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قراءة كتاب Letters to an Unknown

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‏اللغة: English
Letters to an Unknown

Letters to an Unknown

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
الصفحة رقم: 2

decision of the judges and to public sentiment. It was the act of a knight, who single-handed combats a whole army. Fined, and condemned to prison, he assumed no martyr’s airs, and in submitting to his misfortune, brought to it all the grace that he had brought of courage to its provocation. He has never referred to it, save in a preface, and then only by way of apology, stating that he had been compelled “during the preceding month of July to spend a fortnight in a place in which he was not at all inconvenienced by the sunshine, and where he enjoyed unlimited leisure.” Nothing more. It is the prudent, subtle smile of a gallant man.

He was, moreover, helpful and obliging. People who approached him to ask a favour went away discouraged because of his cold aspect, but a month later he would call upon them with the requested favour in his pocket. In his correspondence he gives expression to a striking phrase, to the truth of which all his friends will bear testimony: “It seldom happens that I sacrifice others to myself, and when this does occur I am overcome with remorse.”

Toward the close of his life there lived in his home two elderly English ladies, to whom he seldom spoke and to whom apparently he gave little attention; yet a friend of mine found him in tears because one of them was ill. He never spoke of his most profound sentiments. Here we have a correspondence of love, which developed into friendship lasting for thirty years; the final letter was written the last day of his life, and yet no one knows the name of his correspondent. To one who can read these letters understandingly they are all that is graceful, tender, and delicate, truly affectionate, and—who would imagine it?—at times poetic, imaginative even, like a German lyric.

The following incident is so strange, that it must be quoted almost wholly:

“You have been such a long time writing to me that I began to be very uneasy. Besides, I have been harassed by an absurd idea, which I have not dared to tell you before. I was visiting the amphitheatre at Nîmes with an architect of the department, who was explaining to me at length the repairs which he had had made there, when I saw ten feet away a lovely bird, a little larger than a tomtit, with a linen-gray body, and wings of red, black and white. This bird was perched on a cornice, gazing at me fixedly. I interrupted the architect, who is a great sportsman, to ask him the name of the bird. He told me he had never seen one like it. I approached, and, perching a few steps beyond, and still watching me, the bird did not take flight until I was close enough to touch it. Wherever I went the bird seemed to follow, for I saw it on every tier of the amphitheatre. It had no companion, and its flight was noiseless, like that of a bird of night.

“The next day I returned to the amphitheatre, and there was my bird again. I had brought some bread with me, which I threw to it. The bird looked at the food, but would not touch it. I then tempted it with a big grasshopper, thinking from the shape of the bill that it would eat insects, but the bird paid no attention to the grasshopper. The most learned ornithologist in the city told me that no bird of that species lived in the country.

“Finally, when I visited the amphitheatre for the last time, I found my bird again, still pursuing my steps, following me even into a narrow, dark corridor, where, bird of light that it was, it should not have dared to venture.

“I recalled then that the duchess of Buckingham had seen her husband in the form of a bird the day of his assassination, and the thought came to me that you were dead, perhaps, and that you had assumed this form in order to visit me. In spite of myself, I could not shake off this foolish idea, and I was delighted, I assure you, to see that your letter bore the date of the day when I had first seen my mysterious bird.”

It is thus that, even in a sceptic, affection and imagination are stirred; ‘tis a “piece of folly,” to be sure, but it is no less true that he was on the threshold of dreaming and in the highway of love.[2]

But along with the lover dwelt the critic, and the conflict between these two personages in the same man was productive of strange results. In such a case, it is better, perhaps, not to look too closely. “Do you realise,” said La Fontaine, “that I am as blind to the faults of persons whom I may love never so little, as if I were a mole living a hundred feet under the ground? No sooner do I feel an atom of love, than I hasten to moisten it with all the incense of my store-house.” This, perhaps, is the secret of his charm.

In the letters of Mérimée harsh words fall like rain amidst the soft ones; “I will admit that you have become much more beautiful physically, but not morally.... You still have a sylph-like figure, and, although I am somewhat blasé concerning black eyes, I have never seen any so large in Constantinople or in Smyrna.

“Now comes the reverse of the medal. In many respects you have remained a child, and you have become a hypocrite into the bargain.... You imagine that you are proud, but I regret to tell you that what you think is pride is only the petty vanity which one would expect in a religious temperament. It is the fashion nowadays to preach. Shall you follow it? That would be the finishing stroke.” And a little farther on: “In all that you say and do, you substitute invariably a conventional for a genuine sentiment.... I respect convictions, even those that seem to me the most absurd. You have a great many ridiculous notions (pardon the word), of which I should hesitate to deprive you since you are so fond of them, and have no others to take their place.”

After two months of affectionate words, of quarrels, and of meetings he concludes thus: “It seems to me you become more egotistical every day. When you speak of us, you mean only yourself. The more I think of this, the more deplorable it appears.... We are so unlike that it is hardly possible to understand each other.” It seems that he had met a character as restive and as independent as his own, “a lioness, though tame,” and he analyses it thus: “It is a pity we can not meet the day after having a quarrel, for I am sure we should be in a perfectly amiable frame of mind.... Without doubt, my most dangerous enemy to your heart or, if you prefer, my strongest rival, is your pride. Whatever wounds that, excites your indignation. This notion you carry out, perhaps unconsciously, in the most trifling matters. Is it not, for instance, your pride which is satisfied when I kiss your hand? This, you have said to me, makes you happy, and to this sensation you abandon yourself, because a demonstration of humility is gratifying to your pride.”

Four months later, while he is absent from Paris, after a more serious misunderstanding: “You are one of those chilly women of the North, who are governed only by the mind.... Farewell, since we can be friends only at a distance. When we have grown old, perhaps we shall meet again with pleasure.” Then, with a word of affection, he recovers his serenity. But the antagonism of their temperaments is bound to reappear. “Seldom do I reproach you, except for that lack of frankness, which keeps me constantly in a rage with you, compelled as I am always to search for your meaning under a disguise.... Why is it, when we have become all we are to each other, that you must reflect for several days before replying frankly to the simplest question of mine?... Between your reason and your heart, I never feel sure which will win; you do not know yourself, but you give the preference always to your reason.... If you have committed any wrong, it is assuredly that preference which you give to your pride over all the tenderness of your nature. The first sentiment is to the second as a