To My Friend Willie
Died in Paris 3rd October 1893
"From the bosom of God where you rest....
show me the truths
that rule death
that banish its fear
and bring me nearer to loving it."
The ancient Greeks brought
cakes, milk and wine to their dead. Under the illusion of being
more refined, if not wiser, we offer them flowers and books. If I
give you this it is first and foremost because it is a picture
book. Despite the "inscriptions", even if it is not
read it will at least be seen by all the admirers of the great
artist, who has given me this magnificent gift with such
naturalness, about whom it could be said, in the words of Dumas,
"that she has created more roses than anyone except
God". M. Robert de Montesquiou has also celebrated her, in
one of his as yet unpublished verses, with such ingenious
gravity, such sententious and subtle eloquence, such rigorous
discipline that he sometimes evokes the XVIIth century.
He told her, speaking of flowers:
"To pose for your brushes urges them to blossom,
You are their Vigée and you are the Flora
Who makes them immortal when the other makes them die!"
Her admirers are an elite, and
they are a throng. I wished them to see on the very first page
the name of one whom they did not have time to know but who they
would have admired. As for me, dear friend, I only knew you for a
very short time. I would often meet you in the Bois in the
morning and as you saw me coming, waiting for me under the trees,
standing erect yet reposing, you gave the appearance of one of
those noblemen painted by Van Dyck and whose pensive elegance you
shared. Their elegance, indeed, like your own, comes less from
their dress than from the body, and their bodies themselves
seemed to have received it and continue still to receive it from
their soul: it is a moral elegance. Everything incidentally
contributed to accentuate this melancholy resemblance, from the
leafy backgrounds to the shadows in which Van Dyck often captured
a king's stroll; like so many of those who were his models you
were soon to die, and in your eyes just as in theirs, we saw
alternately the shadows of presentiment and the gentle light of
resignation. But if the grace of your pride belongs by rights to
Van Dyck's art, rather you call to mind da Vinci in the
mysterious intensity of your spiritual life. Oft times with
finger raised, your eyes impenetrable and smiling, before the
enigma which you contemplated in silence, you appeared to me like
Leonardo's Saint John the Baptist. At that time we formed a
dream, almost a plan, to live more and more together, among a
select circle of noble-hearted men and women, sufficiently
removed from stupidity, vice and wickedness, to be able to feel
ourselves sheltered from their vulgar arrows. Your life, as we
wished it to be, was one of those works from which great
inspiration must come. Just as from faith and from genius, we
wish to receive it from love.
But it had to be death which gave you that. In death too, and even in its approach, lay hidden strengths, secret assistance, a "grace" which is not present in life. Just like lovers when they fall in love, like poets when they sing, invalids too feel themselves closer to their souls. Life is a harsh thing which presses too close, constantly making us spiritually impoverished. Upon feeling its grip loosen for a moment, one can experience clear-sighted comforts.
When I was a small child, the fate of no other character from the scriptures seemed to me to be quite so miserable as that of Noah, because of the flood which kept him trapped in the ark for forty days. Later on I was frequently ill, and for days on end I also had to remain in my "ark". It was then that I understood that nowhere could Noah have had a better view of the world than from the ark, despite the fact that it was closed up and that night ruled over the earth. When I began to get better, my mother, who had never left my side and even stayed with me through the night "opened the door of the ark" and left. Yet just like the dove "she returned that evening". Then when I was completely cured, like the dove, "she did not come back again". It was necessary to start to live again, to turn away from oneself, to listen to words which were harsher than my mother's; worse still, the words she used, always so gentle up till then, were no longer the same, but were marked with the severity of life and its duties which I was to learn from her.
Sweet dove of the Flood, how can we not think that the patriarch, as he watched you leave, did not feel some sadness mingled with his joy at the new born world?
Gentleness of the cessation of living, of the true "Truce of God" that interrupts the toils, the base desires, the "Mercy" of the illness which reconciles us to realities beyond death - and its mercies too, mercies of "these vain ornaments and these heavy veils", of the hair that an importunate hand "has taken care to arrange", the gentle loyalty of a mother or of a friend who has so often appeared before us like the very face of our sadness or like the protective gesture craved by our weakness, and which will be brought to an end on the threshold of our convalescence, often I have suffered in knowing that you are far away from me, all of you, the exiled descendants of the dove from the ark. And who has not known moments, dear Willie, when we wanted to be where you are. One makes so many commitments in life that there comes a time when, disappointed at never being able to keep them all, one turns towards the grave, one summons death, "death which comes to the aid of destinies that are having difficulty fulfilling themselves".
But if it releases us from the promises we have made to life, it cannot release us from those we have made to ourselves, first and foremost of which is to live in worth and merit.
More serious than any of us, you were also more childlike than any other, not only in your purity of heart but in your candid and delightful good humour. Charles de Gancey possessed the gift, an ability that I envied, of suddenly reawakening that laugh with some memories from school days, that laugh which was never far from the surface and which we shall never hear again. If some of these pages were written when I was twenty three, many others (Violante, Fragments from Italian Comedy etc.) date from my twentieth year. They are nothing more than the frivolous froth of an agitated life, now calm. One day may it be sufficiently limpid that the Muses consent to look at themselves in it and that we see running over its surface the reflections of their smiles and their dances. I give you this book. Alas you are the only one of my friends from whom there is no fear of criticism. I at least have the confidence that none of its freedom of tone can shock you. I have never portrayed immorality other than in those creatures with delicate consciences. Also, too weak to wish for goodness, too noble to participate fully in wickedness, only knowing suffering, I was unable to speak of them other than with an over sincere pity that could not but purify these little experiments. I hope that the true friend, and the illustrious and beloved Master who gave them, one the poetry of his music, the other the music of his incomparable poetry, M. Darlu too, the great philosopher whose inspired words, more sure to last than any written word, has, in me as in so many others, strengthened our minds, can excuse me for having reserved for you this last token of affection, by appreciating that no living person, however great or however dear, should be honoured before one who is dead.
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