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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

Alexis is forced by his father


and

the whole history of the martyrdom is attitudinised and bedizened in the same fashion.

Now listen to the noble simplicity of the first French poet and tale-teller:

A good maiden was Eulalia: fair had she the body, but the soul fairer. The enemies of God would fain conquer her--would fain make her serve the fiend. She listened not to the evil counsellors, that she should deny God, who abideth in Heaven aloft--neither for gold, nor for silver, nor for garments; for the royal threatenings, nor for entreaties. Nothing could ever bend the damsel so that she should not love the service of God. And for that reason she was brought before Maximian, who was the King in those days over the pagans. And he exhorted her--whereof she took no care--that she should flee from the name of Christian. But she assembled all her strength that she might rather sustain the torments than lose her virginity: for which reason she died in great honour. They cast her in the fire when it burnt fiercely: but she had no fault in her, and so it pained her [_or_ she burnt[9]] not.

To this would not trust the pagan king: but with a sword he bade them take off her head. The damsel did not gainsay this thing: she would fain let go this worldly life if Christ gave command. And in shape of a dove she flew to heaven.

Let us all pray that she may deign to intercede for us; that Christ may upon us have mercy after death, and of His clemency may allow us to come to Him.

[Sidenote: The _St. Alexis_.]

Of course this is story-telling in its simplest form and on its smallest scale: but the essentials are there, and the non-essentials can be easily supplied--as indeed they are to some extent in the _Life of St. Leger_ and to a greater in the _Life of St. Alexis_, which almost follow the _Sainte-Eulalie_ in the making of French literature. The _St. Alexis_ indeed provides something like a complete scheme of romance interest, and should be, though not translated (for it runs to between 600 and 700 lines), in some degree analysed and discussed. It had, of course, a Latin original, and was rehandled more than once or twice. But we have the (apparently) first French form, probably of the eleventh century. The theme is one of the commonest and one of the least sympathetic in hagiology. Alexis is forced by his father, a rich Roman "count," to marry; and after (not before) the marriage, though of course before its consummation, he deserts his wife, flies to Syria, and becomes a beggar at Edessa. After a time, long enough to prevent recognition, he goes back to Rome, and obtains from his own family alms enough to live on, though these alms are dispensed to him by the servants with every mark of contempt. At last he dies, and is recognised forthwith as a saint. This hackneyed and somewhat repulsive _donnee_ (there is nothing repulsive to the present writer, let it be observed, either in Stylites or in Galahad) the French poet takes and makes a rather surprising best of it. He is not despicable even as a poet, all things considered; but he is something very different indeed from despicable as a tale-teller. To begin, or, strictly speaking, to end with (R. L. Stevenson never said a wiser thing than that the end must be the necessary result of, and as it were foretold in, the beginning), he has lessened if not wholly destroyed the jar of the situation by (most unusually and considering the mad chastity-worship of the time rather audaciously) associating the deserted wife directly with the Saint's "gustation of God" above:

Without doubt is St. Alexis in Heaven, With him has he God in the company of the Angels, _With him the maiden to whom he made himself strange,_ _Now he has her close to him--together are their souls,_ _I know not how to tell you how great their joy is._[10]


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