The Hermetic Castle
Translated by Elliot Menard, this is the first English version of "Le Château Hermétique," which originally appeared in the April 1892 issue of the Mercure de France. In the words of the translator:
Rachilde, it is generally accepted, was born Marguerite Eymery on 11 February 1860, at her family’s damp and creepered estate—they called it Le Cros, or The Hole—outside Périgueux in Dordogne. In the alternative account, championed at one time by Eymery’s jealous or credulous mother, Rachilde was a dead Swedish gentleman whose ghost supplied the young Marguerite Eymery with stories and a pseudonym. (Rachilde loved, or perhaps loved to mock, ambiguity. Characteristic of this was her early penchant for misgendering her characters and, being French, her nouns.) Rachilde was incredibly prolific—almost a book a year—until the death of his medium in 1953. But she is remembered, almost exclusively, as a “decadent” writer of the fin de siècle, and a perverted one at that. To some she was “Mademoiselle Baudelaire”; to others, a pornographer. “The Hermetic Castle,” dedicated to the French symbolist writer Marcel Schwob, stands out among Rachilde’s parodies and provocations. There is no sex and not much of a plot, and everyone is always falling silent.
I knew two old women who died saying, “We are not at home here! This is not where we should die.” One was a peasant from Limousin, very poor, a little mad, whose principal obsession was an eternal need for locomotion. She dreamed of somewhere she would have been better off, where she should have lived all her life. Because she did not know the place, nor, indeed, whether it even existed outside her head, she was given to exclaiming: “Ah! How unfortunate to have no homeland . . .” She died making an obstinate gesture, by which she meant: “Over there!”
The other, a Countess of Beaumont-Landry, in possession of all her wits, spent whole days musing on the house of her dreams. This was no sentimental phrase from her youth: it was a dwelling actually built somewhere, perhaps in Sweden or Ireland, in a land of grey lace, she said, where the doves must mourn. She defined it no further. Neither paintings nor engravings gave her more precise images, but she knew the house was out there, and that her spot, as an esteemed socialite, was reserved in that modest resting place. When she was dying, she took her daughter’s hands and whispered in an anxious voice, “I am not at home here! No, this is not where I should be.”
If there is the one soulmate we seek through all the disappointments and all the crimes of love, might there not also be such a country, a brother country without which we cannot really live, cannot find a peaceful end?
How many melancholic tourists, their eyes full of regret, have said: “I passed by the place I want to live, but I can no longer remember which corner of the earth it is in! I no longer know the name of the village . . . I no longer see the shade of the sky . . . ”
How many famous explorers have suddenly felt drawn, across seas and deserts, to a mysterious land made for them alone, carrying in their hearts an image so faded that it seems but the memory of an old print admired too long during childhood!
And there are of course the accursed places we visit because we must, where we receive the scars that have awaited us for centuries. There is the forest that haunts from afar, where we hang ourselves on a tree that seems familiar, a tree that had offered its branches behind every twilight window. There is the lost lake at the bottom of a little wild valley, the greenish pool bristling with black brambles, into which we throw ourselves with the joy of having found not just any grave, but our own. From the beginning our place is ordained, but we do not come into this world according to our will: our parents move about, come and go aimlessly, seek their own final residence, and in the end it takes a parcel of contingencies to guide us, to grant us solemn intuition and whisk us away, as if on wings, to the land that safeguards, in a wheat field or on a deserted street, the mystical roots of our being.
And often, entranced by such a country, we suddenly see it recede, melt, vanish. It flees from us, abandons us, and for a reason that will never be given—because, no doubt, it is too terrifying—we sense that we will never reach it, that this promised land will be forever denied to us.
And here’s what I want to tell about one such chimerical land that I really did find on my journeys:
It was in the Franche-Comté, where one sunny day I was visiting a large, somber property located near the village of Roquemont, in the small hamlet of Suse. We had climbed to the top of a hill called, in those parts, the Bear’s Tooth, because of its peculiar shape, and the three of us lay on reddish grass that smelled of burnt hair. The mother, Madame Téard, the son, Albert Téard, and I were very hot, and we no longer spoke, having exhausted our banal Parisian stories. At this height, on this plateau swept by dry winds, any source of vulgar conversation had dried up within us, and we only hoped to muffle the echoes of the towns, always so jarring in the sacred silence of a Calvary climb. My friends first insisted on showing me the house, the garden, the vineyard; from different sides, they pointed out the celebrities of the countryside: the spot where, the previous year, Albert Téard had killed a huge hare; the crossroads where you could still find traces of the Prussians; the path by which, in certain winters, the thieving wolves descended from the woods. Then, little by little, seized with respect for the enveloping grandeur of the panorama, we all fell silent without consulting each other and looked almost without seeing.
On the horizon, but not too far away, stood a huge rock on another hill, sister to the one we were on, and one saw, very clearly, the ruins of a feudal castle merging with the dark stone. It formed a dramatic background to the relatively cheerful tableau comprising the village of Suse, huddled against a bell tower that was rounded like an aspergillum, and the vineyard, where farmers in smocks and women in light skirts were scattered here and there. The castle towered with a malevolent, imperious air, undeniably the only thing of real interest in the surroundings, a place of obvious legend and history. But no one had mentioned it yet. Albert Téard, in a sorrowful tone, muttered:
“. . . There are also caves full of fossilized bones and carved flint. We will take you there; then you will have seen everything.”
“What do you mean, everything?” I said, propping myself up on an elbow. “What about those ruins?”
“What ruins?” said Mrs. Téard, surprised.
My eyes were fixed on them. I stretched out an arm, and Albert Téard began to laugh.
“That, ruins? Unlikely! From our home, on a rainy day, it just looks like sheer rock. In the sunlight, with the play of light falling from the clouds, it sometimes looks like an ancient castle without a door. But don’t be fooled! . . .”
“You’re kidding!” I stared, fascinated, to the point of straining my brain.
“No, it’s the rock that’s kidding,” replied Albert Téard. “There’s no mention of these ruins in the records of the Franche-Comté region, and our peasants, who have no time for fun, claim never to have seen them in any weather. For my part, I perceive them only vaguely. . . because I’ve long known what to make of them.”
“And for my part,” gently added Madame Téard, a delightful, sensible old woman, “I have often tried to picture the castle, and I haven’t been able to discern the slightest turret . . .”
I was stunned. The mirage intensified by the moment, became overwhelming. I saw tracery, pointed arches, crenellated ramparts; and all these bluish details deepened as if under the strokes of a fantastical brush.
“But,” I whispered, “one could simply visit the rock and see it up close, right?”
Madame Téard smiled, tilting her kind face towards her left shoulder.
“Do you want to risk the blackguard’s jump?”
“What’s that? A legend?”
“No, a true story. It’s about a young conscript who bet he could find buzzard eggs up there, just before reporting to his regiment. He was drunk the morning he attempted the climb, and he tumbled all the way down from your famed castle to his cottage. He didn’t find eggs, but he landed himself in the guardhouse because he missed the roll call, the nincompoop.”
I remained in awe before the magical castle. Mists surrounded a hill covered with tall junipers and thickets of beech. I could imagine cool water hidden in the depths, and, from a distance, the rock shimmered like the skin of a reptile. A kind of protrusion in the shape of a parapet looked just like human craftsmanship. It seemed so easy to walk on it. I couldn’t understand my friends’ derision.
“We’ll go! It’s settled,” Téard said with an ironic grin.
We went the next day. Madame Téard followed us, carrying a basket generously filled with provisions, because, she said, it was always further than one thought.
After an hour’s walk through the wheat fields and vineyards, we reached the rocky slope of a hill dug out in its center, casting a thick, cold shadow over a hamlet of five or six huts. Here and there, taciturn villagers. The men arranged barrels without shouting or swearing. The women, rocking infants, didn’t sing. It seemed possible that this strange vision of a sleepy village was mine alone; my companions gave no indication that anything was unusual as we crossed the shadowy countryside. But Madame Téard, deciding to buy some milk, soon realized that no one responded to her, and said to me in a weary voice:
“They are like that here!”
The old lady settled by a primitive washhouse where a fountain gurgled through wooden pipes. She wished us a successful climb and started submerging wine bottles in the water for our return. Although I reminded myself that this was just a pleasant excursion, not a conquest, I was disheartened in advance. I could no longer see the feudal rock behind the ordinary rocks that hid it. The silence of the hamlet gripped me, and I became tense. Yesterday’s romantic mirage was fast transforming into a ridiculous trap, and I felt I was already victim to some terrible injustice. Téard pointed out to me with philosophic flourish that our gaiters were sturdy, and asked me to arm myself with patience because of the thick brambles we’d have to cross:
“You asked for this!” he emphasized.
Marching straight on the castle seemed child’s play at first; but it soon required a serious battle plan. We deviated in spite of ourselves, retreating from ditches filled with muck, thorns, and sharp stones. We had to navigate intertwining obstacles, and eventually we found ourselves with our backs to our goal. Curtains of dewberry brambles and tall, discouraging brushwood further obscured the ruins, and when a clearing under the branches finally allowed a glimpse, the eye met an enormous, plain wall. The towers, the ramparts, the parapet, were completely swallowed up by this damp wall, leaving just the mute, blind facade, the most menacing facade imaginable, hermetic, impenetrable . . . We sat down on a tree trunk halfway up the climb, totally out of breath.
Irritating, isn’t it? said Téard, mopping his brow. “We should hurry up and take the shortest route; I want to touch that rock with my own two hands.”
Off we went again, heads raised, eyes filled with concern. Téard was gripped by a kind of fever, and he confessed that he didn’t really know the true nature of that damned rock. Perhaps, some time ago, they had thought to quarry the hill, perhaps they had tried to build something within the rock itself before abandoning the idea on account of the hard granite. But if indeed there was something there, how had they reached the top? How could anyone scale that part of the wall, so smooth it shone?
“That’s what the conscript tried! The boy had dragged with him some knotted ropes and crampons. He set up ladders, sometimes to the east, sometimes to the west. From below, you could see him struggling like hell, and he was no drunker than I am. All the same, it ended with a crazy tumble. A headfirst dive into the fountain! . . . No, you’d need a balloon! . . .”
When we were on the foundations of the castle, our nostrils inhaling the pungent scent of the green moss that covered everything, we were even more lost than halfway up; we could no longer grasp the overall picture, and the details distracted our imaginations with the most ludicrous speculations.
“Let’s go around!” I exclaimed.
One of us veered west, the other east. We were to meet under what I called the parapet. I clung to shrubs, to clumps of grass as I walked. The ground was extremely slippery, and stones fell between my legs, rolling down to the fountain where the wine from our basket was cooling: one could hear them bouncing from ditch to ditch, striking rocks and then falling among the foliage like dead birds.
The earth crumbled under my feet, oddly friable, streaming in heavy rivulets, filled with countless brown and shiny flecks like the scales of some gigantic antediluvian fish. The greenery left a sticky sap on the hand, and, very close to the moss, one breathed a smell of rottenness. When I lifted my head, I was met with the imposing outline of that hermetic monument without door or window, and my gaze, climbing desperately, could find no unevenness in the stone, no small flower, to cling to. Rock, always the rock, gleaming, oozing, without seam or hole. And up there in the light, very high, silver-winged buzzards drifted slowly, like swimmers who abandon themselves to the calm waters of a blue ocean. There are times when the pure air intoxicates you, makes you forget down-to-earth things. For a second, it seemed almost simple to acquire a balloon! . . .
Oh! To enter the castle I had seen, and which existed because I had seen it! To penetrate that mysterious citadel where it seemed so obvious that someone was waiting for me! . . . Yes, I was fated to come here one day! I had to touch the colossal wall with my feeble hands, knock my forehead against the granite to call out to those inside who needed saving! . . . And I listened intently, scrutinizing the inexorable hardness of this natural pyramid, trying to find some sign of recognition.
All wild places cause hallucinations and, at times, delusions of grandeur. Alone on a mountain, nothing stops you from believing yourself king! I could have brushed the top of a poplar with my foot, and far below I saw Madame Téard sleeping under her white parasol lined with red, Madam Téard as small as a ladybug with a pink head! . . . Well then? Why wasn’t the drawbridge lowered? . . . Finally, dizziness overcame me, and, my eyes shut tight, I started to spin.
Beneath the parapet, Téard was examining a mark in the stone. This intrigued us for a moment. It looked like the imprint of an iron ring, one of those rings you find on quays for mooring ships. For a good fifteen minutes we stayed there, hanging by the strength of our nails above the abyss, studying this faint vestige of humanity. Eventually we concluded that a small rock, dehiscing from its sandstone cavity like a pit from ripe fruit, had probably made this ring-like mark. We had to go back down. We walked away, each utterly engrossed and unhappy, like two underdressed people turned away at the door. All the way down we faced severe misfortunes. I fell into a ditch filled with thorns. Téard stepped on a viper. At the bottom, Madame Téard, now awake, was watching for us, her face distraught, arms in the air: a stray dog had raided our basket of provisions; the wine, shaken up by the turmoil of the fountain, was ruined. We had some bread left, but it had been gnawed on and was covered in drool . . . Téard laughed bitterly. His mother lamented, and I dared not speak. The sun was setting; we quickly returned for dinner.
During the meal, with the window open to a marvelous horizon of fire and gold, I let out a cry of real anger and pointed out the distant hill with my finger. There . . . over there, a diabolical play of purple lights and shadows made the ruins of the feudal castle reappear. Clearer than ever, I could discern the towers, the parapet, the crenellations; and, rising more formidably than ever in the blood of the dying day, my Hermetic Castle, the unknown homeland that drew my heart! . . .