was changed; I had entangled myself
without knowing it in an inextricable
drama. I must get out of it at any
cost, and I had no way of unravelling
it. I resolved by all means to find one.”
He sat by his desolate hearth and began to think with terror of the eternal solitude of that hearth. Alone! always alone! Already he had said to himself very often that he had chosen the wrong road, that this arid and desolate path was not the one needful to his ardent soul, that the hopes with which he had formerly been deluded, were falsehoods in reality, and that the God whom they had made him believe that he loved with such ardour, left his soul empty and barren.
To love God! The love of God! High-sounding, hollow words which enable hypocrites to take advantage of the common people; fantastic passion kindled in the heart of fools for the amazement of the simple!
Ah! how willingly would he have replaced the worn-out vision of this chimerical phantom with the likeness of some young girl, with sweet look and smile, full of promise.
And the burning memory of the wanton player came and blended with the fresh and radiant memory of the charming pupil of Saint-Denis.
“But why, priest, dost thou permit thy fevered guilty imagination to wander thus? Pursue thy course, pursue it without stopping, without looking back; henceforth it is too late to retrace thy path; anyhow be chaste, be chaste under pain of shame and infamy.
“Thou must not be chaste in view of recompense like a slave, thou must be chaste without expectance.” [The Antigone of Soto]
He took up a book, his sovereign remedy in hours of temptation. It was the life of St. Antony, written by his companion, St. Athanasius.
“The demons presented to his mind thoughts of impurity, but Antony repulsed them by prayer. The devil excited his senses, but Antony blushed with shame, as though the fault were his own, and strengthened his body by faith, by prayer and by vigil. The devil, seeing himself vanquished thus, took the shape of a young and lovely woman and imitated the most lascivious actions in order to beguile him, but Antony raising his thoughts towards heaven and considering the loftiness and excellence of the soul which is given to us, extinguished these burning coals by which the devil hoped to inflame his heart through this deception, and drove away the devilish creature.”
Marcel shrugged his shoulders and closed the book. How many times already he had tried all those means without success.
He leant his burning forehead on his hands and, in self-contemplation, tried to see to the bottom of his soul.
Chaste! always chaste! What! Was the flower of his youth wasted away thus, in incessant, barren struggles? If only peace of heart, and a quiet conscience remained to him; if quietude sat by his hearth, as his masters many a time had promised him! But no, alone with himself, he felt himself to be with an enemy.
For many years, it had been so, and a lying voice had cried to him without ceasing: “Wait for happiness, for sweet pure joys, wait for it till to-morrow: to-morrow all this fury will have passed away, these raging blasts which rise to thy brain will have vanished; thy vanquished senses will leave thee in peace, and calm and strong, thou shalt rejoice over an untroubled conscience and over the satisfaction of duty fulfilled.”
And he had waited in vain. Now he had reached ripe age, and the future is visible ever more gloomy; to-morrow has come, as sad, as empty, and as desolate as yesterday.
He was tired at last of waiting, patiently, humbly, resigned like the beast of burden which awaits the slaughterhouse. Beasts of burden! Are we not that, all we who with brow bent under humiliation, injustice, thankless toil; with the heart embittered by tedious deception and tedious despair, miseries of heart and miseries of body, wait, wait ever, wait vainly for a more brilliant sun to shine at last, until at the end of the day there rises before us the only guest we have never expected, on whom we counted not,—the solution of the great problem, the radical cure for all our ills—DEATH.
Death, which with its brutal hand, seizes us at the moment when perhaps at last we are going to rest ourselves and rejoice.
No, that shall not be. He will not continue to vegetate without happiness in these dull, common-place surroundings; to walk at random in this road bristling with thorns; to pursue his disheartening career, enclosed by miserable vices.
Nothing around him but stupid, vulgar prosiness, foolish moral annihilation. No poetry, no golden ray, no rainbow! Everything most low, unsightly, pitiful. Such was his lot as priest.
Complaints of the soul, wandering flashes of the imagination, criminal aspirations of the heart, sinful desires ... these ... that was all.
Was this then life?
Was it for this that God had created him, that his mother had drawn him painfully forth from her entrails, that nature had one day counted one intelligent being the more?
Ah! he felt full well it was not so. He felt full well it was not so by his thirst for emotions and enjoyment, by his altered lips, by his aspirations for an unknown world. He was in haste to strip off for once at least this old man's shell which enveloped him, this black, hideous, hardened covering of the bad priest, beneath which he felt his vitality, his youth, his strength, his heart of thirty, bounding, boiling, roaring, like burning lava.
The next day he remembered that though it was nearly six months since he had taken possession of his cure, his pastoral visits were not yet completed.
In fact, he had gone everywhere, even to Captain Durand's. Only, he had found the door closed and, after the information he received, he had fully resolved not to go there again.