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BURIED in a vast hooded armchair, his feet resting on the silver-gilt balls of the fire-dogs, his slippers roasting before the burning logs that shot out bright, crackling flames as if lashed by the furious blast of a blow-pipe, Des Esseintes laid down on a table the old quarto he was reading, stretched himself, lit a cigarette and presently lapsed into a delicious reverie, his mind hurrying full chase in pursuit of old-time reminiscences. For months he had not given these a thought, but now they were suddenly revived by the associations of a name that recurred without apparent reason to his memory.
Once more he could see with surprising clearness his friend D'Aigurande's embarrassment when once, at a gathering of confirmed old bachelors, he had been forced to confess to the final completion of the arrangements for his marriage. Everybody protested and drew a harrowing picture for his benefit of the abominations of sleeping two in a bed. Nothing availed; he had lost his head, he believed implicitly in the good sense of his future wife and would have it he had discovered in her quite exceptional gifts of tenderness and devotion.
Among them all, Des Esseintes had been the only one to encourage him in his design,--this after learning the fact that his comrade's fianceé wished to live at the corner of a newly constructed boulevard, in one of those modern flats that are built on a circular ground-plan.
Convinced of the merciless influence exerted by petty vexations, more disastrous as these are for highly strung temperaments than the great sorrows of life, and basing his calculations on the fact that D'Aigurande possessed no fortune of his own, while his wife's dowry was all but non-existent, he foresaw in this harmless wish an indefinite vista of ludicrous miseries to come.
D'Aigurande proceeded in due course to buy furniture all made on the round,--console-tables hollowed out at the back so as to form a semicircle, curtain-poles curved like a bow, carpets cut crescent-shaped,--a whole suite of furniture made specially to order. He spent twice as much as other people; then presently, when his wife, finding herself short of money for her dress, got tired of living in this round-house and removed to an ordinary square habitation at a lower rent, no single piece of furniture would fit in or look right. Little by little, these unconscionable chairs and tables and chests of drawers gave rise to endless squabbles; conjugal happiness, already worn thin by the friction of a life in common, grew week by week more and more ambiguous; mutual recriminations followed, as they found it impossible to live in their drawing-room where sofas and console-tables refused to touch the wall and, in spite of wedges and props, shook and shivered whenever you came near them. Funds were lacking for repairs and improvements, which, to tell the truth, were quite impracticable. Everything became a subject of bitterness and quarrelling, from the drawers that had warped in the wobbling furniture to the petty thefts of the maidservant who took advantage of her master and mistress's squabbles to rob the cash-box. In one word, their life grew unbearable; he sought amusement out of doors, she tried to find in the arms of lovers an anodyne for the wretchedness of her overcast and monotonous life. By common consent, they cancelled the settlements and petitioned for a separation.
"Yes, my plan of campaign was quite correct," Des Esseintes had told himself on hearing the news; he enjoyed the same satisfaction a strategist feels when his manoeuvres, planned long beforehand, end in victory.
Now, sitting there before his fire and thinking over the break-up of this household which he had helped by his advice to bring together, he threw a fresh armful of wood onto the hearth, and so off again full cry in his dreams.
Belonging to the same order of ideas, other memories now began to crowd upon him.
It was some years ago now since one evening in the Rue de Rivoli, he had come across a young scamp of sixteen or so, a pale-faced, quick-eyed child, as seductive as a girl. He was sucking laboriously at a cigarette, the paper of which was bursting where the sharp ends of the coarse caporal had come through. Cursing the stuff, the lad was rubbing kitchen matches down his thigh; they would not light, and soon he came to the end of the box. Catching sight of Des Esseintes who was watching him, he came up, touching his peaked cap, and asked politely for a light. Des Esseintes offered some of his own scented Dubeques, after which he entered into conversation with the lad and urged him to tell the story of his life.
Nothing could well be more ordinary; his name was Auguste Langlois, and he worked at making pasteboard boxes; he had lost his mother and had a father who beat him unmercifully.
Des Esseintes' thoughts were busy as he listened. "Come and have a drink," he said,--and took him to a café where he regaled him with goes of heady punch. The child drank his liquor without a word. "Look here," broke in Des Esseintes suddenly, "would you like some fun this evening? I'll pay the piper." And he had thereupon carried off the youngster to Madame Laure's, a lady who kept an assortment of pretty girls on the third floor of a house in the Rue Mosnier; there was a series of rooms with red walls diversified by circular mirrors, the rest of the furniture consisting mainly of couches and wash-basins.
There, petrified with surprise, Auguste as he fingered his cloth cap, had stared with round eyes at a battalion of women whose painted lips exclaimed all together:
"Oh! the little lad! Why, he is sweet!"
"But, tell us, my angel, you're not old enough yet, surely?" a brunette had interjected, a girl with prominent eyes and a hook nose who filled at Mine. Laure's establishment the indispensable rôle of the handsome Jewess.
Quite at his ease, and very much at home, Des Esseintes was talking familiarly in a low voice with the mistress of the house.
"Don't be afraid, stupid," he turned to the child to say; "come now, make your choice, it's my treat,"--and he pushed the lad gently towards a divan, onto which he fell between two women. They drew a little closer together, on a sign from Madame Laure, enveloping Auguste's knees in their peignoirs and bringing under his nose their powdered shoulders that emitted a warm, heady perfume. The child never stirred, but sat there with burning cheeks, a dry mouth and downcast eyes, darting from under their lids downward glances of curiosity, that refused obstinately to leave the upper part of the girls' thighs.
Vanda, the handsome Jewess, kissed him, giving him good advice, telling him to do what father and mother told him, while her hands were straying all the time over the lad's person; a change came over his face and he threw himself back in a kind of transport on her bosom.
"So it's not on your own account you've come tonight," observed Madame Laure to Des Esseintes. "But where the devil did you get hold of that baby?" she added, when Auguste had disappeared with the handsome Jewess.
"In the street, my dear lady."
"Yet you're not drunk," muttered the old woman. Then, after thinking a bit, she proceeded, with a motherly smile: "Ah, I understand; you rascal, you like 'em young, do you?"
Des Esseintes shrugged his shoulders.--"You're wide of the mark! oh! miles away from it," he laughed; "the plain truth is I am simply trying to train a murderer. Now just follow my argument. This boy is virgin and has reached the age when the blood begins to boil; he might, of course, run after the little girls of his neighbourhood, and still remain an honest lad while enjoying his bit of amusement; in fact, have his little share of the monotonous happiness open to the poor. On the contrary, by bringing him here and plunging him in a luxury he had never even suspected the existence of and which will make a lasting impression on his memory; by offering him every fortnight a treat like this, I shall make him acquire the habit of these pleasures which his means forbid his enjoying; let us grant it will take three months for them to become absolutely indispensable to him--and by spacing them out as I do, I avoid all risk of satiating him--well, at the end of the three months, I stop the little allowance I am going to pay you in advance for the benevolence you show him. Then he will take to thieving to pay for his visits here; he will stop at nothing that he may take his usual diversions on this divan in this fine gas-lit apartment.
"If the worst comes to the worst, he will, I hope, one fine day kill the gentleman who turns up just at the wrong moment as he is breaking open his desk; then my object will be attained, I shall have contributed, so far as in me lay, to create a scoundrel, an enemy the more for the odious society that wrings so heavy a ransom from us all."
The woman gazed at the speaker with eyes of amazement. "Ah! so there you are!' he exclaimed, as he saw Auguste creeping back into the room, red and shy, skulking behind the fair Vanda. "Come, youngster, it is getting late, make your bow to the ladies." Then he explained to him on their way downstairs that, once every fortnight, he might pay a visit to Madame Laure's without putting hand in pocket. Finally, on reaching the street, as they stood together on the pavement, he looked the abashed child in the face and said:
"We shall not meet again after this; do you go back hot foot to your father, whose hand is itching for work to do, and never forget this half divine command: 'Do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.' With that to guide you you will go far."
"Good night, sir."
"But whatever you do, do not be ungrateful, let me hear tidings of you soon as may be,--in the columns of the Police News."
"The little Judas!" Des Esseintes muttered to himself on this occasion, as he stirred the glowing embers; "to think that I have never once seen his name in the newspapers! True, it has been out of my power to play a sure game; that I have foreseen, yet been unable to prevent certain contingencies,-- old mother Laure's little tricks, for instance, pocketing the money and not delivering the goods; the chance of one of the women getting infatuated with Auguste, and, when the three months was up, letting him have his whack on tick; or even the possibility of the handsome Jewess's highly-spiced vices having scared the lad, too young and impatient to brook the slow and elaborate preliminaries, or stand the exhausting consummations of her caprices. Unless, therefore, he has been in trouble with the criminal courts since I have been at Fontenay where I never read the papers, I am dished."
He got up from his chair and took two or three turns up and down the room.
"It would be a thousand pities all the same," he mused, "for, by acting in this way, I had really been putting in practice the parable of lay instruction, the allegory of popular education, which, while tending to nothing else than to turn everybody into Langlois, instead of definitely and mercifully putting out the wretched creatures' eyes, tries its hardest to force them wide open that they may see all about them other lots unearned by any merit yet more benignant, pleasures keener and more brightly gilded, and therefore more desirable and harder to come at."
"And the fact is," went on Des Esseintes, pursuing his argument, "the fact is that, pain being the effect of education, seeing that it grows greater and more poignant the more ideas germinate, the more we endeavour to polish the intelligence and refine the nervous system of the poor and unfortunate, the more we shall be developing the germs, always so fiercely ready to sprout, of moral suffering and social hatred."
The lamps were smoking. He turned them up and looked at his watch. Three o'clock in the morning. He kindled a cigarette and plunged himself again in the perusal, interrupted by his dreaming, of the old Latin poem De Laude Castitatis, written, in the reign of Gondebald, by Avitus, Bishop Metropolitan of Vienne.