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The Cathedral   By: (1848-1907)

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J.K. Huysmans

THE CATHEDRAL

Translated by Clara Bell

Publishing History First published in France in 1898 First English edition in 1898

THE CATHEDRAL.

CHAPTER I.

At Chartres, as you turn out of the little market place, which is swept in all weathers by the surly wind from the flats, a mild air as of a cellar, made heavy by a soft, almost smothered scent of oil, puffs in your face on entering the solemn gloom of the sheltering forest.

Durtal knew it well, and the delightful moment when he could take breath, still half stunned by the sudden change from a stinging north wind to a velvety airy caress. At five every morning he left his rooms, and to reach the covert of that strange forest he had to cross the square; the same figures were always to be seen at the turnings from the same streets; nuns with bowed heads, leaning forward, the borders of their caps blown back and flapping like wings, the wind whirling in their skirts, which they could hardly hold down; and shrunken women, in garments they hugged round them, struggling forward with bent shoulders lashed by the gusts.

Never at that hour had he seen anybody walking boldly upright, without straining her neck and bowing her head; and these scattered women gathered by degrees into two long lines, one of them turning to the left, to vanish under a lighted porch opening to a lower level than the square; the other going straight on, to be swallowed up in the darkness by an invisible wall.

Closing the procession came a few belated priests, hurrying on, with one hand gathering up the gown that ballooned behind them, and with the other clutching their hats, or snatching at the breviary that was slipping from under one arm, their faces hidden on their breast, to plough through the wind with the back of their neck; with red ears, eyes blinded with tears, clinging desperately, when it rained, to umbrellas that swayed above them, threatening to lift them from the ground and dragging them in every direction.

The passage had been more than usually stormy this morning; the squalls that tear across the district of La Beauce, where nothing can check them, had been bellowing for hours; there had been rain, and the puddles splashed under foot. It was difficult to see, and Durtal had begun to think that he should never succeed in getting past the dim mass of the wall that shut in the square, by pushing open the door behind which lay that weird forest, redolent of the night lamp and the tomb, and protected from the gale.

He sighed with satisfaction, and followed the wide path that led through the gloom. Though he knew his way, he walked cautiously in this alley, bordered by enormous trunks, their crowns lost in shadow. He could have fancied himself in a hothouse roofed with black glass, for there were flagstones under foot, and no sky could be seen, no breeze could stir overhead. The few stars whose glimmer twinkled from afar belonged to our firmament; they quivered almost on the ground, and were, in fact, earth born.

In this obscurity nothing was to be heard but the fall of quiet feet, nothing to be seen but silent shades visible against the twilight like shapes of deeper darkness.

Durtal presently turned into another wide walk crossing that he had left. There he found a bench backed by the trunk of a tree, and on this he leaned, waiting till the Mother should awake, and the sweet interview interrupted yesterday by the close of the day should begin again.

He thought of the Virgin, whose watchful care had so often preserved him from unexpected risk, easy slips, or greater falls. Was not She the bottomless Well of goodness, the Bestower of the gifts of good Patience, the Opener of dry and obdurate hearts? Was She not, above all, the living and thrice Blessed Mother?

Bending for ever over the squalid bed of the soul, she washed the sores, dressed the wounds, strengthened the fainting weakness of converts... Continue reading book >>




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