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Fire Stealer

by Théodore de Banville

Translated by Patricia Worth

I have long been associated with Hugues Sionnest. I knew him even before he had stirred up passions in the Academy of Science and had come to the attention of the scholarly world through his research on the chemical composition of the Soul. While we were young men, I was drawn to his eloquent improvisations during the absinthe hour when he enthralled artists and politicians in the Café de Madrid but, unlike the other listeners, I paid no regard to the meaning of his speeches; I listened instead to the words and the harmony of sounds with all the sustained application that a poet can give to such work.

And with his combination — always the same — of certain evocative syllables, it did not take me long to realise that Sionnest was a magician. Indeed, pressed by my persistent requests, he admitted it. But he always refused to present me with any evidence of his science, because, he said, I would not be able to help publishing the truths revealed to me supernaturally, and also because these truths, if divulged before the hour marked by destiny, would be fatal to humanity, like a potent fiery wine given to a small child to drink.

However, quite recently I managed to persuade him that if I was wanting to lift the mysterious veils that hide the future from us, it was solely as a Romantic artist wanting to acquire new ideas and images which I would use, at the very most, in a work of pure fantasy that would not be taken seriously by anyone. He then agreed to let me see a small part of the world such as it will be in 150 years, but obviously with regret and as though already feeling ashamed of making the promise I had wrested from him.

On the appointed day, I went to Sionnest’s. He was troubled and uneasy, and he tried to make me voluntarily forgo the spectacle I had been promised. But in response, I curtly appealed to him to keep his word, and my friend had to submit to my desire although his limbs trembled slightly and I saw drops of sweat pearl on his forehead.

He picked up a lighted wax candle and, walking in front of me, led me into a large dark windowless room, divided in half by a two-way mirror which ran across the whole width, and before which were placed two armchairs. Sionnest asked me to take a seat and reminded me that I had to watch everything in silence and not utter a word, for otherwise I would cause the most irrevocable woes. Then, after extinguishing the candle, he placed himself before the mirror and began to perform magnetic passes.

In a very short time, a luminous and perfectly visible fog began to form behind the glass. After a sort of tussle between the layers of brilliance and darkness, the light was victorious, enabling me to see distinctly on the other side of the mirror a room where a man was seated.

This room, entirely filled with telegraphic and telephonic wires, electric batteries and all sorts of complicated apparatus, was hung with a cloth whose designs appeared to me to have been obtained by means of a photographic assemblage. As for the man whom I was closely watching, with my curiosity piqued by this Parisian living 150 years from now, that is, in the year 2030, his clothes seemed to have been designed solely from the point of view of utility, and without any of those affectations of elegance which, for us, easily confuse the ideas of clothing and ornament and blend them into one.

A moment passed, and in the well-lit room which lay before me like a stage, a door opened and through it came a visitor. The seated man rose to receive him, and they fell into each other’s arms with noisy demonstrations of the greatest joy.

The master of the house took a step back, was silent, then at last he said, “What! It’s you, my dear Chapri!”

“Yes, my dear Tourrier,” said Chapri, “it is me, and you would not believe how happy I am to see you.”

“But,” said Tourrier, “what can you have been doing all this time, and how is it possible that in ten years you did not even once give us any news of yourself?”

“I’m going to satisfy your curiosity with just a few words,” said Chapri, “after which you will understand how starved I am of information, and how you must hasten to bring me up to date with everything.

“As you no doubt remember, I had gone to the Moon, to the capital of the province of Pyrase, Orissa, to take on the management of a gold factory established by the House of Rothschild of Paris. I thought I’d be able to carry out my activities there and contend with the obstacles still presented everywhere by the composition of this precious metal.

“But in the vicinity of Orissa, the raw materials are at such a low price, the waters are of such a wonderful quality, and the quarries of philosopher’s stone are so rich and so easy to exploit, that there was no merit in it. I quickly took a dislike to work that was not hindered by any obstacle and not threatened by perils of any sort.

“So, after asking for and receiving consent from my masters, which the Postal airship brought without delay, I ceded the administration of our gold factory to my foreman, who was quite capable of performing this work that required no initiative, and I left, accompanied by the intrepid Irvingstone, for a voyage of circumnavigation around the planets.

“This voyage, my dear friend, lasted no less than ten years, because we had to lay the groundwork everywhere for the Society for the Exploration of Impossible Territories. However, it was relatively so fast, considering the number of orbs explored, that we did not have time to wait for airship deliveries and, consequently, it was only very rarely and at long intervals that I had news from Earth. Having disembarked this very day, I hastened to your home, driven at first by my affection, but then by the yearning desire to learn what has lately taken place.”

“Well,” said Tourrier, “you will dine with me. But first, what do you desire to know?”

“Everything!” said Chapri, lighting a cigar that his friend had just offered him, and which, made from the purple leaves of some kind of plant, was soon sending swirling spirals of scarlet and pink smoke through the room.

“My friend,” said Tourrier, “an astonishing revolution is occurring at this time in humanity. A dreadful evil, new, unknown, without precedent, that you would hardly suspect and of which you could have only the vaguest notion, is ravaging society with frightening speed. This evil is Individualism!”

“What do you mean?” asked Chapri.

“It was not more than a century ago,” said Tourrier, “that man, responding to the most legitimate of sentiments, and feeling that the reign of the new Science had finally come, insisted he must destroy the mishmash of ignorance, free himself from old errors and eradicate the mass of old and crumbling traditions that made it unnecessarily difficult to advance. How hard he worked to accomplish these acts of deliverance and justice! Fire, dynamite, picrate, the powerful chemical agents of the time — so outdated now! — left nothing remaining of what had existed until then.

“Everything, even the dwellings of men, was destroyed and renewed according to the inescapable laws of common sense, and from that time the luminous Golden Age began to shine for our fathers, who were governed, as we after them are governed, by the pure principles of Necessity.

“So then, my dear friend, can you believe that from the precise moment of your departure, yes, for the past ten years, by an unheard of perversion, the initiative of the Individual has tended to replace Collectivism, and, if we’re not careful, it will drag us into an abyss of evils?”

“I’m astounded!” said Chapri. “In a society as strongly organised as ours, what could the Individual do? He would be isolated, and without the help of others would be weaker than a sparrow.”

“He can do what dripping water does as it wears away the rock!” said Tourrier warmly. “Do you want some examples? You’ll be horrified. You know how we write history and, of course, this system is so perfect and so simple that one would have to be mad to wish for anything better.

“In parliamentary chambers and law courts, in the palaces of heads of state, in ministers’ offices and among armies in times of war, photographic and phonographic devices receive sounds, impressions and images which are immediately fixed by etching and appear in national newspapers. Then these pages, periodically collated and bound, are put into the libraries and made available to all readers.

“Those who occupy the political and military stage are seen as they really are, and their words are recorded on these pages with the sound of their voices, reproduced through a figurative character, with absolute clarity. Is it reasonably possible to wish for anything else? Certainly not.

“Yet, during the recent war that we waged against the Italian colony established in central Africa, a madman, a lunatic, a maniac fancied he could write an account of the events he had witnessed, having as his only guide his memory and his personal impressions, an unverified account made without the aid of any phonograph, and which was not even a newspaper; for, instead of exhibiting the pages daily one by one, he provided them all at once, joined together and forming a sort of block, which he calls a book!

“Now, there’s a peculiar aberration!” said Chapri. “Is this innovator hoping, then, that someone will put faith in his so-called reproductions of life, in which the indispensable derivatives of the art of photography do not play a part in any way?”

“And what if I told you,” Tourrier went on, “that yet another lunatic, even more dangerous, has decided to do without the printing press completely, by recounting events in a sort of measured language which, according to him, could easily settle in the memory and remain there!

“But enough about this nonsense. Listen to what else I have to tell you, and you will shudder as I did. If there is anything on earth that’s sensible, just, and necessary, it’s the law that still governs the union of the sexes in our land. Considering that the attraction of man to woman is variable, inevitable, entirely beyond the will of the one who is subjected to it, the lawmakers wanted no restrictions to impede the perfect liberty of it.

“As for children, in accordance with sound reasoning, they bear the name of their mother and belong to the State, which, naturally, brings them up and educates them. On the death of each citizen, any goods and chattels that he has amassed return to the whole community. All this is so elementary that there can be no doubt that things must always have been as they are now.

“But you have to wonder about the frenzied spirit of destruction that’s arbitrarily creating formidable utopias! Recently a young man and woman met, who claimed they were experiencing a feeling until then unknown, and believed that the momentary attraction, which happens to all creatures and which was driving them towards each other, was eternal. They declare they have developed a desire to live for each other, without parting, to live separated from their fellow men, thus forming a State within the State! What’s more, these mad people are said to have concocted the unreasonable plan to keep their children for themselves, to raise them themselves according to their whims and fancies.”

“Ah! That’s something that cannot be tolerated!” said Chapri. “So, these strange companions would teach their children whatever they wanted, without worrying about the interests of the State or the local governments! And if it pleased them, for example, to not introduce these poor little human beings to the principal and most useful of all the sciences, then there would be citizens in France who were not photographers!!!”

“My friend,” said Tourrier, “the spirit of revolt has gone even further. One of the scribes employed by the government to monitor the printing of telephonic newspapers has dared to conjecture that the continuous action of Nature’s Energies, and the persistence of the Laws that regulate them, imply in these laws a personality and an individual will. Therefore he has the idea that there are beings with thoughts who have a separate and distinct existence, and whom he calls... GODS.”

“Gods!” said Chapri, who had become thoughtful.

“But,” continued Tourrier, “that’s nothing! As you know, my friend, since the obsolete methods of illumination by means of electric lighting have been abandoned, and since the burning of the inexhaustible fluid, ether, can be used to prolong daylight indefinitely, the poorest village, like the capital cities, has its reserves of ethereal fluid. And a system of pipes, branching out into all the rooms of the houses, liberates all citizens from night and darkness.

“As a result, in order to enjoy artificial daylight, we must simply belong to a collectivity, and the State, as is only right, dispenses light to us, as it does caloric, water and breathable air. But what will you think about this insanity: one bold individual, a Fire Stealer, has presumed to create and possess in his own right, and to have for himself alone, a light of which he is the master, which belongs to him personally and for the use of which he does not come under the jurisdiction of the State, or the department, or the town!

“For this, he drapes a cord of twisted cotton fibres over a rod and dips it several times into a trough where he has melted the fat of a slaughtered animal; as the fat cools around the cotton, it solidifies into an elongated cylindrical form. According to him, once the wick is lit, the fat burns slowly and fuels the flame continuously, so that our stealer has his own personal beacon that he can hide, put on a stand, carry around with him, light and extinguish whenever he pleases, and this amazing form of lighting — which places him above everyone and gives him an incalculable power, thus robbing all human solidarity — he calls it, so I’ve heard: A TALLOW CANDLE!”

“A tallow candle!” cried Chapri, distraught. “That’s unthinkable. What’s worse, with these surprising and wild excesses, who can now say where Progress will end?”

At these last words, forgetting my friend’s sage advice, I could not contain an exclamation and a loud burst of laughter. Then there was a terrible explosion, dark night surrounded us and I fainted. I learned soon after that the magic mirror had shattered, and one of its shards had struck Hugues Sionnest in the side of the head, seriously injuring him.

Yet, when I came to, on a divan in his workroom where he himself had taken me, he did not blame me in any way and gently told me that I should regard myself as fortunate to live in a time when the art of poetry had not yet been replaced by an automatic device of a common, regular and cursory application.

Author: Théodore Faullain de Banville (1823-1891)
Source: Voleur du feu in Contes Féeriques (1882)
Translation © 2020 by Patricia Worth

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