposing that he
was overcome he tried to draw him away, but Maxime did not stir, he
was so much taken aback.
"A dead man," he thought. "All that for one dead man!… and out there
we walk over them. Five hundred a day on the roll, that's the normal
Hearing a sneering little laugh, Clerambault was frightened and pulled
him by the arm.
"Come away!" he said, and they moved on.
"If they could see," said Maxime to himself, "if they could only
see!… their whole society would go to pieces,… but they will
always be blind, they do not want to see …"
His eyes, cruelly sharpened now, saw the adversary all around him,—in
the carelessness of the world, its stupidity, its egotism, its luxury,
in the "I don't give a damn!", the indecent profits of the war,
the enjoyment of it, the falseness down to the roots…. All these
sheltered people, shirkers, police, with their insolent autos that
looked like cannon, their women booted to the knee, with scarlet
mouths, and cruel little candy faces … they are all satisfied …
all is for the best!… "It will go on forever as it is!" Half the
world devouring the other half….
They went home. In the evening after dinner Clerambault was dying to
read his latest poem to Maxime. The idea of it was touching, if a
little absurd.—In his love for his son, he sought to be in spirit,
at least, the comrade of his glory and his sufferings, and he had
described them,—at a distance—in "Dawn in the Trenches." Twice he
got up to look for the MS., but with the sheets in his hand a sort of
shyness paralysed him, and he went back without them.
As the days went by they felt themselves closely knit together by ties
of the flesh, but their souls were out of touch. Neither would admit
it though each knew it well.
A sadness was between them, but they refused to see the real cause,
and preferred to ascribe it to the approaching reparation. From time
to time the father or the mother made a fresh attempt to re-open the
sources of intimacy, but each time came the same disappointment.
Maxime saw that he had no longer any way of communicating with them,
with anyone in the rear. They lived in different worlds … could they
ever understand each other again?… Yet still he understood them, for
once he had himself undergone the influence which weighed on them,
and had only come to his senses "out there," in contact with real
suffering and death. But just because he had been touched himself, he
knew the impossibility of curing the others by process of reasoning;
so he let them talk, silent himself, smiling vaguely, assenting to be
knew not what. The preoccupations here behind the lines filled him
with disgust, weariness, and a profound pity for these people in
the rear—a strange race to him, with the outcries of the papers,
questions from such persons—old buffoons, worn-out, damaged
politicians!—patriotic braggings, written-up strategies, anxieties
about black bread, sugar cards, or the days when the confectioners
were shut. He took refuge in a mysterious silence, smiling and sad;
and only went out occasionally, when he thought of the short time he
had to be with these dear people who loved him. Then he would begin to
talk with the utmost animation about anything. The important thing was
to make a noise, since one could no longer speak one's real thoughts,
and naturally he fell back on everyday matters. Questions of general
interest and political news came first, but they might as well have
read the morning paper aloud. "The Crushing of the Huns," "The Triumph
of the Right," filled Clerambault's thoughts and speeches, while he
served as acolyte, and filled in the pauses with cum spiritu tuo.
All the time each was waiting for the other to begin to talk.
They waited so long that the end of his leave came. A little while
before he went, Maxime came into his father's study resolved to
"Papa, are you quite sure?" …
The trouble painted on Clerambault's face checked the words on his
lips. He had pity on him and asked if his father was quite sure at
what time the train was to leave and Clerambault heard the end of the
question with an only too visible relief. When he had supplied all the
information—that Maxime did not listen to—he mounted his oratorical
hobby-horse again and started out with one of his habitual idealistic
declamations. Maxime held his peace, discouraged, and for the last
hour they spoke only of trifles. All but the mother felt that the
essential had not been uttered; only light and confident words, an
apparent excitement, but a deep sigh in the heart—"My God! my God!
why hast thou forsaken us?"
When Maxime left he was really glad to go back to the front. The gulf
that he had found between the front and rear seemed to him deeper than
the trenches, and guns did not appear to him as murderous as ideas.
As the railway carriage drew out of the station he leaned from the
window and followed with his eyes the tearful faces of his family
fading in the distance, and he thought:
"Poor dears, you are their victims and we are yours."
The day after his return to the front the great spring offensive was
let loose, which the talkative newspapers had announced to the enemy
several weeks beforehand. The hopes of the nation had been fed on it
during the gloomy winter of waiting and death, and it rose now, filled
with an impatient joy, sure of victory and crying out to it—"At
The first news seemed good; of course it spoke only of the enemy's
losses, and all faces brightened. Parents whose sons, women whose
husbands were "out there" were proud that their flesh and their love
had a part in this sanguinary feast; and in their exaltation they
hardly stopped to think that their dear one might be among the
victims. The excitement ran so high that Clerambault, an affectionate,
tender father, generally most anxious for those he loved, was actually
afraid that his son had not got back in time for "The Dance." He
wanted him to be there, his eager wishes pushed, thrust him into the
abyss, making this sacrifice, disposing of his son and of his life,
without asking if he himself agreed. He and his had ceased to belong
to themselves. He could not conceive that it should be otherwise with
any of them. The obscure will of the ant-heap had eaten him up.
Sometimes taken unawares, the remains of his self-analytical habit of
mind would appear; like a sensitive nerve that is touched,—a dull
blow, a quiver of pain, it is gone, and we forget it.
At the end of three weeks the exhausted offensive was still pawing the
ground of the same blood-soaked kilometres, and the newspapers began
to distract public attention, putting it on a fresh scent. Nothing had
been heard from Maxime since he left. They sought for the ordinary
reasons for delay which the mind furnishes readily but the heart
cannot accept. Another week went by. Among themselves each of the
three pretended to be confident, but at night, each one alone in his
room, the heart cried out in agony, and the whole day long the ear was
strained to catch every step on the stair, the nerves stretched to the
breaking point at a ring of the bell, or the touch of a hand passing
The first official news of the losses began to come in; several
families among Clerambault's friends already knew which of their men
were dead and which wounded. Those who had lost all, envied those who
could have their loved ones back, though bleeding, perhaps mutilated.
Many sank into the night of their grief; for them the war and life
were equally over. But with others the exaltation of the early days
persisted strangely; Clerambault saw one mother wrought up by her
patriotism and her grief to the point that she almost rejoiced at the
death of her son. "I have given my all, my all!" she would say, with
a violent, concentrated joy such as is felt in the last second before
extinction by a woman who drowns herself with the man she loves.
Clerambault however was weaker, and waking from his dizziness he
"I too have given all, even what was not my own."
He inquired of the military authorities, but they knew nothing as yet.
Ten days later came the news that Sergeant Clerambault was reported
as missing from the night of the 27-28th of the preceding month.
Clerambault could get no further details at the Paris bureaus;
therefore he set out for Geneva, went to the Red Cross, the Agency for
Prisoners,—could find nothing; followed up every clue, got permission
to question comrades of his son in hospitals or depots behind the
lines. They all gave contradictory information; one said he was a
prisoner, another had seen him dead, and both the next day admitted
that they had been mistaken…. Oh! tortures! God of vengeance!…
He came back after a fortnight from this Way of the Cross, aged,
He found his wife in a paroxysm of frantic grief, which in this
good-natured creature had turned to a furious hatred of the enemy;
she cried out for revenge, and for the first time Clerambault did not
answer. He had not strength enough to hate, he could only suffer.
He shut himself into his room. During that frightful ten days'
pilgrimage he had scarcely looked his thoughts in the face, hypnotised
as he was, day and night by one idea, like a dog on a scent,—faster!
go faster! The slowness of carriages and trains consumed him, and
once, when he had taken a room for the night, he rushed away the same
evening, without stopping to rest. This fever of haste and expectation
devoured everything, and made consecutive thought impossible,—which
was his salvation. Now that the chase was ended, his mind, exhausted
and dying, recovered its powers.
Clerambault knew certainly that Maxime was dead. He had not told his
wife, but had concealed some information that destroyed all hope. She
was one of those people who absolutely must keep a gleam of falsehood
to lure them on, against all reason, until the first flood of grief is
over. Perhaps Clerambault himself had been one of them, but he was not
so now; for he saw where this lure had led him. He did not judge, he
was not yet able to form a judgment, lying in the darkness. Too weak
to rise, and feel about him, he was like someone who moves his crushed
limbs after a fall, and with each stab of pain recovers consciousness
of life, and tries to understand what has happened to him. The stupid
gulf of this death overcame him. That this beautiful child, who had
given them so much joy, cost them so much care, all this marvel of
hope in flower, the priceless little world that is a young man, a tree
of Jesse, future years … all vanished in an hour!—and why?—why?—
He was forced to try to persuade himself at least that it was for
something great and necessary. Clerambault clung despairingly to this
buoy during the succeeding nights, feeling that if his hold gave way
he should go under. More than ever he insisted on the holiness of the
cause; he would not even discuss it; but little by little his fingers
slipped, he settled lower with every movement, for each new statement
of the justice of his cause roused a voice in his conscience which
"Even if you were twenty thousand times more right in this struggle,
is your justification worth the disasters it costs? Does justice
demand that millions of innocents should fall, a ransom for the sins
and the errors of others? Is crime to be washed out by crime?
or murder by murder? And must your sons be not only victims but
accomplices, assassinated and assassins?…"
He looked back at the last visit of his son, and reflected on their
last talks together. How many things were clear to him now, which he
had not understood at the time! Maxime's silence, the reproach in his
eyes. The worst of all was when he recognised that he had understood,
at the time, when his son was there, but that he would not admit it.
This discovery, which had hung over him like a dark cloud for
weeks,—this realisation of inward falsehood,—crushed him to the
Until the actual crisis was upon them, Rosine Clerambault seemed
thrown into the shade. Her inward life was unknown to the others, and
almost to herself; even her father had scarcely a glimpse of it. She
had lived under the wing of the warm, selfish, stifling family life,
and had few friends or companions of her own age, for her parents
stood between her and the world outside, and she had grown up in their
As she grew older if she had wished to escape she would not have
dared, would not have known how; for she was shy outside the
family circle, and could hardly move or talk; people thought her
insignificant. This she knew; it wounded her self-respect, and
therefore she went out as little as possible, preferring to stay at
home, where she was simple, natural and taciturn. This silence did not
arise from slowness of thought, but from the chatter of the others.
As her father, mother, and brother were all exuberant talkers, this
little person by a sort of reaction, withdrew into herself, where she
could talk freely.
She was fair, tall, and boyishly slender, with pretty hair, the locks
always straying over her cheeks. Her mouth was rather large and
serious, the lower lip full at the corners, her eyes large, calm and
vague, with fine well-marked eyebrows. She had a graceful chin, a
pretty throat, an undeveloped figure, no hips; her hands were large
and a little red, with prominent veins. Anything would make her blush,
and her girlish charm was all in the forehead and the chin. Her eyes
were always asking and dreaming, but said little.
Her father's preference was for her, just as her mother was drawn
towards the son by natural affinity. Without thinking much about it,
Clerambault had always monopolised his daughter, surrounding her from
childhood with his absorbing affection. She had been partly educated
by him, and with the almost offensive simplicity of the artist mind,
he had taken her for the confidante of his inner life. This was
brought about by his overflowing self-consciousness, and the little
response that he found in his wife, a good creature, who, as the
saying is, sat at his feet, in fact stayed there permanently,
answering yes to all that he said, admiring him blindly, without
understanding him, or feeling the lack; the essential to her was not
her husband's thought but himself, his welfare, his comfort, his food,
his clothing, his health. Honest Clerambault in the gratitude of his
heart did not criticise his wife, any more than Rosine criticised her
mother, but both of them knew how it was, instinctively, and were
drawn closer by a secret tie. Clerambault was not aware that in his
daughter he had found the real wife of his heart and mind. Nor did he
begin to suspect it, till in these last days the war had seemed to
break the tacit accord between them. Rosine's approval hitherto had
bound her to him, and now all at once it failed him. She knew many
things before he did, but shrank from the depths of the mystery; the
mind need not give warning to the heart, it knows.
Strange, splendid mystery of love between souls, independent of social
and even of natural laws. Few there be that know it, and fewer still
that dare to reveal it; they are afraid of the coarse world and its
summary judgments and can get no farther than the plain meaning
of traditional language. In this conventional tongue, which is
voluntarily inexact for the sake of social simplification, words are
careful not to unveil, by expressing them, the many shades of reality
in its multiple forms. They imprison it, codify it, drill it; they
press it into the service of the mind already domesticated; of that
reasoning power which does not spring from the depth of the
spirit, but from shallow, walled-in pools—like the basins at
Versailles—within the limits of constituted society.
In this somewhat legal phraseology love is bound to sex, age, and
social classes; it is either natural or unnatural, legitimate or the
reverse. But this is a mere trickle of water from the deep springs of
love, which is as the law of gravitation that keeps the stars in their
courses, and cares nothing for the ways that we trace for it. This
infinite love fulfils itself between souls far removed by time and
space; across the centuries it unites the thoughts of the living and
the dead; weaves close and chaste ties between old and young hearts;
through it, friend is nearer to friend, the child is closer in spirit
to the old man than are husband or wife in the whole course of
their lives. Between fathers and children these ties often exist
unconsciously, and "the world" as our forefathers used to say, counts
so little in comparison with love eternal, that the positions are
sometimes reversed, and the younger may not always be the most
childlike. How many sons are there who feel a devout paternal
affection for an old mother? And do we not often see ourselves small
and humble under the eyes of a child? The look with which the Bambino
of Botticelli contemplates the innocent Virgin is heavy with a sad
unconscious experience, and as old as the world.
The affection of Clerambault and Rosine was of this sort; fine,
religious, above the reach of reason. That is why, in the depths of
the troubled sea, below the pains and the conflicts of conscience
caused by the war, a secret drama went on, without signs, almost
without words, between these hearts united by a sacred love. This
unavowed sentiment explained the sensitiveness of their mutual
reactions. At first Rosine drew away in silence, disappointed in her
affection, her secret worship tarnished, by the effect of the war on
her father; she stood apart from him, like a little antique statue,
chastely draped. At once Clerambault became uneasy; his sensibility
sharpened by tenderness, felt instantly this Noli me tangere, and
from this arose an unexpressed estrangement between the father and
daughter. Words are so coarse, one would not dare to speak even in the
purest sense of disappointed love, but this inner discord, of which
neither ever spoke a word, was pain to both of them; made the young
girl unhappy, and irritated Clerambault. He knew the cause well
enough, but his pride refused to admit it; though little by little he
was not far from confessing that Rosine was right. He was ready to
humiliate himself, but his tongue was tied by false shame; and so the
difference between their minds grew wider, while in their hearts each
longed to yield.
In the confusion that followed Maxime's death, this inward prayer
pressed more on the one less able to resist. Clerambault was
prostrated by his grief, his wife aimlessly busy, and Rosine was out
all day at her war work. They only came together at meals. But it
happened that one evening after dinner Clerambault heard her mother
violently scolding Rosine, who had spoken of wounded enemies whom she
wanted to take care of. Madame Clerambault was as indignant as if
her daughter had committed a crime, and appealed to her husband. His
weary, vague, sad eyes had begun to see; he looked at Rosine who was
silent, her head bent, waiting for his reply.
"You are right, my little girl," he said.
Rosine started and flushed, for she had not expected this; she raised
her grateful eyes to his, and their look seemed to say: "You have come
back to me at last."
After the brief repast they usually separated; each to eat out his
heart in solitude. Clerambault sat before his writing-table and wept,
his face hidden in his hands. Rosine's look had pierced through to his
suffering heart; his soul lost, stifled for so long, had come to be as
it was before the war. Oh, the look in her eyes!…
He listened, wiping away his tears; his wife had locked herself into
Maxime's room as she did every evening, and was folding and unfolding
his clothes, arranging the things left behind…. He went into the
room where Rosine sat alone by the window, sewing. She was absorbed in
thought, and did not hear him coming till he stood before her; till he
laid his grey head on her shoulder and murmured: "My little girl."
Then her heart melted also. She took the dear old head between her
hands, with its rough hair, and answered:
"My dear father."
Neither needed to ask or to explain why he was there. After a long
silence, when he was calmer, he looked at her and said:
"It seems as if I had waked up from a frightful dream." … But she
merely stroked his hair, without speaking.
"You were watching over me, were you not?… I saw it…. Were you
She just bowed her head not daring to look at him. He stooped to kiss
her hands, and raising his head he whispered:
"My good angel. You have saved me!"
When he had gone back to his room she stayed there without moving,
filled with emotion, which kept her for long, still, with drooping
head, her hands clasped on her knees. The waves of feeling that flowed
through her almost took away her breath. Her heart was bursting with
love, happiness, and shame. The humility of her father overcame
her…. And all at once a passionate impulse of tender, filial piety
broke the bonds which paralysed her soul and body, as she stretched
out her arms towards the absent, and threw herself at the foot of her
bed, thanking God, beseeching Him to give all the suffering to her,
and happiness to the one she loved.
The God to whom she prayed did not give ear; for it was on the head of
this young girl that he poured the sweet sleep of forgetfulness; but
Clerambault had to climb his Calvary to the end.
Alone in his room, the lamp put out, in darkness, Clerambault looked
within himself. He was determined to pierce to the bottom of his
timid, lying soul which tried to hide itself. On his head he could
still feel the coolness of his daughter's hand, which had effaced all
He would face this monster Truth, though he were torn by its claws
which never relax, once they have taken hold.
With a firm hand, in spite of his anguish, he began to tear off in
bleeding fragments the covering of mortal prejudices, passions, and
ideas foreign to his real nature, which clung to him.
First came the thick fleece of the thousand-headed beast, the
collective soul of the herd. He had hidden under it from fear and
weariness. It is hot and stifling, a dirty feather-bed; but once
wrapped in it, one cannot move to throw it off, or even wish to do so;
there is no need to will, or to think; one is sheltered from cold,
from responsibilities. Laziness, cowardice!… Come, away with it!…
Let the chilly wind blow through the rents. You shrink at first, but
already this breath has shaken the torpor; the enfeebled energy begins
to stagger to its feet. What will it find outside? No matter what, we
Sick with disgust, he saw first what he was loath to believe; how this
greasy fleece had stuck to his flesh. He could sniff the musty odour
of the primitive beast, the savage instincts of war, of murder, the
lust for blood like living meat torn by his jaws. The elemental force
which asks death for life. Far down in the depths of human nature is
this slaughter-house in the ditch, never filled up but covered with
the veil of a false civilisation, over which hangs a faint whiff from
the butcher's shop…. This filthy odour finally sobered Clerambault;
with horror he tore off the skin of the beast whose prey he had been.
Ah, how thick it was,—warm, silky, and beautiful, and at the same
time stinking and bloody, made of the lowest instincts, and the
highest illusions. To love, give ourselves to all, be a sacrifice for
all, be but one body and one soul, our Country the sole life!… What
then is this Country, this living thing to which a man sacrifices
his life, the life of all but his conscience and the consciences of
others? What is this blind love, of which the other side of the shield
is an equally blinded hate?
… "It was a great error to take the name of reason from that of
love," says Pascal, "and we have no good cause to think them opposed,
for love and reason are in truth the same. Love is a precipitation of
thought to one side without considering everything; but it is always
Well, let us consider everything. Is not this love in a great measure
the fear of examining all things, as a child hides his head under the
sheet, so as not to see the shadow on the wall?
Country? A Hindoo temple: men, monsters, and gods. What is she? The
earth we tread on? The whole earth is the mother of us all. The
family? It is here and there, with the enemy as with ourselves, and it
asks nothing but peace. The poor, the workers, the people, they are
on both sides, equally miserable, equally exploited. Thinkers have a
common field, and as for their rivalries and their vanities, they are
as ridiculous in the East as in the West; the world does not go to war
over the quarrels of a Vadius or a Trissotin. The State? But the State
and the Country are not the same thing. The confusion is made by those
who find profit in it; the State is our strength, used and abused by
men like ourselves, no better than ourselves, often worse. We are not
duped by them, and in times of peace we judge them fairly enough, but
let a war come on, they are given carte blanche, they can appeal to
the lowest instincts, stifle all control, suppress liberty and truth,
destroy all humanity; they are masters, we must stand shoulder to
shoulder to defend the honour and the mistakes of these Masacarilles
arrayed in borrowed plumes. We are all answerable, do you say?
Terrible net-work of words! Responsible no doubt we are for the best
and the worst of our people, it is a fact as we well know, but that it
is a duty that binds us to their injustices and their insanities…. I
There can be no question as to community of interest. No one, thought
Clerambault, has had more joy in it, or said more in praise of its
greatness. It is good and healthy, it makes for rest and strength, to
plunge the bare, stiff, cold ego into the collective mind, as into
a bath of confidence and fraternal gifts. It unbends, gives itself,
breathes more deeply; man needs his fellow-man, and owes himself to
him, but in order to give out, he must possess, he must be something.
But how can he be, if his self is merged in others? He has many
duties, but the highest of all is to be and remain himself; even when
he sacrifices and gives all that he is. To bathe in the soul of others
would be dangerous as a permanent state; one dip, for health's sake,
but do not stay too long, or you will lose all moral vigour. In our
day you are plunged from childhood, whether you like it or not, into
the democratic tub. Society thinks for you, imposes its morality upon
you; its State acts for you, its fashions and its opinions steal from
you the very air you breathe; you have no lungs, no heart, no light of
your own. You serve what you despise, you lie in every gesture, word,
and thought, you surrender, become nothing…. What does it profit us
all, if we all surrender? For the sake of whom, or what? To satisfy
blind instincts, or rogues? Does God rule, or do some charlatans speak
for the oracle? Let us lift the veil, and look the hidden thing behind
it in the face…. Our Country! A great noble word! The father,
brother embracing brother…. That is not what your false country
offers me, but an enclosure, a pit full of beasts, trenches, barriers,
prison bars…. My brothers, where are they? Where are those who
travail all over the world? Cain, what hast thou done with them? I
stretch out my arms; a wave of blood separates us; in my own country I
am only an anonymous instrument of assassination…. My Country! but
it is you who destroy her!… My Country was the great community of
mankind; you have ravaged it, for thought and liberty know not where
to lay their heads in Europe today. I must rebuild my house, the home
of us all, for you have none, yours is a dungeon…. How can it
be done, where shall I look, or find shelter?… They have taken
everything from me! There is not a free spot on earth or in the mind;
all the sanctuaries of the soul, of art, of science, religion, they
are all violated, all enslaved! I am alone, lost, nothing remains to
me but death!…
* * * * *
When he had torn everything away, there remained nothing but his naked
soul. And for the rest of the night, it could only stand chilled and
shivering. But a spark lived in this spirit that shivered, in this
tiny being lost in the universe like those shapes which the primitive
painters represented coming out of the mouth of the dying. With the
dawn the feeble flame, stifled under so many falsehoods, began to
revive, and was relighted by the first breath of free air; nothing
could again extinguish it.
* * * * *
Upon this agony or parturition of the soul there followed a long sad
day, the repose of a broken spirit, in a great silence with the aching
relief of duty performed…. Clerambault sat with his head against the
back of his armchair, and thought; his body was feverish, his heart
heavy with recollections. The tears fell unnoticed from his eyes,
while out of doors nature awoke sadly to the last days of winter, like
him stripped and bare. But still there trembled a warmth beneath the
icy air, which was to kindle a new fire everywhere.
It was a week before Clerambault could go out again. The terrible
crisis through which he had passed had left him weak but resolved,
and though the exaltation of his despair had quieted down, he was
stoically determined to follow the truth even to the end. The
remembrance of the errors in which his mind had delighted, and the
half-truths on which it had fed made him humble; he doubted his own
strength, and wished to advance step by step. He was ready to welcome
the advice of those wiser than himself. He remembered how Perrotin
listened to his former confidences with a sarcastic reserve that
irritated him at the time, but which now attracted him. His first
visit of convalescence was to this wise old friend.
Perrotin was rather short-sighted and selfish, and did not take the
trouble to look carefully at things that were not necessary to him,
being a closer observer of books than of faces, but he was none the
less struck by the alteration in Clerambault's expression.
"My dear friend," said he, "have you been ill?"
"Yes, ill enough," answered Clerambault, "but I have pulled myself
together again, and am better now."
"It is the cruelest blow of all," said Perrotin, "to lose at our age,
such a friend as your poor boy was to you …"
"The most cruel is not his loss," said the father, "it is that I
contributed to his death."
"What do you mean, my good friend?" said Perrotin in surprise. "How
can you imagine such things to add to your trouble?"
"It was I who shut his eyes," said Clerambault bitterly, "and he has
Perrotin pushed aside the work, which according to his habit he
had continued to ruminate upon during the conversation, and looked
narrowly at his friend, who bent his head, and began his story in an
indistinct voice, sad and charged with feeling. Like a Christian
of the early times making public confession, he accused himself of
falsehood towards his faith, his heart, and his reason.
When the Apostle saw his Lord in chains, he was afraid and denied Him;
but he was not brought so low as to offer his services as executioner.
He, Clerambault, had not only deserted the cause of human brotherhood,
he had debased it; he had continued to talk of fraternity, while he
was stirring up hatred. Like those lying priests who distort the
Scriptures to serve their wicked purposes, he had knowingly altered
the most generous ideas to disguise murderous passions.
He extolled war, while calling himself a pacifist; professed to be
humanitarian, previously putting the enemy outside humanity…. Oh,
how much franker it would have been to yield to force than to lend
himself to its dishonouring compromises! It was thanks to such
sophistries as his that the idealism of young men was thrown into the
arena. Those old poisoners, the artists and thinkers, had sweetened
the death-brew with their honeyed rhetoric, which would have been
found out and rejected by every conscience with disgust, if it had not
been for their falsehoods….
"The blood of my son is on my head," said Clerambault sadly. "The
death of the youth of Europe, in all countries, lies at the door of
European thought. It has been everywhere a servant to the hangman."
Perrotin leaned over and took Clerambault's hand. "My poor friend,"
said he, "you make too much of this. No doubt you are right to
acknowledge the errors of judgment into which you have been drawn by
public opinion, and I may confess to you now that I was sorry to see
it; but you are wrong to ascribe to yourself and other thinkers so
much responsibility for the events of today. One man speaks, another
acts; but the speakers do not move the others to action; they are all
drifting with the tide. This unfortunate European thought is a bit of
drift-wood like the rest, it does not make the current, it is carried
along by it."
"It persuades people to yield to it," said Clerambault, "instead of
helping the swimmers, and bidding them struggle against it; it
says: Let yourself go…. No, my friend, do not try to diminish its
responsibility, it is the greatest of all. Our thought had the best
place from which to see; its business was to keep watch, and if it saw
nothing, it was through lack of good-will, for it cannot lay the blame
on its eyes, which are clear enough. You know it and so do I, now that
I have come to my senses. The same intelligence which darkened my
eyes, has now torn away the bandage; how can it be, at the same time,
a power for truth and for falsehood?"
Perrotin shook his head.
"Yes, intelligence is so great and so high that she cannot put herself
at the service of any other forces without derogation; for if she is
no longer mistress and free, she is degraded. It is a case of
Roman master debasing the Greek, his superior, and making him his
purveyor—Graeculus, sophist, Laeno…. To the vulgar the
intelligence is a sort of maid-of-all-work, and in this position she
displays the sly, dishonest cleverness of her kind. Sometimes she is
employed by hatred, pride, or self-interest, and then she flatters
these little devils, dressing them up as Idealism, Love, Faith,
Liberty, and social generosity; for when a man does not love his
neighbour, he says he loves God, his Country, or even Humanity.
Sometimes the poor master is himself a slave to the State. Under
threat of punishment, the social machine forces him to acts which are
repugnant, but the complaisant intelligence persuades him that these
are fine and glorious, and performed by him of his own free will. In
either case the intelligence knows what she is about, and is always
at our disposition if we really want her to tell us the truth; but we
take good care to avoid it, and never to be left alone with her.
We manage so as to meet her only in public when we can put leading
questions as we please…. When all is said, the earth goes round none
the less, e pur se muove;—the laws of the world are obeyed, and the
free mind beholds them. All the rest is vanity; the passions, faith,
sincere or insincere, are only the painted face of that necessity
which rules the world, without caring for our idols: family, race,
country, religion, society, progress…. Progress indeed! The great
illusion! Humanity is like water that must find its level, and when
the cistern brims over a valve opens and it is empty again…. A
catastrophic rhythm, the heights of civilisation, and then downfall.
We rise, and are cast down …"
Thus Perrotin calmly unveiled his Thought. She was not much accustomed
to going naked; but she forgot that she had a witness, and undressed
as if she were alone. She was extremely bold, as is often the thought
of a man of letters not obliged to suit the action to the word,
but who much prefers, on the contrary, not to do so. The alarmed
Clerambault listened with his mouth open; certain words revolted him,
others pierced him to the heart; his head swam, but he overcame his
weakness, for he was determined to lose nothing of these profundities.
He pressed Perrotin with questions: and he, on his part, flattered and
smiling, complaisantly unrolled his pyrrhonian visions, as peaceable
as they were destructive.
The vapours of the pit were rising all about them; and Clerambault was
admiring the ease of this free spirit perched on the edge of the abyss
and enjoying it, when the door opened, and the servant came in with a
card which he gave to Perrotin.
At once the terrible phantoms of the brain vanished; a trap-door
shut out the emptiness, and an official drawing-room rug covered it.
Perrotin roused himself and said eagerly: "Certainly, show him in at
once." Turning to Clerambault he added:
"Pardon me, my dear friend, it is the Honourable Under-Secretary of
State for Public Instruction."
He was already on his feet and went to meet his visitor, a stage-lover
looking fellow, with the blue clean-shaven chin of a priest or a
Yankee, who held his head very high, and wore in the grey cut-a-way
which clothed his well-rounded figure, the rosette which is displayed
alike by our heroes and our lackeys. The old gentleman presented
Clerambault to him with cheerful alacrity: "Mr. Agénor
Clerambault—Mr. Hyacinth Monchéri," and asked the Honourable
Under-Secretary of State to what he owed the honour of his visit.
The Honourable Under-Secretary, not in the least surprised by the
obsequious welcome of the old scholar, settled himself in his armchair
with the lofty air of familiarity suitable to the superior position he
held over the two representatives of French letters. He represented
Speaking haughtily through his nose, and braying like a dromedary, he
extended to Perrotin an invitation from the Minister to preside over
a solemn contest of embattled intellectuals from ten nations, in the
great amphitheatre of the Sorbonne—"an imprecatory meeting," he
called it. Perrotin promptly accepted, and professed himself overcome
by the honour. His servile tone before this licensed government
ignoramus made a striking contrast with his bold statements a few
moments before, and Clerambault, somewhat taken aback, thought of the
Mr. "Chéri" walked out with his head in the air, like an ass in a
sacred procession, accompanied by Perrotin to the very threshold, and
when the friends were once more alone, Clerambault would have liked to
resume the conversation, but he could not conceal that he was a little
chilled by what had passed. He asked Perrotin if he meant to state
in public the opinions he had just professed, and Perrotin refused,
naturally, laughing at his friend's simplicity. What is more, he
cautioned him affectionately against proclaiming such ideas from the
house-tops. Clerambault was vexed and disputed the point, but in order
to make the situation clear to him, and with the utmost frankness,
Perrotin described his surroundings, the great minds of the higher
University, which he represented officially: historians, philosophers,
professors of rhetoric. He spoke of them politely but with a deep
half-concealed contempt, and a touch of personal bitterness; for in
spite of his prudence, the less intelligent of his colleagues looked
on him with suspicion; he was too clever. He said he was like an old
blind man's dog in a pack of barking curs; forced to do as they did
and bark at the passers-by.
Clerambault did not quarrel with him, but went away with pity in his
He stayed in the house for several days, for this first contact with
the outside world had depressed him, and the friend on whom he had
relied for guidance had failed him miserably. He was much troubled,
for Clerambault was weak and unused to stand alone. Poet as he was,
and absolutely sincere, he had never felt it necessary to think
independently of others; he had let himself be carried along by
their thought, making it his own, becoming its inspired voice and
mouth-piece. Now all was suddenly changed. Notwithstanding that night
of crisis, his doubts returned upon him; for after fifty a man's
nature cannot be transformed at a touch, no matter how much the mind
may have retained the elasticity of youth. The light of a revelation
does not always shine, like the sun in a clear summer sky, but is more
like an arc-light, which often winks and goes out before the current
becomes strong. When these irregular pulsations fade out, the shadows
appear deeper, and the spirit totters and then—. It was hard for
Clerambault to get along without other people.
He decided to visit all his friends, of whom he had many, in the
literary world, in the University, and among the intelligent
bourgeoisie. He was sure to find some among them who, better than
he, could divine the problems which beset him, and help him in their
Timidly, without as yet betraying his own mind, he tried to read
theirs, to listen and observe; but he had not realised that the veil
had fallen from his eyes; and the vision that he saw of a world, once
well-known to him, seemed strange and cold.
The whole world of letters was mobilised; so that personalities were
no longer to be distinguished. The universities formed a ministry of
domesticated intelligence; its functions were to draw up the acts of
the State, its master and patron; the different departments were known
by their professional twists.
The professors of literature were above all skilful in developing
moral arguments oratorically under the three terms of the syllogism.
Their mania was an excessive simplification of argument; they put
high-sounding words in the place of reason, and made too much of a few
ideas, always the same, lifeless for lack of colour or shading. They
had unearthed these weapons of a so-called classic antiquity, the key
to which had been jealously guarded throughout the ages by academic
Mamelukes, and these eloquent antiquated ideas were falsely called
Humanities, though in many respects they offended the common-sense and
the heart of humanity as it is today. Still they bore the hall-mark
of Rome, prototype of all our modern states, and their authorised
exponents were the State rhetoricians.
The philosophers excelled in abstract constructions; they had the art
of explaining the concrete by the abstract, the real by its shadow.
They systematised some hasty partial observations, melted them in
their alembics, and from them deduced laws to regulate the entire
world. They strove to subject life, multiple and many-sided, to
the unity of the mind, that is, to their mind. The time-serving
trickeries of a sophistical profession facilitated this imperialism of
the reason; they knew how to handle ideas, twisting, stretching, and
tying them together like strips of candy; it would have been child's
play for them to make a camel pass through the eye of a needle. They
could also prove that black was white, and could find in the works of
Emanuel Kant the freedom of the world, or Prussian militarism, just as
they saw fit.
The historians were the born scribes, attorneys, and lawyers of the
Government, charged with the care of its charters, its title-deeds,
and cases, and armed to the teeth for its future quarrels…. What is
history after all? The story of success, the demonstration of what has
been done, just or unjust. The defeated have no history. Be silent,
you Persians of Salamis, slaves of Spartacus, Gauls, Arabs of
Poitiers, Albigenses, Irish, Indians of both Americas, and colonial
peoples generally!… When a worthy man revolting against the
injustices of his day, puts his hope in posterity by way of
consolation, he forgets that this posterity has but little chance to
learn of former events. All that can be known is what the advocates of
official history think favourable to the cause of their client, the
State. A lawyer for the adverse party may possibly intervene—someone
of another nation, or of an oppressed social or religious group; but
there is small chance for him; the secret is kept too well!
Orators, sophists, and pleaders, the three corporations of the Faculty
of Letters,—Letters of State, signed and patented!
The studies of the "scientifics" ought to have protected them better
from the suggestions and contagions of the outside world—that is, if
they confined themselves to their trade. Unfortunately they have been
tempted from it, for the applied sciences have taken so large a place
in practical affairs that experts find themselves thrown into the
foremost ranks of action, and exposed to all the infections of the
public mind. Their self-respect is directly interested in the victory
of the community, which can as easily assimilate the heroism of the
soldier as the follies and falsehoods of the publicist. Few scientific
men have had the strength to keep themselves free; for the most
part they have only contributed the rigour, the stiffness of the
geometrical mind, added to professional rivalries, always more acute
between learned bodies of different nationalities.
The regular writers, poets, and novelists, who have no official ties,
they, at least should have the advantages of their independence; but
unfortunately few of them are able to judge for themselves of events
which are beyond the limits of their habitual preoccupations,
commercial or aesthetic. The greater number, and not the least known,
are as ignorant as fishes. It would be best for them to stick to their
shop, according to their natural instinct; but their vanity has been
foolishly tickled, and they have been urged to mix themselves up with
public affairs, and give their opinion on the universe. They can
naturally have but scattering views on such subjects, and in default
of personal judgment, they drift with the current, reacting with
extreme quickness to any shock, for they are ultra-sensitive, with a
morbid vanity which exaggerates the thoughts of others when it cannot
express their own. This is the only originality at their disposal, and
God knows they make the most of it!
What remains? the Clergy? It is they who handle the heaviest
explosives; the ideas of Justice, Truth, Right, and God; and they make
this artillery fight for their passions. Their absurd pride, of which
they are quite unconscious, causes them to lay claim to the property
of God, and to the exclusive right to dispose of it wholesale and
It is not so much that they lack sincerity, virtue, or kindness, but
they do lack humility; they have none, however much they may profess
it. Their practice consists in adoring their navel as they see it
reflected in the Talmud, or the Old and New Testaments. They are
monsters of pride, not so very far removed from the fool of legend
who thought himself God the Father. Is it so much less dangerous to
believe oneself His manager, or His secretary?
Clerambault was struck by the morbid character of the intellectual
species. In the bourgeois caste the power of organisation and
expression of ideas has reached almost monstrous proportions. The
equilibrium of life is destroyed by a bureaucracy of the mind which
thinks itself much superior to the simple worker. Certainly no one can
deny that it has its uses; it collects and classifies thoughts in its
pigeon-holes and puts them to various purposes, but the idea rarely
occurs to it to examine its material and renew the content of thought.
It remains the vain guardian of a demonetised treasure. If only
this mistake were a harmless one; but ideas that are not constantly
confronted with reality, which are not frequently dipped into the
stream of experience, grow dry, and take on a toxic character. They
throw a heavy shadow over the new life, bring on the night and produce
fever. What a stupid thraldom to abstract words! Of what use is it to
dethrone kings and by what right do we jeer at those who die for their
masters, if it is only to put tyrannic entities in their places, which
we adorn with their tinsel? It is much better, to have a flesh and
blood monarch, whom you can control—suppress if necessary—than these
abstractions, these invisible despots, that no one knows now, nor ever
has known. We deal only with the head Eunuchs, the priests of the
hidden Crocodile, as Taine calls him, the wire-pulling ministers who
speak in the idol's name.—Ah! let us tear away the veil and know the
creature hidden inside of us. There is less danger when man shows
frankly as a brute than when he drapes himself in a false and sickly
idealism. He does not eliminate his animal instincts, he only deifies
and tries to explain them, but as this cannot be done without
excessive simplification—according to the law of the mind which
in order to grasp must let go an equal amount—he disguises and
intensifies them in one direction. Everything that departs from the
straight line or that interferes with the strict logic of his mental
edifice, he denies; worse he pulls it up by the roots, and commands
that it be destroyed in the name of sacred principles. It therefore
follows that he cuts down much of the infinite growth of nature, and
allows to stand only the trees of the mind that he chooses—generally
those that flourish in deserts and ruins and which there grow
abnormally. Of such is the crushing predominance of one single
tyrannous form of the Family, of Country, and of the narrow morality
which serves them. The poor creature is proud of it all; and it is he
who is the victim.
Humanity does not dare to massacre itself from interested motives. It
is not proud of its interests, but it does pride itself on its ideas
which are a thousand times more deadly. Man sees his own superiority
in his ideas, and will fight for them; but herein I perceive his
folly, for this warlike idealism is a disease peculiar to him, and its
effects are similar to those of alcoholism; they add enormously to
wickedness and criminality. This sort of intoxication deteriorates
the brain, filling it with hallucinations, to which the living are
What an extraordinary spectacle, seen from the interior of our skulls!
A throng of phantoms rising from our overexcited brains: Justice,
Liberty, Right, Country…. Our poor brains are all equally honest,
but each accuses the other of insincerity. In this fantastic shadowy
struggle, we can distinguish nothing but the cries and the convulsions
of the human animal, possessed by devils…. Below are clouds charged
with lightnings, where great fierce birds are fighting; the realists,
the men of affairs, swarm and gnaw like fleas in a skin; with open
mouths, and grasping hands, secretly exciting the folly by which they
profit, but in which they do not share….
O Thought! monstrous and splendid flower springing from the humus
of our time-honoured instincts!… In truth, thou art an element
penetrating and impregnating man, but thou dost not spring from him,
thy source is beyond him, and thy strength greater than his. Our
senses are fairly well-adapted to our needs but our thought is not,
it overflows and maddens us. Very, very few among us men can guide
themselves on this torrent; the far greater number are swept along,
at random, trusting to chance. The tremendous power of thought is not
under man's control; he tries to make it serve him, and his greatest
danger is that he believes that it does so; but he is like a child
handling explosives; there is no proportion between these colossal
engines and the purpose for which his feeble hands employ them.
Sometimes they all blow up together….
How guard against this danger? Shall we stifle thought, uproot living
ideas? That would mean the castration of man's brain, the loss of his
chief stimulus in life; but nevertheless the eau-de-vie of his mind
contains a poison which is the more to be dreaded because it is spread
broadcast among the masses, in the form of adulterated drugs….
Rouse thee, Man, and sober thyself! Look about; shake off ideas. Free
thyself from thine own thoughts and learn to govern thy gigantic
phantoms which devour themselves in their rage…. And begin by
taking the capitals from the names of those great goddesses, Country,
Liberty, Right. Come down from Olympus into the manger, and come
without ornaments, without arms, rich only in your beauty, and our
love…. I do not know the gods of Justice and Liberty; I only know
my brother-man, and his acts, sometimes just, sometimes unjust; and I
also know of peoples, all aspiring to real liberty but all deprived of
it, and who all, more or less, submit to oppression.
The sight of this world in a fever-fit would have filled a sage with
the desire to withdraw until the attack was over; but Clerambault was
not a sage. He knew this, and he also knew that it was vain to
speak; but none the less he felt that he must, that he should end by
speaking. He wished to delay the dangerous moment, and his timidity,
which shrank from single combat with the world, sought about him for a
companion in thought. The fight would not be so hard if there were two
or three together.
The first whose feeling he cautiously sounded were some unfortunate
people who, like him, had lost a son. The father, a well-known
painter, had a studio in the Rue Notre Dame des Champs. His name was
Omer Calville and the Clerambaults were neighbourly with him and his
wife, a nice old couple of the middle class, devoted to each other.
They had that gentleness, common to many artists of their day, who had
known Carrière, and caught remote reflections of Tolstoïsm, which,
like their simplicity, appeared a little artificial, for though it
harmonised with their real goodness of heart, the fashion of the time
had added a touch of exaggeration.
Those artists who sincerely profess their religious respect for all
that lives, are less capable than anyone else of understanding the
passions of war. The Calvilles had held themselves outside the
struggle; they did not protest, they accepted it, without acquiescing,
as one accepts sickness, death, or the wickedness of men, with a
When Clerambault read them his burning poems they listened politely
and made little response—but strangely enough, at the very time that
Clerambault, cured of his warlike illusions, turned to them, he found
that they had changed places with him. The death of their son had
produced on them the opposite effect. And now they were awkwardly
taking part in the conflict, as if to replace their lost boy. They
snuffed up eagerly all the stench in the papers, and Clerambault found
them actually rejoicing, in their misery, over the assertion that the
United States was prepared to fight for twenty years.
"What would become of France, of Europe, in twenty years?" he tried
to say, but they hastily put this thought away from them with much
irritation, almost as if it were improper to mention, or even to think
of such a thing.
The question was to conquer; at what price? That could be settled
afterwards.—Conquer? Suppose there were no more conquerors left in
France? Never mind, so long as the others are beaten. No, it should
not be that the blood of their son had been shed in vain.
"And to avenge his death, must other innocent lives also be
sacrificed?" thought Clerambault, and in the hearts of these good
people he read the answer: "Why not?" The same idea was in the minds
of all those who, like the Calvilles, had lost through the war what
they held dearest—a son, a husband, or a brother….
"Let the others suffer as we have, we have nothing left to lose." Was
there nothing left? In truth there was one thing only, on which the
fierce egotism of these mourners kept jealous guard; their faith in
the necessity of these sacrifices. Let no one try to shake that, or
doubt that the cause was sacred for which these dear ones fell. The
leaders of the war knew this, and well did they understand how to make
the most of such a lure. No, by these sad fire-sides there was no
place for Clerambault's doubts and feelings of pity.
"They had no pity on us," thought the unhappy ones, "why should we
Some had suffered less, but what characterised nearly all of these
bourgeois was the reverence they had for the great slogans of
the past: "Committee of Public Safety," "The Country in Danger,"
"Plutarch," "De Viris," "Horace,"—it seemed impossible for them to
look at the present with eyes of today; perhaps they had no eyes to
see with. Outside of the narrow circle of their own affairs, how many
of our anemic bourgeoisie have the power to think for, themselves,
after they have reached the age of thirty? It would never cross their
minds; their thoughts are furnished to them like their provisions,
only more cheaply. For one or two cents a day they get them from their
papers. The more intelligent, who look for thought in books, do not
give themselves the trouble to seek it also in life, and think that
one is the reflection of the other. Like the prematurely aged, their
members become stiff, and their minds petrified.
In the great flock of those ruminating souls who fed on the past, the
group of bigots pinning its faith to the French Revolution was easily
distinguished. Among the backward bourgeoisie they were reckoned
incendiary in former days;—about the time of the 16th of May, or a
little later. Like quinquagenarians grown stolid and settled, they
looked back with pride to their wild conduct, and lived on the memory
of the emotions of by-gone days. If their mirror showed them no
change, the world had altered around them without their suspecting it,
while they continued to copy their antiquated models. It is a curious
imitative instinct, a slavery of the brain, to remain hypnotised by
some point in the past, instead of trying to follow Proteus in his
course—the life of change. One picks up the old skin which the young
snake has thrown off long ago, and tries to sew it together again.
These pedantic admirers of old revolutions believe that those of the
future will be made on the same lines. They will not see that the new
liberty must have a gait of its own, and will overleap barriers before
which its grandmother of ninety-three stopped, out of breath. They are
also much more vexed by the disrespect of the young people who have
gone by them, than they are by the spiteful yelping of the old whom
they have left behind; this is only natural, for these young folks
make them feel their age, and then it is their turn to yelp.
So it ever shall be; as they grow older there are very few men willing
to let life take its own course, and who are generous enough to look
at the future through the eyes of their juniors, as their own sight
grows dim. The greater number of those who loved liberty in their
youth, want to make a case of it now for the new broods, because they
can no longer fly themselves.
The followers of the national revolutionary cult—in the style of
Danton, or of Robespierre—were the bitterest adversaries of the
internationalism of today; though they did not always agree perfectly
amongst themselves, and the friends of Danton and Robespierre, with
the shadow of the guillotine between them, hurled the epithet of
heretic at each other with the deadliest threats. They did, however,
all agree on one point, and devoted to destruction those who did not
believe that Liberty is shot out of the mouth of cannon, those who
dared to feel the same aversion towards violence, whether it was
exerted by Caesar, Demos, or his satellites, or even if it was in the
name of right and liberty itself. The face underneath is the same, no
matter what mask may be worn.
Clerambault knew several of these fanatics, but there was no point in
discussing with them whether the right, or its counterfeit, were only
on one side in war; it would have been equally sensible to argue about
the Holy Inquisition with a Manichee. Lay religions have their great
seminaries and secret societies where they deposit their doctrinal
treasures with great pride. He who departs from these is
excommunicated—until he in turn belongs to the past, when he becomes
a god, and can excommunicate in future himself.
* * * * *
If Clerambault was not tempted to convert these hardened intellectuals
with their stiff helmet of truth, he knew others who had not the same
proud certainty; far from it. Those who sinned rather through softness
and pure dilettantism—Arsène Asselin was one of these, an amiable
Parisian, unmarried, a man of the world, clever and sceptical; and as
much shocked by a defect in sentiment as in expression. How could he
like extremes of thought, which are the cultures in which the germs of
war develop? His critical and sarcastic spirit inclined him towards
doubt; so there was no reason why he should not have understood
Clerambault's point of view, and he came within an ace of doing so.
His choice depended on some fortuitous circumstances, but from
the moment that he turned his face in the other direction, it was
impossible for him to go back; and the more he stuck in the mud, the
more obstinate he grew. French self-respect cannot bear to admit its
mistakes; it would rather die in defence of them…. But French or
not, how many are there in the world who would have the strength of
mind to say: "I have made a mistake, we must begin all over again."
Better deny the evidence … "To the bitter end" … And then break
Alexandre Mignon was a before-the-war pacifist and an old friend
of Clerambault's. He was a bourgeois of about his own age,
intellectual, a member of the University, and justly respected for the
dignity of his life. He should not be confounded with those parlour
pacifists covered with official decorations and grand cordons of
international orders, for whom peace is a gilt-edged investment in
quiet times. For thirty years he had sincerely denounced the dangerous
intrigues of the dishonest politicians and speculators of his country;
he was a member of the League for the Rights of Man, and loved to make
speeches for either cause, as it might happen. It was enough if his
client purported to be oppressed; it did not matter if the victim had
been a would-be oppressor himself. His blundering generosity sometimes
made him ridiculous, but he was always liked. He did not object to the
ridicule, nor did he dread a little unpopularity, as long as he was
surrounded by his own group, whose approbation was necessary to him.
As a member of a group which was independent when they all held
together, he thought that he was an independent person, but this was
not the case. Union is strength they say, but it accustoms us to lean
upon it, as Alexandre Mignon found to his cost.
The death of Jaurès had broken up the group; and lacking one
voice—the first to speak—all the others failed. They waited for the
password that no one dared to give. When the torrent broke over them
these generous but weak men were uncertain, and were carried away by
the first rush. They did not understand nor approve of it, but they
could make no resistance. From the beginning desertions began in
their ranks, produced largely by the terrible speech-makers who
then governed the country—demagogue lawyers, practised in all the
sophistries of republican idealogy: "War for Peace, Lasting Peace at
the End …" (Requiescat) … In these artifices the poor pacifists
saw a way to get out of their dilemma; it was not a very brilliant
way and they were not proud of it, but it was their only chance. They
hoped to reconcile their pacific principles with the fact of violence
by means of "big talk" which did not sound to them as outrageous as
it really was. To refuse would have been to give themselves up to the
war-like pack, which would have devoured them.
Alexandre Mignon would have had courage to face the bloody jaws if he
had had his little community at his back, but alone it was beyond his
strength. He let things go at first, without committing himself,
but he suffered, passing through agonies something like those of
Clerambault, but with a different result. He was less impulsive and
more intellectual. In order to efface his last scruples he hid
them under close reasoning, and with the aid of his colleagues he
laboriously proved by a + b that war was the duty of consistent
pacifism. His League had every advantage in dwelling on the criminal
acts of the enemy; but did not dwell on those in its own camp.
Alexandre Mignon had occasional glimpses of the universal injustice;
an intolerable vision, on which he closed his shutters….
In proportion as he was swaddled in his war arguments, it became more
difficult for him to disentangle himself, and he persisted more and
more. Suppose a child carelessly pulls off the wing of an insect; it
is only a piece of nervous awkwardness, but the insect is done for,
and the child ashamed and irritated, tears the poor creature to pieces
to relieve his own feelings.
The pleasure with which he listened to Clerambault's mea culpa may
be imagined; but the effect was surprising. Mignon, already ill at
ease, turned on Clerambault, whose self-accusations seemed to point
at him, and treated him like an enemy. In the sequel no one was more
violent than Mignon against this living remorse.
* * * * *
There were some politicians who would have understood Clerambault
better, for they knew as much as he did and perhaps more; but it did
not keep them awake at night. They had been used to mental
trickery ever since they cut their first teeth, and were expert at
combinazione; they had the illusion of serving their party, cheaply
gained by a few compromises here and there!… To think and walk
straightforwardly was the one thing impossible to these flabby
shufflers, who backed, or advanced in spirals, who dragged their
banner in the mud, by way of assuring its triumph, and who, to reach
the Capitol, would have crawled up the steps on their stomachs.
* * * * *
Here and there some clear-sighted spirits were hidden, but they were
easier to guess at than to see; they were melancholy glow-worms who
had put out their lanterns in their fright, so that not a gleam was
visible. They certainly had no faith in the war, but neither did they
believe in anything against it;—fatalists, pessimists all.
It was clear to Clerambault that when personal energy is lacking,
the highest qualities of head and heart only increase the public
servitude. The stoicism which submits to the laws of the universe
prevents us from resisting those which are cruel, instead of saying to
destiny: "No, thus far, and no farther!" … If it pushes on you
will see the stoic stand politely aside, as he murmurs: "Please come
in!"—Cultivated heroism, the taste for the superhuman, even the
inhuman, chokes the soul with its sacrifices, and the more absurd they
are, the more sublime they appear—Christians of today, more generous
than their Master, render all to Caesar; a cause seems sacred to them
from the moment that they are asked to immolate themselves to it. To
the ignominy of war they piously kindle the flame of their faith, and
throw their bodies on the altar. The people bend their backs, and
accept with a passive, ironic resignation…. "No need to borrow
trouble." Ages and ages of misery have rolled over this stone, but in
the end stones do wear down and become mud.
Clerambault tried to talk with one and another of these people but
found himself everywhere opposed by the same hidden, half-unconscious
resistance. They were armed with the will not to hear, or rather with
a remarkable not-will to hear. Their minds were as impervious to
contrary arguments as a duck's feathers to water. Men in general are
endowed, for their comfort, with a precious faculty; they can make
themselves blind and deaf when it does not suit them to see and hear,
and when by chance they pick up some inconvenient object, they drop it
quickly, and forget it as soon as possible. How many citizens in any
country knew the truth about the divided responsibility for the
war, or about the ill-omened part played by their politicians, who,
themselves deceived, pretended with great success to be ignorant!
If everyone is trying to escape from himself, it is clear, that a man
will run faster from someone who, like Clerambault, would help him to
recover himself. In order to avoid their own conscience, intelligent,
serious, honourable men do not blush to employ the little tricks of a
woman or a child trying to get its own way; and dreading a discussion
which might unsettle them, they would seize on the first awkward
expression used by Clerambault. They would separate it from the
context, dress it up if necessary, and with raised voices and eyes
starting from their heads, feign an indignation which they ended by
feeling sincerely. They would repeat "mordicus," even after the
proof, and if obliged to admit it, would rush off, banging the door
after them: "Can't stand any more of that!" But two, or perhaps ten
days after, they would come back and renew the argument, as if nothing
Some treacherous ones provoked Clerambault to say more than he
intended, and having gained their point, exploded with rage. But even
the most good-natured told him that he lacked good sense—"good," of
course, meaning "my way of thinking."
There were the clever talkers also who, having nothing to fear from a
contest of words, began an argument in the flattering hope that they
could bring the wandering sheep back to the fold. It was not his main
idea that they disputed, so much as its desirability; they would
appeal to Clerambault's better side:
"Certainly, of course, I think as you do, or almost as you do; I
understand what you mean; … but you ought to be cautious, my dear
friend, not to trouble the consciences of those who have to fight. You
cannot always speak the truth, at least not all at once. These fine
things may come about … in fifty years, perhaps. We must wait and
not go too fast for nature …"
"Wait, until the appetites of the exploiter, and the folly of the
exploited are equally exhausted? When the thinking of clear-sighted,
better sort gives way to the blindness of coarser minds, it goes
directly contrary to that nature which it professes to follow, and
against the historical destiny which they themselves make it a point
of honour to obey. For do we respect the plans of Nature when we
stifle one part of its thought, and the higher, at that? The theory
which would lop off the strongest forces from life, and bend it
before the passions of the multitude, would result in suppressing the
advance-guard, and leaving the army without leaders…. When the boat
leans over, must I not throw my weight on the other side to keep an
even keel? Or must we all sit down to leeward? Advanced ideas are
Nature's weights, intended to counter-balance the heavy stubborn past;
without them the boat will upset…. The welcome they will receive is
a side issue. Their advocates can expect to be stoned, but whoever has
these things in his mind and does not speak them, is a dishonoured
man. He is like a soldier in battle, to whom a dangerous message is
entrusted; is he free to shirk it?… Why does not everyone understand
When they saw that persuasion had no effect on Clerambault, they
unmasked their batteries and violently taxed him with absurd, criminal
pride. They asked him if he thought himself cleverer than anyone else,
that he set himself up against the entire nation? On what did he found
this overweening self-confidence? Duty consists in being humble, and
keeping to one's proper place in the community; when it commands, our
duty is to bow to it, and, whether we agree or not, we must carry out
its orders. Woe to the rebel against the soul of his country! To be in
the right and in opposition to her is to be wrong, and in the hour of
action wrong is a crime. The Republic demands obedience from her sons.
"The Republic or death," said Clerambault ironically. "And this is a
free country? Free, yes, because there have always been, and always
will be some souls like mine, which refuse to bend to a yoke which
their conscience disavows. We are become a nation of tyrants. There
was no great advantage in taking the Bastille. In the old days one ran
the risk of perpetual imprisonment if one made so bold as to differ
from the Prince—the fagot, if you did not agree with the Church; but
now you must think with forty millions of men and follow them in their
frantic contradictions. One day you must scream: "Down with England!"
Tomorrow it will be: "Down with Germany!" and the next day it may be
the turn of Italy; and da capo in a week or two. Today we acclaim a
man or an idea, tomorrow we shall insult him; and anyone who refuses
risks dishonour—or a pistol bullet. This is the most ignoble and
shameful servitude of all!… By what right do a hundred, a thousand,
one or forty millions of men, demand that I shall renounce my soul?
Each of them has one, like mine. Forty millions of souls together
often make only one, which has denied itself forty millions of
times…. I think what I think. Go you and do likewise. The living
truth can be re-born only from the equilibrium of opposing thoughts.
To make the citizen respect the city, it must be reciprocal; each has
his soul. It is his right and his first duty is to be true to it….
I have no illusions, and in this world of prey I do not attribute an
exaggerated importance to my own conscience, but however small we may
be or little we may do, we must exist. We are all liable to err, but
deceived or not, a man should be sincere; an honest mistake is not a
lie, but a stage on the road to truth. The real lie is to fear the
truth and try to stifle it. Even if you were a thousand times right,
if you resort to force to crush a sincere mistake, you commit the most
odious crime against reason itself. If reason is persecutor, and error
persecuted, I am for the victim, for error has rights as well as
truth…. Truth—the real truth, is to be always seeking what is true,
and to respect the efforts of those who suffer in the pursuit. If you
insult a man who is striving to hew out his path, if you persecute him
who wishes, and perhaps fails, to find less inhuman roads for human
progress, you make a martyr of him. Your way is the best, the only
one, you say? Follow it then, and let me follow mine. I do not oblige
you to come with me, so why are you angry? Are you afraid lest I
should prove to be in the right?"
The impression left on Clerambault's mind by his last interview with
Perrotin, was one of sadness and pity; but on the whole he decided to
go again to see him, having by now arrived at a better understanding
of his ironical and prudent attitude towards the world. If he had
retained but small esteem for Perrotin's character, on the other hand
the great intelligence of the old scholar continued to command his
highest admiration; he still saw in him a guide towards the light.
Perrotin was not exactly delighted to see Clerambault again. The other
day he had been obliged to commit a little cowardly act; he did not
mind that, for he was used to it, but it was under the eyes of an
incorruptible witness, and he was too clever not to have retained a
disagreeable memory of the incident. He foresaw a discussion, and he
hated to discuss with people who had convictions—there is no fun in
it, they take everything so seriously—however, he was courteous,
weak, good-natured, and unable to refuse when anyone attacked him
vigorously. He tried at first to avoid serious questions; but when he
saw that Clerambault really needed him, and that perhaps he might save
him from some imprudence, he consented, with a sigh, to give up his
Clerambault related to him all that he had done, and the result. He
realised that the world around served other gods than his; for he had
shared the same faith, and even now was impartial enough to see a
certain grandeur and beauty in it. Since these last trials, however,
he had also seen its horror and absurdity; he had abandoned it for a
new ideal, which would certainly bring him into conflict with the old.
With brief and passionate touches, Clerambault explained this new
ideal, and called on Perrotin to say if to him it seemed true or
false; entreating his friend to lay aside considerations of tact or
politeness, to speak clearly and frankly. Struck by Clerambault's
tragic earnestness, Perrotin changed his tone, and answered in the
"It amounts to this, that you think I am wrong?" asked Clerambault,
distressed. "I see that I am alone in this, but I cannot help it. Do
not try to spare me now, but tell me, am I wrong to think as I do?"
"No, my friend," replied Perrotin gravely, "you are right."
"Then you agree that I ought to fight against these murderous
"Ah, that is another matter."
"Ought I to betray the truth, when it is clear to me?"
"Truth, my poor friend! No, don't look at me like that, I shall not
follow Pilate's example, and ask: What is Truth? Like you, and longer
than you perhaps, I have loved her. But Truth, my dear Sir, is higher
than you, than I, than all those that ever have, or ever will inhabit
the earth. We may believe that we obey the Great Goddess, but in
fact we serve only the Dî minores, the saints in the side chapels,
alternately adored and neglected by the crowd. The one in honour of
whom men are now killing and mutilating themselves in a Corybantic
frenzy, can evidently be no longer yours nor mine. The ideal of the
Country is a god, great and cruel, who will leave to the future the
image of a sort of bugaboo Cronos, or of his Olympian son whom Christ
superseded. Your ideal of humanity is the highest rung of the ladder,
the announcement of the new god—who will be dethroned later on by one
higher still, who will embrace more of the universe. The ideal and
life never cease to evolve, and this continual advance forms the
genuine interest of the world to the liberal mind; but if the mind can
constantly rise without rest or interruption, in the world of fact
progress is made step by step, and a scant few inches are gained in
the whole of a lifetime. Humanity limps along, and your mistake, the
only one, is that you are two or three days' journey ahead of it,
but—perhaps with good reason—that is one of the mistakes most
difficult to forgive. When an ideal, like that of Country, begins
to age with the form of society to which it is strongly bound, the
slightest attack makes it ferocious, and it will blaze out furiously
in its exasperation. The reason is that it has already begun to
doubt itself. Do not deceive yourself; these millions of men who are
slaughtering each other now in the name of patriotism, have no longer
the early enthusiasm of 1792, or 1813, even though there is more noise
and ruin today. Many of those who die, and those who send them to
their death, feel in their hearts the horrible touch of doubt; but
entangled as they are, too weak to escape, or even to imagine a way of
salvation, they proclaim their injured faith with a kind of despair,
and throw themselves blindly into the abyss. They would like to throw
in also those who first raised doubts in them by words or actions. To
wish to destroy the dream of those who are dying for its sake, is to
wish to kill twice over."
Clerambault held out his hand to stop him:—"Ah! you have no need to
tell me that, and it tortures me. Do you think I am insensible to the
pain of these poor souls whose faith I undermine? Respect the beliefs
of others; offend not one of these little ones…. My God! what can I
do? Help me to get out of this dilemma; shall I see wrong done, let
men go to ruin,—or risk injuring them, wound their faith, draw hatred
upon myself when I try to save them?… Show me the law!"
"But that would be to lose myself, if the price is the life of others,
if we do nothing. You and I, no effort would be too great,—the ruin
of Europe, of the whole world, is imminent."
Perrotin sat quietly, his elbows on the arms of his chair, his hands
folded over his Buddha-like belly. He twirled his thumbs, looking
kindly at Clerambault, shook his head, and replied: "Your generous
heart, and your artistic sensibilities urge you too far, my friend,
but fortunately the world is not near its end. This is not the first
time. And there will be many others. What is happening today is
painful, certainly, but not in the least abnormal. War has never kept
the earth from turning on its axis, nor prevented the evolution of
life; it is even one of the forms of its evolution. Let an old scholar
and philosopher oppose his calm inhumanity to your holy Man of
Sorrows. In spite of all it may bring you some benefit. This struggle,
this crisis which alarms you so much, is no more than a simple case
of systole, a cosmic contraction, tumultuous, but regulated, like the
folding of the earth crust accompanied by destructive earthquakes.
Humanity is tightening. And war is its seismos. Yesterday, in all
countries, provinces were at war with each other. Before that, in each
province, cities fought together. Now that national unity has been
reached, a larger unity develops. It is certainly regrettable that it
should take place by violence, but that is the natural method. Of the
explosive mixture of conflicting elements in conflict, a new chemical
body will be born. Will it be in the East, or in Europe? I cannot
tell; but surely what results will have new properties, more valuable
than its parts. The end is not yet. The war of which we are now
witnesses is magnificent … (I beg your pardon; I mean magnificent to
the mind, where suffering does not exist) … Greater, finer conflicts
still are preparing. These poor childish peoples who imagine that they
can disturb the peace of eternity with their cannon shots!… The
whole universe must first pass through the retort. We shall have a war
between the two Americas, one between the New World and the Yellow
Continent, then the conquerors and the rest of the world…. That is
enough to fill up a few centuries. And I may not have seen all, my
eyes are not very good. Naturally each of these shocks will lead to
"It will all be accomplished in about a dozen centuries. (I am
rather inclined to think that it will be more rapid than it seems by
comparison with the past, for the movement becomes accelerated as
it proceeds.) No doubt we shall arrive at a rather impoverished
synthesis, for many constituent elements, some good, some bad, will
be destroyed in the process, the one being too delicate to resist the
hostile environment, the other injurious and impossible to assimilate.
Then we shall have the celebrated United States of the whole world;
and this union will be all the more solid, because, as is probable,
man will be menaced by a common danger. The canals of Mars, the
drying-up or cooling-off of the planet, some mysterious plague,
the pendulum of Poe, in short, the vision of an inevitable death
overwhelming the human race…. There will be great things to behold!
The Genius of the race, stretched to the uttermost, in its last
"There will be, on the other hand, very little liberty; human
multiplicity when near its end will fuse itself into a Unity of Will.
Do we not see the beginnings already? Thus, without abrupt mutations,
will be effected the reintegration of the complex in the one, of old
Empedocles' Hatred in Love."
"And what then?"
"After that? A rest, and then it will all begin over again, there can
be no doubt. A young cycle. The new Kalpa. The world will turn once
more, on the re-forged wheel."
"And what is the answer to the riddle?"
"The Hindoos would tell you Siva. Siva, who creates and destroys;
destroys and creates."
"What a hideous dream."
"That is an affair of temperament. Wisdom liberates. To the Hindoos,
Buddha is the deliverer. As for me, curiosity is a sufficient reward."
"It would not be enough for me, and I cannot content myself either
with the wisdom of a selfish Buddha, who sets himself free by
deserting the rest. I know the Hindoos as you do, and I love them, but
even among them, Buddha has not said the last word of wisdom. Do you
remember that Bodhisattva, the Master of Pity, who swore not to become
Buddha, never to find freedom in Nirvana, until he had cured all pain,
redeemed all crimes, consoled all sorrows?"
Perrotin smiled and patted Clerambault's hand affectionately as he
looked at his troubled face.
"Dear old Bodhisattva," he said, "what do you want to do? And whom
would you save?"
"Oh, I know well enough," said Clerambault, hanging his head. "I know
how small I am, how little I can do, the weakness of my wishes and
protestations. Do not think me so vain; but how can I help it, if I
feel it is my duty to speak?"
"Your duty is to do what is right and reasonable; not to sacrifice
yourself in vain."
"Do you certainly know what is in vain? Can you tell beforehand which
seed will germinate and which will turn out sterile and perish? But
you sow seed nevertheless. What progress would ever have been made,
if those who bore the germ of it had stopped terrified before the
enormous mass of accumulated routine which hung ready to crush them,
above their heads."
"I admit that a scholar is bound to defend the Truth that he has
discovered, but is this social question your mission? You are a poet;
keep to your dreams, and may they prove a defence to you!"
"Before considering myself as a poet, I consider myself as a man, and
every honest man has a mission."
"A mind like yours is too precious and valuable to be sacrificed, it
would be murder."
"Yes, you are willing to sacrifice people who have little to lose." He
was silent for a moment, and then went on:
"Perrotin, I have often thought that we, men of thought, artists, all
of us, we do not live up to our obligations. Not only now, but for a
long time, perhaps always. We are custodians of the portion of Truth
that is in us, a little light, which we have prudently kept for
ourselves. More than once this has troubled me, but I shut my eyes
to it then; now they have been unsealed by suffering. We are the
privileged ones, and that lays duties upon us which we have not
fulfilled; we are afraid of compromising ourselves. There is an
aristocracy of the mind, which claims to succeed to that of blood; but
it forgets that the privileges of the old order were first purchased
with blood. For ages mankind has listened to words of wisdom, but it
is rare to see the wise men offer themselves as a sacrifice, though
it would do no harm if the world should see some of them stake their
lives on their doctrines, as in the heroic days. Sacrifice is the
condition of fecundity. To make others believe, you must believe first
yourself, and prove it. Men do not see a truth simply because it
exists, it must have the breath of life; and this spirit which
is ours, we can and ought to give. If not, our thoughts are only
amusements of dilettanti—a play, which deserves only a little
applause. Men who advance the history of the world make
stepping-stones of their own lives. How much higher than all our
great men was the Son of the carpenter of Galilee. Humanity knows the
difference between them and the Saviour."
"But did He save it?
"'When Jahveh speaks: "'Tis my desire,"
His people work to feed the fire.'"
"Your circle of flame is the last terror, and Man exists only to break
through, that he may come out of it free."
"Free?" repeated Perrotin with his quiet smile.
"Yes, free! It is the highest good, but few reach it, although the
name is common enough. It is as exceptional as real beauty, or real
goodness. By a free man I mean one who can liberate himself from
himself, his passions, his blind instincts, those of his surroundings,
or of the moment. It is said that he does this in obedience to the
voice of reason; but reason in the sense that you give it, is a
mirage. It is only another passion, hardened, intellectualised, and
therefore fanatical. No, he must put himself out of sight, in order to
get a clear view over the clouds of dust raised by the flock on the
road of today, to take in the whole horizon, so as to put events in
their proper place in the scheme of the universe."
"Then," said Perrotin, "he must accommodate himself to the laws of
"Not necessarily," said Clerambault, "he can oppose them with a clear
conscience if they are contrary to right and happiness. Liberty
consists in that very thing, that a free man is in himself a conscious
law of the universe, a counter-balance to the crushing machine, the
automaton of Spitteler, the bronze Ananké. I see the universal
Being, three parts of him still embedded in the clay, the bark, or the
stone, undergoing the implacable laws of the matter in which he is
encrusted. His breath and his eyes alone are free; "I hope," says his
look. And his breath declares, "I will!" With the help of these he
struggles to release himself. We are the look and the breath, that is
what makes a free man."
"The look is enough for me," said Perrotin gently.
"And without the breath I should die!" exclaimed Clerambault.
In a man of thought there is a wide interval between the word and the
deed. Even when a thing is decided upon, he finds pretexts for putting
it off to another day, for he sees only too clearly what will follow;
what pains and troubles. And to what end? In order to calm his
restless soul he pours out a flood of energetic language on his
intimate friends, or to himself alone, and in this way gains the
illusion of action cheaply enough. In the bottom of his heart he does
not believe in it, but like Hamlet, he waits till circumstances shall
force his hand.
Clerambault was brave enough when he was talking to the indulgent
Perrotin, but he had scarcely got home when he was seized again by his
hesitations. Sharpened by his sorrow, his sensitiveness anticipated
the emotions of those around him; he imagined the discord that his
words would cause between himself and his wife, and worse, without
exactly knowing why, he was not sure of his daughter's sympathy, and
shrank from the trial. The risk was too great for an affectionate
heart like his.
Matters stood thus, when a doctor of his acquaintance wrote that he
had a man dangerously wounded in his hospital who had been in the
great Champagne offensive, and had known Maxime. Clerambault went at
once to see him.
On the bed he saw a man who might have been of any age. He lay still
on his back, swathed like a mummy, his thin peasant-face all wrinkled
and brown, with the big nose and grey beard emerging from the white
bandages. Outside the sheet you could see his right hand, rough and
work-worn; a joint of the middle-finger was missing—but that did not
matter, it was a peace injury. His eyes looked out calmly under the
bushy eyebrows; their clear grey light was unexpected in the burned
Clerambault came close and asked him how he did, and the man thanked
him politely, without giving details, as if it were not worth the
trouble to talk about oneself.
"You are very good, Sir. I am getting on all right." But Clerambault
persisted affectionately, and it did not take long for the grey eyes
to see that there was something deeper than curiosity in the blue eyes
that bent over him.
"Where are you wounded?" asked Clerambault.
"Oh, a little of everywhere; it would take too long to tell you, Sir."
But as his visitor continued to press him:
"There is a wound wherever they could find a place. Shot up, all over.
I never should have thought there would have been room enough on a
little man like me."
Clerambault found out at last that he had received about a score of
wounds; seventeen, to be exact. He had been literally sprinkled—he
called it "interlarded"—with shrapnel.
"Wounded in seventeen places!" cried Clerambault.
"I have only a dozen left," said the man.
"Did they cure the others?"
"No, they cut my legs off." Clerambault was so shocked that he almost
forgot the object of his visit. Great Heaven! What agonies! Our
sufferings, in comparison, are a drop in the ocean…. He put his
hand over the rough one, and pressed it. The calm grey eyes took in
Clerambault from his feet to the crape on his hat.
"You have lost someone?"
"Yes," said Clerambault, pulling himself together, "you must have
known Sergeant Clerambault?"
"Surely," said the man, "I knew him."
"He was my son."
The grey eyes softened.
"Ah, Sir! I am sorry for you. I should think I did know him, poor
little chap! We were together for nearly a year, and a year like that
counts, I can tell you! Day after day, we were like moles burrowing in
the same hole…. We had our share of trouble."
"Did he suffer much?"
"Well, Sir, it was pretty bad sometimes; hard on the boy, just at
the first. You see he wasn't used to it, like us."
"You come from the country?"
"I was labourer on a farm. You have to live with the beasts, and you
get to be like 'em. But it is the truth I tell you now, Sir, that men
do treat each other worse than the beasts. 'Be kind to the animals.'
That was on a notice a joker stuck up in our trench…. But what
isn't good enough for them is good enough for us. All right; I'm not
kicking. Things are like that. We have to take it as it comes. But
you could see that the little Sergeant had never been up against it
before; the rain and the mud, and the meanness; the dirt worst of all,
everything that you touch, your food, your skin, full of vermin…. He
came close to crying, I could see, once or twice, when he was new to
it. I wouldn't let on that I noticed, for the boy was proud, didn't
want any help, but I would jolly him, try to cheer him up, lend him
a hand sometimes; he was glad to get it. You see you have to get
together. But before long he could stick it out as well as anybody;
then it was his turn to help me. I never heard him squeal, and we had
gay times together—must have a joke now and then, no matter what
happens. It keeps off bad luck."
Clerambault sat and listened with a heavy heart.
"Was he happier towards the last?" he asked.
"Yes, Sir, I think he was what you call resigned, just like we all
were. I don't know how it is, but you all seem to start out with the
same foot in the morning. We are all different, but somehow, after a
while it seems as if we were growing alike. It's better, too, that
way. You don't mind things so much all in a bunch…. It's only when
you get leave, and after you come back—it's bad, nothing goes right
any more. You ought to have seen the little Sergeant that last time."
Clerambault felt a pang as he said quickly:
"When he came back?"
"He was very low. I don't know as I ever saw him so bad before."
An agonised expression came over Clerambault's face, and at his
gesture, the wounded man who had been looking at the ceiling while he
talked, turned his eyes and understood, for he added at once:
"He pulled himself together again, after that."
"Tell me what he said to you, tell me everything," said Clerambault
again taking his hand.
The sick man hesitated and answered.
"I don't think I just remember what he said." Then he shut his eyes,
and lay still, while Clerambault bent over him and tried to see what
was before those eyes under their closed lids.
* * * * *
An icy moonless night. From the bottom of the hollow boyau one could
see the cold sky and the fixed stars. Bullets rattled on the hard
ground. Maxime and his friend sat huddled up in the trench, smoking
with their chins on their knees. The lad had come back that day from
Paris. He was depressed, would not answer questions, shut himself up
in a sulky silence. The other had left him all the afternoon to bear
his trouble alone. Now here in the darkness he felt that the moment
had come, and sat a little closer, for he knew that the boy would
speak of his own accord. A bullet over their heads glanced off,
knocking down a lump of frozen turf.
"Hullo, old gravedigger," said the other, "don't get too fresh."
"Might as well make an end of it now," said Maxime. "That's what they
all seem to want."
"Give the boche your skin for a present? I'll say you're generous!"
"It's not only the boches; they all have a hand in it."
"All of them back there where I come from, in Paris, friends and
relations; the people on the other side of the grave, the live
ones.—As for us, we are as good as dead."
In the long silence that followed they could hear the scream of a
shell across the sky. Maxime's comrade blew out a mouthful of smoke.
"Well, youngster," he said, "it didn't go right, back there this time,
did it?—I guessed as much!"
"I don't know why."
"When one is hurt, and the other isn't, they haven't much to say to
"Oh, they suffer too."
"Not the same. You can't make a man know what a toothache is unless he
feels it. Can't be done. Go to them all snuggled up in their beds, and
make them understand how it is out here!… It's nothing new to me. I
didn't have to wait for the war. Always have lived like this. But do
you believe when I was working in the soil, sweating all the fat off
my bones, that any of them bothered their heads about me? I don't mean
that there's any harm in them, nor much good, either, but like anybody
else, they don't see how it is. To understand a thing properly you've
got to take hold of it yourself, take the work, and the hurt. If not,
and that's what it is, you know—might as well make up your mind—no
use trying to explain. That's the way things are, and we can't do
anything about it."
"Life would not be worth living, if it were as bad as that."
"Why not, by gosh? I've stuck it out all this time, and you're just
as good as me, better, because you've got more brains and can learn.
That's the way to get on, the harder it is the more it teaches you.
And then when you're together, like us here, and things are rocky,
it's not a pleasure, exactly, but it ain't all pain. The worst is to
be off by yourself; and you're not lonesome, are you, boy?" Maxime
looked him in the face, as he answered:
"I was back there, but I don't feel it here with you."
* * * * *
The man who lay on the bed said nothing of what had been passing
before his closed eyes. He turned them tranquilly on the father,
whose agonised look seemed to implore him to speak. And then, with an
awkward kindness, he tried to explain that if the boy was down-hearted
it was probably because he had just left home, but they had cheered
him up as well as they could; they knew how he felt. He had never
known what it was to have a father himself, but when he was a kid he
used to think what luck it would be to have one…. "So I thought I
might try. I spoke to him, Sir, like you would yourself,… and he
soon quieted down. He said, all the same, there was one thing we got
out of this blooming war; that there were lots of poor devils in the
world who don't know each other, but are all made alike. Sometimes we
call 'em our brothers, in sermons and places like that, but no one
takes much stock in it. If you want to know it's true, you have to
slave together like us—He kissed me then, Sir."
Clerambault rose, and bending over the bandaged face, kissed the
wounded man's rough cheek.
"Tell me something that I can do for you," he said.
"You are very good, Sir, but there's not much you can do now. I am so
used up. No legs, and a broken arm. I'm no good,—what could I work
at? Besides, it's not sure yet that I shall pull through. We'll have
to leave it at that. If I go out, good-bye. If not, can't do anything
but wait. There are plenty of trains."
As Clerambault admired his patience, he repeated his refrain: "I've
got the habit. There's no merit in being patient when there's nothing
else to do…. A little more or less, what does it matter?… It's
like life, this war is."
Clerambault saw that in his egotism he had asked the man nothing about
himself. He did not even know his name.
"My name? It's a good fit for me,—Courtois Aimé is what they call
me—Aimé, that's the Christian name, fine for an unlucky fellow like
me, and Courtois on the top of it. Queer enough, isn't it?… I never
had a family, came out of an Orphan Asylum; my foster-father, a farmer
down in Champagne, offered to bring me up; and you can bet he did it!
I had all the training I wanted; but anyhow it learned me what I had
to expect. I've had all that was coming to me!"
Thereupon he told in a few brief dry phrases, without emotion, of the
series of bad luck which had made up his life. Marriage with a girl as
poor as himself—"hunger wedding thirst," as they say, sickness and
death, the struggle with nature,—it would not be so bad if men would
only help…. Homo, homini … homo…. All the social injustice
weighs on the under dog. As he listened Clerambault could not keep
down his indignation, but Aimé Courtois took it as a matter of course;
that's the way it always has been, and always will be; some are born
to suffer, others not. You can't have mountains without valleys. The
war seemed perfectly idiotic to him, but he would not have lifted a
finger to prevent it. He had in his way the fatalist passivity of the
people, which hides itself, on Gallic soil, behind a veil of ironic
carelessness. The "no use in getting in a sweat about it," of the
trenches. Then there is also that false pride of the French, who fear
nothing so much as ridicule, and would risk death twenty times over
for something they know to be absurd, rather than be laughed at for
an act of unusual common-sense. "You might as well try to stop the
lightning as talk against war." When it hails there is nothing to do
but to cover over your cold-frames if you can, and when it's over go
round and see how much is left of your crop. And they will keep on
doing this until the next hailstorm, the next war, to the end of time.
"No use getting in a sweat." … It would never occur to them that Man
can change Man.
This stupid heroic resignation irritated Clerambault profoundly.
The upper classes are charmed with it, no doubt, for they owe their
existence to it,—but it makes a Danaïd's sieve of the human race,
and its age-long effort, since all its courage, its virtues, and its
labours, are spent in learning how to die…. But when he looked
at the fragment of a man before him, his heart was pierced with an
infinite pity. What could this wretched man do, symbol as he was, of
the mutilated, sacrificed people? For so many centuries he has bled
and suffered under our eyes, while we, his more fortunate brothers,
have only encouraged him to persevere, throwing him some careless word
of praise from a distance, which cost us nothing. What help have we
ever given him? Nothing at all in action, and little enough in words.
We owe to his sacrifices the leisure to think; but all the fruit of
our thought we have kept for ourselves; we have not given him a taste
of it. We are afraid of the light, of impudent opinion and the rulers
of the hour who call to us saying: "Put it out! You who have the
Light, hide it, if you wish to be pardoned…." Oh, let us be cowards
no more. For who will speak, if we do not? The others are gagged and
must die without a word.
A wave of pain passed over the features of the wounded man. With eyes
fixed on the ceiling, his big mouth twisted, his teeth obstinately
clenched, he could say no more.—Clerambault went away, his mind was
made up. The silence of this soldier on his bed of agony had brought
him to a decision. He would speak.
Clerambault came back from the hospital, shut himself into his room,
and began to write. His wife tried to come in, to discover what he was
doing; it seemed as if the good woman had a suspicion, an intuition,
rare with her, which gave her a sort of obscure fear of what her
husband might be about to do, but he succeeded in keeping her away
until he had finished. Ordinarily not a line of his was spared to his
family; it was a pleasure to his simple-hearted, affectionate vanity,
and a duty towards their love also, which none of them would have
neglected. This time, however, he did neglect it, for reasons which he
would not admit to himself, for though he was far from imagining the
consequences of his act, he was afraid of their objections, he did
not feel sure enough to expose himself to them, and so preferred to
confront them with the accomplished fact.
His first word was a cry of self-accusation:
"FORGIVE US, YE DEAD!"
This public confession began with an inscription; a musical phrase of
David's lament over the body of his son Absalom:
"Oh! Absalom my son, my son!"
I had a son whom I loved, and sent to his death. You Fathers of
mourning Europe, millions of fathers, widowed of your sons, enemies or
friends, I do not speak for myself only, but for you who are stained
with their blood even as I am. You all speak by the voice of one of
you,—my unhappy voice full of sorrow and repentance.
My son died, for yours, by yours.—How can I tell?—like yours. I
laid the blame on the enemy, and on the war, as you must also have
done, but I see now that the chief criminal, the one whom I accuse, is
myself. Yes, I am guilty; and that means you, and all of us. You must
listen while I tell you what you know well enough, but do not want to
My son was twenty years old when he fell in this war. Twenty years I
had loved him, protected him from hunger, cold, and sickness; saved
him from darkness of mind, ignorance, error, and all the pitfalls that
lie in the shadows of life. But what did I do to defend him against
this scourge which was coming upon us?
I was never one of those who compounded with the passions of jealous
nationalities. I loved men, and their future brotherhood was a joy to
me. Why then did I do nothing against the impending danger, against
the fever that brooded within us, against the false peace which made
ready to kill with a smile on its lips?
I was perhaps afraid to displease others, afraid of enmities; it is
true I cared too much to love, above all to be loved. I feared to lose
the good-will of those around me, however feeble and insipid such a
feeling may be. It is a sort of play acted by ourselves and others.
No one is deceived by it, since both sides shrink from the word which
might crack the plaster and bring the house about our ears. There is
an inward equivocation which fears to see clearly in itself, wants
to make the best of everything, to reconcile old instincts and new
beliefs, mutually destructive forces, like the ideas of Country and
Humanity, War and Peace…. We are not sure which side to take; we
lean first one way and then the other, like a see-saw; afraid of
the effort needed to come to a decision and choose. What slothful
cowardice is here! All whitewashed over with a comfortable faith in
the goodness of things, which will, we think, settle themselves. And
we continue to look on, and glorify the impeccable course of Destiny,
paying court to blind Force.
Failing us, other things—and other men—have chosen; and not till
then did we understand our mistake, but it was so dreadful to admit
it, and we were so unaccustomed to be honest, that we acted as if we
were in sympathy with the crime. In proof of this sympathy we have
given up our own sons whom we love with all our hearts, more than
life—if we could but give our lives for theirs!—but not more than
our pride, with which we try to veil the moral confusion, the empty
darkness of mind and heart.
We will say nothing of those who still believe in the old idol; grim,
envious, blood be-spattered as she is—the barbarous Country. These
kill, sacrificing themselves and others, but at least they know what
they do. But what of those who have ceased to believe (like me, alas!
and you)? Their sons are sacrificed to a lie, for if you assert what
you doubt, it is a falsehood, and they offer up their own children to
prove this lie to themselves; and now that our beloved have died for
it, far from confessing it, we hide our heads still deeper not to see
what we have done. After our sons will come others, all the others,
offered up for our untruth.
I for my part can bear it no longer, when I think of those who still
live. Does it soothe my pain to inflict injury on others? Am I a
savage of Homer's time that I should believe that the sorrow of my
dead son will be appeased, and his craving for light satisfied, if
I sprinkle the earth which covers him with the blood of other men's
sons?—Are we at that stage still?—No, each new murder kills my son
again, and heaps the heavy mud of crime over his grave. He was the
future; if I would save the future, I must save him also, and rescue
fathers to come from the agony that I endure. Come then, and help me!
Cast out these falsehoods! Surely it is not for our sakes that men
wage these combats between nations, this universal brigandage? What
good is it to us? A tree grows up straight and tall, stretching out
branches around it, full of free-flowing sap; so is a man who labours
calmly, and sees the slow development of the many-sided life in his
veins fulfil itself in him and in his sons. Is not this the first law,
the first of joys? Brothers of the world, which of you envies the
others or would deprive them of this just happiness? What have we to
do with the ambitions and rivalries, covetousness, and ills of the
mind, which they dignify with the name of Patriotism? Our Country
means you, Fathers and Sons. All our sons.—Come and save them!
Clerambault asked no one's advice but as soon as he had written these
pages he took them to the editor of a small socialist paper nearby. He
came back much relieved, as he thought:
"That is off my mind. I have spoken out, at last." But in the
following night, a weight on his heart told him that the burden was
still there, heavier than ever. He roused himself.
"What have I done?"
He felt that he had been almost immodest to show his sacred sorrow to
the public; and though he did not foresee the anger his article would
provoke, he knew the lack of comprehension, the coarse comments, which
are in themselves a profanation.
Days passed, and nothing happened. Silence. The appeal had fallen on
the ear of an inattentive public, the publisher was little known, the
pamphlet carelessly issued. There are none so deaf as those who will
not hear, and the few readers who were attracted by Clerambault's
name, merely glanced at the first lines, and threw it aside, thinking:
"The poor man's head has been turned by his sorrow,"—a good pretext
for not wishing to upset their own balance.
A second article followed, in which Clerambault took a final leave of
the bloody old fetish falsely called Country; or rather in opposition
to the great flesh-eater, the she-wolf of Rome, on whose altar men are
now offered up, he set the august Mother of all living, the universal
TO HER WHOM WE HAVE LOVED
There can be nothing more bitter than to be parted from her whom one
has loved. I lacerate my own heart when I tear Country from it;—dear,
beautiful, and good, as she seemed! There are some ardent lovers so
blinded that they can forget all the joy and love of former days, and
see only the change in the loved one, and the harm that she has done
them. If it were only possible for me to be like that! But I cannot;
it is impossible for me to forget. I must see thee always as I
loved thee, when I trusted, and saw in thee my guide and my best
friend.—Oh, my Country! why hast thou deserted and betrayed me? If I
were the only one to suffer, I could hide the sad disenchantment under
the memory of my former affection; but I behold thy victims, these
trusting devoted youths.—I see myself in them, as I was.—And how
greatly thou hast deceived us! Thine was as the voice of fraternal
love, thou calledst us, that we might all be united, all brothers,—no
more isolation. To each was lent the strength of millions of others,
and we were taught to love our sky, our soil, and the work of our
hands, that in them we should love each other more, for thy sake. Now
where have we been led? Did we unite to increase, and grow stronger to
hate and destroy? We had known too much of these isolated hatreds in
the past. Each had his load of evil thoughts, but at least we knew
them to be evil. But now our souls are poisoned, since thou hast
called these things sacred….
Why these combats? To set us free? But thou hast made slaves of
us. Our conscience is outraged, our happiness gone, our prosperity
destroyed. What need have we of further conquests, when the land of
our fathers has grown too wide for their children? Is it to satisfy
the greed of some among us, and can it be that the Country will fill
their maw at the cost of public misfortune?
Patriotism, sold to the rich, to those who traffic in the blood of
souls and of nations! Partner and accomplice, covering your villainies
with an heroic mantle, look to thyself! The hour is coming when the
peoples will shake off the vermin, the gods and masters by whom they
have been deceived. They will drive out the guilty from among them. I
shall strike straight at the Head whose shadow is over us all.—Thou
who sittest impassively on thy throne, while multitudes slaughter
each other in thy name, thou whom they worship while they hate their
fellow-man, thou who hast pleasure in the bloody orgies of the
nations, Goddess of prey, Anti-Christ, hovering over these butcheries
with thy spread wings, and hawk's talons;—who will tear thee from
our heaven? Who will give us back the sun, and our love for our
brothers?… I am alone, and have but my voice, which will soon be
silent, but before I disappear, hear my cry: "Thou wilt fall, Tyrant,
for humanity must live. The time will come when men will break this
yoke of death and falsehood;—that time is near, it is at hand."
THE LOVED ONE'S REPLY
My son, your words are like stones that a child throws at the sky
which he cannot reach; they will fall back on your own head. She whom
you insult, who has usurped my name, is an idol carved by yourself, in
your own image, not in mine. The true Country is that of the Father.
She belongs to all, and embraces everyone.—It is not her fault if you
have brought her down to your own level…. Unhappy creatures,
who sully your gods; there is not a lofty idea that you have not
tarnished. You turn the good that is brought you, into poison, and
scorch yourselves with the very light that shines on you. I came among
you to bring warmth to your loneliness; I brought your shivering souls
together in a flock, and bound your scattered weakness in sheaves of
arrows. I am brotherly love, the great Communion; and you destroy your
fellows in my name, fools that you are!…
For ages I have toiled to deliver you from the chains of bestiality,
to free you from your hard egotism. On the road of Time you advance
by toil and sweat; provinces and nations are the military milestones
which mark your resting-places. Your weakness alone created them.
Before I can lead you farther, I must wait till you have taken breath;
you have so little strength of lungs or heart, that you have made
virtues of your weaknesses. You admire your heroes for the distance
they went before they dropped exhausted; not because they were the
first to reach those limits. And when you have come without difficulty
to the spot where these forerunners stopped, you think yourselves
heroes in your turn.
What have these shadows of the past to do with us today? Bayard, Joan
of Arc, we have no further need of heroism like theirs, knights and
martyrs of a dead cause. We want apostles of the future, great hearts
that will give themselves for a larger country, a higher ideal.
Forward then; cross the old frontiers, and if you must still use these
crutches, to help your lameness, thrust the barriers back to the doors
of the East, the confines of Europe, until at last step by step you
reach the end, and men encircle the globe, each holding by the other's
hand. Before you insult me, poor little author, descend into your own
heart, examine yourself. The gift of speech was given you to guide
your people, and you have used it to deceive yourself and lead them
astray. You have added to their error instead of saving them, even to
the point that you have laid your own son whom you loved on the altar
of your untruth.
Now at least dare to show to others the ruin that you are, and say:
"See what I am, and take warning!" …Go! And may your misfortunes
save those that come after from the same fate! Dare to speak, and cry
out to them: "You are mad, peoples of the earth; instead of defending
your Country, you are killing her. You are your Country and the
enemies are your brothers. Millions of God's creatures" love one
The same silence as before seemed to swallow up this last cry.
Clerambault lived outside of popular circles where he would have found
the warm sympathy of simple, healthy minds. Not the slightest echo of
his thought came to him.
He knew that he was not really alone, though he seemed so. Two
apparently contradictory sentiments—his modesty and his faith—united
to say to him: "What you thought, others have thought also; you are
too small, this truth is too great, to exist only in you. The light
that your weak eyes have seen has shone also for others. See where now
the Great Bear inclines to the horizon,—millions of eyes are looking
at it, perhaps; but you cannot see them, only the far-off light makes
a bond between their sight and yours."
The solitude of the mind is only a painful delusion; it has no real
existence, for even the most independent of us are members of a
spiritual family. This community of spirit has no relation to time
or space; its elements are dispersed among all peoples and all ages.
Conservatives see them in the past, but the revolutionists and the
persecuted look to the future for them. Past and future are not less
real than the immediate present, which is a wall beyond which the calm
eyes of the flock can see nothing. The present itself is not what the
arbitrary divisions of states, nations, and religions would have us
believe. In our time humanity is a bazaar of ideas, unsorted and
thrown together in a heap, with hastily constructed partitions between
them, so that brothers are separated from brothers, and thrown in with
strangers. Every country has swallowed up different races, not formed
to think and act together; so that each one of these spiritual
families, or families-in-law, which we call nations, comprises
elements which in fact form part of different groups, past, present,
or future. Since these cannot be destroyed, they are oppressed; they
can escape destruction only by some subterfuge, apparent submission,
inward rebellion, or flight and voluntary exile. They are Heimatlos.
To reproach them for lack of patriotism is to blame Irishmen and Poles
for their resistance to English and Prussian absorption. No matter
where they are, men remain loyal to their true country. You who
pretend that the object of this war is to give the right of
self-determination to all peoples, when will you restore this right to
the great Republic of free souls dispersed over the whole world?
However cut off from the world, Clerambault knew that this Republic
existed. Like the Rome of Sertorius, it dwelt in him, and though they
may be unknown each to the other, it dwells in every man to whom it is
the true Country.
The wall of silence which surrounded Clerambault's words fell all at
once. But it was not a friendly voice which answered his. It seemed
rather as if stupidity and blind hatred had made a breach where
sympathy had been too weak to find a way.
Several weeks had passed and Clerambault was thinking of a new
publication, when, one morning, Leo Camus burst noisily into his room.
He was blue with rage, as with the most tragic expression he held up a
newspaper before Clerambault's eyes:
"Read that!" he commanded, and standing behind his brother-in-law as
he read, he went on:
"What does the beastly thing mean?"
Clerambault was dismayed to find himself stabbed by what he had
believed to be a friendly hand. A well-known writer, a colleague of
Perrotin's, a serious honourable man, and one always on good terms
with him, had denounced him publicly and without hesitation. Though he
had known Clerambault long enough to have no doubt as to the purity
of his intentions, he held him up as a man dishonoured. An historian,
well used to the manipulation of text, he seized upon detached phrases
of Clerambault's pamphlet and brandished them as an act of treason. A
personal letter would not have satisfied his virtuous indignation; he
chose a loud "yellow journal," a laboratory of blackmail despised by a
million Frenchmen, who nevertheless swallowed all its humbug with open
"I can't believe it," stammered Clerambault, who felt helpless before
this unexpected hostility.
"There is no time to be lost," declared Camus, "you must answer."
"Answer? But what can I say?"
"The first thing, of course, is to deny it as a base invention."
"But it is not an invention," said Clerambault, looking Camus in the
face. It was the turn of the latter to look as if he had been struck
"You say it is not,—not?" he stammered.
"I wrote the pamphlet," said Clerambault, "but the meaning has been
distorted by this article."
Camus could not wait for the end of the sentence, but began to howl:
"You wrote a thing like that!… You, a man like you!"
Clerambault tried to calm his brother-in-law, begging him not to judge
until he knew all; but Camus would do nothing but shout, calling him
crazy, and screaming: "I don't know anything about all that. Have you
written against the war, or the country. Yes, or no?"
"I wrote that war is a crime, and that all countries are stained by
Without allowing Clerambault to explain himself farther, Camus sprang
at him, as if he meant to shake him by the collar; but restraining
himself, he hissed in his face that he was the criminal, and deserved
to be tried by court-martial at once.
The raised voices brought the servant to listen at the door, and
Madame Clerambault ran in, trying to appease her brother, in a high
key. Clerambault volunteered to read the obnoxious pamphlet to Camus,
but in vain, as he refused furiously, declaring that the papers had
told him all he wanted to know about such filth. (He said all papers
were liars, but acted on their falsehoods, none the less.) Then, in a
magisterial tone, he called on Clerambault to sit down and write on
the spot a public recantation. Clerambault shrugged his shoulders,
saying that he was accountable to nothing but his own conscience—that
he was free.
"No!" roared Camus.
"Do you mean that I am not free to say what I think?"
"You are not free, you have no right to say such things," cried the
exasperated Camus. "Your country has claims on you, and your family
first of all. They ought to shut you up."
He insisted that the letter should be written that very moment, but
Clerambault simply turned his back on him. So he left, banging the
door after him, and vowing that he would never set foot there again,
that all was over between them.
After this poor Clerambault had to submit to a string of questions
from his wife who, without knowing what he had done, lamented his
imprudence and asked with tears: "Why, why he had not kept silent? Had
they not trouble enough? What was this mania he had for talking? And
particularly for talking differently from other people?"
While this was going on, Rosine came back from an errand, and
Clerambault appealed to her, telling her in a confused manner of the
painful scene that had just taken place, and begging her to sit down
there by his table and let him read the article to her. Without even
taking off her hat and gloves, Rosine did sit down near him, and
listened sensibly, sweetly, and when he had done, kissed him and said:
"Yes, I think it's fine,—but, dear Papa, why did you do it?"
Clerambault was completely taken aback.
"What? You ask why I did it? Don't you think it is right?"
"I don't know. Yes, I believe it must be right since you say so….
But perhaps it was not necessary to write it…."
"Not necessary? But if it is right, it must be necessary."
"But if it makes such a fuss!"
"That is no reason against it."
"But why stir people up?"
"Look here, my little girl, you think as I do about this, do you not?"
"Yes, Papa, I suppose so…."
"You only suppose?… Come now, you detest the war, as I do, and wish
it were over; everything that I wrote there I have said to you, and
"Then you think I am right?"
"Yes, Papa." She put her arms around his neck, "but we don't have to
write everything that we think."
Clerambault, much depressed, tried to explain what seemed so evident
to him. Rosine listened, and answered quietly, but it was clear that
she did not understand. When he had finished, she kissed him again and
"I have told you what I think, Papa, but it is not for me to judge.
You know much better than I."
With that she went into her room, smiling at her father, and not
in the least suspecting that she had just taken away from him his
This abusive attack was not the only one, for when the bell was once
tied on the cat it never ceased to ring. However, the noise would
have been drowned in the general tumult, if it had not been for
a persistent voice which led the chorus of malignity against
Unhappily it was the voice of one of his oldest friends, the author
Octave Bertin; for they had been school-fellows at the Lycée Henri IV.
Bertin, a little Parisian, quick-witted, elegant, and precocious, had
welcomed the awkward enthusiastic advances of the overgrown youth
fresh from the country,—ungainly in body and mind, his clothes
always too short for his long legs and arms, a mixture of innocence,
simplicity, ignorance, and bad taste, always emphatic, with
overflowing spirits, yet capable of the most original sallies, and
striking images. None of this had escaped the sharp malicious eye of
young Bertin; neither Clerambault's absurdities nor the treasures of
his mind, and after thinking him over he had decided to make a friend
of him. Clerambault's unfeigned admiration had something to do with
this decision. For several years they shared the superabundance of
their youthful ideas. Both dreamed of being artists; they read
their literary attempts to each other, and engaged in interminable
discussions, in which Bertin always had the upper hand. He was apt to
be first in everything. Clerambault never thought of contesting his
superiority; he was much more likely to use his fists to convince
anyone who denied it. He stood in open-mouthed admiration before his
brilliant friend, who won all the University prizes without seeming to
work for them, and whom his teachers thought destined to the highest
honours—official and academic, of course.
Bertin was of the same mind as his teachers; he was in haste to
succeed, and believed that the fruit of triumph has more flavour when
one's teeth are young enough to bite into it. He had scarcely left the
University when he found means to publish in a great Parisian review
a series of essays which immediately brought him to the notice of the
general public. And without pausing to take breath, he produced
one after another a novel in the style of d'Annunzio, a comedy
in Rostand's vein, a book on love, another on reforms in the
Constitution, a study of Modernism, a monograph on Sarah Bernhardt,
and, finally, the "Dialogues of the Living." The sarcastic but
measured spirit of this last work obtained for him the position of
column writer on one of the leading dailies. Having thus entered
journalism he stayed in the profession, and became one of the
ornaments of the Paris of Letters, while Clerambault's name was still
unknown. The latter had been slow in gaining the mastery over his
inward resources, and was so occupied in struggles with himself that
he had no time for the conquest of the public. His first works, which
were published with difficulty, were not read by more than a dozen
people. It is only fair to Bertin to say that he was one of the dozen,
and that he appreciated Clerambault's talents. He was even ready
to say so, when opportunity served, and as long as Clerambault was
unknown, he took pleasure in defending him. It is true that he would
sometimes add a friendly and patronising piece of advice to his
praises, which, if Clerambault did not always follow, he received with
the old affectionate respect.
In a little while Clerambault became known, and even celebrated.
Bertin, somewhat surprised, sincerely pleased by his friend's
success—the least bit vexed by it, perhaps—intimated that he thought
it exaggerated, and that the better Clerambault was the obscure
Clerambault before his reputation was made. He would even undertake to
prove this to Clerambault himself, sometimes, who neither agreed nor
disagreed. For how could he tell, who thought very little about it,
his head being always full of some new work? The two old comrades
remained on excellent terms, but little by little they began to see
less of one another.
The war had made Bertin a furious jingo. In the old days at school
he used to scandalise Clerambault's provincial mind by his impudent
disrespect for all values, political and social—country, morality,
and religion. In his literary works he continued to parade his
anarchism, but in a sceptical, worldly, bored sort of manner which was
to the taste of his rich clientèle. Now, before this clientèle and the
rest of those who purveyed to it, his brethren of the popular press
and theatres, the contemptible Parny's and Crebillon Jr.'s of the day,
he suddenly assumed the attitude of Brutus immolating his sons. It is
true he himself had none, but perhaps that was a regret to him.
Clerambault did not dream of finding fault with him for these
opinions; but he did not dream either that his old friend and
amoralist would come out against him as the defender of his outraged
country. But was it a question simply of his country?
There was a personal note in the furious diatribe that Bertin hurled
at him that Clerambault could not understand. In the general mental
confusion, Bertin, naturally shocked by Clerambault's ideas, might
have remonstrated with him frankly, face to face; but without any
warning, he began by a public denunciation. On the first page of his
paper appeared an article of the utmost virulence; he attacked, not
only his ideas, but his character, speaking of Clerambault's tragic
struggle with his conscience as an attack of literary megalomania,
brought on by undeserved success. It seemed as if he expressly chose
words likely to wound Clerambault, and he ended by summoning him to
retract his errors in a tone of the most insulting superiority.
The violence of this article, from so well-known an author, made an
event in Paris of the "Clerambault Case." It occupied the reporters
for more than a week, a long time for these feather-headed gentry.
Hardly anyone read what Clerambault had actually written; it was not
worth while. Bertin had read it, and newspaper men do not make a
practice of taking unnecessary trouble; besides it was not a question
of reading, but of judgment. A strange sort of Sacred Union was formed
over Clerambault; clericals and Jacobins came together to condemn him,
and the man whom they admired yesterday was dragged in the mud today.
The national poet became at once a public enemy, and all the myrmidons
of the press attacked him with heroic invective. The greater number
of them united bad faith with a remarkable ignorance. Very few knew
Clerambault's works, they scarcely knew his name or the titles of his
books, but that no more kept them from disparaging him now than it had
hindered them from praising him when he was the fashion. Now, in their
eyes, everything that he had written was tainted with "bochism,"
though all their quotations were inexact. In the excitement of his
investigation, one of them foisted upon Clerambault the authorship of
another man's book, the author of which, pale with fright, protested
with indignation, dissociating himself entirely from his dangerous
fellow-author. Uneasy at their intimacy with Clerambault, some of his
friends did not wait to have it recalled, but met it halfway, writing
"open letters," to which the papers gave a conspicuous place. Some,
like Bertin, coupled their public censure with a demand that he should
confess himself in the wrong, and others, less considerate, cast him
off in the bitterest and most insulting terms. Clerambault was crushed
by all this animosity; it could not arise solely from his articles,
it must have been long dormant in the hearts of these men. And why so
much hidden hatred?—What had he done to them?… A successful artist
does not suspect that besides the smiles of those around there are
also teeth, only waiting for the opportunity to bite.
Clerambault did his best to conceal the insults in the papers from his
wife. Like a schoolboy trying to spirit away his bad marks he watched
for the post so as to suppress the obnoxious sheets, but at last their
venom seemed to poison the very air. Among their friends in society,
Madame Clerambault and Rosine had to bear many painful allusions,
small affronts, even insults. With the instinct of justice which
characterises the human beast, and especially the female, they were
held responsible for Clerambault's ideas, though his wife and daughter
knew little of them and disapproved what they knew. (Their critics did
not understand them either.) The more polite were reticent, taking
pains not to mention Clerambault's name, or ask after him,—you
don't speak of ropes, you know, in the house of a man who has been
hanged…. And this calculated silence was worse than open abuse.
You would have said that Clerambault had done something dishonest or
immodest. Madame Clerambault would come back full of bitterness, and
Rosine suffered too, though she pretended not to mind. One day, a
friend, whom they met in the street, crossed to the other side,
turning away her head so as to avoid bowing to them; and Rosine was
excluded from a benevolent society where she had worked hard for
Women were particularly active in this patriotic reprobation.
Clerambault's appeal for reconciliation and pardon had no more violent
opponents—and it was the same everywhere. The tyranny of public
opinion is an engine of oppression, invented by the modern State, and
much more despotic than itself. In times of war certain women have
proved, its most ferocious instruments. Bertrand Russell cites the
case of an unfortunate man, conductor on a tramway, married, with
children, and honourably discharged from the army, who killed himself
on account of the insults and persecutions of the women of Middlesex.
In all countries, poor wretches like him have been pursued, crazed,
driven to death, by these war-maddened Bacchantes. This ought not to
surprise us; if we have not foreseen this madness, it is because we,
like Clerambault hitherto, have lived on comfortable accepted opinions
and idealisations. In spite of the efforts of woman to approximate the
fallacious ideal imagined by man for his pleasure and tranquillity,
the woman of the present day, weak, cut-off, trimmed into shape as she
is, comes much closer than man to the primitive earth. She is at the
source of our instincts, and more richly endowed with forces, which
are neither moral nor immoral but simply animal. If love is her chief
function, it is not the passion sublimated by reason but love in the
raw state, splendidly blind, mingling selfishness and sacrifice,
equally irresponsible, and both subservient to the deep purposes of
the race. The tender, flowery embellishments with which the couple
always try to veil the forces that affright them, are like arches of
tropical vines over a rushing stream; their object is to deceive. Man
could not bear life if his feeble soul saw the great forces, as they
are, that carry him along.
His ingenious cowardice strives to adapt them mentally to his
weakness; he lies about love, about hatred, about his gods, and above
all he is false about woman and about Country. If the naked truth
were shown to him, he would fear to fall into convulsions, and so
he substitutes the pale chromos of his idealism. The war had broken
through the thin disguise, and Clerambault saw the cruel beast without
the mantle of feline courtesy in which civilisation drapes itself.
Among Clerambault's former friends, the most tolerant were those
belonging to the political world. Deputies, Ministers, past or future;
accustomed to drive the human flock, they know just what it is worth.
Clerambault's daring seemed merely foolish to them. What they thought
in their hearts was twenty times worse, but they thought it silly to
speak it, dangerous to write it, more dangerous still to answer it.
You make a thing known when you attack it, and condemnation only gives
it greater importance. Their best advice would have been to keep
silent about these unlucky articles, which the sleepy, stumbling
public would have neglected if left to itself. This was the course
usually followed by Germany during the war; if the authorities did
not see their way clear to suppress rebellious writers, they hid them
under some flowery humbug.
The political spirit of the French Democracy, however, is more
outspoken and more narrow-minded; silence is unknown to it, and far
from concealing its hatreds, it spits them forth from the house-tops.
Like that of Rude, French liberty opens her mouth and bawls. Anyone
who differs from her opinion of the moment is declared a traitor
forthwith; there are always some yellow journals to tell at what price
the independent voice was bought, and twenty fanatics to stir up the
crowd against it. Once started, there is nothing to do but wait until
the fit has passed off; but in the meantime, look out for yourself!
Prudent folks join in the hue and cry from a safe distance.
The editor of the magazine which had been proud to publish
Clerambault's poems for years whispered to him that all this row was
absurd—that there was really nothing in his "case," but that on
account of his subscribers he should have to scuttle him. He was
awfully sorry … hoped there was no hard feeling?… In short,
without being rude, he made the whole thing look ridiculous.
Alas for human nature! Even Perrotin laughed at Clerambault in a
brilliantly sarcastic interview, and considered himself to be still
his friend at bottom.
In his own house Clerambault now found himself without support. His
old helpmate, who for thirty years had seen only through his eyes,
repeating his words without even understanding them, was now afraid,
indignant at what he had written, reproaching him bitterly for the
scandal, the harm done to the name of the family, to the memory of his
dead son, to the sacred cause of vengeance, to his Country.
Rosine was always loving, but she had ceased to understand him. A
woman's mind makes but few demands, if her heart is satisfied; so it
was enough for her that her father was no longer one of the haters,
that he remained compassionate and kind. She did not want him to
translate his sentiments into theories, nor above all, to proclaim
them. She had much affectionate common-sense, and as long as matters
of feeling were safe, she did not care for the rest, not understanding
the inflexible exigence of logic which pushes a man to the utmost
consequences of his faith.
She had ceased to understand, and her hour had passed—the time when,
without knowing it, she had accepted and fulfilled a maternal mission
towards her father. When he was weak, broken, and uncertain, she had
sheltered him under her wing, rescued his conscience, and given back
to him the torch which he had let fall from his hand. Now her part was
accomplished, she was once more the loving "little daughter" somewhat
in the shade, who looks on at the great events of life with eyes
that are almost indifferent, and in the depths of her soul treasured
devoutly the afterglow of the wonderful hour through which she had
It was about this time that a young man home on leave came to see
Clerambault. Daniel Favre was a friend of the family, an engineer like
his father before him. He had long been an admirer of Clerambault, for
his keen intelligence was not limited to his profession; indeed the
extended flights of modern science have brought his domain close to
that of poetry, it is itself the greatest of poems. Daniel was an
enthusiastic reader of Clerambault's writings. They corresponded
affectionately, knew each other's families, and the young man was a
frequent visitor, perhaps not solely for the pleasure of conversing
with the poet. He was a nice fellow, about thirty years old, tall,
well set-up, with good features, a timid smile, and eyes which looked
startlingly light in his sunburnt face. They were all glad to see him,
and Clerambault was not the only member of the family who enjoyed his
visits. David might easily have been assigned to duty in a munitions
factory, but he had applied for a dangerous post at the Front, where
he had quickly been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. Having a few
days in town, he went to see Clerambault.
Madame Clerambault and Rosine were out, so the poet was alone,
and welcomed his young friend with delight, but Daniel responded
awkwardly, answering questions somewhat at random, and at last
abruptly brought up the subject which he had at heart. He said that
he had heard talk at the front of Clerambault's articles, and he felt
very badly. People said—they made out that—well, he had heard severe
things about them; he knew people were often unjust, but he had
come—here he pressed Clerambault's hand in a timid friendly way—he
had come to entreat him not to desert all those who loved him. He
reminded him of the devotion that had inspired the poet who had
celebrated the traditions of French soil and the glories of the
race…. "In this hour of trial," he implored, "stand by us."
"I have never been closer to you than now," answered Clerambault, and
"You say that people blame what I have written. Dear boy, what do you
think of it yourself?"
"I confess I have not read it," said Daniel. "I did not want to, for
fear that it might disturb my affection for you, or hinder me in my
"Your faith cannot be very strong, if a few lines of print can shake
"My convictions are firm enough," said Daniel, a little miffed, "but
there are certain things which it is wisest not to discuss."
"That is something that I should not have expected to hear from a
scientific man," said Clerambault. "The truth can lose nothing by
"Truth, no, but love—love of country."
"My dear Daniel, you go farther than I. I do not place truth in
opposition to love of country, on the contrary I endeavour to
Daniel tried to cut the matter short.
"The country is not a subject for discussion."
"Is it an article of faith?"
"You know I do not believe in religions," protested Daniel. "I have no
faith in any of them. But that is the very reason. What should we have
left on earth if it were not for our country?"
"I think that there are many great and beautiful things in the world,
and Country is only one of them; but I am not discussing the love, but
the way of loving."
"There is only one," said Daniel.
"And what is that?"
"We must obey."
"The ancient symbol, Love with bandaged eyes; I only want to open
"No, no, let us alone. It is hard enough already. Don't make it any
worse for us." In a few phrases, temperate, yet broken by emotion,
Daniel brought up the terrible picture of the weeks that he had spent
in the trenches; the disgust and the horror of what he had borne
himself, the suffering he had seen in others, had inflicted on them.
"But, my dear fellow, if you see this shameful thing, why not try to
"Because it is impossible."
"To be sure of that, you might at least make the attempt."
"The conflict between men is the law of Nature. Kill or be killed. So
"And can it never be changed?"
"No, never," said Daniel, in a tone of sad obstinacy, "it is the law."
There are some scientific men from whom science seems to hide the
truth it contains, so that they cannot see reality at the bottom of
the net. They embrace the whole field that has been discovered, but
would think it impossible and even ridiculous to enlarge it beyond the
limits already traced by reason. They only believe in a progress that
is chained to the inside of the enclosure. Clerambault knew only too
well the supercilious smile with which the ideas of inventors are put
aside by learned men from the official schools. There are certain
forms of science which accord perfectly with docility. David's manner
showed no irony; it expressed rather a stoical, baffled kind of
melancholy. In abstract questions he did not lack courage of thought,
but when faced with the facts of life he was a mixture, or rather a
succession, of timidity and stiffness, diffident modesty, and firmness
of conviction. In short he was a man, like other men, complex and
contradictory, not all in one piece. The trouble is that, in an
intellectual and a man of science, the pieces lap over one another and
the joinings show.
Clerambault sat silent for a few moments, and then began to utter the
thoughts that had passed through his mind. "Nevertheless," said he,
"the results of science itself are changeful. For the last twenty
years all our conceptions of chemistry and physiology have been going
through a crisis which has altered and made them much more fruitful.
Why should not the so-called laws which regulate human society—or
rather the state of chronic brigandage among nations—why should not
they also be changed? Is there no place in your mind for the hope of a
"We could not go on at all," said Daniel, "if we had not the hope of
establishing a new order more just and humane. Many of my comrades
hope through this war to put an end to all wars. I have not that
confidence, and do not go so far as that; but I do know certainly that
our France is in danger, and that if she is conquered, humanity will
fall with her."
"The defeat of any people is that of humanity, for we are all
necessary, and the union of all nations would be the only true
victory. Any other ruins the victors as well as the vanquished. Every
day that this war lasts the precious blood of France is shed, and she
runs great risk of permanent exhaustion."
Daniel stopped him with a gesture of irritation and pain. Oh, he knew
too well … no one better than he, that France was dying each day
from her heroic effort. That the pick of her youth, her strength, her
intelligence, the vital sap of the race, was pouring out in torrents,
and with it the wealth, the labour, the credit of the people of
France. France, bleeding at every vein, would follow the path that
Spain had trod four centuries ago, the path that led to the deserts of
the Escurial. Yes, but let no one speak to him of a peace that would
put an end to this agony until the adversary was totally crushed;
no one ought to respond to the advances that Germany was then
making—they ought not to be considered, or even mentioned. And then,
like the politicians, the generals, the journalists, and millions of
poor creatures who repeat at the top of their voices the lesson taught
them, David cried: "To the last man!"
Clerambault looked at him with affectionate pity. Poor boy! brave, yet
so timid that he shrank from the thought of discussing the dogmas of
which he was the victim. His scientific mind dared not revolt against
the stupidity of this bloody game, where death for France as well as
for Germany—perhaps more than for Germany, was the stake.
Yes, he did revolt, but would not admit it to himself. He tried again
to influence Clerambault: "Your ideas perhaps are right and true, but
this is not the time … not now. In twenty, or even fifty years. We
must first conquer, finish our task, found the freedom of the world,
the brotherhood of men, on the enduring victory of France."
Poor Daniel! Can he not see that, even at the best, the victory is
doomed to be tarnished by excesses, and that then it will be the turn
of the vanquished to set their minds on a frantic revenge and a just
victory? Each nation desires the end of wars through its own triumph,
and from one such victory to another humanity will go down to its
As Daniel stood up to go he pressed Clerambault's hands and reminded
him with much feeling of his poem where, in the heroic words of
Beethoven, he exalted the suffering out of which joy is born…."
Durch Leiden Freude." He sighed.
"Ah! how well they understand…. We sing of suffering and our
deliverance, but they are enamoured of it. And now our hymn of
deliverance will become a song of oppression for other men…."
Clerambault could not answer, he had a real love for this young man,
one of those who sacrificed themselves for the war, knowing well
that they had nothing to gain; and the greater their sacrifices,
the stronger their faith. Blessings on them! But if only they would
consent not to immolate all mankind on the same altar….
Rosine came in just as Clerambault and Daniel reached the door of the
apartment; she started with pleasure at the sight of the visitor, and
Daniel's face lighted up also. Clerambault could not help noticing the
sudden gaiety of the two young people. Rosine urged Daniel to come in
again for a few moments and talk to her a little; Daniel hesitated,
did come back, but refused to sit down, and in a constrained way made
a vague excuse for going away. Clerambault, who guessed what was
passing in his daughter's heart, begged him to promise that he would
come at least once more before the end of his leave. Daniel, much
embarrassed, said no, at first, then yes, without fixing a time, and
at last, on being urged by Clerambault, he did say when they might
expect him, and took leave, but his manner was still rather cool.
Rosine stood there, absorbed. She looked troubled, but when her father
smiled at her, she came quickly and kissed him.
The day he had fixed came and went, but no Daniel appeared; they
waited for him the next day and the one after that. He had gone back
to the Front. A few days later, Clerambault persuaded his wife to go
with Rosine to see Daniel's parents. The icy coldness with which they
were received just stopped short of offence. Madame Clerambault came
home, vowing that as long as she lived she would never set foot again
in that house; it was all Rosine could do to restrain her tears.
The following week a letter arrived from Daniel to Clerambault. Though
he seemed a little shamefaced about his attitude and that of his
parents, he tried rather to explain, than to apologise for it. He
spoke of the ties of admiration, respect and friendship which united
him to Clerambault, and alluded discreetly to the hope that he had
formed of one day becoming closer yet; but he added that Clerambault
had disturbed these dreams of the future by the regrettable position
that he had seen fit to adopt in the life and death crisis through
which the country was now passing, a position rendered worse by the
wide publicity given to Clerambault's words. These words, little
understood perhaps, but certainly imprudent, had raised a storm of
opposition on account of their almost sacrilegious character; the
feeling of indignation was unanimous among the men at the front, as
well as in the circle of friends at home. His parents knew what his
hope had been, but they now absolutely refused to allow it, and
in spite of the pain this caused him, he did not feel it right to
disregard these scruples, springing as they did from a profound
devotion to the wounded country. An officer who had the honour to
offer his life for France could not think of a union which would be
regarded as his adhesion to these unfortunate theories; public opinion
would condemn it. Such a view would be unjust, undoubtedly, but it
is a thing that must always be reckoned with; the opinion of a whole
people is respectable, no matter how extreme and unfair it may appear,
and Clerambault had made a grave mistake in trying to brave it. Daniel
entreated him to acknowledge this mistake, and try to rectify, if
possible efface, the deplorable effect produced by articles written in
a different key. He urged this upon him as a duty—towards his country
and himself—letting it be understood that it was also a duty towards
one dear to both of them. In ending his letter he brought forward
other considerations where the word opinion constantly recurred, so as
at last to take the place of reason and conscience.
As Clerambault read he smiled, recalling a scene of Spitteler's. The
king Epimetheus was a man of firm conscience, but when the time came
to put it to the proof, he could not lay his hand upon it, saw it
trying to escape, ran after it, and finally threw himself flat on his
stomach to look for it under the bed. Clerambault reflected that one
might be a hero under the fire of the enemy, but a timid small boy
before the opinion of his fellow-citizens.
He showed the letter to Rosine, and in spite of the partiality of
love, she was hurt that her friend should have wished to do violence
to her father's convictions. Her conclusion was that Daniel did
not love her enough; and she said that her own feeling was not
sufficiently strong to endure such exactions; even if Clerambault
had been willing to yield, she would not have consented to such an
injustice; whereupon she kissed her father, tried to laugh bravely,
and to forget her cruel disappointment.
A glimpse of happiness, however, is not so easily forgotten,
especially if there remains a faint chance of its renewal. She thought
of it constantly, and after a time Clerambault felt that she was
growing away from him. It is difficult not to feel bitterly towards
those for whom we sacrifice ourselves, and in spite of herself Rosine
held her father responsible for her lost happiness.
A strange phenomenon now made itself apparent in Clerambault's mind;
he was cast down but strengthened at the same time. He suffered
because he had spoken, and yet he felt that he should speak again,
for he had ceased to belong to himself. His written word held and
constrained him; he was bound by his thought as soon as it was
published. "That which the fountain sends forth returns again to the
fountain." Born in an hour of mental exaltation, his work prolonged
and reproduced itself in his mind, which would otherwise have fallen
exhausted. An artist's thought is the ray of light from the depths,
the best of himself, the most enduring; it supports his lower nature.
Man, whether he likes it or not, leans on his works and is led by
them. They have an existence outside of his own, and so restore
his lost vigour, recall him to his duty, guide and command him.
Clerambault would have preferred to remain silent, but he wrote once
This time he did not go very far. "Tremble, poor carcass, you know
where I am going to drag you," said Turenne to his body before the
battle. The carcass of Clerambault was not more courageous, though the
conflict to which it was driven was of a humbler sort. It was none the
less hard, for he was alone with no army at his back. As he watched by
his arms, he was a pitiable spectacle in his own eyes. He saw himself,
an ordinary man, of a timid, rather cowardly, disposition, depending
greatly on the affection and approval of others. It was terribly
painful to break these ties, to meet the hatred of others halfway….
Was he strong enough to resist?… All his doubts came back upon
him…. What forced him to speak? Who would listen to him, and what
good would it do? Did not the wisest people set him the example of
Nevertheless his brain was firm, and continued to dictate to him what
he should write; his hand also wrote it down without the alteration of
a word. There seemed to be two men in him; one who threw himself on
the ground in terror, and cried: "I will not fight," and the other
who dragged him along by the collar, without trying to persuade him,
saying simply: "Yes, you will."
It would be praising him too highly to say that he acted in this
manner through bravery; he felt that he could not act otherwise, even
if he had wished to stop; something forced him to go on, to speak….
It was his "mission." He did not understand it, did not know why he
was chosen, he, the poet of tenderness, made for a calm, peaceful
life, free from sacrifices; while other men—strong, war-like, good
fighters with the souls of athletes—remained unemployed. But it
was of no use to dispute it; the word had gone forth, and there was
nothing for it but to obey.
When the stronger of his two souls had once asserted itself, the
duality of his nature led him to yield to it entirely. A more normal
man would have tried to unite them, or combine them, or find some kind
of compromise to satisfy the demands of the one and the prudence of
the other; but with Clerambault it was everything or nothing. Whether
he liked it or not, once he had chosen his road, he followed it
straight before him; and the same causes that had made him accept
absolutely the views of those around him, drove him to cast off every
consideration now that he had begun to see the falsehoods which had
deceived him. If he had been less misted, he would not have unmasked
Thus the brave-man-in-spite-of-himself set off like Oedipus for the
fight with the Sphinx, Country, who awaited him at the crossroads.
Bertin's attack drew the attention of several politicians to
Clerambault; they belonged to the extreme Left, and found it difficult
to conciliate the opposition to the Government—their reason for
existence—with the Sacred Union formed against the enemies' invasion.
They republished the first two articles in a socialist paper which was
then balancing itself between contradictions; opposing the war, and at
the same time voting for credits. You could see in its pages eloquent
statements of internationalism side by side with the appeals of
ministers who were preaching a nationalist policy. In this seesaw
Clerambault's lightly lyrical pages, where the attack on the idea
of Country was made with caution, and the criticism covered up by
devotion, would have been taken as a harmless platonic protestation.
Unfortunately, the teeth of censure had fastened themselves upon some
phrases, with the tenacity of ants; they might have escaped notice in
the general distraction of thought, if it had not been for this.
In the article addressed "To Her whom We have Loved," the word
country appears the first time coupled with an invocation to love.
The critics kept this, but cut it out when it occurred further on
dissociated from such flattering expressions. The word, awkwardly
concealed under this extinguisher, shone all the more brightly in the
mind of the reader—but this they were too dull to perceive, and
great importance was thus given to writings which had not much in
themselves. It must be added that all minds were then in a passive
state, in which the slightest word of liberal humanitarianism took on
an extraordinary importance, particularly if signed by a well-known
The "Pardon Asked of the Dead," was more effective than the other
ever could be; its sadness touched the mass of simple hearts, to whom
the war was agony. The authorities had been indifferent up to now, but
at the first hint of this they tried to put a stop to it. They had
sense enough to know that rigorous measures against Clerambault
would be a mistake, but they could put pressure on the paper through
influence behind the scenes. An opposition to the writer showed
itself on the staff of the paper. Naturally they did not blame
the internationalism of his views; they merely stigmatised it as
Clerambault furnished them with fresh arguments by a new article,
where his aversion to war seemed incidentally to condemn revolution as
well. Poets are proverbially bad politicians.
It was a reply to "The Appeal to the Dead," that Barrès, like an owl
perched on a cypress in a graveyard, had wailed forth.
TO THE LIVING
Death rules the world. You that are living, rise and shake off the
yoke! It is not enough that the nations are destroyed. They are bidden
to glorify Death, to march towards it with songs; they are expected to
admire their own sacrifice … to call it the "most glorious, the most
enviable fate" … but how untrue this is! Life is the great, the holy
thing, and love of life is the first of virtues. The men of today have
it no longer; this war has shown that, and even worse. It has proved
that during the last fifteen years, many have hoped for these horrible
upheavals—you cannot deny it! No man loves life who has no better use
for it than to throw it into the jaws of Death. Life is a burden to
many—to you rich of the middle-class, reactionary conservatives,
whose moral dyspepsia takes away your appetite, everything tastes flat
and bitter. Everything bores you. It is a heavy burden also to you
proletarians, poor, unhappy, discouraged by your hard lot. In the dull
obscurity of your lives, hopeless of any change for the better,—Oh,
Ye of little faith!—your only chance of escape seems to be through
an act of violence which lifts you out of the mire for one moment at
least, even if it be the last. Anarchists and revolutionists who have
preserved something of the primitive animal energy rely on these
qualities to liberate themselves in this way; they are the strong. But
the mass of the people are too weary to take the initiative, and that
is why they eagerly welcome the sharp blade of war which pierces
through to the core of the nations. They give themselves up to it,
darkly, voluptuously. It is the only moment of their dim lives when
they can feel the breath of the infinite within them,—and this moment
is their annihilation….
Is this a way to make the best of life?… Which we can only
maintain, it would seem, by renouncing it; and for the sake of what
carnivorous gods?… Country, Revolution … who grind millions of men
in their bloody jaws.
What glory can be found in death and destruction? It is Life that we
need, and you do not know it, for you are not worthy. You have never
felt the blessing of the living hour, the joy that circulates in the
light. Half-dead souls, you would have us all die with you, and when
we stretch out our hands to save you, our sick brothers, you seek to
drag us down with you into the pit.
I do not lay the blame on you, poor unfortunates, but on your
masters, our leaders of the hour, our intellectual and political
heads, masters of gold, iron, blood, and thought!… You who rule the
nations, who move armies; you who have formed this generation by your
newspapers, your books, your schools and your churches, and who have
made docile sheep of the free souls of men!… All this enslaving
education, whether lay or Christian, though it dwells with an
unhealthy joy on military glory and its beatitude, still shows its
utter hollowness, for both Church and State bait their hook with
Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, politicians, and
priests, artists, authors, dancers of death; inwardly you are all full
of decay and dead men's bones. Truly you are the sons of them that
slew Christ, and like them you lay on men's shoulders burdens grievous
to be borne, which you yourselves would not touch with the end of your
fingers. Crucifiers are you like them, and those who come among you to
help the suffering peoples, bringing blessed peace in their hands, you
imprison and insult them, and as the Scripture says, persecute them
from city to city until all the righteous blood shed upon the earth
shall fall upon your heads.
You work only to provide food for Death; your countries are made to
subdue the future to the past, and bind the living to the putrifying
corpses of the dead. You condemn the new life to perpetuate the empty
rites of the tomb…. Let us rise! The resurrection, the Easter of the
living, is at hand!
Sons of men, it is not true that you are, the slaves of the dead and
are chained by them like serfs to the earth. Let the dead past bury
its dead, and itself with them; you are children of the living, and
live in your turn. Souls who are bound to the countries of the past,
shake off the neurasthenic torpor, wracked by outbursts of frenzy,
which weighs you down. Shake it off, my brothers, you who are young
and strong; be masters of the present and the past, fathers and sons
of your works. Set yourselves free! Each one of you is Man;—not flesh
that rots in the tomb, but the blazing fire of life which purifies
corruption and renews long-dead corpses, the flame ever new and young
which circles the earth with its burning arms. Be free! Conquerors
of the Bastille, you have not yet opened the dungeon within you,
the falsely called Fatality. It was built as a prison-house for you
centuries ago, by slaves or tyrants. They were all convicts of the
same stamp, who were afraid that you would discover that you were
free. Religions, races, countries, materialistic science, the heavy
shadows of the past, are between you and the sun; but go forward!
Liberty is there, behind those ramparts and towers, built of
prejudices, dead laws, and consecrated falsehoods. They are guarded by
the interests of some, the opinion of the drilled masses, and your own
doubting spirit. Dare to will; and behind the crumbling walls of
this spurious Destiny, you will once more behold the sun and the
Insensible to the revolutionary heat of this appeal, the staff of
the newspaper only fastened its attention on the few lines where
Clerambault seemed to lump all violences together, those of the "left"
along with those of the "right." What did this poet mean by giving
lessons to the socialists in a party paper? In the name of what
theory? He was not even a socialist. He was nothing but a Tolstoyian
anarchist; let him go back to his exercises in style, and his
middle-class where he belonged. Some larger-minded spirits
remonstrated in vain, that, with or without any label, liberal ideas
ought to be welcomed, and that those of Clerambault, however ignorant
he might be of the party doctrines, were more truly socialistic than
those of members of the party who joined in the work of national
slaughter. These views were over-ruled; Clerambault's article was
returned to him, after spending some weeks in the bottom of a drawer,
on the pretext that there were so many current items that they took up
all the space, and that the paper had too much copy already.
Clerambault took his article to a small review, which was more
attracted by his name than by his ideas. The upshot was that the
review was called down, and suspended by police order the day after
the article appeared, though it had been whitewashed through and
Clerambault, however, persisted. The most rebellious people in the
world are those who are forced to rebellion after a lifetime of
submission. I remember once to have seen a big sheep so worried by a
dog that he finally threw himself upon him. The dog was overcome by
this unexpected reversal of the laws of nature and ran away, howling
with surprise and terror. The Dog-State is too sure of its own fangs
to feel afraid of a few mutinous sheep; but the lamb Clerambault no
longer calculated the danger; he simply put his head down and butted.
Generous and weak natures are prone to pass without transition from
one extreme to another; so from an intensely gregarious feeling
Clerambault had jumped at one bound to the extreme of individual
isolation. Because he knew it so well, he could see nothing around
him but the plague of obedience, that social suggestion of which the
effects are everywhere manifest. The passive heroism of the armies
excited to frenzy, like millions of ants absorbed in the general mass,
the servility of Assemblies, despising the head of their Government,
but sustaining him by their votes, even at the risk of an explosion
brought about by one "bolter," the sulky but well-drilled submission
of even the liberal Parties, sacrificing their very reason for
existence to the absurd fetish of abstract unity. This abdication,
this passion, represented the true enemy in Clerambault's eyes. And it
was his task, he thought, to break down its great suggestive power by
awakening doubt, the spirit that eats away all chains.
The chief seat of the disease was the idea of Nation; this inflamed
point could not be touched without howls from the beast. Clerambault
attacked it at once, without gloves.
What have I to do with your nations? Can you expect me to love or
hate a nation? It is men that I love or hate, and in all nations
you will find the noble, the base, and the ordinary man. Yes, and
everywhere are few great or low, while the ordinary abound. Like or
dislike a man for what he is, not for what others are; and if there
is one man who is dear to me in a whole nation, that prevents me from
condemning it. You talk of struggles and hatred between races? Races
are the colours of life's prism; it binds them together, and we have
light. Woe to him who shatters it! I am not of one race, I belong to
life as a whole; I have brothers in every nation, enemy or ally, and
those you would thrust upon me as compatriots are not always the
nearest. The families of our souls are scattered through the world.
Let us re-unite them! Our task is to undo these chaotic nations, and
in their place to bind together more harmonious groups. Nothing can
prevent it; on the anvil of a common suffering, persecution will forge
the common affection of the tortured peoples.
Clerambault did not pride himself on his logic, but only tried to get
at the popular idol through the joints of his armour. Often he did not
deny the nation-idea, but accepted it as natural, at the same time
attacking national rivalries in the most forcible manner. This
attitude was by no means the least dangerous.
I cannot interest myself in struggles for supremacy between nations;
it is indifferent which colour comes up, for humanity gains, no matter
who is the winner. It is true, that in the contests of peace, the most
vital, intelligent, and hard-working people, will always excel. But if
the defeated competitors, or those who felt themselves falling behind,
were to resort to violence to eliminate their successful rivals, it
would be a monstrous thing. It would mean the sacrifice of the welfare
of mankind to a commercial interest, and Country is not a business
firm. It is of course unfortunate that when one nation goes up,
another is apt to go down. But when "big business" in my country
interferes with smaller trade, we do not say that it is a crime of
lèse-patriotism, despite the fact that it may be a fight which brings
ruin and death to many innocent victims.
The existing economic system of the world is calamitous and bad; it
ought to be remedied; but war, which tries to swindle a more fortunate
and able competitor for the benefit of the inexpert or the lazy,
makes this vicious system worse; it enriches a few, and ruins the
All peoples cannot walk abreast on the same road; they are always
passing each other, and being outstripped in their turn. What does it
matter, since we are all in the same column? We should get rid of
our silly self-conceit. The pole of the world's energy is constantly
changing, often in the same country. In France it has passed from
Roman Provence to the Loire of the Valois; now it is at Paris, but it
will not stay there always. The entire creation swings in alternate
rhythm from germinating spring to dying autumn. Commercial methods
are not immutable, any more than the treasures beneath the earth are
inexhaustible. A people spends itself for centuries, without counting
the cost; its very greatness will lead to its decline. It is only by
renouncing the purity of its blood and mixing with other nations that
it can subsist. Our old men today are sending the young ones to death;
it does not make them younger, and they are killing the future.
Instead of raging against the laws of life, a wholesome people will
try to understand them and see its real progress, not in a stupid
obstinacy which refuses to grow old, but in a constant effort to
advance with the age, changing and becoming greater. To each epoch its
own task. It is merely sloth and weakness if we cling all our lives
to the same one. Learn to change, for in that is life. The factory of
humanity has work for all of us. Labour for all, peoples of the world,
each man taking pride in the work of all the rest, for the travail,
the genius of the whole earth is ours also!
These articles appeared here and there, whenever possible, in some
little sheet of advanced literary and anarchistic views, in which
violent attacks on persons took the place of a reasoned-out campaign
against the order of things. They were nearly illegible, defaced as
they were by the censor. Besides, when an article was reprinted in
another paper, he would let pass with a capricious forgetfulness what
he had cut out the day before, and cut what he had passed then. It
took close study to make out the sense of the article after this
treatment, but the remarkable thing was that the adversaries of
Clerambault, not his friends, went to this trouble. Ordinarily, at
Paris, these squalls do not last long. The most vindictive enemies,
trained to wars of the pen, know that silence is a sharper weapon than
insult, and get more out of their animosity by keeping it quiet; but
in the hysterical crisis in which Europe was struggling, there was no
guide, even for hatred. Clerambault was continually being recalled
to the public mind by the violent attacks of Bertin, though he never
failed to conclude each one in which he had discharged his venom, with
a disdainful: "He is not worth speaking of."
Bertin was only too familiar with the weaknesses, defects of mind,
and small absurdities of his former friend; he could not resist the
temptation to touch them with a sure hand, and Clerambault, stung
and not wise enough to hide it, let himself be drawn into the fight,
retaliated, and proved that he too could draw blood from the other.
Thus a fierce enmity arose between the two.
The result might have been foreseen. Up to this time Clerambault
had been inoffensive, confining himself on the whole to moral
dissertations. His polemic did not step outside the circle of ideas.
It might as well have been applied to Germany, England, or ancient
Rome, as to the France of today. To tell the truth, like nine-tenths
of his class and profession, he was ignorant of the political facts
about which he declaimed, so that his trumpetings could hardly disturb
the leaders of the day. In the midst of the tumult of the press,
the noisy passage of arms between Clerambault and Bertin had two
consequences; in the first place it forced Clerambault to play with
more care, and choose a less slippery ground than logomachy, and on
the other it brought him in contact with men better informed as to the
facts who furnished him with the necessary information. A short
time before there had been formed in France a little society,
semi-clandestine, for independent study and free criticism on the war,
and the causes that had led up to it. The Government, always vigilant
and ready to crush any attempt at freedom of thought, nevertheless
did not consider this society dangerous. Its members were prudent and
calm, men of letters before all, who avoided notoriety, and contented
themselves with private discussion; it was thought better policy to
keep them under observation, and between four walls.
These calculations proved to be wrong, for truth modestly and
laboriously discovered, though known only to five or six, cannot be
uprooted; it will spring from the earth with irresistible force.
Clerambault now learned for the first time of the existence of these
passionate seekers after truth, who recalled the times of the Dreyfus
case. In the general oppression, their apostolate behind closed doors
took on the appearance of a little early-Christian group in the
catacombs. Thanks to them, he discovered the falsehoods as well as the
injustices of the "Great War." He had had a faint suspicion of them,
but he had not dreamed how far the history that touches us most
closely had been falsified, and the knowledge revolted him. Even in
his most critical moments, his simplicity would never have imagined
the deceptive foundations on which reposes a Crusade for the Right,
and as he was not a man to keep his discovery to himself, he
proclaimed it loudly, first in articles which were forbidden by the
censor, and then in the shape of sarcastic apologues, or little
symbolic tales, touched with irony. The Voltairian apologues slipped
through sometimes, owing to the inattention of the censor, and in this
way Clerambault was marked out to the authorities as a very dangerous
Those who thought they knew him best were surprised. His adversaries
had called him sentimental, and assuredly so he was, but he was aware
of it, and because he was French he could laugh at it, and at himself.
It is all very well for sentimental Germans to have a thick-headed
belief in themselves; deep down in an eloquent and sensitive creature
like Clerambault, the vision of the Gaul—always alert in his thick
woods—observes, lets nothing escape, and is ready for a laugh at
everything. The surprising thing is that this under-spirit will emerge
when you least expect it, during the darkest trials and in the most
pressing danger. The universal sense of humour came as a tonic to
Clerambault, and his character, scarcely freed from the conventions in
which it had been bound, took on suddenly a vital complexity. Good,
tender, combative, irritable, always in extremes—he knew it, and that
made him worse—tearful, sarcastic, sceptical, yet believing, he was
surprised when he saw himself in the mirror of his writings. All his
vitality, hitherto prudently shut into his bourgeois life, now burst
forth, developed by moral solitude and the hygiene of action.
Clerambault saw that he had not known himself; he was, as it were,
new-born, since that night of anguish. He learned to taste a joy of
which he had never before had an idea—the giddy joy of the free
lance in a fight; all his senses strung like a bow, glad in a perfect
This improved state, however, brought no advantage to Clerambault's
family; his wife's share of the struggle was only the unpleasantness,
a general animosity that finally made itself felt even among the
small tradespeople of the neighbourhood. Rosine drooped; her secret
heart-ache wore upon her all the more because of her silence; but if
she said nothing her mother complained enough for two. She made no
distinction between the fools who affronted her and the imprudent
Clerambault who caused all the trouble; so that at every meal there
were awkward remarks meant to induce him to keep still. All this was
of no use, reproaches whether spoken or silent, passed over his head;
he was sorry, of course, but he had thrown himself into the thick
of the fight, and with a somewhat childish egotism he thrust aside
anything that interfered with this new interest.
Circumstances, however, came to Madame Clerambault's assistance; an
old relation who had brought her up died, leaving her little property
in Berry to the Clerambaults. The mourning was a good excuse for
quitting Paris, which had now become detestable, and for tearing the
poet from his dangerous surroundings. There was also the question
of money and of Rosine, who would be better for change of air.
Clerambault gave in, and they all three went to take possession of
their small inheritance, and remained in Berry during the rest of the
summer and autumn. It was in the country, a respectable old house just
outside a village. From the agitation of Paris Clerambault passed at
once to a stagnant calm, and in the long silent days all that broke
the monotony was a cock crowing in a farm-yard or a cow lowing in the
meadow. Clerambault was too much wrought up to adapt himself to the
slow and placid rhythm of nature; formerly he had adored it and was in
harmony with the country people from whom his family had come. Now,
however, the peasants with whom he tried to talk seemed to him
creatures from another planet. Certainly, they were not infected by
the virus of war; they showed no emotion, and no hatred for the enemy;
but then they had no animosity either against war, which they accepted
as a fact. Certain keen, good-natured observations showed that they
were not taken in as to the merits of the case, but since the war was
there they made the most they could out of it. They might lose
their sons, but they did not mean to lose money; not that they were
heartless, grief had marked them deeply, though they spoke little of
it; but after all, men pass away,—the land is always there. They at
least had not, like the bourgeois in cities, sent their children to
death through national fanaticism. Only they knew how to get something
in exchange for what they gave; and it is probable that their sons
would have thought this perfectly natural. Because you have lost
someone you love, must you lose your head too? Our peasants did not
lose theirs; it is said that in the country districts of France more
than a million new proprietors have been made by the war.
The mind of Clerambault was alien to all this; he and these people did
not speak the same language. They exchanged some vague condolences,
but when he is talking to a bourgeois a peasant always complains; it
is a habit, a way of defending himself against a possible appeal
to his pocketbook; they would have talked in the same way about an
epidemic of fever. Clerambault was always the Parisian in their eyes;
he belonged to another tribe, and if they had thoughts, they would not
tell them to him.
This lack of response stifled Clerambault's words; impressionable
as he was, he could no longer hear himself. All was silence; he had
friends unknown, and at a distance, who tried to communicate with
him, but their voices were intercepted by postal spies—one of
the disgraces of our time. On the pretext of suppressing foreign
espionage, our Government made spies of its own citizens, and not
content with a watch on politics, it violated a man's thoughts, and
taught its agents how to listen at doors like lackeys. The premium
thus put on baseness filled this country—and all the others—with
volunteer detectives, gentlemen, men of letters, many of them
slackers, who bought their own security with the safety of others,
calling their denunciations by the name of patriotism.
Thanks to these informers, those of liberal opinions could not get in
touch with one another; that great monster, the State—pricked by
its bad conscience—suspected and feared half a dozen liberal-minded
people, alone, weak, and destitute; and each one of these liberals
surrounded by spies, ate his heart out in his jail, and ignorant that
others suffered with him, felt himself slowly dying, freezing in the
polar ice of his despair.
Clerambault was too hot-blooded to let himself be buried under this
snowy shroud; but the soul is not all, the body is a plant which
needs human soil, Deprived of sympathy, reduced to feed on itself,
it perishes. In vain did Clerambault try to prove to himself that
millions of other minds were in agreement with his own; it could not
replace the actual contact with one living heart. Faith is sufficient
for the spirit, but the heart is like Thomas, it must touch to be
Clerambault had not foreseen this physical weakness; he felt stifled,
his body seemed on fire, his skin burning, his life seemed to be
drying up at the source. It was as if he were under an exhausted
vacuum-bell. A wall kept him from the air.
One evening, like a consumptive after a bad day, he had been wandering
about the house from room to room, as if in search of a breath of
fresh air, when a letter came that had somehow slipped through the
meshes of the net. An old man like himself, a village schoolmaster in
a remote valley of Dauphiny wrote thus:
"The war has taken everything from me; of those whom I used to know,
some have been killed, and the rest are so altered that I hardly
recognise them. They have trampled on all that made life worth having
to me; my hope of progress, my faith in a future of brotherly reason.
"I was ready to die in my despair, when a paper in which you were
spoken of insultingly, drew my attention to your articles: To the
Dead and To Her Whom We Loved. I wept with joy as I read them; I
am not then left alone to suffer? I am not solitary?—You do believe;
then, my dear Sir, tell me that you still have faith in these things.
They really exist, and cannot be destroyed? I must tell you how much
good it does me to know that; for I had begun to doubt. You must
forgive me, but I am old and alone and very weary…. God bless you,
Sir! I can die in peace, now that, thanks to you, I know that I have
not been deceived."
Instantly it was as if a window had been opened to the air;
Clerambault's lungs were filled, his heart beat strongly again, life
seemed to be renewed, and to flow once more in a full channel. How
deep is the need we have of love from one another!… A hand stretched
out in the hour of my agony makes me feel that I am not a branch torn
from the tree, but a living part of it; we save each other. I give my
strength, which would be nothing if it were not taken. Truth alone is
like a spark struck from a stone; dry, harsh, ephemeral. Will it die
out? No, for it has kindled another soul, and a new star has risen on
The new star was seen but for a few moments, then a cloud covered it,
and it vanished forever.
Clerambault wrote the same day to his unknown friend, telling him
effusively of all his trials and dangerous opinions, but no answer
came. Some weeks later, Clerambault wrote again, but without success.
Such was his longing for a friend with whom to share his troubles and
his hopes that he took the train to Grenoble, and from there made his
way on foot to the village of which he had the address; but when,
joyful with the surprise he brought, he knocked at the door of the
schoolhouse, the man who opened it evidently understood nothing of his
errand. After some explanation it appeared that this was a newcomer
in the village; that his predecessor had been dismissed in disgrace a
month before and ordered to a distance, but that the trouble of the
journey had been spared him, for he had died of pneumonia the day
before he was to have left the place where he had lived for thirty
years. He was there still, but under the ground. Clerambault saw the
cross over the newly-made mound, but he never knew if his lost friend
had at least received his words of sympathy. It was better for him to
remain in doubt, for the letters had never reached their destination;
even this gleam of light had been denied to the poor old schoolmaster.
The end of this summer in Berry was one of the most arid periods in
Clerambault's life. He talked with no one, he wrote nothing and he
had no way of communicating directly with the working people. He had
always made himself liked on the rare occasions on which he had
come into contact with them—in a crowd, on holidays, or in the
workingmen's schools; but shyness on both sides held him back. Each
felt his inferiority; with pride on the one hand, and awkwardness on
the other, for Clerambault knew that in many essential respects he
was inferior to the intelligent workman. He was right; for from their
ranks will be recruited the leaders of the future. The best class of
these men contained many honest and virile minds able to understand
Clerambault. With an untouched idealism they still kept a firm hold on
reality, and though their daily life had accustomed them to struggles,
disappointments, and treachery, they were trained to patience; young
as some of them were, they were veterans of the social war, and there
was much that they could have taught Clerambault. They knew that
everything is for sale, that nothing is to be had for nothing, that
those who desire the future happiness of men must pay the price now,
in their own sufferings; that the smallest progress is gained step by
step and is lost often twenty times before it is finally conquered.
There is nothing final in this world. These men, solid and patient as
the earth, would have been of great use to Clerambault, and his vivid
intelligence would have been like a ray of sunshine to them.
Unfortunately both he and they had to bear the results of the archaic
caste system; injurious as it is and fatal to the community not less
than to the individual, raising between the pretended equals of
our so-called "democracies" the excessive inequality of fortune,
education, and life. Journalists supply the only means of
communication between caste and caste, and they form a caste by
themselves, representing neither the one side nor the other. The
voice of the newspapers alone now broke the silence that surrounded
Clerambault, and nothing could stop their "Brekekekex, coax, coax."
The disastrous results of a new offensive found them, as always,
bravely at their post. Once more the optimist oracles of the pontiffs
of the rear-guard were proved to be wrong, but no one seemed to notice
it. Other prophecies succeeded, and were given out and swallowed with
the same assurance. Neither those who wrote, nor those who read, saw
that they had deceived themselves; in all sincerity they did not know
it; they did not remember what they had written the day before. What
can you expect from such feather-headed creatures who do not know if
they are on their heads or their heels? But it must be allowed that
they know how to fall on their feet after one of their somersaults.
One conviction a day is enough for them; and what does the quality
matter, since they are fresh every hour?
Towards the end of the autumn, in order to keep up the morale which
sank before the sadness of the coming winter, the press started a new
propaganda against German atrocities; it "went across" perfectly, and
the thermometer of public opinion rose to fever heat. Even in the
placid Berry village for several weeks all sorts of cruel things
were said; the curé took part and preached a sermon on vengeance.
Clerambault heard this from his wife at breakfast and said plainly
what he thought of it before the servant who was waiting at table. The
whole village knew that he was a boche before night; and every morning
after that he could read it written up on his front door. Madame
Clerambault's temper was not improved by this, and Rosine, who had
taken to religion in the disappointment of her young love, was too
much occupied with her unhappy soul and its experiences to think of
the troubles of others. The sweetest natures have times when they are
simply and absolutely selfish.
Left to himself alone, deprived of the means of action, Clerambault
turned his heated thoughts back on himself. Nothing now held him from
the path of harsh truth; there was nothing between him and its cold
light. His soul was shrivelled like those fuorusciti who, thrown
from the walls of the cruel city, gaze at it from without with
faithless eyes. It was no longer the sad vision of the first night of
his trials, when his bleeding wounds still linked him with other men;
all ties were now broken, as with open eyes his spirit sank down
whirling into the abyss; the slow descent into hell, from circle to
circle, alone in the silence.
"I see you, you myriads of herded peoples, hugging together perforce
in shoals to spawn and to think! Each group of you, like the bees, has
a special sacred odour of its own. The stench of the queen-bee makes
the unity of the hive and gives joy to the labour of the bees. As with
the ants, whosoever does not stink like me, I kill! O you bee-hives of
men! each of you has its own peculiar smell of race, religion, morals
and approved tradition; it impregnates your bodies, your wax, the
brood-comb of your hives; it permeates your entire lives from birth to
death; and woe to him who would wash himself clean of it.
"He who would sense the mustiness of this swarm-thinking, the
night-sweat of a hallucinated people, should look back at the rites
and beliefs of ancient history. Let him ask the quizzical Herodotus
to unroll for him the film of human wanderings, the long panorama of
social customs, sometimes ignoble or ridiculous, but always venerated;
of the Scythians, the Gatae, the Issedones, the Gindares, the
Nasamones, the Sauromates, the Lydians, the Lybians, and the
Egyptians; bipeds of all colours, from East to West and from North to
South. The Great King, who was a man of wit, asked the Greeks, who
burn their dead, to eat them; and the Hindoos, who eat them, to burn
them, and was much amused by their indignation. The wise Herodotus
who doffs his cap, though he may grin behind it, will not judge them
himself and does not think it fair to laugh at them. He says: 'If it
were proposed to all men to choose between the best laws of different
nations, each one would give the preference to his own; so true it is
that every man is convinced that his own country is the best. Nothing
can be truer than the words of Pindar: Custom is the Sovereign of all
"It is true everyone must drink out of his own trough, but you would
at least think that we would allow others to do likewise; but not
at all, we cannot enjoy our own without spitting in that of our
neighbours. It is the will of God,—for a god we must have in some
shape, in that of man or beast, or even of a thing, a black or red
line as in the Middle Ages,—a blackbird, a crow, a blazon of some
kind; we must have something on which to throw the responsibility of
"Now that the coat-of-arms has been superseded by the flag, we declare
that we are freed from superstitions! But at what time were they
darker than they are now? Under our new doctrine of equality we are
all obliged to smell exactly alike. We are not even free to say that
we are not free; that would be sacrilege! With the pack on our back we
must bawl out: 'Liberty forever!' Under the orders of her father, the
daughter of Cheops made herself a harlot that she might contribute by
her body to the building of the pyramid. And now to raise the pyramids
of our massive republics, millions of citizens prostitute their
consciences and themselves, body and soul, to falsehood and hate.
We have become past masters in the great art of lying. True, it was
always known, but the difference between us and our forefathers is
that they knew themselves to be liars, and were not far from admitting
it in their simple way; it was a necessity of nature—they relieved
themselves before the passers-by, as you see men do today in the
South…. 'I shall lie,' said Darius, innocently. One should not be
too scrupulous when it is useful to tell a lie. Those who speak the
truth want the same thing as those who tell falsehoods. We do so in
the hope of gaining some advantage, and we are truthful for the same
reason and that people may feel confidence in us. Thus, though we may
not follow the same road, we are all aiming at the same thing, for if
there were naught to gain, a truth-teller would be equally ready to
lie, and a liar to tell the truth.'—We, my dear contemporaries, are
more modest; we do not look on at each other telling falsehoods on the
curb. It must be done behind four walls. We lie to ourselves, and we
never confess it, not even to our innermost selves. No, we do not
lie, we 'idealise.' … Come, let us see your eyes, and let them see
clearly, if you are free men!
"Free! What are you free from, and which of you is free in your
countries today? Are you free to act? No, since the State disposes of
your life, so that you must either assassinate others or be yourselves
assassinated. Are you free to speak or to write? No, for they imprison
you if you dare to speak your mind. Can you even think for yourselves?
Not unless it is sub rosa—and the bottom of a cellar is none too
"Be silent and wary, for there are sharp eyes on you…. To keep you
from action there are sentries, corporals with stripes on their arms,
and sentries, too, over your minds; churches and universities that
prescribe what you may believe, and what you may not…. What do you
complain of, they say, even if you are not complaining. You must not
fatigue your mind by thinking; repeat your catechism!
"Are we not told that this catechism was freely agreed to by the
sovereign people?—A fine sovereignty, truly! Idiots, who puff out
your cheeks over the word Democracy! Democracy is the art of usurping
the people's place, of shearing their wool off closely, in this holy
name, for the benefit of some of Democracy's good apostles. In peace
times the people only know what goes on through the press, which is
bought and told what to say by those whose interest it is to hoodwink
the public, while the truth is kept under lock and key. In war time it
is even better, for then it is the people themselves who are locked
up. Allowing that they have ever known what they wanted, it is no
longer possible for them to speak above their breath. Obey. Perinde
ac cadaver…. Ten millions of corpses…. The living are hardly
better off, depressed as they are by four years of sham patriotism,
circus-parades, tom-toms, threats, braggings, hatreds, informers,
trials for treason, and summary executions. The demagogues have called
in all the reserves of obscurantism to extinguish the last gleams
of good sense that lingered in the people, and to reduce them to
"It is not enough to debase them; they must be so stupefied that they
wish to be debased. The formidable autocracies of Egypt, Persia, and
Syria, made playthings of the lives of millions of men; and the secret
of their power lay in the supernatural light of their pseudo-divinity.
From the extreme limit of the ages of credulity, every absolute
monarchy has been a theocracy. In our democracies, however, it
is impossible to believe in the divinity of humbugs, shaky and
discredited, like some of our moth-eaten Ministers; we are too close
to them, we know their dirty tricks, so they have invented the idea of
concealing God behind their drop-curtain; God means the Republic,
the Country, Justice, Civilisation; the names are painted up on
the outside. Each booth at the fair displays in huge many-coloured
posters, the picture of its Beautiful Giantess; millions crowd around
to see it, but they do not tell us what they think when they come out.
Perhaps they found it difficult to think at all! Some stay inside and
others have seen nothing. But those who stand in front of the stage
gaping, they know God is there for they have seen His picture. The
wish that we have to believe in Him—that is the god of each one of
"Why does this desire flame up so furiously? Because we do not want to
see the truth—and therefore because we do see it. Therein lies the
tragedy of humanity; it refuses to see and know. As a last resort, it
is forced to find divinity in the mire. Let us, on our part, dare to
look the truth in the face.
"The instinct of murder is deeply engraved in the heart of nature. It
is a truly devilish instinct, since it seems to have created beings
not only to eat, but to be eaten. One species of cormorants eats
fishes. The fishermen exterminate the birds. And the fish disappear,
because they fed on the excrement of the birds who devoured them. Thus
the chain of beings is like a serpent eating his own tail…. If only
we were not sentient beings, did not witness our own tortures, we
might escape from this hell. There are two ways only: that of Buddha,
who effaced within himself the painful illusion of life; and the
religious way, which throws the veil of a dazzling falsehood over
crime and sorrow. Those who devour others are said to be the chosen
people who work for God. The weight of sin, thrown into one of the
scales of life, finds its counterpoise beyond in the dream where all
wounds and sorrows are to be cured. The form of the beyond varies
from people to people and from time to time, and these variations are
called Progress, though it is always the same need of illusion. Our
terrible consciousness insists on seeing and reckoning with the unjust
law; for if we do not give it something to bite on, fill its maw
somehow, it will howl with hunger and fear, crying out: 'I must have
belief or death!' And that is why we go in flocks; for security, to
make a common certainty out of our individual doubts.
"What have we to do with truth? Most men think that truth is the
Adversary. Of course they do not say this, but by a tacit agreement
what they call truth is a sickening mixture of much falsehood and very
little truth, which serves to paint over the lie so that we get deceit
and eternal slavery. Not the monuments of faith and love are the most
durable, those of servitude last much longer. Rheims and the Parthenon
fall to ruins, but the Pyramids of Egypt defy the ages; all about them
is the desert, its mirages and its moving sand. When I think of the
millions of souls swallowed up by the spirit of slavery in the course
of centuries—heretics, revolutionists, rebels lay and clerical,—I am
no longer surprised at the mediocrity that spreads like greasy water
over the world.
"We who have so far kept our heads above the gloomy surface, what
are we to do in face of the implacable universe, where the stronger
eternally crushes the weaker, and is crushed by a stronger yet, in his
turn? Shall we resign ourselves to a voluntary sacrifice through pity
or weariness? Or shall we join in and cut the throats of the weak,
without the shadow of an illusion as to the blind cosmic cruelty?
What choice is left, but to try to keep out of the struggle through
selfishness—or wisdom, which is another form of the same thing?"
In the crisis of acute pessimism which had seized upon Clerambault
during these months of inhuman isolation, he could not contemplate
even the possibility of progress; that progress in which he had once
believed, as men do in God. The human species now appeared to him as
devoted to a murderous destiny. After having ravaged the planet and
exterminated other species, it was now to be destroyed by its own
hands. It is the law of justice. Man only became ruler of the world by
treachery and force (above all by treachery). Those more noble than he
have perhaps—or certainly—fallen under his blows; he has destroyed
some, degraded and brutalised others. During the thousands of years
in which he has shared life with other beings, he has
feigned—falsely—not to comprehend them, not to see them as brothers,
suffering, loving, and dreaming like himself. In order to exploit
them, to torture them without remorse, his men of thought have told
him that these creatures cannot think, that he alone possesses
this gift. And now he is not far from saying the same thing of his
fellow-men whom he dismembers and destroys. Butcher, murderer, you
have had no pity, why should you implore it for yourself today?…
Of all the old friendships that had once surrounded Clerambault, one
only remained, his friendship with Madame Mairet, whose husband had
been killed in the Argonne.
François Mairet was not quite forty years old when he met with an
obscure death in the trenches. He was one of the foremost French
biologists, an unpretending scholar and hard worker, a patient spirit.
But celebrity was assured to him before long, though he was in no
haste to welcome the meretricious charmer, as her favours have to be
shared with too many wire-pullers. The silent joys that intimacy with
science bestows on her elect were sufficient for him, with only
one heart on earth to taste them with him. His wife shared all his
thoughts. She came of a scholarly family, was rather younger than he;
one of those serious, loving, weak, yet proud hearts, that must give
but only give themselves once. Her existence was bound up in Mairet's
interests. Perhaps she would have shared the life of another man
equally well, if circumstances had been different, but she had married
Mairet with everything that was his. Like many of the best of women,
her intelligence was quick to understand the man whom her heart had
chosen. She had begun by being his pupil, and became his partner,
helping in his work and in his laboratory researches. They had
no children and had every thought in common, both of them being
freethinkers, with high ideals, destitute of religion, as well as of
any national superstition.
In 1914 Mairet was mobilised, and went simply as a duty, without any
illusions as to the cause that he was called upon to serve by the
accidents of time and country. His letters from the front were clear
and stoical; he had never ceased to see the ignominy of the war. But
he felt obliged to sacrifice himself in obedience to fate, which
had made him a part of the errors, the sufferings, and the confused
struggles of an unfortunate animal species slowly evolving towards an
His family and the Clerambaults had known each other in the country,
before either of them were transplanted to Paris; this acquaintance
formed the basis of an amicable intercourse, solid rather than
intimate—for Mairet opened his heart to no one but his wife—but
resting on an esteem that nothing could shake.
They had not corresponded since the beginning of the war; each had
been too much absorbed by his own troubles. Men who went to fight
did not scatter their letters among their friends, but generally
concentrated on one person whom they loved best, and to whom they told
everything. Mairet's wife, as always, was his only confidante. His
letters were a journal in which he thought aloud; and in one of the
last he spoke of Clerambault. He had seen extracts from his first
articles in some of the nationalist papers which were the only ones
allowed at the front, where they were quoted with insulting comments.
He spoke of them to his wife, saying what comfort he had found in
these words of an honest man driven to speak out, and he begged her to
let Clerambault know that his old friendship for him was now all
the warmer and closer. He also asked Madame Mairet to send him the
succeeding articles, but he died before they could reach him.
When he was gone the woman, who had lived only for him, tried to draw
nearer to the people who had been near to him in the last days of his
life. She wrote to Clerambault, and he, who was eating his heart
out in his provincial retreat, lacking even the energy to get away,
welcomed her letter as a deliverance. He returned at once to Paris;
and they both found a bitter joy in evoking together the image of the
absent. They formed the habit of meeting on one evening in the week,
when they would, so to speak, immerse themselves in recollections of
him. Clerambault was the only one of his friends who could understand
the tragedy, hidden under a sacrifice gilded by no patriotic illusion.
At first Madame Mairet seemed to find comfort in showing all that she
had received; she read his letters, full of disenchanted confidences;
they reflected on them with deep emotion, and she brought them into
the discussion of the problems that had caused the death of Mairet
and of millions of others. In this keen analysis, nothing stopped
Clerambault; and she was not a woman to hesitate in the search for
truth. But nevertheless….
Clerambault soon became aware that his words made her uneasy, though
he was only saying aloud things that she knew well and that were
strongly confirmed by Mairet's letters, namely, the criminal futility
of these deaths, and the sterility of all this heroism. She tried to
take back her confidences, or even to minimise the meaning of them,
with an eagerness that did not seem perfectly sincere. She brought
to mind sayings of her husband's which apparently showed him more in
sympathy with general opinion, and implied that he approved of it. One
day Clerambault was listening while she read a letter which she had
read to him before. He noticed that she skipped a phrase in which
Mairet expressed his heroic pessimism, and when he remarked on it
she appeared vexed. After this her manner became more distant, her
annoyance passed into coldness, then irritation, till it even grew
into a sort of smothered hostility, and finally she avoided him,
though without an open rupture. Clerambault felt that she had a grudge
against him and that he should see no more of her.
The truth was that, at the same time that Clerambault pursued his
relentless analysis which struck at the foundations of current
beliefs, an inverse process of reconstruction and idealisation was
going on in the mind of Madame Mairet. Her grief longed to convince
itself that after all there had been a holy cause, and the dead man
was no longer there to help her to bear the truth. Where two stand
together there may be joy in the most terrible truths, but when one is
alone they are mortal.
Clerambault understood it all, and his quick sympathies warned him of
the pain he caused and shared; for he made the suffering of this woman
his own. He nearly reached the point of approving her revolt against
himself, for he knew her deep hidden sorrow, and that the truth that
he brought was powerless to help it—still worse, it added one evil
Insoluble problem! Those who are bereaved cannot dispense with the
murderous delusions of which they are the victims, and if these are
torn away their suffering becomes intolerable. Families that have lost
sons, husbands, and fathers, must needs believe that it was for a
just and holy cause, and statesmen are forced to continue to deceive
themselves and others. For if this were to cease, life would be
insupportable to themselves and to those whom they govern. How
unfortunate is Man; he is the prey of his own ideas, has given up
everything to them, and finds that each day he must continue to give
more, lest the gulf open under his feet and he be swallowed up in it.
After four years of unheard-of pain and ruin, can we possibly admit
that it was all for nothing? That not only our victory will be more
ruinous still, but that we ought not to have expected anything else;
that the war was absurd, and we, self-deceivers?… Never! we would
rather die to the last man. When one man finds that he has thrown away
his life, he sinks down in despair. What would it be in the case of a
nation, of ten nations, or of civilisation as a whole?…
Clerambault heard the cry that went up from the multitude: "Life, at
any cost! Save us, no matter how!"
"But, you do not know how to save yourselves. The road you follow only
leads on to fresh catastrophes, to an infinite mass of suffering."
"No matter how frightful they are, not as bad as what you offer us.
Let us die with our illusions, rather than live without them. Such a
life as that, is a death in life!"
* * * * *
"He who has deciphered the secret of life and found the answer,"
says the disenchanted, but harmonious voice of Amiel, "is no longer
bound on the great wheel of existence, he has quitted the world of the
living. When illusion vanishes, nothingness resumes its eternal reign,
the bright bubble has burst in infinite space, and our poor thought is
dissolved in the immutable repose of the limitless void."
* * * * *
Unluckily this repose in the void is the worst torture for a man of
the white race. He would rather endure any torment that life may
bring. "Do not tear them from me," he cries, "you kill me when you
destroy the cruel falsehoods by which I live."
Clerambault bitterly adopted the name that a nationalist paper had
given him in derision: "The one against all." Yes, he was the common
enemy, the destroyer of our life-giving illusions.
He could not bear this; the thought of making others suffer was
too painful to him. How then was he to get out of this tragic
no-thoroughfare? Wherever he turned, he found the same insolvable
dilemma; either a fatal illusion, or death without it.
"I will accept neither the one nor the other."
"Whether you accept it or no, you must yield—for the way is barred."
"Nevertheless, I shall pass through…."
Clerambault was passing through a new danger-zone. His solitary
journey was like a mountain ascension, where a man finds himself
suddenly enveloped in fog, clinging to a rock, unable to advance a
step. He could see nothing in front of him, and, no matter to which
side he turned, he could hear beneath him the roar of the torrent of
suffering. Even so, he could not stand still; though he hung over the
abyss and his hold threatened to give way.
He had reached one of these dark turnings, and to make it worse, the
news that day, as barked out by the press, made the heart ache by its
insanity. Useless hecatombs, which the induced egotism of the world
behind the lines thought natural; cruelties on all sides, criminal
reprisals for crimes—for which these good people clamoured, and
loudly applauded. The horizon that surrounded the poor human creatures
in their burrow had never seemed so dark and pitiless.
Clerambault asked himself if the law of love that he felt within
himself had not been designed for other worlds, and different
humanities. The mail had brought him letters full of fresh threats;
and knowing that, in the tragic absurdity of the time, his life was
at the mercy of the first madman who happened to turn up, he hoped
secretly that he might not have long to wait. But being of good
stock, he kept on his way, his head up as usual, working steadily and
methodically at his daily task so as to gain the end, no matter what
that might be, of the path whereon he had set his feet.
He remembered that on this day he had promised to go and see his niece
Aline, who had just been confined. She was the daughter of a sister
who had died, and who had been very dear to him. A little older than
Maxime, she had been brought up with him. As she grew into girlhood
she developed a complicated character. Restless and discontented,
always thinking of herself, she wanted to be loved and to tyrannise.
She had also too much curiosity; dangerous experiences were an
attraction to her, and with all this she was rather dry, but
emotional, vindictive and high-tempered. Still, when she chose she
could be tender and attractive. Maxime and she had played the game
together, and carried it pretty far; so that it had been necessary to
watch them closely. In spite of his irony, Maxime had been caught by
the dark eyes that pierced through him with their electric thrill; and
Aline was irritated and attracted by Maxime's mockery. They had loved
and quarrelled furiously, and then they had both gone on to something
else. She had shot arrows into several other hearts; and then, when
she thought the right time had come,—there is always a time
for everything,—she had married, in the most reasonable way, a
successful, prosperous man of business, head of a firm which sold
artistic and ecclesiastical furniture in the Rue Bonaparte. She was
about to have a child when her husband was ordered to the front. There
could be no doubt of her ardent patriotism; for self-love includes
one's country. Clerambault would never have expected to find any
sympathy in her for his theories of fraternal pity. She had little
enough for her friends, but none at all for her enemies. She would
have ground them in a mortar with the same cold satisfaction that she
felt when she tormented hearts or teased insects because something or
somebody had vexed her.
As the fruit within her ripened, her attention was concentrated upon
it; all the strength of her heart seemed to flow inward. The war
receded; the cannon of Noyon sounded no longer in her ears. When she
spoke of the war,—which she did less and less every day,—you would
have thought that she was talking of some distant colonial expedition.
Of course she remembered the dangers that threatened her husband, and
pitied him naturally:—"Poor dear boy!" with a little smile as much as
to say, "He has not much luck. Not very clever, you know." … But she
did not dwell on the subject, and, thank Heaven! it left no traces on
her mind. She had paid her score, she thought, and her conscience was
at rest; now she was in haste to go back to the world's most serious
task. One really would have supposed that the whole world hung on the
egg that she was about to lay.
Clerambault had been so absorbed by his struggles that he had not seen
Aline for months, and had therefore been unable to follow the change
in her mood. Rosine might have spoken of it before him, but he had
paid no attention. Within the last twenty-four hours he had heard in
quick succession of the birth of the baby and of the fact that Aline's
husband was missing, like Maxime, and he immediately pictured to
himself the suffering of the young mother. He thought of her as he
had always known her—vibrating between pleasure and pain, but always
feeling the latter more keenly, giving herself up to it, and even when
she was happy, finding reasons for distress. She was violent too,
bitter, agitated, fighting against fate, and apt to be vexed with
everyone around her. He was not sure that she was not angry with him
personally, on account of his ideas about reconciliation now that
she must be breathing out vengeance. He knew that his attitude was
a scandal in the family, and that no one would be less disposed to
tolerate it than Aline. But no matter how she received him, he felt
that he must go to her and help her in any way that his affection
could suggest. Expecting a storm, but resigned to it, he climbed up
the stairs and rang the bell at his niece's door.
He found her lying in bed with the infant, which she had had placed
by her side. She looked calm and young, with a sweet expression of
beaming happiness on her face. She was like the blooming older sister
of the tiny baby, at whom she looked with adoring laughter, as he lay
there waving his little spidery legs, his mouth open, hardly alive as
yet, still dreaming of the dark warm place from which he had come. She
greeted Clerambault with a cry of triumph:
"Oh, Uncle dear, how sweet of you to come! Do look at him! Did you
ever see such a darling?"
She was so proud of her wonderful masterpiece that she was positively
grateful to anyone who would look at him. Clerambault had never seen
her so pretty and so sweet. He hardly saw the child, though he went
through all the antics that politeness required, making inarticulate
admiring noises which the mother expected and snapped up like a bird.
He saw only her happy face, her lovely smiling eyes, and heard her
charming childish laughter. How good it is to see anyone so happy! All
the things that he had come prepared to say to her went clean out of
his head—all useless and out of place. The only thing necessary was
to gaze on the infant wonder, and share the delight of the hen over
her chick, joining in her delicious cluck of innocent vanity.
The shadow of the war, however, did pass before his eyes for a moment,
the thought of the brutal, useless carnage, the dead son, the missing
husband; and as he bent over the child he could not help thinking with
a sad smile:
"Why bring children into the world, if it is to butcher them like
this? I wonder what will happen to this poor little chap twenty years
Thoughts like these did not trouble the mother. They could not dim her
sunshine. All cares seemed far away. She could see nothing but the
"joy that a man was born into the world."
This man-child is to each mother in turn the incarnation of all the
hope of humanity. The sadness and folly of the present day, what do
they matter? It is he perhaps who will put an end to them. He is for
every mother the miracle, the promised Messiah!…
Just as he was going, Clerambault ventured a word of sympathy as to
her husband. She sighed deeply:
"Poor Armand! I'm sure that he was taken prisoner."
"Have you had any news?" asked Clerambault.
"No, no, but it is more than probable…. I am almost certain. If not,
you know, I should have heard…."
She seemed to brush away the disagreeable thought, as if it were a
fly. (Go away! How did it get in here?)
Then she added, the smile coming back into her eyes:
"It will be much better for him, he can rest. I am easier about him
there, than when he was in the trenches…." And then, her mind
springing back to her world's wonder:
"Won't he be glad when he sees the treasure the good God has sent
It was when Clerambault stood up to go that she condescended to
remember that there were sorrows still in the world. She thought of
Maxime's death, and did drop a word of pretty sympathy. But how clear
it was that at bottom she was completely indifferent! Absolutely so
… though full of good-will, which was something with her. More
surprising still, softened by her new happiness, she had a glimpse
of the tired face and sad heart of the old man. She had a vague
recollection that he had done something foolish, and had trouble in
consequence. And instead of scolding him as he deserved, she forgave
him tacitly, with a magnanimous smile, like a little princess. "Dear
Uncle," she said, with an affectionate if slightly patronising tone:
"you must not worry yourself, it will all come out right…. Give me a
As Clerambault went away he was amused by the consolation he had
received from her whom he had gone to console. He realised how slight
our suffering must appear in the eyes of indifferent Nature. All her
concern is for the bloom of the coming spring. Let the dead leaves
fall now to the ground, the tree will grow all the better and put
forth fresh foliage in due season…. Lovely, beloved Spring!
Those who can never bloom again find you very cruel, gentle Spring!
Those who have lost all that they loved, their hopes, their strength,
their youth—everything that made life worth living to them….
The world was full of mutilated bodies and souls; some bitterly
lamenting their lost happiness, and some, yet more miserable,
sorrowing for what had been denied them, the cup dashed from their
lips, in the full bloom of love, and of their twenty years.
* * * * *
Clerambault came home one evening at the end of January, wet and
chilled through with the fog, after standing at a wood-yard. He had
stood for hours in line waiting his turn in the crowd, and after all
they had been told that there would be no distribution that day. As he
came near the house where he lived he heard his name, and a young man
who was talking to the janitor turned and held out a letter, looking
rather embarrassed as Clerambault came forward. The right sleeve of
his coat was pinned up to the shoulder, and there was a patch over his
right eye; he was pale, and evidently had been laid up for months.
Clerambault spoke pleasantly to him and tried to take the letter, but
the man drew it back quickly, saying that it was of no consequence
now. Clerambault then asked if he would not come up and talk to him
a little while, but the other hesitated, and the poet might have
perceived that he was trying to get away, but not being very quick at
seeing into other people's minds, he said good-naturedly: "My flat is
rather high up…."
This seemed to touch the visitor on a tender point, and he answered:
"I can get up well enough," and turned towards the staircase.
Clerambault now understood that besides his other wounds, the heart
within him had been wounded to the quick.
They sat down in the fireless study, and like the room, it was some
time before the conversation thawed out. All that Clerambault could
get out of the man were short stiff answers, not very clear, and given
in rather an irritated tone. He learned that his name was Julian
Moreau, that he had been a student at the Faculty of Letters, and
had just passed three months at Val-de-Grace. He was living alone in
Paris, in a room over in the Latin Quarter, though he had a widowed
mother and some other relations in Orleans; he did not explain at
first why he was not with them.
All at once after a short silence he decided to speak, and in a
low voice, hoarse at first, but softening as he went on, he told
Clerambault that his articles had been brought into his trench by a
man just back from leave, and handed about from one to the other; to
him they had been a real blessing. They answered to the cry of his
inmost soul: "Thou shalt not lie." The papers and reviews made him
furious; they had the impudence to show the soldier a false picture of
the armies, trumped-up letters from the front, a cheap comedy style of
courage, and inappropriate joking; all the abject boasting of actors
safe at home, speechifying over the death of others. It was an insult
to be slobbered over with the disgusting kisses of these prostitutes
of the press. As if their sufferings were a mockery!
Clerambault's writings found an echo in their hearts; not that he
understood them, no one could understand who had not shared their
hardships. But he pitied them, and spoke humanely of the unfortunates
in all camps. He dared to speak of the injustices, common to all
nations, which had led to the general suffering. He could not take
away their trouble, but he did raise it into an atmosphere where it
could be borne.
"If you only knew how we crave a word of real sympathy; it is all very
well to be hardened, or old,—there are grey-haired, bent men among
us—but after what we have seen, suffered, and done to others, there
are times when we are like lost children, looking for their mother to
console them. Even our mothers seem far away. At times we get strange
letters from home, as if we were deserted by our own flesh and blood."
Clerambault hid his face in his hands with a groan.
"What is the matter?" said Moreau, "are you ill?"
"You remind me of all the harm that I did."
"You? No, it was other people that did the harm."
"Yes, I, as much as the others. You must try to forgive us all."
"You are the last who ought to say so."
"If the truth were known, I should be among the first. For I am one of
the few who see clearly how wicked I was." He began to inveigh against
his generation, but broke off with a discouraged gesture:
"None of that does any good…. Tell me about yourself."
His voice was so humble that Moreau was really touched to see the
older man blame himself so severely. All his distrust melted away, and
he threw wide the door of his bitter, wounded spirit, confessing that
he had come several times as far as the house, but could not make up
his mind to leave his letter. He never did consent to show it. Since
he came out of the hospital he had not been able to talk to anyone;
these people back here sickened him with their little preoccupations,
their business, their pleasures, the restrictions to their pleasures,
their selfishness, their ignorance and lack of comprehension. He felt
like a stranger among them, more than if he were with African
savages. Besides,—he stopped, the angry words seemed to stick in his
throat—it was not only these people—he felt a stranger to all the
world, cut off from normal life, from the pleasures and work of other
men by his infirmities. He was a mere wreck, blind and maimed. The
poor fellow was absurdly ashamed of it; he blushed at the pitying
glances that people threw at him in passing—like a penny that you
give, turning away your head at the same time from the unpleasant
sight. For in his sensitiveness he exaggerated his ugliness and was
disgusted by his deformity. He dwelt on his lost joys and ruined
youth; when he saw couples in the street, he could not help feeling
jealous; the tears would come into his eyes.
Even this was not all, and when he had poured out the bitterness
of his heart—and Clerambault's compassion encouraged him to speak
further—he got down to the worst of the trouble, which he and his
comrades felt like a cancer that one does not dare to look at. Through
his obscure, violent, and miserable talk, Clerambault at last made out
what it was that tore the hearts of these young men. It is easy enough
for dried-up egotists, withered intellectuals, to sneer at this love
of life in the young, and their despair at the loss of it; but it
was not alone their ruined, blasted youth that pressed on these poor
soldiers,—though that was terrible enough—the worst was not to know
the reason for this sacrifice, and the poisonous suspicion that it was
all in vain. The pain of these victims could not be soothed by the
gross appeal of a foolish racial supremacy, nor by a fragment of
ground fought for between States. They knew now how much earth a man
needs to die on, and that the blood of all races is part of the same
stream of life.
Clerambault felt that he was a sort of elder brother to these young
men; the sense of this and his duty towards them gave him a strength
that he would not otherwise have had, and he charged their messenger
with words of hope and consolation.
"Your sufferings are not thrown away," he said. "It is true that they
are the fruit of a cruel error, but the errors themselves are not
all lost. The scourge of today is the explosion of evils which
have ravaged Europe for ages; pride and cupidity. It is made up of
conscienceless States, the disease of capitalism, and is become the
monstrous machine called Civilisation, full of intolerance, hypocrisy,
and violence. Everything is breaking up; all must be done over again;
it is a tremendous task, but do not speak of discouragement, for yours
is the greatest work that has ever been offered to a generation. The
fire of the trenches and the asphyxiating gases that blind you come as
much from agitators in the rear as from the enemy; you must strive to
see clearly, to see where the real fight lies. It is not against a
people but against an unhealthy society founded on exploitation and
rivalry between nations, on the subordination of the free conscience
to the Machine-State. The peoples, resigned or sceptical, would not
have seen this with the tragical clearness in which it now appears,
without the painful disturbance of the war. I do not bless this pain;
leave that to the bigots of our old religions! We do not love sorrow
and we all want happiness, but if sorrow must come, at least let it be
of some use! Do not let your sufferings add to those of others. You
must not give way. You are taught in the army that when the order to
advance is once given in a battle it is more dangerous to fall back
than to go on; so do not look back; leave your ruins behind you, and
march on towards the new world."
As he spoke the eyes of his young auditor seemed to say: "Tell me
more, more yet, more even than hopes, give me certainties, tell of the
victory which will come soon."
Men need to be tempted and decoyed, even the best of them. In exchange
for any sacrifice they make for an ideal, you have to promise them, if
not immediate realisation, at least an eternal compensation, as all
the religions do. Jesus was followed because they thought that He
would give them victory here or hereafter.—But he who would speak the
truth cannot promise or assure men of victory; the risks are not to
be ignored; perhaps it will never come, in any case it will be a long
time. To disciples, such a thought is crushingly pessimistic; not so
for the master, who has the serenity of a man who, having reached the
mountain top, can see over all the surrounding country, while they
can only see the steep hill-side which they must climb. How is he to
communicate his calm to them? If they cannot look through the eyes of
the master, they can always see his eyes from which are reflected the
vision denied to them; there they can read the assurance that he who
knows the truth (as they believe) is delivered from all their trials.
The eyes of Julian Moreau sought in Clerambault's eyes for this
security of soul, this inward harmony; and poor anxious Clerambault
had it not. But was he sure that it was not there?… Looking at
Julian humbly, he saw,… he saw that Julian had found it in him.
And as a man climbing up through a fog suddenly finds himself in the
light, he saw that the light was in him, and that it had come to him
because he needed it to shine upon another.
After the wounded man had gone away, somewhat comforted, Clerambault
felt slightly dazed, and sat drinking in the strange happiness that
the heart feels when, however unfortunate itself, it has been able to
help another now or in the future. How profound is the instinct for
happiness, the plenitude of being! All aspire to it, but it is not the
same for all. There are some that wish only to possess; to others,
sight is possession, and to others yet, faith is sight. We are links
of a chain and this instinct unites us; from those who only seek their
own good, or that of their family, or their country, up to the being
which embraces millions of beings and desires the good of all. There
are those who, having no joy of their own, can almost unconsciously
bestow it on others, as Clerambault had done; for they can see the
light on his face while his own eyes are in shadow.
The look of his young friend had revealed an unknown treasure to poor
Clerambault, and the knowledge of the divine message with which he was
entrusted re-established his lost union with other men. He had
only contended with them because he was their hardy pioneer, their
Christopher Columbus forcing his way across the desert ocean, that he
might open the road to the New World. They deride, but follow him; for
every true idea, whether understood or not, is a ship under weigh, and
the souls of the past are drawn after in its wake.
From this day onward he averted his eyes from the irreparable present
of the war and its dead, and looked towards the living, and the future
which is in our hands. We are hypnotised, obsessed by the thought of
those that we have lost, and the morbid temptation to bury our hearts
in their graves, but we must tear ourselves away from the baleful
vapours that rise, as in Rome, from The Way of the Tombs. March on!
This is no time to halt. We have not yet earned the right to rest with
them, for there are others who need us. There, like the wrecks of the
Grand Army, you can see in the distance those who drag themselves
along, searching on the dreary plain for the half-effaced path.
The thought of the sombre pessimism which threatened to overwhelm
these young men after the war was a grave anxiety to Clerambault.
The moral danger was a serious one, of which the Governments took no
notice at all. They were like bad coachmen who flog their horses up a
steep hill at a gallop; it is true that the horse reaches the top, but
as the road goes on he stumbles and falls, foundered for life. With
what a gallant spirit our young men rushed to the assault in the
beginning of the war! And then their ardour gradually diminished.
But the horse was still in harness, and the shafts held him up. A
factitious excitement was kept up all around him, his daily ration was
seasoned with glittering hopes; and though the strength went out of
it little by little, the poor creature could not fall down, could not
even complain, he had not the strength to think. The countersign all
about these victims was to hear nothing, to stop the ears and to lie.
Day after day the battle-tide ebbed, and left wrecks on the sand, men
wounded and maimed; and through them the depths of this human ocean
were brought to the light. These poor wretches, ruthlessly torn
from life, moved helplessly in the void, too feeble to cling to the
passions of yesterday or dreams of tomorrow. Some asked themselves
blindly, and others with a cruelly clear insight, why they had been
born, what life meant….
"Since he who is destroyed, suffers, and he who destroys has
no pleasure, and is shortly destroyed himself, tell me what no
philosopher can explain; whom does it please, and to whose profit is
this unfortunate life of the universe, which is only preserved by the
injury or death of all the creatures which compose it?" …
[Footnote 1: Leopardi.]
It is necessary to answer these men, to give them a reason for living,
but there is no such need for a man of Clerambault's age; his life
is over, and all he requires is to free his conscience as a sort of
To young people who have all their life before them, it is not enough
to contemplate truth across a heap of corpses; whatever the past may
have been, the future alone counts for them. Let us clear away the
What causes them the most pain? Their own suffering?
No, it is their lack of faith in the altar on which this suffering was
laid—(does a man regret if he sacrifices himself for the woman he
loves, or for his child?)—This doubt poisons them, takes away the
courage to pursue their way, because they fear to find only despair
at the end. This is why people say to you: "Never shake the ideal of
Country, it ought rather to be built up." What a derision! As if it
were possible to restore a lost faith by force of will! We deceive
ourselves; we know it in the bottom of our hearts, and this
consciousness kills courage and joy.
Let us be brave enough to reject that in which we no longer believe.
The trees drop their leaves in the autumn in order that they may put
forth new leaves in the spring. Out of your past illusions, make fires
as the peasants do with the fallen leaves; the fresh grass, the new
faith, will grow all the more thickly, for it is there waiting. Nature
does not die, it changes shape continually; like her, let us cast off
the garment of the past.
Look carefully, and reckon up these hard years. You have fought and
suffered for your country, and what have you gained by it? You have
discovered the brotherhood of the men who fight and suffer. Is the
price too high? No, if you will listen to your heart, if you will
dare to open it to the new faith which has come to you when you least
The thing that disappoints and drives us to despair is that we cling
to what we had at the beginning; and when we no longer trust that, we
feel that all is lost. A great nation has never reached the object
sought; and so much the better, for almost always what is reached is
superior to what was sought, though different. It is not wise to start
out with our wisdom ready made, but to gather it sincerely as we go
You are not the same men that you were in 1914. If you dare admit it,
then dare to act it also! That will be the chief gain—perhaps the
only one—of the war. But do you really care? So many things conspire
to intimidate you; the weariness of these years, old habits, dread of
the effort needed to examine yourself, to throw away what is dead, and
stand for what is living. We have, we do not know what respect for the
old, a lazy preference for what we are accustomed to, even if it is
bad, fatal. Then there is the indolent need for what is easy which
makes us take a trodden path rather than hew out a new one for
ourselves. Is it not the ideal of most Frenchmen to accept their plan
of life ready-made in childhood and never change it? If only this war,
which has destroyed so many of your hearths, could force you to come
out from your ashes, to found other healths, to seek other truths!
The wish to break with the past, and adventure themselves in unknown
regions was not lacking to these young men. They would rather have
preferred to go ahead without stopping, and they had scarcely left
the Old World when they expected to take possession of the New.—No
hesitation, no middle course; they wanted absolute solutions, either
the docile servitude of the past, or revolution.
These were Moreau's views; he looked upon Clerambault's hope of
social revolution as a certainty, and in the exhortation to win truth
patiently step by step he heard an appeal to violent action which
would conquer it at once.
He introduced Clerambault to two or three groups of young
intellectuals with revolutionary tendencies. They were not very
numerous, for here and there you would see the same faces, but they
gained an importance which they would not otherwise have had, from
the watch which was kept on them by the authorities. Silly people in
power, armed to the teeth with millions of bayonets, police and courts
of justice at their command, yet uneasy and afraid to let a dozen
freethinkers meet to discuss them!
These circles had not the air of conspiracies, and though they rather
invited persecution, their activities were confined to words. What
else was there for them to do but talk? They were separated from the
mass of their fellow thinkers, who had been drawn into the army or
the war-machine, which would only give them up when they were past
service. What of the youth of Europe remained behind the lines?
There were the slackers, who often descended to the lowest depths of
meanness to make others fight, so that it should be forgotten
that they did not fight themselves. Setting these aside, the
representatives—rari nantes—of the younger generation in civil
life were those discharged from the army for physical incapacity, and
a few broken-down wrecks of the war, like Moreau. In these mutilated
or diseased bodies the spirit was like a candle lighted behind broken
windows. Twisted and smoky, it seemed as if a breath would extinguish
it. But it was all the more ardent for knowing what to expect from
Sudden changes from extreme pessimism to an equally extreme optimism
would occur, and these violent oscillations of the barometer did not
always correspond with the course of events. Pessimism was easily
explained, but its contrary was more remarkable, and it would have
been difficult to account for it. They were just a handful of people
without means of action, and every day seemed to give the lie to their
ideas, but they appeared more contented as things grew worse. Their
hope was in the worst, that mad belief proper to fanatical and
oppressed minorities; Anti-Christ was to bring back Christ; the new
order would rise when the crimes of the old had brought it to ruin;
and it did not disturb them that they and their dreams might be swept
away also. These young irreconcilables wished above all to prevent the
partial realisation of their dreams in the old order of things. All
or nothing! How foolish to try to make the world better; let it be
perfect, or go to pieces. It was a mysticism of the Great Overturning,
of the Revolution, and it affected the minds of those least religious;
they even went farther than the churches. Foolish race of man! Always
this faith in the absolute, which leads ever to the same intoxication,
but the same disasters. Always mad for the war between nations, for
the war of classes, for universal peace. It seems as if when humanity
stuck its nose out of the boiling mud of the Creation, it had a
sun-stroke from which it has never recovered, and which, at intervals,
subjects it to a recurrence of delirium.
Perhaps these mystical revolutionaries are forerunners of mutations
that are brooding in the race—which may brood for centuries
and perhaps never burst forth. For there are millions of latent
possibilities in nature, for one realised in the time allotted to our
humanity. And it is perhaps this obscure sentiment of what might be,
but will not come to pass, which sometimes gives to this sort of
mysticism another form, rarer, more tragical—an exalted pessimism,
the dangerous attraction of sacrifice. How many of these
revolutionists have we seen secretly convinced of the overwhelming
force of evil, and the certain defeat of their cause, and yet
transported with love for a lost cause "… sed victa Catoni"
… and filled with the hope of dying for her, destroying or being
destroyed. The crushed Commune gave rise to many aspirations, not for
its victory, but for a similar annihilation!—In the hearts of the
most materialistic there burns forever a spark of that eternal fire,
that hope so often buffeted and denied, but still maintained, of an
imperishable refuge for all the oppressed in some better Hereafter.
These young people welcomed Clerambault with great affection and
esteem, hoping to make him one of themselves. Some of them read in
his ideas a reflection of their own, while others saw in him just
a sincere old bourgeois whose heart had been hitherto his only
guide—a rather insufficient, though generous one. They hoped that he
would let himself be taught by their science, and like them, would
follow to their extreme limits the logical consequences of the
principles laid down. Clerambault resisted feebly, for he knew that
nothing can be done to convince a young man who has made himself part
of a system. Discussion is hopeless at that age. Earlier there is some
chance to act on him, when, as it were, the hermit-crab is looking for
his shell; and later something may be done when the shell begins to
wear and be uncomfortable; but when the coat is new, the only thing is
to let him wear it while it fits him. If he grows, or shrinks, he will
get another. We will force no one, but let no one try to put force on
No one in this circle, at least in the early days, thought of
constraining Clerambault, but sometimes it seemed to him that his
ideas were strangely habited in the fashion of his hosts. What
unexpected echoes he heard on their lips! He let his friends talk,
while he himself said but little, but when he had left them, he would
feel troubled and rather ironical. "Are those my thoughts?" he would
say to himself. It is terribly difficult for one soul to communicate
with another, impossible perhaps, and who knows?… Nature is wiser
than we … it may be that this is for our good.
Is it right, is it even possible for us to utter all our thoughts? We
reach a conclusion slowly, painfully, through a series of trials;
it is the formula of the delicate equilibrium between the inward
elements. Change the elements, their proportions, their nature, the
formula is no longer accurate and will produce different results, and
if you suddenly communicate your whole thought to another, you run the
risk of alarming, not helping him. There are cases in which, if he had
understood, it might have killed him. Nature, however, is prudent and
takes precautions. Your friend does not comprehend you, because he
cannot, his instinct will not let him; all that he gets from your
thought is the shock when it touches his; the ball glances off, but it
is not so easy to tell in what direction.
Men do not listen with their brains alone, but with their dispositions
and their passions, and out of what you offer them, each chooses his
own and rejects the rest, through a deep instinct of self-defence. Our
minds do not throw open the door to every new idea, but rather keep a
wary eye on new-comers through a peep-hole. The lofty thoughts of the
sages, of Jesus, of Socrates; how were they received? In those days
men who spoke such things were killed; twenty years later they were
treated as gods—another way of killing them, in fact, by placing
their thoughts at a distance, in the kingdom of heaven. The world
would indeed come to an end if such ideas were to be put in practice
here and now; and their authors knew this well. Perhaps they showed
the greatness of their souls more by what they did not say than by
what they did; how eloquent were the pathetic silences of Jesus! The
golden veil of the ancient symbols and myths, made to shield our weak
timid sight! Too often, what is for one the breath of life, is for
another death, or worse, murder!
What are we to do, if our hands are full of verities? Shall we spread
them broadcast?—Suppose the seed of thought may spring up in weeds or
poisonous plants …?
Poor thinker, there is no need to tremble, you are not the master of
Fate, but you form part of it, you are one of its voices. Speak, then;
that is the law of your being. Speak out your whole thought, but with
kindness; be like a good mother. It may not be given to her to make
men of her children, but she can patiently teach them how to make men
of themselves if they will.
You cannot set others free, in spite of them, and from the outside;
and even if it were possible, what good would it do? If they do not
free themselves, tomorrow they will fall back into slavery. All you
can do is to set a good example, and say: "There is the road, follow
it and you will find Freedom." …
In spite of his resolution to do the best he could and leave the rest
to the gods, it was fortunate for Clerambault that he could not see
all the consequences of his ideas. His thought aspired to the reign
of Peace; and very probably it would contribute in some degree to
the stirring up of social struggles, like all true pacifism, however
paradoxical this may seem. For true pacifism is a condemnation of the
Clerambault had no suspicion of the terrible forces that would one
day make use of his name. With a wholly opposite effect, his spirit
produced a harmony among his young associates by reacting against
their violence. He felt the value of life all the more, because they
held it in such light esteem; and in this respect they were not
different from the Nationalists whom he opposed. Very few prefer
life to their ideals—which is, we are told, one of Man's noblest
In spite of all this, it was a pleasure to Clerambault when he met a
man who loved life for its own sake. This was a comrade of Moreau's,
who had also been severely wounded. His name was Gillot, and in civil
life he had been an industrial designer. A shell had plastered him
from head to foot; he had lost a leg and his ear-drum was broken, but
he had re-acted more energetically against his fate than Moreau. He
was small and dark, with bright eyes full of gaiety, in spite of all
that he had gone through. Though he agreed with Moreau in general as
to the war and the crimes of the social order, he viewed the same
events and the same men with different eyes; from which arose many
discussions between the two young men.
One day Moreau had just been telling Clerambault of some gloomy
experience of the trenches: "Yes," said Gillot, "it did happen like
that and the worst of it was, that it had no effect on us, not the
least little bit." And when Moreau protested indignantly: "Well,
perhaps you, and one or two more may have minded a little,—but
most of them did not even notice it." He kept on to stop further
remonstrances from his friend: "I am not trying to make out that you
were better than the rest, old man, there is no need for that; I only
say it because it is so. Look here," he added, turning to Clerambault,
"those who have come back and written about all this, they tell us,
of course, what they felt. But they felt more than ordinary mortals
because they were artists, and naturally everything got on their
nerves, while the rest of us were tougher. Now that I think of it,
that makes it more terrible; when you read these stories that sicken
you, and make the hair stand up on your head, you don't get the full
effect. Think of fellows looking on, smoking, chaffing, busy with
something else. You have to, you know, or you would go all to pieces….
All the same, it is astonishing what human creatures can get used
to! I believe they could make themselves comfortable at the bottom of
a sewer. It really disgusts a man, for I was just the same myself. You
mustn't suppose that I was like this chap here, always staring at
a death's head. Like everybody else, I thought the whole thing was
idiotic; but life is like that, as far as I can see! … We did what
we had to do, and let it go at that;—the end? Well, one is as good as
another, whether you lose your own skin or the war comes to an end, it
finishes it up all the same; and in the meantime you are alive, you
eat, you sleep, your bowels—excuse me, one must tell things as they
are!… Do you want to know what is at the bottom of it all, Sir? The
real truth is that we do not care for life, or not enough. In one of
your articles you say very truly that life is the great thing;—only
you wouldn't think so to see most people at this minute! Not much life
about them; they all seem drowsy, waiting for the last sleep; it looks
as if they said to themselves: 'We are flat on our backs now, no need
to stir an inch.' No, we don't make enough out of life. And then
people are always trying to spoil it for you. From the time you are
a child they keep on telling you about the beauty of death, or about
dead folks. In the catechism, in the history books, they are
always shouting: 'Mourir pour la Patrie!' It is either popery or
patriotism, whichever you please; and then this life of the present
day is a perfect nuisance; it looks as if it was made expressly to
take the backbone out of a man. There is no more initiative. We are
all nothing but machines, but with no real system; we only do pieces
of work, never knowing where our work will fit in; most often it
doesn't fit at all. It is all a mess, with no good in it for anyone;
we are thrown in on top of one another like herrings in a barrel, no
one knows why;—but then we don't know either why we live at all; it
is not life, we are just there.
"They tell us about some time in the dark ages when our grandfathers
took the Bastille. Well, you would think to hear the fakers talk who
run things now that there was nothing left to do, that we were all in
heaven; you can see it carved on the monuments. We know that it is not
so; there is another pot boiling, another revolution on the way; but
the old one did not do such great things for us after all! It's hard
to see plain, hard to trust anybody; there is no one to show us the
way, to point to something grand and fine above all these swamps full
of toads…. People are always doing something to confuse the issue,
nowadays; talking about Right, Justice, Liberty. But that trick is
played out. Good enough to die for, but you can't live for things like
"How about the present?" asked Clerambault.
"Now? There is no going, back, but I often think that if I had to
begin over again—"
"When did you change your mind about all these things?"
"That was the funniest thing of all. It was as soon as I was wounded.
It was like getting out of bed in the morning. I had hardly slipped a
leg out of life than I wanted to draw it in again. I had been so well
off, and never thought of it, ass that I was! I can still see myself,
as I came to. The ground was all torn up around me, worse even than
the bodies themselves lying in heaps, mixed pell-mell like a lot of
jack-straws; the ground simply reeked, as if it was itself bleeding.
It was pitch dark, and at first I did not feel anything but the cold,
except that I knew I was hit, all right…. I didn't know exactly what
piece of me was missing, but I was not in a hurry to find out; I was
afraid to know, afraid to stir, there was only one thing I was sure
of, that I was alive. If I had only a minute left, I meant to hold
on to it…. There was a rocket in the sky; I never thought what it
meant, I didn't care, but the curve it made, and the light, like a
bright flower…. I can't tell you how lovely it seemed. I simply
drank it in…. I remembered when I was a child, one night near La
Samaritaine. There were fireworks on the river. That child seemed to
be someone else, who made me laugh, and yet I was sorry for him; and
then I thought that it was a good thing to be alive, and grow up, and
have something, somebody, no matter who to love … even that rocket;
and then the pain came on, and I began to howl, and didn't know any
more till I found myself in the ambulance. There wasn't much fun in
living then; it felt as if a dog was gnawing my bones … might as
well have stayed at the bottom of the hole … but even then how fine
it seemed to live the way I used to, just live on every day without
pain … think of that! and we never notice it,—without any pain at
all … none!… it seemed like a dream, and when it did let up for a
second, just to taste the air on your tongue, and feel light all over
your body—God Almighty! to think that it was like that all the time
before, and I thought nothing of it…. What fools we are to wait till
we lose a thing before we understand it! And when we do want it, and
ask pardon because we did not appreciate it before, all we hear is:
"It is never too late," said Clerambault.
Gillot was only too ready to believe this; as an educated workman he
was better armed for the fray than Moreau or Clerambault himself.
Nothing depressed him for long; "fall down, pick yourself up again,
and try once more," he would say, and he always believed he could
surmount any obstacle that barred his way. He was ready to march
against them on his one leg, the quicker the better. Like the others,
he was devoted to the idea of revolution and found means to reconcile
it with his optimism; everything was to pass off quietly according to
him, for he was a man without rancour.
It would not have been safe, however, to trust him too much in this
respect; there are many surprises in these plebeian characters, for
they are very easily moved and apt to change. Clerambault heard him
one day talking with a friend named Lagneau on leave from the front;
they said the poilus meant to knock everything to pieces when the war
was over, maybe before. A man of the lower classes in France is often
charming, quick to seize on your idea before you have had a chance to
explain it thoroughly; but good Lord! how soon he forgets. He forgets
what was said, what he answered, what he saw, what he believed, what
he wanted; but he is always sure of what he says, and sees, and thinks
now. When Gillot was talking to Lagneau, his arguments were exactly
contrary to those he had advanced on the previous day to Clerambault.
It was not only that his ideas had changed, but apparently his whole
disposition. One morning there would be nothing violent enough for his
thirst for action and destruction, and the next he would talk about
going into a little business with lots of money, the best of food, a
tribe of children to bring up, and to hell with the rest! Though they
all called themselves sincere internationalists, there were few
among these poilus who had not preserved the old French prejudice of
superiority of race over the rest of the world, enemies or friends;
and even in their own country over the other provinces, or if they
were Parisians, over the rest of France. This idea was firmly embedded
in their minds, and they boasted of it, not maliciously but by way of
a joke. Uncomplaining, willing, always ready to go, like Gillot, they
were certainly capable of making a revolution and then un-making it,
starting another, and so on—tra-la-la—till all was upset and they
were ready to be the prey of the first adventurer who happened along.
Our political foxes know well enough that the best way to check a
revolution is, at the right moment, to let it blow over while the
people are amused.
It looked then as if the hour was at hand. A year before the end of
the war in both camps there were months and weeks when the infinite
patience of the martyrised people seemed on the point of giving way;
when a great cry was ready to go up, "Enough." For the first time
there was the universal impression of a bloody deception. It is easy
to understand the indignation of the people seeing billions thrown
away on the war when before it their leaders had haggled over a few
hundred thousand for social betterments. There were figures that
exasperated them more than any speeches on the subject. Someone had
calculated that it cost 75,000 francs to kill a man; that made ten
millions of corpses, and for the same sum we could have had ten
millions of stockholders. The stupidest could see the immense value of
the treasure, and the horrible, the shameful, waste for an illusion.
There were things more abject still; from one end of Europe to the
other, there were vermin fattening on death, war-profiteers, robbers
"Do not talk to us any more," said these young men to themselves, "of
the struggle of democracies against autocracies;—they are all tarred
with the same brush. In all countries the war has pointed out the
leaders to the vengeance of the people; that unworthy middle class,
political, financial, intellectual, that in a single century of power
has heaped on the world more exactions, crimes, ruins and follies,
than kings and churches had inflicted in ten centuries."
This is why when the axes of those heroic woodsmen, Lenine and
Trotzky, were heard in the forest, many oppressed hearts thrilled with
joy and hope, and in every country there was sharpening of hatchets.
The leading classes rose up against the common danger, all over
Europe, in both opposing camps. There was no negotiation needed for
them to reach an agreement on this subject, for their instinct spoke
loudly. The fiercest enemies of Germany, through the organs of the
bourgeoisie, tacitly gave a free hand to the Kaiser to strangle
Russian liberty which struck at the root of that social injustice on
which they all lived. In the absurdity of their hatred, they could not
conceal their delight when they saw Prussian Militarism—that monster
who afterwards turned on them—avenge them on these daring rebels.
Naturally this only increased the admiration for these excommunicated
defiers of the world, on the part of the down-trodden masses and the
small number of independent spirits.
The pot began to boil with a vengeance, and to stop it the governments
of Europe shut down the lid and sat on it. The stupid class in control
kept throwing fuel on the flame, and then wondered at the alarming
rumblings. This revolt of the elements was attributed to the wicked
designs of some free speakers, to mysterious intrigues, to the enemy's
gold, to the pacifists; and none of them saw—though a child would
have known it—that, if they wanted to prevent an explosion, the first
thing to do was to put out the fire. The god of all these powers was
force; no matter what they were called, empires, or republics, it was
the mailed fist, disguised, gloved but hard and sure of itself. It
became also, like a rising tide, the law of the oppressed, a dark
struggle between two contrary pressures. Where the metal had worn
thin—in Russia first—the boiler had burst. Where there were cracks
in the cover—as in neutral countries—the hissing steam escaped,
but a deceitful calm reigned over the countries at war, kept down by
oppression. To the oppressors this calm was reassuring; they were
armed equally against the enemy or their own citizens. The machine of
war is double-ended, the cover strong, made of the best steel, and
firmly screwed down; that, at least, cannot be torn off—no, but
suppose the whole thing blows up together!
Repressed, like everyone else, Clerambault saw rebellion gathering
around him. He understood it, thought it inevitable; but that was not
a reason for loving it. He did not believe in the Amor Fati. It was
enough to understand; the tyrant has no claim to be loved.
Clerambault's young friends were not sparing of their ideas, and it
surprised them to see how little warmth he showed towards the new idol
from the North: the rule of the proletariat. They had no timorous
scruples or half-measures, they meant to make the world happy in
their way—perhaps not in its own. At one stroke they decreed the
suppression of all liberties in opposition to theirs; the fallen
middle classes were not to be allowed to meet, or to vote, or to have
the freedom of the press.
"This is all very well," said Clerambault, "but at this rate they will
be the new proletariat, tyranny will merely change places."
"Only for a time," was the answer, "the last oppression, which will
"Yes, the same old war for right and liberty; which is always going to
be the war to end war; but in the meantime it is stronger than ever,
and rights like liberty are trampled under foot."
Of course they all protested indignantly against this comparison; in
their eyes war and those who waged it were equally infamous.
"None the less," said Clerambault gently, "many of you have fought,
and nearly all of you have believed in it … no, do not deny it!
Besides, the feeling that inspired you had its noble side; a great
wickedness was shown to you, and you threw yourselves upon it to root
it out, in a very fine spirit. Only you seem to think that there is
only one wickedness in the world, and, that when that has been purged
away, we shall all return to the Golden Age. The same thing happened
at the time of the Dreyfus Case; all the well-meaning people of
Europe—I among them—seemed never to have heard before of the
condemnation of an innocent man. They were terribly upset by it, and
they turned the world inside out to wash off the impurity. Alas! this
was done, but both washers and washed grew discouraged in the process,
and when it was all over, lo,—the world was just as black as ever! It
seems as if man were incapable of grasping the whole of human misery;
he dreads to see the extent of the evil, and in order not to be
overwhelmed by it, he fixes on some one point, where he localises all
the trouble, and will see nothing further. All this is human nature,
and easy enough to understand, my friends; but we should have more
courage, and acknowledge the truth that the evil is everywhere; among
ourselves, as well as with the enemy. You have found this out little
by little in our own country, and seeing the tares in the wheat, you
want to throw yourselves against your governments with the same fury
that made you see incarnate evil in the person of the enemy. But if
ever you recognise that the tares are in you also, then you may turn
on yourselves in utter despair. Is not this much to be feared, after
the revolutions we have seen, where those who came to bring justice
found themselves, without knowing why, with soiled hands and hearts?
You are like big children. When will you cease to insist on the
They might have replied that you must will the absolute, in order to
arrive at the real; the mind can dally with shades of meaning, which
are impossible to action, where it must be all or nothing. Clerambault
had the choice between them and their adversaries; there was no other.
Yes, he knew it well enough; there was no other choice in the field of
action, where all is determined in advance. Just as the unjust victory
leads inevitably to the revenge which in its turn will be unjust, so
capitalistic oppression will provoke the proletarian revolution, which
will follow the bad example and oppress, when it has the power—an
endless chain. Here is a stern Greek justice which the mind can accept
and even honour as the rule of the universe. But the heart cannot
submit, cannot accept it. Its mission is to break the law of universal
warfare. Can it ever come to pass? Who can tell! But in any case it is
clear that the hopes and wishes of the heart are outside the order
of nature; her mission is rather above nature, and in its essence
Clerambault, who was filled with this spirit, did not as yet dare to
avow it; or at least he did not venture to use the word "religious,"
that word which the religions, that have so little of its spirit, have
discredited in the eyes of today.
If Clerambault himself could not see clearly into his own thought, it
was hardly to be expected that his young friends should do so, and
even if they had seen, they would never have understood. They could
not bear the idea that a man who condemned the present state of things
as bad and destructive, should hesitate at the most energetic methods
for its suppression. They were not wrong from their point of view,
which was that of immediate action, but the field of the mind is
greater, its battles cover a wider space; it does not waste its
energies in bloody skirmishes. Even admitting the methods advocated by
his friends, Clerambault could not accept their axiom, that "the end
justifies the means." For, on the contrary, he believed that the means
are even more important to real progress than the end … what end?
Will there ever be such a thing?
This idea was irritating and confusing to these young minds; it served
to increase a dangerous hostility, which had arisen in the last five
years among the working class, against the intellectuals. No doubt the
latter had richly deserved it; how far away seemed the time when men
of thought marched at the head of revolutions! Whereas now they were
one with the forces of reaction. Even the limited number of those who
had kept aloof, while blaming the mistakes of the ring, were, like
Clerambault, unable to give up their individualism, which had saved
them once, but now held them prisoners, outside the new movement of
the masses. This conclusion once reached by the revolutionists, it was
but one step to a declaration that the intellectuals must fall, and
not a very long step. The pride of the working class already showed
itself in articles and speeches, while waiting for the moment when,
as in Russia, it could pass to action; and it demanded that the
intellectuals should submit servilely to the proletarian leaders. It
was even remarkable how some of the intellectuals were among the most
eager in demanding this lowering of the position of their group. One
would have thought that they did not wish it to be supposed that they
belonged to it. Perhaps they had forgotten that they did.
Moreau, however, had not forgotten it; he was all the more bitter in
repudiating this class, whose shirt of Nessus still clung to his skin,
and it made him extremely violent.
He now began to display singularly aggressive sentiments towards
Clerambault; during a discussion he would interrupt him rudely, with
a kind of sarcastic and bitter irritation. It almost seemed as if he
meant to wound him.
Clerambault did not take offence; he rather felt great pity for
Moreau; he knew what he suffered, and he could imagine the bitterness
of a young life spoiled like his. Patience and resignation, the moral
nourishment on which stomachs fifty years old subsist, were not suited
to his youth.
One evening Moreau had shown himself particularly disagreeable, and
yet he persisted in walking home with Clerambault, as if he could not
make up his mind to leave him. He walked along by his side, silent
and frowning. All at once Clerambault stopped, and putting his hand
through Moreau's arm with a friendly gesture said with a smile:
"It's all wrong, isn't it, old fellow?"
Moreau was somewhat taken aback, but he pulled himself together and
asked drily what made anyone think that things were "all wrong."
"I thought so because you were so cross tonight," said Clerambault
good naturally, and in answer to a protesting murmur. "Yes, you
certainly were trying to hurt me,—just a little … I know of course
that you would not really,—but when a man like you tries to inflict
pain on others it is because he is suffering himself … isn't that
"Yes, it is true," said Moreau, "you must forgive me, but it hurts me
when I see that you are not in sympathy with our action."
"And are you?" demanded Clerambault. Moreau did not seem to
understand. "You yourself," repeated Clerambault, "do you believe in
"Of course I do! What a question!" said Moreau indignantly.
"I doubt it," said Clerambault gently. Moreau seemed to be on the
point of losing his temper, but in a moment he said more quietly: "You
are mistaken." Clerambault turned to walk on. "All right," said he,
"you know your own thoughts better than I do."
For some minutes they continued in silence; then Moreau seized his old
friend's arm, and said excitedly:
"How did you know it?"—and his resistance having broken down, he
confessed the despair hidden under his aggressive determination to
believe and act. He was eaten up with pessimism, a natural consequence
of his excessive idealism which had been so cruelly disappointed. The
religious souls of former times were tranquil enough; they placed the
kingdom of God so far away that no event could touch it; but those
of today have established it on earth, by the work of human love and
reason, so that when life deals a blow at their dream all life seems
horrible to them. There were days when Moreau was tempted to cut his
throat! Humanity seemed made of rotteness; he saw with despair the
defeats, failures, flaws carved on the destiny of the race from the
very beginning—the worm in the bud—and he could not endure the idea
of this absurd and tragic fate, which man can never escape. Like
Clerambault, he recognized the poison which is in the intelligence,
since he had it in his veins, but unlike his elder, who had passed the
crisis and only saw danger in the irregularity of thought and not in
its essence, Moreau was maddened by the idea that the poison was a
necessary part of intelligence. His diseased imagination tortured
him by all sorts of bugbears; thought appeared to him as a sickness,
setting an indelible mark on the human race; and he pictured to
himself in advance all the cataclysms to which it led. Already,
thought he, we behold reason staggering with pride before the forces
that science has put at her disposal—demons of nature, obedient
to the magical formulas of chemistry and distracted by this
suddenly-acquired power, turning to self-destruction.
Nevertheless Moreau was too young to remain in the grip of these
terrors. He wanted action at any price, anything sooner than to be
left alone with them. Why not urge him to act, instead of trying to
hold him back?
"My dear boy," said Clerambault, "it is not right to urge another man
to a dangerous act, unless you are ready to share it. I have no use
for agitators, even if they are sincere, who send others to the stake
and do not set the example of martyrdom themselves. There is but one
truly sacred type of revolutionary, the Crucified; but very few men
are made for the aureole of the cross. The trouble is that we always
assign duties to ourselves which are superhuman or inhuman. It is not
good for the ordinary man to strive after the "Uebermenschheit," and
it can only prove to him a source of useless suffering; but each man
can aspire to shed light, order, peace, and kindness around him in his
little circle; and that should be happiness enough."
"Not quite enough for me," said Moreau. "Doubt would creep in; it must
be all or nothing."
"I know. Your revolution would leave no place for doubt. Your hearts
are hard and burning; your brains like geometric patterns. Everything
or nothing. No shading! But what would life be without it? It is
its greatest charm and its chief merit as well; fragile beauty and
goodness, weakness everywhere. We must offer love and help; day by
day, and step by step. The world is not transformed by force, or by
a miracle, in the twinkling of an eye; but second by second it
moves forward in infinity and the humblest who feels it partakes of
infinity. Patience, and let us not think that one wrong effaced will
save humanity; it will only make one day bright, but other days and
more light will come; each will bring its sun. You would not wish to
stay its course?"
"We have not the time to wait for all this," said Moreau. "Every day
brings us frightful problems which must be decided on the spot. If we
are not to be the masters, then we shall be victims; … we, do I say?
Not ourselves alone, we are already victimised, but all that is dear
to us, all that holds us to life, hope in the future, the salvation of
humanity. See the things that press upon us, the agonising questions
as to those who will come after us, and those who have children. This
war is not yet over, and it is only too evident that its crimes and
falsehoods have sown the seeds of new wars, near at hand. Why do we
have children? For what do they grow up? To be butchered like this?
Look where you will, there is no answer. Are we to leave these crazy
countries, this old continent, and emigrate? But where? Are their
fifty acres of ground on the globe where independent honest people can
take refuge? We must be on one side or the other; you see well enough
that we have to choose between patriotism and revolution. If not, what
remains? Non-resistance? Is that what you would have? But there is
nothing in that unless you have religious faith; otherwise it is only
the resignation of the lamb led to the slaughter. Unfortunately, the
greater number decide on nothing, prefer not to think, turn their eyes
away from the future, blinded by the hope that what they have seen and
suffered will not recur. That is why we must decide for them, whether
they want it or not, make them quicken their step, save them in spite
of themselves. Revolution means a few men who will for all humanity."
"I do not think that I should like it," said Clerambault, "if another
decided for me. And on the other hand, I should not want to usurp
another man's will; I should prefer to leave each one free, and not
interfere with the liberty of others. But I know that I am asking too
"Only what is impossible," said Moreau. "When you begin to will, you
cannot stop halfway. There are just two sorts of men, those who have
too great will-power—like Lenine, and a couple of dozen men in the
whole course of history—and those who have too little, who can decide
nothing, like us, me, if you like. It is clear enough, despair is all
that drives me to will anything…."
"Why despair?" said Clerambault. "A man's fate is made every day by
himself, and none knows what it will be; it is what we are. If you are
cast down, so also is your fate."
"We shall never have strength enough," answered Moreau sadly. "Don't
you believe that I see what infinitely small chances of success a
revolution would have now in our country, under present conditions?
Think of all the destruction, the economic losses, the demoralisation,
the fatal lassitude caused by the war." And he added: "It was not true
what I told you the first time we met, about all my comrades feeling
as I did, rebelling against the suffering. Gillot told you there are
only a few of us, and the others are good fellows for the most part
but weak as water! They can see how things are, clearly enough, but
sooner than run their heads against a wall they would rather not think
about it, or pass it off with a joke. We French are always ready to
laugh, it is our treasure and our ruin. It is a fine thing, but what
a hold it gives to our oppressors. 'Let them sing as long as they are
willing to pay,' as the Italian said. 'Let us laugh, so long as we
are ready to die.' … we might say. And then this terrible force of
habit, that Gillot was talking about. A man will get used to no matter
what ridiculous or painful conditions, provided they last long enough,
and that he has company. He becomes habituated to cold, to heat,
to death, and to crime. His whole force for resistance is used in
adapting himself; and then he curls up in his corner and does not dare
to stir, for fear that any change will bring back the pain. We are all
so terribly tired! When the soldiers come back, they will have only
one thought—to sleep and forget."
"How about the excitable Lagneau, who talks about blowing everything
"I have known Lagneau since the beginning of the war, and he has
been in succession, royalist, "revanchard," annexationist,
internationalist, socialist, anarchist, bolshevist, and I-don't-give-a
damnist. He will finish as a reactionary, and will be sent to make
food for cannon against the enemy that our government will pick out
among our adversaries or our friends of today. Do you suppose that the
people are of our way of thinking? Perhaps, or they may agree with the
others. They will take up all opinions one after the other."
"You are a revolutionary then because you are discouraged?" said
"There are plenty like that among us."
"Gillot came out of the war more optimistic than he went in."
"Gillot is the forgetful sort, but I don't envy him that," said Moreau
"But you ought not to upset him," said Clerambault.
"Gillot needs all the help you can give him."
"Help from me?" said Moreau incredulously.
"He is not naturally strong, and if you would make him so, you must
let him see that you believe in him."
"Do you think belief comes by willing to have it?"
"You know whether that is true! No, I think, is the answer. Belief
comes through love."
"By love of those who believe?"
"Is it not always through love, and only in that way, that we learn to
Moreau was touched; he had been a clever youth, eaten up by the
craving for knowledge, and like the rest of his class, he had suffered
for lack of brotherly affection. True human intercourse is banished
from the education of today, but this vital sentiment, hitherto
repressed, had revived in the trenches, filled with living, suffering
flesh thrown together. At first it was hard to let oneself go; the
general hardening, the fear of sentimentality or of ridicule, tended
to put barriers between hearts; but when Moreau was laid up, his
sheath of pride began to give way, and Clerambault had little
difficulty in breaking through it. The best thing about this man was
that false pride melted before him, for he had none of his own; people
showed to him as he to them their real selves, their weakness and
their troubles, which we are taught to hide from a silly idea of
self-respect. Moreau had unconsciously learned to recognise at
the front the superiority of men who were his social inferiors,
brother-soldiers or "Non-Coms." Among these he had been much drawn to
Gillot. He was glad that Clerambault should have appealed to him on
behalf of his friend, for his secret wish always was to be of some use
to another man.
At the next opportunity Clerambault whispered to Gillot that he ought
to be optimistic for two, and cheer Moreau up; and thus each found
help in the need of helping the other, according to the great
principle of life: "Give, and it shall be given unto you."
No matter in what time one lives, nor what misfortunes overtake one,
all is not lost as long as there remains in the heart of the race a
spark of manly friendship. Blow it into a flame! Draw closer these
cold solitary hearts! If only one of the fruits of this war of nations
could be the fusion of the best among all classes, the union of the
youth of many countries—of the manual labourers and the thinkers—the
future would be re-born through their mutual aid.
But if unity is not one wanting to dominate the other, neither is it
that one prefers to be dominated. But this was precisely, however,
what these young revolutionaries thought, and insisted upon, with a
curious sort of self-will. They snubbed Clerambault, on the principle
that intelligence should be at the service of the proletariat …
"Dienen, dienen …" which was the last word even of the proud Wagner.
More than one lofty spirit brought low has said the same; if they
could not rule supreme, they would serve.
Clerambault reflected: "The rarest thing is to find honest people
who want to be simply my equals; but if we must choose, tyranny for
tyranny, I prefer that which held the bodies of Aesop and Epictetus
in slavery but left their minds free, to that which promises only
material liberty and enslaves the soul."
This intolerance made him feel that he could never attach himself
to any party, no matter what it was. Between the two sides, war or
revolution, he could frankly state his preference for one, revolution.
For it alone offered some hope for the future, which the war could
only destroy. But to prefer a party does not mean that you yield to it
all independence of thought. It is the error and abuse of democracies
that they wish that all should have the same duties, and impose the
same tasks on all; but in an advancing community there are multiple
tasks. While the main body fights to gain an immediate advantage in
progress, there are others who should maintain eternal values far
above the victors of tomorrow or yesterday and which are beyond
all the rest and throw light on the way above the smoke of battle.
Clerambault had allowed himself to be too long blinded by this smoke;
he could not plunge into a fresh fight; but in this short-sighted
world it is an impropriety, almost a fault to see more clearly than
This sardonic truth was brought home to him in a discussion with these
young St. Justs. They pointed out his mistakes, impertinently enough,
by comparing him to the "Astrologer who fell into the Pit":
… "They said, poor creature, if your eye
What lies beneath can hardly spy,
Think you your gaze can pierce the sky?"
He had enough sense of humour to see the justice of the comparison;
yes, he was of the number of:
"Those whom phantoms alarm
While some serious harm
Threatens them or their farm."
"Even so," he said, "do you think that your republic will have no
need of astronomers, just as the first one could get along without
chemists? Or are they all to be mobilised? In that case there would be
a good chance of your all finding yourselves together at the bottom
of the well! Is that what you want? I should not object so much if
it were only a question of sharing your fate, but when it comes to
joining in your hatreds!"
"You have some of your own, from what I have heard," said one of the
young men. Just at this moment another man came in with a newspaper in
his hand and called to Clerambault:
"Congratulations, old boy, I see your enemy Bertin is dead."
The irascible journalist had died in a few hours from an attack of
pneumonia. For the last six months he had pursued with fury anyone
whom he suspected of working for peace, or even of wishing for it.
From one step to another he had come to look upon, not only the
country, as sacred, but the war also, and among those whom he attacked
most fiercely, Clerambault had a foremost place. Bertin could not
pardon the resistance to his onslaughts; Clerambault's replies had at
first only irritated him, but the disdainful silence with which his
latest invectives had been met drove him beside himself. His swollen
vanity was deeply wounded, and nothing would have satisfied him but
the total annihilation of his adversary. To him Clerambault was not
only a personal enemy, but a foe to the public; and in the endeavour
to prove this, he made him the centre of a great pacifist plot. At any
other time, this would have seemed absurd in everyone's eyes, but now
no one had eyes to see with. During the last weeks Bertin's fury and
violence had gone beyond anything that he had written before; they
were a threat against anyone who was convicted or suspected of the
dangerous heresy of Peace.
In this little reunion the news of his death was received with noisy
satisfaction; and his funeral oration was preached with an energy
that yielded nothing in this line to the efforts of the most famous
masters. But Clerambault, absorbed in the newspaper account, scarcely
seemed to hear. One of the men standing near, tapped him on the
shoulder, and said:
"This ought to be a pleasure to you."
Clerambault started: "Pleasure," he said, "pleasure?"—he took his hat
and went out. It was pitch dark in the street outside, all the lights
having been out on account of an air-raid. Before his mind there
flowered the fine clear-cut face of a boy of sixteen, with its warm
pale skin and dark soft eyes, the curling hair, the mobile, smiling
mouth, the tone of the sweet voice—Bertin, as he was when they first
met at about the same age. Their long evening talks, the tender
confidences, the discussions, the dreams … for in those days Bertin
too was a dreamer, and even his common-sense, his precocious irony did
not protect him from impossible hopes and generous schemes for the
renovation of the human race. How fair the future had appeared to
their youthful eyes! And in those moments of ecstatic vision how their
hearts had seemed to melt together in loving friendship …
And now to see what life had made of them both! This rancorous
struggle, Bertin's insane determination to trample under foot those
early dreams, and the friend who still cherished them;—and he, too,
Clerambault, who had let himself be carried away by the same murderous
impulse, trying to render blow for blow, to draw blood from his
adversary. Could it be that at the first moment, when he heard of the
death of his former friend—he was horrified at himself—but did he
not feel it as a relief? What is it that possesses us all? What wicked
insanity that turns us against our better selves?…
Lost in these thoughts, he had wandered from the road, and now
perceived that he was walking in the wrong direction. He could see the
long arms of the search-lights stretching across the sky, hear the
tremendous explosions of the Zeppelin bombs over the city, and the
distant growlings of the forts in the aerial fight. The enraged people
tearing each other to pieces! And to what end? That they all might be
as Bertin was now, reach the extinction which awaited all men, and all
countries. And those rebels who were planning more violence, other
sanguinary idols to set up against the old ones, new gods of carnage
that man carves for himself, in the vain hope of ennobling his deadly
Good God! Why do they not see the imbecility of their conduct, in face
of the gulf that swallows up each man that dies, all humanity with
him? These millions of creatures who have but a moment to live, why
do they persist in making it infernal by their atrocious and absurd
quarrels about ideas; like wretches who cut each other's throats for
a handful of spurious coins thrown to them? We are all victims, under
the same sentence, and instead of uniting, we fight among ourselves.
Poor fools! On the brow of each man that passes I can see the sweat of
agony; efface it by the kiss of peace!
As he thought this, a crowd of people rushed by—men and women,
shrieking with joy. "There's one of them down! One gone! The brutes
are burning up!"
And the birds of prey, in the air, rejoiced in their turn over every
handful of death that they scattered on the town, like gladiators
dying in the arena for the pleasure of some invisible Nero.
Alas, my poor fellow-prisoners!
They also serve who only stand and wait.
Once more Clerambault found himself wrapt in solitude; but this time
she appeared to him as never before, calm and beautiful, kindness
shining from her face, with eyes full of affection and soft cool hands
which she laid on his fevered forehead. He knew that now she had
chosen him for her own.
It is not given to every man to be alone; many groan under it, but
with a secret pride. It is the complaint of the ages; and proves,
without those who complain being aware of it, that solitude has not
marked them for her own; that they are not her familiars. They have
passed the outer door, and are cooling their heels in the vestibule;
but they have not had patience to wait their turn to go in, or else
their recriminations have kept them at a distance.
No one can penetrate to the heart of friendly solitude unless they
have the gift of God's grace, or have gained the benefit of trials
bravely accepted. Outside the door you must leave the dust of the
road, the harsh voices and mean thoughts of the world, egotism,
vanity, miserable rebellions against disappointments in love or
ambition.—It must be that, like the pure Orphic shades whose golden
tablets have transmitted to us their dying voices, "The soul flees
from the circle of pain" and presents itself alone and bare "to the
chill fountain which flows from the lake of Memory."
This is the miracle of the resurrection; he who has cast off his
mortal coil and thinks that he has lost everything, finds that he is
only just entering on his true life. Not only are others as well as
himself restored to him, but he sees that up to now he has never
really possessed them. Outside in the throng, how can he see over the
heads of those who press about him? And it is not possible for him to
look long into the eyes of those who influence him, even though they
are his dearest, for they are pressed too close against him. There
is no time; no perspective. We feel only that our bodies are crushed
together, closely entwined by our common destiny, and tossed on the
muddy torrent of multitudinous existence. Clerambault felt that he
had not seen his son in any real sense until after his death; and the
brief hour in which he and Rosine had recognised each other was one in
which the bonds of a baleful delusion had been broken by the force of
Now that by means of successive eliminations, he had arrived at
solitude, he felt withdrawn from the passions of the living, but they
stood out all the more to him in a kind of lucid intimacy. All, not
only his wife and children, but the millions of beings whom he had
thought to embrace in an oratorical affection; they all painted
themselves on the dark background. On the sombre river of destiny
which sweeps humanity away, and which he had confounded with it,
appeared millions of struggling living fragments—men; and each had
his own personality, each was a whole world of joy and sorrow, dreams
and efforts and each was I. I bend over him and it is myself I see;
"I," say the eyes, and the heart repeats "I." My brothers, at last I
understand you, for your faults are also mine, even to the fury with
which you pursue me; I recognise that also, for it is once more I.
From this time onward Clerambault began to see men, not with the eyes
in his head, but with his heart;—no longer with ideas of pacifism,
or Tolstoïsm (another folly), but by seizing the thoughts of his
fellows and putting himself in their place. He began to discover
afresh the people around him, even those who had been most hostile to
him, the intellectuals, and the politicians; and he saw plainly their
wrinkles, their white hair, the bitter lines about their mouths, their
bent backs, their shaky legs…. Overwrought, nervous, ready to break
down,… how much they had aged in six months! The excitement of the
fight had kept them up at first; but as it went on and, no matter what
the issue, the ruin became plain; each one had his griefs, and
each feared to lose the little—but that little, infinitely
precious—remained to him. They tried to hide their agony, and
clenched their teeth, but all suffered. Doubt had begun to undermine
the most confident, "Hush, not a word! it will kill me if you speak of
it." …Clerambault, full of pity, thought of Madame Mairet; he must
hold his tongue in future;—but it was too late, they all knew now
what he thought, and he was a living negation and remorse to them.
Many hated him, but Clerambault no longer resented it; he was almost
ready to help them to restore their lost illusions.
These souls were full of a passionate faith which they felt to
be threatened; and this lent them a quality of tragic, pitiable
greatness. With the politicians this was complicated by the absurd
trappings of theatrical declamation; with the intellectuals by the
obstinacy of mania; but in spite of all, the wounds were visible, you
could hear the cry of the heart that clings to belief, that calls for
an heroic delusion.
This faith was very touching in some young and simple people; no
declamations, no pretensions to knowledge; only the desperate clinging
of a devotion which has given all, and in return asks for one word
only: "It is true … Thou, my beloved, my Country, power divine,
still livest, to whom I have offered up my life, and all that I
loved!"—One could kneel before those poor little black gowns, before
those mothers, wives and sisters; one longed to kiss the thin hands
that trembled with the hope and fear of the hereafter, and say: "Mourn
not,—for ye shall be comforted."
What consolation can one offer, when one does not believe in the ideal
for which they lived, and which is killing them?—The long-sought
answer finally came to Clerambault, almost unconsciously: "You must
care for men more than for illusion, or even for truth."
Clerambault's warm feelings were not reciprocated; and he was more
attacked than ever, though for some months he had published nothing.
In the autumn of 1917 the anger against him had risen to an unheard-of
height. The disproportion was really laughable between this rage and
the feeble words of one man, but it was so all over the world. A dozen
or so weak pacifists, alone, surrounded, without means of being heard
through any paper of standing, spoke honestly but not loudly, and this
let loose a perfect frenzy of insults and threats. At the slightest
contradiction the monster Opinion fell into an epileptic fit.
The prudent Perrotin who, as a rule, was surprised at nothing, kept
quiet, and let Clerambault ruin himself his own way; but even he was
alarmed by this explosion of tyrannical stupidity. In history and at a
distance it could be laughed at; but close at hand it looked as if the
human brain was about to give way. Why is it that in this war men lost
their mental balance more than in any other at any previous time? Has
the war been really more atrocious? That is either childish nonsense,
or a deliberate forgetfulness of what has happened in our own day,
under our eyes; in Armenia, in the Balkans; during the repression of
the Commune, in colonial wars under new conquistadors in China and the
Congo…. Of all animals we know, the human beast has always been the
most ferocious. Then is it because men had more faith in the war
of today? Surely not. The western peoples had reached the point of
evolution when war seemed so absurd that we could no longer practise
it and preserve our reason.
We are obliged to intoxicate ourselves, to go crazy, unless we would
die the despairing death of darkest pessimism; and that is why the
voice of one sane man threw into fits of rage all the others who
wanted to forget; they were afraid that this voice would wake them up,
and that they would find themselves sobered, disgraced, and without a
rag to cover them.
It was all the worse because at this time the war was going badly and
the fine hopes of victory and glory which had been lighted up so many
times were beginning to die out. It began to be probable, no matter
which way you looked at it, that the war would be a failure for
everybody. Neither interest, nor ambition, nor ideals would get
anything out of it, and the bitter useless sacrifice, seen at close
range, with nothing gained, made men who felt themselves responsible,
furious. They were forced either to accuse themselves or throw the
blame on others, and the choice was quickly made. The disaster was
attributed to all those who had foreseen the defeat and tried to
prevent it. Every retreat of the army, every diplomatic blunder found
an excuse in the machinations of the pacifists, and these unpopular
gentry to whom no one listened were invested by their opponents with
the formidable power of organising defeat. In order that none should
be ignorant of this, a writing was hung about their necks with the
word "Defeatist," like their brother-heretics of the good old days;
all that remained was to burn them, and if the executioner was not at
hand there were at least plenty of assistants.
At first, by way of getting their hand in, the authorities picked out
inoffensive people—women, teachers, anyone who was little known and
unable to defend himself; and then they turned their attention to
something bigger. It was a good chance for a politician to rid himself
of a dangerous rival, of anyone possessed of secrets or likely to rise
in the future. Above all, according to the old receipts, they took
care to mix accusations, throwing into the same bag vulgar sharpers
and those whose character and mind made them uneasy, so that in all
this mess the blindfolded public did not attempt to distinguish
between an honest man and a scamp. In this way those who were not
sufficiently compromised by their actions found themselves involved in
those of their associates; and if these were lacking, the authorities
stood ready, if necessary, to supply them made to order to fit the
When Xavier Thouron first came to see Clerambault how could anyone
know if he was in the Secret Service? He might very well have come of
his own accord; and it was impossible to say what his intentions were,
perhaps he hardly knew himself? In the purlieus of a great city there
are always unscrupulous adventurers rushing about seeking whom they
may devour. They have ravenous appetites, and curiosity to match, and
anything will do to fill up this aching void. They are willing to say
black is white; all is grist that comes to their mill, and they are
capable of throwing you into the water one minute and jumping in to
save you the next. They are not too careful of their skins, but the
animal inside has to be fed and amused. If he stopped making faces and
stuffing for one moment, he might die of boredom and disgust at his
own vacancy; but he is too clever for that, he will not stop to think
until he dies—splendidly, on his feet, like the Roman Emperor.
No one could have told Thouron's real object when he went for the
first time to Clerambault's house. As usual he was very busy, excited
and on the scent of he knew not what. He was one of those great
journalists—they are rare in the profession—who, without taking the
trouble to read a thing, can give you a vivid, brilliant account of
it, which often, by a miracle, proves to be fairly just. He said his
little "piece" to Clerambault without too many mistakes, and appeared
to believe it; perhaps he did while the words were on his lips. Why
not? He was a sort of pacifist himself from time to time; it depended
on the direction of the wind, or the attitude of certain of his
brother-writers whom he sometimes followed, and occasionally opposed.
Clerambault could never cure himself of a childlike trust in anyone
who came to him, and he allowed himself to be touched;—besides, the
press of his country had not spoiled him of late, so he poured out the
inmost thoughts of his heart, while Thouron took it all in with the
An acquaintance thus closely formed could not, of course, stop there;
letters were exchanged, in which one spoke, and the other led him on.
Thouron persuaded Clerambault to put his ideas in the form of little
popular pamphlets, which he undertook to distribute among the working
classes. Clerambault hesitated, and refused at first. The partisans of
the reigning order and injustice pretend hypocritically to disapprove
of the secret propaganda of a new truth; Clerambault saw no harm in
it, when no other way was possible. (All persecuted faiths have their
catacombs.) But he did not feel himself suited to such a course of
action. It was more his part to say what he thought and take the
consequences, and he felt sure that the word would spread of itself,
without his hawking it about. He would have blushed to admit it, but
perhaps a secret instinct held him back from the offers of service
made him by this eager "drummer." But he could not altogether restrain
his zeal. Thouron published in his paper a sort of Apologia for
Clerambault. He told of his visits, and their conversations; and he
explained and paraphrased the thoughts of the poet. Clerambault was
astonished when he read them, he hardly knew his own ideas again, but
nevertheless, he could not altogether deny them, for, buried among
Thouron's commentaries, he found literal and accurate quotations from
his letters. These, however, were even more confusing; the same words
and phrases, grafted on other contexts, took on an accent and a colour
that he had not given them. Add that the censor, in his zeal for the
safety of the country, had tampered with the quotations, cutting out
here and there a word, half a line, or the end of a paragraph—all
perfectly innocent, but this suppression suggested the worst
iniquities to the over-excited mind of the reader. All this was like
oil on the flame, and the effect was soon felt. Clerambault did not
know which way to turn to keep his champion quiet; and yet he could
not be angry with him, for Thouron had his share of threats and
insults; but he was used to things of this kind, and they fell from
him, like water off a duck's back.
After this common experience Thouron claimed special rights over
Clerambault; and having tried without success to make him buy shares
in his newspaper, he put him on the list of honourary members, without
his knowledge, and thought it very strange that Clerambault was not
delighted when he found it out a few weeks later. Their relations were
slightly cooled by this incident, but Thouron continued to parade the
name of his "distinguished friend" from time to time in his articles.
The latter let this go on, thinking himself fortunate to get off so
easily. He had rather lost sight of him, when he heard one day that
Thouron had been arrested. He was implicated in a rather shabby money
affair which was as usual ascribed to plots of the enemy. The Courts
following the lead of those "higher-up" could not fail to find a
connection between these shady transactions and Thouron's so-called
pacifism. This had showed itself in his paper, in an irregular
incoherent way, subject to attacks of "Exterminism," but none the less
it was all supposed to be part of the great "defeatist" scheme, and
the examination of his correspondence allowed the authorities to drag
in anyone they chose. As he had carefully kept every letter, from men
of all shades of opinion, there were plenty to choose from and they
soon found what they wanted.
It was only through the papers that Clerambault heard that he was on
the list, and they breathed a triumphant: "At last we have got him."
… All was now clear, for if a man thinks differently from the rest
of the world, is it not plain as daylight that there must be some low
motive underneath it all? Seek and you will find …They had found,
and without going further, one Paris newspaper announced the "treason"
of Clerambault. There was no trace of this in the indictment; but
justice does not feel that it is her business to correct people's
mistakes. Clerambault was summoned before the magistrate, and begged
in vain to be told of what offence he was accused. The judge was
polite, showing him the consideration due to a man of his notoriety,
but, seemed in no haste to dismiss the case; it almost looked as if he
was waiting for something … for what? Why for the crime, of course!
Madame Clerambault had not the temper of a Roman matron, nor even of
that high-spirited Jewess in the celebrated affair which cut France in
two some twenty years ago, who clung more closely to her husband on
account of the public injustice. She had the timid instinctive respect
of the French bourgeoisie for the official verdict. Though she knew
that there were no grounds for the accusation against Clerambault, she
felt that it was a disgrace to be accused, which also affected her,
and this she could not bear in silence. Unfortunately, in replying
to her reproaches, Clerambault took the worst possible line, without
meaning it, for instead of trying to defend himself, he only said:
"My poor wife, it is awfully hard on you …Yes, you are right," and
then waited till the shower was over. But this tone upset Madame
Clerambault, who was furious because she felt she had no hold on her
husband. She knew perfectly that though he appeared to agree with
her she could not turn him from his course of action. Despairing
of success, she went off to pour her troubles into the ears of her
brother. Leo Camus made no attempt to disguise his opinion that the
best thing she could do was to get a divorce, which he represented to
her as a duty. This, however, was going a little too far; she was,
after all, a respectable bourgeoise, and the traditional horror
of divorce re-awakened her profound fidelity and made her think the
remedy worse than the disease; so they remained united on the surface,
but intimacy between them was gone.
Rosine was out nearly all day, for in order to forget her unhappiness
she was taking a course in trained nursing, and she passed a large
part of her time away from home. Even when she was at home her
thoughts seemed far away, and Clerambault had never regained his
former place in his daughter's heart; another filled it now—Daniel.
She treated her father coldly; he was the cause of her separation from
the man of her heart, and this was a way of punishing him. And though
she was too just not to reproach herself, still she could not alter;
injustice is sometimes a consolation.
Daniel had not forgotten, any more than Rosine; he was not proud of
his conduct, but it rather softened his remorse to throw the blame on
his surroundings, on the tyrannical opinion which had coerced him; but
in his heart he was discontented with himself.
Accident came to the assistance of this sulking pair of lovers. Daniel
was seriously but not dangerously wounded, and was evacuated back to
Paris. During his convalescence he was walking one day near the square
of the Bon Marché when he saw Rosine. He stood still a moment but as
she came forward, without hesitation, they went on into the Square
and began a long conversation, which, beginning by embarrassment,
and interrupted by numerous reproaches and avowals, led finally to a
perfect understanding between them. They were so absorbed in their
tender explanations, that they did not see Madame Clerambault when she
came near, and the good lady, overcome by this unexpected meeting,
hurried home to tell the news to her husband. In spite of their
estrangement, she could not keep this to herself. He listened to her
indignant recital, for she could not bear that her daughter should
have anything to do with a man whose family had affronted them; and
when she had finished he said nothing at first, according to his
present habit, until at last he shook his head smiling, and said:
Madame Clerambault stopped short, shrugged her shoulders, turned to
go, but with her hand on the door of her room she looked back and
"These people insulted you; Rosine and you agreed to have nothing more
to do with them, and now, your daughter is making advances to this
man who has refused her, and you say it is 'good enough.' I can't
understand you any longer, you must be out of your mind."
Clerambault tried to show her that his daughter's happiness did not
consist in agreement with his ideas, and that Rosine was quite right
to get rid of the consequences of his foolishness where they affected
"Your foolishness … that is the first word of sense that you have
said in years."
"You see yourself that I am right," said he, and made her promise to
let Rosine arrange her romance as she pleased.
The girl was radiant when she came in, but she said nothing of what
had passed. Madame Clerambault held her tongue with great difficulty,
and the father saw with tender amusement the happiness that shone
once more on the face of his child. He did not know exactly what had
happened, but he guessed that Rosine had thrown him and his ideas
overboard—sweetly of course, but still,—the lovers had made it up at
their parents' expense, and both had blamed with admirable justice the
old people's exaggerations on either side. The years in the trenches
had emancipated Daniel from the narrow fanaticism of his family,
without impairing his patriotism, and Rosine in exchange had gently
admitted that her father had been mistaken. They agreed with little
difficulty, for she was naturally calm and fatalistic, which suited
perfectly with Daniel's stoical acceptance of things as they were.
They had decided, therefore, to go through life together, without
paying any more attention to the disagreements of those who had come
before them, as the saying is—though it would be more exact to say,
those whom they were leaving behind them. The future also troubled
them little; like millions of other human beings they only asked their
share of happiness at the moment and shut their eyes to everything
Madame Clerambault was annoyed that her daughter said nothing of the
events of the morning, and soon went out again; Rosine and her father
sat dreamily, he by the window, smoking, and she with an unread
magazine before her. She looked absently about the room, with happy
eyes, trying to recall the details of the scene between her and
Daniel; her glance fell on her father's weary face, and its melancholy
expression struck her sharply. She got up, and standing behind
him, laid her hand on his shoulder and said, with a little sigh of
compassion that tried to conceal her inward joy:
"Poor little Papa!"
Clerambault looked at Rosine, whose eyes, in spite of herself, shone
"And my little girl is not 'poor' any longer, is she?"
Rosine blushed: "Why do you say that?" she asked.
Clerambault only shook his head at her, and she leaned forward laying
her cheek against his:
"She is no longer poor," he repeated.
"No," she whispered, "she is very, very rich."
"Tell me about this fortune of hers?"
"She has—first of all—her dear Papa."
"Oh, you little fraud!" said Clerambault, trying to move so that he
could see her face, but Rosine put her hands over his eyes:
"No, I don't want you to look at me, or say anything to me…." She
kissed him again, and said caressingly:
"Poor dear little Papa."
Rosine had now escaped from the cares that weighed on the house, and
it was not long before she flew away from the nest altogether, for she
had passed her examinations and was sent to a hospital in the South.
Both the Clerambaults felt painfully the loss to their empty fireside.
But the man was not the more lonely of the two. He knew this and was
sincerely sorry for his wife, who had not either the strength of mind
to follow his path, nor to leave him. As for him he felt that now,
no matter what happened, he would never be bereft of sympathy;
persecution would arouse it, and lead the most reserved people to
express their feeling. A very precious evidence of this came to him at
One day, when he was alone in the apartment, the bell rang and he went
to open the door. A lady was there whom he did not know; she held out
a letter, mentioning her name as she did so; in the dim light of the
vestibule, she had taken him for the servant, but at once saw her
mistake, as he tried to persuade her to come in. "No," said she, "I am
only a messenger," and she went away; but when she had gone he found
a little bunch of violets that she had laid on a table near the door.
The letter was as follows:
"Tu ne cede malis,
sed contra audentior ito….
"You fight for us, and our hearts are with you. Pour
out your troubles to us, and I will give you my hope, my
strength, and my love. I am one who can act only through
The youthful ardour of these last mysterious words, touched and
puzzled Clerambault. He tried to remember the lady as she stood on his
threshold; she was not very young; fine features, grave dark eyes in a
worn face. Where had he seen her before? The fugitive impression faded
as he tried to hold it.
He saw her again two or three days later, not far from him in the
Luxembourg Gardens. She walked on and as he crossed the path to meet
her she stopped and waited for him. He thanked her, and asked why she
had gone away so quickly the other day, without saying who she was.
And as he spoke it came to him that he had known her for a long time.
He used to see her formerly in the Luxembourg, or in the neighbouring
streets, with a tall boy who must have been her son. Every time
they passed each other their eyes used to meet with a half-smile of
respectful recognition. And though he did not know their name, and
they had never exchanged a word, they were to him part of those
friendly shadows which throng about our daily life, not always noticed
when they are there, but which leave a gap when they disappear.
At once his thought leaped from the woman before him to the young
companion whom he missed from her side. In these days of mourning you
could never tell who might be still in the land of the living, but he
"It was your son who wrote to me?"
"Yes," said she, "he is a great admirer of yours. We have both felt
drawn to you for a long time."
"He must come to see me."
"He cannot do that."
"Why not? Is he at the Front?"
"No, he is here." After a moment's silence, Clerambault asked:
"Has he been wounded?"
"Would you like to see him?" said the mother. Clerambault walked
beside her in silence, not daring to ask any questions, but at last
he said: "You are fortunate at least that you can have him near you
always…." She understood and held out her hand: "We were always very
close to one another," she said, and Clerambault repeated:
"At least he is near you."
"I have his soul," she answered.
They had now reached the house, an old seventeenth century dwelling
in one of the narrow ancient streets between the Luxembourg and St.
Sulpice, where the pride of old France still subsists in retirement.
The great door was shut even at this hour. Madame Froment passed in
ahead of Clerambault, went up two or three steps at the back of a
paved court, and entered the apartment on the ground floor.
"Dear Edmé," said she, as she opened the door of the room, "I have a
surprise for you, guess what it is…."
Clerambault saw a young man looking at him as he lay extended on a
couch. The fair youthful face lit up by the setting sun, with its
intelligent eyes, looked so healthy and calm that at first sight the
thought of illness did not present itself.
"You!" he exclaimed. "You here?"
He looked younger than ever with this joyful surprise on his face, but
neither the body, nor the arms which were covered, moved in the least,
and Clerambault coming nearer saw that the head alone seemed to be
"Mamma, you have been giving me away," said Edmé Froment.
"Did you not want to see me?" said Clerambault, bending over him.
"That is not just what I meant, but I am not very anxious to be seen."
"Why not? I should like to know," said Clerambault, in a tone which he
tried to make gay.
"Because a man does not ask visitors to the house when he is not there
"Where are you?" if one may ask.
"I could almost swear that I was shut up in an old Egyptian mummy"—he
glanced at the bed and his immovable body:
"There is no life left in it," he said.
"You have more life than any of us," said a voice beside them.
Clerambault looked up and saw on the other side of the couch a tall
young man full of health and strength, who seemed to be about the same
age as Edmé, who smiled and said to Clerambault: "My friend Chastenay
has enough vitality to lend me some and to spare."
"If that were only literally true," said the other, and the two
friends exchanged an affectionate glance. Chastenay continued:
"I should in that case only be giving back a part of what I owe you."
Then turning to Clerambault, he added: "He is the one who keeps us all
up, is it not so, Madame Fanny?"
"Indeed yes, I could not do without my strong son," said the mother
"They take advantage of the fact that I cannot defend myself," said
Edmé to Clerambault. "You see I cannot stir an inch."
"Was it a wound?"
"Paralysis."—Clerambault did not dare to ask for details, but after a
pause: "Do you suffer much?" he inquired.
"I ought to wish that it were so perhaps; for pain is a tie between us
and the shore. However, I confess that I prefer the silence of this
body in which I am encased … let us say no more about it…. My mind
at least is free. And if it is not true that it 'agitat molem,' does
"I know," said Clerambault, "it came to see me the other day."
"Not for the first time; it has been there before."
"And I who thought myself deserted!"
"Do you recall," said Edmé, "the words of Randolph to Cecil?—'The
voice of a man alone can in one hour put more life into us than the
clang of five hundred trumpets sounded continuously.'"
"That always reminds me of you," said Chastenay, but Edmé went on as
if he had not heard him: … "You have waked us all up."
Clerambault looked at the brave calm eyes of the paralytic, and said:
"Your eyes do not look as if they needed to be waked."
"They do not need it now," said Edmé, "the farther off one is, the
better one sees; but when I was close to everything I saw very
"Tell me what you see now."
"It is getting late," said Edmé, "and I am rather tired. Will you come
"Tomorrow, if you will let me."
As Clerambault went out Chastenay joined him. He felt the need of
confiding to a heart that could feel the pain and grandeur of the
tragedy of which his friend had been at once the hero and the victim.
Edmé Froment had been struck on the spinal column by an exploding
shell. Young as he was, he was one of the intellectual leaders of his
generation, handsome, ardent, eloquent, overflowing with life and
visions, loving and beloved, nobly ambitious, and all at once, at a
blow,—a living death! His mother who had centred all her pride and
love on him now saw him condemned for the rest of his days to this
terrible fate. They had both suffered terribly, but each hid it from
the other, and this effort kept them up. They took great pride in each
other. She had all the care of him, washed and fed him like a little
child, and he kept calm for her sake, and sustained her on the wings
of his spirit.
"Ah," said Chastenay, "it makes one feel ashamed—when I think that I
am alive and well, that I can reach out my arms to life, that I can
run and leap, and draw this blessed air into my lungs…." As he spoke
he stretched out his arms, raised his head, and breathed deeply.
"I ought to feel remorseful," he added, lowering his voice, "and the
worst is that I do not." Clerambault could not help smiling.
"It is not very heroic," continued Chastenay, "and yet I care more for
Froment than for anyone on earth, and his fate makes me wretchedly
unhappy. But all the same, when I think of my luck to be here at this
moment when so many are gone, and to be well and sound, I can hardly
keep from showing how glad I am. It is so good to live and be whole.
Poor Edmé!… You must think me terribly selfish?"
"No, what you say is perfectly natural and healthy. If we were all as
sincere as you, humanity would not be the victim of the wicked notion
of glory in suffering. You have every right to enjoy life after the
trials you have passed through," and as he spoke he touched the Croix
de Guerre which the young man wore on his breast.
"I have been through them and I am going back," said Chastenay, "but
there is no merit in that; there is nothing else that I can do. I am
not trying to deceive you and pretend that I love to smell powder; you
cannot go through three years of war, and still want to run risks
and be indifferent to danger, even if you did feel like that in the
beginning. I was so—I may frankly say I did go in for heroism; but I
have lost all that, it was really part ignorance and part rhetoric,
and when one is rid of these, the nonsense of the war, the idiotic
slaughter, the ugliness, the horrible useless sacrifice must be clear
to the narrowest mind. If it is not manly to fly from the inevitable,
it is not necessary either to go in search of what can be avoided. The
great Corneille was a hero behind the lines; those whom I have known
at the front were almost heroes in spite of themselves."
"That is the true heroism," said Clerambault.
"That is Froment's kind," said Chastenay. "He is a hero because there
is nothing else that he can be, not even a man; but the dearest thing
about him is, that in spite of everything, he is a real man."
The truth of this remark was abundantly evident to Clerambault in
a long conversation that he had with Froment the next day. If the
courage of the young man did not desert him in the ruin of his life,
it was all the more to his credit, as he had never professed to be
an apostle of self-abnegation. He had had great hopes and robust
ambitions, fully justified by his talents and vigorous youth, but
unlike his friend Chastenay, he had never for a moment cherished any
illusions as to the war.
The disastrous folly of it had been clear to him at once, and this he
owed not only to his own penetrating mind, but to that inspiring angel
who, from his earliest infancy, had woven the soul of her son from her
own pure spirit.
Whenever Clerambault went to see Edmé, Madame Froment was almost
always there; but she kept in the background, sitting at the window
with her work, only stopping occasionally to throw a tender glance at
her son. She was not a woman of exceptional cleverness, but she had
what may be called the intelligence of the heart, and her mind had
been cultivated by the influence of her husband—a distinguished
physician much older than herself. Thus it had happened that her whole
life had been filled by these two profound feelings, an almost filial
love for her husband and a more passionate sentiment for her son.
Dr. Froment, a cultivated man with much originality of mind which he
concealed under a grave courtesy, as if he feared to wound others by
his distinction, had travelled all over Europe, as well as in Egypt,
Persia, and India. He had been a student of science and of religion,
and his special interest had been the new forms of faith appearing
in the world; such as Babism, Christian Science, and theosophical
doctrines. As he had kept in touch with the pacifist movement, and was
a friend of Baroness Suttner, whom he had known in Vienna, he had
long seen the catastrophe approaching which threatened him and all
he loved. But man of courage as he was, and accustomed to the
indifference of nature, he had not tried to delude his family as to
the future, but had rather sought to strengthen their souls to meet
the danger that hung over their heads.
More than all his words, his example was sacred to his wife, for
the son had been yet a child at the time of his father's death. Dr.
Froment had suffered from a cancer of the intestines, and during the
whole course of the slow and painful disease he had followed his
ordinary occupations up to the last minute, sustaining the courage of
his loved ones by this serene fortitude.
This noble picture which dwelt in Madame Froment's heart, and which
she worshipped in secret, was to her what religion is to other women.
To this, though she had no clear belief in the future life, she
prayed, especially in difficult moments, as if to an ever-present
helpful friend. And by a singular phenomenon sometimes observed after
death, the essence of her husband's soul seemed to have passed into
hers. For this reason her son had grown up in an atmosphere of placid
thought, while most of the young generation before 1914 were feverish,
restless, aggressive, irritated by delay. When the war broke out,
there was no need for Madame Froment to protect herself or her son
against the national excesses; they were both strangers to such ideas;
but they made no attempt to resist the inevitable; they had watched
the coming of this misfortune for so long! All that they could do now
was to bear it bravely, while trying to preserve what was the most
precious thing to them; their souls' faith. Madame Froment did not
consider it necessary to be "Au-dessus de la mêlée" in order to
lead it; and she accomplished in her limited sphere simply, but
more efficaciously, what was attempted by writers in Germany and
England,—a form of international reconciliation. She had kept in
touch with many old friends, and without being troubled in circles
infected by the war-spirit, or ever undertaking useless demonstrations
against the war, she was a check on insane manifestations of hatred,
by her simple presence, her quiet words and manner, her good judgment,
and the respect inspired by her kindness. In families that were
sympathetic she distributed messages from liberal Europeans, among
others, Clerambault's articles, though without his knowledge. It was a
source of satisfaction when she saw that their hearts were touched. A
greater joy still was to see that her son himself was transformed.
Edmé Froment was not in the least a Tolstoyan pacifist. At first he
thought the war more a folly than a crime, and if he had been free, he
would have withdrawn, like Perrotin, into high dilettantism of art
and thought, without attempting the hopeless task of fighting the
prevailing opinion, for which he then felt more contempt than pity.
Since his forced participation in the war, he had been obliged to
acknowledge that this folly was so largely expiated by suffering that
it would be superfluous to add anything to it. Man had made his own
hell upon earth, and there was no need of further condemnation. He was
on leave, at Paris, when he came across Clerambault's articles which
showed him that there was something better for him to do than to set
himself up as a judge of his companions in misery; that it would be
far nobler to try to deliver them while taking his share of the common
The young disciple was disposed to go farther than his master.
Clerambault, who was naturally affectionate and rather weak, found his
joy in communion with other men, and suffered even when divided in
spirit from their errors. He was a confirmed self-doubter. He was
prone to look in the eyes of the crowd for agreement with his ideas.
He exhausted himself in futile efforts to reconcile his inward beliefs
with the aspirations and the social struggles of his time. Froment,
who had the soul of a chieftain in a helpless body, dauntlessly
maintained that for him who bears the torch of a lofty ideal it is an
absolute duty to hold it high over the heads of his comrades; that
it would be wrong to confuse it in the other illuminations. The
commonplace of democracies that Voltaire had less wit than Mr.
Everybody is nonsense…. "Democritus ait; Unus mihi pro populo
est…. To me an individual is as good as a thousand." … Our modern
faith sees in the social group the summit of human evolution, but
where is the proof? Froment thought the greatest height was reached
in an individual superiority. Millions of men have lived and died to
produce one perfect flower of thought, for such are the superb and
prodigal ways of nature. She spends whole peoples to make a Jesus, a
Buddha, an Aeschylus, a Vinci, a Newton, or a Beethoven; but without
these men, what would the people have been? Or humanity itself? We do
not hold with the egotist ideal of the Superman. A man who is great
is great for all his fellows; his individuality expresses and often
guides millions of others; it is the incarnation of their secret
forces, of their highest desires; it concentrates and realises
them. The sole fact that a man was Christ, has exalted and lifted
generations of humanity, filling them with the divine energy; and
though nineteen centuries have since passed, millions have not ceased
to aspire to the height of this example, though none has attained to
Thus understood, the ideal individualist is more productive for human
society than the ideal communist, who would lead us to the mechanical
perfection of the bee-hive, and at the very least he is indispensable
as corrective and complement.
This proud individualism, stated by Froment with burning eloquence,
was a support to Clerambault's mind, prone to waver, and undecided
from good-nature, self-distrust, and the wish to understand others.
Froment rendered Clerambault another important service. More in the
current of world-thought, and through his family coming in closer
contact with foreign thinkers, an accomplished linguist besides,
Froment could bring to mind those other men in all nations who, great
in their isolation, fought for the right to a free conscience. It
was a consoling spectacle; all the work under the surface of thought
suppressed, but struggling towards truth, and the knowledge that
the worst tyranny that has crushed the soul of humanity since the
Inquisition has failed to stifle the indomitable will to remain free
No doubt these lofty individualities were rare, but their power was
all the greater; the fine outline was more striking, seen against the
dark horizon. In the fall of the nations to the foot of the precipice
where millions lie in a shapeless mass, their voices seemed to rise
with the only human note, and their action gained emphasis from the
anger with which it was met. A century ago Chateaubriand wrote:
"It is vain to struggle longer; henceforward the only important thing
is to be."
He did not know that "to be" in our time, be oneself, be free, implies
the greatest of combats. Those who are true to themselves dominate
through the levelling down of the rest.
Clerambault was not the only one to feel the benefit of of Froment's
energy, for at his bedside he was sure to find some friend who came,
perhaps without admitting it, more to get comfort than to bring it.
Two or three of these were young, about Edmé's age, the others, men
over fifty, old friends of the family, or those who had known Froment
before the war.
One of these had been his professor, an old Hellenist, with a sweet
absent smile. Then there was a grey-haired sculptor, his face ploughed
by deep tragic lines; a country gentleman, clean-shaved, red-cheeked,
with the massive head of an old peasant; and finally a doctor. He had
a white beard, his face was worn and kind, and you were struck by the
strange expression of his eyes; one seemed to look sharply at you, and
the other was sad and dreamy.
There was little resemblance between these men who sometimes met at
the invalid's house. All shades of thought could be found in the
group, from the Catholic to the freethinker and the bolshevist—one of
Froment's young friends professed to be of this opinion. In them you
could find the traces of the most various intellectual ancestry; the
ironic Lucian appeared in the old professor; the Count de Coulanges
was wont to solace himself in the evenings on his estate with
cattle and fertiliser, but also revelled in the gorgeous texture of
Froissart's style, like cloth of gold, and the countrified, juicy
talk of that rascal Gondi—the count certainly had the old French
chroniclers in his veins. The sculptor wrinkled his brow in the effort
to find metaphysics in Rodin and Beethoven; and Dr. Verrier had a
streak of the marvellous in his disposition. This he satisfied by the
hypotheses of biology, and the wonders of modern chemistry, though he
would glance at the paradise of religion with the disenchanted smile
of the man of science. He bore his part in the sad trials of the time,
but the era of war with all its gory glory faded for him before
the heroic discoveries of thought made by a new Newton, the German
Einstein, in the midst of the general distraction.
These men all differed in the form of their minds and in their
temperament; but they all agreed in this, they belonged to no party,
each thought for himself, and each respected and loved liberty in
himself or in others. What else mattered? In our day, all the old
framework is broken down; religious, political, or social. It is but
small progress if we call ourselves socialists, or republicans, rather
than monarchists, if these castes accept nationalism of State, faith,
or class. There are now only two sorts of minds: those shut up behind
bars, and those open to all that is alive, to the entire race of man,
even our enemies. These men, few though they may be, compose the true
"International" which rests on the worship of truth and universal
life. They know well that they are each too weak to embrace alone
their great ideal, but it is infinite and can embrace them all. United
in one object, they push on by their separate ways towards the unknown
These independent spirits were all drawn towards Edmé Froment at this
time, because they obscurely saw in him the point where they could
meet, the clearing from which every path in the forest is visible.
Froment had not always tried to bring others together; as long as
he was well and strong, he too had taken his own way, but since his
course had been cut short, after a time of bitter despondency of which
he said nothing, he had placed himself at the cross-roads. As he could
not possibly act himself, he was better able to view the whole field
and take part in spirit. He saw the different currents: country,
revolution, contests between states and classes, science and
faith—like a stream's conflicting forces, with its rapids,
whirlpools, and reefs; it may sometimes slacken, or turn its course,
but it always flows on irresistibly (even reaction is carried
forward). And he, the poor youth staked at his cross-roads, took all
these currents unto him, the entire stream.
Edmé reminded Clerambault sometimes of Perrotin, but he and Froment
were worlds apart. The latter also denied nothing of what is, and
wished to understand everything; but his was a fiery spirit, his whole
soul was filled with ordered movement and feeling; with him all life
and death went forward and upward. And his body lay there motionless.
It was a dark hour; the turn of the year 1917-18. In the foggy winter
nights men waited for the supreme onslaught of the German armies,
which rumour had foretold for months past; the Gotha raids on Paris
had already begun. Those who wanted to fight to the end pretended
confidence, the papers kept on boasting, and Clemenceau had never
slept better in his life. But the tension showed in the increasing
bitterness of feeling among civilians. The agonised public turned on
the suspects among them, the defeatists and the pacifists, and
for days at a time the baying of an accusing public pursued these
miserable creatures and hunted them down. And spies swarmed of all
sorts, patriotic denouncers, half-crazed witnesses. When towards the
end of March the long-threatened great offensive against Paris began,
the "sacred" fury between fellow-citizens reached its height, and
there is no doubt that if the invasion had succeeded, before the
Germans had arrived at the gates of the city, the gallows at
Vincennes, that altar of the country's vengeance, would have known
many victims, innocent or guilty, accused or condemned.
Clerambault was often shouted at in the streets, but he was not
alarmed; perhaps because he did not realise the danger. One day Moreau
found him in a group of people disputing with an excited young man who
had spoken to him in a most insulting manner. While they were talking
the shell from a "Big Bertha" exploded close by. Clerambault took no
notice, and went on quietly explaining his position to the angry young
man. There was something positively comic in this obstinacy, and the
circle of listeners was quick to feel it, like true Frenchmen,
and began to exchange jokes not entirely of a refined nature, but
perfectly good-natured. Moreau caught hold of Clerambault's arm and
tried to drag him away, but he stopped, and looking at the laughing
crowd, the absurdity of the situation struck him in his turn, and he
too burst out laughing.
"What an old fool I am!" said he to Moreau, who was still intent on
getting him away.
"You had better look out, for you are not the only fool in this
town," was the somewhat impertinent answer, but Clerambault would not
understand what he meant.
The case against him had entered on a new phase; he was now accused of
infraction of the law of the 5th of August, 1914—"An act to repress
indiscretions in time of war." He was accused of pacifist propaganda
among the working classes, where it was said that Thouron had
distributed Clerambault's writings with the consent of the author;
but there was no foundation for this, as Thouron was in a position to
testify that Clerambault had no knowledge of such propaganda, and had
certainly not authorised it.
It appeared, however, singularly enough, that Thouron would not swear
to anything of the sort. His attitude was strange, for, instead of
stating the facts, he equivocated as if he had something to hide; it
almost looked as if he wished this to be noticed, which would have
aroused suspicions if he had not been so careful. Unfortunately these
suspicions seemed to glance at Clerambault, though he said nothing
against him or against anyone; in fact he refused to tell anything,
but he let it be understood that if he chose … but he did not
choose. Clerambault was confronted with him, and his attitude was
perfect, really chivalrous. He laid his hand on his heart and declared
that be had the admiration of a son for the great "Master," and
"Friend," and when Clerambault, getting impatient, begged him to state
simply just what had passed between them, the other would do nothing
but protest his "undying devotion." He would rather say nothing more;
he had nothing to add to his testimony; it was all his fault.
He left with an increased reputation, while Clerambault was supposed
to have sheltered himself behind his devoted henchman. The press
unhesitatingly accused Clerambault of cowardice, and meanwhile the
case dragged on, Clerambault appearing every day to answer useless
questions, with no decision in sight. It might have been supposed that
a man accused without proofs, and subject for so long to injurious
suspicions, would have been entitled to the sympathy of the public;
but on the contrary everyone was more down on him than before; they
blamed him because he was not already convicted. All sorts of absurd
stories were in circulation about him; it was asserted that experts
had discovered through the shape of some letters misprinted in a
pamphlet of Clerambault's that it had come from a German press, and
this humbug was readily swallowed by men who were supposed to be
intelligent, before the war,—only four years ago, but it seemed
So all these worthy folks passed sentence on a fellow-citizen on the
slightest information; it was not the first time, and it will not be
the last. The best opinion was indignant that he should still be at
liberty, and reactionary papers, fearing that their prey would escape,
tried to intimidate justice by loud accusations, and demanded that
the case should be removed from the civil court and brought before
a court-martial. This excitement soon developed into one of those
paroxysms which in Paris are generally brief but violent; for this
sensible people does go crazy periodically. It may be asked why
men who are kind for the most part, and naturally given to mutual
tolerance, not to say indifference, should have these explosions of
furious fanaticism, when they seem to lose all feeling as well as
common-sense. Some will tell you that this people is feminine in its
virtues, as well as in its vices, that the delicate nerves and fine
sensibility which cause it to excel in matters of taste and art also
make it susceptible to attacks of hysteria, but I am of opinion
that any people is manly only by accident, if by a man you mean a
reasonable creature—a flattering but baseless idea. Men only use
their reason from time to time, and are soon worn out by the effort of
thinking; so those do them a favour who act for them, encouraging them
in the direction of the least effort, and not much is required to hate
a new idea. Do not condemn them; the Friend of all who are persecuted
has said with His heroic indulgence: "They know not what they do."
An active nationalist newspaper was eager in stirring up the evil
instincts that lay below the surface. It lived on the exploitation of
hatred and suspicion, which it called "working for the regeneration
of France,"—France being reduced to this paper and its friends. It
published "Cleramboche," a collection of sanguinary articles, like
those which succeeded so well against Jaurés; it roused people by
declaring that the traitor owed his safety to occult influences, and
that he would make his escape, if he were not carefully watched; and
finally it appealed to popular justice.
Victor Vaucoux hated Clerambault; not that he knew him at all; it is
not necessary to know a man in order to hate him; but if he had known
him he would have detested him still more. He was his born enemy
before he even knew that Clerambault existed. There are races among
minds more antagonistic to each other, in all countries, than those
divided by a different skin or uniform.
He was a well-to-do bourgeois from the west of France and belonged
to a family of former servants of the Empire who had been sulking for
the last forty years in a sterile opposition. He had a small property
in the Charente, where he spent the summer, and passed the rest of
the time in Paris. Having instincts for government which he could not
satisfy, he laid the blame for this on his family and on life, and
thus thwarted, his character had grown tyrannical so that he acted the
despot unconsciously to those nearest to him, as a right and duty that
could not be disputed. The word tolerance had no meaning for him; for
he could not make a mistake. Nevertheless he possessed intelligence,
and moral vigour; he even had a heart, but all wrapped about and
knotted like an old tree-trunk till such forces of expansion as he had
within him were stunted. He could absorb nothing from the outside;
when he read or travelled he saw everything with hostile eyes, his one
wish was to go home; and as the bark was too thick to be penetrated,
all his sap came from the foot of the tree—from the dead.
He was the type of that portion of the race which, stubborn but
outworn, has not life enough to spread itself abroad, and shrinks into
a sentiment of aggressive self-defence. This looks with suspicion and
antipathy on the young forces which overflow around it, at home and
abroad; growing nations and classes, all the passionate awkward
attempts at social and moral improvement. Like poor Barrès, and his
dwarfed hero, such people want walls and barriers, frontiers, and
enemies. In this state of siege Vaucoux lived, and his family was
forced to live in the same way. His wife who was a sweet, sad, effaced
kind of person, found the only method of escape—and died. Left alone
with his grief—of which he made a kind of rampart, as of everything
about him—having only one son thirteen years of age, he had mounted
guard before his youth and brought him up to do the same; strange that
a man should bring a son into the world to fight against the future!
Perhaps the boy, if let alone, would have found out life by instinct,
but in the father's shut-up house, a sort of jail, he was his father's
prey. They had few friends, few books, few, or rather one, newspaper
whose petrified principles corresponded to Vaucoux' need for
conservation, in the corpse-like meaning of the word. As his son, or
his victim, could not get away from him, he inoculated him with all
his own mental diseases; like those insects which deposit their eggs
in the living bodies of others. And when the war broke out, he took
him at once to a recruiting station and made him enlist. For a man of
his sort, "Country" was the noblest of things—the holy of holies; he
did not need to breathe the thrilling suggestion of the crowd, his
head was already turned, and, besides, he never went with the crowds;
he carried "Country" about with him;—The Country and The Past,—The
[Footnote 1: "Simon and I then understood our hatred of strangers and
barbarians, and our egotism, in which we included ourselves and our
entire small moral family.—The first care of him who would wish to
live must be to surround himself with high walls; but even in his
closed garden he must introduce only those who are guided by the same
feelings, and interests analogous to his own." "A Free Man."
In three lines, three times, this "free man" expresses the idea of
"shutting-up," "closing," and "surrounding with walls."]
His son was killed, like Clerambault's son, and the sons of millions
of other fathers, for the faith and the ideals of those fathers in
which they did not believe.
Vaucoux had none of Clerambault's doubts; he did not know the meaning
of the word, and if he could have permitted himself such a feeling he
would have despised the idea. Hard man as he was, he had loved his son
passionately, though he had never shown it; and he could think of no
better way to prove it now than by a ferocious hatred for those who
had killed him; not, of course, reckoning himself among the number.
There were not many methods of revenge open to a man of his age,
rheumatic and stiff in one arm; but he tried to enlist and was
rejected. He felt that something must be done, and all that he had
left was his brain. Alone in his deserted house with the memory of his
dead wife and child, he sat for hours brooding on these vindictive
thoughts; and like a beast shaking the bars of its cage, waiting for
the chance to spring, his mind raged furiously against the inhibitions
the war put upon him with its iron circle of the trenches.
The clamours of the press drew his attention to Clerambault's articles
which were intensely distasteful to him. The idea of snatching
his precious hatred away from between his teeth! From the slight
acquaintance that he had with Clerambault before the war, he felt an
antipathy for him; as a writer, on account of the new form of his art,
and as a man for numerous reasons: his love of life, and other men,
his democratic ideals, his rather silly optimism, and his European
aspirations. At the very first glance, with the instinct of a
rheumatic in mind and body, Vaucoux had classed Clerambault as one of
those pestilent persons who open doors and windows and make a draught
in that closed house, his Country. That is, as he understood the term,
in his mind there could be no other. After this there was no need for
the vociferations of the papers; in the author of "The Appeal to the
Living," and the "Pardon from the Dead," he saw at once an agent of
the enemy, and with his thirst for revenge, he knew the opportunity
Nothing can be more convenient than to detest those who differ from
you, especially when you do not understand them; but poor Clerambault
had not this resource, for he did understand perfectly. These good
people had had to bear injuries from the enemy; of course because they
were struck by them, but also frankly, because of Injustice with a
capital I; for in their short-sightedness it filled the field of
vision. The capacity to feel and judge is very limited in an ordinary
man; submerged as he is in the species, he clings to any driftwood;
and just as he reduces the infinite number of shades in the river of
light to a few colours, the good and evil that flow in the veins
of the world are only perceptible to him when he has bottled a few
samples, chosen among those around him. All good and bad then he has
in his flask, and on these he can expend his whole power of liking or
repulsion; witness the fact that to millions of excellent people the
condemnation of Dreyfus, or the sinking of the "Lusitania," remains
the crime of the century. They cannot see that the path of social
life is paved with crime, and that they walk over it in perfect
unconsciousness, profiting by injustices that they make no effort to
prevent. Of all these, which are the worst? Those which rouse long
echoes in the conscience of mankind, or those which are known alone to
the stifled victim? Naturally, our worthy friends have not arms long
enough to embrace all the misery of the world; they can only reach one
perhaps, but that they press close to their heart; and when they have
chosen a crime, they pour out upon it all the pent-up hatred within
them;—when a dog has a bone to gnaw, it is wiser not to touch him.
Clerambault had tried to take his bone away from the dog, and if he
was bitten he had no right to complain; in point of fact he did not
do so. Men are in the right to fight injustice wherever they see it;
perhaps it is not their fault if they often see no more than its big
toe, like Gulliver's at Brobdignag. Well, we must each do what we can;
and these people could bite.
It was Good Friday, and the rising tide of invasion swept up towards
the Ile de France. Even this day of sacred sorrow had not stopped the
massacre, for the lay war knows nothing of the Truce of God. Christ
had been bombarded in one of His churches, and the news of the
murderous explosion at St. Gervais that afternoon spread at nightfall
through the darkened city, wrapped in its grief, its rage, and its
The sad little group of friends had gathered at Froment's house; each
one had come hoping to meet the others, without previous appointment.
They could see nothing but violence all about them; in the present as
well as in the future, in the enemy's camp, in their own, on the side
of revolutionists, and reactionaries as well. Their agony and their
doubts met in one thought. The sculptor was saying:
"Our holiest convictions, our faith in peace and human brotherhood
rest in vain on reason and love; is there any hope then that they can
conquer men? We are too weak."
Clerambault, half-unconsciously, as the words of Isaiah came to his
mind, uttered them aloud:
"Darkness covers the earth,
And the cloud envelops the people…."
He stopped, but from the faintly-lighted bed came Froment's voice,
"Rise, for on the tops of the mountains
The light shineth forth…."
"Yes, the light will dawn," said Madame Froment; she was sitting on
the foot of the bed in the dark near Clerambault; he leaned forward
and took her hand. It was as if a thrill widened through the room,
like a ripple over water.
"Why do you say that?" asked the Count de Coulanges.
"Because I see Him plainly."
"I can see Him too," said Clerambault.
"Him? Whom do you mean?" asked Doctor Verrier. But before the answer
could come, they all knew the word that would be said:
"He who bears the light, the God who will conquer…."
"Are you waiting for a God?" said the old professor. "Do you believe
"We are the miracle, for is it not one that in this world of perpetual
violence we have kept a constant faith in the love and the union of
"Christ is expected for centuries," said Coulanges bitterly, "and when
He comes, He is neglected, crucified, and then forgotten except by a
handful of poor ignorant wretches, good if you like, but narrow. The
handful grows larger, and for the space of a man's life, faith is
in flower, but afterwards it is spoiled and betrayed by success,
by ambitious disciples, by the Church; and so on for centuries …
Adveniat regnum tuum … Where is the kingdom of God?"
"Within us," said Clerambault, "our trials and our hopes all go to
form the eternal Christ. It ought to make us happy to think of the
privilege that has been bestowed on us, to shelter in our hearts the
new God like the Babe in the manger."
"And what proof have we of His coming?" said the doctor.
"Our existence," said Clerambault.
"Our sufferings," said Froment.
"Our misunderstood faith," said the sculptor.
"The fact alone that we are," went on Clerambault. "We are a living
paradox thrown in the face of nature which denies it. A hundred times
must the flame be kindled and go out before it burns steadily. Every
Christ, every God is tried in advance through a series of forerunners;
they are everywhere, lost in space, lost in the ages; but though
widely-separated, all of these lonely souls see the same luminous
point on the horizon—the glance of the Saviour—who is coming."
"He is already come," said Froment.
When they separated, with a deep mutual feeling, but in silence,—for
they feared to break the religious charm which held them,—each found
himself alone in the dark street, but in each was the memory of a
vision which they could hardly understand. The curtain had fallen; but
they could never forget that they had seen it rise.
A few days after, Clerambault, who had been again summoned before the
magistrate, came home splashed with mud from head to foot. His hat
which he held in his hand, was a mere rag, and his hair was soaking.
The woman, who opened the door, exclaimed at the sight of him, but he
signed to her to keep still, and went into his room. Rosine was away,
so the husband and wife were alone in the flat, where they only met at
meals, saying as little to each other as possible. However, hearing
the exclamation of the servant, Madame Clerambault feared some new
misfortune and went to look for her husband. She too cried out when
she saw him:
"Good Lord! what have you been doing now?"
"I slipped and fell," said he, trying to wipe off the traces of the
"You fell?—turn round. What a state you are in!… One can't have a
moment's peace when you are around…. You never look where you are
going. There is mud up to your eyelids … all over your face!"
"Yes, I must have struck myself there…."
"What unlucky people we are!… you 'think' that you struck your
cheek?… you tripped and fell?…" And looking him in the face, she
"It isn't true!…
"I did fall, I assure you…."
"No, I know it is not true … tell me,… someone struck you …?"
He did not answer. "They struck you, the brutes. My poor husband, to
think that anyone should strike you!… And you so good, who never did
harm to anyone in your life! How can people be so wicked?" and she
burst into tears as she threw her arms around him.
"My dear girl," said he, much touched. "It is not worth all these
tears. See, you are getting all muddy, you ought not to touch me."
"That does not matter," said she. "I have more spots than that on my
conscience. Forgive me!"
"Forgive you for what? Why do you say such things?"
"Because I have been wicked to you myself; I haven't understood
you—(I don't think I ever shall)—but I do know that whatever you do,
you only mean what is right. I ought to have stood up for you and I
have not done it. I was angry with your foolishness, but it is really
I that was the fool, and it vexed me too, when you got everyone down
on you. But now … it is really too unjust! That a lot of men who are
not fit to tie your shoe … that they should strike you! Let me kiss
your poor muddy face!"
It was so sweet to find each other again!—When she had had a good cry
on Clerambault's neck, she helped him to dress, then she bathed his
cheek with arnica, and carried off his clothes to brush them. At table
her eyes dwelt on him with the old affectionate care, while he tried
to calm her fears by talking of familiar things. To be alone together
without the children took them back to the old days, the early times
of their marriage. And the memory had a sad, quiet sweetness—as the
evening angelus spreads through the growing gloom a last softened
glory from the angelus of noon.
About ten o'clock the bell rang, and Moreau came in with his friend
Gillot. They had read the evening papers which gave an account of the
incident—from their point of view; some spoke of the "spontaneous"
indignation of the crowd and approved of the rebuke inflicted by
popular contempt. Others, and they were the more serious sheets,
deprecated lynch law in the public streets, as a matter of principle,
but blamed the weakness of the authorities, who were afraid to throw
light on all the facts.
It was not impossible that this mild criticism of the government was
inspired by the government itself; for politicians know how to manage
so that their hand may be forced, when they have an end in view of
which they are not exactly proud. The arrest of Clerambault seemed
imminent, and Moreau and his comrade were very uneasy; but Clerambault
signed to them to say nothing before his wife, and after a few words
on the event of the day, which they treated rather lightly, he took
them both into his study and asked them to tell him plainly what was
They showed him a vicious article in the nationalist paper which had
been active against Clerambault for weeks, and which was so encouraged
by the manifestation of the day that it called on all its friends to
renew the attack the next morning. Moreau and Gillot foresaw that
there would be trouble when Clerambault went to the Palais, and they
had come to beg him to stay in the house. Knowing his timidity, they
thought that there would be no difficulty in persuading him to this,
but just as it had been the day Moreau had found him disputing in the
street, he did not now seem to grasp the situation.
"Stay at home, why? I am perfectly well."
"We think it would be more prudent."
"On the contrary, it would do me good to go out for a little while."
"You don't know what might happen."
"As to that one never knows; it will be time enough to worry when it
"To be perfectly frank then, you are in danger; the feeling has been
worked up against you for a long time, till now you are so hated that
people's eyes almost start out of their heads at the sound of your
name;—idiots! they know nothing about you but what they see in the
papers; but their leaders want a row, they have been so stupid that
your articles have had much more publicity than they intended; they
are afraid that your ideas will spread, and they want to make an
example of you that will discourage anyone who might be disposed to
"If that is true," said Clerambault, "and I really have
followers,—something I did not know before,—this is not the moment
to keep out of the way; if they want to make an example of me, I
cannot balk them." This was said in so pleasant a way, that they asked
themselves if he really understood.
"You are taking a terrible risk," persisted Gillot.
"Well, my friend, everyone has to take risks nowadays."
"It ought, at least, to be of some use,—why play into their hands?
There is no need to throw yourself into the jaws of the wolves."
"It seems to me on the contrary, that it might be very useful," said
Clerambault, "and that the wolf would find himself in the wrong box
after all; let me explain to you. This will spread our ideas, for
violence always consecrates the persecuted cause. They want to
intimidate, and so they will. Everyone will be frightened—their own
side, all the hesitaters, and timorous folk. Let them be unjust, it
will rebound on their own heads." He seemed to forget that it might
also fall on his.
They saw that he had made up his mind, and felt an increased respect
for him, but they also felt much more anxious, and this led them to
"If that is the case, we will get all our friends together, and go
"No, no, what a ridiculous idea!… nothing will happen after all."
Seeing that their remonstrances were useless, Moreau made a last
attempt: "You can't keep me from coming with you," said he. "I am an
obstinate man myself, you can't get rid of me; I will wait for you, if
I have to sit on that bench outside your door all night!"
"Go and spend the night in your bed, my dear fellow," said
Clerambault, "and sleep soundly. Come with me in the morning if you
like, but it will be time lost; nothing is going to happen;—but kiss
me, all the same!" After an affectionate hug, they went towards the
door, when Gillot paused a moment: "We must look after you a little,
you know," said he, "we feel as if you were a sort of father to us."
"So I am," said Clerambault with his beaming smile; his own boy was in
his mind. He closed the door, and stood for some minutes with the lamp
in his hand in the vestibule before he realised where he was. It was
nearly midnight and he was very tired, but, instead of going into
the bedroom, he mechanically turned again towards his study;—the
apartment, the house, the street were all asleep. Almost without
seeing it, he stared vaguely at the light shining on the frame of an
engraving of Rembrandt's, The Resurrection of Lazarus, which hung on
the opposite wall…. A dear figure seemed to enter the room; … it
came in silently, and stood beside him.
"Are you satisfied now?" he thought. "Is this what you wished?" And
Maxime answered: "Yes," then added with meaning:
"I have found it very hard to teach you, Papa."
"Yes," said Clerambault, "there is much that we can learn from our
sons." And they smiled at each other in the silence.
When Clerambault at last went to bed, his wife was sound asleep. She
was one of those people whom nothing can keep awake, who sink into
profound slumber as soon as their heads touch the pillow. But
Clerambault could not follow her example; he lay on his back with his
eyes open, staring into the darkness, all through the rest of the
There were pale glimmers from the street in the half-shadow; and a
quiet star or two high up in a dark sky; one seemed to be falling in
a great half-circle—it was only an airplane keeping watch over the
sleeping city. Clerambault followed its sweep with his eyes, and
seemed, to fly with it, the distant hum of the human planet coming
faintly to his ear, like a strange music of the spheres not foreseen
by Ionian sages.
He felt happy, for the burden was lifted from his body and soul, his
whole being seemed to be relaxed, to float in air. Pictures of the
past day with its agitations and fatigues, passed before his eyes, but
did not disturb him. An old man hustled by a mob of young bourgeois
… He could hear their loud voices, too loud—but now they had
vanished like faces that you catch a glimpse of from a moving train.
The train flies on and the vision disappears in the roaring tunnel….
There is the sombre sky again, and the mysterious star, still falling.
Silent spaces around, the clear darkness, and the cool fresh air
blowing on his soul; all infinity in one tiny drop of life, in a heart
whose spark flickers to its end, but knows it is free, and that its
vast home is near.
Like a good steward of the treasure placed in his charge, Clerambault
made up the account of his day. He looked back on his attempts, his
efforts, his impulses, his mistakes; how little remained of his life,
for nearly all that he had built up he had afterwards destroyed with
his own hands. He had first stated, then denied, and had never ceased
to wander in the forest of doubts and contradictions; often torn and
bruised, with no guide but the stars half-seen through the branches.
What meaning had there been in this long troubled course, now ending
in darkness? One only, he had been free.
Free!… What was this freedom, then, which intoxicated him so
completely? This liberty of which he was the master and the
slave—this imperious need to be free? He knew well enough that no
more than others was he emancipated from the eternal bonds; but the
orders that he obeyed differed from others; all are not alike. The
word liberty is only one of the clear high commands of the invisible
sovereign who rules the world … whom we call necessity. She it is
who excites those of the advance-guard to rebel, and causes them to
break with the heavy past which the blind multitude drags along behind
it; for she is the battle-field of the eternal present, where the
past and the future must ever strive together, and on this field the
ancient laws are conquered, that they may give place to new laws,
which will be conquered in their turn.
O Liberty! Thou art always in chains, but they are not the heavy
fetters of the past; for each struggle has enlarged thy prison. Who
can tell? Perhaps later, when the prison walls have been thrown down….
But in the meanwhile, those whom thou wouldst save resist thee.
Thou art called the Public Enemy, or The One against All. To think
that this nickname should have been fastened on the weak, ordinary
Clerambault! But he did not remember that at this moment, his thoughts
were filled with the one who has always existed, ever since man has
been known on the earth; the one who has never ceased to fight their
follies, that they may be delivered—The One whom All oppose…. How
many times throughout the ages have they rejected and crushed him! But
in the midst of his agony a supernatural joy sustains him; he is the
sacred golden seed of liberty, which fell from we know not what sheaf,
and in the darkness of destiny has sowed the germs of light, ever
since the first chaos. In the depths of the savage heart of man, the
frail atom found shelter, it fought against elementary laws which
grind and bend living things; but tirelessly the small golden seed
grew, and man the weakest of all creatures, marched against nature and
fought her. Each step cost a drop of his blood, in this gigantic duel;
he has had to fight nature not only in the world without, but within
himself, since he is a part of her. This is the hardest battle, that
waged by the man divided against himself; and in the end who will
conquer? On the one side is nature with her chariot of iron, in which
she hurls worlds and peoples into the abyss; and on the other is
only,—The Word. It is no wonder that you laugh, ye slaves! no wonder
the servants of force say that it is like "a cur barking at the wheels
of an express-train." Yes, if man were only a fragment of matter
writhing in vain beneath the hammer of fate; but there is a spirit
within him which knows how to smite Achilles on his heel, and Goliath
in his forehead. Let him but wrench off a nut, the swift train is
overturned, its course stayed. Planetary swirls, obscure masses of
human-kind, roll down through the ages lighted by flashes of the
liberating Spirit: Buddha, the Sages, Jesus—all breakers of chains! I
can see the lightning coming, feel it thrill through me, like sparks
that fly up beneath the horse's hoofs. The air vibrates with it, as
the thick clouds of hate come together with a crash. The flame springs
up! If you are alone against the world, have you cause to complain?
You have escaped the crushing yoke, fought your way through, like a
nightmare in which one struggles and tears oneself out of the dark
waters. You sink, choking, and all at once with a despairing effort
you throw yourself beyond the reach of the wave, and sink exhausted
but safe on the shore. These people wound me? So much the better, I
shall wake up in the free air.
Yes, threatening world, I am indeed free from your fetters, I can
never be chained again, and my detested will with which I so often had
to fight, my will is now in you. You wanted, like me, to be free, and
that made you suffer, and made you my enemy; but now even if you kill
me, you have seen the light in me, and once seen, you can no longer
reject it. Strike then! But know that in fighting against me you fight
yourself also; you are beaten in advance, and when I defend myself, it
is you that I defend as well. The One against All is the One for
All, and soon will be The One with All.
I shall no longer be solitary! I feel that I have never been in truth
alone. My brothers of the world, you may indeed be scattered afar over
the earth like a handful of grain, but I know that you are here beside
me. The thought of a man is not solitary; the idea which grows in him
springs up in others; when he feels it in his heart, let him rejoice,
no matter how unhappy, how injured he may be, for it is the earth
reviving. The first spark in a lonely soul is the point of the ray
which will pierre the night. So, welcome, Light. Break through the
night which is around and within me!… "Clerambault."
The fresh light of day returned, ever young and new, untouched by the
stains of men which the sun drinks up like a morning mist.
Madame Clerambault woke, and when she saw her husband with open eyes,
she thought that he too had just waked up.
"You had a good sleep," said she. "I don't think you stirred all night
long." He did not contradict her, but thought of the vast distances he
had traversed in the spirit, that fiery bird that flies through the
night…. But feeling that he had come back to earth, he got up.
At the same hour another man rose, who had also passed a sleepless
night, who had also evoked his dead son, and thought of Clerambault.
whom he did not know, with fierce hatred.
A letter came from Rosine by the first mail, containing a secret that
Clerambault had guessed long ago. Daniel had spoken to his parents,
and the marriage would take place the next time he came home from the
front. She went through the form of asking the consent of her father
and mother, but she knew that her wishes were theirs. Her letter
radiated happiness and a triumphant security that nothing could shake.
The sad riddle of the agonised world had found an answer, and in the
absorption of her young love the universal suffering; did not seem too
high a price for the flower that bloomed for her on this bloody stem.
In the midst of it all, she was tender and compassionate as usual,
remembering the troubles of others, her father and his worries.
But she seemed to put her happy arms about them, with a simple
affectionate conceit, as if she said: "Please don't worry any more
over all these ideas, darlings! It is foolish of you to be sad, when
you see that happiness is coming."
Clerambault smiled tenderly as he read the letter. No doubt happiness
was on the way, but some of us cannot wait for it. "Greet it from me,
my little Rose, and do not let it fly away."
About eleven o'clock the Count de Coulanges came to ask after him; he
had seen Moreau and Gillot mounting guard before the door. They had
come to escort Clerambault according to their promise, but they had
not dared to come up because they were an hour too early. Clerambault
sent for them, laughing at their excess of zeal, and they admitted
that they had thought him perfectly capable of sneaking out of the
house without waiting for them; an idea which he confessed had crossed
The news from the front was good; during the last few days the German
offensive had wavered; strange signs of weakness began to appear;
and well-founded rumours made it evident that there was a secret
disorganisation in the formidable mass. People said that the limit of
his strength had been passed and that the athlete was exhausted. There
was talk also of contagion from the Russian revolutionary spirit
brought by the German troops that had been on the Eastern Front.
With the usual mobility of the French mind, the pessimists of
yesterday began to shout for the approaching victory. Already Moreau
discounted the calming down of passions and the return to common
sense. The reconciliation of the nations and the triumph of
Clerambault's ideas would follow shortly. He advised them not to
deceive themselves too much, and amused himself by describing what
would happen when peace was signed; for peace would have to come some
"I am going to pretend," said he, "that I am hovering over the
town—like the devil on two sticks—the first night after the
armistice. I see innumerable sorrowing hearts behind shutters closed
against the shouts in the streets. Hearts straining all through these
years towards a victory that would lend meaning to their grief;
and now they can let go—or break down, sleep, die, perhaps. The
politicians will reflect on the quickest and most lucrative way to
exploit the success, or turn a somersault if they have guessed wrong.
The professional soldiers will keep the war going as long as they can,
and when that is stopped, they will plan for another in the shortest
possible time. Before-the-war pacifists will all come out of their
holes, and be found at their posts, with touching demonstrations of
joy, while their old leaders who have been beating the drum in the
rear for over five years will reappear with olive branches in their
hands, smiling and talking of brotherly love. The men who swore
never to forget when they were in the trenches will accept all the
explanations and congratulations that are offered them. It is such a
bore not to forget! Five years of exhausting fatigue make you accept
anything through sheer weariness or boredom, or the wish to finish
it all, so the flourishes of triumph will drown the cries of the
vanquished. The one thought of most people will be to go back to their
sleepy before-the-war habits; first they will dance on the graves, and
then lie down and go to sleep on them, till after a while the war will
be only something to boast about in the evening. Perhaps they will
succeed in forgetting it so entirely, that the Dance of Death can be
resumed;—not all at once, of course, but later when we have had a
good rest. So there will be peace everywhere, till the time when it
will be war everywhere again. In the meaning that is now given to the
words, my friends, peace and war are just different labels for the
same bottle. It reminds me of what King Bomba said of his valiant
soldiers; dress them in red or in green as you choose, they will take
to their heels just the same. One says peace and the other war, but
neither means anything, there is only universal servitude, multitudes
swept along like the ebb and flow of tides; and this will continue as
long as no strong souls raise themselves above the human ocean, as
long as no one dares to fight against the fate that sways these great
"Fight against nature," said Coulanges. "Would you resist her laws?"
"There are no immutable laws," said Clerambault, laws like beings,
live, change, and die. It is the duty of the spirit, not to accept
these as the Stoics taught us, but rather to modify and shape them to
our needs. Laws are the outside form of the soul, and if it grows they
must grow also. The only just laws are those that suit me. Am I wrong
in thinking that the shoe should be made to fit the foot, not the foot
for the shoe?"
"I do not say that you are wrong," said the Count, "we force nature
all the time in cattle-breeding, so that even the shape and instincts
of the animals are modified; why not the human creature? No, far from
blaming you, I maintain on the contrary that the object and the duty
of every man worthy of the name is, just as you say, to alter human
nature. It is the source of all real progress; even to strive after
the impossible has a concrete value. But that does not mean that we
shall succeed in what we undertake."
"It is possible that we may not succeed for ourselves and our
children; it is, even more, probable. Perhaps our unhappy nation, the
entire West is on the downward path. There are many things that make
me fear that we are hastening to our fall; our vices and our virtues,
which are almost equally injurious, the pride and hatred, the jealous
spite worthy of a big village, the endless chain of revenges, the
blind obstinacy, the clinging to the past with its superannuated
conceptions of honour and duty, which causes us to sacrifice the
future for the past; all these make me fear that the terrible warning
of this war has taught nothing to our slothful and turbulent heroism.
There was a time when I should have been overwhelmed by such a thought
as this, but now I feel lifted above it, as I am above my own mortal
body; the only tie between me and it is made of pity. My spirit is
brother to that which, on the other side of the globe, is now touched
by the new fire. Do you remember the beautiful words of the Seer of
St. Jean d'Acre?"
[Footnote 1: Reference to Abdul Baha, at present the head of the
Babists or Bahaists. He was at that time a prisoner at St. Jean
d'Acre. See "Lessons of St. Jean d'Acre," by Abdul Baha, collected by
Laura Clifford Barney. (Author.)]
"'The Sun of Truth is like our sun. It rises in many different places.
One day it appears in the sign of Cancer, on another it rises in
Libra, but it is always the same sun. Once the Sun of Truth rose in
the constellation of Abraham, and set in that of Moses, flaming over
the whole horizon; and later it was seen in the sign of Christ, bright
and resplendent. When its light shone over Sinai, the followers of
Abraham were blinded. But wherever the sun may rise, my eyes will be
fixed upon it; even if it should appear in the west it will always be
"'C'est du Nord aujourd'hui que nous vient la lumière,'" said
Moreau, laughing ("It is from the North that our light comes today").
[Footnote 1: A famous line of Voltaire's. (Author.)]
Though the hearing was set for one o'clock, and it was now barely
twelve, Clerambault wanted to start at once, he was so afraid of being
They had not far to go, and indeed his friends had no need to protect
him against the rabble which hung about the Palais de Justice, a crowd
which in any case was considerably thinned out by the morning's news.
There were only a few curs, more noisy than dangerous, who might have
snapped at their heels.
They had reached the corner of the Rue Vaugirard and the Rue d'Assas,
when Clerambault, finding that he had forgotten an important paper,
went back to look for it in his apartment; the others stood there
waiting for him. They saw him come out and cross the street. On the
opposite sidewalk, near a cab-stand, was a well-dressed man of about
his own age, grey-haired, not very tall, and rather stout. They saw
this person go up to Clerambault—it all passed so quickly that they
had no time even to cry out. There was a brief exchange of words, an
arm raised, a shot!—they saw him totter, and ran up. Too late.
They laid him down on a bench; a little crowd gathered, more curious
than shocked (people had seen so many things of this kind), looking
over each ether's shoulders:
"Who is it?"
"Serve him right, then I The dirty beasts have done us harm enough!"
"I don't know, there are worse things than to want the war to be
"There is only one way to finish it; we must fight it out. It is the
pacifists' fault that it has dragged on so long."
"You might almost say that they were the cause of it; the boches
counted on them. Without those fools there wouldn't have been any
war." Clerambault lying there half-unconscious, thought of the old
woman who threw her fagot on the wood stacked around John Huss …
Vaucoux had not attempted to get away, but let them take the revolver
out of his hand without resistance. They held his arms fast, and he
stood looking at his victim, whose eyes met his; each thought of his
Moreau, much excited, spoke threateningly to Vaucoux; who, like an
impassive image of hatred, only answered briefly: "I have killed the
Adversary, the Enemy."
A faint smile hovered on Clerambault's lips as he looked at Vaucoux.
"My poor friend," he thought, "It is within you yourself that the
Enemy lies,"—his eyes closed … centuries seemed to pass…. "There
are no enemies…." and Clerambault entered into the peace of the
worlds to come.
Seeing that he had lost consciousness, his friends carried him into
Froment's house which was close by; but he was dead before they
They laid him on a bed, in a room beside that in which the young
paralytic lay with his friends now gathered round him. The door
remained open. The spirit of the dead man seemed near them.
Moreau spoke bitterly of the absurdity of this murder; why not strike
one of the great pirates of the triumphant reaction, or a recognised
head of the revolutionary group? Why choose this inoffensive,
unbiassed man, who was kind to everyone, and almost too comprehending
to all sides?
"Hatred makes no mistakes," said Edmé Froment. "It has been guided
by a sure instinct to the right mark; for an enemy often sees more
clearly than a friend. No, there is no doubt about it, the most
dangerous adversary of society and the established order in this world
of violence, falsehood, and base compromises, is, and has always been,
the man of peace and a free conscience. The crucifixion of Jesus was
no accident; He had to be put to death. He would be executed today;
for a great evangelist is a revolutionary, and the most radical of
all. He is the inaccessible source from whence revolutions break
through the hard ground, the eternal principle of non-submission of
the spirit to Caesar, no matter who he may be—the unjust force. This
explains the hatred of those servants of the State, the domesticated
peoples, for the insulted Christ who looks at them in silence, and
also for His disciples, for us, the eternal insurrectionists, the
conscientious objectors to tyranny from high or low, to that of today
or tomorrow … for us, who go before One greater than ourselves, who
comes bringing to the world the Word of salvation, the Master laid
in the grave but 'qui sera en agonie jusqu' à la fin du monde,'
whose suffering will endure to the world's end, the unfettered
Spirit, the Lord of all." [Footnote 1: The quotation is from Pascal.
SIERRE, 1916—PARIS, 1920.