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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 2

Where Chactas is a though not the chief


"I implored you to fly; and yet I knew I should die if you were not with me. I longed for the shadow of the forest; and yet I feared to be with you in a desert place. Ah! if the cost had only been that of quitting parents, friends, country! if--terrible as it is to say it--there had been nothing at stake but the loss of my own soul.[23] But, O my mother! thy shade was always there--thy shade reproaching me with the torments it would suffer. I heard thy complaints; I saw the flames of Hell ready to consume thee. My nights were dry places full of ghosts; my days were desolate; the dew of the evening dried up as it touched my burning skin. I opened my lips to the breeze; and the breeze, instead of cooling me, was itself set aglow by the fire of my breath. What torment, Chactas! to see you always near me, far from all other humankind in the deepest solitude, and yet to feel that between us there was an insuperable barrier! To pass my life at your feet, to serve you as a slave, to bring you food and lay your couch in some secret corner of the universe, would have been for me supremest happiness; and this happiness was within my touch, yet I could not enjoy it. Of what plans did I not dream? What vision did not arise from this sad heart? Sometimes, as I gazed on you, I went so far as to form desires as mad as they were guilty: sometimes I could have wished that there
were no living creatures on earth but you and me; sometimes, feeling that there was a divinity mocking my wicked transports, I could have wished that divinity annihilated, if only, locked in your arms, I might have sunk from abyss to abyss with the ruins of God and of the world. Even now--shall I say it?--even now, when eternity waits to engulf me, when I am about to appear before the inexorable Judge--at the very moment when my mother may be rejoicing to see my virginity devour my life--even now, by a terrible contradiction, I carry with me the regret that I have not been yours!"

At this let who will laugh or sneer, yawn or cavil. But as literature it looks back to Sappho and Catullus and the rest, and forward to all great love-poetry since, while as something that is even greater than literature--life--it carries us up to the highest Heaven and down to the nethermost Hell.

[Sidenote: _Rene._]

_Rene_[24] has greater fame and no doubt exercised far more influence; indeed in this respect _Atala_ could not do much, for it is not the eternal, but the temporal, which "influences." But, in the same humble opinion, it is extremely inferior. The French Werther[25] (for the attempt to rival Goethe on his own lines is hardly, if at all, veiled) is a younger son of a gentle family in France, whose father dies. He lives for a time with an elder brother, who seems to be "more kin than kind," and a sister Amelie, to whom he is fondly, but fraternally, attached. Rene has begun the trick of disappointment early, and, after a time, determines to travel, fancying when he leaves home that his sister is actually glad to get rid of him. Of course it is a case of _coelum non animum_. When he returns he is half-surprised but (for him) wholly glad to be at first warmly welcomed by Amelie; but after a little while she leaves him, takes the veil, and lets him know at the last moment that it is because her affection for him is more than sisterly, that this was the reason of her apparent joy when he left her, and that association with him is too much for her passion.[26] _She_ makes an exemplary nun in a sea-side convent, and dies early of disease caught while nursing others. _He_, his wretchedness and hatred of life reaching their acme, exiles himself to Louisiana, and gets himself adopted by the tribe of the Natchez, where Chactas is a (though not _the_) chief.


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