I tapped quietly at the door, and heard at once an outburst of stifled laughter.
"Wait a moment," exclaimed a laughing voice.
"I won't be seen in this state," whispered another—"Yes"—"No"—"You are absurd, my dear, since it is an affair of art."—"Ha, ha, ha." And they laughed and laughed again.
At last a voice cried, "Come in," and I turned the handle.
At first glance I could only make out a confused chaos, impossible to describe, amidst which my aunt was bustling about clad in pink fleshings. Clad, did I say?—very airily.
The furniture, the carpet, the mantel-piece were encumbered, almost buried under a heterogeneous mass of things. Muslin petticoats, tossed down haphazard, pieces of lace, a cardboard helmet covered with gilt paper, open jewel-cases, bows of ribbon; curling-tongs, half hidden in the ashes; and on every side little pots, paint-brushes, odds and ends of all kinds. Behind two screens, which ran across the room, I could hear whisperings, and the buzzing sound peculiar to women dressing themselves. In one corner Silvani—the illustrious Silvani, still wearing the large white apron he assumes when powdering his clients—was putting away his powder-puff and turning down his sleeves with a satisfied air. I stood petrified. What was going on at my aunt's?
She discovered my astonishment, and without turning round she said in agitated tones:
"Ah! is it you, Ernest?" Then as if making up her mind, she broke into a hearty burst of laughter, like all women who have good teeth, and added, with a slightly superior air, "You see, we are having private theatricals."
Then turning toward me with her elegant coiffure powdered to excess, I could see that her face was painted like that of a priestess of antiquity. That gauze, that atmosphere, redolent with feminine perfumes, and behind those screens-behind those screens!
"Women in society," I said to myself, looking about me, "must be mad to amuse themselves in this fashion."
"And what piece are you going to play, aunt, in such an attractive costume?"
"Good evening, Captain," called out a laughing voice from behind the screen on the right.
"We were expecting you," came from behind the screen on the left.
"Good evening, ladies; what can I do for you?"
"It is not a play," observed my aunt, modestly drawing together her sea-weed draperies. "How behind the age you are, to think that any one plays set-pieces nowadays. It is not a piece, it is a 'tableau vivant', 'The judgment of Paris.' You know 'The Judgment of Paris'? I take the part of Venus—I did not want to, but they all urged me—give me a pin—on the mantelpiece—near the bag of bonbons—there to the left, next to the jewel-case—close by the bottle of gum standing on my prayer-book. Can't you see? Ah! at last. In short, the knife to my throat to compel me to play Venus."
Turning to the screen on the right she said: "Pass me the red for the lips, dear; mine are too pale." To the hairdresser, who is making his way to the door: "Silvani, go to the gentlemen who are dressing in the billiard-room, and in the Baron's dressing-room, they perhaps may need you. Madame de S. and her daughters are in the boudoir—ah! see whether Monsieur de V. has found his apple again—he plays Paris," added my aunt, turning toward me once more; "the apple must not be lost—well, dear, and that red for the lips I asked you for? Pass it to the Captain over the screen."
"Here it is; but make haste, Captain, my cuirass cracks as soon as I raise my arm."
I descried above the screen two slender fingers, one of which, covered with glittering rings, held in the air a little pot without a cover.
"What,—is your cuirass cracking, Marchioness?"
"Oh! it will do, but make haste and take it, Captain."
"You may think it strange, but I tremble like a leaf," exclaimed my aunt. "I am afraid of being ill. Do you hear the gentlemen who are dressing in there in the Baron's dressing room? What a noise! Ha! ha! ha! it is charming, a regular gang of strollers. It is exhilarating, do you know, this feverish existence, this life in front of the footlights. But, for the love of Heaven, shut the door, Marie, there is a frightful draught blowing on me. This hourly struggle with the public, the hisses, the applause, would, with my impressionable nature, drive me mad, I am sure."
The old affair of the kiss recurred to me and I said to myself, "Captain, you misunderstood the nature of your relative."
"But that is not the question at all," continued my aunt; "ten o'clock is striking. Ernest, can you apply liquid white? As you are rather experienced—"
"Rather—ha! ha! ha!" said some one behind the screen.
"On the whole," continued the Baroness, "it would be very singular if, in the course of your campaigns, you had never seen liquid white applied."
"Yes, aunt, I have some ideas; yes, I have some ideas about liquid white, and by summoning together all my recollections—"
"Is it true, Captain, that it causes rheumatism?"
"No, not at all; have a couple of logs put on the fire and give me the stuff."
So saying, I turned up my sleeves and poured some of the "Milk of Beauty" into a little onyx bowl that was at hand, then I dipped a little sponge into it, and approached my Aunt Venus with a smile.
"You are sure that it has no effect on the skin—no, I really dare not." As she said this she looked as prim as a vestal. "It is the first time, do you know, that I ever used this liquid white, ah! ah! ah! What a baby I am! I am all in a shiver."
"But, my dear, you are foolish," exclaimed the lady of the screen, breaking into a laugh; "when one acts one must submit to the exigencies of the footlights."
"You hear, aunt? Come, give me your arm."
She held out her full, round arm, on the surface of which was spread that light and charming down, symbol of maturity. I applied the wet sponge.
"Oh! oh! oh!" exclaimed the Baroness; "it is like ice, a regular shower-bath, and you want to put that all over me?"
Just then there was a knock at the door which led out of the Baron's dressing-room, and instinctively I turned toward it.
"Who's there? Oh! you are letting it splutter all over me!" exclaimed the Baroness. "You can't come in; what is it?"
"What is the matter, aunt?"
"You can't come in," exclaimed some one behind the screen; "my cuirass has split. Marie, Rosine, a needle and thread, the gum."
"Oh! there is a stream all down my back, your horrid white is running down," said the Baroness, in a rage.
"I will wipe it. I am really very sorry."
"Can you get your hand down my back, do you think?"
"Why not, aunt?"
"Why not, why not! Because where there is room for a drop of water, there is not room for the hand of a lancer."
Another knock, this time at the door opening from the passage.
"What is it now?"
"The torches have come, Madame," said a footman. "Will you have them lighted?"
"Ah! the torches of Mesdemoiselles de N., who are dressing in the boudoir. No, certainly not, do not light them, they are not wanted till the second tableau."
"Do not stir, aunt, I beg of you. Mesdemoiselles de N. appears too, then?"
"Yes, with their mamma; they represent 'The Lights of Faith driving out Unbelief,' thus they naturally require torches. You know, they are tin tubes with spirits of wine which blazes up. It will be, perhaps, the prettiest tableau of the evening. It is an indirect compliment we wish to pay to the Cardinal's nephew; you know the dark young man with very curly hair and saintly eyes; you saw him last Monday. He is in high favor at court. The Comte de Geloni was kind enough to promise to come this evening, and then Monsieur de Saint P. had the idea of this tableau. His imagination is boundless, Monsieur de Saint P., not to mention his good taste, if he would not break his properties."
"Is he not also a Chevalier of the Order of Saint Gregory?"
"Yes, and, between ourselves, I think that he would not be sorry to become an officer in it."
"Ah! I understand, 'The Lights of Faith driving out,' et cetera. But tell me, aunt, am I not brushing you too hard? Lift up your arm a little, please. Tell me who has undertaken the part of Unbelief?"
"Don't speak of it, it is quite a history. As it happened, the casting of the parts took place the very evening on which his Holiness's Encyclical was published, so that the gentlemen were somewhat excited. Monsieur de Saint P. took high ground, really very high ground; indeed, I thought for a moment that the General was going to flare out. In short, no one would have anything to do with Unbelief, and we had to have recourse to the General's coachman, John—you know him? He is a good-looking fellow; he is a Protestant, moreover, so that the part is not a novel one to him."
"No matter, it will be disagreeable for the De N.'s to appear side by side with a servant."
"Come! such scruples must not be carried too far; he is smeared over with black and lies stretched on his face, while the three ladies trample on him, so you see that social proprieties are observed after all. Come, have you done yet? My hair is rather a success, is it not? Silvani is the only man who understands how to powder one. He wanted to dye it red, but I prefer to wait till red hair has found its way a little more into society."
"There; it is finished, aunt. Is it long before you have to go on?"
"No. Good Heavens, it is close on eleven o'clock! The thought of appearing before all these people—don't the flowers drooping from my head make my neck appear rather awkward, Ernest? Will you push them up a little?"
Then going to the door of the dressing-room she tapped at it gently, saying, "Are you ready, Monsieur de V.?"
"Yes, Baroness, I have found my apple, but I am horribly nervous. Are Minerva and Juno dressed? Oh! I am nervous to a degree you have no idea of."
"Yes, yes, every one is ready; send word to the company in the drawing-room. My poor heart throbs like to burst, Captain."
CHAPTER IX. HUSBAND AND WIFE MY DEAR SISTERS:
Marriage, as it is now understood, is not exactly conducive to love. In this I do not think that I am stating an anomaly. Love in marriage is, as a rule, too much at his ease; he stretches himself with too great listlessness in armchairs too well cushioned. He assumes the unconstrained habits of dressing-gown and slippers; his digestion goes wrong, his appetite fails and of an evening, in the too-relaxing warmth of a nest, made for him, he yawns over his newspaper, goes to sleep, snores, and pines away. It is all very well, my sisters, to say, "But not at all—but how can it be, Father Z.?—you know nothing about it, reverend father."
I maintain that things are as I have stated, and that at heart you are absolutely of my opinion. Yes, your poor heart has suffered very often; there are nights during which you have wept, poor angel, vainly awaiting the dream of the evening before.
"Alas!" you say, "is it then all over? One summer's day, then thirty years of autumn, to me, who am so fond of sunshine." That is what you have thought.
But you say nothing, not knowing what you should say. Lacking self-confidence and ignorant of yourself, you have made it a virtue to keep silence and not wake your husband while he sleeps; you have got into the habit of walking on the tips of your toes so as not to disturb the household, and your husband, in the midst of this refreshing half-sleep, has begun to yawn luxuriously; then he has gone out to his club, where he has been received like the prodigal son, while you, poor poet without pen or ink, have consoled yourself by watching your sisters follow the same road as yourself.
You have, all of you, ladies, your pockets full of manuscripts, charming poems, delightful romances; it is a reader who is lacking to you, and your husband takes up his hat and stick at the very sight of your handwriting; he firmly believes that there are no more romances except those already in print. From having read so many, he considers that no more can be written.
This state of things I regard as absolutely detestable. I look upon you, my dear sisters, as poor victims, and if you will permit I will give you my opinion on the subject.
Esteem and friendship between husband and wife are like our daily bread, very pleasant and respectable; but a little jam would not spoil that, you will admit! If, therefore, one of your friends complains of the freedom that reigns in this little book, let her talk on and be sure beforehand that this friend eats dry bread. We have described marriage as we think it should be—depicting smiling spouses, delighted to be together.
Is it because love is rare as between husband and wife that it is considered unbecoming to relate its joys? Is it regret, or envy, that renders you fastidious on the subject, sisters? Reserve your blushes for the pictures of that society of courtesans where love is an article of commerce, where kisses are paid for in advance. Regard the relation of these coarse pleasures as immodest and revolting, be indignant, scold your brethren—I will admit that you are in the right beforehand; but for Heaven's sake do not be offended if we undertake your defence, when we try to render married life pleasant and attractive, and advise husbands to love their wives, wives to love their husbands.
You must understand that there is a truly moral side to all this. To prove that you are adorable; that there are pleasures, joys, happiness, to be found outside the society of those young women—such is our object; and since we are about to describe it, we venture to hope that after reflecting for a few minutes you will consider our intentions praiseworthy, and encourage us to persevere in them.
I do not know why mankind has chosen to call marriage a man-trap, and all sorts of frightful things; to stick up all round it boards on which one reads: "Beware of the sacred ties of marriage;" "Do not jest with the sacred duties of a husband;" "Meditate on the sacred obligation of a father of a family;" "Remember that the serious side of life is beginning;" "No weakness; henceforth you are bound to find yourself face to face with stern reality," etc., etc.
I will not say that it is imprudent to set forth all those fine things; but when done it should be done with less affectation. To warn people that there are thorns in the path is all very well; but, hang it! there is something else in married life, something that renders these duties delightful, else this sacred position and these ties would soon be nothing more than insupportable burdens. One would really think that to take to one's self a pretty little wife, fresh in heart and pure in mind, and to condemn one's self to saw wood for the rest of one's days, were one and the same thing.
Well, my dear sisters, have you any knowledge of those who have painted the picture in these gloomy colors and described as a punishment that which should be a reward? They are the husbands with a past and having rheumatism. Being weary and—how shall I put it?—men of the world, they choose to represent marriage as an asylum, of which you are to be the angels. No doubt to be an angel is very nice, but, believe me, it is either too much or too little. Do not seek to soar so high all at once, but, instead, enter on a short apprenticeship. It will be time enough to don the crown of glory when you have no longer hair enough to dress in any other fashion.
But, O husbands with a past! do you really believe that your own angelic quietude and the studied austerity of your principles are taken for anything else than what they really mean—exhaustion?
You wish to rest; well and good; but it is wrong in you to wish everybody else about you to rest too; to ask for withered trees and faded grass in May, the lamps turned down and the lamp-shades doubled; to require one to put water in the soup and to refuse one's self a glass of claret; to look for virtuous wives to be highly respectable and somewhat wearisome beings; dressing neatly, but having had neither poetry, youth, gayety, nor vague desires; ignorant of everything, undesirous of learning anything; helpless, thanks to the weighty virtues with which you have crammed them; above all, to ask of these poor creatures to bless your wisdom, caress your bald forehead, and blush with shame at the echo of a kiss.
The deuce! but that is a pretty state of things for marriage to come to.
Delightful institution! How far are your sons, who are now five-and-twenty years of age, in the right in being afraid of it! Have they not a right to say to you, twirling their moustaches:
"But, my dear father, wait a bit; I am not quite ripe for it!"
"Yes; but it is a splendid match, and the young lady is charming."
"No doubt, but I feel that I should not make her happy. I am not old enough—indeed, I am not."
And when the young man is seasoned for it, how happy she will be, poor little thing!—a ripe husband, ready to fall from the tree, fit to be put away in the apple-loft! What happiness! a good husband, who the day after his marriage will piously place his wife in a niche and light a taper in front of her; then take his hat and go off to spend elsewhere a scrap of youth left by chance at the bottom of his pocket.
Ah! my good little sisters who are so very much shocked and cry "Shame!" follow our reasoning a little further. It is all very well that you should be treated like saints, but do not let it be forgotten that you are women, and, listen to me, do not forget it yourselves.
A husband, majestic and slightly bald, is a good thing; a young husband who loves you and eats off the same plate is better. If he rumples your dress a little, and imprints a kiss, in passing, on the back of your neck, let him. When, on coming home from a ball, he tears out the pins, tangles the strings, and laughs like a madman, trying to see whether you are ticklish, let him. Do not cry "Murder!" if his moustache pricks you, but think that it is all because at heart he loves you well. He worships your virtues; is it surprising hence that he should cherish their outward coverings? No doubt you have a noble soul; but your body is not therefore to be despised; and when one loves fervently, one loves everything at the same time. Do not be alarmed if in the evening, when the fire is burning brightly and you are chatting gayly beside it, he should take off one of your shoes and stockings, put your foot on his lap, and in a moment of forgetfulness carry irreverence so far as to kiss it; if he likes to pass your large tortoise-shell comb through your hair, if he selects your perfumes, arranges your plaits, and suddenly exclaims, striking his forehead: "Sit down there, darling; I have an idea how to arrange a new coiffure."
If he turns up his sleeves and by chance tangles your curls, where really is the harm? Thank Heaven if in the marriage which you have hit upon you find a laughing, joyous side; if in your husband you find the loved reader of the pretty romance you have in your pocket; if, while wearing cashmere shawls and costly jewels in your ears, you find the joys of a real intimacy—that is delicious! In short, reckon yourself happy if in your husband you find a lover.
But before accepting my theories, ladies, although in your heart and conscience you find them perfect, you will have several little prejudices to overcome; above all, you will have to struggle against your education, which is deplorable, as I have already said, but that is no great matter. Remember that under the pretext of education you have been stuffed, my dear sisters. You have been varnished too soon, like those pictures painted for sales, which crack all over six months after purchase. Your disposition has not been properly directed; you are not cultivated; you have been stifled, pruned; you have been shaped like those yew-trees at Versailles which represent goblets and birds. Still, you are women at the bottom, though you no longer look it.
You are handed over to us men swaddled, distorted, stuffed with prejudices and principles, heavy as paving-stones; all of which are the more difficult to dislodge since you look upon them as sacred; you are started on the matrimonial journey with so much luggage reckoned as indispensable; and at the first station your husband, who is not an angel, loses his temper amidst all these encumbrances, sends it all to the devil under some pretext or other, lets you go on alone, and gets into another carriage. I do not require, mark me, that you should be allowed to grow up uncared for, that good or evil instincts should be suffered to spring up in you anyhow: but it were better that they should not treat your poor mind like the foot of a well-born Chinese girl—that they should not enclose it in a porcelain slipper.
A marriageable young lady is a product of maternal industry, which takes ten years to fructify, and needs from five to six more years of study on the part of the husband to purify, strip, and restore to its real shape. In other words, it takes ten years to make a bride and six years at least to turn this bride into a woman again. Admit frankly that this is time lost as regards happiness, but try to make it up if your husband will permit you to do so.
The sole guaranty of fidelity between husband and wife is love. One remains side by side with a fellow-traveller only so long as one experiences pleasure and happiness in his company. Laws, decrees, oaths, may prevent faithlessness, or at least punish it, but they can neither hinder nor punish intention. But as regards love, intention and deed are the same.
Is it not true, my dear sisters, that you are of this opinion? Do not you thoroughly understand that if love is absent from marriage it should, on the contrary, be its real pivot? To make one's self lovable is the main thing. Believe my white hairs that it is so, and let me give you some more advice.
Yes, I favor marriage—I do not conceal it—the happy marriage in which we cast into the common lot our ideas and our sorrows, as well as our good-humor and our affections. Suppress, by all means, in this partnership, gravity and affectation, yet add a sprinkling of gallantry and good-fellowship. Preserve even in your intimacy that coquetry you so readily assume in society. Seek to please your husband. Be amiable. Consider that your husband is an audience, whose sympathy you must conquer.
In your manner of loving mark those shades, those feminine delicacies, which double the price of things. Do not be miserly, but remember that the manner in which one gives adds to the value of the gift; or rather do not give—make yourself sought after. Think of those precious jewels that are arranged with such art in their satin-lined jewel-case; never forget the case. Let your nest be soft, let your presence be felt in all its thousand trifles. Put a little of yourself into the ordering of everything. Be artistic, delicate, and refined—you can do so without effort—and let your husband perceive in everything that surrounds him, from the lace on the curtains to the perfume that you use, a wish on your part to please him.
Do not say to him, "I love you"; that phrase may perhaps recall to him a recollection or two. But lead him on to say to you, "You do love me, then?" and answer "No," but with a little kiss which means "Yes." Make him feel beside you the present to be so pleasant that the past will fade from his memory; and to this end let nothing about you recall that past, for, despite himself, he would never forgive it in you. Do not imitate the women whom he may have known, nor their head-dresses or toilettes; that would tend to make him believe he has not changed his manner of life. You have in yourself another kind of grace, another wit, another coquetry, and above all that rejuvenescence of heart and mind which those women have never had. You have an eagerness in life, a need of expansion, a freshness of impression which are—though perhaps you may not imagine it—irresistible charms. Be yourselves throughout, and you will be for this loved spouse a novelty, a thousand times more charming in his eyes than all the bygones possible. Conceal from him neither your inclinations nor your inexperience, your childish joys or your childish fears; but be as coquettish with all these as you are of the features of your face, of your fine, black eyes and your long, fair hair.
Nothing is more easily acquired than a little adroitness; do not throw yourself at his head, and always have confidence in yourself.
Usually, a man marries when he thinks himself ruined; when he feels in his waistcoat pocket—not a louis—he is then seasoned; he goes at once before the registrar. But let me tell you, sisters, he is still rich. He has another pocket of which he knows nothing, the fool! and which is full of gold. It is for you to act so that he shall find it out and be grateful to you for the happiness he has had in finding a fortune.
I will sum up, at once, as time is flying and I should not like you to be late for dinner. For Heaven's sake, ladies, tear from the clutches of the women, whose toilettes you do very wrong in imitating, your husbands' affections. Are you not more refined, more sprightly, than they? Do for him whom you love that which these women do for all the world; do not content yourselves with being virtuous—be attractive, perfume your hair, nurture illusion as a rare plant in a golden vase. Cultivate a little folly when practicable; put away your marriage-contract and look at it only once in ten years; love one another as if you had not sworn to do so; forget that there are bonds, contracts, pledges; banish from your mind the recollection of the Mayor and his scarf. Sometimes when you are alone fancy that you are only sweethearts; sister, is not that what you eagerly desire?
Ah! let candor and youth flourish. Let us love and laugh while spring blossoms. Let us love our babies, the little dears, and kiss our wives. Yes, that is moral and healthy; the world is not a shivering convent, marriage is not a tomb. Shame on those who find in it only sadness, boredom, and sleep.
My sisters, my sisters, strive to be real; that is the blessing I wish you.
CHAPTER X. MADAME'S IMPRESSIONS
The marriage ceremony at the Town Hall has, no doubt, a tolerable importance; but is it really possible for a well-bred person to regard this importance seriously? I have been through it; I have undergone like every one else this painful formality, and I can not look back on it without feeling a kind of humiliation. On alighting from the carriage I descried a muddy staircase; walls placarded with bills of every color, and in front of one of them a man in a snuff-colored coat, bare-headed, a pen behind his ear, and papers under his arm, who was rolling a cigarette between his inky fingers. To the left a door opened and I caught a glimpse of a low dark room in which a dozen fellows belonging to the National Guard were smoking black pipes. My first thought on entering this barrack-room was that I had done wisely in not putting on my gray dress. We ascended the staircase and I saw a long, dirty, dim passage, with a number of half-glass doors, on which I read: "Burials. Turn the handle," "Expropriations," "Deaths. Knock loudly," "Inquiries," "Births," "Public Health," etc., and at length "Marriages."
We entered in company with a small lad who was carrying a bottle of ink; the atmosphere was thick, heavy, and hot, and made one feel ill. Happily, an attendant in a blue livery, resembling in appearance the soldiers I had seen below, stepped forward to ask us to excuse him for not having at once ushered us into the Mayor's drawing-room, which is no other than the first-class waiting-room. I darted into it as one jumps into a cab when it begins to rain suddenly. Almost immediately two serious persons, one of whom greatly resembled the old cashier at the Petit-Saint-Thomas, brought in two registers, and, opening them, wrote for some time; only stopping occasionally to ask the name, age, and baptismal names of both of us, then, saying to themselves, "Semi-colon... between the aforesaid... fresh paragraph, etc., etc."
When he had done, the one like the man cashier at the Petit-Saint-Thomas read aloud, through his nose, that which he had put down, and of which I could understand nothing, except that my name was several times repeated as well as that of the other "aforesaid." A pen was handed to us and we signed. Voila.
"Is it over?" said I to Georges, who to my great surprise was very pale.
"Not yet, dear," said he; "we must now go into the hall, where the marriage ceremony takes place."
We entered a large, empty hall with bare walls; a bust of the Emperor was at the farther end over a raised platform, some armchairs, and some benches behind them, and dust upon everything. I must have been in a wrong mood, for it seemed to me I was entering the waiting-room at a railway-station; nor could I help looking at my aunts, who were very merry, over the empty chairs. The gentlemen, who no doubt affected not to think as we did, were, on the contrary, all very serious, and I could discern very well that Georges was actually trembling. At length the Mayor came in by a little door and appeared before us, awkward and podgy in his dress-coat, which was too large for him, and which his scarf caused to rise up. He was a very respectable man who had amassed a decent fortune from the sale of iron bedsteads; yet how could I bring myself to think that this embarrassed-looking, ill-dressed, timid little creature could, with a word hesitatingly uttered, unite me in eternal bonds? Moreover, he had a fatal likeness to my piano-tuner.
The Mayor, after bowing to us, as a man bows when without his hat, and in a white cravat, that is to say, clumsily, blew his nose, to the great relief of his two arms which he did not know what to do with, and briskly began the little ceremony. He hurriedly mumbled over several passages of the Code, giving the numbers of the paragraphs; and I was given confusedly to understand that I was threatened with the police if I did not blindly obey all the orders and crotchets of my husband, and if I did not follow wherever he might choose to take me, even if it should be to a sixth floor in the Rue-Saint-Victor. A score of times I was on the point of interrupting the Mayor, and saying, "Excuse me, Monsieur, but those remarks are hardly polite as regards myself, and you yourself must know that they are devoid of meaning."
But I restrained myself for fear I might frighten the magistrate, who seemed to me to be in a hurry to finish. He added, however, a few words on the mutual duties of husband and wife—copartnership—paternity, etc., etc.; but all these things, which would perhaps have made me weep anywhere else, seemed grotesque to me, and I could not forget that dozen of soldiers playing piquet round the stove, and that row of doors on which I had read "Public Health," "Burials," "Deaths," "Expropriations," etc. I should have been aggrieved at this dealer in iron bedsteads touching on my cherished dreams if the comic side of the situation had not absorbed my whole attention, and if a mad wish to laugh outright had not seized me.
"Monsieur Georges————, do you swear to take for your wife Mademoiselle—————-," said the Mayor, bending forward.
My husband bowed and answered "Yes" in a very low voice. He has since acknowledged to me that he never felt more emotion in his life than in uttering that "Yes."
"Mademoiselle Berthe————," continued the magistrate, turning to me, "do you swear to take for your husband—————-"
I bowed, with a smile, and said to myself: "Certainly; that is plain enough; I came here for that express purpose."
That was all. I was married!
My father and my husband shook hands like men who had not met for twenty years; the eyes of both were moist. As for myself, it was impossible for me to share their emotion. I was very hungry, and mamma and I had the carriage pulled up at the pastry-cook's before going on to the dressmaker's.
The next morning was the great event, and when I awoke it was hardly daylight. I opened the door leading into the drawing-room; there my dress was spread out on the sofa, the veil folded beside it, my shoes, my wreath in a large white box, nothing was lacking. I drank a glass of water. I was nervous, uneasy, happy, trembling. It seemed like the morning of a battle when one is sure of winning a medal. I thought of neither my past nor my future; I was wholly taken up with the idea of the ceremony, of that sacrament, the most solemn of all, of the oath I was about to take before God, and also by the thought of the crowd gathered expressly to see me pass.
We breakfasted early. My father was in his boots, his trousers, his white tie, and his dressing-gown. My mother also was half dressed. It seemed to me that the servants took greater pains in waiting on me and showed me more respect. I even remember that Marie said, "The hairdresser has come, Madame." Madame! Good girl, I have not forgotten it.
It was impossible for me to eat; my throat was parched and I experienced all over me shudders of impatience, something like the sensation one has when one is very-thirsty and is waiting for the sugar to melt. The tones of the organ seemed to haunt me, and the wedding of Emma and Louis recurred to my mind. I dressed; the hairdresser called me "Madame" too, and arranged my hair so nicely that I said, I remember, "Things are beginning well; this coiffure is a good omen." I stopped Marie, who wished to lace me tighter than usual. I know that white makes one look stouter and that Marie was right; but I was afraid lest it should send the blood to my head. I have always had a horror of brides who looked as if they had just got up from table. Religious emotions should be too profound to be expressed by anything save pallor. It is silly to blush under certain circumstances.
When I was dressed I entered the drawing-room to have a little more room and to spread out my trailing skirts. My father and Georges were already there, talking busily.
"Have the carriages come?—yes—and about the 'Salutaris'?—very good, then, you will see to everything—and the marriage coin—certainly, I have the ring—Mon Dieu! where is my certificate of confession? Ah! good, I left it in the carriage."
They were saying all this hurriedly and gesticulating like people having great business on hand. When Georges caught sight of me he kissed my hand, and while the maids kneeling about me were settling the skirt, and the hairdresser was clipping the tulle of the veil, he said in a husky voice, "You look charming, dear."
He was not thinking in the least of what he was saying, and I answered mechanically:
"Do you think so? Not too short, the veil, Monsieur Silvani. Don't forget the bow on the bodice, Marie."
When one has to look after everything, one needs all one's wits. However, Georges' husky voice recurred to me, and I said to myself, "I am sure that he has caught a cold; it is plain that he has had his hair cut too short."
I soon got at the true state of the case.
"You have a cold, my dear fellow," said my father.
"Don't speak of it," he answered in a low voice. And still lower, and with a somewhat embarrassed smile: "Will you be so kind as to give me an extra pocket-handkerchief? I have but one—"
"Certainly, my dear boy."
"Thanks, very much."
It was a trifle, to be sure, but I felt vexed, and I remember that, when going downstairs with them holding up my train behind me, I said to myself, "I do hope that he does not sneeze at the altar."
I soon forgot all about it. We got into the carriage; I felt that every one was looking at me, and I caught sight of groups of spectators in the street beyond the carriage gates. What I felt is impossible to describe, but it was something delightful. The sound of the beadles' canes on the pavement will forever reecho in my heart. We halted for a moment on the red drugget. The great organ poured forth the full tones of a triumphal march; thousands of eager faces turned toward me, and there in the background, amidst an atmosphere of sunshine, incense, velvet, and gold, were two gilt armchairs for us to seat ourselves on before the altar.
I do not know why an old engraving in my father's study crossed my mind. It represents the entry of Alexander the Great into Babylon; he is on an elephant which is glittering with precious stones. You must know it. Only, Alexander was a heathen who had many things to reproach himself with, while I was not.
God smiled on me, and with His paternal hand invited me to seat myself in His house, on His red drugget, in His gilt armchair. The heavens, full of joy, made music for me, and on high, through the glittering stained-glass windows, the archangels, full of kind feeling, whispered as they watched me. As I advanced, heads were bent as a wheat-field bends beneath the breeze. My friends, my relatives, my enemies, bowed to us, and I saw—for one sees everything in spite of one's self on these solemn occasions—that they did not think that I looked ugly. On reaching the gilt chair, I bent forward with restrained eagerness—my chignon was high, revealing my neck, which is passable—and thanked the Lord. The organ ceased its triumphal song and I could hear my poor mother bursting into tears beside me. Oh! I understand what a mother's heart must feel during such a ceremony. While watching with satisfaction the clergy who were solemnly advancing, I noticed Georges; he seemed irritated; he was stiff, upright, his nostrils dilated, and his lips set. I have always been rather vexed at him for not having been a little more sensible to what I was experiencing that day, but men do not understand this kind of poetry.
The discourse of his Reverence who married us was a masterpiece, and was delivered, moreover, with that unction, that dignity, that persuasive charm peculiar to him. He spoke of our two families "in which pious belief was hereditary, like honor." You could have heard a pin drop, such was the attention with which the prelate's voice was listened to. Then at one point he turned toward me, and gave me to understand with a thousand delicacies that I was wedding one of the noblest officers in the army. "Heaven smiles," said he, "on the warrior who places at the service of his country a sword blessed by God, and who, when he darts into the fray, can place his hand upon his heart and shout to the enemy that noble war-cry, 'I believe!'" How well that was turned! What grandeur in this holy eloquence! A thrill ran through the assembly. But that was not all. His Lordship then addressed Georges in a voice as soft and unctuous as it had before been ringing and enthusiastic.
"Monsieur, you are about to take as your companion a young girl"—I scarcely dare recall the graceful and delicate things that his Reverence said respecting me—"piously reared by a Christian mother who has been able to share with her, if I may say so, all the virtues of her heart, all the charms of her mind." (Mamma was sobbing.) "She will love her husband as she has loved her father, that father full of kindness, who, from the cradle, implanted in her the sentiments of nobility and disinterestedness which—" (Papa smiled despite himself.) "Her father, whose name is known to the poor, and who in the house of God has his place marked among the elect." (Since his retirement, papa has become churchwarden.) "And you, Monsieur, will respect, I feel certain, so much purity, such ineffable candor"—I felt my eyes grow moist—"and without forgetting the physical and perishable charms of this angel whom God bestows upon you, you will thank Heaven for those qualities a thousand times more precious and more lasting contained in her heart and her mind."
We were bidden to stand up, and stood face to face with one another like the divine spouses in the picture of Raphael. We exchanged the golden ring, and his Reverence, in a slow, grave voice, uttered some Latin words, the sense of which I did not understand, but which greatly moved me, for the prelate's hand, white, delicate, and transparent, seemed to be blessing me. The censer, with its bluish smoke, swung by the hands of children, shed in the air its holy perfume. What a day, great heavens! All that subsequently took place grows confused in my memory. I was dazzled, I was transported. I can remember, however, the bonnet with white roses in which Louise had decked herself out. Strange it is how some people are quite wanting in taste!
Going to the vestry, I leaned on the General's arm, and it was then that I saw the spectators' faces. All seemed touched.
Soon they thronged round to greet me. The vestry was full, they pushed and pressed round me, and I replied to all these smiles, to all these compliments, by a slight bow in which religious emotion peeped forth in spite of me. I felt conscious that something solemn had just taken place before God and man; I felt conscious of being linked in eternal bonds. I was married!
By a strange fancy I then fell to thinking of the pitiful ceremony of the day before. I compared—God forgive me for doing so!—the ex-dealer in iron bedsteads, ill at ease in his dress-coat, to the priest; the trivial and commonplace words of the mayor, with the eloquent outbursts of the venerable prelate. What a lesson! There earth, here heaven; there the coarse prose of the man of business, here celestial poesy.
Georges, to whom I lately spoke about this, said:
"But, my dear, perhaps you don't know that marriage at the Town Hall before the registrar is gratis, while—" I put my hand over his mouth to prevent him from finishing; it seemed to me that he was about to utter some impiety.
Gratis, gratis. That is exactly what I find so very unseemly.
CHAPTER XI. A WEDDING NIGHT
Thanks to country manners and the solemnity of the occasion, the guests had left fairly early. Almost every one had shaken hands with me, some with a cunning smile and others with a foolish one, some with an officious gravity that suggested condolence, and others with a stupid cordiality verging on indiscretion.
General de S. and the prefect, two old friends of the family, were lingering over a game of ecarte, and frankly, in spite of all the good-will I bore toward them, I should have liked to see them at the devil, so irritable did I feel that evening.
All this took place, I had forgotten to tell you, the very day of my marriage, and I was really rather tired. Since morning I had been overwhelmed by an average of about two hundred people, all actuated by the best intentions, but as oppressive as the atmosphere before a storm. Since morning I had kept up a perpetual smile for all, and then the good village priest who had married us had thought it his duty, in a very neat sermon so far as the rest of it went, to compare me to Saint Joseph, and that sort of thing is annoying when one is Captain in a lancer regiment. The Mayor, who had been good enough to bring his register to the chateau, had for his part not been able, on catching sight of the prefect, to resist the pleasure of crying, "Long live the Emperor!" On quitting the church they had fired off guns close to my ears and presented me with an immense bouquet. Finally—I tell you this between ourselves—since eight o'clock in the morning I had had on a pair of boots rather too tight for me, and at the moment this narrative begins it was about half an hour after midnight.
I had spoken to every one except my dear little wife, whom they seemed to take pleasure in keeping away from me. Once, however, on ascending the steps, I had squeezed her hand on the sly. Even then this rash act had cost me a look, half sharp and half sour, from my mother-in-law, which had recalled me to a true sense of the situation. If, Monsieur, you happen to have gone through a similar day of violent effusion and general expansion, you will agree with me that during no other moment of your life were you more inclined to irritability.
What can you say to the cousins who kiss you, to the aunts who cling round your neck and weep into your waistcoat, to all these smiling faces ranged one beyond the other before you, to all those eyes which have been staring at you for twelve hours past, to all those outbursts of affection which you have not sought, but which claim a word from the heart in reply?
At the end of such a day one's very heart is foundered. You say to yourself: "Come, is it all over? Is there yet a tear to wipe away, a compliment to receive, an agitated hand to clasp? Is every one satisfied? Have they seen enough of the bridegroom? Does any one want any more of him? Can I at length give a thought to my own happiness, think of my dear little wife who is waiting for me with her head buried in the folds of her pillow? Who is waiting for me!" That flashes through your mind all at once like a train of powder. You had not thought of it. During the whole of the day this luminous side of the question had remained veiled, but the hour approaches, at this very moment the silken laces of her bodice are swishing as they are unloosed; she is blushing, agitated, and dare not look at herself in the glass for fear of noting her own confusion. Her aunt and her mother, her cousin and her bosom friend, surround and smile at her, and it is a question of who shall unhook her dress, remove the orange-blossoms from her hair, and have the last kiss.
Good! now come the tears; they are wiped away and followed by kisses. The mother whispers something in her ear about a sacrifice, the future, necessity, obedience, and finds means to mingle with these simple but carefully prepared words the hope of celestial benedictions and of the intercession of a dove or two hidden among the curtains.
The poor child does not understand anything about it, except it be that something unheard-of is about to take place, that the young man—she dare not call him anything else in her thoughts—is about to appear as a conqueror and address her in wondrous phrases, the very anticipation of which makes her quiver with impatience and alarm. The child says not a word—she trembles, she weeps, she quivers like a partridge in a furrow. The last words of her mother, the last farewells of her family, ring confusedly in her ears, but it is in vain that she strives to seize on their meaning; her mind—where is that poor mind of hers? She really does not know, but it is no longer under her control.
"Ah! Captain," I said to myself, "what joys are hidden beneath these alarms, for she loves you. Do you remember that kiss which she let you snatch coming out of church that evening when the Abbe What's-his-name preached so well, and those hand-squeezings and those softened glances, and—happy Captain, floods of love will inundate you; she is awaiting you!"
Here I gnawed my moustache, I tore my gloves off and then put them on again, I walked up and down the little drawing-room, I shifted the clock, which stood on the mantel-shelf; I could not keep still. I had already experienced such sensations on the morning of the assault on the Malakoff. Suddenly the General, who was still going on with his eternal game at ecarte with the prefect, turned round.
"What a noise you are making, Georges!" said he. "Cards, if you please, Prefect."
"But, General, the fact is that I feel, I will not conceal from you, a certain degree of emotion and—"
"The king-one-and four trumps. My dear friend, you are not in luck," said he to the prefect, and pulling up with an effort the white waistcoat covering his stomach, he slipped some louis which were on the table L931 into his fob; then bethinking himself, he added: "In fact, my poor fellow, you think yourself bound to keep us company. It is late and we have three leagues to cover from here to B. Every one has left, too."
At last he departed. I can still see his thick neck, the back of which formed a roll of fat over his ribbon of the Legion of Honor. I heard him get into his carriage; he was still laughing at intervals. I could have thrashed him.
"At last!" I said to myself; "at last!" I mechanically glanced at myself in the glass. I was crimson, and my boots, I am ashamed to say, were horribly uncomfortable. I was furious that such a grotesque detail as tight boots should at such a moment have power to attract my attention; but I promised to be sincere, and I am telling you the whole truth.
Just then the clock struck one, and my mother-in-law made her appearance. Her eyes were red, and her ungloved hand was crumpling up a handkerchief visibly moistened.
At the sight of her my first movement was one of impatience. I said to myself, "I am in for a quarter of an hour of it at least."
Indeed, Madame de C. sank down on a couch, took my hand, and burst into tears. Amid her sobs she ejaculated, "Georges—my dear boy—Georges—my son."
I felt that I could not rise to the occasion. "Come, Captain," I said to myself, "a tear; squeeze forth a tear. You can not get out of this becomingly without a tear, or it will be, 'My son-in-law, it is all off.'"
When this stupid phrase, derived from I do not know where—a Palais Royal farce, I believe—had once got into my head, it was impossible for me to get rid of it, and I felt bursts of wild merriment welling up to my lips.
"Calm yourself, Madame; calm yourself."
"How can I, Georges? Forgive me, my dear boy."
"Can you doubt me, Madame?"
I felt that "Madame" was somewhat cold, but I was afraid of making Madame de C. seem old by calling her "mother." I knew her to be somewhat of a coquette.
"Oh, I do not doubt your affection; go, my dear boy, go and make her happy; yes, oh, yes! Fear nothing on my account; I am strong."
Nothing is more unbearable than emotion when one does not share it. I murmured "Mother!" feeling that after all she must appreciate such an outburst; then approaching, I kissed her, and made a face in spite of myself—such a salt and disagreeable flavor had been imparted to my mother-in-law's countenance by the tears she had shed.
CHAPTER XII. THE HONEYMOON
It had been decided that we should pass the first week of our honeymoon at Madame de C.'s chateau. A little suite of apartments had been fitted up for us, upholstered in blue chintz, delightfully cool-looking. The term "cool-looking" may pass here for a kind of bad joke, for in reality it was somewhat damp in this little paradise, owing to the freshly repaired walls.
A room had been specially reserved for me, and it was thither that, after heartily kissing my dear mother-in-law, I flew up the stairs four at a time. On an armchair, drawn in front of the fire, was spread out my maroon velvet dressing-gown and close beside it were my slippers. I could not resist, and I frantically pulled off my boots. Be that as it may, my heart was full of love, and a thousand thoughts were whirling through my head in frightful confusion. I made an effort, and reflected for a moment on my position:
"Captain," said I to myself, "the approaching moment is a solemn one. On the manner in which you cross the threshold of married life depends your future happiness. It is not a small matter to lay the first stone of an edifice. A husband's first kiss"—I felt a thrill run down my back—"a husband's first kiss is like the fundamental axiom that serves as a basis for a whole volume. Be prudent, Captain. She is there beyond that wall, the fair young bride, who is awaiting you; her ear on the alert, her neck outstretched, she is listening to each of your movements. At every creak of the boards she shivers, dear little soul."
As I said this, I took off my coat and my cravat. "Your line of conduct lies before you ready traced out," I added; "be impassioned with due restraint, calm with some warmth, good, kind, tender; but at the same time let her have a glimpse of the vivacities of an ardent affection and the attractive aspect of a robust temperament." Suddenly I put my coat on again. I felt ashamed to enter my wife's room in a dressing-gown and night attire. Was it not equal to saying to her: "My dear, I am at home; see how I make myself so"? It was making a show of rights which I did not yet possess, so I rearranged my dress, and after the thousand details of a careful toilette I approached the door and gave three discreet little taps. Oh! I can assure you that I was all in a tremble, and my heart was beating so violently that I pressed my hand to my chest to restrain its throbs.
She answered nothing, and after a moment of anguish I decided to knock again. I felt tempted to say in an earnest voice, "It is I, dear; may I come in?" But I also felt that it was necessary that this phrase should be delivered in the most perfect fashion, and I was afraid of marring its effect; I remained, therefore, with a smile upon my lips as if she had been able to see me, and I twirled my moustache, which, without affectation, I had slightly perfumed.
I soon heard a faint cough, which seemed to answer me and to grant me admission. Women, you see, possess that exquisite tact, that extreme delicacy, which is wholly lacking to us. Could one say more cleverly, in a more charming manner, "Come, I await you, my love, my spouse"? Saint Peter would not have hit upon it. That cough was heaven opening to me. I turned the handle, the door swept noiselessly over the soft carpet. I was in my wife's room.
A delightful warmth met me face to face, and I breathed a vague perfume of violets and orris-root, or something akin, with which the air of the room was laden. A charming disorder was apparent, the ball dress was spread upon a lounging-chair, two candles were discreetly burning beneath rose-colored shades.
I drew near the bed where Louise was reposing, on the farther side of it, with her face to the wall, and her head buried in the pillows. Motionless and with closed eyes she appeared to be asleep, but her heightened color betrayed her emotion. I must acknowledge that at that moment I felt the most embarrassed of mankind. I resolved humbly to request hospitality. That would be delicate and irreproachable. Oh! you who have gone through these trials, search your memories and recall that ridiculous yet delightful moment, that moment of mingled anguish and joy, when it becomes necessary, without any preliminary rehearsal, to play the most difficult of parts, and to avoid the ridicule which is grinning at you from the folds of the curtains; to be at one and the same time a diplomatist, a barrister, and a man of action, and by skill, tact, and eloquence render the sternest of realities acceptable without banishing the most ideal of dreams.
I bent over the bed, and in the softest notes, the sweetest tones my voice could compass, I murmured, "Well, darling?"
One does what one can at such moments; I could not think of anything better, and yet, Heaven knows, I had tried.
No reply, and yet she was awake. I will admit that my embarrassment was doubled. I had reckoned—I can say as much between ourselves—upon more confidence and greater yielding. I had calculated on a moment of effusiveness, full of modesty and alarm, it is true, but, at any rate, I had counted upon such effusiveness, and I found myself strangely disappointed. The silence chilled me.
"You sleep very soundly, dear. Yet I have a great many things to say; won't you talk a little?"
As I spoke I—touched her shoulder with the tip of my finger, and saw her suddenly shiver.
"Come," said I; "must I kiss you to wake you up altogether?"
She could not help smiling, and I saw that she was blushing.
"Oh! do not be afraid, dear; I will only kiss the tips of your fingers gently, like that," and seeing that she let me do so, I sat down on the bed.
She gave a little cry. I had sat down on her foot, which was straying beneath the bedclothes.
"Please let me go to sleep," she said, with a supplicating air; "I am so tired."
"And how about myself, my dear child? I am ready to drop. See, I am in evening dress, and have not a pillow to rest my head on, not one, except this one." I had her hand in mine, and I squeezed it while kissing it. "Would you be very vexed to lend this pillow to your husband? Come, are you going to refuse me a little bit of room? I am not troublesome, I can assure you."
I thought I noted a smile on her lips, and, impatient to escape from my delicate position, in a moment I rose, and, while continuing to converse, hastelessly and noiselessly undressed. I was burning my ships. When my ships were burned there was absolutely nothing left for me to do but to get into bed.
Louise gave a little cry, then she threw herself toward the wall, and I heard a kind of sob.
I had one foot in bed and the other out, and remained petrified, a smile on my lips, and supporting myself wholly on one arm.
"What is the matter-dear; what is the matter? Forgive me if I have offended you."
I brought my head closer to her own, and, while inhaling the perfume of her hair, whispered in her ear:
"I love you, my dear child; I love you, little wife; don't you think that I do?"
She turned toward me her eyes, moistened with tears, and said in a voice broken by emotion and so soft, so low, so tender, that it penetrated to the marrow of my bones:
"I love you, too. But let me sleep!"
"Sleep, my loved angel; sleep fearlessly, my love. I am going away; sleep while I watch over you," I said.
Upon my honor I felt a sob rise to my throat, and yet the idea that my last remark was not badly turned shot through my brain. I pulled the coverings over her again and tucked her up like a child. I can still see her rosy face buried in that big pillow, the curls of fair hair escaping from under the lace of her little nightcap. With her left hand she held the counterpane close up under her chin, and I saw on one of her fingers the new and glittering wedding-ring I had given her that morning. She was charming, a bird nestling in cottonwool, a rosebud fallen amid snow. When she was settled I bent over her and kissed her on the forehead.
"I am repaid," said I to her, laughing; "are you comfortable, Louise?"
She did not answer, but her eyes met mine and I saw in them a smile which seemed to thank me, but a smile so subtle that in any other circumstances I should have seen a shadow of raillery in it.
"Now, Captain, settle yourself in this armchair and goodnight!" I said this to myself, and I made an effort to raise my unfortunate foot which I had forgotten, a heroic effort, but it was impossible to accomplish it. The leg was so benumbed that I could not move it. As well as I could I hoisted myself upon the other leg, and, hobbling, reached my armchair without appearing too lame. The room seemed to me twice as wide to cross as the Champ de Mars, for hardly had I taken a step in its chilly atmosphere—the fire had gone out, it was April, and the chateau overlooked the Loire—when the cold reminded me of the scantiness of my costume. What! to cross the room before that angel, who was doubtless watching me, in the most grotesque of costumes, and with a helpless leg into the bargain! Why had I forgotten my dressing-gown? However, I reached the armchair, into which I sank. I seized my dress-coat which was beside me, threw it over my shoulders, twisted my white cravat round my neck, and, like a soldier bivouacking, I sought a comfortable position.
It would have been all very well without the icy cold that assailed my legs, and I saw nothing in reach to cover me. I said to myself, "Captain, the position is not tenable," when at length I perceived on the couch—One sometimes is childishly ashamed, but I really dared not, and I waited for a long minute struggling between a sense of the ridiculous and the cold which I felt was increasing. At last, when I heard my wife's breathing become more regular and thought that she must be asleep, I stretched out my arm and pulled toward me her wedding-gown which was on the couch—the silk rustled enough to wake the dead—and with the energy which one always finds on an emergency, wrapped it round me savagely like a railway rug. Then yielding to an involuntary fit of sybaritism, I unhooked the bellows and tried to get the fire to burn.
"After all," I said to myself, arranging the blackened embers and working the little instrument with a thousand precautions, "after all, I have behaved like a gentleman. If the General saw me at this moment he would laugh in my face; but no matter, I have acted rightly."
Had I not sworn to be sincere, I do not know whether I should acknowledge to you that I suddenly felt horrible tinglings in the nasal regions. I wished to restrain myself, but the laws of nature are those which one can not escape. My respiration suddenly ceased, I felt a superhuman power contract my facial muscles, my nostrils dilated, my eyes closed, and all at once I sneezed with such violence that the bottle of Eau des Carmes shook again. God forgive me! A little cry came from the bed, and immediately afterward the most silvery frank and ringing outbreak of laughter followed. Then she added in her simple, sweet, musical tones:
"Have you hurt yourself—, Georges?" She had said Georges after a brief silence, and in so low a voice that I scarcely heard it.
"I am very ridiculous, am I not, dear? and you are quite right to laugh at me. What would you have? I am camping out and I am undergoing the consequences."
"You are not ridiculous, but you are catching cold," and she began to laugh again.
"Cruel one, you ought to say, and you would not be wrong if I were to let you fall ill." She said this with charming grace. There was a mingling of timidity and tenderness, modesty and raillery, which I find it impossible to express, but which stupefied me. She smiled at me, then I saw her move nearer to the wall in order to leave room for me, and, as I hesitated to cross the room.
"Come, forgive me," she said.
I approached the bed; my teeth were chattering.
"How kind you are to me, dear," she said to me after a moment or so; "will you wish me good-night?" and she held out her cheek to me. I approached nearer, but as the candle had just gone out I made a mistake as to the spot, and my lips brushed hers. She quivered, then, after a brief silence, she murmured in a low tone, "You must forgive me; you frightened me so just now."
"I wanted to kiss you, dear."
"Well, kiss me, my husband."
Within the trembling young girl the coquetry of the woman was breaking forth in spite of herself.
I could not help it; she exhaled a delightful perfume which mounted to my brain, and the contact of this dear creature whom I touched, despite myself, swept away all my resolutions.
My lips—I do not know how it was—met hers, and we remained thus for a long moment; I felt against my breast the echo of the beating heart, and her rapid breathing came full into my face.
"You do love me a little, dear?" I whispered in her ear.
I distinguished amid a confused sigh a little "Yes!" that resembled a mere breath.
"I don't frighten you any longer?"
"No," she murmured, very softly.
"You will be my little wife, then, Louise; you will let me teach you to love me as I love you?"
"I do love you," said she, but so softly and so gently that she seemed to be dreaming.
How many times have we not laughed over these recollections, already so remote.
CHAPTER XIII. THE BLUE NOTE-BOOK
Toward midnight mamma made a sign to me with her eyes, and under cover of a lively waltz we slipped out of the drawing-room. In the hall the servants, who were passing to and fro, drew aside to let us go by them, but I felt that their eyes were fixed upon me with the curiosity which had pursued me since the morning. The large door giving on to the park was open, although the night was cool, and in the shadow I could make out groups of country folk gathered there to catch a glimpse of the festivities through the windows. These good people were laughing and whispering; they were silent for a moment as we advanced to ascend the staircase, but I once more felt that I was the mark of these inquisitive looks and the object of all these smiles. The face of mamma, who accompanied me, was much flushed, and large tears were flowing from her eyes.
How was it that an event so gay for some was so sad for others?
When I think over it now I can hardly keep my countenance. What silly terrors at that frightful yet charming moment! Yet, after all, one exaggerates things a great deal.
On reaching the first floor mamma stopped, choking, took my head in her hands, and kissed me on the forehead, and exclaimed, "Valentine!" I was not greatly moved by this outburst, knowing that mamma, since she has grown a little too stout, has some difficulty in getting upstairs. I judged, therefore, that the wish to take breath for a moment without appearing to do so had something to do with this sudden halt.
We entered the nuptial chamber; it was as coquettish as possible, refreshing to the eye, snug, elegant, and adorned with fine Louis XVI furniture, upholstered in Beauvais tapestry. The bed, above all, was a marvel of elegance, but to tell the truth I had no idea of it till a week later. At the outside it seemed to me that I was entering an austere-looking locality; the very air we breathed appeared to me to have something solemn and awe-striking about it.
"Here is your room, child," said mamma; "but first of all come and sit here beside me, my dear girl."
At these words we both burst into tears, and mamma then expressed herself as follows:
"The kiss you are giving me, Valentine, is the last kiss that I shall have from you as a girl. Your husband—for Georges is that now—"
At these words I shuddered slightly, and by a singular freak of my brain pictured to myself Monsieur Georges—Georges—my husband—in a cotton night cap and a dressing-gown. The vision flashed across my mind in the midst of the storm. I saw him just as plainly as if he had been there. It was dreadful. The nightcap came over his forehead, down to his eyebrows, and he said to me, pressing my hand; "At last, Valentine; you are mine; do you love me? oh! tell me, do you love me?" And as his head moved as he uttered these words, the horrible tuft at the end of his nightcap waggled as an accompaniment.
"No," I said to myself, "it is impossible for my husband to appear in such a fashion; let me banish this image—and yet my father wears the hideous things, and my brother, who is quite young, has them already. Men wear them at all ages, unless though—" It is frightful to relate, but Georges now appeared to me with a red-and-green bandanna handkerchief tied round his head. I would have given ten years of my life to be two hours older, and hurriedly passed my hand across my eyes to drive away these diabolical visions.
However, mamma, who had been still speaking all the time, attributing this movement to the emotion caused by her words, said, with great sweetness:
"Do not be alarmed, my dear Valentine; perhaps I am painting the picture in too gloomy colors; but my experience and my love render this duty incumbent upon me."
I have never heard mamma express herself so fluently. I was all the more surprised as, not having heard a word of what she had already said, this sentence seemed suddenly sprung upon me. Not knowing what to answer, I threw myself into the arms of mamma, who, after a minute or so, put me away gently, saying, "You are suffocating me, dear."
She wiped her eyes with her little cambric handkerchief, which was damp, and said, smilingly:
"Now that I have told you what my conscience imposed on me, I am strong. See, dear, I think that I can smile. Your husband, my dear child, is a man full of delicacy. Have confidence; accept all without misgiving."
Mamma kissed me on the forehead, which finished off her sentence, and added:
"Now, dear one, I have fulfilled a duty I regarded as sacred. Come here and let me take your wreath off."
"By this time," I thought, "they have noticed that I have left the drawing-room. They are saying, 'Where is the bride?' and smiling, 'Monsieur Georges is getting uneasy. What is he doing? what is he thinking? where is he?'"
"Have you tried on your nightcap, dear?" said mamma, who had recovered herself; "it looks rather small to me, but is nicely embroidered. Oh, it is lovely!"
And she examined it from every point of view.
At that moment there was a knock at the door. "It is I," said several voices, among which I distinguished the flute-like tones of my aunt Laura, and those of my godmother. Madame de P., who never misses a chance of pressing her two thick lips to some one's cheeks, accompanied them. Their eyes glittered, and all three had a sly and triumphant look, ferreting and inquisitive, which greatly intimidated me. Would they also set about fulfilling a sacred duty?
"Oh, you are really too pretty, my angel!" said Madame de P., kissing me on the forehead, after the moist fashion peculiar to her, and then sitting down in the large Louis XVI armchair.
My maid had not been allowed to undress me, so that all of them, taking off their gloves, set to work to render me this service. They tangled the laces, caught their own lace in the hooks, and laughed heartily all the while.
"It is the least that the oldest friend of the family,"—she loved to speak of herself as such—"should make herself useful at such a moment," muttered Madame de P., holding her eyeglass in one hand and working with the other.
I passed into a little boudoir to complete my toilette for the night, and found on the marble of the dressing-table five or six bottles of scent, tied up with red, white, and blue ribbons—an act of attention on the part of my Aunt Laura. I felt the blood flying to my head; there was an unbearable singing in my ears. Now that I can coolly weigh the impressions I underwent, I can tell that what I felt above all was anger. I would have liked to be in the farthest depths of the wildest forest in America, so unseemly did I find this curious kindness which haunted me with its attentions. I should have liked to converse a little with myself, to fathom my own emotion somewhat, and, in short, to utter a brief prayer before throwing myself into the torrent.
However, through the open door, I could hear the four ladies whispering together and stifling their outbursts of laughter; I had never seen them so gay. I made up my mind. I crossed the room, and, shaking off the pretty little white slippers which my mother had embroidered for me, jumped into bed. I was not long in finding out that it was no longer my own narrow little bed. It was immense, and I hesitated a moment, not knowing which way to turn. I felt nevertheless a feeling of physical comfort. The bed was warm, and I do not know what scent rose from its silken coverlet. I felt myself sink into the mass of feathers, the pillows, twice over too large and trimmed with embroidery, gave way as it were beneath me, burying me in a soft and perfumed abyss.
At length the ladies rose, and after giving a glance round the room, doubtless to make sure that nothing was lacking, approached the bed.
"Good-night, my dear girl," said my mother, bending over me.
She kissed me, carried her handkerchief, now reduced to a wet dab, to her eyes, and went out with a certain precipitation.
"Remember that the old friend of the family kissed you on this night, my love," said Madame de P., as she moistened my forehead.
"Come, my little lamb, good-night and sleep well," said my aunt, with her smile that seemed to issue from her nose. She added in a whisper: "You love him, don't you? The slyboots! she won't answer! Well, since you love him so much, don't tell him so, my dear. But I must leave you; you are sleepy. Goodnight."
And she went away, smiling.
At length I was alone. I listened; the doors were being closed, I heard a carriage roll along the road; the flame of the two candles placed upon the mantelshelf quivered silently and were reflected in the looking-glass.
I thought about the ceremony of that morning, the dinner, the ball. I said to myself, clenching my fists to concentrate my thoughts: "How was Marie dressed? She was dressed in—dressed in—dressed in—" I repeated the words aloud to impart more authority to them and oblige my mind to reply; but do what I would, it was impossible for me to drive away the thought that invaded my whole being.
"He is coming. What is he doing? Where is he? Perhaps he is on the stairs now. How shall I receive him when he comes?"
I loved him; oh! with my whole soul, I can acknowledge it now; but I loved him quite at the bottom of my heart. In order to think of him I went down into the very lowest chamber of my heart, bolted the door, and crouched down in the darkest corner.
At last, at a certain moment, the floor creaked, a door was opened in the passage with a thousand precautions, and I heard the tread of a boot—a boot!
The boot ceased to creak, and I heard quite close to me, on the other side of the wall, which was nothing but a thin partition, an armchair being rolled across the carpet, and then a little cough, which seemed to me to vibrate with emotion. It was he! But for the partition I could have touched him with my finger. A few moments later I could distinguish the almost imperceptible sound of footsteps on the carpet; this faint sound rang violently in my head. All at once my breathing and my heart both stopped together; there was a tap at the door. The tapping was discreet, full of entreaty and delicacy. I wanted to reply, "Come in," but I had no longer any voice; and, besides, was it becoming to answer like that, so curtly and plainly? I thought "Come in" would sound horribly unseemly, and I said nothing. There was another tap. I should really have preferred the door to have been broken open with a hatchet or for him to have come down the chimney. In my agony I coughed faintly among my sheets. That was enough; the door opened, and I divined from the alteration in the light shed by the candles that some one at whom I did not dare look was interposing between them and myself.
This some one, who seemed to glide across the carpet, drew near the bed, and I could distinguish out of the corner of my eye his shadow on the wall. I could scarcely restrain my joy; my Captain wore neither cotton nightcap nor bandanna handkerchief. That was indeed something. However, in this shadow which represented him in profile, his nose had so much importance that amid all my uneasiness a smile flitted across my lips. Is it not strange how all these little details recur to your mind? I did not dare turn round, but I devoured with my eyes this shadow representing my husband; I tried to trace in it the slightest of his gestures; I even sought the varying expressions of his physiognomy, but, alas! in vain.
I do not know how to express in words all that I felt at that moment; my pen seems too clumsy to write my sensations, and, besides, did I really see deep into my heart?
Do men comprehend all this? Do they understand that the heart requires gradual changes, and that if a half-light awakens, a noon-day blaze dazzles and burns? It is not that the poor child, who is trembling in a corner, refuses to learn; far from that, she has aptitude, good-will, and a quick and ready intelligence; she knows she has reached the age at which it is necessary to know how to read; she rejects neither the science nor even the teacher. It is the method of instruction that makes her uneasy. She is afraid lest this young professor, whose knowledge is so extensive, should turn over the pages of the book too quickly and neglect the A B C.
A few hours back he was the submissive, humble lover, ready to kneel down before her, hiding his knowledge as one hides a sin, speaking his own language with a thousand circumspections. At any moment it might have been thought that he was going to blush. She was a queen, he a child; and now all at once the roles are changed; it is the submissive subject who arrives in the college cap of a professor, hiding under his arm an unknown and mysterious book. Is the man in the college cap about to command, to smile, to obtrude himself and his books, to speak Latin, to deliver a lecture?
She does not know that this learned individual is trembling, too; that he is greatly embarrassed over his opening lesson, that emotion has caused him to forget his Latin, that his throat is parched and his legs are trembling beneath him. She does not know this, and I tell you between ourselves, it is not her self-esteem that suffers least at this conjecture. She suffers at finding herself, after so many signatures, contracts, and ceremonies-still a charming child, and nothing more.
I believe that the first step in conjugal life will, according to the circumstances accompanying it, give birth to captivating sympathies or invincible repulsion. But to give birth to these sympathies, to strike the spark that is to set light to this explosion of infinite gratitude and joyful love—what art, what tact, what delicacy, and at the same time what presence of mind are needed.
How was it that at the first word Georges uttered my terrors vanished? His voice was so firm and so sweet, he asked me so gayly for leave to draw near the fire and warm his feet, and spoke to me with such ease and animation of the incidents of the day. I said to myself, "It is impossible for the least baseness to be hidden under all this." In presence of so much good-humor and affability my scaffolding fell to pieces. I ventured a look from beneath the sheets: I saw him comfortably installed in the big armchair, and I bit my lips. I am still at a loss to understand this little fit of ill-temper. When one is reckoning on a fright, one is really disappointed at its delaying itself. Never had Georges been more witty, more affectionate, more well-bred; he was still the man of the day before. He must really have been very excited.
"You are tired out, I am certain, darling," he said.
The word "darling" made me start, but did not frighten me; it was the first time he had called me so, but I really could not refuse him the privilege of speaking thus. However it may be, I maintained my reserve, and in the same tone as one replies, "No thanks, I don't take tea," I answered:
"Oh, yes! I am worn out."
"I thought so," he added, approaching the bed; "you can not keep your eyes open; you can not even look at me, my dear little wife."
"I will leave you," continued he. "I will leave you; you need repose." And he drew still more closely to me, which was not natural. Then, stretching out his hand, which I knew was white and well cared for: "Won't you give me a little shake of the hand, dear? I am half asleep, too, my pretty little wife." His face wore an expression which was alarming, though not without its charm; as he said this, I saw clearly that he had lied to me like a demon, and that he was no more sleepy than I was.
However that may be, I was guilty of the fault, the carelessness that causes disaster, of letting him take my hand, which was straying by chance under the lace of the pillows.
I was that evening in a special condition of nervous sensibility, for at this contact a strange sensation ran through me from head to foot. It was not that the Captain's hand had the softness of satin—I believe that physical sensations, in us women, have causes directly contrary to those which move men; for that which caused me such lively emotion was precisely its firmness. There was something strong, manly, and powerful about it. He squeezed my hand rather strongly.
My rings, which I have a fancy for wearing all at once, hurt me, and—I really should not have believed it—I liked it very much, perhaps too much. For the first time I found an inexplicable, an almost intoxicating, charm in this intimate contact with a being who could have crushed me between his fingers, and that in the middle of the night too, in silence, without any possibility of help. It was horribly delicious.
I did not withdraw my hand, which he kissed, but lingeringly. The clock struck two, and the last sound had long since died away when his lips were still there, quivering with rapid little movements, which were so many imperceptible kisses, moist, warm, burning. I felt gleams of fire flashing around me. I wished to draw away my hand, but could not; I remember perfectly well that I could not. His moustache pricked me, and whiffs of the scent with which he perfumed it reached me and completed my trouble. I felt my nostrils dilating despite myself, and, striving but in vain to take refuge in my inmost being, I exclaimed inwardly: "Protect me, Lord, but this time with all your might. A drop of water, Lord; a drop of water!" I waited—no appreciable succor reached from above. It was not till a week afterward that I understood the intentions of Providence.
"You told me you were sleepy," I murmured, in a trembling voice. I was like a shipwrecked person clutching at a floating match-box; I knew quite well that the Captain would not go away.
"Yes, I was sleepy, pet," said Georges, approaching his face to mine; "but now I am athirst." He put his lips to my ear and whispered softly, "Athirst for a kiss from you, love."
This "love" was the beginning of another life. The spouse now appeared, the past was fleeing away, I was entering on the future. At length I had crossed the frontier; I was in a foreign land. Oh! I acknowledge—for what is the use of feigning?—that I craved for this love, and I felt that it engrossed me and spread itself through me. I felt that I was getting out of my depth, I let go the last branch that held me to the shore, and to myself I repeated: "Yes, I love you; yes, I am willing to follow you; yes, I am yours, love, love, love!"
"Won't you kiss your husband; come, won't you?"
And his mouth was so near my own that it seemed to meet my lips.
"Yes," said I.
August 7th, 185-How many times have I not read through you during the last two years, my little blue note-book! How many things I might add as marginal notes if you were not doomed to the flames, to light my first fire this autumn! How could I have written all this, and how is it that having done so I have not dared to complete my confidences! No one has seen you, at any rate; no one has turned your pages. Go back into your drawer, dear, with, pending the first autumn fire, a kiss from your Valentine.
NOTE.—Owing to what circumstances this blue note-book, doomed to the flames, was discovered by me in an old Louis XVI chiffonnier I had just bought does not greatly matter to you, dear reader, and would be out of my power to explain even if it did.
CHAPTER XIV. THE BLUE NOTE-BOOK AGAIN
Only to think that I was going to throw you into the fire, poor dear! Was I not foolish? In whom else could I confide? If I had not you, to whom could I tell all those little things at which every one laughs, but which make you cry!
This evening, for instance, I dined alone, for Georges was invited out; well, to whom else can I acknowledge that when I found myself alone, face to face with a leg of mutton, cooked to his liking, and with the large carving-knife which is usually beside his plate, before me, I began to cry like a child? To whom else can I admit that I drank out of the Bohemian wine-glass he prefers, to console me a little?
But if I were to mention this they would laugh in my face. Father Cyprien himself, who nevertheless has a heart running over with kindness, would say to me:
"Let us pass that by, my dear child; let us pass that by."
I know him so well, Father Cyprien; while you, you always listen to me, my poor little note-book; if a tear escapes me, you kindly absorb it and retain its trace like a good-hearted friend. Hence I love you.
And, since we are tete-a-tete, let us have a chat. You won't be angry with me for writing with a pencil, dear. You see I am very comfortably settled in my big by-by and I do not want to have any ink-stains. The fire sparkles on the hearth, the street is silent; let us forget that George will not return till midnight, and turn back to the past.
I can not recall the first month of that dear past without laughing and weeping at one and the same time.
How foolish we were! How sweet it was! There is a method of teaching swimming which is not the least successful, I am told. It consists in throwing the future swimmer into the water and praying God to help him. I am assured that after the first lesson he keeps himself afloat.
Well, I think that we women are taught to be wives in very much the same fashion.
Happy or otherwise—the point is open to discussion marriage is a hurricane—something unheard-of and alarming.
In a single night, and without any transition, everything is transformed and changes color; the erst while-cravatted, freshly curled, carefully dressed gentleman makes his appearance in a dressing-gown. That which was prohibited becomes permissible, the code is altered, and words acquire a meaning they never had before, et cetera, et cetera.
It is not that all this is so alarming, if taken the right way—a woman with some courage in her heart and some flexibility in her mind supports the shock and does not die under it; but the firmest of us are amazed at it, and stand open-mouthed amid all these strange novelties, like a penniless gourmand in the shop of Potel and Chabot.
They dare not touch these delicacies surrounding them, though invited to taste. It is not that the wish or the appetite is lacking to them, but all these fine fruits have been offered them so lately that they have still the somewhat acid charm of green apples or forbidden fruit. They approach, but they hesitate to bite.
After all, why complain? What would one have to remember if one had entered married life like an inn, if one had not trembled a little when knocking at the door? And it is so pleasant to recall things, that one would sometimes like to deck the future in the garments of the past.
It was, I recollect, two days after the all-important one. I had gone into his room, I no longer remember why—for the pleasure of going in, I suppose, and thereby acting as a wife. A strong desire is that which springs up in your brain after leaving church to look like an old married woman. You put on caps with ribbons, you never lay aside your cashmere shawl, you talk of "my home"—two sweet words—and then you bite your lips to keep from breaking out into a laugh; and "my husband," and "my maid," and the first dinner you order, when you forget the soup. All this is charming, and, however ill at ease you may feel at first in all these new clothes, you are quite eager to put them on.
So I had gone into the dressing-room of my husband, who, standing before the glass, very lightly clad, was prosaically shaving.
"Excuse me, dear," said he, laughing, and he held up his shaving-brush, covered with white lather. "You will pardon my going on with this. Do you want anything?"
"I came, on the contrary," I answered, "to see whether you had need of anything;" and, greatly embarrassed myself, for I was afraid of being indiscreet, and I was not sure whether one ought to go into one's husband's room like this, I added, innocently, "Your shirts have buttons, have they not?"
"Oh, what a good little housewife I have married! Do not bother yourself about such trifles, my pet. I will ask your maid to look after my buttons," said he.
I felt confused; I was afraid of appealing too much of a schoolgirl in his eyes. He went on working his soap into a lather with his shaving-brush. I wanted to go away, but I was interested in such a novel fashion by the sight of my husband, that I had not courage to do so. His neck was bare—a thick, strong neck, but very white and changing its shape at every movement—the muscles, you know. It would have been horrible in a woman, that neck, and yet it did not seem ugly to me. Nor was it admiration that thus inspired me; it was rather like gluttony. I wanted to touch it. His hair, cut very short—according to regulation—grew very low, and between its beginning and the ear there was quite a smooth white place. The idea at once occurred to me that if ever I became brave enough, it was there that I should kiss him oftenest; it was strange, that presentiment, for it is in fact on that little spot that I—
He stopped short. I fancied I understood that he was afraid of appearing comical in my eyes, with his face smothered in lather; but he was wrong. I felt myself all in a quiver at being beside a man—the word man is rather distasteful to me, but I can not find another, for husband would not express my thoughts—at being beside a man in the making of his toilette. I should have liked him to go on without troubling himself; I should have liked to see how he managed to shave himself without encroaching on his moustache, how he made his parting and brushed his hair with the two round brushes I saw on the table, what use he made of all the little instruments set out in order on the marble-tweezers, scissors, tiny combs, little pots and bottles with silver tops, and a whole arsenal of bright things, that aroused quite a desire to beautify one's self.
I should have liked him while talking to attend to the nails of his hands, which I was already very fond of; or, better still, to have handed them over to me. How I should have rummaged in the little corners, cut, filed, arranged all that.
"Well, dear, what are you looking at me like that for?" said he, smiling.
I lowered my eyes at once, and felt that I was blushing. I was uneasy, although charmed, amid these new surroundings. I did not know what to answer, and mechanically I dipped the tip of my finger into the little china pot in which the soap was being lathered.
"What is the matter, darling?" said he, approaching his face to mine; "have I offended you?"
I don't know what strange idea darted through my mind, but I suddenly took my hand from the pot and stuck the big ball of lather at the end of my finger on the tip of his nose. He broke out into a hearty laugh, and so did I; though I trembled for a moment, lest he should be angry.
"So that's the way in which you behave to a captain in the lancers? You shall pay for this, you wicked little darling;" and, taking the shaving brush in his hand, he chased me round the room. I dodged round the table, I took refuge behind the armchair, upsetting his boots with my skirt, getting the tongs at the same time entangled in it. Passing the sofa, I noticed his uniform laid out—he had to wait on the General that morning—and, seizing his schapska, I made use of it as a buckler. But laughter paralyzed me, and besides, what could a poor little woman do against a soldier, even with a buckler?
He ended by catching me—the struggle was a lovely one. It was all very well for me to scream, as I threw my head backward over the arm by which he clasped me; I none the less saw the frightful brush, like a big snowball, at the end of a little stick, come nearer and yet nearer.
But he was merciful; he was satisfied with daubing a little white spot on my chin and exclaiming, "The cavalry have avenged themselves."
Seizing the brush in turn, I said to him roguishly, "Captain, let me lather your face," for I did so want to do that.
In answer, he held his face toward me, and, observing that I was obliged to stand on the tips of my toes and to support myself a little on his shoulder, he knelt down before me and yielded his head to me.
With the tip of my finger I made him bend his face to the right and the left, backward and forward, and I lathered and lathered, giggling like a schoolgirl. It amused me so to see my Captain obey me like a child; I would have given I don't know what if he had only had his sword and spurs on at that moment. Unfortunately, he was in his slippers. I spread the lather over his nose and forehead; he closed his eyes and put his two arms round me, saying: