"Ah yes," said Mme. Mauperin, her face lighting up with joy; "it's true, the twenty-second is getting near. Oh, if any one had told me this two years ago! I'm afraid I shall be too happy to live on that day. Just think of it, my dear," and she half closed her eyes and revelled in her dreams of the future.
"I shall be simply lovely for the occasion, I can tell you, Denoisel," said Renee. "I have had my dress tried on to-day, and it fits me to perfection. But, papa, what about a dress-coat?"
"My old dress-coat is quite new."
"Oh, but you must have one made, a newer one still, if I'm to take your arm. Oh, how silly I am; you won't take me in, of course. Denoisel, please keep a quadrille for me. We shall give a ball, of course, mamma?"
"A ball and everything that we can give," said Mme. Mauperin. "I expect people will think it is not quite the thing; but I can't help that. I want it to be very festive—as it was for our wedding, do you remember, my dear? We'll dance and eat and drink, and——"
"Yes, that's what we'll do," said Renee, "and we'll let all our work people drink till they are quite merry—Denoisel too. It will liven him up a little to have too much to drink."
"Well, with all this, I don't fancy Dardouillet's coming——"
"What in the world makes you so anxious to see Dardouillet, this evening?" asked M. Mauperin.
"Yes, that's true," put in Renee. "That hasn't been explained. Please explain, Denoisel."
"How inquisitive you are, Renee. It's just a bit of nonsense—nothing that matters. I want him to lend me his bulldog for a rat-fight at my club to-morrow. I've made a bet that he'll kill a hundred in two minutes. And with that I must depart. Good-night, all!"
"Then, my boy will be here the day after to-morrow, for sure?" said Mme. Mauperin at the door to Denoisel.
Denoisel nodded without answering.
On arriving at Dardouillet's little house at the other end of the village, Denoisel rang the bell. An old woman opened the door.
"Has M. Dardouillet gone to bed?"
"Gone to bed? No, indeed! A nice life he leads!" answered the old servant; "he's pottering about in the garden; you'll find him there," and she opened the long window of the dining-room.
The bright moonlight fell on a garden absolutely bare, as square as a handkerchief, and with the soil all turned over like a field. In one corner, standing motionless and with folded arms, on a hillock, was a black figure which looked like a spectre in one of Biard's pictures. It was M. Dardouillet, and he was so deeply absorbed that he did not see his visitor until Denoisel was quite close to him.
"Ah, it's you, M. Denoisel? I'm delighted to see you. Just look now," and he pointed to the loose soil all round. "What do you think of that? Plenty of lines there, I hope; and it's all quite soft and loose, you know," and he put his hand out over the plan of his rising ground as though he were stroking the brow of his ideal hill.
"Excuse me, M. Dardouillet," said Denoisel. "I've come about an affair that——"
"Moonlight—remember that—if ever you have a garden—there's nothing like moonlight for seeing what you have done—exactly as it is. By daylight you can't see the embankments——"
"M. Dardouillet, I want to appeal to a man who has worn a soldier's uniform. You are a friend of the Mauperins. I have come to ask you if you will act for Henri as——"
"A duel?" And Dardouillet fastened up the black coat he wore, winter and summer alike, with all that was left of the button. "Good heavens! Yes, a service of that kind is a duty."
"I shall take you back with me, then," said Denoisel, putting his arm through Dardouillet's. "You can sleep at my place. It must be settled quickly. It will be all over to-morrow, or the day after at the latest."
"Good!" said Dardouillet, looking regretfully at a line of stakes that had been commenced, the shadows of which the moon threw on the ground.
On leaving Henri Mauperin's, M. de Villacourt had suddenly recollected that he had no friends, no one at all whom he could ask to serve as seconds. This had not occurred to him before. He remembered two or three names which had been mixed up in his father's family history, and he went along the streets trying to find the houses where he had been taken when he had come to Paris in his boyhood. He rang at several doors, but either the people were no longer living there or they were not at home to him.
At night he returned to his lodging-house. He had never before felt so absolutely alone in the world. When he was taking the key of his bed-room, the landlady asked him if he would not have a glass of beer and, opening a door in a passage, showed him into a cafe which took up the ground-floor of the house.
Some swords were hanging from the hat-pegs, with cocked hats over them. At the far end, through the tobacco smoke, he could see men dressed in military uniform moving about round a billiard-table. A sickly looking boy with a white apron on was running to and fro, scared and bewildered, giving the Army Monitor and the other papers a bath, each time that he put a glass or cup on the table.
Near the counter, a drum-major was playing at backgammon with the landlord of the cafe in his shirt-sleeves. On every side voices could be heard calling out and answering each other, with the rolling accent peculiar to soldiers.
"To-morrow I'm on duty at the theatre."
"I take my week."
"Gaberiau is beadle at Saint-Sulpice."
"He was proposed and was to be examined."
"Who's on service at the Bourdon ball?"
"What an idea! to blow his brains out when he hadn't a single punishment down on his book!"
It was very evident that they were the Paris Guards from the barracks, just near, waiting until nine o'clock for the roll-call.
"Waiter, a bowl of punch and three glasses," said M. de Villacourt, taking his place at a table where two of the Guards were seated.
When the punch was brought he filled the three glasses, pushed one before each of the Guards, and rose to his feet.
"Your health, gentlemen!" he said, and then lifting his glass he continued: "You are military men—I have to fight to-morrow, and I haven't any one I can ask. I feel sure that you will act as seconds for me."
One of the Guards looked full at M. de Villacourt, and then turned to his comrade.
"We may as well, Gaillourdot; what do you say?"
The other did not reply, but picking up his glass touched M. de Villacourt's with it.
* * * * *
"Well then, to-morrow morning at ten o'clock. Room 27."
"Right!" answered the Guards.
* * * * *
The following morning, just as Denoisel was starting with Dardouillet to call on M. Boisjorand de Villacourt, his door-bell rang and the two Guards entered. As their mission was to accept everything, terms, weapons, and distances, the arrangements for the duel were soon made. Pistols were decided upon at a distance of thirty-five paces, both adversaries to be allowed to walk ten paces. Denoisel requested, in Henri's name, that the affair should be got over as quickly as possible. This was precisely what M. de Villacourt's seconds were about to ask, as they were supposed to be going to the theatre that evening, and were only free that day until midnight. A meeting was fixed for four o'clock at the Ville-d'Avray Lake. Denoisel next went to one of his friends who was a surgeon, and then to order a carriage for bringing home the wounded man. He called to see Henri, who was out; then went on to the shooting-gallery, where he found him, amusing himself with shooting at small bundles of matches hanging from a piece of string, at which he fired, setting the brimstone alight with the bullet.
"Oh, that's nothing!" he said to Denoisel; "I fancy those matches get set on fire with the wind from the bullet; but look here!" and he showed him a cardboard target, in the first ring of which he had just put a dozen bullets.
"It's to be to-day at four, as you wished," said Denoisel.
"Good!" said Henri, giving his pistol to the man. "Look here," he continued, putting his fingers over two holes on the cardboard which were rather far away from the others; "if it were not for these two flukes this would be fit to frame. Oh, I'm glad it's arranged for to-day." He lifted his arm with the gesture of a man accustomed to shooting and just about to take aim, and then shook his hand about to get the blood into it again.
"Only imagine," he continued, "that it had quite an effect on me—the idea of this affair—when I was in bed this morning. It's that deuced horizontal position; I don't fancy it's good for one's courage."
They all lunched together at Denoisel's and then proceeded to smoke. Henri was cheerful and communicative, talking all the time. The surgeon arrived at the hour appointed, and they all four got into the carriage and drove off.
They had been silent until they were about half way, when Henri suddenly threw his cigar out of the window impatiently.
"Give me a cigar, Denoisel, a good one. It's very important to have a good cigar when you are going to shoot, you know. If you are to shoot properly you mustn't be nervous; that's the principal thing. I took a bath this morning. One must keep calm. Now, driving is the most detestable thing; the reins saw your hand for you. I'd wager you couldn't shoot straight after driving; your fingers would be stiff. Novels are absurd with their duels, where the man arrives and flings his reins to his groom. What should you think if I told you that one ought to go in for a sort of training? It's quite true, though. I never knew such a good shot as an Englishman I once met; he goes to bed at eight o'clock; never drinks stimulants and takes a short walk every evening like my father does. Every time that I have driven in a carriage without springs to the shooting-gallery, my targets have shown it. By-the-bye, this is a very decent carriage, Denoisel. Well, with a cigar it's the same thing. Now a cigar that's difficult to smoke keeps you at work, you have to keep lifting your hand to your mouth, and that makes your hand unsteady; while a good cigar—you ask any good shot, and he'll tell you the same thing—it's soothing, it puts your nerves in order. There's nothing better than the gentle movement of the arm as you take the cigar out of your mouth and put it in again. It's slow and regular."
* * * * *
On arriving, they found M. de Villacourt and his seconds waiting between the two lakes. The ground was white with the snow that had fallen during the morning. In the woods the trees stretched their bare branches towards the sky, and in the distance the red sunset could be seen between the rows of dark trees. They walked as far as the Montalet road. The distances were measured, Denoisel's pistols loaded, and the opponents then took their places opposite each other. Two walking-sticks, laid on the snow, marked the limits of the ten paces they were each allowed. Denoisel walked with Henri to the place which had fallen to his lot, and as he was pushing down a corner of his collar for him which covered his necktie, Henri said in a low voice: "Thanks, old man; my heart's beating a trifle under my armpit, but you'll be satisfied——"
M. de Villacourt took off his frock-coat, tore off his necktie, and threw them both some distance from him. His shirt was open at the neck, showing his strong, broad, hairy chest. The opponents were armed, and the seconds moved back and stood together on one side.
"Ready!" cried a voice.
At this word M. de Villacourt moved forward almost in a straight line. Henri kept quite still and allowed him to walk five paces. At the sixth he fired.
M. de Villacourt fell to the ground, and the witnesses watched him lay down his pistol and press his thumbs with all his strength on the double hole which the bullet had made on entering his body.
"Ah! I'm not done for—Ready, monsieur!" he called out in a loud voice to Henri, who, thinking all was over, was moving away.
M. de Villacourt picked up his pistol and proceeded to do his four remaining paces as far as the walking-stick, dragging himself along on his hands and knees and leaving a track of blood on the snow behind him. On arriving at the stick he rested his elbow on the ground and took aim slowly and steadily.
"Fire! Fire!" called out Dardouillet.
Henri, standing still and covering his face with his pistol, was waiting. He was pale, and there was a proud, haughty look about him. The shot was fired; he staggered a second, then fell flat, with his face on the ground and with outstretched arms, his twitching fingers grasping for a moment at the snow.
M. Mauperin had gone out into the garden as he usually did on coming downstairs in the morning, when, to his surprise, he saw Denoisel advancing to meet him.
"You here, at this hour?" he said. "Why, where did you sleep?"
"M. Mauperin," said Denoisel, pressing his hand as he spoke.
"What is it? What's the matter?" asked M. Mauperin, feeling that something had happened.
"Henri is wounded."
"Dangerously? Is it a duel?"
"Wounded? Ah, he is dead!"
Denoisel took M. Mauperin's two hands in his for a second, without uttering a word.
"Dead!" repeated M. Mauperin mechanically, and he opened his hands as though something had slipped from their grasp. "His poor mother, Henri!" and the tears came with the words. "Oh, God—We don't know how much we love them till this comes—and only thirty years old!" He sank down on a garden-seat, choked with sobs.
"Where is he?" he asked at last.
"There," and Denoisel pointed to the window of Henri's room.
From Ville-d'Avray he had taken the corpse straight to M. Dardouillet's, and during the evening had found a pretext for sending for M. Bernard, who had a key of the Mauperins' house. In the middle of the night, while the family were asleep, the three men had taken off their shoes, carried Henri's dead body upstairs, and laid it on the bed in his own room.
"Thank you," said M. Mauperin, and making a sign to him that he could not talk he got up.
They walked round the garden four or five times in silence. The tears came every now and then into M. Mauperin's eyes, but they did not fall. Words, too, seemed to come to his lips and die away again. Finally, in a deep, crushed voice, breaking the long silence by a desperate effort, and not looking at Denoisel, M. Mauperin asked an abrupt question.
"Was it an honourable death?"
"He was your son," answered Denoisel.
The father lifted his head at these words, as if strength had come to him with which to fight against his grief. "Well, well; I must do my duty now. You have done your part," and he drew Denoisel nearer to him, his tears falling freely at last.
"Murder is the name for affairs of this kind," M. Barousse was saying to Denoisel as they followed the hearse to the cemetery. "Why didn't you arrange matters between them?"
"After that blow?"
"After or before," said M. Barousse, peremptorily.
"You'd better say that to his father!"
"He's a soldier—but you, hang it all—you've never served in the army, and you let him get killed! I consider you killed him."
"Look here, I've had enough, M. Barousse."
"You see, I reason things out; I've been a magistrate."—Barousse had been a judge on the Board of Trade.—"You have the law courts and you can demand justice. But duels are contrary to all laws, human or divine; remember that. Why, just fancy—a scoundrel comes and gives me a blow in the face; and he must needs kill me as well. Ah, I can promise you one thing: if ever I'm on a jury, and there's a case of a duel—well, I look upon it as murder. Duellists are assassins. In the first place it's a cowardly thing——"
"A cowardly thing that every one hasn't the courage to carry through, M. Barousse; it's like suicide."
"Ah, if you are going to uphold suicide," said Barousse, and leaving the discussion he continued in a softened tone: "Such a fine fellow too, poor Henri! And then Mauperin, and his wife, and his daughter—the whole family plunged into this grief. No, it makes me wild when I think of it. Why, I had known him all his life." Barousse pulled his watch half out of his waistcoat-pocket as he spoke. "There!" he said, breaking off suddenly; "I know it will be sold; I shall have missed The Concert, a superb proof, earlier than the one with the dedication."
* * * * *
Denoisel returned to Briche with M. Mauperin, who, on arriving, went straight upstairs to his wife. He found her in bed, with the blinds down and the curtains drawn, overwhelmed and crushed by her terrible sorrow.
Denoisel opened the drawing-room door and saw Renee, seated on an ottoman, sobbing, with her handkerchief up to her mouth.
"Renee," he said, going to her and taking her hands in his, "some one killed him——"
Renee looked at him and then lowered her eyes.
"That man would never have known; he never read anything and he did not see any one; he lived like a regular wolf; he didn't subscribe to the Moniteur, of course. Do you understand?"
"No," stammered Renee, trembling all over.
"Well, it must have been an enemy who sent the paper to that man. Ah, you can't understand such cowardly things; but that's how it all came about, though. One of his seconds showed me the paper with the paragraph marked——"
Renee was standing up, her eyes wide open with terror; her lips moved and she opened her mouth to speak—to cry out: "I sent it!"
Then all at once she put her hand to her heart, as if she had just been wounded there, and fell down unconscious and rigid on the carpet.
Denoisel came every day to Briche to inquire about Renee. When she was a little better, he was surprised that she did not ask for him. He had always been accustomed to seeing her when she was not well, even when she was lying down, as though he had been one of the family. And whenever she had been ill, he was always one of the first she had asked for. She expected him to entertain and amuse her, to enliven her during her convalescence and bring back her laughter. He was offended and kept away for a day or two, and then when he came again he still could not see her. One day he was told that she was too tired, another day that the Abbe Blampoix was talking to her. Finally, at the end of a week, he was allowed to see her.
He expected an effusive welcome, such as invalids give their friends when they see them again for the first time. He thought that after an illness she would, in her impulsive way, be almost ready to embrace him. Renee held out her hand to him and just let her fingers lie in his for a second; she said a few words such as she might have said to any one, and after about a quarter of an hour closed her eyes as though she were sleepy. This coldness, which he could not understand in the least, irritated Denoisel and made him feel bitter. He was deeply hurt and humiliated, as his affection for Renee was pure and sincere and of such long standing. He tried to imagine what she could possibly have against him, and wondered whether M. Barousse had been instilling his ideas into her. Was she blaming him, as a witness of the duel, for her brother's death? Just about this time one of his friends who had a yacht at Cannes invited him for a cruise in the Mediterranean, and he accepted the invitation and went away at once.
Renee was afraid of Denoisel. She only remembered the commencement of the attack that she had had in his presence, that terrible moment which had been followed by her fall and a fit of hysterics. She had had a sensation of being suffocated by her brother's blood, and she knew that a cry had come to her lips. She did not know whether she had spoken, whether her secret had escaped her while she was unconscious. Had she told Denoisel that she had killed Henri, that it was she who had sent that newspaper? Had she confessed her crime?
When Denoisel entered her room she imagined that he knew all. The embarrassment which he felt and which was the effect of her manner to him, his coldness, which was entirely due to her own, all this confirmed her in her idea, in her certainty that she had spoken and that it was a judge who was there with her.
Before Denoisel's visit was over, her mother got up to go out of the room a minute, but Renee clung to her with a look of terror and insisted on her staying. It occurred to her that she might defend herself by saying that it was a fatality; that by sending the newspaper she had only meant to make the man put in his claim; that she had wanted to prevent her brother from getting this name and to make him break off his engagement; but then she would have been obliged to say why she had wished to do this—why she had wished to ruin her brother's future and prevent him from becoming a rich man. She would have had to confess all; and the bare idea of defending herself in such a way, even in the eyes of the man she respected more than any other, horrified and disgusted her. It seemed to her that the least she could do would be to leave to the one she had killed his fair fame and the silence of death.
She breathed freely when she heard of Denoisel's departure, for it seemed to her, then, as though her secret were her own once more.
Renee gradually recovered and in a few months' time seemed to be quite well again. All the outward appearances of health came back to her, and she had no suffering at all. She did not even feel anything of the disturbance which illness leaves in the organs it has touched and in the life it has just attacked.
All at once the trouble began again. When she went upstairs or walked uphill she suddenly felt suffocated. Palpitation became more frequent and more violent, and then just as suddenly all this would stop again, as it happens sometimes with these insidious diseases which at intervals seem to entirely forget their victims.
At the end of a few weeks the doctor from Saint-Denis, who was attending Renee, took M. Mauperin aside.
"I don't feel satisfied about your daughter," he said. "There is something not quite clear to me. I should like to have a consultation with a specialist. These heart affections are very treacherous sometimes."
"Yes, these heart affections—you are quite right," stammered M. Mauperin.
He could not find anything else to say. His former notions of medicine, the desperate doctrines of the old school, Corvisart, the epigraph in his famous book on the subject of heart affections: "Haeret lateri lethalis arundo"; all these things came suddenly back to his mind, clearly and distinctly. He could see the pages again of those books so full of terror.
"You see," the doctor went on, "the great danger of these diseases is that they are so often of long standing. People send for us when the disease has made great headway. There are symptoms that the patient has not even noticed. Your daughter must have been very impressionable always, from her very childhood, I should say; isn't that so? Torrents of tears for the least blame, her face on fire for nothing at all, and then her pulse beating a hundred a minute, a constant state of emotion with her, very excitable, tempers like convulsions, always slightly feverish. She would put a certain amount of passion into everything, I should say, into her friendship, her games, her likes and dislikes; am I not right? Oh yes, this is generally the way with children in whom this organ predominates and who have an unfortunate predisposition to hypertrophy. Tell me now, has she lately had any great emotion—any great grief?"
"Yes, oh yes; her brother's death."
"Her brother's death. Ah yes, there was that," said the doctor, not appearing to attach any great importance, nevertheless, to this information. "I meant to ask you, though, whether she had been crossed in love, for instance."
"She? Crossed in love? Oh, good heavens!" and M. Mauperin shrugged his shoulders, and half joining his hands looked up in the air.
"Well, I'm only asking you that for the sake of having my conscience clear. Accidents of this kind only develop the germ that is already there and hasten on the disease. The physical influence of the passions on the heart is a theory—It has been studied a great deal the last twenty years; and quite right, too, in my opinion. The thesis that the heart is lacerated in a burst of temper, in any great moral——"
M. Mauperin interrupted him:
"Then, a consultation—you fancy—you think—don't you?"
"Yes, M. Mauperin, that will be quite the best thing. You see, it will be more satisfactory for every one; for you, and for me. We should call in M. Bouillaud, I suppose. He is considered the first authority."
"Yes—M. Bouillaud," repeated M. Mauperin, mechanically nodding his head in assent.
It was just five minutes past twelve, and M. Mauperin was seated by Renee's bed, holding her two hands in his. Renee glanced at the time-piece.
"He'll be here soon," said M. Mauperin.
Renee answered by closing her eye-lids gently, and her breathing and the beating of her heart could be heard like the ticking of a watch in the silence of the room at night.
Suddenly a peal of the door-bell rang out, clearly and imperiously, vibrating through the house. It seemed to M. Mauperin as though it had been rung within him, and a shudder passed through him to his very finger-tips like a needle-prick. He went to the door and opened it.
"It is some one who rang by mistake, sir," said the servant-man.
"It's very warm," said M. Mauperin to his daughter as he took his seat again, looking very pale.
Five minutes later the servant knocked. The doctor was waiting in the drawing-room.
"Ah!" said M. Mauperin, getting up once more.
"Go to him," murmured Renee, and then calling him back, she asked, looking alarmed: "Is he going to examine me?"
"I don't know; I don't think so. There'll be no need, perhaps," answered M. Mauperin, playing with the knob of the door.
* * * * *
M. Mauperin had fetched the doctor and left him with his daughter. He was in the drawing-room waiting the result. He had walked up and down, taken a seat, and gazed mechanically at a flower on the carpet, and had then gone to the window and was tapping with his fingers on the pane.
It seemed to him as though everything within himself and all round had suddenly stopped. He did not know whether he had been there an hour or a minute. It was one of those moments in life for him, the measure and duration of which cannot be calculated. He felt as though he were living again through his whole existence, and as though all the emotions of a lifetime were crowded into a moment that was eternal.
He turned dizzy, like a man in a dream falling from a height and enduring the anguish of falling. All kinds of indistinct ideas, of confused anxieties and vague terrors, seemed to rise from the pit of his stomach and buzz round his temples. Yesterday, to-day, to-morrow, the doctor, his daughter, her illness, all this whirled round in his head, perplexing him, mingled as it all was with a physical sensation of uneasiness, anxiety, fear, and dread. Then all at once one idea became distinct. He had one of those clear visions that cross the mind at such times. He saw the doctor with his ear pressed against his daughter's back and he listened with him. He thought he heard the bed creak as it does when any one turns on it. It was over, they would be coming now; but no one came. He began pacing up and down again, as he could not keep still. He grew irritable with impatience and thought the doctor was a very long time, but the next minute he said to himself that it was a good sign, that a great specialist would not relish wasting his time, and that if there had been nothing he could do, he would already have been back. Fresh hope came to him with this thought: his daughter was saved; when the doctor came in he should see by his face that his daughter was saved. He watched the door, but no one came. Then he began to say to himself that they would have to take precautions, that perhaps she would always be delicate, that there were plenty of people who went on living in spite of palpitation of the heart. Then the word, the terrible word, death, came to him and haunted him. He tried to drive it away by thinking over and over again the same thoughts about convalescence, getting well, and good health. He went over in his mind all the persons he had known, who had been ill a long time, and who were not dead. And yet in spite of all his efforts the same question kept coming back to him: "What would the doctor tell him?"
He repeated this over and over again to himself. It seemed to him as though this visit were never going to finish and never would finish. And then at times he would shudder at the idea of seeing the door open. He would have liked to remain as he was forever, and never know. Finally hope came back to him once more, just as the door opened.
"Well?" said M. Mauperin to the doctor as he entered the room.
"You must be brave," said the doctor.
M. Mauperin looked up, glanced at the doctor, moved his lips without uttering a word—his mouth was dry and parched.
The doctor began to explain in full his daughter's disease, its gravity, the complications that were to be feared: he then wrote out a long prescription, saying to M. Mauperin at each item:
"Perfectly!" answered M. Mauperin, looking stupefied.
* * * * *
"Ah, my dear little girl, you are going to get well!"
These were M. Mauperin's words to his daughter when he went back to her room.
"Really?" she asked.
"What did he tell you?"
"Well, you need only look at my face to know what he said," answered M. Mauperin, smiling at her. He felt as though it would kill him, though, that smile; and turning away under the pretence of looking for his hat, he continued, "I must go to Paris to get the prescription made up."
At the railway station M. Mauperin saw the doctor getting into the train. He got into another compartment, as he did not feel as though he had the strength to speak to him or even look at him.
On arriving in Paris he went to a chemist's and was told that it would take three hours to make up the prescription. "Three hours!" he exclaimed, but at heart he was glad that it would be so long. It would give him some time before returning to the house. When once he was in the street he walked fast. He had no consecutive ideas, but a sort of heavy, ceaseless throbbing in his head like the throb of neuralgia. His sensations were blunted, as though he were in a stupor. He saw nothing but the legs of people walking and the wheels of the carriages turning round. His head felt heavy and at the same time empty. As he saw other people walking, he walked too. The passers-by appeared to be taking him with them, and the crowd to be carrying him along in its stream. Everything looked faint, indistinct, and of a neutral tint, as things do the day after any wild excitement or intoxication. The light and noise of the streets he seemed to see and hear in a dream. He would not have known there was any sun if it had not been for the white trousers the policemen were wearing, which had caught his eye several times.
It was all the same to him whether he went to the right or left. He neither wanted anything nor had he the energy to do anything. He was surprised to see the movement around him—people who were hurrying along, walking quickly, on their way to something. He had had neither aim nor object in life for the last few hours. It seemed to him as though the world had come to an end, as though he were a dead man in the midst of the life and activity of Paris. He tried to think of anything in all that might happen to a man capable of moving him, of touching him in any way, and he could not conceive of anything which could reach to the depths of his despair.
Sometimes, as though he were answering inquiries about his daughter, he would say aloud, "Oh, yes, she is very ill!" and it was as though the words he had uttered had been said by some one else at his side. Often a work-girl without any hat, a pretty young girl with a round waist, gay and healthy with the rude health of her class, would pass by him. He would cross the street that he might not see her again. He was furious just for a minute with all these people who passed him, with all these useless lives. They were not beloved as his daughter was, and there was no need for them to go on living. He went into one of the public gardens and sat down. A child put some of its little sand-pies on to the tails of his coat; other children getting bolder approached him with all the daring of sparrows. Presently, feeling slightly embarrassed, they left their little spades, stopped playing and stood round, looking shyly and sympathetically, like so many men and women in miniature, at this tall gentleman who was so sad. M. Mauperin rose and left the garden.
His tongue was furred and his throat dry. He went into a cafe, and opposite him was a little girl wearing a white jacket and a straw hat. Her frock was short, showing her little firm, bare legs with their white socks. She was moving about all the time, climbing and jumping on to her father and standing straight up on his knees. She had a little cross round her neck. Every few minutes her father begged her to keep still.
M. Mauperin closed his eyes; he could see his own little daughter just as she had been at six years old. Presently he opened a review, The Illustration, and bent over it, trying to make himself look at the pictures, and when he reached the last page he set himself to find out one of the enigmas.
When M. Mauperin lifted his head again he wiped his face with his handkerchief. He had made out the enigma: "Against death there is no appeal."
The terrible existence of those who have given up hope, and who can only wait, now commenced for M. Mauperin; that life of anguish, fear and trembling, of despair and of constant shocks, when every one is listening and on the watch for death; that life when one is afraid of any noise in the house, and just as afraid of silence, afraid of every movement in the next room, afraid of the sound of voices drawing near, afraid to hear a door close, and afraid of seeing the face of the person who opens the door when one enters the house, and of whom one asks without speaking if the beloved one still lives.
As people frequently do when nursing their sick friends, he began to reproach himself bitterly. He made his sorrow still harder to bear by making himself believe that it was partly his own fault, that everything had not been done which ought to have been, that she might have been saved if only there had been a consultation earlier, if at a certain time, a certain month or day, he had only thought of something or other.
At night his restlessness in bed seemed to make his grief more wild and feverish. In the solitude, the darkness, and the silence, one thought, one vision, was with him all the time—his daughter, always his daughter. His anxiety worked on his imagination, his dread increased, and his wakefulness had all the intensity of the terrible sensation of nightmare. In the morning he was afraid to wake up, and just as a man, when half-awake, will instinctively turn over from the light, so he would do his utmost to fall asleep again, to drive away his first thoughts, not to remember anything and so escape for a moment longer from the full consciousness of the present.
Then the day came again with all its torments, and the father was obliged to control his feelings, to conquer himself, to be gay and cheerful, to reply to the smiles of the suffering girl, to answer her pitiful attempts to be gay, and to keep up her feeble illusions, her clinging to the future, with some of those heart-rending words of comfort with which dying people will delude themselves, asking as they so often do for hope from those who are with them.
She would say to him, sometimes, in that feeble, soft whisper peculiar to invalids and which dies away to a whisper, "How nice it would be to have no pain! I can tell you, I shall enjoy life as soon as I get quite well."
"Yes, indeed," he would answer, choking down his tears.
Sick people are apt to believe that there are places where they would be better, countries which would cure them. There are certain spots and memories which come back to their mind and seem to fascinate them as an exile is fascinated by his native land, and which lull them as a child is lulled to rest in its cradle. Just as a child's fears are calmed in the arms of its nurse, so their hopes fly to a country, a garden, or a village where they were born and where surely they could not die.
Renee began to think of Morimond. She kept saying to herself that if she were once there she should get well. She felt sure, quite sure of it. This Briche house had brought her bad luck. She had been so happy at Morimond! And with this longing for change, the wish to move about which invalids get, this fancy of hers grew, and became more and more persistent. She spoke of it to her father and worried him about it. It would not make any difference to any one, she pleaded, the refinery would go along by itself, and M. Bernard, his manager, was trustworthy and would see to everything, and then they could come back in the autumn.
"When shall we start, father dear?" she kept saying, getting more and more impatient every day.
M. Mauperin gave in at last. His daughter promised him so faithfully that she would get well at Morimond that he began to believe it himself. He imagined that this sick fancy was an inspiration.
"Yes, the country will perhaps do her good," said the doctor, accustomed to these whims of dying people, who fancy that by going farther away they will succeed in throwing death off their track.
M. Mauperin promptly arranged his business matters, and the family started for Morimond.
The pleasure of setting off, the excitement of the journey, the nervous force that all this gives even to people who have no strength at all, the breeze coming in by the open window of the railway carriage kept the invalid up as far as Chaumont. She reached there without being overfatigued. M. Mauperin let her rest a day, and the following morning hired the best carriage he could get in the town and they all set out once more for Morimond. The road was bad and the journey was disagreeable and long. It began to get warm at nine o'clock, and by eleven the sun scorched the leather of the carriage. The horses breathed hard, perspired, and went along with difficulty. Mme. Mauperin was leaning back against the front cushion and dozing. M. Mauperin, seated next his daughter, held a pillow at her back, against which she fell after every little jolt. Every now and then she asked the time, and when she was told she would murmur, "No later than that!"
Towards three o'clock they were getting quite near their destination; the sky was cloudy, there was less dust, and it was cooler altogether. A water-wagtail began to fly in front of the carriage about thirty paces at a time, rising from the little heaps of stones. There were elm-trees all along the road and some of the fields were fenced round. Renee seemed to revive as one does in one's natal air. She sat up and, leaning against the door with her chin on her hand as children do when in a carriage, she looked out at everything. It was as though she were breathing in all she saw. As the carriage rolled along, she said:
"Ah, the big poplar-tree at the Hermitage is broken. The little boys used to fish for leeches in this pool—oh, there are M. Richet's rooks!"
In the little wood near the village her father had to get out and pluck a flower for her, which he could not see and which she pointed out to him growing on the edge of the ditch.
The carriage passed by the little inn, the first houses, the grocer's, the blacksmith's, the large walnut-tree, the church, the watchmaker's, who was also a dealer in curiosities, and the Pigeau farm. The villagers were out in the fields. Some children who were tormenting a wet cat stopped to see the carriage drive past. An old man, seated on a bench in front of his cottage door, with a woollen shawl wrapped round him and shivering in spite of the sun, lifted his cap. Then the horses stopped, the carriage door was opened, and a man who was waiting in front of the lodge lifted Mlle. Mauperin up in his arms.
"Oh, our poor young lady; she's no heavier than a feather!" he said.
"How do you do, Chretiennot—how do you do, comrade?" said M. Mauperin, shaking hands with the old gardener, who had served under him in his regiment.
The next day and the days which followed, Renee had the most delicious waking moments, when the light which was just breaking, the morning of the earth and sky, mingled—in the dawn of her thoughts—with the morning of her life. Her first memories came back to her with the first songs outdoors. The young birds woke up in their nests, awakening her childhood.
Supported and indeed almost carried by her father, she insisted on seeing everything again—the garden, the fruit-trees on the walls, the meadow in front of the house, the shady canals, the pool with its wide sheet of still water. She remembered all the trees and the garden paths again, and they seemed to her like the things one gradually recalls of a dream. Her feet found the way along paths which she used to know and which were now grown over with trees. The ruins seemed as many years older to her as she was older since she had last seen them. She remembered certain places on the grass where she had seen the shadow of her frock when as a child she had been running there. She found the spot where she had buried a little dog. It was a white one, named Nicolas Bijou. She had loved it dearly, and she could remember her father carrying it about in the kitchen garden after it had been washed.
There were hundreds of souvenirs, too, for her in the house. Certain corners in the rooms had the same effect on her as toys that have been stored away in a garret, and that one comes across years after. She loved to hear the sound of the mournful old weather-cock on the house-top, which had always soothed her fears and lulled her to sleep as a child.
She appeared to rouse up and to revive. The change, her natal air, and these souvenirs seemed to do her good. This improvement lasted some weeks.
One morning, her father, who was with her in the garden, was watching her. She was amusing herself with cutting away the old roses in a clump of white rose-bushes. The sunshine made its way through the straw of her large hat, and the brilliancy of the light and the softness of the shade rested on her thin little face. She moved about gaily and briskly from one rose-tree to another, and the thorns caught hold of her dress as though they wanted to play with her. At every clip of her scissors, from a branch covered with small, open roses, with pink hearts all full of life, there fell a dead earth-coloured rose which looked to M. Mauperin like the corpse of a flower.
All at once, leaving everything, Renee flung herself into her father's arms.
"Oh, papa, how I do love you!" she said, bursting into tears.
From that day the improvement began to disappear again. She gradually lost the healthy colour which life's last kiss had brought to her cheeks. She no longer had that delightful restlessness of the convalescent, that longing to move about which only a short time ago had made her take her father's arm constantly for a stroll. No more gay words sprang from her mind to her lips, as they had done at first when she had forgotten for a time all suffering; there was no more of the happy prattle which had been the result of returning hope. She was too languid to talk or even to answer questions.
"No, there's nothing the matter with me—I am all right;" but the words fell from her lips with an accent of pain, sadness, and resignation.
She suffered from tightness of breath now, and constantly felt a weight on her chest, which her respiration had difficulty in lifting. A sort of constraint and vague discomfort, caused by this, made itself felt throughout her whole system, attacking her nerves, taking from her all vital energy and all inclination to move about, keeping her crushed and submissive, without any strength to fight against it or to do anything.
Her father persuaded her to try the effect of a cupping-glass.
She took off her shawl in that slow way peculiar to invalids, so slow that it seems painful. Her trembling fingers felt about for the buttons that she had to unfasten, her mother helped her to take off the flannel and cotton-wool in which she was wrapped, leaving her poor thin neck and arms bare.
She looked at her father, at the lighted candle, the twisted paper and the wine-glasses, with that dread that one feels on seeing the hot irons or fire being prepared for torturing one's flesh.
"Am I right like this?" she asked, trying to smile.
"No, you want to be in this position," answered M. Mauperin, showing her how to sit.
She turned round on her arm-chair, put her two hands on the back of it and her cheek down on her hand, pulled her legs up, crossed her feet, and, half-kneeling and half-crouching, only showed the profile of her frightened face and her bare shoulders. She looked ready for the coffin with her bony angles. Her hair, which was very loose, glided with the shadow down the hollow of her back. Her shoulder-blades projected, the joints of her spine could be counted, and the point of a poor thin little elbow appeared through the sleeves of her under-linen, which had fallen to the bend of her arm.
He was standing there, riveted to the spot, and he did not even know of what he was thinking. At the sound of his daughter's voice he picked up a glass, which he remembered belonged to a set he had bought for a dinner-party in honour of Renee's baptism. He lighted a piece of paper, threw it into the glass, and closed his eyes as he turned the glass over. Renee gave a little hiss of pain, a shudder ran through all the bones down her back, and then she said:
"Oh, well; I thought it would hurt me much more than that."
M. Mauperin took his hand from the glass and it fell to the ground; the cupping had not succeeded.
"Give me another," he said to his wife.
Mme. Mauperin handed it to him in a leisurely way.
"Give it me," he said, almost snatching it from her. His forehead was wet with perspiration, but he no longer trembled. This time the vacuum was made: the skin puckered up all round the glass and rose inside as though it were being drawn by the scrap of blackened paper.
"Oh, father! don't bear on so," said Renee, who had been holding her lips tightly together; "take your hand off."
"Why, I'm not touching it—look," said M. Mauperin, showing her his hands.
Renee's delicate white skin rose higher and higher in the glass, turning red, patchy, and violet. When once the cupping was done the glass had to be taken away again, the skin drawn to the edge on one side of the glass, and then the glass swayed backward and forward from the other side. M. Mauperin was obliged to begin again, two or three times over, and to press firmly on the skin, near as it was to the bones.
Disease does its work silently and makes secret ravages in the constitution. Then come those terrible outward changes which gradually destroy the beauty, efface the personality, and, with the first touches of death, transform those we love into living corpses.
Every day M. Mauperin sought for something in his daughter which he could not find—something which was no longer there. Her eyes, her smile, her gestures, her footstep, her very dress which used proudly to tell of her twenty years, the girlish vivacity which seemed to hover round her and light on others as it passed—everything about her was changing and life itself gradually leaving her. She no longer seemed to animate all that she touched. Her clothes fell loosely round her in folds as they do on old people. Her step dragged along, and the sound of her little heels was no longer heard. When she put her arms round her father's neck, she joined her hands awkwardly, her caresses had lost their pretty gracefulness. All her gestures were stiff, she moved about like a person who feels cold or who is afraid of taking up too much space. Her arms, which were generally hanging down, now looked like the wet wings of a bird. She scarcely even resembled her old self. And when she was walking in front of her father, with her bent back, her shrunken figure, her arms hanging loosely at her sides, and her dress almost falling off her, it seemed to M. Mauperin that this could not be his daughter, and as he looked at her he thought of the Renee of former days.
There was a shadow round her mouth that seemed to go inside when she smiled. The beauty spot on her hand, just by her little finger, had grown larger, and was as black as though mortification had set in.
"Mother, it's Henri's birthday to-day."
"Yes, I know," said Mme. Mauperin without moving.
"Suppose we were to go to church?"
Mme. Mauperin rose and went out of the room, returning very soon with her bonnet and cape on. Half an hour later M. Mauperin was helping his daughter out of the carriage at the Maricourt church-door. Renee went to the little side-chapel, where the marble altar stood on which was the little miraculous black wooden Virgin to which she had prayed with great awe as a child. She sat down on a bench which was always there and murmured a prayer. Her mother stood near her, looking at the church and not praying at all. Renee then got up and, without taking her father's arm, walked with a step that scarcely faltered right through the church to a little side door leading into the cemetery.
"I wanted to see whether that was still there," she said to her father, pointing to an old bouquet of artificial flowers among the crosses and wreaths which were hung on the tomb.
"Come, my child," said M. Mauperin; "don't stand too long. Let us go home again now."
"Oh, there's plenty of time."
There was a stone seat under the porch with a ray of sunshine falling on it.
"It's warm here," she said, laying her hand on the stone. "Put my shawl there so that I can sit down a little. I shall have the sun on my back—there."
"It isn't wise," said M. Mauperin.
"Oh, just to make me happy." When she was seated and leaning against him, she murmured in a voice as soft as a sigh, "How gay it is here."
The lime-trees, buzzing with bees, were stirring gently in the faint wind. A few fowl in the thick grass were running about, pecking and looking for food. At the foot of a wall, by the side of a plough and cart, the wheels of which were white with dry mud, on the stumps of some old trees with the bark peeled off, some little chickens were frolicking about, and some ducks were asleep, looking like balls of feathers. There seemed to be a murmur of hushed voices from the church, and the light played on the blue of the stained-glass windows. Flights of pigeons kept starting up and taking refuge in the niches of sculpture and in the holes between the old grey stones. The river could be seen and its splashing sound heard; a wild white colt bounded along to the water's edge.
"Ah!" said Renee after a few moments, "we ought to have been made of something else. Why did God make us of flesh and blood? It's frightful!"
Her eyes had fallen on some soil turned up in a corner of the cemetery, half hidden by two barrel-hoops crossed over each other and up which wild convolvulus was growing.
Renee's complaint did not make her cross and capricious, nor did it cause her any of that nervous irritability so common to invalids, and which makes those who are nursing them share their suffering morally. She gave herself entirely up to her fate. Her life was ebbing away without any apparent effort on her part to hold it back or to stop it in its course. She was still affectionate and gentle. Her wishes had none of the unreasonableness of dying fancies. The darkness which was gathering round her brought peace with it. She did not fight against death, but let it come like a beautiful night closing over her white soul.
There were times, however, when Nature asserted itself within her, when her mind faltered from sheer bodily weakness, and when she listened to the stealthy progress of the disease which was gradually detaching her from her hold on life. At such times she would maintain a profound silence and would be terribly calm, remaining for a long time mute and motionless almost like a dead person. She would pass half the day in this way without even hearing the clock strike, gazing before her just beyond her feet with a steady, fixed gaze and seeing nothing at all. Her father could not even catch the expression of her eyes at such times. Her long lashes would quiver two or three times, and she would hide her eyes by letting the lids droop over them, and it seemed to him then as though she were asleep with her eyes half open. He would talk to her, search his brains for something that might interest her, and endeavour to make jokes, so that she should hear him and feel that he was there; but in the middle of his sentence his daughter's attention, her thoughts, and her intelligent look would leave him. He no longer felt the same warmth in her affection, and when he was with her he himself felt chilled now. It seemed as if disease were robbing him day by day of a little more of his daughter's heart.
Sometimes, too, Renee would let a few words slip, showing that she was mourning her fate as sick people do, words which sink to the heart and give one a chill like death itself.
One day her father was reading the newspaper to her; she took it from him to look at the marriage announcements.
"Twenty-nine! How old she was, wasn't she?" she said, as though speaking to herself. She had been glancing down the death column. M. Mauperin did not answer; he paced up and down the room for a few minutes and then went away.
When Renee was alone she got up to close the door, which her father had not pulled to, and which kept banging. She fancied she heard a groan in the corridor and looked, but there was no one there; she listened a minute; but as everything was silent again she was just going to close the door, when she thought she heard the same sound again. She went out into the corridor as far as her father's room. It was from there that it came. The key was not in the lock, and Renee stooped down and, through the keyhole, saw her father, who had flung himself on his bed, weeping bitterly and shaken with sobs. His head was buried in the pillow, and he was endeavouring to stifle down his tears and his despair.
Renee was determined that her father should weep no more on her account.
"Listen to me, papa," she said, the following morning. "We are going to leave here at the end of September; that's settled, isn't it? We are going everywhere, a month to one place and a fortnight to another—just as we fancy. Well, I want you to take me now to all the places where you fought. Do you know, I've heard that you fell in love with a princess? Suppose we were to come across her again, what should you say to that? Wasn't it at Pordenone that you got those great scars?" And, taking her father's face in her two hands, she pressed her lips to the white, hollow places which had been marked by the finger of Glory.
"I want you to tell me all about everything," she continued; "it will be ever so nice to go all through your campaigns again with your daughter. If one winter will not be enough for it all, why, we'll just take two. And when I'm quite myself again—we are quite rich enough surely, Henriette and I; you've worked hard enough for us—well, we'll just sell the refinery, and we'll all come here. We'll go to Paris for two months of the year to enjoy ourselves; that will be quite enough, won't it? Then as you always like to have something to do, you can take your farm again from Tetevuide's son-in-law. We'll have some cows and a nice farm-yard for mamma—do you hear, mamma? I shall be outdoors all day; and the end of it will be that I shall get too well—you'll see. And then we'll have people to visit us all the time. In the country we can allow ourselves that little luxury—that won't ruin us—and we shall be as happy, as happy—you'll see."
Travelling and plans of all kinds—she talked of nothing but the future now. She spoke of it as of a promised thing, a certainty. It was she, now, who made every one hopeful, and she concealed the fact that she was dying so skilfully and pretended so well that she wanted to live, that M. Mauperin on seeing her and listening to her dreams, gave himself up to dreaming with her of years which they had before them and which would be full of peace, tranquility, and happiness. Sometimes, even, the illusions that the invalid had invented herself dazzled her too, for an instant, and she would begin to believe in her own fiction, forget herself for a moment and, quite deceived like the others, she would say to herself, "Suppose, after all, that I should get well!" At other times she would delight in going back to the past. She would tell about things that had happened, about her own feelings, funny incidents that she remembered, or she would talk about her childish pleasures. It was as though she had risen from her death-bed to embrace her father for the last time with all she could muster of her youth.
"Oh, my first ball-dress," she said to him one day; "I can see it now—it was a pink tulle one. The dressmaker didn't bring it—- it was raining—and we couldn't get a cab. How you did hurry along! And how queer you looked when you came back carrying a cardboard box! And you were so wet when you kissed me! I remember it all so well."
Renee had only herself and her own courage to depend on, in her task of keeping her father up and herself too. Her mother was there, of course; but ever since Henri's death she had been buried in a sort of silent apathy. She was indifferent to all that went on, mute and absent-minded. She was there with her daughter, night and day, without a murmur, patient and always even-tempered, ready to do anything, as docile and humble as a servant, but her affection seemed almost mechanical. The soul had gone out of her caresses, and all her ministrations were for the body rather than the heart; there was nothing of the mother about her now except the hands.
Renee could still drag along with her father to the first trees of the little wood near the house. She would then sink down with her back against the moss of an oak-tree on the boundary of the wood. The smell of hay from the fields, an odour of grass and honey came to her there with a delicious warmth from the sunshine, the fresh air from the wood, damp from the cool springs and the unmade paths.
In the midst of the deep silence, an immense, indistinct rustling could be heard, and a hum and buzz of winged creatures, which filled the air with a ceaseless sound like that of a bee-hive and the infinite murmur of the sea. All around Renee, and near to her, there seemed to be a great living peace, in which everything was being swayed—the gnat in the air, the leaf on the branch, the shadows on the bark of the trees, the tops of the trees against the sky, and the wild oats on each side of the paths. Then from this murmur came the sighing sound of a deep respiration, a breeze coming from afar which made the trees tremble as it passed them, while the blue of the heavenly vault above the shaking leaves seemed fixed and immovable. The boughs swayed slowly up and down, a breath passed over Renee's temples and touched her neck, a puff of wind kissed and cheered her. Gradually she began to lose all consciousness of her physical being, the sensation and fatigue of living; an exquisite languor took possession of her, and it seemed to her as though she were partially freed from her material body and were just ready to pass away in the divine sweetness of all these things. Every now and then she nestled closer to her father like a child who is afraid of being carried away by a gust of wind.
There was a stone bench covered with moss in the garden. After dinner, towards seven o'clock, Renee liked to sit there; she would put her feet up, leaning her head against the back of the seat, and with a trail of convolvulus tickling her ear she would stay there, looking up at the sky. It was just at the time of those beautiful summer days which fade away in silvery evenings. Imperceptibly her eyes and her thoughts were fascinated by the infinite whiteness of the sky, just ready to die away. As she watched she seemed to see more brilliancy and light coming from this closing day, a more dazzling brightness and serenity seemed to fall upon her. Gradually some great depths opened in the heavens, and she fancied she could see millions of little starry flames as pale as the light of tapers, trembling with the night breeze. And then, from time to time, weary of gazing into that dazzling brightness which kept receding, blinded by those myriads of suns, she would close her eyes for an instant as though shrinking from that gulf which was hanging over her and drawing her up above.
"Mother," she said, "don't you see how nice I look? Just see all the trouble I've taken for you;" and joining her hands over her head, her dress loose at the waist, she sank down on the pillows full length on the sofa in a careless, languid attitude which was both graceful and sad to see. Renee thought that the bed and the white sheets made her look ill. She would not stay there, and gathered together all her remaining strength to get up. She dressed slowly and heroically towards eleven o'clock, taking a long time over it, stopping to get breath, resting her arms over and over again, after holding them up to do her hair. She had thrown a fichu of point-lace over her head, and was wearing a dressing-gown of starched white pique, with plenty of material in it, falling in wide pleats. Her small feet were incased in low shoes, and instead of rosettes she wore two little bunches of violets which Chretiennot brought her every morning. In order to look more alive, as invalids do when they are up and dressed, she would stay there all day in this white girlish toilette fragrant with violets.
"Oh, how odd it is when one is ill!" she said, looking down at herself and then all round the room. "I don't like anything that is not pretty now, just fancy! I couldn't wear anything ugly. Do you know I've thought of something I want. You remember the little silver-mounted jug—so pretty it was—we saw it in a jeweller's shop in the Rue Saint Honore when we had just gone out of the theatre for the interval. If it isn't sold—if he still has it, you might let him send it. Oh, I know I'm getting the most ruinous tastes—I warn you of that. I want to arrange things here. I'm getting very difficult to please; in everything I have the most luxurious ideas. I used not to be at all elegant in my tastes; and now I have eyes for everything I wear, and for everything all round me—oh, such eyes! There are certain colours that positively pain me—just fancy—and others that I had never noticed before. It is being ill that makes me like this—it must be that. It's so ugly to be ill; and so it makes you like everything that is beautiful all the more."
With all this coquetry which the approach of death had brought to her, these fancies and caprices, these little delicacies and elegancies, other senses too seemed to come to Renee. She was becoming, and she felt herself becoming, more of a woman. Under all the languor and indolence caused by illness, her disposition, which had always been affectionate but somewhat masculine and violent, grew gentler, more unbending, and more calm. Gradually the ways, tastes, inclinations, and ideas—all the signs of her sex, in fact—made their appearance to her. Her mind seemed to undergo the same transformation. She gave up her impetuous way of criticising and her daring speech. Occasionally she would use one of her old expressions, and then she would say, smiling, "That is a bit of the old Renee come back." She remembered speeches she had made, bold things she had done, and her familiar manner with young men; she would no longer dare to act and speak as in those old days. She was surprised, and did not know herself in her new character. She had given up reading serious or amusing books; she only cared now for works which set her thinking, books with ideas. When her father talked to her about hunting and the meets to which she had been and of those in store for her, it gave her the sensation of being about to fall, and the very idea of mounting a horse frightened her. All the emotions and weaknesses that she felt were quite new to her. Flowers about which she had never troubled much were now as dear to her as persons. She had never liked needlework, and now that she had started to embroider a skirt, she enjoyed doing it. She quite roused up and lived over again in the memories of her early girlhood. She thought of the children with whom she used to play, of the friends she had had, of different places to which she had been, and of the faces of the girls in the same row with her at her confirmation.
As she was looking out of the window one day, she saw a woman sit down in the dust in the middle of the village street, between a stone and a wheel-rut, and unswathe her little baby. The child lay face downward, the upper part of its body in the shade, moving its little legs, crossing its feet, and kicking about, and the sun caressed it lovingly as it does the bare limbs of a child. A few rays that played over it seemed to strew on its little feet some of the rose petals of a Fete-Dieu procession. When the mother and child had gone away Renee still went on gazing out of the window.
"You see," she said to her father, "I never could fall in love; you made me too hard to please. I always knew beforehand that no one could ever love me as you did. I saw so many things come into your face when I was there, such happiness! And when we went anywhere together, weren't you proud of me! Oh! weren't you just proud to have me leaning on your arm! It would have been all no good for any one else to have loved me; I should never have found any one like my own father; you spoiled me too much."
"But all that won't prevent my dear little girl one of these fine days, when she gets well, finding a handsome young man——"
"Oh, your handsome young man is a long way off yet," said Renee, a smile lighting up her eyes. "It seems strange to you," she went on, "doesn't it, that I have never seemed anxious to marry. Well, I tell you, it is your own fault. Oh, I'm not sorry in the least. What more did I want? Why, I had everything; I could not imagine any other happiness. I never even thought of such a thing. I didn't want any change. I was so well off. What could I have had, now, more than I already had? My life was so happy with you; and I was so contented. Yes," she went on, after a minute's silence, "if I had been like so many girls, if I had had parents who were cold and a father not at all like you; oh yes, I should certainly have done as other girls do, I should have wanted to be loved, I should have thought about marriage as they do. Then, too, I may as well tell you all, I should have had hard work to fall in love; it was never much in my way, all that sort of thing, and it always made me laugh. Do you remember before Henriette's marriage, when her husband was making love to her? How I did tease them! 'Bad child!' do you remember, that was what they used to call me. Oh, I've had my fancies, like every one else; dreamy days when I used to go about building castles in the air. One wouldn't be a woman without all that. But it was only like a little music in my mind; it just gave me a little excitement. It all came and went in my imagination; but I never had any special man in my mind, oh never. And then, too, when once I came out of my room, it was all over. As soon as ever any one was there, I only had my eyes; I thought of nothing but watching everything so that I could laugh afterward—and you know how your dreadful daughter could watch. They would have had to——"
"Monsieur," said Chretiennot, opening the door, M. Magu is downstairs; "he wants to know if he can see mademoiselle."
"Oh, father," said Renee, beseechingly, "no doctor to-day, please. I don't feel inclined. I'm very well. And then, too, he snorts so; why does he snort like that, father?"
M. Mauperin could not help laughing.
"I'll tell you," she went on, "it's the effect of driving about in a gig on his rounds in the winter. As both his hands are occupied, one with the reins and the other with the whip, he's got into the way of not using his handkerchief——"
"Is the sky blue all over, father? Look out and tell me, will you?" said Renee, one afternoon, as she lay on the sofa.
"Yes, my child," answered M. Mauperin from the window, "it is superb."
"Why? Are you in pain?"
"No, only it seemed to me that there must be clouds—as though the weather were going to change. It's very odd when one is ill, it seems as if the sky were much nearer. Oh, I'm a capital barometer now." And she went on reading the book she had laid down while she spoke.
"You tire yourself with reading, little girl; let us talk instead. Give it me," and M. Mauperin held out his hand for the book, which she slipped from her fingers into his. On opening it, M. Mauperin noticed some pages that he had doubled down some years before, telling her not to read them, and these forbidden pages were still doubled down.
Renee appeared to be sleepy. The storm which was not yet in the sky had already begun to weigh on her. She felt a most unbearable heaviness which seemed to overwhelm her, and at the same time a nervous uneasiness took possession of her. The electricity in the air was penetrating her and working on her.
A great silence had suddenly come over everything, as though it had been chased from the horizon, and the breath of solemn calm passing over the country filled her with immense anxiety. She looked at the clock, did not speak again, but kept moving her hands about from place to place.
"Ah, yes," said M. Mauperin, "there is a cloud, really, a big cloud over Fresnoy. How it is moving along! Ah, it's coming over on to our side—it's coming. Shall I shut everything up—the window and the shutters, and light up? Like that my big girl won't be so frightened."
"No," said Renee, quickly, "no lights in the daytime—no, no! And then, too," she went on, "I'm not afraid of it now."
"Oh, it is some distance off yet," said M. Mauperin, for the sake of saying something. His daughter's words had called up a vision of lighted tapers in this room.
"Ah, there's the rain," said Renee, in a relieved tone. "It's like dew, that rain is. It's as if we were drinking it, isn't it? Come here—near me."
Some large drops came down, one by one, at first. Then the water poured from the sky, as it does from a vase that has been upset. The storm broke over Morimond and the thunder rolled and burst in peals. The country round was all fire and then all dark. And at every moment in the gloomy room, lighted up with pale gleams, the flashes would suddenly cover the reclining figure of the invalid from head to foot, throwing over her whole body a shroud of light.
There was one last peal of thunder, so loud and which burst so near, that Renee threw her arms round her father's neck and hid her face against him.
"Foolish child, it's over now," said M. Mauperin; and like a bird which lifts its head a little from under its wing, she looked up, keeping her arms round him.
"Ah, I thought we were all dead!" she said, with a smile in which there was something of a regret.
One morning on going to see Renee, who had had a bad night, M. Mauperin found her in a doze. At the sound of his footstep she half opened her eyes and turned slightly towards him.
"Oh, it's you, papa," she said, and then she murmured something vaguely, of which M. Mauperin only caught the word "journey."
"What are you saying about a journey?" he asked.
"Yes, it's as though I had just come back from far away—from very far away—from countries I can't remember." And opening her eyes wide, with her two hands flat out on the sheet, she seemed to be trying to recall where she had been, and from whence she had just come. A confused recollection, an indistinct memory remained to her of stretches and spaces of country, of vague places, of those worlds and limbos to which sick people go during those last nights which are detaching them from earth, and from whence they return, surprised, with the dizziness and stupor of the Infinite still upon them, as if in the dream they have forgotten they had heard the first flapping of the wings of Death.
"Oh, it's nothing," she said after a minute's silence, "it's just the effect of the opium—they gave me some last night to make me sleep." And moving as though to shake off her thoughts, she said to her father, "Hold the little glass for me, will you, so that I can make myself look nice? Higher up—oh, these men—how awkward they are, to be sure."
She put her thin hands through her hair to fluff it up and pulled her lace into its place again.
"There now," she said, "talk to me. I want to be talked to," and she half closed her eyes while her father talked.
"You are tired, Renee; I'll leave you," said M. Mauperin, seeing that she did not appear to be listening.
"No, I have a touch of pain. Talk to me, though; it makes me forget it."
"But you are not listening to me. Come now, what are you thinking about, my dear little girl?"
"I'm not thinking about anything. I was trying to remember. Dreams, you know—it isn't really like that—it was—I don't remember. Ah!"
She broke off suddenly, with a pang of sharp pain.
"Does it hurt you, Renee?"
She did not answer, and M. Mauperin could not help his lips moving, as he looked up with an expression of revolt.
"Poor father," said Renee, after a few minutes. "You see I'm resigned. No, we ought not to be so angry with pain. It is sent to us for some reason. We are not made to suffer simply for the sake of suffering."
And in a broken voice, stopping continually to get breath, she began talking to him of all the good sides of suffering, of the wells of tenderness it opens up in us, of the delicacy of heart, and the gentleness of character that it gives to those who accept its bitterness without allowing themselves to get soured by it.
She spoke to him of all the meannesses and the pettinesses that go away from us when we suffer; of the tendency to sarcasm which leaves us, and the unkind laughter which we restrain; of the way in which we give up finding pleasure in other people's little miseries, and of the indulgence that we have for every one.
"If you only knew," she said, "what a stupid thing wit seems to me now." And M. Mauperin heard her expressing her gratitude to suffering as a proof of election. She spoke of selfishness and of all the materiality in which robust health wraps us up; of that hardness of heart which is the result of the well-being of the body; and she told him what ease and deliverance come with sickness; how light she felt inwardly and what aspirations it brings with it for something outside ourselves.
She spoke, too, of suffering as an ill which takes our pride away, which reminds us of our infirmity, which makes us humane, causes us to feel with all those who suffer, and which instils charity into us.
"And then, too," she added with a smile, "without it there would be something wanting for us; we should never be sad, you know——"
"My dear fellow, we are very unhappy," said M. Mauperin, one evening, a few days later, to Denoisel, who had just jumped down from a hired trap. "I had a presentiment you would come to-day," he went on. "She is asleep now; you'll see her to-morrow. Oh, you'll find her very much changed. But you must be hungry," and he led the way to the dining-room, where supper was being laid for him.
"Oh, M. Mauperin," said Denoisel, "she is young. At her age something can always be done."
M. Mauperin put his elbows on the table and great tears rolled slowly from his eyes.
"Oh, come, come, M. Mauperin; the doctors haven't given her up; there's hope yet."
M. Mauperin shook his head and did not answer, but his tears continued to flow.
"They haven't given her up?"
"Yes, they have," said M. Mauperin, who could not contain himself any longer, "and I didn't want to have to tell you. One is afraid of everything, you see, when it comes to this stage. It seems to me that there are certain words which would bring the very thing about, and to own this, why, I fancied it would kill my child. And then, too, there might be a miracle. Why shouldn't there be? They spoke of miracles—the doctors did. Oh, God! She still gets up, you know; it's a great thing, that she can get up. The last two days there has been an improvement, I think. And then to lose two in a year—it would be too terrible. Oh, that would be too much! But there, eat, man, you are not eating anything," and he put a large piece of meat on Denoisel's plate. "Well, well, we must bear up and be men; that's all we can do. What's the latest news in Paris?"
"There isn't any; at least, I don't know any. I've come straight from the Pyrenees. Mme. Davarande read me one of your letters; but she is far from thinking her so ill."
"Have you no news of Barousse?"
"Oh, yes! I met him on the way to the station. I wanted to bring him with me, but you know what Barousse is; nothing in the world would induce him to leave Paris for a week. He must take his morning walk along the quays. The idea of missing an engraving with its full margin——"
"And the Bourjots?" asked M. Mauperin with an effort.
"They say that Mlle. Bourjot will never marry."
"Poor child, she loved him."
"As to the mother, it is the saddest thing—it appears it's an awful ending—there are rumours of strange things—madness, in fact. There's some talk of sending her to a private asylum."
"Renee," said M. Mauperin, on entering his daughter's room the following day, "there is some one downstairs who wants to see you."
"Some one?" And she looked searchingly at her father. "I know, it's Denoisel. Did you write to him?"
"Not at all. You did not ask to see him, so that I did not know whether it would give you any pleasure. Do you mind?"
"Mother, give me my little red shawl—there, in the drawer," she said, without answering her father. "I mustn't frighten him, you know. Now then, bring him here quickly," she added, as soon as her shawl was tied at the neck like a scarf.
Denoisel came into the room, which was impregnated with that odour peculiar to the young when they are ill, and which reminds one of a faded bouquet and of dying flowers.
"It's very nice of you to have come," said Renee. "Look, I've put this shawl on for your benefit; you used to like me in it."
Denoisel stooped down, took her hands in his and kissed them.
"It's Denoisel," said M. Mauperin to his wife, who was seated at the other end of the room.
Mme. Mauperin did not appear to have heard. A minute later she got up, came across to Denoisel, kissed him in a lifeless sort of way, and then went back to the dark corner where she had been sitting.
"Well, how do you think I look? I haven't changed much, have I?" And then without giving him time to answer, she went on: "I have a dreadful father who will keep saying I don't look well, and who is most obstinate. It's no good telling him I am better; he will have it that I am not. When I am quite well again, you'll see—he'll insist on fancying that I am still an invalid."
Denoisel was looking at her wasted arm, just above the wrist.
"Oh, I'm a little thinner," said Renee, quickly buttoning her sleeve, "but that's nothing; I shall soon pick up again. Do you remember our good story about that, papa? It made us laugh so. It was at a farmer's house at Tetevuide's—that dinner, you remember, don't you? Only imagine it, Denoisel, the good fellow had been keeping some shrimps for us for two years. Just as we were sitting down to table, papa said, 'Oh, but where's your daughter, Tetevuide? She must dine with us. Isn't she here?' 'Oh, yes, sir.' 'Well, fetch her in, then, or I shall not touch the soup.' Thereupon the father went into the next room, and we heard talking and crying going on for the next quarter of an hour. He came back alone, finally. 'She will not come in,' he said, 'she says she's too thin.' But, papa," Renee went on, suddenly changing the subject, "for the last two days mamma has never been out of this room. Now that I have a new nurse, suppose you take her out for a stroll?"
* * * * *
"Ah, Renee dear," said Denoisel, when they were alone, "you don't know how glad I am to see you like this—to find you so gay and cheerful. That's a good sign, you know; you'll soon be better, I assure you. And with that good father of yours, and your poor mother, and your stupid old Denoisel to look after you—for I'm going to take up my abode here, for a time, with your permission."
"You, too, my dear boy? Now do just look at me!"
And she held out her two hands for him to help her to turn over, so that she could face him and have the daylight full on her.
"Can you see me now?"
The smile had left her eyes and her lips, and all animation had suddenly dropped from her face like a mask.
"Ah, yes," she said, lowering her voice, "it's all over, and I haven't long to live now. Oh, I wish I could die to-morrow. I can't go on, you know, doing as I am doing. I can't go on any longer cheering them all up. I have no strength left. I've come to the end of it, and I want to finish now. He doesn't see me as I am, does he? I can't kill him beforehand, you know. When he sees me laugh, why it doesn't matter about the doctors having given me up—he forgets that—he doesn't see anything, and he doesn't remember anything—so, you see, I am obliged to go on laughing. Ah, for people who can just pass away as they would like to—finish peacefully, die calmly, in a quiet place, with their face to the wall—why, that must be so easy. It's nothing to pass away like that. Well, anyhow, the worst part is over. And now you are here; and you'll help me to be brave. If I were to give way, you would be there to second me. And when—when I go, I count on you—you'll stay with him the first few months. Ah, don't cry," she said; "you'll make me cry, too."
There was a moment's silence.
"Six months already since Henri's funeral," she began again. "We've only seen each other once since that day. What a fearful turn I had, do you remember?"
"Yes, indeed I do remember," said Denoisel. "I've gone through it all again, often enough. I can see you now, my poor child, enduring the most horrible suffering, and your lips moving as though you wanted to cry out, to say something, and you could not utter a single word."
"I could not utter a single word," said Renee, repeating Denoisel's last words.
She closed her eyes, and her lips moved for a second as though they were murmuring a prayer. Then, with such an expression of happiness that Denoisel was surprised, she said:
"Ah, I am so glad to see you! Both of us together—you'll see how brave we shall be. And we'll take them all in finely—poor things!"
It was stiflingly hot. Renee's windows were left open all the evening, and the lamp was not lighted, for fear of attracting the moths, which made her so nervous. They were talking, until as the daylight gradually faded, their words and thoughts were influenced by the solemnity of the long hours of dreamy reverie, without light.
They all three soon ceased speaking at all, and remained there mute, breathing in the air and giving themselves up to the evening calm. M. Mauperin was holding Renee's hand in his, and every now and then he pressed it fondly.