The Dead Leman and Other Tales from the French (1889)
Andrew Lang and Paul Sylvester
Have I ever loved, you ask me, my brother? Yes, I have loved! The story is dread and marvelous, and, for all my threescore years, I scarce dare stir the ashes of that memory. To you I can refuse nothing; to a heart less steeled than yours this tale could never be told by me. For these things were so strange that I can scarce believe they came into my own existence. Three long years was I the puppet of a delusion of the devil. Three long years was I a parish priest by day, while by night, in dreams (God grant they were but dreams!), I led the life of a child of this world, of a lost soul!
For one kind glance at a woman’s face was my spirit to be doomed; but at length, with God to aid and my patron saint, it was given to me to drive away the evil spirit that possessed me.
I lived a double life, by night and by day. All day long was I a pure priest of the Lord, concerned only with prayer and holy things; but no sooner did I close my eyes in sleep than I was a young knight, a lover of women, of horses, of hounds, a drinker, a dicer, a blasphemer, and, when I woke at dawn, meseemed that I was fallen on sleep, and did but dream that I was a priest.
From those years of dreaming certain memories yet remain with me; memories of words and things that will not down. Ay, though I have never left the walls of my vicarage, he who heard me would rather deem me one that had lived in the world and left it, to die in religion, and end in the breast of God his tumultuous days, than for a priest grown old in a forgotten cure, deep in a wood, and far from the things of this earth.
Yes, I have loved as never man loved, with a wild love and a terrible, so that I marvel my heart did not burst in twain. Oh, the nights of long ago!
From my earliest childhood had I felt the call to be a priest. This was the end of all my studies, and, till I was twenty- four, my days were one long training. My theological course achieved, I took the lesser orders, and at length, at the end of Holy Week, was to be the hour of my ordination.
I had never entered the world; my world was the college close. Vaguely I knew that woman existed, but of women I never thought. My heart was wholly pure. Even my old and infirm mother I saw but twice a year; of other worldly relations I had none.
I had no regrets, and no hesitations in taking the irrevocable vow; nay, I was full of an impatient joy. Never did a young bridegroom so eagerly count the hours to his wedding. In my broken sleep I dreamed of saying the Mass. To be a priest seemed to me the noblest thing in the world, and I would have disdained the estate of poet or of king. To be a priest! My ambition saw nothing higher.
All this I tell you that you may know how little I deserved that which befell me; that you may know how inexplicable was the fascination by which I was overcome.
The great day came, and I walked to church as if I were winged or trod on air. I felt an angelic beatitude, and marveled at the gloomy and thoughtful faces of my companions, for we were many. The night I had passed in prayer. I was all but entranced in ecstasy. The bishop, a venerable old man, was in my eyes like God the Father bowed above His own eternity, and I seemed to see heaven open beyond the arches of the minster.
You know the ceremony: the Benediction, the Communion in both kinds, the anointing of the palms of the hands with consecrated oil, and finally the celebration of the Holy Rite, offered up in company with the bishop. On these things I will not linger, but oh, how true is the word of Job, that he is foolish who maketh not a covenant with his eyes! I chanced to raise my head, and saw before me, so near that it seemed I could touch her, though in reality she was at some distance, and on the farther side of a railing, a young dame royally clad, and of incomparable beauty.
It was as if scales had fallen from my eyes; and I felt like a blind man who suddenly recovers his sight. The bishop, so splendid a moment ago, seemed to fade; through all the church was darkness, and the candles paled in their sconces of gold, like stars at dawn.
Against the gloom that lovely thing shone out like a heavenly revelation, seeming herself to be the fountain of light, and to give it rather than receive it. I cast down my eyes, vowing that I would not raise them again; my attention was failing, and I scarce knew what I did.
The moment afterwards, I opened my eyes, for through my eyelids I saw her glittering in a bright penumbra, as when one has stared at the sun. Ah, how beautiful she was ! The greatest painters, when they have sought in heaven for ideal beauty, and have brought to earth the portrait of our Lady, come never near the glory of this vision! Pen of poet, or palette of painter, can give no idea of her. She was tall, with the carriage of a goddess; her fair hair flowed about her brows in rivers of gold. Like a crowned queen she stood there, with her broad white brow, and dark eyebrows; with her eyes that had the brightness and life of the green sea and at one glance made or marred the destiny of a man. They were astonishingly clear and brilliant, shooting rays like arrows, which I could actually see winging straight for my heart. I know not if the flame that lighted them came from heaven or hell, but from one or other assuredly it came. Angel or devil, or both; this woman was no child of Eve, the mother of us all. White teeth shone in her smile, little dimples came and went with each movement of her mouth, among the roses of her cheeks. There was a luster as of agate on the smooth and shining skin of her half- clad shoulders, and chains of great pearls no whiter than her neck fell over her breast.