Frantz Jourdain studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1860s. By the 1890s he was a leading art critic, writing essays critical of his alma mater. He supported new ideas, disapproved of the English Arts and Crafts movement which he viewed as elitist and became known as a proponent of Modernism and modern art. He was president of the Salon d’Automne from 1903 and a member of the prestigious literary organization, the Société des Gens de Lettres as well as a founder-member of the Société du Nouveau Paris (a group devoted to the modernization of the city). Jourdain was a close friend of Emile Zola.
Jourdain’s major building commission was the department store, La Samaritaine, Paris (1905–10). This was the first permanent steel building to be built in Paris at the turn of the century. Its design was radical in its use of glass and an exposed steel frame. The building was decorated in brilliantly colored naturalistic ornament. Despite its lavish appearance it was perfectly rational and functional.
The Chantorel Workshop: Artists and their Habits is Jourdain’s only novel. I am indebted to Professor Meredith L. Clausen for her scholarship and to Professor Jean-Louis Cohen who praised this forgotten novel in a lecture delivered at The Institute of Fine Arts. Jourdain’s novel has never appeared in English. Here are its first three chapters translated by Robert Bononno, translator of Considerations on the Death of a Dog by Jean Grenier, Turtle Point Press, Fall, 2014.
The Chantorel Workshop: Artists and their Habits
by Frantz Jourdain
Translated by Robert Bononno
Now that I have found it once more,
my earliest childhood blooms anew
in my memory with all its freshness.
Heinrich Heine (Reisebilder)
As in a dream, Gaston heard the sharp rap of the clapper.
His eyes half closed, his arms crossed and his head bent, he rose and returned to his seat unthinkingly, without abandoning the ecstatic torpor into which he had plunged. By instinct he followed the white trousers of his neighbor, looking without seeing, intoxicated with unreality, incapable of clearly receiving a physical impression.
The white trousers came to a halt; the child had sensed that he had returned to his bench; hypnotized by the idea that God was within him, he knelt down and forgot himself in adoration for an uncertain moment. Those few steps had seemed tiring, the contact with the exteriority of things felt painful to him, like a sudden repossession of his body, so deliciously forgotten.
He was immaterial now, lost in immeasurably soft spaces of light imbued with soft, dulcet sounds.
“Sit down!” a voice whispered in his ear.
He shuddered, pained at being torn from the beyond in which his soul hovered. He postponed the moment when he would set foot on earth again and, with his heart full, longed for the magnificence of a dream that had ended too soon. Slowly, he swept his unseeing eyes around him, though still veiled by the tears that had risen in a spasm of sacred joy: his friends were seated. One of them laughed as he spoke in an undertone to the boy next to him; another ate a brioche, which he hid behind his book.
The altar, surmounted by a tall statue of the Virgin beneath a flowered canopy, rose toward the vault in a haze of light and incense. The priest, his hands clasped, concluded the mass, and the sun, dappled with brilliant tints as it emerged through the windows of the choir, tinged the embroideries of his chasuble and the whiteness of the dawn with purple and gold.
Earlier, as he was about to receive communion, Gaston was stricken with terror. Overexcited by a retreat he had observed with mystic fervor, worn out by the catechism lessons, weakened from physical fatigue and mental excitement beyond his capacity, he felt listless, incapable of following an argument. The most discordant thoughts clashed dizzyingly in his brain, overheated by an unhealthy elation that overwhelmed his sense of what was just and true.
The solemn moment approached and he could not understand how he had dared to feel worthy of sitting at the Holy Table: he was not adequately prepared, he had not seriously damped his rebellious will, he hadn’t torn his bad instincts up by their roots, hadn’t made enough of an effort to improve and reach the perfection of those virtuous students whose biographies he had been given to read. The slightest misdeeds of his honest and pure childhood assumed the proportions of unspeakable acts, monstrous and unforgiveable, and his ignorance of evil transformed mere peccadilloes into terrible crimes stigmatized by terrifying and mysterious biblical injunctions.
His timidity aggravated his scruples; he watched in terror as the hour approached when he would receive the Creator of the World, the Master of Heaven and Earth, He who always was and always will be. Being weak, he cowered before such power.
He wanted to leave or at least delay the terrifying visit, to wait, and wait some more. How could he avoid his appearance before God, the paralyzing confrontation? But where would he go? The crowd surrounded him so closely that it seemed to weigh on his chest. He would never be able to break through that living wall. Would he be capable of confronting those faces as they turned toward the only first communicant who hadn’t gone to the altar? It was scandalous. Would this mean damnation? Jesus, Jesus, have mercy on me! He felt faint.
His legs slack, sweat pearling at his temples, his cheeks bloodless, his mouth dry, and his ears buzzing, he had stepped into line behind his companions, appealing to Heaven with a final act of contrition, ardent and desperate as the cry of the drowning man who drinks in death with his final appeal.
Now, a restful peace, an unspoiled sense of joy, an exquisite calm had replaced his anxiety. He was filled with joy – so gentle, so tenderly vivifying – everything appeared good and beautiful to him.
He felt dignified in his new uniform, in his well-cut garments of fine cloth with their shiny buttons, almost military in appearance — the first that had been made specifically for him — and, unconsciously, he was satisfied with the distinguished superiority of his schoolboy trousers with their red piping and his simple moiré armband, compared to the elaborate garb, the gold fringes, the missals with their embossed binding, and the elaborate curls of the children around him. The odor of his leather gloves provided a discreet sensation of elegance that seemed to him the beginning of a new opulence. The tenderness that filled his soul spilled over to those he loved, to the indifferent, the unknown, to everything around him, men and things. His heart melted as he uttered the name of his aunt, the dear creature whose passionate devotion had replaced that of his mother, nailed into her coffin before he had even known her; and he grew emotional thinking of his confessor, of the brothers wrapped in their surplices, his friends, an elderly neighbor, slightly deaf, who had kissed him that morning beneath the porte cochère, the young girls in their white veils and snowy dresses, which unsettled him slightly, the church whose stones enveloped him in a silent caress. He would have liked to hold in his arms the entire world, for his love was such that he could squander the gold of his soul without counting.
The singing, the fanfares of the organ, the pomp of the celebration, the magnificence of the setting, the scent of the incense and the flowers enhanced the intensity of the mirage. The child succumbed to the intoxication of the canticles, whose tender melodies delighted him so; he allowed himself to live, and felt no bitterness for the sorrows of a sickly and poor childhood, forgiving the past and without concern for the future, veiled by the rosy present.
The ceremony was over.
A final recommendation, the time for the afternoon meeting announced, the name of the final canticle the children would sing loudly, then, the clapper sounded three times. In single file, the first communicants began to move. The church door creaked on its hinges, and an avalanche of light suddenly penetrated the nave. Splattered with light, the Swiss guards advanced slowly, full of importance and gravity, marking each step with a tap of their staff, whose sound went unheard in the din of the parishioners, the overturning of chairs, the footsteps of the crowd, the brouhaha of conversations that had been contained for so long and now burst out, indifferent to the sanctity of the place.
Outside, in front of the church, the crowd thickened; there was laughter, calls, shouts, cries, a confused turbulence in need of expansion, and noisy displays.
A few female workers, bareheaded and without overcoats, apprentices, soldiers, and children from the schools watched from the sides, alongside parents and friends, who stood on tiptoe and stretched their necks to catch sight of a coveted face.
The bells had begun to peal, hurling toward the pale May sky the volley of a deafening carillon, accompanied by notes that seemed to leap after one another, clashing madly, struggling against the groaning organs, whose noise reached the street in triumphal waves.
Blinded by the transition from deep shade to bright daylight, Gaston, taking shelter beneath his manual, sought the eyes of his aunt, who, on her side, gestured expressively with her umbrella.
Good Aunt Ameline, how happy he would be to kiss her! He moved his feet impatiently, holding back the laughter that was ready to escape him, resisting the urge to speak to his neighbor, trying to remain serious and avoid appearing self-indulgent.
Having arrived at the law school, the Swiss guards stopped. The priest, very red beneath his biretta, made a sign: the ranks broke, the children scattered and lost themselves in the crowd.
The old woman threw herself on her nephew, wrapping him in her arms and hungrily kissing his cheeks and eyes, as if she could never be fully satisfied.
“I was looking for you, where were you aunt?”
“There, just opposite. I was following you but you didn’t see me waving. Look at me; lift your head. You’re pale, you must be tired.”
“Not at all.”
“Poor little thing. The priest kept rattling on up there, I thought he’d never stop. I was so upset. You’re not feeling ill?”
“Of course not.”
“Put your cap on and stay out of the sun. All the same, that kind of sermon is much too long for hungry children, much too long; I’m going to speak to those people. You’re dying of hunger, I can tell. Did you eat your brioche at least?”
“They handed them out, but I’m not sure they reached my side, I didn’t see any.”
Mademoiselle Dorsner again began kissing the child.
“How stupid they are, stupid, stupid, stupid! Those imbeciles forgot about you. You don’t have an upset stomach, do you? Let’s go home at once, lunch is ready.”
She picked up her pace as she talked, moving with determination, her eyes bright, her gestures energetic, young looking in spite of her wrinkles and gray hair, graceless, lacking in femininity, with her oversize gloves of spun silk yarn, her flat little boots, and black silk wrap hung across an ill-fitting dress.
As they passed before the side door of the church on Rue Clovis, Gaston stopped.
“Oh, aunt . . .”
“I’d like to recite a Hail Mary to the Holy Virgin in her chapel, to give thanks. May I?”
The bells had stopped ringing, the organ remained silent, the candles extinguished, the sun’s rays, intercepted by a cloud, had ceased to animate the stained glass windows. The immense vessel now slept in the emptiness and silence. A cold sadness oozed from those stones, which had resumed their impassive and somber physiognomy. A sacristan in a blue apron and a worn skullcap, busied himself in rearranging the chairs while the man who had sat by the holy water fount, ill-tempered and filthy, dragged his slippers across the stone floor.
What a sudden metamorphosis!
Gaston glanced regretfully at the red benches with their gold trim, the rug, the altar, the flowers and candelabras, all the pomp that had so overwhelmed him. A chill breeze tarnished his happiness. In confusion, this primitive soul had the prescience of bitter awakenings, disappointing fictions, misleading hopes, and unfulfilled joys.
Humble, weak, fearful, the child held in his hand — a frail hand in which the blood circulating in his bluish veins was visible — his aunt’s virile hand, his sole support, and he raised his sorrowful eyes to the Christ behind the parish pew, a large painted Christ who bled, during days of celebration as well as days of mourning, beneath the crown of thorns and the nails torturing his flesh, and who seemed to cry for all eternity, more for the suffering of humanity than for his own.
Gaston hadn’t known his father and had only a confused recollection of his mother: a pretty young woman with blue eyes, golden hair, soft skin, and kind hands that smelled good. Through the obscurity of the past, he perceived a luxurious interior, a grand piano, shiny parquet floors in which the furniture could be seen reflected, windows with stone balusters, a crystal chandelier that tinkled imperceptibly, a gray sky, rain, fog, animated streets, piers, water, and ships, Oh! many ships crammed together side by side, enormous ships, immobile, so large and dark that they appeared amusing and terrifying at the same time. Nothing precise. The silhouettes whose indelible imprint his too young memory had been unable to retain were confused with dreams.
Yet, a few scraps of days gone by had remained solidly anchored in the child’s mind, memories luminous and sharp, like objects that are vivified by the slender ray of light filtering through a basement grate. It wasn’t the important events of his life that had dug the deepest furrows, small details had dominated him entirely. In his eyes, his mother’s death didn’t appear as a clearly defined image. He recalled the patient lying down, asleep, then no longer present. As a result, he experienced no real suffering; for, at that moment, incapable of assigning a true meaning to the eternal separation whose horror he was unable to comprehend, he had thought that “his maman” had left and would return. This resulted in a fugitive grief that Gaston had vainly tried later to resuscitate. He had cried abundantly but had been torn by a much more pronounced suffering, one evening when his toe had gone through a worn slipper; in spite of his cries and pleas, he had been forced to keep the slipper on his foot and the barbarous tenacity of the servant had made him, for more than a quarter of an hour, the most miserable of creatures.
Gaston recalled, without hesitation, a table placed between two windows, beneath which he would huddle to play, delighted by the solitude of that intimate corner. He distinctly heard, down to the slightest nuance, melodies once played on the piano by his mother or aunt. He clung to insignificant details: the pattern on a wall hanging, the taste of a cough syrup, the color of a curtain, the shape of a charm representing a tiny ivory puppet worn by a doctor who had listened to his heart, the cry of a traveling peddler passing beneath his windows, and a thousand other nothings lodged like nails in his brain, without understanding why. The reasoning that had thus affected his sensations had disappeared; little by little, age had regulated his judgments, like the mechanism of a new watch, and the cause of certain tenacious and puerile memories escaped him. The effect lingered on, illogically, without any connection to the past.
Gaston’s father married late. He had wed an Englishwoman, a teacher twenty-two years his junior, whose beauty and intelligence had shaken his apathetic and cold nature, which, until then, had been resistant to any form of excitement. Monsieur Dorsner’s passion for his wife, who had no fortune, swept aside his nonchalance. Determined to change into luxury the well-being he had been satisfied with as a boy, when the days ran quietly by in his small house in Amsterdam, he withdrew his capital from the Van Beer Brothers, shipowners in Rotterdam, and resolved to acquire large plots of land in Sumatra, where he would attempt to cultivate coffee. Laura failed to view, other than with repugnance, a project that would oblige her husband to live for months at a time far from her. Powerless to alter a resolution that had been made final, she suggested that she might at least accompany the colonist. Dorsner refused with that particular stubbornness characteristic of the gentlehearted. He had intended to actively promote the plantation and train an intelligent steward capable of running it when the time came. He would then return to Holland and busy himself with the sale of his colonial production. The separation would, therefore, not be interminable. He departed alone, leaving Laura behind with her sister Ameline.
The initial results were unexpected; his success exceeded his expectations and, in four years, the Dutchman had doubled his fortune. Having reached his goal earlier than expected, he resolved to hasten his final return. Embarking a third time for Sumatra, he promised his wife, who was five months pregnant, that the voyage would be his last, his presence on the plantation no longer being indispensable. In Padang, he had met a man of exceptional value, an Italian by the name of Santa-Maria. This man was learned, polite, a hard and energetic worker, who had been forced by his youthful follies to become an expatriate. Dorsner had hired him, trained him, and made him an excellent lieutenant, a second version of himself, capable of managing his interests. The separation that weighed upon him so heavily, the separation whose bitterness was further aggravated by the birth of a child, was no longer necessary. Soon he would resume the normal and calm existence that had meant so much to him and which he had renounced with genuine heroism. Wealth and happiness would be his soon. But misfortune took hold.
Young Gaston was eight months old when Madame Dorsner learned of the “death” of her husband, abruptly, in an official letter from the governor of Padang. It was a strange end whose cause was difficult to explain: the colonist had been found not far from his house with his skull shattered by a bullet. Murder or suicide? They had found a rifle that had been recently fired near the body, but examination of the wound, in the back of the head, made the possibility of a voluntary death improbable. On the other hand, the assumption of revenge appeared unlikely, for the Dutchman, affable, kind, and generous, had no enemies. Suspicion fell upon Santa-Maria, whom the servants and employees of the factory accused. The murder was said to have been committed the very day the decision had been made, following a violent argument, to fire the manager. There was talk of embezzlement, of falsified entries in the accounts, and fraud. The shot fired by the guilty party at the man who was about to let him go became a logical consequence of the facts.
But the Italian had found an alibi. The investigation, conducted superficially, and with that poorly disguised indifference for human life shown in the colonies, had turned to a passing Battak who had been seen in the vicinity and had suddenly disappeared, without there being any possibility of discovering his whereabouts.
Weak and anemic, Laura was unable to react to the pain of an event that was destroying her.
Her sister-in-law, however, relieved her suffering with an explosion of rage; she shouted, ranted, and swore she would avenge her brother’s cowardly murder. Nothing in the world could prevent her from obtaining justice. Accept that hasty inquiry? Never! She would succeed in finding him, she would, the murderer those imbeciles had failed to arrest. She would find him and bring him back herself, would strangle the criminal with her own hands if need be. Her exasperation, stimulated by the hope of vengeance, dried her tears.
Rising by five, going to bed at midnight or one o’clock, Ameline devoted herself to her travels, visits, investigations, and endeavors of various kinds. She was rarely at home, never tired, never discouraged, but tenacious, exasperated, admirable. The disappointments merely focused her energy and subdued her will. Her long crêpe veil filled the court, the ministries, the offices of attorneys, her friends’ living rooms, even the most obscure corners of Amsterdam, where she hoped to find some support that might help her overcome the difficulties accumulating before her.
Powerless, however, to galvanize the indifferent and comprehending the futility of vague promises used to dampen her anger, she had decided to sail to Sumatra to gather specific facts at the very site of the crime when a new misfortune struck the two women.
In a letter filled with protestations of devotion, interjected with columns of numbers and a confused summary of the situation, the news from Santa-Maria was regrettable. Dorsner, overly confident in dishonest correspondents and defrauded by an unscrupulous banker, had been ruined several months before his death. The secret concerning this misfortune had been religiously guarded but a catastrophe had become imminent and the poor man, hounded and terrified, had probably committed suicide to escape a situation from which he was unable to extricate himself. Out of loyalty to the wife of his employer, to whom he owed everything, the Italian had used what little capital he possessed to purchase the remains of the ruined business. He had occupied himself with the realization of this project and would send the widow the result of a liquidation that would, unfortunately, turn out to be disastrous.
This latest blow was more than Madame Dorsner could bear, for her weak constitution left her with few resources. Afflicted with cerebral anemia, she died after 15 months of suffering, unconscious, as if asleep, delivered at least of the painful anxiety of leaving her son an orphan without financial means. The young woman, who had been so filled with love, departed without complaint, quietly, tirelessly repeating the name of her husband in a childlike sob.
Ameline hated that Englishwoman for she had taken — stolen, she would say — her brother’s heart, the unique object of her soul’s affection, her Georges, for whom she had constantly refused to marry so she might devote herself to his happiness without reserve. Why did ne need to marry that pretentious striver, and at the age of forty, no less? Her antipathy did not prevent her from caring for Laura with unlimited devotion and, after the funeral, she cried sincerely for the woman she referred to as the most perfect creature on earth.
Somewhat from nonchalance but mostly from fear of irritating her sister-in-law whose spiteful enmity Madame Dorsner feared, Laura had refused to get involved in her husband’s affairs. Once a widow, she dared not investigate the situation; she withdrew and did not question nor make any observation to Ameline, who was delighted to cut, carve, command, manage, and govern at her will with an authoritarianism equal to her radical lack of common sense. Her fortune had remained united to that of her brother, and she had the right to oversee its management, which no one had disputed. A power of attorney signed by Madame Dorsner before she fell ill had added legal authority to an appropriation that had rapidly become absolute.
After the colonist’s bankruptcy, it would have been possible to assure the future by wisely investing the capital saved from disaster and altering the household’s consumption. Mademoiselle Dorsner made complicated calculations in which she lost herself completely; she was unable to understand the accounting statements prepared by the liquidator, refused to admit that she had lost her way in this labyrinth, sent her advisors away, remained suspicious of the most honorable men, broke with friends who attempted to guide her, and ended up by placing her confidence — an unlimited confidence, at that — in a Monsieur Van Pratt, a disbarred lawyer who engaged in pawnbroking and provided collateral, credit reference, debt collection, and emigration services, an interloper who had been recommended to her by her chambermaid and whom she had failed to investigate at all.
Naturally she was duped and robbed.
Upon the death of Madame Dorsner, her close relatives, who had grown uneasy at the turn events had taken, hastened to appoint a family counselor. Ameline considered this a personal attack, a distrust that was harmful to her. Consequently, she stated that she was the mistress of the household, that no human power could oblige her to submit to the tyranny of people who dissimulated, beneath the hypocritical mask of good intentions, their determination to despoil her nephew, that she cared little for the law, and that they would find out what she was capable of when Gaston’s interests were involved.
Neither prayers, nor threats, nor argument succeeded in altering her decision. The struggle continued until the day when Van Pratt felt it opportune to stop the family for a cause that was, moreover, exclusively personal. Seeing the day approach when he would have to account to a client whose violence could not fail to terrify, fearing a scandal that would draw attention to him, he felt it prudent to arrange things in such a way that a considerable distance existed between himself and Mademoiselle Dorsner when the final reckoning would be made.
The lawyer, outlining in the most sensational manner possible the family’s intentions, approved the spinster’s tenacity, praised her energy and the nobility of her sentiments, but, explaining the law as he saw fit, did not hide the fact that she risked imprisonment, yes, imprisonment. And what would become of her nephew once that valiant woman were incarcerated?
For Ameline, the transition from exaltation to despair was sudden. The word “prison,” which evoked images of underground dungeons, chains, thick doors and heavy locks, disturbed her. How could she escape the infamy of those wretches? “You’ll need to act quickly,” Van Pratt whispered. “Gather everything you possess, secretly sell your furniture, and leave Holland immediately. Once abroad, you’ll pursue the matter, the result is not in doubt. In your absence, I’ll watch over your interests and transfer the funds to you as I receive them; I’ll help you escape the wasp’s nest into which you have fallen. But be careful and, by all means, make haste.”
This project, whose adventurous and slightly fantastic side appealed to Ameline and flattered her nomadic instincts, was immediately accepted. Without reflection, without further investigation, and with no hesitation in following the advice of a stranger, she abandoned relatives, habits, country, family, past and present, and yielded to the vagaries of chance. Her face hidden behind a thick veil, she secretly left Amsterdam, concealing beneath her coat little Gaston, who dared not speak or move, so terrified was he of the mysterious danger surrounding him. The journey unfolded as if it were a dream; Mademoiselle Dorsner saw police everywhere, who had been launched in her pursuit. When she arrived in Paris, she decided not to remain but settled in Versailles, where the country air seemed better for her nephew’s health than that of the immense city with its noise and dust.
A curious silhouette that of Ameline Dorsner. Like the voice of certain singers, her nature, lacking a middle range, possessed only highs and lows. She transposed everything, judging and acting by octaves. There was no sense of balance, no proportionality, only too much or too little. Like poorly manufactured articles of bronze, in which the imperfections of the casting color their patina with unique and precious highlights, Ameline was permeated with inconsistencies and sublimities.
Because her perceptions were distorted, she lived in an unreal world, plunged in a dream whose brutality was such that she was never completely free of it. Impassive before reality, overcome by chimeras, suspicious of the truth, blindly confident in mirages, weighing the appropriateness of a decision only after the act had been completed, she erected castles out of soap bubbles, divined intentions that did not exist, established plans of defense against impossible attacks, suffered from imaginary injuries, was deaf to insults, clung to possibilities, and was distrustful of evidence. She would have faced death without hesitation to save those she held dear but, to avoid hurting their feelings, she was powerless to restrain the bitter words that so easily fell from her lips or extinguish the anger that burst from her so unreasonably and so frequently under the most futile of pretexts.
All impulse and imagination, sometimes steel, sometimes clay, depending on the moment, she was resistant to methodical reasoning, rejected any kind of calm discussion, and was even more unwilling to accept an argument when she felt it was likely to convince her.
Her intelligence, of a higher essence, had amply benefited from the careful education she had received. She spoke English and German fluently, was passionate about the Romantic movement, whose excesses agreed with her temperament, and was an excellent musician and impeccable pianist; she had accumulated, without method but with a precious sense of artistry, considerable assets.
These tastes did not harmonize well with her milieu. She was aware of her superiority over the venal world into which she had been born and her natural pride had thereby increased. As well, she was engaged in a continual struggle with her family, which harbored an undisclosed annoyance at tendencies that undermined a past filled with brutish traditions and fetishistic prejudices. Her younger brother, whose naïve admiration flattered her, alone showed her a tenderness she returned a hundredfold.
An unforeseen circumstance revived the moribund dissension between the young woman and her family.
Ameline wanted more than anything to take lessons with Chopin, then in Paris. After a succession of angry encounters and remarks, she was allowed to go to France with her governess and move into a boarding house in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré to attend concerts by the master. But what was her parents’ stupefaction when they received, eight months after her departure, a mysterious letter in which the young woman announced her intention to abandon Protestantism and embrace the Catholic faith; this was done without explanation, and no word in her previous correspondence even hinted at such a grave decision. The father, a diehard old Calvinist, left immediately and, without further ado, brought his daughter, whom he said was mad, back to Amsterdam. He believed they should have indoctrinated her but felt the change of influences and acquaintances would quickly restore the hysterical woman to her senses.
He was greatly mistaken, for Ameline would not be moved. The days unfolded in scenes that possessed none of the characteristics of evangelical sweetness; there was no rest, no truce; life was ruined. A whirlwind of revolt had shaken the household. He had to gave in.
The following year, when her mother died, Ameline, yearning for pietism, manifested her desire to withdraw to a cloistered convent in Belgium. The tears shed by her brother, overcome by her decision, were the only things that managed to keep her at home.
By remaining in the world, she preserved an apostolic hatred for anything that interfered with the strict observance of her religion. Love, even the purest, had the unique ability to exasperate her. The word alone, a synonym for immodesty and lust, brought the blood rushing to her cheeks. The sight of a man kissing a woman or expressing his tenderness by squeezing her hand, made her sick to her stomach. If she encountered two lovers arm in arm, it was with difficulty that she restrained her indignation, which she expressed with words of contempt for the bestiality of the human race. A declaration seemed to her a shameful indecency and to possess a mistress was, in her eyes, a crime more abject than theft or forgery.
The woman had been overcome by the aversion love inspired in her. She experienced a kind of biblical terror toward it. Femininity had become odious: charm, grace, pride in one’s appearance, the elegance of manners, the desire to please, the enveloping caress of skirts, the intoxicating languor of attitudes all excited her disgust as much as the external characteristics of her sex––the development of the bust, a tiny waist, round arms, small feet, graceful hands, the accentuation of the hips.
Coldness? Disappointment? Dryness? Lack of temperament? No, a disturbance of cerebral vision at an age when the intellect, like the body, assumes habits it will maintain for all time. Mademoiselle Dorsner’s conversion had been a true crisis of mental illness, in which the nerves had played a preponderant role, annihilating, almost eliminating reason. The young girl had reached such a degree of mystical exaltation that the skillfully stimulating practices of the cloister alone would have been capable of nourishing a fervor that was more superficial than solid. Perhaps, by a reversal typical of her capricious nature, satiety would have rapidly followed the full enjoyment of a life so ardently desired, and the monotonous and rigid rule of the convent would have stripped of its radiance the poetic legend created by her overworked brain.
The vulgar concerns of active life, the occupations of the household, the prosaic commonplaces of intimacy showed her, on the contrary, the abyss separating hopes barely glimpsed from day-to-day realities. She felt wounded in the most delicate and highest realm of her being and developed a hatred for anything that contrasted with the paradisiacal illusions whose inanity she probably would have recognized if she had been allowed to examine them face to face, and for which she harbored the melancholy tenderness worthy of a mother who died before she was known. Unconsciously, she shifted the inviolate ardor of her soul first to her brother and then to little Gaston, happy to shower that blonde head with the neglected love of a woman, mistress, and mother.