Aramis gazed at the young man in surprise.
"If flowers constitute liberty," sadly resumed the captive, "I am free, for I possess them."
"But the air!" cried Aramis; "air is so necessary to life!"
"Well, monsieur," returned the prisoner; "draw near to the window; it is open. Between high heaven and earth the wind whirls on its waftages of hail and lightning, exhales its torrid mist or breathes in gentle breezes. It caresses my face. When mounted on the back of this armchair, with my arm around the bars of the window to sustain myself, I fancy I am swimming the wide expanse before me." The countenance of Aramis darkened as the young man continued: "Light I have! what is better than light? I have the sun, a friend who comes to visit me every day without the permission of the governor or the jailer's company. He comes in at the window, and traces in my room a square the shape of the window, which lights up the hangings of my bed and floods the very floor. This luminous square increases from ten o'clock till midday, and decreases from one till three slowly, as if, having hastened to my presence, it sorrowed at bidding me farewell. When its last ray disappears I have enjoyed its presence for five hours. Is not that sufficient? I have been told that there are unhappy beings who dig in quarries, and laborers who toil in mines, who never behold it at all." Aramis wiped the drops from his brow. "As to the stars which are so delightful to view," continued the young man, "they all resemble each other save in size and brilliancy. I am a favored mortal, for if you had not lighted that candle you would have been able to see the beautiful stars which I was gazing at from my couch before your arrival, whose silvery rays were stealing through my brain."
Aramis lowered his head; he felt himself overwhelmed with the bitter flow of that sinister philosophy which is the religion of the captive.
"So much, then, for the flowers, the air, the daylight, and the stars," tranquilly continued the young man; "there remains but exercise. Do I not walk all day in the governor's garden if it is fine—here if it rains? in the fresh air if it is warm; in perfect warmth, thanks to my winter stove, if it be cold? Ah! monsieur, do you fancy," continued the prisoner, not without bitterness, "that men have not done everything for me that a man can hope for or desire?"
"Men!" said Aramis; "be it so; but it seems to me you are forgetting Heaven."
"Indeed I have forgotten Heaven," murmured the prisoner, with emotion; "but why do you mention it? Of what use is it to talk to a prisoner of Heaven?"
Aramis looked steadily at this singular youth, who possessed the resignation of a martyr with the smile of an atheist. "Is not Heaven in everything?" he murmured in a reproachful tone.
"Say rather, at the end of everything," answered the prisoner, firmly.
"Be it so," said Aramis; "but let us return to our starting-point."
"I ask nothing better," returned the young man.
"I am your confessor."
"Well, then, you ought, as a penitent, to tell me the truth."
"My whole desire is to tell it you."
"Every prisoner has committed some crime for which he has been imprisoned. What crime, then, have you committed?"
"You asked me the same question the first time you saw me," returned the prisoner.
"And then, as now you evaded giving me an answer."
"And what reason have you for thinking that I shall now reply to you?"
"Because this time I am your confessor."
"Then if you wish me to tell what crime I have committed, explain to me in what a crime consists. For as my conscience does not accuse me, I aver that I am not a criminal."
"We are often criminals in the sight of the great of the earth, not alone for having ourselves committed crimes, but because we know that crimes have been committed."
The prisoner manifested the deepest attention.
"Yes, I understand you," he said, after a pause; "yes, you are right, monsieur; it is very possible that, in such a light, I am a criminal in the eyes of the great of the earth."
"Ah! then you know something," said Aramis, who thought he had pierced not merely through a defect in the harness, but through the joints of it.
"No, I am not aware of anything," replied the young man; "but sometimes I think—and I say to myself—"
"What do you say to yourself?"
"That if I were to think but a little more deeply I should either go mad or I should divine a great deal."
"And then—and then?" said Aramis, impatiently.
"Then I leave off."
"You leave off?"
"Yes; my head becomes confused and my ideas melancholy; I feel ennui overtaking me; I wish—"
"I don't know; but I do not like to give myself up to longing for things which I do not possess, when I am so happy with what I have."
"You are afraid of death?" said Aramis, with a slight uneasiness.
"Yes," said the young man, smiling.
Aramis felt the chill of that smile, and shuddered. "Oh, as you fear death, you know more about matters than you say," he cried.