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
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
"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
"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 storm.
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
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
"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
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
"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 voice.
"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 longer.
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
"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
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
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 head:
"Good, for this once; but do not try it again; the example would be
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 a
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 ears:
"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
"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 cracked bell:
"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, History,
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
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