Now apply these precepts to the management of life. You will hear many persons say that strategy is the chief element of success; that the best way to press through the crowd is to set some men against other men and so take their places. That was a good system for the Middle Ages, when princes had to destroy their rivals by pitting one against the other; but in these days, all things being done in open day, I am afraid it would do you ill-service. No, you must meet your competitors face to face, be they loyal and true men, or traitorous enemies whose weapons are calumny, evil-speaking, and fraud. But remember this, you have no more powerful auxiliaries than these men themselves; they are their own enemies; fight them with honest weapons, and sooner or later they are condemned. As to the first of them, loyal men and true, your straightforwardness will obtain their respect, and the differences between you once settled (for all things can be settled), these men will serve you. Do not be afraid of making enemies; woe to him who has none in the world you are about to enter; but try to give no handle for ridicule or disparagement. I say try, for in Paris a man cannot always belong solely to himself; he is sometimes at the mercy of circumstances; you will not always be able to avoid the mud in the gutter nor the tile that falls from the roof. The moral world has gutters where persons of no reputation endeavor to splash the mud in which they live upon men of honor. But you can always compel respect by showing that you are, under all circumstances, immovable in your principles. In the conflict of opinions, in the midst of quarrels and cross-purposes, go straight to the point, keep resolutely to the question; never fight except for the essential thing, and put your whole strength into that. You know how Monsieur de Mortsauf hates Napoleon, how he curses him and pursues him as justice does a criminal; demanding punishment day and night for the death of the Duc d'Enghien, the only death, the only misfortune, that ever brought the tears to his eyes; well, he nevertheless admired him as the greatest of captains, and has often explained to me his strategy. May not the same tactics be applied to the war of human interests; they would economize time as heretofore they economized men and space. Think this over, for as a woman I am liable to be mistaken on such points which my sex judges only by instinct and sentiment. One point, however, I may insist on; all trickery, all deception, is certain to be discovered and to result in doing harm; whereas every situation presents less danger if a man plants himself firmly on his own truthfulness. If I may cite my own case, I can tell you that, obliged as I am by Monsieur de Mortsauf's condition to avoid litigation and to bring to an immediate settlement all difficulties which arise in the management of Clochegourde, and which would otherwise cause him an excitement under which his mind would succumb, I have invariably settled matters promptly by taking hold of the knot of the difficulty and saying to our opponents: "We will either untie it or cut it!"
It will often happen that you do a service to others and find yourself ill-rewarded; I beg you not to imitate those who complain of men and declare them to be all ungrateful. That is putting themselves on a pedestal indeed! and surely it is somewhat silly to admit their lack of knowledge of the world. But you, I trust, will not do good as a usurer lends his money; you will do it—will you not?—for good's sake. Noblesse oblige. Nevertheless, do not bestow such services as to force others to ingratitude, for if you do, they will become your most implacable enemies; obligations sometimes lead to despair, like the despair of ruin itself, which is capable of very desperate efforts. As for yourself, accept as little as you can from others. Be no man's vassal; and bring yourself out of your own difficulties.
You see, dear friend, I am advising you only on the lesser points of life. In the world of politics things wear a different aspect; the rules which are to guide your individual steps give way before the national interests. If you reach that sphere where great men revolve you will be, like God himself, the sole arbiter of your determinations. You will no longer be a man, but law, the living law; no longer an individual, you are then the Nation incarnate. But remember this, though you judge, you will yourself be judged; hereafter you will be summoned before the ages, and you know history well enough to be fully informed as to what deeds and what sentiments have led to true grandeur.
I now come to a serious matter, your conduct towards women. Wherever you visit make it a principle not to fritter yourself away in a petty round of gallantry. A man of the last century who had great social success never paid attention to more than one woman of an evening, choosing the one who seemed the most neglected. That man, my dear child, controlled his epoch. He wisely reckoned that by a given time all women would speak well of him. Many young men waste their most precious possession, namely, the time necessary to create connections which contribute more than all else to social success. Your springtime is short, endeavor to make the most of it. Cultivate influential women. Influential women are old women; they will teach you the intermarriages and the secrets of all the families of the great world; they will show you the cross-roads which will bring you soonest to your goal. They will be fond of you. The bestowal of protection is their last form of love—when they are not devout. They will do you innumerable good services; sing your praises and make you desirable to society. Avoid young women. Do not think I say this from personal self-interest. The woman of fifty will do all for you, the woman of twenty will do nothing; she wants your whole life while the other asks only a few attentions. Laugh with the young women, meet them for pastime merely; they are incapable of serious thought. Young women, dear friend, are selfish, vain, petty, ignorant of true friendship; they love no one but themselves; they would sacrifice you to an evening's success. Besides, they all want absolute devotion, and your present situation requires that devotion be shown to you; two irreconcilable needs! None of these young women would enter into your interests; they would think of themselves and not of you; they would injure you more by their emptiness and frivolity than they could serve you by their love; they will waste your time unscrupulously, hinder your advance to fortune, and end by destroying your future with the best grace possible. If you complain, the silliest of them will make you think that her glove is more precious than fortune, and that nothing is so glorious as to be her slave. They will all tell you that they bestow happiness, and thus lull you to forget your nobler destiny. Believe me, the happiness they give is transitory; your great career will endure. You know not with what perfidious cleverness they contrive to satisfy their caprices, nor the art with which they will convert your passing fancy into a love which ought to be eternal. The day when they abandon you they will tell you that the words, "I no longer love you," are a full justification of their conduct, just as the words, "I love," justified their winning you; they will declare that love is involuntary and not to be coerced. Absurd! Believe me, dear, true love is eternal, infinite, always like unto itself; it is equable, pure, without violent demonstration; white hair often covers the head but the heart that holds it is ever young. No such love is found among the women of the world; all are playing comedy; this one will interest you by her misfortunes; she seems the gentlest and least exacting of her sex, but when once she is necessary to you, you will feel the tyranny of weakness and will do her will; you may wish to be a diplomat, to go and come, and study men and interests,—no, you must stay in Paris, or at her country-place, sewn to her petticoat, and the more devotion you show the more ungrateful and exacting she will be. Another will attract you by her submissiveness; she will be your attendant, follow you romantically about, compromise herself to keep you, and be the millstone about your neck. You will drown yourself some day, but the woman will come to the surface.
The least manoeuvring of these women of the world have many nets. The silliest triumph because too foolish to excite distrust. The one to be feared least may be the woman of gallantry whom you love without exactly knowing why; she will leave you for no motive and go back to you out of vanity. All these women will injure you, either in the present or the future. Every young woman who enters society and lives a life of pleasure and of gratified vanity is semi-corrupt and will corrupt you. Among them you will not find the chaste and tranquil being in whom you may forever reign. Ah! she who loves you will love solitude; the festivals of her heart will be your glances; she will live upon your words. May she be all the world to you, for you will be all in all to her. Love her well; give her neither griefs nor rivals; do not rouse her jealousy. To be loved, dear, to be comprehended, is the greatest of all joys; I pray that you may taste it! But run no risk of injuring the flower of your soul; be sure, be very sure of the heart in which you place your affections. That woman will never be her own self; she will never think of herself, but of you. She will never oppose you, she will have no interests of her own; for you she will see a danger where you can see none and where she would be oblivious of her own. If she suffers it will be in silence; she will have no personal vanity, but deep reverence for whatever in her has won your love. Respond to such a love by surpassing it. If you are fortunate enough to find that which I, your poor friend, must ever be without, I mean a love mutually inspired, mutually felt, remember that in a valley lives a mother whose heart is so filled with the feelings you have put there that you can never sound its depths. Yes, I bear you an affection which you will never know to its full extent; before it could show itself for what it is you would have to lose your mind and intellect, and then you would be unable to comprehend the length and breadth of my devotion.
Shall I be misunderstood in bidding you avoid young women (all more or less artful, satirical, vain, frivolous, and extravagant) and attach yourself to influential women, to those imposing dowagers full of excellent good-sense, like my aunt, who will help your career, defend you from attacks, and say for you the things that you cannot say for yourself? Am I not, on the contrary, generous in bidding you reserve your love for the coming angel with the guileless heart? If the motto Noblesse oblige sums up the advice I gave you just now, my further advice on your relations to women is based upon that other motto of chivalry, "Serve all, love one!"
Your educational knowledge is immense; your heart, saved by early suffering, is without a stain; all is noble, all is well with you. Now, Felix, WILL! Your future lies in that one word, that word of great men. My child, you will obey your Henriette, will you not? You will permit her to tell you from time to time the thoughts that are in her mind of you and of your relations to the world? I have an eye in my soul which sees the future for you as for my children; suffer me to use that faculty for your benefit; it is a faculty, a mysterious gift bestowed by my lonely life; far from its growing weaker, I find it strengthened and exalted by solitude and silence.
I ask you in return to bestow a happiness on me; I desire to see you becoming more and more important among men, without one single success that shall bring a line of shame upon my brow; I desire that you may quickly bring your fortunes to the level of your noble name, and be able to tell me I have contributed to your advancement by something better than a wish. This secret co-operation in your future is the only pleasure I can allow myself. For it, I will wait and hope.
I do not say farewell. We are separated; you cannot put my hand to your lips, but you must surely know the place you hold in the heart of your
As I read this letter I felt the maternal heart beating beneath my fingers which held the paper while I was still cold from the harsh greeting of my own mother. I understood why the countess had forbidden me to open it in Touraine; no doubt she feared that I would fall at her feet and wet them with my tears.
I now made the acquaintance of my brother Charles, who up to this time had been a stranger to me. But in all our intercourse he showed a haughtiness which kept us apart and prevented brotherly affection. Kindly feelings depend on similarity of soul, and there was no point of touch between us. He preached to me dogmatically those social trifles which head or heart can see without instruction; he seemed to mistrust me. If I had not had the inward support of my great love he would have made me awkward and stupid by affecting to believe that I knew nothing of life. He presented me in society under the expectation that my dulness would be a foil to his qualities. Had I not remembered the sorrows of my childhood I might have taken his protecting vanity for brotherly affection; but inward solitude produces the same effects as outward solitude; silence within our souls enables us to hear the faintest sound; the habit of taking refuge within ourselves develops a perception which discerns every quality of the affections about us. Before I knew Madame de Mortsauf a hard look grieved me, a rough word wounded me to the heart; I bewailed these things without as yet knowing anything of a life of tenderness; whereas now, since my return from Clochegourde, I could make comparisons which perfected my instinctive perceptions. All deductions derived only from sufferings endured are incomplete. Happiness has a light to cast. I now allowed myself the more willingly to be kept under the heel of primogeniture because I was not my brother's dupe.
I always went alone to the Duchesse de Lenoncourt's, where Henriette's name was never mentioned; no one, except the good old duke, who was simplicity itself, ever spoke of her to me; but by the way he welcomed me I guessed that his daughter had privately commended me to his care. At the moment when I was beginning to overcome the foolish wonder and shyness which besets a young man at his first entrance into the great world, and to realize the pleasures it could give through the resources it offers to ambition, just, too, as I was beginning to make use of Henriette's maxims, admiring their wisdom, the events of the 20th of March took place.
My brother followed the court to Ghent; I, by Henriette's advice (for I kept up a correspondence with her, active on my side only), went there also with the Duc de Lenoncourt. The natural kindness of the old duke turned to a hearty and sincere protection as soon as he saw me attached, body and soul, to the Bourbons. He himself presented me to his Majesty. Courtiers are not numerous when misfortunes are rife; but youth is gifted with ingenuous admiration and uncalculating fidelity. The king had the faculty of judging men; a devotion which might have passed unobserved in Paris counted for much at Ghent, and I had the happiness of pleasing Louis XVIII.
A letter from Madame de Mortsauf to her father, brought with despatches by an emissary of the Vendeens, enclosed a note to me by which I learned that Jacques was ill. Monsieur de Mortsauf, in despair at his son's ill-health, and also at the news of a second emigration, added a few words which enabled me to guess the situation of my dear one. Worried by him, no doubt, when she passed all her time at Jacques' bedside, allowed no rest either day or night, superior to annoyance, yet unable always to control herself when her whole soul was given to the care of her child, Henriette needed the support of a friendship which might lighten the burden of her life, were it only by diverting her husband's mind. Though I was now most impatient to rival the career of my brother, who had lately been sent to the Congress of Vienna, and was anxious at any risk to justify Henriette's appeal and become a man myself, freed from all vassalage, nevertheless my ambition, my desire for independence, the great interest I had in not leaving the king, all were of no account before the vision of Madame de Mortsauf's sad face. I resolved to leave the court at Ghent and serve my true sovereign. God rewarded me. The emissary sent by the Vendeens was unable to return. The king wanted a messenger who would faithfully carry back his instructions. The Duc de Lenoncourt knew that the king would never forget the man who undertook so perilous an enterprise; he asked for the mission without consulting me, and I gladly accepted it, happy indeed to be able to return to Clochegourde employed in the good cause.
After an audience with the king I returned to France, where, both in Paris and in Vendee, I was fortunate enough to carry out his Majesty's instructions. Towards the end of May, being tracked by the Bonapartist authorities to whom I was denounced, I was obliged to fly from place to place in the character of a man endeavoring to get back to his estate. I went on foot from park to park, from wood to wood, across the whole of upper Vendee, the Bocage and Poitou, changing my direction as danger threatened.
I reached Saumur, from Saumur I went to Chinon, and from Chinon I reached, in a single night, the woods of Nueil, where I met the count on horseback; he took me up behind him and we reached Clochegourde without passing any one who recognized me.
"Jacques is better," were the first words he said to me.
I explained to him my position of diplomatic postman, hunted like a wild beast, and the brave gentleman in his quality of royalist claimed the danger over Chessel of receiving me. As we came in sight of Clochegourde the past eight months rolled away like a dream. When we entered the salon the count said: "Guess whom I bring you?—Felix!"
"Is it possible!" she said, with pendant arms and a bewildered face.
I showed myself and we both remained motionless; she in her armchair, I on the threshold of the door; looking at each other with that hunger of the soul which endeavors to make up in a single glance for the lost months. Then, recovering from a surprise which left her heart unveiled, she rose and I went up to her.
"I have prayed for your safety," she said, giving me her hand to kiss.
She asked news of her father; then she guessed my weariness and went to prepare my room, while the count gave me something to eat, for I was dying of hunger. My room was the one above hers, her aunt's room; she requested the count to take me there, after setting her foot on the first step of the staircase, deliberating no doubt whether to accompany me; I turned my head, she blushed, bade me sleep well, and went away. When I came down to dinner I heard for the first time of the disasters at Waterloo, the flight of Napoleon, the march of the Allies to Paris, and the probable return of the Bourbons. These events were all in all to the count; to us they were nothing. What think you was the great event I was to learn, after kissing the children?—for I will not dwell on the alarm I felt at seeing the countess pale and shrunken; I knew the injury I might do by showing it and was careful to express only joy at seeing her. But the great event for us was told in the words, "You shall have ice to-day!" She had often fretted the year before that the water was not cold enough for me, who, never drinking anything else, liked it iced. God knows how many entreaties it had cost her to get an ice-house built. You know better than any one that a word, a look, an inflection of the voice, a trifling attention, suffices for love; love's noblest privilege is to prove itself by love. Well, her words, her look, her pleasure, showed me her feelings, as I had formerly shown her mine by that first game of backgammon. These ingenuous proofs of her affection were many; on the seventh day after my arrival she recovered her freshness, she sparkled with health and youth and happiness; my lily expanded in beauty just as the treasures of my heart increased. Only in petty minds or in common hearts can absence lessen love or efface the features or diminish the beauty of our dear one. To ardent imaginations, to all beings through whose veins enthusiasm passes like a crimson tide, and in whom passion takes the form of constancy, absence has the same effect as the sufferings of the early Christians, which strengthened their faith and made God visible to them. In hearts that abound in love are there not incessant longings for a desired object, to which the glowing fire of our dreams gives higher value and a deeper tint? Are we not conscious of instigations which give to the beloved features the beauty of the ideal by inspiring them with thought? The past, dwelt on in all its details becomes magnified; the future teems with hope. When two hearts filled with these electric clouds meet each other, their interview is like the welcome storm which revives the earth and stimulates it with the swift lightnings of the thunderbolt. How many tender pleasures came to me when I found these thoughts and these sensations reciprocal! With what glad eyes I followed the development of happiness in Henriette! A woman who renews her life from that of her beloved gives, perhaps, a greater proof of feeling than she who dies killed by a doubt, withered on her stock for want of sap; I know not which of the two is the more touching.
The revival of Madame de Mortsauf was wholly natural, like the effects of the month of May upon the meadows, or those of the sun and of the brook upon the drooping flowers. Henriette, like our dear valley of love, had had her winter; she revived like the valley in the springtime. Before dinner we went down to the beloved terrace. There, with one hand stroking the head of her son, who walked feebly beside her, silent, as though he were breeding an illness, she told me of her nights beside his pillow.
For three months, she said, she had lived wholly within herself, inhabiting, as it were, a dark palace; afraid to enter sumptuous rooms where the light shone, where festivals were given, to her denied, at the door of which she stood, one glance turned upon her child, another to a dim and distant figure; one ear listening for moans, another for a voice. She told me poems, born of solitude, such as no poet ever sang; but all ingenuously, without one vestige of love, one trace of voluptuous thought, one echo of a poesy orientally soothing as the rose of Frangistan. When the count joined us she continued in the same tone, like a woman secure within herself, able to look proudly at her husband and kiss the forehead of her son without a blush. She had prayed much; she had clasped her hands for nights together over her child, refusing to let him die.
"I went," she said, "to the gate of the sanctuary and asked his life of God."
She had had visions, and she told them to me; but when she said, in that angelic voice of hers, these exquisite words, "While I slept my heart watched," the count harshly interrupted her.
"That is to say, you were half crazy," he cried.
She was silent, as deeply hurt as though it were a first wound; forgetting that for thirteen years this man had lost no chance to shoot his arrows into her heart. Like a soaring bird struck on the wing by vulgar shot, she sank into a dull depression; then she roused herself.
"How is it, monsieur," she said, "that no word of mine ever finds favor in your sight? Have you no indulgence for my weakness,—no comprehension of me as a woman?"
She stopped short. Already she regretted the murmur, and measured the future by the past; how could she expect comprehension? Had she not drawn upon herself some virulent attack? The blue veins of her temples throbbed; she shed no tears, but the color of her eyes faded. Then she looked down, that she might not see her pain reflected on my face, her feelings guessed, her soul wooed by my soul; above all, not see the sympathy of young love, ready like a faithful dog to spring at the throat of whoever threatened his mistress, without regard to the assailant's strength or quality. At such cruel moments the count's air of superiority was supreme. He thought he had triumphed over his wife, and he pursued her with a hail of phrases which repeated the one idea, and were like the blows of an axe which fell with unvarying sound.
"Always the same?" I said, when the count left us to follow the huntsman who came to speak to him.
"Always," answered Jacques.
"Always excellent, my son," she said, endeavoring to withdraw Monsieur de Mortsauf from the judgment of his children. "You see only the present, you know nothing of the past; therefore you cannot criticise your father without doing him injustice. But even if you had the pain of seeing that your father was to blame, family honor requires you to bury such secrets in silence."
"How have the changes at the Cassine and the Rhetoriere answered?" I asked, to divert her mind from bitter thoughts.
"Beyond my expectations," she replied. "As soon as the buildings were finished we found two excellent farmers ready to hire them; one at four thousand five hundred francs, taxes paid; the other at five thousand; both leases for fifteen years. We have already planted three thousand young trees on the new farms. Manette's cousin is delighted to get the Rabelaye; Martineau has taken the Baude. All our efforts have been crowned with success. Clochegourde, without the reserved land which we call the home-farm, and without the timber and vineyards, brings in nineteen thousand francs a year, and the plantations are becoming valuable. I am battling to let the home-farm to Martineau, the keeper, whose eldest son can now take his place. He offers three thousand francs if Monsieur de Mortsauf will build him a farm-house at the Commanderie. We might then clear the approach to Clochegourde, finish the proposed avenue to the main road, and have only the woodland and the vineyards to take care of ourselves. If the king returns, our pension will be restored; WE shall consent after clashing a little with our wife's common-sense. Jacques' fortune will then be permanently secured. That result obtained, I shall leave monsieur to lay by as much as he likes for Madeleine, though the king will of course dower her, according to custom. My conscience is easy; I have all but accomplished my task. And you?" she said.
I explained to her the mission on which the king had sent me, and showed her how her wise counsel had borne fruit. Was she endowed with second sight thus to foretell events?
"Did I not write it to you?" she answered. "For you and for my children alone I possess a remarkable faculty, of which I have spoken only to my confessor, Monsieur de la Berge; he explains it by divine intervention. Often, after deep meditation induced by fears about the health of my children, my eyes close to the things of earth and see into another region; if Jacques and Madeleine there appear to me as two luminous figures they are sure to have good health for a certain period of time; if wrapped in mist they are equally sure to fall ill soon after. As for you, I not only see you brilliantly illuminated, but I hear a voice which explains to me without words, by some mental communication, what you ought to do. Does any law forbid me to use this wonderful gift for my children and for you?" she asked, falling into a reverie. Then, after a pause, she added, "Perhaps God wills to take the place of their father."
"Let me believe that my obedience is due to none but you," I cried.
She gave me one of her exquisitely gracious smiles, which so exalted my heart that I should not have felt a death-blow if given at that moment.
"As soon as the king returns to Paris, go there; leave Clochegourde," she said. "It may be degrading to beg for places and favors, but it would be ridiculous to be out of the way of receiving them. Great changes will soon take place. The king needs capable and trustworthy men; don't fail him. It is well for you to enter young into the affairs of the nation and learn your way; for statesmen, like actors, have a routine business to acquire, which genius does not reveal, it must be learnt. My father heard the Duc de Choiseul say this. Think of me," she said, after a pause; "let me enjoy the pleasures of superiority in a soul that is all my own; for are you not my son?"
"Your son?" I said, sullenly.
"Yes, my son!" she cried, mocking me; "is not that a good place in my heart?"
The bell rang for dinner; she took my arm and leaned contentedly upon it.
"You have grown," she said, as we went up the steps. When we reached the portico she shook my arm a little, as if my looks were importunate; for though her eyes were lowered she knew that I saw only her. Then she said, with a charming air of pretended impatience, full of grace and coquetry, "Come, why don't you look at our dear valley?"
She turned, held her white silk sun-shade over our heads and drew Jacques closely to her side. The motion of her head as she looked towards the Indre, the punt, the meadows, showed me that in my absence she had come to many an understanding with those misty horizons and their vaporous outline. Nature was a mantle which sheltered her thoughts. She now knew what the nightingale was sighing the livelong night, what the songster of the sedges hymned with his plaintive note.
At eight o'clock that evening I was witness of a scene which touched me deeply, and which I had never yet witnessed, for in my former visits I had played backgammon with the count while his wife took the children into the dining-room before their bedtime. The bell rang twice, and all the servants of the household entered the room.
"You are now our guest and must submit to convent rule," said the countess, leading me by the hand with that air of innocent gaiety which distinguishes women who are naturally pious.
The count followed. Masters, children, and servants knelt down, all taking their regular places. It was Madeleine's turn to read the prayers. The dear child said them in her childish voice, the ingenuous tones of which rose clear in the harmonious silence of the country, and gave to the words the candor of holy innocence, the grace of angels. It was the most affecting prayer I ever heard. Nature replied to the child's voice with the myriad murmurs of the coming night, like the low accompaniment of an organ lightly touched, Madeleine was on the right of the countess, Jacques on her left. The graceful curly heads, between which rose the smooth braids of the mother, and above all three the perfectly white hair and yellow cranium of the father, made a picture which repeated, in some sort, the ideas aroused by the melody of the prayer. As if to fulfil all conditions of the unity which marks the sublime, this calm and collected group were bathed in the fading light of the setting sun; its red tints coloring the room, impelling the soul—be it poetic or superstitious—to believe that the fires of heaven were visiting these faithful servants of God as they knelt there without distinction of rank, in the equality which heaven demands. Thinking back to the days of the patriarchs my mind still further magnified this scene, so grand in its simplicity.
The children said good-night, the servants bowed, the countess went away holding a child by each hand, and I returned to the salon with the count.
"We provide you with salvation there, and hell here," he said, pointing to the backgammon-board.
The countess returned in half an hour, and brought her frame near the table.
"This is for you," she said, unrolling the canvas; "but for the last three months it has languished. Between that rose and this heartsease my poor child was ill."
"Come, come," said Monsieur de Mortsauf, "don't talk of that any more. Six—five, emissary of the king!"
When alone in my room I hushed my breathing that I might hear her passing to and fro in hers. She was calm and pure, but I was lashed with maddening ideas. "Why should she not be mine?" I thought; "perhaps she is, like me, in this whirlwind of agitation." At one o'clock, I went down, walking noiselessly, and lay before her door. With my ear pressed to a chink I could hear her equable, gentle breathing, like that of a child. When chilled to the bone I went back to bed and slept tranquilly till morning. I know not what prenatal influence, what nature within me, causes the delight I take in going to the brink of precipices, sounding the gulf of evil, seeking to know its depths, feeling its icy chill, and retreating in deep emotion. That hour of night passed on the threshold of her door where I wept with rage,—though she never knew that on the morrow her foot had trod upon my tears and kisses, on her virtue first destroyed and then respected, cursed and adored,—that hour, foolish in the eyes of many, was nevertheless an inspiration of the same mysterious impulse which impels the soldier. Many have told me they have played their lives upon it, flinging themselves before a battery to know if they could escape the shot, happy in thus galloping into the abyss of probabilities, and smoking like Jean Bart upon the gunpowder.
The next day I went to gather flowers and made two bouquets. The count admired them, though generally nothing of the kind appealed to him. The clever saying of Champcenetz, "He builds dungeons in Spain," seemed to have been made for him.
I spent several days at Clochegourde, going but seldom to Frapesle, where, however, I dined three times. The French army now occupied Tours. Though my presence was health and strength to Madame de Mortsauf, she implored me to make my way to Chateauroux, and so round by Issoudun and Orleans to Paris with what haste I could. I tried to resist; but she commanded me, saying that my guardian angel spoke. I obeyed. Our farewell was, this time, dim with tears; she feared the allurements of the life I was about to live. Is it not a serious thing to enter the maelstrom of interests, passions, and pleasures which make Paris a dangerous ocean for chaste love and purity of conscience? I promised to write to her every night, relating the events and thoughts of the day, even the most trivial. When I gave the promise she laid her head on my shoulder and said: "Leave nothing out; everything will interest me."
She gave me letters for the duke and duchess, which I delivered the second day after my return.
"You are in luck," said the duke; "dine here to-day, and go with me this evening to the Chateau; your fortune is made. The king spoke of you this morning, and said, 'He is young, capable, and trustworthy.' His Majesty added that he wished he knew whether you were living or dead, and in what part of France events had thrown you after you had executed your mission so ably."
That night I was appointed master of petitions to the council of State, and I also received a private and permanent place in the employment of Louis XVIII. himself,—a confidential position, not highly distinguished, but without any risks, a position which put me at the very heart of the government and has been the source of all my subsequent prosperity. Madame de Mortsauf had judged rightly. I now owed everything to her; power and wealth, happiness and knowledge; she guided and encouraged me, purified my heart, and gave to my will that unity of purpose without which the powers of youth are wasted. Later I had a colleague; we each served six months. We were allowed to supply each other's place if necessary; we had rooms at the Chateau, a carriage, and large allowances for travelling when absent on missions. Strange position! We were the secret disciples of a monarch in a policy to which even his enemies have since done signal justice; alone with us he gave judgment on all things, foreign and domestic, yet we had no legitimate influence; often we were consulted like Laforet by Moliere, and made to feel that the hesitations of long experience were confirmed or removed by the vigorous perceptions of youth.
In other respects my future was secured in a manner to satisfy ambition. Beside my salary as master of petitions, paid by the budget of the council of State, the king gave me a thousand francs a month from his privy purse, and often himself added more to it. Though the king knew well that no young man of twenty-three could long bear up under the labors with which he loaded me, my colleague, now a peer of France, was not appointed till August, 1817. The choice was a difficult one; our functions demanded so many capabilities that the king was long in coming to a decision. He did me the honor to ask which of the young men among whom he was hesitating I should like for an associate. Among them was one who had been my school-fellow at Lepitre's; I did not select him. His Majesty asked why.
"The king," I replied, "chooses men who are equally faithful, but whose capabilities differ. I choose the one whom I think the most able, certain that I shall always be able to get on with him."
My judgment coincided with that of the king, who was pleased with the sacrifice I had made. He said on this occasion, "You are to be the chief"; and he related these circumstances to my colleague, who became, in return for the service I had done him, my good friend. The consideration shown to me by the Duc de Lenoncourt set the tone of that which I met with in society. To have it said, "The king takes an interest in the young man; that young man has a future, the king likes him," would have served me in place of talents; and it now gave to the kindly welcome accorded to youth a certain respect that is only given to power. In the salon of the Duchesse de Lenoncourt and also at the house of my sister who had just married the Marquis de Listomere, son of the old lady in the Ile St. Louis, I gradually came to know the influential personages of the Faubourg St. Germain.
Henriette herself put me at the heart of the circle then called "le Petit Chateau" by the help of her great-aunt, the Princesse de Blamont-Chauvry, to whom she wrote so warmly in my behalf that the princess immediately sent for me. I cultivated her and contrived to please her, and she became, not my protectress but a friend, in whose kindness there was something maternal. The old lady took pains to make me intimate with her daughter Madame d'Espard, with the Duchesse de Langeais, the Vicomtesse de Beauseant, and the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, women who held the sceptre of fashion, and who were all the more gracious to me because I made no pretensions and was always ready to be useful and agreeable to them. My brother Charles, far from avoiding me, now began to lean upon me; but my rapid success roused a secret jealousy in his mind which in after years caused me great vexation. My father and mother, surprised by a triumph so unexpected, felt their vanity flattered, and received me at last as a son. But their feeling was too artificial, I might say false, to let their present treatment have much influence upon a sore heart. Affectations stained with selfishness win little sympathy; the heart abhors calculations and profits of all kinds.
I wrote regularly to Henriette, who answered by two letters a month. Her spirit hovered over me, her thoughts traversed space and made the atmosphere around me pure. No woman could captivate me. The king noticed my reserve, and as, in this respect, he belonged to the school of Louis XV., he called me, in jest, Mademoiselle de Vandenesse; but my conduct pleased him. I am convinced that the habit of patience I acquired in my childhood and practised at Clochegourde had much to do in my winning the favor of the king, who was always most kind to me. He no doubt took a fancy to read my letters, for he soon gave up his notion of my life as that of a young girl. One day when the duke was on duty, and I was writing at the king's dictation, the latter suddenly remarked, in that fine, silvery voice of his, to which he could give, when he chose, the biting tone of epigram:—
"So that poor devil of a Mortsauf persists in living?"
"Yes," replied the duke.
"Madame de Mortsauf is an angel, whom I should like to see at my court," continued the king; "but if I cannot manage it, my chancellor here," turning to me, "may be more fortunate. You are to have six months' leave; I have decided on giving you the young man we spoke of yesterday as colleague. Amuse yourself at Clochegourde, friend Cato!" and he laughed as he had himself wheeled out of the room.
I flew like a swallow to Touraine. For the first time I was to show myself to my beloved, not merely a little less insignificant, but actually in the guise of an elegant young man, whose manners had been formed in the best salons, his education finished by gracious women; who had found at last a compensation for all his sufferings, and had put to use the experience given to him by the purest angel to whom heaven had ever committed the care of a child. You know how my mother had equipped me for my three months' visit at Frapesle. When I reached Clochegourde after fulfilling my mission in Vendee, I was dressed like a huntsman; I wore a jacket with white and red buttons, striped trousers, leathern gaiters and shoes. Tramping through underbrush had so injured my clothes that the count was obliged to lend me linen. On the present occasion, two years' residence in Paris, constant intercourse with the king, the habits of a life at ease, my completed growth, a youthful countenance, which derived a lustre from the placidity of the soul within magnetically united with the pure soul that beamed on me from Clochegourde,—all these things combined had transformed me. I was self-possessed without conceit, inwardly pleased to find myself, in spite of my years, at the summit of affairs; above all, I had the consciousness of being secretly the support and comfort of the dearest woman on earth, and her unuttered hope. Perhaps I felt a flutter of vanity as the postilions cracked their whips along the new avenue leading from the main road to Clochegourde and through an iron gate I had never seen before, which opened into a circular enclosure recently constructed. I had not written to the countess of my coming, wishing to surprise her. For this I found myself doubly in fault: first, she was overwhelmed with the excitement of a pleasure long desired, but supposed to be impossible; and secondly, she proved to me that all such deliberate surprises are in bad taste.
When Henriette saw a young man in him who had hitherto seemed but a child to her, she lowered her eyes with a sort of tragic slowness. She allowed me to take and kiss her hand without betraying her inward pleasure, which I nevertheless felt in her sensitive shiver. When she raised her face to look at me again, I saw that she was pale.
"Well, you don't forget your old friends?" said Monsieur de Mortsauf, who had neither changed nor aged.
The children sprang upon me. I saw them behind the grave face of the Abbe Dominis, Jacques' tutor.
"No," I replied, "and in future I am to have six months' leave, which will always be spent here—Why, what is the matter?" I said to the countess, putting my arm round her waist and holding her up in presence of them all.
"Oh, don't!" she said, springing away from me; "it is nothing."
I read her mind, and answered to its secret thought by saying, "Am I not allowed to be your faithful slave?"
She took my arm, left the count, the children, and the abbe, and led me to a distance on the lawn, though still within sight of the others; then, when sure that her voice could not be heard by them, she spoke.
"Felix, my dear friend," she said, "forgive my fears; I have but one thread by which to guide me in the labyrinth of life, and I dread to see it broken. Tell me that I am more than ever Henriette to you, that you will never abandon me, that nothing shall prevail against me, that you will ever be my devoted friend. I have suddenly had a glimpse into my future, and you were not there, as hitherto, your eyes shining and fixed upon me—"
"Henriette! idol whose worship is like that of the Divine,—lily, flower of my life, how is it that you do not know, you who are my conscience, that my being is so fused with yours that my soul is here when my body is in Paris? Must I tell you that I have come in seventeen hours, that each turn of the wheels gathered thoughts and desires in my breast, which burst forth like a tempest when I saw you?"
"Yes, tell me! tell me!" she cried; "I am so sure of myself that I can hear you without wrong. God does not will my death. He sends you to me as he sends his breath to his creatures; as he pours the rain of his clouds upon a parched earth,—tell me! tell me! Do you love me sacredly?"
"As a virgin Mary, hidden behind her veil, beneath her white crown."
"As a virgin visible."
"As a sister?"
"As a sister too dearly loved."
"With chivalry and without hope?"
"With chivalry and with hope."
"As if you were still twenty years of age, and wearing that absurd blue coat?"
"Oh better far! I love you thus, and I also love you"—she looked at me with keen apprehension—"as you loved your aunt."
"I am happy! You dispel my terrors," she said, returning towards the family, who were surprised at our private conference. "Be still a child at Clochegourde—for you are one still. It may be your policy to be a man with the king, but here, let me tell you, monsieur, your best policy is to remain a child. As a child you shall be loved. I can resist a man, but to a child I can refuse nothing, nothing! He can ask for nothing I will not give him.—Our secrets are all told," she said, looking at the count with a mischievous air, in which her girlish, natural self reappeared. "I leave you now; I must go and dress."
Never for three years had I heard her voice so richly happy. For the first time I heard those swallow cries, the infantile notes of which I told you. I had brought Jacques a hunting outfit, and for Madeleine a work-box—which her mother afterwards used. The joy of the two children, delighted to show their presents to each other, seemed to annoy the count, always dissatisfied when attention was withdrawn from himself. I made a sign to Madeleine and followed her father, who wanted to talk to me of his ailments.
"My poor Felix," he said, "you see how happy and well they all are. I am the shadow on the picture; all their ills are transferred to me, and I bless God that it is so. Formerly I did not know what was the matter with me; now I know. The orifice of my stomach is affected; I can digest nothing."
"How do you come to be as wise as the professor of a medical school?" I asked, laughing. "Is your doctor indiscreet enough to tell you such things?"
"God forbid I should consult a doctor," he cried, showing the aversion most imaginary invalids feel for the medical profession.
I now listened to much crazy talk, in the course of which he made the most absurd confidences,—complained of his wife, of the servants, of the children, of life, evidently pleased to repeat his daily speeches to a friend who, not having heard them daily, might be alarmed, and who at any rate was forced to listen out of politeness. He must have been satisfied, for I paid him the utmost attention, trying to penetrate his inconceivable nature, and to guess what new tortures he had been inflicting on his wife, of which she had not written to me. Henriette presently put an end to the monologue by appearing in the portico. The count saw her, shook his head, and said to me: "You listen to me, Felix; but here no one pities me."
He went away, as if aware of the constraint he imposed on my intercourse with Henriette, or perhaps from a really chivalrous consideration for her, knowing he could give her pleasure by leaving us alone. His character exhibited contradictions that were often inexplicable; he was jealous, like all weak beings, but his confidence in his wife's sanctity was boundless. It may have been the sufferings of his own self-esteem, wounded by the superiority of that lofty virtue, which made him so eager to oppose every wish of the poor woman, whom he braved as children brave their masters or their mothers.
Jacques was taking his lessons, and Madeleine was being dressed; I had therefore a whole hour to walk with the countess alone on the terrace.
"Dear angel!" I said, "the chains are heavier, the sands hotter, the thorns grow apace."
"Hush!" she said, guessing the thoughts my conversation with the count had suggested. "You are here, and all is forgotten! I don't suffer; I have never suffered."
She made a few light steps as if to shake her dress and give to the breeze its ruches of snowy tulle, its floating sleeves and fresh ribbons, the laces of her pelerine, and the flowing curls of her coiffure a la Sevigne; I saw her for the first time a young girl,—gay with her natural gaiety, ready to frolic like a child. I knew then the meaning of tears of happiness; I knew the joy a man feels in bringing happiness to another.
"Sweet human flower, wooed by my thought, kissed by my soul, oh my lily!" I cried, "untouched, untouchable upon thy stem, white, proud, fragrant, and solitary—"
"Enough, enough," she said, smiling. "Speak to me of yourself; tell me everything."
Then, beneath the swaying arch of quivering leaves, we had a long conversation, filled with interminable parentheses, subjects taken, dropped, and retaken, in which I told her my life and my occupations; I even described my apartment in Paris, for she wished to know everything; and (happiness then unappreciated) I had nothing to conceal. Knowing thus my soul and all the details of a daily life full of incessant toil, learning the full extent of my functions, which to any one not sternly upright offered opportunities for deception and dishonest gains, but which I had exercised with such rigid honor that the king, I told her, called me Mademoiselle de Vandenesse, she seized my hand and kissed it, and dropped a tear, a tear of joy, upon it.
This sudden transposition of our roles, this homage, coupled with the thought—swiftly expressed but as swiftly comprehended—"Here is the master I have sought, here is my dream embodied!" all that there was of avowal in the action, grand in its humility, where love betrayed itself in a region forbidden to the senses,—this whirlwind of celestial things fell on my heart and crushed it. I felt myself too small; I wished to die at her feet.
"Ah!" I said, "you surpass us in all things. Can you doubt me?—for you did doubt me just now, Henriette."
"Not now," she answered, looking at me with ineffable tenderness, which, for a moment, veiled the light of her eyes. "But seeing you so changed, so handsome, I said to myself, 'Our plans for Madeleine will be defeated by some woman who will guess the treasures in his heart; she will steal our Felix, and destroy all happiness here.'"
"Always Madeleine!" I replied. "Is it Madeleine to whom I am faithful?"
We fell into a silence which Monsieur de Mortsauf inconveniently interrupted. I was forced to keep up a conversation bristling with difficulties, in which my honest replies as to the king's policy jarred with the count's ideas, and he forced me to explain again and again the king's intentions. In spite of all my questions as to his horses, his agricultural affairs, whether he was satisfied with his five farms, whether he meant to cut the timber of the old avenue, he returned to the subject of politics with the pestering faculty of an old maid and the persistency of a child. Minds like his prefer to dash themselves against the light; they return again and again and hum about it without ever getting into it, like those big flies which weary our ears as they buzz upon the glass.
Henriette was silent. To stop the conversation, in which I feared my young blood might take fire, I answered in monosyllables, mostly acquiescent, avoiding discussion; but Monsieur de Mortsauf had too much sense not to perceive the meaning of my politeness. Presently he was angry at being always in the right; he grew refractory, his eyebrows and the wrinkles of his forehead worked, his yellow eyes blazed, his rufous nose grew redder, as it did on the day I first witnessed an attack of madness. Henriette gave me a supplicating look, making me understand that she could not employ on my behalf an authority to which she had recourse to protect her children. I at once answered the count seriously, taking up the political question, and managing his peevish spirit with the utmost care.
"Poor dear! poor dear!" she murmured two or three times; the words reaching my ear like a gentle breeze. When she could intervene with success she said, interrupting us, "Let me tell you, gentlemen, that you are very dull company."
Recalled by this conversation to his chivalrous sense of what was due to a woman, the count ceased to talk politics, and as we bored him in our turn by commonplace matters, he presently left us to continue our walk, declaring that it made his head spin to go round and round on the same path.
My sad conjectures were true. The soft landscape, the warm atmosphere, the cloudless skies, the soothing poetry of this valley, which for fifteen years had calmed the stinging fancies of that diseased mind, were now impotent. At a period of life when the asperities of other men are softened and their angles smoothed, the disposition of this man became more and more aggressive. For the last few months he had taken a habit of contradicting for the sake of contradiction, without reason, without even trying to justify his opinions; he insisted on knowing the why and the wherefore of everything; grew restless under a delay or an omission; meddled with every item of the household affairs, and compelled his wife and the servants to render him the most minute and fatiguing account of all that was done; never allowing them the slightest freedom of action. Formerly he did not lose his temper except for some special reason; now his irritation was constant. Perhaps the care of his farms, the interests of agriculture, an active out-door life had formerly soothed his atrabilious temper by giving it a field for its uneasiness, and by furnishing employment for his activity. Possibly the loss of such occupation had allowed his malady to prey upon itself; no longer exercised on matters without, it was showing itself in more fixed ideas; the moral being was laying hold of the physical being. He had lately become his own doctor; he studied medical books, fancied he had the diseases he read of, and took the most extraordinary and unheard of precautions about his health,—precautions never the same, impossible to foresee, and consequently impossible to satisfy. Sometimes he wanted no noise; then, when the countess had succeeded in establishing absolute silence, he would declare he was in a tomb, and blame her for not finding some medium between incessant noise and the stillness of La Trappe. Sometimes he affected a perfect indifference for all earthly things. Then the whole household breathed freely; the children played; family affairs went on without criticism. Suddenly he would cry out lamentably, "They want to kill me!—My dear," he would say to his wife, increasing the injustice of his words by the aggravating tones of his sharp voice, "if it concerned your children you would know very well what was the matter with them."
He dressed and re-dressed himself incessantly, watching every change of temperature, and doing nothing without consulting the barometer. Notwithstanding his wife's attentions, he found no food to suit him, his stomach being, he said, impaired, and digestion so painful as to keep him awake all night. In spite of this he ate, drank, digested, and slept, in a manner to satisfy any doctor. His capricious will exhausted the patience of the servants, accustomed to the beaten track of domestic service and unable to conform to the requirements of his conflicting orders. Sometimes he bade them keep all the windows open, declaring that his health required a current of fresh air; a few days later the fresh air, being too hot or too damp, as the case might be, became intolerable; then he scolded, quarrelled with the servants, and in order to justify himself, denied his former orders. This defect of memory, or this bad faith, call it which you will, always carried the day against his wife in the arguments by which she tried to pit him against himself. Life at Clochegourde had become so intolerable that the Abbe Dominis, a man of great learning, took refuge in the study of scientific problems, and withdrew into the shelter of pretended abstraction. The countess had no longer any hope of hiding the secret of these insane furies within the circle of her own home; the servants had witnessed scenes of exasperation without exciting cause, in which the premature old man passed the bounds of reason. They were, however, so devoted to the countess that nothing so far had transpired outside; but she dreaded daily some public outburst of a frenzy no longer controlled by respect for opinion.
Later I learned the dreadful details of the count's treatment of his wife. Instead of supporting her when the children were ill, he assailed her with dark predictions and made her responsible for all future illnesses, because she refused to let the children take the crazy doses which he prescribed. When she went to walk with them the count would predict a storm in the face of a clear sky; if by chance the prediction proved true, the satisfaction he felt made him quite indifferent to any harm to the children. If one of them was ailing, the count gave his whole mind to fastening the cause of the illness upon the system of nursing adopted by his wife, whom he carped at for every trifling detail, always ending with the cruel words, "If your children fall ill again you have only yourself to thank for it."
He behaved in the same way in the management of the household, seeing the worst side of everything, and making himself, as his old coachman said, "the devil's own advocate." The countess arranged that Jacques and Madeleine should take their meals alone at different hours from the family, so as to save them from the count's outbursts and draw all the storms upon herself. In this way the children now saw but little of their father. By one of the hallucinations peculiar to selfish persons, the count had not the slightest idea of the misery he caused. In the confidential communication he made to me on my arrival he particularly dwelt on his goodness to his family. He wielded the flail, beat, bruised, and broke everything about him as a monkey might have done. Then, having half-destroyed his prey, he denied having touched it. I now understood the lines on Henriette's forehead,—fine lines, traced as it were with the edge of a razor, which I had noticed the moment I saw her. There is a pudicity in noble minds which withholds them from speaking of their personal sufferings; proudly they hide the extent of their woes from hearts that love them, feeling a merciful joy in doing so. Therefore in spite of my urgency, I did not immediately obtain the truth from Henriette. She feared to grieve me; she made brief admissions, and then blushed for them; but I soon perceived myself the increase of trouble which the count's present want of regular occupation had brought upon the household.
"Henriette," I said, after I had been there some days, "don't you think you have made a mistake in so arranging the estate that the count has no longer anything to do?"
"Dear," she said, smiling, "my situation is critical enough to take all my attention; believe me, I have considered all my resources, and they are now exhausted. It is true that the bickerings are getting worse and worse. As Monsieur de Mortsauf and I are always together, I cannot lessen them by diverting his attention in other directions; in fact the pain would be the same to me in any case. I did think of advising him to start a nursery for silk-worms at Clochegourde, where we have many mulberry-trees, remains of the old industry of Touraine. But I reflected that he would still be the same tyrant at home, and I should have many more annoyances through the enterprise. You will learn, my dear observer, that in youth a man's ill qualities are restrained by society, checked in their swing by the play of passions, subdued under the fear of public opinion; later, a middle-aged man, living in solitude, shows his native defects, which are all the more terrible because so long repressed. Human weaknesses are essentially base; they allow of neither peace nor truce; what you yield to them to-day they exact to-morrow, and always; they fasten on concessions and compel more of them. Power, on the other hand, is merciful; it conforms to evidence, it is just and it is peaceable. But the passions born of weakness are implacable. Monsieur de Mortsauf takes an absolute pleasure in getting the better of me; and he who would deceive no one else, deceives me with delight."
One morning as we left the breakfast table, about a month after my arrival, the countess took me by the arm, darted through an iron gate which led into the vineyard, and dragged me hastily among the vines.
"He will kill me!" she cried. "And I want to live—for my children's sake. But oh! not a day's respite! Always to walk among thorns! to come near falling every instant! every instant to have to summon all my strength to keep my balance! No human being can long endure such strain upon the system. If I were certain of the ground I ought to take, if my resistance could be a settled thing, then my mind might concentrate upon it—but no, every day the attacks change character and leave me without defence; my sorrows are not one, they are manifold. Ah! my friend—" she cried, leaning her head upon my shoulder, and not continuing her confidence. "What will become of me? Oh, what shall I do?" she said presently, struggling with thoughts she did not express. "How can I resist? He will kill me! No, I will kill myself—but that would be a crime! Escape? yes, but my children! Separate from him? how, after fifteen years of marriage, how could I ever tell my parents that I will not live with him? for if my father and mother came here he would be calm, polite, intelligent, judicious. Besides, can married women look to fathers or mothers? Do they not belong body and soul to their husbands? I could live tranquil if not happy—I have found strength in my chaste solitude, I admit it; but if I am deprived of this negative happiness I too shall become insane. My resistance is based on powerful reasons which are not personal to myself. It is a crime to give birth to poor creatures condemned to endless suffering. Yet my position raises serious questions, so serious that I dare not decide them alone; I cannot be judge and party both. To-morrow I will go to Tours and consult my new confessor, the Abbe Birotteau—for my dear and virtuous Abbe de la Berge is dead," she said, interrupting herself. "Though he was severe, I miss and shall always miss his apostolic power. His successor is an angel of goodness, who pities but does not reprimand. Still, all courage draws fresh life from the heart of religion; what soul is not strengthened by the voice of the Holy Spirit? My God," she said, drying her tears and raising her eyes to heaven, "for what sin am I thus punished?—I believe, yes, Felix, I believe it, we must pass through a fiery furnace before we reach the saints, the just made perfect of the upper spheres. Must I keep silence? Am I forbidden, oh, my God, to cry to the heart of a friend? Do I love him too well?" She pressed me to her heart as though she feared to lose me. "Who will solve my doubts? My conscience does not reproach me. The stars shine from above on men; may not the soul, the human star, shed its light upon a friend, if we go to him with pure thoughts?"
I listened to this dreadful cry in silence, holding her moist hand in mine that was still more moist. I pressed it with a force to which Henriette replied with an equal pressure.
"Where are you?" cried the count, who came towards us, bareheaded.
Ever since my return he had insisted on sharing our interviews,—either because he wanted amusement, or feared the countess would tell me her sorrows and complain to me, or because he was jealous of a pleasure he did not share.
"How he follows me!" she cried, in a tone of despair. "Let us go into the orchard, we shall escape him. We can stoop as we run by the hedge, and he will not see us."
We made the hedge a rampart and reached the enclosure, where we were soon at a good distance from the count in an alley of almond-trees.
"Dear Henriette," I then said to her, pressing her arm against my heart and stopping to contemplate her in her sorrow, "you have guided me with true knowledge along the perilous ways of the great world; let me in return give you some advice which may help you to end this duel without witnesses, in which you must inevitably be worsted, for you are fighting with unequal weapons. You must not struggle any longer with a madman—"
"Hush!" she said, dashing aside the tears that rolled from her eyes.
"Listen to me, dear," I continued. "After a single hour's talk with the count, which I force myself to endure for love of you, my thoughts are bewildered, my head heavy; he makes me doubtful of my own intellect; the same ideas repeated over and over again seem to burn themselves on my brain. Well-defined monomanias are not communicated; but when the madness consists in a distorted way of looking at everything, and when it lurks under all discussions, then it can and does injure the minds of those who live with it. Your patience is sublime, but will it not end in disordering you? For your sake, for that of your children, change your system with the count. Your adorable kindness has made him selfish; you have treated him as a mother treats the child she spoils; but now, if you want to live—and you do want it," I said, looking at her, "use the control you have over him. You know what it is; he loves you and he fears you; make him fear you more; oppose his erratic will with your firm will. Extend your power over him, confine his madness to a moral sphere just as we lock maniacs in a cell."
"Dear child," she said, smiling bitterly, "a woman without a heart might do it. But I am a mother; I should make a poor jailer. Yes, I can suffer, but I cannot make others suffer. Never!" she said, "never! not even to obtain some great and honorable result. Besides, I should have to lie in my heart, disguise my voice, lower my head, degrade my gesture—do not ask of me such falsehoods. I can stand between Monsieur de Mortsauf and his children, I willingly receive his blows that they may not fall on others; I can do all that, and will do it to conciliate conflicting interests, but I can do no more."
"Let me worship thee, O saint, thrice holy!" I exclaimed, kneeling at her feet and kissing her robe, with which I wiped my tears. "But if he kills you?" I cried.
She turned pale and said, lifting her eyes to heaven:
"God's will be done!"
"Do you know that the king said to your father, 'So that devil of a Mortsauf is still living'?"
"A jest on the lips of the king," she said, "is a crime when repeated here."
In spite of our precautions the count had tracked us; he now arrived, bathed in perspiration, and sat down under a walnut-tree where the countess had stopped to give me that rebuke. I began to talk about the vintage; the count was silent, taking no notice of the dampness under the tree. After a few insignificant remarks, interspersed with pauses that were very significant, he complained of nausea and headache; but he spoke gently, and did not appeal to our pity, or describe his sufferings in his usual exaggerated way. We paid no attention to him. When we reached the house, he said he felt worse and should go to bed; which he did, quite naturally and with much less complaint than usual. We took advantage of the respite and went down to our dear terrace accompanied by Madeleine.
"Let us get that boat and go upon the river," said the countess after we had made a few turns. "We might go and look at the fishing which is going on to-day."
We went out by the little gate, found the punt, jumped into it and were presently paddling up the Loire. Like three children amused with trifles, we looked at the sedges along the banks and the blue and green dragon-flies; the countess wondered perhaps that she was able to enjoy such peaceful pleasures in the midst of her poignant griefs; but Nature's calm, indifferent to our struggles, has a magic gift of consolation. The tumults of a love full of restrained desires harmonize with the wash of the water; the flowers that the hand of man has never wilted are the voice of his secret dreams; the voluptuous swaying of the boat vaguely responds to the thoughts that are floating in his soul. We felt the languid influence of this double poesy. Words, tuned to the diapason of nature, disclosed mysterious graces; looks were impassioned rays sharing the light shed broadcast by the sun on the glowing meadows. The river was a path along which we flew. Our spirit, no longer kept down by the measured tread of our footsteps, took possession of the universe. The abounding joy of a child at liberty, graceful in its motions, enticing in its play, is the living expression of two freed souls, delighting themselves by becoming ideally the wondrous being dreamed of by Plato and known to all whose youth has been filled with a blessed love. To describe to you that hour, not in its indescribable details but in its essence, I must say to you that we loved each other in all the creations animate and inanimate which surrounded us; we felt without us the happiness our own hearts craved; it so penetrated our being that the countess took off her gloves and let her hands float in the water as if to cool an inward ardor. Her eyes spoke; but her mouth, opening like a rose to the breeze, gave voice to no desire. You know the harmony of deep tones mingling perfectly with high ones? Ever, when I hear it now, it recalls to me the harmony of our two souls in this one hour, which never came again.
"Where do you fish?" I asked, "if you can only do so from the banks you own?"
"Near Pont-de-Ruan," she replied. "Ah! we now own the river from Pont-de-Ruan to Clochegourde; Monsieur de Mortsauf has lately bought forty acres of the meadow lands with the savings of two years and the arrearage of his pension. Does that surprise you?"
"Surprise me?" I cried; "I would that all the valley were yours." She answered me with a smile. Presently we came below the bridge to a place where the Indre widens and where the fishing was going on.
"Well, Martineau?" she said.
"Ah, Madame la comtesse, such bad luck! We have fished up from the mill the last three hours, and have taken nothing."
We landed near them to watch the drawing in of the last net, and all three of us sat down in the shade of a "bouillard," a sort of poplar with a white bark, which grows on the banks of the Danube and the Loire (probably on those of other large rivers), and sheds, in the spring of the year, a white and silky fluff, the covering of its flower. The countess had recovered her august serenity; she half regretted the unveiling of her griefs, and mourned that she had cried aloud like Job, instead of weeping like the Magdalen,—a Magdalen without loves, or galas, or prodigalities, but not without beauty and fragrance. The net came in at her feet full of fish; tench, barbels, pike, perch, and an enormous carp, which floundered about on the grass.
"Madame brings luck!" exclaimed the keeper.
All the laborers opened their eyes as they looked with admiration at the woman whose fairy wand seemed to have touched the nets. Just then the huntsman was seen urging his horse over the meadows at a full gallop. Fear took possession of her. Jacques was not with us, and the mother's first thought, as Virgil so poetically says, is to press her children to her breast when danger threatens.
"Jacques! Where is Jacques? What has happened to my boy?"
She did not love me! If she had loved me I should have seen upon her face when confronted with my sufferings that expression of a lioness in despair.
"Madame la comtesse, Monsieur le comte is worse."
She breathed more freely and started to run towards Clochegourde, followed by me and by Madeleine.
"Follow me slowly," she said, looking back; "don't let the dear child overheat herself. You see how it is; Monsieur de Mortsauf took that walk in the sun which put him into a perspiration, and sitting under the walnut-tree may be the cause of a great misfortune."
The words, said in the midst of her agitation, showed plainly the purity of her soul. The death of the count a misfortune! She reached Clochegourde with great rapidity, passing through a gap in the wall and crossing the fields. I returned slowly. Henriette's words lighted my mind, but as the lightning falls and blasts the gathered harvest. On the river I had fancied I was her chosen one; now I felt bitterly the sincerity of her words. The lover who is not everything is nothing. I loved with the desire of a love that knows what it seeks; which feeds in advance on coming transports, and is content with the pleasures of the soul because it mingles with them others which the future keeps in store. If Henriette loved, it was certain that she knew neither the pleasures of love nor its tumults. She lived by feelings only, like a saint with God. I was the object on which her thoughts fastened as bees swarm upon the branch of a flowering tree. In my mad jealousy I reproached myself that I had dared nothing, that I had not tightened the bonds of a tenderness which seemed to me at that moment more subtile than real, by the chains of positive possession.
The count's illness, caused perhaps by a chill under the walnut-tree, became alarming in a few hours. I went to Tours for a famous doctor named Origet, but was unable to find him until evening. He spent that night and the next day at Clochegourde. We had sent the huntsman in quest of leeches, but the doctor, thinking the case urgent, wished to bleed the count immediately, but had brought no lancet with him. I at once started for Azay in the midst of a storm, roused a surgeon, Monsieur Deslandes, and compelled him to come with the utmost celerity to Clochegourde. Ten minutes later and the count would have died; the bleeding saved him. But in spite of this preliminary success the doctor predicted an inflammatory fever of the worst kind. The countess was overcome by the fear that she was the secret cause of this crisis. Two weak to thank me for my exertions, she merely gave me a few smiles, the equivalent of the kiss she had once laid upon my hand. Fain would I have seen in those haggard smiles the remorse of illicit love; but no, they were only the act of contrition of an innocent repentance, painful to see in one so pure, the expression of admiring tenderness for me whom she regarded as noble while reproaching herself for an imaginary wrong. Surely she loved as Laura loved Petrarch, and not as Francesca da Rimini loved Paolo,—a terrible discovery for him who had dreamed the union of the two loves.
The countess half lay, her body bent forwards, her arms hanging, in a soiled armchair in a room that was like the lair of a wild boar. The next evening before the doctor departed he said to the countess, who had sat up the night before, that she must get a nurse, as the illness would be a long one.
"A nurse!" she said; "no, no! We will take care of him," she added, looking at me; "we owe it to ourselves to save him."
The doctor gave us both an observing look full of astonishment. The words were of a nature to make him suspect an atonement. He promised to come twice a week, left directions for the treatment with Monsieur Deslandes, and pointed out the threatening symptoms that might oblige us to send for him. I asked the countess to let me sit up the alternate nights and then, not without difficulty, I persuaded her to go to bed on the third night. When the house was still and the count sleeping I heard a groan from Henriette's room. My anxiety was so keen that I went to her. She was kneeling before the crucifix bathed in tears. "My God!" she cried; "if this be the cost of a murmur, I will never complain again."
"You have left him!" she said on seeing me.
"I heard you moaning, and I was frightened."
"Oh, I!" she said; "I am well."
Wishing to be certain that Monsieur de Mortsauf was asleep she came down with me; by the light of the lamp we looked at him. The count was weakened by the loss of blood and was more drowsy than asleep; his hands picked the counterpane and tried to draw it over him.
"They say the dying do that," she whispered. "Ah! if he were to die of this illness, that I have caused, never will I marry again, I swear it," she said, stretching her hand over his head with a solemn gesture.
"I have done all I could to save him," I said.
"Oh, you!" she said, "you are good; it is I who am guilty."
She stooped to that discolored brow, wiped the perspiration from it and laid a kiss there solemnly; but I saw, not without joy, that she did it as an expiation.
"Blanche, I am thirsty," said the count in a feeble voice.
"You see he knows me," she said giving him to drink.
Her accent, her affectionate manner to him seemed to me to take the feelings that bound us together and immolate them to the sick man.
"Henriette," I said, "go and rest, I entreat you."
"No more Henriette," she said, interrupting me with imperious haste.
"Go to bed if you would not be ill. Your children, he himself would order you to be careful; it is a case where selfishness becomes a virtue."
"Yes," she said.
She went away, recommending her husband to my care by a gesture which would have seemed like approaching delirium if childlike grace had not been mingled with the supplicating forces of repentance. But the scene was terrible, judged by the habitual state of that pure soul; it alarmed me; I feared the exaltation of her conscience. When the doctor came again, I revealed to him the nature of my pure Henriette's self-reproach. This confidence, made discreetly, removed Monsieur Origet's suspicions, and enabled him to quiet the distress of that noble soul by telling her that in any case the count had to pass through this crisis, and that as for the nut-tree, his remaining there had done more good than harm by developing the disease.
For fifty-two days the count hovered between life and death. Henriette and I each watched twenty-six nights. Undoubtedly, Monsieur de Mortsauf owed his life to our nursing and to the careful exactitude with which we carried out the orders of Monsieur Origet. Like all philosophical physicians, whose sagacious observation of what passes before them justifies many a doubt of noble actions when they are only the accomplishment of a duty, this man, while assisting the countess and me in our rivalry of devotion, could not help watching us, with scrutinizing glances, so afraid was he of being deceived in his admiration.
"In diseases of this nature," he said to me at his third visit, "death has a powerful auxiliary in the moral nature when that is seriously disturbed, as it is in this case. The doctor, the family, the nurses hold the patient's life in their hands; sometimes a single word, a fear expressed by a gesture, has the effect of poison."
As he spoke Origet studied my face and expression; but he saw in my eyes the clear look of an honest soul. In fact during the whole course of this distressing illness there never passed through my mind a single one of the involuntary evil thoughts which do sometimes sear the consciences of the innocent. To those who study nature in its grandeur as a whole all tends to unity through assimilation. The moral world must undoubtedly be ruled by an analogous principle. In an pure sphere all is pure. The atmosphere of heaven was around my Henriette; it seemed as though an evil desire must forever part me from her. Thus she not only stood for happiness, but for virtue; she was virtue. Finding us always equally careful and attentive, the doctor's words and manners took a tone of respect and even pity; he seemed to say to himself, "Here are the real sufferers; they hide their ills, and forget them." By a fortunate change, which, according to our excellent doctor, is common enough in men who are completely shattered, Monsieur de Mortsauf was patient, obedient, complained little, and showed surprising docility,—he, who when well never did the simplest thing without discussion. The secret of this submission to medical care, which he formerly so derided, was an innate dread of death; another contradiction in a man of tried courage. This dread may perhaps explain several other peculiarities in the character which the cruel years of exile had developed.
Shall I admit to you, Natalie, and will you believe me? these fifty days and the month that followed them were the happiest moments of my life. Love, in the celestial spaces of the soul is like a noble river flowing through a valley; the rains, the brooks, the torrents hie to it, the trees fall upon its surface, so do the flowers, the gravel of its shores, the rocks of the summits; storms and the loitering tribute of the crystal streams alike increase it. Yes, when love comes all comes to love!
The first great danger over, the countess and I grew accustomed to illness. In spite of the confusion which the care of the sick entails, the count's room, once so untidy, was now clean and inviting. Soon we were like two beings flung upon a desert island, for not only do anxieties isolate, but they brush aside as petty the conventions of the world. The welfare of the sick man obliged us to have points of contact which no other circumstances would have authorized. Many a time our hands, shy or timid formerly, met in some service that we rendered to the count—was I not there to sustain and help my Henriette? Absorbed in a duty comparable to that of a soldier at the pickets, she forgot to eat; then I served her, sometimes on her lap, a hasty meal which necessitated a thousand little attentions. We were like children at a grave. She would order me sharply to prepare whatever might ease the sick man's suffering; she employed me in a hundred petty ways. During the time when actual danger obscured, as it does during the battle, the subtile distinctions which characterize the facts of ordinary life, she necessarily laid aside the reserve which all women, even the most unconventional, preserve in their looks and words and actions before the world or their own family. At the first chirping of the birds she would come to relieve my watch, wearing a morning garment which revealed to me once more the dazzling treasures that in my folly I had treated as my own. Always dignified, nay imposing, she could still be familiar.
Thus it came to pass that we found ourselves unconsciously intimate, half-married as it were. She showed herself nobly confiding, as sure of me as she was of herself. I was thus taken deeper and deeper into her heart. The countess became once more my Henriette, Henriette constrained to love with increasing strength the friend who endeavored to be her second soul. Her hand unresistingly met mine at the least solicitation; my eyes were permitted to follow with delight the lines of her beauty during the long hours when we listened to the count's breathing, without driving her from their sight. The meagre pleasures which we allowed ourselves—sympathizing looks, words spoken in whispers not to wake the count, hopes and fears repeated and again repeated, in short, the thousand incidents of the fusion of two hearts long separated—stand out in bright array upon the sombre background of the actual scene. Our souls knew each other to their depths under this test, which many a warm affection is unable to bear, finding life too heavy or too flimsy in the close bonds of hourly intercourse.
You know what disturbance follows the illness of a master; how the affairs of life seem to come to a standstill. Though the real care of the family and estate fell upon Madame de Mortsauf, the count was useful in his way; he talked with the farmers, transacted business with his bailiff, and received the rents; if she was the soul, he was the body. I now made myself her steward so that she could nurse the count without neglecting the property. She accepted this as a matter of course, in fact without thanking me. It was another sweet communion to share her family cares, to transmit her orders. In the evenings we often met in her room to discuss these interests and those of her children. Such conversations gave one semblance the more to our transitory marriage. With what delight she encouraged me to take a husband's place, giving me his seat at table, sending me to talk with the bailiff,—all in perfect innocence, yet not without that inward pleasure the most virtuous woman in the world will feel when she finds a course where strict obedience to duty and the satisfaction of her wishes are combined.
Nullified, as it were, by illness, the count no longer oppressed his wife or his household, the countess then became her natural self; she busied herself with my affairs and showed me a thousand kindnesses. With what joy I discovered in her mind a thought, vaguely conceived perhaps, but exquisitely expressed, namely, to show me the full value of her person and her qualities and make me see the change that would come over her if she lived understood. This flower, kept in the cold atmosphere of such a home, opened to my gaze, and to mine only; she took as much delight in letting me comprehend her as I felt in studying her with the searching eyes of love. She proved to me in all the trifling things of daily life how much I was in her thoughts. When, after my turn of watching, I went to bed and slept late, Henriette would keep the house absolutely silent near me; Jacques and Madeleine played elsewhere, though never ordered to do so; she invented excuses to serve my breakfast herself—ah, with what sparkling pleasure in her movements, what swallow-like rapidity, what lynx-eyed perception! and then! what carnation on her cheeks, what quiverings in her voice!
Can such expansions of the soul be described in words?
Often she was wearied out; but if, at such moments of lassitude my welfare came in question, for me, as for her children, she found fresh strength and sprang up eagerly and joyfully. How she loved to shed her tenderness like sunbeams in the air! Ah, Natalie, some women share the privileges of angels here below; they diffuse that light which Saint-Martin, the mysterious philosopher, declared to be intelligent, melodious, and perfumed. Sure of my discretion, Henriette took pleasure in raising the curtain which hid the future and in showing me two women in her,—the woman bound hand and foot who had won me in spite of her severity, and the woman freed, whose sweetness should make my love eternal! What a difference. Madame de Mortsauf was the skylark of Bengal, transported to our cold Europe, mournful on its perch, silent and dying in the cage of a naturalist; Henriette was the singing bird of oriental poems in groves beside the Ganges, flying from branch to branch like a living jewel amid the roses of a volkameria that ever blooms. Her beauty grew more beautiful, her mind recovered strength. The continual sparkle of this happiness was a secret between ourselves, for she dreaded the eye of the Abbe Dominis, the representative of the world; she masked her contentment with playfulness, and covered the proofs of her tenderness with the banner of gratitude.