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HE had always been madly fond of flowers, but this passion which, during his residence at Jutigny, had at the first embraced all flowers without distinction of species or genus, had in the end grown more discriminating and precise, limiting itself to a single type.
For a long time now he had scorned the everyday plants that blossom on the counters of Parisian florists, in dripping flowerpots, under green awnings or red umbrellas.
At the same time that his literary tastes, his preferences in art, had become more refined, no longer caring for any works but such as had been tried and sifted, the distillation of overwrought and subtle brains; at the same time that his disgust with generally accepted notions had reached its height, simultaneously his love of flowers had rid itself of all base residuum, all dregs of commonness, had been clarified, as it were, and purified.
He pleased his fancy by likening a horticulturist's shop to a microcosm wherein were represented all the different categories of society--poor, vulgar flowers, hovel flowers, so to speak, that are really in their proper place only on the window-sill of a garret, roots that are crammed in milk-tins and old earthen pots, the gilliflower for instance; pretentious, conventional, silly flowers, whose only place is in porcelain vases painted by young ladies, such as the rose; lastly, flowers of high lineage, such as the orchids, dainty and charming, trembling and delicate, such as the exotic flowers, exiles in Paris, kept in hothouses, in palaces of glass, Princesses of the vegetable world, living apart, having nothing whatever in common with the flowers of the street, the blossoms that are the delight of grocers' wives.
In a word, he could do no more than feel a trivial interest, a slight pity, for the people's flowers, fading under the poisonous breath of sewers and sinks in squalid districts; to make up, he loathed those that go with the cream and gold reception-rooms in new houses; he reserved, in fact, for the full and perfect delectation of his eyes, rare plants of high-bred type, coming from distant lands, kept alive by skill and pains in an artificial equatorial temperature maintained by carefully regulated furnaces.
But this choice of his, that had deliberately fallen on greenhouse flowers, had itself been further modified under the influence of his general ideas, his opinions that had now come to definite conclusions on all matters. In former days, in Paris, his innate preference for the artificial had led him to neglect the real flower for its copy, faithfully executed thanks to india-rubber and twine, glazed cotton and lustring, paper and velvet.
He possessed in accordance with this taste a marvellous collection of tropical plants, produced by the cunning fingers of supreme masters of the craft, following Nature step by step, recreating her, taking the flower from its birth, carrying it to maturity, imitating it to its final decease, observing every shade of its infinite variety, the most fleeting changes of its awakening and its sleep, noting the pose of its petals blown back by the wind or beaten down by the rain, sprinkling on its morning leaves little drops of gum to represent dew, fashioning it according to every season,--in full bloom, when the twigs bend under the weight of sap; or when it lifts its parched stem and ragged corolla as the petals drop away and the leaves fall.
This admirable art had long fascinated him; but now he was dreaming of the construction of another sort of flora.
He had done with artificial flowers aping the true; he wanted natural flowers imitating the false.
He set himself to work out this problem, nor had he to search long or go far, for was not his house situated in the very middle of the district specially favoured by the great flower-growers? He went straight off to pay a visit to the hot-houses of the Avenue de Châtillon and the valley of Aunay, to return tired out and his purse empty, thinking of nothing but the strange species he had bought, ceaselessly haunted by his memories of superb and extraordinary blooms.
Two days later the carts arrived.
List in hand, Des Esseintes called the roster, verified his purchases one by one.
The gardeners unloaded from their vans a collection of Caladiums whose swollen, hairy stalks carried enormous leaves, shaped like a heart; while keeping a general look of kinship, they were every one different.
They included some extraordinary specimens,--some rosy-red, like the Virginale which seemed cut out in glazed cloth, in shiny court-plaster; some all white, like the Albane, that looked as if made of the semi-transparent membrane that lines an ox's ribs, or the diaphanous film of a pig's bladder. Others again, especially the one called Madame Maine, mimicked zinc, parodied pieces of stencilled metal coloured emperor-green, blotched with drops of oil paint, streaks of red-lead and ceruse: these,--the Bosphorus was an example,--gave the illusion of starched calico, spotted with crimson and myrtle-green; those, the Aurora Borealis for instance, had broad leaves the colour of raw meat, intersected by striations of a darker red and purplish threads, leaves that seemed swollen and sweating with dark liquor and blood.
This plant, the Aurora Borealis, and the Albane between them displayed the two opposite poles of constitution, the former bursting with apoplexy, the latter pallid with bloodlessness.
The men brought other and fresh varieties, in this case presenting the appearance of a fictitious skin marked by an imitation network of veins. Most of them, as if disfigured by syphilis or leprosy, displayed livid patches of flesh, reddened by measles, roughened by eruptions; others showed the bright pink of a half-closed wound or the red brown of the crusts that form over a scar; others were as if scorched with cauteries blistered with burns; others again offered hairy surfaces eaten into holes by ulcers and excavated by chancres. To finish the list, there were some that had just come from the doctor's hands, it seemed, plastered with black mercury dressing, smeared with green belladonna ointment, dusted over with the yellow grains of iodoform powder.
Thus assembled all together, these strange blossoms struck Des Esseintes as more monstrous yet than when he had first seen them ranged side by side with others, like patients in a hospital ward, down the long conservatories.
"Sapristi!" he exclaimed, stirred to the depths.
A new plant, of a type similar to the Caladiums, the "Alocasia Metallica," moved his enthusiasm to a still higher pitch. Its leaves were overlaid with a layer of green bronze, shot with gleams of silver; it was the masterpiece, the fine flower of counterfeit; you might have thought it a bit of stove-pipe, cut out of sheet iron in the shape of a spear-head, by a jobbing blacksmith.
Next the men unloaded a tangled mass of leaves, lozenge-shaped, bottle-green in hue; from their midst rose a switch on top of which trembled a great ace of hearts, as smooth and shiny as a capsicum; then, as if to defy all the familiar aspects of plants, from the middle of this ace of hearts, of an intense vermillion, sprang a fleshy tail, downy, white and yellow, upright in some cases, corkscrewed above the heart, like a pig's tail, in others.
It was the Anthurium, one of the arum family, recently imported from Colombia; it formed part of a section of the same family to which also belonged an Amorphophallus, a plant from Cochin China, with long black stalks seamed with scars, like a negro's limbs after a thrashing.
Des Esseintes' cup of joy was brimming over.
Then they got out of the carts a fresh batch of monstrosities, the Echinopsis, showing a pink blossom like the stump of an amputated limb rising out of a compress of cotton-wool; the Nidularium, displaying in its sword-like leaves gaping, ragged hollows; the "Tillandsia Lindeni," like a broken-toothed cury-comb, of the colour of wine-must: the Cypripedium, with its involved, incoherent, incongruous contours that seem the invention of a madman. It was shaped like a wooden shoe, or a little rag-bag, above which was a human tongue retracted, with the tendon drawn tight, as you may see it represented in the plates of medical works treating of diseases of the throat and mouth; two miniature wings, of a jujube red, that seemed borrowed from a child's toy windmill, completed this grotesque conjunction of the underside of a tongue, colour of wine-lees and slate, and a little glossy pocket, the lining of which distilled a viscous glue.
He could not take his eyes off this impossible-looking orchid, indigenous to India, till the gardeners, exasperated by these delays, began to read out aloud for themselves the labels fixed in the pots as they carried them in.
Des Esseintes looked on in wonder, listened open-mouthed to the barbarous names of the herbaceous plants,--the "Encephalartos horridus," a gigantic artichoke, an iron spike painted rust colour, like the ones they stick on the top of park gates to prevent intruders climbing over; the "Cocos Micania," a sort of palm, with a notched and slender stem, everywhere surrounded with tall leaves like paddles and oars; the "Zamia Lehmanni," a huge pineapple, like an immense Cheshire cheese, growing in peaty soil and bristling at the apex with barbed spears and cruel looking arrows; the "Cibotium Spectabile," going one better ever than its congeners in the wild caprice of its structure, defying the maddest nightmare, throwing out from amid a clustered foliage of palm leaves a prodigious orang-outang's tail, a brown, hairy tail curling over at the tip like a bishop's crozier.
These, however, he barely glanced at, waiting impatiently for the series of plants that particularly fascinated him, those vegetable ghouls, the carnivorous plants,--the Flycatcher of the Antilles, with its shaggy edge, secreting a digestive liquid, provided with curved thorns folding into each other to form a barred grating over the insect it imprisons; the Drosera of the peat mosses, furnished with rows of stiff, glandulous hairs; the Sarracena; the Cephalothus, with deep, voracious cups capable of absorbing and digesting actual lumps of meat; last, but not least amazing, the Nepenthes whose eccentricity of shape overpasses all known limits.
It seemed as though he could never weary of turning about in his hands the pot in which trembled this extravagant vagary of the flower tribe. It resembled the gum-tree in its long leaves of a sombre, metallic green, but from the end of these leaves depended a green string, a sort of umbilical cord, carrying a greenish coloured urn, veined with purple, a sort of German pipe in porcelain, a strange kind of bird's nest, that swung quietly to and fro, exhibiting an interior carpeted with a hairy growth.
"That one is a veritable miracle," Des Esseintes murmured to himself.
But he was forced to cut short his manifestations of delight, for now the gardeners, in a hurry to be gone, were unloading the last of their wares and setting down side by side tuberous Begonias and black Crotons, flecked with red-lead spots, like rusty iron.
Then he noticed that one name was still left on the list, the Cattleya of New Granada. They pointed out to him a little winged bell-flower of a pale lilac, an almost invisible mauve; he drew near, put his nose to it and started back; it exhaled an odour of varnished deal, just the smell of a new box of toys, recalling irresistibly all the horrors of the New Year and New Year's presents.
It struck him it would be well for him to beware of it, almost regretted having admitted among the scentless plants he had become possessor of the orchid that brought up the most unpleasant associations.
He cast only one glance over this flood-tide of vegetation that swelled in his vestibule; there they were, all confounded together, intercrossing their sword-blades, their kreeses, their lance-heads, forming a tangled mass of green weapons of war, over which floated like barbarian pennons of battle, blossoms dazzling and cruel in their brilliance.
The atmosphere of the room was clearer by now, and soon, in a dark corner, just above the floor, a light crept out, soft and white.
He went up to it, to discover it was a cluster of Rhizomorphs, each of which, as it breathed, was shedding this gleam like that cast by nightlights.
"All the same, these plants are amazing things," he muttered to himself; then he stepped back and embraced in one view the whole collection. Yes, his object was attained; not one of them looked real; cloth, paper, porcelain, metal seemed to have been lent by man to Nature to enable her to create these monstrosities. When she had found herself incapable of copying human workmanship, she had been reduced to mimick the membranes of animals' insides, to borrow the vivid tints of their rotting flesh, the superb horrors of their gangrened skin.
"It is all a matter of syphilis," reflected Des Esseintes, his eyes attracted, riveted on the hideous marking of the Caladiums, lit up at that moment by a shaft of daylight. And he had a sudden vision of the human race tortured by the virus of long past centuries. Ever since the beginning of the world, from sire to son, all living creatures were handing on the inexhaustible heritage, the everlasting malady that has devastated the ancestors of the men of to-day, has eaten to the very bone old fossil forms which we dig up at the present moment.
Never wearying, it had travelled down the ages, to this day it was raging everywhere, disguised under ordinary symptoms of headache or bronchitis, hysteria or gout; from time to time, it would climb to the surface, attacking for choice badly cared-for, badly-fed people breaking out in gold pieces, setting, in horrid irony, a Nautch-girl's parure of sequins on its wretched victim's brows, inscribing their skin, for a crown to their misery, with the very symbol of wealth and well-being.
And lo! here it was reappearing, in its pristine splendour, on the bright-coloured petals of flowers!
"It is true," pursued Des Esseintes, going back to the starting point of his argument, "it is true that, for most of the time, Nature is by herself incapable of producing species so morbid and perverse; she supplies the raw material, the germ and the soil, the procreative womb and the elements of the plant, which mankind rears, models, paints, carves afterwards to suit his caprice."
Obstinate, confused, limited though she be, she has at last submitted, and her master has succeeded in changing by chemical reactions the substances of the earth, to utilize combinations long ripened for use, crossings slowly prepared for, to employ artful buddings, systematic graftings, so that nowadays he can make her produce blooms of different colours on the same bough; invents new hues for her; modifies, at his good pleasure, the age-old shapes of her plants. He clears off the rough from her half-hewn blocks, puts the finishing touches to her rude sketches, marks them with his signet, impresses on them his sign-manual of art.
"There is no more to be said," he cried, resuming his train of thought; "mankind is able in the course of a few years to bring about a selection which sluggish Nature can never effect but after centuries of time; no doubt of it, in these present times, the gardeners are the only and the true artists."
He was a little weary and felt stifled in this atmosphere of hothouse plants; the walks he had taken during the last few days had exhausted him; the change from the open air to the warmth of the house, from the sedentary life of a recluse to the free activity of an outdoor existence, had been too sudden. He left the hall and went to lie down on his bed; but, bent on one single absorbing subject, as if wound up with a spring, the mind, though asleep all the while, went on paying out its chain, and he was soon wallowing in the gloomy fancies of a nightmare.
He was standing in the middle of a ride in a great forest at dusk; he was walking side by side with a woman he did not know, had never seen before; she was tall and thin, had pale flaxen hair, a bulldog face, freckled cheeks, irregular teeth projecting below a flat nose. She wore a servant's white apron, a long kerchief crossed like a soldier's buff-belt over her chest, a Prussian grenadier's half-boots, a black bonnet trimmed with ruchings and a big bow.
She had the look of a show-woman at a fair, a travelling mountebank or the like.
He asked himself who the woman was whom he somehow knew to have been a long while in the room, to have long been an intimate part of his life; in vain he strove to remember her origin, her name, her business, the explanation of her presence; no recollection would come to him of this inexplicable liaison, of which however there could be no doubt.
He was still searching his memory when suddenly a strange figure appeared in front of them; it was on horseback and trotted on for a minute, then turned round in the saddle.
His blood gave one bound within him and he remained nailed to the spot in utter horror. The ambiguous, sexless creature was green, and from under purple lids shone a pair of pale blue eyes, cold and terrible; two arms of an inordinate leanness, like a skeleton's bare to the elbows, shaking with fever, projected from ragged sleeves, and the fleshless thighs shuddered in churn-boots, a world too wide.
The awful eyes were fixed on Des Esseintes, piercing him, freezing him to the marrow of his bones; more terrified still, the bulldog woman pressed against him and yelled death and destruction, her head thrown back, her neck stiffened with a spasm of wild terror.
And lo! in an instant he knew the meaning of the appalling vision. He had before his eyes the image of the Pox.
Mad with fear, beside himself with consternation, he dashed into a side path, ran at headlong speed to a summer-house standing among laburnums to the left of the road, where he dropped into a chair in a passage.
In a few minutes when he was beginning to get his breath, the sound of sobs made him look up. The bulldog woman was before him; a piteous, grotesque spectacle. She stood weeping hot tears, declaring she had lost her teeth in her panic, and, drawing from the pocket of her servant's apron a number of clay pipes, she proceeded to break them and stuff bits of the stems into the holes in her gums.
"Come now, she's quite ridiculous," Des Esseintes kept telling himself; "the pipes will never stick in,"--and as a matter of fact, they all came tumbling out of her jaws one after the other.
At that moment, a galloping horse was heard approaching. A paralysing fear seized Des Esseintes; his limbs failed him. But the sound of hoofs grew momentarily louder; despair stung him to action like the lash of a whip; he threw himself upon the woman, who was now trampling the pipe bowls underfoot, beseeching her to be quiet and not betray him by the noise of her boots. She struggled; but he dragged her to the end of the passage, throttling her to stop her crying out. Suddenly, he saw an ale-house door, with green painted shutters, pushed it open, darted in and stopped dead.
In front of him, in the middle of a vast clearing in the woods, enormous white pierrots were jumping like rabbits in the moonlight.
Tears of disappointment rose to his eyes; he could never, no, never cross the threshold of the door.--"I should be dashed to pieces," he thought,--and as if to justify his fears, the troop of giant pierrots was reinforced; their bounds now filled the whole horizon, the whole sky, which they knocked alternately with their heels and their heads.
The horse came to a standstill, it was there, close by, behind a round window in the passage; more dead than alive, Des Esseintes turned round and saw through the circular opening two pricked ears, two rows of yellow teeth, nostrils breathing clouds of vapour that stank of phenol.
He sank to the earth, abandoning all idea of resistance or even of flight; he shut his eyes so as not to see the dreadful eyes of the Syphilis glaring at him through the wall, which nevertheless forced their way under his lids, glided down his spine, enveloped his body, the hairs of which stood up on end in pools of cold sweat. He expected any and every torment, only hoped to have done with it with one final annihilating blow; an age, that beyond a doubt lasted a whole minute, went by; then he opened his eyes again with a shudder.
All had vanished; without transition, as if by a change of scene, by a stage delusion, a hideous metallic landscape was disappearing in the distance, a landscape wan, desert, cloven with ravines, dead and dreary; a light illumined this desolate place, a calm, white light, recalling the glint of phosphorus dissolved in oil.
On the surface, something moved which took a woman's shape, a pallid, naked woman, green silk stockings moulding the legs.
He gazed at her curiously. Like horsehair curled by over-hot irons, her locks were frizzled, with broken ends; urns of the Nepenthes hung at her ears; tints of boiled veal showed in her half-opened nostrils. With entranced eyes, she called him in a low voice.
He had no time to answer, for already the woman was changing; gleams of iridescent colours flashed in her eyes; her lips assumed the fierce red of the Anthuriums; the nipples of her bosom blazed out like two bright red pods of capsicum.
A sudden intuition came to him; it is the Flower, he told himself; and the spirit of reasoning still persisted in the nightmare, drew the same conclusions as he had already in the daytime from the plants as the malevolence of the Virus.
Then he noticed the terrifying irritation of the bosoms and of the mouth, discovered on the skin of the body stains of bistre and copper, and recoiled in horror; but the woman's eye fascinated him, and he crept slowly, reluctantly towards her, trying to drive his heels into the ground to stay his advance, dropping to the earth, only to rise again to go to her. He was all but touching her when black Amorphophalli sprang up on every side, and made darts at her belly that was rising and falling like a sea. He put them away from him, pushed them back, feeling an infinite loathing to see these hot, moist, firm stems coiling between his fingers. Then, in a moment, the odious plants disappeared, and two arms were seeking to wind themselves about him. An agony of terror set his heart beating wildly, for the eyes, the dreadful eyes of the woman, had become pale, cold blue, terrible to look at. He made a superhuman effort to free himself from her embraces, but with an irresistible gesture she seized and held him, and haggard with horror, he saw the savage Nidularium blossom under her meagre thighs, with its sword blades gaping in blood-red hollows.
His body was almost in contact with the hideous open wound of the plant; he felt himself a dying man, and awoke with a start, choking, frozen, frantic with fear, sobbing out: "Thank God, thank God! it is only a dream."