During the first week in November, the week within the Octave of All Souls, Durtal entered St. Sulpice, at eight o’clock in the evening. He often chose to turn into that church, because there was a trained choir, and because he could there examine himself at peace, apart from the crowd. The ugliness of the nave, with its heavy vaulting, vanished at night, the aisles were often empty, it was ill-lighted by a few lamps—it was possible for a man to chide his soul in secret, as if at home.
Durtal sat down behind the high altar, on the left, in the aisle along the Rue de St. Sulpice; the lamps of the choir organ were lighted. Far off, in the almost empty nave, an ecclesiastic was preaching. He recognized, by the unctuousness of his delivery, and his oily accent, a well-fed priest who poured on his audience, according to his wont, his best known commonplaces.
“Why are they so devoid of eloquence?” thought Durtal. “I have had the curiosity to listen to many of them, and they are much the same. They only vary in the tones of their voice. According to their temperament, some are bruised down in vinegar, others steeped in oil. There is no such thing as a clever combination.” And he called to mind orators petted like tenors, Monsabré, Didon, those Coquelins of the Church, and lower yet than those products of the Catholic training school, that bellicose booby the Abbé d’Hulst.
“Afterwards,” he continued, “come the mediocrities, each puffed by the handful of devotees who listen to them. If those cooks of the soul had any skill, if they served their clients with delicate meats, theological essences, gravies of prayer, concentrated sauces of ideas, they would vegetate misunderstood by their flocks. So, on the whole, it is all for the best. The low-water mark of the clergy must conform to the level of the faithful, and indeed Providence has provided carefully for this.”
A stamping of shoes, then the movement of chairs grinding on the flags interrupted him. The sermon was over.
Then a great stillness was broken by a prelude from the organ, which dropped to a low tone, a mere accompaniment to the voices.
A slow and mournful chant arose, the “De Profundis.” The blended voices sounded under the arches, intermingling with the somewhat raw sounds of the harmonicas, like the sharp tones of breaking glass.
Resting on the low accompaniment of the organ, aided by basses so hollow that they seemed to have descended into themselves, as it were underground, they sprang out, chanting the verse “De profundis ad te clamavi, Do—” and then stopped in fatigue, letting the last syllables “mine” fall like a heavy tear; then these voices of children, near breaking, took up the second verse of the psalm, “Domine exaudi vocem meam,” and the second half of the last word again remained in suspense, but instead of separating, and falling to the ground, there to be crushed out like a drop, it seemed to gather itself together with a supreme effort, and fling to heaven the anguished cry of the disincarnate soul, cast naked, and in tears before God.
And after a pause, the organ, aided by two double-basses, bellowed out, carrying all the voices in its torrent—baritones, tenors, basses, not now serving only as sheaths to the sharp blades of the urchin voices, but openly with full throated sound—yet the dash of the little soprani pierced them through all at once like a crystal arrow.
Then a fresh pause, and in the silence of the church, the verses mourned out anew, thrown up by the organ, as by a spring board. As he listened with attention endeavouring to resolve the sounds, closing his eyes, Durtal saw them at first almost horizontal, then rising little by little, then raising themselves upright, then quivering in tears, before their final breaking.
Suddenly at the end of the psalm, when the response of the antiphon came—”Et lux perpetua luceat eis”—the children’s voices broke into a sad, silken cry, a sharp sob, trembling on the word “eis,” which remained suspended in the void.
These children’s voices stretched to breaking, these clear sharp voices threw into the darkness of the chant some whiteness of the dawn, joining their pure, soft sounds to the resonant tones of the basses, piercing as with a jet of living silver the sombre cataract of the deeper singers; they sharpened the wailing, strengthened and embittered the burning salt of tears, but they insinuated also a sort of protecting caress, balsamic freshness, lustral help; they lighted in the darkness those brief gleams which tinkle in the Angelus at dawn of day; they called up, anticipating the prophecies of the text, the compassionate image of the Virgin, passing, in the pale light of their tones, into the darkness of that sequence.
The “De Profundis” so chanted was incomparably beautiful. That sublime prayer ending in sobs, at the moment when the soul of the voices was about to overpass human limits, gave a wrench to Durtal’s nerves, and made his heart beat. Then he wished to abstract himself, and cling especially to the meaning of that sorrowful plaint, in which the fallen being calls upon its God with groans and lamentations. Those cries of the third verse came back to him, wherein calling on his Saviour in despair from the bottom of the abyss, man, now that he knows he is heard, hesitates ashamed, knowing not what to say. The excuses he has prepared appear to him vain, the arguments he has arranged seem to him of no effect, and he stammers forth; “If Thou, O Lord, shalt observe iniquities, Lord, who shall endure it?”
“It is a pity,” said Durtal to himself, “that this psalm, which in its first verses chants so magnificently the despair of humanity, becomes in those which follow more personal to King David. I know well,” he went on, “that we must accept the symbolic sense of this pleading, admit that the despot confounds his own cause with that of God, that his adversaries are the unbelievers and the wicked, that he himself, according to the doctors of the Church, prefigures the person of Christ; but yet the memory of his fleshly desires, and the presumptuous praise he gives to his incorrigible people, contracts the scope of the poem. Happily the melody has a life apart from the text, a life of its own, not arising out of mere tribal dissensions, but extending to all the earth, chanting the anguish of the time to be born, as well as of the present day, and of the ages which are no more.”
The “De Profundis” had ceased; after a silence, the choir intoned a motet of the eighteenth century, but Durtal was only moderately interested in human music in churches. What seemed to him superior to the most vaunted works of theatrical or worldly music, was the old plain chant, that even and naked melody, at once ethereal and of the tomb, the solemn cry of sadness and lofty shout of joy, those grandiose hymns of human faith, which seem to well up in the cathedrals, like irresistible geysers, at the very foot of the Romanesque columns. What music, however ample, sorrowful or tender, is worth the “De Profundis” chanted in unison, the solemnity of the “Magnificat,” the splendid warmth of the “Lauda Sion,” the enthusiasm of the “Salve Regina,” the sorrow of the “Miserere,” and the “Stabat Mater,” the majestic omnipotence of the “Te Deum”? Artists of genius have set themselves to translate the sacred texts: Vittoria, Josquin de Près, Palestrina, Orlando Lasso, Handel, Bach, Haydn, have written wonderful pages; often indeed they have been uplifted by the mystic effluence, the very emanation of the Middle Ages, for ever lost; and yet their works have retained a certain pomp, and in spite of all are pretentious, as opposed to the humble magnificence, the sober splendour of the Gregorian chant—with them the whole thing came to an end, for composers no longer believed.
Yet in modern times some religious pieces may be cited of Lesueur, Wagner, Berlioz, and Cæsar Franck, and in these again we are conscious of the artist underlying his work, the artist determined to show his skill, thinking to exalt his own glory, and therefore leaving God out. We feel ourselves in the presence of superior men, but men with their weaknesses, their inseparable vanity, and even the vice of their senses. In the liturgical chant, created almost always anonymously in the depth of the cloisters, was an extraterrestrial well, without taint of sin or trace of art. It was an uprising of souls already freed from the slavery of the flesh, an explosion of elevated tenderness and pure joy, it was also the idiom of the Church, a musical gospel appealing like the Gospel itself at once to the most refined and the most humble.
Ah! the true proof of Catholicism was that art which it had founded, an art which has never been surpassed; in painting and sculpture the Early Masters, mystics in poetry and in prose, in music plain chant, in architecture the Romanesque and Gothic styles. And all this held together and blazed in one sheaf, on one and the same altar; all was reconciled in one unique cluster of thoughts: to revere, adore and serve the Dispenser, showing to Him reflected in the soul of His creature, as in a faithful mirror, the still immaculate treasure of His gifts.
Then in those marvellous Middle Ages, wherein Art, foster-child of the Church, encroached on death and advanced to the threshold of Eternity, and to God, the divine concept and the heavenly form were guessed and half-perceived, for the first and perhaps for the last time by man. They answered and echoed each other—art calling to art.
The Virgins had faces almond-shaped, elongated like those ogives which the Gothic style contrived in order to distribute an ascetic light, a virginal dawn in the mysterious shrine of its naves. In the pictures of the Early Masters the complexion of holy women becomes transparent as Paschal wax, and their hair is pale as golden grains of frankincense, their childlike bosoms scarcely swell, their brows are rounded like the glass of the pyx, their fingers taper, their bodies shoot upwards like delicate columns. Their beauty becomes, as it were, liturgical. They seem to live in the fire of stained glass, borrowing from the flaming whirlwind of the rose-windows the circles of their aureoles. The ardent blue of their eyes, the dying embers of their lips, keeping for their garments the colours they disdain for their flesh, stripping them of their light, changing them, when they transfer them to stuffs, into opaque tones which aid still more by their contrast to declare the seraphic clearness of their look, the grievous paleness of the mouth, to which, according to the Proper of the season, the scent of the lily of the Canticles or the penitential fragrance of myrrh in the Psalms lend their perfume.
Then among artists was a coalition of brains, a welding together of souls. Painters associated themselves in the same ideal of beauty with architects, they united in an indestructible relation cathedrals and saints, only reversing the usual process—they framed the jewel according to the shrine, and modelled the relics for the reliquary.
On their side the sequences chanted by the Church had subtle affinities with the canvases of the Early Painters.
Vittoria’s responses for Tenebræ are of a like inspiration and an equal loftiness with those of Quentin Matsys’ great work, the Entombment of Christ. The “Regina Cœli” of the Flemish musician Lasso has the same good faith, the same simple and strange attraction, as certain statues of a reredos, or religious pictures of the elder Breughel. Lastly, the Miserere of Josquin de Près, choirmaster of Louis XII., has, like the panels of the Early Masters of Burgundy and Flanders, a patient intention, a stiff, threadlike simplicity, but also it exhales like them a truly mystical savour, and its awkwardness of outline is very touching.
The ideal of all these works is the same and attained by different means.
As for plain chant, the agreement of its melody with architecture is also certain; it also bends from time to time like the sombre Romanesque arcades, and rises, shadowy and pensive, like complete vaulting. The “De Profundis,” for instance, curves in on itself like those great groins which form the smoky skeleton of the bays; it is like them slow and dark, extends itself only in obscurity and moves only in the shadow of the crypts.
Sometimes, on the other hand, the Gregorian chant seems to borrow from Gothic its flowery tendrils, its scattered pinnacles, its gauzy rolls, its tremulous lace, its trimmings light and thin as the voices of children. Then it passes from one extreme to another, from the amplitude of sorrow to an infinite joy; at other times again, the plain music, and the Christian music to which it gave birth, lend themselves, like sculpture, to the gaiety of the people, associate themselves with simple gladness, and the sculptured merriment of the ancient porches; they take the popular rhythm of the crowd, as in the Christmas carol “Adeste Fideles” and in the Paschal hymn “O Filii et Filiæ;” they become trivial and familiar like the Gospels, submitting themselves to the humble wishes of the poor, lending them a holiday tune easy to catch, a running melody which carries them into pure regions where these simple souls can cast themselves at the indulgent feet of Christ.
Born of the Church, and bred up by her in the choir-schools of the Middle Ages, plain chant is the aerial and mobile paraphrase of the immovable structure of the cathedrals; it is the immaterial and fluid interpretation of the canvases of the Early Painters; it is a winged translation, but also the strict and unbending stole of those Latin sequences, which the monks built up or hewed out in the cloisters in the far-off olden time.
Now it is changed and disconnected, foolishly overwhelmed by the crash of organs, and is chanted, God knows how!
Most choirs when they intone it, like to imitate the rumbling and gurgling of water-pipes, others the grating of rattles, the creaking of pullies, the grinding of a crane, but, in spite of all, its beauty remains, unextinguished, dulled though it be, by the wild bellowing of the singers.
The sudden silence in the church roused Durtal. He rose and looked about him; in his corner was no one save two poor women, asleep, their feet on the bars of chairs, their heads on their knees. Leaning forward a little, he saw, hanging above him in a dark chapel, the light of a lamp, like a ruby in its red glass; no sound save the military tread of the Suisse, making his round in the distance.
Durtal sat down again; the sweetness of his solitude was enhanced by the aromatic perfume of wax, and the memories, now faint, of incense, but it was suddenly broken. As the first chords crashed on the organ Durtal recognized the “Dies iræ,” that despairing hymn of the Middle Ages; instinctively he bowed his head and listened.
This was no more as in the “De Profundis” an humble supplication, a suffering which believes it has been heard, and discerns a path of light to guide it in the darkness, no longer the prayer which has hope enough not to tremble; it was the cry of absolute desolation and of terror.
And, indeed, the wrath divine breathed tempestuously through these stanzas. They seemed addressed less to the God of mercy, to the Son who listens to prayer, than to the inflexible Father, to Him whom the Old Testament shows us, overcome with anger, scarcely appeased by the smoke of the pyres, the inconceivable attractions of burnt-offerings. In this chant it asserted itself still more savagely, for it threatened to strike the waters, and break in pieces the mountains, and to rend asunder the depths of heaven by thunder-bolts. And the earth, alarmed, cried out in fear.
A crystalline voice, a clear child’s voice, proclaimed in the nave the tidings of these cataclysms, and after this the choir chanted new strophes wherein the implacable judge came with shattering blare of trumpet, to purify by fire the rottenness of the world.
Then, in its turn, a bass, deep as a vault, as though issuing from the crypt, accentuated the horror of these prophecies, made these threats more overwhelming, and after a short strain by the choir, an alto repeated them in yet more detail. Then, so soon as the awful poem had exhausted the enumeration of chastisement and suffering, in shrill tones—the falsetto of a little boy—the name of Jesus went by, and a light broke in on the thunder-cloud, the panting universe cried for pardon, recalling, by all the voices of the choir, the infinite mercies of the Saviour, and His pardon, pleading with Him for absolution, as formerly He had spared the penitent thief and the Magdalen.
But in the same despairing and headstrong melody the tempest raged again, drowned with its waves the half-seen shores of heaven, and the solos continued, discouraged, interrupted by the recurrent weeping of the choir, giving, with the diversity of voices, a body to the special conditions of shame, the particular states of fear, the different ages of tears.
At last, when still mixed and blended, these voices had borne away on the great waters of the organ all the wreckage of human sorrows, all the buoys of prayers and tears, they fell exhausted, paralyzed by terror, wailing and sighing like a child who hides its face, stammering “Dona eis requiem,” they ended, worn out, in an Amen so plaintive, that it died away in a breath above the sobbing of the organ.
What man could have imagined such despair, dreamed of such disasters? And Durtal made answer to himself: “No man.”
In fact the attempt has been vain to discover the author both of the music and of the sequence. They have been attributed to Frangipani, Thomas of Celano, St. Bernard and a crowd of others, and they have remained anonymous, simply formed by the sad alluvial deposits of the age. The “Dies iræ” seemed to have, at first, fallen, like a seed of desolation, among the distracted souls of the eleventh century; it germinated there and grew slowly, nurtured by the sap of anguish, watered by the rain of tears. It was at last pruned when it seemed ripe, and had, perhaps, thrown out too many branches, for in one of the earliest known texts, a stanza, which has since disappeared, called up the magnificent and barbarous image of an earth revolving as it belched forth flames, while the constellations burst into shards, and heaven shrivelled like a parched scroll.
“All this,” concluded Durtal, “does not prevent these triple stanzas woven of shadow and cold, full of reverberating rhymes, and hard echoes, this music of rude stuff which wraps the phrases like a shroud, and masks the rigid outlines of the work, from being admirable! Yet that chant which constrains, and renders with such energy the breadth of the sequence, that melodic period, which without variation, remaining always the same, succeeds in expressing by turns prayer and terror, moves me less than the ‘De Profundis,’ which yet has not its grandiose spaciousness nor that artistic cry of despair.
“But chanted to the organ the psalm is earthy and suffocating. It comes from out the very depths of the sepulchre, while the ‘Dies iræ’ has its source only on the sill of the tomb. The first is the very voice of the dead, the second that of the living who inter him, and the dead man weeps, but takes courage a little, when those that bury him despair.
“To sum up,” Durtal concluded, “I prefer the text of the ‘Dies iræ’ to that of the ‘De Profundis,’ and the melody of the ‘De Profundis’ to that of the ‘Dies iræ.’ It is true also that this last sequence is modernized, and chanted theatrically here, without the imposing and needful march of unison.
“This time, for instance, it is devoid of interest,” he continued, ceasing his thoughts for a moment, to listen to the piece of modern music which the choir was just then rendering. “Ah, who will take on himself to proscribe that pert mysticism, those fonts of toilet-water which Gounod invented!… There ought indeed to be astonishing penalties for choir masters who allow such musical effeminacy in church. This is, as it was this morning at the Madeleine, when I happened to be present at the interminable funeral of an old banker; they played a military march with violin and violoncello accompaniments, with trumpets and timbrels, a heroic and worldly march to celebrate the departure and the decomposition of a financier!… It is too absurd.” And listening no more to the music in St. Sulpice, Durtal transferred himself in thought to the Madeleine, and went off at full speed in his dreams.
“Indeed,” he said to himself, “the clergy make Jesus like a tourist, when they invite Him daily to come down into that church whose exterior is surmounted by no cross, and whose interior is like the grand reception-room at an hotel. But how can you make those priests understand that ugliness is sacrilege, and that nothing is equal to the frightful sin of this confusion of Romanesque and Greek, these pictures of aged men, that flat ceiling studded with skylights, from which filter in all weathers the spoiled gleams of a rainy day, to that futile altar surmounted by a circle of angels who, in discreet abandonment, dance in honour of our Lady, a motionless marble rigadoon?”
Yet in the Madeleine, at a funeral, when the door opens, and the corpse advances in a gap of daylight, all is changed. Like a superterrestrial antiseptic, an extrahuman disinfectant, the liturgy purifies and cleanses the impious ugliness of the place.
And thinking over his memories of the morning, Durtal saw again, as he closed his eyes, at the end of the semicircular apse, the procession of red and black robes, white surplices, joining in front of the altar, descending the steps together, making their way together to the catafalque, dividing again on each aide, joining to mix afresh in the great gangway between the chairs.
This slow and silent procession, led by incomparable Suisses, in mourning, their swords horizontal, and a general’s epaulets in jet, advanced, preceded by a cross, in front of the corpse laid on tressels, and far-off in all that confusion of lights falling from the roof, and lighted flambeaux round the catafalque and on the altar, the white of the tapers disappeared, and the priests who bore them seemed to march with empty hands uplifted as though to point out the stars which accompanied them, twinkling above their heads.
Then when the bier was surrounded by the clergy, the “De Profundis” burst forth from the depths of the sanctuary, intoned by invisible singers.
“That was good,” said Durtal to himself. At the Madeleine the voices of the children are sharp and feeble, and the basses are badly trained and failing; we are evidently far from the choir of St. Sulpice, but all the same it was superb; then what a moment was that of the priests’ communion, when suddenly arising from the murmuring of the choir, the voice of the tenor threw above the corpse the magnificent plain chant antiphon—
“Requiem æternam dona eis Domine Et lux perpetua luceat eis.”
It seems that after all the lamentations of the “De Profundis” and the “Dies iræ,” the presence of God, who comes then upon the altar, brings consolation, and sanctions the confident and solemn pride of that melodious phrase, which then invokes Christ, without dread and without tears.
The mass ended, the celebrant disappeared, and, as at the moment when the corpse entered, the clergy, preceded by the Suisses, advanced towards the body, and in the blazing circle of the tapers, a priest, in his cope, said the mighty prayers of the general absolution.
Then the liturgy took a higher tone, and became still more admirable. Mediative between the sinner and the judge, the Church, by the mouth of her priest, implores the Lord to pardon the poor soul: “Non intres in judicium cum servo tuo Domine”—then after the amen given by the organ and all the choir, a voice arose in the silence, and spoke in the name of the dead:—
and the choir continued the old chant of the tenth century. Just as in the “Dies iræ,” which appropriates to itself fragments of these plaints, the Last Judgment flamed out, and pitiless responses declare to the dead the reality of his alarms, declare to him that at the end of Time the Judge will come with the crash of thunder to chastise the world.
The priest marched round the catafalque, sprinkling it with beads of holy water, incensed it, gave shelter to the poor weeping soul, consoled it, took it to himself, covered it, as it were, with his cope, and again, intervened to pray that, after so much weariness and sorrow, the Lord will permit the unhappy one to sleep the sleep that knows no waking, far from earth’s noises.
Never, in any religion, has a more charitable part, a more august mission been assigned to man. Lifted, by his consecration, wholly above humanity, almost deified by the sacerdotal office, the priest, while earth laments or is silent, can advance to the brink of the abyss, and intercede for the being whom the Church has baptized as an infant, who has no doubt forgotten her since that day, and may even have persecuted her up to the hour of his death.
Nor does the Church shrink from the task. Before that fleshly dust heaped in a chest, she thinks of that sewage of the soul, and cries: “From the gates of hell deliver him, O Lord!” but at the end of the general absolution, at the moment when the procession, turning its back, is on the way to the sacristy, she too seems disquieted. Perhaps recalling in an instant, the ill deeds done by that body while it was alive, she seemed to doubt if her supplications were heard, and the doubt her words would not frame, passed into the intonation of the last amen, murmured at the Madeleine, by children’s voices.
Timid and distant, plaintive and sweet, this amen said: “We have done what we could, but … but …” And in the funereal silence which followed the clergy leaving the nave, there remained only the ignoble reality of the empty husk, lifted in the arms of men, thrust into a carriage, like the refuse of the shambles carted off each morning to be made into soap at the factories.
“If,” continued Durtal, “in opposition to these sad prayers, these eloquent absolutions, we call up before us a marriage mass, all is changed. There the Church is disarmed and her musical liturgy is as nought. Then she may well play Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, and borrow from profane authors the gaiety of their songs to celebrate the brief and empty joy of the body. Imagine, and indeed it happens, the canticle of the Virgin used to magnify the glad impatience of a bride. Fancy the Te Deum, to hymn the blessedness of a bridegroom!”
Far away from this infamous barter of the flesh, plain chant remains shut up in the antiphonaries, like a monk in the cloister, and when it goes forth, it is to cast up before Christ his garnered pains and sorrows. It gathers and sums them up in admirable supplications, and if, fatigued with pleading it adores, its impulse is to glorify eternal events, Palm Sunday and Easter, Pentecost and the Ascension, Epiphany and Christmas, then its joy bursts forth so magnificently, that it springs beyond the world to show its ecstatic joy at the feet of God.
As to the very ceremonies of the funeral, they are now only the regular way of getting money, an official routine, a prayer-wheel which is turned mechanically without thought of it.
The organist while he plays thinks of his family, and considers how wearied he is; the bellows-blower thinks, as he fills the pipes, of the half-pint which will dry his sweat; the tenors and basses are careful of their effects, and admire themselves in the more or less rippled water of their voices; the choir boys dream of their scampers after mass; and, moreover, not one of them at all understands a word of the Latin they sing and abridge, as for instance the “Dies iræ,” of which they suppress a part of the stanzas.
In its turn beadledom calculates the sum the dead man brings in, and even the priest, wearied with the prayers of which he has read so many, and needing his breakfast, prays mechanically from the lips outward, while the assistants are in a hurry that the mass to which they have not listened should come to an end, that they may shake hands with the relations, and leave the dead.
There is absolute inattention, profound weariness. Yet how terrible is that thing on the tressels that is waiting there in the church, that empty dwelling-place, that body which is already breaking up. Liquid manure that stinks, gases which evaporate, flesh that rots is all that remains!
And the soul, now that life is over, and all begins? No one thinks of it, not even the family worn out by the length of the service, absorbed in their own sorrow; who in fact regret only the visible presence of the being they have lost; no one except myself, thought Durtal, and a few curious people, who associate themselves in their alarm with the “Dies iræ” and the “Libera,” of which they understand both the language and the meaning.
Then by the external sound of the words, without the aid of contemplation, without even the help of thought, the Church acts.
There it is, the miracle of her liturgy, the power of her word, the constantly renewed prodigy of phrases created by revolving time, of prayers arranged by ages which are dead. All has passed, nothing exists that was raised up in those bygone times. Yet those sequences remain intact, cried aloud by indifferent voices and cast out from empty hearts, plead, groan, and implore even with efficacy, by their virtual power, their talismanic might, their inalienable beauty by the almighty confidence of their faith. The Middle Ages have left us these to help us to save, if it may be, the soul of the modern and dead fine gentleman.
At the present time, concluded Durtal, there is nothing left peculiar to Paris, but the ceremonies, very like each other, of taking the veil and of funerals. It is unfortunate that when we have to do with a sumptuous corpse, undertakers have their way.
They then bring out their terrible upholstery, plated statues of our Lady in atrocious taste, zinc basins in which blaze bowls of green punch, tin candelabra at the end of a branch, like a cannon on end with its mouth upwards, supporting spiders on their backs, with burning candles set about their legs, all the funeral ironmongery of the First Empire, with curtain rods in relief, acanthus leaves, winged hour-glasses, lozenges and Greek frets. It is unfortunate, too, that to touch up the miserable furniture of these ceremonies they play Massenet and Dubois, Benjamin Godard and Widor, or, worse still, the sacristy orchestra, mystical bellowing, such as the women sing, who are affiliated to the confraternities of the month of May.
And alas, we hear no longer the tempests of the great organs and the majestic dolours of plain chant, save at the funerals of the monied classes; for the poor, nothing—no choir, no organ, just a handful of prayers, then a few dips of the brush in the holy water stoup, and there is a dead man the more on whom the rain falls, who is carried away. But the Church knows that the carrion of the rich rots as much as that of the poor, while his soul stinks more, but she jobs indulgences and haggles about masses; she, even she, is consumed by the lust of gold.
“Yet I must not think too ill of these wealthy fools,” said Durtal, after silent thought, “for after all it is thanks to them that I can hear the admirable liturgy of the burial service, these people who perhaps have done no good action in their life, do at least this kindness to a few, without knowing it, after their death.”
A noise recalled him to St. Sulpice; the choir was going, the church was about to close. “I might as well have tried to pray,” he said to himself, “it would have been better than to dream in the empty church on a chair. Pray indeed? I have no desire for it. I am haunted by Catholicism, intoxicated by its atmosphere of incense and wax, I prowl about it, moved even to tears by its prayers, touched even to the marrow by its psalms and chants. I am thoroughly disgusted with my life, very tired of myself, but it is a far cry from that to leading a different existence! And yet—and yet … If I am perturbed in these chapels, I become unmoved and dry again, as soon as I leave them. After all,” he said to himself, getting up, and following the few persons who were moving towards a door, driven out by the Suisse, “after all, my heart is hardened and smoke-dried by dissipation, I am good for nothing.”
How had he again become a Catholic, and got to this point?
Durtal answered himself: “I cannot tell, all that I know is that, having been for years an unbeliever, I suddenly believe.
“Let us see,” he said to himself, “let us try at least to consider if, however great the obscurity of such a subject, there be not common sense in it.
“After all, my surprise depends on preconceived ideas of conversions. I have heard of sudden and violent crises of the soul, of a thunderbolt, or even of faith exploding at last in ground slowly and cleverly mined. It is quite evident that conversions may happen in one or other of these two ways, for God acts as may seem good to Him, but there must be also a third means, and this no doubt the most usual, which the Saviour has used in my case. And I know not in what this consists; it is something analogous to digestion in a stomach, which works though we do not feel it. There has been no road to Damascus, no events to bring about a crisis; nothing has happened, we awake some fine morning, and, without knowing how or why, the thing is done.
“Yes, but in fact this manœuvre is very like that of the mine which only explodes after it has been deeply dug. Yet not so, for in that case the operations are material, the objections in the way are resolved; I might have reasoned, followed the course of the spark along the thread, but in this case, no! I sprang unexpectedly, without warning, without even having suspected that I was so carefully sapped. Nor was it a clap of thunder, unless I admit that a clap of thunder can, be occult and silent, strange and gentle. And this again would be untrue, for sudden disorder of the soul almost always follows a misfortune or a crime, an act of which we are aware.
“No, the one thing which seems certain, in my case, is that there has been divine impulse, grace.
“But,” said he, “in that case the psychology of conversion is worthless,” and he made answer to himself,—
“That seems to be so, for I seek in vain to retrace the stages through which I have passed; no doubt I can distinguish here and there some landmarks on the road I have travelled: love of art, heredity, weariness of life; I can even recall some of the forgotten sensations of childhood, the subterranean workings of ideas excited by my visits to the churches; but I am unable to gather these threads together, and group them in a skein, I cannot understand the sudden and silent explosion of light which took place in me. When I seek to explain to myself how one evening an unbeliever, I became without knowing it, on one night a believer, I can discover nothing, for the divine action has vanished, and left no trace.
“It is certain,” he continued, after silent thought, “that in these cases the Virgin acts upon us, it is she who moulds and places us in the hands of her Son, but her fingers are so light, so supple, so caressing, that the soul they have handled has felt nothing.
“On the other hand, if I ignore the course and stages of my conversion, I can at least guess the motives which, after a life of indifference, have brought me into the harbours of the Church, made me wander round about her borders, and finally gave me a shove from behind to bring me in.”
And he said to himself, without more ado, there are three causes:—
“First, the atavism of an old and pious family, scattered among the monasteries;” and the memories of childhood returned to him, of cousins, of aunts, seen in convent parlours; gentle women and grave, white as wafers, who alarmed him by their low voices, who troubled him by their looks, and asked if he were a good boy.
He felt a sort of terror, and hid himself in his mother’s skirts, trembling when he went away, and was obliged to bend his brow to those colourless lips, and undergo the touch of a chilly kiss.
Now that he thought of them at a distance, the interviews which had wearied him so much in his childhood, seemed to him charming. He put into them all the poetry of the cloister, clothed those bare parlours with a faded scent of wainscotting and of wax, and he saw again the convent gardens through which he had passed, impregnated with the bitter salt scent of box, planted with clipped hedges, intermingled with trellises, whose green grapes never ripened, divided by benches whose mouldering stone kept the traces worn by water; and a thousand details came back to him of those silent lime alleys, of the paths where he ran in the interlaced shade which branches threw upon the ground. These gardens had seemed to him to become larger as he grew older, and he retained a somewhat confused memory of them, amid which was the vague recollection of an old stately park, and of a presbytery orchard in the north, always somewhat damp, even when the sun shone.
It was not surprising that these sensations, transformed by time, had left in him some traces of pious thought, which grew deeper as his mind embellished them; all this might have fermented indistinctly for thirty years, and now began to work.
But the two other causes which he knew, must have been still more active.
These were his disgust for his life, and his passion for art; and the disgust was certainly aggravated by his solitude and his idleness.
After having, in old days, made friends by chance, and having taken the impression of souls which had nothing in common with his own, he had at last chosen after much useless vagabondage; he had become the intimate friend of a certain Doctor des Hermies, a physician, who devoted much attention to demoniac possession and to mysticism, and of a Breton, named Carhaix, the bell-ringer at St. Sulpice.
These friendships were not like those he had formerly made, entirely superficial and external, they were wide and deep, based on similarity of thought, and the indissoluble ties of soul, and these had been roughly broken; within two months of each other Des Hermies and Carhaix died, the former of typhoid fever, the latter of a chill that prostrated him in his tower, after he had rung the evening Angelus.
These were frightful blows for Durtal. His life, now without an anchor, drifted; he wandered all astray, declaring to himself that this desolation was final, since he had reached an age at which new friends are not made.
So he lived alone, apart among his books, but the solitude which he bore bravely, when he was occupied, when he was writing a book, became intolerable to him now that he was idle. He lounged in an arm-chair in the afternoons, and abandoned himself to his dreams: then, especially, fixed ideas took hold on him, and these ended by playing pantomimes of which the scenes never varied behind the lowered curtain of his eyes. Nude figures danced in his brain to the tune of psalms, and he woke from these dreams weak and panting, ready, if a priest had been there, to throw himself at his feet with tears, just as he would have abandoned himself to the basest pleasures, had the temptation suddenly come to him.
“Let me chase away these phantoms by work,” he cried. But at what should he work? He had just published the “Life of Gilles de Rais,” which might interest a few artists, and he now remained without a subject, on the hunt for a book. As, in art, he was a man of extremes, he always went from one excess to the other, and after having dived into the Satanism of the Middle Ages, in his account of “Marshal de Rais,” he saw nothing so interesting to investigate as the life of a saint. Some lines which he had discovered in Görres’ and Ribet’s “Studies in Mysticism” had put him on the trace of a certain Blessed Lidwine in search of new documents.
But admitting that he could unearth anything about her, could he write the life of a saint? He did not believe it, and the arguments on which he based his opinion seemed plausible.
Hagiography was now a lost branch of art, as completely lost as wood carving, and the miniatures of the old missals. Nowadays it is only treated by church officers and priests, by those stylistic agents who seem when they write to put the embryos of their ideas on ballast trucks, and in their hands it has become a commonplace of goody-goody, a translation into a book of the statuettes of Froc Robert, and the coloured images of Bouasse.
The way then was free, and it seemed at first easy enough to plan it out, but to extract the charm of the legends needed the simple language of bygone centuries, the ingenuous phrases of the days that are dead. Who in our time can express the melancholy essence, the pale perfume of the ancient translations of the Golden Legend of Voragine, how bind in one bright posy the plaintive flowers, which the monks cultivated in their cloistered enclosures, when hagiography was the sister of the barbaric and delightful art of the illuminators and glass stainers, of the ardent and chaste paintings of the Early Masters?
Yet we may not think of giving ourselves over to studious imitations, nor coldly attempt to ape such works as these. The question remains, whether we can with the present artistic resources, succeed in setting up the humble yet lofty figure of a saint; and this is at least doubtful, for the lack of real simplicity, the over-ingenious art of style, the tricks of careful design and the false craft of colour would probably transform the elect lady into a strolling player. She would be no longer a saint, but an actress who rendered the part more or less adroitly; and then the charm would be destroyed, the miracles would seem mechanical, the episodes would be absurd, then … then … one must have a lively faith, and believe in the sanctity of one’s heroine, if one would try to exhume her, and put her alive again in a book.
This is so true that we may examine Gustave Flaubert’s admirable pages on the legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller. Their development is like a dazzling yet regulated tumult, evolved in superb language whose apparent simplicity is only due to the complicated ingenuity of consummate skill. All is there, all except the accent which would have made this work a true masterpiece. Given the subject, the fire which should course through these magnificent phrases is absent, there lacks the cry of the love that faints, the gift of the superhuman exile, the mystical soul.
On the other hand, Hello’s “Physionomies de Saints” are worth reading. Faith flashes out in each of his portraits, enthusiasm runs over in each chapter, unexpected allusions form deep reservoirs of thought between the lines; but after all Hello was so little of an artist that the fairest legends fade when his fingers touch them; the meanness of his style impoverishes the miracles and renders them ineffectual. The art is lacking which would rescue the book from the category of pale and dead publications.
The example of these two men, in complete opposition as ever writers were, neither of whom attained perfection, one in the legend of St. Julian because faith was wanting, the other because his art was poor and narrow, thoroughly discouraged Durtal. He ought to be both at once, and yet remain himself, if not, there was no good in buckling to for such a task, it were better to be silent; and he threw himself back in his chair sullen and hopeless. Then the contempt of his desolate life grew upon him, and once more he wondered what interest Providence could have in thus tormenting the descendants of the first convicts. If there were no answer, he was obliged to admit that the Church in these disasters gathered up the waifs, sheltered the shipwrecked, brought them home again, and assured them a resting-place.
No more than Schopenhauer, whom he had once admired, but whose plan of labelling every one before death and whose herbarium of dry sorrows had wearied him, has the Church deceived man, nor sought to decoy him, by boasting the mercy of a life which she knew to be ignoble.
In all her inspired books she proclaims the horror of fate, and mourns over the enforced task of living. Ecclesiasticus, Ecclesiastes, the book of Job, the Lamentations of Jeremias manifest this sorrow in their every line, and the Middle Ages too in the “Imitation of Jesus Christ” cursed existence, and cried out loudly for death.
More plainly than Schopenhauer the Church declared that there is nothing to wish for here below, nothing to expect, but where the mere catalogues of the philosopher stop, the Church went on, overpassing the limits of the senses, declared the end of man, and defined his limitations.
“Then,” he said to himself, “if it be well considered, the vaunted argument of Schopenhauer against the Creator, drawn from the misery and injustice of the world, is not irrefutable, for the world is not as God made it, but as man has refashioned it.”
Before accusing heaven for our ills, it is, no doubt, fitting to examine through what phases of consent, through what voluntary falls the creature has passed, before ending in the gloomy disaster it deplores. We may well curse the vices of our ancestors and our own passions which beget the greater part of the woes from which we suffer; we may well loathe the civilization which has rendered life intolerable to cleanly souls, and not the Lord, who, perhaps, did not create us to be shot down by cannon in time of war, to be cheated, robbed, and stripped in time of peace, by the slave drivers of commerce and the brigands of the money market.
But that which remains for ever incomprehensible is the initial horror, the horror imposed on each of us, of having to live, and that is a mystery no philosophy can explain.
“Ah!” he went on, “when I think of that horror, that disgust of existence which has for years and years increased in me, I understand how I am forced to make for the Church, the only port where I can find shelter.
“Once I despised her, because I had a staff on which to lean when the great winds of weariness blew; I believed in my novels, I worked at my history, I had my art. I have come to recognize its absolute inadequacy, its complete incapacity to afford happiness. Then I understood that Pessimism was, at most, good to console those who had no real need of comfort; I understood that its theories, alluring when we are young, and rich, and well, become singularly weak and lamentably false, when age advances, when infirmities declare themselves, when all around is crumbling.
“I went to the church, that hospital for souls. There, at least, they take you in, put you to bed and nurse you, they do not merely turn their backs on you as in the wards of Pessimism and tell you the name of your disease.”
Finally Durtal had been brought back to religion by art. More even than his disgust for life, art had been the irresistible magnet which drew him to God. The day, when out of curiosity and to kill time, he had entered a church, and after so many years of forgetfulness, had heard the Vespers for the dead fall heavily, psalm after psalm, in antiphonal chant, as the singers threw up, like ditchers, their shovelful of verses, his soul had been shaken to its depths. The evenings when he had listened at St. Sulpice to the admirable chanting during the Octave of All Souls, he had felt himself caught once for all; but that which had put most pressure on him, and brought him yet more completely into bondage were the ceremonies and music of Holy Week.
He had visited the churches during that week; and they had opened to him like palaces ruined, like cemeteries laid waste by God. They were forbidding with their veiled images, their crucifixes wrapped lozenge-wise in purple, their organs dumb, their bells silent. The crowd flowed in, busy, but noiseless, along the floor over the immense cross formed by the nave and the two transepts, and entering by the wounds of which the doors were figures, they went up to the altar, where the blood-stained head of Christ would lie, and there on their knees eagerly kissed the crucifix which marked the place of the chin below the steps.
And the crowd itself, as it ran in the cruciform mould of the church, became itself an enormous cross, living and crawling, silent and sombre.
At St. Sulpice, where the whole assembled seminary lamented the ignominy of human justice and the fore-ordained death of a God, Durtal had followed the incomparable offices of those mournful days, through all their black minutes, had listened to the infinite sadness of the Passion, so nobly and profoundly expressed at Tenebræ by the slow chanting of the Lamentations and the Psalms, but when he thought it over, that which above all made him shudder was the thought of the Virgin coming on the scene on the Thursday at nightfall.
The Church, till then absorbed in her sorrow, and prostrate before the Cross, raised herself and fell a-weeping on beholding the Mother.
By all the voices of the choir, it pressed round Mary, endeavouring to console her, mixing the tears of the “Stabat Mater” with her own, sighing out that music of plaintive weeping, pressing the wound of that sequence, which gave forth water and blood like the wound of Christ Himself.
Durtal left the church, worn out with these long services, but his temptations to unbelief were gone; he had no further doubt; it seemed to him that at St. Sulpice, grace mixed with the eloquent splendours of the liturgies, and that in the dim sorrow of the voices there had been appeals to him; and he therefore felt filial gratitude to that church where he had lived through hours so sweet and sad.
Yet, in ordinary weeks he did not go there; it seemed to him too great and too cold, and it was so ugly. He preferred warmer and smaller sanctuaries, in which there were still traces of the Middle Ages.
Thus on idle days when he came out of the Louvre, where he had strayed for a long time before the canvases of the Early Painters, he was wont to take refuge in the old church of St. Severin, hidden away in a corner of the poorer part of Paris.
He carried with him the visions of the canvases he had admired at the Louvre, and contemplated them again, in this surrounding where they were thoroughly at home.
Then he spent delightful moments, in which he was carried away in the clouds of harmony, divided by the white splendour of a child’s voice flashing out from the rolling thunder of the organ.
There, without even praying, he felt a plaintive languor, a vague uneasiness steal over him; St. Severin delighted him, aided him more than other churches on some days to gain an indescribable impression of joy and pity, sometimes even, when he thought of the filth of his senses, to weave together the regret and the terror of his soul.
He often went there, especially on Sunday mornings to High Mass at ten o’clock.
He was wont to place himself behind the high altar, in that melancholy and delicate apse, planted like a winter garden with rare and somewhat fantastic trees. It might have been called a petrified arbour of very old trunks in flower, but stripped of leaf, forests of pillars, squared or cut in broad panels, carved with regular notches near the base, hollowed through their whole length like rhubarb stalks, channelled like celery.
No vegetation expanded at the summit of those trunks which bent their naked boughs along the vaulting, joined and met and gathered at their junction, and thin, engrafted knots, extravagant bunches of heraldic roses, armorial flowers with open tracery; and for more than four hundred years no sap had run, no bud had formed in these trees. The shafts bent for ever remained untouched, the white bark of these pillars was scarcely worn, but the greater part of the flowers were withered, the heraldic petals were wanting, some keystones of the arches had only stratified calices, open like nests, with holes like sponges, in rags like handfuls of russet lace.
And among this mystic flora, amid these petrified trees, there was one, strange and charming, which suggested the fanciful idea, that the blue smoke of the rolling incense had condensed, and, as it coagulated, had grown pale with age, to form, in twisting, the spiral of a column which was inverted on itself, and ended broadening out into a sheaf, whereof the broken stems fell from above the arches.
The corner where Durtal took refuge was faintly lighted by pointed stained windows, with black diamond-shaped divisions set with minute panes darkened by the accumulated dust of years, rendered still more obscure by the woodwork of the chapels, which cut off half their surface.
This apse might have been called a frozen grove of skeleton trees, a conservatory of dead specimens belonging to the palm family, calling up the memory of an impossible phœnix and unlikely palms; but it also recalled by its half-moon shape and doubtful light, the image of a ship’s prow below water. In fact it allowed to filter through its bars, to its windows trellised with all black network, the murmur, suggested by the rolling of the carriages which shook the street, of a river which sifted the golden light of day through the briny course of its waters.
On Sundays, at the time of High Mass, the apse was empty. The public filled the nave before the high altar, or spread themselves somewhat further into a chapel dedicated to Our Lady. Durtal was therefore almost alone, and even the people who crossed his refuge were neither stupid nor hostile, like the faithful in other churches. In this district were beggars, the very poor, hucksters, Sisters of Charity, rag pickers, street arabs; above all, there were women in tatters walking on tiptoe, who knelt without looking round, poor creatures overwhelmed by the piteous splendour of the altars, looking out of the corner of their eyes, and bending low when the Suisse passed them.
Touched by the timidity of this silent misery, Durtal listened to the mass chanted by a scanty choir, but one patiently taught. The choir of St. Severin intoned the Credo, that marvel of plain chant, better than it was done at St. Sulpice, where, however, the offices were as a rule solemn and correct. It bore it, as it were, to the top of the choir, and let it spread with its great wings open and almost without motion, above the prostrate flock, when the verse “Et homo factus est” took its slow and reverent flight in the low voice of the singer. It was at once monumental and fluid, indestructible like the articles of the Creed itself, inspired like the text, which the Holy Spirit dictated, in their last meeting, to the united apostles of Christ.
At St. Severin a powerful voice declaimed a verse as a solo, then all the children, sustained by the rest of the singers, delivered the others, and the unchangeable truths declared themselves in their order, more attentive, more grave, more accentuated, even a little plaintive in the solo voice of a man, more timid perhaps, but also more familiar and more joyous, in the dash, however restrained, of the boys.
At such a moment Durtal was roused, and exclaimed within himself: “It is impossible that the alluvial deposits of Faith which have created this musical certainty are false. The accent of these declarations is such as to be superhuman, and far from profane music, which has never attained to the solid grandeur of this naked chant.”
The whole mass, moreover, at St. Severin was perfect. The “Kyrie eleison,” solemn and sumptuous, the “Gloria in excelsis,” shared by the grand and the choir organs, the one taking the solos, the other guiding and sustaining the singers, was full of exultant joy; the “Sanctus,” concentrated, almost haggard, resounded through the arches when the choir shouted the “Hosanna in excelsis,” and the “Agnus Dei” was sung low to a clear, suppliant melody, so humble that it dared not become loud.
Indeed, except for a contraband “O Salutaris,” introduced there as in other churches, St. Severin maintained, on ordinary Sundays, the musical liturgy, sang it almost reverentially with the fragile but well-toned voices of the boys, the solidly built basses bringing vigorous sounds from the deep.
It was a joy to Durtal to linger in the delightful surroundings of the Middle Ages, in that shadowy loneliness, amid the chants which rose behind him, without being annoyed by tricks of the mouths which he could not see.
He ended by being moved to the very marrow, choked by nervous tears, and all the bitterness of his life came up before him; full of vague fears, of confused prayers which stifled him, and found no words, he cursed the ignominy of his life and swore to master his carnal affections.
When the mass was over, he wandered in the church itself, and was delighted with the spring of the nave, which four centuries built and sealed with their arms, placing on it those strange impressions, those wonderful seals which expand in relief under the reversed groining of the arches. These centuries combined to bring to the feet of Christ the superhuman effort of their art, and the gifts of each are still visible. The thirteenth century shaped those low and stunted pillars, whose capitals are crowned with water-lilies, water-parsley, foliage with large leaves, voluted with crochets and turned in the form of a crosier. The fourteenth century raised the columns of the neighbouring bays on the sides of which prophets, monks and saints uphold the spring of the arches. The fifteenth and sixteenth created the apse, the sanctuary, some windows pierced above the choir, and though they have been restored by incompetent builders, they have still retained a barbaric grace, and a really touching simplicity.
They seem to have been designed by ancestors of the Epinal foundries, and stained by them with crude colours. The donors and the saints who pass through these bright, stone-framed pictures are all awkward and pensive, dressed in robes of gamboge, bottle-green, prussian-blue, gooseberry-red, pumpkin-purple and wine lees, and these are made still deeper by contact with the flesh tints, either omitted or destroyed, which have at any rate remained uncoloured like a thin skin of glass. In one of these windows Christ on His cross seems limpid, all in light, between blue splashes of sky, and the red and green patches, formed by the wings of the two angels whose faces also seem cut in crystal and full of light.
These windows differ from those of other churches, in that they absorb the rays of the sun, without refracting them. No doubt they have been deliberately divested of reflection that they may not by the insolent joyousness of stones on fire insult the melancholy sorrow of this church which rises in the squalid haunts of a quarter inhabited by beggars and thieves.
Then these thoughts assailed Durtal. In Paris the modern churches are useless, they remain deaf to the prayers which break against the icy indifference of their walls. No man recollects himself in those naves where souls have left nothing of themselves, or where they have perhaps given themselves away, have had to turn and fall back on themselves, rebuffed by the insolence of a photographic glare, darkened by the neglect of those altars at which no saint has ever said mass. It seemed that God had always gone out, and would only come home to keep His promise to appear at the moment of consecration, and that He would retire immediately afterwards, despising these edifices which have not been built expressly for Him, since by the baseness of their form they might be put to any profane use, since above all they do not bring Him, in default of sanctity, the only gift which might please Him, the gift of art which He has lent to man, and which allows Him to see Himself in the abridged restitution of His work, and to rejoice in the development of that flower of which He has sowed the seed in souls which He has carefully chosen, in souls which are truly the elect, second only to those of His Saints.
Ah, those charitable churches of the Middle Ages, those chapels damp and smoky, full of ancient song, of exquisite paintings, of the odour of extinguished tapers, of the perfume of burning incense!
In Paris there remain now only a few specimens of this art of other years, a few sanctuaries whose stones really exude the Faith; among these St. Severin seemed to Durtal the most exquisite and the most certain. He only felt at home there, he believed that if he could ever pray in earnest he could do it in that church; and he said to himself that there lived the spirit of the fabric. It is impossible but that the burning prayers, the hopeless sobs of the Middle Ages, have not for ever impregnated the pillars and stained the walls; it is impossible but that the vine of sorrows whence of old the Saints gathered warm clusters of tears, has not preserved from those wonderful times emanations which sustain, a breath which still awakes a shame for sin, and the gift of tears.
As Saint Agnes remained immaculate in the brothels, this church remained intact amid infamous surroundings, when all near it in the streets from the Château Rouge to the Cremerie Alexandre, only two paces off, the modern rabble of rascality combine their misdeeds, mingling with prostitutes their brewage of crime, their adulterated absinthe and spirits.
In this especial territory of Satanism, the church rises, delicate and little, closely enveloped in the rags of taverns and hovels, and seen far off, raises above the roofs its light spire, like a netting needle, its point below, and lifting its eye into the light and air, through which can be seen a minute bell surmounting a sort of anvil. Such it appears, at least, from the Place Saint André des Arts. Symbolically it might be called a piteous appeal, always rejected by souls hardened and hammered by vice, of that anvil which was only an optical illusion, and that very real bell.
“They say,” thought Durtal, “they say that ignorant architects and unskilled archæologists wish to free St. Severin from its rags, and surround it with trees in an enclosed square. But it has always lived in its network of black streets, and is voluntarily humble, in accordance with the miserable district it aids. In the Middle Ages the church was a monument seen only within, and not one of those impetuous basilicas which are put up as a show in open spaces.
“Then it was an oratory for the poor, a church on its knees, and not standing; it would, therefore, be the most absolute nonsense to free it from its surroundings, to take it out of the day of an eternal twilight, out of those hours of shadow which brighten the melancholy beauty of a servant in prayer behind the impious hedge of hovels.
“Ah, were it possible to steep the church in the glowing atmosphere of Notre Dame des Victoires, and join to its meagre psalmody the powerful choir of St. Sulpice, that would be complete,” said Durtal, “but alas, here below, nothing whole, nothing perfect exists!”
Indeed from an artistic point of view, it was the only church which satisfied him, for Notre Dame de Paris was too grand, and too much overrun by tourists; there were few ceremonies there, just the necessary amount of prayers were weighed out, and the greater part of the chapels remained closed; and lastly the voices of the choir boys always wanted mending; they broke, while the advanced age of the basses made them hoarse. At St. Etienne du Mont it was worse still; the shell of the church was charming, but the choir was an offshoot of the school of Sanfourche, you might think yourself in a kennel, where a medley pack of sick beasts were growling; as for the other sanctuaries on the right bank of the river, they were worthless, plain chant was as far as possible suppressed, and the poverty of the voices was everywhere ornamented with promiscuous tunes.
Yet on the right bank were the more self-respecting churches, for religious Paris stops on that side of the Seine, and comes to an end as you pass the bridges.
In fact, to sum up all, he might believe that St. Severin by its scent, and the delightful art of its old nave, St. Sulpice by its ceremonies and its chanting, had brought him back towards Christian art, which in its turn had directed him to God.
Then when once urged on this way, he had pursued it, had left architecture and music, to wander in the mystic territories of the other arts, and his long visits to the Louvre, his researches into the breviaries, into the books of Ruysbröck, Angela da Foligno, Saint Teresa, Saint Catherine of Genoa, Saint Magdalen of Pazzi, had confirmed him in his belief.
But the upheaval of all his ideas which he had undergone was too recent for his soul at once to regain its equilibrium. From time to time it seemed to wish to go back, and he discussed with himself in order to set it at rest. He spent himself in disputation, came to doubt the reality of his conversion, and said: “After all I am united to the church only on the side of art. I only go there to see or hear and not to pray; I do not seek the Lord, but my own pleasure. This is not business. Just as in a warm bath I do not feel the cold if I am motionless, but if I move I freeze, so in the church my impulses are upset when I move, I am almost on fire in the nave, less warm in the porch, and I become perfectly icy outside. These are literary postulates, vibrations of the nerves, skirmishes of thought, spiritual brawls, whatever you please, except Faith.”
But what disquieted him still more than the need of helps to feeling, was that his shameless senses rebelled at the contact of religious ideas. He floated like wreckage between Licentiousness and the Church, they each threw him back in turn, obliging him as he approached one to return at once to that which he had left, and he was inclined to ask if he were not a victim to some mystification of his lower instincts, seeking to revive themselves, without his consciousness, by the cordial of a false piety.
In fact he had often seen realized in himself that unclean miracle, when he had left St. Severin, almost in tears. Insensibly, without connection of ideas, without any welding together of sensations, without the explosion of a spark, his senses took fire, and he was powerless to let them burn themselves out, to resist them.
He loathed himself afterwards, and it was high time. Then came the reverse movement; he longed to run to some chapel, there to wash and be clean, and he was so disgusted with himself that now and then he went as far as the door and dared not enter.
At other times, on the contrary, he rebelled against himself, and cried in fury: “It is monstrous, I have in fact spoiled for myself the only pleasure that remained to me—the flesh. Once I amused myself without blame, now I pay for my poor debauches with torments. I have added one more weariness to existence—would that I could undo it.”
He lied to himself in vain, trying to justify himself by suggesting doubts.
“Suppose all this were not true, if there were nothing in it, if I were deceiving myself, what if the freethinkers were right?”
But he was obliged to be sorry for himself, for he felt distinctly to the bottom of his soul, that he held unshaken the certitude of true Faith.
“These discussions are miserable, and the excuses I make for my filthinesses are odious,” he said to himself, and a flame of enthusiasm sprang up within him.
How doubt the truth of dogmas, how deny the divine power of the Church, for she commands assent?
First she has her superhuman art and her mysticism, then she is most wonderful in the persistent folly of conquered heresies. All since the world began have had the flesh as their spring-board. Logically and humanly speaking they should have triumphed, for they allowed man and woman to satisfy their passions, saying to themselves there was no sin in these, even sanctifying them as the Gnostics, rendering homage to God by the foulest uncleanness.
All have suffered shipwreck. The Church, unbending in this matter, has remained upright and entire. She orders the body to be silent, and the soul to suffer, and contrary to all probability, humanity listens to her, and sweeps away like a dung-heap the seductive joys proposed to her.
Again, the vitality of the Church is decision, which preserves her in spite of the unfathomable stupidity of her sons. She has resisted the disquieting folly of the clergy, and has not even been broken up by the awkwardness and lack of ability in her defenders, a very strong point.
“No, the more I think of her,” he cried, “the more I think her prodigious, unique, the more I am convinced that she alone holds the truth, that outside her are only weaknesses of mind, impostures, scandals. The Church is the divine breeding ground, the heavenly dispensary of souls; she gives them suck, nourishes them, and heals them; she bids them understand, when the hour of sorrow comes, that true life begins, not at birth, but at death. The Church is indefectible, before all things admirable, she is great—
“Yes, but then we must follow her directions and practise the sacraments she orders!”
And Durtal, shaking his head, gave himself no further answer.