Madame de Bergenheim continued her raillery, but in a softer tone.
"This time, instead of staying in a cabin, the god of poetry has descended to a tavern. Have you not established your general headquarters at La Fauconnerie?"
"How did you know that?"
"By the singular visiting-card that you drew in La Mode. Do I not know your coat-of-arms? An expressive one, as my aunt would say."
At these words, which probably referred to some letters, doubtless read without very much anger, since they were thus recalled, Gerfaut took courage.
"Yes," said he, "I am staying at La Fauconnerie; but I can not stay there any longer, for I think your servants make the tavern their pleasure-ground. I must come to some decision. I have two propositions to submit to you: the first is, that you will allow me to see you occasionally; there are numerous promenades about here; you go out alone, so it would be very easy."
"Let us hear the second," said Clemence, with a shrug of the shoulders.
"If you will not grant my first, I beg of you to persuade your aunt that she is ill and to take her with you to Plombieres or Baden. The season is not very far advanced; there, at least, I should be able to see you."
"Let us end this folly," said the Baroness; "I have listened patiently to you; now, in your turn, listen to me. You will be sensible, will you not? You will leave me and go. You will go to Switzerland, and return to the Montanvert, where you met me for the first time, which I shall always remember, if you, yourself, do not make it painful for me to do so. You will obey me, Octave, will you not? Give me this proof of your esteem and friendship. You know very well that it is impossible for me to grant what you ask; believe me, it is painful to me to be forced to refuse you. So, say farewell to me; you shall see me again next winter in Paris. Adieu!"
She arose and extended her hand; he took it, but, thinking to profit by the emotion betrayed by Madame de Bergenheim's voice, he exclaimed in a sort of transport:
"No! I will not wait until next winter to see you. I was about to submit to your will; if you repulse me I will consult only myself; if you repulse me, Clemence, I warn you that tomorrow I shall be in your house, seated at your table and admitted to your drawing-room."
"And how will you do it, pray?" said she, defiantly.
"That is my secret, Madame," he replied, coldly.
Although her curiosity was greatly aroused, Clemence felt that it would be beneath her to ask any more questions. She replied with an affectation of mocking indifference:
"Since I am to have the pleasure of seeing you tomorrow, I hope you will permit me to leave you today. You know that I am not well, and it is showing me very little attention to allow me to stand here in this wet grass."
She raised her skirt a trifle and extended her foot, showing her slipper, which was really covered with pearly drops of rain. Octave threw himself quickly upon his knees, and, taking a silk handkerchief from his pocket, began to wipe away all traces of the storm. His action was so rapid that Madame de Bergenheim stood for a moment motionless and speechless, but when she felt her foot imprisoned in the hand of the man who had just declared war against her, her surprise gave place to a mingled feeling of impatience and anger. She drew her foot back with a sudden movement, but unfortunately the foot went one way and the slipper another. A fencing-master, who sees his foil carried ten steps away from him by a back stroke, could not feel more astonishment than that felt by Madame de Bergenheim. Her first movement was to place her foot, so singularly undressed, upon the ground; an instinctive horror of the damp, muddy walk made her draw it quickly back. She stood thus with one foot lifted; the movement which she had started to make threw her off her balance and as she was about to fall she extended her hand to find some support. This support proved to be Octave's head, for he still remained upon his knees. With the usual presumption of lovers, he believed that he had the right to give her the assistance which she seemed to ask for, and passed his arm about the slender waist which was bent toward him.
Clemence drew herself up at once, and with frowning brow regained her coolness, standing upright upon one foot, like Cupid in the painting by Gerard; like him, also, she seemed about to fly away, there was so much airy lightness in her improvised attitude.
Many puerile incidents and ridiculous events occur in life, which it would render impossible for the most imperturbable of mandarins to struggle against in order to preserve his gravity. When Louis XIV, this king so expert in courtly ways, dressed his hair alone behind his curtains before presenting himself to the eyes of his courtiers, he feared that this disarray of costume might compromise even his royal majesty. So, upon such authority, if one looks upon a complete head of hair as indispensable to the dignity of manhood, the same reasoning should exist for the covering of one's feet. In less than a second, Madame de Bergenheim comprehended that in such circumstances prudish airs would fail of their effect. Meanwhile, the agreeable side of her position operated within her; she felt unable to keep up the show of anger that she had wished to assume. The involuntary smile upon her lips smoothed her forehead as a ray of sun dissipates a cloud. Thus, disposed to clemency by reflection or fascination, it was in a very sweet and coaxing voice that she said: "Octave, give me my slipper." Gerfaut gazed at the lovely face bent toward him with an expression of childish entreaty, then he glanced with an irresolute air at the trophy which he held in his hand. This slipper, which was as small as Cinderella's, was not green, but gray, the lining was of rose-colored silk, and the whole was so pretty, coquettish, and dainty that it seemed impossible its owner could be vexed with him if he examined it closely. "I will give it back to you," said he, at last, "on condition that you will allow me to put it on for you."
"As to that, certainly not," said she, in a sharp tone; "I should much prefer to leave it with you and return home as I am."
Gerfaut shook his head and smiled incredulously.
"Think of your delicate lungs and of this terrible mud?"
Clemence drew her foot suddenly back under her skirt, concealing it entirely from the sight of the young man, who gazed at it more than she thought proper. Then she exclaimed, with the obstinacy of a spoiled child:
"Very well! I will return hopping on one foot; I could hop very well when I was young, I should be able to do so now."
To give more weight to this observation, she took two little jumps with a grace and sprightliness worthy of Mademoiselle Taglioni.
"I have had the pleasure of seeing you waltz," said he; "but I admit that I shall be pleased to witness a new dance, and one executed for me alone."
As he said these words, he pretended to conceal the innocent object of this dispute in his blouse. The pretty dancer saw by this that a compromise would be necessary. Recourse to concessions is often as fatal to women as to kings; but what can one do when every other exit is closed? Obliged by absolute necessity to accept the conditions imposed upon her, Clemence wished at least to cover this defeat with sufficient dignity, and escape from an awkward position with the honors of war.
"Get down upon your knees, then," she said, haughtily, "and put on my slipper, since you exact it, and let this end this ridiculous scene. I think you should be too proud to regard a maid's privilege as a favor."
"As a favor which a king would envy," replied Gerfaut, in a voice as tender as hers had been disdainful. He put one knee on the ground, placed the little slipper upon the other and seemed to await his enemy's pleasure. But the latter found a new subject for complaint in the pedestal offered her, for she said with increased severity:
"On the ground, Monsieur; and let that end it."
He obeyed, without a reply, after giving her a reproachful glance by which she was as much moved as by his silent obedience. She put out her foot with a more gracious air, and thrust it into the slipper. To be a correct historian, we must admit that this time she left it in the hands which softly pressed it longer than was strictly necessary. When Octave had fastened it with skill but with no haste, he bent his head and pressed his lips to the openwork stocking, through which he could catch a glimpse of white, satiny skin.
"My husband!" exclaimed Madame de Bergenheim, as she heard the clatter of horses' hoofs at the end of the avenue; and without adding a word she fled rapidly toward the chateau. Gerfaut arose from his position no less rapidly and darted into the woods. A rustling of branches which he heard a few steps from him made him uneasy at first, for he feared that an invisible witness had been present at this imprudent interview; but he was soon reassured by the silence which reigned about him.
After the Baron and his sister had passed, he crossed the avenue and soon disappeared over the winding road on the other side of the bridge.
ART AND MUSIC
A league below the castle of Bergenheim, the village of La Fauconnerie was situated, at the junction of several valleys the principal of which, by means of an unfrequented road, opened communications between Lorraine and upper Alsatia. This position had been one of some importance in the Middle Ages, at the time when the Vosges were beset with partisans from the two countries, always ready to renew border hostilities, the everlasting plague of all frontiers. Upon a cliff overlooking the village were situated the ruins which had given the village its name; it owed it to the birds of prey [falcons, in French: 'faucons'], the habitual guests of the perpendicular rocks. To render proper justice to whom it belongs, we should add that the proprietors of La Fauconnerie had made it a point at all times to justify this appellation by customs more warlike than hospitable; but for some time the souvenirs of their feudal prowess had slept with their race under the ruins of the manor; the chateau had fallen without the hamlet extending over its ruins; from a bourg of some importance La Fauconnerie had come down to a small village, and had nothing remarkable about it but the melancholy ruins of the chateau.
It would be impossible to imagine anything more miserably prosaic than the houses that bordered the road, in regular order; their one story with its thatched roof blackened by rain; the sorry garden surrounded by a little low wall and presenting as vegetables patches of cabbage and a few rows of beans, gave an idea of the poverty of its inhabitants. Save the church, which the Bishop of St.-Die had caused to be built, and the manse that had naturally shared this fortunate privilege, only one house rose above the condition of a thatched cottage; this was the tavern called 'La Femme-sans-Tete', and kept by Madame Gobillot, an energetic woman, who did not suggest in the least the name of her establishment, "The Headless Woman."
A large sign shared with the inevitable bunch of juniper, the honor of decorating the entrance and justified an appellation one might have regarded as disrespectful to the fair sex. The original design had been repainted in dazzling colors by the artist charged with restoring the church. This alliance of the profane with the sacred had, it is true, scandalized the parish priest, but he did not dare say a word too much, as Madame Gobillot was one of his most important parishioners. A woman in a rose-colored dress and large panniers, standing upon very high-heeled shoes, displayed upon this sign the rejuvenated costume of 1750; an enormous green fan, which she held in her hand, entirely concealed her face, and it was through this caprice of the painter that the tavern came to have the name it bore.
At the right of this original figure was painted, in a very appetizing manner, a pie out of whose crust peeped a trio of woodcocks' heads. A little farther, upon a bed of watercresses, floated a sort of marine monster, carp or sturgeon, trout or crocodile. The left of the sign was none the less tempting; it represented a roast chicken lying upon its back with its head under its wing, and raising its mutilated legs in the air with a piteous look; it had for its companion a cluster of crabs, of a little too fine a red to have been freshly caught. The whole was interspersed with bottles and glasses brimful of wine. There were stone jugs at each extremity, the sergeants of the rear-rank of this gastronomic platoon, whose corks had blown out and were still flying in space, while a bubbling white foam issued from their necks and fell majestically over their sides after describing a long parabola. A misleading sign, indeed!
A remorseful conscience, or a desire to protect herself from all reproach of mendacity on the part of the customers, had made the owner of the inn place a wire cupboard upon the sill of one of the windows near the door; in which receptacle were some eggs on a plate, a bit of bread with which David might have loaded his sling, a white glass bottle filled with a liquid of some color intended to represent kirsch, but which was in reality only water. This array gave a much more correct idea of the resources of the establishment and formed a menu like an anchorite's repast, and even this it was difficult for the kitchen's resources to maintain.
A carriage-gate led into the yard and to the stables, cart-drivers being the principal habitues of the place; another entrance, the one which was crowned with the fantastic sign, was flanked by two stone seats and opened directly into the kitchen, which also served as parlor for the guests. A fireplace with an enormous mantel, under which a whole family might warm themselves, occupied the middle of one side of the room. There was a large oven in one corner which opened its huge mouth, the door partly hiding the shovels and tongs employed in its service. Two or three thoroughly smoked hams, suspended from the beams, announced that there was no fear of a famine before the gastronomic massacres of Middlemas. Opposite the window, a large, polished oak dresser displayed an array of large flowered plates and little octagon-shaped glasses. A huge kitchen kettle and some wooden chairs completed the furniture of the room.
From the kitchen one passed into another room, where a permanent table surrounded by benches occupied its entire length. The wall paper, once green, was now a dirty gray; it was embellished by half a dozen black frames representing the story of Prince Poniatowski, who shares the honor of decorating village inns with Paul and Virginia and Wilhelm Tell. On the upper floor-for this aristocratic dwelling had a second story—several sleeping-rooms opened upon a long corridor, at the end of which was a room with two beds in it. This room was very neat and clean, and was destined for any distinguished guests whose unlucky star led them into this deserted country.
That evening the inn presented an unaccustomed lively appearance; the long seats, each side of the door, were occupied by rustics stripping hemp, by some village lads, and three or four cart-drivers smoking short pipes as black as coal. They were listening to two girls who were singing in a most mournful way a song well known to all in this country:
"Au chateau de Belfort Sont trois jolies filles, etc."
The light from the hearth, shining through the open door, left this group in the shadow and concentrated its rays upon a few faces in the interior of the kitchen. First, there was Madame Gobillot in person, wearing a long white apron, her head covered with an immense cap. She went from oven to dresser, and from dresser to fireplace with a very important air. A fat little servant disappeared frequently through the dining-room door, where she seemed to be laying the cover for a feast. With that particular dexterity of country girls, she made three trips to carry two plates, and puffed like a porpoise at her work, while the look of frightened amazement showed upon her face that every fibre of her intelligence was under unaccustomed tension. Before the fire, and upon the range, three or four stew-pans were bubbling. A plump chicken was turning on the spit, or, rather, the spit and its victim were turned by a bright-looking boy of about a dozen years, who with one hand turned the handle and with the other, armed with a large cooking-ladle, basted the roast.
But the two principal persons in this picture were a young country girl and a young man seated opposite her, who seemed busily engaged in making her portrait. One would easily recognize, from the airs and elegance of the young woman, that she was the daughter of the house, Mademoiselle Reine Gobillot, the one whose passion for fashion-plates had excited Mademoiselle de Corandeuil's anger. She sat as straight and rigid upon her stool as a Prussian corporal carrying arms, and maintained an excessively gracious smile upon her lips, while she made her bust more prominent by drawing back her shoulders as far as she could.
The young painter, on the contrary, was seated with artistic abandon, balancing himself upon a two-legged chair with his heels resting against the mantel; he was dressed in a black velvet coat, and a very small Tam O'Shanter cap of the same material covered the right side of his head, allowing a luxuriant crop of brown hair to be seen upon the other side. This head-dress, accompanied by long moustaches and a pointed beard covering only his chin, gave the stranger's face the mediaeval look he probably desired. This travelling artist was sketching in an album placed upon his knees, with a freedom which indicated perfect confidence in his own talents. A cigar, skilfully held in one corner of his mouth, did not prevent him from warbling between each puff some snatches of Italian airs of which he seemed to possess a complete repertoire. In spite of this triple occupation he sustained a conversation with the ease of a man who, like Caesar, could have dictated to three secretaries at once if necessary.
"Dell' Assiria, ai semidei Aspirar—"
"I have already asked you not to purse up your mouth so, Mademoiselle Reine; it gives you a Watteau air radically bourgeois."
"What sort of air does it give me?" she asked, anxiously.
"A Watteau, Regence, Pompadour air. You have a large mouth, and we will leave it natural, if you please."
"I have a large mouth!" exclaimed Reine, blushing with anger; "how polite you are!"
And she pinched up her lips until she reduced them to nearly the size of Montmorency cherries.
"Stop this vulgar way of judging of art, queen of my heart. Learn that there is nothing more appetizing than a large mouth. I do not care for rosebud mouths!"
"If it is the fashion!" murmured the young girl, in a pleased tone, as she spread out horizontally her vermillion lips, which might have extended from ear to ear, not unlike—if we can credit that slanderer, Bussy-Rabutin-the amorous smile of Mademoiselle de la Valliere.
"Why did you not let me put on my gold necklace?
"That would have given my portrait a smarter look. Sophie Mitoux had hers painted with a coral comb and earrings. How shabby this style is!"
"I beg of you, my good Reine, let me follow my own fancy; an artist is a being of inspiration and spontaneity. Meanwhile, you make your bust too prominent; there is no necessity for you to look as if you had swallowed a whale. L'art n'est pas fait pour toi, tu n'en as pas besoin. Upon my word, you have a most astonishing bust; a genuine Rubens."
Madame Gobillot was an austere woman, though an innkeeper, and watched over her daughter with particular care, lest any ill-sounding or insiduous expression should reach her child's ear. Considering the company which frequented the house, the task was not easy. So she was shocked at the young man's last words, and although she did not quite understand his meaning, for that very reason she thought she scented a concealed poison more dangerous for Mademoiselle Reine than the awful words used by the drivers. She dared not, however, show her displeasure to a customer, and one who seemed disposed to spend money freely; and, as usual in such circumstances, she vented her displeasure upon the persons immediately under her charge.
"Hurry now, Catherine! Will you never finish setting the table? I told you before to put on the Britannia; these gentlemen are used to eating with silver. Listen to me when I am talking to you. Who washed these glasses? What a shame! You are as afraid of water as a mad-dog. And you! what are you staring at that chicken for, instead of basting it? If you let it burn you shall go to bed without any supper. If it is not provoking!" she continued, in a scolding tone, visiting her stewpans one after another, "everything is dried up; a fillet that was as tender as it could be will be scorched! This is the third time that I have diluted the gravy. Catherine! bring me a dish. Now, then, make haste."
"One thing is certain," interrupted the artist, "that Gerfaut is making a fool of me. I do not see what can have become of him. Tell me, Madame Gobillot, are you certain that an amateur of art and the picturesque, travelling at this hour, would not be eaten by wolves or plundered by robbers in these mountains?"
"Our mountains are safe, Monsieur," replied the landlady, with offended dignity; "except for the pedler who was assassinated six months ago and whose body was found in the Combe-aux-Renards—"
"And the driver who was stopped three weeks ago in the Fosse," added Mademoiselle Reine; "the thieves did not quite kill him, but he is still in the hospital at Remiremont."
"Oh! that is enough to make one's hair stand on end! This is worse than the forest of Bondy! Truly, if I knew what direction my friend took this morning, I would follow him with my pistols."
"Here is Fritz," said Madame Gobillot. "He met a stranger in the woods who gave him ten sous for telling him the way to Bergenheim. From his description, it seems that it must be the gentleman you speak of. Tell us about it, Fritz."
The child related in his Alsatian patois his meeting of the afternoon, and the artist was convinced that it was Gerfaut he had met.
"He must be wandering in the valley," said he, "dreaming about our play. But did you not say something about Bergenheim? Is there a village near here by that name?"
"There is a chateau of that name, Monsieur, and it is about a league from here as you go up the river."
"And does this chateau happen to belong to the Baron de Bergenheim—a large, blond, good-looking fellow, with rather reddish moustache?"
"That's the picture of its owner, only that the Baron does not wear a moustache now, not since he left the service. Do you know him, Monsieur?"
"Yes, I know him! Speaking of service, I once rendered him one which was of some account. Is he at the castle?"
"Yes, Monsieur, and his lady also."
"Ah! his wife, too. She was a Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, of Provence. Is she pretty?"
"Pretty," said Mademoiselle Gobillot, pursing up her lips, "that depends upon tastes. If a person likes a face as white as a ghost, she is. And, then, she is so thin! It certainly can not be very difficult to have a slender waist when one is as thin as that."
"Not everybody can have rosy cheeks and a form like an enchantress," said the painter, in a low voice, as he looked at his model in a seductive manner.
"There are some people who think that Monsieur's sister is prettier than Madame," observed Madame Gobillot.
"O mother! how can you say that?" exclaimed Reine with a disdainful air. "Mademoiselle Aline! A child of fifteen! She certainly is not wanting in color; her hair is such a blond, such a red, rather! It looks as if it were on fire."
"Do not say anything against red hair, I beg of you," said the artist, "it is an eminently artistic shade, which is very popular."
"With some it may be so, but with Christians! It seems to me that black hair—"
"When it is long and glossy like yours, it is wonderful," said the young man, darting another killing glance. "Madame Gobillot, would you mind closing that door? One can not hear one's self think here. I am a little critical, so far as music is concerned, and you have two sopranos outside who deafen me with their shrieks."
"It is Marguerite Mottet and her sister. Since our cure has taken to teaching them, they bore us to death, coming here and singing their fine songs. One of these days I shall notify them to leave."
As she said these words, Madame Gobillot went to close the door in order to please her guest; as soon as her back was turned, the latter leaned forward with the boldness of a Lovelace and imprinted a very loving kiss upon the rosy cheek of Mademoiselle Reine, who never thought of drawing back until the offence was committed.
The sole witness to this incident was the little kitchen drudge, whose blue eyes had been fastened upon the artist's moustache and beard for some time. They seemed to plunge him into a deep admiration. But at this unexpected event his amazement was so complete that he dropped his spoon into the ashes.
"Eh! mein herr, do you wish to go to bed without your supper, as has been promised you?" said the young man, while the beautiful Reine was trying to recover her countenance. "Now, then, sing us a little song instead of staring at me as if I were a giraffe. Your little cook has a nice voice, Madame Gobillot. Now, then, mein herr, give us a little German lied. I will give you six kreutzers if you sing in tune, and a flogging if you grate upon my ears."
He arose and put his album under his arm.
"And my portrait?" exclaimed the young girl, whose cheek was still burning from the kiss she had just received.
The painter drew near her, smiling, and said in a mysterious tone:
"When I make a portrait of a pretty person like you, I never finish it the first day. If you will give me another sitting in the morning before your mother arises I promise to finish this sketch in a way that will not be displeasing to you."
Mademoiselle Reine saw that her mother was watching her, and walked away with no reply save a glance which was not discouraging.
"Now, then! You droll little fellow!" exclaimed the artist, as he whirled on one foot; "triple time; one, two, begin."
The child burst into an Alsatian song in a high, ringing voice.
"Wait a moment! What devilish key are you singing that in? La, la, la, la; mi, in E major, key of four sharps. By Jove, my little man! here is a fellow who sings B's and C's away up in the clouds; an E sharp, too!" he continued, with astonishment, while the singer made a hold upon the keynote an octave higher in a voice as clear as a crystal.
The artist threw into the fire the cigar which he had just lighted, and began pacing the kitchen floor, paying no more attention to Mademoiselle Reine, who felt a little piqued at seeing herself neglected for a kitchen drudge.
"A rare voice," said he, as he took a great stride; "per Bacco, a very rare voice. Added to that, he sings very deep; two octaves and a half, a clear, ringing tone, the two registers are well united. He would make an admirable 'primo musico'. And the little fellow has a pretty face, too. After supper I will make him wash his face, and I will sketch it. I am sure that in less than a year's study, he could make his debut with the greatest success. By Jove! I have an idea! Why does not that Gerfaut return? Now, then, he would do very well for 'Pippo' in La Gazza, or for Gemma in Wilhelm Tell. But we must have a role for him to make his debut in. What subject could we take properly to introduce a child's part? Why does not that Gerfaut come? A child, girl or boy; a boy part would be better. 'Daniel,' of course; viva 'Daniel!' 'The Chaste Suzannah,' opera in three acts. Madame Begrand would be fine as Suzannah. By Jove! if Meyerbeer would only take charge of the score! That falls to him by right as a compatriot. Then, that would give him an opportunity to break lances with Mehul and Rossini. If that fool of a Gerfaut would only come! Let us see what would be the three characters: Soprano, Suzannah; contralto, David; the old men, two basses; as for the tenor, he would be, of course, Suzannah's husband. There would be a superb entrance for him upon his return from the army, 'cavatina guerriera con cori'. Oh! that terrible Gerfaut! the wolves must have devoured him. If he were here, we would knock off the thing between our fruit and cheese."
Just at that moment the door opened suddenly. "Is supper ready?" asked a deep voice.
"Eh, here he is, the dear friend!
"O surprise extreme! Grand Dieu! c'est lui-meme—
alive and in the flesh."
"And hungry," said Gerfaut, as he dropped into a chair near the fire.
"Would you like to compose an opera in three acts, The Chaste Suzannah, music by Meyerbeer?"
"I should like some supper first. Madame Gobillot, I beseech you, give me something to eat. Thanks to your mountain air, I am almost starved."
"But, Monsieur, we have been waiting two hours for you," retorted the landlady, as she made each stewpan dance in succession.
"That is a fact," said the artist; "let us go into the dining-room, then.
"Gia la mensa a preparata."
"While supping, I will explain my plans to you. I have just found a Daniel in the ashes—"
"My dear Marillac, drop your Daniel and Suzannah," replied Gerfaut, as he sat down to the table; "I have something much more important to talk to you about."
ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:
Evident that the man was above his costume; a rare thing! Mania for fearing that she may be compromised Material in you to make one of Cooper's redskins Recourse to concessions is often as fatal to women as to kings Those whom they most amuse are those who are best worth amusing Trying to conceal by a smile (a blush) When one speaks of the devil he appears Wiped his nose behind his hat, like a well-bred orator
By CHARLES DE BERNARD
While the two friends are devouring to the very last morsel the feast prepared for them by Madame Gobillot, it may not be out of place to explain in a few words the nature of the bonds that united these two men.
The Vicomte de Gerfaut was one of those talented beings who are the veritable champions of an age when the lightest pen weighs more in the social balance than our ancestors' heaviest sword. He was born in the south of France, of one of those old families whose fortune had diminished each generation, their name finally being almost all that they had left. After making many sacrifices to give their son an education worthy of his birth, his parents did not live to enjoy the fruits of their efforts, and Gerfaut became an orphan at the time when he had just finished his law studies. He then abandoned the career of which his father had dreamed for him, and the possibilities of a red gown bordered with ermine. A mobile and highly colored imagination, a passionate love for the arts, and, more than all, some intimacies contracted with men of letters, decided his vocation and launched him into literature.
The ardent young man, without a murmur or any misgivings, drank to the very dregs the cup poured out to neophytes in the harsh career of letters by editors, theatrical managers, and publishers. With some, this course ends in suicide, but it only cost Gerfaut a portion of his slender patrimony; he bore this loss like a man who feels that he is strong enough to repair it. When his plans were once made, he followed them up with indefatigable perseverance, and became a striking example of the irresistible power of intelligence united to will-power. Reputation, for him, lay in the unknown depths of an arid and rocky soil; he was obliged, in order to reach it, to dig a sort of artesian well. Gerfaut accepted this heroic labor; he worked day and night for several years, his forehead, metaphorically, bathed in a painful perspiration alleviated only by hopes far away. At last the untiring worker's drill struck the underground spring over which so many noble ones breathlessly bend, although their thirst is never quenched. At this victorious stroke, glory burst forth, falling in luminous sparks, making this new name—his name—flash with a brilliancy too dearly paid for not to be lasting.
At the time of which we speak, Octave had conquered every obstacle in the literary field. With a versatility of talent which sometimes recalled Voltaire's "proteanism," he attacked in succession the most difficult styles. Besides their poetic value, his dramas had this positive merit, the highest in the theatre world they were money-makers; so the managers greeted him with due respect, while collaborators swarmed about him. The journals paid for his articles in their weight in gold; reviews snatched every line of his yet unfinished novels; his works were illustrated by Porret and Tony Johannot—the masters of the day—and shone resplendent behind the glass cases in the Orleans gallery. Gerfaut had at last made a place for himself among that baker's dozen of writers who call themselves, and justly, too, the field-marshals of French literature, of which Chateaubriand was then commander-in-chief.
What was it that had brought such a person a hundred leagues from the opera balcony, to put on a pretty woman's slipper? Was the fair lady one of those caprices, so frequent and fleeting in an artist's thoughts, or had she given birth to one of those sentiments that end by absorbing the rest of one's life?
The young man seated opposite Gerfaut was, physically and morally, as complete a contrast to him as one could possibly imagine. He was one of the kind very much in request in fashionable society. There is not a person who has not met one of these worthy fellows, destined to make good officers, perfect merchants, and very satisfactory lawyers, but who, unfortunately, have been seized with a mania for notoriety. Ordinarily they think of it on account of somebody else's talent. This one is brother to a poet, another son-in-law to a historian; they conclude that they also have a right to be poet and historian in their turn. Thomas Corneille is their model; but we must admit that very few of our writers reach the rank attained by Corneille the younger.
Marillac was train-bearer to Gerfaut, and was rewarded for this bondage by a few bribes of collaboration, crumbs that fall from the rich man's table. They had been close friends since they both entered the law school, where they were companions in folly rather than in study. Marillac also had thrown himself into the arena of literature; then, different fortunes having greeted the two friends' efforts, he had descended little by little from the role of a rival to that of an inferior. Marillac was an artist, talent accepted, from the tip of his toes to the sole of his boots, which he wished to lengthen by pointed toes out of respect for the Middle Ages; for he excelled above all things in his manner of dressing, and possessed, among other intellectual merits, the longest moustache in literature.
If he had not art in his brain, to make up for it he always had its name at his tongue's end. Vaudeville writing or painting, poetry or music, he dabbled in all these, like those horses sold as good for both riding and driving, which are as bad in the saddle as in front of a tilbury. He signed himself "Marillac, man of letters"; meanwhile, aside from his profound disdain for the bourgeois, whom he called vulgar, and for the French Academy, to which he had sworn never to belong, one could reproach him with nothing. His penchant for the picturesque in expression was not always, it is true, in the most excellent taste, but, in spite of these little oddities, his unfortunate passion for art, and his affection for the Middle Ages, he was a brave, worthy, and happy fellow, full of good qualities, very much devoted to his friends, above all to Gerfaut. One could, therefore, pardon him for being a pseudo-artist.
"Will your story be a long one?" said he to the playwright, when Catherine had conducted them after supper to the double-bedded room, where they were to pass the night.
"Long or short, what does it matter, since you must listen to it?"
"Because, first, I would make some grog and fill my pipe; otherwise, I would content myself with a cigar."
"Take your pipe and make your grog."
"Here!" said the artist, running after Catherine, "don't rush downstairs so. You are wanted. Fear nothing, interesting maid; you are safe with us; but bring us a couple of glasses, brandy, sugar, a bowl, and some hot water."
"They want some hot water," cried the servant, rushing into the kitchen with a frightened look; "can they be ill at this hour?"
"Give the gentlemen what they want, you little simpleton!" replied Mademoiselle Reine; "they probably want to concoct some of their Paris drinks."
When all the articles necessary for the grog were on the table, Marillac drew up an old armchair, took another chair to stretch his legs upon, replaced his cap with a handkerchief artistically knotted about his head, his boots with a pair of slippers, and, finally, lighted his pipe.
"Now," said he, as he seated himself, "I will listen without moving an eyelid should your story last, like the creation, six days and nights."
Gerfaut took two or three turns about the room with the air of an orator who is seeking for a beginning to a speech.
"You know," said he, "that Fate has more or less influence over our lives, according to the condition of mind in which we happen to be. In order that you may understand the importance of the adventure I am about relating to you, it will be necessary for me to picture the state of mind which I was in at the time it happened; this will be a sort of philosophical and psychological preamble."
"Thunder!" interrupted Marillac, "if I had known that, I would have ordered a second bowl."
"You will remember," continued Gerfaut, paying no attention to this pleasantry, "the rather bad attack of spleen which I had a little over a year ago?"
"Before your trip to Switzerland?"
"If I remember right," said the artist, "you were strangely cross and whimsical at the time. Was it not just after the failure of our drama at the Porte Saint-Martin?"
"You might also add of our play at the Gymnase."
"I wash my hands of that. You know very well that it only went as far as the second act, and I did not write one word in the first."
"And hardly one in the second. However, I take the catastrophe upon my shoulders; that made two perfect failures in that d—-d month of August."
"Two failures that were hard to swallow," replied Marillac, "We can say, for our consolation, that there never were more infamous conspiracies against us, above all, than at the Gymnase. My ears ring with the hisses yet! I could see, from our box, a little villain in a dress coat, in one corner of the pit, who gave the signal with a whistle as large as a horse-pistol. How I would have liked to cram it down his throat!" As he said these words, he brought his fist down upon the table, and made the glasses and candles dance 'upon it.
"Conspiracy or not, this time they judged the play aright. I believe it would be impossible to imagine two worse plays; but, as Brid Oison says, 'These are things that one admits only to himself'; it is always disagreeable to be informed of one's stupidity by an ignorant audience that shouts after you like a pack of hounds after a hare. In spite of my pretension of being the least susceptible regarding an author's vanity of all the writers in Paris, it is perfectly impossible to be indifferent to such a thing—a hiss is a hiss. However, vanity aside, there was a question of money which, as I have a bad habit of spending regularly my capital as well as my income, was not without its importance. It meant, according to my calculation, some sixty thousand francs cut off from my resources, and my trip to the East was indefinitely postponed.
"They say, with truth, that misfortunes never come singly. You know Melanie, whom I prevented from making her debut at the Vaudeville? By taking her away from all society, lodging her in a comfortable manner and obliging her to work, I rendered her a valuable service. She was a good girl, and, aside from her love for the theatre and a certain indolence that was not without charm, I did not find any fault in her and grew more attached to her every day. Sometimes after spending long hours with her, a fancy for a retired life and domestic happiness would seize me. Gentlemen with brains are privileged to commit foolish acts at times, and I really do not know what I might have ended in doing, had I not been preserved from the danger in an unexpected manner.
"One evening, when I arrived at Melanie's, I found the bird had flown. That great ninny of a Ferussac, whom I never had suspected, and had introduced to her myself, had turned her head by making capital out of her love for the stage. As he was about to leave for Belgium, he persuaded her to go there and dethrone Mademoiselle Prevost. I have since learned that a Brussels banker revenged me by taking this Helene of the stage away from Ferussac. Now she is launched and can fly with her own wings upon the great highway of bravos, flowers, guineas—"
"And wreck and ruin," added Marillac. "Here's to her health!"
"This triple disappointment of pride, money, and heart did not cause, I hope you will believe me, the deep state of melancholy into which I soon fell; but the malady manifested itself upon this occasion, for it had been lurking about me for a long time, as the dormant pain of a wound is aroused if one pours a caustic upon its surface.
"There is some dominant power in each individual which is developed at the expense of the other faculties, above all when the profession one chooses suits his nature. The vital powers thus condensed manifest themselves externally, and gush out with an abundance which would become impossible if all the faculties were used alike, and if life filtered away, so to speak. To avoid such destruction, and concentrate life upon one point, in order to increase the action, is the price of talent and individuality. Among athletes, the forehead contracts according as the chest enlarges; with men of thought, it is the brain which causes the other organs to suffer, insatiable vampire, exhausting at times the last drop of blood in the body which serves as its victim. This vampire was my torturer.
"For ten years I had crowded romance upon poetry, vaudeville upon drama, literary criticism upon leader; I proved, through my own self, in a physical way, the phenomena of the absorption of the senses by intelligence. Many times, after several nights of hard work, the chords of my mind being too violently stretched, they relaxed and gave only indistinct harmony. Then, if I happened to resist this lassitude of nature demanding repose, I felt the pressure of my will exhausting the sources at the very depths of my being. It seemed to me that I dug out my ideas from the bottom of a mine, instead of gathering them upon the surface of the brain. The more material organs came to the rescue of their failing chief. The blood from my heart rushed to my head to revive it; the muscles of my limbs communicated to the fibres of the brain their galvanic tension. Nerves turned into imagination, flesh into life. Nothing has developed my materialistic beliefs like this decarnation of which I had such a sensible, or rather visible perception.
"I destroyed my health with these psychological experiments, and the abuse of work perhaps shortened my life. When I was thirty years old my face was wrinkled, my cheeks were pallid, and my heart blighted and empty. For what result, grand Dieu! For a fleeting and fruitless renown!
"The failure of my two plays warned me that others judged me as I judged myself. I recalled to mind the Archbishop of Granada, and I thought I could hear Gil Blas predicting the failure of my works. We can not dismiss the public as we can our secretary; meanwhile, I surrendered to a too severe justice in order to decline others' opinions. A horrible thought suddenly came into my mind; my artistic life was ended, I was a worn-out man; in one word, to picture my situation in a trivial but correct manner, I had reached the end of my rope.
"I could not express to you the discouragement that I felt at this conviction. Melanie's infidelity was the crowning touch. It was not my heart, but my vanity which had been rendered more irritable by recent disappointments. This, then, was the end of all my ambitious dreams! I had not enough mind left, at thirty years of age, to write a vaudeville or to be loved by a grisette!
"One day Doctor Labanchie came to see me.
"'What are you doing there' said he, as he saw me seated at my desk.
"'Doctor,' said I, reaching out my hand to him, 'I believe that I am a little feverish.'
"'Your pulse is a little rapid,' said he, after making careful examination, 'but your fever is more of imagination than of blood.'
"I explained to him my condition, which was now becoming almost unendurable. Without believing in medicine very much, I had confidence in him and knew him to be a man who would give good advice.
"'You work too much,' said he, shaking his head. 'Your brain is put to too strong a tension. This is a warning nature gives you, and you will make a mistake if you do not follow it. When you are sleepy, go to bed; when you are tired, you must have rest. It is rest for your brain that you now need. Go into the country, confine yourself to a regular and healthy diet: vegetables, white meat, milk in the morning, a very little wine, but, above all things, no coffee. Take moderate exercise, hunt—and avoid all irritating thoughts; read the 'Musee des familles' or the 'Magasin Pittoresque'. This regime will have the effect of a soothing poultice upon your brain, and before the end of six months you will be in your normal condition again.'
"'Six months!' I exclaimed. 'You wretch of a doctor, tell me, then, to let my beard and nails grow like Nebuchadnezzar. Six months! You do not know how I detest the country, partridges, rabbits and all. For heaven's sake, find some other remedy for me.'
"'There is homoeopathy,' said he, smiling. 'Hahnemann is quite the fashion now.'
"'Let us have homoeopathy!'
"'You know the principles of the system: 'Similia similibus!' If you have fever, redouble it; if you have smallpox, be inoculated with a triple dose. So far as you are concerned, you are a little used up and 'blase', as we all are in this Babylon of ours; have recourse, then, as a remedy, to the very excesses which have brought you into this state. Homoeopathize yourself morally. It may cure you, it may kill you; I wash my hands of it.'
"The doctor was joking, I said to myself after he had left. Does he think that passions are like the Wandering Jew's five sous, that there is nothing to do but to put your hand in your pocket and take them out at your convenience when necessary. However, this idea, strange as it seemed, struck me forcibly. I decided to try it.
"The next day at seven o'clock in the evening, I was rolling along the road to Lyons. Eight days later, I was rowing in a boat on Lake Geneva. For a long time I had wanted to go to Switzerland, and it seemed as if I could not have chosen a better time. I hoped that the fresh mountain air and the soft pure breezes from the lakes would communicate some of their calm serenity to my heart and brain.
"There is something in Parisian life, I do not know what, so exclusive and hardening, that it ends by making one irresponsive to sensations of a more simple order.
"'My kingdom for the gutter in the Rue du Bac!' I exclaimed with Madame de Stael from the height of the Coppet terrace. The spectacle of nature interests only contemplative and religious minds powerfully. Mine was neither the one nor the other. My habits of analysis and observation make me find more attraction in a characteristic face than in a magnificent landscape; I prefer the exercising of thought to the careless gratification of ecstasy, the study of flesh and soul to earthly horizons, of human passions to a perfectly pure atmosphere.
"I met at Geneva an Englishman, who was as morose as myself. We vented our spleen in common and were both bored together. We travelled thus through the Oberland and the best part of Valais; we were often rolled up in our travelling robes in the depths of the carriage, and fast asleep when the most beautiful points of interest were in sight.
"From Valais we went to Mont-Blanc, and one night we arrived at Chamounix—"
"Did you see any idiots in Valais?" suddenly interrupted Marillac, as he filled his pipe the second time.
"Several, and they were all horrible."
"Do you not think we might compose something with an idiot in it? It might be rather taking."
"It would not equal Caliban or Quasimodo; will you be so kind as to spare me just now these efforts of imagination, and listen to me, for I am reaching the interesting part of my story?"
"God be praised!" said the artist, as he puffed out an enormous cloud of smoke.
"The next day the Englishman was served with tea in his bedroom, and when I asked him to go to the 'Mer de Glace' he turned his head toward the wall; so, leaving my phlegmatic companion enveloped in bedclothes up to his ears, I started alone for the Montanvert.
"It was a magnificent morning, and small parties of travellers, some on foot, others mounted, skirted the banks of the Arve or climbed the sides of the mountain. They looked like groups of mice in the distance, and this extreme lessening in size made one comprehend, better than anything else, the immense proportions of the landscape. As for myself, I was alone: I had not even taken a guide, this was too favorite a resort for tourists, for the precaution to be necessary. For a wonder, I felt rather gay, with an elasticity of body and mind which I had not felt in some time.
"I courageously began climbing the rough pathway which led to the Mer de Glace, aiding myself with a long staff, which I had procured at the inn.
"At every step I breathed with renewed pleasure the fresh, pure, morning air; I gazed vaguely at the different effects of the sun or mist, at the undulations of the road, which sometimes rose almost straight up in the air, sometimes followed a horizontal line, while skirting the open abyss at the right. The Arve, wending its course like a silvery ribbon, seemed at times to recede, while the ridges of the perpendicular rocks stood out more plainly. At times, the noise of a falling avalanche was repeated, echo after echo. A troupe of German students below me were responding to the voice of the glaciers by a chorus from Oberon. Following the turns in the road, I could see through the fir-trees, or, rather, at my feet, their long Teutonic frock-coats, their blond beards, and caps about the size of one's fist. As I walked along, when the path was not too steep, I amused myself by throwing my stick against the trunks of the trees which bordered the roadside; I remember how pleased I was when I succeeded in hitting them, which I admit was not very often.
"In the midst of this innocent amusement, I reached the spot where the reign of the Alpine plants begins. All at once I saw, above me, a rock decked with rhododendrons; these flowers looked like tufts of oleanders through the dark foliage of the fir-trees, and produced a charming effect. I left the path in order to reach them sooner, and when I had gathered a bouquet, I threw my staff and at the same time uttered a joyous cry, in imitation of the students, my companions on this trip.
"A frightened scream responded to mine. My staff in its flight had crossed the path and darted into an angle in the road. At that same moment, I saw a mule's head appear with ears thrown back in terror, then the rest of its body, and upon its back a lady ready to fall into the abyss. Fright paralyzed me. All aid was impossible on account of the narrowness of the road, and this stranger's life depended upon her coolness and the intelligence of her beast. Finally the animal seemed to regain its courage and began to walk away, lowering its head as if it could still hear the terrible whistle of the javelin in his ears. I slipped from the rock upon which I stood and seized the mule by the bridle, and succeeded in getting them out of a bad position. I led the animal in this way for some distance, until I reached a place where the path was broader, and danger was over.
"I then offered my apologies to the person whose life I had just compromised by my imprudence, and for the first time took a good look at her. She was young and well dressed; a black silk gown fitted her slender form to perfection; her straw hat was fastened to the saddle, and her long chestnut hair floated in disorder over her pale cheeks. As she heard my voice, she opened her eyes, which in her fright she had instinctively closed; they seemed to me the most beautiful I had ever seen in my life.
"She looked at the precipice and turned away with a shudder. Her glance rested upon me, and then upon the rhododendrons which I held in my hand.
"The frightened expression on her face was replaced immediately by one of childish curiosity.
"'What pretty flowers!' she exclaimed, in a fresh, young voice. 'Are those rhododendrons, Monsieur?'
"I presented her my bouquet without replying; as she hesitated about taking it, I said:
"'If you refuse these flowers, Madame, I shall not believe that you have pardoned me.'
"By this time, the persons who were with her had joined us. There were two other ladies, three or four men mounted upon mules, and several guides. At the word rhododendron, a rather large, handsome fellow, dressed in a pretentious style, slipped from his mule and climbed the somewhat steep precipice in quest of the flowers which seemed to be so much in favor. When he returned, panting for breath, with an enormous bunch of them in his hand, the lady had already accepted mine.
"'Thank you, Monsieur de Mauleon,' said she, with a rather scornful air; 'offer your flowers to these ladies.' Then, with a slight inclination of the head to me, she struck her mule with her whip, and they rode away.
"The rest of the company followed her, gazing at me as they passed, the big, fashionable fellow especially giving me a rather impertinent glance. I did not try to pick a quarrel with him on account of this discourteous manifestation. When the cavalcade was at some distance, I went in search of my stick, which I found under a tree on the edge of the precipice; then I continued climbing the steep path, with my eyes fastened upon the rider in the black silk gown, her hair flying in the wind and my bouquet in her hand.
"A few moments later, I reached the pavilion at the Montanvert, where I found a gay company gathered together, made up principally of English people. As for myself, I must admit the frivolous, or, rather mundane, bent of my tastes; the truly admirable spectacle presented to my eyes interested me much less than the young stranger, who at this moment was descending with the lightness of a sylph the little road which led to the Mer de Glace.
"I do not know what mysterious link bound me to this woman. I had met many much more beautiful, but the sight of them had left me perfectly indifferent. This one attracted me from the first. The singular circumstances of this first interview, doubtless, had something to do with the impression. I felt glad to see that she had kept my bouquet; she held it in one hand, while she leaned with the other upon a staff somewhat like my own. The two other ladies, and even the men had stopped on the edge of the ice.
"Monsieur de Mauleon wished to fulfil his duties as escort, but at the first crevasse he had also halted without manifesting the slightest desire to imitate the chamois. The young woman seemed to take a malicious pleasure in contemplating her admirer's prudent attitude, and, far from listening to the advice he gave her, she began to run upon the ice, bounding over the crevasses with the aid of her stick. I was admiring her lightness and thoughtlessness, but with an uneasy feeling, when I saw her suddenly stop. I instinctively ran toward her. An enormous crevasse of great depth lay at her feet, blue at its edges and dark in its depths. She stood motionless before this frightful gulf with hands thrown out before her in horror, but charmed like a bird about to be swallowed by a serpent. I knew the irresistible effect upon nervous temperaments of this magnetic attraction toward an abyss. I seized her by the arm, the suddenness of the movement made her drop her staff and flowers, which fell into the depths of the chasm.
"I tried to lead her away, but after she had taken a few steps, I felt her totter; she had grown pale; her eyes were closed. I threw my arm about her, in order to support her and turned her face toward the north; the cold air striking her revived her, and she soon opened her beautiful brown eyes. I do not know what sudden tenderness seized me then, but I pressed this lovely creature within my grasp, and she remained in my arms unresistingly. I felt that I loved her already.
"She remained for a moment with her languishing eyes fixed on mine, making no response, perhaps not even having heard me. The shouts of her party, some of whom were coming toward her, broke the charm. With a rapid movement, she withdrew from my embrace, and I offered her my arm, just as if we were in a drawing-room and I was about to lead her out for a dance; she took it, but I did not feel elated at this, for I could feel her knees waver at every step. The smallest crevasse, which she had crossed before with such agility, now inspired her with a horror which I could divine by the trembling of her arm within mine. I was obliged to make numerous detours in order to avoid them, and thus prolonged the distance, for which I was not sorry. Did I not know that when we reached our destination, the world, that other sea of ice, was going to take her away from me, perhaps forever? We walked silently, occasionally making a few trivial remarks, both deeply embarrassed. When we reached the persons who awaited her, I said, as she disengaged my arm:
"'You dropped my flowers, Madame; will it be the same with your memory of me?'
"She looked at me, but made no reply. I loved this silence. I bowed politely to her and returned to the pavilion, while she related her adventure to her friends; but I am quite sure she did not tell all the details.
"The register for travellers who visit the Montan-Vert is a mixture of all nationalities, and no tourist refuses his tribute; modest ones write down their names only. I hoped in this way to learn the name of the young traveller, and I was not disappointed. I soon saw the corpulent Monsieur de Mauleon busily writing his name upon the register in characters worthy of Monsieur Prudhomme; the other members of the little party followed his example. The young woman was the last to write down her name. I took the book in my turn, after she had left, and with apparent composure I read upon the last line these words, written in a slender handwriting:
"Baroness Clemence de Bergenheim."
GERFAUT ASKS A FAVOR
"The Baroness de Bergenheim!" exclaimed Marillac. "Ah! I understand it all now, and you may dispense with the remainder of your story. So this was the reason why, instead of visiting the banks of the Rhine as we agreed, you made me leave the route at Strasbourg under the pretext of walking through the picturesque sites of the Vosges. It was unworthy of you to abuse my confidence as a friend. And I allowed myself to be led by the nose to within a mile of Bergenheim!"
"Peace," interrupted Gerfaut; "I have not finished. Smoke and listen.
"I followed Madame de Bergenheim as far as Geneva. She had gone there from here with her aunt, and had availed herself of this journey to visit Mont Blanc. She left for her home the next day without my meeting her again; but I preserved her name, and it was not unknown to me. I had heard it spoken in several houses in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and I knew that I should certainly have an opportunity of meeting her during the winter.
"So I remained at Geneva, yielding to a sensation as new as it was strange. It first acted upon my brain whose ice I felt melting away, and its sources ready to gush forth. I seized my pen with a passion not unlike an access of rage. I finished in four days two acts of a drama that I was then writing. I never had written anything more vigorous or more highly colored. My unconstrained genius throbbed in my arteries, ran through my blood, and bubbled over as if it wished to burst forth. My hand could not keep even with the course of my imagination; I was obliged to write in hieroglyphics.
"Adieu to the empty reveries brought about by spleen, and to the meditations 'a la Werther'! The sky was blue, the air pure, life delightful—my talent was not dead.
"After this first effort, I slackened a little! Madame de Bergenheim's face, which I had seen but dimly during this short time, returned to me in a less vaporous form; I took extreme delight in calling to mind the slightest circumstances of our meeting, the smallest details of her features, her toilette, her manner of walking and carrying her head. What had impressed me most was the extreme softness of her dark eyes, the almost childish tone of her voice, a vague odor of heliotrope with which her hair was perfumed; also the touch of her hand upon my arm. I sometimes caught myself embracing myself in order to feel this last sensation again, and then I could not help laughing at my thoughts, which were worthy of a fifteen-year-old lover.
"I had felt so convinced of my powerlessness to love, that the thought of a serious passion did not at first enter my mind. However, a remembrance of my beautiful traveller pervaded my thoughts more and more, and threatened to usurp the place of everything else. I then subjected myself to a rigid analysis; I sought for the exact location of this sentiment whose involuntary yoke I already felt; I persuaded myself, for some time yet, that it was only the transient excitement of my brain, one of those fevers of imagination whose fleeting titillations I had felt more than once.
"But I realized that the evil, or the good—for why call love an evil?—had penetrated into the most remote regions of my being, and I realized the energy of my struggle like a person entombed who tries to extricate himself. From the ashes of this volcano which I had believed to be extinct, a flower had suddenly blossomed, perfumed with the most fragrant of odors and decked with the most charming colors. Artless enthusiasm, faith in love, all the brilliant array of the fresh illusions of my youth returned, as if by enchantment, to greet this new bloom of my life; it seemed to me as if I had been created a second time, since I was aided by intelligence and understood its mysteries while tasting of its delights. My past, in the presence of this regeneration, was nothing more than a shadow at the bottom of an abyss. I turned toward the future with the faith of a Mussulman who kneels with his face toward the East—I loved!
"I returned to Paris, and applied to my friend Casorans, who knows the Faubourg Saint-Germain from Dan to Beersheba.
"'Madame de Bergenheim,' he said to me, 'is a very popular society woman, not very pretty, perhaps, rather clever, though, and very amiable. She is one of our coquettes of the old nobility, and with her twenty-four carats' virtue she always has two sufferers attached to her chariot, and a third on the waiting-list, and yet it is impossible for one to find a word to say against her behavior. Just at this moment, Mauleon and d'Arzenac compose the team; I do not know who is on the waiting-list. She will probably spend the winter here with her aunt, Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, one of the hatefullest old women on the Rue de Varennes. The husband is a good fellow who, since the July revolution, has lived upon his estates, caring for his forests and killing wild boars without troubling himself much about his wife.'
"He then told me which houses these ladies frequented, and left me, saying with a knowing air:
"'Take care, if you intend to try the power of your seductions upon the little Baroness; whoever meddles with her smarts for it!'
"This information from a viper like Casorans satisfied me in every way. Evidently the place was not taken; impregnable, that was another thing.
"Before Madame de Bergenheim's return, I began to show myself assiduously at the houses of which my friend had spoken. My position in the Faubourg Saint-Germain is peculiar, but good, according to my opinion. I have enough family ties to be sustained by several should I be attacked by many, and this is the essential point. It is true that, thanks to my works, I am regarded as an atheist and a Jacobin; aside from these two little defects, they think well enough of me. Besides, it is a notorious fact that I have rejected several offers from the present government, and refused last year the 'croix d'honneur'; this makes amends and washes away half my sins. Finally, I have the reputation of having a certain-knowledge of heraldry, which I owe to my uncle, a confirmed hunter after genealogical claims. This gains me a respect which makes me laugh sometimes, when I see people who detest me greet me as cordially as the Cure of Saint-Eustache greeted Bayle, for fear that I might destroy their favorite saint. However, in this society, I am no longer Gerfaut of the Porte-Saint-Martin, but I am the Vicomte de Gerfaut. Perhaps, with your bourgeois ideas, you do not understand—"
"Bourgeois!" exclaimed Marillac, bounding from his seat, "what are you talking about? Do you wish that we should cut each other's throats before breakfast to-morrow? Bourgeois! why not grocer? I am an artist—don't you know that by this time?"
"Don't get angry, my dear fellow; I meant to say that in certain places the title of a Vicomte has still a more powerful attraction than you, with your artistic but plebeian ideas, would suppose in this year of our Lord 1832."
"Well and good. I accept your apology."
"A vicomte's title is a recommendation in the eyes of people who still cling to the baubles of nobility, and all women are of this class. There is something, I know not what, delicate and knightly in this title, which suits a youngish bachelor. Duke above all titles is the one that sounds the best. Moliere and Regnard have done great harm to the title of marquis. Count is terribly bourgeois, thanks to the senators of the empire. As to a Baron, unless he is called Montmorency or Beaufremont, it is the lowest grade of nobility; vicomte, on the contrary, is above reproach; it exhales a mixed odor of the old regime and young France; then, don't you know, our Chateaubriand was a vicomte.
"I departed from my subject in speaking of nobility. I accidentally turned over one day to the article upon my family in the Dictionnaire de Saint-Allais; I found that one of my ancestors, Christophe de Gerfaut, married, in 1569, a Mademoiselle Yolande de Corandeuil.
"'O my ancestor! O my ancestress!' I exclaimed, 'you had strange baptismal names; but no matter, I thank you. You are going to serve me as a grappling iron; I shall be very unskilful if at the very first meeting the old aunt escapes Christophe.'
"A few days later I went to the Marquise de Chameillan's, one of the most exclusive houses in the noble Faubourg. When I enter her drawing-room, I usually cause the same sensation that Beelzebub would doubtless produce should he put his foot into one of the drawing-rooms in Paradise. That evening, when I was announced, I saw a certain undulation of heads in a group of young women who were whispering to one another; many curious eyes were fastened upon me, and among these beautiful eyes were two more beautiful than all the others: they were those of my bewitching traveller.
"I exchanged a rapid glance with her, one only; after paying my respects to the mistress of the house, I mingled with a crowd of men, and entered into conversation with an old peer upon some political question, avoiding to look again toward Madame de Bergenheim.
"A moment later, Madame de Chameillan came to ask the peer to play whist; he excused himself, he could not remain late.
"'I dare not ask you to play with Mademoiselle de Corandeuil,' said she, turning toward me; 'besides, I understand too well that it is to my interest and the pleasure of these ladies, not to exile you to a whist table.'
"I took the card which she half offered me with an eagerness which might have made her suppose that I had become a confirmed whist expert during my voyage.
"Mademoiselle de Corandeuil certainly was the ugly, crabbed creature that Casorans had described; but had she been as frightful as the witches in Macbeth I was determined to make her conquest. So I began playing with unusual attention. I was her partner, and I knew from experience the profound horror which the loss of money inspires in old women. Thank heaven, we won! Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, who has an income of one hundred thousand francs, was not at all indifferent to the gain of two or three louis. She, therefore, with an almost gracious air, congratulated me, as we left the table, upon my manner of playing.
"'I would willingly contract an alliance, offensive and defensive with you,' said she to me.
"'The alliance is already contracted, Mademoiselle,' said I, seizing the opportunity.
"'How is that, Monsieur?' she replied, raising her head with a dignified air, as if she were getting ready to rebuke some impertinent speech.
"I also gravely straightened up and gave a feudal look to my face.
"'Mademoiselle, I have the honor of belonging to your family, a little distantly, to be sure; that is what makes me speak of an alliance between us as a thing already concluded. One of my ancestors, Christophe de Gerfaut, married Mademoiselle Yolande de Corandeuil, one of your great-grand-aunts, in 1569.'
"'Yolande is really a family name,' replied the old lady, with the most affable smile that her face would admit; 'I bear it myself. The Corandeuils, Monsieur, never have denied their alliances, and it is a pleasure for me to recognize my relationship with such a man as you. We address by the title of cousin relatives as far back as 1300.'
"'I am nearer related to you by three centuries,' I replied, in my most insinuating voice; 'may I hope that this good fortune will authorize me to pay my respects to you?'
"Mademoiselle de Corandeuil replied to my 'tartuferie' by granting me permission to call upon her. My attention was not so much absorbed in our conversation that I did not see in a mirror, during this time, the interest with which Madame de Bergenheim watched my conversation with her aunt; but I was careful not to turn around, and I let her take her departure without giving her a second glance.
"Three days later, I made my first call. Madame de Bergenheim received my greeting like a woman who had been warned and was, therefore, prepared. We exchanged only one rapid, earnest glance, that was all. Availing myself of the presence of other callers, numerous enough to assure each one his liberty, I began to observe, with a practised eye, the field whereon I had just taken my position.
"Before the end of the evening, I recognized the correctness of Casorans's information. Among all the gentlemen present I found only two professed admirers: Monsieur de Mauleon, whose insignificance was notorious, and Monsieur d'Arzenac, who appeared at first glance as if he might be more to be feared. D'Arzenac, thanks to an income of ten thousand livres, beside being a man of rank, occupies also one of the finest positions that one could desire; he is not unworthy of his name and his fortune. Irreproachable in morals as in manners; sufficiently well informed; of an exquisite but reserved politeness; understanding perfectly the ground that he is walking upon; making also more advances than is customary among the pachas of modern France, he was, without doubt, the flower of the flock in Mademoiselle de Corandeuil's drawing-room. In spite of all these advantages, an attentive examination showed me that his passion was hopeless. Madame de Bergenheim received his attentions very kindly—too kindly. She usually listened to him with a smile in which one could read gratitude for the devotion he lavished upon her. She willingly accepted him as her favorite partner in the galop, which he danced to perfection. His success stopped there.
"At the end of several days, the ground having been carefully explored and the admirers, dangerous and otherwise, having been passed in review, one after another, I felt convinced that Clemence loved nobody.
"'She shall love me,' said I, on the day I reached this conclusion. In order to formulate in a decisive manner the accomplishment of my desire, I relied upon the following propositions, which are to me articles of faith.
"No woman is unattainable, except when she loves another. Thus, a woman who does not love, and who has resisted nine admirers, will yield to the tenth. The only question for me was to be the tenth. Here began the problem to be solved.
"Madame de Bergenheim had been married only three years; her husband, who was good-looking and young, passed for a model husband; if these latter considerations were of little importance, the first was of great weight. According to all probability, it was too soon for any serious attack. Without being beautiful, she pleased much and many; a second obstacle, since sensibility in women is almost always developed in inverse ratio to their success. She had brains; she was wonderfully aristocratic in all her tastes.
"Last, being very much the fashion, sought after and envied, she was under the special surveillance of pious persons, old maids, retired beauties in one word, all that feminine mounted police, whose eyes, ears, and mouths seem to have assumed the express mission of annoying sensitive hearts while watching over the preservation of good morals.
"This mass of difficulties, none of which escaped me, traced as many lines upon my forehead as if I had been commanded to solve at once all the propositions in Euclid. She shall love me! these words flashed unceasingly before my eyes; but the means to attain this end? No satisfactory plan came to me. Women are so capricious, deep, and unfathomable! It is, with them, the thing soonest done which is soonest ended! A false step, the least awkwardness, a want of intelligence, a quarter of an hour too soon or too late! One thing only was evident: it needed a grand display of attractions, a complete plan of gallant strategy; but, then, what more?
"That earthly paradise of the Montanvert was far from us, where I had been able in less time than it would take to walk over a quadrille, to expose her to death, to save her afterward, and finally to say to her 'I love you!' Passion in drawing-rooms is not allowed those free, dramatic ways; flowers fade in the candle-light; the oppressive atmosphere of balls and fetes stifles the heart, so ready to dilate in pure mountain air. The unexpected and irresistible influence of the glacier would have been improper and foolish in Paris. There, an artless sympathy, stronger than social conventions, had drawn us to each other—Octave and Clemence. Here, she was the Baroness de Bergenheim, and I the Vicomte de Gerfaut. I must from necessity enter the ordinary route, begin the romance at the first page, without knowing how to connect the prologue with it.
"What should be my plan of campaign?
"Should I pose as an agreeable man, and try to captivate her attention and good graces by the minute attentions and delicate flattery which constitute what is classically called paying court? But D'Arzenac had seized this role, and filled it in such a superior way that all competition would be unsuccessful. I saw where this had led him. It needed, in order to inflame this heart, a more active spark than foppish gallantry; the latter flatters the vanity without reaching the heart.
"There was the passionate method—ardent, burning, fierce love. There are some women upon whom convulsive sighs drawn from the depths of the stomach, eyebrows frowning in a fantastic manner, and eyes in which only the whites are to be seen and which seem to say: 'Love me, or I will kill you!' produce a prodigious effect. I had myself felt the power of this fascination while using it one day upon a softhearted blond creature who thought it delightful to have a Blue-Beard for a lover. But the drooping corners of Clemence's mouth showed at times an ironical expression which would have cooled down even an Othello's outbursts.
"'She has brains, and she knows it,' said I to myself; 'shall I attack her in that direction?' Women rather like such a little war of words; it gives them an opportunity for displaying a mine of pretty expressions, piquant pouts, fresh bursts of laughter, graceful peculiarities of which they well know the effect. Should I be the Benedict to this Beatrice? But this by-play would hardly fill the prologue, and I very much wished to reach the epilogue.
"I passed in review the different routes that a lover might take to reach his end; I recapitulated every one of the more or less infallible methods of conquering female hearts; in a word, I went over my tactics like a lieutenant about to drill a battalion of recruits. When I had ended I had made no farther advance than before.
"'To the devil with systems!' exclaimed I; 'I will not be so foolish as wilfully to adopt the role of roue when I feel called upon to play the plain role of true lover. Let those who like play the part of Lovelace! As for myself, I will love; upon the whole, that is what pleases best.' And I jumped headlong into the torrent without troubling myself as to the place of landing.
"While I was thus scheming my attack, Madame de Bergenheim was upon her guard and had prepared her means of defence. Puzzled by my reserve, which was in singular contrast with my almost extravagant conduct at our first meeting, her woman's intelligence had surmised, on my part, a plan which she proposed to baffle. I was partly found out, but I knew it and thus kept the advantage.
"I could not help smiling at the Baroness's clever coquetry, when I decided to follow the inspirations of my heart, instead of choosing selfish motives as my guide. Every time I took her hand when dancing with her, I expected to feel a little claw ready to pierce the cold glove. But, while waiting for the scratch, it was a very soft, velvety little hand that was given me; and I, who willingly lent myself to her deception, did not feel very much duped. It was evident that the sort of halo which my merited or unmerited reputation had thrown over me had made me appear to her as a conquest of some value, a victim upon whom one could lavish just enough flowers in order to bring him to the sacrificial altar. In order to wind the first chain around my neck, Mauleon and D'Arzenac, 'a tutti quanti', were sacrificed for me without my soliciting, even by a glance, this general disbandment. I could interpret this discharge. I saw that the fair one wished to concentrate all her seductions against me, so as to leave me no means of escape; people neglect the hares to hunt for the deer. You must excuse my conceit.
"This conduct wounded me at first, but I afterward forgave her, when a more careful examination taught me to know this adorable woman's character. Coquetry was with her not a vice of the heart or of an unscrupulous mind; having nothing better to do, she enjoyed it as a legitimate pastime, without giving it any importance or feeling any scruples. Like all women, she liked to please; her success was sweet to her vanity; perhaps flattery turned her head at times, but in the midst of this tumult her heart remained in perfect peace. She found so little danger for herself in the game she played that it did not seem to her that it could be very serious for others. Genuine love is not common enough in Parisian parlors for a pretty woman to conceive any great remorse at pleasing without loving.
"Madame de Bergenheim was thus, ingenuously, unsuspectingly, a matchless coquette. Never having loved, not even her husband, she looked upon her little intriguing as one of the rights earned on the day of her marriage, the same as her diamonds and cashmeres. There was something touching in the sound of her voice and in her large, innocent eyes which she sometimes allowed to rest upon mine, without thinking to turn them away, and which said, 'I have never loved.' As for myself, I believed it all; one is so happy to believe!
"Far from being annoyed at the trap she laid for me, I, on the contrary, ran my head into it and presented my neck to the yoke with a docility which must have amused her, I think; but I hoped not to bear it alone. A coquette who coolly flaunts her triumphs to the world resembles those master-swimmers who, while spectators are admiring the grace of their poses, are struck by an unexpected current; the performer is sometimes swept away and drowned without his elegant strokes being of much service to him. Throw Celimene into the current of genuine passion—I do not mean the brutality of Alceste—I will wager that coquetry will be swept away by love. I had such faith in mine that I thought to be able to fix the moment when I should call myself victorious and sure of being obeyed.
"You know that sadness and ennui were considered etiquette last winter, in a certain society, which was thrown into mourning by the July revolution. Reunions were very few; there were no balls or soirees; dancing in drawing-rooms to the piano was hardly permissible, even with intimate friends. When once I was installed in Mademoiselle de Corandeuil's drawing-room upon a friendly footing, this cessation of worldly festivities gave me an opportunity to see Clemence in a rather intimate way.
"It would take too long to tell you now all the thousand and one little incidents which compose the history of all passions. Profiting by her coquetry, which made her receive me kindly in order to make me expiate my success afterward, my love for her was soon an understood thing between us; she listened to me in a mocking way, but did not dispute my right to speak. She ended by receiving my letters, after being constrained to do so through a course of strategies in which, truly, I showed incredible invention. I was listened to and she read my letters; I asked for nothing more.
"My love, from the first, had been her secret as well as mine; but every day I made to sparkle some unexpected facet of this prism of a thousand colors. Even after telling her a hundred times how much I adored her, my love still had for her the attraction of the unknown. I really had something inexhaustible in my heart, and I was sure, in the end, to intoxicate her with this philtre, which I constantly poured out and which she drank, while making sport of it like a child.
"One day I found her thoughtful and silent. She did not reply to me with her usual sprightliness during the few moments that I was able to talk with her; the expression of her eyes had changed; there was something deeper and less glowing in their depths; instead of dazzling me by their excessive splendor, as had often happened to me before, they seemed to soften as they rested on mine; she kept her eyelids a trifle lowered, as if she were tired of being gazed at by me. Her voice, as she spoke, had a low, soft sound, a sort of inexplicable something which came from the very depths of her soul. She never had looked at me with that glance or spoken to me in that tone before. Upon that day I knew that she loved me.
"I returned to my home unutterably happy, for I loved this woman with a love of which I believed myself incapable.
"When I met Madame de Bergenheim again, I found her completely changed toward me; an icy gravity, an impassible calm, an ironical and disdainful haughtiness had taken the place of the delicious abandon of her former bearing. In spite of my strong determination to allow myself to love with the utmost candor, it was impossible for me to return to that happy age when the frowning brows of the beautiful idol to whom we paid court inspired us with the resolve to drown ourselves. I could not isolate myself from my past experiences. My heart was rejuvenated, but my head remained old. I was, therefore, not in the least discouraged by this change of humor, and the fit of anger which it portended.
"'Now,' said I to myself, 'there is an end to coquetry, it is beaten on all sides; it is gone, never to return. She has seen that the affair is a little too deep for that, and the field not tenable. She will erect barriers in order to defend herself and will no longer attack.' Thus we pass from the period of amiable smiles, sweet glances, and half-avowals to that of severity and prudery, while waiting for the remorse and despair of the denouement. I am sure that at this time she called to her help all her powers of resistance. From that day she would retreat behind the line of duty, conjugal fidelity, honor, and all the other fine sentiments which would need numbering after the fashion of Homer. At the first attack, all this household battalion would make a furious sortie; should I succeed in overthrowing them and take up my quarters in the trenches, there would then be a gathering of the reserve force, and boiling oil or tar would rain upon my head, representing virtue, religion, heaven, and hell."
"A sort of conjugal earthquake," interrupted Marillac.
"I calculated the strength and approximate duration of these means of defence. The whole thing appeared to me only a question of time, a few days or weeks at most—so long on the husband's account, so long on the father confessor's account. I deserved to be boxed on the ears for my presumption; I was.
"A combat is necessary in order to secure a victory. In spite of all my efforts and ruses, it was not possible for me to fight this combat; I did not succeed, in spite of all my challenges, in shattering, as I expected, this virtuous conjugal fortress. Madame de Bergenheim still persisted in her systematic reserve, with incredible prudence and skill. During the remainder of the winter, I did not find more than one opportunity of speaking to her alone. As I was a permanent fixture every evening in her aunt's parlors, she entered them only when other guests were there. She never went out alone, and in every place where I was likely to meet her I was sure to find a triple rampart of women erected between us, through which it was impossible to address one word to her. In short, I was encountering a desperate resistance; and, yet, she loved me! I could see her cheeks gradually grow pale; her brilliant eyes often had dark rings beneath them, as if sleep had deserted her. Sometimes, when she thought she was not observed, I surprised them fastened upon me; but she immediately turned them away.
"She had been coquettish and indifferent; she was now loving but virtuous.
"Spring came. One afternoon I went to call upon Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, who had been ill for several days. I was received, however, probably through some mistake of the servants. As I entered the room I saw Madame de Bergenheim; she was alone at her embroidery, seated upon a divan. There were several vases of flowers in the windows, whose curtains only permitted a soft, mysterious light to penetrate the room. The perfume from the flowers, the sort of obscurity, the solitude in which I found her, overcame me for a moment; I was obliged to pause in order to quiet the beating of my heart.