CHAPTER VIII. A LOVER'S RUSE
It was three o'clock in the afternoon; the drawing-room of the Chateau de Bergenheim presented its usual aspect and occupants. The fire on the hearth, lighted during the morning, was slowly dying, and a beautiful autumn sun threw its rays upon the floor through the half-opened windows. Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, stretched on the couch before the fireplace with Constance at her feet, was reading, according to her habit, the newspapers which had just arrived. Madame de Bergenheim seemed very busily occupied with a piece of tapestry in her lap; but the slow manner in which her needle moved, and the singular mistakes she made, showed that her mind was far away from the flowers she was working. She had just finished a beautiful dark lily, which contrasted strangely with its neighbors, when a servant entered.
"Madame," said he, "there is a person here inquiring for Monsieur le Baron de Bergenheim."
"Is Monsieur de Bergenheim not at home?" asked Mademoiselle de Corandeuil.
"Monsieur has gone to ride with Mademoiselle Aline."
"Who is this person?"
"It is a gentleman; but I did not ask his name."
"Let him enter."
Clemence arose at the servant's first words and threw her work upon a chair, making a movement as if to leave the room; but after a moment's reflection, she resumed her seat and her work, apparently indifferent as to who might enter.
"Monsieur de Marillac," announced the lackey, as he opened the door a second time.
Madame de Bergenheim darted a rapid glance at the individual who presented himself, and then breathed freely again.
After setting to rights his coiffure 'a la Perinet', the artist entered the room, throwing back his shoulders. Tightly buttoned up in his travelling redingote, and balancing with ease a small gray hat, he bowed respectfully to the two ladies and then assumed a pose a la Van Dyke.
Constance was so frightened at the sight of this imposing figure that, instead of jumping at the newcomer's legs, as was her custom, she sheltered herself under her mistress's chair, uttering low growls; at first glance the latter shared, if not the terror, at least the aversion of her dog. Among her numerous antipathies, Mademoiselle de Corandeuil detested a beard. This was a common sentiment with all old ladies, who barely tolerated moustaches: "Gentlemen did not wear them in 1780," they would say.
Marillac's eyes turned involuntarily toward the portraits, and other picturesque details of a room which was worthy the attention of a connoisseur; but he felt that the moment was not opportune for indulging in artistic contemplation, and that he must leave the dead for the living.
"Ladies," said he, "I ought, first of all, to ask your pardon for thus intruding without having had the honor of an introduction. I hoped to find here Monsieur de Bergenheim, with whom I am on very intimate terms. I was told that he was at the chateau."
"My husband's friends do not need to be presented at his house," said Clemence; "Monsieur de Bergenheim probably will return soon." And with a gracious gesture she motioned the visitor to a seat.
"Your name is not unknown to me," said Mademoiselle de Corandeuil in her turn, having succeeded in calming Constance's agitation. "I remember having heard Monsieur de Bergenheim mention you often."
"We were at college together, although I am a few years younger than Christian."
"But," exclaimed Madame de Bergenheim, struck by some sudden thought, "there is more than a college friendship between you. Are you not, Monsieur, the person who saved my husband's life in 1830?"
Marillac smiled, bowed his head, and seated himself. Mademoiselle de Corandeuil herself could not but graciously greet her nephew's preserver, had he had a moustache as long as that of the Shah of Persia, who ties his in a bow behind his neck.
After the exchange of a few compliments, Madame de Bergenheim, with the amiability of a mistress of the house who seeks subjects of conversation that may show off to best advantage the persons she receives, continued:
"My husband does not like to talk of himself, and never has told us the details of this adventure, in which he ran such great danger. Will you be kind enough to gratify our curiosity on this point?"
Marillac, among his other pretensions, had that of being able to relate a story in an impressive manner. These words were as pleasing to his ears as the request for a song is to a lady who requires urging, although she is dying to sing.
"Ladies," said he, crossing one leg over the other and leaning upon one arm of his chair, "it was on the twenty-eighth of July, 1830; the disastrous decrees had produced their effects; the volcano which—"
"Pardon me, Monsieur, if I interrupt you," said Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, quickly; "according to my opinion, and that of many others, the royal decrees you speak of were good and necessary. The only mistake of Charles Tenth was not to have fifty thousand men around Paris to force their acceptance. I am only a woman, Monsieur, but if I had had under my command twenty cannon upon the quays, and as many upon the boulevards, I assure you that your tricolored flag never should have floated over the Tuileries."
"Pitt and Cobourg!" said the artist between his teeth, as, with an astonished air, he gazed at the old lady; but his common-sense told him that republicanism was not acceptable within this castle. Besides, remembering the mission with which he was charged, he did not think his conscience would feel much hurt if he made a little concession of principles and manoeuvred diplomatically.
"Madame," replied he, "I call the decrees disastrous when I think of their result. You will certainly admit that our situation to-day ought to make everybody regret the causes which brought it about."
"We are exactly of the same opinion regarding that point, Monsieur," said Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, resuming her serenity.
"The open volcano beneath our feet," continued Marillac, who still stuck to his point, "warned us by deep rumblings of the hot lava which was about to gush forth. The excitement of the people was intense. Several engagements with the soldiers had already taken place at different points. I stood on the Boulevard Poissonniere, where I had just taken my luncheon, and was gazing with an artist's eye upon the dramatic scene spread out before me. Men with bare arms and women panting with excitement were tearing up the pavements or felling trees. An omnibus had just been upset; the rioters added cabriolets, furniture, and casks to it; everything became means of defence. The crashing of the trees as they fell, the blows of crowbars on the stones, the confused roaring of thousands of voices, the Marseillaise sung in chorus, and the irregular cannonading which resounded from the direction of the Rue Saint-Denis, all composed a strident, stupefying, tempestuous harmony, beside which Beethoven's Tempest would have seemed like the buzzing of a bee.
"I was listening to the roaring of the people, who were gnawing at their chains before breaking them, when my eyes happened to fall upon a window of a second-floor apartment opposite me. A man about sixty years of age, with gray hair, a fresh, plump face, an honest, placid countenance, and wearing a mouse-colored silk dressing-gown, was seated before a small, round table. The window opened to the floor, and I could see him in this frame like a full-length portrait. There was a bowl of coffee upon the table, in which he dipped his roll as he read his journal. I beg your pardon, ladies, for entering into these petty details, but the habit of writing—"
"I assure you, Monsieur, your story interests me very much," said Madame de Bergenheim, kindly.
"A King Charles spaniel, like yours, Mademoiselle, was standing near the window with his paws resting upon it; he was gazing with curiosity at the revolution of July, while his master was reading his paper and sipping his coffee, as indifferent to all that passed as if he had been in Pekin or New York.
"'Oh, the calm of a pure, sincere soul!' I exclaimed to myself, at the sight of this little tableau worthy of Greuze; 'oh, patriarchal philosophy! in a few minutes perhaps blood will flow in the streets, and here sits a handsome old man quietly sipping his coffee.' He seemed like a lamb browsing upon a volcano."
Marillac loved volcanoes, and never lost an opportunity to bring one in at every possible opportunity.
"Suddenly a commotion ran through the crowd; the people rushed in every direction, and in an instant the boulevard was empty. Plumes waving from high caps, red-and-white flags floating from the ends of long lances, and the cavalcade that I saw approaching through the trees told me the cause of this panic. A squadron of lancers was charging. Have you ever seen a charge of lancers?"
"Never!" said both of the ladies at once.
"It is a very grand sight, I assure you. Fancy, ladies, a legion of demons galloping along upon their horses, thrusting to the right and left with long pikes, whose steel points are eighteen inches long. That is a charge of lancers. I beg you to believe that I had shown before this the mettle there was in me, but I will not conceal from you that at this moment I shared with the crowd the impression which the coming of these gentlemen made. I had only time to jump over the sidewalk and to dart up a staircase which ran on the outside of a house, every door being closed. I never shall forget the face of one of those men who thrust the point of a lance at me, long enough to pierce through six men at once. I admit that I felt excited then! The jinn having passed—"
"The—what?" asked Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, who was not familiar with Eastern terms.
"I beg a thousand pardons, it was a poetical reminiscence. The lancers, having rushed through the boulevard like an avalanche, a laggard rider, a hundred steps behind the others, galloped proudly by, erect in his stirrups and flourishing his sword. Suddenly the report of a gun resounded, the lancer reeled backward, then forward, and finally fell upon his horse's neck; a moment later he turned in his saddle and lay stretched upon the ground, his foot caught in the stirrup; the horse, still galloping, dragged the man and the lance, which was fastened to his arm by a leather band."
"How horrible!" said Clemence, clasping her hands.
Marillac, much pleased with the effect of his narration, leaned back in his chair and continued his tale with his usual assurance.
"I looked to the neighboring roofs to discover whence came this shot; as I was glancing to the right and left I saw smoke issuing through the blinds of the room on the second floor, which had been closed at the approach of the lancers.
"'Good God!' I exclaimed; 'it must be this handsome old man in the mouse-colored silk dressing-gown who amuses himself by firing upon the lancers, as if they were rabbits in a warren!'
"Just then the blinds were opened, and the strange fellow with the unruffled countenance leaned out and gazed with a smiling face in the direction the horse was taking, dragging his master's body after him. The patriarch had killed his man between two sips of his coffee."
"And that is the cowardly way in which members of the royal guard were assassinated by the 'heroes' of your glorious insurrection!" exclaimed Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, indignantly.
"When the troops had passed," Marillac continued, "the crowd returned, more excited and noisy than ever. Barricades were erected with wonderful rapidity; two of those were on the boulevard close to the place where I was. I saw a horseman suddenly bound over the first; he wore a tuft of red-and-white feathers in his hat. I saw that it was a staff officer, doubtless carrying some despatch to headquarters. He continued his way, sabre in its sheath, head erect, proud and calm in the midst of insulting shouts from the crowd; stones were thrown at him and sticks at his horse's legs; he looked as if he were parading upon the Place du Carrousel.
"When he reached the second barricade, he drew his horse up, as if it were merely a question of jumping a hurdle in a steeplechase just then I saw the window on the first floor open again. 'Ah! you old rascal!' I exclaimed. The report of a gun drowned my voice; the horse which had just made the leap, fell on his knees; the horseman tried to pull him up, but after making one effort the animal fell over upon his side. The ball had gone through the steed's head."
"It was that poor Fidele that I gave your husband," said Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, who was always very sentimental in the choice of names she gave to animals.
"He merited his name, Mademoiselle, for the poor beast died for his master, for whom the shot was in tended. Several of those horrible faces, which upon riot days suddenly appear as if they came out of the ground, darted toward the unhorsed officer. I, and several other young men who were as little disposed as myself to allow a defenceless man to be slaughtered, ran toward him. I recognized Christian as I approached; his right leg was caught under the horse, and he was trying to unsheath his sword with his left hand. Sticks and stones were showered at him. I drew out the sword, which his position prevented him from doing, and exclaimed as I waved it in the air: 'The first rascal who advances, I will cut open like a dog.'
"I accompanied these words with a flourish which kept the cannibals at a distance for the time being.
"The young fellows who were with me followed my example. One took a pickaxe, another seized the branch of a tree, while others tried to release Christian from his horse. During this time the crowd increased around us; the shouts redoubled: 'Down with the ordinances! These are disguised gendarmes! Vive la liberte!—We must kill them! Let's hang the spies to the lamp-posts!'
"Danger was imminent, and I realized that only a patriotic harangue would get us out of the scrape. While they were releasing Christian, I jumped upon Fidele so as to be seen by all and shouted:
"'Vive la liberte!'
"'Vive la liberte!' replied the crowd.
"'Down with Charles Tenth! Down with the ministers! Down with the ordinances!'
"'Down!' shouted a thousand voices at once.
"You understand, ladies, this was a sort of bait, intended to close the mouths of these brutes.
"'We are all citizens, we are all Frenchmen,' I continued; 'we must not soil our hands with the blood of one of our disarmed brothers. After a victory there are no enemies. This officer was doing his duty in fulfilling his chief's commands; let us do ours by dying, if necessary, for our country and the preservation of our rights.'
"'Vive la liberte! vive la liberte!' shouted the crowd. 'He is right; the officer was doing his duty. It would be assassination!' exclaimed numerous voices.
"'Thanks, Marillac,' said Bergenheim to me, as I took his hand to lead him away, availing ourselves of the effect of my harangue; 'but do not press me so hard, for I really believe that my right arm is broken; only for that, I should ask you to return me my sword that I might show this rabble that they can not kill a Bergenheim as they would a chicken.'
"'Let him cry: Vive la Charte!' roared out a man, with a ferocious face.
"'I receive orders from nobody,' Christian replied, in a very loud voice, as he glared at him with eyes which would have put a rhinoceros to flight."
"Your husband is really a very brave man," said Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, addressing Clemence.
"Brave as an old warrior. This time he pushed his courage to the verge of imprudence; I do not know what the result might have been if the crowd had not been dispersed a second time by the approach of the lancers, who were returning through the boulevard. I led Bergenheim into a cafe; fortunately, his arm was only sprained." Just at this moment Marillac's story was interrupted by a sound of voices and hurried steps. The door opened suddenly, and Aline burst into the room with her usual impetuosity.
"What has happened to you, Aline?" exclaimed Madame de Bergenheim, hurrying to her sister's side. The young girl's riding-habit and hat were covered with splashes of mud.
"Oh, nothing," replied the young girl, in a broken voice; "it was only Titania, who wanted to throw me into the river. Do you know where Rousselet is? They say it is necessary to bleed him; and he is the only one who knows how to do it."
"Whom do you mean, child? Is my husband wounded?" asked Clemence, turning pale.
"No, not Christian; it is a gentleman I do not know; only for him I should have been drowned. Mon Dieu! can not Rousselet be found?"
Aline left the room in great agitation. They all went over to the windows that opened out into the court, whence the sound of voices seemed to arise, and where they could hear the master's voice thundering out his commands. Several servants had gone to his assistance: one of them held Titania by the bridle; she was covered with foam and mud, and was trembling, with distended nostrils, like a beast that knows it has just committed a wicked action. A young man was seated upon a stone bench, wiping away blood which streamed from his forehead. It was Monsieur de Gerfaut.
At this sight Clemence supported herself against the framework of the window, and Marillac hurriedly left the room.
Pere Rousselet, who had at last been found in the kitchen, advanced majestically, eating an enormous slice of bread and butter.
"Good heavens! have you arrived at last?" exclaimed Bergenheim. "Here is a gentleman this crazy mare has thrown against a tree, and who has received a violent blow on the head. Do you not think it would be the proper thing to bleed him?"
"A slight phlebotomy might be very advantageous in stopping the extravasation of blood in the frontal region," replied the peasant, calling to his aid all the technical terms he had learned when he was a hospital nurse.
"Are you sure you can do this bleeding well?"
"I'll take the liberty of saying to Monsieur le Baron that I phlebotomized Perdreau last week and Mascareau only a month ago, without any complaint from them."
"Indeed! I believe you," sneered the groom, "both are on their last legs."
"I am neither Perdreau nor Mascareau," observed the wounded man with a smile.
Rousselet drew himself up at full height, with the dignity of a man of talent who scorns to reply to either criticism or mistrust.
"Monsieur," said Gerfaut, turning to the Baron, "I am really causing you too much trouble. This trifle does not merit the attention you give it. I do not suffer in the least. Some water and a napkin are all that I need. I fancy that I resemble an Iroquois Indian who has just been scalped; my pride is really what is most hurt," he added, with a smile, "when I think of the grotesque sight I must present to the ladies whom I notice at the window."
"Why, it is Monsieur de Gerfaut!" exclaimed Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, toward whom he raised his eyes.
Octave bowed to her with a gracious air. His glance wandered from the old lady to Clemence, who did not seem to have the strength to leave the window. M. de Bergenheim, after hurriedly greeting Marillac, finally yielded to the assurance that a surgeon was unnecessary, and conducted the two friends to his own room, where the wounded man could find everything that he needed.
"What the devil was the use in sending me as ambassador, since you were to make such a fine entrance upon the stage?" murmured Marillac in his friend's ear.
"Silence!" replied the latter as he pressed his hand; "I am only behind the scenes as yet."
During this time Clemence and her aunt had led Aline to her room.
"Now, tell us what all this means?" said Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, while the young girl was changing her dress.
"It was Christian's fault," replied Aline. "We were galloping along beside the river when Titania became frightened by the branch of a tree. 'Do not be afraid!' exclaimed my brother. I was not in the least frightened; but when he saw that my horse was about to run away, he urged his on in order to join me. When Titania heard the galloping behind her she did run away in earnest; she left the road and started straight for the river. Then I began to be a little frightened. Just fancy, Clemence, I bounded in the saddle at each leap, sometimes upon the mare's neck, sometimes upon the crupper; it was terrible! I tried to withdraw my foot from the stirrup as Christian had told me to do; but just then Titania ran against the trunk of a tree, and I rolled over with her. A gentleman, whom I had not seen before, and who, I believe, actually jumped out of the ground, raised me from the saddle, where I was held by something, I do not know what; then that naughty Titania threw him against the tree as he was helping me to my feet, and when I was able to look at him his face was covered with blood. Christian rushed on the scene, and, when he saw that I was not badly hurt, he ran after Titania and beat her! Oh! how he beat her! Mon Dieu! how cruel men are! It was in vain for me to cry for mercy; he would not listen to me. Then we came home, and, since this gentleman is not badly wounded, it seems that my poor dress has fared worst of all."
The young girl took her riding-habit from the chair as she said these words, and could not restrain a cry of horror when she saw an enormous rent in it.
"Mon Dieu!" she exclaimed, as she showed it to her sister-in-law. It was all that she had strength to articulate.
Mademoiselle de Corandeuil took the skirt in her turn, and looked at it with the practised eye of a person who had made a special study of little disasters of the toilet and the ways of remedying them.
"It is in the fullness," said she, "and by putting in a new breadth it will never be seen."
Aline, once convinced that the evil could be repaired, soon recovered her serenity.
When the three ladies entered the drawing-room they found the Baron and his two guests chatting amicably. Gerfaut had his forehead tied up with a black silk band which gave him a slight resemblance to Cupid with his bandage just off his eyes. His sparkling glance showed that blindness was not what there was in common between him and the charming little god. After the first greetings, Mademoiselle de Corandeuil, who was always strict as to etiquette, and who thought that Titania had been a rather unceremonious master of ceremonies between her nephew and M. de Gerfaut, advanced toward the latter in order to introduce them formally to each other.
"I do not think," said she, "that Monsieur de Bergenheim has had the honor of meeting you before today; allow me then to present you to him. Baron, this is Monsieur le Vicomte de Gerfaut, one of my relatives."
When Mademoiselle de Corandeuil was in good humor, she treated Gerfaut as a relative on account of their family alliance of 1569. At this moment the poet felt profoundly grateful for this kindness.
"Monsieur has presented himself so well," said Christian frankly, "that your recommendation, my dear aunt, in spite of the respect I have for it, will not add to my gratitude. Only for Monsieur de Gerfaut, here is a madcap little girl whom we should be obliged to look for now at the bottom of the river."
As he said these words, he passed his arm about his sister's waist and kissed her tenderly, while Aline was obliged to stand upon the tips of her toes to reach her brother's lips.
"These gentlemen," he continued, "have agreed to sacrifice for us the pleasure of the Femme-sans-Tete, as well as Mademoiselle Gobillot's civilities, and establish their headquarters in my house. They can pursue their picturesque and romantic studies from here just as well; I suppose, Marillac, that you are still a determined dauber of canvas?"
"To tell the truth," replied the poet, "art absorbs me a great deal."
"As to myself, I never succeeded in drawing a nose that did not resemble an ear and vice versa. But for that worthy Baringnier, who was kind enough to look over my plans, I ran a great risk of leaving Saint Cyr without a graduating diploma. But seriously, gentlemen, when you are tired of sketching trees and tumbledown houses, I can give you some good boar hunting. Are you a hunter, Monsieur de Gerfaut?"
"I like hunting very much," replied the lover, with rare effrontery.
The conversation continued thus upon the topics that occupy people who meet for the first time. When the Baron spoke of the two friends installing themselves at the chateau, Octave darted a glance at Madame de Bergenheim, as if soliciting a tacit approbation of his conduct; but met with no response. Clemence, with a gloomy, sombre air fulfilled the duties that politeness imposed upon her as mistress of the house. Her conduct did not change during the rest of the evening, and Gerfaut no longer tried by a single glance to soften the severity she seemed determined to adopt toward him. All his attentions were reserved for Mademoiselle de Corandeuil and Aline, who listened with unconcealed pleasure to the man whom she regarded as her saviour; for the young girl's remembrance of the danger which she had run excited her more and more.
After supper Mademoiselle de Corandeuil proposed a game of whist to M. de Gerfaut, whose talent for the game had made a lasting impression upon her. The poet accepted this diversion with an enthusiasm equal to that he had shown for hunting, and quite as sincere too. Christian and his sister—a little gamester in embryo, like all of her family—completed the party, while Clemence took up her work and listened with an absentminded air to Marillac's conversation. It was in vain for the latter to call art and the Middle Ages to his aid, using the very quintessence of his brightest speeches—success did not attend his effort. After the end of an hour, he had a firm conviction that Madame de Bergenheim was, everything considered, only a woman of ordinary intelligence and entirely unworthy of the passion she had inspired in his friend.
"Upon my soul," he thought, "I would a hundred times rather have Reine Gobillot for a sweetheart. I must take a trip in that direction tomorrow."
When they separated for the night, Gerfaut, bored by his evening and wounded by his reception from Clemence, which, he thought, surpassed anything he could have expected of her capricious disposition, addressed to the young woman a profound bow and a look which said:
"I am here in spite of you; I shall stay here in spite of you; you shall love me in spite of yourself."
Madame de Bergenheim replied by a glance none the less expressive, in which a lover the most prone to conceit could read:
"Do as you like; I have as much indifference for your love as disdain for your presumption."
This was the last shot in this preliminary skirmish.
CHAPTER IX. GERFAUT, THE WIZARD
There are some women who, like the heroic Cure Merino, need but one hour's sleep. A nervous, irritable, subtle organization gives them a power for waking, without apparent fatigue, refused to most men. And yet, when a strong emotion causes its corrosive waters to filtrate into the veins of these impressionable beings, it trickles there drop by drop, until it has hollowed out in the very depths of their hearts a lake full of trouble and storms. Then, in the silence of night and the calm of solitude, insomnia makes the rosy cheeks grow pale and dark rings encircle the most sparkling eyes. It is in vain for the burning forehead to seek the cool pillow; the pillow grows warm without the forehead cooling. In vain the mind hunts for commonplace ideas, as a sort of intellectual poppy-leaves that may lead to a quiet night's rest; a persistent thought still returns, chasing away all others, as an eagle disperses a flock of timid birds in order to remain sole master of its prey. If one tries to repeat the accustomed prayer, and invoke the aid of the Virgin, or the good angel who watches at the foot of young girls' beds, in order to keep away the charms of the tempter, the prayer is only on the lips, the Virgin is deaf, the angel sleeps! The breath of passion against which one struggles runs through every fibre of the heart, like a storm over the chords of an Tolian harp, and extorts from it those magic melodies to which a poor, troubled, and frightened woman listens with remorse and despair; but to which she listens, and with which at last she is intoxicated, for the allegory of Eve is an immortal myth, that repeats itself, through every century and in every clime.
Since her entrance into society, Madame de Bergenheim had formed the habit of keeping late hours. When the minute details of her toilette for the night were over, and she had confided her beautiful body to the snowy sheets of her couch, some new novel or fashionable magazine helped her wile away the time until sleep came to her. Christian left his room, like a good country gentleman, at sunrise; he left it either for the chase—or to oversee workmen, who were continually being employed upon some part of his domain. Ordinarily, he returned only in time for dinner, and rarely saw Clemence except between that time and supper, at the conclusion of which, fatigued by his day's work, he hastened to seek the repose of the just. Husband and wife, while living under the same roof, were thus almost completely isolated from each other; night for one was day for the other.
By the haste with which Clemence shortened her preparations for the night, one would have said that she must have been blessed with an unusually sleepy sensation. But when she lay in bed, with her head under her arm, like a swan with his neck under his wing, and almost in the attitude of Correggio's Magdalen, her eyes, which sparkled with a feverish light, betrayed the fact that she had sought the solitude of her bed in order to indulge more freely in deep meditation.
With marvelous fidelity she went over the slightest events of the day, to which by a constant effort of willpower, she had seemed so indifferent. First, she saw Gerfaut with his face covered with blood, and the thought of the terrible sensation which this sight caused her made her heart throb violently. She then recalled him as she next saw him, in the drawing-room by her husband's side, seated in the very chair that she had left but a moment before. This trifling circumstance impressed her; she saw in this a proof of sympathetic understanding, a sort of gift of second sight which Octave possessed, and which in her eyes was so formidable a weapon. According to her ideas, he must have suspected that this was her own favorite chair and have seized it for that reason, just as he would have loved to take her in his arms.
For the first time, Clemence had seen together the man to whom she belonged and the man whom she regarded somewhat as her property. For, by one of those arrangements with their consciences of which women alone possess the secret, she had managed to reason like this: "Since I am certain always to belong to Monsieur de Bergenheim only, Octave can certainly belong to me." An heterodoxical syllogism, whose two premises she reconciled with an inconceivable subtlety. A feeling of shame had made her dread this meeting, which the most hardened coquette could never witness without embarrassment. A woman, between her husband and her lover, is like a plant one sprinkles with ice-cold water while a ray of sunlight is trying to comfort it. The sombre and jealous, or even tranquil and unsuspecting, face of a husband has a wonderful power of repression. One is embarrassed to love under the glance of an eye that darts flashes as bright as steel; and a calm, kindly look is more terrible yet, for all jealousy seems tyrannical, and tyranny leads to revolt; but a confiding husband is like a victim strangled in his sleep, and inspires, by his very calmness, the most poignant remorse.
The meeting of these two men naturally led Clemence to a comparison which could but be to Christian's advantage. Gerfaut had nothing remarkable about him save an intelligent, intensely clever air; there was a thoughtful look in his eyes and an archness in his smile, but his irregular features showed no mark of beauty; his face wore an habitually tired expression, peculiar to those people who have lived a great deal in a short time, and it made him look older than Christian, although he was really several years younger. The latter, on the contrary, owed to his strong constitution, fortified by country life, an appearance of blooming youth that enhanced his noble regularity of features.
In a word, Christian was handsomer than his rival, and Clemence exaggerated her husband's superiority over her lover. Not being able to find the latter awkward or insignificant, she tried to persuade herself that he was ugly. She then reviewed in her mind all M. de Bergenheim's good qualities, his attachment and kindness to her, his loyal, generous ways; she recalled the striking instance that Marillac had related of his bravery, a quality without which there is no hope of success for a man in the eyes of any woman. She did all in her power to inflame her imagination and to see in her husband a hero worthy of inspiring the most fervent love. When she had exhausted her efforts toward such enthusiasm and admiration, she turned round, in despair, and, burying her head in her pillow, she sobbed:
"I cannot, I cannot love him!"
She wept bitterly for a long while. As she recalled her own severity in the past regarding women whose conduct had caused scandal, she employed in her turn the harshness of her judgment in examining her own actions. She felt herself more guilty than all the others, for her weakness appeared less excusable to her. She felt that she was unworthy and contemptible, and wished to die that she might escape the shame that made her blush scarlet, and the remorse that tortured her soul.
How many such unhappy tears bathe the eyes of those who should shed only tears of joy! How many such sighs break the silence of the night! There are noble, celestial beings among women whom remorse stretches out upon its relentless brasier, but in the midst of the flames that torture them the heart palpitates, imperishable as a salamander. Is it not human fate to suffer? After Madame de Bergenheim had given vent, by convulsive sobs and stifled sighs, to her grief for this love which she could not tear from her breast, she formed a desperate resolution. From the manner in which M. de Gerfaut had taken possession of the chateau the very first day, she recognized that he was master of the situation. The sort of infatuation which Mademoiselle de Corandeuil seemed to have for him, and Christian's courteous and hospitable habits, would give him an opportunity to prolong his stay as long as he desired. She thus compared herself to a besieged general, who sees the enemy within his ramparts.
"Very well! I will shut myself up in the fortress!" said she, smiling in spite of herself in the midst of her tears. "Since this insupportable man has taken possession of my drawing-room, I will remain in my own room; we will see whether he dares to approach that!"
She shook her pretty head with a defiant air, but she could not help glancing into the room which was barely lighted with a night lamp. She sat up and listened for a moment rather anxiously, as if Octave's dark eyes might suddenly glisten in the obscurity. When she had assured herself that all was tranquil, and that the throbbing of her heart was all that disturbed the silence, she continued preparing her plan of defense.
She decided that she would be ill the next day and keep to her bed, if necessary, until her persecutor should make up his mind to beat a retreat. She solemnly pledged herself to be firm, courageous, and inflexible; then she tried to pray. It was now two o'clock in the morning. For some time Clemence remained motionless, and one might have thought that at least she was asleep. Suddenly she arose. Without stopping to put on her dressing-gown, she lighted a candle by the night-lamp, pushed the bolt of her door and then went to the windows, the space between them forming a rather deep projection on account of the thickness of the walls. A portrait of the Duke of Bordeaux hung there; she raised it and pressed a button concealed in the woodwork. A panel opened, showing a small empty space. The shelf in this sort of closet contained only a rosewood casket. She opened this mysterious box and took from it a package of letters, then returned to her bed with the eagerness of a miser who is about to gaze upon his treasures.
Had she not struggled and prayed? Had she not offered upon the tyrannical altar of duty as an expiation, tears, pale cheeks and a tortured soul? Had she not just taken a solemn vow, in the presence of God and herself, which should protect her against her weakness? Was she not a virtuous wife, and had she not paid dearly enough for a moment of sad happiness? Was it a crime to breathe for an instant the balmy air of love through the gratings of this prison-cell, the doors of which she had just locked with her own hand? Admirable logic for loving hearts, which, not being able to control their feelings, suffer in order to prove themselves less guilty, and clothe themselves in haircloth so that each shudder may cause a pain that condones the sin!
Being at peace with herself, she read as women read who are in love; leaning her head upon her hand, she drew out the letters, one by one, from her bosom where she had placed them. She drank with her heart and eyes the poison these passionate words contained; she allowed herself to be swayed at will by these melodies which lulled but did not benumb. When one of those invincible appeals of imploring passion awoke all the echoes of her love, and ran through her veins with a thrill, striking the innermost depths of her heart, she threw herself back and imprinted her burning lips upon the cold paper. With one letter pressed to her heart, and another pressed to her lips, she gave herself up completely, exclaiming in an inaudible voice: "I love thee! I am thine!"
The next morning, when Aline entered her sister-in law's room, according to her usual custom, the latter was not obliged to feign the indisposition she had planned; the sensations of this sleepless night had paled her cheeks and altered her features; it would have been difficult to imagine a more complete contrast than that between these two young women at this moment. Clemence, lying upon her bed motionless and white as the sheet which covered her, resembled Juliet sleeping in her tomb; Aline, rosy, vivacious, and more petulant than usual, looked very much the madcap Mademoiselle de Corandeuil had reproached her with being. Her face was full of that still childish grace, more lovely than calm, more pleasing than impressive, which makes young girls so charming to the eye but less eloquent to the heart; for are they not fresh flowers more rich in coloring than in perfume?
Clemence could hardly stifle a sigh as she gazed at those rosy checks, those sparkling eyes, that life so full of the rich future. She recalled a time when she was thus, when grief glided over her cheeks without paling them, when tears dried as they left her eyes; she also had had her happy, careless days, her dreams of unalloyed bliss.
Aline, after presenting her face like a child who asks for a kiss, wished to tease her as usual, but, with a tired gesture, her sister-in-law begged for mercy.
"Are you ill?" asked the young girl anxiously, as she seated herself upon the edge of the bed.
Madame de Bergenheim smiled, a forced smile.
"Thank me for my poor health," said she, "for it obliges you to do the honors; I shall doubtless not be able to go down to dinner, and you must take my place. You know that it tires my aunt to have to trouble herself about others."
Aline made a little grimace as she replied:
"If I thought you were speaking seriously, I would go and get into my own bed at once!"
"Child! will you not in your turn be mistress of a home? Is it not necessary for you to become accustomed to it? It is an excellent opportunity, and, with my aunt as a guide, you are sure to acquit yourself well."
These last words were spoken rather maliciously, for the young woman knew that of all the possible mentors, Mademoiselle de Corandeuil was the one whom Aline dreaded most.
"I beg of you, my kind sister," replied the girl, clasping her hands, "do not be ill to-day. Is it the neuralgia of the day before yesterday you are suffering from? Do be a good sister, and get up and come and take a walk in the park; the fresh air will cure you, I am sure of it."
"And I shall not be obliged to preside at the dinner-table, you would add; is it not so? You selfish girl!"
"I am afraid of Monsieur de Gerfaut," said the child, lowering her voice.
When she heard pronounced this name, so deeply agitating her, Madame de Bergenheim was silent for a moment; at last she said:
"What has Monsieur de Gerfaut done to you? Is it not downright ungrateful to be afraid of him so soon after the service he has rendered you?"
"No, I am not ungrateful," replied the young girl quickly. "I never shall forget that I owe my life to him, for certainly, but for him, I should have been dragged into the river. But he has such black, piercing eyes that they seem to look into your very soul; and then, he is such a brilliant man! I am all the time afraid of saying something that he may laugh at. You know, some people think I talk too much; but I shall never dare open my mouth in his presence. Why do some persons' eyes make such an impression upon one?"
Clemence lowered her own beautiful eyes and made no reply.
"His friend, Monsieur Marillac, does not frighten me one bit, in spite of his big moustache. Tell me, does not this Monsieur de Gerfaut frighten you a little too?"
"Not at all, I assure you," replied Madame de Bergenheim, trying to smile. "But," she continued, in order to change the conversation, "how fine you look! You have certainly some plan of conquest. What! a city gown at nine o'clock in the morning, and hair dressed as if for a ball?"
"Would you like to know the compliment your aunt just paid me?"
"Some little jest of hers, I suppose?"
"You might say some spiteful remark, for she is the hatefulest thing! She told me that blue ribbons suited red hair very badly and advised me to change one or the other. Is it true that my hair is red?"
Mademoiselle de Bergenheim asked this question with so much anxiety that her sister-in-law could not repress a smile.
"You know that my aunt delights in annoying you," said she. "Your hair is very pretty, a bright blond, very pleasant to the eye; only Justine waves it a little too tight; it curls naturally. She dresses your hair too high; it would be more becoming to you if she pushed it back from your temples a little than to wave it as much as she does. Come a little nearer to me."
Aline knelt before Madame de Bergenheim's bed, and the latter, adding a practical lesson to verbal advice, began to modify the maid's work to suit her own taste.
"It curls like a little mane," said the young girl, as she saw the trouble her sister-in-law had in succeeding; "it was my great trouble at the Sacred Heart. The sisters wished us to wear our hair plain, and I always had a terrible time to keep it in place. However, blond hair looks ugly when too plainly dressed, and Monsieur de Gerfaut said yesterday that it was the shade he liked best."
"Monsieur de Gerfaut told you he liked blond hair best!"
"Take care; you are pulling my hair! Yes, blond hair and blue eyes. He said that when speaking of Carlo Dolci's Virgin, and he said she was of the most beautiful Jewish type; if he intended it as a compliment to me, I am very much obliged to him. Do you think that my eyes are as blue as that of the painted Virgin's. Monsieur de Gerfaut pretends that there is a strong resemblance."
Madame de Bergenheim withdrew her hand so quickly that she pulled out half a dozen or more hairs from her sister-in-law's head, and buried herself up to the chin in the bedclothes.
"Oh! Monsieur de Gerfaut knows how to pay very pretty compliments!" she said. "And you doubtless are very well pleased to resemble Carlo Dolci's Madonna?"
"She is very pretty!—and then it is the Holy Virgin, you know—Ah! I hear Monsieur de Gerfaut's voice in the garden."
The young girl arose quickly and ran to the window, where, concealed behind the curtains, she could see what was going on outside without being seen herself.
"He is with Christian," she continued. "There, they are going to the library. They must have just taken a long walk, for they are bespattered with mud. If you could only see what a pretty little cap Monsieur de Gerfaut has on!"
"Truly, he will turn her head," thought Madame de Bergenheim, with a decided feeling of anger; then she closed her eyes as if she wished to sleep.
Gerfaut had, in fact, just returned from paying his respects to the estate. He had followed his host, who, under the pretext of showing him several picturesque sights, promenaded him, in the morning dew, through the lettuce in the kitchen garden and the underbrush in the park. But he knew through experience that all was not roses in a lover's path; watching in the snow, climbing walls, hiding in obscure closets, imprisonment in wardrobes, were more disagreeable incidents than a quiet tete-a-tete with a husband.
He listened, therefore, complacently enough to Bergenheim's prolix explanations, interested himself in the planting of trees, thought the fields very green, the forests admirable, the granite rocks more beautiful than those of the Alps, went into ecstasies over the smallest vista, advised the establishment of a new mill on the river, which, being navigable for rafts, might convey lumber to all the cities on the Moselle, and thus greatly increase the value of the owner's woods. They fraternized like Glaucus and Diomede; Gerfaut hoping, of course, to play the part of the Greek, who, according to Homer, received in return for a common iron armor a gold one of inestimable value. There is always such a secret mental reservation in the lover's mind when associating with the husband of his inamorata.
When he entered the room of his wife, whose indisposition had been reported to him, Christian's first words were:
"This Monsieur de Gerfaut appears to be a very excellent fellow, and I shall be delighted if he will stay with us a while. It is too bad that you are ill. He is a good musician, as well as Marillac; you might have sung together. Try to get better quickly and come down to dinner."
"I can not really tell him that Monsieur de Gerfaut has loved me for more than a year," said Madame de Bergenheim to herself.
A moment later, Mademoiselle de Corandeuil appeared, and with a prim air seated herself beside the bed.
"Perhaps you think that I am fooled by this indisposition. I see plainly that you wish to be impolite to Monsieur de Gerfaut, for you can not endure him. It seems to me, however, that a relative of your family ought to be treated with more respect by you, above all, when you know how much I esteem him. This is unheard-of absurdity, and I shall end by speaking to your husband about it; we shall see if his intervention will not have more effect than mine."
"You shall not do that, aunt," Clemence interrupted, sitting up in bed and trying to take her aunt's hand.
"If you wish that your discourteous conduct should rest a secret between us, I advise you to get rid of your neuralgia this very day. Now, you had better decide immediately—"
"This is genuine persecution," exclaimed Madame de Bergenheim, falling back upon her bed when the old lady had departed. "He has bewitched everybody! Aline, my aunt, and my husband; to say nothing of myself, for I shall end by going mad. I must end this, at any price." She rang the bell violently.
"Justine," said she to her maid, "do not let any one enter this room under any pretext whatsoever, and do not come in yourself until I ring; I will try to sleep."
Justine obeyed, after closing the blinds. She had hardly gone out when her mistress arose, put on her dressing-gown and slippers with a vivacity which betokened anger; she then seated herself at her desk and began to write rapidly, dashing her pen over the satiny paper without troubling herself as to blots. The last word was ended with a dash as energetically drawn as the Napoleonic flourish.
When a young man who, according to custom, begins to read the end of his letters first finds an arabesque of this style at the bottom of a lady's letter, he ought to arm himself with patience and resignation before he reads its contents.
CHAPTER X. PLOTS
That evening, when Gerfaut entered his room he hardly took time to place the candlestick which he held in his hand upon the mantel before he took from his waistcoat pocket a paper reduced to microscopic dimensions, which he carried to his lips and kissed passionately before opening. His eyes fell first upon the threatening flourish of the final word; this word was: Adieu!
"Hum!" said the lover, whose exaltation was sensibly cooled at this sight.
He read the whole letter with one glance of the eye, darting to the culminating point of each phrase as a deer bounds over ledges of rocks; he weighed the plain meaning as well as the innuendoes of the slightest expression, like a rabbi who comments upon the Bible, and deciphered the erasures with the patience of a seeker after hieroglyphics, so as to detach from them some particle of the idea they had contained. After analyzing and criticising this note in all its most imperceptible shades, he crushed it within his hand and began to pace the floor, uttering from time to time some of those exclamations which the Dictionnaire de l'Academie has not yet decided to sanction; for all lovers resemble the lazzaroni who kiss San-Gennaro's feet when he acts well, but who call him briconne as soon as they have reason to complain of him. However, women are very kind, and almost invariably excuse the stones that an angry lover throws at them in such moments of acute disappointment, and willingly say with the indulgent smile of the Roman emperor: "I feel no wound!"
In the midst of this paroxysm of furious anger, two or three knocks resounded behind the woodwork.
"Are you composing?" asked a voice like that of a ventriloquist; "I am with you."
A minute later, Marillac appeared upon the threshold, in his slippers and with a silk handkerchief tied about his head, holding his candlestick in one hand and a pipe in the other; he stood there motionless.
"You are fine," said he, "you are magnificent, fatal and accursed—You remind me of Kean in Othello—
"Have you pray'd to-night, Desdemona?"
Gerfaut gazed at him with frowning brows, but made no reply.
"I will wager that it is the last scene in our third act," replied the artist, placing his candlestick upon the mantel; "it seems that it is to be very tragic. Now listen! I also feel the poetical afflatus coming over me, and, if you like, we will set about devouring paper like two boa-constrictors. Speaking of serpents, have you a rattle? Ah, yes! Here is the bell-rope. I was about to say that we would have a bowl of coffee. Or rather, I will go into the kitchen myself; I am very good friends with Marianne, the cook; besides, the motto of the house of Bergenheim is liberte, libertas. Coffee is my muse; in this respect, I resemble Voltaire—"
"Marillac!" exclaimed Gerfaut, as the artist was about to leave the room. The artist turned, and meekly retraced his steps.
"You will be so good as to do me the favor of returning to your room," said Gerfaut. "You may work or you may sleep, just as you like; between us, you would do well to sleep. I wish to be alone."
"You say that as if you meditated an attempt upon your illustrious person. Are you thinking of suicide? Let us see whether you have some concealed weapon, some poisoned ring. Curse upon it! the poison of the Borgias! Is the white substance in this china bowl, vulgarly called sugar, by some terrible chance infamous arsenic disguised under the appearance of an honest colonial commodity?"
"Be kind enough to spare your jokes," said Octave, as his friend poked about in all the corners of the room with an affectation of anxiety, "and, as I can not get rid of you, listen to my opinion: if you think that I brought you here for you to conduct yourself as you have for the last two days, you are mistaken."
"What have I done?"
"You left me the whole morning with that tiresome Bergenheim on my hands, and I verily believe he made me count every stick in his park and every frog in his pond. Tonight, when that old witch of Endor proposed her infernal game of whist, to which it seems I am to be condemned daily, you-excused yourself upon the pretext of ignorance, and yet you play as good a game as I."
"I can not endure whist at twenty sous a point."
"Do I like it any better?"
"Well, you are a nice fellow! You have an object in view which should make you swallow all these disagreeable trifles as if they were as sweet as honey. Is it possible you would like me to play Bertrand and Raton? I should be Raton the oftener of the two!"
"But, really, what did you do all day?"
Marillac posed before the mirror, arranged his kerchief about his head in a more picturesque fashion, twisted his moustache, puffed out, through the corner of his mouth, a cloud of smoke, which surrounded his face like a London fog, then turned to his friend and said, with the air of a person perfectly satisfied with himself:
"Upon my faith, my dear friend, each one for himself and God for us all! You, for example, indulge in romantic love-affairs; you must have titled ladies. Titles turn your head and make you exclusive. You make love to the aristocracy; so be it, that is your own concern. As for me, I have another system; I am, in all matters of sentiment, what I am in politics: I want republican institutions."
"What is all that nonsense about?"
"Let me tell you. I want universal suffrage, the cooperation of all citizens, admission to all offices, general elections, a popular government, in a word, a sound, patriotic hash. Which means regarding women that I carry them all in my heart, that I recognize between them no distinction of caste or rank. Article First of my set of laws: all women are equal in love, provided they are young, pretty, admirably attractive in shape and carriage, above all, not too thin."
"And what of equality?"
"So much the worse. With this eminently liberal and constitutional policy, I intend to gather all the flowers that will allow themselves to be gathered by me, without one being esteemed more fresh than another, because it belongs to the nobility, or another less sweet, because plebeian. And as field daisies are a little more numerous than imperial roses, it follows that I very often stoop. That is the reason why, at this very moment, I am up to my ears in a little rustic love affair:
Simple et naive bergerette, elle regne—"
"Stop that noise; Mademoiselle de Corandeuil's room is just underneath."
"I will tell you then, since I must give an account of myself, that I went into the park to sketch a few fir-trees before dinner; they are more beautiful of their kind than the ancient Fontainebleau oaks. That is for art. At dinner, I dined nobly and well. To do the Bergenheims justice, they live in a royal manner. That is for the stomach. Afterward I stealthily ordered a horse to be saddled and rode to La Fauconnerie in a trice, where I presented the expression of my adoration to Mademoiselle Reine Gobillot, a minor yet, but enjoying her full rights already. That is for the heart."
"No sarcasm, if you please; not everybody can share your taste for princesses, who make you go a hundred leagues to follow them and then upon your arrival, only give you the tip of a glove to kiss. Such intrigues are not to my fancy.
Je suis sergent, Brave—"
"Again, I say, will you stop that noise? Don't you know that I have nobody on my side at present but this respectable dowager on the first floor below? If she supposes that I am making all this racket over her head we shall be deadly enemies by to-morrow."
"Zitto, zitto, piano, piano, Senza strepito e rumore,"
replied Marillac, putting his finger to his lips and lowering his voice. "What you say is a surprise to me. From the way in which you offered your arm to Madame de Bergenheim to lead her into the drawing-room after supper, I thought you understood each other perfectly. As I was returning, for I made it my duty to offer my arm to the old lady—and you say that I do nothing for you—it seemed to me that I noticed a meeting of hands—You know that I have an eagle eye. She slipped a note into your hand as sure as my name is Marillac."
Gerfaut took the note which he held crumpled up in his hand, and held it in the flame of one of the candles. The paper ignited, and in less than a second nothing of it remained but a few dark pieces which fell into ashes upon the marble mantel.
"You burn it! You are wrong," said the artist; "as for me, I keep everything, letters and hair. When I am old, I shall have the letters to read evenings, and shall weave an allegorical picture with the hair. I shall hang it before my desk, so as to have before me a souvenir of the adorable creatures who furnished the threads. I will answer for it that there will be every shade in it from that of Camille Hautier, my first love, who was an albino, to this that I have here."
As he spoke, he took out of his pocket a small parcel from which he drew a lock of coal-black hair, which he spread out upon his hand.
"Did you pull this hair from Titania's mane?" asked Gerfaut, as he drew through his fingers the more glossy than silky lock, which he ridiculed by this ironical supposition.
"They might be softer, I admit," replied Marillac negligently; and he examined the lock submitted to this merciless criticism as if it were simply a piece of goods, of the fineness of whose texture he wished to assure himself.
"You will admit at least that the color is beautiful, and the quantity makes up for the quality. Upon my word, this poor Reine has given me enough to make a pacha's banner. Provincial and primitive simplicity! I know of one woman in particular who never gave an adorer more than seven of her hairs; and yet, at the end of three years, this cautious beauty was obliged to wear a false front. All her hair had disappeared.
"Are you like me, Octave? The first thing I ask for is one of these locks. Women rather like this sort of childishness, and when they have granted you that, it is a snare spread for them which catches them."
Marillac took the long, dark tress and held it near the candle; but his movement was so poorly calculated that the hair caught fire and was instantly destroyed.
"A bad sign," exclaimed Gerfaut, who could not help laughing at his friend's dismayed look.
"This is a day of autos-de-fe," said the artist, dropping into a chair; "but bah! small loss; if Reine asks to see this lock, I will tell her that I destroyed it with kisses. That always flatters them, and I am sure it will please this little field-flower. It is a fact that she has cheeks like rosy apples! On my way back I thought of a vaudeville that I should like to write about this. Only I should lay the scene in Switzerland and I should call the young woman Betty or Kettly instead of Reine, a name ending in 'Y' which would rhyme with Rutly, on account of local peculiarities. Will you join in it? I have almost finished the scenario. First scene—Upon the rising of the curtain, harvesters are discovered—"
"Will you do me the favor of going to bed?" interrupted Gerfaut.
"Chorus of harvesters:
Deja l'aurore Qui se colore—"
"If you do not leave me alone, I will throw the contents of this water-pitcher at your head."
"I never have seen you in such a surly temper. It looks indeed as if your divinity had treated you cruelly."
"She has treated me shamefully!" exclaimed the lover, whose anger was freshly kindled at this question; "she has treated me as one would treat a barber's boy. This note, which I just burned, was a most formal, unpleasant, insolent dismissal. This woman is a monster, do you understand me?"
"A monster! your angel, a monster!" said Marillac, suppressing with difficulty a violent outburst of laughter.
"She, an angel? I must say that she is a demon—This woman—"
"Do you not adore her?"
"I hate her, I abhor her, she makes me shudder. You may laugh, if you like!"
As he said these words, Gerfaut struck a violent blow upon the table with his fist.
"You forget that Mademoiselle de Corandeuil's room is just beneath us," said the artist, in a teasing way.
"Listen to me, Marillac! Your system with women is vulgar, gross, and trivial. The daisies which you gather, the maidens from whom you cut handfuls of hair excellent for stuffing mattresses, your rustic beauties with cheeks like rosy apples are conquests worthy of counter-jumpers in their Sunday clothes. That is nothing but the very lowest grade of love-making, and yet you are right, a thousand times right, and wonderfully wise compared with me."
"You do me too much honor! So, then, you are not loved?"
"Truly, I had an idea I was, or, if I was not loved to-day, I hoped to be to-morrow. But you are mistaken as to what discourages me. I simply fear that her heart is narrow. I believe that she loves me as much as she is able to love; unfortunately, that is not enough for me."
"It certainly seems to me that, so far, she has not shown herself madly in love with you."
"Ah, madly! Do you know many women who love madly with their hearts and souls? You talk like a college braggart. There are conquerors like yourself who, if we are to believe them, would devour a whole convent at their breakfast. These men excite my pity. As for me, really, I have always felt that it was most difficult to make one's self really loved. In these days of prudery, almost all women of rank appear 'frappe a la glace', like a bottle of champagne. It is necessary to thaw them first, and there are some of them whose shells are so frigid that they would put out the devil's furnace. They call this virtue; I call it social servitude. But what matters the name? the result is the same."
"But, really, are you sure that Madame de Bergenheim loves you?" asked Marillac, emphasizing the word "love" so strongly as to attract his friend's attention.
"Sure? of course I am!" replied the latter. "Why do you ask me?"
"Because, when you are not quite so angry, I want to ask you something." He hesitated a moment. "If you learned that she cares more for another than for you, what would you do?"
Gerfaut looked at him and smiled disdainfully.
"Listen!" said he, "you have heard me storm and curse, and you took this nonsense for genuine hatred. My good fellow! do you know why I raved in such a manner? It was because, knowing my temperament, I felt the necessity of getting angry and giving vent to what was in my heart. If I had not employed this infallible remedy, the annoyance which this note caused me would have disturbed my nerves all night, and when I do not sleep my complexion is more leaden than usual and I have dark rings under my eyes."
"Do you take me for a dandy? Do you not understand why I wish to sleep soundly? It is simply because I do not wish to appear before her with a face like a ghost. That would be all that was needed to encourage her in her severity. I shall take good care that she does not discover how hard her last thrust has hit me. I would give you a one-hundred-franc note if I could secure for to-morrow morning your alderman's face and your complexion a la Teniers."
"Thanks, we are not masquerading just at present."
"Nevertheless, all that you have said does not prove in the slightest that she loves you."
"My dear Marillac, words may have escaped me in my anger which have caused you to judge hastily. Now that I am calm and that my remedy has brought back my nervous system to its normal state, I will explain to you my real position. She is my Galatea, I her Pygmalion. 'An allegory as old as the world,' you are about to say; old or not, it is my true story. I have not yet broken the marble-virtue, education, propriety, duty, prejudices—which covers the flesh of my statue; but I am nearing my goal and I shall reach it. Her desperate resistance is the very proof of my progress. It is a terrible step for a woman to take, from No to Yes. My Galatea begins to feel the blows from my heart over her heart and she is afraid—afraid of the world, of me, of her husband, of herself, of heaven and hell. Do you not adore women who are afraid of everything? She, love another! never! It is written in all eternity that she shall be mine. What did you wish to say to me?"
"Nothing, since you are so sure of her."
"Sure—more than of my eternal life! But I wish to know what you mean."
"But you won't be told just a suspicion that came to me; something that was told to me the other day; a conjecture so vague that it would be useless to dwell upon it."
"I am not good at guessing enigmas," said Octave, in a dry tone.
"We will speak of this again to-morrow."
"As you like," replied the lover, with somewhat affected indifference. "If you wish to play the part of Iago with me, I warn you I am not disposed to jealousy."
"To-morrow, I tell you, I shall enlighten myself as to this affair; whatever the result of my inquiries may be, I will tell you the truth. After all, it was nothing but woman's gossip."
"Very well, take your time. But I have another favor to ask of you. Tomorrow I shall try to persuade the ladies to take a walk in the park. Mademoiselle de Corandeuil will probably not go; you must do me the favor of sticking to Bergenheim and the little sister, and gradually to walk on ahead of us, in such a way as to give me an opportunity of speaking with this cruel creature alone for a few moments; for she has given me to understand that I shall not succeed in speaking with her alone under any circumstances, and it is absolutely necessary that I should do so."
"There will be one difficulty in the way, though—they expect about twenty persons at dinner, and all her time will probably be taken up with her duties as hostess."
"That is true," exclaimed Gerfaut, jumping up so suddenly that he upset his chair.
"You still forget that Mademoiselle de Corandeuil's room is beneath us."
"The devil is playing her hand!" exclaimed the lover, as he paced the room in long strides. "I wish that during the night he would wring the neck of all these visitors. Now; then, she has her innings. Today and tomorrow this little despot's battle of Ligny will be fought and won; but the day after to-morrow, look out for her Waterloo!"
"Good-night, my Lord Wellington," said Marillac, as he arose and took up his candlestick.
"Good-night, Iago! Ah! you think you have annoyed me with your mysterious words and melodramatic reticence?"
"To-morrow! to-morrow!" replied the artist as he left the room.
"Ce secret-la Se trahira."
CHAPTER XI. A QUARREL
The next morning, before most of the inhabitants of the chateau had thought of leaving their beds, or at least their rooms, a man, on horseback, and alone, took his departure through a door opening from the stable-yard into the park. He wore a long travelling redingote trimmed with braid and fur, rather premature clothing for the season, but which the sharp cold air that was blowing at this moment made appear very comfortable. He galloped away, and continued this pace for about three-quarters of a mile, in spite of the unevenness of the road, which followed a nearly straight line over hilly ground. It would have been difficult to decide which to admire more, the horse's limbs or the rider's lungs; for the latter, during this rapid ride, had sung without taking breath, so to speak, the whole overture to Wilhelm Tell. We must admit that the voice in which he sang the andante of the Swiss mountaineer's chorus resembled a reed pipe more than a hautboy; but, to make amends when he reached the presto, his voice, a rather good bass, struck the horse's ears with such force that the latter redoubled his vigor as if this melody had produced upon him the effect of a trumpet sounding the charge on the day of battle.
The traveller, whom we have probably recognized by his musical feat, concluded his concert by stopping at the entrance to some woods which extended from the top of the rocks to the river, breaking, here and there, the uniformity of the fields. After gazing about him for some time, he left the road and, entering the woods on the right, stopped at the foot of a large tree. Near this tree was a very small brook, which took its source not far away and descended with a sweet murmur to the river, making a narrow bed in the clayey ground which it watered. Such was the modesty of its course that a little brighter green and fresher grass a few feet away from it were the only indications of its presence. Nothing was wanting to make this an idyllic place for a rendezvous, neither the protecting shade, the warbling of birds in the trees, the picturesque landscape surrounding it, nor the soft grass.
After dismounting from his steed and tying him to the branches of an oak, thus conforming to the time-honored custom of lovers, the cavalier struck his foot upon the ground three or four times to start the circulation in his legs, and then drew from his pocket a very pretty Breguet watch.
"Ten minutes past eight," said he; "I am late and yet I am early. It looks as if the clocks at La Fauconnerie were not very well regulated." He walked up and down with a quick step whistling with a vengeance:
"Quand je quittai la Normandie J'attends—j'attends—"
a refrain which the occasion brought to his mind. When this pastime was exhausted he had recourse to another, the nature of which proved that if the expected beauty had not punctuality for a virtue, she was not one of those little exacting creatures always ready to faint or whose delicate nerves make them intolerant of their lovers' imperfections. Plunging his hand into one of the pockets in his redingote, the waiting cavalier drew out a sealskin case filled with Havana cigars, and, lighting one, began to smoke, while continuing his promenade.
But at the end of a few moments this palliative, like the first, had exhausted its effect.
"Twenty-five minutes past eight!" exclaimed Marillac, as he looked at his watch a second time; "I should like to know what this little miniature rose takes me for? It was hardly worth the trouble of over-straining this poor horse, who looks as wet as if he had come out of the river. It is enough to give him inflammation of the lungs. If Bergenheim were to see him sweating and panting like this in this bleak wind, he would give me a sound blowing-up. Upon my word, it is becoming comical! There are no more young girls! I shall see her appear presently as spruce and conceited as if she had been playing the finest trick in the world. It will do for once; but if we sojourn in these quarters some time yet, she must be educated and taught to say, 'If you please' and 'Thanks.' Ah! ha! she has no idea what sort of man she is dealing with! Half past eight! If she is not here in five minutes I shall go to La Fauconnerie and raise a terrible uproar. I will break every bit of crockery there is in the 'Femme-sans-Tete' with blows from my whip. What can I do to kill time?" He raised his head quickly, as he felt himself suddenly almost smothered under a shower of dust. This was a fatal movement for him, for his eyes received part of the libation destined for his hair. He closed them with a disagreeable sensation, after seeing Mademoiselle Reine Gobillot's fresh, chubby face, her figure prim beyond measure in a lilac-and-green plaid gingham dress, and carrying a basket on her arm, a necessary burden to maidens of a certain class who play truant.
"What sort of breeding is this?" exclaimed Marillac, rubbing his eyes; "you have made me dance attendance for an hour and now you have blinded me. I do not like this at all, you understand."
"How you scold me, just for a little pinch of dust!" replied Reine, turning as red as a cherry as she threw the remainder of the handful which she had taken from a mole-heap close by them.
"It is because it smarts like the devil," replied the artist, in a milder tone, for he realized the ridiculousness of his anger; "since you have hurt me, try at least to ease the pain; they say that to blow in the eye will cure it."
"No. I'll do nothing of the kind—I don't like to be spoken to harshly."
The artist arose at once as he saw the young girl make a movement as if to go; he put his arm about her waist and half forced her to sit beside him.
"The grass is damp and I shall stain my dress," said she, as a last resistance.
A handkerchief was at once spread upon the ground, in lieu of a carpet, by the lover, who had suddenly become very polite again.
"Now, my dear Reine," continued he, "will you tell me why you come so late? Do you know that for an hour I have been tearing my hair in despair?"
"Perhaps the dust will make it grow again," she replied, with a malicious glance at Marillac, whose head was powdered with brown dust as if a tobacco-box had been emptied upon it.
"Naughty girl!" he exclaimed, laughing, although his eyes looked as if he were crying; and, acting upon the principle of retaliation less odious in love than in war, he tried to snatch a kiss to punish her.
"Stop that, Monsieur Marillac! you know very well what you promised me."
"To love you forever, you entrancing creature," said he, in the voice of a crocodile that sighs to attract his prey.
Reine pursed up her lips and assumed important airs, but, in order to obey the feminine instinct which prescribes changing the subject of conversation after too direct an avowal, with the firm intention of returning to it later through another channel, she said:
"What were you doing just as I arrived? You were so busy you did not hear me coming. You were so droll; you waved your arms in the air and struck your forehead as you talked."
"I was thinking of you."
"But it was not necessary, in order to do that, to strike your head with your fist. It must have hurt you."
"Adorable woman!" exclaimed the artist, in a passionate tone.
"Mon Dieu! how you frighten me. If I had known I would not have come here at all. I must go away directly."
"Leave me already, queen of my heart! No! do not expect to do that; I would sooner lose my life—"
"Will you stop! what if some one should hear you? they might be passing," said Reine, gazing anxiously about her. "If you knew how frightened I was in coming! I told mamma that I was going to the mill to see my uncle; but that horrid old Lambernier met me just as I entered the woods. What shall I do if he tells that he saw me? This is not the road to the mill. It is to be hoped that he has not followed me! I should be in a pretty plight!"
"You can say that you came to gather berries or nuts, or to hear the nightingale sing; Mother Gobillot will not think anything of it. Who is this Lambernier?"
"You know—the carpenter. You saw him at our house the other day."
"Ah! ah!" said Marillac, with interest, "the one who was turned away from the chateau?"
"Yes, and they did well to do it, too; he is a downright bad man."
"He is the one who told you something about Madame de Bergenheim. Tell me the story. Your mother interrupted us yesterday just as you began telling it to me.—What was it that he said?"
"Oh! falsehoods probably. One can not believe anything that he says."
"But what did he tell you?"
"What difference does it make to you what is said about the Baroness?" replied the young girl, rather spitefully, as she saw that Marillac was not occupied in thinking of her exclusively.
"Pure curiosity. He told you then that he would tell the Baron what he knew, and that the latter would give him plenty of money to make him keep silent?"
"It makes no difference what he told me. Ask him if you wish to know. Why did you not stay at the chateau if you can think only of the Baroness? Are you in love with her?"
"I am in love with you, my dear. [The devil take me if she is not jealous now! How shall I make her talk?] I am of the same opinion as you," he replied, in a loud voice, "that all this talk of Lambernier's is pure calumny."
"There is no doubt about it. He is well known about the place; he has a wicked tongue and watches everything that one does or says in order to report it at cross-purposes. Mon Dieu! suppose he should make some story out of his seeing me enter these woods!"
"Madame de Bergenheim," continued the artist, with affectation, "is certainly far above the gossip of a scoundrel of this kind."
Reine pursed up her lips, but made no reply.
"She has too many good qualities and virtues for people to believe anything he says."
"Oh, as to that, there are hypocrites among the Parisian ladies as well as elsewhere," said the young girl, with a sour look.
"Bless me!" thought Marillac, "we have it now. I'd wager my last franc that I'll loosen her tongue."
"Madame de Bergenheim," he replied, emphasizing each word, "is such a good woman, so sensible and so pretty!"
"Mon Dieu! say that you love her at once, then—that'll be plain talk," exclaimed Reine, suddenly disengaging herself from the arm which was still about her waist. "A great lady who has her carriages and footmen in livery is a conquest to boast of! While a country girl, who has only her virtue—"
She lowered her eyes with an air of affected modesty, and did not finish her sentence.
"A virtue which grants a rendezvous at the end of three days' acquaintance, and in the depths of the woods! That is amusing!" thought the artist.
"Still, you will not be the first of the fine lady's lovers," she continued, raising her head and trying to conceal her vexation under an ironical air.
"These are falsehoods."
"Falsehoods, when I tell you that I know what I am speaking about! Lambernier is not a liar."
"Lambernier is not a liar?" repeated a harsh, hoarse voice, which seemed to come from the cavity of the tree under which they were seated. "Who has said that Lambernier was a liar?"
At the same moment, the carpenter in person suddenly appeared upon the scene. He stood before the amazed pair with his brown coat thrown over his shoulders, as usual, and his broad-brimmed gray hat pulled down over his ears, gazing at them with his deep, ugly eyes and a sardonic laugh escaping from his lips.
Mademoiselle Reine uttered a shriek as if she had seen Satan rise up from the ground at her feet; Marillac rose with a bound and seized his whip.
"You are a very insolent fellow," said he, in his ringing bass voice. "Go your way!"
"I receive no such orders," replied the workman, in a tone which justified the epithet which had just been bestowed upon him; "we are upon public ground, and I have a right to be here as well as you."
"If you do not take to your heels at once," said the artist, becoming purple with rage, "I will cut your face in two."
"Apples are sometimes cut in two," said Lambernier, sneeringly advancing his face with an air of bravado. "My face is not afraid of your whip; you can not frighten me because you are a gentleman and I am a workman! I snap my fingers at bourgeois like—"
This time he did not have time to finish his comparison; a blow from the whip cut him in the face and made him reel in spite of himself.
"By heaven!" he exclaimed, in a voice like thunder, "may I lose my name if I do not polish you off well!"
He threw his coat on the grass, spat, in his hands and rubbed them together, assuming the position of an athlete ready for a boxing-bout.
Mademoiselle Gobillot, arose, trembling with fright at this demonstration, and uttered two or three inarticulate cries; but, instead of throwing herself between the combatants in the approved style, she ran away as fast as she could.
Although the weapons of the adversaries were not of a nature to spill blood upon the turf, there was something warlike about their countenances which would have done honor to ancient paladins. Lambernier squatting upon his legs, according to the rules of pugilism, and with his fists on a level with his shoulders, resembled, somewhat, a cat ready to bound upon its prey. The artist stood with his body thrown backward, his legs on a tension, his chin buried up to his moustache in the fur collar of his coat, with whip lowered, watching all his adversary's movements with a steady eye. When he saw the carpenter advancing toward him, he raised his arm and gave him on the left side a second lash from his whip, so vigorously applied that the workman beat a retreat once more, rubbing his hands and roaring:
"Thunder! I'll finish you—"
He put his hands in his trousers' pockets and drew out one of those large iron compasses such as carpenters use, and opened it with a rapid movement. He then seized it in the centre and was thus armed with a sort of double-pointed stiletto, which he brandished with a threatening gesture.
Marillac, at this sight, drew back a few paces, passed his whip to his left hand and, arming himself with his Corsican poniard, placed himself in a position of defence.
"My friend," said he, with perfect deliberation, "my needle is shorter than yours, but it pricks better. If you take one step nearer me, if you raise your hand, I will bleed you like a wild boar."
Seeing the firm attitude of the artist, whose solid figure seemed to denote rather uncommon vigor, and whose moustache and sparkling eyes gave him a rather formidable aspect at this moment; above all, when he saw the large, sharp blade of the poniard, Lambernier stopped.
"By the gods!" exclaimed Marillac, who saw that his bold looks had produced their effect, "you are a Provencal, and I a Gascon. You have a quick hand, comrade—"
"But, by Jove! you are the one who has the quick hand; you struck me with your whip as if I had been a horse. You have put my eye almost out. Do you imagine that I am well provided for like yourself and have nothing to do but to flirt with girls? I need my eyes in order to work, by God! Because you are a bourgeois and I am a workman—"
"I am not more of a bourgeois than you," replied the artist, rather glad to see his adversary's fury exhaust itself in words, and his attitude assume a less threatening character; "pick up your compass and return to your work. Here," he added, taking two five-franc pieces from his pocket. "You were a little boorish and I a little hasty. Go and bathe your eyes with a glass of wine."
Lambernier scowled and his eyes darted ugly, hateful glances. He hesitated a moment, as if he were thinking what he had better do, and was weighing his chances of success in case of a hostile resolve. After a few moments' reflection, prudence got the better of his anger. He closed his compass and put it in his pocket, but he refused the silver offered him.
"You are generous," said he, with a bitter smile; "five francs for each blow of the whip! I know a good many people who would offer you their cheek twelve hours of the day at that price. But I am not one of that kind; I ask nothing of nobody."
"If Leonardo da Vinci could have seen this fellow's face just now," thought the artist, "he would not have had to seek so long for his model for the face of Judas. Only for my poniard, my fate would have been settled. This man was ready to murder me."
"Listen, Lambernier," said he, "I was wrong to strike you, and I would like to atone for it. I have been told that you were sent away from the chateau against your will. I am intimate enough with Monsieur de Bergenheim to be useful to you; do you wish me to speak to him for you?"
The carpenter stood motionless in his place, with his eyes fixed upon his adversary while the latter was preparing his horse to mount, eyes which seemed filled with hatred to their very depths. His face suddenly changed its expression and became abjectly polite when he heard himself addressed anew. He shook his head two or three times before replying.
"Unless you are the very devil," he said, "I defy you to make this gentleman say yes when he has once said no. He turned me away like a dog; all right. Let them laugh that win. It was that old idiot of a Rousselet and that old simpleton of a coachman of Mademoiselle de Corandeuil's who told tales about me. I could tell tales also if I liked."
"But what motive could they have to send you away?" continued Marillac, "you are a clever workman. I have seen your work at the chateau; there are some rooms yet unfinished; there must have been some very grave reason for their not employing you just at the moment when they needed you most."
"They said that I talked with Mademoiselle Justine, and Madame caused me to be discharged. She is mistress there, is she not? But I am the one to make her repent for it."
"And how can you make her repent for it?" asked the artist, whose curiosity, left ungratified by Mademoiselle Reine, was growing more and more excited, "what can you have in common with Madame la Baronne?"
"Because she is a lady and I am a workman, you mean? All the same, if I could only whisper two or three words in her ear, she would give me more gold than I have earned since I worked at the chateau, I am sure of it."
"By the powers! if I were in your place, I would say those words to her this very day."
"So as to be thrown out by that band of idle fellows in their red coats. None of that for me. I have my own scheme; let them laugh that win!"
As he repeated this proverb, the workman uttered his usual sardonic laugh.
"Lambernier," said the artist, in a serious tone, "I have heard of certain very strange speeches that you have made within the last few days. Do you know that there is a punishment by law for those who invent calumnies?"
"Is it a calumny, when one can prove what he says?" replied the carpenter, with assurance.
"What is it that you undertake to prove?" exclaimed Marillac, suddenly.
"Eh! you know very well that if Monsieur le Baron—" he did not continue, but with a coarse gesture he finished explaining his thoughts.
"You can prove this?"
"Before the courts, if necessary."
"Before the courts would not amount to very much for you; but if you will cease this talk and never open your mouth about all this, whatever it may be, and will give to me, and me only, this proof of which you speak, I will give you ten napoleons."
For a moment Lambernier gazed at the artist with a singularly penetrating glance.
"So you have two sweethearts, then—one from the city and one from the country, a married woman and this poor girl," said he, in a jeering tone; "does little Reine know that she is playing second fiddle?"
"What do you mean to insinuate?"
"Oh! you are more clever than I."
The two men looked at each other in silence, trying to read each other's thoughts.
"This is a lover of Madame de Bergenheim," thought Lambernier, with the barefaced impudence of his kind; "if I were to tell him what I know, my vengeance would be in good hands, without my taking the trouble to commit myself."
"Here is a sneaking fellow who pretends to be deucedly strong in diplomacy," said Marillac to himself; "but he is revengeful and I must make him explain himself."
"Ten napoleons are not to be found every day," continued the carpenter, after a moment's silence; "you may give them to me, if you like, in a week."
"You will be able to prove to me, then, what you have said," replied Marillac, with hesitation, blushing in spite of himself at the part he was playing at that moment, upon the odious side of which he had not looked until now. "Bah!" said he to himself, in order to quiet his conscience, "if this rascal really knows anything it is much better that I should buy the secret than anybody else. I never should take advantage of it, and I might be able to render the lady a service. Is it not a gentleman's sworn duty to devote himself to the defence of an imprudent beauty who is in danger?"
"I will bring you the proof you want," said the carpenter.
"Meet me Monday at four o'clock in the afternoon at the cross-roads near the corner of the Come woods."
"At the end of the park?"
"Yes, a little above the rocks."
"I will be there. Until then, you will not say a word to anybody?"
"That is a bargain, since you buy the goods I have for sale—"
"Here is some money to bind the trade," replied the artist. And he handed him the silver pieces he still held in his hand; Lambernier took them this time without any objections, and put them in his pocket.
"Monday, at four o'clock!"
"Monday, at four o'clock!" repeated Marillac, as he mounted his horse and rode away in great haste as if eager to take leave of his companion. He turned when he reached the road, and, looking behind him, saw the workman standing motionless at the foot of the tree.
"There is a scamp," thought he, "whose ball and chain are waiting for him at Toulon or Brest, and I have just concluded a devilish treaty with him. Bah! I have nothing to reproach myself with. Of two evils choose the least; it remains to be seen whether Gerfaut is the dupe of a coquette or whether his love is threatened with some catastrophe; at all events, I am his friend, and I ought to clear up this mystery and put him on his guard."
"Ten francs to-day, and ten napoleons Monday," said Lambernier as, with an eye in which there was a mixture of scorn and hatred, he watched the traveller disappear. "I should be a double idiot to refuse. But this does not pay for the blows from your whip, you puppy; when we have settled this affair of the fine lady, I shall attend to you."
CHAPTER XII. AN INHARMONIOUS MUSICALE
The visitors referred to in the conversation between the two friends arrived at the castle at an early hour, according to the custom in the country, where they dine in the middle of the day. Gerfaut saw from his chamber, where he had remained like Achilles under his tent, half a dozen carriages drive one after another up the avenue, bringing the guests announced by Marillac. Little by little the company scattered through the gardens in groups; four or five young girls under Aline's escort hurried to a swing, to which several good-natured young men attached themselves, and among them Gerfaut recognized his Pylades. During this time Madame de Bergenheim was doing the honors of the house to the matrons, who thought this amusement too youthful for their age and preferred a quiet walk through the park. Christian, on his side, was explaining methods of improvements to gentlemen of agricultural and industrial appearance, who seemed to listen to him with great interest. Three or four others had taken possession of the billiard-table; while the more venerable among the guests had remained in the parlor with Mademoiselle de Corandeuil.
"Have you a pair of clean trousers?" asked Marillac, hastily entering his friend's room as the first bell rang for dinner. An enormous green stain upon one of his knees was all the explanation necessary on this subject.
"You, lose no time," said Gerfaut, as he opened a drawer in his closet. "Which of these rustic beauties has had the honor of seeing you on your knees at her feet?"
"It was that confounded swing! Silly invention! To sacrifice one's self to please little girls! If I am ever caught at it again I'll let you know! Your selfish method is a better, one. By the way, Madame de Bergenheim asked me, with a rather sly look, whether you were ill and whether you would not come down to dinner?"
"It: seemed like it. The lady smiled in a decidedly disagreeable manner. I am not timid, but I would rather write a vaudeville in three acts than to be obliged to make a declaration to her if she had that impish smile on her lips. She has a way of protruding her under lip-ugh! do you know you are terribly slender? Will you let me cut the band of your trousers? I never could dance with my stomach compressed in this manner."
"What about this secret you were to reveal to me?" Gerfaut interrupted, with a smile which seemed to denote perfect security.
Marillac looked at his friend with a grave countenance, then began to laugh in an embarrassed manner.
"We will leave serious matters until to-morrow," he replied. "The essential thing to-day is to make ourselves agreeable. Madame de Bergenheim asked me a little while ago whether we would be kind enough to sing a few duets? I accepted for us both. I do not suppose that the inhabitants of this valley have often heard the duet from Mose with the embellishments a la Tamburini:
Palpito a quello aspetto, 'Gemo nel suo dolor.'
"Would you prefer that or the one from 'Il Barbiere'? although that is out of date, now."
"Whatever pleases you, but do not split my head about it in advance. I wish that music and dancing were at the bottom of the Moselle."
"With all my heart, but not the dinner. I gave a glance into the dining-room; it promises to be very fine. Now, then, everybody has returned to the house; to the table!"
The time has long since passed when Paris and the province formed two regions almost foreign to each other. To-day, thanks to the rapidity of communication, and the importations of all kinds which reach the centre from the circumference without having time to spoil on the way, Paris and the rest of France are only one immense body excited by the same opinions, dressed in the same fashions, laughing at the same bon mot, revolutionized by the same opinions.
Provincial customs have almost entirely lost their peculiarities; a drawing-room filled with guests is the same everywhere. There are sometimes exceptions, however. The company gathered at the Bergenheim chateau was an example of one of those heterogeneous assemblies which the most exclusive mistress of a mansion can not avoid if she wishes to be neighborly, and in which a duchess may have on her right at the table the village mayor, and the most elegant of ladies a corpulent justice of the peace who believes he is making himself agreeable when he urges his fair neighbor to frequent potations.
Madame de Bergenheim had discovered symptoms of haughty jealousy among her country neighbors, always ready to feel themselves insulted and very little qualified to make themselves agreeable in society. So she resolved to extend a general invitation to all those whom she felt obliged to receive, in order to relieve herself at once of a nuisance for which no pleasure could prove an equivalent. This day was one of her duty days.
Among these ladies, much more gorgeously than elegantly attired, these healthy young girls with large arms, and feet shaped like flat-irons, ponderous gentlemen strangled by their white cravats and puffed up in their frock-coats, Gerfaut, whose nervous system had been singularly irritated by his disappointment of the night before, felt ready to burst with rage. He was seated at the table between two ladies, who seemed to have exhausted, in their toilettes, every color in the solar spectrum, and whose coquettish instincts were aroused by the proximity of a celebrated writer. But their simperings were all lost; the one for whom they were intended bore himself in a sulky way, which fortunately passed for romantic melancholy; this rendered him still more interesting in the eyes of his neighbor on the left, a plump blonde about twenty-five years old, fresh and dimpled, who doted upon Lord Byron, a common pretension among pretty, buxom women who adore false sentimentality.
With the exception of a bow when he entered the drawing-room, Octave had not shown Madame de Bergenheim any attention. The cold, disdainful, bored manner in which he patiently endured the pleasures of the day exceeded even the privilege for boorish bearing willingly granted to gentlemen of unquestionable talent. Clemence, on the contrary, seemed to increase in amiability and liveliness. There was not one of her tiresome guests to whom she did not address some pleasant remark, not one of those vulgar, pretentious women to whom she was not gracious and attentive; one would have said that she had a particular desire to be more attractive than usual, and that her lover's sombre air added materially to her good humor.
After dinner they retired to the drawing-room where coffee was served. A sudden shower, whose drops pattered loudly against the windows, rendered impossible all plans for amusement out of doors. Gerfaut soon noticed a rather animated conversation taking place between Madame de Bergenheim, who was somewhat embarrassed as to how to amuse her guests for the remainder of the afternoon, and Marillac, who, with his accustomed enthusiasm, had constituted himself master of ceremonies. A moment later, the drawing-room door opened, and servants appeared bending under the burden of an enormous grand piano which was placed between the windows. At this sight, a tremor of delight ran through the group of young girls, while Octave, who was standing in one corner near the mantel, finished his Mocha with a still more melancholy air.