CHRIST IN FLANDERS
By Honore De Balzac
Translated by Ellen Marriage
To Marcelline Desbordes-Valmore, a daughter of Flanders, of whom
these modern days may well be proud, I dedicate this quaint legend
of old Flanders.
CHRIST IN FLANDERS
At a dimly remote period in the history of Brabant, communication between
the Island of Cadzand and the Flemish coast was kept up by a boat which
carried passengers from one shore to the other. Middelburg, the chief town
in the island, destined to become so famous in the annals of
Protestantism, at that time only numbered some two or three hundred
hearths; and the prosperous town of Ostend was an obscure haven, a
straggling village where pirates dwelt in security among the fishermen and
the few poor merchants who lived in the place.
But though the town of Ostend consisted altogether of some score of houses
and three hundred cottages, huts or hovels built of the driftwood of
wrecked vessels, it nevertheless rejoiced in the possession of a governor,
a garrison, a forked gibbet, a convent, and a burgomaster, in short, in
all the institutions of an advanced civilization.
Who reigned over Brabant and Flanders in those days? On this point
tradition is mute. Let us confess at once that this tale savors strongly
of the marvelous, the mysterious, and the vague; elements which Flemish
narrators have infused into a story retailed so often to gatherings of
workers on winter evenings, that the details vary widely in poetic merit
and incongruity of detail. It has been told by every generation, handed
down by grandames at the fireside, narrated night and day, and the
chronicle has changed its complexion somewhat in every age. Like some
great building that has suffered many modifications of successive
generations of architects, some sombre weather-beaten pile, the delight of
a poet, the story would drive the commentator and the industrious winnower
of words, facts, and dates to despair. The narrator believes in it, as all
superstitious minds in Flanders likewise believe; and is not a whit wiser
nor more credulous than his audience. But as it would be impossible to
make a harmony of all the different renderings, here are the outlines of
the story; stripped, it may be, of its picturesque quaintness, but with
all its bold disregard of historical truth, and its moral teachings
approved by religion—a myth, the blossom of imaginative fancy; an
allegory that the wise may interpret to suit themselves. To each his own
pasturage, and the task of separating the tares from the wheat.
The boat that served to carry passengers from the Island of Cadzand to
Ostend was upon the point of departure; but before the skipper loosed the
chain that secured the shallop to the little jetty, where people embarked,
he blew a horn several times, to warn late lingerers, this being his last
journey that day. Night was falling. It was scarcely possible to see the
coast of Flanders by the dying fires of the sunset, or to make out upon
the hither shore any forms of belated passengers hurrying along the wall
of the dykes that surrounded the open country, or among the tall reeds of
the marshes. The boat was full.
"What are you waiting for? Let us put off!" they cried.
Just at that moment a man appeared a few paces from the jetty, to the
surprise of the skipper, who had heard no sound of footsteps. The traveler
seemed to have sprung up from the earth, like a peasant who had laid
himself down on the ground to wait till the boat should start, and had
slept till the sound of the horn awakened him. Was he a thief? or some one
belonging to the custom-house or the police?
As soon as the man appeared on the jetty to which the boat was moored,
seven persons who were standing in the stern of the shallop hastened to
sit down on the benches, so as to leave no room for the newcomer. It was
the swift and instinctive working of the aristocratic spirit, an impulse
of exclusiveness that comes from the rich man's heart. Four of the seven
personages belonged to the most aristocratic families in Flanders. First
among them was a young knight with two beautiful greyhounds; his long hair
flowed from beneath a jeweled cap; he clanked his gilded spurs, curled the
ends of his moustache from time to time with a swaggering grace, and
looked round disdainfully on the rest of the crew. A high-born damsel,
with a falcon on her wrist, only spoke with her mother or with a churchman
of high rank, who was evidently a relation. All these persons made a great
deal of noise, and talked among themselves as though there were no one
else in the boat; yet close beside them sat a man of great importance in
the district, a stout burgher of Bruges, wrapped about with a vast cloak.
His servant, armed to the teeth, had set down a couple of bags filled with
gold at his side. Next to the burgher came a man of learning, a doctor of
the University of Louvain, who was traveling with his clerk. This little
group of folk, who looked contemptuously at each other, was separated from
the passengers in the forward part of the boat by the bench of rowers.
The belated traveler glanced about him as he stepped on board, saw that
there was no room for him in the stern, and went to the bows in quest of a
seat. They were all poor people there. At first sight of the bareheaded
man in the brown camlet coat and trunk-hose, and plain stiff linen collar,
they noticed that he wore no ornaments, carried no cap nor bonnet in his
hand, and had neither sword nor purse at his girdle, and one and all took
him for a burgomaster sure of his authority, a worthy and kindly
burgomaster like so many a Fleming of old times, whose homely features and
characters have been immortalized by Flemish painters. The poorer
passengers, therefore, received him with demonstrations of respect that
provoked scornful tittering at the other end of the boat. An old soldier,
inured to toil and hardship, gave up his place on the bench to the
newcomer, and seated himself on the edge of the vessel, keeping his
balance by planting his feet against one of those traverse beams, like the
backbone of a fish, that hold the planks of a boat together. A young
mother, who bore her baby in her arms, and seemed to belong to the working
class in Ostend, moved aside to make room for the stranger. There was
neither servility nor scorn in her manner of doing this; it was a simple
sign of the goodwill by which the poor, who know by long experience the
value of a service and the warmth that fellowship brings, give expression
to the open-heartedness and the natural impulses of their souls; so
artlessly do they reveal their good qualities and their defects. The
stranger thanked her by a gesture full of gracious dignity, and took his
place between the young mother and the old soldier. Immediately behind him
sat a peasant and his son, a boy ten years of age. A beggar woman, old,
wrinkled, and clad in rags, was crouching, with her almost empty wallet,
on a great coil of rope that lay in the prow. One of the rowers, an old
sailor, who had known her in the days of her beauty and prosperity, had
let her come in "for the love of God," in the beautiful phrase that the
common people use.
"Thank you kindly, Thomas," the old woman had said. "I will say two Paters
and two Aves for you in my prayers to-night."
The skipper blew his horn for the last time, looked along the silent
shore, flung off the chain, ran along the side of the boat, and took up
his position at the helm. He looked at the sky, and as soon as they were
out in the open sea, he shouted to the men: "Pull away, pull with all your
might! The sea is smiling at a squall, the witch! I can feel the swell by
the way the rudder works, and the storm in my wounds."
The nautical phrases, unintelligible to ears unused to the sound of the
sea, seemed to put fresh energy into the oars; they kept time together,
the rhythm of the movement was still even and steady, but quite unlike the
previous manner of rowing; it was as if a cantering horse had broken into
a gallop. The gay company seated in the stern amused themselves by
watching the brawny arms, the tanned faces, and sparkling eyes of the
rowers, the play of the tense muscles, the physical and mental forces that
were being exerted to bring them for a trifling toll across the channel.
So far from pitying the rowers' distress, they pointed out the men's faces
to each other, and laughed at the grotesque expressions on the faces of
the crew who were straining every muscle; but in the fore part of the boat
the soldier, the peasant, and the old beggar woman watched the sailors
with the sympathy naturally felt by toilers who live by the sweat of their
brow and know the rough struggle, the strenuous excitement of effort.
These folk, moreover, whose lives were spent in the open air, had all seen
the warnings of danger in the sky, and their faces were grave. The young
mother rocked her child, singing an old hymn of the Church for a lullaby.
"If we ever get there at all," the soldier remarked to the peasant, "it
will be because the Almighty is bent on keeping us alive."
"Ah! He is the Master," said the old woman, "but I think it will be His
good pleasure to take us to Himself. Just look at that light down
there..." and she nodded her head as she spoke towards the sunset.
Streaks of fiery red glared from behind the masses of crimson-flushed
brown cloud that seemed about to unloose a furious gale. There was a
smothered murmur of the sea, a moaning sound that seemed to come from the
depths, a low warning growl, such as a dog gives when he only means
mischief as yet. After all, Ostend was not far away. Perhaps painting,
like poetry, could not prolong the existence of the picture presented by
sea and sky at that moment beyond the time of its actual duration. Art
demands vehement contrasts, wherefore artists usually seek out Nature's
most striking effects, doubtless because they despair of rendering the
great and glorious charm of her daily moods; yet the human soul is often
stirred as deeply by her calm as by her emotion, and by silence as by
For a moment no one spoke on board the boat. Every one watched that sea
and sky, either with some presentiment of danger, or because they felt the
influence of the religious melancholy that takes possession of nearly all
of us at the close of the day, the hour of prayer, when all nature is
hushed save for the voices of the bells. The sea gleamed pale and wan, but
its hues changed, and the surface took all the colors of steel. The sky
was almost overspread with livid gray, but down in the west there were
long narrow bars like streaks of blood; while lines of bright light in the
eastern sky, sharp and clean as if drawn by the tip of a brush, were
separated by folds of cloud, like the wrinkles on an old man's brow. The
whole scene made a background of ashen grays and half-tints, in strong
contrast to the bale-fires of the sunset. If written language might borrow
of spoken language some of the bold figures of speech invented by the
people, it might be said with the soldier that "the weather has been
routed," or, as the peasant would say, "the sky glowered like an
executioner." Suddenly a wind arose from the quarter of the sunset, and
the skipper, who never took his eyes off the sea, saw the swell on the
horizon line, and cried:
The sailors stopped immediately, and let their oars lie on the water.
"The skipper is right," said Thomas coolly. A great wave caught up the
boat, carried it high on its crest, only to plunge it, as it were, into
the trough of the sea that seemed to yawn for them. At this mighty
upheaval, this sudden outbreak of the wrath of the sea, the company in the
stern turned pale, and sent up a terrible cry.
"We are lost!"
"Oh, not yet!" said the skipper calmly.
As he spoke, the clouds immediately above their heads were torn asunder by
the vehemence of the wind. The gray mass was rent and scattered east and
west with ominous speed, a dim uncertain light from the rift in the sky
fell full upon the boat, and the travelers beheld each other's faces. All
of them, the noble and the wealthy, the sailors and the poor passengers
alike, were amazed for a moment by the appearance of the last comer. His
golden hair, parted upon his calm, serene forehead, fell in thick curls
about his shoulders; and his face, sublime in its sweetness and radiant
with divine love, stood out against the surrounding gloom. He had no
contempt for death; he knew that he should not die. But if at the first
the company in the stern forgot for a moment the implacable fury of the
storm that threatened their lives, selfishness and their habits of life
soon prevailed again.
"How lucky that stupid burgomaster is, not to see the risks we are all
running! He is just like a dog, he will die without a struggle," said the
He had scarcely pronounced this highly judicious dictum when the storm
unloosed all its legions. The wind blew from every quarter of the heavens,
the boat span round like a top, and the sea broke in.
"Oh! my poor child! my poor child!... Who will save my baby?" the mother
cried in a heart-rending voice.
"You yourself will save it," the stranger said.
The thrilling tones of that voice went to the young mother's heart and
brought hope with them; she heard the gracious words through all the
whistling of the wind and the shrieks of the passengers.
"Holy Virgin of Good Help, who art at Antwerp, I promise thee a thousand
pounds of wax and a statue, if thou wilt rescue me from this!" cried the
burgher, kneeling upon his bags of gold.
"The Virgin is no more at Antwerp than she is here," was the doctor's
comment on this appeal.
"She is in heaven," said a voice that seemed to come from the sea.
"Who said that?"
"'Tis the devil!" exclaimed the servant. "He is scoffing at the Virgin of
"Let us have no more of your Holy Virgin at present," the skipper cried to
the passengers. "Put your hands to the scoops and bail the water out of
the boat.—And the rest of you," he went on, addressing the sailors,
"pull with all your might! Now is the time; in the name of the devil who
is leaving you in this world, be your own Providence! Every one knows that
the channel is fearfully dangerous; I have been to and fro across it these
thirty years. Am I facing a storm for the first time to-night?"
He stood at the helm, and looked, as before, at his boat and at the sea
and sky in turn.
"The skipper always laughs at everything," muttered Thomas.
"Will God leave us to perish along with those wretched creatures?" asked
the haughty damsel of the handsome cavalier.
"No, no, noble maiden.... Listen!" and he caught her by the waist and said
in her ear, "I can swim, say nothing about it! I will hold you by your
fair hair and bring you safely to the shore; but I can only save you."
The girl looked at her aged mother. The lady was on her knees entreating
absolution of the Bishop, who did not heed her. In the beautiful eyes the
knight read a vague feeling of filial piety, and spoke in a smothered
"Submit yourself to the will of God. If it is His pleasure to take your
mother to Himself, it will doubtless be for her happiness—in another
world," he added, and his voice dropped still lower. "And for ours in
this," he thought within himself.
The Dame of Rupelmonde was lady of seven fiefs beside the barony of
The girl felt the longing for life in her heart, and for love that spoke
through the handsome adventurer, a young miscreant who haunted churches in
search of a prize, an heiress to marry, or ready money. The Bishop
bestowed his benison on the waves, and bade them be calm; it was all that
he could do. He thought of his concubine, and of the delicate feast with
which she would welcome him; perhaps at that very moment she was bathing,
perfuming herself, robing herself in velvet, fastening her necklace and
her jeweled clasps; and the perverse Bishop, so far from thinking of the
power of Holy Church, of his duty to comfort Christians and exhort them to
trust in God, mingled worldly regrets and lover's sighs with the holy
words of the breviary. By the dim light that shone on the pale faces of
the company, it was possible to see their differing expressions as the
boat was lifted high in air by a wave, to be cast back into the dark
depths; the shallop quivered like a fragile leaf, the plaything of the
north wind in the autumn; the hull creaked, it seemed ready to go to
pieces. Fearful shrieks went up, followed by an awful silence.
There was a strange difference between the behavior of the folk in the
bows and that of the rich or great people at the other end of the boat.
The young mother clasped her infant tightly to her breast every time that
a great wave threatened to engulf the fragile vessel; but she clung to the
hope that the stranger's words had set in her heart. Each time that the
eyes turned to his face she drew fresh faith at the sight, the strong
faith of a helpless woman, a mother's faith. She lived by that divine
promise, the loving words from his lips; the simple creature waited
trustingly for them to be fulfilled, and scarcely feared the danger any
The soldier, holding fast to the vessel's side, never took his eyes off
the strange visitor. He copied on his own rough and swarthy features the
imperturbability of the other's face, applying to this task the whole
strength of a will and intelligence but little corrupted in the course of
a life of mechanical and passive obedience. So emulous was he of a calm
and tranquil courage greater than his own, that at last, perhaps
unconsciously, something of that mysterious nature passed into his own
soul. His admiration became an instinctive zeal for this man, a boundless
love for and belief in him, such a love as soldiers feel for their leader
when he has the power of swaying other men, when the halo of victories
surrounds him, and the magical fascination of genius is felt in all that
he does. The poor outcast was murmuring to herself:
"Ah! miserable wretch that I am! Have I not suffered enough to expiate the
sins of my youth? Ah! wretched woman, why did you leave the gay life of a
frivolous Frenchwoman? why did you devour the goods of God with churchmen,
the substance of the poor with extortioners and fleecers of the poor? Oh!
I have sinned indeed!—Oh my God! my God! let me finish my time in
hell here in this world of misery."
And again she cried, "Holy Virgin, Mother of God, have pity upon me!"
"Be comforted, mother. God is not a Lombard usurer. I may have killed
people good and bad at random in my time, but I am not afraid of the
"Ah! master Lancepesade, how happy those fair ladies are, to be so near to
a bishop, a holy man! They will get absolution for their sins," said the
old woman. "Oh! if I could only hear a priest say to me, 'Thy sins are
forgiven!' I should believe it then."
The stranger turned towards her, and the goodness in his face made her
"Have faith," he said, "and you will be saved."
"May God reward you, good sir," she answered. "If what you say is true, I
will go on pilgrimage barefooted to Our Lady of Loretto to pray to her for
you and for me."
The two peasants, father and son, were silent, patient, and submissive to
the will of God, like folk whose wont it is to fall in instinctively with
the ways of Nature like cattle. At the one end of the boat stood riches,
pride, learning, debauchery, and crime—human society, such as art
and thought and education and worldly interests and laws have made it; and
at this end there was terror and wailing, innumerable different impulses
all repressed by hideous doubts—at this end, and at this only, the
agony of fear.
Above all these human lives stood a strong man, the skipper; no doubts
assailed him, the chief, the king, the fatalist among them. He was
trusting in himself rather than in Providence, crying, "Bail away!"
instead of "Holy Virgin," defying the storm, in fact, and struggling with
the sea like a wrestler.
But the helpless poor at the other end of the wherry! The mother rocking
on her bosom the little one who smiled at the storm; the woman once so
frivolous and gay, and now tormented with bitter remorse; the old soldier
covered with scars, a mutilated life the sole reward of his unflagging
loyalty and faithfulness. This veteran could scarcely count on the morsel
of bread soaked in tears to keep the life in him, yet he was always ready
to laugh, and went his way merrily, happy when he could drown his glory in
the depths of a pot of beer, or could tell tales of the wars to the
children who admired him, leaving his future with a light heart in the
hands of God. Lastly, there were the two peasants, used to hardships and
toil, labor incarnate, the labor by which the world lives. These simple
folk were indifferent to thought and its treasures, ready to sink them all
in a belief; and their faith was but so much the more vigorous because
they had never disputed about it nor analyzed it. Such a nature is a
virgin soil, conscience has not been tampered with, feeling is deep and
strong; repentance, trouble, love, and work have developed, purified,
concentrated, and increased their force of will a hundred times, the will—the
one thing in man that resembles what learned doctors call the Soul.
The boat, guided by the well-nigh miraculous skill of the steersman, came
almost within sight of Ostend, when, not fifty paces from the shore, she
was suddenly struck by a heavy sea and capsized. The stranger with the
light about his head spoke to this little world of drowning creatures:
"Those who have faith shall be saved; let them follow me!"
He stood upright, and walked with a firm step upon the waves. The young
mother at once took her child in her arms, and followed at his side across
the sea. The soldier too sprang up, saying in his homely fashion, "Ah! nom
d'un pipe! I would follow you to the devil;" and without
seeming astonished by it, he walked on the water. The worn-out sinner,
believing in the omnipotence of God, also followed the stranger.
The two peasants said to each other, "If they are walking on the sea, why
should we not do as they do?" and they also arose and hastened after the
others. Thomas tried to follow, but his faith tottered; he sank in the sea
more than once, and rose again, but the third time he also walked on the
sea. The bold steersman clung like a remora to the wreck of his boat. The
miser had had faith, and had risen to go, but he tried to take his gold
with him, and it was his gold that dragged him down to the bottom. The
learned man had scoffed at the charlatan and at the fools who listened to
him; and when he heard the mysterious stranger propose to the passengers
that they should walk on the waves, he began to laugh, and the ocean
swallowed him. The girl was dragged down into the depths by her lover. The
Bishop and the older lady went to the bottom, heavily laden with sins, it
may be, but still more heavily laden with incredulity and confidence in
idols, weighted down by devotion, into which alms-deeds and true religion
entered but little.
The faithful flock, who walked with a firm step high and dry above the
surge, heard all about them the dreadful whistling of the blast; great
billows broke across their path, but an irresistible force cleft a way for
them through the sea. These believing ones saw through the spray a dim
speck of light flickering in the window of a fisherman's hut on the shore,
and each one, as he pushed on bravely towards the light, seemed to hear
the voice of his fellow crying, "Courage!" through all the roaring of the
surf; yet no one had spoken a word—so absorbed was each by his own
peril. In this way they reached the shore.
When they were all seated near the fisherman's fire, they looked round in
vain for their guide with the light about him. The sea washed up the
steersman at the base of the cliff on which the cottage stood; he was
clinging with might and main to the plank as a sailor can cling when death
stares him in the face; the MAN went down and rescued the almost exhausted
seaman; then he said, as he held out a succoring hand above the man's
"Good, for this once; but do not try it again; the example would be too
He took the skipper on his shoulders, and carried him to the fisherman's
door; knocked for admittance for the exhausted man; then, when the door of
the humble refuge opened, the Saviour disappeared.
The Convent of Mercy was built for sailors on this spot, where for long
afterwards (so it was said) the footprints of Jesus Christ could be seen
in the sand; but in 1793, at the time of the French invasion, the monks
carried away this precious relic, that bore witness to the Saviour's last
visit to earth.
There at the convent I found myself shortly after the Revolution of 1830.
I was weary of life. If you had asked me the reason of my despair, I
should have found it almost impossible to give it, so languid had grown
the soul that was melted within me. The west wind had slackened the
springs of my intelligence. A cold gray light poured down from the
heavens, and the murky clouds that passed overhead gave a boding look to
the land; all these things, together with the immensity of the sea, said
to me, "Die to-day or die to-morrow, still must we not die?" And then—I
wandered on, musing on the doubtful future, on my blighted hopes. Gnawed
by these gloomy thoughts, I turned mechanically into the convent church,
with the gray towers that loomed like ghosts though the sea mists. I
looked round with no kindling of the imagination at the forest of columns,
at the slender arches set aloft upon the leafy capitals, a delicate
labyrinth of sculpture. I walked with careless eyes along the side aisles
that opened out before me like vast portals, ever turning upon their
hinges. It was scarcely possible to see, by the dim light of the autumn
day, the sculptured groinings of the roof, the delicate and clean-cut
lines of the mouldings of the graceful pointed arches. The organ pipes
were mute. There was no sound save the noise of my own footsteps to awaken
the mournful echoes lurking in the dark chapels. I sat down at the base of
one of the four pillars that supported the tower, near the choir. Thence I
could see the whole of the building. I gazed, and no ideas connected with
it arose in my mind. I saw without seeing the mighty maze of pillars, the
great rose windows that hung like a network suspended as by a miracle in
air above the vast doorways. I saw the doors at the end of the side
aisles, the aerial galleries, the stained glass windows framed in
archways, divided by slender columns, fretted into flower forms and
trefoil by fine filigree work of carved stone. A dome of glass at the end
of the choir sparkled as if it had been built of precious stones set
cunningly. In contrast to the roof with its alternating spaces of
whiteness and color, the two aisles lay to right and left in shadow so
deep that the faint gray outlines of their hundred shafts were scarcely
visible in the gloom. I gazed at the marvelous arcades, the scroll-work,
the garlands, the curving lines, and arabesques interwoven and interlaced,
and strangely lighted, until by sheer dint of gazing my perceptions became
confused, and I stood upon the borderland between illusion and reality,
taken in the snare set for the eyes, and almost light-headed by reason of
the multitudinous changes of the shapes about me.
Imperceptibly a mist gathered about the carven stonework, and I only
beheld it through a haze of fine golden dust, like the motes that hover in
the bars of sunlight slanting through the air of a chamber. Suddenly the
stone lacework of the rose windows gleamed through this vapor that had
made all forms so shadowy. Every moulding, the edges of every carving, the
least detail of the sculpture was dipped in silver. The sunlight kindled
fires in the stained windows, their rich colors sent out glowing sparks of
light. The shafts began to tremble, the capitals were gently shaken. A
light shudder as of delight ran through the building, the stones were
loosened in their setting, the wall-spaces swayed with graceful caution.
Here and there a ponderous pier moved as solemnly as a dowager when she
condescends to complete a quadrille at the close of a ball. A few slender
and graceful columns, their heads adorned with wreaths of trefoil, began
to laugh and dance here and there. Some of the pointed arches dashed at
the tall lancet windows, who, like ladies of the Middle Ages, wore the
armorial bearings of their houses emblazoned on their golden robes. The
dance of the mitred arcades with the slender windows became like a fray at
In another moment every stone in the church vibrated, without leaving its
place; for the organ-pipes spoke, and I heard divine music mingling with
the songs of angels, and unearthly harmony, accompanied by the deep notes
of the bells, that boomed as the giant towers rocked and swayed on their
square bases. This strange Sabbath seemed to me the most natural thing in
the world; and I, who had seen Charles X. hurled from his throne, was no
longer amazed by anything. Nay, I myself was gently swaying with a see-saw
movement that influenced my nerves pleasurably in a manner of which it is
impossible to give any idea. Yet in the midst of this heated riot, the
cathedral choir felt cold as if it were a winter day, and I became aware
of a multitude of women, robed in white, silent, and impassive, sitting
there. The sweet incense smoke that arose from the censers was grateful to
my soul. The tall wax candles flickered. The lectern, gay as a chanter
undone by the treachery of wine, was skipping about like a peal of Chinese
Then I knew that the whole cathedral was whirling round so fast that
everything appeared to be undisturbed. The colossal Figure on the crucifix
above the altar smiled upon me with a mingled malice and benevolence that
frightened me; I turned my eyes away, and marveled at the bluish vapor
that slid across the pillars, lending to them an indescribable charm. Then
some graceful women's forms began to stir on the friezes. The cherubs who
upheld the heavy columns shook out their wings. I felt myself uplifted by
some divine power that steeped me in infinite joy, in a sweet and languid
rapture. I would have given my life, I think, to have prolonged these
phantasmagoria for a little, but suddenly a shrill voice clamored in my
"Awake and follow me!"
A withered woman took my hand in hers; its icy coldness crept through
every nerve. The bones of her face showed plainly through the sallow,
almost olive-tinted wrinkles of the skin. The shrunken, ice-cold old woman
wore a black robe, which she trailed in the dust, and at her throat there
was something white, which I dared not examine. I could scarcely see her
wan and colorless eyes, for they were fixed in a stare upon the heavens.
She drew me after her along the aisles, leaving a trace of her presence in
the ashes that she shook from her dress. Her bones rattled as she walked,
like the bones of a skeleton; and as we went I heard behind me the
tinkling of a little bell, a thin, sharp sound that rang through my head
like the notes of a harmonica.
"Suffer!" she cried, "suffer! So it must be!"
We came out of the church; we went through the dirtiest streets of the
town, till we came at last to a dingy dwelling, and she bade me enter in.
She dragged me with her, calling to me in a harsh, tuneless voice like a
"Defend me! defend me!"
Together we went up a winding staircase. She knocked at a door in the
darkness, and a mute, like some familiar of the Inquisition, opened to
her. In another moment we stood in a room hung with ancient, ragged
tapestry, amid piles of old linen, crumpled muslin, and gilded brass.
"Behold the wealth that shall endure for ever!" said she.
I shuddered with horror; for just then, by the light of a tall torch and
two altar candles, I saw distinctly that this woman was fresh from the
graveyard. She had no hair. I turned to fly. She raised her fleshless arm
and encircled me with a band of iron set with spikes, and as she raised it
a cry went up all about us, the cry of millions of voices—the
shouting of the dead!
"It is my purpose to make thee happy for ever," she said. "Thou art my
We were sitting before the hearth, the ashes lay cold upon it; the old
shrunken woman grasped my hand so tightly in hers that I could not choose
but stay. I looked fixedly at her, striving to read the story of her life
from the things among which she was crouching. Had she indeed any life in
her? It was a mystery. Yet I saw plainly that once she must have been
young and beautiful; fair, with all the charm of simplicity, perfect as
some Greek statue, with the brow of a vestal.
"Ah! ah!" I cried, "now I know thee! Miserable woman, why hast thou
prostituted thyself? In the age of thy passions, in the time of thy
prosperity, the grace and purity of thy youth were forgotten. Forgetful of
thy heroic devotion, thy pure life, thy abundant faith, thou didst resign
thy primitive power and thy spiritual supremacy for fleshly power. Thy
linen vestments, thy couch of moss, the cell in the rock, bright with rays
of the Light Divine, was forsaken; thou hast sparkled with diamonds, and
shone with the glitter of luxury and pride. Then, grown bold and insolent,
seizing and overturning all things in thy course like a courtesan eager
for pleasure in her days of splendor, thou hast steeped thyself in blood
like some queen stupefied by empery. Dost thou not remember to have been
dull and heavy at times, and the sudden marvelous lucidity of other
moments; as when Art emerges from an orgy? Oh! poet, painter, and singer,
lover of splendid ceremonies and protector of the arts, was thy friendship
for art perchance a caprice, that so thou shouldst sleep beneath
magnificent canopies? Was there not a day when, in thy fantastic pride,
though chastity and humility were prescribed to thee, thou hadst brought
all things beneath thy feet, and set thy foot on the necks of princes;
when earthly dominion, and wealth, and the mind of man bore thy yoke?
Exulting in the abasement of humanity, joying to witness the uttermost
lengths to which man's folly would go, thou hast bidden thy lovers walk on
all fours, and required of them their lands and wealth, nay, even their
wives if they were worth aught to thee. Thou hast devoured millions of men
without a cause; thou hast flung away lives like sand blown by the wind
from West to East. Thou hast come down from the heights of thought to sit
among the kings of men. Woman! instead of comforting men, thou hast
tormented and afflicted them! Knowing that thou couldst ask and have, thou
hast demanded—blood! A little flour surely should have contented
thee, accustomed as thou hast been to live on bread and to mingle water
with thy wine. Unlike all others in all things, formerly thou wouldst bid
thy lovers fast, and they obeyed. Why should thy fancies have led thee to
require things impossible? Why, like a courtesan spoiled by her lovers,
hast thou doted on follies, and left those undeceived who sought to
explain and justify all thy errors? Then came the days of thy later
passions, terrible like the love of a woman of forty years, with a fierce
cry thou hast sought to clasp the whole universe in one last embrace—and
thy universe recoiled from thee!
"Then old men succeeded to thy young lovers; decrepitude came to thy feet
and made thee hideous. Yet, even then, men with the eagle power of vision
said to thee in a glance, 'Thou shalt perish ingloriously, because thou
hast fallen away, because thou hast broken the vows of thy maidenhood. The
angel with peace written on her forehead, who should have shed light and
joy along her path, has been a Messalina, delighting in the circus, in
debauchery, and abuse of power. The days of thy virginity cannot return;
henceforward thou shalt be subject to a master. Thy hour has come; the
hand of death is upon thee. Thy heirs believe that thou art rich; they
will kill thee and find nothing. Yet try at least to fling away this
raiment no longer in fashion; be once more as in the days of old!—Nay,
thou art dead, and by thy own deed!'
"Is not this thy story?" so I ended. "Decrepit, toothless, shivering
crone, now forgotten, going thy ways without so much as a glance from
passers-by! Why art thou still alive? What doest thou in that beggar's
garb, uncomely and desired of none? Where are thy riches?—for what
were they spent? Where are thy treasures?—what great deeds hast thou
At this demand, the shriveled woman raised her bony form, flung off her
rags, and grew tall and radiant, smiling as she broke forth from the dark
chrysalid sheath. Then like a butterfly, this diaphanous creature emerged,
fair and youthful, clothed in white linen, an Indian from creation issuing
her palms. Her golden hair rippled over her shoulders, her eyes glowed, a
bright mist clung about her, a ring of gold hovered above her head, she
shook the flaming blade of a sword towards the spaces of heaven.
"See and believe!" she cried.
And suddenly I saw, afar off, many thousands of cathedrals like the one
that I had just quitted; but these were covered with pictures and with
frescoes, and I heard them echo with entrancing music. Myriads of human
creatures flocked to these great buildings, swarming about them like ants
on an ant-heap. Some were eager to rescue books from oblivion or to copy
manuscripts, others were helping the poor, but nearly all were studying.
Up above this countless multitude rose giant statues that they had erected
in their midst, and by the gleams of a strange light from some luminary as
powerful as the sun, I read the inscriptions on the bases of the statues—Science,
The light died out. Again I faced the young girl. Gradually she slipped
into the dreary sheath, into the ragged cere-cloths, and became an aged
woman again. Her familiar brought her a little dust, and she stirred it
into the ashes of her chafing-dish, for the weather was cold and stormy;
and then he lighted for her, whose palaces had been lit with thousands of
wax-tapers, a little cresset, that she might see to read her prayers
through the hours of night.
"There is no faith left in the earth!..." she said.
In such a perilous plight did I behold the fairest and the greatest, the
truest and most life-giving of all Powers.
"Wake up, sir, the doors are just about to be shut," said a hoarse voice.
I turned and beheld the beadle's ugly countenance; the man was shaking me
by the arm, and the cathedral lay wrapped in shadows as a man is wrapped
in his cloak.
"Belief," I said to myself, "is Life! I have just witnessed the funeral of
a monarchy, now we must defend the church."
PARIS, February 1831.