The following is a Gaslight etext....

A message to you about copyright and permissions

(Le Desir d'etre un homme)

by Villiers de L'Isle-Adam

from Contes Cruels (1883, 1927 ed.)

Translated by Hamish Miles

                             ...that Nature might stand up 
               And say to all the world, "This was a man!" 
                               SHAKESPEARE: JULIUS CAESAR.  

   Midnight struck at the Bourse, beneath a sky crowded with
stars.  At this period the demands of martial law were still
pressing on the citizens, and the waiters of the
establishments still illuminated were hurrying to close down
in accordance with the curfew regulations.  

   Along the boulevards.  inside the great cafe, the
gaslight butterflies of the chandeliers took quick flight,
one by one, into the darkness.  From without came the din of
chairs being piled in fours on top of the marble tables; it
was the psychological moment when every cafe-proprietor
deems it fitting to point, with an arm ending in a napkin,
the Caudine Forks of the low door to the last lingering

   On that Sunday, the melancholy wind of October was 
whistling.  A few yellow leaves, dusky and rustling.  sped
past in the gusts, striking the stones, gliding along the
asphalt, and then, like bats, vanished into the gloom,
evoking as they did so the image of dreary days past beyond

   The theatres of the Boulevard du Crime, where during the 
evening all the Medicis, all the Salviatis, and all the
Montefeltres had stabbed each other to their hearts'
content, rose up like caverns of Silence, their dumb doors
guarded by caryatides, Carriages and pedestrians became
fewer as each minute passed.  Here and there, the sceptical
lantern of a ragpicker was already gleaming, like a
phosphorescence given off by the piles of filth over which
the creatures wandered.  

   Beneath a lamp-post at the Rue Hauteville, where the  
corner is occupied by a cafe of fairly pretentious
appearance, stood a solitary passer-by, tall and of
saturnine expression.  His chin was clean-shaven, his
movements recalled a man walking in his sleep, and on his
long hair, turning grey, was set a felt hat of the Louis
XIII style.  His black gloves rested on an ivory-topped
cane, and he was wrapped in an old royal blue cloak,
befurred with doubtful astrakhan.  He had topped, as if in
mechanical hesitation to cross the causeway separating him
from the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle.  

   Was this belated personage returning to his abode?  Had
he been brought to this street corner simply by the chance
of a nocturnal stroll?  It would have been hard to determine
from his appearance.  But suddenly, to his right, he caught
sight of one of those mirrors, narrow and long as his own
figure — the sort of public mirrors sometimes attached to the
fronts of conspicuous taverns.  He halted abruptly, placed
himself directly opposite his reflection, and eyed himself
with great deliberation from top to toe.  Then, suddenly
raising his hat with a sweep that recalled its antique mode,
he saluted himself with marked courtesy.  

   His head, thus unexpectedly made visible, allowed one to 
recognize the famous tragedian Chaudval, originally
Lepeinteur, styled Monanteuil, the scion of a very worthy
family of St. Malo pilots, whom the mysterious ways of
Destiny had led to become a great leading man of the
provinces, a top-line name abroad, and a rival (frequently
well-matched) of our Frederic-Lemaitre.  

   Whilst he was thus contemplating himself with a sort of 
stupefaction, the waiters of the cafe hard by were helping
on the overcoats of the last clients and reaching down their
hats from the pegs; others were noisily turning out the
contents of the nickel money-box and piling a circular heap
of the day's coppers on a tray.  This startled haste sprang
from the ominous presence of two police officers who had
suddenly appeared on the threshold and, with folded arms,
were intimidating the dilatory proprietor with a cold stare. 

   Soon the shutters were bolted into their iron rests, with
the exception of the mirrored panel, which, by a strange
oversight, was omitted in the midst of the general flurry.  

   Then a deep silence fell over the boulevard.  Chaudval 
alone, heedless of all this desolation, had stayed in his
attitude of ecstasy on the pavement at the corner of the Rue
Hauteville, in front of the public glass.  

   This livid, moon-like mirror apparently gave the artist
the sensation which he would have experienced had he been  
bathing in a pond: for Chaudval was shivering.  

   Alas! we must face it! in this ruthless and mournful
crystal, the actor had just unmistakably seen that age was
creeping over him.  

   He observed that his hair, which yesterday had still been
only sprinkled with grey, was now turning to silver.  So
that was the end of it!  Farewell to curtain calls and
floral tributes!  Farewell to the roses of Thalia, to the
laurels of Melpomene!  There must be an end now, and for
ever, with many a hand-shake and tear, to the Ellevious and
the Laruettes, to the great style and the easy manners, to
Dugazons and ingénues! 

   He must climb hurriedly down from the chariot of Thespis,
and watch it pass on into the distance, carrying away his 
companions.  And then — to see the tinsel and the streamers 
waving from it in the morning sun, even from the wheels, 
sports of the gladsome winds of Hope, and to watch them 
disappearing at the distant bend of the road, away into the

   Abruptly aware of his fifty years (he was an excellent
fellow), Chaudval sighed.  A mist passed before his eyes; a
kind of wintry fever seized him, and hallucination dilated
the pupils of his eyes.

   In the end, the haggard fixity of gaze wherewith he 
plumbed the depths of the providential mirror gave his  
pupils the faculty of magnifying objects and infusing them 
with solemnity — a state which physiologists have observed 
in persons affected by emotion of great intensity.  

   And so, beneath his eyes with their load of troubled and 
toneless ideas, the long mirror changed its aspect. 
Memories of childhood, of the beach and silvery tides,
danced in his brain; and the mirror, doubtless on account of
the stars, which lent a sense of depth to its surface, gave
him at first the feeling of the calm waters of a land-locked
bay.  Then, expanding further, thanks to the old man's
sighs, the glass took on the aspect of the sea and of night,
those two ancient friends of hearts stricken by loneliness. 

   For a time he drugged himself with the vision.  But the 
street lamp overhead, shining red behind him through the 
cold fog, seemed to him, when it was cast back to the depths
of this fearsome glass, like the blood-coloured gleam of a 
lighthouse, pointing the track of shipwreck to the lost
vessel of his future.  

   He shook off this nightmare, drew himself to the full 
height of his tall figure, and gave vent to a burst of false
and bitter laughter which made the two policemen start, over
there under the trees.  Fortunately for the artist, the
latter imagined it must be some stray drunkard, or some
deceived lover perhaps, and continued their official
progress without attributing any further importance to the
unhappy Chaudval.  

   "Well, we must face it!" he said simply, in a low voice, 
like the condemned man, suddenly roused from sleep, who 
says to the hangman: "I am at your service, sir!" 

   And straightway the old actor ventured forth into a  
monologue, with the stupefaction of mental prostration.  
"I have acted prudently enough," he went on, "for I 
asked my good friend Mlle. Pinson (who has access to the 
Minister, and to his pillow as well) to obtain for me,
between two passionate avowals, that post as
lighthouse-keeper which my father enjoyed on the ocean
coast.  And stop!  I see now the strange effect that street
lamp produced on me in the mirror!  It was my underlying
thought. — The Pinson will be sending me my authorization,
there's no doubt.  And then I shall retreat into my
lighthouse like a rat in a cheese.  I shall light the 
way for vessels afar off, away at sea.  A lighthouse!  It
always strikes the note for a good background.  I am alone
in the world: decidedly, it is the most fitting asylum for
my declining days." 

   Suddenly Chaudval broke off his reverie.  

   "Ah, wait a moment!" he said, one hand feeling his chest 
beneath his cloak."  That letter the postman brought just as
I was coming out — it's the answer, no doubt?  Why, I was
just going into the cafe to read it, and I forgot! — Really,
I am breaking up! — Good!  Here it is."              

   Chaudval had just drawn a large envelope from his pocket. 
He opened it, and there fell out a ministerial note which he
picked up with feverish haste.  He ran his eye through it
under the red flame of the lamp-post.  

   "My lighthouse!  My warrant!" he exclaimed.  And 
"Saved, ye gods above!" he added mechanically, as if from 
old habit, and in a falsetto so sudden, so different from
his own, that he looked all round, imagining there must be
some third party at hand,           

   "Come, keep calm, and...  be a man!" he went on, after 
a moment.  

   But at those words, Esprit Chaudval, originally
Lepeinteur, styled Monanteuil, stopped.  It was as if he had
been turned to a pillar of salt.  The word seemed to have
paralysed him.  

   "Eh?" he continued after a silence.  "What was that wish 
just now? — To be a Man? — And after all, why not?" 

   He folded his arms, plunged in reflection.  

   "For nearly half a century now I have been
representing, I have been playing, the passions of
others without even experiencing them.  For, at bottom, I
myself have never experienced anything.  I am the likeness
of these 'others,' but only in play, never in earnest!  So
I'm no more than a shadow?  Passion — emotions — real
acts — real — these are what constitute a Man properly
so-called!  Well, age forces me to return into Humanity, so
I must needs obtain passions for myself, or some real
emotion... since that's the sine qua non of any claim to
the title of Man.  There's honest logic for you: it's
crammed full of sound sense! — So we must choose to
experience something which will best accord with the nature
I have at last brought back to life." 

   He meditated awhile, and then went on in melancholy

   "Love?  Too late. — Fame?  I've known it. — Ambition? 
Leave that trumpery stuff to the politicians!" 

   Suddenly a cry broke from him: 

   "I've got it!" he said.  "Remorse!  That is something to
go with my dramatic temperament." 

   He looked at himself in the glass, assuming a face
convulsed and contracted as if by some unearthly horror.  

   "That's it!" he concluded.  "Nero!  Macbeth!  Orestes! 
Hamlet!  Erostrates!  Ghosts — yes!  I want to see true 
ghosts!  My time's come!  Just like all those people who had
the luck never to be able to take one step without ghosts 
beside them." 

   He struck his brow.  

   "But how?  I'm as innocent as an unborn lamb." 

   And, again pausing, he went on: 

   "Ah!  Don't let that stand in the way!  Where there's a 
will there's a way.  I've ample right to become what I ought
to be, and at any price.  I've a right to my Humanity! — To  
experience remorse, you must have committed crimes?  Well, a
fig for crimes!  What do they matter, so long as it's... in
a good cause? — Yes....  Very good!"  (And he falls into a 
dialogue.)  "When? — At once.  No putting off till 
to-morrow! — What crimes? — One only!  But a great one, an  
extravagant, atrocious crime!  One to bring all the Furies
forth from Hell! — Which shall it be? — The most startling, by
heaven!  Bravo!  I've got it!  A fire!  Then I'll just have
time to start my fire — pack my trunks — come back, duly
cowering behind the window of a cab — enjoy my triumph amid 
the horrified crowds — overhear the maledictions of the  
dying — and catch my westward train with remorse at my heels 
for the rest of my days!  And then I shall be off to hide
myself in my lighthouse!  Up there in the light!  Away out
at sea!  And consequently the police will never contrive to
find me — my crime being disinterested!  And I shall breathe
my last there, alone."  Here Chaudval drew himself up. 
improvising a line of Corneille-like splendour: 

   "Safe from suspicion by the crime's huge gleam!" 

   "'Tis said. — And now," concluded the great artist,
picking up a cobblestone, and looking round to assure
himself that he was alone, "and now, you shall never reflect
any other person!" 

   And he hurled the stone against the glass, which shivered
into a thousand glittering fragments.  

   This first duty accomplished, Chaudval made off
hurriedly — as if satisfied with this preliminary but
energetic deed of daring.  He hastened towards the
boulevards.  There, a few minutes later, a carriage stopped
at his hail.  He jumped into it, and disappeared.  

   A couple of hours later the leaping flames of an immense 
conflagration, bursting from great storehouses of petroleum,
oils, and matches, were reflected from all the windows of
the Temple quarter.  Soon the detachments of firemen,
rolling and pushing their apparatus, were rushing together
from all directions, and the doleful blasts of their
trumpets roused with a start all the inhabitants of this
populous quarter.  Countless hurrying footsteps were
clattering on the pavements; the crowd was blocking the
great square of the Chateau-d'Eau and the adjoining streets. 
In less than a quarter of an hour a body of troops was
forming a cordon round the scene of the conflagration.  By
the blood-red glow of torches, policemen were controlling
the floods of humanity in the neighbourhood.  

   Carriages were caught up, and could move no farther.  
Everyone was shouting.  In amongst the terrible crackling of
the fire, distant cries could be distinguished.  The victims
caught in this inferno were screaming, and the roofs of the 
houses were crashing in upon them.  A hundred families,
those of workmen belonging to the blazing factories, were
made, alas! penniless and homeless.  

   But over there, a solitary cab, laden with two large
trunks, was standing stationary behind the crowd halted in
the square.  Inside it was Esprit Chaudval, originally
Lepeinteur, styled Monanteuil.  And from time to time he
drew aside the blind and contemplated his handiwork.  

   "Oh!" he whispered to himself, "I feel myself a horror 
to God and to men! — Yes, that's it, that really is the touch
of a reprobate!" 

   The good old actor's face was glowing.  

   "Wretch that I am!" he grumbled, "What vengeful nights
of waking shall I know, beset by the phantoms of my victims! 
I can feel rising within me the soul of a Nero, burning Rome
in an artist's frenzy!  Of an Erostrates, burning the temple
of Ephesus for love of fame!  Of a Rostopchin, burning
Moscow for love of Country!  Of an Alexander, burning
Persepolis for the pleasing of his deathless Thais! — And 
I, I am burning for the sake of Duty, having no other 
means of existence! — I start a fire because I owe myself
to myself!  I acquit myself!  What a Man I shall be!  How I
shall taste life!  Yes, at last I am going to know what one
feels when one is put to the torture! — And those nights I
shall pass, nights of delight, of magnificent
horror! — Ah! — I breathe again!  I am born anew!  I exist! 
And to think I have been an actor!  Now, we must make off,
with the speed of the lightning: in the gross eyes of
mankind, I am no more than food for the gallows!  Come, we
must lock ourselves into our lighthouse, and enjoy remorse
in peace!" 

   Two days later, in the evening, Chaudval had arrived at
his destination and taken possession of his old and deserted
lighthouse, situated on our western coasts: a flame long
unused, on a ruined building, which ministerial compassion
had brought back to life for him.  

   The light itself could hardly be of any use whatever: it 
was a work of supererogation, a sinecure, a dwelling with a 
flame on top of it, with which everybody, save for the
solitary exception of Chaudval, could dispense.  

   So the worthy tragedian, having brought thither his bed, 
some food, and a great mirror in which to study his facial 
effects, immediately shut himself up in it, away from the 
threat of any human suspicion.  

   Around him moaned the ocean, wherein the ancient abyss of
the heavens bathed all its starry clarity.  He watched the
tides flinging themselves against his tower before the gusts
of wind, rather as the Stylite could contemplate the sands
swirl against his column before the breath of the desert

   With every moment that passed, the dreamer forgot his 
conflagration. — He climbed up and down the stone staircase. 

   On the evening of the third day, Lepeinteur was seated in
his room, sixty feet above the waves, reading once again a 
Paris newspaper which recounted the story of the great 
catastrophe of the night before.  "An unknown malefactor had
flung a few matches into the petroleum vaults.  A phenomenal
conflagration, which had kept up the firemen and residents
of the neighbouring districts all through the night, had  
manifested itself in the Temple quarter." 

   Close on one hundred victims had perished.  Hapless
families  had been plunged into the direst necessity.  

   The whole of the square was in mourning, and still

   Nothing was known of the identity of the criminal who had
committed this crime; and still less could be imagined as to
his motive.  

   As he read, Chaudval leapt for joy, and rubbed his hands 
excitedly, exclaiming: 

   "What a success!  What a marvellous criminal I am!  Shall
I ever be haunted enough?  What ghosts I shall see!  I knew 
well that I should become a Man!  Ah, the method was a hard 
one, I'll admit — but it had to be done!  It had to be done!"

   And looking again at the Paris paper, Chaudval saw
mention of a benefit performance to be given on behalf of
the sufferers.  

   "Ah!" he murmured, "I ought to have lent the assistance 
of my talent for the benefit of my victims!  That would have
been my farewell performance!  I would have declaimed 
Orestes.  I'd have been very convincing...." 

   Thereupon, Chaudval began life in his lighthouse.  

   And the evenings fell, came one upon the other; and the 

   One thing happened which stupefied the artist.  Something

   Contrary to all his hopes and anticipations, his
conscience gave no murmur of remorse.  Not one ghost showed
itself!  He experienced nothing — absolutely nothing! 

   He could not believe the silence.  He could not get over

   And from time to time he looked in the mirror, but his 
head had not altered its complacent aspect!  In a fury, he 
rushed to his lantern, and falsified its lights in a glowing
hope of sinking some far-off vessel, so as to help, to
quicken, to stimulate this mutinous remorse, to awaken the

   Useless toil! 

   Fruitless attempts!  Vain efforts!  He experienced
nothing.  Not one menacing phantom did he behold.  He no
longer slept, so heavily did despair and shame weigh him
down. — So much so that one night he was stricken in his
light-giving solitude by a cerebral congestion, and fell
into a fit, wherein he cried aloud, to the sound of the sea,
and with the great ocean winds smiting his tower lost there
in the infinite: 

   "Ghosts — for the love of God, ghosts!  Let me see just 
one ghost!  I've well deserved it!" 

   The God whom he invoked did not vouchsafe him this 
grace.  And the old actor expired, still proclaiming with
all its futile emphasis his great desire to set eyes on the
ghosts, and never once seeing that what he was seeking was
simply — himself.  

(Prepared by Laurence Roberts)