In spite of the tranquil poetry of evening which gave to the bricks of the balustrade their orange tones, so soothing and so pure; in spite of the religious atmosphere of the hour, which softened the voices of the children and wafted them towards us, desire crept through my veins like the match to the bonfire. After three months of repression I was unable to content myself with the fate assigned me. I took Henriette's hand and softly caressed it, trying to convey to her the ardor that invaded me. She became at once Madame de Mortsauf, and withdrew her hand; tears rolled from my eyes, she saw them and gave me a chilling look, as she offered her hand to my lips.
"You must know," she said, "that this will cause me grief. A friendship that asks so great a favor is dangerous."
Then I lost my self-control; I reproached her, I spoke of my sufferings, and the slight alleviation that I asked for them. I dared to tell her that at my age, if the senses were all soul still the soul had a sex; that I could meet death, but not with closed lips. She forced me to silence with her proud glance, in which I seemed to read the cry of the Mexican: "And I, am I on a bed of roses?" Ever since that day by the gate of Frapesle, when I attributed to her the hope that our happiness might spring from a grave, I had turned with shame from the thought of staining her soul with the desires of a brutal passion. She now spoke with honeyed lip, and told me that she never could be wholly mine, and that I ought to know it. As she said the words I know that in obeying her I dug an abyss between us. I bowed my head. She went on, saying she had an inward religious certainty that she might love me as a brother without offending God or man; such love was a living image of the divine love, which her good Saint-Martin told her was the life of the world. If I could not be to her somewhat as her old confessor was, less than a lover yet more than a brother, I must never see her again. She could die and take to God her sheaf of sufferings, borne not without tears and anguish.
"I gave you," she said in conclusion, "more than I ought to have given, so that nothing might be left to take, and I am punished."
I was forced to calm her, to promise never to cause her pain, and to love her at twenty-one years of age as old men love their youngest child.
The next day I went early. There were no flowers in the vases of her gray salon. I rushed into the fields and vineyards to make her two bouquets; but as I gathered the flowers, one by one, cutting their long stalks and admiring their beauty, the thought occurred to me that the colors and foliage had a poetry, a harmony, which meant something to the understanding while they charmed the eye; just as musical melodies awaken memories in hearts that are loving and beloved. If color is light organized, must it not have a meaning of its own, as the combinations of the air have theirs? I called in the assistance of Jacques and Madeleine, and all three of us conspired to surprise our dear one. I arranged, on the lower steps of the portico, where we established our floral headquarters, two bouquets by which I tried to convey a sentiment. Picture to yourself a fountain of flowers gushing from the vases and falling back in curving waves; my message springing from its bosom in white roses and lilies with their silver cups. All the blue flowers, harebells, forget-me-nots, and ox-tongues, whose tines, caught from the skies, blended so well with the whiteness of the lilies, sparkled on this dewy texture; were they not the type of two purities, the one that knows nothing, the other that knows all; an image of the child, an image of the martyr? Love has its blazon, and the countess discerned it inwardly. She gave me a poignant glance which was like the cry of a soldier when his wound is touched; she was humbled but enraptured too. My reward was in that glance; to refresh her heart, to have given her comfort, what encouragement for me! Then it was that I pressed the theories of Pere Castel into the service of love, and recovered a science lost to Europe, where written pages have supplanted the flowery missives of the Orient with their balmy tints. What charm in expressing our sensations through these daughters of the sun, sisters to the flowers that bloom beneath the rays of love! Before long I communed with the flora of the fields, as a man whom I met in after days at Grandlieu communed with his bees.
Twice a week during the remainder of my stay at Frapesle I continued the slow labor of this poetic enterprise, for the ultimate accomplishment of which I needed all varieties of herbaceous plants; into these I made a deep research, less as a botanist than as a poet, studying their spirit rather than their form. To find a flower in its native haunts I walked enormous distances, beside the brooklets, through the valleys, to the summit of the cliffs, across the moorland, garnering thoughts even from the heather. During these rambles I initiated myself into pleasures unthought of by the man of science who lives in meditation, unknown to the horticulturist busy with specialities, to the artisan fettered to a city, to the merchant fastened to his desk, but known to a few foresters, to a few woodsmen, and to some dreamers. Nature can show effects the significations of which are limitless; they rise to the grandeur of the highest moral conceptions—be it the heather in bloom, covered with the diamonds of the dew on which the sunlight dances; infinitude decked for the single glance that may chance to fall upon it:—be it a corner of the forest hemmed in with time-worn rocks crumbling to gravel and clothed with mosses overgrown with juniper, which grasps our minds as something savage, aggressive, terrifying as the cry of the kestrel issuing from it:—be it a hot and barren moor without vegetation, stony, rigid, its horizon like those of the desert, where once I gathered a sublime and solitary flower, the anemone pulsatilla, with its violet petals opening for the golden stamens; affecting image of my pure idol alone in her valley:—be it great sheets of water, where nature casts those spots of greenery, a species of transition between the plant and animal, where life makes haste to come in flowers and insects, floating there like worlds in ether:—be it a cottage with its garden of cabbages, its vineyards, its hedges overhanging a bog, surrounded by a few sparse fields of rye; true image of many humble existences:—be it a forest path like some cathedral nave, where the trees are columns and their branches arch the roof, at the far end of which a light breaks through, mingled with shadows or tinted with sunset reds athwart the leaves which gleam like the colored windows of a chancel:—then, leaving these woods so cool and branchy, behold a chalk-land lying fallow, where among the warm and cavernous mosses adders glide to their lairs, or lift their proud slim heads. Cast upon all these pictures torrents of sunlight like beneficent waters, or the shadow of gray clouds drawn in lines like the wrinkles of an old man's brow, or the cool tones of a sky faintly orange and streaked with lines of a paler tint; then listen—you will hear indefinable harmonies amid a silence which blends them all.
During the months of September and October I did not make a single bouquet which cost me less than three hours search; so much did I admire, with the real sympathy of a poet, these fugitive allegories of human life, that vast theatre I was about to enter, the scenes of which my memory must presently recall. Often do I now compare those splendid scenes with memories of my soul thus expending itself on nature; again I walk that valley with my sovereign, whose white robe brushed the coppice and floated on the green sward, whose spirit rose, like a promised fruit, from each calyx filled with amorous stamens.
No declaration of love, no vows of uncontrollable passion ever conveyed more than these symphonies of flowers; my baffled desires impelled me to efforts of expression through them like those of Beethoven through his notes, to the same bitter reactions, to the same mighty bounds towards heaven. In their presence Madame de Mortsauf was my Henriette. She looked at them constantly; they fed her spirit, she gathered all the thoughts I had given them, saying, as she raised her head from the embroidery frame to receive my gift, "Ah, how beautiful!"
Natalie, you will understand this delightful intercourse through the details of a bouquet, just as you would comprehend Saadi from a fragment of his verse. Have you ever smelt in the fields in the month of May the perfume that communicates to all created beings the intoxicating sense of a new creation; the sense that makes you trail your hand in the water from a boat, and loosen your hair to the breeze while your mind revives with the springtide greenery of the trees? A little plant, a species of vernal grass, is a powerful element in this veiled harmony; it cannot be worn with impunity; take into your hand its shining blade, striped green and white like a silken robe, and mysterious emotions will stir the rosebuds your modesty keeps hidden in the depths of your heart. Round the neck of a porcelain vase imagine a broad margin of the gray-white tufts peculiar to the sedum of the vineyards of Touraine, vague image of submissive forms; from this foundation come tendrils of the bind-weed with its silver bells, sprays of pink rest-barrow mingled with a few young shoots of oak-leaves, lustrous and magnificently colored; these creep forth prostrate, humble as the weeping-willow, timid and supplicating as prayer. Above, see those delicate threads of the purple amoret, with its flood of anthers that are nearly yellow; the snowy pyramids of the meadow-sweet, the green tresses of the wild oats, the slender plumes of the agrostis, which we call wind-ear; roseate hopes, decking love's earliest dream and standing forth against the gray surroundings. But higher still, remark the Bengal roses, sparsely scattered among the laces of the daucus, the plumes of the linaria, the marabouts of the meadow-queen; see the umbels of the myrrh, the spun glass of the clematis in seed, the dainty petals of the cross-wort, white as milk, the corymbs of the yarrow, the spreading stems of the fumitory with their black and rosy blossoms, the tendrils of the grape, the twisted shoots of the honeysuckle; in short, all the innocent creatures have that is most tangled, wayward, wild,—flames and triple darts, leaves lanceolated or jagged, stalks convoluted like passionate desires writhing in the soul. From the bosom of this torrent of love rises the scarlet poppy, its tassels about to open, spreading its flaming flakes above the starry jessamine, dominating the rain of pollen—that soft mist fluttering in the air and reflecting the light in its myriad particles. What woman intoxicated with the odor of the vernal grasses would fail to understand this wealth of offered thoughts, these ardent desires of a love demanding the happiness refused in a hundred struggles which passion still renews, continuous, unwearying, eternal!
Put this speech of the flowers in the light of a window to show its crisp details, its delicate contrasts, its arabesques of color, and allow the sovereign lady to see a tear upon some petal more expanded than the rest. What do we give to God? perfumes, light, and song, the purest expression of our nature. Well, these offerings to God, are they not likewise offered to love in this poem of luminous flowers murmuring their sadness to the heart, cherishing its hidden transports, its unuttered hopes, its illusions which gleam and fall to fragments like the gossamer of a summer's night?
Such neutral pleasures help to soothe a nature irritated by long contemplation of the person beloved. They were to me, I dare not say to her, like those fissures in a dam through which the water finds a vent and avoids disaster. Abstinence brings deadly exhaustion, which a few crumbs falling from heaven like manna in the desert, suffices to relieve. Sometimes I found my Henriette standing before these bouquets with pendant arms, lost in agitated reverie, thoughts swelling her bosom, illumining her brow as they surged in waves and sank again, leaving lassitude and languor behind them. Never again have I made a bouquet for any one. When she and I had created this language and formed it to our uses, a satisfaction filled our souls like that of a slave who escapes his masters.
During the rest of this month as I came from the meadows through the gardens I often saw her face at the window, and when I reached the salon she was ready at her embroidery frame. If I did not arrive at the hour expected (though never appointed), I saw a white form wandering on the terrace, and when I joined her she would say, "I came to meet you; I must show a few attentions to my youngest child."
The miserable games of backgammon had come to end. The count's late purchases took all his time in going hither and thither about the property, surveying, examining, and marking the boundaries of his new possessions. He had orders to give, rural works to overlook which needed a master's eye,—all of them planned and decided on by his wife and himself. We often went to meet him, the countess and I, with the children, who amused themselves on the way by running after insects, stag-beetles, darning-needles, they too making their bouquets, or to speak more truly, their bundles of flowers. To walk beside the woman we love, to take her on our arm, to guide her steps,—these are illimitable joys that suffice a lifetime. Confidence is then complete. We went alone, we returned with the "general," a title given to the count when he was good-humored. These two ways of taking the same path gave light and shade to our pleasure, a secret known only to hearts debarred from union. Our talk, so free as we went, had hidden significations as we returned, when either of us gave an answer to some furtive interrogation, or continued a subject, already begun, in the enigmatic phrases to which our language lends itself, and which women are so ingenious in composing. Who has not known the pleasure of such secret understandings in a sphere apart from those about us, a sphere where spirits meet outside of social laws?
One day a wild hope, quickly dispelled, took possession of me, when the count, wishing to know what we were talking of, put the inquiry, and Henriette answered in words that allowed another meaning, which satisfied him. This amused Madeleine, who laughed; after a moment her mother blushed and gave me a forbidding look, as if to say she might still withdraw from me her soul as she had once withdrawn her hand. But our purely spiritual union had far too many charms, and on the morrow it continued as before.
The hours, days, and weeks fled by, filled with renascent joys. Grape harvest, the festal season in Touraine, began. Toward the end of September the sun, less hot than during the wheat harvest, allows of our staying in the vineyards without danger of becoming overheated. It is easier to gather grapes than to mow wheat. Fruits of all kinds are ripe, harvests are garnered, bread is less dear; the sense of plenty makes the country people happy. Fears as to the results of rural toil, in which more money than sweat is often spent, vanish before a full granary and cellars about to overflow. The vintage is then like a gay dessert after the dinner is eaten; the skies of Touraine, where the autumns are always magnificent, smile upon it. In this hospitable land the vintagers are fed and lodged in the master's house. The meals are the only ones throughout the year when these poor people taste substantial, well-cooked food; and they cling to the custom as the children of patriarchal families cling to anniversaries. As the time approaches they flock in crowds to those houses where the masters are known to treat the laborers liberally. The house is full of people and of provisions. The presses are open. The country is alive with the coming and going of itinerant coopers, of carts filled with laughing girls and joyous husbandmen, who earn better wages than at any other time during the year, and who sing as they go. There is also another cause of pleasurable content: classes and ranks are equal; women, children, masters, and men, all that little world, share in the garnering of the divine hoard. These various elements of satisfaction explain the hilarity of the vintage, transmitted from age to age in these last glorious days of autumn, the remembrance of which inspired Rabelais with the bacchic form of his great work.
The children, Jacques and Madeleine, had never seen a vintage; I was like them, and they were full of infantine delight at finding a sharer of their pleasure; their mother, too, promised to accompany us. We went to Villaines, where baskets are manufactured, in quest of the prettiest that could be bought; for we four were to cut certain rows reserved for our scissors; it was, however, agreed that none of us were to eat too many grapes. To eat the fat bunches of Touraine in a vineyard seemed so delicious that we all refused the finest grapes on the dinner-table. Jacques made me swear I would go to no other vineyard, but stay closely at Clochegourde. Never were these frail little beings, usually pallid and smiling, so fresh and rosy and active as they were this morning. They chattered for chatter's sake, and trotted about without apparent object; they suddenly seemed, like other children, to have more life than they needed; neither Monsieur nor Madame de Mortsauf had ever seen them so before. I became a child again with them, more of a child than either of them, perhaps; I, too, was hoping for my harvest. It was glorious weather when we went to the vineyard, and we stayed there half the day. How we disputed as to who had the finest grapes and who could fill his basket quickest! The little human shoots ran to and fro from the vines to their mother; not a bunch could be cut without showing it to her. She laughed with the good, gay laugh of her girlhood when I, running up with my basket after Madeleine, cried out, "Mine too! See mine, mamma!" To which she answered: "Don't get overheated, dear child." Then passing her hand round my neck and through my hair, she added, giving me a little tap on the cheek, "You are melting away." It was the only caress she ever gave me. I looked at the pretty line of purple clusters, the hedges full of haws and blackberries; I heard the voices of the children; I watched the trooping girls, the cart loaded with barrels, the men with the panniers. Ah, it is all engraved on my memory, even to the almond-tree beside which she stood, girlish, rosy, smiling, beneath the sunshade held open in her hand. Then I busied myself in cutting the bunches and filling my basket, going forward to empty it in the vat, silently, with measured bodily movement and slow steps that left my spirit free. I discovered then the ineffable pleasure of an external labor which carries life along, and thus regulates the rush of passion, often so near, but for this mechanical motion, to kindle into flame. I learned how much wisdom is contained in uniform labor; I understood monastic discipline.
For the first time in many days the count was neither surly nor cruel. His son was so well; the future Duc de Lenoncourt-Mortsauf, fair and rosy and stained with grape-juice, rejoiced his heart. This day being the last of the vintage, he had promised a dance in front of Clochegourde in honor of the return of the Bourbons, so that our festival gratified everybody. As we returned to the house, the countess took my arm and leaned upon it, as if to let my heart feel the weight of hers,—the instinctive movement of a mother who seeks to convey her joy. Then she whispered in my ear, "You bring us happiness."
Ah, to me, who knew her sleepless nights, her cares, her fears, her former existence, in which, although the hand of God sustained her, all was barren and wearisome, those words uttered by that rich voice brought pleasures no other woman in the world could give me.
"The terrible monotony of my life is broken, all things are radiant with hope," she said after a pause. "Oh, never leave me! Do not despise my harmless superstitions; be the elder son, the protector of the younger."
In this, Natalie, there is nothing romantic. To know the infinite of our deepest feelings, we must in youth cast our lead into those great lakes upon whose shores we live. Though to many souls passions are lava torrents flowing among arid rocks, other souls there be in whom passion, restrained by insurmountable obstacles, fills with purest water the crater of the volcano.
We had still another fete. Madame de Mortsauf, wishing to accustom her children to the practical things of life, and to give them some experience of the toil by which men earn their living, had provided each of them with a source of income, depending on the chances of agriculture. To Jacques she gave the produce of the walnut-trees, to Madeleine that of the chestnuts. The gathering of the nuts began soon after the vintage,—first the chestnuts, then the walnuts. To beat Madeleine's trees with a long pole and hear the nuts fall and rebound on the dry, matted earth of a chestnut-grove; to see the serious gravity of the little girl as she examined the heaps and estimated their probable value, which to her represented many pleasures on which she counted; the congratulations of Manette, the trusted servant who alone supplied Madame de Mortsauf's place with the children; the explanations of the mother, showing the necessity of labor to obtain all crops, so often imperilled by the uncertainties of climate,—all these things made up a charming scene of innocent, childlike happiness amid the fading colors of the late autumn.
Madeleine had a little granary of her own, in which I was to see her brown treasure garnered and share her delight. Well, I quiver still when I recall the sound of each basketful of nuts as it was emptied on the mass of yellow husks, mixed with earth, which made the floor of the granary. The count bought what was needed for the household; the farmers and tenants, indeed, every one around Clochegourde, sent buyers to the Mignonne, a pet name which the peasantry give even to strangers, but which in this case belonged exclusively to Madeleine.
Jacques was less fortunate in gathering his walnuts. It rained for several days; but I consoled him with the advice to hold back his nuts and sell them a little later. Monsieur de Chessel had told me that the walnut-trees in the Brehemont, also those about Amboise and Vouvray, were not bearing. Walnut oil is in great demand in Touraine. Jacques might get at least forty sous for the product of each tree, and as he had two hundred the amount was considerable; he intended to spend it on the equipment of a pony. This wish led to a discussion with his father, who bade him think of the uncertainty of such returns, and the wisdom of creating a reserve fund for the years when the trees might not bear, and so equalizing his resources. I felt what was passing through the mother's mind as she sat by in silence; she rejoiced in the way Jacques listened to his father, the father seeming to recover the paternal dignity that was lacking to him, thanks to the ideas which she herself had prompted in him. Did I not tell you truly that in picturing this woman earthly language was insufficient to render either her character or her spirit. When such scenes occurred my soul drank in their delights without analyzing them; but now, with what vigor they detach themselves on the dark background of my troubled life! Like diamonds they shine against the settling of thoughts degraded by alloy, of bitter regrets for a lost happiness. Why do the names of the two estates purchased after the Restoration, and in which Monsieur and Madame de Mortsauf both took the deepest interest, the Cassine and the Rhetoriere, move me more than the sacred names of the Holy Land or of Greece? "Who loves, knows!" cried La Fontaine. Those names possess the talismanic power of words uttered under certain constellations by seers; they explain magic to me; they awaken sleeping forms which arise and speak to me; they lead me to the happy valley; they recreate skies and landscape. But such evocations are in the regions of the spiritual world; they pass in the silence of my own soul. Be not surprised, therefore, if I dwell on all these homely scenes; the smallest details of that simple, almost common life are ties which, frail as they may seem, bound me in closest union to the countess.
The interests of her children gave Madame de Mortsauf almost as much anxiety as their health. I soon saw the truth of what she had told me as to her secret share in the management of the family affairs, into which I became slowly initiated. After ten years' steady effort Madame de Mortsauf had changed the method of cultivating the estate. She had "put it in fours," as the saying is in those parts, meaning the new system under which wheat is sown every four years only, so as to make the soil produce a different crop yearly. To evade the obstinate unwillingness of the peasantry it was found necessary to cancel the old leases and give new ones, to divide the estate into four great farms and let them on equal shares, the sort of lease that prevails in Touraine and its neighborhood. The owner of the estate gives the house, farm-buildings, and seed-grain to tenants-at-will, with whom he divides the costs of cultivation and the crops. This division is superintended by an agent or bailiff, whose business it is to take the share belonging to the owner; a costly system, complicated by the market changes of values, which alter the character of the shares constantly. The countess had induced Monsieur de Mortsauf to cultivate a fifth farm, made up of the reserved lands about Clochegourde, as much to occupy his mind as to show other farmers the excellence of the new method by the evidence of facts. Being thus, in a hidden way, the mistress of the estate, she had slowly and with a woman's persistency rebuilt two of the farm-houses on the principle of those in Artois and Flanders. It is easy to see her motive. She wished, after the expiration of the leases on shares, to relet to intelligent and capable persons for rental in money, and thus simplify the revenues of Clochegourde. Fearing to die before her husband, she was anxious to secure for him a regular income, and to her children a property which no incapacity could jeopardize. At the present time the fruit-trees planted during the last ten years were in full bearing; the hedges, which secured the boundaries from dispute, were in good order; the elms and poplars were growing well. With the new purchases and the new farming system well under way, the estate of Clochegourde, divided into four great farms, two of which still needed new houses, was capable of bringing in forty thousand francs a year, ten thousand for each farm, not counting the yield of the vineyards, and the two hundred acres of woodland which adjoined them, nor the profits of the model home-farm. The roads to the great farms all opened on an avenue which followed a straight line from Clochegourde to the main road leading to Chinon. The distance from the entrance of this avenue to Tours was only fifteen miles; tenants would never be wanting, especially now that everybody was talking of the count's improvements and the excellent condition of his land.
The countess wished to put some fifteen thousand francs into each of the estates lately purchased, and to turn the present dwellings into two large farm-houses and buildings, in order that the property might bring in a better rent after the ground had been cultivated for a year or two. These ideas, so simple in themselves, but complicated with the thirty odd thousand francs it was necessary to expend upon them, were just now the topic of many discussions between herself and the count, sometimes amounting to bitter quarrels, in which she was sustained by the thought of her children's interests. The fear, "If I die to-morrow what will become of them?" made her heart beat. The gentle, peaceful hearts to whom anger is an impossibility, and whose sole desire is to shed on those about them their own inward peace, alone know what strength is needed for such struggles, what demands upon the spirit must be made before beginning the contest, what weariness ensues when the fight is over and nothing has been won. At this moment, just as her children seemed less anemic, less frail, more active (for the fruit season had had its effect on them), and her moist eyes followed them as they played about her with a sense of contentment which renewed her strength and refreshed her heart, the poor woman was called upon to bear the sharp sarcasms and attacks of an angry opposition. The count, alarmed at the plans she proposed, denied with stolid obstinacy the advantages of all she had done and the possibility of doing more. He replied to conclusive reasoning with the folly of a child who denies the influence of the sun in summer. The countess, however, carried the day. The victory of commonsense over insanity so healed her wounds that she forgot the battle. That day we all went to the Cassine and the Rhetoriere, to decide upon the buildings. The count walked alone in front, the children went next, and we ourselves followed slowly, for she was speaking in a low, gentle tone, which made her words like the murmur of the sea as it ripples on a smooth beach.
She was, she said, certain of success. A new line of communication between Tours and Chinon was to be opened by an active man, a carrier, a cousin of Manette's, who wanted a large farm on the route. His family was numerous; the eldest son would drive the carts, the second could attend to the business, the father living half-way along the road, at Rabelaye, one of the farms then to let, would look after the relays and enrich his land with the manure of the stables. As to the other farm, la Baude, the nearest to Clochegourde, one of their own people, a worthy, intelligent, and industrious man, who saw the advantages of the new system of agriculture, was ready to take a lease on it. The Cassine and the Rhetoriere need give no anxiety; their soil was the very best in the neighborhood; the farm-houses once built, and the ground brought into cultivation, it would be quite enough to advertise them at Tours; tenants would soon apply for them. In two years' time Clochegourde would be worth at least twenty-four thousand francs a year. Gravelotte, the farm in Maine, which Monsieur de Mortsauf had recovered after the emigration, was rented for seven thousand francs a year for nine years; his pension was four thousand. This income might not be a fortune, but it was certainly a competence. Later, other additions to it might enable her to go to Paris and attend to Jacques' education; in two years, she thought, his health would be established.
With what feeling she uttered the word "Paris!" I knew her thought; she wished to be as little separated as possible from her friend. On that I broke forth; I told her that she did not know me; that without talking of it, I had resolved to finish my education by working day and night so as to fit myself to be Jacques' tutor. She looked grave.
"No, Felix," she said, "that cannot be, any more than your priesthood. I thank you from my heart as a mother, but as a woman who loves you sincerely I can never allow you to be the victim of your attachment to me. Such a position would be a social discredit to you, and I could not allow it. No! I cannot be an injury to you in any way. You, Vicomte de Vandenesse, a tutor! You, whose motto is 'Ne se vend!' Were you Richelieu himself it would bar your way in life; it would give the utmost pain to your family. My friend, you do not know what insult women of the world, like my mother, can put into a patronizing glance, what degradation into a word, what contempt into a bow."
"But if you love me, what is the world to me?"
She pretended not to hear, and went on:—
"Though my father is most kind and desirous of doing all I ask, he would never forgive your taking so humble a position; he would refuse you his protection. I could not consent to your becoming tutor to the Dauphin even. You must accept society as it is; never commit the fault of flying in the face of it. My friend, this rash proposal of—"
"Love," I whispered.
"No, charity," she said, controlling her tears, "this wild idea enlightens me as to your character; your heart will be your bane. I shall claim from this moment the right to teach you certain things. Let my woman's eye see for you sometimes. Yes, from the solitudes of Clochegourde I mean to share, silently, contentedly, in your successes. As to a tutor, do not fear; we shall find some good old abbe, some learned Jesuit, and my father will gladly devote a handsome sum to the education of the boy who is to bear his name. Jacques is my pride. He is, however, eleven years old," she added after a pause. "But it is with him as with you; when I first saw you I took you to be about thirteen."
We now reached the Cassine, where Jacques, Madeleine, and I followed her about as children follow a mother; but we were in her way; I left her presently and went into the orchard where Martineau the elder, keeper of the place, was discussing with Martineau the younger, the bailiff, whether certain trees ought or ought not to be taken down; they were arguing the matter as if it concerned their own property. I then saw how much the countess was beloved. I spoke of it to a poor laborer, who, with one foot on his spade and an elbow on its handle, stood listening to the two doctors of pomology.
"Ah, yes, monsieur," he answered, "she is a good woman, and not haughty like those hussies at Azay, who would see us die like dogs sooner than yield us one penny of the price of a grave! The day when that woman leaves these parts the Blessed Virgin will weep, and we too. She knows what is due to her, but she knows our hardships, too, and she puts them into the account."
With what pleasure I gave that man all the money I had.
A few days later a pony arrived for Jacques, his father, an excellent horseman, wishing to accustom the child by degrees to the fatigues of such exercise. The boy had a pretty riding-dress, bought with the product of the nuts. The morning when he took his first lesson accompanied by his father and by Madeleine, who jumped and shouted about the lawn round which Jacques was riding, was a great maternal festival for the countess. The boy wore a blue collar embroidered by her, a little sky-blue overcoat fastened by a polished leather belt, a pair of white trousers pleated at the waist, and a Scotch cap, from which his fair hair flowed in heavy locks. He was charming to behold. All the servants clustered round to share the domestic joy. The little heir smiled at his mother as he passed her, sitting erect, and quite fearless. This first manly act of a child to whom death had often seemed so near, the promise of a sound future warranted by this ride which showed him so handsome, so fresh, so rosy,—what a reward for all her cares! Then too the joy of the father, who seemed to renew his youth, and who smiled for the first time in many long months; the pleasure shown on all faces, the shout of an old huntsman of the Lenoncourts, who had just arrived from Tours, and who, seeing how the boy held the reins, shouted to him, "Bravo, monsieur le vicomte!"—all this was too much for the poor mother, and she burst into tears; she, so calm in her griefs, was too weak to bear the joy of admiring her boy as he bounded over the gravel, where so often she had led him in the sunshine inwardly weeping his expected death. She leaned upon my arm unreservedly, and said: "I think I have never suffered. Do not leave us to-day."
The lesson over, Jacques jumped into his mother's arms; she caught him and held him tightly to her, kissing him passionately. I went with Madeleine to arrange two magnificent bouquets for the dinner-table in honor of the young equestrian. When we returned to the salon the countess said: "The fifteenth of October is certainly a great day with me. Jacques has taken his first riding lesson, and I have just set the last stitch in my furniture cover."
"Then, Blanche," said the count, laughing, "I must pay you for it."
He offered her his arm and took her to the first courtyard, where stood an open carriage which her father had sent her, and for which the count had purchased two English horses. The old huntsman had prepared the surprise while Jacques was taking his lesson. We got into the carriage, and went to see where the new avenue entered the main road towards Chinon. As we returned, the countess said to me in an anxious tone, "I am too happy; to me happiness is like an illness,—it overwhelms me; I fear it may vanish like a dream."
I loved her too passionately not to feel jealous,—I who could give her nothing! In my rage against myself I longed for some means of dying for her. She asked me to tell her the thoughts that filled my eyes, and I told her honestly. She was more touched than by all her presents; then taking me to the portico, she poured comfort into my heart. "Love me as my aunt loved me," she said, "and that will be giving me your life; and if I take it, must I not ever be grateful to you?
"It was time I finished my tapestry," she added as we re-entered the salon, where I kissed her hand as if to renew my vows. "Perhaps you do not know, Felix, why I began so formidable a piece of work. Men find the occupations of life a great resource against troubles; the management of affairs distracts their mind; but we poor women have no support within ourselves against our sorrows. To be able to smile before my children and my husband when my heart was heavy I felt the need of controlling my inward sufferings by some physical exercise. In this way I escaped the depression which is apt to follow a great strain upon the moral strength, and likewise all outbursts of excitement. The mere action of lifting my arm regularly as I drew the stitches rocked my thoughts and gave to my spirit when the tempest raged a monotonous ebb and flow which seemed to regulate its emotions. To every stitch I confided my secrets,—you understand me, do you not? Well, while doing my last chair I have thought much, too much, of you, dear friend. What you have put into your bouquets I have said in my embroidery."
The dinner was lovely. Jacques, like all children when you take notice of them, jumped into my arms when he saw the flowers I had arranged for him as a garland. His mother pretended to be jealous; ah, Natalie, you should have seen the charming grace with which the dear child offered them to her. In the afternoon we played a game of backgammon, I alone against Monsieur and Madame de Mortsauf, and the count was charming. They accompanied me along the road to Frapesle in the twilight of a tranquil evening, one of those harmonious evenings when our feelings gain in depth what they lose in vivacity. It was a day of days in this poor woman's life; a spot of brightness which often comforted her thoughts in painful hours.
Soon, however, the riding lessons became a subject of contention. The countess justly feared the count's harsh reprimands to his son. Jacques grew thin, dark circles surrounded his sweet blue eyes; rather than trouble his mother, he suffered in silence. I advised him to tell his father he was tired when the count's temper was violent; but that expedient proved unavailing, and it became necessary to substitute the old huntsman as a teacher in place of the father, who could with difficulty be induced to resign his pupil. Angry reproaches and contentions began once more; the count found a text for his continual complaints in the base ingratitude of women; he flung the carriage, horses, and liveries in his wife's face twenty times a day. At last a circumstance occurred on which a man with his nature and his disease naturally fastened eagerly. The cost of the buildings at the Cassine and the Rhetoriere proved to be half as much again as the estimate. This news was unfortunately given in the first instance to Monsieur de Mortsauf instead of to his wife. It was the ground of a quarrel, which began mildly but grew more and more embittered until it seemed as though the count's madness, lulled for a short time, was demanding its arrearages from the poor wife.
That day I had started from Frapesle at half-past ten to search for flowers with Madeleine. The child had brought the two vases to the portico, and I was wandering about the gardens and adjoining meadows gathering the autumn flowers, so beautiful, but too rare. Returning from my final quest, I could not find my little lieutenant with her white cape and broad pink sash; but I heard cries within the house, and Madeleine presently came running out.
"The general," she said, crying (the term with her was an expression of dislike), "the general is scolding mamma; go and defend her."
I sprang up the steps of the portico and reached the salon without being seen by either the count or his wife. Hearing the madman's sharp cries I first shut all the doors, then I returned and found Henriette as white as her dress.
"Never marry, Felix," said the count as soon as he saw me; "a woman is led by the devil; the most virtuous of them would invent evil if it did not exist; they are all vile."
Then followed arguments without beginning or end. Harking back to the old troubles, Monsieur de Mortsauf repeated the nonsense of the peasantry against the new system of farming. He declared that if he had had the management of Clochegourde he should be twice as rich as he now was. He shouted these complaints and insults, he swore, he sprang around the room knocking against the furniture and displacing it; then in the middle of a sentence he stopped short, complained that his very marrow was on fire, his brains melting away like his money, his wife had ruined him! The countess smiled and looked upward.
"Yes, Blanche," he cried, "you are my executioner; you are killing me; I am in your way; you want to get rid of me; you are monster of hypocrisy. She is smiling! Do you know why she smiles, Felix?"
I kept silence and looked down.
"That woman," he continued, answering his own question, "denies me all happiness; she is no more to me than she is to you, and yet she pretends to be my wife! She bears my name and fulfils none of the duties which all laws, human and divine, impose upon her; she lies to God and man. She obliges me to go long distances, hoping to wear me out and make me leave her to herself; I am displeasing to her, she hates me; she puts all her art into keeping me away from her; she has made me mad through the privations she imposes on me—for everything flies to my poor head; she is killing me by degrees, and she thinks herself a saint and takes the sacrament every month!"
The countess was weeping bitterly, humiliated by the degradation of the man, to whom she kept saying for all answer, "Monsieur! monsieur! monsieur!"
Though the count's words made me blush, more for him than for Henriette, they stirred my heart violently, for they appealed to the sense of chastity and delicacy which is indeed the very warp and woof of first love.
"She is virgin at my expense," cried the count.
At these words the countess cried out, "Monsieur!"
"What do you mean with your imperious 'Monsieur!'" he shouted. "Am I not your master? Must I teach you that I am?"
He came towards her, thrusting forward his white wolf's head, now hideous, for his yellow eyes had a savage expression which made him look like a wild beast rushing out of a wood. Henriette slid from her chair to the ground to avoid a blow, which however was not given; she lay at full length on the floor and lost consciousness, completely exhausted. The count was like a murderer who feels the blood of his victim spurting in his face; he stopped short, bewildered. I took the poor woman in my arms, and the count let me take her, as though he felt unworthy to touch her; but he went before me to open the door of her bedroom next the salon,—a sacred room I had never entered. I put the countess on her feet and held her for a moment in one arm, passing the other round her waist, while Monsieur de Mortsauf took the eider-down coverlet from the bed; then together we lifted her and laid her, still dressed, on the bed. When she came to herself she motioned to us to unfasten her belt. Monsieur de Mortsauf found a pair of scissors, and cut through it; I made her breathe salts, and she opened her eyes. The count left the room, more ashamed than sorry. Two hours passed in perfect silence. Henriette's hand lay in mine; she pressed it to mine, but could not speak. From time to time she opened her eyes as if to tell me by a look that she wished to be still and silent; then suddenly, for an instant, there seemed a change; she rose on her elbow and whispered, "Unhappy man!—ah! if you did but know—"
She fell back upon the pillow. The remembrance of her past sufferings, joined to the present shock, threw her again into the nervous convulsions I had just calmed by the magnetism of love,—a power then unknown to me, but which I used instinctively. I held her with gentle force, and she gave me a look which made me weep. When the nervous motions ceased I smoothed her disordered hair, the first and only time that I ever touched it; then I again took her hand and sat looking at the room, all brown and gray, at the bed with its simple chintz curtains, at the toilet table draped in a fashion now discarded, at the commonplace sofa with its quilted mattress. What poetry I could read in that room! What renunciations of luxury for herself; the only luxury being its spotless cleanliness. Sacred cell of a married nun, filled with holy resignation; its sole adornments were the crucifix of her bed, and above it the portrait of her aunt; then, on each side of the holy water basin, two drawings of the children made by herself, with locks of their hair when they were little. What a retreat for a woman whose appearance in the great world of fashion would have made the handsomest of her sex jealous! Such was the chamber where the daughter of an illustrious family wept out her days, sunken at this moment in anguish, and denying herself the love that might have comforted her. Hidden, irreparable woe! Tears of the victim for her slayer, tears of the slayer for his victim! When the children and waiting-woman came at length into the room I left it. The count was waiting for me; he seemed to seek me as a mediating power between himself and his wife. He caught my hands, exclaiming, "Stay, stay with us, Felix!"
"Unfortunately," I said, "Monsieur de Chessel has a party, and my absence would cause remark. But after dinner I will return."
He left the house when I did, and took me to the lower gate without speaking; then he accompanied me to Frapesle, seeming not to know what he was doing. At last I said to him, "For heaven's sake, Monsieur le comte, let her manage your affairs if it pleases her, and don't torment her."
"I have not long to live," he said gravely; "she will not suffer long through me; my head is giving way."
He left me in a spasm of involuntary self-pity. After dinner I returned for news of Madame de Mortsauf, who was already better. If such were the joys of marriage, if such scenes were frequent, how could she survive them long? What slow, unpunished murder was this? During that day I understood the tortures by which the count was wearing out his wife. Before what tribunal can we arraign such crimes? These thoughts stunned me; I could say nothing to Henriette by word of mouth, but I spent the night in writing to her. Of the three or four letters that I wrote I have kept only the beginning of one, with which I was not satisfied. Here it is, for though it seems to me to express nothing, and to speak too much of myself when I ought only to have thought of her, it will serve to show you the state my soul was in:—
To Madame de Mortsauf:
How many things I had to say to you when I reached the house! I thought of them on the way, but I forgot them in your presence. Yes, when I see you, dear Henriette, I find my thoughts no longer in keeping with the light from your soul which heightens your beauty; then, too, the happiness of being near you is so ineffable as to efface all other feelings. Each time we meet I am born into a broader life; I am like the traveller who climbs a rock and sees before him a new horizon. Each time you talk with me I add new treasures to my treasury. There lies, I think, the secret of long and inexhaustible affections. I can only speak to you of yourself when away from you. In your presence I am too dazzled to see, too happy to question my happiness, too full of you to be myself, too eloquent through you to speak, too eager in seizing the present moment to remember the past. You must think of this state of intoxication and forgive me its consequent mistakes.
When near you I can only feel. Yet, I have courage to say, dear Henriette, that never, in all the many joys you have given me, never did I taste such joy as filled my soul when, after that dreadful storm through which you struggled with superhuman courage, you came to yourself alone with me, in the twilight of your chamber where that unhappy scene had brought me. I alone know the light that shines from a woman when through the portals of death she re-enters life with the dawn of a rebirth tinting her brow. What harmonies were in your voice! How words, even your words, seemed paltry when the sound of that adored voice—in itself the echo of past pains mingled with divine consolations —blessed me with the gift of your first thought. I knew you were brilliant with all human splendor, but yesterday I found a new Henriette, who might be mine if God so willed; I beheld a spirit freed from the bodily trammels which repress the ardors of the soul. Ah! thou wert beautiful indeed in thy weakness, majestic in thy prostration. Yesterday I found something more beautiful than thy beauty, sweeter than thy voice; lights more sparkling than the light of thine eyes, perfumes for which there are no words —yesterday thy soul was visible and palpable. Would I could have opened my heart and made thee live there! Yesterday I lost the respectful timidity with which thy presence inspires me; thy weakness brought us nearer together. Then, when the crisis passed and thou couldst bear our atmosphere once more, I knew what it was to breathe in unison with thy breath. How many prayers rose up to heaven in that moment! Since I did not die as I rushed through space to ask of God that he would leave thee with me, no human creature can die of joy nor yet of sorrow. That moment has left memories buried in my soul which never again will reappear upon its surface and leave me tearless. Yes, the fears with which my soul was tortured yesterday are incomparably greater than all sorrows that the future can bring upon me, just as the joys which thou hast given me, dear eternal thought of my life! will be forever greater than any future joy God may be pleased to grant me. Thou hast made me comprehend the love divine, that sure love, sure in strength and in duration, that knows no doubt or jealousy.
Deepest melancholy gnawed my soul; the glimpse into that hidden life was agonizing to a young heart new to social emotions; it was an awful thing to find this abyss at the opening of life,—a bottomless abyss, a Dead Sea. This dreadful aggregation of misfortunes suggested many thoughts; at my first step into social life I found a standard of comparison by which all other events and circumstances must seem petty.
The next day when I entered the salon she was there alone. She looked at me for a moment, held out her hand, and said, "My friend is always too tender." Her eyes grew moist; she rose, and then she added, in a tone of desperate entreaty, "Never write thus to me again."
Monsieur de Mortsauf was very kind. The countess had recovered her courage and serenity; but her pallor betrayed the sufferings of the previous night, which were calmed, but not extinguished. That evening she said to me, as she paced among the autumn leaves which rustled beneath our footsteps, "Sorrow is infinite; joys are limited,"—words which betrayed her sufferings by the comparison she made with the fleeting delights of the previous week.
"Do not slander life," I said to her. "You are ignorant of love; love gives happiness which shines in heaven."
"Hush!" she said. "I wish to know nothing of it. The Icelander would die in Italy. I am calm and happy beside you; I can tell you all my thoughts; do not destroy my confidence. Why will you not combine the virtue of the priest with the charm of a free man."
"You make me drink the hemlock!" I cried, taking her hand and laying it on my heart, which was beating fast.
"Again!" she said, withdrawing her hand as if it pained her. "Are you determined to deny me the sad comfort of letting my wounds be stanched by a friendly hand? Do not add to my sufferings; you do not know them all; those that are hidden are the worst to bear. If you were a woman you would know the melancholy disgust that fills her soul when she sees herself the object of attentions which atone for nothing, but are thought to atone for all. For the next few days I shall be courted and caressed, that I may pardon the wrong that has been done. I could then obtain consent to any wish of mine, however unreasonable. I am humiliated by his humility, by caresses which will cease as soon as he imagines that I have forgotten that scene. To owe our master's good graces to his faults—"
"His crimes!" I interrupted quickly.
"Is not that a frightful condition of existence?" she continued, with a sad smile. "I cannot use this transient power. At such times I am like the knights who could not strike a fallen adversary. To see in the dust a man whom we ought to honor, to raise him only to enable him to deal other blows, to suffer from his degradation more than he suffers himself, to feel ourselves degraded if we profit by such influence for even a useful end, to spend our strength, to waste the vigor of our souls in struggles that have no grandeur, to have no power except for a moment when a fatal crisis comes—ah, better death! If I had no children I would let myself drift on the wretched current of this life; but if I lose my courage, what will become of them? I must live for them, however cruel this life may be. You talk to me of love. Ah! my dear friend, think of the hell into which I should fling myself if I gave that pitiless being, pitiless like all weak creatures, the right to despise me. The purity of my conduct is my strength. Virtue, dear friend, is holy water in which we gain fresh strength, from which we issue renewed in the love of God."
"Listen to me, dear Henriette; I have only another week to stay here, and I wish—"
"Ah, you mean to leave us!" she exclaimed.
"You must know what my father intends to do with me," I replied. "It is now three months—"
"I have not counted the days," she said, with momentary self-abandonment. Then she checked herself and cried, "Come, let us go to Frapesle."
She called the count and the children, sent for a shawl, and when all were ready she, usually so calm and slow in all her movements, became as active as a Parisian, and we started in a body to pay a visit at Frapesle which the countess did not owe. She forced herself to talk to Madame de Chessel, who was fortunately discursive in her answers. The count and Monsieur de Chessel conversed on business. I was afraid the former might boast of his carriage and horses; but he committed no such solecisms. His neighbor questioned him about his projected improvements at the Cassine and the Rhetoriere. I looked at the count, wondering if he would avoid a subject of conversation so full of painful memories to all, so cruelly mortifying to him. On the contrary, he explained how urgent a duty it was to better the agricultural condition of the canton, to build good houses and make the premises salubrious; in short, he glorified himself with his wife's ideas. I blushed as I looked at her. Such want of scruple in a man who, on certain occasions, could be scrupulous enough, this oblivion of the dreadful scene, this adoption of ideas against which he had fought so violently, this confident belief in himself, petrified me.
When Monsieur de Chessel said to him, "Do you expect to recover your outlay?"
"More than recover it!" he exclaimed, with a confident gesture.
Such contradictions can be explained only by the word "insanity." Henriette, celestial creature, was radiant. The count was appearing to be a man of intelligence, a good administrator, an excellent agriculturist; she played with her boy's curly head, joyous for him, happy for herself. What a comedy of pain, what mockery in this drama; I was horrified by it. Later in life, when the curtain of the world's stage was lifted before me, how many other Mortsaufs I saw without the loyalty and the religious faith of this man. What strange, relentless power is it that perpetually awards an angel to a madman; to a man of heart, of true poetic passion, a base woman; to the petty, grandeur; to this demented brain, a beautiful, sublime being; to Juana, Captain Diard, whose history at Bordeaux I have told you; to Madame de Beauseant, an Ajuda; to Madame d'Aiglemont, her husband; to the Marquis d'Espard, his wife! Long have I sought the meaning of this enigma. I have ransacked many mysteries, I have discovered the reason of many natural laws, the purport of some divine hieroglyphics; of the meaning of this dark secret I know nothing. I study it as I would the form of an Indian weapon, the symbolic construction of which is known only to the Brahmans. In this dread mystery the spirit of Evil is too visibly the master; I dare not lay the blame to God. Anguish irremediable, what power finds amusement in weaving you? Can Henriette and her mysterious philosopher be right? Does their mysticism contain the explanation of humanity?
The autumn leaves were falling during the last few days which I passed in the valley, days of lowering clouds, which do sometimes obscure the heaven of Touraine, so pure, so warm at that fine season. The evening before my departure Madame de Mortsauf took me to the terrace before dinner.
"My dear Felix," she said, after we had taken a turn in silence under the leafless trees, "you are about to enter the world, and I wish to go with you in thought. Those who have suffered much have lived and known much. Do not think that solitary souls know nothing of the world; on the contrary, they are able to judge it. Hear me: If I am to live in and for my friend I must do what I can for his heart and for his conscience. When the conflict rages it is hard to remember rules; therefore let me give you a few instructions, the warnings of a mother to her son. The day you leave us I shall give you a letter, a long letter, in which you will find my woman's thoughts on the world, on society, on men, on the right methods of meeting difficulty in this great clash of human interests. Promise me not to read this letter till you reach Paris. I ask it from a fanciful sentiment, one of those secrets of womanhood not impossible to understand, but which we grieve to find deciphered; leave me this covert way where as a woman I wish to walk alone."
"Yes, I promise it," I said, kissing her hand.
"Ah," she added, "I have one more promise to ask of you; but grant it first."
"Yes, yes!" I cried, thinking it was surely a promise of fidelity.
"It does not concern myself," she said smiling, with some bitterness. "Felix, do not gamble in any house, no matter whose it be; I except none."
"I will never play at all," I replied.
"Good," she said. "I have found a better use for your time than to waste it on cards. The end will be that where others must sooner or later be losers you will invariably win."
"The letter will tell you," she said, with a playful smile, which took from her advice the serious tone which might certainly have been that of a grandfather.
The countess talked to me for an hour, and proved the depth of her affection by the study she had made of my nature during the last three months. She penetrated the recesses of my heart, entering it with her own; the tones of her voice were changeful and convincing; the words fell from maternal lips, showing by their tone as well as by their meaning how many ties already bound us to each other.
"If you knew," she said in conclusion, "with what anxiety I shall follow your course, what joy I shall feel if you walk straight, what tears I must shed if you strike against the angles! Believe that my affection has no equal; it is involuntary and yet deliberate. Ah, I would that I might see you happy, powerful, respected,—you who are to me a living dream."
She made me weep, so tender and so terrible was she. Her feelings came boldly to the surface, yet they were too pure to give the slightest hope even to a young man thirsting for pleasure. Ignoring my tortured flesh, she shed the rays, undeviating, incorruptible, of the divine love, which satisfies the soul only. She rose to heights whither the prismatic pinions of a love like mine were powerless to bear me. To reach her a man must needs have won the white wings of the seraphim.
"In all that happens to me I will ask myself," I said, "'What would my Henriette say?'"
"Yes, I will be the star and the sanctuary both," she said, alluding to the dreams of my childhood.
"You are my light and my religion," I cried; "you shall be my all."
"No," she answered; "I can never be the source of your pleasures."
She sighed; the smile of secret pain was on her lips, the smile of the slave who momentarily revolts. From that day forth she was to me, not merely my beloved, but my only love; she was not IN my heart as a woman who takes a place, who makes it hers by devotion or by excess of pleasure given; but she was my heart itself,—it was all hers, a something necessary to the play of my muscles. She became to me as Beatrice to the Florentine, as the spotless Laura to the Venetian, the mother of great thoughts, the secret cause of resolutions which saved me, the support of my future, the light shining in the darkness like a lily in a wood. Yes, she inspired those high resolves which pass through flames, which save the thing in peril; she gave me a constancy like Coligny's to vanquish conquerors, to rise above defeat, to weary the strongest wrestler.
The next day, having breakfasted at Frapesle and bade adieu to my kind hosts, I went to Clochegourde. Monsieur and Madame de Mortsauf had arranged to drive with me to Tours, whence I was to start the same night for Paris. During the drive the countess was silent; she pretended at first to have a headache; then she blushed at the falsehood, and expiated it by saying that she could not see me go without regret. The count invited me to stay with them whenever, in the absence of the Chessels, I might long to see the valley of the Indre once more. We parted heroically, without apparent tears, but Jacques, who like other delicate children was quickly touched, began to cry, while Madeleine, already a woman, pressed her mother's hand.
"Dear little one!" said the countess, kissing Jacques passionately.
When I was alone at Tours after dinner a wild, inexplicable desire known only to young blood possessed me. I hired a horse and rode from Tours to Pont-de-Ruan in an hour and a quarter. There, ashamed of my folly, I dismounted, and went on foot along the road, stepping cautiously like a spy till I reached the terrace. The countess was not there, and I imagined her ill; I had kept the key of the little gate, by which I now entered; she was coming down the steps of the portico with the two children to breathe in sadly and slowly the tender melancholy of the landscape, bathed at that moment in the setting sun.
"Mother, here is Felix," said Madeleine.
"Yes," I whispered; "it is I. I asked myself why I should stay at Tours while I still could see you; why not indulge a desire that in a few days more I could not gratify."
"He won't leave us again, mother," cried Jacques, jumping round me.
"Hush!" said Madeleine; "if you make such a noise the general will come."
"It is not right," she said. "What folly!"
The tears in her voice were the payment of what must be called a usurious speculation of love.
"I had forgotten to return this key," I said smiling.
"Then you will never return," she said.
"Can we ever be really parted?" I asked, with a look which made her drop her eyelids for all answer.
I left her after a few moments passed in that happy stupor of the spirit where exaltation ends and ecstasy begins. I went with lagging step, looking back at every minute. When, from the summit of the hill, I saw the valley for the last time I was struck with the contrast it presented to what it was when I first came there. Then it was verdant, then it glowed, glowed and blossomed like my hopes and my desires. Initiated now into the gloomy secrets of a family, sharing the anguish of a Christian Niobe, sad with her sadness, my soul darkened, I saw the valley in the tone of my own thoughts. The fields were bare, the leaves of the poplars falling, the few that remained were rusty, the vine-stalks were burned, the tops of the trees were tan-colored, like the robes in which royalty once clothed itself as if to hide the purple of its power beneath the brown of grief. Still in harmony with my thoughts, the valley, where the yellow rays of the setting sun were coldly dying, seemed to me a living image of my heart.
To leave a beloved woman is terrible or natural, according as the mind takes it. For my part, I found myself suddenly in a strange land of which I knew not the language. I was unable to lay hold of things to which my soul no longer felt attachment. Then it was that the height and the breadth of my love came before me; my Henriette rose in all her majesty in this desert where I existed only through thoughts of her. That form so worshipped made me vow to keep myself spotless before my soul's divinity, to wear ideally the white robe of the Levite, like Petrarch, who never entered Laura's presence unless clothed in white. With what impatience I awaited the first night of my return to my father's roof, when I could read the letter which I felt of during the journey as a miser fingers the bank-bills he carries about him. During the night I kissed the paper on which my Henriette had manifested her will; I sought to gather the mysterious emanations of her hand, to recover the intonations of her voice in the hush of my being. Since then I have never read her letters except as I read that first letter; in bed, amid total silence. I cannot understand how the letters of our beloved can be read in any other way; yet there are men, unworthy to be loved, who read such letters in the turmoil of the day, laying them aside and taking them up again with odious composure.
Here, Natalie, is the voice which echoed through the silence of that night. Behold the noble figure which stood before me and pointed to the right path among the cross-ways at which I stood.
To Monsieur le Vicomte Felix de Vandenesse:
What happiness for me, dear friend, to gather the scattered elements of my experience that I may arm you against the dangers of the world, through which I pray that you pass scatheless. I have felt the highest pleasures of maternal love as night after night I have thought of these things. While writing this letter, sentence by sentence, projecting my thoughts into the life you are about to lead, I went often to my window. Looking at the towers of Frapesle, visible in the moonlight, I said to myself, "He sleeps, I wake for him." Delightful feelings! which recall the happiest of my life, when I watched Jacques sleeping in his cradle and waited till he wakened, to feed him with my milk. You are the man-child whose soul must now be strengthened by precepts never taught in schools, but which we women have the privilege of inculcating. These precepts will influence your success; they prepare the way for it, they will secure it. Am I not exercising a spiritual motherhood in giving you a standard by which to judge the actions of your life; a motherhood comprehended, is it not, by the child? Dear Felix, let me, even though I may make a few mistakes, let me give to our friendship a proof of the disinterestedness which sanctifies it.
In yielding you to the world I am renouncing you; but I love you too well not to sacrifice my happiness to your welfare. For the last four months you have made me reflect deeply on the laws and customs which regulate our epoch. The conversations I have had with my aunt, well-known to you who have replaced her, the events of Monsieur de Mortsauf's life, which he has told me, the tales related by my father, to whom society and the court are familiar in their greatest as well as in their smallest aspects, all these have risen in my memory for the benefit of my adopted child at the moment when he is about to be launched, well-nigh alone, among men; about to act without adviser in a world where many are wrecked by their own best qualities thoughtlessly displayed, while others succeed through a judicious use of their worst.
I ask you to ponder this statement of my opinion of society as a whole; it is concise, for to you a few words are sufficient.
I do not know whether societies are of divine origin or whether they were invented by man. I am equally ignorant of the direction in which they tend. What I do know certainly is the fact of their existence. No sooner therefore do you enter society, instead of living a life apart, than you are bound to consider its conditions binding; a contract is signed between you. Does society in these days gain more from a man than it returns to him? I think so; but as to whether the individual man finds more cost than profit, or buys too dear the advantages he obtains, concerns the legislator only; I have nothing to say to that. In my judgment you are bound to obey in all things the general law, without discussion, whether it injures or benefits your personal interests. This principle may seem to you a very simple one, but it is difficult of application; it is like sap, which must infiltrate the smallest of the capillary tubes to stir the tree, renew its verdure, develop its flowers, and ripen fruit. Dear, the laws of society are not all written in a book; manners and customs create laws, the more important of which are often the least known. Believe me, there are neither teachers, nor schools, nor text-books for the laws that are now to regulate your actions, your language, your visible life, the manner of your presentation to the world, and your quest of fortune. Neglect those secret laws or fail to understand them, and you stay at the foot of the social system instead of looking down upon it. Even though this letter may seem to you diffuse, telling you much that you have already thought, let me confide to you a woman's ethics.
To explain society on the theory of individual happiness adroitly won at the cost of the greater number is a monstrous doctrine, which in its strict application leads men to believe that all they can secretly lay hold of before the law or society or other individuals condemn it as a wrong is honestly and fairly theirs. Once admit that claim and the clever thief goes free; the woman who violates her marriage vow without the knowledge of the world is virtuous and happy; kill a man, leaving no proof for justice, and if, like Macbeth, you win a crown you have done wisely; your selfish interests become the higher law; the only question then is how to evade, without witnesses or proof, the obstacles which law and morality place between you and your self-indulgence. To those who hold this view of society, the problem of making their fortune, my dear friend, resolves itself into playing a game where the stakes are millions or the galleys, political triumphs or dishonor. Still, the green cloth is not long enough for all the players, and a certain kind of genius is required to play the game. I say nothing of religious beliefs, nor yet of feelings; what concerns us now is the running-gear of the great machine of gold and iron, and its practical results with which men's lives are occupied. Dear child of my heart, if you share my horror at this criminal theory of the world, society will present to your mind, as it does to all sane minds, the opposite theory of duty. Yes, you will see that man owes himself to man in a thousand differing ways. To my mind, the duke and peer owe far more to the workman and the pauper than the pauper and the workman owe to the duke. The obligations of duty enlarge in proportion to the benefits which society bestows on men; in accordance with the maxim, as true in social politics as in business, that the burden of care and vigilance is everywhere in proportion to profits. Each man pays his debt in his own way. When our poor toiler at the Rhetoriere comes home weary with his day's work has he not done his duty? Assuredly he has done it better than many in the ranks above him.
If you take this view of society, in which you are about to seek a place in keeping with your intellect and your faculties, you must set before you as a generating principle and mainspring, this maxim: never permit yourself to act against either your own conscience or the public conscience. Though my entreaty may seem to you superfluous, yet I entreat, yes, your Henriette implores you to ponder the meaning of that rule. It seems simple but, dear, it means that integrity, loyalty, honor, and courtesy are the safest and surest instruments for your success. In this selfish world you will find many to tell you that a man cannot make his way by sentiments, that too much respect for moral considerations will hinder his advance. It is not so; you will see men ill-trained, ill-taught, incapable of measuring the future, who are rough to a child, rude to an old woman, unwilling to be irked by some worthy old man on the ground that they can do nothing for him; later, you will find the same men caught by the thorns which they might have rendered pointless, and missing their triumph for some trivial reason; whereas the man who is early trained to a sense of duty does not meet the same obstacles; he may attain success less rapidly, but when attained it is solid and does not crumble like that of others.
When I show you that the application of this doctrine demands in the first place a mastery of the science of manners, you may think my jurisprudence has a flavor of the court and of the training I received as a Lenoncourt. My dear friend, I do attach great importance to that training, trifling as it seems. You will find that the habits of the great world are as important to you as the wide and varied knowledge that you possess. Often they take the place of such knowledge; for some really ignorant men, born with natural gifts and accustomed to give connection to their ideas, have been known to attain a grandeur never reached by others far more worthy of it. I have studied you thoroughly, Felix, wishing to know if your education, derived wholly from schools, has injured your nature. God knows the joy with which I find you fit for that further education of which I speak.
The manners of many who are brought up in the traditions of the great world are purely external; true politeness, perfect manners, come from the heart, and from a deep sense of personal dignity. This is why some men of noble birth are, in spite of their training, ill-mannered, while others, among the middle classes, have instinctive good taste and only need a few lessons to give them excellent manners without any signs of awkward imitation. Believe a poor woman who no longer leaves her valley when she tells you that this dignity of tone, this courteous simplicity in words, in gesture, in bearing, and even in the character of the home, is a living and material poem, the charm of which is irresistible; imagine therefore what it is when it takes its inspiration from the heart. Politeness, dear, consists in seeming to forget ourselves for others; with many it is social cant, laid aside when personal self-interest shows its cloven-foot; a noble then becomes ignoble. But—and this is what I want you to practise, Felix—true politeness involves a Christian principle; it is the flower of Love, it requires that we forget ourselves really. In memory of your Henriette, for her sake, be not a fountain without water, have the essence and the form of true courtesy. Never fear to be the dupe and victim of this social virtue; you will some day gather the fruit of seeds scattered apparently to the winds.
My father used to say that one of the great offences of sham politeness was the neglect of promises. When anything is demanded of you that you cannot do, refuse positively and leave no loopholes for false hopes; on the other hand, grant at once whatever you are willing to bestow. Your prompt refusal will make you friends as well as your prompt benefit, and your character will stand the higher; for it is hard to say whether a promise forgotten, a hope deceived does not make us more enemies than a favor granted brings us friends.
Dear friend, there are certain little matters on which I may dwell, for I know them, and it comes within my province to impart them. Be not too confiding, nor frivolous, nor over enthusiastic, —three rocks on which youth often strikes. Too confiding a nature loses respect, frivolity brings contempt, and others take advantage of excessive enthusiasm. In the first place, Felix, you will never have more than two or three friends in the course of your life. Your entire confidence is their right; to give it to many is to betray your real friends. If you are more intimate with some men than with others keep guard over yourself; be as cautious as though you knew they would one day be your rivals, or your enemies; the chances and changes of life require this. Maintain an attitude which is neither cold nor hot; find the medium point at which a man can safely hold intercourse with others without compromising himself. Yes, believe me, the honest man is as far from the base cowardice of Philinte as he is from the harsh virtue of Alceste. The genius of the poet is displayed in the mind of this true medium; certainly all minds do enjoy more the ridicule of virtue than the sovereign contempt of easy-going selfishness which underlies that picture of it; but all, nevertheless, are prompted to keep themselves from either extreme.
As to frivolity, if it causes fools to proclaim you a charming man, others who are accustomed to judge of men's capacities and fathom character, will winnow out your tare and bring you to disrepute, for frivolity is the resource of weak natures, and weakness is soon appraised in a society which regards its members as nothing more than organs—and perhaps justly, for nature herself puts to death imperfect beings. A woman's protecting instincts may be roused by the pleasure she feels in supporting the weak against the strong, and in leading the intelligence of the heart to victory over the brutality of matter; but society, less a mother than a stepmother, adores only the children who flatter her vanity.
As to ardent enthusiasm, that first sublime mistake of youth, which finds true happiness in using its powers, and begins by being its own dupe before it is the dupe of others, keep it within the region of the heart's communion, keep it for woman and for God. Do not hawk its treasures in the bazaars of society or of politics, where trumpery will be offered in exchange for them. Believe the voice which commands you to be noble in all things when it also prays you not to expend your forces uselessly. Unhappily, men will rate you according to your usefulness, and not according to your worth. To use an image which I think will strike your poetic mind, let a cipher be what it may, immeasurable in size, written in gold, or written in pencil, it is only a cipher after all. A man of our times has said, "No zeal, above all, no zeal!" The lesson may be sad, but it is true, and it saves the soul from wasting its bloom. Hide your pure sentiments, or put them in regions inaccessible, where their blossoms may be passionately admired, where the artist may dream amorously of his master-piece. But duties, my friend, are not sentiments. To do what we ought is by no means to do what we like. A man who would give his life enthusiastically for a woman must be ready to die coldly for his country.
One of the most important rules in the science of manners is that of almost absolute silence about ourselves. Play a little comedy for your own instruction; talk of yourself to acquaintances, tell them about your sufferings, your pleasures, your business, and you will see how indifference succeeds pretended interest; then annoyance follows, and if the mistress of the house does not find some civil way of stopping you the company will disappear under various pretexts adroitly seized. Would you, on the other hand, gather sympathies about you and be spoken of as amiable and witty, and a true friend? talk to others of themselves, find a way to bring them forward, and brows will clear, lips will smile, and after you leave the room all present will praise you. Your conscience and the voice of your own heart will show you the line where the cowardice of flattery begins and the courtesy of intercourse ceases.
One word more about a young man's demeanor in public. My dear friend, youth is always inclined to a rapidity of judgment which does it honor, but also injury. This was why the old system of education obliged young people to keep silence and study life in a probationary period beside their elders. Formerly, as you know, nobility, like art, had its apprentices, its pages, devoted body and soul to the masters who maintained them. To-day youth is forced in a hot-house; it is trained to judge of thoughts, actions, and writings with biting severity; it slashes with a blade that has not been fleshed. Do not make this mistake. Such judgments will seem like censures to many about you, who would sooner pardon an open rebuke than a secret wound. Young people are pitiless because they know nothing of life and its difficulties. The old critic is kind and considerate, the young critic is implacable; the one knows nothing, the other knows all. Moreover, at the bottom of all human actions there is a labyrinth of determining reasons on which God reserves for himself the final judgment. Be severe therefore to none but yourself.
Your future is before you; but no one in the world can make his way unaided. Therefore, make use of my father's house; its doors are open to you; the connections that you will create for yourself under his roof will serve you in a hundred ways. But do not yield an inch of ground to my mother; she will crush any one who gives up to her, but she will admire the courage of whoever resists her. She is like iron, which if beaten, can be fused with iron, but when cold will break everything less hard than itself. Cultivate my mother; for if she thinks well of you she will introduce you into certain houses where you can acquire the fatal science of the world, the art of listening, speaking, answering, presenting yourself to the company and taking leave of it; the precise use of language, the something—how shall I explain it?—which is no more superiority than the coat is the man, but without which the highest talent in the world will never be admitted within those portals.
I know you well enough to be quite sure I indulge no illusion when I imagine that I see you as I wish you to be; simple in manners, gentle in tone, proud without conceit, respectful to the old, courteous without servility, above all, discreet. Use your wit but never display it for the amusement of others; for be sure that if your brilliancy annoys an inferior man, he will retire from the field and say of you in a tone of contempt, "He is very amusing." Let your superiority be leonine. Moreover, do not be always seeking to please others. I advise a certain coldness in your relations with men, which may even amount to indifference; this will not anger others, for all persons esteem those who slight them; and it will win you the favor of women, who will respect you for the little consequence that you attach to men. Never remain in company with those who have lost their reputation, even though they may not have deserved to do so; for society holds us responsible for our friendships as well as for our enmities. In this matter let your judgments be slowly and maturely weighed, but see that they are irrevocable. When the men whom you have repulsed justify the repulsion, your esteem and regard will be all the more sought after; you have inspired the tacit respect which raises a man among his peers. I behold you now armed with a youth that pleases, grace which attracts, and wisdom with which to preserve your conquests. All that I have now told you can be summed up in two words, two old-fashioned words, "Noblesse oblige."