"We have put your friendship to a severe test, Felix; we may give you the same rights we give to Jacques, may we not, Monsieur l'abbe?" she said one day.
The stern abbe answered with the smile of a man who can read the human heart and see its purity; for the countess he always showed the respect mingled with adoration which the angels inspire. Twice during those fifty days the countess passed beyond the limits in which we held our affection. But even these infringements were shrouded in a veil, never lifted until the final hour when avowal came. One morning, during the first days of the count's illness, when she repented her harsh treatment in withdrawing the innocent privileges she had formerly granted me, I was expecting her to relieve my watch. Much fatigued, I fell asleep, my head against the wall. I wakened suddenly at the touch of something cool upon my forehead which gave me a sensation as if a rose had rested there. I opened my eyes and saw the countess, standing a few steps distant, who said, "I have just come." I rose to leave the room, but as I bade her good-bye I took her hand; it was moist and trembling.
"Are you ill?" I said.
"Why do you ask that question?" she replied.
I looked at her blushing and confused. "I was dreaming," I replied.
Another time, when Monsieur Origet had announced positively that the count was convalescent, I was lying with Jacques and Madeleine on the step of the portico intent on a game of spillikins which we were playing with bits of straw and hooks made of pins; Monsieur de Mortsauf was asleep. The doctor, while waiting for his horse to be harnessed, was talking with the countess in the salon. Monsieur Origet went away without my noticing his departure. After he left, Henriette leaned against the window, from which she watched us for some time without our seeing her. It was one of those warm evenings when the sky is copper-colored and the earth sends up among the echoes a myriad mingling noises. A last ray of sunlight was leaving the roofs, the flowers in the garden perfumed the air, the bells of the cattle returning to their stalls sounded in the distance. We were all conforming to the silence of the evening hour and hushing our voices that we might not wake the count. Suddenly, I heard the guttural sound of a sob violently suppressed; I rushed into the salon and found the countess sitting by the window with her handkerchief to her face. She heard my step and made me an imperious gesture, commanding me to leave her. I went up to her, my heart stabbed with fear, and tried to take her handkerchief away by force. Her face was bathed in tears and she fled into her room, which she did not leave again until the hour for evening prayer. When that was over, I led her to the terrace and asked the cause of her emotion; she affected a wild gaiety and explained it by the news Monsieur Origet had given her.
"Henriette, Henriette, you knew that news when I saw you weeping. Between you and me a lie is monstrous. Why did you forbid me to dry your tears? were they mine?"
"I was thinking," she said, "that for me this illness has been a halt in pain. Now that I no longer fear for Monsieur de Mortsauf I fear for myself."
She was right. The count's recovery was soon attested by the return of his fantastic humor. He began by saying that neither the countess, nor I, nor the doctor had known how to take care of him; we were ignorant of his constitution and also of his disease; we misunderstood his sufferings and the necessary remedies. Origet, infatuated with his own doctrines, had mistaken the case, he ought to have attended only to the pylorus. One day he looked at us maliciously, with an air of having guessed our thoughts, and said to his wife with a smile, "Now, my dear, if I had died you would have regretted me, no doubt, but pray admit you would have been quite resigned."
"Yes, I should have mourned you in pink and black, court mourning," she answered laughing, to change the tone of his remarks.
But it was chiefly about his food, which the doctor insisted on regulating, that scenes of violence and wrangling now took place, unlike any that had hitherto occurred; for the character of the count was all the more violent for having slumbered. The countess, fortified by the doctor's orders and the obedience of her servants, stimulated too by me, who thought this struggle a good means to teach her to exercise authority over the count, held out against his violence. She showed a calm front to his demented cries, and even grew accustomed to his insulting epithets, taking him for what he was, a child. I had the happiness of at last seeing her take the reins in hand and govern that unsound mind. The count cried out, but he obeyed; and he obeyed all the better when he had made an outcry. But in spite of the evidence of good results, Henriette often wept at the spectacle of this emaciated, feeble old man, with a forehead yellower than the falling leaves, his eyes wan, his hands trembling. She blamed herself for too much severity, and could not resist the joy she saw in his eyes when, in measuring out his food, she gave him more than the doctor allowed. She was even more gentle and gracious to him than she had been to me; but there were differences here which filled my heart with joy. She was not unwearying, and she sometimes called her servants to wait upon the count when his caprices changed too rapidly, and he complained of not being understood.
The countess wished to return thanks to God for the count's recovery; she directed a mass to be said, and asked if I would take her to church. I did so, but I left her at the door, and went to see Monsieur and Madame Chessel. On my return she reproached me.
"Henriette," I said, "I cannot be false. I will throw myself into the water to save my enemy from drowning, and give him my coat to keep him warm; I will forgive him, but I cannot forget the wrong."
She was silent, but she pressed my arm.
"You are an angel, and you were sincere in your thanksgiving," I said, continuing. "The mother of the Prince of the Peace was saved from the hands of an angry populace who sought to kill her, and when the queen asked, 'What did you do?' she answered, 'I prayed for them.' Women are ever thus. I am a man, and necessarily imperfect."
"Don't calumniate yourself," she said, shaking my arm, "perhaps you are more worthy than I."
"Yes," I replied, "for I would give eternity for a day of happiness, and you—"
"I!" she said haughtily.
I was silent and lowered my eyes to escape the lightning of hers.
"There is many an I in me," she said. "Of which do you speak? Those children," pointing to Jacques and Madeleine, "are one—Felix," she cried in a heartrending voice, "do you think me selfish? Ought I to sacrifice eternity to reward him who devotes to me his life? The thought is dreadful; it wounds every sentiment of religion. Could a woman so fallen rise again? Would her happiness absolve her? These are questions you force me to consider.—Yes, I betray at last the secret of my conscience; the thought has traversed my heart; often do I expiate it by penance; it caused the tears you asked me to account for yesterday—"
"Do you not give too great importance to certain things which common women hold at a high price, and—"
"Oh!" she said, interrupting me; "do you hold them at a lower?"
This logic stopped all argument.
"Know this," she continued. "I might have the baseness to abandon that poor old man whose life I am; but, my friend, those other feeble creatures there before us, Madeleine and Jacques, would remain with their father. Do you think, I ask you do you think they would be alive in three months under the insane dominion of that man? If my failure of duty concerned only myself—" A noble smile crossed her face. "But shall I kill my children! My God!" she exclaimed. "Why speak of these things? Marry, and let me die!"
She said the words in a tone so bitter, so hollow, that they stifled the remonstrances of my passion.
"You uttered cries that day beneath the walnut-tree; I have uttered my cries here beneath these alders, that is all," I said; "I will be silent henceforth."
"Your generosity shames me," she said, raising her eyes to heaven.
We reached the terrace and found the count sitting in a chair, in the sun. The sight of that sunken face, scarcely brightened by a feeble smile, extinguished the last flames that came from the ashes. I leaned against the balustrade and considered the picture of that poor wreck, between his sickly children and his wife, pale with her vigils, worn out by extreme fatigue, by the fears, perhaps also by the joys of these terrible months, but whose cheeks now glowed from the emotions she had just passed through. At the sight of that suffering family beneath the trembling leafage through which the gray light of a cloudy autumn sky came dimly, I felt within me a rupture of the bonds which hold the body to the spirit. There came upon me then that moral spleen which, they say, the strongest wrestlers know in the crisis of their combats, a species of cold madness which makes a coward of the bravest man, a bigot of an unbeliever, and renders those it grasps indifferent to all things, even to vital sentiments, to honor, to love—for the doubt it brings takes from us the knowledge of ourselves and disgusts us with life itself. Poor, nervous creatures, whom the very richness of your organization delivers over to this mysterious, fatal power, who are your peers and who your judges? Horrified by the thoughts that rose within me, and demanding, like the wicked man, "Where is now thy God?" I could not restrain the tears that rolled down my cheeks.
"What is it, dear Felix?" said Madeleine in her childish voice.
Then Henriette put to flight these dark horrors of the mind by a look of tender solicitude which shone into my soul like a sunbeam. Just then the old huntsman brought me a letter from Tours, at sight of which I made a sudden cry of surprise, which made Madame de Mortsauf tremble. I saw the king's signet and knew it contained my recall. I gave her the letter and she read it at a glance.
"What will become of me?" she murmured, beholding her desert sunless.
We fell into a stupor of thought which oppressed us equally; never had we felt more strongly how necessary we were to one another. The countess, even when she spoke indifferently of other things, seemed to have a new voice, as if the instrument had lost some chords and others were out of tune. Her movements were apathetic, her eyes without light. I begged her to tell me her thoughts.
"Have I any?" she replied in a dazed way.
She drew me into her chamber, made me sit upon the sofa, took a package from the drawer of her dressing-table, and knelt before me, saying: "This hair has fallen from my head during the last year; take it, it is yours; you will some day know how and why."
Slowly I bent to meet her brow, and she did not avoid my lips. I kissed her sacredly, without unworthy passion, without one impure impulse, but solemnly, with tenderness. Was she willing to make the sacrifice; or did she merely come, as I did once, to the verge of the precipice? If love were leading her to give herself could she have worn that calm, that holy look; would she have asked, in that pure voice of hers, "You are not angry with me, are you?"
I left that evening; she wished to accompany me on the road to Frapesle; and we stopped under my walnut-tree. I showed it to her, and told her how I had first seen her four years earlier from that spot. "The valley was so beautiful then!" I cried.
"And now?" she said quickly.
"You are beneath my tree, and the valley is ours!"
She bowed her head and that was our farewell; she got into her carriage with Madeleine, and I into mine alone.
On my return to Paris I was absorbed in pressing business which took all my time and kept me out of society, which for a while forgot me. I corresponded with Madame de Mortsauf, and sent her my journal once a week. She answered twice a month. It was a life of solitude yet teeming, like those sequestered spots, blooming unknown, which I had sometimes found in the depths of woods when gathering the flowers for my poems.
Oh, you who love! take these obligations on you; accept these daily duties, like those the Church imposes upon Christians. The rigorous observances of the Roman faith contain a great idea; they plough the furrow of duty in the soul by the daily repetition of acts which keep alive the sense of hope and fear. Sentiments flow clearer in furrowed channels which purify their stream; they refresh the heart, they fertilize the life from the abundant treasures of a hidden faith, the source divine in which the single thought of a single love is multiplied indefinitely.
My love, an echo of the Middle Ages and of chivalry, was known, I know not how; possibly the king and the Duc de Lenoncourt had spoken of it. From that upper sphere the romantic yet simple story of a young man piously adoring a beautiful woman remote from the world, noble in her solitude, faithful without support to duty, spread, no doubt quickly, through the faubourg St. Germain. In the salons I was the object of embarrassing notice; for retired life has advantages which if once experienced make the burden of a constant social intercourse insupportable. Certain minds are painfully affected by violent contrasts, just as eyes accustomed to soft colors are hurt by glaring light. This was my condition then; you may be surprised at it now, but have patience; the inconsistencies of the Vandenesse of to-day will be explained to you.
I found society courteous and women most kind. After the marriage of the Duc de Berry the court resumed its former splendor and the glory of the French fetes revived. The Allied occupation was over, prosperity reappeared, enjoyments were again possible. Noted personages, illustrious by rank, prominent by fortune, came from all parts of Europe to the capital of the intellect, where the merits and the vices of other countries were found magnified and whetted by the charms of French intellect.
Five months after leaving Clochegourde my good angel wrote me, in the middle of the winter, a despairing letter, telling me of the serious illness of her son. He was then out of danger, but there were many fears for the future; the doctor said that precautions were necessary for his lungs—the suggestion of a terrible idea which had put the mother's heart in mourning. Hardly had Jacques begun to convalesce, and she could breathe again, when Madeleine made them all uneasy. That pretty plant, whose bloom had lately rewarded the mother's culture, was now frail and pallid and anemic. The countess, worn-out by Jacques' long illness, found no courage, she said, to bear this additional blow, and the ever present spectacle of these two dear failing creatures made her insensible to the redoubled torment of her husband's temper. Thus the storms were again raging; tearing up by the roots the hopes that were planted deepest in her bosom. She was now at the mercy of the count; weary of the struggle, she allowed him to regain all the ground he had lost.
"When all my strength is employed in caring for my children," she wrote, "how is it possible to employ it against Monsieur de Mortsauf; how can I struggle against his aggressions when I am fighting against death? Standing here to-day, alone and much enfeebled, between these two young images of mournful fate, I am overpowered with disgust, invincible disgust for life. What blow can I feel, to what affection can I answer, when I see Jacques motionless on the terrace, scarcely a sign of life about him, except in those dear eyes, large by emaciation, hollow as those of an old man and, oh, fatal sign, full of precocious intelligence contrasting with his physical debility. When I look at my pretty Madeleine, once so gay, so caressing, so blooming, now white as death, her very hair and eyes seem to me to have paled; she turns a languishing look upon me as if bidding me farewell; nothing rouses her, nothing tempts her. In spite of all my efforts I cannot amuse my children; they smile at me, but their smile is only in answer to my endearments, it does not come from them. They weep because they have no strength to play with me. Suffering has enfeebled their whole being, it has loosened even the ties that bound them to me.
"Thus you can well believe that Clochegourde is very sad. Monsieur de Mortsauf now rules everything—Oh my friend! you, my glory!" she wrote, farther on, "you must indeed love me well to love me still; to love me callous, ungrateful, turned to stone by grief."
CHAPTER III. THE TWO WOMEN
It was at this time, when I was never more deeply moved in my whole being, when I lived in that soul to which I strove to send the luminous breeze of the mornings and the hope of the crimsoned evenings, that I met, in the salons of the Elysee-Bourbon, one of those illustrious ladies who reign as sovereigns in society. Immensely rich, born of a family whose blood was pure from all misalliance since the Conquest, married to one of the most distinguished old men of the British peerage, it was nevertheless evident that these advantages were mere accessories heightening this lady's beauty, graces, manners, and wit, all of which had a brilliant quality which dazzled before it charmed. She was the idol of the day; reigning the more securely over Parisian society because she possessed the quality most necessary to success,—the hand of iron in the velvet glove spoken of by Bernadotte.
You know the singular characteristics of English people, the distance and coldness of their own Channel which they put between them and whoever has not been presented to them in a proper manner. Humanity seems to be an ant-hill on which they tread; they know none of their species except the few they admit into their circle; they ignore even the language of the rest; tongues may move and eyes may see in their presence but neither sound nor look has reached them; to them, the people are as if they were not. The British present an image of their own island, where law rules everything, where all is automatic in every station of life, where the exercise of virtue appears to be the necessary working of a machine which goes by clockwork. Fortifications of polished steel rise around the Englishwoman behind the golden wires of her household cage (where the feed-box and the drinking-cup, the perches and the food are exquisite in quality), but they make her irresistibly attractive. No people ever trained married women so carefully to hypocrisy by holding them rigidly between the two extremes of death or social station; for them there is no middle path between shame and honor; either the wrong is completed or it does not exist; it is all or nothing,—Hamlet's "To be or not to be." This alternative, coupled with the scorn to which the customs of her country have trained her, make an Englishwoman a being apart in the world. She is a helpless creature, forced to be virtuous yet ready to yield, condemned to live a lie in her heart, yet delightful in outward appearance—for these English rest everything on appearances. Hence the special charms of their women: the enthusiasm for a love which is all their life; the minuteness of their care for their persons; the delicacy of their passion, so charmingly rendered in the famous scene of Romeo and Juliet in which, with one stroke, Shakespeare's genius depicted his country-women.
You, who envy them so many things, what can I tell you that you do not know of these white sirens, impenetrable apparently but easily fathomed, who believe that love suffices love, and turn enjoyments to satiety by never varying them; whose soul has one note only, their voice one syllable—an ocean of love in themselves, it is true, and he who has never swum there misses part of the poetry of the senses, as he who has never seen the sea has lost some strings of his lyre. You know the why and wherefore of these words. My relations with the Marchioness of Dudley had a disastrous celebrity. At an age when the senses have dominion over our conduct, and when in my case they had been violently repressed by circumstances, the image of the saint bearing her slow martyrdom at Clochegourde shone so vividly before my mind that I was able to resist all seductions. It was the lustre of this fidelity which attracted Lady Dudley's attention. My resistance stimulated her passion. What she chiefly desired, like many Englishwoman, was the spice of singularity; she wanted pepper, capsicum, with her heart's food, just as Englishmen need condiments to excite their appetite. The dull languor forced into the lives of these women by the constant perfection of everything about them, the methodical regularity of their habits, leads them to adore the romantic and to welcome difficulty. I was wholly unable to judge of such a character. The more I retreated to a cold distance the more impassioned Lady Dudley became. The struggle, in which she gloried, excited the curiosity of several persons, and this in itself was a form of happiness which to her mind made ultimate triumph obligatory. Ah! I might have been saved if some good friend had then repeated to me her cruel comment on my relations with Madame de Mortsauf.
"I am wearied to death," she said, "of these turtle-dove sighings."
Without seeking to justify my crime, I ask you to observe, Natalie, that a man has fewer means of resisting a woman than she has of escaping him. Our code of manners forbids the brutality of repressing a woman, whereas repression with your sex is not only allurement to ours, but is imposed upon you by conventions. With us, on the contrary, some unwritten law of masculine self-conceit ridicules a man's modesty; we leave you the monopoly of that virtue, that you may have the privilege of granting us favors; but reverse the case, and man succumbs before sarcasm.
Though protected by my love, I was not of an age to be wholly insensible to the triple seductions of pride, devotion, and beauty. When Arabella laid at my feet the homage of a ball-room where she reigned a queen, when she watched by glance to know if my taste approved of her dress, and when she trembled with pleasure on seeing that she pleased me, I was affected by her emotion. Besides, she occupied a social position where I could not escape her; I could not refuse invitations in the diplomatic circle; her rank admitted her everywhere, and with the cleverness all women display to obtain what pleases them, she often contrived that the mistress of the house should place me beside her at dinner. On such occasions she spoke in low tones to my ear. "If I were loved like Madame de Mortsauf," she said once, "I should sacrifice all." She did submit herself with a laugh in many humble ways; she promised me a discretion equal to any test, and even asked that I would merely suffer her to love me. "Your friend always, your mistress when you will," she said. At last, after an evening when she had made herself so beautiful that she was certain to have excited my desires, she came to me. The scandal resounded through England, where the aristocracy was horrified like heaven itself at the fall of its highest angel. Lady Dudley abandoned her place in the British empyrean, gave up her wealth, and endeavored to eclipse by her sacrifices her whose virtue had been the cause of this great disaster. She took delight, like the devil on the pinnacle of the temple, in showing me all the riches of her passionate kingdom.
Read me, I pray you, with indulgence. The matter concerns one of the most interesting problems of human life,—a crisis to which most men are subjected, and which I desire to explain, if only to place a warning light upon the reef. This beautiful woman, so slender, so fragile, this milk-white creature, so yielding, so submissive, so gentle, her brow so endearing, the hair that crowns it so fair and fine, this tender woman, whose brilliancy is phosphorescent and fugitive, has, in truth, an iron nature. No horse, no matter how fiery he may be, can conquer her vigorous wrist, or strive against that hand so soft in appearance, but never tired. She has the foot of a doe, a thin, muscular little foot, indescribably graceful in outline. She is so strong that she fears no struggle; men cannot follow her on horseback; she would win a steeple-chase against a centaur; she can bring down a stag without stopping her horse. Her body never perspires; it inhales the fire of the atmosphere, and lives in water under pain of not living at all. Her love is African; her desires are like the whirlwinds of the desert—the desert, whose torrid expanse is in her eyes, the azure, love-laden desert, with its changeless skies, its cool and starry nights. What a contrast to Clochegourde! the east and the west! the one drawing into her every drop of moisture for her own nourishment, the other exuding her soul, wrapping her dear ones in her luminous atmosphere; the one quick and slender; the other slow and massive.
Have you ever reflected on the actual meaning of the manners and customs and morals of England? Is it not the deification of matter? a well-defined, carefully considered Epicureanism, judiciously applied? No matter what may be said against the statement, England is materialist,—possibly she does not know it herself. She lays claim to religion and morality, from which, however, divine spirituality, the catholic soul, is absent; and its fructifying grace cannot be replaced by any counterfeit, however well presented it may be. England possesses in the highest degree that science of existence which turns to account every particle of materiality; the science that makes her women's slippers the most exquisite slippers in the world, gives to their linen ineffable fragrance, lines their drawers with cedar, serves tea carefully drawn, at a certain hour, banishes dust, nails the carpets to the floors in every corner of the house, brushes the cellar walls, polishes the knocker of the front door, oils the springs of the carriage,—in short, makes matter a nutritive and downy pulp, clean and shining, in the midst of which the soul expires of enjoyment and the frightful monotony of comfort in a life without contrasts, deprived of spontaneity, and which, to sum all in one word, makes a machine of you.
Thus I suddenly came to know, in the bosom of this British luxury, a woman who is perhaps unique among her sex; who caught me in the nets of a love excited by my indifference, and to the warmth of which I opposed a stern continence,—one of those loves possessed of overwhelming charm, an electricity of their own, which lead us to the skies through the ivory gates of slumber, or bear us thither on their powerful pinions. A love monstrously ungrateful, which laughs at the bodies of those it kills; love without memory, a cruel love, resembling the policy of the English nation; a love to which, alas, most men yield. You understand the problem? Man is composed of matter and spirit; animality comes to its end in him, and the angel begins in him. There lies the struggle we all pass through, between the future destiny of which we are conscious and the influence of anterior instincts from which we are not wholly detached,—carnal love and divine love. One man combines them, another abstains altogether; some there are who seek the satisfaction of their anterior appetites from the whole sex; others idealize their love in one woman who is to them the universe; some float irresolutely between the delights of matter and the joys of soul, others spiritualize the body, requiring of it that which it cannot give.
If, thinking over these leading characteristics of love, you take into account the dislikes and the affinities which result from the diversity of organisms, and which sooner or later break all ties between those who have not fully tried each other; if you add to this the mistakes arising from the hopes of those who live more particularly either by their minds, or by their hearts, or by action, who either think, or feel, or act, and whose tendency is misunderstood in the close association in which two persons, equal counterparts, find themselves, you will have great indulgence for sorrows to which the world is pitiless. Well, Lady Dudley gratified the instincts, organs, appetites, the vices and virtues of the subtile matter of which we are made; she was the mistress of the body; Madame de Mortsauf was the wife of the soul. The love which the mistress satisfies has its limits; matter is finite, its inherent qualities have an ascertained force, it is capable of saturation; often I felt a void even in Paris, near Lady Dudley. Infinitude is the region of the heart, love had no limits at Clochegourde. I loved Lady Dudley passionately; and certainly, though the animal in her was magnificent, she was also superior in mind; her sparkling and satirical conversation had a wide range. But I adored Henriette. At night I wept with happiness, in the morning with remorse.
Some women have the art to hide their jealousy under a tone of angelic kindness; they are, like Lady Dudley, over thirty years of age. Such women know how to feel and how to calculate; they press out the juices of to-day and think of the future also; they can stifle a moan, often a natural one, with the will of a huntsman who pays no heed to a wound in the ardor of the chase. Without ever speaking of Madame de Mortsauf, Arabella endeavored to kill her in my soul, where she ever found her, her own passion increasing with the consciousness of that invincible love. Intending to triumph by comparisons which would turn to her advantage, she was never suspicious, or complaining, or inquisitive, as are most young women; but, like a lioness who has seized her prey and carries it to her lair to devour, she watched that nothing should disturb her feast, and guarded me like a rebellious captive. I wrote to Henriette under her very eyes, but she never read a line of my letters; she never sought in any way to know to whom they were addressed. I had my liberty; she seemed to say to herself, "If I lose him it shall be my own fault," and she proudly relied on a love that would have given me her life had I asked for it,—in fact she often told me that if I left her she would kill herself. I have heard her praise the custom of Indian widows who burn themselves upon their husband's grave. "In India that is a distinction reserved for the higher classes," she said, "and is very little understood by Europeans, who are incapable of understanding the grandeur of the privilege; you must admit, however, that on the dead level of our modern customs aristocracy can rise to greatness only through unparalleled devotions. How can I prove to the middle classes that the blood in my veins is not the same as theirs, unless I show them that I can die as they cannot? Women of no birth can have diamonds and satins and horses—even coats-of-arms, which ought to be sacred to us, for any one can buy a name. But to love, with our heads up, in defiance of law; to die for the idol we have chosen, with the sheets of our bed for a shroud; to lay earth and heaven at his feet, robbing the Almighty of his right to make a god, and never to betray that man, never, never, even for virtue's sake,—for, to refuse him anything in the name of duty is to devote ourselves to something that is not he, and let that something be a man or an idea, it is betrayal all the same,—these are heights to which common women cannot attain; they know but two matter-of-fact ways; the great high-road of virtue, or the muddy path of the courtesan."
Pride, you see, was her instrument; she flattered all vanities by deifying them. She put me so high that she might live at my feet; in fact, the seductions of her spirit were literally expressed by an attitude of subserviency and her complete submission. In what words shall I describe those first six months when I was lost in enervating enjoyments, in the meshes of a love fertile in pleasures and knowing how to vary them with a cleverness learned by long experience, yet hiding that knowledge beneath the transports of passion. These pleasures, the sudden revelation of the poetry of the senses, constitute the powerful tie which binds young men to women older than they. It is the chain of the galley-slave; it leaves an ineffaceable brand upon the soul, filling it with disgust for pure and innocent love decked with flowers only, which serves no alcohol in curiously chased cups inlaid with jewels and sparkling with unquenchable fires.
Recalling my early dreams of pleasures I knew nothing of, expressed at Clochegourde in my "selams," the voice of my flowers, pleasures which the union of souls renders all the more ardent, I found many sophistries by which I excused to myself the delight with which I drained that jewelled cup. Often, when, lost in infinite lassitude, my soul disengaged itself from the body and floated far from earth, I thought that these pleasures might be the means of abolishing matter and of rendering to the spirit its power to soar. Sometimes Lady Dudley, like other women, profited by the exaltation in which I was to bind me by promises; under the lash of a desire she wrung blasphemies from my lips against the angel at Clochegourde. Once a traitor I became a scoundrel. I continued to write to Madame de Mortsauf, in the tone of the lad she had first known in his strange blue coat; but, I admit it, her gift of second-sight terrified me when I thought what ruin the indiscretion of a word might bring to the dear castle of my hopes. Often, in the midst of my pleasure a sudden horror seized me; I heard the name of Henriette uttered by a voice above me, like that in the Scriptures, demanding: "Cain, where is thy brother Abel?"
At last my letters remained unanswered. I was seized with horrible anxiety and wished to leave for Clochegourde. Arabella did not oppose it, but she talked of accompanying me to Touraine. Her woman's wit told her that the journey might be a means of finally detaching me from her rival; while I, blind with fear and guilelessly unsuspicious, did not see the trap she set for me. Lady Dudley herself proposed the humblest concessions. She would stay near Tours, at a little country-place, alone, disguised; she would refrain from going out in the day-time, and only meet me in the evening when people were not likely to be about. I left Tours on horseback. I had my reasons for this; my evening excursions to meet her would require a horse, and mine was an Arab which Lady Hester Stanhope had sent to the marchioness, and which she had lately exchanged with me for that famous picture of Rembrandt which I obtained in so singular a way, and which now hangs in her drawing-room in London. I took the road I had traversed on foot six years earlier and stopped beneath my walnut-tree. From there I saw Madame de Mortsauf in a white dress standing at the edge of the terrace. Instantly I rode towards her with the speed of lightning, in a straight line and across country. She heard the stride of the swallow of the desert and when I pulled him up suddenly at the terrace, she said to me: "Oh, you here!"
Those three words blasted me. She knew my treachery. Who had told her? her mother, whose hateful letter she afterwards showed me. The feeble, indifferent voice, once so full of life, the dull pallor of its tones revealed a settled grief, exhaling the breath of flowers cut and left to wither. The tempest of infidelity, like those freshets of the Loire which bury the meadows for all time in sand, had torn its way through her soul, leaving a desert where once the verdure clothed the fields. I led my horse through the little gate; he lay down on the grass at my command and the countess, who came forward slowly, exclaimed, "What a fine animal!" She stood with folded arms lest I should try to take her hand; I guessed her meaning.
"I will let Monsieur de Mortsauf know you are here," she said, leaving me.
I stood still, confounded, letting her go, watching her, always noble, slow, and proud,—whiter than I had ever seen her; on her brow the yellow imprint of bitterest melancholy, her head bent like a lily heavy with rain.
"Henriette!" I cried in the agony of a man about to die.
She did not turn or pause; she disdained to say that she withdrew from me that name, but she did not answer to it and continued on. I may feel paltry and small in this dreadful vale of life where myriads of human beings now dust make the surface of the globe, small indeed among that crowd, hurrying beneath the luminous spaces which light them; but what sense of humiliation could equal that with which I watched her calm white figure inflexibly mounting with even steps the terraces of her chateau of Clochegourde, the pride and the torture of that Christian Dido? I cursed Arabella in a single imprecation which might have killed her had she heard it, she who had left all for me as some leave all for God. I remained lost in a world of thought, conscious of utter misery on all sides. Presently I saw the whole family coming down; Jacques, running with the eagerness of his age. Madeleine, a gazelle with mournful eyes, walked with her mother. Monsieur de Mortsauf came to me with open arms, pressed me to him and kissed me on both cheeks crying out, "Felix, I know now that I owed you my life."
Madame de Mortsauf stood with her back towards me during this little scene, under pretext of showing the horse to Madeleine.
"Ha, the devil! that's what women are," cried the count; "admiring your horse!"
Madeleine turned, came up to me, and I kissed her hand, looking at the countess, who colored.
"Madeleine seems much better," I said.
"Poor little girl!" said the countess, kissing her on her forehead.
"Yes, for the time being they are all well," answered the count. "Except me, Felix; I am as battered as an old tower about to fall."
"The general is still depressed," I remarked to Madame de Mortsauf.
"We all have our blue devils—is not that the English term?" she replied.
The whole party walked on towards the vineyard with the feeling that some serious event had happened. She had no wish to be alone with me. Still, I was her guest.
"But about your horse? why isn't he attended to?" said the count.
"You see I am wrong if I think of him, and wrong if I do not," remarked the countess.
"Well, yes," said her husband; "there is a time to do things, and a time not to do them."
"I will attend to him," I said, finding this sort of greeting intolerable. "No one but myself can put him into his stall; my groom is coming by the coach from Chinon; he will rub him down."
"I suppose your groom is from England," she said.
"That is where they all come from," remarked the count, who grew cheerful in proportion as his wife seemed depressed. Her coldness gave him an opportunity to oppose her, and he overwhelmed me with friendliness.
"My dear Felix," he said, taking my hand, and pressing it affectionately, "pray forgive Madame de Mortsauf; women are so whimsical. But it is owing to their weakness; they cannot have the evenness of temper we owe to our strength of character. She really loves you, I know it; only—"
While the count was speaking Madame de Mortsauf gradually moved away from us so as to leave us alone.
"Felix," said the count, in a low voice, looking at his wife, who was now going up to the house with her two children, "I don't know what is going on in Madame de Mortsauf's mind, but for the last six weeks her disposition has completely changed. She, so gentle, so devoted hitherto, is now extraordinarily peevish."
Manette told me later that the countess had fallen into a state of depression which made her indifferent to the count's provocations. No longer finding a soft substance in which he could plant his arrows, the man became as uneasy as a child when the poor insect it is tormenting ceases to move. He now needed a confidant, as the hangman needs a helper.
"Try to question Madame de Mortsauf," he said after a pause, "and find out what is the matter. A woman always has secrets from her husband; but perhaps she will tell you what troubles her. I would sacrifice everything to make her happy, even to half my remaining days or half my fortune. She is necessary to my very life. If I have not that angel at my side as I grow old I shall be the most wretched of men. I do desire to die easy. Tell her I shall not be here long to trouble her. Yes, Felix, my poor friend, I am going fast, I know it. I hide the fatal truth from every one; why should I worry them beforehand? The trouble is in the orifice of the stomach, my friend. I have at last discovered the true cause of this disease; it is my sensibility that is killing me. Indeed, all our feelings affect the gastric centre."
"Then do you mean," I said, smiling, "that the best-hearted people die of their stomachs?"
"Don't laugh, Felix; nothing is more absolutely true. Too keen a sensibility increases the play of the sympathetic nerve; these excitements of feeling keep the mucous membrane of the stomach in a state of constant irritation. If this state continues it deranges, at first insensibly, the digestive functions; the secretions change, the appetite is impaired, and the digestion becomes capricious; sharp pains are felt; they grow worse day by day, and more frequent; then the disorder comes to a crisis, as if a slow poison were passing the alimentary canal; the mucous membrane thickens, the valve of the pylorus becomes indurated and forms a scirrhus, of which the patient dies. Well, I have reached that point, my dear friend. The induration is proceeding and nothing checks it. Just look at my yellow skin, my feverish eyes, my excessive thinness. I am withering away. But what is to be done? I brought the seeds of the disease home with me from the emigration; heaven knows what I suffered then! My marriage, which might have repaired the wrong, far from soothing my ulcerated mind increased the wound. What did I find? ceaseless fears for the children, domestic jars, a fortune to remake, economies which required great privations, which I was obliged to impose upon my wife, but which I was the one to suffer from; and then,—I can tell this to none but you, Felix,—I have a worse trouble yet. Though Blanche is an angel, she does not understand me; she knows nothing of my sufferings and she aggravates them; but I forgive her. It is a dreadful thing to say, my friend, but a less virtuous woman might have made me more happy by lending herself to consolations which Blanche never thinks of, for she is as silly as a child. Moreover my servants torment me; blockheads who take my French for Greek! When our fortune was finally remade inch by inch, and I had some relief from care, it was too late, the harm was done; I had reached the period when the appetite is vitiated. Then came my severe illness, so ill-managed by Origet. In short, I have not six months to live."
I listened to the count in terror. On meeting the countess I had been struck with her yellow skin and the feverish brilliancy of her eyes. I led the count towards the house while seeming to listen to his complaints and his medical dissertations; but my thoughts were all with Henriette, and I wanted to observe her. We found her in the salon, where she was listening to a lesson in mathematics which the Abbe Dominis was giving Jacques, and at the same time showing Madeleine a stitch of embroidery. Formerly she would have laid aside every occupation the day of my arrival to be with me. But my love was so deeply real that I drove back into my heart the grief I felt at this contrast between the past and the present, and thought only of the fatal yellow tint on that celestial face, which resembled the halo of divine light Italian painters put around the faces of their saints. I felt the icy wind of death pass over me. Then when the fire of her eyes, no longer softened by the liquid light in which in former times they moved, fell upon me, I shuddered; I noticed several changes, caused by grief, which I had not seen in the open air. The slender lines which, at my last visit, were so lightly marked upon her forehead had deepened; her temples with their violet veins seemed burning and concave; her eyes were sunk beneath the brows, their circles browned;—alas! she was discolored like a fruit when decay is beginning to show upon the surface, or a worm is at the core. I, whose whole ambition had been to pour happiness into her soul, I it was who embittered the spring from which she had hoped to refresh her life and renew her courage. I took a seat beside her and said in a voice filled with tears of repentance, "Are you satisfied with your own health?"
"Yes," she answered, plunging her eyes into mine. "My health is there," she added, motioning to Jacques and Madeleine.
The latter, just fifteen, had come victoriously out of her struggle with anaemia, and was now a woman. She had grown tall; the Bengal roses were blooming in her once sallow cheeks. She had lost the unconcern of a child who looks every one in the face, and now dropped her eyes; her movements were slow and infrequent, like those of her mother; her figure was slim, but the gracefulness of the bust was already developing; already an instinct of coquetry had smoothed the magnificent black hair which lay in bands upon her Spanish brow. She was like those pretty statuettes of the Middle Ages, so delicate in outline, so slender in form that the eye as it seizes their charm fears to break them. Health, the fruit of untold efforts, had made her cheeks as velvety as a peach and given to her throat the silken down which, like her mother's, caught the light. She was to live! God had written it, dear bud of the loveliest of human flowers, on the long lashes of her eyelids, on the curve of those shoulders which gave promise of a development as superb as her mother's! This brown young girl, erect as a poplar, contrasted with Jacques, a fragile youth of seventeen, whose head had grown immensely, causing anxiety by the rapid expansion of the forehead, while his feverish, weary eyes were in keeping with a voice that was deep and sonorous. The voice gave forth too strong a volume of tone, the eye too many thoughts. It was Henriette's intellect and soul and heart that were here devouring with swift flames a body without stamina; for Jacques had the milk-white skin and high color which characterize young English women doomed sooner or later to the consumptive curse,—an appearance of health that deceives the eye. Following a sign by which Henriette, after showing me Madeleine, made me look at Jacques drawing geometrical figures and algebraic calculations on a board before the Abbe Dominis, I shivered at the sight of death hidden beneath the roses, and was thankful for the self-deception of his mother.
"When I see my children thus, happiness stills my griefs—just as those griefs are dumb, and even disappear, when I see them failing. My friend," she said, her eyes shining with maternal pleasure, "if other affections fail us, the feelings rewarded here, the duties done and crowned with success, are compensation enough for defeat elsewhere. Jacques will be, like you, a man of the highest education, possessed of the worthiest knowledge; he will be, like you, an honor to his country, which he may assist in governing, helped by you, whose standing will be so high; but I will strive to make him faithful to his first affections. Madeleine, dear creature, has a noble heart; she is pure as the snows on the highest Alps; she will have a woman's devotion and a woman's graceful intellect. She is proud; she is worthy of being a Lenoncourt. My motherhood, once so tried, so tortured, is happy now, happy with an infinite happiness, unmixed with pain. Yes, my life is full, my life is rich. You see, God makes my joy to blossom in the heart of these sanctified affections, and turns to bitterness those that might have led me astray—"
"Good!" cried the abbe, joyfully. "Monsieur le vicomte begins to know as much as I—"
Just then Jacques coughed.
"Enough for to-day, my dear abbe," said the countess, "above all, no chemistry. Go for a ride on horseback, Jacques," she added, letting her son kiss her with the tender and yet dignified pleasure of a mother. "Go, dear, but take care of yourself."
"But," I said, as her eyes followed Jacques with a lingering look, "you have not answered me. Do you feel ill?"
"Oh, sometimes, in my stomach. If I were in Paris I should have the honors of gastritis, the fashionable disease."
"My mother suffers very much and very often," said Madeleine.
"Ah!" she said, "does my health interest you?"
Madeleine, astonished at the irony of these words, looked from one to the other; my eyes counted the roses on the cushion of the gray and green sofa which was in the salon.
"This situation is intolerable," I whispered in her ear.
"Did I create it?" she asked. "Dear child," she said aloud, with one of those cruel levities by which women point their vengeance, "don't you read history? France and England are enemies, and ever have been. Madeleine knows that; she knows that a broad sea, and a cold and stormy one, separates them."
The vases on the mantelshelf had given place to candelabra, no doubt to deprive me of the pleasure of filling them with flowers; I found them later in my own room. When my servant arrived I went out to give him some orders; he had brought me certain things I wished to place in my room.
"Felix," said the countess, "do not make a mistake. My aunt's old room is now Madeleine's. Yours is over the count's."
Though guilty, I had a heart; those words were dagger thrusts coldly given at its tenderest spot, for which she seemed to aim. Moral sufferings are not fixed quantities; they depend on the sensitiveness of souls. The countess had trod each round of the ladder of pain; but, for that very reason, the kindest of women was now as cruel as she was once beneficent. I looked at Henriette, but she averted her head. I went to my new room, which was pretty, white and green. Once there I burst into tears. Henriette heard me as she entered with a bunch of flowers in her hand.
"Henriette," I said, "will you never forgive a wrong that is indeed excusable?"
"Do not call me Henriette," she said. "She no longer exists, poor soul; but you may feel sure of Madame de Mortsauf, a devoted friend, who will listen to you and who will love you. Felix, we will talk of these things later. If you have still any tenderness for me let me grow accustomed to seeing you. Whenever words will not rend my heart, if the day should ever come when I recover courage, I will speak to you, but not till then. Look at the valley," she said, pointing to the Indre, "it hurts me, I love it still."
"Ah, perish England and all her women! I will send my resignation to the king; I will live and die here, pardoned."
"No, love her; love that woman! Henriette is not. This is no play, and you should know it."
She left the room, betraying by the tone of her last words the extent of her wounds. I ran after her and held her back, saying, "Do you no longer love me?"
"You have done me more harm than all my other troubles put together. To-day I suffer less, therefore I love you less. Be kind; do not increase my pain; if you suffer, remember that—I—live."
She withdrew her hand, which I held, cold, motionless, but moist, in mine, and darted like an arrow through the corridor in which this scene of actual tragedy took place.
At dinner, the count subjected me to a torture I had little expected. "So the Marchioness of Dudley is not in Paris?" he said.
I blushed excessively, but answered, "No."
"She is not in Tours," continued the count.
"She is not divorced, and she can go back to England. Her husband would be very glad if she would return to him," I said, eagerly.
"Has she children?" asked Madame de Mortsauf, in a changed voice.
"Two sons," I replied.
"Where are they?"
"In England, with their father."
"Come, Felix," interposed the count; "be frank; is she as handsome as they say?"
"How can you ask him such a question?" cried the countess. "Is not the woman you love always the handsomest of women?"
"Yes, always," I said, firmly, with a glance which she could not sustain.
"You are a happy fellow," said the count; "yes, a very happy one. Ha! in my young days, I should have gone mad over such a conquest—"
"Hush!" said Madame de Mortsauf, reminding the count of Madeleine by a look.
"I am not a child," he said.
When we left the table I followed the countess to the terrace. When we were alone she exclaimed, "How is it possible that some women can sacrifice their children to a man? Wealth, position, the world, I can conceive of; eternity? yes, possibly; but children! deprive one's self of one's children!"
"Yes, and such women would give even more if they had it; they sacrifice everything."
The world was suddenly reversed before her, her ideas became confused. The grandeur of that thought struck her; a suspicion entered her mind that sacrifice, immolation justified happiness; the echo of her own inward cry for love came back to her; she stood dumb in presence of her wasted life. Yes, for a moment horrible doubts possessed her; then she rose, grand and saintly, her head erect.
"Love her well, Felix," she said, with tears in her eyes; "she shall be my happy sister. I will forgive her the harm she has done me if she gives you what you could not have here. You are right; I have never told you that I loved you, and I never have loved you as the world loves. But if she is a mother how can she love you so?"
"Dear saint," I answered, "I must be less moved than I am now, before I can explain to you how it is that you soar victoriously above her. She is a woman of earth, the daughter of decaying races; you are the child of heaven, an angel worthy of worship; you have my heart, she my flesh only. She knows this and it fills her with despair; she would change parts with you even though the cruellest martyrdom were the price of the change. But all is irremediable. To you the soul, to you the thoughts, the love that is pure, to you youth and old age; to her the desires and joys of passing passion; to you remembrance forever, to her oblivion—"
"Tell me, tell me that again, oh, my friend!" she turned to a bench and sat down, bursting into tears. "If that be so, Felix, virtue, purity of life, a mother's love, are not mistakes. Oh, pour that balm upon my wounds! Repeat the words which bear me back to heaven, where once I longed to rise with you. Bless me by a look, by a sacred word,—I forgive you for the sufferings you have caused me the last two months."
"Henriette, there are mysteries in the life of men of which you know nothing. I met you at an age when the feelings of the heart stifle the desires implanted in our nature; but many scenes, the memory of which will kindle my soul to the hour of death, must have told you that this age was drawing to a close, and it was your constant triumph still to prolong its mute delights. A love without possession is maintained by the exasperation of desire; but there comes a moment when all is suffering within us—for in this we have no resemblance to you. We possess a power we cannot abdicate, or we cease to be men. Deprived of the nourishment it needs, the heart feeds upon itself, feeling an exhaustion which is not death, but which precedes it. Nature cannot long be silenced; some trifling accident awakens it to a violence that seems like madness. No, I have not loved, but I have thirsted in the desert."
"The desert!" she said bitterly, pointing to the valley. "Ah!" she exclaimed, "how he reasons! what subtle distinctions! Faithful hearts are not so learned."
"Henriette," I said, "do not quarrel with me for a chance expression. No, my soul has not vacillated, but I have not been master of my senses. That woman is not ignorant that you are the only one I ever loved. She plays a secondary part in my life; she knows it and is resigned. I have the right to leave her as men leave courtesans."
"She tells me that she will kill herself," I answered, thinking that this resolve would startle Henriette. But when she heard it a disdainful smile, more expressive than the thoughts it conveyed, flickered on her lips. "My dear conscience," I continued, "if you would take into account my resistance and the seductions that led to my fall you would understand the fatal—"
"Yes, fatal!" she cried. "I believed in you too much. I believed you capable of the virtue a priest practises. All is over," she continued, after a pause. "I owe you much, my friend; you have extinguished in me the fires of earthly life. The worst of the way is over; age is coming on. I am ailing now, soon I may be ill; I can never be the brilliant fairy who showers you with favors. Be faithful to Lady Dudley. Madeleine, whom I was training to be yours, ah! who will have her now? Poor Madeleine, poor Madeleine!" she repeated, like the mournful burden of a song. "I would you had heard her say to me when you came: 'Mother, you are not kind to Felix!' Dear creature!"
She looked at me in the warm rays of the setting sun as they glided through the foliage. Seized with compassion for the shipwreck of our lives she turned back to memories of our pure past, yielding to meditations which were mutual. We were silent, recalling past scenes; our eyes went from the valley to the fields, from the windows of Clochegourde to those of Frapesle, peopling the dream with my bouquets, the fragrant language of our desires. It was her last hour of pleasure, enjoyed with the purity of her Catholic soul. This scene, so grand to each of us, cast its melancholy on both. She believed my words, and saw where I placed her—in the skies.
"My friend," she said, "I obey God, for his hand is in all this."
I did not know until much later the deep meaning of her words. We slowly returned up the terraces. She took my arm and leaned upon it resignedly, bleeding still, but with a bandage on her wound.
"Human life is thus," she said. "What had Monsieur de Mortsauf done to deserve his fate? It proves the existence of a better world. Alas, for those who walk in happier ways!"
She went on, estimating life so truly, considering its diverse aspects so profoundly that these cold judgments revealed to me the disgust that had come upon her for all things here below. When we reached the portico she dropped my arm and said these last words: "If God has given us the sentiment and the desire for happiness ought he not to take charge himself of innocent souls who have found sorrow only in this low world? Either that must be so, or God is not, and our life is no more than a cruel jest."
She entered and turned the house quickly; I found her on the sofa, crouching, as though blasted by the voice which flung Saul to the ground.
"What is the matter?" I asked.
"I no longer know what is virtue," she replied; "I have no consciousness of my own."
We were silent, petrified, listening to the echo of those words which fell like a stone cast into a gulf.
"If I am mistaken in my life she is right in hers," Henriette said at last.
Thus her last struggle followed her last happiness. When the count came in she complained of illness, she who never complained. I conjured her to tell me exactly where she suffered; but she refused to explain and went to bed, leaving me a prey to unending remorse. Madeleine went with her mother, and the next day I heard that the countess had been seized with nausea, caused, she said, by the violent excitements of that day. Thus I, who longed to give my life for hers, I was killing her.
"Dear count," I said to Monsieur de Mortsauf, who obliged me to play backgammon, "I think the countess very seriously ill. There is still time to save her; pray send for Origet, and persuade her to follow his advice."
"Origet, who half killed me?" cried the count. "No, no; I'll consult Carbonneau."
During this week, especially the first days of it, everything was anguish to me—the beginning of paralysis of the heart—my vanity was mortified, my soul rent. One must needs have been the centre of all looks and aspirations, the mainspring of the life about him, the torch from which all others drew their light, to understand the horror of the void that was now about me. All things were there, the same, but the spirit that gave life to them was extinct, like a blown-out flame. I now understood the desperate desire of lovers never to see each other again when love has flown. To be nothing where we were once so much! To find the chilling silence of the grave where life so lately sparkled! Such comparisons are overwhelming. I came at last to envy the dismal ignorance of all happiness which had darkened my youth. My despair became so great that the countess, I thought, felt pity for it. One day after dinner as we were walking on the meadows beside the river I made a last effort to obtain forgiveness. I told Jacques to go on with his sister, and leaving the count to walk alone, I took Henriette to the punt.
"Henriette," I said; "one word of forgiveness, or I fling myself into the Indre! I have sinned,—yes, it is true; but am I not like a dog in his faithful attachments? I return like him, like him ashamed. If he does wrong he is struck, but he loves the hand that strikes him; strike me, bruise me, but give me back your heart."
"Poor child," she said, "are you not always my son?"
She took my arm and silently rejoined her children, with whom she returned to Clochegourde, leaving me to the count, who began to talk politics apropos of his neighbors.
"Let us go in," I said; "you are bare-headed, and the dew may do you an injury."
"You pity me, my dear Felix," he answered; "you understand me, but my wife never tries to comfort me,—on principle, perhaps."
Never would she have left me to walk home with her husband; it was now I who had to find excuses to join her. I found her with her children, explaining the rules of backgammon to Jacques.
"See there," said the count, who was always jealous of the affection she showed for her children; "it is for them that I am neglected. Husbands, my dear Felix, are always suppressed. The most virtuous woman in the world has ways of satisfying her desire to rob conjugal affection."
She said nothing and continued as before.
"Jacques," he said, "come here."
Jacques objected slightly.
"Your father wants you; go at once, my son," said his mother, pushing him.
"They love me by order," said the old man, who sometimes perceived his situation.
"Monsieur," she answered, passing her hand over Madeleine's smooth tresses, which were dressed that day "a la belle Ferronniere"; "do not be unjust to us poor women; life is not so easy for us to bear. Perhaps the children are the virtues of a mother."
"My dear," said the count, who took it into his head to be logical, "what you say signifies that women who have no children would have no virtue, and would leave their husbands in the lurch."
The countess rose hastily and took Madeleine to the portico.
"That's marriage, my dear fellow," remarked the count to me. "Do you mean to imply by going off in that manner that I am talking nonsense?" he cried to his wife, taking his son by the hand and going to the portico after her with a furious look in his eyes.
"On the contrary, Monsieur, you frightened me. Your words hurt me cruelly," she added, in a hollow voice. "If virtue does not consist in sacrificing everything to our children and our husband, what is virtue?"
"Sac-ri-ficing!" cried the count, making each syllable the blow of a sledge-hammer on the heart of his victim. "What have you sacrificed to your children? What do you sacrifice to me? Speak! what means all this? Answer. What is going on here? What did you mean by what you said?"
"Monsieur," she replied, "would you be satisfied to be loved for love of God, or to know your wife virtuous for virtue's sake?"
"Madame is right," I said, interposing in a shaken voice which vibrated in two hearts; "yes, the noblest privilege conferred by reason is to attribute our virtues to the beings whose happiness is our work, and whom we render happy, not from policy, nor from duty, but from an inexhaustible and voluntary affection—"
A tear shone in Henriette's eyes.
"And, dear count," I continued, "if by chance a woman is involuntarily subjected to feelings other than those society imposes on her, you must admit that the more irresistible that feeling is, the more virtuous she is in smothering it, in sacrificing herself to her husband and children. This theory is not applicable to me who unfortunately show an example to the contrary, nor to you whom it will never concern."
"You have a noble soul, Felix," said the count, slipping his arm, not ungracefully, round his wife's waist and drawing her towards him to say: "Forgive a poor sick man, dear, who wants to be loved more than he deserves."
"There are some hearts that are all generosity," she said, resting her head upon his shoulder. The scene made her tremble to such a degree that her comb fell, her hair rolled down, and she turned pale. The count, holding her up, gave a sort of groan as he felt her fainting; he caught her in his arms as he might a child, and carried her to the sofa in the salon, where we all surrounded her. Henriette held my hand in hers as if to tell me that we two alone knew the secret of that scene, so simple in itself, so heart-rending to her.
"I do wrong," she said to me in a low voice, when the count left the room to fetch a glass of orange-flower water. "I have many wrongs to repent of towards you; I wished to fill you with despair when I ought to have received you mercifully. Dear, you are kindness itself, and I alone can appreciate it. Yes, I know there is a kindness prompted by passion. Men have various ways of being kind; some from contempt, others from impulse, from calculation, through indolence of nature; but you, my friend, you have been absolutely kind."
"If that be so," I replied, "remember that all that is good or great in me comes through you. You know well that I am of your making."
"That word is enough for any woman's happiness," she said, as the count re-entered the room. "I feel better," she said, rising; "I want air."
We went down to the terrace, fragrant with the acacias which were still in bloom. She had taken my right arm, and pressed it against her heart, thus expressing her sad thoughts; but they were, she said, of a sadness dear to her. No doubt she would gladly have been alone with me; but her imagination, inexpert in women's wiles, did not suggest to her any way of sending her children and the count back to the house. We therefore talked on indifferent subjects, while she pondered a means of pouring a few last thoughts from her heart to mine.
"It is a long time since I have driven out," she said, looking at the beauty of the evening. "Monsieur, will you please order the carriage that I may take a turn?"
She knew that after evening prayer she could not speak with me, for the count was sure to want his backgammon. She might have returned to the warm and fragrant terrace after her husband had gone to bed, but she feared, perhaps, to trust herself beneath those shadows, or to walk by the balustrade where our eyes could see the course of the Indre through the dear valley. As the silent and sombre vaults of a cathedral lift the soul to prayer, so leafy ways, lighted by the moon, perfumed with penetrating odors, alive with the murmuring noises of the spring-tide, stir the fibres and weaken the resolves of those who love. The country calms the old, but excites the young. We knew it well. Two strokes of the bell announced the hour of prayer. The countess shivered.
"Dear Henriette, are you ill?"
"There is no Henriette," she said. "Do not bring her back. She was capricious and exacting; now you have a friend whose courage has been strengthened by the words which heaven itself dictated to you. We will talk of this later. We must be punctual at prayers, for it is my day to lead them."
As Madame de Mortsauf said the words in which she begged the help of God through all the adversities of life, a tone came into her voice which struck all present. Did she use her gift of second sight to foresee the terrible emotion she was about to endure through my forgetfulness of an engagement made with Arabella?
"We have time to make three kings before the horses are harnessed," said the count, dragging me back to the salon. "You can go and drive with my wife, and I'll go to bed."
The game was stormy, like all others. The countess heard the count's voice either from her room or from Madeleine's.
"You show a strange hospitality," she said, re-entering the salon.
I looked at her with amazement; I could not get accustomed to the change in her; formerly she would have been most careful not to protect me against the count; then it gladdened her that I should share her sufferings and bear them with patience for love of her.
"I would give my life," I whispered in her ear, "if I could hear you say again, as you once said, 'Poor dear, poor dear!'"
She lowered her eyes, remembering the moment to which I alluded, yet her glance turned to me beneath her eyelids, expressing the joy of a woman who finds the mere passing tones from her heart preferred to the delights of another love. The count was losing the game; he said he was tired, as an excuse to give it up, and we went to walk on the lawn while waiting for the carriage. When the count left us, such pleasure shone on my face that Madame de Mortsauf questioned me by a look of surprise and curiosity.
"Henriette does exist," I said. "You love me still. You wound me with an evident intention to break my heart. I may yet be happy!"
"There was but a fragment of that poor woman left, and you have now destroyed even that," she said. "God be praised; he gives me strength to bear my righteous martyrdom. Yes, I still love you, and I might have erred; the English woman shows me the abyss."
We got into the carriage and the coachman asked for orders.
"Take the road to Chinon by the avenue, and come back by the Charlemagne moor and the road to Sache."
"What day is it?" I asked, with too much eagerness.
"Then don't go that way, madame, the road will be crowded with poultry-men and their carts returning from Tours."
"Do as I told you," she said to the coachman. We knew the tones of our voices too well to be able to hide from each other our least emotion. Henriette understood all.
"You did not think of the poultry-men when you appointed this evening," she said with a tinge of irony. "Lady Dudley is at Tours, and she is coming here to meet you; do not deny it. 'What day is it?—the poultry-men—their carts!' Did you ever take notice of such things in our old drives?"
"It only shows that at Clochegourde I forget everything," I answered, simply.
"She is coming to meet you?"
"At what hour?"
"On the moor."
"Do not deceive me; is it not at the walnut-tree?"
"On the moor."
"We will go there," she said, "and I shall see her."
When I heard these words I regarded my future life as settled. I at once resolved to marry Lady Dudley and put an end to the miserable struggle which threatened to exhaust my sensibilities and destroy by these repeated shocks the delicate delights which had hitherto resembled the flower of fruits. My sullen silence wounded the countess, the grandeur of whose mind I misjudged.
"Do not be angry with me," she said, in her golden voice. "This, dear, is my punishment. You can never be loved as you are here," she continued, laying my hand upon her heart. "I now confess it; but Lady Dudley has saved me. To her the stains,—I do not envy them,—to me the glorious love of angels! I have traversed vast tracts of thought since you returned here. I have judged life. Lift up the soul and you rend it; the higher we go the less sympathy we meet; instead of suffering in the valley, we suffer in the skies, as the soaring eagle bears in his heart the arrow of some common herdsman. I comprehend at last that earth and heaven are incompatible. Yes, to those who would live in the celestial sphere God must be all in all. We must love our friends as we love our children,—for them, not for ourselves. Self is the cause of misery and grief. My soul is capable of soaring higher than the eagle; there is a love which cannot fail me. But to live for this earthly life is too debasing,—here the selfishness of the senses reigns supreme over the spirituality of the angel that is within us. The pleasures of passion are stormy, followed by enervating anxieties which impair the vigor of the soul. I came to the shores of the sea where such tempests rage; I have seen them too near; they have wrapped me in their clouds; the billows did not break at my feet, they caught me in a rough embrace which chilled my heart. No! I must escape to higher regions; I should perish on the shores of this vast sea. I see in you, as in all others who have grieved me, the guardian of my virtue. My life has been mingled with anguish, fortunately proportioned to my strength; it has thus been kept free from evil passions, from seductive peace, and ever near to God. Our attachment was the mistaken attempt, the innocent effort of two children striving to satisfy their own hearts, God, and men—folly, Felix! Ah," she said quickly, "what does that woman call you?"
"'Amedee,'" I answered, "'Felix' is a being apart, who belongs to none but you."
"'Henriette' is slow to die," she said, with a gentle smile, "but die she will at the first effort of the humble Christian, the self-respecting mother; she whose virtue tottered yesterday and is firm to-day. What may I say to you? This. My life has been, and is, consistent with itself in all its circumstances, great and small. The heart to which the rootlets of my first affection should have clung, my mother's heart, was closed to me, in spite of my persistence in seeking a cleft through which they might have slipped. I was a girl; I came after the death of three boys; and I vainly strove to take their place in the hearts of my parents; the wound I gave to the family pride was never healed. When my gloomy childhood was over and I knew my aunt, death took her from me all too soon. Monsieur de Mortsauf, to whom I vowed myself, has repeatedly, nay without respite, smitten me, not being himself aware of it, poor man! His love has the simple-minded egotism our children show to us. He has no conception of the harm he does me, and he is heartily forgiven for it. My children, those dear children who are bound to my flesh through their sufferings, to my soul by their characters, to my nature by their innocent happiness,—those children were surely given to show me how much strength and patience a mother's breast contains. Yes, my children are my virtues. You know how my heart has been harrowed for them, by them, in spite of them. To be a mother was, for me, to buy the right to suffer. When Hagar cried in the desert an angel came and opened a spring of living water for that poor slave; but I, when the limpid stream to which (do you remember?) you tried to guide me flowed past Clochegourde, its waters changed to bitterness for me. Yes, the sufferings you have inflicted on my soul are terrible. God, no doubt, will pardon those who know affection only through its pains. But if the keenest of these pains has come to me through you, perhaps I deserved them. God is not unjust. Ah, yes, Felix, a kiss furtively taken may be a crime. Perhaps it is just that a woman should harshly expiate the few steps taken apart from husband and children that she might walk alone with thoughts and memories that were not of them, and so walking, marry her soul to another. Perhaps it is the worst of crimes when the inward being lowers itself to the region of human kisses. When a woman bends to receive her husband's kiss with a mask upon her face, that is a crime! It is a crime to think of a future springing from a death, a crime to imagine a motherhood without terrors, handsome children playing in the evening with a beloved father before the eyes of a happy mother. Yes, I sinned, sinned greatly. I have loved the penances inflicted by the Church,—which did not redeem the faults, for the priest was too indulgent. God has placed the punishment in the faults themselves, committing the execution of his vengeance to the one for whom the faults were committed. When I gave my hair, did I not give myself? Why did I so often dress in white? because I seemed the more your lily; did you not see me here, for the first time, all in white? Alas! I have loved my children less, for all intense affection is stolen from the natural affections. Felix, do you not see that all suffering has its meaning. Strike me, wound me even more than Monsieur de Mortsauf and my children's state have wounded me. That woman is the instrument of God's anger; I will meet her without hatred; I will smile upon her; under pain of being neither Christian, wife, nor mother, I ought to love her. If, as you tell me, I contributed to keep your heart unsoiled by the world, that Englishwoman ought not to hate me. A woman should love the mother of the man she loves, and I am your mother. What place have I sought in your heart? that left empty by Madame de Vandenesse. Yes, yes, you have always complained of my coldness; yes, I am indeed your mother only. Forgive me therefore the involuntary harshness with which I met you on your return; a mother ought to rejoice that her son is so well loved—"
She laid her head for a moment on my breast, repeating the words, "Forgive me! oh, forgive me!" in a voice that was neither her girlish voice with its joyous notes, nor the woman's voice with despotic endings; not the sighing sound of the mother's woe, but an agonizing new voice for new sorrows.
"You, Felix," she presently continued, growing animated; "you are the friend who can do no wrong. Ah! you have lost nothing in my heart; do not blame yourself, do not feel the least remorse. It was the height of selfishness in me to ask you to sacrifice the joys of life to an impossible future; impossible, because to realize it a woman must abandon her children, abdicate her position, and renounce eternity. Many a time I have thought you higher than I; you were great and noble, I, petty and criminal. Well, well, it is settled now; I can be to you no more than a light from above, sparkling and cold, but unchanging. Only, Felix, let me not love the brother I have chosen without return. Love me, cherish me! The love of a sister has no dangerous to-morrow, no hours of difficulty. You will never find it necessary to deceive the indulgent heart which will live in future within your life, grieve for your griefs, be joyous with your joys, which will love the women who make you happy, and resent their treachery. I never had a brother to love in that way. Be noble enough to lay aside all self-love and turn our attachment, hitherto so doubtful and full of trouble, into this sweet and sacred love. In this way I shall be enabled to still live. I will begin to-night by taking Lady Dudley's hand."
She did not weep as she said these words so full of bitter knowledge, by which, casting aside the last remaining veil which hid her soul from mine, she showed by how many ties she had linked herself to me, how many chains I had hewn apart. Our emotions were so great that for a time we did not notice it was raining heavily.
"Will Madame la comtesse wait here under shelter?" asked the coachman, pointing to the chief inn of Ballan.
She made a sign of assent, and we stayed nearly half an hour under the vaulted entrance, to the great surprise of the inn-people who wondered what brought Madame de Mortsauf on that road at eleven o'clock at night. Was she going to Tours? Had she come from there? When the storm ceased and the rain turned to what is called in Touraine a "brouee," which does not hinder the moon from shining through the higher mists as the wind with its upper currents whirls them away, the coachman drove from our shelter, and, to my great delight, turned to go back the way we came.
"Follow my orders," said the countess, gently.
We now took the road across the Charlemagne moor, where the rain began again. Half-way across I heard the barking of Arabella's dog; a horse came suddenly from beneath a clump of oaks, jumped the ditch which owners of property dig around their cleared lands when they consider them suitable for cultivation, and carried Lady Dudley to the moor to meet the carriage.
"What pleasure to meet a love thus if it can be done without sin," said Henriette.
The barking of the dog had told Lady Dudley that I was in the carriage. She thought, no doubt, that I had brought it to meet her on account of the rain. When we reached the spot where she was waiting, she urged her horse to the side of the road with the equestrian dexterity for which she was famous, and which to Henriette seemed marvellous.
"Amedee," she said, and the name in her English pronunciation had a fairy-like charm.
"He is here, madame," said the countess, looking at the fantastic creature plainly visible in the moonlight, whose impatient face was oddly swathed in locks of hair now out of curl.
You know with what swiftness two women examine each other. The Englishwoman recognized her rival, and was gloriously English; she gave us a look full of insular contempt, and disappeared in the underbrush with the rapidity of an arrow.
"Drive on quickly to Clochegourde," cried the countess, to whom that cutting look was like the blow of an axe upon her heart.
The coachman turned to get upon the road to Chinon which was better than that to Sache. As the carriage again approached the moor we heard the furious galloping of Arabella's horse and the steps of her dog. All three were skirting the wood behind the bushes.