"Oh! 'tis not myself—'tis a woman who is acquainted with him."
"A woman from this place?"
"No, from a place not far off."
"In the street?"
"What sort of a woman?"
"Why, then, a woman—a woman like myself."
"What has she to say to him, this woman?"
"I believe she is a country-woman of his."
They stared into one another's hand, watching one another, feeling, divining that something of a grave nature was going to arise between them.
"I could see her there, this woman."
"What would you say to her?"
"I would say to her—I would say to her—that I had seen Celestin Duclos."
"He is quite well—isn't he?"
"As well as you or me—he is a strapping young fellow."
She became silent again, trying to collect her ideas; then slowly:
"Where has the Notre Dame des Vents gone to?"
"Why, just to Marseilles."
She could not repress a start.
"Is that really true?"
"'Tis really true."
"Do you know Duclos?"
"Yes, I do know him."
She still hesitated; then in a very gentle tone:
"Good! That's good!"
"What do you want with him?"
"Listen!—you will tell him—nothing!"
He stared at her, more and more perplexed. At last, he put this question to her:
"Do you know him, too, yourself?"
"No," said she.
"Then what do you want with him?"
Suddenly, she made up her mind what to do, left her seat, rushed over to the bar where the landlady of the tavern presided, seized a lemon, which she tore open, and shed its juice into a glass, then she filled this glass with pure water, and carrying it across to him:
"To make it pass for wine. I will talk to you afterwards."
He drank it without further protest, wiped his lips with the back of his hand, then observed:
"That's all right. I am listening to you."
"You will promise not to tell him you have seen me, or from whom you learned what I am going to tell you. You must swear not to do so."
He raised his hand.
"All right. I swear I will not."
"Well, you will tell him that his father died, that his mother died, that his brother died, the whole three in one month, of typhoid fever, in January, 1883—three years and a half ago."
In his turn, he felt all his blood set in motion through his entire body, and for a few seconds he was so much overpowered that he could make no reply; then he began to doubt what she had told him, and asked:
"Are you sure?"
"I am sure."
"Who told it to you?"
She laid her hands on his shoulders, and looking at him out of the depths of her eyes:
"You swear not to blab?"
"I swear that I will not."
"I am his sister!"
He uttered that name in spite of himself:
She contemplated him once more with a fixed stare, then, excited by a wild feeling of terror, a sense of profound horror, she faltered in a very low tone, almost speaking into his mouth:
"Oh! oh! it is you, Celestin."
They no longer stirred, their eyes riveted in one another.
Around them, his comrades were still yelling. The sounds made by glasses, by fists, by heels keeping time to the choruses, and the shrill cries of the women, mingled with the roar of their songs.
He felt her leaning on him, clasping him, ashamed and frightened, his sister. Then, in a whisper, lest anyone might hear him, so hushed that she could scarcely catch his words:
"What a misfortune! I have made a nice piece of work of it!"
The next moment, her eyes filled with tears, and she faltered:
"Is that my fault?"
But, all of a sudden, he said:
"So then, they are dead?"
"They are dead."
"The father, the mother, and the brother?"
"The three in one month, and I told you. I was left by myself with nothing but my clothes, for I was in debt to the apothecary and the doctor and for the funeral of the three, and had to pay what I owed with the furniture."
"After that I went as a servant to the house of Mait'e Cacheux—you know him well—the cripple. I was just fifteen at the time, for you went away when I was not quite fourteen. I tripped with him. One is so senseless when one is young. Then I went as a nursery-maid to the notary who debauched me also, and brought me to Havre, where he took a room for me. After a little while, he gave up coming to see me. For three days I lived without eating a morsel of food; and then, not being able to get employment, I went to a house, like many others. I, too, have seen different places—ah! and dirty places! Rouen, Evreux, Lille, Bordeaux, Perpignan, Nice, and then Marseilles, where I am now!"
The tears started from her eyes, flowed over her nose, wet her cheeks, and trickled into her mouth.
She went on:
"I thought you were dead, too?—my poor Celestin."
"I would not have recognized you myself—you were such a little thing then, and here you are so big!—but how is it that you did not recognize me?"
She answered with a despairing movement of her hands:
"I see so many men that they all seem to me alike."
He kept his eyes still fixed on her intently, oppressed by an emotion that dazed him, and filled him with such pain as to make him long to cry like a little child that has been whipped. He still held her in his arms, while she sat astride on his knees, with his open hands against the girl's back; and now by sheer dint of looking continually at her, he at length recognized her, the little sister left behind in the country with all those whom she had seen die, while he had been tossing on the seas. Then, suddenly taking between his big seaman's paws this head found once more, he began to kiss her, as one kisses kindred flesh. And after that, sobs, a man's deep sobs, heaving like great billows, rose up in his throat, resembling the hiccoughs of drunkenness.
"And this is you—this is you, Francoise—my little Francoise!"—
Then, all at once, he sprang up, began swearing in an awful voice, and struck the table such a blow with his fists that the glasses were knocked down and smashed. After that, he advanced three steps, staggered, stretched out his arms, and fell on his face. And he rolled on the ground, crying out, beating the floor with his hands and feet, and uttering such groans that they seemed like a death-rattle.
All those comrades of his stared at him, and laughed.
"He's not a bit drunk," said one.
"He ought to be put to bed," said another. "If he goes out, we'll all be run in together."
Then, as he had money in his pockets, the landlady offered to let him have a bed, and his comrades, themselves so much intoxicated that they could not stand upright, hoisted him up the narrow stairs to the apartment of the woman who had just been in his company, and who remained sitting on a chair, at the foot of that bed of crime, weeping quite as freely as he had wept, until the morning dawned.
We had gone to see, with some friends, the old hermit installed on an antique mound covered with tall trees, in the midst of the vast plain which extends from Cannes to La Napoule.
On our return we spoke of those strange lay solitaries, numerous in former times, but now a vanished race. We sought to find out the moral causes, and endeavored to determine the nature of the griefs which in bygone days had driven men into solitudes.
All of a sudden one of our companions said:
"I have known two solitaries—a man and a woman. The woman must be living still. She dwelt, five years ago, on the ruins of a mountain top absolutely deserted on the coast of Corsica, fifteen or twenty kilometers away from every house. She lived there with a maid-servant. I went to see her. She had certainly been a distinguished woman of the world. She received me with politeness and even in a gracious manner, but I know nothing about her, and I could find out nothing about her.
"As for the man, I am going to relate to you his ill-omened adventure:
* * * * *
Look round! You see over there that peaked woody mountain which stands by itself behind La Napoule in front of the summits of the Esterel; it is called in the district Snake Mountain. There is where my solitary lived within the walls of a little antique temple about a dozen years ago.
Having heard about him, I resolved to make his acquaintance, and I set out for Cannes on horseback one March morning. Leaving my steed at the inn at La Napoule, I commenced climbing on foot that singular cave, about one hundred and fifty perhaps, or two hundred meters in height, and covered with aromatic plants, especially cysti, whose odor is so sharp and penetrating that it irritates you and causes you discomfort. The soil is stony, and you can see gliding over the pebbles long adders which disappear in the grass. Hence this well-deserved appellation of Snake Mountain. On certain days, the reptiles seem to spring into existence under your feet when you climb the declivity exposed to the rays of the sun. They are so numerous that you no longer venture to go on, and experience a strange sense of uneasiness, not fear, for those creatures are harmless, but a sort of mysterious terror. I had several times the peculiar sensation of climbing a sacred mountain of antiquity, a fantastic hill perfumed and mysterious, covered with cysti and inhabited by serpents and crowned with a temple.
This temple still exists. They told me, at any rate, that it was a temple; for I did not seek to know more about it so as not to destroy the illusion.
So then, one March morning, I climbed up there under the pretext of admiring the country. On reaching the top, I perceived, in fact, walls and a man sitting on a stone. He was scarcely more than forty years of age, though his hair was quite white; but his beard was still almost black. He was fondling a cat which had cuddled itself upon his knees, and did not seem to mind me. I took a walk around the ruins, one portion of which covered over and shut in by means of branches, straw, grass and stones, was inhabited by him, and I made my way towards the place which he occupied.
The view here is splendid. On the right is the Esterel with its peaked summit strangely carved, then the boundless sea stretching as far as the distant coast of Italy with its numerous capes, facing Cannes, the Lerins Islands green and flat, which look as if they were floating, and the last of which shows in the direction of the open sea an old castellated fortress with battlemented towers built in the very waves.
Then, commanding a view of green mountain-side where you could see, at an equal distance, like innumerable eggs laid on the edge of the shore the long chaplet of villas and white villages built among the trees rose the Alps, whose summits are still shrouded in a hood of snow.
"Good heavens, this is beautiful!"
The man raised his head, and said:
"Yes, but when you see it every day, it is monstrous."
Then he spoke, he chatted, and tired himself with talking—my solitary, I detained him.
I did not tarry long that day, and only endeavored to ascertain the color of misanthropy. He created on me especially the impression of being bored with other people, weary of everything, hopelessly disillusioned and disgusted with himself as well as the rest.
I left him after a half-hour's conversation. But I came back, eight hours later, and once again in the following week, then every week, so that before two months we were friends.
Now, one evening at the close of May, I decided that the moment had arrived, and I brought provisions in order to dine with him on Snake Mountain.
It was one of those evenings of the South so odorous in that country where flowers are cultivated just as wheat is in the North, in that country where every essence that perfumes the flesh and the dress of women is manufactured, one of those evenings when the breath of the innumerable orange-trees with which the gardens and all the recesses of the dales are planted, excite and cause languor so that old men have dreams of love.
My solitary received me with manifest pleasure. He willingly consented to share in my dinner.
I made him drink a little wine, to which he had ceased to be accustomed. He brightened up and began to talk about his past life. He had always resided in Paris, and had, it seemed to me, lived a gay bachelor's life.
I asked him abruptly:
"What put into your head this funny notion of going to live on the top of a mountain?"
He answered immediately:
"Her! it was because I got the most painful shock that a man can experience. But why hide from you this misfortune of mine? It will make you pity me, perhaps! And then—I have never told anyone—never—and I would like to know, for once, what another thinks of it, and how he judges it."
"Born in Paris, brought up in Paris, I grew to manhood and spent my life in that city. My parents had left me an income of some thousands of francs a year, and I procured as a shelter, a modest and tranquil place which enabled me to pass as wealthy for a bachelor.
"I had, since my youth, led a bachelor's life. You know what that is. Free and without family, resolved not to take a legitimate wife, I passed at one time three months with one, at another time six months with another, then a year without a companion, taking as my prey the mass of women who are either to be had for the asking or bought.
"This every day, or, if you like the phrase better, commonplace, existence agreed with me, satisfied my natural tastes for changes and silliness. I lived on the boulevard, in theaters and cafes, always out of doors, always without a regular home, though I was comfortably housed. I was one of those thousands of beings who let themselves float like corks, through life, for whom the walls of Paris are the walls of the world, and who have no care about anything, having no passion for anything. I was what is called a good fellow, without accomplishments and without defects. That is all. And I judge myself correctly.
"Then, from twenty to forty years, my existence flowed along slowly or rapidly without any remarkable event. How quickly they pass, the monstrous years of Paris, when none of those memories worth fixing the date of find way into the soul, these long and yet hurried years, trivial and gay, when you eat, drink and laugh without knowing why, your lips stretched out towards all they can taste and all they can kiss, without having a longing for anything. You are young, and you grow old without doing any of the things that others do, without any attachment, any root, any bond, almost without friends, without family, without wife, without children.
"So, gently and quickly, I reached my fortieth year; and in order to celebrate this anniversary, I invited myself to take a good dinner all alone in one of the principal cafes.
"After dinner, I was in doubt as to what I would do. I felt disposed to go to a theater; and then the idea came into my head to make a pilgrimage to the Latin quarters, where I had in former days lived as a law-student. So I made my way across Paris, and without premeditation went in to one of those public-houses where you are served by girls.
"The one who attended at my table was quite young, pretty, and merry-looking. I asked her to take a drink, and she at once consented. She sat down opposite me, and gazed at me with a practiced eye, without knowing with what kind of a male she had to do. She was a fair-haired woman, or rather a fair-haired girl, a fresh, quite fresh young creature, whom you guessed to be rosy and plump under her swelling bodice. I talked to her in that flattering and idiotic style which we always adopt with girls of this sort; and as she was truly charming, the idea suddenly occurred to me to take her with me—always with a view to celebrating my fortieth year. It was neither a long nor difficult task. She was free, she told me, for the past fortnight, and she forthwith accepted my invitation to come and sup with me in the Halles when her work would be finished.
"As I was afraid lest she might give me the slip—you never can tell what may happen, or who may come into those drink-shops, or what wind may blow into a woman's head—I remained there all the evening waiting for her.
"I, too, had been free for the past month or two, and watching this pretty debutante of love going from table to table, I asked myself the question whether it would not be worth my while to make a bargain with her to live with me for some time. I am here relating to you one of those ordinary adventures which occur every day in the lives of men in Paris.
"Excuse me for such gross details. Those who have not loved in a poetic fashion take and choose women, as you choose a chop in a butcher's shop without caring about anything save the quality of their flesh.
"Accordingly, I took her to her own house—for I had a regard for my own sheets. It was a little working-girl's lodgings in the fifth story, clean and poor, and I spent two delightful hours there. This little girl had a certain grace and a rare attractiveness.
"When I was about to leave the room, I advanced towards the mantelpiece in order to place there the stipulated present, after having agreed on a day for a second meeting with the girl, who remained in bed, I got a vague glimpse of a clock without a globe, two flower-vases and two photographs, one of them very old, one of those proofs on glass called daguerreo-types. I carelessly bent forward towards this portrait, and I remained speechless at the sight, too amazed to comprehend.... It was my own, the first portrait of myself, which I had got taken in the days when I was a student in the Latin Quarter.
"I abruptly snatched it up to examine it more closely. I did not deceive myself—and I felt a desire to burst out laughing, so unexpected and queer did the thing appear to me.
"'Who is this gentleman?'
"'Tis my father, whom I did not know. Mamma left it to me, telling me to keep it, as it might be useful to me, perhaps, one day—'
"She hesitated, began to laugh, and went on:
"'I don't know in what way, upon my word. I don't think he'll care to acknowledge me.'
"My heart went beating wildly, like the mad gallop of a runaway horse. I replaced the portrait, laying it down flat on the mantelpiece. On top of it I placed, without even knowing what I was doing, two notes for a hundred francs, which I had in my pocket, and I rushed away, exclaiming:
"'We'll meet again soon—by-bye, darling—by-bye.'
"I heard her answering:
"I was on the dark staircase, which I descended, groping my way down.
"When I got into the open air, I saw that it was raining, and I started at a great pace down some street or other.
"I walked straight on, stupefied, distracted, trying to jog my memory! Was this possible? Yes. I remembered all of a sudden a girl who had written to me, about a month after our rupture, that she was going to have a child by me. I had torn or burned the letter, and had forgotten all about the matter. I should have looked at the woman's photograph over the girl's mantelpiece. But would I have recognized it? It was the photograph of an old woman, it seemed to me.
"I reached the quay. I saw a bench, and sat down on it. It went on raining. People passed from time to time under umbrellas. Life appeared to me odious and revolting, full of miseries, of shames, of infamies deliberate or unconscious. My daughter!... I had just perhaps possessed my own daughter! And Paris, this vast Paris, somber, mournful, dirty, sad, black, with all those houses shut up, was full of such things, adulteries, incests, violated children, I recalled to mind what I had been told about bridges haunted by the infamous votaries of vice.
"I had acted, without wishing it, without being aware of it, in a worse fashion than these ignoble beings. I had entered my own daughter's bed!
"I was on the point of throwing myself into the water. I was mad! I wandered about till dawn, then I came back to my own house to think.
"I thereupon did what appeared to me the wisest thing. I desired a notary to send for this little girl, and to ask her under what conditions her mother had given her the portrait of him whom she supposed to be her father, stating that he was intrusted with this duty by a friend.
"The notary executed my commands. It was on her death-bed that this woman had designated the father of her daughter, and in the presence of a priest, whose name was given to me.
"Then, still in the name of this unknown friend, I got half of my fortune sent to this child, about one hundred and forty thousand francs, of which she could only get the income. Then I resigned my employment—and here I am.
"While wandering along this shore, I found this mountain, and I stopped there—up to what time I am unable to say!
"What do you think of me, and of what I have done?"
I replied as I extended my hand towards him:
"You have done what you ought to do. Many others would have attached less importance to this odious fatality."
He went on:
"I know that, but I was nearly going mad on account of it. It seems I had a sensitive soul without ever suspecting it. And now I am afraid of Paris, as believers are bound to be afraid of Hell. I have received a blow on the head—that is all—a blow resembling the fall of a tile when one is passing through the street. I am getting better for some time past."
I quitted my solitary. I was much disturbed by his narrative.
I saw him again twice, then I went away, for I never remain in the South after the month of May.
When I came back in the following year the man was no longer on Snake Mountain; and I have never since heard anything about him.
This is the history of my hermit.
The cemetery, filled with officers, looked like a field covered with flowers. The kepis and the red trousers, the stripes and the gold buttons, the shoulder-knots of the staff, the braid of the chasseurs and the hussars, passed through the midst of the tombs, whose crosses, white or black, opened their mournful arms—their arms of iron, marble, or wood—over the vanished race of the dead.
Colonel Limousin's wife had just been buried. She had been drowned, two days before, while taking a bath. It was over. The clergy had left; but the colonel, supported by two brother-officers, remained standing in front of the pit, at the bottom of which he saw still the oaken coffin, wherein lay, already decomposed, the body of his young wife.
He was almost an old man, tall and thin, with white moustache; and, three years ago, he had married the daughter of a comrade, left an orphan on the death of her father, Colonel Sortis.
The captain and the lieutenant, on whom their commanding officer was leaning, attempted to lead him away. He resisted, his eyes full of tears, which he heroically held back, and murmuring, "No, no, a little while longer!" he persisted in remaining there, his legs bending under him, at the side of that pit, which seemed to him bottomless, an abyss into which had fallen his heart and his life, all that he held dear on earth.
Suddenly, General Ormont came up, seized the colonel by the arm, and dragging him from the spot almost by force said: "Come, come, my old comrade! you must not remain here."
The colonel thereupon obeyed, and went back to his quarters. As he opened the door of his study, he saw a letter on the table. When he took it in his hands, he was near falling with surprise and emotion; he recognized his wife's handwriting. And the letter bore the post-mark and the date of the same day. He tore open the envelope and read:
* * * * *
"Permit me to call you still father, as in days gone by. When you receive this letter, I shall be dead and under the clay. Therefore, perhaps, you may forgive me.
"I do not want to excite your pity or to extenuate my sin. I only want to tell the entire and complete truth, with all the sincerity of a woman who, in an hour's time, is going to kill herself.
"When you married me through generosity, I gave myself to you through gratitude, and I loved you with all my girlish heart. I loved you as I loved my own father—almost as much; and one day, while I sat on your knee, and you were kissing me, I called you 'Father' in spite of myself. It was a cry of the heart, instinctive, spontaneous. Indeed, you were to me a father, nothing but a father. You laughed, and you said to me, 'Address me always in that way, my child; it gives me pleasure.'
"We came to the city; and—forgive me, father—I fell in love. Ah! I resisted long, well, nearly two years—and then I yielded, I sinned, I became a fallen woman.
"And as to him? You will never guess who he is. I am easy enough about that matter, since there were a dozen officers always around me and with me, whom you called my twelve constellations.
"Father, do not seek to know him, and do not hate him. He only did what any man, no matter whom, would have done in his place, and then I am sure that he loved me, too, with all his heart.
"But listen! One day we had an appointment in the isle of Becasses—you know the little isle, close to the mill. I had to get there by swimming, and he had to wait for me in a thicket, and then to remain there till nightfall, so that nobody should see him going away. I had just met him when the branches opened, and we saw Philippe, your orderly, who had surprised us. I felt that we were lost, and I uttered a great cry. Thereupon he said to me—he, my lover—'Go, swim back quietly, my darling, and leave me here with this man.'
"I went away so excited that I was near drowning myself, and I came back to you expecting that something dreadful was about to happen.
"An hour later, Philippe said to me in a low tone, in the lobby outside the drawing-room where I met him: 'I am at madame's orders, if she has any letters to give me.' Then I knew that he had sold himself, and that my lover had bought him.
"I gave him some letters, in fact—all my letters—he took them away, and brought me back the answers.
"This lasted about two months. We had confidence in him, as you had confidence in him yourself.
"Now, father, here is what happened. One day, in the same isle which I had to reach by swimming, but this time alone, I found your orderly. This man had been waiting for me; and he informed me that he was going to reveal everything about us to you, and deliver to you the letters which he had kept, stolen, if I did not yield to his desires.
"Oh! father, father, I was filled with fear—a cowardly fear, an unworthy fear, a fear above all of you who had been so good to me, and whom I had deceived—fear on his account too—you would have killed him—for myself also perhaps! I cannot tell; I was mad, desperate; I thought of once more buying this wretch who loved me, too—how shameful!
"We are so weak, we women, we lose our heads more easily than you do. And then, when a woman once falls, she always falls lower and lower. Did I know what I was doing? I understood only that one of you two and I were going to die—and I gave myself to this brute.
"You see, father, that I do not seek to excuse myself.
"Then, then—then what I should have foreseen happened—he had the better of me again and again, when he wished, by terrifying me. He, too, has been my lover, like the other, every day. Is not this abominable? And what punishment, father?
"So then it is all over with me. I must die. While I lived, I could not confess such a crime to you. Dead, I dare everything. I could not do otherwise than die—nothing could have washed me clean—I was too polluted. I could no longer love or be loved. It seemed to me that I stained everyone by merely allowing my hand to be touched.
"Presently I am going to take my bath, and I will never come back.
"This letter for you will go to my lover. It will reach him when I am dead, and without anyone knowing anything about it, he will forward it to you, accomplishing my last wishes. And you shall read it on your return from the cemetery.
"Adieu, father! I have no more to tell you. Do whatever you wish, and forgive me."
* * * * *
The colonel wiped his forehead, which was covered with perspiration. His coolness; the coolness of days when he had stood on the field of battle, suddenly came back to him. He rang.
A man-servant made his appearance. "Send in Philippe to me," said he. Then, he opened the drawer of his table.
The man entered almost immediately—a big soldier with red moustache, a malignant look, and a cunning eye.
The colonel looked him straight in the face.
"You are going to tell me the name of my wife's lover."
"But, my colonel—"
The officer snatched his revolver out of the half-open drawer.
"Come! quick! You know I do not jest!"
"Well—my colonel—it is Captain Saint-Albert."
Scarcely had he pronounced this name when a flame flashed between his eyes, and he fell on his face, his forehead pierced by a ball.
While descending the wide staircase of the club heated like a conservatory by the stove the Baron de Mordiane had left his fur-coat open; therefore, when the huge street-door closed behind him he felt a shiver of intense cold run through him, one of those sudden and painful shivers which make us feel sad, as if we were stricken with grief. Moreover, he had lost some money, and his stomach for some time past had troubled him, no longer permitting him to eat as he liked.
He went back to his own residence; and, all of a sudden, the thought of his great, empty apartment, of his footman asleep in the ante-chamber, of the dressing-room in which the water kept tepid for the evening toilet simmered pleasantly under the chafing-dish heated by gas, and the bed, spacious, antique, and solemn-looking, like a mortuary couch, caused another chill, more mournful still than that of the icy atmosphere, to penetrate to the bottom of his heart, the inmost core of his flesh.
For some years past he had felt weighing down on him that load of solitude which sometimes crushes old bachelors. Formerly, he had been strong, lively, and gay, giving all his days to sport and all his nights to festive gatherings. Now, he had grown dull, and no longer took pleasure in anything. Exercise fatigued him; suppers and even dinners made him ill; women annoyed him as much as they had formerly amused him.
The monotony of evenings all like each other, of the same friends met again in the same place, at the club, of the same game with a good hand and a run of luck, of the same talk on the same topics, of the same witty remarks by the same lips, of the same jokes on the same themes, of the same scandals about the same women, disgusted him so much as to make him feel at times a veritable inclination to commit suicide. He could no longer lead this life regular and inane, so commonplace, so frivolous and so dull at the same time, and he felt a longing for something tranquil, restful, comfortable, without knowing what.
He certainly did not think of getting married, for he did not feel in himself sufficient fortitude to submit to the melancholy, the conjugal servitude, to that hateful existence of two beings, who, always together, knew one another so well that one could not utter a word which the other would not anticipate, could not make a single movement which would not be foreseen, could not have any thought or desire or opinion which would not be divined. He considered that a woman could only be agreeable to see again when you know her but slightly, when there is something mysterious and unexplored attached to her, when she remains disquieting, hidden behind a veil. Therefore, what he would require was a family without family-life, wherein he might spend only a portion of his existence; and, again, he was haunted by the recollection of his son.
For the past year he had been constantly thinking of this, feeling an irritating desire springing up within him to see him, to renew acquaintance with him. He had become the father of this child, while still a young man, in the midst of dramatic and touching incidents. The boy dispatched to the South, had been brought up near Marseilles without ever hearing his father's name.
The latter had at first paid from month to month for the nurture, then for the education and the expense of holidays for the lad, and finally had provided an allowance for him on making a sensible match. A discreet notary had acted as an intermediary without ever disclosing anything.
The Baron de Mordiane accordingly knew merely that a child of his was living somewhere in the neighborhood of Marseilles, that he was looked upon as intelligent and well-educated, that he had married the daughter of an architect and contractor, to whose business he had succeeded. He was also believed to be worth a lot of money.
Why should he not go and see this unknown son without telling his name, in order to form a judgment about him at first and to assure himself that he would be able, in case of necessity, to find an agreeable refuge in this family?
He had acted handsomely towards the young man, had settled a good fortune on him, which had been thankfully accepted. He was, therefore, certain that he would not find himself clashing against any inordinate sense of self-importance; and this thought, this desire, which every day returned to him afresh, of setting out for the South, tantalized him like a kind of itching sensation. A strange self-regarding feeling of affection also attracted him, bringing before his mental vision this pleasant, warm abode by the seaside, where he would meet his young and pretty daughter-in-law, his grandchildren, with outstretched arms, and his son, who would recall to his memory the charming and short-lived adventure of bygone years. He regretted only having given so much money, and that this money had prospered in the young man's hands, thus preventing him from any longer presenting himself in the character of a benefactor.
He hurried along, with all these thoughts running through his brain, and the collar of his fur-coat wrapped round his head. Suddenly he made up his mind. A cab was passing; he hailed it, drove home, and, when his valet, just roused from a nap, had opened the door.
"Louis," said he, "we start to-morrow evening for Marseilles. We'll remain there perhaps a fortnight. You will make all the necessary preparations."
The train rushed on past the Rhone with its sandbanks, then through yellow plains, bright villages, and a wide expanse of country, shut in by bare mountains, which rose on the distant horizon.
The Baron de Mordiane, waking up after a night spent in a sleeping compartment of the train, looked at himself, in a melancholy fashion, in the little mirror of his dressing-case. The glaring sun of the South showed him some wrinkles which he had not observed before—a condition of decrepitude unnoticed in the imperfect light of Parisian rooms. He thought, as he examined the corners of his eyes, and saw the rumpled lids, the temples, the skinny forehead:
"Damn it, I've not merely got the gloss taken off—I've become quite an old fogy."
And his desire for rest suddenly increased, with a vague yearning, born in him for the first time, to take his grandchildren on his knees.
About one o'clock in the afternoon, he arrived in a landau which he had hired at Marseilles, in front of one of those houses of Southern France so white, at the end of their avenues of plane-trees that they dazzle us and make our eyes droop. He smiled as he pursued his way along the walk before the house, and reflected:
"Deuce take it! this is a nice place."
Suddenly, a young rogue of five or six made his appearance, starting out of a shrubbery, and remained standing at the side of the path, staring at the gentleman with eyes wide open.
Mordiane came over to him:
"Good morrow, my boy."
The brat made no reply.
The baron, then, stooping down, took him up in his arms to kiss him, but, the next moment, suffocated by the smell of garlic with which the child seemed impregnated all over, he put him back again on the ground, muttering:
"Oh! it is the gardener's son."
And he proceeded towards the house.
The linen was hanging out to dry on a cord before the door—shirts and chemises, napkins, dish-cloths, aprons, and sheets, while a row of socks, hanging from strings one above the other, filled up an entire window, like sausages exposed for sale in front of a pork-butcher's shop.
The baron announced his arrival. A servant-girl appeared, a true servant of the South, dirty and untidy, with her hair hanging in wisps and falling over her face, while her petticoat under the accumulation of stains which had soiled it had retained only a certain uncouth remnant of its old color, a hue suitable for a country fair or a mountebank's tights.
"Is M. Duchoux at home?"
He had many years ago, in the mocking spirit of a skeptical man of pleasure, given this name to the foundling, in order that it might not be forgotten that he had been picked up under a cabbage.
The servant-girl asked:
"Do you want M. Duchoux?"
"Well, he is in the big room drawing up his plans."
"Tell him that M. Merlin wishes to speak to him."
She replied, in amazement:
"Hey! go inside then, if you want to see him."
And she bawled out:
"Monsieur Duchoux—a call."
The baron entered, and in a spacious apartment, rendered dark by the windows being half-closed, he indistinctly traced out persons and things, which appeared to him very slovenly looking.
Standing in front of a table laden with articles of every sort, a little bald man was tracing lines on a large sheet of paper.
He interrupted his work, and advanced two steps. His waistcoat left open, his unbuttoned breeches, and his turned-up shirt-sleeves, indicated that he felt hot, and his muddy shoes showed that it had rained hard some days before.
He asked with a very pronounced southern accent:
"Whom have I the honor of—?"
"Monsieur Merlin—I came to consult you about a purchase of building-ground."
"Ha! ha! very well!"
And Duchoux, turning towards his wife, who was knitting in the shade:
"Clear off a chair, Josephine."
Mordiane then saw a young woman, who appeared already old, as women look old at twenty-five in the provinces, for want of attention to their persons, regular washing, and all the little cares bestowed on feminine toilet which make them fresh, and preserve, till the age of fifty, the charm and beauty of the sex. With a neckerchief over her shoulders, her hair clumsily braided—though it was lovely hair, thick and black, you could see that it was badly brushed—she stretched out towards a chair hands like those of a servant, and removed an infant's robe, a knife, a fag-end of packe-bread, an empty flower-pot, and a greasy plate left on the seat, which she then moved over towards the visitor.
He sat down, and presently noticed that Duchoux's work-table had on it, in addition to the books and papers, two salads recently gathered, a wash-hand basin, a hair-brush, a napkin, a revolver, and a number of cups which had not been cleaned.
The architect perceived this look, and said with a smile:
"Excuse us! there is a little disorder in the room—it is owing to the children."
And he drew across his chair, in order to chat with his client.
"So then you are looking out for a piece of ground in the neighborhood of Marseilles?"
His breath, though not close to the baron, carried towards the latter that odor of garlic which the people of the South exhale as flowers do their perfume.
"Is it your son that I met under the plane-trees?"
"Yes. Yes, the second."
"You have two of them?"
"Three, monsieur; one a year."
And Duchoux looked full of pride.
The baron was thinking:
"If they all have the same perfume, their nursery must be a real conservatory."
"Yes, I would like a nice piece of ground near the sea, on a little solitary strip of beach—"
Thereupon Duchoux proceeded to explain. He had ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, or more, pieces of ground of the kind required, at different prices and suited to different tastes. He talked just as a fountain flows, smiling, self-satisfied, wagging his bald round head.
And Mordiane was reminded of a little woman, fair-haired, slight, with a somewhat melancholy look, and a tender fashion of murmuring, "My darling," of which the mere remembrance made the blood stir in his veins. She had loved him passionately, madly, for three months; then, becoming pregnant in the absence of her husband, who was a governor of a colony, she had run away and concealed herself, distracted with despair and terror, till the birth of the child, which Mordiane carried off one summer's evening, and which they had not laid eyes on afterwards.
She died of consumption three years later, over there, in the colony of which her husband was governor, and to which she had gone across to join him. And here, in front of him, was their son, who was saying, in the metallic tones with which he rang out his closing words:
"This piece of ground, monsieur, is a rare chance—"
And Mordiane recalled the other voice, light as the touch of a gentle breeze, as it used to murmur:
"My darling, we shall never part—"
And he remembered that soft, deep, devoted glance in those eyes of blue, as he watched the round eye, also blue, but vacant, of this ridiculous little man, who, for all that, bore a resemblance to his mother.
Yes, he looked more and more like her every moment—like her in accent, in movement, in his entire deportment—he was like her in the way an ape is like a man; but still he was hers; he displayed a thousand external characteristics peculiar to her, though in an unspeakably distorted, irritating, and revolting form.
The baron was galled, haunted as he was all of a sudden by this resemblance, horrible, each instant growing stronger, exasperating, maddening, torturing him like a nightmare, like a weight of remorse.
He stammered out:
"When can we look at this piece of ground together?"
"Why, to-morrow, if you like."
"Yes, to-morrow. At what hour?"
The child he had met in the avenue appeared before the open door, exclaiming:
There was no answer.
Mordiane had risen up with a longing to escape, to run off, which made his legs tremble. This "dada" had hit him like a bullet. It was to him that it was addressed, it was intended for him, this "dada," smelling of garlic—this "dada" of the South.
Oh! how sweet had been the perfume exhaled by her, his sweetheart of bygone days!
Duchoux saw him to the door.
"This house is your own?" said the baron.
"Yes, monsieur; I bought it recently. And I am proud of it. I am a child of accident, monsieur, and I don't want to hide it; I am proud of it. I owe nothing to anyone; I am the son of my own efforts; I owe everything to myself."
The little boy, who remained on the threshold, kept still exclaiming, though at some distance away from them:
Mordiane, shaking with a shivering fit, seized with panic, fled as one flies away from a great danger.
"He is going to guess who I am, to recognize me," he thought. "He is going to take me in his arms, and to call out to me, 'Dada,' while giving me a kiss perfumed with garlic."
"To-morrow, at one o'clock."
The landau rolled over the white road.
"Coachman! to the railway-station!"
And he heard two voices, one far away and sweet, the faint, sad voice of the dead, saying: "My darling," and the other sonorous, sing-song, frightful, bawling out, "Dada," just as people bawl out, "Stop him!" when a thief is flying through the street.
Next evening, as he entered the club, the Count d'Etreillis said to him:
"We have not seen you for the last three days. Have you been ill?"
"Yes, a little unwell. I get headaches from time to time."
The humid, gray sky seemed to weigh down on the vast brown plain. The odor of Autumn, the sad odor of bare, moist lands, of fallen leaves, of dead grass, made the stagnant evening air more thick and heavy. The peasants were still at work, scattered through the fields, waiting for the stroke of the Angelus to call them back to the farm-houses, whose thatched roofs were visible here and there through the branches of the leafless trees which protected the apple-gardens against the wind.
At the side of the road, on a heap of clothes, a very small male child seated with its legs apart, was playing with a potato, which he now and then let fall on his dress, while five women bent down with their rumps in the air, were picking sprigs of colza in the adjoining plain. With a slow continuous movement, all along the great cushions of earth which the plow had just turned up, they drove in sharp wooden stakes, and then cast at once into the hole so formed the plant, already a little withered, which sank on the side; then they covered over the root, and went on with their work.
A man who was passing, with a whip in his hand, and wearing wooden shoes, stopped near the child, took it up, and kissed it. Then one of the women rose up, and came across to him. She was a big, red-haired girl, with large hips, waist, and shoulders, a tall Norman woman, with yellow hair in which there was a blood-red tint.
She said, in a resolute voice:
"Here you are, Cesaire—well?"
The man, a thin young fellow with a melancholy air, murmured:
"Well, nothing at all—always the same."
"He won't have it?"
"He won't have it."
"What are you going to do?"
"What do you say I ought to do?"
"Go see the cure."
"Go at once!"
And they stared at each other. He held the child in his arms all the time. He kissed it once more, and then put it down again on the woman's clothes.
In the distance, between two farm-houses, could be seen a plow drawn by a horse, and driven along by a man. They moved on very gently, the horse, the plow, and the laborer, under the dim evening sky.
The woman went on:
"What, then, did your father say?"
"He said he would not have it."
"Why wouldn't he have it?"
The young man pointed towards the child whom he had just put back on the ground, then with a glance he drew her attention to the man drawing the plow yonder there.
And he said emphatically:
"Because 'tis his—this child of yours."
The girl shrugged her shoulders, and in an angry tone said:
"Faith everyone knows it well—that it is Victor's. And what about it after all? I made a slip. Am I the only woman that did? My mother also made a slip before me, and then yours did the same before she married your dad! Who is it that hasn't made a slip in the country. I made a slip with Victor, because he took advantage of me while I was asleep in the barn, it's true, and afterwards it happened between us when I wasn't asleep. I certainly would have married him if he weren't a servant-man. Am I a worse woman for that?"
The man said simply:
"As for me, I like you just as you are, with or without the child. 'Tis only my father that opposes me. All the same, I'll see about settling the business."
"Go to the cure at once."
"I'm going to him."
And he set forth with his heavy peasant's tread; while the girl, with her hands on her hips, turned round to pick her colza.
In fact, the man who thus went off, Cesaire Houlbreque, the son of deaf old Amable Houlbreque, wanted to marry in spite of his father, Celeste Levesque, who had a child by Victor Lecoq, a mere laborer on his parent's farm, turned out of doors for this act.
Moreover, the hierarchy of caste does not exist in the fields, and if the laborer is thrifty, he becomes, by taking a farm in his turn, the equal of his former master.
So Cesaire Houlbreque went off with his whip under his arm, brooding over his own thoughts, and lifting up one after the other his heavy wooden shoes daubed with clay. Certainly he desired to marry Celeste Levesque. He wanted her with her child, because it was the woman he required. He could not say why: but he knew it, he was sure of it. He had only to look at her to be convinced of it, to feel himself quite jolly, quite stirred up, as it were turned into a pure animal through contentment. He even found a pleasure in kissing the little boy, Victor's little boy, because he had come out of her.
And he gazed, without hate, at the distant profile of the man who was driving his plow along on the horizon's edge.
But old Amable did not want this marriage. He opposed it with the obstinacy of a deaf man, with a violent obstinacy.
Cesaire in vain shouted in his ear, in that ear which still heard a few sounds:
"I'll take good care of you, daddy. I tell you she's a good girl and strong, too, and also thrifty."
The old man repeated:
"As long as I live, I won't see her your wife."
And nothing could get the better of him, nothing could bend his severity. One hope only was left to Cesaire. Old Amable was afraid of the cure through apprehension of the death which he felt drawing nigh. He had not much fear of the good God nor of the Devil nor of Hell nor of Purgatory, of which he had no conception, but he dreaded the priest, who represented to him burial, as one might fear the doctors through horror of diseases. For the last eight days Celeste, who knew this weakness of the old man, had been urging Cesaire to go and find the cure; but Cesaire always hesitated, because he had not much liking for the black robe, which represented to him hands always stretched out for collections for blessed bread.
However, he made up his mind, and he proceeded towards the presbytery, thinking in what manner he would speak about his case.
The Abbe Raffin, a lively little priest, thin and never shaved, was awaiting his dinner-hour while warming his feet at his kitchen-fire.
As soon as he saw the peasant entering, he asked, merely turning round his head:
"Well, Cesaire, what do you want?"
"I'd like to have a talk with you, M. le Cure."
The man remained standing, intimidated, holding his cap in one hand and his whip in the other.
Cesaire looked at the housekeeper, an old woman who dragged her feet while putting on the cover for her master's dinner at the corner of the table in front of the window.
"'Tis—'tis a sort of confession."
Thereupon, the Abbe Raffin carefully surveyed his peasant. He saw his confused countenance, his air of constraint, his wandering eyes, and he gave orders to the housekeeper in these words:
"Marie, go away for five minutes to your room, while I talk to Cesaire."
The servant cast on the man an angry glance, and went away grumbling.
The clergyman went on:
"Come, now, spin out your yarn."
The young fellow still hesitated, looked down at his wooden shoes, moved about his cap, then, all of a sudden, he made up his mind:
"Here it is: I want to marry Celeste Levesque."
"Well, my boy, what's there to prevent you?"
"The father won't have it."
"Yes, my father."
"What does your father say?"
"He says she has a child."
"She's not the first to whom that happened, since our Mother Eve."
"A child by Victor Lecoq, Anthione Loisel's servant-man."
"Ha! ha! So he won't have it?"
"He won't have it."
"What! not at all?"
"No, no more than an ass that won't budge an inch, saving your presence."
"What do you say to him yourself in order to make him decide?"
"I say to him that she's a good girl, and strong too, and thrifty also."
"And this does not make him settle it. So you want me to speak to him?"
"Exactly. You speak to him."
"And what am I to tell your father?"
"Why, what you tell people in your sermons to make them give you sous."
In the peasant's mind every effort of religion consisted in loosening the purses, in emptying the pockets of men in order to fill the heavenly coffer. It was a kind of huge commercial establishment, of which the cures were the clerks, sly, crafty clerks, sharp as anyone must be who does business for the good God at the expense of the country people.
He knew full well that the priests rendered services, great services to the poorest, to the sick and dying, that they assisted, consoled, counseled, sustained, but all this by means of money, in exchange for white pieces, for beautiful glittering coins, with which they paid for sacraments and masses, advice and protection, pardon of sins and indulgences, purgatory and paradise accompanying the yearly income, and the generosity of the sinner.
The Abbe Raffin, who knew his man, and who never lost his temper, burst out laughing.
"Well, yes, I'll tell your father my little story; but you, my lad, you'll go there—to the sermon."
Houlbreque extended his hand in order to give a solemn assurance:
"On the word of a poor man, if you do this for me, I promise that I will."
"Come, that's all right. When do you wish me to go and find your father?"
"Why the sooner the better—to-night if you can."
"In half-an-hour, then, after supper."
"That's understood. So long, my lad."
"Good-bye till we meet again, Monsieur le Cure; many thanks."
"Not at all, my lad."
And Cesaire Houlbreque returned home, his heart relieved of a great weight.
He held on lease a little farm, quite small, for they were not rich, his father and he. Alone with a female servant, a little girl of fifteen, who made the soup, looked after the fowls, milked the cows and churned the butter, they lived hardly, though Cesaire was a good cultivator. But they did not possess either sufficient lands or sufficient cattle to gain more than the indispensable.
The old man no longer worked. Sad, like all deaf people, crippled with pains, bent double, twisted, he went through the fields leaning on his stick, watching the animals and the men with a hard, distrustful eye. Sometimes, he sat down on the side of a ditch, and remained there without moving for hours, vaguely pondering over the things that had engrossed his whole life, the price of eggs and corn, the sun and the rain which spoil the crops or make them grow. And, worn out by rheumatism, his old limbs still drank in the humidity of the soul, as they had drunk in for the past sixty years, the moisture of the walls of his low thatched house covered over with humid straw.
He came back at the close of the day, took his place at the end of the table, in the kitchen, and when the earthen pot containing the soup had been placed before him, he caught it between his crooked fingers, which seemed to have kept the round form of the jar, and, winter and summer, he warmed his hands, before commencing to eat, so as to lose nothing, not even a particle of the heat that came from the fire, which costs a great deal, neither one drop of soup into which fat and salt have to be put, nor one morsel of bread, which comes from the wheat.
Then, he climbed up a ladder into a loft where he had his straw-bed, while his son slept below-stairs at the end of a kind of niche near the chimney-piece and the servant shut herself up in a kind of cave, a black hole which was formerly used to store the potatoes.
Cesaire and his father scarcely ever talked to each other. From time to time only, when there was a question of selling a crop or buying a calf, the young man took the advice of his father, and making a speaking-trumpet of his two hands, he bawled out his views into his ear, and old Amable either approved of them or opposed them in a slow, hollow voice that came from the depths of his stomach.
So, one evening, Cesaire, approaching him as if about to discuss the purchase of a horse or a heifer, communicated to him at the top of his voice his intention to marry Celeste Levesque.
Then, the father got angry. Why? On the score of morality? No, certainly. The virtue of a girl is scarcely of importance in the country. But his avarice, his deep, fierce instinct for sparing, revolted at the idea that his son should bring up a child which he had not begotten himself. He had thought suddenly, in one second, on the soup the little fellow would swallow before being useful in the farm. He had calculated all the pounds of bread, all the pints of cider, that this brat would consume up to his fourteenth year; and a mad anger broke loose from him against Cesaire who had not bestowed a thought on all this.
He replied, with an usual strength of voice:
"Have you lost your senses?"
Thereupon, Cesaire began to enumerate his reasons, to speak about Celeste's good points, to prove that she would be worth a thousand times what the child would cost. But the old man doubted these advantages, while he could have no doubts as to the child's existence; and he replied with emphatic repetition, without giving any further explanation:
"I will not have it! I will not have it! As long as I live, this won't be done!"
And at this point they had remained for the last three months, without one or the other giving in, resuming at least once a week the same discussion, with the same arguments, the same words, the same gestures, and the same fruitlessness.
It was then that Celeste had advised Cesaire to go and ask for the cure's assistance.
On arriving home the peasant found his father already seated at table, for he was kept late by his visit to the presbytery.
They dined in silence face to face, ate a little bread and butter after the soup and drank a glass of cider. Then they remained motionless in their chairs, with scarcely a glimmer of light, the little servant-girl having carried off the candle in order to wash the spoons, wipe the glasses, and cut beforehand the crusts of bread for next morning's breakfast.
There was a knock at the door, which was immediately opened; and the priest appeared. The old man raised towards him an anxious eye full of suspicion, and, foreseeing danger, he was getting ready to climb up his ladder when the Abbe Raffin laid his hand on his shoulder, and shouted close to his temple:
"I want to have a talk with you, Father Amable."
Cesaire had disappeared, taking advantage of the door being open. He did not want to listen, so much was he afraid, and he did not want his hopes to crumble with each obstinate refusal of his father. He preferred to learn the truth at once, good or bad, later on; and he went out into the night. It was a moonless night, a starless night, one of those foggy nights when the air seems thick with humidity. A vague odor of apples floated through the farm-yard, for it was the season when the earliest apples were gathered, the "soon ripe" ones, as they are called in the language of the peasantry. As Cesaire passed along by the cattle-sheds, the warm smell of living beasts sleeping on manure was exhaled through the narrow windows; and he heard near the stables the stamping of horses who remained standing, and the sound of their jaws tearing and bruising the hay on the racks.
He went straight ahead, thinking about Celeste. In this simple nature, whose ideas were scarcely more than images generated directly by objects, thoughts of love only formulated themselves by calling up before the mind the picture of a big red-haired girl, standing in a hollow road, and laughing with her hands on her hips.
It was thus he saw her on the day when he first took a fancy for her. He had, however, known her from infancy but never had he been so struck by her as on that morning. They had stopped to talk for a few minutes, and then he went away; and as he walked along he kept repeating:
"Faith, she's a fine girl, all the same. 'Tis a pity she made a slip with Victor."
Till evening, he kept thinking of her, and also on the following morning.
When he saw her again, he felt something tickling the end of his throat, as if a cock's feather had been driven through his mouth into his chest, and since then, every time he found himself near her, he was astonished at this nervous tickling which always commenced again.
In three months, he made up his mind to marry her, so much did she please him. He could not have said whence came this power over him, but he explained it by these words:
"I am possessed by her," as if he felt the desire of this girl within him with as much dominating force as one of the powers of Hell. He scarcely bothered himself about her transgression. So much the worse, after all; it did her no harm, and he bore no grudge against Victor Lecoq.
But if the cure was not going to succeed, what was he to do? He did not dare to think of it, so much did this anxious question torment him.
He reached the presbytery and seated himself near the little gateway to await for the priest's return.
He was there perhaps half-an-hour when he heard steps on the road, and he soon distinguished although the night was very dark, the still darker shadow of the sautane.
He rose up, his legs giving way under him, not even venturing to speak, not daring to ask a question.
The clergyman perceived him, and said gayly:
"Well, my lad, 'tis all right."
"All right, 'tisn't possible."
"Yes, my lad, but not without trouble. What an old ass your father is!"
The peasant repeated:
"Why, yes. Come and look me up to-morrow at midday in order to settle about the publication of the banns."
The young man seized the cure's hand. He pressed it, shook it, bruised it, while he stammered:
"True—true—true, Monsieur le Cure, on the word of an honest man, you'll see me to-morrow—at your sermon."
The wedding took place in the middle of December. It was simple, the bridal pair not being rich. Cesaire, attired in new clothes, was ready since eight o'clock in the morning to go and fetch his betrothed and bring her to the Mayor's office; but, it was too early, he seated himself before the kitchen-table, and waited for the members of the family and the friends who were to accompany him.
For the last eight days, it had been snowing, and the brown earth, the earth already fertilized by the autumn savings had become livid, sleeping under a great sheet of ice.
It was cold in the thatched houses adorned with white caps; and the round apples in the trees of the enclosures seemed to be flowering, powdered as they had been in the pleasant month of their blossoming.
This day, the big northern clouds, the gray clouds laden with glittering rain had disappeared, and the blue sky showed itself above the white earth on which the rising sun cast silvery reflections.
Cesaire looked straight before him through the window, thinking of nothing happy.
The door opened, two women entered, peasant women in their Sunday clothes, the aunt and the cousin of the bridegroom, then three men, his cousins, then a woman who was a neighbor. They sat down on chairs, and they remained motionless and silent, the women on one side of the kitchen, the men on the other suddenly seized with timidity, with that embarrassed sadness which takes possession of people assembled for a ceremony. One of the cousins soon asked:
"It is not the hour—is it?"
"I am much afraid it is."
"Come on! Let us start," said another.
Those rose up. Then Cesaire, whom a feeling of uneasiness had taken possession of, climbed up the ladder of the loft to see whether his father was ready. The old man, always as a rule an early riser, had not yet made his appearance. His son found him on his bed of straw, wrapped up in his blanket, with his eyes open, and a malicious look in them.
He bawled out into his ear: "Come, daddy, get up. 'Tis the time for the wedding."
The deaf man murmured in a doleful tone:
"I can't, I have a sort of cold over me that freezes my back. I can't stir."
The young man, dumbfounded, stared at him, guessing that this was a dodge.
"Come, daddy, we must force you to go."
"Look here! I'll help you."
And he stooped towards the old man, pulled off his blanket, caught him by the arm and lifted him up. But the old Amable began to whine:
"Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! What suffering! Ooh! I can't. My back is stiffened up. 'Tis the wind that must have rushed in through this cursed roof."
"Well, you'll have no dinner, as I'm having a spread at Polyte's inn. This will teach you what comes of acting mulishly."
And he hurried down the ladder, then set out for his destination, accompanied by his relatives and guests.
The men had turned up their trousers so as not to soil the ends of them in the snow. The women held up their petticoats and showed their lean ankles, their gray woolen stockings, and their bony shanks resembling broomsticks. And they all moved forward balancing themselves on their legs, one behind the other without uttering a word in a very gingerly fashion through caution lest they might miss their way owing to flat, uniform uninterrupted sweep of snow that obliterated the track.
As they approached some of the farm houses, they saw one or two persons waiting to join them, and the procession went on without stopping, and wound its way forward, following the invisible outlines of the road, so that it resembled a living chaplet with black beads undulating through the white country side.
In front of the bride's door, a large group was stamping up and down the open space awaiting the bridegroom. When he appeared they gave him a loud greeting; and presently, Celeste came forth from her room, clad in a blue dress, her shoulders covered with a small red shawl, and her head adorned with orange-flowers.
But everyone asked Cesaire:
"Where's your father?" he replied with embarrassment.
"He couldn't move on account of the pains."
And the farmers tossed their heads with an incredulous and waggish air.
They directed their steps towards the Mayor's office. Behind the pair about to be wedded, a peasant woman carried Victor's child, as if it were going to be baptized; and the male peasants, in pairs, now went on, with arms linked, through the snow with the movements of a sloop at sea.
After having been united by the Mayor in the little municipal house, the pair were made one by the cure, in his turn, in the modest house of the good God. He blessed their couplement by promising them fruitfulness, then he preached to them on the matrimonial virtues, the simple and healthful virtues of the country, work, concord, and fidelity, while the child, seized with cold, began bawling behind the backs of the newly-married pair.
As soon as the couple reappeared on the threshold of the church, shots were discharged in the moat of the cemetery. Only the barrels of the guns could be seen whence came forth rapid jets of smoke; then a head could be seen gazing at the procession. It was Victor Lecoq celebrating the marriage of his old sweetheart, wishing her happiness and sending her his good wishes with explosions of powder. He had employed some friends of his, five or six laboring men, for these salvoes of musketry. It could be seen that he carried the thing off well.
The repast was given in Polyte Cacheprune's inn. Twenty covers were laid in the great hall where people dined on market-days, and the big leg of mutton turning before the spit, the fowl browned under their own gravy, the chitterling roasting over the warm bright fire, filled the house with a thick odor of coal sprinkled with fat—the powerful and heavy odor of rustic fare.
They sat down to table at midday, and speedily the soup flowed into the plates. The faces already had brightened up; mouths opened to utter loud jokes, and eyes were laughing with knowing winks. They were going to amuse themselves and no mistake.
The door opened, and old Amable presented himself. He seemed in bad humor and his face wore a scowl, and he dragged himself forward on his sticks, whining at every step to indicate his suffering. The sight of him caused great annoyance; but suddenly, his neighbor, Daddy Malivoire, a big joker, who knew all the little tricks and ways of people, began to yell, just as Cesaire used to do, by making a speaking-trumpet of his hands.
"Hallo, my cute old boy, you have a good nose on you to be able to smell Polyte's cookery from your own house!"
An immense laugh burst forth from the throats of those present. Malivoire, excited by his success, went on:
"There is nothing for the rheumatics like a chitterling poultice! It keeps your belly warm, along with a glass of three-six!"
The men uttered shouts, banged the table with their fists, laughed, bending on one side and raising up their bodies again as if they were each working a pump. The women clucked like hens, while the servants wriggled, standing against the walls. Old Amable was the only one that did not laugh, and, without making any reply, waited till they made room for him.
They found a place for him in the middle of the table facing his daughter-in-law, and, as soon as he was seated, he began to eat. It was his son who was paying, after all it was right he should take his share. With each ladlefull of soup that fell into his stomach, with each mouthful of bread or meat crushed under his gums, with each glass of cider or wine that flowed through his gullet, he thought he was regaining something of his own property, getting back a little of his money which all those gluttons were devouring, saving in fact, a portion of his own means. And he ate in silence with the obstinacy of a miser who hides his coppers, with the gloomy tenacity which he exhibited in former days in his persistent toils.
But all of a sudden he noticed at the end of the table Celeste's child on a woman's lap, and his eye remained fixed on the little boy. He went on eating, with his glance riveted on the youngster, into whose mouth the woman who minded him every now and then put a little stuffing which he nibbled at. And the old man suffered more from every mouthful taken in by this little grub than by all that the others swallowed.
The meal lasted till evening. Then everyone went back home.
Cesaire raised up old Amable.
"Come, daddy, we must go home," said he.
And put the old man's two sticks in his hands
Cesaire took her child in her arms, and they went on slowly through the pale night whitened by the snow. The deaf old man, three-fourths tipsy, and even more malicious under the influence of drink, persisted in not going on. Several times he even sat down with the object of making his daughter-in-law catch cold, and he kept whining, without uttering a word, giving vent to a sort of continuous groaning as if he were in pain.
When they reached home, he at once climbed up to his loft, while Cesaire made a bed for the child near the deep niche where he was going to lie down with his wife. But as the newly wedded pair could not sleep immediately, they heard the old man for a long time moving about on his bed of straw, and he even talked loudly several times, whether it was that he was dreaming or that he let his thoughts escape through his mouth, in spite of himself, without being able to keep them back, under the obsession of a fixed idea.
When he came down his ladder, next morning, he saw his daughter-in-law looking after the house-keeping.
She cried out to him:
"Come, daddy, hurry on! Here's some good soup."
And she placed at the end of the table the round black gray pot filled with smoking liquid. He sat down without giving any answer, seized the hot jar, warmed his hands with it in his customary fashion; and, as it was very cold, even pressed it against his breast, to try to make a little of the living heat of the boiling water enter into him, into his old body stiffened by so many winters.
Then he took his sticks and went out into the fields, covered with ice, till it was time for dinner, for he had seen Celeste's youngster still asleep in a big soap-box.
He did not take his place in the household. He lived in the thatched house, as in bygone days, but he seemed not to belong to it any longer, to be no longer interested in anything, to look upon those people, his son, the wife, and the child as strangers whom he did not know, to whom he never spoke.
The winter glided by. It was long and severe.
Then the early spring made the seeds sprout forth again, and the peasants once more, like laborious ants, passed their days in the fields, toiling from morning till night, under the wind and under the rain, along the furrows of brown earth which brought forth the bread of men.
The year promised well for the newly-married pair. The crops grew thick and heavy. There were no slow frosts, and the apples bursting into bloom let fall into the grass their rosy white snow, which promised a hail of fruit for the autumn.
Cesaire toiled hard, rose early and left off work late, in order to save the expense of a laboring man.
His wife said to him sometimes:
"You'll make yourself ill in the long run."
"Certainly not. I'm a good judge."
Nevertheless, one evening he came home so fatigued that he had to go to bed without supper. He rose up next morning at the usual hour, but he could not eat, in spite of his fast on the previous night, and he had to come back to the house in the middle of the afternoon in order to go to bed again. In the course of the night, he began to cough; he turned round on his straw couch, feverish, with his forehead burning, his tongue dry, and his throat parched by a burning thirst.
However, at daybreak, he went towards his grounds, but, next morning, the doctor had to be sent for, and pronounced him very ill from an inflammation of the chest.
And he no longer quitted the obscure niche which he made use of to sleep in. He could be heard coughing, panting, and tossing about in the interior of this hole. In order to see him, to give his medicine, and to apply cupping-glasses, it was necessary to bring a candle towards the entrance. Then one could see his narrow head with his long matted beard underneath a thick lacework of spiders' webs, which hung and floated when stirred by the air. And the hands of the sick man seemed dead under the dingy sheets.
Celeste watched him with restless activity, made him take physic, applied blister plasters to him, and was constantly waving up and down the house, while the old Amable remained at the side of his loft, watching at a distance the gloomy cave where his son was dying. He did not come near him, through hatred of the wife, sulking like an ill-tempered dog.
Six more days passed, then, one morning, as Celeste, who was now asleep on the ground on two loose bundles of straw, was going to see whether her man was better, she no longer heard his rapid breathing from the interior of his low bed. Terror stricken, she asked:
"Well, Cesaire, what sort of a night had you?"
He did not answer. She put out her hand to touch him, and the flesh on his face felt cold as ice. She uttered a great cry, the long cry of a woman overpowered with fright. He was dead.
At this cry, the deaf old man appeared, at the top of his ladder, and when he saw Celeste rushing to call for help, he quickly descended, felt in his turn the flesh of his son, and suddenly realizing what had happened, went to shut the door from the inside, to prevent the wife from reentering, and to resume possession of his dwelling, since his son was no longer living.
Then he sat down on a chair by the dead man's side.
Some of the neighbors arrived, called out, and knocked. He did not hear them. One of them broke the glass of the window, and jumped into the room. Others followed. The door was opened again, and Celeste reappeared, all in tears, with swollen face, and bloodshot eyes. Then, old Amable, vanquished, without uttering a word, climbed back to his loft.
The funeral took place next morning, then, after the ceremony, the father-in-law and the daughter-in-law found themselves alone in the farm-house with the child.
It was the usual dinner hour. She lighted the fire, divided the soup, and placed the plated on the table, while the old man sat on the chair waiting without appearing to look at her. When the meal was ready, she bawled out in his ear:
"Come, daddy, you must eat." He rose up, took his seat at the end of the table, emptied his pot, masticated his bread and butter, drank his two glasses of cider, and then took himself off.
It was one of those warm days, one of those enjoyable days when life ferments, palpitates, blooms all over the surface of the soil.
Old Amable pursued a little path across the fields. He watched the young wheat and the young oats, thinking that his son was now under the clay, his poor boy. He went on at his customary pace, dragging his legs after him in a limping fashion. And, as he was all alone in the plain, all alone under the blue sky, in the midst of the growing crops, all alone with the larks, which he saw hovering above his head, without hearing their light song, he began to weep while he proceeded on his way.
Then he sat down close to a pool, and remained there till evening, gazing at the little birds that came there to drink; then, as the night was falling, he returned to the house, supped without saying a word, and climbed up to his loft.
And his life went on as in the past. Nothing was changed, except that his son, Cesaire, slept in the cemetery.
What could he, an old man, do? He could work no longer; he was now good for nothing except to swallow the soup prepared by his daughter-in-law. And he did swallow it in silence, morning and evening, watching with an eye of rage, the little boy also taking soup, right opposite him, at the other side of the table. Then he went out, prowled about the fields in the fashion of a vagabond, went hiding behind the barns, where he slept for an hour or two, as if he were afraid of being seen, and then he came back at the approach of night.
But Celeste's mind began to be occupied by graver anxieties. The grounds needed a man to look after them and work them. Somebody should be there always to go through the fields, not a mere hired laborer, but a big cultivator, a master, who would know the business and have the care of the farm. A lone woman could not manage the farming, watch the price of corn, and direct the sale and purchase of cattle. Then ideas came into her head, simple practical ideas, which she had turned over in her head at night. She could not marry again before the end of the year, and it was necessary at once to take care of pressing interests, immediate interests.
Only one man could extricate her from embarrassment, Victor Lecoq, the father of her child. He was strong and well acquainted with farming business; with a little money in his pocket, he would make an excellent cultivator. She was aware of his skill, having known him while he was working on his parents' farm.
So, one morning, seeing him passing along the road with a cart of dung, she went out to meet him. When he perceived her, he drew up his horses and she said to him, as if she had met him the night before:
"Good morrow, Victor—are you quite well, the same as ever?"
"I'm quite well, the same as ever—and how are you?"
"Oh, I'd be all right, only that I'm alone in the house, which bothers me on account of the grounds."
Then they remained chatting for a long time, leaning against the wheel of the heavy cart. The man every now and then lifted up his cap to scratch his forehead, and began thinking, while she, with flushed cheeks, went on talking warmly, told him about her views, her plans, her projects for the future. In the end, he said, in a low tone:
"Yes, it can be done."
She opened her hand like a countryman clinching a bargain, and asked:
"Is it agreed?"
He pressed her outstretched hand.
"'Tis fixed, then, for Sunday next?"
"'Tis fixed for Sunday next."
"Well, good morning, Victor."
"Good morning, Madame Houlbreque."
This Sunday was the day of the village festival, the annual festival in honor of the patron saint, which in Normandy is called the assembly.
For the last eight days quaint looking vehicles, in which lay the wandering families of fancy fair owners, lottery managers, keepers of shooting galleries, and other forms of amusement or exhibitors of curiosities, which the peasants call "monster-makers," could be seen coming along the roads drawn slowly by gray or chestnut horses.
The dirty caravans with their floating curtains accompanied by a melancholy-looking dog, who trotted, with his head down, between the wheels, drew up one after the other, in the green fronting the Mayor's office. Then a tent was erected in front of each traveling abode, and inside this tent could be seen through the holes in the canvas glittering things, which excited the envy or the curiosity of the village brats.
As soon as the morning of the fete arrived, all the booths were opened, displaying their splendors of glass or porcelain; and the peasants on their way to mass, regarded already with looks of satisfaction, these modest shops, which, nevertheless, they saw again each succeeding year.
From the early part of the afternoon, there was a crowd on the green. From every neighboring village, the farmers arrived, shaken along with their wives and children in the two-wheeled open cars, which made a rattling sound as they oscillated like cradles. They unyoked at their friends' houses, and the farm-yards were filled with strange looking traps, gray, high, lean, crooked, like long clawed creatures from the depths of the sea. And each family, with the youngsters in front, and the grown up ones behind, came to the assembly with tranquil steps, smiling countenances, and open hands, big hands, red and bony, accustomed to work and apparently tired of their temporary rest.
A tumbler played on a trumpet. The barrel-organ accompanying the wooden horses sent through the air its shrill jerky notes. The lottery-wheel made a whirring sound like that of cloth being torn, and every moment the crack of the rifle could be heard. And the slowly moving throng passed on quietly in front of the booths after the fashion of paste in a fluid condition, with the motions of a flock of sheep and the awkwardness of heavy animals rushing along at haphazard.
The girls, holding one another's arms, in groups of six or eight, kept bawling out songs; the young men followed them making jokes, with their caps over their ears, and their blouses stiffened with starch, swollen out like blue balloons.
The whole country-side was there—masters, laboring men, and women-servants.
Old Amable himself, wearing his old-fashioned green frock-coat, had wished to see the assembly, for he never failed to attend on such an occasion.
He looked at the lotteries, stopped in front of the shooting galleries to criticise the shots, and interested himself specially in a very simple game, which consisted in throwing a big wooden ball into the open mouth of a mannikin carved and painted on a board.
Suddenly, he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Daddy Malivoire, who exclaimed:
"Ha, daddy! Come and have a glass of spirits."
And they sat down before the table of a rustic inn placed in the open air.
They drank one glass of spirits, then two, then three; and old Amable once more wandered through the assembly. His thoughts became slightly confused, he smiled without knowing why, he smiled in front of the lotteries, in front of the wooden horses, and especially in front of the killing game. He remained there a long time, filled with delight when he saw a holidaymaker knocking down the gendarme or the cure, two authorities which he instinctively distrusted. Then he went back to the inn, and drank a glass of cider to cool himself. It was late, night came on. A neighbor came to warn him:
"You'll get back home late for the stew, daddy."
Then he set out on his way to the farm house. A soft shadow, the warm shadow of a spring night, was slowly descending on the earth.
When he reached the front door, he thought he saw through the window which was lighted up, two persons in the house. He stopped, much surprised, then he went in, and he saw Victor Lecoq seated at the table, with a plate filled with potatoes before him, taking his supper in the very same place where his son had sat.
And, all of a sudden, he turned round, as if he wanted to go away. The night was very dark now. Celeste started up, and shouted at him:
"Come quick, daddy! Here's some good stew to finish off the assembly with."
Thereupon he complied through inertia, and sat down watching in turn the man, the woman and the child. Then, he began to eat quietly as on ordinary days.
Victor Lecoq seemed quite at home, talked from time to time to Celeste, took up the child in his lap, and kissed him. And Celeste again served him with food, poured out drink for him, and appeared content while speaking to him. Old Amable followed them with a fixed look without hearing what they were saying.
When he had finished supper (and he had scarcely eaten anything, so much did he feel his heart wrung) he rose up, and in place of ascending to his loft as he did every night he opened the yard door, and went out into the open air.
When he had gone, Celeste, a little uneasy, asked:
"What is he going to do?"
Victor replied in an indifferent tone:
"Don't bother yourself. He'll come back when he's tired."
Then, she saw after the house, washed the plates and wiped the table, while the man quietly took off his clothes. Then he slipped into the dark and hollow bed in which she had slept with Cesaire.
The yard door reopened, old Amable again presented himself. As soon as he had come in, he looked round on every side with the air of an old dog on the scent. He was in search of Victor Lecoq. As he did not see him, he took the candle off the table, and approached the dark niche in which his son had died. In the interior of it he perceived the man lying under the bed clothes and already asleep. Then the deaf man noiselessly turned round, put back the candle, and went out into the yard.
Celeste had finished her work. She put her son into his bed, arranged everything, and waited her father-in-law's return before lying down herself beside Victor.
She remained sitting on a chair, without moving her hands, and with her eyes fixed on vacancy.
As he did not come back she murmured in a tone of impatience and annoyance:
"This good-for-nothing old man will burn four sous' worth of candle on us."
Victor answered her from under the bed clothes.
"'Tis over an hour since he went out. We'd want to see whether he fell asleep on the bench before the door."
"I'm going there."
She rose up, took the light, and went out, making a shade of her hand in order to see through the darkness.
She saw nothing in front of the door, nothing on the bench, nothing on the dung pit, where the old man used sometimes to sit in hot weather.
But, just as she was on the point of going in again, she chanced to raise her eyes towards the big apple tree, which sheltered the entrance to the farm house, and suddenly she saw two feet belonging to a man who was hanging at the height of her face.
She uttered terrible cries:
"Victor! Victor! Victor!"
He ran out in his shirt. She could not utter another word, and turning round her head, so as not to see, she pointed towards the tree with her outstretched arm.
Not understanding what she meant, he took the candle in order to find out, and in the midst of the foliage lit up from below, he saw old Amable hanged high up by the neck with a stable-halter.
A ladder was fixed at the trunk of the apple tree.
Victor rushed to look for a bill-hook, climbed up the tree, and cut the halter. But the old man was already cold, and he put out his tongue horribly with a frightful grimace.
It was at the close of a dinner-party of men, at the hour of endless cigars and incessant sips of brandy, amidst the smoke and the torpid warmth of digestion and the slight confusion of heads generated by such a quantity of eatables and by the absorption of so many different liquors.
Those present were talking about magnetism, about Donato's tricks, and about Doctor Charcot's experiences. All of a sudden, those men, so skeptical, so happy-go-lucky, so indifferent to religion of every sort, began telling stories about strange occurrences, incredible things which nevertheless had really happened, they contended, falling back into superstitions, beliefs, clinging to these last remnants of the marvelous, becoming devotees of this mystery of magnetism, defending it in the name of science. There was only one person who smiled, a vigorous young fellow, a great pursuer of girls in the town, and a hunter also of frisky matrons, in whose mind there was so much incredulity about everything that he would not even enter upon a discussion of such matters.
He repeated with a sneer:
"Humbug! humbug! humbug! We need not discuss Donato, who is merely a very smart juggler. As for M. Charcot, who is said to be a remarkable man of science, he produces on me the effect of those story-tellers of the school of Edgar Poe, who end by going mad through constantly reflecting on queer cases of insanity. He has set forth some nervous phenomena, which are unexplained and inexplicable; he makes his way into that unknown region which men explore every day, and not being able to comprehend what he sees, he remembers perhaps too well the explanations of certain mysteries given by speaking on these subjects, that would be quite a different thing from your repetition of what he says."
The words of the unbeliever were listened to with a kind of pity, as if he had blasphemed in the midst of an assembly of monks.
One of these gentlemen exclaimed:
"And yet miracles were performed in former days."
But the other replied: "I deny it. Why cannot they be performed any longer?"
Thereupon, each man referred to some fact, or some fantastic presentiment, or some instance of souls communicating with each other across space, or some case of secret influences produced by one being or another. And they asserted, they maintained that these things had actually occurred, while the skeptic went on repeating energetically:
"Humbug! humbug! humbug!"
At last he rose up, threw away his cigar, and with his hands in his pockets, said: "Well, I, too, am going to relate to you two stories, and then I will explain them to you. Here they are:
"In the little village of Etretat, the men, who are all seafaring folk, go every year to Newfoundland to fish for cod. Now, one night the little son of one of these fishermen woke up with a start, crying out that his father was dead. The child was quieted, and again he woke up exclaiming that his father was drowned. A month later the news came that his father had, in fact, been swept off the deck of his smack by a billow. The widow then remembered how her son had wakened up and spoken of his father's death. Everyone said it was a miracle, and the affair caused a great sensation. The dates were compared, and it was found that the accident and the dream had very nearly coincided, whence they drew the conclusion that they had happened on the same night and at the same hour. And there is the mystery of magnetism."
The story-teller stopped suddenly.
Thereupon, one of those who had heard him, much affected by the narrative, asked:
"And can you explain this?"
"Perfectly monsieur. I have discovered the secret. The circumstance surprised me and even embarrassed me very much; but, I, you see, do not believe on principle. Just as others begin by believing, I begin by doubting; and when I don't at all understand, I continue to deny that there can be any telegraphic communication between souls, certain that my own sagacity will be enough to explain it. Well, I have gone on inquiring into the matter, and I have ended, by dint of questioning all the wives of the absent seamen, in convincing myself that not a week passed without one of themselves or their children dreaming and declaring when they woke up that the father was drowned. The horrible and continual fear of this accident makes them always talk about it. Now, if one of these frequent predictions coincides, by a very simple chance, with the death of the person referred to, people at once declare it to be a miracle; for they suddenly lose sight of all the other predictions of misfortune that have remained unconfirmed. I have myself known fifty cases where the persons who made the prediction forgot all about it in a week afterwards. But, if in fact the man was dead, then the recollection of the thing is immediately revived, and people will be ready to believe in the intervention of God, according to some, and magnetism, according to others."
One of the smokers remarked:
"What you say is right enough; but what about your second story?"
"Oh! my second story is a very delicate matter to relate. It is to myself it happened, and so I don't place any great value on my own view of the matter. One is never a good judge in a case where he is one of the parties concerned. At any rate, here it is:
"Among my acquaintances in society there was a young woman on whom I had never bestowed a thought, whom I had never even looked at attentively, never taken any notice of, as the saying is.
"I classed her among the women of no importance, though she was not quite bad-looking; in fact, she appeared to me to possess eyes, a nose, a mouth, some sort of hair—just a colorless type of countenance. She was one of those beings on whom one only thinks by accident, without taking any particular interest in the individual, and who never excites desire.
"Well, one night, as I was writing some letters by my own fireside before going to bed, I was conscious, in the midst of that train of sensual images that sometimes float before one's brain in moments of idle reverie, while I held the pen in my hand, of a kind of light breath passing into my soul, a little shudder of the heart, and immediately, without reason, without any logical connection of thought, I saw distinctly, saw as If I touched her, saw from head to foot, uncovered, this young woman for whom I had never cared save in the most superficial manner when her name happened to recur to my mind. And all of a sudden I discovered in her a heap of qualities which I had never before observed, a sweet charm, a fascination that made me languish; she awakened in me that sort of amorous uneasiness which sends me in pursuit of a woman. But I did not remain thinking of her long. I went to bed and was soon asleep. And I dreamed.
"You have all had these strange dreams which render you masters of the impossible, which open to you doors that cannot be passed through, unexpected joys, impenetrable arms?
"Which of us in these agitated, exciting, palpitating slumbers, has not held, clasped, embraced, possessed with an extraordinary acuteness of sensation, the woman with whom our minds were occupied? And have you ever noticed what superhuman delight these good fortunes of dreams bestow upon us? Into what mad intoxication they cast you! with what passionate spasms they shake you! and with what infinite, caressing, penetrating tenderness they fill your heart for her whom you hold fainting and hot in that adorable and bestial illusion which seems so like reality!
"All this I felt with unforgettable violence. This woman was mine, so much mine that the pleasant warmth of her skin remained between my fingers, the odor of her skin remained in my brain, the taste of her kisses remained on my lips, the sound of her voice lingered in my ears, the touch of her clasp still clung to my side, and the burning charm of her tenderness still gratified my senses long after my exquisite but disappointing awakening.
"And three times the same night I had a renewal of my dream.
"When the day dawned she beset me, possessed me, haunted my brain and my flesh to such an extent that I no longer remained one second without thinking of her.
"At last, not knowing what to do, I dressed myself and went to see her. As I went up the stairs to her apartment, I was so much overcome by emotion that I trembled, and my heart panted; I was seized with vehement desire from head to foot.
"I entered the apartment. She rose up the moment she heard my name pronounced; and suddenly our eyes met in a fixed look of astonishment.
"I sat down.
"I uttered in a faltering tone some commonplaces which she seemed not to hear. I did not know what to say or to do. Then, abruptly, I flung myself upon her; seizing her with both arms; and my entire dream was accomplished so quickly, so easily, so madly, that I suddenly began to doubt whether I was really awake. She was, after this, my mistress for two years."
"What conclusion do you draw from it?" said a voice.
The story-teller seemed to hesitate.
"The conclusion I draw from it—well, by Jove, the conclusion is that it was just a coincidence! And, in the next place, who can tell? Perhaps it was some glance of hers which I had not noticed and which came back that night to me—one of those mysterious and unconscious evocations of memory which often bring before us things ignored by our own consciousness, unperceived by our minds!"
"Let that be just as you wish it," said one of his table companions, when the story was finished, "but if you don't believe in magnetism after that, you are an ungrateful fellow, my dear boy!"