[To MME. LA COMTESSE D' OSMOY]
The form of the body is more
essential to him than its substance.
LA PHYSIOLOGIE MODERNE.
Love, said Solomon, is stronger than Death. And truly, its
mysterious power knows no bounds.
Not many years since, an autumn evening was falling over
Paris. Towards the gloomy Faubourg Saint-Germain carriages were
driving, with lamps already lit, returning belatedly from the
afternoon drive in the Bois. Before the gateway of a vast
seigniorial mansion, set about with immemorial gardens,
one of them drew up. The arch was surmounted by a
stone escutcheon with the arms of the ancient family of the
Counts d'Athol, to wit: on a field azure, a mullet argent, with
the motto Pallida Victrix under the coronet with its upturned
ermine of the princely cap. The heavy folding doors swung
apart, and there descended a man between thirty and thirty-five,
in mourning clothes, his face of deathly pallor. On the
steps silent attendants raised aloft their torches, but with no
eye for them he mounted the flight and went within. It was
the Count d'Athol.
With unsteady tread he ascended the white staircases leading to
the room where, that very morning, he had laid within
a coffin, velvet-lined and covered with violets, amid billowing
cambric, the lady of his delight, his bride of the gathering
paleness, Vera, his despair.
At the top the quiet door swung across the carpet. He lifted
All the objects in the room were just where the Countess
had left them the evening before. Death, in his suddenness,
had hurled the bolt. Last night his loved one had swooned in
such penetrating joys, had surrendered in embraces so perfect,
that her heart, weary with ecstasy, had given way. Suddenly
her lips had been covered with a flood of mortal scarlet,
and she had barely had time to give her husband one kiss of
farewell, smiling, with not one word; and then her long
lashes, like veils of mourning, had fallen over the lovely
light of her eyes.
This day without a name had passed.
Towards noon the Count d'Athol, after the dread ceremonies of the
family vault, had dismissed the bleak escort at
the cemetery. Shutting himself up within the four marble
walls, alone with her whom he had buried, he had closed behind
him the iron door of the mausoleum. Incense was burning on a
tripod before the coffin, bestarred by a shining crown
of lamps over the pillow of this young woman, who was now
Standing there lost in his thoughts, with his only sentiment
a hopeless longing, he had stayed all day long in the tomb.
At six o'clock, when dusk fell, he had come out from the
sacred enclosure. Closing the sepulchre, he had torn the silver
key from the lock, and, stretching up on the topmost step of
the threshold, he had cast it softly into the interior of the
tomb. Through the trefoil over the doorway, he thrust it on
to the pavement inside.—Why had he done this? Doubtless
from some mysterious resolve to return no more.
And now he was viewing again the widowed chamber.
The window, under the great drapings of mauve cashmere
with their broideries of gold, stood open; one last ray of
evening lit up the great portrait of the departed one in its
frame of old wood. Looking around him, the Count saw the
robe lying where, the evening before, it had been flung upon
the chair; on the mantel lay the jewels, the necklace of pearls,
the half-closed fan, the heavy flasks of perfume which She
no longer inhaled. On the ebony bed with its twisted pillars,
still unmade, beside the pillow where the mask of the divine,
the adored head, was still visible amidst the lace, his eye fell
on the handkerchief stained with drops of blood, whereon for
an instant the wings of her youthful spirit had quivered; on
the open piano, upholding a melody forever unfinished; on
the Indian flowers which she had gathered with her own
hands in the conservatory, and which now were dying in vases
of old Saxony ware; and there at the foot of the bed, on the
tiny slippers of oriental velvet, on which glittered a laughing
device of her name, stitched with pearls: Qui verra Ve'ra l'ai-
mera. And only yesterday morning the bare feet of the loved
one were still playing there, kissed at every step by the
swan's-down!—And there, there in the shadow, was the clock
whose spring he had snapped, so that never again should it
tell other hours.
Thus had she vanished...! But whither...? And living
now?--To what end...? It was impossible, it was absurd!
And the Count plunged into the darkness of unknown
He thought of all the past existence.—Six months had
gone by since this marriage. Was it not abroad, at an embassy
ball, that he had set eyes upon her for the first time? Yes.
That moment rose up again before his eyes, in all its
distinctness. She appeared to him there, radiant. That night
their glances had met, and inwardly they had recognized their
affinity, their obligation to a lasting love.
Deceitful talk, observant smiles, insinuations, all the
difficulties thrust up by the world to delay the inevitable
happiness of those who belong to each other—everything had
vanished before the calm certitude which, at that very moment,
they had exchanged.
Weary of the insipid pomposities of her circle, Vera had
come to meet him with the first hindrance that showed itself,
and so straightened out in queenly fashion those dreary
preliminaries which squander the precious days of life.
But ah! at their first words the empty comments of outsiders
seemed no more than a flight of night-birds passing
back into their darkness. What smiles they exchanged! What
ineffable embraces were theirs!
And yet their nature was strange, strange in the extreme!
They were two beings gifted with marvelous senses, but
exclusively terrestrial. Sensations were prolonged within them
with disturbing intensity, and in experiencing them they lost
consciousness of themselves. On the other hand, certain ideas,
those of the soul for instance, of the infinite, of God Himself,
were as if veiled from their understanding. The faith of
great numbers of living persons in supernatural things was
for them only a matter for vague astonishment; a sealed book
wherewith they had no concern, being qualified neither to
justify nor to condemn. And so, recognizing fully that the
world was something foreign to themselves, they had isolated
themselves immediately upon their union in this ancient
sombre mansion, where the noises of the outside world were
deadened by the dense foliage of the gardens.
There the two lovers plunged into the ocean of those
enjoyments, languorous and perverse, in which the spirit is
merged with the mysteries of the flesh. They exhausted the
violence of desires, the tremors, the distraught longings of
their tenderness. They became each the very heart-beat of
the other. In them the spirit flowed so completely into the
body that their forms seemed to them to be instruments of
comprehension, and that the blazing links of their kisses
chained them together in a fusion of the ideal. A long-drawn
rapture! And suddenly—the spell was broken! The terrible
accident sundered them. Their arms had been entwined. What
shadow had seized from his arms his dead beloved? Dead?
No: is the soul of the violoncello snatched away in the cry of
its breaking string?
The hours passed.
Through the casement he watched the night advancing in
the heavens: and Night became personal to him—seeming
like a queen walking into exile, with melancholy on her brow,
while Venus, the diamond clasp of her mourning gown,
gleamed there above the trees, alone, lost in the depths of
"It is Vera," he thought.
At the name, spoken under his breath, he shivered like a
man awakening, and then, straightening himself, looked
The objects in the room were now lighted by a glow which
till then had been indefinite, that of a sanctuary-lamp, turning
the darkness into deep blue; and now the night which
had climbed the firmament made it seem like another star in
here. It was the incense-perfumed lamp of an ikon, a family
reliquary belonging to Vera. The triptych of precious antique
wood was hung by its platted Russian esparto between
the mirror and the picture. A reflection from the gold of its
interior fell quivering on to the necklace, among the jewels
on the mantel.
The circling halo of the Madonna in her sky-blue gown
shone, patterned into a rose by the Byzantine cross, whose
delicate red outline, melted in the reflection, darkened with a
tincture of blood this orient gleaming in its pearls. From her
childhood Vera had used to cast her great eyes of compassion
on the pure and maternal features of the hereditary Madonna; her
nature, alas! allowed her to consecrate only a
superstitious love to the figure, but this she offered sometimes,
naively and thoughtfully, when she passed in front of
At the sight of this the Count, touched in the most secret
places of his soul, straightened himself, and quickly blew out
the holy flame. Then, feeling with outstretched hand in the
gloom for a bell-cord, he rang.
A servant appeared, an old man attired in black. In his
hand was a lamp; he set it down before the portrait of the
Countess. A shiver of superstitious terror ran through him as
he turned and saw his master standing erect and smiling as
if nothing had come to pass.
"Raymond," said the Count in calm tones, "we are worn
out with fatigue this evening, the Countess and I. You will
serve supper about ten o'clock.—And by the way, we have
made up our minds that from to-morrow we shall isolate
ourselves here more completely than ever. None of my servants,
except yourself, must pass the night under this roof.
You will send them three years' wages, and they must go.
Then you will close the bar of the gateway, and light the
torches downstairs in the dining-room; you will be enough
for our needs. For the future we shall receive nobody."
The old man was trembling, watching him attentively.
The Count lit a cigar and went down into the gardens.
At first the servant imagined that grief, too crushing, too
desperate, had unhinged his master's mind. He had been
familiar with him from his childhood, and instantly understood
that the shock of too sudden an awakening could easily
be fatal to this sleep-walker. His duty, to begin with, was
respect for such a secret.
He bowed his head. A devoted complicity in this religious
phantasy...? To obey...? To continue to serve them
without taking heed of Death?--What a strange fancy!
Would it endure for one night...? To-morrow perhaps, alas...!
Who could tell...? Maybe... But after all, a sacred project!
What right had he to reflect like this...?
He left the chamber, carried out his orders to the letter,
and that same evening the unwonted mode of life began.
A terrible mirage—this is what had to be brought into
The pain of the first days faded quickly away. Raymond, at
first with stupefaction, afterwards from a sort of deference
and fondness, had adapted himself so skillfully to a natural
demeanour, that before three weeks had passed he felt at
moments that he was himself the dupe of his good-will. The
suppressed thought was fading! Sometimes, experiencing a
kind of dizziness, he felt compelled to assure himself that
the Countess was no more, positively was dead. He became
adept in the melancholy pretence, and every moment he
grew more forgetful of reality. Before long he needed to
reflect more than once to convince himself and pull himself
together. He realized clearly that in the end he would surrender
utterly to the terrifying magnetism wherewith the
Count, little by little, was infusing the atmosphere around
them. A fear came over him, a quiet, uncertain fear.
D'Athol, in fact, was living in an absolute denial of the
fact of his loved one's death. So closely was the form of the
young woman fused with his own that he could not but find
her always with him. Now, on a garden seat on sunny days,
he was reading aloud the poems that she loved. Now, in the
evening, by the fireside, with two cups of tea on the little
round table, he was chattering with the Illusion, who, for his
eyes, sat smiling there in the other arm-chair.
Days, nights, weeks sped by. Neither one nor the other
knew what they were bringing to pass. And strange happenings were
now taking place, so that it became hard to distinguish
how far the real and the imaginary coincided. A presence
floated in the air. A form was struggling to become
visible, to weave some pattern of its being upon the space no
longer within its measure.
D'Athol lived a twofold life, like a visionary. The
glimpse of a pale and gentle face, caught in a flash, within
the twinkling of an eye; a faint chord struck on the piano,
suddenly; a kiss that closed his lips at the instant of his
speaking; the affinities of feminine thoughts which awoke
within him in response to the words he uttered; a doubling
of his own self which made him feel as if he were in some
fluid mist; the perfume, the intoxicating, sweet perfume of
his beloved by his side; and at night, betwixt waking and
sleeping, words which he heard low-spoken—everything
pointed to one thing: a negation of Death exalted finally into
an unknown force!
Once d'Athol felt and saw her so clearly beside him
that he took her in his arms. But with the movement she
"Poor child!" he murmured, smiling, and fell asleep
again, like a lover repulsed by his smiling, drowsy mistress.
On her birthday, he placed in pleasantry some everlastings
amid the bouquet of flowers which he laid on Vera's pillow.
"Because she imagines that she's dead!" said he.
In the end, by reason of the deep and all-compelling will
of d'Athol, who thus from the strength of his love wrought
the very life and presence of his wife into the lonely mansion,
this mode of life acquired a gloomy and persuasive
magic. Raymond himself no longer felt any alarm, having
become gradually used to these impressions.
The glimpse of a black velvet robe at the bend of a pathway; the
call of a laughing voice in the drawing-room; a
bell rung when he awoke in the morning, just at it used to
be—all this had become familiar to him: the dead woman,
one might have thought, was playing with the invisible, as
a child might. So well beloved did she feel herself! It was
A year had gone by.
On the evening of the Anniversary the Count was sitting
by the fire in Vera's room. He had just finished reading her
the last verses of a Florentine tale, Callimachus, and he
closed the book.
"Douschka," he said, pouring himself out some tea," do
you remember the Vallee-des-Roses, and the banks of the
Lahn, and the castle of Quatre-Tours? Do you? Didn't that
story bring them back to you?"
He rose, and in the bluish glass he saw himself paler than
his wont. He took up a bracelet of pearls in a goblet and
gazed at them attentively. Vera had taken the pearls from
her arm (had she not?) just a little time ago, before disrobing,
and the pearls were still warm, and their water softened,
as by the warmth of her flesh. And here was the opal of that
Siberian necklace; so well did it love Vera's fair bosom that,
when sometimes she forgot it for awhile, it would grow pale
in its golden network, as if sick and languishing. (For that, in
days gone by, the Countess used to love her devoted trinket!)
And now this evening, the opal was gleaming as if it
had just been left off, as if it were still infused with the rare
magnetism of the dead beauty. As he set down the necklace
and the precious stone, the count touched accidentally the
cambric handkerchief: the drops of blood upon it were damp
and red, like carnations on snow! And there, on the
pianowho had turned the last page of that melody out of the past?
Why, the sacred lamp had relit itself, there in the reliquary!
Yes, its gilded flame threw a mystic light upon the face of
the Madonna and on her closed eyes! And those eastern
flowers, new-gathered, opening and blooming in those old
Saxony vases—whose hand had just placed them there?
The whole room seemed to be happy, seemed to be gifted
with life, in some fashion more significant, more intense than
usual. But nothing could surprise the Count! So normal did
all appear to him, that he did not so much as notice the hour
striking on that clock which through the whole long year had
That evening one would have said that, from out of the
depths of the darkness, the Countess Vera was striving (and
striving how adorably!) to come back to this room, whose
every corner was impregnate with her own self! She had left
behind so much of herself there! Everything that had gone
to make up her existence was drawing her back thither. Her
charm hung suspended in its air. The prolonged force sprung
from her husband's impassioned will must have loosened the
vague bonds of the Invisible about her...
She was necessitated there. All that she loved was there.
She must have longed, surely, to come and smile to herself
in that mysterious mirror wherein so often she had admired
the lilies of her countenance. Yes, down there amid
the violets, there beneath the cold and darkened lamps in the
vault, in her loneliness, she had started, the lovely one, the
dead one; she had shuddered, the divine one, shuddered as
she gazed on the silver key flung upon the slabs. She longed
to come to him, she in her turn! And her will vanished in
the idea of the incense and the isolation. Death is a final and
binding term only for those who cherish hopes from the
heavens; but for her was not the final term the embrace of
Death and the Heavens and Life? And there, in the gloom,
the solitary kiss of her husband was drawing forth her own
lips. And the vanished sound of the melodies, the intoxicating
words of days gone by, the stuffs which had covered her
body and still held its perfume, those magical jewels which
still in their obscure sympathy longed for her, and above all
the overwhelming and absolute impression of her presence,
a feeling shared in the end even by the things
themselves—everything had been calling, had been drawing her thither
for so long now, and by such insensible degrees, that, cured
at last of somnolent Death, there was lacking nothing, save
only Her alone.
Ah, Ideas are living beings! The Count had hollowed out
in the air the shape of his love, and necessity demanded that
into this void should pour the only being that was homogeneous to
it, for otherwise the Universe would have crashed into
chaos. And at that instant the impression came, final, simple,
absolute, that She must be there, there in the room! Of this
he was as calmly certain as of his own existence, and all the
objects about him were saturated with this conviction. One
saw it there! And now, since nothing was lacking save only
Vera herself, outwardly and tangibly there, it was inevitably
ordained that there she should be, and that for an instant the
great Dream of Life and Death should set its infinite gates
ajar! By faith the pathway of resurrection had been driven
right to her! Joyfully a clear burst of musical laughter lit
up the nuptial bed. The Count turned round. And there, before his
eyes, creature of memory and of will, ethereal, an
elbow leaning on the lace of the pillow, one hand buried in
her thick black hair, her lips deliciously parted in a smile that
held a paradise of rare delights, lovely with the beauty that
breaks the heart, there at last the Countess Vera was gazing
on him, and sleep still lingering within her eyes.
"Roger!" spoke the distant voice.
He came over to her side. In joy, in divine, oblivious,
deathless joy, their lips were united!
And then they perceived, then, that they were in reality
but one single being.
The hours flew by in their strange flight, brushing with
the tips of their wings this ecstasy wherein heaven and earth
for the first time were mingled.
Suddenly, as if struck by some fatal memory, the Count
"Ah, I remember!" he cried." I remember now! What
am I doing?—You, you are dead!"
And at that moment, when that word was spoken, the mystic
lamp before the ikon was extinguished. The pale, thin
light of morning—a dreary, grey, raining morning--filtered
through the gaps of the curtain into the room. The candles
grew pale and went out, and there was only the acrid
smoke from their glowing wicks; beneath a layer of chilling
ashes the fire disappeared; within a few minutes the flowers
faded and shrivelled up; and little by little the pendulum of
the clock slowed down once more into immobility. The certitude
of all the objects took sudden flight. The opal stone,
turned dead, gleamed no longer; the stains of blood upon
the cambric by her side had faded likewise; and the vision, in
all its ardent whiteness, effacing itself between those
despairing arms which sought in vain to clasp it still, returned
into thin air. It was lost. One far faint sigh of farewell, distinct,
reached even to the soul of the Count. He rose. He had just
perceived that he was alone. His dream had melted away at
one single touch. With one single word he had snapped the
magnetic thread of his glittering pattern. And the atmosphere now
was that of the dead.
Like those tear-shaped drops of glass, of chance formation, so
solid that a hammer-blow on their thick part will not
shatter them, yet such that they will crumble instantly into
an impalpable dust if the narrow end, finer than a needle's
point, be broken—all had vanished.
"Oh!" he murmured, "then all is over!—She is lost...
and all alone!—What path can bring me to you now?
Show me the road that can lead me to you!"
Suddenly, as if in reply, a shining object fell with a metallic
ring from off the nuptial bed, onto the black fur: a ray
of that hateful, earthly day lit it up. Stooping down, the
forsaken one seized it, and, as he recognized the object, his
face was illumined with a sublime smile. It was the key of the