A PASSION IN THE DESERT
By Honore De Balzac
Translated by Ernest Dowson
A PASSION IN THE DESERT
"The whole show is dreadful," she cried coming out of the menagerie of M.
Martin. She had just been looking at that daring speculator "working with
his hyena,"—to speak in the style of the programme.
"By what means," she continued, "can he have tamed these animals to such a
point as to be certain of their affection for——"
"What seems to you a problem," said I, interrupting, "is really quite
"Oh!" she cried, letting an incredulous smile wander over her lips.
"You think that beasts are wholly without passions?" I asked her. "Quite
the reverse; we can communicate to them all the vices arising in our own
state of civilization."
She looked at me with an air of astonishment.
"But," I continued, "the first time I saw M. Martin, I admit, like you, I
did give vent to an exclamation of surprise. I found myself next to an old
soldier with the right leg amputated, who had come in with me. His face
had struck me. He had one of those heroic heads, stamped with the seal of
warfare, and on which the battles of Napoleon are written. Besides, he had
that frank, good-humored expression which always impresses me favorably.
He was without doubt one of those troopers who are surprised at nothing,
who find matter for laughter in the contortions of a dying comrade, who
bury or plunder him quite light-heartedly, who stand intrepidly in the way
of bullets;—in fact, one of those men who waste no time in
deliberation, and would not hesitate to make friends with the devil
himself. After looking very attentively at the proprietor of the menagerie
getting out of his box, my companion pursed up his lips with an air of
mockery and contempt, with that peculiar and expressive twist which
superior people assume to show they are not taken in. Then, when I was
expatiating on the courage of M. Martin, he smiled, shook his head
knowingly, and said, 'Well known.'
"'How "well known"?' I said. 'If you would only explain me the mystery, I
should be vastly obliged.'
"After a few minutes, during which we made acquaintance, we went to dine
at the first restauranteur's whose shop caught our eye. At dessert a
bottle of champagne completely refreshed and brightened up the memories of
this odd old soldier. He told me his story, and I saw that he was right
when he exclaimed, 'Well known.'"
When she got home, she teased me to that extent, was so charming, and made
so many promises, that I consented to communicate to her the confidences
of the old soldier. Next day she received the following episode of an epic
which one might call "The French in Egypt."
During the expedition in Upper Egypt under General Desaix, a Provencal
soldier fell into the hands of the Maugrabins, and was taken by these
Arabs into the deserts beyond the falls of the Nile.
In order to place a sufficient distance between themselves and the French
army, the Maugrabins made forced marches, and only halted when night was
upon them. They camped round a well overshadowed by palm trees under which
they had previously concealed a store of provisions. Not surmising that
the notion of flight would occur to their prisoner, they contented
themselves with binding his hands, and after eating a few dates, and
giving provender to their horses, went to sleep.
When the brave Provencal saw that his enemies were no longer watching him,
he made use of his teeth to steal a scimiter, fixed the blade between his
knees, and cut the cords which prevented him from using his hands; in a
moment he was free. He at once seized a rifle and a dagger, then taking
the precautions to provide himself with a sack of dried dates, oats, and
powder and shot, and to fasten a scimiter to his waist, he leaped on to a
horse, and spurred on vigorously in the direction where he thought to find
the French army. So impatient was he to see a bivouac again that he
pressed on the already tired courser at such speed, that its flanks were
lacerated with his spurs, and at last the poor animal died, leaving the
Frenchman alone in the desert. After walking some time in the sand with
all the courage of an escaped convict, the soldier was obliged to stop, as
the day had already ended. In spite of the beauty of an Oriental sky at
night, he felt he had not strength enough to go on. Fortunately he had
been able to find a small hill, on the summit of which a few palm trees
shot up into the air; it was their verdure seen from afar which had
brought hope and consolation to his heart. His fatigue was so great that
he lay down upon a rock of granite, capriciously cut out like a camp-bed;
there he fell asleep without taking any precaution to defend himself while
he slept. He had made the sacrifice of his life. His last thought was one
of regret. He repented having left the Maugrabins, whose nomadic life
seemed to smile upon him now that he was far from them and without help.
He was awakened by the sun, whose pitiless rays fell with all their force
on the granite and produced an intolerable heat—for he had had the
stupidity to place himself adversely to the shadow thrown by the verdant
majestic heads of the palm trees. He looked at the solitary trees and
shuddered—they reminded him of the graceful shafts crowned with
foliage which characterize the Saracen columns in the cathedral of Arles.
But when, after counting the palm trees, he cast his eyes around him, the
most horrible despair was infused into his soul. Before him stretched an
ocean without limit. The dark sand of the desert spread further than eye
could reach in every direction, and glittered like steel struck with
bright light. It might have been a sea of looking-glass, or lakes melted
together in a mirror. A fiery vapor carried up in surging waves made a
perpetual whirlwind over the quivering land. The sky was lit with an
Oriental splendor of insupportable purity, leaving naught for the
imagination to desire. Heaven and earth were on fire.
The silence was awful in its wild and terrible majesty. Infinity,
immensity, closed in upon the soul from every side. Not a cloud in the
sky, not a breath in the air, not a flaw on the bosom of the sand, ever
moving in diminutive waves; the horizon ended as at sea on a clear day,
with one line of light, definite as the cut of a sword.
The Provencal threw his arms round the trunk of one of the palm trees, as
though it were the body of a friend, and then, in the shelter of the thin,
straight shadow that the palm cast upon the granite, he wept. Then sitting
down he remained as he was, contemplating with profound sadness the
implacable scene, which was all he had to look upon. He cried aloud, to
measure the solitude. His voice, lost in the hollows of the hill, sounded
faintly, and aroused no echo—the echo was in his own heart. The
Provencal was twenty-two years old:—he loaded his carbine.
"There'll be time enough," he said to himself, laying on the ground the
weapon which alone could bring him deliverance.
Viewing alternately the dark expanse of the desert and the blue expanse of
the sky, the soldier dreamed of France—he smelled with delight the
gutters of Paris—he remembered the towns through which he had
passed, the faces of his comrades, the most minute details of his life.
His Southern fancy soon showed him the stones of his beloved Provence, in
the play of the heat which undulated above the wide expanse of the desert.
Realizing the danger of this cruel mirage, he went down the opposite side
of the hill to that by which he had come up the day before. The remains of
a rug showed that this place of refuge had at one time been inhabited; at
a short distance he saw some palm trees full of dates. Then the instinct
which binds us to life awoke again in his heart. He hoped to live long
enough to await the passing of some Maugrabins, or perhaps he might hear
the sound of cannon; for at this time Bonaparte was traversing Egypt.
This thought gave him new life. The palm tree seemed to bend with the
weight of the ripe fruit. He shook some of it down. When he tasted this
unhoped-for manna, he felt sure that the palms had been cultivated by a
former inhabitant—the savory, fresh meat of the dates were proof of
the care of his predecessor. He passed suddenly from dark despair to an
almost insane joy. He went up again to the top of the hill, and spent the
rest of the day in cutting down one of the sterile palm trees, which the
night before had served him for shelter. A vague memory made him think of
the animals of the desert; and in case they might come to drink at the
spring, visible from the base of the rocks but lost further down, he
resolved to guard himself from their visits by placing a barrier at the
entrance of his hermitage.
In spite of his diligence, and the strength which the fear of being
devoured asleep gave him, he was unable to cut the palm in pieces, though
he succeeded in cutting it down. At eventide the king of the desert fell;
the sound of its fall resounded far and wide, like a sigh in the solitude;
the soldier shuddered as though he had heard some voice predicting woe.
But like an heir who does not long bewail a deceased relative, he tore off
from this beautiful tree the tall broad green leaves which are its poetic
adornment, and used them to mend the mat on which he was to sleep.
Fatigued by the heat and his work, he fell asleep under the red curtains
of his wet cave.
In the middle of the night his sleep was troubled by an extraordinary
noise; he sat up, and the deep silence around allowed him to distinguish
the alternative accents of a respiration whose savage energy could not
belong to a human creature.
A profound terror, increased still further by the darkness, the silence,
and his waking images, froze his heart within him. He almost felt his hair
stand on end, when by straining his eyes to their utmost he perceived
through the shadow two faint yellow lights. At first he attributed these
lights to the reflections of his own pupils, but soon the vivid brilliance
of the night aided him gradually to distinguish the objects around him in
the cave, and he beheld a huge animal lying but two steps from him. Was it
a lion, a tiger, or a crocodile?
The Provencal was not sufficiently educated to know under what species his
enemy ought to be classed; but his fright was all the greater, as his
ignorance led him to imagine all terrors at once; he endured a cruel
torture, noting every variation of the breathing close to him without
daring to make the slightest movement. An odor, pungent like that of a
fox, but more penetrating, more profound,—so to speak,—filled
the cave, and when the Provencal became sensible of this, his terror
reached its height, for he could no longer doubt the proximity of a
terrible companion, whose royal dwelling served him for a shelter.
Presently the reflection of the moon descending on the horizon lit up the
den, rendering gradually visible and resplendent the spotted skin of a
This lion of Egypt slept, curled up like a big dog, the peaceful possessor
of a sumptuous niche at the gate of an hotel; its eyes opened for a moment
and closed again; its face was turned towards the man. A thousand confused
thoughts passed through the Frenchman's mind; first he thought of killing
it with a bullet from his gun, but he saw there was not enough distance
between them for him to take proper aim—the shot would miss the
mark. And if it were to wake!—the thought made his limbs rigid. He
listened to his own heart beating in the midst of the silence, and cursed
the too violent pulsations which the flow of blood brought on, fearing to
disturb that sleep which allowed him time to think of some means of
Twice he placed his hand on his scimiter, intending to cut off the head of
his enemy; but the difficulty of cutting the stiff short hair compelled
him to abandon this daring project. To miss would be to die for CERTAIN,
he thought; he preferred the chances of fair fight, and made up his mind
to wait till morning; the morning did not leave him long to wait.
He could now examine the panther at ease; its muzzle was smeared with
"She's had a good dinner," he thought, without troubling himself as to
whether her feast might have been on human flesh. "She won't be hungry
when she gets up."
It was a female. The fur on her belly and flanks was glistening white;
many small marks like velvet formed beautiful bracelets round her feet;
her sinuous tail was also white, ending with black rings; the overpart of
her dress, yellow like burnished gold, very lissome and soft, had the
characteristic blotches in the form of rosettes, which distinguish the
panther from every other feline species.
This tranquil and formidable hostess snored in an attitude as graceful as
that of a cat lying on a cushion. Her blood-stained paws, nervous and well
armed, were stretched out before her face, which rested upon them, and
from which radiated her straight slender whiskers, like threads of silver.
If she had been like that in a cage, the Provencal would doubtless have
admired the grace of the animal, and the vigorous contrasts of vivid color
which gave her robe an imperial splendor; but just then his sight was
troubled by her sinister appearance.
The presence of the panther, even asleep, could not fail to produce the
effect which the magnetic eyes of the serpent are said to have on the
For a moment the courage of the soldier began to fail before this danger,
though no doubt it would have risen at the mouth of a cannon charged with
shell. Nevertheless, a bold thought brought daylight to his soul and
sealed up the source of the cold sweat which sprang forth on his brow.
Like men driven to bay, who defy death and offer their body 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 the Arabs would have killed me, perhaps," he
said; so considering himself as good as dead already, he waited bravely,
with excited curiosity, the awakening of his enemy.
When the sun appeared, the panther suddenly opened her eyes; then she put
out her paws with energy, as if to stretch them and get rid of cramp. At
last she yawned, showing the formidable apparatus of her teeth and pointed
tongue, rough as a file.
"A regular petite maitresse," thought the Frenchman, seeing her roll
herself about so softly and coquettishly. She licked off the blood which
stained her paws and muzzle, and scratched her head with reiterated
gestures full of prettiness. "All right, make a little toilet," the
Frenchman said to himself, beginning to recover his gaiety with his
courage; "we'll say good morning to each other presently;" and he seized
the small, short dagger which he had taken from the Maugrabins.
At this moment the panther turned her head toward the man and looked at
him fixedly without moving. The rigidity of her metallic eyes and their
insupportable luster made him shudder, especially when the animal walked
towards him. But he looked at her caressingly, staring into her eyes in
order to magnetize her, and let her come quite close to him; then with a
movement both gentle and amorous, as though he were caressing the most
beautiful of women, he passed his hand over her whole body, from the head
to the tail, scratching the flexible vertebrae which divided the panther's
yellow back. The animal waved her tail voluptuously, and her eyes grew
gentle; and when for the third time the Frenchman accomplished this
interesting flattery, she gave forth one of those purrings by which cats
express their pleasure; but this murmur issued from a throat so powerful
and so deep that it resounded through the cave like the last vibrations of
an organ in a church. The man, understanding the importance of his
caresses, redoubled them in such a way as to surprise and stupefy his
imperious courtesan. When he felt sure of having extinguished the ferocity
of his capricious companion, whose hunger had so fortunately been
satisfied the day before, he got up to go out of the cave; the panther let
him go out, but when he had reached the summit of the hill she sprang with
the lightness of a sparrow hopping from twig to twig, and rubbed herself
against his legs, putting up her back after the manner of all the race of
cats. Then regarding her guest with eyes whose glare had softened a
little, she gave vent to that wild cry which naturalists compare to the
grating of a saw.
"She is exacting," said the Frenchman, smilingly.
He was bold enough to play with her ears; he caressed her belly and
scratched her head as hard as he could. When he saw that he was
successful, he tickled her skull with the point of his dagger, watching
for the right moment to kill her, but the hardness of her bones made him
tremble for his success.
The sultana of the desert showed herself gracious to her slave; she lifted
her head, stretched out her neck and manifested her delight by the
tranquility of her attitude. It suddenly occurred to the soldier that to
kill this savage princess with one blow he must poniard her in the throat.
He raised the blade, when the panther, satisfied no doubt, laid herself
gracefully at his feet, and cast up at him glances in which, in spite of
their natural fierceness, was mingled confusedly a kind of good will. The
poor Provencal ate his dates, leaning against one of the palm trees, and
casting his eyes alternately on the desert in quest of some liberator and
on his terrible companion to watch her uncertain clemency.
The panther looked at the place where the date stones fell, and every time
that he threw one down her eyes expressed an incredible mistrust.
She examined the man with an almost commercial prudence. However, this
examination was favorable to him, for when he had finished his meager meal
she licked his boots with her powerful rough tongue, brushing off with
marvelous skill the dust gathered in the creases.
"Ah, but when she's really hungry!" thought the Frenchman. In spite of the
shudder this thought caused him, the soldier began to measure curiously
the proportions of the panther, certainly one of the most splendid
specimens of its race. She was three feet high and four feet long without
counting her tail; this powerful weapon, rounded like a cudgel, was nearly
three feet long. The head, large as that of a lioness, was distinguished
by a rare expression of refinement. The cold cruelty of a tiger was
dominant, it was true, but there was also a vague resemblance to the face
of a sensual woman. Indeed, the face of this solitary queen had something
of the gaiety of a drunken Nero: she had satiated herself with blood, and
she wanted to play.
The soldier tried if he might walk up and down, and the panther left him
free, contenting herself with following him with her eyes, less like a
faithful dog than a big Angora cat, observing everything and every
movement of her master.
When he looked around, he saw, by the spring, the remains of his horse;
the panther had dragged the carcass all that way; about two thirds of it
had been devoured already. The sight reassured him.
It was easy to explain the panther's absence, and the respect she had had
for him while he slept. The first piece of good luck emboldened him to
tempt the future, and he conceived the wild hope of continuing on good
terms with the panther during the entire day, neglecting no means of
taming her, and remaining in her good graces.
He returned to her, and had the unspeakable joy of seeing her wag her tail
with an almost imperceptible movement at his approach. He sat down then,
without fear, by her side, and they began to play together; he took her
paws and muzzle, pulled her ears, rolled her over on her back, stroked her
warm, delicate flanks. She let him do what ever he liked, and when he
began to stroke the hair on her feet she drew her claws in carefully.
The man, keeping the dagger in one hand, thought to plunge it into the
belly of the too confiding panther, but he was afraid that he would be
immediately strangled in her last convulsive struggle; besides, he felt in
his heart a sort of remorse which bid him respect a creature that had done
him no harm. He seemed to have found a friend, in a boundless desert; half
unconsciously he thought of his first sweetheart, whom he had nicknamed
"Mignonne" by way of contrast, because she was so atrociously jealous that
all the time of their love he was in fear of the knife with which she had
always threatened him.
This memory of his early days suggested to him the idea of making the
young panther answer to this name, now that he began to admire with less
terror her swiftness, suppleness, and softness. Toward the end of the day
he had familiarized himself with his perilous position; he now almost
liked the painfulness of it. At last his companion had got into the habit
of looking up at him whenever he cried in a falsetto voice, "Mignonne."
At the setting of the sun Mignonne gave, several times running, a profound
melancholy cry. "She's been well brought up," said the lighthearted
soldier; "she says her prayers." But this mental joke only occurred to him
when he noticed what a pacific attitude his companion remained in. "Come,
ma petite blonde, I'll let you go to bed first," he said to her, counting
on the activity of his own legs to run away as quickly as possible,
directly she was asleep, and seek another shelter for the night.
The soldier waited with impatience the hour of his flight, and when it had
arrived he walked vigorously in the direction of the Nile; but hardly had
he made a quarter of a league in the sand when he heard the panther
bounding after him, crying with that saw-like cry more dreadful even than
the sound of her leaping.
"Ah!" he said, "then she's taken a fancy to me, she has never met anyone
before, and it is really quite flattering to have her first love." That
instant the man fell into one of those movable quicksands so terrible to
travelers and from which it is impossible to save oneself. Feeling himself
caught, he gave a shriek of alarm; the panther seized him with her teeth
by the collar, and, springing vigorously backwards, drew him as if by
magic out of the whirling sand.
"Ah, Mignonne!" cried the soldier, caressing her enthusiastically; "we're
bound together for life and death but no jokes, mind!" and he retraced his
From that time the desert seemed inhabited. It contained a being to whom
the man could talk, and whose ferocity was rendered gentle by him, though
he could not explain to himself the reason for their strange friendship.
Great as was the soldier's desire to stay upon guard, he slept.
On awakening he could not find Mignonne; he mounted the hill, and in the
distance saw her springing toward him after the habit of these animals,
who cannot run on account of the extreme flexibility of the vertebral
column. Mignonne arrived, her jaws covered with blood; she received the
wonted caress of her companion, showing with much purring how happy it
made her. Her eyes, full of languor, turned still more gently than the day
before toward the Provencal, who talked to her as one would to a tame
"Ah! mademoiselle, you are a nice girl, aren't you? Just look at that! So
we like to be made much of, don't we? Aren't you ashamed of yourself? So
you have been eating some Arab or other, have you? That doesn't matter.
They're animals just the same as you are; but don't you take to eating
Frenchmen, or I shan't like you any longer."
She played like a dog with its master, letting herself be rolled over,
knocked about, and stroked, alternately; sometimes she herself would
provoke the soldier, putting up her paw with a soliciting gesture.
Some days passed in this manner. This companionship permitted the
Provencal to appreciate the sublime beauty of the desert; now that he had
a living thing to think about, alternations of fear and quiet, and plenty
to eat, his mind became filled with contrast and his life began to be
Solitude revealed to him all her secrets, and enveloped him in her
delights. He discovered in the rising and setting of the sun sights
unknown to the world. He knew what it was to tremble when he heard over
his head the hiss of a bird's wing, so rarely did they pass, or when he
saw the clouds, changing and many colored travelers, melt one into
another. He studied in the night time the effect of the moon upon the
ocean of sand, where the simoom made waves swift of movement and rapid in
their change. He lived the life of the Eastern day, marveling at its
wonderful pomp; then, after having reveled in the sight of a hurricane
over the plain where the whirling sands made red, dry mists and
death-bearing clouds, he would welcome the night with joy, for then fell
the healthful freshness of the stars, and he listened to imaginary music
in the skies. Then solitude taught him to unroll the treasures of dreams.
He passed whole hours in remembering mere nothings, and comparing his
present life with his past.
At last he grew passionately fond of the panther; for some sort of
affection was a necessity.
Whether it was that his will powerfully projected had modified the
character of his companion, or whether, because she found abundant food in
her predatory excursions in the desert, she respected the man's life, he
began to fear for it no longer, seeing her so well tamed.
He devoted the greater part of his time to sleep, but he was obliged to
watch like a spider in its web that the moment of his deliverance might
not escape him, if anyone should pass the line marked by the horizon. He
had sacrificed his shirt to make a flag with, which he hung at the top of
a palm tree, whose foliage he had torn off. Taught by necessity, he found
the means of keeping it spread out, by fastening it with little sticks;
for the wind might not be blowing at the moment when the passing traveler
was looking through the desert.
It was during the long hours, when he had abandoned hope, that he amused
himself with the panther. He had come to learn the different inflections
of her voice, the expressions of her eyes; he had studied the capricious
patterns of all the rosettes which marked the gold of her robe. Mignonne
was not even angry when he took hold of the tuft at the end of her tail to
count her rings, those graceful ornaments which glittered in the sun like
jewelry. It gave him pleasure to contemplate the supple, fine outlines of
her form, the whiteness of her belly, the graceful pose of her head. But
it was especially when she was playing that he felt most pleasure in
looking at her; the agility and youthful lightness of her movements were a
continual surprise to him; he wondered at the supple way in which she
jumped and climbed, washed herself and arranged her fur, crouched down and
prepared to spring. However rapid her spring might be, however slippery
the stone she was on, she would always stop short at the word "Mignonne."
One day, in a bright midday sun, an enormous bird coursed through the air.
The man left his panther to look at his new guest; but after waiting a
moment the deserted sultana growled deeply.
"My goodness! I do believe she's jealous," he cried, seeing her eyes
become hard again; "the soul of Virginie has passed into her body; that's
The eagle disappeared into the air, while the soldier admired the curved
contour of the panther.
But there was such youth and grace in her form! she was beautiful as a
woman! the blond fur of her robe mingled well with the delicate tints of
faint white which marked her flanks.
The profuse light cast down by the sun made this living gold, these russet
markings, to burn in a way to give them an indefinable attraction.
The man and the panther looked at one another with a look full of meaning;
the coquette quivered when she felt her friend stroke her head; her eyes
flashed like lightning—then she shut them tightly.
"She has a soul," he said, looking at the stillness of this queen of the
sands, golden like them, white like them, solitary and burning like them.
"Well," she said, "I have read your plea in favor of beasts; but how did
two so well adapted to understand each other end?"
"Ah, well! you see, they ended as all great passions do end—by a
misunderstanding. For some reason ONE suspects the other of treason; they
don't come to an explanation through pride, and quarrel and part from
"Yet sometimes at the best moments a single word or a look is enough—but
anyhow go on with your story."
"It's horribly difficult, but you will understand, after what the old
villain told me over his champagne. He said—'I don't know if I hurt
her, but she turned round, as if enraged, and with her sharp teeth caught
hold of my leg—gently, I daresay; but I, thinking she would devour
me, plunged my dagger into her throat. She rolled over, giving a cry that
froze my heart; and I saw her dying, still looking at me without anger. I
would have given all the world—my cross even, which I had not got
then—to have brought her to life again. It was as though I had
murdered a real person; and the soldiers who had seen my flag, and were
come to my assistance, found me in tears.'
"'Well sir,' he said, after a moment of silence, 'since then I have been
in war in Germany, in Spain, in Russia, in France; I've certainly carried
my carcase about a good deal, but never have I seen anything like the
desert. Ah! yes, it is very beautiful!'
"'What did you feel there?' I asked him.
"'Oh! that can't be described, young man! Besides, I am not always
regretting my palm trees and my panther. I should have to be very
melancholy for that. In the desert, you see, there is everything and
"'Yes, but explain——'
"'Well,' he said, with an impatient gesture, 'it is God without mankind.'"