After selling his effects, Des Esseintes retained the two old domestics who had tended his mother and filled the offices of steward and house porter at the Chateau de Lourps, which had remained deserted and uninhabited until its disposal.
These servants he brought to Fontenay. They were accustomed to the regular life of hospital attendants hourly serving the patients their stipulated food and drink, to the rigid silence of cloistral monks who live behind barred doors and windows, having no communication with the outside world.
The man was assigned the task of keeping the house in order and of procuring provisions, the woman that of preparing the food. He surrendered the second story to them, forced them to wear heavy felt coverings over their shoes, put sound mufflers along the well-oiled doors and covered their floor with heavy rugs so that he would never hear their footsteps overhead.
He devised an elaborate signal code of bells whereby his wants were made known. He pointed out the exact spot on his bureau where they were to place the account book each month while he slept. In short, matters were arranged in such wise that he would not be obliged to see or to converse with them very often.
Nevertheless, since the woman had occasion to walk past the house so as to reach the woodshed, he wished to make sure that her shadow, as she passed his windows, would not offend him. He had designed for her a costume of Flemish silk with a white bonnet and large, black, lowered hood, such as is still worn by the nuns of Ghent. The shadow of this headdress, in the twilight, gave him the sensation of being in a cloister, brought back memories of silent, holy villages, dead quarters enclosed and buried in some quiet corner of a bustling town.
The hours of eating were also regulated. His instructions in this regard were short and explicit, for the weakened state of his stomach no longer permitted him to absorb heavy or varied foods.
In winter, at five o'clock in the afternoon, when the day was drawing to a close, he breakfasted on two boiled eggs, toast and tea. At eleven o'clock he dined. During the night he drank coffee, and sometimes tea and wine, and at five o'clock in the morning, before retiring, he supped again lightly.
His meals, which were planned and ordered once for all at the beginning of each season, were served him on a table in the middle of a small room separated from his study by a padded corridor, hermetically sealed so as to permit neither sound nor odor to filter into either of the two rooms it joined.
With its vaulted ceiling fitted with beams in a half circle, its bulkheads and floor of pine, and the little window in the wainscoting that looked like a porthole, the dining room resembled the cabin of a ship.
Like those Japanese boxes which fit into each other, this room was inserted in a larger apartment — the real dining room constructed by the architect.
It was pierced by two windows. One of them was invisible, hidden by a partition which could, however, be lowered by a spring so as to permit fresh air to circulate around this pinewood box and to penetrate into it. The other was visible, placed directly opposite the porthole built in the wainscoting, but it was blocked up. For a long aquarium occupied the entire space between the porthole and the genuine window placed in the outer wall. Thus the light, in order to brighten the room, traversed the window, whose panes had been replaced by a plate glass, the water, and, lastly, the window of the porthole.
In autumn, at sunset, when the steam rose from the samovar on the table, the water of the aquarium, wan and glassy all during the morning, reddened like blazing gleams of embers and lapped restlessly against the light-colored wood.
Sometimes, when it chanced that Des Esseintes was awake in the afternoon, he operated the stops of the pipes and conduits which emptied the aquarium, replacing it with pure water. Into this, he poured drops of colored liquids that made it green or brackish, opaline or silvery — tones similar to those of rivers which reflect the color of the sky, the intensity of the sun, the menace of rain — which reflect, in a word, the state of the season and atmosphere.
When he did this, he imagined himself on a brig, between decks, and curiously he contemplated the marvelous, mechanical fish, wound like clocks, which passed before the porthole or clung to the artificial sea-weed. While he inhaled the odor of tar, introduced into the room shortly before his arrival, he examined colored engravings, hung on the walls, which represented, just as at Lloyd's office and the steamship agencies, steamers bound for Valparaiso and La Platte, and looked at framed pictures on which were inscribed the itineraries of the Royal Mail Steam Packet, the Lopez and the Valery Companies, the freight and port calls of the Atlantic mail boats.
If he tired of consulting these guides, he could rest his eyes by gazing at the chronometers and sea compasses, the sextants, field glasses and cards strewn on a table on which stood a single volume, bound in sealskin. The book was "The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym", specially printed for him on laid paper, each sheet carefully selected, with a sea-gull watermark.
Or, he could look at fishing rods, tan-colored nets, rolls of russet sail, a tiny, black-painted cork anchor — all thrown in a heap near the door communicating with the kitchen by a passage furnished with cappadine silk which reabsorbed, just as in the corridor which connected the dining room with his study, every odor and sound.
Thus, without stirring, he enjoyed the rapid motions of a long sea voyage. The pleasure of travel, which only exists as a matter of fact in retrospect and seldom in the present, at the instant when it is being experienced, he could fully relish at his ease, without the necessity of fatigue or confusion, here in this cabin whose studied disorder, whose transitory appearance and whose seemingly temporary furnishings corresponded so well with the briefness of the time he spent there on his meals, and contrasted so perfectly with his study, a well-arranged, well-furnished room where everything betokened a retired, orderly existence.
Movement, after all, seemed futile to him. He felt that imagination could easily be substituted for the vulgar realities of things. It was possible, in his opinion, to gratify the most extravagant, absurd desires by a subtle subterfuge, by a slight modification of the object of one's wishes. Every epicure nowadays enjoys, in restaurants celebrated for the excellence of their cellars, wines of capital taste manufactured from inferior brands treated by Pasteur's method. For they have the same aroma, the same color, the same bouquet as the rare wines of which they are an imitation, and consequently the pleasure experienced in sipping them is identical. The originals, moreover, are usually unprocurable, for love or money.
Transposing this insidious deviation, this adroit deceit into the realm of the intellect, there was not the shadow of a doubt that fanciful delights resembling the true in every detail, could be enjoyed. One could revel, for instance, in long explorations while near one's own fireside, stimulating the restive or sluggish mind, if need be, by reading some suggestive narrative of travel in distant lands. One could enjoy the beneficent results of a sea bath, too, even in Paris. All that is necessary is to visit the Vigier baths situated in a boat on the Seine, far from the shore.
There, the illusion of the sea is undeniable, imperious, positive. It is achieved by salting the water of the bath; by mixing, according to the Codex formula, sulphate of soda, hydrochlorate of magnesia and lime; by extracting from a box, carefully closed by means of a screw, a ball of thread or a very small piece of cable which had been specially procured from one of those great rope-making establishments whose vast warehouses and basements are heavy with odors of the sea and the port; by inhaling these perfumes held by the ball or the cable end; by consulting an exact photograph of the casino; by eagerly reading the Joanne guide describing the beauties of the seashore where one would wish to be; by being rocked on the waves, made by the eddy of fly boats lapping against the pontoon of baths; by listening to the plaint of the wind under the arches, or to the hollow murmur of the omnibuses passing above on the Port Royal, two steps away.
The secret lies in knowing how to proceed, how to concentrate deeply enough to produce the hallucination and succeed in substituting the dream reality for the reality itself.
Artifice, besides, seemed to Des Esseintes the final distinctive mark of man's genius.
Nature had had her day, as he put it. By the disgusting sameness of her landscapes and skies, she had once for all wearied the considerate patience of aesthetes. Really, what dullness! the dullness of the specialist confined to his narrow work. What manners! the manners of the tradesman offering one particular ware to the exclusion of all others. What a monotonous storehouse of fields and trees! What a banal agency of mountains and seas!
There is not one of her inventions, no matter how subtle or imposing it may be, which human genius cannot create; no Fontainebleau forest, no moonlight which a scenic setting flooded with electricity cannot produce; no waterfall which hydraulics cannot imitate to perfection; no rock which pasteboard cannot be made to resemble; no flower which taffetas and delicately painted papers cannot simulate.
There can be no doubt about it: this eternal, driveling, old woman is no longer admired by true artists, and the moment has come to replace her by artifice.
Closely observe that work of hers which is considered the most exquisite, that creation of hers whose beauty is everywhere conceded the most perfect and original — woman. Has not man made, for his own use, an animated and artificial being which easily equals woman, from the point of view of plastic beauty? Is there a woman, whose form is more dazzling, more splendid than the two locomotives that pass over the Northern Railroad lines?
One, the Crampton, is an adorable, shrill-voiced blonde, a trim, gilded blonde, with a large, fragile body imprisoned in a glittering corset of copper, and having the long, sinewy lines of a cat. Her extraordinary grace is frightening, as, with the sweat of her hot sides rising upwards and her steel muscles stiffening, she puts in motion the immense rose-window of her fine wheels and darts forward, mettlesome, along rapids and floods.
The other, the Engerth, is a nobly proportioned dusky brunette emitting raucous, muffled cries. Her heavy loins are strangled in a cast-iron breast-plate. A monstrous beast with a disheveled mane of black smoke and with six low, coupled wheels! What irresistible power she has when, causing the earth to tremble, she slowly and heavily drags the unwieldy queue of her merchandise!
Unquestionably, there is not one among the frail blondes and majestic brunettes of the flesh that can vie with their delicate grace and terrific strength.
Such were Des Esseintes' reflections when the breeze brought him the faint whistle of the toy railroad winding playfully, like a spinning top, between Paris and Sceaux. His house was situated at a twenty minutes' walk from the Fontenay station, but the height on which it was perched, its isolation, made it immune to the clatter of the noisy rabble which the vicinity of a railway station invariably attracts on a Sunday.
As for the village itself, he hardly knew it. One night he had gazed through his window at the silent landscape which slowly unfolded, as it dipped to the foot of a slope, on whose summit the batteries of the Verrieres woods were trained.
In the darkness, to left and right, these masses, dim and confused, rose tier on tier, dominated far off by other batteries and forts whose high embankments seemed, in the moonlight, bathed in silver against the sombre sky.
Where the plain did not fall under the shadow of the hills, it seemed powdered with starch and smeared with white cold cream. In the warm air that fanned the faded grasses and exhaled a spicy perfume, the trees, chalky white under the moon, shook their pale leaves, and seemed to divide their trunks, whose shadows formed bars of black on the plaster-like ground where pebbles scintillated like glittering plates.
Because of its enameled look and its artificial air, the landscape did not displease Des Esseintes. But since that afternoon spent at Fontenay in search of a house, he had never ventured along its roads in daylight. The verdure of this region inspired him with no interest whatever, for it did not have the delicate and doleful charm of the sickly and pathetic vegetation which forces its way painfully through the rubbish heaps of the mounds which had once served as the ramparts of Paris. That day, in the village, he had perceived corpulent, bewhiskered bourgeois citizens and moustached uniformed men with heads of magistrates and soldiers, which they held as stiffly as monstrances in churches. And ever since that encounter, his detestation of the human face had been augmented.
During the last month of his stay in Paris, when he was weary of everything, afflicted with hypochondria, the prey of melancholia, when his nerves had become so sensitive that the sight of an unpleasant object or person impressed itself deeply on his brain — so deeply that several days were required before the impression could be effaced — the touch of a human body brushing against him in the street had been an excruciating agony.
The very sight of certain faces made him suffer. He considered the crabbed expressions of some, insulting. He felt a desire to slap the fellow who walked, eyes closed, with such a learned air; the one who minced along, smiling at his image in the window panes; and the one who seemed stimulated by a whole world of thought while devouring, with contracted brow, the tedious contents of a newspaper.
Such an inveterate stupidity, such a scorn for literature and art, such a hatred for all the ideas he worshipped, were implanted and anchored in these merchant minds, exclusively preoccupied with the business of swindling and money-making, and accessible only to ideas of politics — that base distraction of mediocrities — that he returned enraged to his home and locked himself in with his books.
He hated the new generation with all the energy in him. They were frightful clodhoppers who seemed to find it necessary to talk and laugh boisterously in restaurants and cafes. They jostled you on sidewalks without begging pardon. They pushed the wheels of their perambulators against your legs, without even apologizing.
Last modified 28 February 2008