The State of Grace

The author of sixteen novels, MARCEL AYMÉ is particularly well known in France for his many short stories, fables, and plays. The following story is taken from his new book, LE VIN DE PARTS.This translation by Norman Denny has been made available to the ATLANTICby The Bodley Head of London.

MARCEL AYMÉ

IN THE year 1939 the best Christian in the Rue Gabrielle, and indeed in all Montmartre, was a certain Monsieur Duperrier, a man of such piety, uprightness, and charity that God, without awaiting his death, and while he was still in the prime of life, crowned his head with a halo which never left it by day or by night. Like those in Paradise, this halo, although made of some immaterial substance, manifested itself in the form of a whitish ring which looked as though it might have been cut out of fairly stiff cardboard, and shed a tender light. M. Duperrier wore it gratefully, with devout thanks to Heaven for a distinction which, however, his modesty did not permit him to regard as a formal promise regarding the hereafter. He would have been unquestionably the happiest of men had his wife rejoiced in this signal mark of Divine approval instead of receiving it with outspoken resentment and exasperation.

“Well, really, upon my word,” the lady said, “what do you think you look like going round in a thing like that, and what do you suppose the neighbors and the tradespeople will say, not to mention my cousin Leopold? I never in my life saw anything so ridiculous. You’ll have the whole neighborhood talking.”

Mme. Duperrier was an admirable woman, of outstanding piety and impeccable conduct, but she had not yet understood the vanity of the things of this world. Like so many people whose aspirations to virtue are marred by a certain lack of logic, she thought it more important to be esteemed by her concierge than by her Creator. Her terror lest she should be questioned on the subject of the halo by one of the neighbors or by the milkman had from the very outset an embittering effect upon her. She made repeated attempts to snatch away the shimmering plate of light that adorned her husband’s cranium, but with no more effect than if she had tried to grasp a sunbeam, and without altering its position by a hairbreadth. Girdling the top of his forehead where the hair began, the halo hung low over the back of his neck, with a slight tilt which gave it a coquettish look.

The foretaste of beatitude did not cause Duperrier to overlook the consideration he owed to his wife’s peace of mind. He himself possessed too great a sense of discretion and modesty not to perceive that there were grounds for her disquiet. The gifts of God, especially when they wear a somewhat gratuitous aspect, are seldom accorded the respect they deserve, and the world is all too ready to find in them a subject of malicious gossip. Duperrier did his utmost, so far as it was possible, to make himself at all times inconspicuous. Regretfully putting aside the bowler hat which he had hitherto regarded as an indispensable attribute of his accountant’s calling, he took to wearing a large felt hat, light in color, the wide brim of which exactly covered the halo provided he wore it rakishly on the back of his head. Thus clad, there was nothing startlingly out of the way in his appearance to attract the attention of the passerby. The brim of his hat merely had a slight phosphorescence which by daylight might pass for the sheen on the surface of smooth felt. During office hours he was equally successful in avoiding the notice of his employer and fellow workers. His desk, in the small shoe factory in Menilmontant where he kept the books, was situated in a glasspaned cubbyhole between two workshops, and his state of isolation saved him from awkward questions. He wore the hat all day, and no one was sufficiently interested to ask him why he did so.

But these precautions did not suffice to allay his wife’s misgivings. It seemed to her that the halo must already be a subject of comment among the ladies of the district, and she went almost furtively about the streets adjoining the Rue Gabrielle, her buttocks contracted and her heart wrung with agonizing suspicions, convinced that she heard the echo of mocking laughter as she passed. To this worthy woman who had never had any ambition other than to keep her place in a social sphere ruled by the cult of the absolute norm, the glaring eccentricity with which her husband had been afflicted rapidly assumed catastrophic proportions. Its very improbability made it monstrous. Nothing would have induced her to accompany him out of doors. The evenings and Sunday afternoons which they had previously devoted to small outings and visits to friends were now spent in a solitary intimacy which daily became more oppressive.

In the dining room of light oak where, between meals, the long leisure hours dragged by, Mme. Duperrier, unable to knit a single stitch, would sit bitterly contemplating the halo, while Duperrier, generally reading some work of devotion and feeling the brush of angels’ wings, wore an expression of beatific rapture which added to her fury. From time to time, however, he would glance up at her solicitously and, noting the expression of angry disapproval on her face, would feel regret which was incompatible with the gratitude he owed to Heaven, so that this in its turn inspired him with a feeling of remorse at one remove.

So PAINFUL a state of affairs could not long continue without imperiling the unhappy woman’s mental equilibrium. She began presently to complain that the light of the halo, bathing the pillows, made it impossible for her to sleep at night. Duperrier, who sometimes made use of the divine illumination to read a chapter of the Scriptures, was obliged to concede the justice of this grievance, and he began to be afflicted with a sense of guilt. Finally, certain events, highly deplorable in their consequences, transformed this state of unease into one of acute crisis.

Upon setting out for the office one morning, Duperrier passed a funeral in the Rue Gabrielle, within a few yards of his house. He had become accustomed, outrageous though it was to his natural sense of courtesy, to greet acquaintances by merely raising a hand to his hat; but being thus confronted by the near presence of the dead, he decided, after thinking the matter over, that nothing could relieve him of the obligation to uncover his head entirely. Several shopkeepers, yawning in their doorways, blinked at the sight of the halo and gathered together to discuss the phenomenon. When she came out to do her shopping, Mme. Duperrier was assailed with questions, and in a state of extreme agitation she uttered denials whose very vehemence appeared suspect. Upon his return home at midday her husband found her in a state of nervous excitement which caused him to fear for her reason.

“Take off that halo!" she cried. “Take it off instantly! I never want to see it again!”

Duperrier gently reminded her that it was not in his power to remove it, whereupon she cried still more loudly, “If you had any consideration for me you’d find some way of getting rid of it. You’re simply selfish, that’s what you are!”

These words, to which he prudently made no reply, gave Duperrier much food for thought. And on the following day a second incident occurred to point to the inevitable conclusion. Duperrier never missed early morning Mass, and since he had become endowed with the odor of sanctity he had taken to attending it at the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur. Here he was obliged to remove his hat, but the church is a large one and at that hour of the morning the congregation was sufficiently sparse to make it a simple matter for him to hide behind a pillar. On this particular occasion, however, he must have been less circumspect than usual. As he was leaving the church after the service an elderly spinster flung herself at his feet crying “Saint Joseph! Saint Joseph!” and kissed the hem of his overcoat. Duperrier beat a hasty retreat, flattered but considerably put out at recognizing his adorer as a middle-aged lady who lived only a few doors away. A short time later the devoted creature burst into the apartment, where Mine. Duperrier was alone, uttering cries of “Saint Joseph! I want to see Saint Joseph!”

Although somewhat lacking in brilliance and picturesque qualities, Saint Joseph is nevertheless an excellent saint; but his unsensational merits, with their flavor of solid craftsmanship and passive good will, seem to have brought upon him some degree of injustice. There are indeed people, some of the utmost piety, who, without even being conscious of it, associate the notion of naïve complaisance with the part he played in the Nativity. This impression of simple-mindedness is further enhanced by the habit of superimposing upon the figure of the saint the recollection of that other Joseph who resisted the advances of Potiphar’s wife. Mine. Duperrier had no great respect for the presumed sanctity of her husband, and tins fervor of adoration which with loud cries invoked him by the name of Saint Joseph seemed to her to add the finishing touch to his shame and absurdity. Goaded into a state of almost demented fury, she chased the visitor out of the apartment with an umbrella and then smashed several piles of plates.

Her first act upon her husband’s return was to have a fit of hysterics, and when she finally regained her self-control, she said in a firm voice, “For the last time I ask you to get rid of that halo. You can do it il you choose. You know you can.”

Duperrier hung his head, not daring to ask how she thought he should go about it, and she went on: “It’s perfectly simple. You only have to sin.”

Uttering no word of protest, Duperrier withdrew to the bedroom to pray.

“Almighty God,” he said, in substance, “you have granted me the highest reward that man may hope for upon earth, excepting martyrdom, I thank you, Lord, but I am married and I share with my wife the bread of tribulation which you deign to send us, no less than the honey of your lavor. Only thus can a devout couple hope to walk in your footsteps. But it so happens that my wife cannot endure the sight or even the thought of my halo, not at all because it is a gift bestowed by Heaven but simply because it is a halo. You know what women are. When some unaccustomed happening does not chance to kindle their enthusiasm it is likely to upset all the rules and harmonies which they keep lodged in their little heads. No one can prevent this, and though my wife should live to be a hundred there will never be any place for my halo in her scheme of things. O God, you who see into my heart, you know how little store I set by my personal contentment and the evening slippers by the fireside. For the rapture of wearing upon my head the token of your good will I would gladly suffer even the most violent domestic upheavals. But, alas, it is not my own peace of mind that is imperiled. My wife is losing all taste for life. Worse still, I can see the day approaching when her hatred of my halo will cause her to revile Him who has bestowed it upon me. Am I to allow the life companion you chose for me to die and damn her soul for all eternity without making an effort to save her? I find myself today at the parting of the ways, and the safe road does not appear to me to be the more merciful. That your spirit of infinite justice may talk to me with the voice of my conscience is the prayer which in this hour of my perplexity I lay at your radiant feet, O Lord.”

SCARCELY had Duperrier concluded this prayer than his conscience declared itself in favor of the way of sin, making of this an act of duty demanded by Christian charity. He returned to the dining room, where his wile awaited him grinding her teeth.

“God is just,” he said, with his thumbs in the armholes of his waistcoat. “He knew what he was doing when he gave me my halo. The truth is that I deserve it more than any man alive. They don’t make men like me in these days. When I reflect upon the vileness of the human herd and then consider the manifold perfections embodied in myself I am tempted to spit in the faces of the people in the street. God has rewarded me, it is true, but if the Church had any regard for justice I should be an archbishop at the very least.”

Duperrier had chosen the sin of pride, which enabled him, while exalting his own merits, in the same breath to praise God, who had singled him out. His wife was not slow to realize that he was sinning deliberately and at once entered into the spirit of the thing. “My angel,” she said, “you will never know how proud I am of you. My cousin Leopold, with his car and his villa at Vésinet, is not worthy to unloose the laces of your shoe.”

“That is precisely my own opinion. If I had chosen to concern myself with sordid matters I could have amassed a fortune as easily as any man, and a much bigger one than Leopold’s, but I chose to follow a different road and my triumph is ol another kind. I despise his money as I despise him and ail the countless other half-wits who are incapable of perceiving the grandeur of my modest existence. They have eyes and see not.”

The utterance of sentiments such as these, spoken at first from half-closed lips, his heart rent with shame, became within a short time a simple matter for Duperrier, a habit costing him no effort at all. And such is the power of words over the human spirit that it was not long before he accepted them as valid currency. His wife, however, anxiously watching the halo, and seeing that its luster showed no sign of diminishing, began to suspect that her husband’s sin was lacking in weight and substance. Duperrier readily agreed.

“Nothing could be more true,”he said. “I thought I was giving way to pride when in fact I was merely expressing the most simple and obvious of truths. When a man has attained the highest degree of perfection, as I have done, the word ‘pride’ ceases to have any meaning.”

This did not prevent him from continuing to extol his merits, but at the same time he recognized the necessity for embarking upon some other form of sin. It appeared to him that gluttony was, of the deadly sins, the one most suited to his purpose, which was to rid himself of the halo without forfeiting too much of the good will of Heaven. He was supported in this conclusion by the recollection, from his childhood days, of gentle scoldings for excessive indulgence in jam or chocolate. Filled with hope, his wife set about the preparation of rich dishes whose variety enhanced their savor. The Duperriers’ dinner table was loaded with game, pâté, river trout, lobster, sweets, pastries, and vintage wines. Their meals lasted twice as long as before, if not three times. Nothing could have been more hideous and revolting than the spectacle of Duperrier, his napkin tied around his neck, his face crimson, and his eyes glazed with satiation, loading his plate with a third helping, washing down roast and stuffing with great gulps of claret, belching, dribbling sauce and gravy, and perspiring freely under his halo. Before long he developed such a taste for good cooking and rich repasts that he frequently rebuked his wife for an overcooked joint or an unsuccessful mayonnaise.

One evening, annoyed by his incessant grumbling, she said sharply, “Your halo seems to be flourishing. Anyone would think it was growing fat on my cooking, just as you are. It looks to me as though gluttony isn’t a sin after all. The only thing against it is that it costs money, and I can see no reason why I shouldn’t put you back on vegetable soup and spaghetti.”

“That’s enough of that!” roared Duperrier. “Put me back on vegetable soup and spaghetti, will you? By God, I’d like to see you try! Do you think I don’t know what I’m doing? Put me back on spaghetti, indeed! The insolence! Here am I, wallowing in sin just to oblige you, and that’s the way you talk. Don’t let me hear another word. It would serve you right if I boxed your ears!”

One sin leads to another, in short, and thwarted greed, no less than pride, promotes anger. Duperrier allowed himself to fall into this new sin without really knowing whether he was doing it for his wife’s sake or because he enjoyed it. This man who had hitherto been distinguished by the gentleness and graciousness of his nature now became given to thunderous rages; he smashed the crockery and on occasions went so far as to strike his wife. He even swore, invoking the name of his Creator. And these outbursts, growing steadily more frequent, did not prevent him from being both arrogant and gluttonous. He was, in fact, now sinning in three different ways, and his wife mused darkly on God’s infinite indulgence.

THE fact is that the noblest of virtues can continue to flourish in a soul sullied by sin. Proud, gluttonous, and irate, Duperrier nevertheless remained steeped in Christian charity and retained his lofty sense of duty as a man and a husband. Finding that Heaven refused to be moved by his anger, he resolved to be envious as well. To tell the truth, without his knowing it, envy had already crept into his soul. Rich feeding, which puts a burden on the liver, and pride, which stirs the sense of injustice, may dispose even the best of men to envy his neighbor. And anger lent a note of hatred to Duperrier’s envy. He became jealous of his relations, his friends, his employer, the shopkeepers of the neighborhood, and even the stars of sports and screen whose photographs appeared in the papers. Everything infuriated him, and he was known to tremble with ignoble rage at the thought that the people next door possessed a silver carving set, whereas his own was only bone-handled. But the halo continued to glow with undiminished brightness. Instead of being dismayed by this, he concluded that his sins were lacking in reality, and he had no difficulty in reasoning that his supposed gluttony did not in fact exceed the natural demands of a healthy appetite, while his anger and his envy merely bore witness to a lofty craving for justice. It was the halo itself, however, which furnished him with the most solid arguments.

“I’m bound to say I would have expected Heaven to be a little more fussy,” his wife said. “If all your gluttony and boasting and brutality and malice have done nothing to dim your halo, it doesn’t look as though I need worry about my place in Paradise.”

“Hold your jaw!” roared the furious man. “How much longer have I got to listen to your nagging? I’m fed up with it. You think it funny, do you, that a saintly character like myself should have to plunge into sin for the sake of your blasted peace of mind? Stop it, do you hear me:

The tone of these replies was clearly lackingin that suavity which may rightly be looked for in a man enhaloed by the glory of God. Since he had entered upon the paths of sin, Duperrier had become increasingly given to strong language. His formerly ascetic countenance was becoming bloated with rich food. Not only was his vocabulary growing coarse, but a similar vulgarity was invading his thoughts. Mme. Duperrier did not fail to observe the changes that were overtaking her husband and even to feel some anxiety for the future. But the thought of his possible descent into the abyss still did not outweigh in her mind the horror of being conspicuous. Rather than an enhaloed Duperrier she would have preferred a husband who was an atheist, a debauchee, and as crude of speech as her cousin Leopold. At least she would not then have had to blush for him before the milkman.

No special decision was called for on the part of Duperrier for him to lapse into the sin of sloth. The arrogant belief that he was required at the office to perform tasks unworthy of his merits, together with the drowsiness caused by heavy eating and drinking, made him naturally disposed to be idle; and since he had sufficient conceit to believe that he must excel in all things, even the worst, he very soon became a model of indolence. The day his indignant employer sacked him, he received the sentence with his hat in his hand.

“What’s that on your head?” his employer asked.

“A halo,” said Duperrier.

“Is it indeed? And I suppose that’s what you’ve been fooling around with when you were supposed to be working?”

When he told his wife of his dismissal, she asked him what he intended to do next.

“It seems to me that this would be a good moment to try the sin of avarice,” he answered gaily.

Of all the deadly sins, avarice was the one calling for the greatest effort of will power on his part. To those not born avaricious it is the vice offering the fewest easy allurements, and when it is adopted on principle there is nothing to distinguish it, at least in the early stages, from that most sterling of all virtues, thrift. Duperrier subjected himself to severe disciplines, such as confining his gluttony to himself, and thus succeeded in gaining a solid reputation for avarice among his friends and acquaintances. He really liked money for its own sake, and was better able than most people to experience the malicious thrill which misers feel at the thought that they control a source of creative energy and prevent it from functioning. Counting up his savings, the fruit of a hitherto laborious existence, he came by degrees to know the hideous pleasure of harming others by damming a current of exchange and of life.

This outcome, simply because it was painfully achieved, filled Mme. Duperrier with hope. Her husband had yielded so easily to the seductions of the other sins that God, she thought, could not condemn him very severely for an innocent, animal surrender which made him appear rather a victim deserving of compassion. His deliberate and patient progress along the road of avarice, on the other hand, could only be the fruit of a perverse desire which was like a direct challenge to Heaven. Nevertheless, although Duperrier became miserly to the point of putting trouser buttons in the parish poor box, the brilliance and size of the halo remained unimpaired. This new setback, duly noted, plunged husband and wife into despair.

PROUD, gluttonous, angry, envious, slothful, and avaricious, Duperrier felt that his soul still possessed the odor of innocence. Deadly though they were, the six sins he had thus far practiced were nevertheless such as a First Communicant may confess to without undue qualms. The deadliest of all, lust, filled him with horror. Lust, the sin of the flesh, meant unqualified acceptance of the Devil’s work. The enchantments of the night were a foretaste of the burning shades of Hell; the darting tongues were like the flames of eternity; the moans of ecstasy, the writhing bodies, these did but herald the wailing of the damned and the convulsions of flesh racked by endless torment. Duperrier had not deliberately reserved the sin of the flesh to the last: he had simply refused to contemplate it.

Mme. Duperrier herself could not think of it without disquiet. For many years the pair had lived in a state of delicious chastity, their nightly rest attended, until the coining of the halo, by dreams as pure as the driven snow. As she thought of it, the recollection of those years of continence was a source of considerable annoyance to Mme. Duperrier, for she did not doubt that the halo was the result. Plainly, that lily-white nimbus could be undone by lust alone.

Duperrier, after obstinately resisting his wife’s reasoning, finally allowed himself to be convinced. Once again his sense of duty cast out fear. Having reached the decision, he was embarrassed by his ignorance, but his wife, who thought of everything, bought him a revolting book in which all the essentials were set forth in the form of plain and simple instruction. The nighttime spectacle of that saintly man, the halo encircling his head, reading a chapter of the abominable work to his wife, was a poignant one indeed. Often his voice trembled at some infamous word or some image more hideously evocative than the rest. Having thus achieved a theoretical mastery of the subject, he still delayed while he considered whether this last sin should be consummated in domestic intimacy or elsewhere. Mme. Duperrier took the view that it should all be done at home, adducing reasons of economy which did not fail to weigh with him; but having considered all the pros and cons he concluded that he had no need to involve her in vile practices which might be prejudicial to her own salvation.

Thereafter Duperrier spent most of his nights in disreputable hotels, where he pursued his initiation in company with the professionals of the quarter. The halo, which he could not conceal from these wretched associates, led to his finding himself in various odd situations, sometimes embarrassing and sometimes advantageous. In the beginning, owing to his anxiety to conform to the instructions in his manual, he sinned with little exaltation but rather with the methodical application of a dancer learning a new step or figure of choreography. However, the desire for perfection to which his pride impelled him soon achieved its lamentable reward in the notoriety which he gained among the women with whom he consorted. Although he came to take the liveliest pleasure in these pursuits, Duperrier nevertheless found them expensive and was cruelly afflicted in his avarice. One evening on the Place Pigalle he made the acquaintance of a creature twenty years of age, already a lost soul, whose name was Marie-Jannick. She had come from Brittany six months previously to go into service as maid of all work in the home of a municipal councilor who was both a socialist and an atheist. Finding herself unable to endure the life of this godless household, she had left and was now courageously earning her living on the Boulevard de Clichy. As was to be expected, the halo made a deep impression on that little religious soul. To Marie-Jannick, Duperrier seemed the equal of Saint Yves and Saint Ronan, and he, on his side, was not slow to perceive the influence he had over her and to turn it to practical use.

Thus it is that on this very day, the twentysecond of February of the year 1944, amid the darkness of winter and of war, Marie-Jannick, who will shortly be twenty-five, may be seen walking her beat on the Boulevard de Clichy. During the blackout hours the stroller between the Place Pigalle and the Rue des Martyrs may be startled to observe, floating and swaying in the darkness, a mysterious circle of light that looks rather like a ring of Saturn. It is Duperrier, his head adorned with the glorious halo which he no longer seeks to conceal from the curiosity of strangers; Duperrier, burdened with the weight of the seven deadly sins, who, lost to all shame, supervises the labors of Marie-Jannick, administering a smart kick in the pants when her zeal flags, and waiting at the hotel door to count her takings by the light of the halo. But from the depths of his degradation, through the dark night of his conscience, a murmur yet rises from time to time to his lips, a prayer of thanksgiving for the absolute gratuity of the gifts of God.