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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Paternity
By Édouard Rod (1857–1910)
 
From ‘The Sense of Life’: Translation of Grace Elizabeth King

MY wife has gravely propounded the question of baptism. Before, when I was an aggressive unbeliever, I loved to say in a peremptory tone that my children should never be baptized. She would never reply, and her silence irritated me: I divined a menace; I understood that it announced a resistance, and that I should never be able to impose my opinion except by an act of tyranny. This perspective troubled me a little, although I was determined to remain firm. But time has progressed since that epoch, which already seems far away; I have just made an examination of conscience in order that I may answer in perfect sincerity my wife’s question. I find I have no longer any temper against religion,—quite the contrary. When I had broken the chains that it had so firmly bound about me, I had a period of hatred and revolt, in which I dreamed of exciting the world to the great combat for Truth against Faith….  1
  Then this hatred changed into a profound indifference; the meaning of the word “truth” wavered in my mind; I no longer found either criterion or proof: I said to myself that my negation was a religion also, just as much so as affirmation; just as gross, no more certain, no better, worse probably….  2
  Then why trouble simple souls? Why prevent them from deceiving themselves holily? Why teach them that the source at which they quench their thirst is imaginary? Is their error greater than mine? In the ocean of uncertainty on which we float, is my plank any safer than theirs? I have therefore promised myself to remain neutral in the contest.  3
  I had reached thus far, when I recognized that it was the free-thinkers who had disgusted me with free thought….  4
  It was at the time of the “disaffection” of the Pantheon. God was being chased out to give place to Victor Hugo: the adored of yesterday ceded place to the idol of to-day; the sweet Christ of the ‘Imitation’ fled before the man of the “Chastisements’; the good Holy Virgin of so many tender miracles went down before Lucretia Borgia and Marion Delorme. And this was, they said, the progress of light, and the cause of truth gained in the exchange. Chance led me into the temple. They were all there: municipal counselors, deputies, politicians of all kinds, as if they were at home; hats on heads, canes in hands; some had not even extinguished their cigars: and all were proud of driving out by their smoke the last vanishing trace of incense. Beneath the majesty of the dome they talked, laughed, gesticulated, and disputed, insolent and disrespectful….  5
  In a corner, however, before an altar left standing for a moment, a poor old woman in black cap and blue apron, unmindful of their noise, faithful to the God they had chased out, fervently knelt and prayed. She had brought two candles, whose flames flickered in the draught, and which a brutal breath would blow out before they were half consumed. Of what sorrow had she laid there the burthen? of what remorse, perhaps? What confidences was she addressing silently to the One who understands, compassionates, pardons? And when the last altar shall have fallen, which of these political mountebanks will give her the means of appeasing her sufferings? Then I understood that she was in the right against them all: for a moment the light of her flickering candle seemed to me a sun of truth; and passing before the altar, I bent my knee, and made the sign of the Cross. Ah! poor old unknown woman! Thou hast enlightened me more than much reading. If thy prayer was lost in its flight through space, it at least resounded in my heart, and thou madest me feel the void in my own depths. Why should I prevent the baptism of my child?…  6
  To-day is Marie’s birthday, and she probably has but a few hours to live. Her condition is unaltered. The fever does not increase; if it had increased, all would now be ended; but it has not decreased. Her respiration is just as labored, her breathing uneven, the noise in her chest is like broken machinery, and the same hacking cough shakes and rends her. She is as languid as ever, as indifferent, as detached from all….  7
  What beginnings of ideas may not this unexplained and brutal illness start in her little brain through which fever gallops? Oh, that constant moan! And there is one thing more heart-rending: it is when the wailing is suddenly interrupted for a moment, and the hoarse voice begins to coo as it used to do in her well days. No, I cannot imagine the little body stiffened in death! It would be too hideous to see it immovable and to know that it is so forever; that no voice can call her back; that she will never smile again; that she must be put into the earth, where soon she will be nothing: while the inanimate objects she has touched—her doll, her sheep—will remain here, surviving her in all their longevity as things. And then I think of the mother’s grief. And then I imagine the material details which come after: the little coffin which they will nail; the mourning notes to be addressed, all the formalities that have been invented to make mourning more painful. And again the slow procession winding its way, so far, to the cemetery of Passy; and on our return, the desolation, the immense desolation, of the apartment where she is no more!…  8
  The danger is over; yesterday the fever fell almost at once, as if by enchantment. It already seems as if the illness were only a part of a bad dream. I am happy. Up to this time I have asked myself unceasingly whether I loved my child. Now I am enlightened: and my affection is so deep in this hour of deliverance that I forget to grieve that she will have to live a whole life; that she will have to become acquainted with the agonies we have passed through, and more still,—who knows what?—all the future sufferings from which death would have delivered her. And for the first time I saw that in all I had said and thought of life, there was a good part of it only words, phrases. And when one has felt death pass very near; when one has just missed seeing one of those existences which is one’s very own disappear, then one understands probably that life—frightful, iniquitous, ferocious life—is perhaps better than nothingness.  9
  Live then, little Marie, as thou hast not wished to die! Live,—that is, suffer, weep, despair; live to the end, as long as Destiny will drag thee on its hurdle. And knowest thou, since he can no longer wish thee unborn, since he has not the strength to wish thee to die young as those whom the gods love,—knowest thou what thy father wishes for thee? It is to see all, feel all, know all, understand all. I say “all,” and I know the bitternesses the word contains; yet I do not wish to spare thee one: since if all be sorrow, chimera, falsehood, the summing-up of all these sorrows, chimeras, falsehoods, is nevertheless fine, like a landscape made up of abysms; and since there is a supreme satisfaction in feeling that we change with the years, that we ever reflect more images, even as a river grows larger in rolling towards the sea, and that we are, and we shall have been; and that nothing, neither human revolutions nor universal catastrophe, can ever cause to be taken away from us that part of eternity which we have had, which is human life.  10
 
 
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