"You believe pretty thoroughly in these things, or you wouldn’t abandon the eternal triangle and the other stock subjects of the modern novelists to write the story of Gilles de Rais," and after a silence Des Hermies added, "I do not object to the latrine; hospital; and workshop vocabulary of naturalism. For one thing, the subject matter requires some such diction. Again, Zola, in L’Assommoir, has shown that a heavy-handed artist can slap words together hit-or-miss and give an effect of tremendous Power. I do not really care how the naturalists maltreat language, but I do strenuously object to the earthiness of their ideas. They have made our literature the incarnation of materialism and they glorify the democracy of art!
"Say what you will, their theory is pitiful, and their tight little method squeezes all the life out of them. Filth and the flesh are their all in all. They deny wonder and reject the extra-sensual. I don’t believe they would know what you meant if you told them that artistic curiosity begins at the very point where the senses leave off.
"You shrug your shoulders, but tell me, how much has naturalism done to clear up life’s really troublesome mysteries? When an ulcer of the soul — or indeed the most benign little pimple — is to be probed, naturalism can do nothing. ’Appetite and instinct’ seem to be its sole motivation and rut and brainstorm its chronic states. The field of naturalism is the region below the umbilicus. Oh, it’s a hernia clinic and it offers the soul a truss!
"I tell you, Durtal, it’s superficial quackery, and that isn’t all. This fetid naturalism eulogizes the atrocities of modern life and flatters our positively American ways. It ecstasises over brute force and apotheosizes the cash register. With amazing humility it defers to the nauseating taste of the mob. It repudiates style, it rejects every ideal, every aspiration towards the supernatural and the beyond. It is so perfectly representative of bourgeois thought that it might be sired by Homais and dammed by Lisa, the butcher girl in Ventre de Paris."
"Heavens, how you go after it!" said Durtal, somewhat piqued. He lighted his cigarette and went on, "I am as much, revolted by materialism as you are, but that is no reason for denying the unforgettable services which naturalism has rendered.
"It has demolished the inhuman puppets of romanticism and rescued our literature from the clutches of booby idealists and sex-starved old maids. It has created visible and tangible human beings — after Balzac — and put them in accord with their surroundings. It has carried on the work, which romanticism began, of developing the language. Some of the naturalists have had the veritable gift of laughter, a very few have had the gift of tears, and, in spite of what you say, they have not all been carried away by an obsession for baseness."
"Yes, they have. They are in love with the age, and that shows them up for what they are." "Do you mean to tell me Flaubert and the De Goncourts were in love with the age?"
"Of course not. But those men were artists, honest, seditious, and aloof, and I put them in a class by themselves. I will also grant that Zola is a master of backgrounds and masses and that his tricky handling of people is unequalled. Then, too, thank God, he has never followed out, in his novels, the theories enunciated in his magazine articles, adulating the intrusion of positivism upon art. But in the works of his best pupil, Rosny, the only talented novelist who is really imbued with the ideas of the master, naturalism has become a sickening jargon of chemist’s slang serving to display a layman’s erudition, which is about as profound as the scientific knowledge of a shop foreman. No, there is no getting around it. Everything this whole poverty-stricken school has produced shows that our literature has fallen upon evil days. The grovellers! They don’t rise above the moral level of the tumblebug. Read the latest book. What do you find? Simple anecdotes: murder, suicide, and accident stories copied right out of the newspaper, tiresome sketches and wormy tales, all written in a colorless style and containing not the faintest hint of an outlook on life nor an appreciation of human nature. When I have waded through one of these books its insipid descriptions and interminable harangues go instantly out of my mind, and the only impression that remains is one of surprise that a man can write three or four hundred pages when he has absolutely nothing to reveal to us — nothing to say!"
"If it’s all the same to you, Des Hermies, let’s speak of something else. We shall never agree on the subject of naturalism, as the very mention of it makes you see red. What about this Mattei system of medicine? Your globules and electric phials at least relieve a few sufferers?" "Hmph. A little better than the panaceas of the Codex, though I can’t say the effects are either lasting or sure. But, it serves, like anything else. And now I must run along. The clock is striking ten and your concierge is coming to put out the hall light. See you again very soon, I hope. Good night."
When the door closed Durtal put some more coke in the grate and resumed a comfortless train of thought aggravated by this too pertinent discussion with his friend. For some months Durtal had been trying to reassemble the fragments of a shattered literary theory which had once seemed inexpugnable, and Des Hermies’s opinions troubled him, in spite of their exaggerated vehemence.
Certainly if naturalism confined one to monotonous studies of mediocre persons and to interminable inventories of the objects in a drawing-room or a landscape, an honest and clear-sighted artist would soon cease to produce; and a less conscientious workman would be under the necessity of repeating himself over and over again to the point of nausea.
Nevertheless Durtal could see no possibilities for the novelist outside of naturalism. Were we to go back to the pyrotechnics of romanticism, rewrite the lanuginous works of the Cherbuliez and Feuillet tribe, or, worse yet, imitate the lachrymose storiettes of Theuriet and George Sand? Then what was to be done? And Durtal, with desperate determination, set to work sorting out a tangle of confused theories and inchoate postulations. He made no headway. He felt but could not define. He was afraid to. Definition of his present tendencies would plump him back into his old dilemma.
"We must," he thought, "retain the documentary veracity, the precision of detail, the compact and sinewy language of realism, but we must also dig down into the soul and cease trying to explain mystery in terms of our sick senses. If possible the novel ought to be compounded of two elements, that of the soul and that of the body, and these ought to be inextricably bound together as in life. Their interreactions, their conflicts, their reconciliation, ought to furnish the dramatic interest. In a word, we must follow the road laid out once and for all by Zola, but at the same time we must trace a parallel route in the air by which we may go above and beyond...A spiritual naturalism! It must be complete, powerful, daring in a different way from anything that is being attempted at present. Perhaps as approaching my concept I may cite Dostoyevsky. Yet that exorable Russian is less an elevated realist than an evangelic socialist. In France right now the purely corporal recipe has brought upon itself such discredit that two clans have arisen: the liberal, which prunes naturalism of all its boldness of subject matter and diction in order to fit it for the drawing-room, and the decadent, which gets completely off the ground and raves incoherently in a telegraphic patois intended to represent the language of the soul-intended rather to divert the reader’s attention from the author’s utter lack of ideas. As for the right wing verists, I can only laugh at the frantic puerilities of these would-be psychologists, who have never explored an unknown district of the mind nor ever studied an unhackneyed passion. They simply repeat the saccharine Feuillet and the saline Stendhal. Their novels are dissertations in school-teacher style. They don’t seem to realize that there is more spiritual revelation in that one reply of old Hulot, in Balzac’s Cousine Bette ’Can’t I take the little girl along?’ than in all their doctoral theses. We must expect of them no idealistic straining toward the infinite. For me, then, the real psychologist of this century is not their Stendhal but that astonishing Ernest Hello, whose unrelenting unsuccess is simply miraculous!"
He began to think that Des Hermies was right. In the present disorganized state of letters there was but one tendency which seemed to promise better things. The unsatisfied need for the supernatural was driving people, in default of something loftier, to spiritism and the occult. Now his thoughts carried him away from his dissatisfaction with literature to the satisfaction he had found in another art, in painting. His ideal was completely realized by the Primitives. These men, in Italy, Germany, and especially in Flanders, had manifested the amplitude and purity of vision which are the property of saintliness. In authentic and patiently accurate settings they pictured beings whose postures were caught from life itself, and the illusion was compelling and sure. From these heads, common enough, many of them, and these physiognomies, often ugly but powerfully evocative, emanated celestial joy or acute anguish, spiritual calm, or turmoil. The effect was of matter transformed, by being distended or compressed; to afford an, escape from the senses into remote infinity.
Durtal’s introduction to this naturalism had come as a revelation the year before, although he had not then been so weary as now of fin de siecle silliness. In Germany, before a Crucifixion by Matthaeus Grunewald, he had found what he was seeking.
He shuddered in his armchair and closed his eyes as if in pain. With extraordinary lucidity he revisualized the picture, and the cry of admiration wrung from him when he had entered the little room of the Cassel museum was reechoing in his mind as here, in his study, the Christ rose before him, formidable, on a rude cross of barky wood, the arm an untrimmed branch bending like a bow under the weight of the body.
This branch seemed about to spring back and mercifully hurl afar from our cruel, sinful world the suffering flesh held to earth by the enormous spike piercing the feet. Dislocated, almost ripped out of their sockets, the arms of the Christ seemed trammelled by the knotty cords of the straining muscles. The laboured tendons of the armpits seemed ready to snap. The fingers, wide apart, were contorted in an arrested gesture in which were supplication and reproach but also benediction. The trembling thighs were greasy with sweat. The ribs were like staves, or like the bars of a cage, the flesh swollen, blue, mottled with flea-bites, specked as with pin-pricks by spines broken off from the rods of the scourging and now festering beneath the skin where they had penetrated.
Purulence was at hand. The fluvial wound in the side dripped thickly, inundating the thigh with blood that was like congealing mulberry juice. Milky pus, which yet was somewhat reddish, something like the colour of grey Moselle, oozed from the chest and ran down over the abdomen and the loin cloth. The knees had been forced together and the rotulae touched, but the lower legs were held wide apart, though the feet were placed one on top of the other. These, beginning to putrefy, were turning green beneath a river of blood. Spongy and blistered, they were horrible, the flesh tumefied, swollen over the head of the spike, and the grip-ping toes, with the horny blue nails, contradicted the imploring gesture of the hands, turning that benediction into a curse; and as the hands pointed heavenward, so the feet seemed to cling to earth, to that ochre around, ferruginous like the purple soil of Thuringia.
Above this eruptive cadaver, the head, tumultuous, enormous, encircled by a disordered crown of thorns, hung down lifeless. One lacklustre eye half opened as a shudder of terror or of sorrow traversed the expiring figure. The face was furrowed, the brow seamed, the cheeks blanched; all the drooping features wept, while the mouth, unnerved, its under jaw racked by tetanic contractions, laughed atrociously.
The torture had been terrific, and the agony had frightened the mocking executioners into flight. Against a dark blue night-sky the cross seemed to bow down, almost to touch the ground with its tip, while two figures, one on each side, kept watch over the Christ. One was the Virgin, wearing a hood the colour of mucous blood over a robe of wan blue. Her face was pale and swollen with weeping, and she stood rigid, as one who buries his fingernails deep into his palms and sobs. The other figure was that of Saint John, like a gipsy or sunburnt Swabian peasant, very tall, his beard matted and tangled, his robe of a scarlet stuff cut in wide strips like slabs of bark. His mantle was a chamois yellow; the lining, caught up at the sleeves, showed a feverish yellow as of unripe lemons. Spent with weeping, but possessed of more endurance than Mary, who was yet erect but broken and exhausted, he had joined his hands and in an access of outraged loyalty had drawn himself up before the corpse, which he contemplated with his red and smoky eyes while he choked back the cry which threatened to rend his quivering throat.
Ah, this coarse, tear-compelling Calvary was at the opposite pole from those debonair Golgothas adopted by the Church ever since the Renaissance. This lockjaw Christ was not the Christ of the rich, the Adonis of Galilee, the exquisite dandy, the handsome youth with the curly brown tresses, divided beard, and insipid doll-like features, whom the faithful have adored for four centuries. This was the Christ of Justin, Basil, Cyril, Tertullian, the Christ of the apostolic church, the vulgar Christ, ugly with the assumption of the whole burden of our sins and clothed, through humility, in the most abject of forms.
It was the Christ of the poor, the Christ incarnate in the image of the most miserable of us He came to save; the Christ of the afflicted, of the beggar, of all those on whose indigence and helplessness the greed of their brother battens; the human Christ, frail of flesh, abandoned by the Father until such time as no further torture was possible; the Christ with no recourse but His Mother, to Whom — then powerless to aid Him — He had, like every man in torment, cried out with an infant’s cry.
In an unsparing humility, doubtless, He had willed to suffer the Passion with all the suffering permitted to the human senses, and, obeying an incomprehensible ordination, He, in the time of the scourging and of the blows and of the insults spat in His face, had put off divinity, nor had He resumed it when, after these preliminary mockeries, He entered upon the unspeakable torment of the unceasing agony. Thus, dying like a thief, like a dog, basely, vilely, physically, He had sunk himself to the deepest depth of fallen humanity and had not spared Himself the last ignominy of putrefaction.
Never before had naturalism transfigured itself by such a conception and execution. Never before had a painter so charnally envisaged divinity nor so brutally dipped his brush into the wounds’ and running sores and bleeding nail. holes of the Saviour. Grunewald had passed all measure. He was the most uncompromising of realists, but his morgue Redeemer, his sewer Deity, let the observer know that realism could be truly transcendent. A divine light played about that ulcerated head, a superhuman expression illuminated the fermenting skin of the epileptic features. This crucified corpse was a very God, and, without aureole, without nimbus, with none of the stock accoutrements except the blood-sprinkled crown of thorns, Jesus appeared in His celestial super-essence, between the stunned, grief-torn Virgin and a Saint John whose calcined eyes were beyond the shedding of tears.
These faces, by nature vulgar, were resplendent, transfigured with the expression of the sublime grief of those souls whose plaint is not heard. Thief, pauper, and peasant had vanished and given place to supraterrestial creatures in the presence of their God. Grunewald was the most uncompromising of idealists. Never had artist known such magnificent exaltation, none had ever so resolutely bounded from the summit of spiritual altitude to the rapt orb of heaven. He had gone to the two extremes. From the rankest weeds of the pit he had extracted the finest essence of charity, the mordant liquor of tears. In this canvas was revealed the masterpiece of an art obeying the unopposable urge to render the tangible and the invisible, to make manifest the crying impurity of the flesh and to make sublime the infinite distress of the soul.
It was without its equivalent in literature. A few pages of Anne Emmerich upon the Passion, though comparatively attenuated, approached this ideal of supernatural realism and of veridic and exsurrected life. Perhaps, too, certain effusions of Ruysbroeck, seeming to spurt forth in twin jets of black and white flame, were worthy of comparison with the divine befoulment of Grunewald. Hardly, either. Grunewald’s masterpiece remained unique. It was at the same time infinite and of earth earthy.
"But," said Durtal to himself, rousing out of his revery, "if I am consistent I shall have to come around to the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, to mystic naturalism. Ah, no! I will not — and yet, perhaps I may!"
Here he was in the old dilemma. How often before now had he halted on the threshold of Catholicism, sounding himself thoroughly and finding always that he had no faith. Decidedly there had been no effort on the part of God to reclaim him, and he himself had never possessed the kind of will that permits one to let oneself go, trustingly, without reserve, into the sheltering shadows of immutable dogma.
Momentarily at times when, after reading certain books, his disgust for everyday life was accentuated, he longed for lenitive hours in a cloister, where the monotonous chant of prayers in an incense-laden atmosphere would bring on a somnolence, a dreamy rapture of mystical ideas. But only a simple soul, on which life’s wear and tear had left no mark, was capable of savouring the delights of such a self-abandon, and his own soul was battered and torn with earthly conflict. He must admit that the momentary desire to believe, to take refuge in the timeless, proceeded from a multitude of ignoble motives: from lassitude with the petty and repeated annoyances of existence, quarrels with the laundress, with the waiter, with the landlord; the sordid scramble for money; in a word, from the general spiritual failure of a man approaching forty. He thought of escaping into a monastery somewhat as street girls think of going into a house where they will be free from the dangers of the chase, from worry about food and lodging, and where they will not have to do their own washing and ironing. Unmarried, without settled income, the voice of carnality now practically stilled in him, he sometimes cursed the existence he had shaped for himself. At times, weary of attempting to coerce words to do his bidding, he threw down his pen and looked into the future. He could see nothing ahead of him but bitterness and cause for alarm, and, seeking consolation, he was forced to admit that only religion could heal, but religion demanded in return so arrant a desertion of common sense, so pusillanimous a willingness to be astonished at nothing, that he threw up his hands and begged off.
Yet he was always playing with the thought, indeed he could not escape it. For though religion was without foundation it was also without limit and promised a complete escape from earth into dizzy, unexplored altitudes. Then, too, Durtal was attracted to the Church by its intimate and ecstatic art, the splendour of its legends, and the radiant naiveté of the histories of its saints.
He did not believe, and yet he admitted the supernatural. Right here on earth how could any of us deny that we are hemmed in by mystery, in our homes, in the street, — everywhere when we came to think of it? It was really the part of shallowness to ignore those extrahuman relations and account for the unforeseen by attributing to fate the more than inexplicable. Did not a chance encounter often decide the entire life of a man? What was love, what the other incomprehensible shaping influences? And, knottiest enigma of all, what was money? There one found oneself confronted by primordial Organic law, atrocious edicts promulgated at the very beginning of the world and applied ever since.
The rules were precise and invariable. Money attracted money, accumulating always in the same places, going by preference to the scoundrelly and the mediocre. When, by an inscrutable exception, it heaped up in the coffers of a rich man who was not a miser nor a murderer, it stood idle, incapable of resolving itself into a force for good, however charitable the hands which fain would administer it. One would say it was angry at having got into the wrong box and avenged itself by going into voluntary paralysis when possessed by one who was neither a sharper nor an ass.
It acted still more strangely when by some extraordinary chance it strayed into the home of a poor man. Immediately it defiled the clean, debauched the chaste, and, acting simultaneously on the body and the soul, it insinuated into its possessor a base selfishness, an ignoble pride; it suggested that he spend for himself alone; it made the humble man a boor, the generous man a skinflint. In one second it changed every habit, revolutionized every idea, metamorphosed the most deeply rooted passions.
It was the instigator and vigilant accomplice of all the important sins. If it permitted one of its detainers to forget himself and bestow a boon it awakened hatred in the recipient, it replaced avarice with ingratitude arid re-established equilibrium so that the account might balance and not one sin of commission be wanting.
But it reached its real height of monstrosity when, concealing its identity under an assumed name, it entitled itself capital. Then its action was not limited to individual incitation to theft and murder but extended to the entire human race. With one word capital decided monopolies, erected banks, cornered necessities, and, if it wished, caused thousands of human beings to starve to death.
And it grew and begot itself while slumbering in a safe, and the Two Worlds adored it on bended knee, dying of desire before it as before a God.
Well I money was the devil, otherwise its mastery of souls was inexplicable. And how many other mysteries, equally unintelligible, how many other phenomena were there to make a reflective man shudder!
"But," thought Durtal, "seeing that there are so many more things betwixt heaven and earth than are dreamed of in anybody’s philosophy, why not believe in the Trinity? Why reject the divinity of Christ? It is no strain on one to admit the Credo quia absurdum of Saint Augustine and Tertullian and say that if the supernatural were comprehensible it would not be supernatural, and that precisely because it passes the faculties of man it is divine. "And — oh, to hell with it! What’s it all about, anyway?"
And again, as so often when he had found himself before this unbridgeable gulf between reason and belief, he recoiled from the leap.
Well, his thoughts had strayed far from the subject of that naturalism so reviled by Des Hermies. He returned to Grunewald and said to himself that the great Crucifixion was the masterpiece of an art driven out of bounds. One need not go far in search of the extra-terrestrial as to fall into perfervid Catholicism. Perhaps spiritualism would give one all one required to formulate a supernaturalistic method.
He rose and went into his tiny workroom. His pile of manuscript notes about the Marshal de Rais, surnamed Bluebeard, looked at him derisively from the table where they were piled. "All the same," he said, "it’s good to be here, in out of the world and above the limits of time. To live in another age, never read a newspaper, not even know that the theatres exist — ah, what a dream! To dwell with Bluebeard and forget the grocer on the corner and all the other petty little criminals of an, age perfectly typified by the café waiter who ravishes the boss’s daughter — the goose who lays the golden egg, as he calls her — so that she will have to marry him!"
Bed was a good place, he added, smiling, for he saw his eat, a creature with a perfect time sense, regarding him uneasily as if to remind him of their common convenience and to reproach him for not having prepared the couch. Durtal arranged the pillows and pulled back the coverlet, and the cat jumped to the foot of the bed but remained humped up, tail coiled beneath him, waiting till his master was stretched out at length before burrowing a little hollow to curl up in.
Nearly two years ago Durtal had ceased to associate with men of letters. They were represented in books and in the book-chat columns of magazines as forming an aristocracy which had a monopoly on intelligence. Their conversation, if one believed what one read, sparkled with effervescent and stimulating wit. Durtal had difficulty accounting to himself for the persistence of this illusion. His sad experience led him to believe that every literary man belonged to one of two classes, the thoroughly commercial or the utterly impossible. The first consisted of writers spoiled by the public, and drained dry in consequence, but "successful." Ravenous for notice they aped the ways of the world of big business, delighted in gala dinners, gave formal evening parties, spoke of copyrights, sales, and long run plays, and made great display of wealth.
The second consisted of cafe loafers, "bohemians." Rolling on the benches, gorged with beer they feigned an exaggerated modesty and at the same time cried their wares, aired their genius, and abused their betters.
There was now no place where one could meet a few artists and privately, intimately, discuss ideas at ease. One was at the mercy of the cafe crowd or the drawing-room company. One’s interlocutor was listening avidly to steal one’s ideas, and behind one’s back one was being vituperated. And the women were always intruding.
In this indiscriminate world there was no illuminating criticism, nothing but small talk, elegant or inelegant.
Then Durtal learned, also by experience, that one cannot associate with thieves without becoming either a thief or a dupe, and finally he broke off relations with his confreres. He not only had no sympathy but no common topic of conversation with them. Formerly when he accepted naturalism — airtight and unsatisfactory as it was-he had been able to argue aesthetics with them, but now!
"The point is," Des Hermies was always telling him, "that there is a basic difference between you and the other realists, and no patched-up alliance could possibly be of long duration. You execrate the age and they worship it. There is the whole matter. You were fated some day to get away from this Americanized art and attempt to create something less vulgar, less miserably commonplace, and infuse a little spirituality into it.
"In all your books you have fallen on our fin de siecle — our queue du siecle -tooth and nail. But, Lord! a man soon gets tired of whacking something that doesn’t fight back but merely goes its own way repeating its offences. You needed to escape into another epoch and get your bearings while waiting for a congenial subject to present itself. That explains your spiritual disarray of the last few months and your immediate recovery as soon as you stumbled onto Giles de Rais."
Des Hermies had diagnosed him accurately. The day on which Durtal had plunged into the frightful and delightful latter medieval age had been the dawn of a new existence. The flouting of his actual surroundings brought peace to Durtal’s soul, and he had completely reorganized his life, mentally cloistering himself; far from the furore of con-temporary letters, in the chateau de Tiffauges with the monster Bluebeard, with whom he lived in perfect accord, even in mischievous amity.
Thus history had for Durtal supplanted the novel, whose forced banality, conventionality, and tidy structure of plot simply griped him. Yet history, too, was only a peg for a man of talent to hang style and ideas on, for events could not fail to be coloured by the temperament and distorted by the bias of the historian.
As for the documents and sources! Well attested as they might be, they were all subject to revision, even to contradiction by others exhumed later which were no less authentic than the first and which also but waited their turn to be refuted by newer discoveries.
In the present rage for grubbing around in dusty archives writing of history served as an outlet for the pedantry of the moles who reworked their mouldy findings and were duly rewarded by the Institute with medals and diplomas.
For Durtal history was, then, the most pretentious as it was the most infantile of deceptions. Old CIio ought to be represented with a sphinx’s head, mutton-chop whiskers, and one of those padded bonnets which babies wore to keep them from bashing their little brains out when they took a tumble.
Of course exactitude was impossible. Why should he dream of getting at the whole truth about the Middle Ages when nobody had been able to give a full account of the Revolution, of the Commune for that matter? The best he could do was to imagine himself in the midst of creatures of that other epoch, wearing their antique garb, thinking their thoughts, and then, having saturated himself with their spirit, to convey his illusion by means of adroitly selected details.
That is practically what Michelet did, and though the garrulous old gossip drivelled endlessly about matters of supreme unimportance and ecstasized in his mild way over trivial anecdotes which he expanded beyond all proportion, and. though his sentimentality and chauvinism sometimes discredited his quite plausible conjectures, he was nevertheless the only French historian who had overcome the limitation of time and made another age live anew before our eyes.
Hysterical, garrulous, manneristic as he was, there was yet a truly epic sweep in certain passages of his History of France. The personages were raised from the oblivion into which the dry-as-dust professors had sunk them, and became live human beings. What matter, then, if Michelet was the least trustworthy of historians since he was the most personal and the most evocative?
As for the others, they simply ferreted around among the old state papers, clipped them, and, following M. Taine’s example, arranged, ticketed, and mounted their sensational gleanings in logical sequence, rejecting, of course, everything that did not advance the case they were trying to make. They denied themselves imagination and enthusiasm and claimed that they did not invent. True enough, but they did none the less distort history by the selection they employed. And how simply and summarily they disposed of things! It was discovered that such and such an event occurred in France in several communities, and straightway it was decided that the whole country lived, acted, and thought in a certain manner at a certain hour, on a certain day, in a certain year.
No less than Michelet they were doughty falsifiers, but they lacked his vision. They dealt in knickknacks, and their trivialities were as far from creating a unified impression as were the pointillistic puzzles of modern painters and the word hashes cooked up by the decadent poets. And worst of all, thought Durtal, the biographers. The depilators! taking all the hair off a real man’s chest. They wrote ponderous tomes to prove that Jan Steen was a teetotaller. Somebody had deloused Villon and shown that the Grosse Margot of the ballade was not a woman but — an inn sign. Pretty soon they would be representing the poet as a priggishly honest and -judicious man. One would say that in writing their monographs these historians feared to dishonour themselves by treating of artists who had tasted somewhat fully and passionately of life. Hence the expurgation of masterpieces that an artist might appear as common — place a bourgeois as his commentator.
This rehabilitation school, today all-powerful, exasperated Durtal. In writing his study of Gilles de Rais he was not going to fall into the error of these bigoted sustainers of middle-class morality. With his ideas of history he could not claim to give an exact likeness of Bluebeard, but he was not going to concede to the public taste for mediocrity in well — and evil — doing by whitewashing the man.
Durtal’s material for this study consisted of: a copy of the memorial addressed by the heirs of Gilles de Rais to the king, notes taken from the several true copies at Paris of the proceedings in the criminal trial at Nantes, extracts from Vallet de Viriville’s history of Charles VII, finally the Notice by Armand Gueraut and the biography of the abbé Bossard. These sufficed to bring before Durtal’s eyes the formidable figure of that Satanic fifteenth century character who was the most artistically, exquisitely cruel, and the most scoundrelly of men.
No one knew of the projected study but Des Hermies, whom Durtal saw nearly every day. They had met in the strangest of homes, that of Chantelouve, the Catholic historian, who boasted of receiving all classes of people. And every week in the social season that drawing-room in the rue de Bagneux was the scene of a heterogeneous gathering of under sacristans, café poets, journalists, actresses, partisans of the cause of Naundorff, and dabblers in equivocal sciences.
This salon was on the edge of the clerical world, and many religious came here at the risk of their reputations. The dinners were discriminately, if unconventionally, ordered. Chantelouve, rotund, jovial, bade everyone make himself at home. Now and then through his smoked spectacles there stole an ambiguous look which might have given an analyst pause, but the man’s bonhomie, quite ecclesiastical, was instantly disarming. Madame was no beauty, but possessed a certain bizarre charm and was always surrounded. She, however, remained silent and did nothing to encourage her voluble admirers. As void of prudery as her husband, she listened impassively, absently, with her thoughts evidently afar, to the boldest of conversational imprudences.
At one of these evening parties, while La Rousseil, recently converted, howled a hymn, Durtal, sitting in a corner having a quiet smoke, had been struck by the physiognomy and bearing of Des Hermies, who stood out sharply from the motley throng of defrocked priests and grubby poets packed into Chantelouve’s library and drawing-room.
Among these smirking and carefully composed faces, Des Hermies, evidently a man of forceful individuality, seemed, and probably felt, singularly out of place. He was tall, slender, somewhat pale. His eyes, narrowed in a frown, had the cold blue gleam of sapphires. The nose was short and sharp, the cheeks smooth shaven. With his flaxen hair and Vandyke he might have been a Norwegian or an Englishman in not very good health. His garments were of London make, and the long, tight, wasp-waisted coat, buttoned clear up to the neck, seemed to enclose him like a box. Very careful of his person, he had a manner all his own of drawing off his gloves, rolling them up with an almost inaudible crackling, then seating himself, crossing his long, thin legs, and leaning over to the right, reaching into the patch pocket on his left side and bringing forth the embossed Japanese pouch which contained his tobacco and cigarette papers.
He was methodic, guarded, and very cold in the presence of strangers. His superior and somewhat bored attitude, not exactly relieved by his curt, dry laugh, awakened, at a first meeting, a serious antipathy which he sometimes justified by venomous words, by meaningless silences, by unspoken innuendoes. He was respected and feared at Chantelouve’s, but when one came to know him one found, beneath his defensive shell, great warmth of heart and a capacity for true friendship of the kind that is not expansive but is capable of sacrifice and can always be relied upon.
How did he live? Was he rich or just comfortable? No one knew, and he, tight-lipped, never spoke of his affairs. He was doctor of the Faculty of Paris-Durtal had chanced to see his diploma-but he spoke of medicine with great disdain. He said he had become convinced of the futility of all he had been taught, and had thrown it over for homeopathy, which in turn he had thrown over for a Bolognese system, and this last he was now excoriating.
There were times when Durtal could not doubt that his friend was an author, for Des Hermies spoke understandingly of tricks of the trade which one learns only after long experience, and his literary judgement was not that of a layman. When, one day, Durtal reproached him for concealing his productions, he replied with a certain melancholy, "No, I caught myself in time to choke down a base instinct, the desire of resaying what has been said. I could have plagiarized Flaubert as well as, if not better than, the poll parrots who are doing it, but I decided not to. I would rather phrase abstruse medicaments of rare application; perhaps it is not very necessary, but at least it isn’t cheap."
What surprised Durtal was his friend’s prodigious erudition. Des Hermies had the run of the most out-of-the-way book shops, he was an authority on antique customs and, at the same time, on the latest scientific discoveries. He hobnobbed with all the freaks in Paris, and from them he became deeply learned in the most diverse and hostile sciences. He, so cold and correct, was almost never to be found save in the company of astrologers, cabbalists, demonologists, alchemists, theologians, or inventors.
Weary of the advances and the facile intimacies of artists, Durtal had been attracted by this man’s fastidious reserve. It was perfectly natural that Durtal, surfeited with skin-deep friendships, should feel drawn to Des Hermies, but it was difficult to imagine why Des Hermies, with his taste for strange associations, should take a liking to Durtal, who was the soberest, steadiest, most normal of men. Perhaps Des Hermies felt the need of talking with a sane human being now and then as a relief. And, too, the literary discussions which he loved were out of the question with these addlepates who monologued indefatigably on the subject of their mono-mania and their ego.
At odds, like Durtal, with his confreres, Des Hermies could expect nothing from the physicians, whom he avoided, nor from the specialists with whom he consorted. As a matter of fact there had been a juncture of two beings whose situation was almost identical. At first restrained and on the defensive, they had come finally to tu-toi each other and establish a relation which had been a great advantage to Durtal. His family were dead, the friends of his youth married and scattered, and since his withdrawal from the world of letters he had been reduced to complete solitude. Des Hermies kept him from going stale and then, finding that Durtal had not lost all interest in mankind, promised to introduce him to a really loveable old character. Of this man Des. Hermies spoke much, and one day he said, "You really ought to know him. He likes the books of yours which I have lent him, and he wants to meet you. You think I am interested only in obscure and twisted natures. Well, you will find Carhaix really unique. He is the one Catholic with intelligence and without sanctimoniousness; the one poor man with envy and hatred for none."
Durtal was in a situation familiar to all bachelors who have the concierge do their cleaning. Only these know how a tiny lamp cap fairly drink up oil, and how the contents of a bottle of cognac can become paler and weaker without ever diminishing. They know, too, how a once comfortable bed can become forbidding, and how scrupulously a concierge can respect its least fold or crease. They learn to be resigned and to wash out a glass when they are thirsty and make their own fire when they are cold.
Durtal’s concierge was an old man with drooping moustache and a powerful breath of "three-six." Indolent and placid, he opposed an unbudgeable inertia to Durtal’s frantic and profanely expressed demand that the sweeping be done at the same hour every morning. Threats, prayers, insults, the withholding of gratuities, were without effect. Père Rateau took off his cap, scratched his head, promised, in the tone of a man much moved, to mend his ways, and next day came later than ever.
"What a nuisance!" thought Durtal today, as he heard a key turning in the lock, then he looked at his watch and observed that once again the concierge was arriving after three o’clock in the afternoon.
There was nothing for it but to submit with a sigh to the ensuing hullabaloo. Rateau, somnolent and pacific in his lodge, became a demon when he got a broom in his hand. In this sedentary being, who could drowse all morning in the stale basement atmosphere heavy with the cumulative aroma of many meat-stews, a martial ardour, a warlike ferocity, then asserted themselves, and like a red revolutionary he assaulted the bed, charged the chairs, manhandled the picture frames, knocked the tables over, rattled the water pitcher, and whirled Durtal’s brogues about by the laces as when a pillaging conqueror hauls a ravished victim along by the hair. So he stormed the apartment like a barricade and triumphantly brandished his battle standard, the dust rag, over the reeking carnage of the furniture.
Durtal at such times sought refuge in the room which was not being attacked. Today Rateau launched his offensive against the workroom, so Durtal fled to the. bedroom. From there, through the half open door, he could see the enemy, with a feather duster like a Mohican war bonnet over his head, doing a scalp dance around a table.
"If I only knew at what time that pest would break in on me so I could always arrange to be out!" groaned Durtal. Now he ground his teeth, as Rateau, with a yell, grabbed up the mop and, skating around on one leg, belaboured the floor lustily.
The perspiring conqueror then appeared in the doorway and advanced to reduce the chamber where Durtal was. The latter had to return to the subjugated workroom, and the cat, shocked by the racket, arched its back and, rubbing against its master’s legs, followed him to a place of safety.
In the thick of the conflict Des Hermies rang the door bell.
"I’ll put on my shoes," cried Durtal, "and we’ll get out of this. Look -" he passed his hand over the table and brought back a coat of grime that made him appear to be wearing a grey glove — "look. That brute turns the house upside down and knocks everything to pieces, and here’s the result. He leaves more dust when he goes than he found when he came in!"
"Bah," said Des Hermies, "dust isn’t a bad thing. Besides having the taste of ancient biscuit and the smell of an old book, it is the floating velvet which softens hard surfaces, the fine dry wash which takes the garishness out of crude colour schemes. It is the caparison of abandon, the veil of oblivion. Who, then, can despise it — aside from certain persons whose lamentable lot must often have wrung a tear from you?
"Imagine living in one of these Paris passages. Think of a consumptive spitting blood and suffocating in a room one flight up, behind the ’ass-back’ gables of, say the passage des Panoramas, for instance. When the window is open the dust comes in impregnated with snuff and saturated with clammy exudations. The invalid, choking, begs for air, and in order that he may breathe the window is closed.
"Well, the dust that you complain of is rather milder than that. Anyway I don’t hear you coughing...but if you’re ready we’ll be on our way."
"Where shall we go?" asked Durtal.
Des Hermies did not answer. They left the rue du Regard, in which Durtal lived, and went down the rue du Cherche-Midi as far as the Croix-Rouge.
"Let’s go on to the place Saint-Sulpice," said Des Hermies, and after a silence he continued, "Speaking of dust, ’out of which we came and to which we shall return,’ do you know that after we are dead our corpses are devoured by different kinds of worms according as we are fat or thin? In fat corpses one species of maggot is found, the rhizophagus, while thin corpses are patronized only by the phora. The latter is evidently the aristocrat, the fastidious gourmet which turns up its nose at a heavy meal of copious breasts and juicy fat bellies. Just think, there is no perfect equality, even in the manner in which we feed the worms.
"But this is where we stop."
’They had come to where the rue Ferou opens Into the place Saint— Sulpice. Durtal looked up and on an unenclosed porch in the flank of the church of Saint-Sulpice he read the placard, "Tower open to visitors."
"Let’s go up," said Des Hermies.
"What. for! In this weather?" and Durtal pointed at the yellow sky over which black clouds, like factory smoke, were racing, so low that the tin chimneys seemed to penetrate them and crenelate them with little spots of clarity. "I am not enthusiastic about trying to climb a flight of broken, irregular stairs. And anyway, what do you think you can see up there? It’s misty and getting dark. No, have a heart."
"What difference is it to you where you take your airing? Come on. I assure you you’ll see something unusual."
"Oh! you brought me here on purpose?"
"Why didn’t you say so?"
He followed Des Hermies into the darkness under the porch. At the back of the cellarway a little essence lamp, hanging from a nail, lighted a door, the tower entrance.
For a long time, in utter darkness, they climbed a winding stair. Durtal was wondering where the keeper had gone, when, turning a corner, he saw a shaft of light, then he stumbled against the rickety supports of a "double-current" lamp in front of a door. Des Hermies pulled a bell cord and the door swung back.
Above them on a landing they could see feet, whether of a man op of a woman they could not tell.
"Ah! it’s you, M. des Hermies," and a woman bent over, describing an arc, so that her head was in a stream of light. "Louis will be very glad to see you."
"Is he in?" asked Des Hermies, reaching up and shaking hands with the woman.
"He is in the tower. Won’t you stop and rest a minute?"
"Why, when we some down, if you don’t mind."
"Then go up until you see a grated door — but what an old fool I am! You know the way as well as I do."
"To be sure, to be sure...But, in passing, permit me to introduce my friend Durtal." Durtal, somewhat flustered, made a bow in the darkness.
"Ah, monsieur, how fortunate. Louis is so anxious to meet you.
"Where is he taking me?" Durtal wondered as again he groped along behind his friend, now and then, just as he felt completely lost, coming to the narrow strip of light admitted by a barbican, and again proceeding in inky darkness. The climb seemed endless. Finally they came to the barred door, opened it, and found themselves on a frame balcony with the abyss above and below. Des Hermies, who seemed perfectly at home, pointed downward, then upward. They were halfway up a tower the face of which was overlaid with enormous criss-crossing joists and beams riveted together with bolt heads as big as a man’s fist. Durtal could see no one. He turned and, clinging to the hand rail, groped along the wall toward the daylight which stole down between the inclined leaves of the sounding-shutters.
Leaning out over the precipice, he discerned beneath him a formidable array of bells hanging from oak supports lined with iron. The sombre bell metal was slick as if oiled and absorbed light without refracting it. Bending backward, he looked into the upper abyss and perceived new batteries of bells overhead. These bore the raised effigy of a bishop, and a place in each, worn by the striking of the clapper, shone golden.
All were in quiescence, but the wind rattled against the sounding-shutters, stormed through the cage of timbers, howled along the spiral stair, and was caught and held whining in the bell vases. Suddenly a light breeze, like the stirring of confined air, fanned his cheek. He looked up. The current had been set in motion by the swaying of a great bell beginning to get under way. There was a crash of sound, the bell gathered momentum, and now the clapper like a, gigantic pestle, was grinding the great bronze mortar with a deafening clamour. The tower trembled, the balcony on which Durtal was standing trepidated like the floor of a railway coach, there was the continuous rolling of a mighty reverberation, interrupted regularly by the jar of metal upon metal.
In vain Durtal scanned the upper abyss. Finally he man-aged to catch sight of a leg, swinging out into space and back again, in one of those wooden stirrups, two of which, he had noticed, were fastened to the bottom of every bell. Leaning out so that he was almost prone on one of the timbers, he finally perceived the ringer, clinging with his hands to two iron handles and balancing over the gulf with his eyes turned heavenward.
Durtal was shocked by the face. Never had he seen such disconcerting pallor. It was not the waxen hue of the convalescent, not the lifeless grey of the perfume— or snuff-maker, it was a prison pallor of a bloodless lividness unknown today, the ghastly complexion of a wretch of the Middle Ages shut up till death in a damp, airless, pitch-dark in-pace.
The eyes were blue, prominent, even bulging, and had the mystic’s readiness to tears, but their expression was singularly contradicted by the truculent Kaiser Wilhelm moustache. The man seemed at once a dreamer and a fighter, and it would have been difficult to tell which character predominated.
He gave the bell stirrup a last yank with his foot and with a heave of his loins regained his equilibrium. He mopped his brow and smiled down at Des Hermies.
"Well! well!" he said, "you here."
He descended, and when he learned Durtal’s name his face brightened and the two shook hands cordially.
"We have been expecting you a long time, monsieur. Out friend here speaks of you at great length, and we have been asking him why he didn’t bring you around to see us. But come, he said eagerly, "I must conduct you on a tour of inspection about my little domain. I have read your books and I know a man like you can’t help falling in love with my bells. But we must go higher if we are really to see them."
And he bounded up a staircase, while Des Hermies pushed Durtal along in front of him in a way that made retreat impossible.
As he was once more groping along the winding stairs, Durtal asked, "Why didn’t you tell me your friend Carhaix — for of course that’s who he is — was a bell-ringer?"
Des Hermies did not have time to answer, for at that moment, having reached the door of the room beneath the tower roof, Carhaix was standing aside to let them pass. They were in a rotunda pierced in the centre by a great circular hole which had around it a corroded iron balustrade orange with rust. By standing close to the railing, which was like the well curb of the Pit, one could see down, down, to the foundation. The "well" seemed to be undergoing repairs, and from the top to the bottom of the tube the beams supporting the bells were criss-crossed with timbers bracing the walls.
"Don’t be afraid to lean over," said Carhaix. "Now tell me, monsieur, how do you like my foster children?"
But Durtal was hardly heeding. He felt uneasy, here in space, and as if drawn toward the gaping chasm, whence ascended, from time to time, the desultory clanging of the bell, which was still swaying and would be some time in returning to immobility.
"Wouldn’t you like to pay a visit to the top of the tower?" asked Carhaix, pointing to an iron stair sealed into the wall.
"No, another day."
They descended and Carhaix, in silence, opened a door. They advanced into an immense storeroom, containing colossal broken statues of saints, scaly and dilapidated apostles, Saint Matthew legless and armless, Saint Luke escorted by a fragmentary ox, Saint Mark lacking a shoulder and part of his beard, Saint Peter holding up an arm from which the hand holding the keys was broken off.
"There used to be a swing in here," said Carhaix, "for the little girls of the neighbourhood. But the privilege was abused, as privileges always are. In the dusk all kinds of things were done for a few sous. The curate finally had the swing taken down and the room closed up."
"And what is that over there?" inquired Durtal, perceiving, in a corner, an enormous fragment of rounded metal, like half a gigantic skull-cap. On it the dust lay thick, and in the hollow the meshes on meshes of fine silken web, dotted with the black bodies of lurking spiders, were like a fisherman’s hand net weighted with little slugs of lead.
"That? Ah, monsieur!" and there was fire in Carhaix’s mild eyes, "that is the skull of an old, old bell whose like is not cast these days. The ring of that bell, monsieur, was like a voice from heaven." And suddenly he exploded, "Bells have had their day! As I suppose Des Hermies has told you. Bell ringing is a lost art. And why wouldn’t it be? Look at the men who are doing it nowadays. Charcoal burners, roofers, masons out of a job, discharged firemen, ready to try their hand at anything for a franc. There are curates who think nothing of saying, ’Need a man? Go out in the street and pick up a soldier for ten sous. He’ll do.’ That’s why you read about accidents like the one that happened lately at Notre Dame, I think. The fellow didn’t withdraw in time and the bell came down like the blade of a guillotine and whacked his leg right off. "People will spend thirty thousand francs on an altar baldachin, and ruin themselves for music, and they have to have gas in their churches, and Lord knows what all besides, but when you mention bells they shrug their shoulders. Do you know, M. Durtal, there are only two men in Paris who can ring chords? Myself and Père Michel, and he is not married and his morals are so bad that he can’t be regularly attached to a church. He can ring music the like of which you never heard, but he, too, is losing interest. He drinks, and, drunk or sober, goes to work, then he bowls up again and goes to sleep.
"Yes, the bell has had its day. Why, this very morning, Monsignor made his pastoral visit to this church. At eight o’clock we sounded his arrival. The six bells you see down here boomed out melodiously. But there were sixteen up above, and it was a shame. Those extras jangled away haphazard. It was a riot of discord."
Carhaix ruminated in silence as they descended. Then, "Ah, monsieur," he said, his watery eyes fairly bubbling, "the ring of bells, there’s your real sacred music.
They were now above the main door of the building and they came out into the great covered gallery on which the towers rest. Carhaix smiled and pointed out a complete peal of miniature bells, installed between two pillars on a plank. He pulled the cords, and, in ecstasies, his eyes protruding, his moustache bristling, he listened to the frail tinkling of his toy. And suddenly he relinquished the cords.
"I once had a crazy idea," he said, "of forming a class here and teaching all the intricacies of the craft, but no one cared to learn a trade which was steadily going out of existence. Why, you know we don’t even sound for weddings any more, and nobody comes to look at the tower. "But I really can’t complain. I hate the streets. When I try to cross one I lose my head. So I stay in the tower all day, except once in the early morning when I go to the other side of the square for a bucket of water. Now my wife doesn’t like it up here. You see, the snow does come in through all the loopholes and it heaps up, and sometimes we are snowbound with the wind blowing a gale."
They had come to Carhaix’s lodge. His wife was waiting for them on the threshold. "Come in, gentlemen," she said. "You have certainly earned some refreshment," and she pointed to four glasses which she had set out on the table.
The bell-ringer lighted a little briar pipe, while Des Hermies and Durtal each rolled a cigarette. "Pretty comfortable place," remarked Durtal, just to be saying something. It was a vast room, vaulted, with walls of rough stone, and lighted by a semi-circular window just under the ceiling. The tiled floor was badly covered by an infamous carpet, and the furniture, very simple, consisted of a round dining-room table, some old bergere armchairs covered with slate-blue Utrecht velours, a little stained walnut sideboard on which were several plates and pitchers of Breton faience, and opposite the sideboard a little black bookcase, which might contain fifty books.
"Of course a literary man would be interested in the books," said Carhaix, who had been watching Durtal. "You mustn’t be too critical, monsieur. I have only the tools of my trade." Durtal went over and took a look. The collection consisted largely of works on bells. He read some of the titles.
On the cover of a slim parchment volume he deciphered the faded legend, hand-written, in rust-coloured ink, De tintinnabulis by Jerome Magius, 1664; then, pell-mell, there were: A curious and edifying miscellany Concerning church bells by Dom Remi Carre; another Edifying miscellany, anonymous; a Treatise of bells by Jean-Baptiste Thiers, curate of Champrond and Vibraye; a ponderous tome by an architect named Blavignac; a smaller work entitled Essay on the symbolism of bells by a parish priest of Poitiers; a Notice by the abbé Baraud; then a whole series of brochures, with covers of grey paper, bearing no titles.
"It’s no collection at all," said Carhaix with a sigh. "The best ones are wanting, the De campanis commentarius of Angelo Rocca and the De tintinnabuto of Percichellius, but they are so hard to find, and so expensive when you do find them."
A glance sufficed for the rest of the books, most of them being religious works, Latin and French Bibles, an Imitation of Christ, Gorres’ Mystik in five volumes, the abbé Aubert’s History and theory of religious symbolism, Pluquet’s Dictionary of heresies, and several lives of saints.
"Ah, monsieur, my own books are not much account; but Des Hermies lends me what he knows will interest me."
"Don’t talk so much!" said his wife. "Give monsieur a chance to sit down," and she handed Durtal a brimming glass aromatic with the acidulous perfume of genuine cider.
In response to his compliments she told him that the cider came from Brittany and was made by relatives of hers at Landevennec, her and Carhaix’s native village.
She was delighted when Durtal affirmed that long ago he had spent a day in Landevennec. "Why, then we know each other already!" she said, shaking hands with him again.
The room was heated to suffocation by a stove whose pipe zigzagged over to the window and out through a sheet-iron square nailed to the sash in place of one of the panes. Carhaix and his good wife, with her honest, weak face and frank, kind eyes, were the most restful of people. Durtal, made drowsy by the warmth and the quiet domesticity, let his thoughts wander. He said to himself, "If I had a place like this, above the roofs of Paris, I would fix it up and make of it a real haven of refuge. Here, in the clouds, alone and aloof, I would work away on my book and take my time about it, years perhaps. What inconceivable happiness it would be to escape from the age, and, while the waves of human folly were breaking against the foot of the tower, to sit up here, out of it all, and pore over antique tomes by the shaded light of the lamp." He smiled at the naivete of his daydream.
"I certainly do like your place," he said aloud, as if to sum up his reflections.
"Oh, you wouldn’t if you had to live here," said the good wife. "We have plenty of room, too much room, because there are a couple of bedchambers as big as this, besides plenty of closet space, but it’s so inconvenient — and so cold! And no kitchen -" and she pointed to a landing where, blocking the stairway, the cook stove had had to be installed. "And there are so many, many steps to go up when you come back from market. I am getting old, and I have a twinge of the rheumatics whenever I think about making the climb."
"You can t even drive a nail into this rock wall and have a peg to hang things on," said Carhaix. "But I like this place. I was made for it. Now my wife dreams constantly of spending her last days in Landevennec."
Des Hermies rose. All shook hands, and monsieur and madame made Durtal swear that he would come again.
"What refreshing people I" exclaimed Durtal as he and Des Hermies crossed the square. "And Carhaix is a mine of information."
"But tell me, what the devil is an educated man, of no ordinary intelligence, doing, working as a — as a day labourer?"
"If Carhaix could hear you! But, my friend, in the Middle Ages bell-ringers were high officials. True, the craft has declined considerably in modern times. I couldn’t tell you myself how Carhaix became hipped on the subject of bells. All I know is that he studied at a seminary in Brittany, that he had scruples of conscience and considered himself unworthy to enter the priesthood, that he came to Paris and apprenticed himself to a very intellectual master bell-ringer, Père Gilbert, who had in his cell at Notre Dame some ancient and of course unique plans of Paris that would make your mouth water. Gilbert wasn’t a ’labourer,’ either. He was an enthusiastic collector of documents relating to old Paris. From Notre Dame Carhaix came to Saint Sulpice, fifteen years ago, and has been there ever since."
"How did you happen to make his acquaintance?"
"First he was my patient, then my friend. I’ve known him ten years."
"Funny. He doesn’t look like a seminary product. Most of them have the shuffling gait and sheepish air of an old gardener."
"Carhaix will be all right for a few more years," said Des Hermies, as if to himself, "and then let us mercifully wish him a speedy death. The Church, which has begun by sanctioning the introduction of gas into the chapels, will end by installing mechanical chimes instead of bells. That will be charming. The machinery will be run by. electricity and we shall have real up-to-date, timbreless, Protestant peals."
"Then Carhaix’s wife will have a chance to go back to Finistère."
"No, they are too poor, and then too Carhaix would be broken-hearted if he lost his bells. Curious, a man’s affection for the object that he manipulates. The mechanic’s love for his machine. The thing that one tends, and that obeys one, becomes personalized, and one ends by falling in love with it. And the bell is an instrument in a class of its own. It is baptized like a Christian, anointed with sacramental oil, and according to the pontifical rubric it is also to be sanctified, in the interior of its chalice, by a bishop, in seven cruciform unctions with the oil of the infirm that it may send to the dying the message which shall sustain them in their last’ agonies.
"It is the herald of the Church, the voice from without as the priest is the voice from within. So you see it isn’t a mere piece of bronze, a reversed mortar to be swung at a rope’s end. Add that bells, like fine wines, ripen with age, that their tone becomes more ample and mellow, that they lose their sharp bouquet, their raw flavour. That will explain — imperfectly — how one can become attached to them."
"Why, you seem to be an enthusiast yourself."
"Oh, I don’t know anything about it. I am simply repeating what I have heard Carhaix say. If the subject interests you, he will be only too glad to teach you the symbolism of bells. He is inexhaustible. The man is a mono-maniac."
"I can understand," said Durtal dreamily. "I live in a quarter where there are a good many convents and at dawn the air is a-tingle with the vibrance of the chimes. When I was ill I used to lie awake at night awaiting the sound of the matin bells and welcoming them as a deliverance. In the grey light I felt that I was being cuddled by a distant and secret caress, that a lullaby was crooned over me, and a cool hand applied to my burning forehead. I had the assurance that the folk who were awake were praying for the others, and consequently for me. I felt less lonely. I really believe the bells are sounded for the special benefit of the sick who cannot sleep." "The bells ring for others, notably for the trouble-makers. The rather common inscription for the side of a bell, ’Paco cruentos,’ ’I pacify the bloody-minded,’ is singularly apt, when you think it over."
This conversation was still haunting Durtal when he went to bed. Carhaix’s phrase, "The ring of the bells is the real sacred music," took hold of him like an obsession. And drifting back through the centuries he saw in dream the slow processional of monks and the kneeling congregations responding to the call of the angelus and drinking in the balm of holy sound as if it were consecrated wine.
All the details he had ever known of the liturgies of ages came crowding into his mind. He could hear the sounding of matin invitatories; chimes telling a rosary of harmony over tortuous labyrinths of narrow streets, over cornet towers, over pepper-box pignons, over dentelated walls; the chimes chanting the canonical hours, prime and tierce, sexte and none, vespers and compline; celebrating the joy of a city with the tinkling laughter of the little bells, tolling its sorrow with the ponderous lamentation of the great ones. And there were master ringers in those times, makers of chords who could send into the air the expression of the whole soul of a community. And the bells which they served as submissive sons and faithful deacons were as humble and as truly of the people as was the Church itself. As the priest at certain times put off his chasuble, so the bell at times had put off its sacred character and spoken to the baptized on fair day and market day, inviting them, in the event of rain, to settle their affairs inside the nave of the church and, that the sanctity of the place might not be violated by the conflicts arising from sharp bargaining, imposing upon them a probity unknown before or since.
Today bells spoke an obsolete language, incomprehensible to man. Carhaix was under no misapprehension. Living in an aerial tomb outside the human scramble, he was faithful to his art, and in consequence no longer had any reason for existing. He vegetated, superfluous and demoded, in a society which insisted that for its amusement the holy place be turned into a concert hall. He was like a creature reverted, a relic of a bygone age, and he was supremely contemptuous of the miserable fin de siecle church showmen who to draw fashionable audiences did not fear to offer the attraction of cavatinas and waltzes rendered on the cathedral organ by manufacturers of profane music, by ballet mongers and comic opera-wrights.
"Poor Carhaix!" said Durtal, as he blew out the candle. "Another who loves this epoch about as well as Des Hermies and I do. But he has the tutelage of his bells, and certainly among his wards he has his favourite. He is not to be pitied. He has his hobby, which renders life possible for him, as hobbies do."