The night wore on; the stars were fading, and a cool breeze sprang up. The moon was slowly sinking towards the sea over which she was shedding her silver light, and the memory of that other night she had passed at the window, the night of her return from the convent, came back to Jeanne. Ah! how far away was that happy time! How changed everything was, and what a different future lay before her from what she had pictured then! Over the sky crept a faint, tender tinge of pink, and the brilliant dawn seemed strange and unnatural to her, as she wondered how such glorious sunrises could illumine a world in which there was no joy or happiness.
A slight sound startled her, and looking round she saw Julien.
"Well, are you not very tired?" he said.
"No," she answered, feeling glad that her lonely vigil had come to an end.
"Now go and rest," said her husband.
She pressed a long sorrowful kiss on her mother's face; then left the room.
That day passed in attending to those melancholy duties that always surround a death; the baron came in the evening, and cried a great deal over his wife. The next day the funeral took place; Jeanne pressed her lips to the clammy forehead for the last time, drew the sheet once more over the still face, saw the coffin fastened down, and then went to await the people who were to attend the funeral.
Gilberte arrived first, and threw herself into Jeanne's arms, sobbing violently. The carriages began to drive up, and voices were heard in the hall. The room gradually filled with women with whom Jeanne was not acquainted; then the Marquise de Coutelier and the Vicomtesse de Briseville arrived, and went up to her and kissed her. She suddenly perceived that Aunt Lison was in the room, and she gave her such an affectionate embrace, that the old maid was nearly overcome. Julien came in dressed in deep mourning; he seemed very busy, and very pleased that all these people had come. He whispered some question to his wife about the arrangements, and added in a low tone:
"It will be a very grand funeral; all the best families are here."
Then he went away again, bowing to the ladies as he passed down the room.
Aunt Lison and the Comtesse Gilberte stayed with Jeanne while the burial was taking place. The comtesse repeatedly kissed her, murmuring: "Poor darling, poor darling," and when the Comte de Fourville came to take his wife home, he wept as if he had lost his own mother.
* * * * *
The next few days were very sad, as they always must be directly after a death. The absence of the familiar face from its accustomed place makes the house seem empty, and each time the eye falls on anything the dear, dead one has had in constant use, a fresh pang of sorrow darts through the heart. There is the empty chair, the umbrella still standing in the hall, the glass which the maid has not yet washed. In every room there is something lying just as it was left for the last time; the scissors, an odd glove, the fingered book, the numberless other objects, which, insignificant in themselves, become a source of sharp pain because they recall so vividly the loved one who has passed away. And the voice rings in one's ears till it seems almost a reality, but there is no escape from the house haunted by this presence, for others are suffering also, and all must stay and suffer with each other.
In addition to her natural grief, Jeanne had to bear the pain of her discovery. She was always thinking of it, and the terrible secret increased her former sense of desolation tenfold, for now she felt that she could never put her trust or confidence in anyone again.
The baron soon went away, thinking to find relief from the grief which was deadening all his faculties in change of air and change of scene, and the household at Les Peuples resumed its quiet regular life again.
Then Paul fell ill, and Jeanne passed twelve days in an agony of fear, unable to sleep and scarcely touching food. The boy got well, but there remained the thought that he might die. What should she do if he did? What would become of her? Gradually there came a vague longing for another child, and soon she could think of nothing else; she had always fancied she should like two children, a boy and a girl, and the idea of having a daughter haunted her. But since Rosalie had been sent away, she had lived quite apart from her husband, and at the present moment it seemed utterly impossible to renew their former relations. Julien's affections were centered elsewhere; she knew that; and, on her side, the mere thought of having to submit to his caresses again, made her shudder with disgust.
Still, she would have overcome her repugnance (so tormented was she by the desire of another child) if she could have seen any way to bring about the intimacy she desired; but she would have died rather than let her husband guess what was in her thoughts, and he never seemed to dream of approaching her now. Perhaps she would have given up the idea had not each night the vision of a daughter playing with Paul under the plane tree appeared to her. Sometimes she felt she must get up and join her husband in his room; twice, in fact, she did glide to his door, but each time she came back, without having turned the handle, her face burning with shame.
The baron was away, her mother was dead, and she had no one to whom she could confide this delicate secret. She made up her mind, at last, to tell the Abbe Picot her difficulty, under the seal of confession. She went to him one day and found him in his little garden, reading his breviary among the fruit trees. She talked to him for a few minutes about one thing and another, then, "Monsieur l'abbe, I want to confess," she said, with a deep blush.
He put on his spectacles to look at her better, for the request astonished him. "I don't think you can have any very heavy sins on your conscience," he said, with a smile.
"No, but I want to ask your advice on a subject so—so painful to enter upon, that I dare not talk about it in an ordinary way," she replied, feeling very confused.
He put on his priestly air immediately.
"Very well, my daughter, come to the confessional, and I will hear you there."
But she suddenly felt a scruple at talking of such things in the quietness of an empty church.
"No, Monsieur le cure—after all—if you will let me—I can tell you here what I want to say. See, we will go and sit in your little arbor over there."
As they walked slowly over to the arbor she tried to find the words in which she could best begin her confidence. They sat down, and she commenced, as if she were confessing, "My father," then hesitated, said again, "My father," then stopped altogether, too ashamed to continue.
The priest crossed his hands over his stomach and waited for her to go on. "Well, my daughter," he said, perceiving her embarrassment, "you seem afraid to say what it is; come now, be brave."
"My father, I want to have another child," she said abruptly, like a coward throwing himself headlong into the danger he dreads.
The priest, hardly understanding what she meant, made no answer, and she tried to explain herself, but, in her confusion, her words became more and more difficult to understand.
"I am quite alone in life now; my father and my husband do not agree; my mother is dead, and—and—the other day I almost lost my son," she whispered with a shudder. "What would have become of me if he had died?"
The priest looked at her in bewilderment. "There, there; come to the point," he said.
"I want to have another child," she repeated.
The abbe was used to the coarse pleasantries of the peasants, who did not mind what they said before him, and he answered, with a sly smile and a knowing shake of the head: "Well, I don't think there need be much difficulty about that."
She raised her clear eyes to his and said, hesitatingly:
"But—but—don't you understand that since—since that trouble with—the—maid—my husband and I live—quite apart."
These words came as a revelation to the priest, accustomed as he was to the promiscuity and easy morals of the peasants. Then he thought he could guess what the young wife really wanted, and he looked at her out of the corner of his eye, pitying her, and sympathizing with her distress.
"Yes, yes, I know exactly what you mean. I can quite understand that you should find your—your widowhood hard to bear. You are young, healthy, and it is only natural; very natural." He began to smile, his lively nature getting the better of him. "Besides, the Church allows these feelings, sometimes," he went on, gently tapping Jeanne's hands. "What are we told? That carnal desires may be satisfied lawfully in wedlock only. Well, you are married, are you not?"
She, in her turn, had not at first understood what his words implied, but when his meaning dawned on her, her face became crimson, and her eyes filled with tears.
"Oh! Monsieur le cure, what do you mean? What do you think? I assure you—I assure—" and she could not continue for her sobs.
Her emotion surprised the abbe, and he tried to console her.
"There, there," he said; "I did not mean to pain you. I was only joking, and there's no harm in a joke between honest people. But leave it all in my hands, and I will speak to M. Julien."
She did not know what to say. She wished, now, that she could refuse his help, for she feared his want of tact would only increase her difficulties, but she did not dare say anything.
"Thank you, Monsieur le cure," she stammered; and then hurried away.
The next week was passed by Jeanne in an agony of doubts and fears. Then one evening, Julien watched her all through dinner with an amused smile on his lips, and evinced towards her a gallantry which was faintly tinged with irony. After dinner they walked up and down the baroness's avenue, and he whispered in her ear:
"Then we are going to be friends again?"
She made no answer, and kept her eyes fixed on the ground, where there was a straight line, hardly so thickly covered with grass as the rest of the path. It was the line traced by the baroness's foot, which was gradually being effaced, just as her memory was fading, and, as she looked at it, Jeanne's heart felt bursting with grief; she seemed so lonely, so separated from everybody.
"For my part, I am only too pleased," continued Julien. "I should have proposed it before, but I was afraid of displeasing you."
The sun was setting; it was a mild, soft evening, and Jeanne longed to rest her head on some loving heart, and there sob out her sorrows. She threw herself into Julien's arms, her breast heaving, and the tears streaming from her eyes. He looked at her in surprise, thinking this outburst was occasioned by the love she still felt for him, and, unable to see her face, he dropped a condescending kiss upon her hair. Then they went indoors in silence and he followed her to her room.
To him this renewal of their former relations was a duty, though hardly an unpleasant one, while she submitted to his embraces as a disgusting, painful necessity, and resolved to put an end to them for ever, as soon as her object was accomplished. Soon, however, she found that her husband's caresses were not like they used to be; they may have been more refined, they certainly were not so complete. He treated her like a careful lover, instead of being an easy husband.
"Why do you not give yourself up to me as you used to do?" she whispered one night, her lips close to his.
"To keep you out of the family way, of course," he answered, with a chuckle.
"Don't you wish for any more children, then?" she asked.
His amazement was so great, that, for a moment, he was silent; then:
"Eh? What do you say?" he exclaimed. "Are you in your right senses? Another child? I should think not, indeed! We've already got one too many, squalling and costing money, and bothering everybody. Another child! No, thank you!"
She clasped him in her arms, pressed her lips to his and murmured:
"Oh! I entreat you, make me a mother once more."
"Don't be so foolish," he replied, angrily. "Pray don't let me hear any more of this nonsense."
She said no more, but she resolved to trick him into giving her the happiness she desired. She tried to prolong her kisses, and threw her arms passionately around him, pressing him to her, and pretending a delirium of love she was very far from feeling. She tried every means to make him lose control over himself, but she never once succeeded.
Tormented more and more by her desire, driven to extremities, and ready to do or dare anything to gain her ends, she went again to the Abbe Picot. She found him just finishing lunch, with his face crimson from indigestion. He looked up as she came in, and, anxious to hear the result of his mediation:
"Well?" he exclaimed.
"My husband does not want any more children," she answered at once without any of the hesitation or shame-faced timidity she had shown before.
The abbe got very interested, and turned towards her, ready to hear once more of those secrets of wedded life, the revelation of which made the task of confessing so pleasant to him.
"How is that?" he asked.
In spite of her determination to tell him all, Jeanne hardly knew how to explain herself.
"He—he refuses—to make me a mother."
The priest understood at once; it was not the first time he had heard of such things, but he asked for all the details, and enjoyed them as a hungry man would a feast. When he had heard all, he reflected for a few moments, then said in the calm, matter-of-fact tone he might have used if he had been speaking of the best way to insure a good harvest.
"My dear child, the only thing you can do is to make your husband believe you are pregnant; then he will cease his precautions, and you will become so in reality."
Jeanne blushed to the roots of her hair, but, determined to be ready for every emergency, she argued:
"But—but suppose he should not believe me?"
The cure knew too well the ins and outs of human nature not to have an answer for that.
"Tell everybody you are enceinte. When he sees that everyone else believes it, he will soon believe it himself. You will be doing no wrong," he added, to quiet his conscience for advising this deception; "the Church does not permit any connection between man and woman, except for the purpose of procreation."
Jeanne followed the priest's artful device, and, a fortnight later, told Julien she thought she was enceinte. He started up.
"It isn't possible! You can't be!"
She gave him her reasons for thinking so.
"Bah!" he answered. "You wait a little while."
Every morning he asked, "Well?" but she always replied: "No, not yet; I am very much mistaken if I am not enceinte."
He also began to think so, and his surprise was only equaled by his annoyance.
"Well, I can't understand it," was all he could say. "I'll be hanged if I know how it can have happened."
At the end of a month she began to tell people the news, but she said nothing about it to the Comtesse Gilberte, for she felt an old feeling of delicacy in mentioning it to her. At the very first suspicion of his wife's pregnancy, Julien had ceased to touch her, then, angrily thinking, "Well, at any rate, this brat wasn't wanted," he made up his mind to make the best of it, and recommenced his visits to his wife's room. Everything happened as the priest had predicted, and Jeanne found she would a second time become a mother. Then, in a transport of joy, she took a vow of eternal chastity as a token of her rapturous gratitude to the distant divinity she adored, and thenceforth closed her door to her husband.
She again felt almost happy. She could hardly believe that it was barely two months since her mother had died, and that only such a short time before she had thought herself inconsolable. Now her wounded heart was nearly healed, and her grief had disappeared, while in its place was merely a vague melancholy, like the shadow of a great sorrow resting over her life. It seemed impossible that any other catastrophe could happen now; her children would grow up and surround her old age with their affection, and her husband could go his way while she went hers.
Towards the end of September the Abbe Picot came to the chateau, in a new cassock which had only one week's stains upon it, to introduce his successor, the Abbe Tolbiac. The latter was small, thin, and very young, with hollow, black-encircled eyes which betokened the depth and violence of his feelings, and a decisive way of speaking as if there could be no appeal from his opinion. The Abbe Picot had been appointed doyen of Goderville. Jeanne felt very sad at the thought of his departure; he was connected, in her thoughts, with all the chief events of her life, for he had married her, christened Paul, and buried the baroness. She liked him because he was always good-tempered and unaffected, and she could not imagine Etouvent without the Abbe Picot's fat figure trotting past the farms. He himself did not seem very rejoiced at his advancement.
"I have been here eighteen years, Madame la Comtesse," he said, "and it grieves me to go to another place. Oh! this living is not worth much, I know, and as for the people—well, the men have no more religion than they ought to have, the women are not so moral as they might be, and the girls never dream of being married until it is too late for them to wear a wreath of orange blossoms; still, I love the place."
The new cure had been fidgeting impatiently during this speech, and his face had turned very red.
"I shall soon have all that changed," he said, abruptly, as soon as the other priest had finished speaking; and he looked like an angry child in his worn but spotless cassock, so thin and small was he.
The Abbe Picot looked at him sideways, as he always did when anything amused him.
"Listen, l'abbe," he said. "You will have to chain up your parishioners if you want to prevent that sort of thing; and I don't believe even that would be any good."
"We shall see," answered the little priest in a cutting tone.
The old cure smiled and slowly took a pinch of snuff.
"Age and experience will alter your views, l'abbe; if they don't you will only estrange the few good Churchmen you have. When I see a girl come to mass with a waist bigger than it ought to be, I say to myself—'Well, she is going to give me another soul to look after;'—and I try to marry her. You can't prevent them going wrong, but you can find out the father of the child and prevent him forsaking the mother. Marry them, l'abbe, marry them, and don't trouble yourself about anything else."
"We will not argue on this point, for we should never agree," answered the new cure, a little roughly; and the Abbe Picot again began to express his regret at leaving the village, and the sea which he could see from the vicarage windows, and the little funnel-shaped valleys, where he went to read his breviary and where he could see the boats in the distance. Then the two priests rose to go, and the Abbe Picot kissed Jeanne, who nearly cried when she said good-bye.
A week afterwards, the Abbe Tolbiac called again. He spoke of the reforms he was bringing about as if he were a prince taking possession of his kingdom. He begged the vicomtesse to communicate on all the days appointed by the Church, and to attend mass regularly on Sundays.
"You and I are at the head of the parish," he said, "and we ought to rule it, and always set it a good example; but, if we wish to have any influence, we must be united. If the Church and the chateau support each other, the cottage will fear and obey us."
Jeanne's religion was simply a matter of sentiment; she had merely the dreamy faith that a woman never quite loses, and if she performed any religious duties at all it was only because she had been so used to them at the convent, for the baron's carping philosophy had long ago overthrown all her convictions. The Abbe Picot had always been contented with the little she did do, and never chid her for not confessing or attending mass oftener; but when the Abbe Tolbiac did not see her at church on the Sunday, he hastened to the chateau to question and reprimand her. She did not wish to quarrel with the cure, so she promised to be more attentive to the services, inwardly resolving to go regularly only for a few weeks, out of good nature.
Little by little, however, she fell into the habit of frequenting the church, and, in a short time, she was entirely under the influence of the delicate-looking, strong-willed priest. His zeal and enthusiasm appealed to her love of everything pertaining to mysticism, and he seemed to make the chord of religious poetry, which she possessed in common with every woman, vibrate within her. His austerity, his contempt for every luxury and sensuality, his disdain for the things that usually occupy the thoughts of men, his love of God, his youthful, intolerant inexperience, his scathing words, his inflexible will made Jeanne compare him, in her mind, to the early martyrs; and she, who had already suffered so much, whose eyes had been so rudely opened to the deceptions of life, let herself be completely ruled by the rigid fanaticism of this boy who was the minister of Heaven. He led her to the feet of Christ the Consoler, teaching her how the holy joys of religion could alleviate all her sorrows, and, as she knelt in the confessional she humbled herself and felt little and weak before this priest, who looked about fifteen years old.
Soon he was detested by the whole country-side. With no pity for his own weaknesses, he showed a violent intolerance for those of others. The thing above all others that roused his anger and indignation was—love. He denounced it from the pulpit in crude, ecclesiastical terms, thundering out terrible judgments against concupiscence over the heads of his rustic audience; and, as the pictures he portrayed in his fury persistently haunted his mind, he trembled with rage and stamped his foot in anger. The grown-up girls and the young fellows cast side-long glances at each other across the aisle; and the old peasants, who liked to joke about such matters, expressed their disapproval of the little cure's intolerance as they walked back to their farms after service with their wives and sons.
The whole country was in an uproar. The priest's severity and the harsh penances he inflicted at confession were rumored about, and, as he obstinately refused to grant absolution to the girls whose chastity was not immaculate, smiles accompanied the whispers. When, at the holy festivals, several of the youths and girls stayed in their seats instead of going to communicate with the others, most of the congregation laughed outright as they looked at them. He began to watch for lovers like a keeper on the look-out for poachers, and on moonlight nights he hunted up the couples along the ditches, behind the barns and among the long grass on the hill-sides. One night he came upon two who did not cease their love-making even before him; they were strolling along a ditch filled with stones, with their arms round one another, kissing each other as they walked.
"Will you stop that, you vagabonds?" cried the abbe.
"You mind yer own bus'ness, M'sieu l'cure," replied the lad, turning round. "This ain't nothin' to do with you."
The abbe picked up some stones and threw them at the couple as he might have done at stray dogs, and they both ran off, laughing. The next Sunday the priest mentioned them by name before the whole congregation. All the young fellows soon ceased to attend mass.
The cure dined at the chateau every Thursday, but he very often went there on other days to talk to his penitente. Jeanne became as ardent and as enthusiastic as he as she discussed the mysteries of a future existence, and grew familiar with all the old and complicated arguments employed in religious controversy. They would both walk along the baroness's avenue talking of Christ and the Apostles, of the Virgin Mary and of the Fathers of the Church as if they had really known them. Sometimes they stopped their walk to ask each other profound questions, and then Jeanne would wander off into sentimental arguments, and the cure would reason like a lawyer possessed with the mania of proving the possibility of squaring the circle.
Julien treated the new cure with great respect. "That's the sort of a priest I like," he was continually saying. "Half-measures don't do for him," and he zealously set a good example by frequently confessing and communicating. Hardly a day passed now without the vicomte going to the Fourvilles, either to shoot with the comte, who could not do without him, or to ride with the comtesse regardless of rain and bad weather.
"They are riding-mad," remarked the comte; "but the exercise does my wife good."
The baron returned to Les Peuples about the middle of November. He seemed a different man, he had aged so much and was so low-spirited; he was fonder than ever of his daughter, as if the last few months of melancholy solitude had caused in him an imperative need of affection and tenderness. Jeanne told him nothing about her new ideas, her intimacy with the Abbe Tolbiac, or her religious enthusiasm, but the first time he saw the priest, he felt an invincible dislike for him, and when his daughter asked him in the evening: "Well, what do you think of him?"
"He is like an inquisitor!" he answered. "He seems to me a very dangerous man."
When the peasants told him about the young priest's harshness and bigotry and the sort of war of persecution he waged against natural laws and instincts, his dislike changed to a violent hatred. He, the baron, belonged to the school of philosophers who worship nature; to him it seemed something touching, when he saw two animals unite, and he was always ready to fall on his knees before the sort of pantheistic God he worshiped; but he hated the catholic conception of a God, Who has petty schemes, and gives way to tyrannical anger and indulges in mean revenge; a God, in fact, Who seemed less to him than that boundless omnipotent nature, which is at once life, light, earth, thought, plant, rock, man, air, animal, planet, god and insect, that nature which produces all things in such bountiful profusion, fitting each atom to the place it is to occupy in space, be that position close to or far from the suns which heat the worlds. Nature contained the germ of everything, and she brought forth life and thought, as trees bear flowers and fruit.
To the baron, therefore, reproduction was a great law of Nature, and to be respected as the sacred and divine act which accomplished the constant, though unexpressed will of this Universal Being; and he at once began a campaign against this priest who opposed the laws of creation. It grieved Jeanne to the heart, and she prayed to the Lord, and implored her father not to run counter to the cure, but the baron always answered:
"It is everyone's right and duty to fight against such men, for they are not like human creatures. They are not human," he repeated, shaking his long white hair. "They understand nothing of life, and their conduct is entirely influenced by their harmful dreams, which are contrary to Nature." And he pronounced "contrary to Nature" as if he were uttering a curse.
The priest had at once recognized in him an enemy, and, as he wished to remain master of the chateau and its young mistress, he temporized, feeling sure of victory in the end. By chance he had discovered the liaison between Julien and Gilberte, and his one idea was to break it off by no matter what means. He came to see Jeanne one day towards the end of the wet, mild winter, and, after a long talk on the mystery of life, he asked her to unite with him in fighting against and destroying the wickedness which was in her own family, and so save two souls which were in danger. She asked him what he meant.
"The hour has not come for me to reveal all to you," he replied; "but I will see you again soon," and with that he abruptly left her.
He came again in a few days, and spoke in vague terms of a disgraceful connection between people whose conduct ought to be irreproachable. It was the duty, he said, of those who were aware of what was going on, to use every means to put an end to it. He used all sorts of lofty arguments, and then, taking Jeanne's hand, adjured her to open her eyes, to understand and to help him.
This time Jeanne saw what he meant, but terrified at the thought of all the trouble that might be brought to her home, which was now so peaceful, she pretended not to know to what he was alluding. Then he hesitated no longer, but spoke in terms there could be no misunderstanding.
"I am going to perform a very painful duty, Madame la comtesse, but I cannot leave it undone. The position I hold forbids me to leave you in ignorance of the sin you can prevent. Learn that your husband cherishes a criminal affection for Madame de Fourville."
Jeanne only bent her head in feeble resignation.
"What do you intend to do?" asked the priest.
"What do you wish me to do, Monsieur l'abbe?" she murmured.
"Throw yourself in the way as an obstacle to this guilty love," he answered, violently.
She began to cry, and said in a broken voice:
"But he has deceived me before with a servant; he wouldn't listen to me; he doesn't love me now; he ill-treats me if I manifest any desire that does not please him, so what can I do?"
The cure did not make any direct answer to this appeal.
"Then you bow before this sin! You submit to it!" he exclaimed. "You consent to and tolerate adultery under your own roof! The crime is being perpetrated before your eyes, and you refuse to see it! Are you a Christian woman? Are you a wife and a mother?"
"What would you have me do?" she sobbed.
"Anything rather than allow this sin to continue," he replied. "Anything, I tell you. Leave him. Flee from this house which has been defiled."
"But I have no money, Monsieur l'abbe," she replied. "And I am not brave now like I used to be. Besides, how can I leave without any proofs of what you are saying? I have not the right to do so."
The priest rose to his feet, quivering with indignation.
"You are listening to the dictates of your cowardice, madame. I thought you were a different woman, but you are unworthy of God's mercy."
She fell on her knees:
"Oh! Do not abandon me, I implore you. Advise me what to do."
"Open M. de Fourville's eyes," he said, shortly. "It is his duty to end this liaison."
She was seized with terror at this advice.
"But he would kill them, Monsieur l'abbe! And should I be the one to tell him? Oh, not that! Never, never!"
He raised his hand as if to curse her, his whole soul stirred with anger.
"Live on in your shame and in your wickedness, for you are more guilty than they are. You are the wife who condones her husband's sin! My place is no longer here."
He turned to go, trembling all over with wrath. She followed him distractedly, ready to give in, and beginning to promise; but he would not listen to her and strode rapidly along, furiously shaking his big blue umbrella which was nearly as high as himself. He saw Julien standing near the gate superintending the pruning of some trees, so he turned off to the left to reach the road by way of the Couillards' farm, and as he walked he kept saying to Jeanne:
"Leave me, madame. I have nothing further to say to you."
In the middle of the yard, and right in his path, some children were standing around the kennel of the dog Mirza, their attention concentrated on something which the baron was also carefully considering as he stood in their midst with his hands behind his back, looking like a schoolmaster.
"Do come and see me again, Monsieur l'abbe," pleaded Jeanne. "If you will return in a few days, I shall be able to tell you then what I think is the best course to take, and we can talk it over together."
By that time they had almost reached the group of children (which the baron had left, to avoid meeting and speaking to his enemy, the priest) and the cure went to see what it was that was interesting them so deeply. It was the dog whelping; five little pups were already crawling round the mother, who gently licked them as she lay on her side before the kennel, and just as the cure looked over the children's heads, a sixth appeared. When they saw it, all the boys and girls clapped their hands, crying:
"There's another! There's another!"
To them it was simply a perfectly pure and natural amusement, and they watched these pups being born as they might have watched the apples falling from a tree.
The Abbe Tolbiac stood still for a moment in horrified surprise, then, giving way to his passion, he raised his umbrella and began to rain down blows on the children's heads. The startled urchins ran off as fast as they could go, and the abbe found himself left alone with the dog, which was painfully trying to rise. Before she could stand up, he knocked her back again, and began to hit her with all his strength. The animal moaned pitifully as she writhed under these blows from which there was no escape (for she was chained up) and at last the priest's umbrella broke. Then, unable to beat the dog any longer, he jumped on her, and stamped and crushed her under-foot in a perfect frenzy of anger. Another pup was born beneath his feet before he dispatched the mother with a last furious kick, and then the mangled body lay quivering in the midst of the whining pups, which were awkwardly groping for their mother's teats. Jeanne had escaped, but the baron returned and, almost as enraged as the priest, suddenly seized the abbe by the throat, and giving him a blow which knocked his hat off, carried him to the fence and threw him out into the road.
When he turned round, M. le Perthuis saw his daughter kneeling in the midst of the pups, sobbing as she picked them up and put them in her skirt. He strode up to her gesticulating wildly.
"There!" he exclaimed. "What do you think of that surpliced wretch, now?"
The noise had brought the farmpeople to the spot, and they all stood round, gazing at the remains of the dog.
"Could one have believed that a man would be so cruel as that!" said Couillard's wife.
Jeanne picked up the pups, saying she would bring them up by hand; she tried to give them some milk, but three out of seven died the next day. Then old Simon went all over the neighborhood trying to find a foster-mother for the others; he could not get a dog, but he brought back a cat, asserting that she would do as well. Three more pups were killed, and the seventh was given to the cat, who took to it directly, and lay down on her side to suckle it. That it might not exhaust its foster-mother the pup was weaned a fortnight later, and Jeanne undertook to feed it herself with a feeding-bottle; she had named it Toto, but the baron rechristened it, and called it Massacre.
The priest did not go to see Jeanne again. The next Sunday he hurled curses and threats against the chateau, denouncing it as a plague-spot which ought to be removed, and going on to anathematize the baron (who laughed at him) and to make veiled, half-timid allusions to Julien's latest amour. The vicomte was very vexed at this, but he did not dare say anything for fear of giving rise to a scandal; and the priest continued to call down vengeance on their heads, and to foretell the downfall of God's enemies in every sermon. At last, Julien wrote a decided, though respectful, letter to the archbishop, and the Abbe Tolbiac, finding himself threatened with disgrace, ceased his denunciations. He began to take long solitary walks; often he was to be met striding along the roads with an ardent, excited look on his face. Gilberte and Julien were always seeing him when they were out riding, sometimes in the distance, on the other side of a common, or on the edge of the cliff, sometimes close at hand, reading his breviary in a narrow valley they were just about to pass through; they always turned another way to avoid passing him. Spring had come, enflaming their hearts with fresh desires, and urging them to seek each other's embraces in any secluded spot to which their rides might lead them; but the leaves were only budding, the grass was still damp from the rains of winter, and they could not, as in the height of summer, hide themselves amidst the undergrowth of the woods. Lately, they had generally sheltered their caresses within a movable shepherd's hut which had been left since autumn, on the very top of the Vaucotte hill. It stood all alone on the edge of the precipitous descent to the valley, five hundred yards above the cliff. There they felt quite secure, for they overlooked the whole of the surrounding country, and they fastened their horses to the shafts to wait until their masters were satiated with love.
One evening as they were leaving the hut, they saw the Abbe Tolbiac sitting on the hill-side, nearly hidden by the rushes.
"We must leave our horses in that ravine, another time," said Julien; "in case they should tell our whereabouts," and thenceforth they always tied their horses up in a kind of recess in the valley, which was hidden by bushes.
Another evening, they were both returning to La Vrillette where the comte was expecting Julien to dinner, when they met the cure coming out of the chateau. He bowed, without looking them in the face, and stood on one side to let them pass. For the moment his visit made them uneasy, but their anxiety was soon dispelled.
* * * * *
Jeanne was sitting by the fire reading, one windy afternoon at the beginning of May, when she suddenly saw the Comte de Fourville running towards the chateau at such a rate as to make her fear he was the bearer of bad news. She hastened downstairs to meet him, and when she saw him close, she thought he must have gone mad. He had on his shooting-jacket and a big fur cap, that he generally only wore on his own grounds, and he was so pale that his red moustaches (which, as a rule, hardly showed against his ruddy face) looked the color of flame. His eyes were haggard and stared vacantly or rolled from side to side.
"My wife is here, isn't she?" he gasped.
"No," answered Jeanne, too frightened to think of what she was saying; "I have not seen her at all to-day."
The comte dropped into a chair, as if his legs had no longer strength to support him, and, taking off his cap, he mechanically passed his handkerchief several times across his forehead; then he started to his feet, and went towards Jeanne with outstretched hands, and mouth opened to speak and tell her of his terrible grief. But suddenly he stopped short, and fixing his eyes on her, murmured, as if he were delirious: "But it is your husband—you also—" and breaking off abruptly, he rushed out towards the sea.
Jeanne ran after him, calling him and imploring him to stop. "He knows all!" she thought, in terror. "What will he do? Oh, pray heaven he may not find them."
He did not listen to her, and evidently knowing whither to direct his steps, ran straight on without any hesitation as to the path he should take. Already he had leapt across the ditch, and was rapidly striding across the reeds towards the cliff. Finding she could not catch him up, Jeanne stood on the slope beyond the wood, and watched him as long as he was in sight; then, when she could see him no longer, she went indoors again, tortured with fear and anxiety.
When he reached the edge of the cliff, the comte turned to the right, and again began to run. The sea was very rough, and one after the other the heavy clouds came up and poured their contents on the land. A whistling moaning wind swept over the grass, laying low the young barley, and carrying the great, white seagulls inland like sprays of foam. The rain, which came in gusts, beat in the comte's face and drenched his cheeks and moustaches, and the tumult of the elements seemed to fill his heart as well as his ears. There, straight before him in the distance, lay the Vaucotte valley, and between it and him stood a solitary shepherd's hut, with two horses tied to the shafts. (What fear could there be of anyone seeing them on such a day as this?)
As soon as he caught sight of the animals, the comte threw himself flat on the ground, and dragged himself along on his hands and knees, his hairy cap and mud-stained clothes making him look like some monstrous animal. He crawled to the lonely hut, and, in case its occupants should see him through the cracks in the planks he hid himself beneath it. The horses had seen him and were pawing the ground. He slowly cut the reins by which they were fastened with a knife that he held open in his hand, and, as a fresh gust of wind swept by, the two animals cantered off, their backs stung by the hail which lashed against the sloping roof of the shepherd's cot, and made the frail abode tremble on its wheels.
Then the comte rose to his knees, put his eye to the slit at the bottom of the door, and remained perfectly motionless while he watched and waited. Some time passed thus, and then he suddenly leapt to his feet, covered with mire from head to foot. Furiously he fastened the bolt, which secured the shelter on the outside, and seizing the shafts, he shook the hut as if he would have broken it to atoms. After a moment he began to drag it along—exerting the strength of a bull, and bending nearly double in his tremendous effort—and it was towards the almost perpendicular slope to the valley that he hurried the cottage and its human occupants who were desperately shouting and trying to burst open the door, in their ignorance of what had happened.
At the extreme edge of the slope, the comte let go of the hut, and it at once begun to run down towards the valley. At first it moved but slowly, but, its speed increasing as it went, it moved quicker and quicker, until soon it was rushing down the hill at a tremendous rate. Its shafts bumped along the ground and it leaped over and dashed against the obstacles in its path, as if it had been endowed with life; it bounded over the head of an old beggar who was crouching in a ditch, and, as it passed, the man heard frightful cries issuing from within it. All at once one of the wheels was torn off, and the hut turned over on its side. That however, did not stop it, and now it rolled over and over like a ball, or like some house uprooted from its foundations and hurled from the summit of a mountain. It rolled on and on until it reached the edge of the last ravine; there it took a final leap, and after describing a curve, fell to the earth, and smashed like an egg-shell.
Directly it had dashed upon the rocks at the bottom of the valley, the old beggar, who had seen it falling, began to make his way down through the brambles. He did not go straight to the shattered hut, but, like the cautious rustic that he was, went to announce the accident at the nearest farm-house. The farm people ran to the spot the beggar pointed out, and beneath the fragments of the hut, found two bruised and mangled corpses. The man's forehead was split open, and his face crushed; the woman's jaw was almost separated from her head, and their broken limbs were as soft as if there had not been a bone beneath the flesh. Still the farmers could recognize them, and they began to make all sorts of conjectures as to the cause of the accident.
"What could they have been doin' in the cabin?" said a woman.
The old beggar replied that apparently they had taken refuge from the weather, and that the high wind had overturned the hut, and blown it down the precipice. He added that he himself was going to take shelter in it when he saw the horses fastened to the shafts and concluded that the place was already occupied.
"If it hadn't been for that I should have been where they are now," he said with an air of self-congratulation.
"Perhaps it would have been all the better if you had been," said some one.
"Why would it have been better?" exclaimed the beggar in a great rage. "'Cause I'm poor and they're rich? Look at them now!" he said, pointing to the two corpses with his hooked stick, as he stood trembling and ragged, with the water dripping from him, and his battered hat, his matted beard, his long unkempt hair, making him look terribly dirty and miserable. "We're all equal when we're dead."
The group had grown bigger, and the peasants stood round with a frightened, cowardly look on their faces. After a discussion as to what they had better do, it was finally decided to carry the bodies back to their homes, in the hope of getting a reward. Two carts were got ready, and then a fresh difficulty arose; some thought it would be quite enough to place straw at the bottom of the carts, and others thought it would look better to put mattresses.
"But the mattresses would be soaked with blood," cried the woman who had spoken before. "They'd have to be washed with eau de javelle."
"The chateau people'll pay for that," said a jolly-faced farmer. "They can't expect to get things for nothing."
That decided the matter, and the two carts set off, one to the right, the other to the left, jolting and shaking the remains of these two beings who had so often been clasped in each other's arms, but who would never meet again.
When the comte had seen the hut set off on its terrible journey, he had fled away through the rain and the wind, and had run on and on across the country like a madman. He ran for several hours, heedless of which way his steps were taking him, and, at nightfall, he found himself at his own chateau. The servants were anxiously awaiting his return, and hastened to tell him that the two horses had just returned riderless, for Julien's had followed the other one.
M. de Fourville staggered back. "Some accident must have happened to my wife and the vicomte," he said in broken tones. "Let everyone go and look for them."
He started off again, himself, as though he were going to seek them, but, as soon as he was out of sight, he hid behind a bush, and watched the road along which the woman he still loved so dearly would be brought dead or dying, or perhaps maimed and disfigured for life. In a little while a cart passed by, bearing a strange load; it drew up before the chateau-gates, then passed through them. Yes, he knew it was she; but the dread of hearing the horrible truth forced him to stay in his hiding-place, and he crouched down like a hare, trembling at the faintest rustle.
He waited for an hour—perhaps two—and yet the cart did not come back again. He was persuaded that his wife was dying, and the thought of seeing her, of meeting her eyes was such a torture to him, that, seized with a sudden fear of being discovered and compelled to witness her death, he again set off running, and did not stop till he was hidden in the midst of a wood. Then he thought that perhaps she needed help and that there was no one to take care of her as he could, and he sped back in mad haste.
As he was going into the house, he met his gardener.
"Well?" he cried, excitedly.
The man dared not answer the truth.
"Is she dead?" almost yelled M. de Fourville.
"Yes, Monsieur le comte," stammered the servant.
The comte experienced an intense relief at the answer; all his agitation left him, and he went quietly and firmly up the steps.
In the meantime, the other cart had arrived at Les Peuples. Jeanne saw it in the distance, and guessing that a corpse lay upon the mattress, understood at once what had happened; the shock was so great that she fell to the ground unconscious. When she came to herself again she found her father supporting her head, and bathing her forehead with vinegar.
"Do you know—?" he asked hesitatingly.
"Yes, father," she whispered, trying to rise; but she was in such pain that she was forced to sink back again.
That evening she gave birth to a dead child—a girl.
She did not see or hear anything of Julien's funeral, for she was delirious when he was buried. In a few days she was conscious of Aunt Lison's presence in her room, and, in the midst of the feverish nightmares by which she was haunted, she strove to recall when, and under what circumstances, the old maid had last left Les Peuples. But even in her lucid moments she could not remember, and she could only feel sure she had seen her since the baroness's death.
* * * * *
Jeanne was confined to her room for three months and everyone despaired of her life, but very, very gradually health and strength returned to her. Her father and Aunt Lison had come to live at the chateau, and they nursed her day and night. The shock she had sustained had entirely upset her nervous system; she started at the least noise, and the slightest emotion caused her to go off into long swoons. She had never asked the details of Julien's death. Why should she? Did she not already know enough? Everyone except herself thought it had been an accident, and she never revealed to anyone the terrible secret of her husband's adultery, and of the comte's sudden, fearful visit the day of the catastrophe.
Her soul was filled with the sweet, tender memories of the few, short hours of bliss she owed to her husband, and she always pictured him to herself as he had been when they were betrothed, and when she had adored him in the only moments of sensual passion of her life. She forgot all his faults and harshness; even his infidelity seemed more pardonable now that death stood between him and her. She felt a sort of vague gratitude to this man who had clasped her in his arms, and she forgave him the sorrows he had caused her, and dwelt only on the happy moments they had passed together.
As time wore on and month followed month, covering her grief and memories with the dust of forgetfulness, Jeanne devoted herself entirely to her son. The child became the idol, the one engrossing thought, of the three beings over whom he ruled like any despot; there was even a sort of jealousy between his three slaves, for Jeanne grudged the hearty kisses he gave the baron when the latter rode him on his knees, and Aunt Lison, who was neglected by this baby, as she had always been by everyone, and was regarded as a servant by this master who could not talk yet, would go to her room and cry as she compared the few kisses, which she had so much difficulty in obtaining, with the embraces the child so freely lavished on his mother and grandfather.
Two peaceful, uneventful years were passed thus in devoted attention to the child; then, at the beginning of the third winter, it was arranged that they should all go to Rouen until the spring. But they had hardly arrived at the damp, old house before Paul had such a severe attack of bronchitis, that pleurisy was feared. His distracted mother was convinced that no other air but that of Les Peuples agreed with him, and they all went back there as soon as he was well.
Then came a series of quiet, monotonous years. Jeanne, her father, and Aunt Lison spent all their time with the child, and were continually going into raptures over the way he lisped, or with his funny sayings and doings. Jeanne lovingly called him "Paulet," and, when he tried to repeat the word, he made them all laugh by pronouncing it "Poulet," for he could not speak plainly. The nickname "Poulet" clung to him, and henceforth he was never called anything else. He grew very quickly, and one of the chief amusements of his "three mothers," as the baron called them, was to measure his height. On the wainscoting, by the drawing-room door, was a series of marks made with a penknife, showing how much the boy had grown every month, and these marks, which were called "Poulet's ladder," were of great importance in everyone's eyes.
Then there came a very unexpected addition to the important personages of the household—the dog Massacre, which Jeanne had neglected since all her attention had been centered in her son. Ludivine fed him, and he lived quite alone, and always on the chain, in an old barrel in front of the stables. Paul noticed him one morning, and at once wanted to go and kiss him. The dog made a great fuss over the child, who cried when he was taken away, so Massacre was unchained, and henceforth lived in the house. He became Paul's inseparable friend and companion; they played together, and lay down side by side on the carpet to go to sleep, and soon Massacre shared the bed of his playfellow, who would not let the dog leave him. Jeanne lamented sometimes over the fleas, and Aunt Lison felt angry with the dog for absorbing so much of the child's affection, affection for which she longed, and which, it seemed to her, this animal had stolen.
At long intervals visits were exchanged with the Brisevilles and the Couteliers, but the mayor and the doctor were the only regular visitors at the chateau.
The brutal way in which the priest had killed the dog, and the suspicions he had instilled into her mind about the time of Julien's and Gilberte's horrible death, had roused Jeanne's indignation against the God who could have such ministers, and she had entirely ceased to attend church. From time to time the abbe inveighed in outspoken terms against the chateau, which, he said, was inhabited by the Spirit of Evil, the Spirit of Everlasting Rebellion, the Spirit of Errors and of Lies, the Spirit of Iniquity, the Spirit of Corruption and Impurity; it was by all these names that he alluded to the baron.
The church was deserted, and when the cure happened to walk past any fields in which the ploughmen were at work, the men never ceased their task to speak to him, or turned to touch their hats. He acquired the reputation of being a wizard because he cast out the devil from a woman who was possessed, and the peasants believed he knew words to dispel charms. He laid his hands on cows that gave thin milk, discovered the whereabouts of things which had been lost by means of a mysterious incantation, and devoted his narrow mind to the study of all the ecclesiastical books in which he could find accounts of the devil's apparitions upon earth, or descriptions of his resources and stratagems, and the various ways in which he manifested his power and exercised his influence.
Believing himself specially called to combat this invisible, harmful Power, the priest had learnt all the forms given in religious manuals to exorcise the devil. He fancied Satan lurked in every shadow, and the phrase Sieut leo rugiens circuit, quaerens quem devoret was continually on his lips. People began to be afraid of his strange power; even his fellow-clergy (ignorant country priests to whom Beelzebub was an article of their faith, and who, perplexed by the minute directions for the rites to be observed in case of any manifestations of the Evil One's power, at last confounded religion with magic) regarded the Abbe Tolbiac as somewhat of a wizard, and respected him as much for the supernatural power he was supposed to possess as for the irreproachable austerity of his life.
The cure never bowed to Jeanne if he chanced to meet her, and such a state of things worried and grieved Aunt Lison, who could not understand how anyone could systematically stay away from church. Everyone took it for granted that she was religious and confessed and communicated at proper intervals, and no one ever tried to find out what her views on religion really were. Whenever she was quite alone with Paul, Lison talked to him, in whispers, about the good God. The child listened to her with a faint degree of interest when she related the miracles which had been performed in the old times, and, when she told him he must love the good God, very, very dearly, he sometimes asked:
"Where is he, auntie?"
She would point upwards and answer: "Up there, above the sky, Poulet; but you must not say anything about it," for she feared the baron would be angry if he knew what she was teaching the boy. One day, however, Poulet startled her by asserting: "The good God is everywhere except in church," and she found he had been talking to his grandfather about what she had told him.
Paul was now ten years old; his mother looked forty. He was strong, noisy, and boldly climbed the trees, but his education had, so far, been very neglected. He disliked lessons, would never settle down to them, and, if ever the baron managed to keep him reading a little longer than usual, Jeanne would interfere, saying:
"Let him go and play, now. He is so young to be tired with books."
In her eyes he was still an infant, and she hardly noticed that he walked, ran, and talked like a man in miniature. She lived in constant anxiety lest he should fall down, or get too cold or too hot, or overload his stomach, or not eat as much as his growth demanded.
When the boy was twelve years old a great difficulty arose about his first communion. Lise went to Jeanne's room one morning, and pointed out to her that the child could not be permitted to go any longer without religious instruction, and without performing the simplest sacred duties. She called every argument to her aid, and gave a thousand reasons for the necessity of what she was urging, dwelling chiefly upon the danger of scandal. The idea worried Jeanne, and, unable to give a decided answer, she replied that Paul could very well go on as he was for a little longer. A month after this discussion with Lise, Jeanne called on the Vicomtesse de Briseville.
"I suppose it will be Paul's first communion this year," said the vicomtesse, in the course of conversation.
"Yes, madame," answered Jeanne, taken unawares.
These few words had the effect of deciding her, and, without saying anything about it to her father, she asked Lise to take the child to the catechism class. Everything went on smoothly for a month; then Poulet came back, one evening, with a sore throat, and the next day he began to cough. His frightened mother questioned him as to the cause of his cold and he told her that he had not behaved very well in class, so the cure had sent him to wait at the door of the church, where there was a draught from the porch, until the end of the lesson. After that Jeanne kept him at home, and taught him his catechism herself; but the Abbe Tolbiac refused to admit him to communion, in spite of all Lison's entreaties, alleging, as his reason, that the boy had not been properly prepared.
The following year he refused him again, and the baron was so exasperated that he said plainly there was no need for Paul to believe in such foolery as this absurd symbol of transubstantiation, to become a good and honest man. So it was resolved to bring the boy up in the Christian faith, but not in the Catholic Church, and that he should decide his religion for himself when he reached his majority.
A short time afterwards, Jeanne called on the Brisevilles and received no visit in return. Knowing how punctilious they were in all matters of etiquette, she felt very much surprised at the omission, until the Marquise de Coutelier haughtily told her the reason of this neglect. Aware that her husband's rank and wealth made her the queen of the Normandy aristocracy, the marquise ruled in queen-like fashion, showing herself gracious or severe as occasions demanded. She never hesitated to speak as she thought, and reproved, or congratulated, or corrected whenever she thought fit. When Jeanne called on her she addressed a few icy words to her visitor, then said in a cold tone: "Society divides itself naturally into two classes: those who believe in God, and those who do not. The former, however lowly they may be, are our friends and equals; with the latter we can have nothing to do."
Jeanne felt that she was being attacked, and replied:
"But cannot one believe in God without constantly attending church?"
"No, madame. Believers go to pray to God in his church, as they would go to visit their friends at their houses."
"God is everywhere, madame, and not only in the churches," answered Jeanne, feeling very hurt. "I believe in his goodness and mercy from the bottom of my heart, but when there are certain priests between him and me, I can no longer realize his presence."
"The priest is the standard-bearer of the church, madame," said the marquise, rising, "and, whoever does not follow that flag is as much our enemy as the church's."
Jeanne had risen also. "You believe in the God of a sect, madame," she replied, quivering with indignation. "I believe in the God whom every upright man reveres," and, with a bow, she left the marquise.
Among themselves the peasants also blamed Jeanne for not sending Poulet to his first communion. They themselves did not go to mass, and never took the sacrament, or at least, only at Easter when the Church formally commanded it; but when it came to the children, that was a different matter, and not one of them would have dared to bring a child up outside the common faith, for, after all, "Religion is Religion."
Jeanne was quite conscious of the disapproval with which everyone regarded her conduct, but such inconsistency only roused her indignation, and she scorned the people who could thus quiet their consciences so easily, and hide the cowardly fears which lurked at the bottom of their hearts under the mask of righteousness.
The baron undertook to direct Paul's studies, and began to instruct him in Latin. The boy's mother had but one word to say on the subject, "Whatever you do, don't tire him," and, while lessons were going on, she would anxiously hang round the door of the school-room, which her father had forbidden her to enter, because, at every moment, she interrupted his teaching to ask: "You're sure your feet are not cold, Poulet?" or "Your head does not ache, does it, Poulet?" or to admonish the master with: "Don't make him talk so much, he will have a sore throat."
As soon as lessons were over the boy went into the garden with his mother and aunt. They were all three very fond of gardening, and took great pleasure and interest in planting and pruning, in watching the seeds they had sown come up and blossom, and in cutting flowers for nosegays. Paul devoted himself chiefly to raising salad plants. He had the entire care of four big beds in the kitchen garden, and there he cultivated lettuce, endive, cos-lettuce, mustardcress, and every other known kind of salad. He dug, watered, weeded, and planted, and made his two mothers work like day laborers, and for hours together they knelt on the borders, soiling their hands and dresses as they planted the seedlings in the holes they made with their forefingers in the mold.
Poulet was almost fifteen; he had grown wonderfully, and the highest mark on the drawing-room wall was over five feet from the ground, but in mind he was still an ignorant, foolish child, for he had no opportunity of expanding his intellect, confined as he was to the society of these two women and the good-tempered old man who was so far behind the times. At last one evening the baron said it was time for the boy to go to college. Aunt Lison withdrew into a dark corner in horror at the idea, and Jeanne began to sob.
"Why does he want to know so much?" she replied. "We will bring him up to be a gentleman farmer, to devote himself to the cultivation of his property, as so many noblemen do, and he will pass his life happily in this house, where we have lived before him and where we shall die. What more can he want?"
The baron shook his head.
"What answer will you make if he comes to you a few years hence, and says: 'I am nothing, and I know nothing through your selfish love. I feel incapable of working or of becoming anyone now, and yet I know I was not intended to lead the dull, pleasureless life to which your short-sighted affection has condemned me.'"
Jeanne turned to her son with the tears rolling down her cheeks.
"Oh, Poulet, you will never reproach me for having loved you too much, will you?"
"No, mamma," promised the boy in surprise.
"You swear you will not?"
"You want to stay here, don't you?"
"Jeanne, you have no right to dispose of his life in that way," said the baron, sternly. "Such conduct is cowardly—almost criminal. You are sacrificing your child to your own personal happiness."
Jeanne hid her face in her hands, while her sobs came in quick succession.
"I have been so unhappy—so unhappy," she murmured, through her tears. "And now my son has brought peace and rest into my life, you want to take him from me. What will become of me—if I am left—all alone now?"
Her father went and sat down by her side. "And am I no one, Jeanne?" he asked, taking her in his arms. She threw her arms round his neck, and kissed him fondly. Then in a voice still choked with tears and sobs:
"Yes, perhaps you are right papa, dear," she answered; "and I was foolish; but I have had so much sorrow. I am quite willing for him to go to college now."
Then Poulet, who hardly understood what was going to be done with him, began to cry too, and his three mothers kissed and coaxed him and told him to be brave. They all went up to bed with heavy hearts, and even the baron wept when he was alone in his own room, though he had controlled his emotion downstairs. It was resolved to send Paul to the college at Havre at the beginning of the next term, and during the summer he was more spoilt than ever. His mother moaned as she thought of the approaching separation and she got ready as many clothes for the boy as if he had been about to start on a ten years' journey.
One October morning, after a sleepless night, the baron, Jeanne, and Aunt Lison went away with Poulet in the landau. They had already paid a visit to fix upon the bed he was to have in the dormitory and the seat he was to occupy in class, and this time Jeanne and Aunt Lison passed the whole day in unpacking his things and arranging them in the little chest of drawers. As the latter would not contain the quarter of what she had brought, Jeanne went to the head master to ask if the boy could not have another. The steward was sent for, and he said that so much linen and so many clothes were simply in the way, instead of being of any use, and that the rules of the house forbade him to allow another chest of drawers, so Jeanne made up her mind to hire a room in a little hotel close by, and to ask the landlord himself to take Poulet all he wanted, directly the child found himself in need of anything.
They all went on the pier for the rest of the afternoon and watched the ships entering and leaving the harbor; then, at nightfall, they went to a restaurant for dinner. But they were too unhappy to eat, and the dishes were placed before them and removed almost untouched as they sat looking at each other with tearful eyes. After dinner they walked slowly back to the college. Boys of all ages were arriving on every side, some accompanied by their parents, others by servants. A great many were crying, and the big, dim courtyard was filled with the sound of tears.
When the time came to say good-bye, Jeanne and Poulet clung to each other as if they could not part, while Aunt Lison stood, quite forgotten, in the background, with her face buried in her handkerchief. The baron felt he too was giving way, so he hastened the farewells, and took his daughter from the college. The landau was waiting at the door, and they drove back to Les Peuples in a silence that was only broken by an occasional sob.
Jeanne wept the whole of the following day, and the next she ordered the phaeton and drove over to Havre. Poulet seemed to have got over the separation already; It was the first time he had ever had any companions of his own age, and, as he sat beside his mother, he fidgeted on his chair and longed to run out and play. Every other day Jeanne went to see him, and on Sundays took him out. She felt as though she had not energy enough to leave the college between the recreation hours, so she waited in the parloir while the classes were going on until Poulet could come to her again. At last the head master asked her to go up and see him, and begged her not to come so often. She did not take any notice of his request, and he warned her that if she still persisted in preventing her son from enjoying his play hours, and in interrupting his work, he would be obliged to dismiss him from the college. He also sent a note to the baron, to the same effect, and thenceforth Jeanne was always kept in sight at Les Peuples, like a prisoner. She lived in a constant state of nervous anxiety, and looked forward to the holidays with more impatience than her son. She began to take long walks about the country, with Massacre as her only companion, and would stay out of doors all day long, dreamily musing. Sometimes she sat on the cliff the whole afternoon watching the sea; sometimes she walked, across the wood, to Yport, thinking, as she went, of how she had walked there when she was young, and of the long, long years which had elapsed since she had bounded along these very paths, a hopeful, happy girl.
Every time she saw her son, it seemed to Jeanne as if ten years had passed since she had seen him last; for every month he became more of a man, and every month she became more aged. Her father looked like her brother, and Aunt Lison (who had been quite faded when she was twenty-five, and had never seemed to get older since) might have been taken for her elder sister.
Poulet did not study very hard; he spent two years in the fourth form, managed to get through the third in one twelvemonth, then spent two more in the second, and was nearly twenty when he reached the rhetoric class. He had grown into a tall, fair youth, with whiskered cheeks and a budding moustache. He came over to Les Peuples every Sunday now, instead of his mother going to see him; and as he had been taking riding lessons for some time past, he hired a horse and accomplished the journey from Havre in two hours.
Every Sunday Jeanne started out early in the morning to go and meet him on the road, and with her went Aunt Lison and the baron, who was beginning to stoop, and who walked like a little old man, with his hands clasped behind his back as if to prevent himself from pitching forward on his face. The three walked slowly along, sometimes sitting down by the wayside to rest, and all the while straining their eyes to catch the first glimpse of the rider. As soon as he appeared, looking like a black speck on the white road, they waved their handkerchiefs, and he at once put his horse at a gallop, and came up like a whirlwind, frightening his mother and Aunt Lison, and making his grandfather exclaim, "Bravo!" in the admiration of impotent old age.
Although Paul was a head taller than his mother, she always treated him as if he were a child and still asked him, as in former years, "Your feet are not cold, are they, Poulet?" If he went out of doors, after lunch, to smoke a cigarette, she opened the window to cry: "Oh, don't go out without a hat, you will catch cold in your head"; and when, at night, he mounted his horse to return, she could hardly contain herself for nervousness, and entreated her son not to be reckless.
"Do not ride too quickly, Poulet, dear," she would say. "Think of your poor mother, who would go mad if anything happened to you, and be careful."
One Saturday morning she received a letter from Paul to say he should not come to Les Peuples as usual, the following day, as he had been invited to a party some of his college friends had got up. The whole of Sunday Jeanne was tortured by a presentiment of evil, and when Thursday came, she was unable to bear her suspense any longer, and went over to Havre.
Paul seemed changed, though she could hardly tell in what way. He seemed more spirited, and his words and tones were more manly.
"By the way, mamma, we are going on another excursion and I sha'n't come to Les Peuples next Sunday, as you have come to see me to-day," he said, all at once, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Jeanne felt as much surprised and stunned as if he had told her he was going to America; then, when she was again able to speak:
"Oh, Poulet," she exclaimed, "what is the matter with you? Tell me what is going on."
He laughed and gave her a kiss.
"Why, nothing at all, mamma. I am only going to enjoy myself with some friends, as everyone does at my age."
She made no reply, but when she was alone in the carriage, her head was filled with new and strange ideas. She had not recognized her Poulet, her little Poulet, as of old; she perceived for the first time that he was grown up, that he was no longer hers, that henceforth he was going to live his own life, independently of the old people. To her he seemed to have changed entirely in a day. What! Was this strong, bearded, firm-willed lad her son, her little child who used to make her help him plant his lettuces?
Paul only came to Les Peuples at very long intervals for the next three months, and even when he was there, it was only too plain that he longed to get away again as soon as possible, and that, each evening, he tried to leave an hour earlier. Jeanne imagined all sorts of things, while the baron tried to console her by saying: "There, let him alone, the boy is twenty years old, you know."
One morning, a shabbily dressed old man who spoke with a German accent asked for "Matame la vicomtesse." He was shown in, and, after a great many ceremonious bows, pulled out a dirty pocketbook, saying:
"I have a leetle paper for you," and then unfolded, and held out a greasy scrap of paper.
Jeanne read it over twice, looked at the Jew, read it over again, then asked:
"What does it mean?"
"I vill tell you," replied the man obsequiously. "Your son wanted a leetle money, and, as I know what a goot mother you are, I lent him joost a leetle to go on vith."
Jeanne was trembling. "But why did he not come to me for it?"
The Jew entered into a long explanation about a gambling debt which had had to be paid on a certain morning before midday, that no one would lend Paul anything as he was not yet of age, and that his "honor would have been compromised," if he, the Jew, had not "rendered this little service" to the young man. Jeanne wanted to send for the baron, but her emotion seemed to have taken all the strength from her limbs, and she could not rise from her seat.
"Would you be kind enough to ring?" she said to the money-lender, at last.
He feared some trick, and hesitated for a moment.
"If I inconvenience you, I vill call again," he stammered.
She answered him by a shake of the head, and when he had rung they waited in silence for the baron. The latter at once understood it all. The bill was for fifteen hundred francs. He paid the Jew a thousand, saying to him:
"Don't let me see you here again," and the man thanked him, bowed, and went away.
Jeanne and the baron at once went over to Havre, but when they arrived at the college they learnt that Paul had not been there for a month. The principal had received four letters, apparently from Jeanne, the first telling him that his pupil was ill, the others to say how he was getting on, and each letter was accompanied by a doctor's certificate; of course they were all forged. Jeanne and her father looked at each other in dismay when they heard this news, and the principal feeling very sorry for them took them to a magistrate that the police might be set to find the young man.
Jeanne and the baron slept at an hotel that night, and the next day Paul was discovered at the house of a fast woman. His mother and grandfather took him back with them to Les Peuples and the whole of the way not a word was exchanged. Jeanne hid her face in her handkerchief and cried, and Paul looked out of the window with an air of indifference.
Before the end of the week they found out that, during the last three months, Paul had contracted debts to the amount of fifteen thousand francs, but the creditors had not gone to his relations about the money, because they knew the boy would soon be of age. Poulet was asked for no explanation and received no reproof, as his relations hoped to reform him by kindness. He was pampered and caressed in every way; the choicest dishes were prepared for him, and, as it was springtime, a boat was hired for him at Yport, in spite of Jeanne's nervousness, that he might go sailing whenever he liked; the only thing that was denied him was a horse, for fear he should ride to Havre. He became very irritable and passionate and lived a perfectly aimless life. The baron grieved over his neglected studies, and even Jeanne, much as she dreaded to be parted from him again, began to wonder what was to be done with him.
One evening he did not come home. It was found, on inquiry, that he had gone out in a boat with two sailors, and his distracted mother hurried down to Yport, without stopping even to put anything over her head. On the beach she found a few men awaiting the return of the boat, and out on the sea was a little swaying light, which was drawing nearer and nearer to the shore. The boat came in, but Paul was not on board; he had ordered the men to take him to Havre, and had landed there.
The police sought him in vain; he was nowhere to be found, and the woman who had hidden him once before had sold all her furniture, paid her rent, and disappeared also, without leaving any trace behind her. In Paul's room at Les Peuples two letters were found from this creature (who seemed madly in love with him) saying that she had obtained the necessary money for a journey to England. The three inmates of the chateau lived on, gloomy and despairing, through all this mental torture. Jeanne's hair, which had been gray before, was now quite white, and she sometimes asked herself what she could have done, that Fate should so mercilessly pursue her. One day she received the following letter from the Abbe Tolbiac:
"Madame: The hand of God has been laid heavily upon you. You refused to give your son to him, and he has delivered him over to a prostitute; will you not profit by this lesson from heaven? God's mercy is infinite, and perhaps he will pardon you if you throw yourself at his feet. I am his humble servant, and I will open his door to you when you come and knock."
Jeanne sat for a long time with this letter lying open on her knees. Perhaps, after all, the priest's words were true; and all her religious doubts and uncertainties returned to harass her mind. Was it possible that God could be vindictive and jealous like men? But if he was not jealous, he would no longer be feared and loved, and, no doubt, it was that we might the better know him, that he manifested himself to men, as influenced by the same feeling as themselves. Then she felt the fear, the cowardly dread, which urges those who hesitate and doubt to seek the safety of the Church, and one evening, when it was dark, she stealthily ran to the vicarage, and knelt at the foot of the fragile-looking priest to solicit absolution. He only promised her a semi-pardon, as God could not shower all his favors on a house which sheltered such a man as the baron. "Still, you will soon receive a proof of the divine mercy," said the priest.
Two days later, Jeanne did indeed receive a letter from her son, and in the excess of her grief, she looked upon it as the forerunner of the consolation promised by the abbe. The letter ran thus:
"My Dear Mother: Do not be uneasy about me. I am at London, and in good health, but in great need of money. We have not a sou, and some days we have to go without anything to eat. She who is with me, and whom I love with all my heart, has spent all she had (some five thousand francs) that she might remain with me, and you will, of course, understand that I am bound in honor to discharge my debt to her at the very first opportunity. I shall soon be of age, but it would be very good of you if you would advance me fifteen thousand francs of what I inherit from papa; it would relieve me from great embarrassments.
"Good-bye, mother dear; I hope soon to see you again, but in the meantime, I send much love to grandfather, Aunt Lison and yourself. Your son,
"Vicomte Paul de Lamare."
Then he had not forgotten her, for he had written to her! She did not stop to think that it was simply to ask her for money; he had not any and some should be sent him; what did money matter? He had written to her!
She ran to show the letter to the baron, the tears streaming from her eyes. Aunt Lison was called, and, word by word, they read over this letter which spoke of their loved one, and lingered over every sentence. Jeanne, transported from the deepest despair to a kind of intoxication of joy, began to take Paul's part.
"Now he has written, he will come back," she said. "I am sure he will come back."
"Still he left us for this creature," said the baron, who was calm enough to reason; "and he must love her better than he does us, since he did not hesitate in his choice between her and his home."
The words sent a pang of anguish through Jeanne's heart, and within her sprang up the fierce, deadly hatred of a jealous mother against the woman who had robbed her of her son. Until then her every thought had been, for Paul, and she had hardly realized that this creature was the cause of all his errors; but the baron's argument had suddenly brought this rival who possessed such fatal influence vividly to her mind, and she felt that between this woman and herself there must be a determined, bitter warfare. With that thought came another one as terrible—that she would rather lose her son than share him with this other; and all her joy and delight vanished.
The fifteen thousand francs were sent, and for five months nothing more was heard of Paul. At the end of that time a lawyer came to the chateau to see about his inheritance. Jeanne and the baron acceded to all his demands without any dispute, even giving up the money to which the mother had a right for her lifetime, and when he returned to Paris, Paul found himself the possessor of a hundred and twenty thousand francs. During the next six months only four short letters were received from him, giving news of his doings in a few, concise sentences, and ending with formal protestations of affection.