Logo - Link to Home Page

Short Story Classics




Villiers de l'Isle-Adam
1838 -1889



by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam

Translated by Hamish Miles



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 the hangings.

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 no more.

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 thoughts.

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 azure.

"It is Vera," he thought.

At the name, spoken under his breath, he shivered like a man awakening, and then, straightening himself, looked round him.

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 the lamp.

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 being!

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 vanished.

"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 altogether natural.

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 piano

who 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 stood still.

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 d'Athol started.

"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 tomb.



Last updated:
December 29, 2003
| Home |