Bel Ami/Chapter VIII
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Death And A Proposal
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Duroy moved his effects to the apartments in Rue de Constantinople. Two or three times a week, Mme. de-Marelle paid him visits. Duroy, to counterbalance them, dined at her house every Thursday, and delighted her husband by talking agriculture to him.
It was almost the end of February. Duroy was free from care. One night, when he returned home, he found a letter under his door. He examined the postmark; it was from Cannes. Having opened it, he read:
"Cannes, Villa Jolie."
"Dear sir and friend: You told me, did you not, that I could count upon you at any time? Very well. I have a favor to ask of you; it is to come and help me--not to leave me alone during Charles's last moments. He may not live through the week, although he is not confined to his bed, but the doctor has warned me. I have not the strength nor the courage to see that agony day and night, and I think with terror of the approaching end I can only ask such a thing of you, for my husband has no relatives. You were his comrade; he helped you to your position; come, I beg of you; I have no one else to ask."
Georges murmured: "Certainly I will go. Poor Charles!"
The manager, to whom he communicated the contents of that letter, grumblingly gave his consent. He repeated: "But return speedily, you are indispensable to us."
Georges Duroy left for Cannes the next day by the seven o'clock express, after having warned Mme. de Marelle by telegram. He arrived the following day at four o'clock in the afternoon. A commissionnaire conducted him to Villa Jolie. The house was small and low, and of the Italian style of architecture.
A servant opened the door and cried: "Oh, sir, Madame is awaiting you patiently."
Duroy asked: "How is your master?"
"Not very well, sir. He will not be here long."
The floor of the drawing-room which the young man entered was covered with a Persian rug; the large windows looked upon the village and the sea.
Duroy murmured: "How cozy it is here! Where the deuce do they get the money from?"
The rustling of a gown caused him to turn. Mme. Forestier extended both her hands, saying:
"How kind of you to come."
She was a trifle paler and thinner, but still as bright as ever, and perhaps prettier for being more delicate. She whispered: "It is terrible--he knows he cannot be saved and he tyrannizes over me. I have told him of your arrival. But where is your trunk?"
Duroy replied: "I left it at the station, not knowing which hotel you would advise me to stop at, in order to be near you."
She hesitated, then said: "You must stop here, at the villa. Your chamber is ready. He might die any moment, and if it should come in the night, I would be alone. I will send for your luggage."
He bowed. "As you will."
"Now, let us go upstairs," said she; he followed her. She opened a door on the first floor, and Duroy saw a form near a window, seated in an easy-chair, and wrapped in coverlets. He divined that it was his friend, though he scarcely recognized him. Forestier raised his hand slowly and with difficulty, saying:
"You are here; you have come to see me die. I am much obliged."
Duroy forced a smile. "To see you die? That would not be a very pleasant sight, and I would not choose that occasion on which to visit Cannes. I came here to rest."
"Sit down," said Forestier, and he bowed his head as if deep in hopeless meditation. Seeing that he did not speak, his wife approached the window and pointing to the horizon, said, "Look at that? Is it not beautiful?"
In spite of himself Duroy felt the grandeur of the closing day and exclaimed: "Yes, indeed, it is magnificent."
Forestier raised his head and said to his wife: "Give me more air."
She replied: "You must be careful; it is late, the sun is setting; you will catch more cold and that would be a serious thing in your condition."
He made a feeble gesture of anger with his right hand, and said: "I tell you I am suffocating! What difference does it make if I die a day sooner or later, since I must die?"
She opened the window wide. The air was soft and balmy. Forestier inhaled it in feverish gasps. He grasped the arms of his chair and said in a low voice: "Shut the window. I would rather die in a cellar."
His wife slowly closed the window, then leaned her brow against the pane and looked out. Duroy, ill at ease, wished to converse with the invalid to reassure him, but he could think of no words of comfort. He stammered: "Have you not been better since you are here?"
His friend shrugged his shoulders impatiently: "You will see very soon." And he bowed his head again.
Duroy continued: "At home it is still wintry. It snows, hails, rains, and is so dark that they have to light the lamps at three o'clock in the afternoon."
Forestier asked: "Is there anything new at the office?"
"Nothing. They have taken little Lacrin of the 'Voltaire' to fill your place, but he is incapable. It is time you came back."
The invalid muttered: "I? I will soon be writing under six feet of sod." A long silence ensued.
Mme. Forestier did not stir; she stood with her back to the room, her face toward the window. At length Forestier broke the silence in a gasping voice, heartrending to listen to: "How many more sunsets shall I see--eight--ten--fifteen--twenty--or perhaps thirty--no more. You have more time, you two--as for me--all is at an end. And everything will go on when I am gone as if I were here." He paused a few moments, then continued: "Everything that I see reminds me that I shall not see them long. It is horrible. I shall no longer see the smallest objects--the glasses--the dishes--the beds on which we rest--the carriages. It is fine to drive in the evening. How I loved all that."
Again Norbert de Varenne's words occurred to Duroy. The room grew dark. Forestier asked irritably:
"Are we to have no lamp to-night? That is what is called caring for an invalid!"
The form outlined against the window disappeared and an electric bell was heard to ring. A servant soon entered and placed a lamp upon the mantel-piece. Mme. Forestier asked her husband: "Do you wish to retire, or will you go downstairs to dinner?"
"I will go down to dinner."
The meal seemed to Duroy interminable, for there was no conversation, only the ticking of a clock broke the silence. When they had finished, Duroy, pleading fatigue, retired to his room and tried in vain to invent some pretext for returning home as quickly as possible. He consoled himself by saying: "Perhaps it will not be for long."
The next morning Georges rose early and strolled down to the beach. When he returned the servant said to him: "Monsieur has asked for you two or three times. Will you go upstairs?"
He ascended the stairs. Forestier appeared to be in a chair; his wife, reclining upon a couch, was reading. The invalid raised his head. Duroy asked:
"Well, how are you? You look better this morning."
Forestier murmured: "Yes, I am better and stronger. Lunch as hastily as you can with Madeleine, because we are going to take a drive."
When Mme. Forestier was alone with Duroy, she said to him: "You see, to-day he thinks he is better! He is making plans for to-morrow. We are now going to Gulf Juan to buy pottery for our rooms in Paris. He is determined to go, but he cannot stand the jolting on the road."
The carriage arrived, Forestier descended the stairs, step by step, supported by his servant. When he saw the closed landau, he wanted it uncovered. His wife opposed him: "It is sheer madness! You will take cold."
He persisted: "No, I am going to be better, I know it."
They first drove along a shady road and then took the road by the sea. Forestier explained the different points of interest. Finally they arrived at a pavilion over which were these words: "Gulf Juan Art Pottery," and the carriage drew up at the door. Forestier wanted to buy a vase to put on his bookcase. As he could not leave the carriage, they brought the pieces to him one by one. It took him a long time to choose, consulting his wife and Duroy: "You know it is for my study. From my easy-chair I can see it constantly. I prefer the ancient form--the Greek."
At length he made his choice. "I shall return to Paris in a few days," said he.
On their way home along the gulf a cool breeze suddenly sprang up, and the invalid began to cough. At first it was nothing, only a slight attack, but it grew worse and turned to a sort of hiccough--a rattle; Forestier choked, and every time he tried to breathe he coughed violently. Nothing quieted him. He had to be carried from the landau to his room. The heat of the bed did not stop the attack, which lasted until midnight. The first words the sick man uttered were to ask for a barber, for he insisted on being shaved every morning. He rose to be shaved, but was obliged to go to bed at once, and began to breathe so painfully that Mme. Forestier in affright woke Duroy and asked him to fetch the doctor. He returned almost immediately with Dr. Gavant who prescribed for the sick man. When the journalist asked him his opinion, he said: "It is the final stage. He will be dead to-morrow morning. Prepare that poor, young wife and send for a priest. I can do nothing more. However, I am entirely at your disposal" Duroy went to Mme. Forestier. "He is going to die. The doctor advises me to send for a priest. What will you do?"
She hesitated a moment and then said slowly:
"I will go and tell him that the cure wishes to see him. Will you be kind enough to procure one who will require nothing but the confession, and who will not make much fuss?"
The young man brought with him a kind, old priest who accommodated himself to circumstances. When he had entered the death chamber, Mme. Forestier went out and seated herself with Duroy in an adjoining room.
"That has upset him," said she. "When I mentioned the priest to him, his face assumed a scared expression. He knew that the end was near. I shall never forget his face."
At that moment they heard the priest saying to him: "Why no, you are not so low as that. You are ill, but not in danger. The proof of that is that I came as a friend, a neighbor." They could not hear his reply. The priest continued: "No, I shall not administer the sacrament. We will speak of that when you are better. If you will only confess, I ask no more. I am a pastor; I take advantage of every occasion to gather in my sheep."
A long silence followed. Then suddenly the priest said, in the tone of one officiating at the altar:
"The mercy of God is infinite; repeat the 'Confiteor,' my son. Perhaps you have forgotten it; I will help you. Repeat with me: 'Confiteor Deo omnipotenti; Beata Mariae semper virgini.'" He paused from time to time to permit the dying man to catch up to him.
Then he said: "Now, confess." The sick man murmured something. The priest repeated: "You have committed sins: of what kind, my son?"
The young woman rose and said simply: "Let us go into the garden. We must not listen to his secrets."
They seated themselves upon a bench before the door, beneath a blossoming rosebush. After several moments of silence Duroy asked: "Will it be some time before you return to Paris?"
"No," she replied; "when all is over, I will go back."
"In about ten days?"
"Yes, at most."
He continued; "Charles has no relatives then?"
"None, save cousins. His father and mother died when he was very young."
In the course of a few minutes, the servant came to tell them that the priest had finished, and together they ascended the stairs. Forestier seemed to have grown thinner since the preceding day. The priest was holding his hand.
"Au revoir, my son. I will come again to-morrow morning"; and he left. When he was gone, the dying man, who was panting, tried to raise his two hands toward his wife and gasped:
"Save me--save me, my darling. I do not want to die--oh, save me--go for the doctor. I will take anything. I do not want to die." He wept; the tears coursed down his pallid cheeks. Then his hands commenced to wander hither and thither continually, slowly, and regularly, as if gathering something on the coverlet. His wife, who was also weeping, sobbed:
"No, it is nothing. It is only an attack; you will be better to-morrow; you tired yourself with that drive."
Forestier drew his breath quickly and so faintly that one could scarcely hear him. He repeated:
"I do not want to die! Oh, my God--my God--what has happened to me? I cannot see. Oh, my God!" His staring eyes saw something invisible to the others; his hands plucked continually at the counterpane. Suddenly he shuddered and gasped: "The cemetery--me--my God!" He did not speak again. He lay there motionless and ghastly. The hours dragged on; the clock of a neighboring convent chimed noon.
Duroy left the room to obtain some food. He returned an hour later; Mme. Forestier would eat nothing. The invalid had not stirred. The young woman was seated in an easy-chair at the foot of the bed. Duroy likewise seated himself, and they watched in silence. A nurse, sent by the doctor, had arrived and was dozing by the window.
Duroy himself was almost asleep when he felt a presentiment that something was about to happen. He opened his eyes just in time to see Forestier close his. He coughed slightly, and two streams of blood issued from the corners of his mouth and flowed upon his night robe; his hands ceased their perpetual motion; he had breathed his last. His wife, perceiving it, uttered a cry and fell upon her knees by the bedside. Georges, in surprise and affright, mechanically made the sign of the cross.
The nurse, awakening, approached the bed and said: "It has come." Duroy, recovering his self-possession, murmured with a sigh of relief: "It was not as hard as I feared it would be."
That night Mme. Forestier and Duroy watched in the chamber of death. They were alone beside him who was no more. They did not speak, Georges's eyes seemed attracted to that emaciated face which the flickering light made more hollow. That was his friend, Charles Forestier, who the day before had spoken to him. For several years he had lived, eaten, laughed, loved, and hoped as did everyone--and now all was ended for him forever.
Life lasted a few months or years, and then fled! One was born, grew, was happy, and died. Adieu! man or woman, you will never return to earth! He thought of the insects which live several hours, of the feasts which live several days, of the men who live several years, of the worlds which last several centuries. What was the difference between one and the other? A few more dawns, that was all.
Duroy turned away his eyes in order not to see the corpse. Mme. Forestier's head was bowed; her fair hair enhanced the beauty of her sorrowful face. The young man's heart grew hopeful. Why should he lament when he had so many years still before him? He glanced at the handsome widow. How had she ever consented to marry that man? Then he pondered upon all the hidden secrets of their lives. He remembered that he had been told of a Count de Vaudrec who had dowered and given her in marriage. What would she do now? Whom would she marry? Had she projects, plans? He would have liked to know. Why that anxiety as to what she would do?
Georges questioned himself, and found that it was caused by a desire to win her for himself. Why should he not succeed? He was positive that she liked him; she would have confidence in him, for she knew that he was intelligent, resolute, tenacious. Had she not sent for him? Was not that a kind of avowal? He was impatient to question her, to find out her intentions. He would soon have to leave that villa, for he could not remain alone with the young widow; therefore he must find out her plans before returning to Paris, in order that she might not yield to another's entreaties. He broke the oppressive silence by saying:
"You must be fatigued."
"Yes, but above all I am grieved."
Their voices sounded strange in that room. They glanced involuntarily at the corpse as if they expected to see it move. Duroy continued:
"It is a heavy blow for you, and will make a complete change in your life."
She sighed deeply, but did not reply. He added:
"It is very sad for a young woman like you to be left alone." He paused; she still did not reply, and he stammered: "At any rate, you will remember the compact between us; you can command me as you will. I am yours."
She held out her hand to him and said mournfully and gently: "Thanks, you are very kind. If I can do anything for you, I say too: 'Count on me.'"
He took her proffered hand, gazed at it, and was seized with an ardent desire to kiss it. Slowly he raised it to his lips and then relinquished it. As her delicate fingers lay upon her knee the young widow said gravely:
"Yes, I shall be all alone, but I shall force myself to be brave."
He did not know how to tell her that he would be delighted to wed her. Certainly it was no time to speak to her on such a subject; however, he thought he might be able to express himself by means of some phrase which would have a hidden meaning and would infer what he wished to say. But that rigid corpse lay between them. The atmosphere became oppressive, almost suffocating. Duroy asked: "Can we not open the window a little? The air seems to be impure."
"Certainly," she replied; "I have noticed it too."
He opened the window, letting in the cool night air. He turned: "Come and look out, it is delightful."
She glided softly to his side. He whispered: "Listen to me. Do not be angry that I broach the subject at such a time, but the day after to-morrow I shall leave here and when you return to Paris it might be too late. You know that I am only a poor devil, who has his position to make, but I have the will and some intelligence, and I am advancing. A man who has attained his ambition knows what to count on; a man who has his way to make does not know what may come--it may be better or worse. I told you one day that my most cherished dream was to have a wife like you."
"I repeat it to you to-day. Do not reply, but let me continue. This is no proposal--the time and place would render it odious. I only wish to tell you that by a word you can make me happy, and that you can make of me as you will, either a friend or a husband--for my heart and my body are yours. I do not want you to answer me now. I do not wish to speak any more on the subject here. When we meet in Paris, you can tell me your decision."
He uttered these words without glancing at her, and she seemed not to have heard them, for she stood by his side motionless, staring vaguely and fixedly at the landscape before her, bathed in moonlight.
At length she murmured: "It is rather chilly," and turned toward the bed. Duroy followed her. They did not speak but continued their watch. Toward midnight Georges fell asleep. At daybreak the nurse entered and he started up. Both he and Mme. Forestier retired to their rooms to obtain some rest. At eleven o'clock they rose and lunched together; while through the open window was wafted the sweet, perfumed air of spring. After lunch, Mme. Forestier proposed that they take a turn in the garden; as they walked slowly along, she suddenly said, without turning her head toward him, in a low, grave voice:
"Listen to me, my dear friend; I have already reflected upon what you proposed to me, and I cannot allow you to depart without a word of reply. I will, however, say neither yes nor no. We will wait, we will see; we will become better acquainted. You must think it well over too. Do not yield to an impulse. I mention this to you before even poor Charles is buried, because it is necessary, after what you have said to me, that you should know me as I am, in order not to cherish the hope you expressed to me any longer, if you are not a man who can understand and bear with me."
"Now listen carefully: Marriage, to me, is not a chain but an association. I must be free, entirely unfettered, in all my actions--my coming and my going; I can tolerate neither control, jealousy, nor criticism as to my conduct. I pledge my word, however, never to compromise the name of the man I marry, nor to render him ridiculous in the eyes of the world. But that man must promise to look upon me as an equal, an ally, and not as an inferior, or as an obedient, submissive wife. My ideas, I know, are not like those of other people, but I shall never change them. Do not answer me, it would be useless. We shall meet again and talk it all over later. Now take a walk; I shall return to him. Good-bye until to-night."
He kissed her hand and left her without having uttered a word. That night they met at dinner; directly after the meal they sought their rooms, worn out with fatigue.
Charles Forestier was buried the next day in the cemetery at Cannes without any pomp, and Georges returned to Paris by the express which left at one-thirty. Mme. Forestier accompanied him to the station. They walked up and down the platform awaiting the hour of departure and conversing on indifferent subjects.
The train arrived, the journalist took his seat; a porter cried: "Marseilles, Lyons, Paris! All aboard!" The locomotive whistled and the train moved slowly out of the station.
The young man leaned out of the carriage, and looked at the youthful widow standing on the platform gazing after him. Just as she was disappearing from his sight, he threw her a kiss, which she returned with a more discreet wave of her hand.