Letters of Two Brides/Chapter XL
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Chapter XL: THE COMTESSE DE L'ESTORADE TO THE BARONNE DE MACUMER
My father has been elected to the Chamber, my father-in-law is dead, and I am on the point of my second confinement; these are the chief events marking the end of the year for us. I mention them at once, lest the sight of the black seal should frighten you.
My dear, your letter from Rome made my flesh creep. You are nothing but a pair of children. Felipe is either a dissembling diplomat or else his love for you is the love a man might have for a courtesan, on whom he squanders his all, knowing all the time that she is false to him. Enough of this. You say I rave, so I had better hold my tongue. Only this would I say, from the comparison of our two very different destinies I draw this harsh moral—Love not if you would be loved.
My dear, when Louis was elected to the provincial Council, he received the cross of the Legion of Honor. That is now nearly three years ago; and as my father—whom you will no doubt see in Paris during the course of the session—has asked the rank of Officer of the Legion for his son-in-law, I want to know if you will do me the kindness to take in hand the bigwig, whoever he may be, to whom this patronage belongs, and to keep an eye upon the little affair. But, whatever you do, don't get entangled in the concerns of my honored father. The Comte de Maucombe is fishing for the title of Marquis for himself; but keep your good services for me, please. When Louis is a deputy—next winter that is—we shall come to Paris, and then we will move heaven and earth to get some Government appointment for him, so that we may be able to save our income by living on his salary. My father sits between the centre and the right; a title will content him. Our family was distinguished even in the days of King Rene, and Charles X. will hardly say no to a Maucombe; but what I fear is that my father may take it into his head to ask some favor for my younger brother. Now, if the marquisate is dangled out of his reach, he will have no thoughts to spare from himself.
Ah! Louise, I have been in hell. If I can bear to tell you of my anguish, it is because you are another self; even so, I don't know whether I shall ever be able to live again in thought those five ghastly days. The mere word "convulsions" makes my very heart sick. Five days! to me they were five centuries of torture. A mother who has not been through this martyrdom does not know what suffering is. So frenzied was I that I even envied you, who never had a child!
The evening before that terrible day the weather was close, almost hot, and I thought my little Armand was affected by it. Generally so sweet and caressing, he was peevish, cried for nothing, wanted to play, and then broke his toys. Perhaps this sort of fractiousness is the usual sign of approaching illness with children. While I was wondering about it, I noticed Armand's cheeks flush, but this I set down to teething, for he is cutting four large teeth at once. So I put him to bed beside me, and kept constantly waking through the night. He was a little feverish, but not enough to make me uneasy, my mind being still full of the teething. Towards morning he cried "Mamma!" and asked by signs for something to drink; but the cry was spasmodic, and there were convulsive twitchings in the limbs, which turned me to ice. I jumped out of bed to fetch him a drink. Imagine my horror when, on my handing him the cup, he remained motionless, only repeating "Mamma!" in that strange, unfamiliar voice, which was indeed by this time hardly a voice at all. I took his hand, but it did not respond to my pressure; it was quite stiff. I put the cup to his lips; the poor little fellow gulped down three or four mouthfuls in a convulsive manner that was terrible to see, and the water made a strange sound in his throat. He clung to me desperately, and I saw his eyes roll, as though some hidden force within were pulling at them, till only the whites were visible; his limbs were turning rigid. I screamed aloud, and Louis came.
"A doctor! quick! . . . he is dying," I cried.
Louis vanished, and my poor Armand again gasped, "Mamma! Mamma!" The next moment he lost all consciousness of his mother's existence. The pretty veins on his forehead swelled, and the convulsions began. For a whole hour before the doctors came, I held in my arms that merry baby, all lilies and roses, the blossom of my life, my pride, and my joy, lifeless as a piece of wood; and his eyes! I cannot think of them without horror. My pretty Armand was a mere mummy—black, shriveled, misshapen.
A doctor, two doctors, brought from Marseilles by Louis, hovered about like birds of ill omen; it made me shudder to look at them. One spoke of brain fever, the other saw nothing but an ordinary case of convulsions in infancy. Our own country doctor seemed to me to have the most sense, for he offered no opinion. "It's teething," said the second doctor.—"Fever," said the first. Finally it was agreed to put leeches on his neck and ice on his head. It seemed to me like death. To look on, to see a corpse, all purple or black, and not a cry, not a movement from this creature but now so full of life and sound—it was horrible!
At one moment I lost my head, and gave a sort of hysterical laugh, as I saw the pretty neck which I used to devour with kisses, with the leeches feeding on it, and his darling head in a cap of ice. My dear, we had to cut those lovely curls, of which we were so proud and with which you used to play, in order to make room for the ice. The convulsions returned every ten minutes with the regularity of labor pains, and then the poor baby writhed and twisted, now white, now violet. His supple limbs clattered like wood as they struck. And this unconscious flesh was the being who smiled and prattled, and used to say Mamma! At the thought, a storm of agony swept tumultuously over my soul, like the sea tossing in a hurricane. It seemed as though every tie which binds a child to its mother's heart was strained to rending. My mother, who might have given me help, advice, or comfort, was in Paris. Mothers, it is my belief, know more than doctors do about convulsions.
After four days and nights of suspense and fear, which almost killed me, the doctors were unanimous in advising the application of a horrid ointment, which would produce open sores. Sores on my Armand! who only five days before was playing about, and laughing, and trying to say "Godmother!" I would not have it done, preferring to trust in nature. Louis, who believes in doctors, scolded me. A man remains the same through everything. But there are moments when this terrible disease takes the likeness of death, and in one of these it seemed borne in upon me that this hateful remedy was the salvation of Armand. Louise, the skin was so dry, so rough and parched, that the ointment would not act. Then I broke into weeping, and my tears fell so long and so fast, that the bedside was wet through. And the doctors were at dinner!
Seeing myself alone with the child, I stripped him of all medical appliances, and seizing him like a mad woman, pressed him to my bosom, laying my forehead against his, and beseeching God to grant him the life which I was striving to pass into his veins from mine. For some minutes I held him thus, longing to die with him, so that neither life nor death might part us. Dear, I felt the limbs relaxing; the writhings ceased, the child stirred, and the ghastly, corpselike tints faded away! I screamed, just as I did when he was taken ill; the doctors hurried up, and I pointed to Armand.
"He is saved!" exclaimed the oldest of them.
What music in those words! The gates of heaven opened! And, in fact, two hours later Armand came back to life; but I was utterly crushed, and it was only the healing power of joy which saved me from a serious illness. My God! by what tortures do you bind a mother to her child! To fasten him to our heart, need the nails be driven into the very quick? Was I not mother enough before? I, who wept tears of joy over his broken syllables and tottering steps, who spent hours together planning how best to perform my duty, and fit myself for the sweet post of mother? Why these horrors, these ghastly scenes, for a mother who already idolized her child?
As I write, our little Armand is playing, shouting, laughing. What can be the cause of this terrible disease with children? Vainly do I try to puzzle it out, remembering that I am again with child. Is it teething? Is it some peculiar process in the brain? Is there something wrong with the nervous system of children who are subject to convulsions? All these thoughts disquiet me, in view alike of the present and the future. Our country doctor holds to the theory of nervous trouble produced by teething. I would give every tooth in my head to see little Armand's all through. The sight of one of those little white pearls peeping out of the swollen gum brings a cold sweat over me now. The heroism with which the little angel bore his sufferings proves to me that he will be his mother's son. A look from him goes to my very heart.
Medical science can give no satisfactory explanation as to the origin of this sort of tetanus, which passes off as rapidly as it comes on, and can apparently be neither guarded against nor cured. One thing alone, as I said before, is certain, that it is hell for a mother to see her child in convulsions. How passionately do I clasp him to my heart! I could walk for ever with him in my arms!
To have suffered all this only six weeks before my confinement made it much worse; I feared for the coming child. Farewell, my dear beloved. Don't wish for a child—there is the sum and substance of my letter!