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UNDER the grey skies and the disheartening rains of this autumnal July, I think of the light which I have left behind me. I have left it down there, on the now empty shores of the Mediterranean, and I ask myself in vain why I parted from it. Yet I was one of the last to tear myself away. All the others leave in the early days of April, recalled by legendary memories of the deceitful springtides of the north, nor do they realize that they are losing a great happiness.
It is good, it is wise to escape, amid the blue of sea and sky, the icy months of our winters, dismal as punishment; but, although in the south these months are warmer and above all more luminous than ours, they do not quite make up to us for the darkness and the frost of our native climes. The brightest and warmest hours, in spite of all, retain an after-taste of cloud and snow; they are beautiful, but timid; swiftly and fearfully they hasten towards the night. Now man, who is born of the sun, like all things, has need of his hereditary portion of primitive heat and all-pervading light. He has within him numberless deep-seated cells which retain the memory of the resplendent days of the prime and become unhappy when they cannot reap their harvest of rays. Man can live in the gloom, but at long last he loses the smile and the confidence that are so essential. Because of our twilit summers it becomes indispensable to restore the balance between darkness and light and sometimes to drive away, by superb excesses of sunshine, the cold and the dark that invade our very souls.
It reigns at a few hours' distance from us, the incomparable steady sun which we no longer see. Those who leave before mid-June do not know what happens when they are gone. Lo and behold, the real actors in this wonderful fairyland spring up on every side as though they had been awaiting the departure of intruding and mocking witnesses. During the winter, in the presence of the official visitors, they have played but a tempered prologue, a little colourless, a little slow, a little timid and restrained. But now of a sudden the great lyrical acts blaze forth upon the intoxicated earth.
The heavens open their vistas to the uttermost limits of the blue, to the supreme heights where the glory and rapture of God are outspread; and all the flowers rend the gardens, the rocks and the heaths, to uplift themselves and leap towards the gulf of gladness which draws them into space. The camomiles have gone mad; for six weeks they hold outstretched, to invisible lovers, their great round clusters like shields of glowing snow. The scarlet, tumultuous mantle of the Bougainvilleas blinds the houses whose dazzled windows blink amid the flames. The yellow roses cover the hills with a saffron-coloured cloak; the pink roses, of the lovely, innocent pink of maiden blushes, flood the valleys, as though the divine well-springs of the dawn, which elaborate the ideal flesh of women and angels, had overflowed the earth. Others climb the trees, scale pillars, columns, house-fronts, porches, leap up and fall, rise again and multiply, jostle one another, lie one on top of the other, forming so many bunches of effervescing delight, so many silent swarms of impassioned petals. And the innumerable, diverse and imperious scents that flow through this ocean of mirth, like rivers which do not mingle, rivers whose source we recognize at every breath! Here is the cold, green torrent of the rose-geranium, the trickle of clove-carnations, the bright, limpid stream of lavender, the resinous eddy of the pine-barren and the wide, still, luscious lake, of an all but dizzy sweetness, of the orange-blossom, which drowns the country-side in the vast, unmeasured fragrance of the azure heavens, recognized at last.
I do not believe that the world contains anything more beautiful than those gardens and valleys of the Provençal coast during the six or seven weeks when departing spring still mingles its verdure with the first warmth of advancing summer. But what gives this wonderful exultation of nature a melancholy which we do not find in any other spot is the inhuman and almost painful solitude in which it is revealed. Here, amid this desert, this silence, this emptiness, from the vine-arbours to the terraces and from the terraces to the porches of a thousand abandoned villas, reigns a rivalry of beauty which reaches a poignant agony of intensity, exhausting every energy, form and colour. There is here a sort of magic password, as though all the powers of grace and splendour that nature holds concealed had united to give at the same moment, to a spectator unknown to men, one great, decisive proof of the blessings and the glories of the earth. There is here a sort of unparalleled expectation, awful and unendurable, which over the hedges, the gates and the walls watches for the coming of a mighty god; an ecstatic silence which demands a supernatural presence; a wild, exasperated impatience pouring from every side over the roads where nothing now passes save the mute and diaphanous procession of the hours.
Alas, how many beauties are wasted in this world! Here is enough to feed our eyes till death! Here is the wherewithal to gather memories which would support our souls even to the tomb! Here is that which would provide thousands of hearts with the supreme sustenance of life!
In the main, when we come to think of it, all that is best in us, all that is pure, happy and limpid in our intelligence and our feelings, has its origin in a few beautiful spectacles. If we had never seen beautiful things, we should possess only poor and ugly images wherewith to clothe our ideas and emotions, which would perish of cold and wretchedness like those of the blind. The great highway which climbs from the plains of existence to the radiant heights of human consciousness would be so gloomy, so bare and so deserted that our thoughts would very soon lack the strength and courage to tread it; and where our thoughts no longer pass it is not long before the briars and the cruel horrors of the forest return. A beautiful spectacle which we might have seen, which was ours, which seemed to call us and from which we fled can never be replaced. Nothing more can grow in the spot where it awaited us. It leaves in our soul a great barren area, in which we shall find naught but thorns on the day when we most need roses. Our thoughts and our actions derive their energy and their shape from the things which our eyes have beheld. Between the heroic deed, the duty accomplished, the sacrifice generously accepted and the beautiful landscape which we have seen in the past there is very often a closer and more vital connection than that which our memory has retained. The more we see of beautiful things the better fitted we become to perform good actions. If our inner life is to thrive, we need a magnificent store of wonderful spoils.