After the many trials of his exile, Monsieur de Mortsauf, taking comfort in the thought of a secure future, had a certain recovery of mind; he breathed anew in this sweet valley the intoxicating essence of revived hope. Compelled to husband his means, he threw himself into agricultural pursuits and began to find some happiness in life. But the birth of his first child, Jacques, was a thunderbolt which ruined both the past and the future. The doctor declared the child had not vitality enough to live. The count concealed this sentence from the mother; but he sought other advice, and received the same fatal answer, the truth of which was confirmed at the subsequent birth of Madeleine. These events and a certain inward consciousness of the cause of this disaster increased the diseased tendencies of the man himself. His name doomed to extinction, a pure and irreproachable young woman made miserable beside him and doomed to the anguish of maternity without its joys—this uprising of his former into his present life, with its growth of new sufferings, crushed his spirit and completed its destruction.
The countess guessed the past from the present, and read the future. Though nothing is so difficult as to make a man happy when he knows himself to blame, she set herself to that task, which is worthy of an angel. She became stoical. Descending into an abyss, whence she still could see the sky, she devoted herself to the care of one man as the sister of charity devotes herself to many. To reconcile him with himself, she forgave him that for which he had no forgiveness. The count grew miserly; she accepted the privations he imposed. Like all who have known the world only to acquire its suspiciousness, he feared betrayal; she lived in solitude and yielded without a murmur to his mistrust. With a woman's tact she made him will to do that which was right, till he fancied the ideas were his own, and thus enjoyed in his own person the honors of a superiority that was never his. After due experience of married life, she came to the resolution of never leaving Clochegourde; for she saw the hysterical tendencies of the count's nature, and feared the outbreaks which might be talked of in that gossipping and jealous neighborhood to the injury of her children. Thus, thanks to her, no one suspected Monsieur de Mortsauf's real incapacity, for she wrapped his ruins in a mantle of ivy. The fickle, not merely discontented but embittered nature of the man found rest and ease in his wife; his secret anguish was lessened by the balm she shed upon it.
This brief history is in part a summary of that forced from Monsieur de Chessel by his inward vexation. His knowledge of the world enabled him to penetrate several of the mysteries of Clochegourde. But the prescience of love could not be misled by the sublime attitude with which Madame de Mortsauf deceived the world. When alone in my little bedroom, a sense of the full truth made me spring from my bed; I could not bear to stay at Frapesle when I saw the lighted windows of Clochegourde. I dressed, went softly down, and left the chateau by the door of a tower at the foot of a winding stairway. The coolness of the night calmed me. I crossed the Indre by the bridge at the Red Mill, took the ever-blessed punt, and rowed in front of Clochegourde, where a brilliant light was streaming from a window looking towards Azay.
Again I plunged into my old meditations; but they were now peaceful, intermingled with the love-note of the nightingale and the solitary cry of the sedge-warbler. Ideas glided like fairies through my mind, lifting the black veil which had hidden till then the glorious future. Soul and senses were alike charmed. With what passion my thoughts rose to her! Again and again I cried, with the repetition of a madman, "Will she be mine?" During the preceding days the universe had enlarged to me, but now in a single night I found its centre. On her my will and my ambition henceforth fastened; I desired to be all in all to her, that I might heal and fill her lacerated heart.
Beautiful was that night beneath her windows, amid the murmur of waters rippling through the sluices, broken only by a voice that told the hours from the clock-tower of Sache. During those hours of darkness bathed in light, when this sidereal flower illumined my existence, I betrothed to her my soul with the faith of the poor Castilian knight whom we laugh at in the pages of Cervantes,—a faith, nevertheless, with which all love begins.
At the first gleam of day, the first note of the waking birds, I fled back among the trees of Frapesle and reached the house; no one had seen me, no one suspected by absence, and I slept soundly until the bell rang for breakfast. When the meal was over I went down, in spite of the heat, to the meadow-lands for another sight of the Indre and its isles, the valley and its slopes, of which I seemed so passionate an admirer. But once there, thanks to a swiftness of foot like that of a loose horse, I returned to my punt, the willows, and Clochegourde. All was silent and palpitating, as a landscape is at midday in summer. The still foliage lay sharply defined on the blue of the sky; the insects that live by light, the dragon-flies, the cantharides, were flying among the reeds and the ash-trees; cattle chewed the cud in the shade, the ruddy earth of the vineyards glowed, the adders glided up and down the banks. What a change in the sparkling and coquettish landscape while I slept! I sprang suddenly from the boat and ran up the road which went round Clochegourde for I fancied that I saw the count coming out. I was not mistaken; he was walking beside the hedge, evidently making for a gate on the road to Azay which followed the bank of the river.
"How are you this morning, Monsieur le comte?"
He looked at me pleasantly, not being used to hear himself thus addressed.
"Quite well," he answered. "You must love the country, to be rambling about in this heat!"
"I was sent here to live in the open air."
"Then what do you say to coming with me to see them cut my rye?"
"Gladly," I replied. "I'll own to you that my ignorance is past belief; I don't know rye from wheat, nor a poplar from an aspen; I know nothing of farming, nor of the various methods of cultivating the soil."
"Well, come and learn," he cried gaily, returning upon his steps. "Come in by the little gate above."
The count walked back along the hedge, he being within it and I without.
"You will learn nothing from Monsieur de Chessel," he remarked; "he is altogether too fine a gentleman to do more than receive the reports of his bailiff."
The count then showed me his yards and the farm buildings, the pleasure-grounds, orchards, vineyards, and kitchen garden, until we finally came to the long alley of acacias and ailanthus beside the river, at the end of which I saw Madame de Mortsauf sitting on a bench, with her children. A woman is very lovely under the light and quivering shade of such foliage. Surprised, perhaps, at my prompt visit, she did not move, knowing very well that we should go to her. The count made me admire the view of the valley, which at this point is totally different from that seen from the heights above. Here I might have thought myself in a corner of Switzerland. The meadows, furrowed with little brooks which flow into the Indre, can be seen to their full extent till lost in the misty distance. Towards Montbazon the eye ranges over a vast green plain; in all other directions it is stopped by hills, by masses of trees, and rocks. We quickened our steps as we approached Madame de Mortsauf, who suddenly dropped the book in which Madeleine was reading to her and took Jacques upon her knees, in the paroxysms of a violent cough.
"What's the matter?" cried the count, turning livid.
"A sore throat," answered the mother, who seemed not to see me; "but it is nothing serious."
She was holding the child by the head and body, and her eyes seemed to shed two rays of life into the poor frail creature.
"You are so extraordinarily imprudent," said the count, sharply; "you expose him to the river damps and let him sit on a stone bench."
"Why, papa, the stone is burning hot," cried Madeleine.
"They were suffocating higher up," said the countess.
"Women always want to prove they are right," said the count, turning to me.
To avoid agreeing or disagreeing with him by word or look I watched Jacques, who complained of his throat. His mother carried him away, but as she did so she heard her husband say:—
"When they have brought such sickly children into the world they ought to learn how to take care of them."
Words that were cruelly unjust; but his self-love drove him to defend himself at the expense of his wife. The countess hurried up the steps and across the portico, and I saw her disappear through the glass door. Monsieur de Mortsauf seated himself on the bench, his head bowed in gloomy silence. My position became annoying; he neither spoke nor looked at me. Farewell to the walk he had proposed, in the course of which I had hoped to fathom him. I hardly remember a more unpleasant moment. Ought I to go away, or should I not go? How many painful thoughts must have arisen in his mind, to make him forget to follow Jacques and learn how he was! At last however he rose abruptly and came towards me. We both turned and looked at the smiling valley.
"We will put off our walk to another day, Monsieur le comte," I said gently.
"No, let us go," he replied. "Unfortunately, I am accustomed to such scenes—I, who would give my life without the slightest regret to save that of the child."
"Jacques is better, my dear; he has gone to sleep," said a golden voice. Madame de Mortsauf suddenly appeared at the end of the path. She came forward, without bitterness or ill-will, and bowed to me.
"I am glad to see that you like Clochegourde," she said.
"My dear, should you like me to ride over and fetch Monsieur Deslandes?" said the count, as if wishing her to forgive his injustice.
"Don't be worried," she said. "Jacques did not sleep last night, that's all. The child is very nervous; he had a bad dream, and I told him stories all night to keep him quiet. His cough is purely nervous; I have stilled it with a lozenge, and he has gone to sleep."
"Poor woman!" said her husband, taking her hand in his and giving her a tearful look, "I knew nothing of it."
"Why should you be troubled when there is no occasion?" she replied. "Now go and attend to the rye. You know if you are not there the men will let the gleaners of the other villages get into the field before the sheaves are carried away."
"I am going to take a first lesson in agriculture, madame," I said to her.
"You have a very good master," she replied, motioning towards the count, whose mouth screwed itself into that smile of satisfaction which is vulgarly termed a "bouche en coeur."
Two months later I learned she had passed that night in great anxiety, fearing that her son had the croup; while I was in the boat, rocked by thoughts of love, imagined that she might see me from her window adoring the gleam of the candle which was then lighting a forehead furrowed by fears! The croup prevailed at Tours, and was often fatal. When we were outside the gate, the count said in a voice of emotion, "Madame de Mortsauf is an angel!" The words staggered me. As yet I knew but little of the family, and the natural conscience of a young soul made me exclaim inwardly: "What right have I to trouble this perfect peace?"
Glad to find a listener in a young man over whom he could lord it so easily, the count talked to me of the future which the return of the Bourbons would secure to France. We had a desultory conversation, in which I listened to much childish nonsense which positively amazed me. He was ignorant of facts susceptible of proof that might be called geometric; he feared persons of education; he rejected superiority, and scoffed, perhaps with some reason, at progress. I discovered in his nature a number of sensitive fibres which it required the utmost caution not to wound; so that a conversation with him of any length was a positive strain upon the mind. When I had, as it were, felt of his defects, I conformed to them with the same suppleness that his wife showed in soothing him. Later in life I should certainly have made him angry, but now, humble as a child, supposing that I knew nothing and believing that men in their prime knew all, I was genuinely amazed at the results obtained at Clochegourde by this patient agriculturist. I listened admiringly to his plans; and with an involuntary flattery which won his good-will, I envied him the estate and its outlook—a terrestrial paradise, I called it, far superior to Frapesle.
"Frapesle," I said, "is a massive piece of plate, but Clochegourde is a jewel-case of gems,"—a speech which he often quoted, giving credit to its author.
"Before we came here," he said, "it was desolation itself."
I was all ears when he told of his seed-fields and nurseries. New to country life, I besieged him with questions about prices, means of preparing and working the soil, etc., and he seemed glad to answer all in detail.
"What in the world do they teach you in your colleges?" he exclaimed at last in astonishment.
On this first day the count said to his wife when he reached home, "Monsieur Felix is a charming young man."
That evening I wrote to my mother and asked her to send my clothes and linen, saying that I should remain at Frapesle. Ignorant of the great revolution which was just taking place, and not perceiving the influence it was to have upon my fate, I expected to return to Paris to resume my legal studies. The Law School did not open till the first week in November; meantime I had two months and a half before me.
The first part of my stay, while I studied to understand the count, was a period of painful impressions to me. I found him a man of extreme irascibility without adequate cause; hasty in action in hazardous cases to a degree that alarmed me. Sometimes he showed glimpses of the brave gentleman of Conde's army, parabolic flashes of will such as may, in times of emergency, tear through politics like bomb-shells, and may also, by virtue of honesty and courage, make a man condemned to live buried on his property an Elbee, a Bonchamp, or a Charette. In presence of certain ideas his nostril contracted, his forehead cleared, and his eyes shot lightnings, which were soon quenched. Sometimes I feared he might detect the language of my eyes and kill me. I was young then and merely tender. Will, that force that alters men so strangely, had scarcely dawned within me. My passionate desires shook me with an emotion that was like the throes of fear. Death I feared not, but I would not die until I knew the happiness of mutual love—But how tell of what I felt! I was a prey to perplexity; I hoped for some fortunate chance; I watched; I made the children love me; I tried to identify myself with the family.
Little by little the count restrained himself less in my presence. I came to know his sudden outbreaks of temper, his deep and ceaseless melancholy, his flashes of brutality, his bitter, cutting complaints, his cold hatreds, his impulses of latent madness, his childish moans, his cries of a man's despair, his unexpected fury. The moral nature differs from the physical nature inasmuch as nothing is absolute in it. The force of effects is in direct proportion to the characters or the ideas which are grouped around some fact. My position at Clochegourde, my future life, depended on this one eccentric will.
I cannot describe to you the distress that filled my soul (as quick in those days to expand as to contract), whenever I entered Clochegourde, and asked myself, "How will he receive me?" With what anxiety of heart I saw the clouds collecting on that stormy brow. I lived in a perpetual "qui-vive." I fell under the dominion of that man; and the sufferings I endured taught me to understand those of Madame de Mortsauf. We began by exchanging looks of comprehension; tried by the same fire, how many discoveries I made during those first forty days!—of actual bitterness, of tacit joys, of hopes alternately submerged and buoyant. One evening I found her pensively watching a sunset which reddened the summits with so ravishing a glow that it was impossible not to listen to that voice of the eternal Song of Songs by which Nature herself bids all her creatures love. Did the lost illusions of her girlhood return to her? Did the woman suffer from an inward comparison? I fancied I perceived a desolation in her attitude that was favorable to my first appeal, and I said, "Some days are hard to bear."
"You read my soul," she answered; "but how have you done so?"
"We touch at many points," I replied. "Surely we belong to the small number of human beings born to the highest joys and the deepest sorrows; whose feeling qualities vibrate in unison and echo each other inwardly; whose sensitive natures are in harmony with the principle of things. Put such beings among surroundings where all is discord and they suffer horribly, just as their happiness mounts to exaltation when they meet ideas, or feelings, or other beings who are congenial to them. But there is still a third condition, where sorrows are known only to souls affected by the same distress; in this alone is the highest fraternal comprehension. It may happen that such souls find no outlet either for good or evil. Then the organ within us endowed with expression and motion is exercised in a void, expends its passion without an object, utters sounds without melody, and cries that are lost in solitude,—terrible defeat of a soul which revolts against the inutility of nothingness. These are struggles in which our strength oozes away without restraint, as blood from an inward wound. The sensibilities flow to waste and the result is a horrible weakening of the soul; an indescribable melancholy for which the confessional itself has no ears. Have I not expressed our mutual sufferings?"
She shuddered, and then without removing her eyes from the setting sun, she said, "How is it that, young as you are, you know these things? Were you once a woman?"
"Ah!" I replied, "my childhood was like a long illness—"
"I hear Madeleine coughing," she cried, leaving me abruptly.
The countess showed no displeasure at my constant visits, and for two reasons. In the first place she was pure as a child, and her thoughts wandered into no forbidden regions; in the next I amused the count and made a sop for that lion without claws or mane. I found an excuse for my visits which seemed plausible to every one. Monsieur de Mortsauf proposed to teach me backgammon, and I accepted; as I did so the countess was betrayed into a look of compassion, which seemed to say, "You are flinging yourself into the jaws of the lion." If I did not understand this at the time, three days had not passed before I knew what I had undertaken. My patience, which nothing exhausts, the fruit of my miserable childhood, ripened under this last trial. The count was delighted when he could jeer at me for not putting in practice the principles or the rules he had explained; if I reflected before I played he complained of my slowness; if I played fast he was angry because I hurried him; if I forgot to mark my points he declared, making his profit out of the mistake, that I was always too rapid. It was like the tyranny of a schoolmaster, the despotism of the rod, of which I can really give you no idea unless I compare myself to Epictetus under the yoke of a malicious child. When we played for money his winnings gave him the meanest and most abject delight.
A word from his wife was enough to console me, and it frequently recalled him to a sense of politeness and good-breeding. But before long I fell into the furnace of an unexpected misery. My money was disappearing under these losses. Though the count was always present during my visits until I left the house, which was sometimes very late, I cherished the hope of finding some moment when I might say a word that would reach my idol's heart; but to obtain that moment, for which I watched and waited with a hunter's painful patience, I was forced to continue these weary games, during which my feelings were lacerated and my money lost. Still, there were moments when we were silent, she and I, looking at the sunlight on the meadows, the clouds in a gray sky, the misty hills, or the quivering of the moon on the sandbanks of the river; saying only, "Night is beautiful!"
"Night is woman, madame."
"Yes, no one can be absolutely wretched here."
Then she would return to her embroidery frame. I came at last to hear the inward beatings of an affection which sought its object. But the fact remained—without money, farewell to these evenings. I wrote to my mother to send me some. She scolded me and sent only enough to last a week. Where could I get more? My life depended on it. Thus it happened that in the dawn of my first great happiness I found the same sufferings that assailed me elsewhere; but in Paris, at college, at school I evaded them by abstinence; there my privations were negative, at Frapesle they were active; so active that I was possessed by the impulse to theft, by visions of crime, furious desperations which rend the soul and must be subdued under pain of losing our self-respect. The memory of what I suffered through my mother's parsimony taught me that indulgence for young men which one who has stood upon the brink of the abyss and measured its depths, without falling into them, must inevitably feel. Though my own rectitude was strengthened by those moments when life opened and let me see the rocks and quicksands beneath the surface, I have never known that terrible thing called human justice draw its blade through the throat of a criminal without saying to myself: "Penal laws are made by men who have never known misery."
At this crisis I happened to find a treatise on backgammon in Monsieur de Chessel's library, and I studied it. My host was kind enough to give me a few lessons; less harshly taught by the count I made good progress and applied the rules and calculations I knew by heart. Within a few days I was able to beat Monsieur de Mortsauf; but no sooner had I done so and won his money for the first time than his temper became intolerable; his eyes glittered like those of tigers, his face shrivelled, his brows knit as I never saw brows knit before or since. His complainings were those of a fretful child. Sometimes he flung down the dice, quivered with rage, bit the dice-box, and said insulting things to me. Such violence, however, came to an end. When I had acquired enough mastery of the game I played it to suit me; I so managed that we were nearly equal up to the last moment; I allowed him to win the first half and made matters even during the last half. The end of the world would have surprised him less than the rapid superiority of his pupil; but he never admitted it. The unvarying result of our games was a topic of discourse on which he fastened.
"My poor head," he would say, "is fatigued; you manage to win the last of the game because by that time I lose my skill."
The countess, who knew backgammon, understood my manoeuvres from the first, and gave me those mute thanks which swell the heart of a young man; she granted me the same look she gave to her children. From that ever-blessed evening she always looked at me when she spoke. I cannot explain to you the condition I was in when I left her. My soul had annihilated my body; it weighed nothing; I did not walk, I flew. That look I carried within me; it bathed me with light just as her last words, "Adieu, monsieur," still sounded in my soul with the harmonies of "O filii, o filioe" in the paschal choir. I was born into a new life, I was something to her! I slept on purple and fine linen. Flames darted before my closed eyelids, chasing each other in the darkness like threads of fire in the ashes of burned paper. In my dreams her voice became, though I cannot describe it, palpable, an atmosphere of light and fragrance wrapping me, a melody enfolding my spirit. On the morrow her greeting expressed the fulness of feelings that remained unuttered, and from that moment I was initiated into the secrets of her voice.
That day was to be one of the most decisive of my life. After dinner we walked on the heights across a barren plain where no herbage grew; the ground was stony, arid, and without vegetable soil of any kind; nevertheless a few scrub oaks and thorny bushes straggled there, and in place of grass, a carpet of crimped mosses, illuminated by the setting sun and so dry that our feet slipped upon it. I held Madeleine by the hand to keep her up. Madame de Mortsauf was leading Jacques. The count, who was in front, suddenly turned round and striking the earth with his cane said to me in a dreadful tone: "Such is my life!—but before I knew you," he added with a look of penitence at his wife. The reparation was tardy, for the countess had turned pale; what woman would not have staggered as she did under the blow?
"But what delightful scenes are wafted here, and what a view of the sunset!" I cried. "For my part I should like to own this barren moor; I fancy there may be treasures if we dig for them. But its greatest wealth is that of being near you. Who would not pay a great cost for such a view?—all harmony to the eye, with that winding river where the soul may bathe among the ash-trees and the alders. See the difference of taste! To you this spot of earth is a barren waste; to me, it is paradise."
She thanked me with a look.
"Bucolics!" exclaimed the count, with a bitter look. "This is no life for a man who bears your name." Then he suddenly changed his tone—"The bells!" he cried, "don't you hear the bells of Azay? I hear them ringing."
Madame de Mortsauf gave me a frightened look. Madeleine clung to my hand.
"Suppose we play a game of backgammon?" I said. "Let us go back; the rattle of the dice will drown the sound of the bells."
We returned to Clochegourde, conversing by fits and starts. Once in the salon an indefinable uncertainty and dread took possession of us. The count flung himself into an armchair, absorbed in reverie, which his wife, who knew the symptoms of his malady and could foresee an outbreak, was careful not to interrupt. I also kept silence. As she gave me no hint to leave, perhaps she thought backgammon might divert the count's mind and quiet those fatal nervous susceptibilities, the excitements of which were killing him. Nothing was ever harder than to make him play that game, which, however, he had a great desire to play. Like a pretty woman, he always required to be coaxed, entreated, forced, so that he might not seem the obliged person. If by chance, being interested in the conversation, I forgot to propose it, he grew sulky, bitter, insulting, and spoiled the talk by contradicting everything. If, warned by his ill-humor, I suggested a game, he would dally and demur. "In the first place, it is too late," he would say; "besides, I don't care for it." Then followed a series of affectations like those of women, which often leave you in ignorance of their real wishes.
On this occasion I pretended a wild gaiety to induce him to play. He complained of giddiness which hindered him from calculating; his brain, he said, was squeezed into a vice; he heard noises, he was choking; and thereupon he sighed heavily. At last, however, he consented to the game. Madame de Mortsauf left us to put the children to bed and lead the household in family prayers. All went well during her absence; I allowed Monsieur de Mortsauf to win, and his delight seemed to put him beside himself. This sudden change from a gloom that led him to make the darkest predictions to the wild joy of a drunken man, expressed in a crazy laugh and without any adequate motive, distressed and alarmed me. I had never seen him in quite so marked a paroxysm. Our intimacy had borne fruits in the fact that he no longer restrained himself before me. Day by day he had endeavored to bring me under his tyranny, and obtain fresh food, as it were, for his evil temper; for it really seems as though moral diseases were creatures with appetites and instincts, seeking to enlarge the boundaries of their empire as a landowner seeks to increase his domain.
Presently the countess came down, and sat close to the backgammon table, apparently for better light on her embroidery, though the anxiety which led her to place her frame was ill-concealed. A piece of fatal ill-luck which I could not prevent changed the count's face; from gaiety it fell to gloom, from purple it became yellow, and his eyes rolled. Then followed worse ill-luck, which I could neither avert nor repair. Monsieur de Mortsauf made a fatal throw which decided the game. Instantly he sprang up, flung the table at me and the lamp on the floor, struck the chimney-piece with his fist and jumped, for I cannot say he walked, about the room. The torrent of insults, imprecations, and incoherent words which rushed from his lips would have made an observer think of the old tales of satanic possession in the Middle Ages. Imagine my position!
"Go into the garden," said the countess, pressing my hand.
I left the room before the count could notice my disappearance. On the terrace, where I slowly walked about, I heard his shouts and then his moans from the bedroom which adjoined the dining-room. Also I heard at intervals through that tempest of sound the voice of an angel, which rose like the song of a nightingale as the rain ceases. I walked about under the acacias in the loveliest night of the month of August, waiting for the countess to join me. I knew she would come; her gesture promised it. For several days an explanation seemed to float between us; a word would suffice to send it gushing from the spring, overfull, in our souls. What timidity had thus far delayed a perfect understanding between us? Perhaps she loved, as I did, these quiverings of the spirit which resembled emotions of fear and numbed the sensibilities while we held our life unuttered within us, hesitating to unveil its secrets with the modesty of the young girl before the husband she loves. An hour passed. I was sitting on the brick balustrade when the sound of her footsteps blending with the undulating ripple of her flowing gown stirred the calm air of the night. These are sensations to which the heart suffices not.
"Monsieur de Mortsauf is sleeping," she said. "When he is thus I give him an infusion of poppies, a cup of water in which a few poppies have been steeped; the attacks are so infrequent that this simple remedy never loses its effect—Monsieur," she continued, changing her tone and using the most persuasive inflexion of her voice, "this most unfortunate accident has revealed to you a secret which has hitherto been sedulously kept; promise me to bury the recollection of that scene. Do this for my sake, I beg of you. I don't ask you to swear it; give me your word of honor and I shall be content."
"Need I give it to you?" I said. "Do we not understand each other?"
"You must not judge unfavorably of Monsieur de Mortsauf; you see the effects of his many sufferings under the emigration," she went on. "To-morrow he will entirely forget all that he has said and done; you will find him kind and excellent as ever."
"Do not seek to excuse him, madame," I replied. "I will do all you wish. I would fling myself into the Indre at this moment if I could restore Monsieur de Mortsauf's health and ensure you a happy life. The only thing I cannot change is my opinion. I can give you my life, but not my convictions; I can pay no heed to what he says, but can I hinder him from saying it? No, in my opinion Monsieur de Mortsauf is—"
"I understand you," she said, hastily interrupting me; "you are right. The count is as nervous as a fashionable woman," she added, as if to conceal the idea of madness by softening the word. "But he is only so at intervals, once a year, when the weather is very hot. Ah, what evils have resulted from the emigration! How many fine lives ruined! He would have been, I am sure of it, a great soldier, an honor to his country—"
"I know," I said, interrupting in my turn to let her see that it was useless to attempt to deceive me.
She stopped, laid one hand lightly on my brow, and looked at me. "Who has sent you here," she said, "into this home? Has God sent me help, a true friendship to support me?" She paused, then added, as she laid her hand firmly upon mine, "For you are good and generous—" She raised her eyes to heaven, as if to invoke some invisible testimony to confirm her thought, and then let them rest upon me. Electrified by the look, which cast a soul into my soul, I was guilty, judging by social laws, of a want of tact, though in certain natures such indelicacy really means a brave desire to meet danger, to avert a blow, to arrest an evil before it happens; oftener still, an abrupt call upon a heart, a blow given to learn if it resounds in unison with ours. Many thoughts rose like gleams within my mind and bade me wash out the stain that blotted my conscience at this moment when I was seeking a complete understanding.
"Before we say more," I said in a voice shaken by the throbbings of my heart, which could be heard in the deep silence that surrounded us, "suffer me to purify one memory of the past."
"Hush!" she said quickly, touching my lips with a finger which she instantly removed. She looked at me haughtily, with the glance of a woman who knows herself too exalted for insult to reach her. "Be silent; I know of what you are about to speak,—the first, the last, the only outrage ever offered to me. Never speak to me of that ball. If as a Christian I have forgiven you, as a woman I still suffer from your act."
"You are more pitiless than God himself," I said, forcing back the tears that came into my eyes.
"I ought to be so, I am more feeble," she replied.
"But," I continued with the persistence of a child, "listen to me now if only for the first, the last, the only time in your life."
"Speak, then," she said; "speak, or you will think I dare not hear you."
Feeling that this was the turning moment of our lives, I spoke to her in the tone that commands attention; I told her that all women whom I had ever seen were nothing to me; but when I met her, I, whose life was studious, whose nature was not bold, I had been, as it were, possessed by a frenzy that no one who once felt it could condemn; that never heart of man had been so filled with the passion which no being can resist, which conquers all things, even death—
"And contempt?" she asked, stopping me.
"Did you despise me?" I exclaimed.
"Let us say no more on this subject," she replied.
"No, let me say all!" I replied, in the excitement of my intolerable pain. "It concerns my life, my whole being, my inward self; it contains a secret you must know or I must die in despair. It also concerns you, who, unawares, are the lady in whose hand is the crown promised to the victor in the tournament!"
Then I related to her my childhood and youth, not as I have told it to you, judged from a distance, but in the language of a young man whose wounds are still bleeding. My voice was like the axe of a woodsman in the forest. At every word the dead years fell with echoing sound, bristling with their anguish like branches robbed of their foliage. I described to her in feverish language many cruel details which I have here spared you. I spread before her the treasure of my radiant hopes, the virgin gold of my desires, the whole of a burning heart kept alive beneath the snow of these Alps, piled higher and higher by perpetual winter. When, bowed down by the weight of these remembered sufferings, related as with the live coal of Isaiah, I awaited the reply of the woman who listened with a bowed head, she illumined the darkness with a look, she quickened the worlds terrestrial and divine with a single sentence.
"We have had the same childhood!" she said, turning to me a face on which the halo of the martyrs shone.
After a pause, in which our souls were wedded in the one consoling thought, "I am not alone in suffering," the countess told me, in the voice she kept for her little ones, how unwelcome she was as a girl when sons were wanted. She showed me how her troubles as a daughter bound to her mother's side differed from those of a boy cast out upon the world of school and college life. My desolate neglect seemed to me a paradise compared to that contact with a millstone under which her soul was ground until the day when her good aunt, her true mother, had saved her from this misery, the ever-recurring pain of which she now related to me; misery caused sometimes by incessant faultfinding, always intolerable to high-strung natures which do not shrink before death itself but die beneath the sword of Damocles; sometimes by the crushing of generous impulses beneath an icy hand, by the cold rebuffal of her kisses, by a stern command of silence, first imposed and then as often blamed; by inward tears that dared not flow but stayed within the heart; in short, by all the bitterness and tyranny of convent rule, hidden to the eyes of the world under the appearance of an exalted motherly devotion. She gratified her mother's vanity before strangers, but she dearly paid in private for this homage. When, believing that by obedience and gentleness she had softened her mother's heart, she opened hers, the tyrant only armed herself with the girl's confidence. No spy was ever more traitorous and base. All the pleasures of girlhood, even her fete days, were dearly purchased, for she was scolded for her gaiety as much as for her faults. No teaching and no training for her position had been given in love, always with sarcastic irony. She was not angry against her mother; in fact she blamed herself for feeling more terror than love for her. "Perhaps," she said, dear angel, "these severities were needful; they had certainly prepared her for her present life." As I listened it seemed to me that the harp of Job, from which I had drawn such savage sounds, now touched by the Christian fingers gave forth the litanies of the Virgin at the foot of the cross.
"We lived in the same sphere before we met in this," I said; "you coming from the east, I from the west."
She shook her head with a gesture of despair.
"To you the east, to me the west," she replied. "You will live happy, I must die of pain. Life is what we make of it, and mine is made forever. No power can break the heavy chain to which a woman is fastened by this ring of gold—the emblem of a wife's purity."
We knew we were twins of one womb; she never dreamed of a half-confidence between brothers of the same blood. After a short sigh, natural to pure hearts when they first open to each other, she told me of her first married life, her deceptions and disillusions, the rebirth of her childhood's misery. Like me, she had suffered under trifles; mighty to souls whose limpid substance quivers to the least shock, as a lake quivers on the surface and to its utmost depths when a stone is flung into it. When she married she possessed some girlish savings; a little gold, the fruit of happy hours and repressed fancies. These, in a moment when they were needed, she gave to her husband, not telling him they were gifts and savings of her own. He took no account of them, and never regarded himself her debtor. She did not even obtain the glance of thanks that would have paid for all. Ah! how she went from trial to trial! Monsieur de Mortsauf habitually neglected to give her money for the household. When, after a struggle with her timidity, she asked him for it, he seemed surprised and never once spared her the mortification of petitioning for necessities. What terror filled her mind when the real nature of the ruined man's disease was revealed to her, and she quailed under the first outbreak of his mad anger! What bitter reflections she had made before she brought herself to admit that her husband was a wreck! What horrible calamities had come of her bearing children! What anguish she felt at the sight of those infants born almost dead! With what courage had she said in her heart: "I will breathe the breath of life into them; I will bear them anew day by day!" Then conceive the bitterness of finding her greatest obstacle in the heart and hand from which a wife should draw her greatest succor! She saw the untold disaster that threatened him. As each difficulty was conquered, new deserts opened before her, until the day when she thoroughly understood her husband's condition, the constitution of her children, and the character of the neighborhood in which she lived; a day when (like the child taken by Napoleon from a tender home) she taught her feet to trample through mud and snow, she trained her nerves to bullets and all her being to the passive obedience of a soldier.
These things, of which I here make a summary, she told me in all their dark extent, with every piteous detail of conjugal battles lost and fruitless struggles.
"You would have to live here many months," she said, in conclusion, "to understand what difficulties I have met with in improving Clochegourde; what persuasions I have had to use to make him do a thing which was most important to his interests. You cannot imagine the childish glee he has shown when anything that I advised was not at once successful. All that turned out well he claimed for himself. Yes, I need an infinite patience to bear his complaints when I am half-exhausted in the effort to amuse his weary hours, to sweeten his life and smooth the paths which he himself has strewn with stones. The reward he gives me is that awful cry: 'Let me die, life is a burden to me!' When visitors are here and he enjoys them, he forgets his gloom and is courteous and polite. You ask me why he cannot be so to his family. I cannot explain that want of loyalty in a man who is truly chivalrous. He is quite capable of riding at full speed to Paris to buy me a set of ornaments, as he did the other day before the ball. Miserly in his household, he would be lavish upon me if I wished it. I would it were reversed; I need nothing for myself, but the wants of the household are many. In my strong desire to make him happy, and not reflecting that I might be a mother, I began my married life by letting him treat me as a victim, I, who at that time by using a few caresses could have led him like a child—but I was unable to play a part I should have thought disgraceful. Now, however, the welfare of my family requires me to be as calm and stern as the figure of Justice—and yet, I too have a heart that overflows with tenderness."
"But why," I said, "do you not use this great influence to master him and govern him?"
"If it concerned myself only I should not attempt either to overcome the dogged silence with which for days together he meets my arguments, nor to answer his irrational remarks, his childish reasons. I have no courage against weakness, any more than I have against childhood; they may strike me as they will, I cannot resist. Perhaps I might meet strength with strength, but I am powerless against those I pity. If I were required to coerce Madeleine in some matter that would save her life, I should die with her. Pity relaxes all my fibres and unstrings my nerves. So it is that the violent shocks of the last ten years have broken me down; my feelings, so often battered, are numb at times; nothing can revive them; even the courage with which I once faced my troubles begins to fail me. Yes, sometimes I am beaten. For want of rest—I mean repose—and sea-baths by which to recover my nervous strength, I shall perish. Monsieur de Mortsauf will have killed me, and he will die of my death."
"Why not leave Clochegourde for a few months? Surely you could take your children and go to the seashore."
"In the first place, Monsieur de Mortsauf would think he were lost if I left him. Though he will not admit his condition he is well aware of it. He is both sane and mad, two natures in one man, a contradiction which explains many an irrational action. Besides this, he would have good reason for objecting. Nothing would go right here if I were absent. You may have seen in me the mother of a family watchful to protect her young from the hawk that is hovering over them; a weighty task, indeed, but harder still are the cares imposed upon me by Monsieur de Mortsauf, whose constant cry, as he follows me about is, 'Where is Madame?' I am Jacques' tutor and Madeleine's governess; but that is not all, I am bailiff and steward too. You will understand what that means when you come to see, as you will, that the working of an estate in these parts is the most fatiguing of all employments. We get small returns in money; the farms are cultivated on shares, a system which needs the closest supervision. We are obliged ourselves to sell our own produce, our cattle and harvests of all kinds. Our competitors in the markets are our own farmers, who meet consumers in the wine-shops and determine prices by selling first. I should weary you if I explained the many difficulties of agriculture in this region. No matter what care I give to it, I cannot always prevent our tenants from putting our manure upon their ground, I cannot be ever on the watch lest they take advantage of us in the division of the crops; neither can I always know the exact moment when sales should be made. So, if you think of Monsieur de Mortsauf's defective memory, and the difficulty you have seen me have in persuading him to attend to business, you can understand the burden that is on my shoulders, and the impossibility of my laying it down for a single day. If I were absent we should be ruined. No one would obey Monsieur de Mortsauf. In the first place his orders are conflicting; then no one likes him; he finds incessant fault, and he is very domineering. Moreover, like all men of feeble mind, he listens too readily to his inferiors. If I left the house not a servant would be in it in a week's time. So you see I am attached to Clochegourde as those leaden finals are to our roof. I have no reserves with you. The whole country-side is still ignorant of the secrets of this house, but you know them, you have seen them. Say nothing but what is kind and friendly, and you shall have my esteem—my gratitude," she added in a softer voice. "On those terms you are welcome at Clochegourde, where you will find friends."
"Ah!" I exclaimed, "I see that I have never really suffered, while you—"
"No, no!" she exclaimed, with a smile, that smile of all resigned women which might melt a granite rock. "Do not be astonished at my frank confidence; it shows you life as it is, not as your imagination pictures it. We all have our defects and our good qualities. If I had married a spendthrift he would have ruined me. If I had given myself to an ardent and pleasure-loving young man, perhaps I could not have retained him; he might have left me, and I should have died of jealousy. For I am jealous!" she said, in a tone of excitement, which was like the thunderclap of a passing storm. "But Monsieur de Mortsauf loves me as much as he is capable of loving; all that his heart contains of affection he pours at my feet, like the Magdalen's cup of ointment. Believe me, a life of love is an exception to the laws of this earth; all flowers fade; great joys and emotions have a morrow of evil—if a morrow at all. Real life is a life of anguish; its image is in that nettle growing there at the foot of the wall,—no sun can reach it and it keeps green. Yet, here, as in parts of the North, there are smiles in the sky, few to be sure, but they compensate for many a grief. Moreover, women who are naturally mothers live and love far more through sacrifices than through pleasures. Here I draw upon myself the storms I fear may break upon my children or my people; and in doing so I feel a something I cannot explain, which gives me secret courage. The resignation of the night carries me through the day that follows. God does not leave me comfortless. Time was when the condition of my children filled me with despair; to-day as they advance in life they grow healthier and stronger. And then, after all, our home is improved and beautified, our means are improving also. Who knows but Monsieur de Mortsauf's old age may be a blessing to me? Ah, believe me! those who stand before the Great Judge with palms in their hands, leading comforted to Him the beings who cursed their lives, they, they have turned their sorrows into joy. If my sufferings bring about the happiness of my family, are they sufferings at all?"
"Yes," I said, "they are; but they were necessary, as mine have been, to make us understand the true flavor of the fruit that has ripened on our rocks. Now, surely, we shall taste it together; surely we may admire its wonders, the sweetness of affection it has poured into our souls, that inward sap which revives the searing leaves—Good God! do you not understand me?" I cried, falling into the mystical language to which our religious training had accustomed us. "See the paths by which we have approached each other; what magnet led us through that ocean of bitterness to these springs of running water, flowing at the foot of those hills above the shining sands and between their green and flowery meadows? Have we not followed the same star? We stand before the cradle of a divine child whose joyous carol will renew the world for us, teach us through happiness a love of life, give to our nights their long-lost sleep, and to the days their gladness. What hand is this that year by year has tied new cords between us? Are we not more than brother and sister? That which heaven has joined we must not keep asunder. The sufferings you reveal are the seeds scattered by the sower for the harvest already ripening in the sunshine. Shall we not gather it sheaf by sheaf? What strength is in me that I dare address you thus! Answer, or I will never again recross that river!"
"You have spared me the word love," she said, in a stern voice, "but you have spoken of a sentiment of which I know nothing and which is not permitted to me. You are a child; and again I pardon you, but for the last time. Endeavor to understand, Monsieur, that my heart is, as it were, intoxicated with motherhood. I love Monsieur de Mortsauf neither from social duty nor from a calculated desire to win eternal blessings, but from an irresistible feeling which fastens all the fibres of my heart upon him. Was my marriage a mistake? My sympathy for misfortune led to it. It is the part of women to heal the woes caused by the march of events, to comfort those who rush into the breach and return wounded. How shall I make you understand me? I have felt a selfish pleasure in seeing that you amused him; is not that pure motherhood? Did I not make you see by what I owned just now, the three children to whom I am bound, to whom I shall never fail, on whom I strive to shed a healing dew and the light of my own soul without withdrawing or adulterating a single particle? Do not embitter the mother's milk! though as a wife I am invulnerable, you must never again speak thus to me. If you do not respect this command, simple as it is, the door of this house will be closed to you. I believed in pure friendship, in a voluntary brotherhood, more real, I thought, than the brotherhood of blood. I was mistaken. I wanted a friend who was not a judge, a friend who would listen to me in those moments of weakness when reproof is killing, a sacred friend from whom I should have nothing to fear. Youth is noble, truthful, capable of sacrifice, disinterested; seeing your persistency in coming to us, I believed, yes, I will admit that I believed in some divine purpose; I thought I should find a soul that would be mine, as the priest is the soul of all; a heart in which to pour my troubles when they deluged mine, a friend to hear my cries when if I continued to smother them they would strangle me. Could I but have this friend, my life, so precious to these children, might be prolonged until Jacques had grown to manhood. But that is selfish! The Laura of Petrarch cannot be lived again. I must die at my post, like a soldier, friendless. My confessor is harsh, austere, and—my aunt is dead."
Two large tears filled her eyes, gleamed in the moonlight, and rolled down her cheeks; but I stretched my hand in time to catch them, and I drank them with an avidity excited by her words, by the thought of those ten years of secret woe, of wasted feelings, of constant care, of ceaseless dread—years of the lofty heroism of her sex. She looked at me with gentle stupefaction.
"It is the first communion of love," I said. "Yes, I am now a sharer of your sorrows. I am united to your soul as our souls are united to Christ in the sacrament. To love, even without hope, is happiness. Ah! what woman on earth could give me a joy equal to that of receiving your tears! I accept the contract which must end in suffering to myself. I give myself to you with no ulterior thought. I will be to you that which you will me to be—"
She stopped me with a motion of her hand, and said in her deep voice, "I consent to this agreement if you will promise never to tighten the bonds which bind us together."
"Yes," I said; "but the less you grant the more evidence of possession I ought to have."
"You begin by distrusting me," she replied, with an expression of melancholy doubt.
"No, I speak from pure happiness. Listen; give me a name by which no one calls you; a name to be ours only, like the feeling which unites us."
"That is much to ask," she said, "but I will show you that I am not petty. Monsieur de Mortsauf calls me Blanche. One only person, the one I have most loved, my dear aunt, called me Henriette. I will be Henriette once more, to you."
I took her hand and kissed it. She left it in mine with the trustfulness that makes a woman so far superior to men; a trustfulness that shames us. She was leaning on the brick balustrade and gazing at the river.
"Are you not unwise, my friend, to rush at a bound to the extremes of friendship? You have drained the cup, offered in all sincerity, at a draught. It is true that a real feeling is never piecemeal; it must be whole, or it does not exist. Monsieur de Mortsauf," she added after a short silence, "is above all things loyal and brave. Perhaps for my sake you will forget what he said to you to-day; if he has forgotten it to-morrow, I will myself tell him what occurred. Do not come to Clochegourde for a few days; he will respect you more if you do not. On Sunday, after church, he will go to you. I know him; he will wish to undo the wrong he did, and he will like you all the better for treating him as a man who is responsible for his words and actions."
"Five days without seeing you, without hearing your voice!"
"Do not put such warmth into your manner of speaking to me," she said.
We walked twice round the terrace in silence. Then she said, in a tone of command which proved to me that she had taken possession of my soul, "It is late; we will part."
I wished to kiss her hand; she hesitated, then gave it to me, and said in a voice of entreaty: "Never take it unless I give it to you; leave me my freedom; if not, I shall be simply a thing of yours, and that ought not to be."
"Adieu," I said.
I went out by the little gate of the lower terrace, which she opened for me. Just as she was about to close it she opened it again and offered me her hand, saying: "You have been truly good to me this evening; you have comforted my whole future; take it, my friend, take it."
I kissed her hand again and again, and when I raised my eyes I saw the tears in hers. She returned to the upper terrace and I watched her for a moment from the meadow. When I was on the road to Frapesle I again saw her white robe shimmering in a moonbeam; then, a few moments later, a light was in her bedroom.
"Oh, my Henriette!" I cried, "to you I pledge the purest love that ever shone upon this earth."
I turned at every step as I regained Frapesle. Ineffable contentment filled my mind. A way was open for the devotion that swells in all youthful hearts and which in mine had been so long inert. Like the priest who by one solemn step enters a new life, my vows were taken; I was consecrated. A simple "Yes" had bound me to keep my love within my soul and never to abuse our friendship by leading this woman step by step to love. All noble feelings were awakened within me, and I heard the murmur of their voices. Before confining myself within the narrow walls of a room, I stopped beneath the azure heavens sown with stars, I listened to the ring-dove plaints of my own heart, I heard again the simple tones of that ingenuous confidence, I gathered in the air the emanations of that soul which henceforth must ever seek me. How grand that woman seemed to me, with her absolute forgetfulness of self, her religion of mercy to wounded hearts, feeble or suffering, her declared allegiance to her legal yoke. She was there, serene upon her pyre of saint and martyr. I adored her face as it shone to me in the darkness. Suddenly I fancied I perceived a meaning in her words, a mysterious significance which made her to my eyes sublime. Perhaps she longed that I should be to her what she was to the little world around her. Perhaps she sought to draw from me her strength and consolation, putting me thus within her sphere, her equal, or perhaps above her. The stars, say some bold builders of the universe, communicate to each other light and motion. This thought lifted me to ethereal regions. I entered once more the heaven of my former visions; I found a meaning for the miseries of my childhood in the illimitable happiness to which they had led me.
Spirits quenched by tears, hearts misunderstood, saintly Clarissa Harlowes forgotten or ignored, children neglected, exiles innocent of wrong, all ye who enter life through barren ways, on whom men's faces everywhere look coldly, to whom ears close and hearts are shut, cease your complaints! You alone can know the infinitude of joy held in that moment when one heart opens to you, one ear listens, one look answers yours. A single day effaces all past evil. Sorrow, despondency, despair, and melancholy, passed but not forgotten, are links by which the soul then fastens to its mate. Woman falls heir to all our past, our sighs, our lost illusions, and gives them back to us ennobled; she explains those former griefs as payment claimed by destiny for joys eternal, which she brings to us on the day our souls are wedded. The angels alone can utter the new name by which that sacred love is called, and none but women, dear martyrs, truly know what Madame de Mortsauf now became to me—to me, poor and desolate.
CHAPTER II. FIRST LOVE
This scene took place on a Tuesday. I waited until Sunday and did not cross the river. During those five days great events were happening at Clochegourde. The count received his brevet as general of brigade, the cross of Saint Louis, and a pension of four thousand francs. The Duc de Lenoncourt-Givry, made peer of France, recovered possession of two forests, resumed his place at court, and his wife regained all her unsold property, which had been made part of the imperial crown lands. The Comtesse de Mortsauf thus became an heiress. Her mother had arrived at Clochegourde, bringing her a hundred thousand francs economized at Givry, the amount of her dowry, still unpaid and never asked for by the count in spite of his poverty. In all such matters of external life the conduct of this man was proudly disinterested. Adding to this sum his own few savings he was able to buy two neighboring estates, which would yield him some nine thousand francs a year. His son would of course succeed to the grandfather's peerage, and the count now saw his way to entail the estate upon him without injury to Madeleine, for whom the Duc de Lenoncourt would no doubt assist in promoting a good marriage.
These arrangements and this new happiness shed some balm upon the count's sore mind. The presence of the Duchesse de Lenoncourt at Clochegourde was a great event to the neighborhood. I reflected gloomily that she was a great lady, and the thought made me conscious of the spirit of caste in the daughter which the nobility of her sentiments had hitherto hidden from me. Who was I—poor, insignificant, and with no future but my courage and my faculties? I did not then think of the consequences of the Restoration either for me or for others. On Sunday morning, from the private chapel where I sat with Monsieur and Madame de Chessel and the Abbe de Quelus, I cast an eager glance at another lateral chapel occupied by the duchess and her daughter, the count and his children. The large straw hat which hid my idol from me did not tremble, and this unconsciousness of my presence seemed to bind me to her more than all the past. This noble Henriette de Lenoncourt, my Henriette, whose life I longed to garland, was praying earnestly; faith gave to her figure an abandonment, a prosternation, the attitude of some religious statue, which moved me to the soul.
According to village custom, vespers were said soon after mass. Coming out of church Madame de Chessel naturally proposed to her neighbors to pass the intermediate time at Frapesle instead of crossing the Indre and the meadows twice in the great heat. The offer was accepted. Monsieur de Chessel gave his arm to the duchess, Madame de Chessel took that of the count. I offered mine to the countess, and felt, for the first time, that beautiful arm against my side. As we walked from the church to Frapesle by the woods of Sache, where the light, filtering down through the foliage, made those pretty patterns on the path which seem like painted silk, such sensations of pride, such ideas took possession of me that my heart beat violently.
"What is the matter?" she said, after walking a little way in a silence I dared not break. "Your heart beats too fast—"
"I have heard of your good fortune," I replied, "and, like all others who love truly, I am beset with vague fears. Will your new dignities change you and lessen your friendship?"
"Change me!" she said; "oh, fie! Another such idea and I shall—not despise you, but forget you forever."
I looked at her with an ecstasy which should have been contagious.
"We profit by the new laws which we have neither brought about nor demanded," she said; "but we are neither place-hunters nor beggars; besides, as you know very well, neither Monsieur de Mortsauf nor I can leave Clochegourde. By my advice he has declined the command to which his rank entitled him at the Maison Rouge. We are quite content that my father should have the place. This forced modesty," she added with some bitterness, "has already been of service to our son. The king, to whose household my father is appointed, said very graciously that he would show Jacques the favor we were not willing to accept. Jacques' education, which must now be thought of, is already being discussed. He will be the representative of two houses, the Lenoncourt and the Mortsauf families. I can have no ambition except for him, and therefore my anxieties seem to have increased. Not only must Jacques live, but he must be made worthy of his name; two necessities which, as you know, conflict. And then, later, what friend will keep him safe for me in Paris, where all things are pitfalls for the soul and dangers for the body? My friend," she said, in a broken voice, "who could not see upon your brow and in your eyes that you are one who will inhabit heights? Be some day the guardian and sponsor of our boy. Go to Paris; if your father and brother will not second you, our family, above all my mother, who has a genius for the management of life, will help you. Profit by our influence; you will never be without support in whatever career you choose; put the strength of your desires into a noble ambition—"
"I understand you," I said, interrupting her; "ambition is to be my mistress. I have no need of that to be wholly yours. No, I will not be rewarded for my obedience here by receiving favors there. I will go; I will make my own way; I will rise alone. From you I would accept everything, from others nothing."
"Child!" she murmured, ill-concealing a smile of pleasure.
"Besides, I have taken my vows," I went on. "Thinking over our situation I am resolved to bind myself to you by ties that never can be broken."
She trembled slightly and stopped short to look at me.
"What do you mean?" she asked, letting the couples who preceded us walk on, and keeping the children at her side.
"This," I said; "but first tell me frankly how you wish me to love you."
"Love me as my aunt loved me; I gave you her rights when I permitted you to call me by the name which she chose for her own among my others."
"Then I am to love without hope and with an absolute devotion. Well, yes; I will do for you what some men do for God. I shall feel that you have asked it. I will enter a seminary and make myself a priest, and then I will educate your son. Jacques shall be myself in his own form; political conceptions, thoughts, energy, patience, I will give him all. In that way I shall live near to you, and my love, enclosed in religion as a silver image in a crystal shrine, can never be suspected of evil. You will not have to fear the undisciplined passions which grasp a man and by which already I have allowed myself to be vanquished. I will consume my own being in the flame, and I will love you with a purified love."
She turned pale and said, hurrying her words: "Felix, do not put yourself in bonds that might prove an obstacle to our happiness. I should die of grief for having caused a suicide like that. Child, do you think despairing love a life's vocation? Wait for life's trials before you judge of life; I command it. Marry neither the Church nor a woman; marry not at all,—I forbid it. Remain free. You are twenty-one years old—My God! can I have mistaken him? I thought two months sufficed to know some souls."
"What hope have you?" I cried, with fire in my eyes.
"My friend, accept our help, rise in life, make your way and your fortune and you shall know my hope. And," she added, as if she were whispering a secret, "never release the hand you are holding at this moment."
She bent to my ear as she said these words which proved her deep solicitude for my future.
"Madeleine!" I exclaimed "never!"
We were close to a wooden gate which opened into the park of Frapesle; I still seem to see its ruined posts overgrown with climbing plants and briers and mosses. Suddenly an idea, that of the count's death, flashed through my brain, and I said, "I understand you."
"I am glad of it," she answered in a tone which made me know I had supposed her capable of a thought that could never be hers.
Her purity drew tears of admiration from my eyes which the selfishness of passion made bitter indeed. My mind reacted and I felt that she did not love me enough even to wish for liberty. So long as love recoils from a crime it seems to have its limits, and love should be infinite. A spasm shook my heart.
"She does not love me," I thought.
To hide what was in my soul I stooped over Madeleine and kissed her hair.
"I am afraid of your mother," I said to the countess presently, to renew the conversation.
"So am I," she answered with a gesture full of childlike gaiety. "Don't forget to call her Madame la duchesse, and to speak to her in the third person. The young people of the present day have lost these polite manners; you must learn them; do that for my sake. Besides, it is such good taste to respect women, no matter what their age may be, and to recognize social distinctions without disputing them. The respect shown to established superiority is guarantee for that which is due to you. Solidarity is the basis of society. Cardinal Della Rovere and Raffaelle were two powers equally revered. You have sucked the milk of the Revolution in your academy and your political ideas may be influenced by it; but as you advance in life you will find that crude and ill-defined principles of liberty are powerless to create the happiness of the people. Before considering, as a Lenoncourt, what an aristocracy ought to be, my common-sense as a woman of the people tells me that societies can exist only through a hierarchy. You are now at a turning-point in your life, when you must choose wisely. Be on our side,—especially now," she added, laughing, "when it triumphs."
I was keenly touched by these words, in which the depth of her political feeling mingled with the warmth of affection,—a combination which gives to women so great a power of persuasion; they know how to give to the keenest arguments a tone of feeling. In her desire to justify all her husband's actions Henriette had foreseen the criticisms that would rise in my mind as soon as I saw the servile effects of a courtier's life upon him. Monsieur de Mortsauf, king in his own castle and surrounded by an historic halo, had, to my eyes, a certain grandiose dignity. I was therefore greatly astonished at the distance he placed between the duchess and himself by manners that were nothing less than obsequious. A slave has his pride and will only serve the greatest despots. I confess I was humiliated at the degradation of one before whom I trembled as the power that ruled my love. This inward repulsion made me understand the martyrdom of women of generous souls yoked to men whose meannesses they bury daily. Respect is a safeguard which protects both great and small alike; each side can hold its own. I was respectful to the duchess because of my youth; but where others saw only a duchess I saw the mother of my Henriette, and that gave sanctity to my homage.
We reached the great court-yard of Frapesle, where we found the others. The Comte de Mortsauf presented me very gracefully to the duchess, who examined me with a cold and reserved air. Madame de Lenoncourt was then a woman fifty-six years of age, wonderfully well preserved and with grand manners. When I saw the hard blue eyes, the hollow temples, the thin emaciated face, the erect, imposing figure slow of movement, and the yellow whiteness of the skin (reproduced with such brilliancy in the daughter), I recognized the cold type to which my own mother belonged, as quickly as a mineralogist recognizes Swedish iron. Her language was that of the old court; she pronounced the "oit" like "ait," and said "frait" for "froid," "porteux" for "porteurs." I was not a courtier, neither was I stiff-backed in my manner to her; in fact I behaved so well that as I passed the countess she said in a low voice, "You are perfect."
The count came to me and took my hand, saying: "You are not angry with me, Felix, are you? If I was hasty you will pardon an old soldier? We shall probably stay here to dinner, and I invite you to dine with us on Thursday, the evening before the duchess leaves. I must go to Tours to-morrow to settle some business. Don't neglect Clochegourde. My mother-in-law is an acquaintance I advise you to cultivate. Her salon will set the tone for the faubourg St. Germain. She has all the traditions of the great world, and possesses an immense amount of social knowledge; she knows the blazon of the oldest as well as the newest family in Europe."
The count's good taste, or perhaps the advice of his domestic genius, appeared under his altered circumstances. He was neither arrogant nor offensively polite, nor pompous in any way, and the duchess was not patronizing. Monsieur and Madame de Chessel gratefully accepted the invitation to dinner on the following Thursday. I pleased the duchess, and by her glance I knew she was examining a man of whom her daughter had spoken to her. As we returned from vespers she questioned me about my family, and asked if the Vandenesse now in diplomacy was my relative. "He is my brother," I replied. On that she became almost affectionate. She told me that my great-aunt, the old Marquise de Listomere, was a Grandlieu. Her manners were as cordial as those of Monsieur de Mortsauf the day he saw me for the first time; the haughty glance with which these sovereigns of the earth make you measure the distance that lies between you and them disappeared. I knew almost nothing of my family. The duchess told me that my great-uncle, an old abbe whose very name I did not know, was to be member of the privy council, that my brother was already promoted, and also that by a provision of the Charter, of which I had not yet heard, my father became once more Marquis de Vandenesse.
"I am but one thing, the serf of Clochegourde," I said in a low voice to the countess.
The transformation scene of the Restoration was carried through with a rapidity which bewildered the generation brought up under the imperial regime. To me this revolution meant nothing. The least word or gesture from Madame de Mortsauf were the sole events to which I attached importance. I was ignorant of what the privy council was, and knew as little of politics as of social life; my sole ambition was to love Henriette better than Petrarch loved Laura. This indifference made the duchess take me for a child. A large company assembled at Frapesle and we were thirty at table. What intoxication it is for a young man unused to the world to see the woman he loves more beautiful than all others around her, the centre of admiring looks; to know that for him alone is reserved the chaste fire of those eyes, that none but he can discern in the tones of that voice, in the words it utters, however gay or jesting they may be, the proofs of unremitting thought. The count, delighted with the attentions paid to him, seemed almost young; his wife looked hopeful of a change; I amused myself with Madeleine, who, like all children with bodies weaker than their minds, made others laugh with her clever observations, full of sarcasm, though never malicious, and which spared no one. It was a happy day. A word, a hope awakened in the morning illumined nature. Seeing me so joyous, Henriette was joyful too.
"This happiness smiling on my gray and cloudy life seems good," she said to me the next day.
That day I naturally spent at Clochegourde. I had been banished for five days, I was athirst for life. The count left at six in the morning for Tours. A serious disagreement had arisen between mother and daughter. The duchess wanted the countess to move to Paris, where she promised her a place at court, and where the count, reconsidering his refusal, might obtain some high position. Henriette, who was thought happy in her married life, would not reveal, even to her mother, her tragic sufferings and the fatal incapacity of her husband. It was to hide his condition from the duchess that she persuaded him to go to Tours and transact business with his notaries. I alone, as she had truly said, knew the dark secret of Clochegourde. Having learned by experience how the pure air and the blue sky of the lovely valley calmed the excitements and soothed the morbid griefs of the diseased mind, and what beneficial effect the life at Clochegourde had upon the health of her children, she opposed her mother's desire that she should leave it with reasons which the overbearing woman, who was less grieved than mortified by her daughter's bad marriage, vigorously combated.
Henriette saw that the duchess cared little for Jacques and Madeleine,—a terrible discovery! Like all domineering mothers who expect to continue the same authority over their married daughters that they maintained when they were girls, the duchess brooked no opposition; sometimes she affected a crafty sweetness to force her daughter to compliance, at other times a cold severity, intending to obtain by fear what gentleness had failed to win; then, when all means failed, she displayed the same native sarcasm which I had often observed in my own mother. In those ten days Henriette passed through all the contentions a young woman must endure to establish her independence. You, who for your happiness have the best of mothers, can scarcely comprehend such trials. To gain a true idea of the struggle between that cold, calculating, ambitious woman and a daughter abounding in the tender natural kindness that never faileth, you must imagine a lily, to which my heart has always compared her, bruised beneath the polished wheels of a steel car. That mother had nothing in common with her daughter; she was unable even to imagine the real difficulties which hindered her from taking advantage of the Restoration and forced her to continue a life of solitude. Though families bury their internal dissensions with the utmost care, enter behind the scenes, and you will find in nearly all of them deep, incurable wounds, which lessen the natural affections. Sometimes these wounds are given by passions real and most affecting, rendered eternal by the dignity of those who feel them; sometimes by latent hatreds which slowly freeze the heart and dry all tears when the hour of parting comes. Tortured yesterday and to-day, wounded by all, even by the suffering children who were guiltless of the ills they endured, how could that poor soul fail to love the one human being who did not strike her, who would fain have built a wall of defence around her to guard her from storms, from harsh contacts and cruel blows? Though I suffered from a knowledge of these debates, there were moments when I was happy in the sense that she rested upon my heart; for she told me of these new troubles. Day by day I learned more fully the meaning of her words,—"Love me as my aunt loved me."
"Have you no ambition?" the duchess said to me at dinner, with a stern air.
"Madame," I replied, giving her a serious look, "I have enough in me to conquer the world; but I am only twenty-one, and I am all alone."
She looked at her daughter with some astonishment. Evidently she believed that Henriette had crushed my ambition in order to keep me near her. The visit of Madame de Lenoncourt was a period of unrelieved constraint. The countess begged me to be cautious; she was frightened by the least kind word; to please her I wore the harness of deceit. The great Thursday came; it was a day of wearisome ceremonial,—one of those stiff days which lovers hate, when their chair is no longer in its place, and the mistress of the house cannot be with them. Love has a horror of all that does not concern itself. But the duchess returned at last to the pomps and vanities of the court, and Clochegourde recovered its accustomed order.
My little quarrel with the count resulted in making me more at home in the house than ever; I could go there at all times without hindrance; and the antecedents of my life inclined me to cling like a climbing plant to the beautiful soul which had opened to me the enchanting world of shared emotions. Every hour, every minute, our fraternal marriage, founded on trust, became a surer thing; each of us settled firmly into our own position; the countess enfolded me with her nurturing care, with the white draperies of a love that was wholly maternal; while my love for her, seraphic in her presence, seared me as with hot irons when away from her. I loved her with a double love which shot its arrows of desire, and then lost them in the sky, where they faded out of sight in the impermeable ether. If you ask me why, young and ardent, I continued in the deluding dreams of Platonic love, I must own to you that I was not yet man enough to torture that woman, who was always in dread of some catastrophe to her children, always fearing some outburst of her husband's stormy temper, martyrized by him when not afflicted by the illness of Jacques or Madeleine, and sitting beside one or the other of them when her husband allowed her a little rest. The mere sound of too warm a word shook her whole being; a desire shocked her; what she needed was a veiled love, support mingled with tenderness,—that, in short, which she gave to others. Then, need I tell you, who are so truly feminine? this situation brought with it hours of delightful languor, moments of divine sweetness and content which followed by secret immolation. Her conscience was, if I may call it so, contagious; her self-devotion without earthly recompense awed me by its persistence; the living, inward piety which was the bond of her other virtues filled the air about her with spiritual incense. Besides, I was young,—young enough to concentrate my whole being on the kiss she allowed me too seldom to lay upon her hand, of which she gave me only the back, and never the palm, as though she drew the line of sensual emotions there. No two souls ever clasped each other with so much ardor, no bodies were ever more victoriously annihilated. Later I understood the cause of this sufficing joy. At my age no worldly interests distracted my heart; no ambitions blocked the stream of a love which flowed like a torrent, bearing all things on its bosom. Later, we love the woman in a woman; but the first woman we love is the whole of womanhood; her children are ours, her interests are our interests, her sorrows our greatest sorrow; we love her gown, the familiar things about her; we are more grieved by a trifling loss of hers than if we knew we had lost everything. This is the sacred love that makes us live in the being of another; whereas later, alas! we draw another life into ours, and require a woman to enrich our pauper spirit with her young soul.
I was now one of the household, and I knew for the first time an infinite sweetness, which to a nature bruised as mine was like a bath to a weary body; the soul is refreshed in every fibre, comforted to its very depths. You will hardly understand me, for you are a woman, and I am speaking now of a happiness women give but do not receive. A man alone knows the choice happiness of being, in the midst of a strange household, the privileged friend of its mistress, the secret centre of her affections. No dog barks at you; the servants, like the dogs, recognize your rights; the children (who are never misled, and know that their power cannot be lessened, and that you cherish the light of their life), the children possess the gift of divination, they play with you like kittens and assume the friendly tyranny they show only to those they love; they are full of intelligent discretion and come and go on tiptoe without noise. Every one hastens to do you service; all like you, and smile upon you. True passions are like beautiful flowers all the more charming to the eye when they grow in a barren soil.
But if I enjoyed the delightful benefits of naturalization in a family where I found relations after my own heart, I had also to pay some costs for it. Until then Monsieur de Mortsauf had more or less restrained himself before me. I had only seen his failings in the mass; I was now to see the full extent of their application and discover how nobly charitable the countess had been in the account she had given me of these daily struggles. I learned now all the angles of her husband's intolerable nature; I heard his perpetual scolding about nothing, complaints of evils of which not a sign existed; I saw the inward dissatisfaction which poisoned his life, and the incessant need of his tyrannical spirit for new victims. When we went to walk in the evenings he selected the way; but whichever direction we took he was always bored; when we reached home he blamed others; his wife had insisted on going where she wanted; why was he governed by her in all the trifling things of life? was he to have no will, no thought of his own? must he consent to be a cipher in his own house? If his harshness was to be received in patient silence he was angry because he felt a limit to his power; he asked sharply if religion did not require a wife to please her husband, and whether it was proper to despise the father of her children? He always ended by touching some sensitive chord in his wife's mind; and he seemed to find a domineering pleasure in making it sound. Sometimes he tried gloomy silence and a morbid depression, which always alarmed his wife and made her pay him the most tender attentions. Like petted children, who exercise their power without thinking of the distress of their mother, he would let her wait upon him as upon Jacques and Madeleine, of whom he was jealous.
I discovered at last that in small things as well as in great ones the count acted towards his servants, his children, his wife, precisely as he had acted to me about the backgammon. The day when I understood, root and branch, these difficulties, which like a rampant overgrowth repressed the actions and stifled the breathing of the whole family, hindered the management of the household and retarded the improvement of the estate by complicating the most necessary acts, I felt an admiring awe which rose higher than my love and drove it back into my heart. Good God! what was I? Those tears that I had taken on my lips solemnized my spirit; I found happiness in wedding the sufferings of that woman. Hitherto I had yielded to the count's despotism as the smuggler pays his fine; henceforth I was a voluntary victim that I might come the nearer to her. The countess understood me, allowed me a place beside her, and gave me permission to share her sorrows; like the repentant apostate, eager to rise to heaven with his brethren, I obtained the favor of dying in the arena.
"Were it not for you I must have succumbed under this life," Henriette said to me one evening when the count had been, like the flies on a hot day, more stinging, venomous, and persistent than usual.
He had gone to bed. Henriette and I remained under the acacias; the children were playing about us, bathed in the setting sun. Our few exclamatory words revealed the mutuality of the thoughts in which we rested from our common sufferings. When language failed silence as faithfully served our souls, which seemed to enter one another without hindrance; together they luxuriated in the charms of pensive languor, they met in the undulations of the same dream, they plunged as one into the river and came out refreshed like two nymphs as closely united as their souls could wish, but with no earthly tie to bind them. We entered the unfathomable gulf, we returned to the surface with empty hands, asking each other by a look, "Among all our days on earth will there be one for us?"