An Adventure, by Honore de Balzac

from A Passion in the Desert

During the expedition to Upper Egypt under General Desaix, a Provencal [Footnote: Provencal. Provence was an ancient government of southeastern France. It became part of the crown lands in 1481 under Louis XI. The term Provencals is used loosely to include dwellers in the south of France.] soldier, who had fallen into the clutches of the Maugrabins, was marched by these marauders, these tireless Arabs, into the deserts lying beyond the cataracts of the Nile.

So as to put a sufficient distance between themselves and the French army, to insure their greater safety, the Maugrabins [Footnote: Maugrabins: a savage tribe of northern Africa.] made forced marches and rested only during the night. They then encamped around a well shaded by palm-trees, under which they had previously concealed a store of provisions. Never dreaming that their prisoner would think of escaping, they satisfied themselves by merely tying his hands, then lay down to sleep, after having regaled themselves with a few dates and given provender to their horses.

When the courageous Provencal noted that they slept soundly and could no longer watch his movements, he made use of his teeth to steal a scimitar, [Footnote: Scimitar: a short Turkish sword, carbine: a short light rifle.] steadied the blade between his knees, cut through the thongs which bound his hands; in an instant he was free. He at once seized a carbine and a long dirk, [Footnote: Dirk: a dagger.] then took the precaution of providing himself with a stock of dried dates, a small bag of oats, some powder and bullets, and hung a scimitar around his waist, mounted one of the horses and spurred on in the direction in which he supposed the French army to be. So impatient was he to see a bivouac [Footnote: Bivouac: an encampment without tents.] again that he pressed on the already tired courser at such a speed that its flanks were lacerated with the spurs, and soon the poor animal, utterly exhausted, fell dead, leaving the Frenchman alone in the midst of the desert.

After walking for a long time in the sand, with all the courage and firmness of an escaped convict, the soldier was obliged to stop, as the day had already come to an end. Despite the beauty of an Oriental night, with its exquisite sky, he felt that he could not, though he fain would, continue on his weary way. Fortunately he had come to a small eminence, on the summit of which grew a few palm-trees whose verdure shot into the air and could be seen from afar; this had brought hope and consolation to his heart.

(Here follows a description of the cave which the soldier finds in the rocks.)

His fatigue was so great that he threw himself down on a block of granite, capriciously fashioned [Footnote: Capriciously fashioned. Explain this term.] by nature into the semblance of a camp-bed, and, without taking any precaution for defense, was soon fast in sleep. In the middle of the night his sleep was disturbed by an extraordinary sound. He sat up; the profound silence that reigned around enabled him to distinguish the alternating rhythm of a respiration whose savage energy it was impossible could be that of a human being.

A terrible terror, increased yet more by the silence, the darkness, his racing fancy, froze his heart within him. He felt his hair rise on end, as his eyes, dilated to their utmost, perceived through the gloom two faint amber lights. At first he attributed these lights to the delusion of his vision, but presently the vivid brilliance of the night aided him to gradually distinguish the objects around him in the cave, when he saw, within the space of two feet of him, a huge animal lying at rest. Was it a lion? Was it a tiger? Was it a crocodile?

The Provencal was not sufficiently well educated to know under what sub-species his enemy should be classed; his fear was but the greater because his ignorance led him to imagine every terror at once. He endured most cruel tortures as he noted every variation of the breathing which was so near him; he dared not make the slightest movement.

An odor, pungent like that of a fox, but more penetrating as it were, more profound, filled the cavern. When the Provencal became sensible of this, his terror reached the climax, for now he could no longer doubt the proximity of a terrible companion, whose royal lair [Footnote: Royal lair. Why royal?] he had utilized as a bivouac.

Presently the reflection of the moon as it slowly descended to the horizon, lighted up the den, rendering gradually visible the gleaming, resplendent, and spotted skin of a panther.

This lion of Egypt lay asleep curled up like a great dog, the peaceful possessor of a kennel at the door of some sumptuous hotel; its eyes opened for a moment, then closed again; its face was turned towards the Frenchman. A thousand confused thoughts passed through the mind of the tiger's prisoner. Should he, as he at first thought of doing, kill it with a shot from his carbine? But he saw plainly that there was not room enough in which to take proper aim; the muzzle would have extended beyond the animal葉he bullet would miss the mark. And what if it were to wake!葉his fear kept him motionless and rigid.

He heard the pulsing of his heart beating in the so dread silence and he cursed the too violent pulsations which his surging blood brought on, lest they should awaken from sleep the dreadful creature; that slumber which gave him time to think and plan over his escape.

Twice did he place his hand upon his scimitar, intending to cut off his enemy's head; but the difficulty of severing the close haired skin caused him to renounce this daring attempt. To miss was certain death. He preferred the chance of a fair fight, and made up his mind to await the daylight. The dawn did not give him long to wait. It came.

He could now examine the panther at his ease; its muzzle was smeared with blood.

"It's had a good dinner," he said, without troubling himself to speculate whether the feast might have been of human flesh or not. "It won't be hungry when it wakes."

It was a female. The fur on her thighs was glistening white. Many small spots like velvet formed beautiful bracelets round her paws; her sinuous tail was also white, ending in black rings. The back of her dress was yellow, like unburnished gold, very lissome, [Footnote: Lissome: supple, nimble.] and soft, and had the characteristic blotches in the shape of pretty rosettes, which distinguish the panther from every other species felis. [Footnote: Species felis. Latin "felis," a cat.]

This formidable hostess lay tranquilly snoring in an attitude as graceful and easy as that of a cat on the cushion of an ottoman. Her bloody paws, nervous and well armed, were stretched out before her head, which rested on the back of them, while from her muzzle radiated her straight, slender whiskers, like threads of silver.

If he had seen her lying thus, imprisoned in a cage, the Provencal would doubtless have admired the grace of the creature and the vivid contrasts of color which gave her robe an imperial splendour; but just then his sight was jaundiced [Footnote: Jaundiced. Explain this term.] by sinister forebodings.

The presence of the panther, even asleep, had the same effect upon him as the magnetic eyes of a snake are said to have on the nightingale.

The soldier's courage oozed away in the presence of this silent danger, though he was a man who gathered courage at the mouth of a cannon belching forth shot and shell. And yet a bold thought brought daylight to his soul and sealed up the source from whence issued the cold sweat which gathered on his brow. Like men driven to bay, who defy death and offer their bodies to the smiter, so he, seeing in this merely a tragic episode, resolved to play his part with honor to the last.

"The day before yesterday," said he, "the Arabs might have killed me."

So considering himself as already dead, he waited bravely, but with anxious curiosity, the awakening of his enemy.

When the sun appeared the panther suddenly opened her eyes; then she stretched out her paws with energy, as if to get rid of cramp. Presently she yawned and showed the frightful armament of her teeth, and the pointed tongue rough as a rasp.

"She is dainty as a woman," thought the Frenchman, seeing her rolling and turning herself about so softly and coquettishly. She licked off the blood from her paws and muzzle, and scratched her head with reiterated grace of movement.

"Good, make your little toilet" said the Frenchman to himself; he recovered his gayety with his courage. "We are presently about to give each other good-morning," and he felt for the short poniard that he had abstracted from the Maugrabins. At this instant the panther turned her head toward him and gazed fixedly at him, without otherwise moving.

The rigidity of her metallic eyes and their insupportable lustre made him shudder. The beast approached him; he looked at her caressingly, staring into those bright eyes in an effort to magnetize her葉o soothe her. He let her come quite close to him before stirring; then with a gentle movement, he passed his hand over her whole body, from the head to the tail, scratching the flexible vertebrae, [Footnote: Vertebrae: the bones of the spinal column.] which divided the yellow back of the panther. The animal slightly moved her tail voluptuously, and her eyes grew soft and gentle; and when for the third time the Frenchman had accomplished this interested flattery, she gave vent to those purrings like as cats express their pleasure; but it issued from a throat so deep, so powerful, that it resounded through the cave like the last chords of an organ rolling along the vaulted roof of a church. The Provencal seeing the value of his caresses, redoubled them until they completely soothed and lulled this imperious creature.

When he felt assured that he had extinguished the ferocity of his capricious companion, whose hunger had so luckily been appeased the day before, he got up to leave the grotto. The panther let him go out, but when he reached the summit of the little knoll she sprang up and bounded after him with the lightness of a sparrow hopping from twig to twig on a tree, and rubbed against his legs, arching her back after the manner of a domestic cat. Then regarding her guest with eyes whose glare had somewhat softened, she gave vent to that wild cry which naturalists compare to the grating of a saw.

"Madame is exacting," said the Frenchman, smiling.

He was bold enough to play with her ears; he stroked her body and scratched her head good and hard with his nails. He was encouraged with his success, and tickled her skull with the point of his dagger, watching for an opportune moment to kill her, but the hardness of the bone made him tremble, dreading failure.

The sultana of the desert [Footnote: Why does the author call the tiger the sultana of the desert?] showed herself gracious to her slave; she lifted her head, stretched out her neck, and betrayed her delight by the tranquillity of her relaxed attitude. It suddenly occurred to the soldier that, to slay this savage princess with one blow, he must stab deep in the throat.

He raised the blade, when the panther, satisfied, no doubt, threw herself gracefully at his feet and glanced up at him with a look in which, despite her natural ferocity, a glimmer of goodwill was apparent. The poor Provencal, thus frustrated for the nonce, [Footnote: For the nonce: for the present.] ate his dates as he leaned against one of the palm-trees, casting an interrogating glance from time to time across the desert in quest of some deliverer, and on his terrible companion, watching the chance of her uncertain clemency.

The panther looked at the place where the date-stones fell; and each time he threw one, she examined the Frenchman with an eye of commercial distrust. [Footnote: An eye of commercial distrust. Explain this term.] However, the examination seemed to be favorable to him, for, when he had eaten his frugal meal, she licked his boots with her powerful, rough tongue, cleaning off the dust, which was caked in the wrinkles, in a marvellous manner.

"Ah! but how when she is really hungry?" thought the Provencal. In spite of the shudder caused by this thought, his attention was curiously drawn to the symmetrical proportions of the animal, which was certainly one of the most splendid specimens of its race. He began to measure them with his eye. She was three feet in height at the shoulders and four feet in length, not counting her tail; this powerful weapon was nearly three feet long, and rounded like a cudgel. The head, large as that of a lioness, was distinguished by an intelligent, crafty expression. The cold cruelty of the tiger dominated, and yet it bore a vague resemblance to the face of a woman. [Footnote: Face of a woman. The creature, part tiger and part woman, suggests what famous monument?] Indeed, the countenance of this solitary queen had something of the gayety of a Nero [Footnote: Nero: a Roman Emperor notorious for his cruelty.] in his cups; her thirst for blood was slaked, now she wished for amusement.

The soldier tried if he might walk up and down, the panther left him freedom, contenting herself with following him with her eyes, less like a faithful dog watching his master's movements with affectionate solicitude, than a huge Angora cat uneasy and suspicious of every movement.

When he looked around, he saw, by the spring, the carcass of his horse; the panther had dragged the remains all that distance, and had eaten about two-thirds of it already. The sight reassured the Frenchman, it made it easy to explain the panther's absence and the forbearance she had shown him while he slept.

This first good-luck emboldened the soldier to think of the future. He conceived the wild idea of continuing on good terms with his companion and to share her home, to try every means to tame her, and endeavoring to turn her good graces to his account.

With these thoughts he returned to her side, and had the unspeakable joy of seeing her wag her tail with an almost imperceptible motion as he approached. He sat down beside her, fearlessly, and they began to play together. He took her paws and muzzle, twisted her ears, and stroked her warm, delicate flanks. She allowed him to do whatever he liked, and, when he began to stroke the fur on her feet, she carefully drew in her murderously savage claws, which were sharp and curved like a Damascus sword. [Footnote: Damascus sword: A Damascus blade was famed for its excellence.]

The Frenchman kept one hand on his poniard, and thought to watch his chance to plunge it into the belly of the too confiding animal; but he was fearful lest he might be strangled in her last convulsive struggles; beside this, he felt in his heart a sort of remorse which bade him respect this hitherto inoffensive creature that had done him no hurt. He seemed to have found a friend in the boundless desert, and, half-unconsciously, his mind reverted to his old sweetheart whom he had, in derision, nicknamed "Mignonne."

This recollection of his youthful days suggested the idea of making the panther answer to this name, now that he began to admire with less fear her graceful swiftness, agility, and softness. Toward the close of the day he had so familiarized himself with his perilous position that he was half in love with his dangerous situation and its painfulness. At last his companion had grown so far tamed that she had caught the habit of looking up at him whenever he called in a falsetto voice, "Mignonne."

From that time the desert was inhabited for him. It contained a being to whom he could talk and whose ferocity was now lulled into gentleness, although he could not explain to himself this strange friendship. Anxious as he was to keep awake and on guard, as it were, he gradually succumbed to his excessive fatigue of body and mind; he threw himself on the floor of the cave and slept soundly.

On awakening Mignonne was absent; he climbed the hillock and afar off saw her returning in the long bounds characteristic of those animals who cannot run owing to the extreme flexibility of the vertebral column.

Mignonne arrived with bloody jaws; she received the wonted caresses, the tribute her slave hastened to pay, and showed by her purring how transported she was. Her eyes, full of languor, rested more kindly on the Provencal than on the previous day, and he addressed her as he would have done a domestic animal.

"Ah! mademoiselle, you're a nice girl, ain't you? Just see now! we like to be petted, don't we? Are you not ashamed of yourself? So you've been eating some Arab or other, eh? Well, that doesn't matter. They're animals, the same as you are; but don't take to crunching up a Frenchman, bear that in mind, or I shall not love you any longer."

She played like a dog with its master, allowing herself to be rolled over, knocked about, stroked, and the rest, alternately; at times she would coax him to play by putting her paw upon his knee and making a pretty gesture of solicitation.

One day, under a bright midday sun, a great bird hovered in the sky. The Provencal left his panther to gaze at this new guest; but after pausing for a moment the deserted sultana uttered a deep growl.

"God take me! I do believe that she is jealous," he cried, seeing the rigid look appearing again in the metallic eyes. "The soul of Virginie has passed into her body, that's sure!"

The eagle disappeared in the ether, and the soldier admired her again, recalled by the panther's evident displeasure, her rounded flanks, and the perfect grace of her attitude. There was youth and grace in her form. The blonde fur of her robe shaded, with delicate gradations, to the dead-white tones of her furry thighs; the vivid sunshine brought out in its fulness the brilliancy of this living gold and its variegated brown spots with indescribable lustre.

The Provencal and the panther looked at each other with a look pregnant with meaning. She trembled with delight (the coquettish creature) when she felt her friend scratch the strong bones of her skull with his nails. Her eyes glittered like lightning-flashes葉hen she closed them tightly.

"She has a soul!" cried he, looking at the stillness of this queen of the sands, golden like them, white as their waving light, solitary and burning as themselves.

(Here the narrative breaks off somewhat abruptly and continues in the first person葉hat of the soldier.)

"Suddenly she turned on me in a fury, seizing my thigh with her sharp teeth, and yet (I thought of this afterwards) not cruelly. I imagined that she intended devouring me, and I plunged my poniard in her throat. She rolled over with a cry that rent my soul; she looked at me in her death-struggle, but without anger. I would have given the whole world洋y cross, which I had not yet gained, all, everything葉o restore her life to her. It was as if I had assassinated a real human being, a friend. When the soldiers who had seen my flag came to my rescue they found me in tears.

"Ah! well, monsieur, I went through the wars in Germany, Spain, Russia, and France; I have marched my carcass well-nigh the world over, but I have seen nothing comparable to the desert."

幽ONORE DE BALZAC (adapted).

[Footnote: Note the detailed description. Does it add to the reality of the scene? Does the author succeed in making the panther appeal to our sympathy? Does the story seem plausible or merely fantastic? Where do you find surprises in the story that add to its interest?]

Louise de la Ramee