French Novelist and Critic
Paul Bourget, fully Paul Charles Joseph Bourget
French Novelist and Critic
I had to take the necessary steps to prevent this alleged suicide from getting known, to see the commissary of police and the "doctor of the dead." I had to preside at the funeral ceremonies, to receive the guests and act as chief mourner. And always, always, he was present to me, with the dagger in his breast, writing the lines that had saved me, and looking at me, while his lips moved. Ah, begone, begone, abhorred phantom! Yes! I have done it; yes! I have killed you; yes! it was just. You know well that it was just. Why are you still here now? Ah! Iwill live; I will forget. If I could only cease to think of you for one day, only one day, just to breathe, and walk, and see the sky, without your image returning to haunt my poor head which is racked by this hallucination, and troubled? My God! have pity on me. I did not ask for this dreadful fate; it is Thou that hast sent it to me. Why dost Thou punish me? Oh, my God, have pity on me!
The contrast between the world of ideas in which he moved and the atmosphere of the literary shop in which for the last few months I had been stifling was too strong. The dreams of my youth were realized in this man whose gifts remained unimpaired after the production of thirty volumes and whose face, growing old, was a living illustration of the beautiful saying: "Since we must wear out, let us wear out nobly." His slender figure bespoke the austerity of long hours of work; his firm mouth showed his decision of character; his brow, with its deep furrows, had the paleness of the paper over which he so often bent; and yet, the refinement of his hands, so well cared for, the sober elegance of his dress and an aristocratic air that was natural to him showed that the finer professional virtues had been cultivated in the midst of a life of frivolous temptations. These temptations had been no more of a disturbance to his ethical and spiritual nature than the academic honors, the financial successes, the numerous editions that had been his.
I have been thinking about our conversation and about your book, and I am afraid that I expressed myself badly yesterday. When I said that one may love and be loved at any age I ought to have added that sometimes this love comes too late. It comes when one no longer has the right to prove to the loved one how much she is loved, except by love's sacrifice.
The forests have taught man liberty.
I have retired to Nemours to work upon a novel called The Age for Love, and it is on this subject that I wished to consult you, my dear master.
The story he told me was "per sfogarsi," as Bayle loved to say; his idea was that I would not discover the real hero. I shall always believe that it was his own story under another name, and I love to believe it because it was so exactly his way of looking at things.
I listened while he thought aloud and had almost forgotten my Machiavellian combination, so keen was my relish of the joyous intimacy of this communion with a mind I had passionately loved in his works. He was the first of the great writers of our day whom I had thus approached on something like terms of intimacy. As we talked I observed the strange similarity between his spoken and his written words. I admired the charming simplicity with which he abandoned himself to the pleasures of imagination, his superabundant intelligence, the liveliness of his impressions and his total absence of arrogance and of pose.
There are conditions of blindness so voluntary that they become complicity.
I once spoke to my aunt of the vow I had taken, the solemn promise I had made to myself that I would discover the murderer of my father, and take vengeance upon him, and she laid her hand upon my mouth. She was a pious woman, and she repeated the words of the gospel: "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord." Then she added: "We must leave the punishment of the crime to Him; His will is hidden from us. Remember the divine precept and promise, 'Forgive and you shall be forgiven.' Never say: 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' Ah, no; drive this enmity out of your heart, Cornelis; yes, even this." And there were tears in her eyes. My poor aunt! She thought me made of sterner stuff than I really was. There was no need of her advice to prevent my being consumed by the desire for vengeance which had been the fixed star of my early youth, the blood-colored beacon aflame in my night. Ah! the resolutions of boyhood, the "oaths of Hannibal" taken to ourselves, the dream of devoting all our strength to one single and unchanging aim ? life sweeps all that away, together with our generous illusions, ardent enthusiasm, and noble hopes.
There are some surely whom you like and whom you dislike, for whom you entertain esteem and for whom you feel contempt? Have you not thought that you have some duties toward them, that you can aid them in leading better lives?
I remember, the reasoning of a man determined to arrive that I tried to lull to sleep the inward voice that cried, "You have no right to put on paper, to give to the public what this noble writer said to you, supposing that he was receiving a poet, not a reporter." But I heard also the voice of my chief saying, "You will never succeed."
There is an intelligent man, who never questions his ideas, said Dorsenne to himself, when the Marquis had left him. He is like the Socialists. What vigor of mind in that old worn-out machine!
I scribbled four pages which would have been no disgrace to the Journal des Goncourts, that exquisite manual of the perfect reporter. It was all there, my journey, my arrival at the chateau, a sketch of the quaint eighteenth century building, with its fringe of trees and its well-kept walks, the master's room, the master himself and his conversation; the tea at the end and the smile of the old novelist in the midst of a circle of admirers, old and young. It lacked only a few closing lines. "I will add these in the morning," I thought, and went to bed with a feeling of duty performed, such is the nature of a writer. Under the form of an interview I had done, and I knew it, the best work of my life.
There is iconoclasm in the excessively intellectual, and they delight in destroying their dearest moral or sentimental idols, the better to prove their strength.
A few hours after this conversation, I found myself once more in the office of the Boulevard, seated in Pascal's den, and he was saying, "Already? Have you accomplished your interview with Pierre Fauchery?" "He would not even receive me," I replied, boldly. "What did I tell you?" he sneered, shrugging his big shoulders. "We'll get even with him on his next volume. But you know, Labarthe, as long as you continue to have that innocent look about you, you can't expect to succeed in newspaper work."
I seized the sheet of paper; the lines were written upon it in characters rather larger than usual. How it shook in my hand while I read these words: "Forgive me, Marie. I was suffering too much. I wanted to be done with it." And he had had the strength to affix his signature!
There is only one thing infamous in love, and that is a falsehood.
A proof that experience is of no use, is that the end of one love does not prevent us from beginning another.
I was suddenly carried away by rage to the point of losing all control over my frenzy. "Ah!" I cried, "since you will not do justice on yourself, die then, at once!" I stretched out my hand and seized the dagger which he had recently placed upon the table. He looked at me without flinching, or recoiling; indeed presenting his breast to me, as though to brave my childish rage. I was on his left bending down, and ready to spring. I saw his smile of contempt, and then with all my strength I struck him with the knife in the direction of the heart. The blade entered his body to the hilt. No sooner had I done this thing than I recoiled, wild with terror at the deed. He uttered a cry. His face was distorted with terrible agony, and he moved his right hand towards the wound, as though he would draw out the dagger. He looked at me, convulsed; I saw that he wanted to speak; his lips moved, but no sound issued from his mouth. The expression of a supreme effort passed into his eyes, he turned to the table, took a pen, dipped it into the inkstand, and traced two lines on a sheet of paper within his reach. He looked at me again, his lips moved once more, then he fell down like a log.
Was I saved? Was I lost? All depended on the moment at which somebody might go into my stepfather's room. If my mother were to return within a few minutes of my departure; if the footman were to go upstairs with some letter, I should instantly be suspected, in spite of the declaration written by M. Termonde. I felt that my courage was exhausted. I knew that, if accused, I should not have moral strength to defend myself, for my weariness was so overwhelming that I did not suffer any longer. The only thing I had strength to do was to watch the swing of the pendulum of the timepiece on the mantelshelf, and to mark the movement of the hands. A quarter of an hour elapsed, half an hour, a whole hour. It was an hour and a half after I had left the fatal room, when the bell at the door was rung. I heard it through the walls. A servant brought me a laconic note from my mother scribbled in pencil and hardly legible. It informed me that my stepfather had destroyed himself in an attack of severe pain. The poor woman implored me to go to her immediately. Ah, she would now never know the truth!
At certain moments, words are nothing; it is the tone in which they are uttered.
Is there any God, any justice, is there either good or evil? None, none, none, none! There is nothing but a pitiless destiny which broods over the human race, iniquitous and blind, distributing joy and grief at haphazard. A God who says, "Thou shalt not kill," to him whose father has been killed? No, I don't believe it. No, if hell were there before me, gaping open, I would make answer: "I have done well," and I would not repent. I do not repent. My remorse is not for having seized the weapon and struck the blow, it is that I owe to him ? to him ? that infamous good service which he did me ? that I cannot to the present hour shake from me the horrible gift I have received from that man. If I had destroyed the paper, if I had gone and given myself up, if I had appeared before a jury, revealing, proclaiming my deed, I should not be ashamed; I could still hold up my head. What relief, what joy it would be if I might cry aloud to all men that I killed him, that he lied, and I lied, that it was I, I, who took the weapon and plunged it into him! And yet, I ought not to suffer from having accepted ? no ? endured the odious immunity. Was it from any motive of cowardice that I acted thus? What was I afraid of? Of torturing my mother, nothing more. Why, then, do I suffer this unendurable anguish? Ah, it is she, it is my mother who, without intending it, makes the dead so living to me, by her own despair. She lives, shut up in the rooms where they lived together for sixteen years; she has not allowed a single article of furniture to be touched; she surrounds the man's accursed memory with the same pious reverence that my aunt formerly lavished on my unhappy father. I recognize the invincible influence of the dead in the pallor of her cheeks, the wrinkles in her eyelids, the white streaks in her hair. He disputes her with me from the darkness of his coffin; he takes her from me, hour by hour, and I am powerless against that love.
We must live as we think, otherwise we end up thinking as one has lived.
Could she not obtain from him the promise to discharge his weapon in the air, if the duel was with pistols, or, if it was with swords, simply to disarm his enemy?
Like nearly all persons unversed in the art, she believed in infallible fencers, in marksmen who never missed their aim, and she had also ideas profoundly, absolutely inexact on the relations of one man with another in the matter of an insult.