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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
In the Gardens
By Anatole France (1844–1924)
 
From ‘The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard’

APRIL 16.    
ST. DROCTOVEUS and the early abbots of Saint-Germain-des-Prés have been occupying me for the past forty years; but I do not know whether I shall be able to write their history before I go to join them. It is already quite a long time since I became an old man. One day last year, on the Pont des Arts, one of my fellow-members at the Institute was lamenting before me over the ennui of becoming old.
  1
  “Still,” Sainte-Beuve replied to him, “it is the only way that has yet been found of living a long time.”  2
  I have tried this way, and I know just what it is worth. The trouble of it is not that one lasts too long, but that one sees all about him pass away—mother, wife, friends, children. Nature makes and unmakes all these divine treasures with gloomy indifference, and at last we find that we have not loved,—we have only been embracing shadows. But how sweet some shadows are! If ever creature glided like a shadow through the life of a man, it was certainly that young girl whom I fell in love with when—incredible though it now seems—I was myself a youth.  3
  A Christian sarcophagus from the catacombs of Rome bears a formula of imprecation, the whole terrible meaning of which I only learned with time. It says:—“Whatsoever impious man violates this sepulchre, may he die the last of his own people!” In my capacity of archæologist I have opened tombs and disturbed ashes, in order to collect the shreds of apparel, metal ornaments, or gems that were mingled with those ashes. But I did it only through that scientific curiosity which does not exclude the feelings of reverence and of piety. May that malediction graven by some one of the first followers of the Apostles upon a martyr’s tomb never fall upon me! I ought not to fear to survive my own people so long as there are men in the world; for there are always some whom one can love.  4
  But the power of love itself weakens and gradually becomes lost with age, like all the other energies of man. Example proves it; and it is this which terrifies me. Am I sure that I have not myself already suffered this great loss? I should surely have felt it, but for the happy meeting which has rejuvenated me. Poets speak of the Fountain of Youth: it does exist; it gushes up from the earth at every step we take. And one passes by without drinking of it!  5
  The young girl I loved, married of her own choice to a rival, passed, all gray-haired, into the eternal rest. I have found her daughter—so that my life, which before seemed to me without utility, now once more finds a purpose and a reason for being.  6
  To-day I “take the sun,” as they say in Provence; I take it on the terrace of the Luxembourg, at the foot of the statue of Marguerite de Navarre. It is a spring sun, intoxicating as young wine. I sit and dream. My thoughts escape from my head like the foam from a bottle of beer. They are light, and their fizzing amuses me. I dream; such a pastime is certainly permissible to an old fellow who has published thirty volumes of texts, and contributed to the Journal des Savants for twenty-six years. I have the satisfaction of feeling that I performed my task as well as it was possible for me, and that I utilized to their fullest extent those mediocre faculties with which nature endowed me. My efforts were not all in vain, and I have contributed, in my own modest way, to that renaissance of historical labors which will remain the honor of this restless century. I shall certainly be counted among those ten or twelve who revealed to France her own literary antiquities. My publication of the poetical works of Gautier de Coincy inaugurated a judicious system and made a date. It is in the austere calm of old age that I decree to myself this deserved credit, and God, who sees my heart, knows whether pride or vanity have aught to do with this self-award of justice.  7
  But I am tired; my eyes are dim; my hand trembles, and I see an image of myself in those old men of Homer, whose weakness excluded them from the battle, and who, seated upon the ramparts, lifted up their voices like crickets among the leaves.  8
  So my thoughts were wandering, when three young men seated themselves near me. I do not know whether each one of them had come in three boats, like the monkey of La Fontaine, but the three certainly displayed themselves over the space of twelve chairs. I took pleasure in watching them, not because they had anything very extraordinary about them, but because I discerned in them that brave joyous manner which is natural to youth. They were from the schools. I was less assured of it by the books they were carrying than by the character of their physiognomy. For all who busy themselves with the things of the mind can be at once recognized by an indescribable something which is common to all of them. I am very fond of young people; and these pleased me, in spite of a certain provoking wild manner which recalled to me my own college days with marvelous vividness. But they did not wear velvet doublets and long hair, as we used to do; they did not walk about, as we used to do, with a death’s-head; they did not cry out, as we used to do, “Hell and malediction!” They were quite properly dressed, and neither their costume nor their language had anything suggestive of the Middle Ages. I must also add that they paid considerable attention to the women passing on the terrace, and expressed their admiration of some of them in very animated language. But their reflections, even on this subject, were not of a character to oblige me to flee from my seat. Besides, so long as youth is studious, I think it has a right to its gayeties.  9
  One of them having made some gallant pleasantry which I forget, the smallest and darkest of the three exclaimed, with a slight Gascon accent:—  10
  “What a thing to say! Only physiologists like us have any right to occupy ourselves about living matter. As for you, Gélis, who only live in the past,—like all your fellow archivists and paleographers,—you will do better to confine yourself to those stone women over there, who are your contemporaries.”  11
  And he pointed to the statues of the Ladies of Ancient France which towered up, all white, in a half-circle under the trees of the terrace. This joke, though in itself trifling, enabled me to know that the young man called Gélis was a student at the École des Chartes. From the conversation which followed I was able to learn that his neighbor, blond and wan almost to diaphaneity, taciturn and sarcastic, was Boulmier, a fellow-student. Gélis and the future doctor (I hope he will become one some day) discoursed together with much fantasy and spirit. In the midst of the loftiest speculations they would play upon words, and make jokes after the peculiar fashion of really witty persons—that is to say, in a style of enormous absurdity. I need hardly say, I suppose, that they only deigned to maintain the most monstrous kind of paradoxes. They employed all their powers of imagination to make themselves as ludicrous as possible, and all their powers of reasoning to assert the contrary of common-sense. All the better for them! I do not like to see young folks too rational.  12
  The student of medicine, after glancing at the title of the book that Boulmier held in his hand, exclaimed:—  13
  “What!—you read Michelet—you?”  14
  “Yes,” replied Boulmier very gravely. “I like novels.”  15
  Gélis, who dominated both by his fine stature, imperious gestures, and ready wit, took the book, turned over a few pages rapidly, and said:—  16
  “Michelet always had a great propensity to emotional tenderness. He wept sweet tears over Maillard, that nice little man who introduced la paperasserie into the September massacres. But as emotional tenderness leads to fury, he becomes all at once furious against the victims. There is no help for it. It is the sentimentality of the age. The assassin is pitied, but the victim is considered quite unpardonable. In his later manner Michelet is more Michelet than ever before. There is no common-sense in it; it is simply wonderful! Neither art nor science, neither criticism nor narrative; only furies and fainting spells and epileptic fits over matters which he never deigns to explain. Childish outcries—envies de femme grosse!—and a style, my friends!—not a single finished phrase! It is astounding!”  17
  And he handed the book back to his comrade. “This is amusing madness,” I thought to myself, “and not quite so devoid of common-sense as it appears. This young man, though only playing, has sharply touched the defect in the cuirass.”  18
  But the Provençal student declared that history was a thoroughly despicable exercise of rhetoric. According to him, the only true history was the natural history of man. Michelet was in the right path when he came in contact with the fistula of Louis XIV., but he fell back into the old rut almost immediately afterwards.  19
  After this judicious expression of opinion, the young physiologist went to join a party of passing friends. The two archivists, less well acquainted in the neighborhood of a garden so far from the Rue Paradis-aux-Marais, remained together, and began to chat about their studies. Gélis, who had completed his third class-year, was preparing a thesis, on the subject of which he expatiated with youthful enthusiasm. Indeed, I thought the subject a very good one, particularly because I had recently thought myself called upon to treat a notable part of it. It was the ‘Monasticum Gallicanum.’ The young erudite (I give him the name as a presage) wants to describe all the engravings made about 1690 for the work which Dom Michel Germain would have had printed, but for the one irremediable hindrance which is rarely foreseen and never avoided. Dom Michel Germain left his manuscript complete, however, and in good order when he died. Shall I be able to do as much with mine?—but that is not the present question. So far as I am able to understand, M. Gélis intends to devote a brief archæological notice to each of the abbeys pictured by the humble engravers of Dom Michel Germain.  20
  His friend asked him whether he was acquainted with all the manuscripts and printed documents relating to the subject. It was then that I pricked up my ears. They spoke at first of original sources; and I must confess they did so in a satisfactory manner, despite their innumerable and detestable puns. Then they began to speak about contemporary studies on the subject.  21
  “Have you read,” asked Boulmier, “the notice of Courajod?”  22
  “Good!” I thought to myself.  23
  “Yes,” replied Gélis; “it is accurate.”  24
  “Have you read,” said Boulmier, “the article by Tamisey de Larroque in the Revue des Questions Historiques?”  25
  “Good!” I thought to myself, for the second time.  26
  “Yes,” replied Gélis, “it is full of things.”…  27
  “Have you read,” said Boulmier, “the ‘Tableau des Abbayes Bénédictines en 1600,’ by Sylvestre Bonnard?”  28
  “Good!” I said to myself, for the third time.  29
  “Ma foi! no!” replied Gélis. “Bonnard is an idiot!”  30
  Turning my head, I perceived that the shadow had reached the place where I was sitting. It was growing chilly, and I thought to myself what a fool I was to have remained sitting there, at the risk of getting the rheumatism, just to listen to the impertinence of those two young fellows!  31
  “Well! well!” I said to myself as I got up. “Let this prattling fledgeling write his thesis, and sustain it! He will find my colleague Quicherat, or some other professor at the school, to show him what an ignoramus he is. I consider him neither more nor less than a rascal; and really, now that I come to think of it, what he said about Michelet awhile ago was quite insufferable, outrageous! To talk in that way about an old master replete with genius! It was simply abominable!”  32
 
 
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