The Man in the Iron Mask
From Youth is Liberty
The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas, Chapter 1, Excerpt
“Sit down, monsieur,” said the prisoner. Aramis bowed, and obeyed.
“How does the Bastille agree with you?” asked the bishop.
“You do not suffer?”
“You have nothing to regret?”
“Not even your liberty?”
“What do you call liberty, monsieur?” asked the prisoner, with the tone of a man who is preparing for a struggle.
“I call liberty the flowers, the air, light, the stars, the happiness of going whithersoever the nervous limbs of twenty years of age may wish to carry you.”
The young man smiled, whether in resignation or contempt it was difficult to tell. “Look,” said he, “I have in that Japanese vase two roses gathered yesterday evening in the bud from the governor’s garden; this morning they have blown and spread their vermilion chalice beneath my gaze; with every opening petal they unfold the treasures of their perfume, filling my chamber with a fragrance that embalms it. Look, now, on these two roses; even among roses these are beautiful, and the rose is the most beautiful of flowers. Why, then, do you bid me desire other flowers when I possess the loveliest of all?”
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 so necessary to life!”
“Well, monsieur,” returned the prisoner, “draw near to the window; it is open. Between heaven and earth the wind whirls on its storms of hail and lightning, wafts its warm mists, 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 in 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, and which lights up the hangings of my bed down to the border. This luminous square increases from ten o’clock till midday, and decreases from one till three slowly, as if, having hastened to come, it sorrowed at leaving me. When its last ray disappears I have enjoyed its presence for four hours. Is not that sufficient? I have been told that there are unhappy beings who dig in quarries, and laborers who toil in mines, and 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 one another, 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, and whose rays were playing over my eyes.”
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 man; “there remains but my 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 the warm, 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 forget 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.”