During the three years of my absence, he had suffered a number of heartbreaking defeats. He had been betrayed by Maurice of Saxony who had taken command of the Lutheran forces; he was forced to flee before this turncoat and alter to accept a treaty which in one blow destroyed everything he had done during his whole life to establish religious unity; he had failed in Flanders, having been unable to retake the lands left by Henri II; revolts had again broken out in Italy, and the Turks continually harassed the Empire.
"Why?" he repeated. "What was my mistake?"
"Your only mistake was to reign." I answered.
He fingered the medal of the Golden Fleece which was resting on his velvet doublet. "I didn't want to reign, you know."
"Yes, I know."
I looked at his wrinkled face, his gray beard, his lifeless eyes. for the first time, I felt older than he, older than any man had ever been, and I took pity on him as if he were a child.
"I was wrong," I said. "I wanted to make you ruler of the Universe. But there isn't any Universe."
I arose and began pacing the room. I had not slept all night long; my legs were leaden. Now I finally understood —Carmona was too small, Italy was too small, and the Universe did not exist.
"'Universe'! What a convenient word!" I said. "What do today's sacrifices matter? The Universe is always there, in the far-off future. What does it matter if people are burned at the stake, massacred by the thousands? The Universe is somewhere —always somewhere else, of course, but somewhere. And it's nowhere! There are only men, men forever divided."
"It's sin that divides them," said the emperor.
Was it sin or folly or something else? I thought of Luther, of the Augustinian monks, of the Anabaptist women who sang while writhing in the flames, of Antonio and Beatrice. In all of them, there was a force that undermined my carefully reasoned predictions and steeled them against bending to my will.
"One of the heretical monks whom we condemned to the stake said to me before dying, 'There is only one good: to act according to one's conscience.' If that's true, it's insane to want to dominate the world. Nothing can be done for man; his good depends only upon himself."
"There is only one good," said Charles, "to seek salvation."
"But do you believe you can force salvation upon others or can you seek it only for yourself?"
"With God's grace, only for myself." He brought his hand to his brow. "I used to think it was my duty to force others to seek salvation, and that was my mistake. It was a temptation placed before me by the devil."
"As for me, all I ever wanted was to create happiness for them. But they're beyond my reach."
I stopped talking. I heard their festive shouting and their bloody howls; I heard the voice of the prophet Enoch: "Everything that is must be destroyed!" It was I against whom he preached, I who wanted to make of this earth a paradise in which every grain of sand would have had its place, in which every flower would have bloomed in its proper time. But they were neither plants nor stones; they did not want to be transformed into stone.
"I had a son," I resumed, "and he chose to die because it was the only choice he could make for himself; I left him nothing else to live for. I had a wife, too, and because I insisted upon giving her everything, she no more lived than if she were dead. And there are those whom we burned alive and who died thanking us. It's not happiness they want; they want to live."
"To live? But after all, what does that mean? This life is nothing," he said, shaking his head. "What madness to want to dominate a world that's really nothing!"
"There are moments when a fire burns in their hearts; that's what they mean by living."
Suddenly a flood of words came to my lips. Perhaps it was to be the last time for years to come, for centuries, that it would be given to me to speak.
"I understand them," I said. "Now I understand them. It's never what they receive that has value in their eyes; it's what they do. If they can't create, they must destroy. But in any case, they have to rebel against what is, otherwise they wouldn't be men. And we who aspire to forge a world for them and imprison them in it, they can't help but hate us. The very order, the peace that we dream of for them, would be their worst possible curse."
Charles had sunk his head in his hands. He was no longer listening to the strange ideas I was uttering; he was praying.
"Nothing can be done either for them or against them," I concluded. "Nothing can be done."
"We can pray," said the emperor. He was pale and his mouth sagged at the sides as it often did of late when his leg was racking him with pain. "The test is over. If not, God would have left a little hope in my heart."
—Simone de Beauvoir, All Men Are Mortal, p. 201