A Passion in the Desert
by Honore de Balzac
Translated by Ernest Dowson
"The whole show is dreadful," she cried coming out of the menagerie of
M. Martin. She had just been looking at that daring speculator
"working with his hyena,"--to speak in the style of the programme.
"By what means," she continued, "can he have tamed these animals to
such a point as to be certain of their affection for----"
"What seems to you a problem," said I, interrupting, "is really quite
"Oh!" she cried, letting an incredulous smile wander over her lips.
"You think that beasts are wholly without passions?" I asked her.
"Quite the reverse; we can communicate to them all the vices arising
in our own state of civilization."
She looked at me with an air of astonishment.
"But," I continued, "the first time I saw M. Martin, I admit, like
you, I did give vent to an exclamation of surprise. I found myself
next to an old soldier with the right leg amputated, who had come in
with me. His face had struck me. He had one of those heroic heads,
stamped with the seal of warfare, and on which the battles of Napoleon
are written. Besides, he had that frank, good-humored expression which
always impresses me favorably. He was without doubt one of those
troopers who are surprised at nothing, who find matter for laughter in
the contortions of a dying comrade, who bury or plunder him quite
light-heartedly, who stand intrepidly in the way of bullets;--in fact,
one of those men who waste no time in deliberation, and would not
hesitate to make friends with the devil himself. After looking very
attentively at the proprietor of the menagerie getting out of his box,
my companion pursed up his lips with an air of mockery and contempt,
with that peculiar and expressive twist which superior people assume
to show they are not taken in. Then, when I was expatiating on the
courage of M. Martin, he smiled, shook his head knowingly, and said,
" 'How "well known"?' I said. 'If you would only explain me the
mystery, I should be vastly obliged.'
"After a few minutes, during which we made acquaintance, we went to
dine at the first restauranteur's whose shop caught our eye. At
dessert a bottle of champagne completely refreshed and brightened up
the memories of this odd old soldier. He told me his story, and I saw
that he was right when he exclaimed, 'Well known.' "
When she got home, she teased me to that extent, was so charming, and
made so many promises, that I consented to communicate to her the
confidences of the old soldier. Next day she received the following
episode of an epic which one might call "The French in Egypt."
During the expedition in Upper Egypt under General Desaix, a Provencal
soldier fell into the hands of the Maugrabins, and was taken by these
Arabs into the deserts beyond the falls of the Nile.
In order to place a sufficient distance between themselves and the
French army, the Maugrabins made forced marches, and only halted when
night was upon them. They camped round a well overshadowed by palm
trees under which they had previously concealed a store of provisions.
Not surmising that the notion of flight would occur to their prisoner,
they contented themselves with binding his hands, and after eating a
few dates, and giving provender to their horses, went to sleep.
When the brave Provencal saw that his enemies were no longer watching
him, he made use of his teeth to steal a scimiter, fixed the blade
between his knees, and cut the cords which prevented him from using
his hands; in a moment he was free. He at once seized a rifle and a
dagger, then taking the precautions to provide himself with a sack of
dried dates, oats, and powder and shot, and to fasten a scimiter to
his waist, he leaped on to a horse, and spurred on vigorously in the
direction where he thought to find the French army. So impatient was
he to see a bivouac again that he pressed on the already tired courser
at such speed, that its flanks were lacerated with his spurs, and at
last the poor animal died, leaving the Frenchman alone in the desert.
After walking some time in the sand with all the courage of an escaped
convict, the soldier was obliged to stop, as the day had already
ended. In spite of the beauty of an Oriental sky at night, he felt he
had not strength enough to go on. Fortunately he had been able to find
a small hill, on the summit of which a few palm trees shot up into the
air; it was their verdure seen from afar which had brought hope and
consolation to his heart. His fatigue was so great that he lay down
upon a rock of granite, capriciously cut out like a camp-bed; there he
fell asleep without taking any precaution to defend himself while he
slept. He had made the sacrifice of his life. His last thought was one
of regret. He repented having left the Maugrabins, whose nomadic life
seemed to smile upon him now that he was far from them and without
help. He was awakened by the sun, whose pitiless rays fell with all
their force on the granite and produced an intolerable heat--for he
had had the stupidity to place himself adversely to the shadow thrown
by the verdant majestic heads of the palm trees. He looked at the
solitary trees and shuddered--they reminded him of the graceful shafts
crowned with foliage which characterize the Saracen columns in the
cathedral of Arles.
But when, after counting the palm trees, he cast his eyes around him,
the most horrible despair was infused into his soul. Before him
stretched an ocean without limit. The dark sand of the desert spread
further than eye could reach in every direction, and glittered like
steel struck with bright light. It might have been a sea of looking-
glass, or lakes melted together in a mirror. A fiery vapor carried up
in surging waves made a perpetual whirlwind over the quivering land.
The sky was lit with an Oriental splendor of insupportable purity,
leaving naught for the imagination to desire. Heaven and earth were on
The silence was awful in its wild and terrible majesty. Infinity,
immensity, closed in upon the soul from every side. Not a cloud in the
sky, not a breath in the air, not a flaw on the bosom of the sand,
ever moving in diminutive waves; the horizon ended as at sea on a
clear day, with one line of light, definite as the cut of a sword.
The Provencal threw his arms round the trunk of one of the palm trees,
as though it were the body of a friend, and then, in the shelter of
the thin, straight shadow that the palm cast upon the granite, he
wept. Then sitting down he remained as he was, contemplating with
profound sadness the implacable scene, which was all he had to look
upon. He cried aloud, to measure the solitude. His voice, lost in the
hollows of the hill, sounded faintly, and aroused no echo--the echo
was in his own heart. The Provencal was twenty-two years old:--he
loaded his carbine.
"There'll be time enough," he said to himself, laying on the ground
the weapon which alone could bring him deliverance.
Viewing alternately the dark expanse of the desert and the blue
expanse of the sky, the soldier dreamed of France--he smelled with
delight the gutters of Paris--he remembered the towns through which he
had passed, the faces of his comrades, the most minute details of his
life. His Southern fancy soon showed him the stones of his beloved
Provence, in the play of the heat which undulated above the wide
expanse of the desert. Realizing the danger of this cruel mirage, he
went down the opposite side of the hill to that by which he had come
up the day before. The remains of a rug showed that this place of
refuge had at one time been inhabited; at a short distance he saw some
palm trees full of dates. Then the instinct which binds us to life
awoke again in his heart. He hoped to live long enough to await the
passing of some Maugrabins, or perhaps he might hear the sound of
cannon; for at this time Bonaparte was traversing Egypt.
This thought gave him new life. The palm tree seemed to bend with the
weight of the ripe fruit. He shook some of it down. When he tasted
this unhoped-for manna, he felt sure that the palms had been
cultivated by a former inhabitant--the savory, fresh meat of the dates
were proof of the care of his predecessor. He passed suddenly from
dark despair to an almost insane joy. He went up again to the top of
the hill, and spent the rest of the day in cutting down one of the
sterile palm trees, which the night before had served him for shelter.
A vague memory made him think of the animals of the desert; and in
case they might come to drink at the spring, visible from the base of
the rocks but lost further down, he resolved to guard himself from
their visits by placing a barrier at the entrance of his hermitage.
In spite of his diligence, and the strength which the fear of being
devoured asleep gave him, he was unable to cut the palm in pieces,
though he succeeded in cutting it down. At eventide the king of the
desert fell; the sound of its fall resounded far and wide, like a sigh
in the solitude; the soldier shuddered as though he had heard some
voice predicting woe.
But like an heir who does not long bewail a deceased relative, he tore
off from this beautiful tree the tall broad green leaves which are its
poetic adornment, and used them to mend the mat on which he was to
Fatigued by the heat and his work, he fell asleep under the red
curtains of his wet cave.
In the middle of the night his sleep was troubled by an extraordinary
noise; he sat up, and the deep silence around allowed him to
distinguish the alternative accents of a respiration whose savage
energy could not belong to a human creature.
A profound terror, increased still further by the darkness, the
silence, and his waking images, froze his heart within him. He almost
felt his hair stand on end, when by straining his eyes to their utmost
he perceived through the shadow two faint yellow lights. At first he
attributed these lights to the reflections of his own pupils, but soon
the vivid brilliance of the night aided him gradually to distinguish
the objects around him in the cave, and he beheld a huge animal lying
but two steps from him. Was it a lion, a tiger, or a crocodile?
The Provencal was not sufficiently educated to know under what species
his enemy ought to be classed; but his fright was all the greater, as
his ignorance led him to imagine all terrors at once; he endured a
cruel torture, noting every variation of the breathing close to him
without daring to make the slightest movement. An odor, pungent like
that of a fox, but more penetrating, more profound,--so to speak,--
filled the cave, and when the Provencal became sensible of this, his
terror reached its height, for he could no longer doubt the proximity
of a terrible companion, whose royal dwelling served him for a
Presently the reflection of the moon descending on the horizon lit up
the den, rendering gradually visible and resplendent the spotted skin
of a panther.
This lion of Egypt slept, curled up like a big dog, the peaceful
possessor of a sumptuous niche at the gate of an hotel; its eyes
opened for a moment and closed again; its face was turned towards the
man. A thousand confused thoughts passed through the Frenchman's mind;
first he thought of killing it with a bullet from his gun, but he saw
there was not enough distance between them for him to take proper aim
--the shot would miss the mark. And if it were to wake!--the thought
made his limbs rigid. He listened to his own heart beating in the
midst of the silence, and cursed the too violent pulsations which the
flow of blood brought on, fearing to disturb that sleep which allowed
him time to think of some means of escape.
Twice he placed his hand on his scimiter, intending to cut off the
head of his enemy; but the difficulty of cutting the stiff short hair
compelled him to abandon this daring project. To miss would be to die
for CERTAIN, he thought; he preferred the chances of fair fight, and
made up his mind to wait till morning; the morning did not leave him
long to wait.
He could now examine the panther at ease; its muzzle was smeared with
"She's had a good dinner," he thought, without troubling himself as to
whether her feast might have been on human flesh. "She won't be hungry
when she gets up."
It was a female. The fur on her belly and flanks was glistening white;
many small marks like velvet formed beautiful bracelets round her
feet; her sinuous tail was also white, ending with black rings; the
overpart of her dress, yellow like burnished gold, very lissome and
soft, had the characteristic blotches in the form of rosettes, which
distinguish the panther from every other feline species.
This tranquil and formidable hostess snored in an attitude as graceful
as that of a cat lying on a cushion. Her blood-stained paws, nervous
and well armed, were stretched out before her face, which rested upon
them, and from which radiated her straight slender whiskers, like
threads of silver.
If she had been like that in a cage, the Provencal would doubtless
have admired the grace of the animal, and the vigorous contrasts of
vivid color which gave her robe an imperial splendor; but just then
his sight was troubled by her sinister appearance.
The presence of the panther, even asleep, could not fail to produce
the effect which the magnetic eyes of the serpent are said to have on
For a moment the courage of the soldier began to fail before this
danger, though no doubt it would have risen at the mouth of a cannon
charged with shell. Nevertheless, a bold thought brought daylight to
his soul and sealed up the source of the cold sweat which sprang forth
on his brow. Like men driven to bay, who defy death and offer their
body to the smiter, so he, seeing in this merely a tragic episode,
resolved to play his part with honor to the last.
"The day before yesterday the Arabs would have killed me, perhaps," he
said; so considering himself as good as dead already, he waited
bravely, with excited curiosity, the awakening of his enemy.
When the sun appeared, the panther suddenly opened her eyes; then she
put out her paws with energy, as if to stretch them and get rid of
cramp. At last she yawned, showing the formidable apparatus of her
teeth and pointed tongue, rough as a file.
"A regular petite maitresse," thought the Frenchman, seeing her roll
herself about so softly and coquettishly. She licked off the blood
which stained her paws and muzzle, and scratched her head with
reiterated gestures full of prettiness. "All right, make a little
toilet," the Frenchman said to himself, beginning to recover his
gaiety with his courage; "we'll say good morning to each other
presently;" and he seized the small, short dagger which he had taken
from the Maugrabins.
At this moment the panther turned her head toward the man and looked
at him fixedly without moving. The rigidity of her metallic eyes and
their insupportable luster made him shudder, especially when the
animal walked towards him. But he looked at her caressingly, staring
into her eyes in order to magnetize her, and let her come quite close
to him; then with a movement both gentle and amorous, as though he
were caressing the most beautiful of women, he passed his hand over
her whole body, from the head to the tail, scratching the flexible
vertebrae which divided the panther's yellow back. The animal waved
her tail voluptuously, and her eyes grew gentle; and when for the
third time the Frenchman accomplished this interesting flattery, she
gave forth one of those purrings by which cats express their pleasure;
but this murmur issued from a throat so powerful and so deep that it
resounded through the cave like the last vibrations of an organ in a
church. The man, understanding the importance of his caresses,
redoubled them in such a way as to surprise and stupefy his imperious
courtesan. When he felt sure of having extinguished the ferocity of
his capricious companion, whose hunger had so fortunately been
satisfied the day before, he got up to go out of the cave; the panther
let him go out, but when he had reached the summit of the hill she
sprang with the lightness of a sparrow hopping from twig to twig, and
rubbed herself against his legs, putting up her back after the manner
of all the race of cats. Then regarding her guest with eyes whose
glare had softened a little, she gave vent to that wild cry which
naturalists compare to the grating of a saw.
"She is exacting," said the Frenchman, smilingly.
He was bold enough to play with her ears; he caressed her belly and
scratched her head as hard as he could. When he saw that he was
successful, he tickled her skull with the point of his dagger,
watching for the right moment to kill her, but the hardness of her
bones made him tremble for his success.
The sultana of the desert showed herself gracious to her slave; she
lifted her head, stretched out her neck and manifested her delight by
the tranquility of her attitude. It suddenly occurred to the soldier
that to kill this savage princess with one blow he must poniard her in
He raised the blade, when the panther, satisfied no doubt, laid
herself gracefully at his feet, and cast up at him glances in which,
in spite of their natural fierceness, was mingled confusedly a kind of
good will. The poor Provencal ate his dates, leaning against one of
the palm trees, and casting his eyes alternately on the desert in
quest of some liberator and on his terrible companion to watch her
The panther looked at the place where the date stones fell, and every
time that he threw one down her eyes expressed an incredible mistrust.
She examined the man with an almost commercial prudence. However, this
examination was favorable to him, for when he had finished his meager
meal she licked his boots with her powerful rough tongue, brushing off
with marvelous skill the dust gathered in the creases.
"Ah, but when she's really hungry!" thought the Frenchman. In spite of
the shudder this thought caused him, the soldier began to measure
curiously the proportions of the panther, certainly one of the most
splendid specimens of its race. She was three feet high and four feet
long without counting her tail; this powerful weapon, rounded like a
cudgel, was nearly three feet long. The head, large as that of a
lioness, was distinguished by a rare expression of refinement. The
cold cruelty of a tiger was dominant, it was true, but there was also
a vague resemblance to the face of a sensual woman. Indeed, the face
of this solitary queen had something of the gaiety of a drunken Nero:
she had satiated herself with blood, and she wanted to play.
The soldier tried if he might walk up and down, and the panther left
him free, contenting herself with following him with her eyes, less
like a faithful dog than a big Angora cat, observing everything and
every movement of her master.
When he looked around, he saw, by the spring, the remains of his
horse; the panther had dragged the carcass all that way; about two
thirds of it had been devoured already. The sight reassured him.
It was easy to explain the panther's absence, and the respect she had
had for him while he slept. The first piece of good luck emboldened
him to tempt the future, and he conceived the wild hope of continuing
on good terms with the panther during the entire day, neglecting no
means of taming her, and remaining in her good graces.
He returned to her, and had the unspeakable joy of seeing her wag her
tail with an almost imperceptible movement at his approach. He sat
down then, without fear, by her side, and they began to play together;
he took her paws and muzzle, pulled her ears, rolled her over on her
back, stroked her warm, delicate flanks. She let him do what ever he
liked, and when he began to stroke the hair on her feet she drew her
claws in carefully.
The man, keeping the dagger in one hand, thought to plunge it into the
belly of the too confiding panther, but he was afraid that he would be
immediately strangled in her last convulsive struggle; besides, he
felt in his heart a sort of remorse which bid him respect a creature
that had done him no harm. He seemed to have found a friend, in a
boundless desert; half unconsciously he thought of his first
sweetheart, whom he had nicknamed "Mignonne" by way of contrast,
because she was so atrociously jealous that all the time of their love
he was in fear of the knife with which she had always threatened him.
This memory of his early days suggested to him the idea of making the
young panther answer to this name, now that he began to admire with
less terror her swiftness, suppleness, and softness. Toward the end of
the day he had familiarized himself with his perilous position; he now
almost liked the painfulness of it. At last his companion had got into
the habit of looking up at him whenever he cried in a falsetto voice,
At the setting of the sun Mignonne gave, several times running, a
profound melancholy cry. "She's been well brought up," said the
lighthearted soldier; "she says her prayers." But this mental joke
only occurred to him when he noticed what a pacific attitude his
companion remained in. "Come, ma petite blonde, I'll let you go to bed
first," he said to her, counting on the activity of his own legs to
run away as quickly as possible, directly she was asleep, and seek
another shelter for the night.
The soldier waited with impatience the hour of his flight, and when it
had arrived he walked vigorously in the direction of the Nile; but
hardly had he made a quarter of a league in the sand when he heard the
panther bounding after him, crying with that saw-like cry more
dreadful even than the sound of her leaping.
"Ah!" he said, "then she's taken a fancy to me, she has never met
anyone before, and it is really quite flattering to have her first
love." That instant the man fell into one of those movable quicksands
so terrible to travelers and from which it is impossible to save
oneself. Feeling himself caught, he gave a shriek of alarm; the
panther seized him with her teeth by the collar, and, springing
vigorously backwards, drew him as if by magic out of the whirling
"Ah, Mignonne!" cried the soldier, caressing her enthusiastically;
"we're bound together for life and death but no jokes, mind!" and he
retraced his steps.
From that time the desert seemed inhabited. It contained a being to
whom the man could talk, and whose ferocity was rendered gentle by
him, though he could not explain to himself the reason for their
strange friendship. Great as was the soldier's desire to stay upon
guard, he slept.
On awakening he could not find Mignonne; he mounted the hill, and in
the distance saw her springing toward him after the habit of these
animals, who cannot run on account of the extreme flexibility of the
vertebral column. Mignonne arrived, her jaws covered with blood; she
received the wonted caress of her companion, showing with much purring
how happy it made her. Her eyes, full of languor, turned still more
gently than the day before toward the Provencal, who talked to her as
one would to a tame animal.
"Ah! mademoiselle, you are a nice girl, aren't you? Just look at that!
So we like to be made much of, don't we? Aren't you ashamed of
yourself? So you have been eating some Arab or other, have you? That
doesn't matter. They're animals just the same as you are; but don't
you take to eating Frenchmen, or I shan't like you any longer."
She played like a dog with its master, letting herself be rolled over,
knocked about, and stroked, alternately; sometimes she herself would
provoke the soldier, putting up her paw with a soliciting gesture.
Some days passed in this manner. This companionship permitted the
Provencal to appreciate the sublime beauty of the desert; now that he
had a living thing to think about, alternations of fear and quiet, and
plenty to eat, his mind became filled with contrast and his life began
to be diversified.
Solitude revealed to him all her secrets, and enveloped him in her
delights. He discovered in the rising and setting of the sun sights
unknown to the world. He knew what it was to tremble when he heard
over his head the hiss of a bird's wing, so rarely did they pass, or
when he saw the clouds, changing and many colored travelers, melt one
into another. He studied in the night time the effect of the moon upon
the ocean of sand, where the simoom made waves swift of movement and
rapid in their change. He lived the life of the Eastern day, marveling
at its wonderful pomp; then, after having reveled in the sight of a
hurricane over the plain where the whirling sands made red, dry mists
and death-bearing clouds, he would welcome the night with joy, for
then fell the healthful freshness of the stars, and he listened to
imaginary music in the skies. Then solitude taught him to unroll the
treasures of dreams. He passed whole hours in remembering mere
nothings, and comparing his present life with his past.
At last he grew passionately fond of the panther; for some sort of
affection was a necessity.
Whether it was that his will powerfully projected had modified the
character of his companion, or whether, because she found abundant
food in her predatory excursions in the desert, she respected the
man's life, he began to fear for it no longer, seeing her so well
He devoted the greater part of his time to sleep, but he was obliged
to watch like a spider in its web that the moment of his deliverance
might not escape him, if anyone should pass the line marked by the
horizon. He had sacrificed his shirt to make a flag with, which he
hung at the top of a palm tree, whose foliage he had torn off. Taught
by necessity, he found the means of keeping it spread out, by
fastening it with little sticks; for the wind might not be blowing at
the moment when the passing traveler was looking through the desert.
It was during the long hours, when he had abandoned hope, that he
amused himself with the panther. He had come to learn the different
inflections of her voice, the expressions of her eyes; he had studied
the capricious patterns of all the rosettes which marked the gold of
her robe. Mignonne was not even angry when he took hold of the tuft at
the end of her tail to count her rings, those graceful ornaments which
glittered in the sun like jewelry. It gave him pleasure to contemplate
the supple, fine outlines of her form, the whiteness of her belly, the
graceful pose of her head. But it was especially when she was playing
that he felt most pleasure in looking at her; the agility and youthful
lightness of her movements were a continual surprise to him; he
wondered at the supple way in which she jumped and climbed, washed
herself and arranged her fur, crouched down and prepared to spring.
However rapid her spring might be, however slippery the stone she was
on, she would always stop short at the word "Mignonne."
One day, in a bright midday sun, an enormous bird coursed through the
air. The man left his panther to look at his new guest; but after
waiting a moment the deserted sultana growled deeply.
"My goodness! I do believe she's jealous," he cried, seeing her eyes
become hard again; "the soul of Virginie has passed into her body;
The eagle disappeared into the air, while the soldier admired the
curved contour of the panther.
But there was such youth and grace in her form! she was beautiful as a
woman! the blond fur of her robe mingled well with the delicate tints
of faint white which marked her flanks.
The profuse light cast down by the sun made this living gold, these
russet markings, to burn in a way to give them an indefinable
The man and the panther looked at one another with a look full of
meaning; the coquette quivered when she felt her friend stroke her
head; her eyes flashed like lightning--then she shut them tightly.
"She has a soul," he said, looking at the stillness of this queen of
the sands, golden like them, white like them, solitary and burning
"Well," she said, "I have read your plea in favor of beasts; but how
did two so well adapted to understand each other end?"
"Ah, well! you see, they ended as all great passions do end--by a
misunderstanding. For some reason ONE suspects the other of treason;
they don't come to an explanation through pride, and quarrel and part
from sheer obstinacy."
"Yet sometimes at the best moments a single word or a look is enough--
but anyhow go on with your story."
"It's horribly difficult, but you will understand, after what the old
villain told me over his champagne. He said--'I don't know if I hurt
her, but she turned round, as if enraged, and with her sharp teeth
caught hold of my leg--gently, I daresay; but I, thinking she would
devour me, plunged my dagger into her throat. She rolled over, giving
a cry that froze my heart; and I saw her dying, still looking at me
without anger. I would have given all the world--my cross even, which
I had not got then--to have brought her to life again. It was as
though I had murdered a real person; and the soldiers who had seen my
flag, and were come to my assistance, found me in tears.'
" 'Well sir,' he said, after a moment of silence, 'since then I have
been in war in Germany, in Spain, in Russia, in France; I've certainly
carried my carcase about a good deal, but never have I seen anything
like the desert. Ah! yes, it is very beautiful!'
" 'What did you feel there?' I asked him.
"'Oh! that can't be described, young man! Besides, I am not always
regretting my palm trees and my panther. I should have to be very
melancholy for that. In the desert, you see, there is everything and
" 'Yes, but explain----'
" 'Well,' he said, with an impatient gesture, 'it is God without