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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

And a river of large pearls

Yes, I have loved--as no one else has loved, with a mad and wild passion so violent that I can hardly understand how it failed to break my heart.

After rapidly sketching the history of the early seminary days of the priest Romuald, his complete seclusion and ignorance almost of the very names of world and woman, the tale goes on to the day of his ordination. He is in the church, almost in a trance of religious fervour; the building itself, the gorgeously robed bishop, the stately ceremonies, seem to him a foretaste of heaven, when suddenly--

By chance I raised my head, which I had hitherto kept bowed, and saw before me, within arm's length as it seemed, but in reality at some distance and beyond the chancel rails, a woman of rare beauty and royally apparelled. At once, as it were, scales dropped from my eyes. I was in the case of a blind man whose sight is suddenly restored. The bishop, but now so dazzling to me, became dim, the tapers in their golden stands paled like the stars at morning, and darkness seemed to pervade the church. On this background of shade the lovely vision stood out like an angelic appearance, self-illumined, and giving rather than receiving light. I dropped my eyelids, firmly resolving not again to raise them, that so I might escape the distraction of outward things, for I felt the spell more and more, and I hardly knew what I did; but a minute afterwards I again looked up, for I perceived her beauty still shining across my dropped lashes as if with prismatic glory, and encircled by the crimson halo that, to the gazer, surrounds the sun. How beautiful she was! Painters, when in their chase of the ideal they have followed it to the skies and carried off therefrom the divine image of Our Lady, never drew near this fabulous reality. Nor are the poet's words more adequate than the colours of the limner. She was tall and goddess-like in shape and port. Her soft fair hair rolled on either side of her temples in golden streams that crowned her as with a queen's diadem. Her forehead, white and transparent, tinged only by blue vein-stains, stretched in calm amplitude over two dark eyebrows--a contrast enhanced still further by the sea-green lustre of her glittering and unfathomable eyes. Ah, what eyes! One flash of them was enough to settle the fate of a man. Never had I seen in human eyes such life, such clearness, such ardour, such humid brilliancy; and there shot from them glances like arrows, which went straight to my heart. Whether the flame which lit them came from hell or heaven I know not, but from one or the other it came, most surely. No daughter of Eve she, but an angel or a fiend, perhaps--who knows?--something of both. The quarrelets of pearl flashed through her scarlet smile, and as her mouth moved the dimples sank and filled by turns in the blush-rose softness of her exquisite cheek. Over the even smoothness of her half-uncovered shoulders played a floating gloss as of agate, and a river of large pearls, not greatly different in hue from her neck, descended towards her breast. Now and then she raised her head with a peacock-like gesture, and sent a quiver through the ruff which enshrined her like a frame of silver filigree.

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