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by Villiers de L'Isle-Adam

From Contes Cruels

Translated from the French 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 Vera 
l'aimera.  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 

   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 
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 

   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 
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 Vallée-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 

(Prepared by Laurence Roberts)