Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Brother and Sister
By Ernest Renan (1823–1892)
From ‘My Sister Henriette’: Translation of Abby L. Alger

THE MEMORY of men is but an imperceptible trace of the furrow which each of us leaves upon the bosom of infinity. And yet it is no vain thing. The consciousness of humanity is the highest reflective image that we know of the total consciousness of the universe. The esteem of a single individual is a part of the absolute Justice. Therefore, although noble lives need no other memory than that of God, there has in all ages been an effort to make their image permanent. I should be the more guilty did I fail to render this duty to my sister Henriette, since I alone knew the treasures of that elect soul. Her timidity, her reserve, her fixed opinion that a woman should live in retirement, cast over her rare qualities a veil which very few were permitted to lift. But those who belonged to the select few to whom she showed herself as she really was, would blame me if I did not strive to bring together all which may complete their memories….  1
  My sister’s strong liking for domestic life was the result of an infancy spent in surroundings thus full of poetry and sweet melancholy. A few old nuns, driven from their convent by the Revolution and turned schoolmistresses, taught her to read and to recite the Psalms in Latin. She learned by heart all the music of the Church; bringing her mind to bear later upon those antique words, which she compared with French and Italian, she contrived to pick up a good deal of Latin, although she never studied it regularly. Her education, nevertheless, would necessarily have remained very incomplete, had it not been for a happy chance which gave her a teacher superior to any hitherto possessed by the country. The noble families of Tréguier had returned from exile completely ruined. A young girl belonging to one of those families, whose education was acquired in England, undertook to give lessons. She was a person distinguished alike for her taste and her manners; she made a deep impression upon my sister, and left behind a memory which never died.  2
  The misfortunes by which my sister was early surrounded increased that tendency to concentration which was inborn with her. Our paternal grandfather belonged to a sort of clan of sailors and peasants which peoples the entire province of Goëlo. He made a small fortune by his boat, and settled at Tréguier. Our father served in the fleet of the Republic. After the naval disasters of that time, he commanded ships on his own account, and was by degrees drawn into a considerable business. This was a great mistake. Utterly unskilled in such matters, simple and incapable of calculation, continually held back by that timidity which makes the sailor a complete child in practical affairs, he saw the little fortune which he had inherited gradually disappear in an abyss whose depth he could not fathom. The events of 1815 brought about commercial crises which were fatal to him. His weak and sentimental nature could not resist these trials; he gradually lost his interest in life. My sister hour by hour beheld the ravages which anxiety and misfortune made in that sweet and gentle soul, lost in an order of occupations for which it was not fitted. Amid these hard experiences she gained a precocious maturity. From the age of twelve she was a serious personage, burdened with cares, overwhelmed with grave thoughts and sombre forebodings.  3
  On his return from one of his long voyages on our cold, sad seas, my father had a final gleam of joy: I was born in February 1823. The arrival of this little brother was a great comfort to my sister. She clung to me with all the strength of a timid, tender heart, to which love is a necessity. I can still recall the petty tyrannies which I exercised over her, and against which she never rebelled. When she came forth bedecked to go to gatherings of girls of her age, I hung upon her skirts and implored her to return; then she would turn back, take off her holiday dress, and stay with me. One day, in jest, she threatened me that if I were not good she would die; she even feigned to be dead, reclining in an arm-chair. The horror which my dear one’s silent motionlessness caused me is possibly the strongest impression which I ever received, fate not having permitted me to receive her last sigh. Beside myself with grief, I rushed at her, and gave her arm a terrible bite. She uttered a cry which still rings in my ears. To the reproaches lavished upon me, I made but one reply: “Then why did you die? will you die again?”…  4
  From this time on, our condition was one of poverty…. My sister was seventeen. Her faith was still strong; and the thought of embracing a religious life had more than once strongly occupied her mind. On winter nights she took me to church under her cloak: it was a great pleasure for me to tramp over the snow, thus warmly sheltered from head to foot. If it had not been for me, she would undoubtedly have adopted a vocation which, considering her education, her pious tastes, her lack of fortune, and the customs of the country, seemed to be exactly suited to her. Her wishes turned especially towards the convent of St. Anne, at Lannion, where the care of sick people was combined with the education of young girls. Alas! perhaps, had she followed out this purpose, it would have been better for her own peace of mind. Yet she was too good a daughter and too affectionate a sister to prefer her own peace to her duty, even when religious prejudices in which she still shared upheld her. Thenceforth she regarded herself as responsible for my future. On one occasion, I being clumsy and awkward in my movements, she saw that I was timidly trying to disguise a hole in a worn-out garment. She wept: the sight of that poor child destined to suffering, with other instinctive feelings, wrung her heart. She resolved to accept the struggle of life, and single-handed took up the task of filling the yawning gulf which our father’s ill fortune had dug at our feet….  5
  I left St. Sulpice seminary in 1845. Thanks to the liberal and earnest spirit which ruled over that institution, I had carried my philologic studies very far; my religious opinions were greatly shaken thereby. Here again Henriette was my support. She had outstripped me in this path; her Catholic beliefs had wholly disappeared: but she had always refrained from exerting any influence over me upon this subject. When I told her of the doubts which tormented me, and which made it my duty to abandon a career for which absolute faith was requisite, she was enchanted, and offered to smooth the difficult passage. I entered upon life, scarce twenty-three years of age, old in thought, but as great a novice, as ignorant of the world, as any one could possibly be. I knew literally no one; I lacked the most ordinary advantages of a youth of fifteen. I was not even Bachelor of Arts. It was agreed that I should search the boarding-schools of Paris for some position which would square me, as the slang phrase is,—that is, would give me board and lodging without salary, at the same time leaving me abundant time for independent study. Twelve hundred francs, which she gave me, enabled me to wait; and to supplement all the deficiencies which such a position might entail. Those twelve hundred francs were the corner-stone of my life. I never exhausted them; but they gave me the requisite tranquillity of mind to think at my ease, and made it unnecessary for me to overburden myself with tasks which would have crushed me. Her exquisite letters were my consolation and my support at this turning-point in my life.  6
  While I struggled with difficulties increased by my entire lack of experience of the world, her health suffered serious inroads in consequence of the severity of the winters in Poland. She developed a chronic affection of the larynx, which in 1850 became so serious that it was thought necessary for her to return. Moreover, her task was accomplished: our father’s debts were paid; the small properties which he had left to us were now free from incumbrance, in the hands of our mother; my brother had won by his labor a position which promised to make him rich. We decided to unite our fortunes. In September 1850 I joined her in Berlin. Those ten years of exile had utterly transformed her. The wrinkles of old age were prematurely printed on her brow; of the charm which she still possessed when she took leave of me in the parlor of the St. Nicholas seminary, nothing now remained but the delicious expression of her ineffable goodness.  7
  Then began for us those delightful years, the mere memory of which brings tears to my eyes. We took a small apartment in a garden near Val-de-Grâce. Our solitude was absolute. She had no friends, and made little effort to acquire any. Our windows looked out upon the garden of the Carmelites in the Rue d’Enfer. The life of those recluses, during the long hours which I spent at the library, in some sort regulated her existence and afforded her only source of amusement. Her respect for my work was extreme. I have seen her in the evening sit for hours beside me, scarcely breathing for fear of interrupting me; yet she could not bear to have me out of her sight, and the door between our two bedrooms was always open. Her love was so discreet and so secure that the secret communion of our thoughts was enough for her. She, naturally so exacting, so jealous in her affections, was content with a few minutes out of the day, provided she was sure that she alone was loved. By her rigid economy, she provided for me, with singularly limited resources, a home where nothing was ever lacking, nay, which had its austere charm. Our thoughts were so perfectly in accord that we hardly needed to impart them each to the other. Our general opinions as to the world and God were identical. There was no shade of distinction, however delicate, in the theories which I resolved at that period, that she did not understand. Upon many points of modern history, which she had studied at the fountain-head, she outstripped me. The general purpose of my career, the plan of unwavering sincerity which I formed, was so thoroughly the combined product of our two consciences, that had I been tempted to depart from it, she would have stood beside me, like another self, to recall me to my duty.  8
  Her share in the direction of my ideas was thus a very large one. She was a matchless secretary to me; she copied all my works, and grasped them so fully that I could depend upon her as upon a living index of my own thought. I am infinitely indebted to her in the matter of literary style. She read the proofs of everything I wrote; and her acute criticism, with infinite keenness, discovered errors which I had not observed. She had acquired an excellent mode of writing, wholly taken from antique sources; and so pure, so precise, that I think no one since the days of Port Royal ever set up an ideal of diction more perfectly correct. This made her very severe: she accepted very few modern writers; and when she saw the essays which I wrote before our reunion, and which I had not been able to send her in Poland, she was only half satisfied with them. She agreed with their tendency; and in any event she thought that in this order of intimate and individual thought, expressed with moderation, every one should give utterance with entire freedom to that which is in him. But the form struck her as careless and abrupt; she discovered exaggerated touches, a hard tone, a disrespectful way of treating language. She convinced me that one may say anything and everything in the simple, correct style of good authors; and that new expressions or violent images always proceed either from improper affectation or from ignorance of our genuine riches. Hence a great change in my mode of writing dates from my reunion with her. I acquired the habit of composing with a view to her remarks, risking many touches to see what effect they would produce on her, and determined to sacrifice them if she asked me to do so. This mental process, when she ceased to live, became to me like the painful feeling of one who has been amputated, who continually acts with a view to the lost limb. She was an organ of my intellectual life, and a portion of my own being truly entered the tomb with her.  9
  In all moral matters we had come to see with the same eyes, and to feel with the same heart. She was so thoroughly familiar with my order of thought that she almost always knew beforehand what I was about to say, the idea dawning upon her and upon me at the same moment. But in one sense she was greatly my superior. In spiritual things I was still seeking material for interesting essays or artistic studies; with her nothing marred the purity of her intimate communion with the good. Her religion of the true could not endure the least discordant note. One thing that wounded her in my writings was a touch of irony which possessed me, and which I mingled with the best things. I had never suffered; and I found a certain philosophy in the discreet smile provoked by human weakness or vanity. This trick wounded her, and I gradually gave it up for her sake. I now know how right she was. The good should be simply good; any touch of mockery implies a remnant of vanity and of personal challenge which ends by being in bad taste….  10
  Her capacity for work was extraordinary. I have seen her, for days at a time, devote herself unceasingly to the task which she had taken up. She took part in editing educational journals, especially the one in charge of her friend, Mademoiselle Ulliac-Tremadeure. She never signed her name; and it was impossible, with her great modesty, that she could ever win in this line more than the esteem of a select few. Moreover, the detestable taste which in France presides over the composition of works meant for the education of women, left her no room to hope either for great satisfaction or great success. It was particularly to oblige her friend, who was old and infirm, that she undertook this labor. The writings wherein she may be found entire are her letters. She wrote them to perfection. Her notes of travel were also excellent. I trusted to her to tell the unscientific part of our journey to the East. Alas! all knowledge of this side of my enterprise, which I left to her, perished with her. What I found on this head in her papers is very good. We hope to be able to publish it, completing it by her letters. We shall then publish a story which she wrote of the great maritime expeditions of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. She made very extensive researches for this task; and she brought to bear on it a critical judgment very rare in works intended for children. She did nothing by halves: the rectitude of her judgment was shown in everything by an exquisite taste for solidity and truth.  11
  She had not what is called wit, if by that word we understand something airy and sly, as is the French fashion. She never made a mock of anybody. Malice was odious to her: she regarded it as a species of cruelty. I remember that at a pardon (pilgrimage) in Lower Brittany, to which we went in boats, our bark was preceded by another containing certain poor ladies, who, wishing to make themselves beautiful for the festival, had hit upon pitiful arrangements of their attire, which was in very bad taste. The people in whose company we were, laughed at them, and the poor ladies observed this. My sister burst into tears: it seemed to her barbarous to jest at well-meaning persons who had for a time forgotten their misfortunes in order to be cheerful; and who had perhaps submitted to great privations out of deference to the world. In her eyes, a ridiculous person was to be pitied; she at once loved him and took his part against those who scoffed at him.  12
  Hence her aversion to the world, and the poor show which she made in ordinary conversation,—almost always a tissue of malice and frivolity. She was prematurely old; and she generally added still more to her age by her dress and manners. She was a worshiper of misfortune; she hailed, almost cultivated, every excuse for tears. Sorrow became to her a familiar and agreeable feeling. Ordinary people did not in general understand her, and considered her somewhat stiff and embarrassed. Nothing which was not completely good could please her. Everything about her was true and profound; she could not dishonor herself. The lower classes, peasants, on the contrary, regarded her as exquisitely kind; and those who knew how to take her on the right side soon learned to recognize the depth of her nature and her real distinction.  13
  She sometimes betrayed delightful feminine touches; she became a young girl again; she clung to life almost with a smile, and the veil between her and the world seemed to fall. These fleeting moments of delicious weakness, transient gleams of a vanished dawn, were full of melancholy sweetness. In this she was superior to persons who profess, in their gloomy abstraction, the detachment preached by the mystics. She loved life; she found a relish in it; she could smile at an ornament, at a feminine trifle, as we might smile at a flower. She did not say to Nature that frenzied “Abrenuntio” [I renounce thee] of Christian ascetism. Virtue to her was no stern rigor, no studied effort: it was the natural instinct of a beautiful soul aiming at goodness by a spontaneous exertion, serving God without fear or tremor….  14
  We know not the relations of great souls with the infinite; but if, as everything leads us to believe, consciousness be but a transitory communion with the universe,—a communion which leads us more or less directly into the bosom of God,—is it not for souls like hers that immortality is intended? If man have the power to carve out, after a Divine model which he does not select, a great moral personality, made up in equal parts of himself and of the ideal, it is surely this that lives with full reality. It is not matter that exists, since a unit is not that; it is not the atom which exists, since that is unconscious. It is the soul which exists, when it has truly made its mark in the eternal history of the true and the good. Who ever fulfilled this high destiny better than did my dear one? Removed just as she attained to the full maturity of her nature, she could never have been more perfect. She had reached the pinnacle of virtuous life; her views in regard to the universe would not have been carried further; her measure of devotion and tenderness was running over.  15
  Ah! but she might have been—without a doubt she might have been happier. I was dreaming of all sorts of small, sweet rewards for her; I had imagined a thousand foolish fancies to please her taste. I saw her old, respected like a mother, proud of me, resting at last in a peace without alloy. I longed to have her good and noble heart, which never ceased to bleed with tenderness, know a sort of calm—I may say a selfish moment—at last. God willed her to know here none but hard and rough roads. She died almost unrewarded. The hour for reaping what she had sown, for sitting down and looking back upon past sorrows and fatigues, never struck for her.  16
  To tell the truth, she never thought of reward. That interested view, which often spoils the sacrifices inspired by positive religions, leading us to think that virtue is practiced only for the usury to be derived from it, never entered into her great soul. When she lost her religious faith, her faith in duty was not lessened; because that faith was the echo of her inner nobility. Virtue with her was not the fruit of a theory, but the result of an absolute disposition of nature. She did good for its own sake, and not for her own salvation. She loved the beautiful and the true, without any of that calculation which seems to say to God, “Were it not for thy hell or thy paradise, I should not love thee.”  17
  But God does not let his saints see corruption. O heart wherein perpetually burned so sweet a flame of love,—brain, seat of such pure thought,—fair eyes, beaming with kindness,—slender delicate hand, which I have so often pressed,—I shudder with horror when I think that you are naught but dust. But all here below is but symbol and image. The truly eternal part of each of us is his relation to the infinite. It is in the recollection of God that man is immortal. It is there that our Henriette lives, forever radiant, forever stainless,—lives a thousand times more truly than when she struggled with her frail organs to create her spiritual person, and when, cast into the midst of a world incapable of understanding her, she obstinately sought after perfection. May her memory remain with us as a precious argument for those eternal truths which every virtuous life helps to demonstrate, For myself, I have never doubted the reality of the moral order; but I now see plainly that the entire logic of the system of the universe would be overthrown if such lives were only trickery and delusion.  18

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