Against the Grain/Chapter IV
A CARRIAGE stopped late one afternoon before the house at Fontenay. As Des Esseintes never received a visitor; as even the postman did not venture within these deserted precincts, never having either newspaper, review or letter to leave there, the servants hesitated, asking themselves if they ought to open. But presently, at the repeated summons of the bell outside the wall pulled with a vigorous hand, they went so far as to draw aside the judas let into the door; this done, they beheld a Gentleman whose whole breast was covered, from neck to waist, with a vast buckler of gold.
They informed their master, who was at breakfast.
"By all means," said he, "bring the gentleman in,"—for he remembered having on one occasion given his address to a lapidary to enable the man to deliver an article he had ordered.
The Gentleman came in, made his bow and deposited in the dining-room, on the pitch-pine flooring, his gold shield, which swayed backwards and forwards, rising a little bit from the ground and extending at the extremity of a snake-like neck a turtle's head which next instant it drew back in a scare under its shell.
This turtle was the result of a whim that had suddenly occurred to Des Esseintes a short while before his leaving Paris. Looking one day at an Oriental carpet with iridescent gleams of colour and following with his eyes the silvery glints that ran across the web of the wool, the colours of which were an opaque yellow and a plum violet, he had told himself: it would be a fine experiment to set on this carpet something that would move about and the deep tint of which would bring out and accentuate these tones.
Possessed by this idea, he had strolled at random through the streets; had arrived at the Palais-Royal, and in front of Chevet's window had suddenly struck his forehead,—a huge turtle met his eyes there, in a tank. He had bought the creature; then, once it was left to itself on the carpet, he had sat down before it and gazed long at it, screwing up his eyes.
Alas! there was no doubt, the negro-head hue, the raw sienna tone of the shell dimmed the sheen of the carpet instead of bringing out the tints; the dominant gleams of silver now barely showed, clashing with the cold tones of scraped zinc alongside this hard, dull carapace.
He gnawed his nails, searching in vain for a way to reconcile these discordances, to prevent this absolute incompatibility of tones. At last he discovered that his original notion of lighting up the fires of the stuff by the to-and-fro movements of a dark object set on it was mistaken; the fact of the matter was, the carpet was still too bright, too crude, too new-looking. Its colours were not sufficiently softened and toned down; the thing was to reverse the proposed expedient, to deaden the tints, to stifle them by the contrast of a brilliant object that should kill everything round it, casting the flash of gold over the pale sheen of silver. Thus looked at, the problem was easier to solve. Accordingly he resolved to have his turtle's back glazed over with gold.
Once back from the jeweller's who had taken it in to board at his workshop, the beast blazed like a sun in splendour, throwing its flashing rays over the carpet, whose tones were weak and cold in comparison, looking for all the world like a Visigothic targe inlaid with shining scales, the handiwork of some Barbaric craftsman.
At first, Des Esseintes was enchanted with the effect; but he soon came to the conclusion that this gigantic jewel was only half finished, that it would not be really complete and perfect till it was incrusted with precious stones.
He selected from a collection of Japanese curios a design representing a great bunch of flowers springing from a thin stalk, took it to a jeweller's, sketched out a border to enclose this bouquet in an oval frame, and informed the dumb-founded lapidary that every leaf and every petal or the flowers was to be executed in precious stones and mounted in the actual scales of the turtle.
The choice of the stones gave him pause; the diamond had grown singularly hackneyed now that every business man wears one on his little finger; Oriental emeralds and rubies are less degraded and dart fine, flashing lights, but they are too reminiscent of those green and red eyes that shine as head-lights on certain lines of Paris omnibuses; as for topazes, burnt or raw, they are cheap stones, dear to the humble housewife who loves to lock up a jewel-case or two in a glasscupboard; of another sort, the amethyst, albeit the Church has given it something of a sacerdotal character, is yet a stone spoilt by its frequent use to ornament the red ears and bulbous hands of butchers' wives who are fain at a modest cost to bedeck their persons with genuine and heavy jewels. Alone among all these, the sapphire keeps its fires inviolate, unharmed by the folly of tradesmen and money-grubbers. The brilliance of its fire that sparkles from a cold, limpid background has to some degree guaranteed against defilement its discreet and haughty nobility. But unfortunately by artificial light its bright flames flash no longer; the colour sinks back into itself and seems to go to sleep, only to wake and sparkle again at daybreak.
No, not one of these stones satisfied Des Esseintes; besides, they were all too civilized, too familiar. He preferred other, more startling and uncommon, sorts. After fingering a number of these and letting them trickle through his hands, he finally picked out a series of stones, some real, some artificial, the combination of which should produce a harmony, at once fascinating and disconcerting.
He combined together the several parts of his bouquet in this way: the leaves were set with stones of a strong and definite green colour,—chrysoberyls, asparagus green; peridots, leek green; olives, olive green, springing from twigs of almandine and ouvarovite of a purple red, gems throwing out sparkles of a clear, dry brilliance like the incrustations of tartar that glitter on the insides of wine-casks.
For the blossoms that stood isolated, far removed from the stalk, he used an ashen blue, rejecting, however, definitely the Oriental turquoise that is used for brooches and rings, and which, along with the commonplace pearl and the odious coral form the delight of vulgar souls; he selected exclusively those European turquoises that, strictly speaking, are only a fossil ivory impregnated with coppery infiltrations and whose sea-green blue is heavy, opaque, sulphurous, as if jaundiced with bile.
This done, he could now proceed to incrust the petals of such blossoms as grew in the middle of the bunch, those in closest neighbourhood of the stem, with certain translucent stones, possessing a glassy, sickly sheen with feverish, vivid bursts of fire.
Three gems, and only three, he employed for this purpose,—Ceylon cat's-eyes, cymophanes and sapphirines.
All three were stones that flashed with mysterious, incalculable sparkles, painfully drawn from the chill interior of their turbid substance,—the cat's eye of a greenish grey, striped with concentric veins that seem to be endowed with motion, to stir and shift every instant according to the way the light falls; the cymophane with bluish waterings running across the milky hue that appears afloat within; the sapphirine that lights up blue, phosphorescent fires on a dull, chocolate-brown background.
The lapidary took careful notes and measures as to the exact places where the stones were to be let in. "And the edges of the shell?" he presently asked Des Esseintes.
The latter had thought at first of a border of opals and hydrophanes. But these stones, interesting as they are by their curious variations of colour and changes of sparkle, are too difficult and untrustworthy to deal with; the opal has a quite rheumatic sensitiveness, the play of its rays is entirely modified according to the degree of moisture, and of heat and cold, while the hydrophane has no fire, refuses to light up the grey glow of its furnace except in water, after it has been wetted.
Finally he settled on stones whose hues would supplement each other,—the hyacinth of Compostella, mahogany red; the aquamarine, sea green; the balass ruby, vinegar rose; the Sudermania ruby, pale slate-colour. Their comparatively feeble play of colours would suffice to light up the deadness of the dull, grey shell, while leaving its full value to the brilliant bouquet of jewelled blossoms which they framed in a slender garland of uncertain splendours.
Des Esseintes stood gazing at the turtle where it lay huddled together in one corner of the dining-room, flashing fire in the dim half light.
He felt perfectly happy; his eyes were intoxicated with the splendours of these flowers flashing in jewelled flames against a golden background. Then, contrary to his use, he had an appetite and was dipping his slices of toast spread with super-excellent butter in a cup of tea, an impeccable blend of Si-a-Fayoun, Mo-you-tann and Khansky,—yellow teas, imported from China into Russia by special caravans.
This liquid perfume he drank from those cups of Oriental porcelain known as egg-shell china, so delicate and transparent are they; in the same way, just as he would have nothing to say to any other save this adorably dainty ware, he refused to use as dishes and plates anything else but articles of genuine antique silver-gilt, a trifle worn so that the underlying silver shows a little here and there under the film of gold, giving a tender, old-world look as of something fading away in a quiet death of exhaustion. After swallowing his last mouthful, he went back to his study, whither he directed a servant to bring the turtle, which obstinately declined to make the smallest effort towards locomotion.
Outside the snow was falling. In the lamplight, ice arabesques glittered on the dark windows and the hoar-frost sparkled like crystals of sugar on the bottle-glass panes speckled with gold.
A deep silence wrapped the little house that lay asleep in the darkness.
Des Esseintes stood lost in dreams; the logs burning on the hearth filled the room with hot, stifling vapours, and presently he threw the window partly open.
Like an overhanging canopy of reversed ermine, the sky rose before him, a black curtain dappled with white.
An icy wind was blowing, that sent the snow spinning before it and soon reversed this first arrangement of black and white. The sky returned to the correct heraldic blazon, became a true ermine, white dappled with sable, where the black of night showed here and there through the general whiteness of the snowy mantle of descending snowflakes.
He closed the window again. But this quick change, without any intermediate transition, from the torrid heat of the room to the cold of mid-winter had given him a shock; he crouched back beside the fire and thought he would swallow a dose of spirits to restore his bodily temperature.
He made his way to the dining-room, where in a recess in one of the walls, a cupboard was contrived, containing a row of little barrels, ranged side by side, resting on miniature stocks of sandal wood and each pierced with a silver spigot in the lower part.
This collection of liquor casks he called his mouth organ. A small rod was so arranged as to connect all the spigots together and enable them all to be turned by one and the same movement, the result being that, once the apparatus was installed, it was only needful to touch a knob concealed in the panelling to open all the little conduits simultaneously and so fill with liquor the tiny cups hanging below each tap.
The organ was then open. The stops, labelled "flute," "horn," "vox humana," were pulled out, ready for use. Des Esseintes would imbibe a drop here, another there, another elsewhere, thus playing symphonies on his internal economy, producing on his palate a series of sensations analogous to those wherewith music gratifies the ear.
Indeed, each several liquor corresponded, so he held, in taste with the sound of a particular instrument. Dry curacao, for instance, was like the clarinet with its shrill, velvety note; kummel like the oboe, whose timbre is sonorous and nasal; creme de menthe and anisette like the flute, at one and the same time sweet and poignant, whining and soft. Then, to complete the orchestra, comes kirsch, blowing a wild trumpet blast; gin and whisky, deafening the palate with their harsh outbursts of comets and trombones; liqueur brandy, blaring with the overwhelming crash of the tubas, while the thunder peals of the cymbals and the big drum, beaten might and main, are reproduced in the mouth by the rakis of Chios and the mastics.
He was convinced too that the same analogy might be pushed yet further, that quartettes of stringed instruments might be contrived to play upon the palatal arch, with the violin represented by old brandy, delicate and heady, biting and clean-toned; with the alto, simulated by rum, more robust, more rumbling, more heavy in tone; with vespetro, long-drawn, pathetic, as sad and tender as a violoncello; with the double-bass, full-bodied, solid and black as a fine, old bitter beer. One might even, if anxious to make a quintette, add yet another instrument,—the harp, mimicked with a sufficiently close approximation by the keen savour, the silvery note, clear and self-sufficing, of dry cumin.
Nay, the similarity went to still greater length, analogies not only of qualities of instruments, but of keys were to be found in the music of liquors; thus, to quote only one example, Bénédictine figures, so to speak, the minor key corresponding to the major key of the alcohols which the scores of wine-merchants' price-lists indicate under the name of green Chartreuse.
These assumptions once granted, he had reached a stage, thanks to a long course of erudite experiments, when he could execute on his tongue a succession of voiceless melodies; noiseless funeral marches, solemn and stately; could hear in his mouth solos of crême de menthe, duets of vespetro and rum.
He even succeeded in transferring to his palate selections of real music, following the composer's motif step by step, rendering his thought, his effects, his shades of expression, by combinations and contrasts of allied liquors, by approximations and cunning mixtures of beverages.
Sometimes again, he would compose pieces of his own, would perform pastoral symphonies with the gentle blackcurrent ratafia that set his throat resounding with the mellow notes of warbling nightingales; with the dainty cacao-chouva, that sung sugarsweet madrigals, sentimental ditties like the "Romances d'Estelle"; or the "Ah! vous di-rai-je maman," of former days.
But tonight, Des Esseintes had no wish to "taste" the delights of music; he confined himself to sounding one single note on the keyboard of his instrument, filling a tiny cup with genuine Irish whisky and taking it away with him to enjoy at his leisure.
He sank down in his armchair and slowly savoured this fermented spirit of oats and barley—a strongly marked, almost poisonous flavour of creosote diffused itself through his mouth.
Little by little, as he drank, his thoughts followed the impression thus re-awakened on his palate, and stimulated by the suggestive savour of the liquor, were roused by a fatal similarity of taste and smell to recollections half obliterated years ago.
The acrid, carbolic flavour forcibly recalled the very same sensation that had filled his mouth and burned his tongue while the dentists were at work on his gums.
Once started on this track, his recollections, at first wandering vaguely over all the different practitioners he had had to do with, drew to a point, converging on one of the whole number, the eccentric memory of whose proceedings was gravenwith particular emphasis on his memory.
The thing had happened three years before: seized in the middle of the night with an abominable toothache, he had done everything a man does in such a case,—plugging his jaws with cotton-wool, stumbling against the furniture, pacing up and down his room like a madman.
It was a molar that had been stopped again and again, and was past cure; only the dentist's forceps could end his misery. In a fever of agony, he waited for daylight, firmly resolved to bear the most atrocious operation if only it would put an end to his sufferings.
Still holding his jaws between his hands, he asked himself what to do. The dentists he usually consulted were well-to-do practitioners who could not be seen at a moment's notice; a visit must be arranged beforehand, a regular appointment made. "That is out of the question, I cannot wait," he told himself; so he made up his mind to go to the first dentist he could find, to resort to any common, low-class tooth-drawer, one of those fellows with fists of iron, who, ignorant as they may be of the art (a mighty useless art, be it said by the way) of attending to decayed teeth and stopping hollow ones, know how to extirpate with unparalleled rapidity the most obstinate of aching stumps. Places of the sort open at daybreak, and there is no waiting. Seven o'clock struck at last. He dashed out of doors, and remembering a name he knew of such a mechanic calling himself a dentist and living at the corner of a neighbouring street, he hurried thither, biting his handkerchief and keeping back his tears as best he might.
Arrived in front of the house, which was advertised by a huge wooden placard, whereon the name "Gatonax" sprawled in enormous yellow letters on a black background and two little glazed cases in which artificial teeth were ranged in symmetrical lines in gums of pink composition joined together by mechanical springs of brass wire, he stood panting for breath, the sweat rolling from his temples; a horrid spasm shook him, a shudder ran over his skin,—and lo! relief came, the pain stopped, the tooth ceased to ache.
He halted irresolute on the pavement. But eventually he mastered his terror, climbed a dark staircase, mounting four steps at a time to the third floor. There he found on a door an enamelled plaque repeating in sky-blue lettering the same legend as on the board below. He pulled the bell; then, appalled at the great red blotches of expectoration he caught sight of on the steps, he suddenly turned tail, resolved to endure toothache all his life long, when a fearful screech reached his ears through the partition and re-echoed in the well of the staircase, nailing him to the spot in a trance of horror, while at the same instant a door opened and an old woman begged him to come in.
Shame had won the day over fear; he was shown into a dining-room; then another door opened noisily, admitting a formidable grenadier of a man, dressed in a frock coat and black trousers that seemed carved in wood. Des Esseintes followed him into an inner sanctum. From that moment his sensations had been vague. Confusedly he remembered dropping into an armchair before a window, and stammering out, as he put a finger to his tooth: "It has been stopped already; I am afraid there's nothing can be done."
The man had cut short this explanation peremptorily, inserting an enormous fore-finger into his mouth; then, muttering something from under his lacquered, pointed moustaches, he had picked up an instrument from a table.
Thereupon the drama had begun. Clinging to the arms of the operating chair, Des Esseintes had felt a sensation of cold in his cheek, then his eyes had seen three dozen candles all at once, and so unspeakable were the tortures he was enduring, he had started beating the floor with his feet and bellowing like an animal under the slaughterer's knife.
There was a loud crack, the molar had broken in coming away; he thought they were pulling off his head, smashing in his skull; he lost all control of himself, howled at the top of his voice; fought furiously against the man who now came at him again as if he would plunge his arm to the bottom of his belly; had then suddenly stepped back a pace and lifting the patient bodily by the tooth still sticking in his jaw, had let him fall back again violently in a sitting posture into the chair; next moment he was standing up blocking the window, and puffing and panting as he brandished at the end of his pincers a blue tooth with a red thread hanging from it.
Half fainting, Des Esseintes had spit out a basin full of blood, waved away the old woman who now came in offering him the stump of his tooth, which she was preparing to wrap up in a piece of newspaper, and had fled, after paying two francs, taking his turn to leave his signature in bloody spittle on the steps; then he was once more in the street, a happy man, feeling ten years younger, ready to be interested in the veriest trifles.
"B'rrr. . . ." he shivered, horrified at these dismal reminiscences. He sprang up to break the horrid nightmare of his thoughts, and coming back to everyday matters, began to feel anxious about the turtle.
It still lay quite still; he touched it, it was dead. Accustomed no doubt to a sedentary life, an uneventful existence spent under its humble carapace, it had not been able to support the dazzling splendour imposed on it, the glittering garment in which it had been clad, the pavement of precious stones wherewith they had inlaid its poor back like a jewelled pyx.