The Lily of the Valley (Balzac, tr. Wormeley)/Chapter II
|←Chapter I||The Lily of the Valley by , translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley
Chapter II: FIRST LOVE
This scene took place on a Tuesday. I waited until Sunday and did not cross the river. During those five days great events were happening at Clochegourde. The count received his brevet as general of brigade, the cross of Saint Louis, and a pension of four thousand francs. The Duc de Lenoncourt-Givry, made peer of France, recovered possession of two forests, resumed his place at court, and his wife regained all her unsold property, which had been made part of the imperial crown lands. The Comtesse de Mortsauf thus became an heiress. Her mother had arrived at Clochegourde, bringing her a hundred thousand francs economized at Givry, the amount of her dowry, still unpaid and never asked for by the count in spite of his poverty. In all such matters of external life the conduct of this man was proudly disinterested. Adding to this sum his own few savings he was able to buy two neighboring estates, which would yield him some nine thousand francs a year. His son would of course succeed to the grandfather's peerage, and the count now saw his way to entail the estate upon him without injury to Madeleine, for whom the Duc de Lenoncourt would no doubt assist in promoting a good marriage.
These arrangements and this new happiness shed some balm upon the count's sore mind. The presence of the Duchesse de Lenoncourt at Clochegourde was a great event to the neighborhood. I reflected gloomily that she was a great lady, and the thought made me conscious of the spirit of caste in the daughter which the nobility of her sentiments had hitherto hidden from me. Who was I—poor, insignificant, and with no future but my courage and my faculties? I did not then think of the consequences of the Restoration either for me or for others. On Sunday morning, from the private chapel where I sat with Monsieur and Madame de Chessel and the Abbe de Quelus, I cast an eager glance at another lateral chapel occupied by the duchess and her daughter, the count and his children. The large straw hat which hid my idol from me did not tremble, and this unconsciousness of my presence seemed to bind me to her more than all the past. This noble Henriette de Lenoncourt, my Henriette, whose life I longed to garland, was praying earnestly; faith gave to her figure an abandonment, a prosternation, the attitude of some religious statue, which moved me to the soul.
According to village custom, vespers were said soon after mass. Coming out of church Madame de Chessel naturally proposed to her neighbors to pass the intermediate time at Frapesle instead of crossing the Indre and the meadows twice in the great heat. The offer was accepted. Monsieur de Chessel gave his arm to the duchess, Madame de Chessel took that of the count. I offered mine to the countess, and felt, for the first time, that beautiful arm against my side. As we walked from the church to Frapesle by the woods of Sache, where the light, filtering down through the foliage, made those pretty patterns on the path which seem like painted silk, such sensations of pride, such ideas took possession of me that my heart beat violently.
"What is the matter?" she said, after walking a little way in a silence I dared not break. "Your heart beats too fast—"
"I have heard of your good fortune," I replied, "and, like all others who love truly, I am beset with vague fears. Will your new dignities change you and lessen your friendship?"
"Change me!" she said; "oh, fie! Another such idea and I shall—not despise you, but forget you forever."
I looked at her with an ecstasy which should have been contagious.
"We profit by the new laws which we have neither brought about nor demanded," she said; "but we are neither place-hunters nor beggars; besides, as you know very well, neither Monsieur de Mortsauf nor I can leave Clochegourde. By my advice he has declined the command to which his rank entitled him at the Maison Rouge. We are quite content that my father should have the place. This forced modesty," she added with some bitterness, "has already been of service to our son. The king, to whose household my father is appointed, said very graciously that he would show Jacques the favor we were not willing to accept. Jacques' education, which must now be thought of, is already being discussed. He will be the representative of two houses, the Lenoncourt and the Mortsauf families. I can have no ambition except for him, and therefore my anxieties seem to have increased. Not only must Jacques live, but he must be made worthy of his name; two necessities which, as you know, conflict. And then, later, what friend will keep him safe for me in Paris, where all things are pitfalls for the soul and dangers for the body? My friend," she said, in a broken voice, "who could not see upon your brow and in your eyes that you are one who will inhabit heights? Be some day the guardian and sponsor of our boy. Go to Paris; if your father and brother will not second you, our family, above all my mother, who has a genius for the management of life, will help you. Profit by our influence; you will never be without support in whatever career you choose; put the strength of your desires into a noble ambition—"
"I understand you," I said, interrupting her; "ambition is to be my mistress. I have no need of that to be wholly yours. No, I will not be rewarded for my obedience here by receiving favors there. I will go; I will make my own way; I will rise alone. From you I would accept everything, from others nothing."
"Child!" she murmured, ill-concealing a smile of pleasure.
"Besides, I have taken my vows," I went on. "Thinking over our situation I am resolved to bind myself to you by ties that never can be broken."
She trembled slightly and stopped short to look at me.
"What do you mean?" she asked, letting the couples who preceded us walk on, and keeping the children at her side.
"This," I said; "but first tell me frankly how you wish me to love you."
"Love me as my aunt loved me; I gave you her rights when I permitted you to call me by the name which she chose for her own among my others."
"Then I am to love without hope and with an absolute devotion. Well, yes; I will do for you what some men do for God. I shall feel that you have asked it. I will enter a seminary and make myself a priest, and then I will educate your son. Jacques shall be myself in his own form; political conceptions, thoughts, energy, patience, I will give him all. In that way I shall live near to you, and my love, enclosed in religion as a silver image in a crystal shrine, can never be suspected of evil. You will not have to fear the undisciplined passions which grasp a man and by which already I have allowed myself to be vanquished. I will consume my own being in the flame, and I will love you with a purified love."
She turned pale and said, hurrying her words: "Felix, do not put yourself in bonds that might prove an obstacle to our happiness. I should die of grief for having caused a suicide like that. Child, do you think despairing love a life's vocation? Wait for life's trials before you judge of life; I command it. Marry neither the Church nor a woman; marry not at all,—I forbid it. Remain free. You are twenty-one years old—My God! can I have mistaken him? I thought two months sufficed to know some souls."
"What hope have you?" I cried, with fire in my eyes.
"My friend, accept our help, rise in life, make your way and your fortune and you shall know my hope. And," she added, as if she were whispering a secret, "never release the hand you are holding at this moment."
She bent to my ear as she said these words which proved her deep solicitude for my future.
"Madeleine!" I exclaimed "never!"
We were close to a wooden gate which opened into the park of Frapesle; I still seem to see its ruined posts overgrown with climbing plants and briers and mosses. Suddenly an idea, that of the count's death, flashed through my brain, and I said, "I understand you."
"I am glad of it," she answered in a tone which made me know I had supposed her capable of a thought that could never be hers.
Her purity drew tears of admiration from my eyes which the selfishness of passion made bitter indeed. My mind reacted and I felt that she did not love me enough even to wish for liberty. So long as love recoils from a crime it seems to have its limits, and love should be infinite. A spasm shook my heart.
"She does not love me," I thought.
To hide what was in my soul I stooped over Madeleine and kissed her hair.
"I am afraid of your mother," I said to the countess presently, to renew the conversation.
"So am I," she answered with a gesture full of childlike gaiety. "Don't forget to call her Madame la duchesse, and to speak to her in the third person. The young people of the present day have lost these polite manners; you must learn them; do that for my sake. Besides, it is such good taste to respect women, no matter what their age may be, and to recognize social distinctions without disputing them. The respect shown to established superiority is guarantee for that which is due to you. Solidarity is the basis of society. Cardinal Della Rovere and Raffaelle were two powers equally revered. You have sucked the milk of the Revolution in your academy and your political ideas may be influenced by it; but as you advance in life you will find that crude and ill-defined principles of liberty are powerless to create the happiness of the people. Before considering, as a Lenoncourt, what an aristocracy ought to be, my common-sense as a woman of the people tells me that societies can exist only through a hierarchy. You are now at a turning-point in your life, when you must choose wisely. Be on our side,—especially now," she added, laughing, "when it triumphs."
I was keenly touched by these words, in which the depth of her political feeling mingled with the warmth of affection,—a combination which gives to women so great a power of persuasion; they know how to give to the keenest arguments a tone of feeling. In her desire to justify all her husband's actions Henriette had foreseen the criticisms that would rise in my mind as soon as I saw the servile effects of a courtier's life upon him. Monsieur de Mortsauf, king in his own castle and surrounded by an historic halo, had, to my eyes, a certain grandiose dignity. I was therefore greatly astonished at the distance he placed between the duchess and himself by manners that were nothing less than obsequious. A slave has his pride and will only serve the greatest despots. I confess I was humiliated at the degradation of one before whom I trembled as the power that ruled my love. This inward repulsion made me understand the martyrdom of women of generous souls yoked to men whose meannesses they bury daily. Respect is a safeguard which protects both great and small alike; each side can hold its own. I was respectful to the duchess because of my youth; but where others saw only a duchess I saw the mother of my Henriette, and that gave sanctity to my homage.
We reached the great court-yard of Frapesle, where we found the others. The Comte de Mortsauf presented me very gracefully to the duchess, who examined me with a cold and reserved air. Madame de Lenoncourt was then a woman fifty-six years of age, wonderfully well preserved and with grand manners. When I saw the hard blue eyes, the hollow temples, the thin emaciated face, the erect, imposing figure slow of movement, and the yellow whiteness of the skin (reproduced with such brilliancy in the daughter), I recognized the cold type to which my own mother belonged, as quickly as a mineralogist recognizes Swedish iron. Her language was that of the old court; she pronounced the "oit" like "ait," and said "frait" for "froid," "porteux" for "porteurs." I was not a courtier, neither was I stiff-backed in my manner to her; in fact I behaved so well that as I passed the countess she said in a low voice, "You are perfect."
The count came to me and took my hand, saying: "You are not angry with me, Felix, are you? If I was hasty you will pardon an old soldier? We shall probably stay here to dinner, and I invite you to dine with us on Thursday, the evening before the duchess leaves. I must go to Tours to-morrow to settle some business. Don't neglect Clochegourde. My mother-in-law is an acquaintance I advise you to cultivate. Her salon will set the tone for the faubourg St. Germain. She has all the traditions of the great world, and possesses an immense amount of social knowledge; she knows the blazon of the oldest as well as the newest family in Europe."
The count's good taste, or perhaps the advice of his domestic genius, appeared under his altered circumstances. He was neither arrogant nor offensively polite, nor pompous in any way, and the duchess was not patronizing. Monsieur and Madame de Chessel gratefully accepted the invitation to dinner on the following Thursday. I pleased the duchess, and by her glance I knew she was examining a man of whom her daughter had spoken to her. As we returned from vespers she questioned me about my family, and asked if the Vandenesse now in diplomacy was my relative. "He is my brother," I replied. On that she became almost affectionate. She told me that my great-aunt, the old Marquise de Listomere, was a Grandlieu. Her manners were as cordial as those of Monsieur de Mortsauf the day he saw me for the first time; the haughty glance with which these sovereigns of the earth make you measure the distance that lies between you and them disappeared. I knew almost nothing of my family. The duchess told me that my great-uncle, an old abbe whose very name I did not know, was to be member of the privy council, that my brother was already promoted, and also that by a provision of the Charter, of which I had not yet heard, my father became once more Marquis de Vandenesse.
"I am but one thing, the serf of Clochegourde," I said in a low voice to the countess.
The transformation scene of the Restoration was carried through with a rapidity which bewildered the generation brought up under the imperial regime. To me this revolution meant nothing. The least word or gesture from Madame de Mortsauf were the sole events to which I attached importance. I was ignorant of what the privy council was, and knew as little of politics as of social life; my sole ambition was to love Henriette better than Petrarch loved Laura. This indifference made the duchess take me for a child. A large company assembled at Frapesle and we were thirty at table. What intoxication it is for a young man unused to the world to see the woman he loves more beautiful than all others around her, the centre of admiring looks; to know that for him alone is reserved the chaste fire of those eyes, that none but he can discern in the tones of that voice, in the words it utters, however gay or jesting they may be, the proofs of unremitting thought. The count, delighted with the attentions paid to him, seemed almost young; his wife looked hopeful of a change; I amused myself with Madeleine, who, like all children with bodies weaker than their minds, made others laugh with her clever observations, full of sarcasm, though never malicious, and which spared no one. It was a happy day. A word, a hope awakened in the morning illumined nature. Seeing me so joyous, Henriette was joyful too.
"This happiness smiling on my gray and cloudy life seems good," she said to me the next day.
That day I naturally spent at Clochegourde. I had been banished for five days, I was athirst for life. The count left at six in the morning for Tours. A serious disagreement had arisen between mother and daughter. The duchess wanted the countess to move to Paris, where she promised her a place at court, and where the count, reconsidering his refusal, might obtain some high position. Henriette, who was thought happy in her married life, would not reveal, even to her mother, her tragic sufferings and the fatal incapacity of her husband. It was to hide his condition from the duchess that she persuaded him to go to Tours and transact business with his notaries. I alone, as she had truly said, knew the dark secret of Clochegourde. Having learned by experience how the pure air and the blue sky of the lovely valley calmed the excitements and soothed the morbid griefs of the diseased mind, and what beneficial effect the life at Clochegourde had upon the health of her children, she opposed her mother's desire that she should leave it with reasons which the overbearing woman, who was less grieved than mortified by her daughter's bad marriage, vigorously combated.
Henriette saw that the duchess cared little for Jacques and Madeleine,—a terrible discovery! Like all domineering mothers who expect to continue the same authority over their married daughters that they maintained when they were girls, the duchess brooked no opposition; sometimes she affected a crafty sweetness to force her daughter to compliance, at other times a cold severity, intending to obtain by fear what gentleness had failed to win; then, when all means failed, she displayed the same native sarcasm which I had often observed in my own mother. In those ten days Henriette passed through all the contentions a young woman must endure to establish her independence. You, who for your happiness have the best of mothers, can scarcely comprehend such trials. To gain a true idea of the struggle between that cold, calculating, ambitious woman and a daughter abounding in the tender natural kindness that never faileth, you must imagine a lily, to which my heart has always compared her, bruised beneath the polished wheels of a steel car. That mother had nothing in common with her daughter; she was unable even to imagine the real difficulties which hindered her from taking advantage of the Restoration and forced her to continue a life of solitude. Though families bury their internal dissensions with the utmost care, enter behind the scenes, and you will find in nearly all of them deep, incurable wounds, which lessen the natural affections. Sometimes these wounds are given by passions real and most affecting, rendered eternal by the dignity of those who feel them; sometimes by latent hatreds which slowly freeze the heart and dry all tears when the hour of parting comes. Tortured yesterday and to-day, wounded by all, even by the suffering children who were guiltless of the ills they endured, how could that poor soul fail to love the one human being who did not strike her, who would fain have built a wall of defence around her to guard her from storms, from harsh contacts and cruel blows? Though I suffered from a knowledge of these debates, there were moments when I was happy in the sense that she rested upon my heart; for she told me of these new troubles. Day by day I learned more fully the meaning of her words,—"Love me as my aunt loved me."
"Have you no ambition?" the duchess said to me at dinner, with a stern air.
"Madame," I replied, giving her a serious look, "I have enough in me to conquer the world; but I am only twenty-one, and I am all alone."
She looked at her daughter with some astonishment. Evidently she believed that Henriette had crushed my ambition in order to keep me near her. The visit of Madame de Lenoncourt was a period of unrelieved constraint. The countess begged me to be cautious; she was frightened by the least kind word; to please her I wore the harness of deceit. The great Thursday came; it was a day of wearisome ceremonial,—one of those stiff days which lovers hate, when their chair is no longer in its place, and the mistress of the house cannot be with them. Love has a horror of all that does not concern itself. But the duchess returned at last to the pomps and vanities of the court, and Clochegourde recovered its accustomed order.
My little quarrel with the count resulted in making me more at home in the house than ever; I could go there at all times without hindrance; and the antecedents of my life inclined me to cling like a climbing plant to the beautiful soul which had opened to me the enchanting world of shared emotions. Every hour, every minute, our fraternal marriage, founded on trust, became a surer thing; each of us settled firmly into our own position; the countess enfolded me with her nurturing care, with the white draperies of a love that was wholly maternal; while my love for her, seraphic in her presence, seared me as with hot irons when away from her. I loved her with a double love which shot its arrows of desire, and then lost them in the sky, where they faded out of sight in the impermeable ether. If you ask me why, young and ardent, I continued in the deluding dreams of Platonic love, I must own to you that I was not yet man enough to torture that woman, who was always in dread of some catastrophe to her children, always fearing some outburst of her husband's stormy temper, martyrized by him when not afflicted by the illness of Jacques or Madeleine, and sitting beside one or the other of them when her husband allowed her a little rest. The mere sound of too warm a word shook her whole being; a desire shocked her; what she needed was a veiled love, support mingled with tenderness,—that, in short, which she gave to others. Then, need I tell you, who are so truly feminine? this situation brought with it hours of delightful languor, moments of divine sweetness and content which followed by secret immolation. Her conscience was, if I may call it so, contagious; her self-devotion without earthly recompense awed me by its persistence; the living, inward piety which was the bond of her other virtues filled the air about her with spiritual incense. Besides, I was young,—young enough to concentrate my whole being on the kiss she allowed me too seldom to lay upon her hand, of which she gave me only the back, and never the palm, as though she drew the line of sensual emotions there. No two souls ever clasped each other with so much ardor, no bodies were ever more victoriously annihilated. Later I understood the cause of this sufficing joy. At my age no worldly interests distracted my heart; no ambitions blocked the stream of a love which flowed like a torrent, bearing all things on its bosom. Later, we love the woman in a woman; but the first woman we love is the whole of womanhood; her children are ours, her interests are our interests, her sorrows our greatest sorrow; we love her gown, the familiar things about her; we are more grieved by a trifling loss of hers than if we knew we had lost everything. This is the sacred love that makes us live in the being of another; whereas later, alas! we draw another life into ours, and require a woman to enrich our pauper spirit with her young soul.
I was now one of the household, and I knew for the first time an infinite sweetness, which to a nature bruised as mine was like a bath to a weary body; the soul is refreshed in every fibre, comforted to its very depths. You will hardly understand me, for you are a woman, and I am speaking now of a happiness women give but do not receive. A man alone knows the choice happiness of being, in the midst of a strange household, the privileged friend of its mistress, the secret centre of her affections. No dog barks at you; the servants, like the dogs, recognize your rights; the children (who are never misled, and know that their power cannot be lessened, and that you cherish the light of their life), the children possess the gift of divination, they play with you like kittens and assume the friendly tyranny they show only to those they love; they are full of intelligent discretion and come and go on tiptoe without noise. Every one hastens to do you service; all like you, and smile upon you. True passions are like beautiful flowers all the more charming to the eye when they grow in a barren soil.
But if I enjoyed the delightful benefits of naturalization in a family where I found relations after my own heart, I had also to pay some costs for it. Until then Monsieur de Mortsauf had more or less restrained himself before me. I had only seen his failings in the mass; I was now to see the full extent of their application and discover how nobly charitable the countess had been in the account she had given me of these daily struggles. I learned now all the angles of her husband's intolerable nature; I heard his perpetual scolding about nothing, complaints of evils of which not a sign existed; I saw the inward dissatisfaction which poisoned his life, and the incessant need of his tyrannical spirit for new victims. When we went to walk in the evenings he selected the way; but whichever direction we took he was always bored; when we reached home he blamed others; his wife had insisted on going where she wanted; why was he governed by her in all the trifling things of life? was he to have no will, no thought of his own? must he consent to be a cipher in his own house? If his harshness was to be received in patient silence he was angry because he felt a limit to his power; he asked sharply if religion did not require a wife to please her husband, and whether it was proper to despise the father of her children? He always ended by touching some sensitive chord in his wife's mind; and he seemed to find a domineering pleasure in making it sound. Sometimes he tried gloomy silence and a morbid depression, which always alarmed his wife and made her pay him the most tender attentions. Like petted children, who exercise their power without thinking of the distress of their mother, he would let her wait upon him as upon Jacques and Madeleine, of whom he was jealous.
I discovered at last that in small things as well as in great ones the count acted towards his servants, his children, his wife, precisely as he had acted to me about the backgammon. The day when I understood, root and branch, these difficulties, which like a rampant overgrowth repressed the actions and stifled the breathing of the whole family, hindered the management of the household and retarded the improvement of the estate by complicating the most necessary acts, I felt an admiring awe which rose higher than my love and drove it back into my heart. Good God! what was I? Those tears that I had taken on my lips solemnized my spirit; I found happiness in wedding the sufferings of that woman. Hitherto I had yielded to the count's despotism as the smuggler pays his fine; henceforth I was a voluntary victim that I might come the nearer to her. The countess understood me, allowed me a place beside her, and gave me permission to share her sorrows; like the repentant apostate, eager to rise to heaven with his brethren, I obtained the favor of dying in the arena.
"Were it not for you I must have succumbed under this life," Henriette said to me one evening when the count had been, like the flies on a hot day, more stinging, venomous, and persistent than usual.
He had gone to bed. Henriette and I remained under the acacias; the children were playing about us, bathed in the setting sun. Our few exclamatory words revealed the mutuality of the thoughts in which we rested from our common sufferings. When language failed silence as faithfully served our souls, which seemed to enter one another without hindrance; together they luxuriated in the charms of pensive languor, they met in the undulations of the same dream, they plunged as one into the river and came out refreshed like two nymphs as closely united as their souls could wish, but with no earthly tie to bind them. We entered the unfathomable gulf, we returned to the surface with empty hands, asking each other by a look, "Among all our days on earth will there be one for us?"
In spite of the tranquil poetry of evening which gave to the bricks of the balustrade their orange tones, so soothing and so pure; in spite of the religious atmosphere of the hour, which softened the voices of the children and wafted them towards us, desire crept through my veins like the match to the bonfire. After three months of repression I was unable to content myself with the fate assigned me. I took Henriette's hand and softly caressed it, trying to convey to her the ardor that invaded me. She became at once Madame de Mortsauf, and withdrew her hand; tears rolled from my eyes, she saw them and gave me a chilling look, as she offered her hand to my lips.
"You must know," she said, "that this will cause me grief. A friendship that asks so great a favor is dangerous."
Then I lost my self-control; I reproached her, I spoke of my sufferings, and the slight alleviation that I asked for them. I dared to tell her that at my age, if the senses were all soul still the soul had a sex; that I could meet death, but not with closed lips. She forced me to silence with her proud glance, in which I seemed to read the cry of the Mexican: "And I, am I on a bed of roses?" Ever since that day by the gate of Frapesle, when I attributed to her the hope that our happiness might spring from a grave, I had turned with shame from the thought of staining her soul with the desires of a brutal passion. She now spoke with honeyed lip, and told me that she never could be wholly mine, and that I ought to know it. As she said the words I know that in obeying her I dug an abyss between us. I bowed my head. She went on, saying she had an inward religious certainty that she might love me as a brother without offending God or man; such love was a living image of the divine love, which her good Saint-Martin told her was the life of the world. If I could not be to her somewhat as her old confessor was, less than a lover yet more than a brother, I must never see her again. She could die and take to God her sheaf of sufferings, borne not without tears and anguish.
"I gave you," she said in conclusion, "more than I ought to have given, so that nothing might be left to take, and I am punished."
I was forced to calm her, to promise never to cause her pain, and to love her at twenty-one years of age as old men love their youngest child.
The next day I went early. There were no flowers in the vases of her gray salon. I rushed into the fields and vineyards to make her two bouquets; but as I gathered the flowers, one by one, cutting their long stalks and admiring their beauty, the thought occurred to me that the colors and foliage had a poetry, a harmony, which meant something to the understanding while they charmed the eye; just as musical melodies awaken memories in hearts that are loving and beloved. If color is light organized, must it not have a meaning of its own, as the combinations of the air have theirs? I called in the assistance of Jacques and Madeleine, and all three of us conspired to surprise our dear one. I arranged, on the lower steps of the portico, where we established our floral headquarters, two bouquets by which I tried to convey a sentiment. Picture to yourself a fountain of flowers gushing from the vases and falling back in curving waves; my message springing from its bosom in white roses and lilies with their silver cups. All the blue flowers, harebells, forget-me-nots, and ox-tongues, whose tines, caught from the skies, blended so well with the whiteness of the lilies, sparkled on this dewy texture; were they not the type of two purities, the one that knows nothing, the other that knows all; an image of the child, an image of the martyr? Love has its blazon, and the countess discerned it inwardly. She gave me a poignant glance which was like the cry of a soldier when his wound is touched; she was humbled but enraptured too. My reward was in that glance; to refresh her heart, to have given her comfort, what encouragement for me! Then it was that I pressed the theories of Pere Castel into the service of love, and recovered a science lost to Europe, where written pages have supplanted the flowery missives of the Orient with their balmy tints. What charm in expressing our sensations through these daughters of the sun, sisters to the flowers that bloom beneath the rays of love! Before long I communed with the flora of the fields, as a man whom I met in after days at Grandlieu communed with his bees.
Twice a week during the remainder of my stay at Frapesle I continued the slow labor of this poetic enterprise, for the ultimate accomplishment of which I needed all varieties of herbaceous plants; into these I made a deep research, less as a botanist than as a poet, studying their spirit rather than their form. To find a flower in its native haunts I walked enormous distances, beside the brooklets, through the valleys, to the summit of the cliffs, across the moorland, garnering thoughts even from the heather. During these rambles I initiated myself into pleasures unthought of by the man of science who lives in meditation, unknown to the horticulturist busy with specialities, to the artisan fettered to a city, to the merchant fastened to his desk, but known to a few foresters, to a few woodsmen, and to some dreamers. Nature can show effects the significations of which are limitless; they rise to the grandeur of the highest moral conceptions—be it the heather in bloom, covered with the diamonds of the dew on which the sunlight dances; infinitude decked for the single glance that may chance to fall upon it:—be it a corner of the forest hemmed in with time-worn rocks crumbling to gravel and clothed with mosses overgrown with juniper, which grasps our minds as something savage, aggressive, terrifying as the cry of the kestrel issuing from it:—be it a hot and barren moor without vegetation, stony, rigid, its horizon like those of the desert, where once I gathered a sublime and solitary flower, the anemone pulsatilla, with its violet petals opening for the golden stamens; affecting image of my pure idol alone in her valley:—be it great sheets of water, where nature casts those spots of greenery, a species of transition between the plant and animal, where life makes haste to come in flowers and insects, floating there like worlds in ether:—be it a cottage with its garden of cabbages, its vineyards, its hedges overhanging a bog, surrounded by a few sparse fields of rye; true image of many humble existences:—be it a forest path like some cathedral nave, where the trees are columns and their branches arch the roof, at the far end of which a light breaks through, mingled with shadows or tinted with sunset reds athwart the leaves which gleam like the colored windows of a chancel:—then, leaving these woods so cool and branchy, behold a chalk-land lying fallow, where among the warm and cavernous mosses adders glide to their lairs, or lift their proud slim heads. Cast upon all these pictures torrents of sunlight like beneficent waters, or the shadow of gray clouds drawn in lines like the wrinkles of an old man's brow, or the cool tones of a sky faintly orange and streaked with lines of a paler tint; then listen—you will hear indefinable harmonies amid a silence which blends them all.
During the months of September and October I did not make a single bouquet which cost me less than three hours search; so much did I admire, with the real sympathy of a poet, these fugitive allegories of human life, that vast theatre I was about to enter, the scenes of which my memory must presently recall. Often do I now compare those splendid scenes with memories of my soul thus expending itself on nature; again I walk that valley with my sovereign, whose white robe brushed the coppice and floated on the green sward, whose spirit rose, like a promised fruit, from each calyx filled with amorous stamens.
No declaration of love, no vows of uncontrollable passion ever conveyed more than these symphonies of flowers; my baffled desires impelled me to efforts of expression through them like those of Beethoven through his notes, to the same bitter reactions, to the same mighty bounds towards heaven. In their presence Madame de Mortsauf was my Henriette. She looked at them constantly; they fed her spirit, she gathered all the thoughts I had given them, saying, as she raised her head from the embroidery frame to receive my gift, "Ah, how beautiful!"
Natalie, you will understand this delightful intercourse through the details of a bouquet, just as you would comprehend Saadi from a fragment of his verse. Have you ever smelt in the fields in the month of May the perfume that communicates to all created beings the intoxicating sense of a new creation; the sense that makes you trail your hand in the water from a boat, and loosen your hair to the breeze while your mind revives with the springtide greenery of the trees? A little plant, a species of vernal grass, is a powerful element in this veiled harmony; it cannot be worn with impunity; take into your hand its shining blade, striped green and white like a silken robe, and mysterious emotions will stir the rosebuds your modesty keeps hidden in the depths of your heart. Round the neck of a porcelain vase imagine a broad margin of the gray-white tufts peculiar to the sedum of the vineyards of Touraine, vague image of submissive forms; from this foundation come tendrils of the bind-weed with its silver bells, sprays of pink rest-barrow mingled with a few young shoots of oak-leaves, lustrous and magnificently colored; these creep forth prostrate, humble as the weeping-willow, timid and supplicating as prayer. Above, see those delicate threads of the purple amoret, with its flood of anthers that are nearly yellow; the snowy pyramids of the meadow-sweet, the green tresses of the wild oats, the slender plumes of the agrostis, which we call wind-ear; roseate hopes, decking love's earliest dream and standing forth against the gray surroundings. But higher still, remark the Bengal roses, sparsely scattered among the laces of the daucus, the plumes of the linaria, the marabouts of the meadow-queen; see the umbels of the myrrh, the spun glass of the clematis in seed, the dainty petals of the cross-wort, white as milk, the corymbs of the yarrow, the spreading stems of the fumitory with their black and rosy blossoms, the tendrils of the grape, the twisted shoots of the honeysuckle; in short, all the innocent creatures have that is most tangled, wayward, wild,—flames and triple darts, leaves lanceolated or jagged, stalks convoluted like passionate desires writhing in the soul. From the bosom of this torrent of love rises the scarlet poppy, its tassels about to open, spreading its flaming flakes above the starry jessamine, dominating the rain of pollen—that soft mist fluttering in the air and reflecting the light in its myriad particles. What woman intoxicated with the odor of the vernal grasses would fail to understand this wealth of offered thoughts, these ardent desires of a love demanding the happiness refused in a hundred struggles which passion still renews, continuous, unwearying, eternal!
Put this speech of the flowers in the light of a window to show its crisp details, its delicate contrasts, its arabesques of color, and allow the sovereign lady to see a tear upon some petal more expanded than the rest. What do we give to God? perfumes, light, and song, the purest expression of our nature. Well, these offerings to God, are they not likewise offered to love in this poem of luminous flowers murmuring their sadness to the heart, cherishing its hidden transports, its unuttered hopes, its illusions which gleam and fall to fragments like the gossamer of a summer's night?
Such neutral pleasures help to soothe a nature irritated by long contemplation of the person beloved. They were to me, I dare not say to her, like those fissures in a dam through which the water finds a vent and avoids disaster. Abstinence brings deadly exhaustion, which a few crumbs falling from heaven like manna in the desert, suffices to relieve. Sometimes I found my Henriette standing before these bouquets with pendant arms, lost in agitated reverie, thoughts swelling her bosom, illumining her brow as they surged in waves and sank again, leaving lassitude and languor behind them. Never again have I made a bouquet for any one. When she and I had created this language and formed it to our uses, a satisfaction filled our souls like that of a slave who escapes his masters.
During the rest of this month as I came from the meadows through the gardens I often saw her face at the window, and when I reached the salon she was ready at her embroidery frame. If I did not arrive at the hour expected (though never appointed), I saw a white form wandering on the terrace, and when I joined her she would say, "I came to meet you; I must show a few attentions to my youngest child."
The miserable games of backgammon had come to end. The count's late purchases took all his time in going hither and thither about the property, surveying, examining, and marking the boundaries of his new possessions. He had orders to give, rural works to overlook which needed a master's eye,—all of them planned and decided on by his wife and himself. We often went to meet him, the countess and I, with the children, who amused themselves on the way by running after insects, stag-beetles, darning-needles, they too making their bouquets, or to speak more truly, their bundles of flowers. To walk beside the woman we love, to take her on our arm, to guide her steps,—these are illimitable joys that suffice a lifetime. Confidence is then complete. We went alone, we returned with the "general," a title given to the count when he was good-humored. These two ways of taking the same path gave light and shade to our pleasure, a secret known only to hearts debarred from union. Our talk, so free as we went, had hidden significations as we returned, when either of us gave an answer to some furtive interrogation, or continued a subject, already begun, in the enigmatic phrases to which our language lends itself, and which women are so ingenious in composing. Who has not known the pleasure of such secret understandings in a sphere apart from those about us, a sphere where spirits meet outside of social laws?
One day a wild hope, quickly dispelled, took possession of me, when the count, wishing to know what we were talking of, put the inquiry, and Henriette answered in words that allowed another meaning, which satisfied him. This amused Madeleine, who laughed; after a moment her mother blushed and gave me a forbidding look, as if to say she might still withdraw from me her soul as she had once withdrawn her hand. But our purely spiritual union had far too many charms, and on the morrow it continued as before.
The hours, days, and weeks fled by, filled with renascent joys. Grape harvest, the festal season in Touraine, began. Toward the end of September the sun, less hot than during the wheat harvest, allows of our staying in the vineyards without danger of becoming overheated. It is easier to gather grapes than to mow wheat. Fruits of all kinds are ripe, harvests are garnered, bread is less dear; the sense of plenty makes the country people happy. Fears as to the results of rural toil, in which more money than sweat is often spent, vanish before a full granary and cellars about to overflow. The vintage is then like a gay dessert after the dinner is eaten; the skies of Touraine, where the autumns are always magnificent, smile upon it. In this hospitable land the vintagers are fed and lodged in the master's house. The meals are the only ones throughout the year when these poor people taste substantial, well-cooked food; and they cling to the custom as the children of patriarchal families cling to anniversaries. As the time approaches they flock in crowds to those houses where the masters are known to treat the laborers liberally. The house is full of people and of provisions. The presses are open. The country is alive with the coming and going of itinerant coopers, of carts filled with laughing girls and joyous husbandmen, who earn better wages than at any other time during the year, and who sing as they go. There is also another cause of pleasurable content: classes and ranks are equal; women, children, masters, and men, all that little world, share in the garnering of the divine hoard. These various elements of satisfaction explain the hilarity of the vintage, transmitted from age to age in these last glorious days of autumn, the remembrance of which inspired Rabelais with the bacchic form of his great work.
The children, Jacques and Madeleine, had never seen a vintage; I was like them, and they were full of infantine delight at finding a sharer of their pleasure; their mother, too, promised to accompany us. We went to Villaines, where baskets are manufactured, in quest of the prettiest that could be bought; for we four were to cut certain rows reserved for our scissors; it was, however, agreed that none of us were to eat too many grapes. To eat the fat bunches of Touraine in a vineyard seemed so delicious that we all refused the finest grapes on the dinner-table. Jacques made me swear I would go to no other vineyard, but stay closely at Clochegourde. Never were these frail little beings, usually pallid and smiling, so fresh and rosy and active as they were this morning. They chattered for chatter's sake, and trotted about without apparent object; they suddenly seemed, like other children, to have more life than they needed; neither Monsieur nor Madame de Mortsauf had ever seen them so before. I became a child again with them, more of a child than either of them, perhaps; I, too, was hoping for my harvest. It was glorious weather when we went to the vineyard, and we stayed there half the day. How we disputed as to who had the finest grapes and who could fill his basket quickest! The little human shoots ran to and fro from the vines to their mother; not a bunch could be cut without showing it to her. She laughed with the good, gay laugh of her girlhood when I, running up with my basket after Madeleine, cried out, "Mine too! See mine, mamma!" To which she answered: "Don't get overheated, dear child." Then passing her hand round my neck and through my hair, she added, giving me a little tap on the cheek, "You are melting away." It was the only caress she ever gave me. I looked at the pretty line of purple clusters, the hedges full of haws and blackberries; I heard the voices of the children; I watched the trooping girls, the cart loaded with barrels, the men with the panniers. Ah, it is all engraved on my memory, even to the almond-tree beside which she stood, girlish, rosy, smiling, beneath the sunshade held open in her hand. Then I busied myself in cutting the bunches and filling my basket, going forward to empty it in the vat, silently, with measured bodily movement and slow steps that left my spirit free. I discovered then the ineffable pleasure of an external labor which carries life along, and thus regulates the rush of passion, often so near, but for this mechanical motion, to kindle into flame. I learned how much wisdom is contained in uniform labor; I understood monastic discipline.
For the first time in many days the count was neither surly nor cruel. His son was so well; the future Duc de Lenoncourt-Mortsauf, fair and rosy and stained with grape-juice, rejoiced his heart. This day being the last of the vintage, he had promised a dance in front of Clochegourde in honor of the return of the Bourbons, so that our festival gratified everybody. As we returned to the house, the countess took my arm and leaned upon it, as if to let my heart feel the weight of hers,—the instinctive movement of a mother who seeks to convey her joy. Then she whispered in my ear, "You bring us happiness."
Ah, to me, who knew her sleepless nights, her cares, her fears, her former existence, in which, although the hand of God sustained her, all was barren and wearisome, those words uttered by that rich voice brought pleasures no other woman in the world could give me.
"The terrible monotony of my life is broken, all things are radiant with hope," she said after a pause. "Oh, never leave me! Do not despise my harmless superstitions; be the elder son, the protector of the younger."
In this, Natalie, there is nothing romantic. To know the infinite of our deepest feelings, we must in youth cast our lead into those great lakes upon whose shores we live. Though to many souls passions are lava torrents flowing among arid rocks, other souls there be in whom passion, restrained by insurmountable obstacles, fills with purest water the crater of the volcano.
We had still another fete. Madame de Mortsauf, wishing to accustom her children to the practical things of life, and to give them some experience of the toil by which men earn their living, had provided each of them with a source of income, depending on the chances of agriculture. To Jacques she gave the produce of the walnut-trees, to Madeleine that of the chestnuts. The gathering of the nuts began soon after the vintage,—first the chestnuts, then the walnuts. To beat Madeleine's trees with a long pole and hear the nuts fall and rebound on the dry, matted earth of a chestnut-grove; to see the serious gravity of the little girl as she examined the heaps and estimated their probable value, which to her represented many pleasures on which she counted; the congratulations of Manette, the trusted servant who alone supplied Madame de Mortsauf's place with the children; the explanations of the mother, showing the necessity of labor to obtain all crops, so often imperilled by the uncertainties of climate,—all these things made up a charming scene of innocent, childlike happiness amid the fading colors of the late autumn.
Madeleine had a little granary of her own, in which I was to see her brown treasure garnered and share her delight. Well, I quiver still when I recall the sound of each basketful of nuts as it was emptied on the mass of yellow husks, mixed with earth, which made the floor of the granary. The count bought what was needed for the household; the farmers and tenants, indeed, every one around Clochegourde, sent buyers to the Mignonne, a pet name which the peasantry give even to strangers, but which in this case belonged exclusively to Madeleine.
Jacques was less fortunate in gathering his walnuts. It rained for several days; but I consoled him with the advice to hold back his nuts and sell them a little later. Monsieur de Chessel had told me that the walnut-trees in the Brehemont, also those about Amboise and Vouvray, were not bearing. Walnut oil is in great demand in Touraine. Jacques might get at least forty sous for the product of each tree, and as he had two hundred the amount was considerable; he intended to spend it on the equipment of a pony. This wish led to a discussion with his father, who bade him think of the uncertainty of such returns, and the wisdom of creating a reserve fund for the years when the trees might not bear, and so equalizing his resources. I felt what was passing through the mother's mind as she sat by in silence; she rejoiced in the way Jacques listened to his father, the father seeming to recover the paternal dignity that was lacking to him, thanks to the ideas which she herself had prompted in him. Did I not tell you truly that in picturing this woman earthly language was insufficient to render either her character or her spirit. When such scenes occurred my soul drank in their delights without analyzing them; but now, with what vigor they detach themselves on the dark background of my troubled life! Like diamonds they shine against the settling of thoughts degraded by alloy, of bitter regrets for a lost happiness. Why do the names of the two estates purchased after the Restoration, and in which Monsieur and Madame de Mortsauf both took the deepest interest, the Cassine and the Rhetoriere, move me more than the sacred names of the Holy Land or of Greece? "Who loves, knows!" cried La Fontaine. Those names possess the talismanic power of words uttered under certain constellations by seers; they explain magic to me; they awaken sleeping forms which arise and speak to me; they lead me to the happy valley; they recreate skies and landscape. But such evocations are in the regions of the spiritual world; they pass in the silence of my own soul. Be not surprised, therefore, if I dwell on all these homely scenes; the smallest details of that simple, almost common life are ties which, frail as they may seem, bound me in closest union to the countess.
The interests of her children gave Madame de Mortsauf almost as much anxiety as their health. I soon saw the truth of what she had told me as to her secret share in the management of the family affairs, into which I became slowly initiated. After ten years' steady effort Madame de Mortsauf had changed the method of cultivating the estate. She had "put it in fours," as the saying is in those parts, meaning the new system under which wheat is sown every four years only, so as to make the soil produce a different crop yearly. To evade the obstinate unwillingness of the peasantry it was found necessary to cancel the old leases and give new ones, to divide the estate into four great farms and let them on equal shares, the sort of lease that prevails in Touraine and its neighborhood. The owner of the estate gives the house, farm-buildings, and seed-grain to tenants-at-will, with whom he divides the costs of cultivation and the crops. This division is superintended by an agent or bailiff, whose business it is to take the share belonging to the owner; a costly system, complicated by the market changes of values, which alter the character of the shares constantly. The countess had induced Monsieur de Mortsauf to cultivate a fifth farm, made up of the reserved lands about Clochegourde, as much to occupy his mind as to show other farmers the excellence of the new method by the evidence of facts. Being thus, in a hidden way, the mistress of the estate, she had slowly and with a woman's persistency rebuilt two of the farm-houses on the principle of those in Artois and Flanders. It is easy to see her motive. She wished, after the expiration of the leases on shares, to relet to intelligent and capable persons for rental in money, and thus simplify the revenues of Clochegourde. Fearing to die before her husband, she was anxious to secure for him a regular income, and to her children a property which no incapacity could jeopardize. At the present time the fruit-trees planted during the last ten years were in full bearing; the hedges, which secured the boundaries from dispute, were in good order; the elms and poplars were growing well. With the new purchases and the new farming system well under way, the estate of Clochegourde, divided into four great farms, two of which still needed new houses, was capable of bringing in forty thousand francs a year, ten thousand for each farm, not counting the yield of the vineyards, and the two hundred acres of woodland which adjoined them, nor the profits of the model home-farm. The roads to the great farms all opened on an avenue which followed a straight line from Clochegourde to the main road leading to Chinon. The distance from the entrance of this avenue to Tours was only fifteen miles; tenants would never be wanting, especially now that everybody was talking of the count's improvements and the excellent condition of his land.
The countess wished to put some fifteen thousand francs into each of the estates lately purchased, and to turn the present dwellings into two large farm-houses and buildings, in order that the property might bring in a better rent after the ground had been cultivated for a year or two. These ideas, so simple in themselves, but complicated with the thirty odd thousand francs it was necessary to expend upon them, were just now the topic of many discussions between herself and the count, sometimes amounting to bitter quarrels, in which she was sustained by the thought of her children's interests. The fear, "If I die to-morrow what will become of them?" made her heart beat. The gentle, peaceful hearts to whom anger is an impossibility, and whose sole desire is to shed on those about them their own inward peace, alone know what strength is needed for such struggles, what demands upon the spirit must be made before beginning the contest, what weariness ensues when the fight is over and nothing has been won. At this moment, just as her children seemed less anemic, less frail, more active (for the fruit season had had its effect on them), and her moist eyes followed them as they played about her with a sense of contentment which renewed her strength and refreshed her heart, the poor woman was called upon to bear the sharp sarcasms and attacks of an angry opposition. The count, alarmed at the plans she proposed, denied with stolid obstinacy the advantages of all she had done and the possibility of doing more. He replied to conclusive reasoning with the folly of a child who denies the influence of the sun in summer. The countess, however, carried the day. The victory of commonsense over insanity so healed her wounds that she forgot the battle. That day we all went to the Cassine and the Rhetoriere, to decide upon the buildings. The count walked alone in front, the children went next, and we ourselves followed slowly, for she was speaking in a low, gentle tone, which made her words like the murmur of the sea as it ripples on a smooth beach.
She was, she said, certain of success. A new line of communication between Tours and Chinon was to be opened by an active man, a carrier, a cousin of Manette's, who wanted a large farm on the route. His family was numerous; the eldest son would drive the carts, the second could attend to the business, the father living half-way along the road, at Rabelaye, one of the farms then to let, would look after the relays and enrich his land with the manure of the stables. As to the other farm, la Baude, the nearest to Clochegourde, one of their own people, a worthy, intelligent, and industrious man, who saw the advantages of the new system of agriculture, was ready to take a lease on it. The Cassine and the Rhetoriere need give no anxiety; their soil was the very best in the neighborhood; the farm-houses once built, and the ground brought into cultivation, it would be quite enough to advertise them at Tours; tenants would soon apply for them. In two years' time Clochegourde would be worth at least twenty-four thousand francs a year. Gravelotte, the farm in Maine, which Monsieur de Mortsauf had recovered after the emigration, was rented for seven thousand francs a year for nine years; his pension was four thousand. This income might not be a fortune, but it was certainly a competence. Later, other additions to it might enable her to go to Paris and attend to Jacques' education; in two years, she thought, his health would be established.
With what feeling she uttered the word "Paris!" I knew her thought; she wished to be as little separated as possible from her friend. On that I broke forth; I told her that she did not know me; that without talking of it, I had resolved to finish my education by working day and night so as to fit myself to be Jacques' tutor. She looked grave.
"No, Felix," she said, "that cannot be, any more than your priesthood. I thank you from my heart as a mother, but as a woman who loves you sincerely I can never allow you to be the victim of your attachment to me. Such a position would be a social discredit to you, and I could not allow it. No! I cannot be an injury to you in any way. You, Vicomte de Vandenesse, a tutor! You, whose motto is 'Ne se vend!' Were you Richelieu himself it would bar your way in life; it would give the utmost pain to your family. My friend, you do not know what insult women of the world, like my mother, can put into a patronizing glance, what degradation into a word, what contempt into a bow."
"But if you love me, what is the world to me?"
She pretended not to hear, and went on:—
"Though my father is most kind and desirous of doing all I ask, he would never forgive your taking so humble a position; he would refuse you his protection. I could not consent to your becoming tutor to the Dauphin even. You must accept society as it is; never commit the fault of flying in the face of it. My friend, this rash proposal of—"
"Love," I whispered.
"No, charity," she said, controlling her tears, "this wild idea enlightens me as to your character; your heart will be your bane. I shall claim from this moment the right to teach you certain things. Let my woman's eye see for you sometimes. Yes, from the solitudes of Clochegourde I mean to share, silently, contentedly, in your successes. As to a tutor, do not fear; we shall find some good old abbe, some learned Jesuit, and my father will gladly devote a handsome sum to the education of the boy who is to bear his name. Jacques is my pride. He is, however, eleven years old," she added after a pause. "But it is with him as with you; when I first saw you I took you to be about thirteen."
We now reached the Cassine, where Jacques, Madeleine, and I followed her about as children follow a mother; but we were in her way; I left her presently and went into the orchard where Martineau the elder, keeper of the place, was discussing with Martineau the younger, the bailiff, whether certain trees ought or ought not to be taken down; they were arguing the matter as if it concerned their own property. I then saw how much the countess was beloved. I spoke of it to a poor laborer, who, with one foot on his spade and an elbow on its handle, stood listening to the two doctors of pomology.
"Ah, yes, monsieur," he answered, "she is a good woman, and not haughty like those hussies at Azay, who would see us die like dogs sooner than yield us one penny of the price of a grave! The day when that woman leaves these parts the Blessed Virgin will weep, and we too. She knows what is due to her, but she knows our hardships, too, and she puts them into the account."
With what pleasure I gave that man all the money I had.
A few days later a pony arrived for Jacques, his father, an excellent horseman, wishing to accustom the child by degrees to the fatigues of such exercise. The boy had a pretty riding-dress, bought with the product of the nuts. The morning when he took his first lesson accompanied by his father and by Madeleine, who jumped and shouted about the lawn round which Jacques was riding, was a great maternal festival for the countess. The boy wore a blue collar embroidered by her, a little sky-blue overcoat fastened by a polished leather belt, a pair of white trousers pleated at the waist, and a Scotch cap, from which his fair hair flowed in heavy locks. He was charming to behold. All the servants clustered round to share the domestic joy. The little heir smiled at his mother as he passed her, sitting erect, and quite fearless. This first manly act of a child to whom death had often seemed so near, the promise of a sound future warranted by this ride which showed him so handsome, so fresh, so rosy,—what a reward for all her cares! Then too the joy of the father, who seemed to renew his youth, and who smiled for the first time in many long months; the pleasure shown on all faces, the shout of an old huntsman of the Lenoncourts, who had just arrived from Tours, and who, seeing how the boy held the reins, shouted to him, "Bravo, monsieur le vicomte!"—all this was too much for the poor mother, and she burst into tears; she, so calm in her griefs, was too weak to bear the joy of admiring her boy as he bounded over the gravel, where so often she had led him in the sunshine inwardly weeping his expected death. She leaned upon my arm unreservedly, and said: "I think I have never suffered. Do not leave us to-day."
The lesson over, Jacques jumped into his mother's arms; she caught him and held him tightly to her, kissing him passionately. I went with Madeleine to arrange two magnificent bouquets for the dinner-table in honor of the young equestrian. When we returned to the salon the countess said: "The fifteenth of October is certainly a great day with me. Jacques has taken his first riding lesson, and I have just set the last stitch in my furniture cover."
"Then, Blanche," said the count, laughing, "I must pay you for it."
He offered her his arm and took her to the first courtyard, where stood an open carriage which her father had sent her, and for which the count had purchased two English horses. The old huntsman had prepared the surprise while Jacques was taking his lesson. We got into the carriage, and went to see where the new avenue entered the main road towards Chinon. As we returned, the countess said to me in an anxious tone, "I am too happy; to me happiness is like an illness,—it overwhelms me; I fear it may vanish like a dream."
I loved her too passionately not to feel jealous,—I who could give her nothing! In my rage against myself I longed for some means of dying for her. She asked me to tell her the thoughts that filled my eyes, and I told her honestly. She was more touched than by all her presents; then taking me to the portico, she poured comfort into my heart. "Love me as my aunt loved me," she said, "and that will be giving me your life; and if I take it, must I not ever be grateful to you?
"It was time I finished my tapestry," she added as we re-entered the salon, where I kissed her hand as if to renew my vows. "Perhaps you do not know, Felix, why I began so formidable a piece of work. Men find the occupations of life a great resource against troubles; the management of affairs distracts their mind; but we poor women have no support within ourselves against our sorrows. To be able to smile before my children and my husband when my heart was heavy I felt the need of controlling my inward sufferings by some physical exercise. In this way I escaped the depression which is apt to follow a great strain upon the moral strength, and likewise all outbursts of excitement. The mere action of lifting my arm regularly as I drew the stitches rocked my thoughts and gave to my spirit when the tempest raged a monotonous ebb and flow which seemed to regulate its emotions. To every stitch I confided my secrets,—you understand me, do you not? Well, while doing my last chair I have thought much, too much, of you, dear friend. What you have put into your bouquets I have said in my embroidery."
The dinner was lovely. Jacques, like all children when you take notice of them, jumped into my arms when he saw the flowers I had arranged for him as a garland. His mother pretended to be jealous; ah, Natalie, you should have seen the charming grace with which the dear child offered them to her. In the afternoon we played a game of backgammon, I alone against Monsieur and Madame de Mortsauf, and the count was charming. They accompanied me along the road to Frapesle in the twilight of a tranquil evening, one of those harmonious evenings when our feelings gain in depth what they lose in vivacity. It was a day of days in this poor woman's life; a spot of brightness which often comforted her thoughts in painful hours.
Soon, however, the riding lessons became a subject of contention. The countess justly feared the count's harsh reprimands to his son. Jacques grew thin, dark circles surrounded his sweet blue eyes; rather than trouble his mother, he suffered in silence. I advised him to tell his father he was tired when the count's temper was violent; but that expedient proved unavailing, and it became necessary to substitute the old huntsman as a teacher in place of the father, who could with difficulty be induced to resign his pupil. Angry reproaches and contentions began once more; the count found a text for his continual complaints in the base ingratitude of women; he flung the carriage, horses, and liveries in his wife's face twenty times a day. At last a circumstance occurred on which a man with his nature and his disease naturally fastened eagerly. The cost of the buildings at the Cassine and the Rhetoriere proved to be half as much again as the estimate. This news was unfortunately given in the first instance to Monsieur de Mortsauf instead of to his wife. It was the ground of a quarrel, which began mildly but grew more and more embittered until it seemed as though the count's madness, lulled for a short time, was demanding its arrearages from the poor wife.
That day I had started from Frapesle at half-past ten to search for flowers with Madeleine. The child had brought the two vases to the portico, and I was wandering about the gardens and adjoining meadows gathering the autumn flowers, so beautiful, but too rare. Returning from my final quest, I could not find my little lieutenant with her white cape and broad pink sash; but I heard cries within the house, and Madeleine presently came running out.
"The general," she said, crying (the term with her was an expression of dislike), "the general is scolding mamma; go and defend her."
I sprang up the steps of the portico and reached the salon without being seen by either the count or his wife. Hearing the madman's sharp cries I first shut all the doors, then I returned and found Henriette as white as her dress.
"Never marry, Felix," said the count as soon as he saw me; "a woman is led by the devil; the most virtuous of them would invent evil if it did not exist; they are all vile."
Then followed arguments without beginning or end. Harking back to the old troubles, Monsieur de Mortsauf repeated the nonsense of the peasantry against the new system of farming. He declared that if he had had the management of Clochegourde he should be twice as rich as he now was. He shouted these complaints and insults, he swore, he sprang around the room knocking against the furniture and displacing it; then in the middle of a sentence he stopped short, complained that his very marrow was on fire, his brains melting away like his money, his wife had ruined him! The countess smiled and looked upward.
"Yes, Blanche," he cried, "you are my executioner; you are killing me; I am in your way; you want to get rid of me; you are monster of hypocrisy. She is smiling! Do you know why she smiles, Felix?"
I kept silence and looked down.
"That woman," he continued, answering his own question, "denies me all happiness; she is no more to me than she is to you, and yet she pretends to be my wife! She bears my name and fulfils none of the duties which all laws, human and divine, impose upon her; she lies to God and man. She obliges me to go long distances, hoping to wear me out and make me leave her to herself; I am displeasing to her, she hates me; she puts all her art into keeping me away from her; she has made me mad through the privations she imposes on me—for everything flies to my poor head; she is killing me by degrees, and she thinks herself a saint and takes the sacrament every month!"
The countess was weeping bitterly, humiliated by the degradation of the man, to whom she kept saying for all answer, "Monsieur! monsieur! monsieur!"
Though the count's words made me blush, more for him than for Henriette, they stirred my heart violently, for they appealed to the sense of chastity and delicacy which is indeed the very warp and woof of first love.
"She is virgin at my expense," cried the count.
At these words the countess cried out, "Monsieur!"
"What do you mean with your imperious 'Monsieur!'" he shouted. "Am I not your master? Must I teach you that I am?"
He came towards her, thrusting forward his white wolf's head, now hideous, for his yellow eyes had a savage expression which made him look like a wild beast rushing out of a wood. Henriette slid from her chair to the ground to avoid a blow, which however was not given; she lay at full length on the floor and lost consciousness, completely exhausted. The count was like a murderer who feels the blood of his victim spurting in his face; he stopped short, bewildered. I took the poor woman in my arms, and the count let me take her, as though he felt unworthy to touch her; but he went before me to open the door of her bedroom next the salon,—a sacred room I had never entered. I put the countess on her feet and held her for a moment in one arm, passing the other round her waist, while Monsieur de Mortsauf took the eider-down coverlet from the bed; then together we lifted her and laid her, still dressed, on the bed. When she came to herself she motioned to us to unfasten her belt. Monsieur de Mortsauf found a pair of scissors, and cut through it; I made her breathe salts, and she opened her eyes. The count left the room, more ashamed than sorry. Two hours passed in perfect silence. Henriette's hand lay in mine; she pressed it to mine, but could not speak. From time to time she opened her eyes as if to tell me by a look that she wished to be still and silent; then suddenly, for an instant, there seemed a change; she rose on her elbow and whispered, "Unhappy man!—ah! if you did but know—"
She fell back upon the pillow. The remembrance of her past sufferings, joined to the present shock, threw her again into the nervous convulsions I had just calmed by the magnetism of love,—a power then unknown to me, but which I used instinctively. I held her with gentle force, and she gave me a look which made me weep. When the nervous motions ceased I smoothed her disordered hair, the first and only time that I ever touched it; then I again took her hand and sat looking at the room, all brown and gray, at the bed with its simple chintz curtains, at the toilet table draped in a fashion now discarded, at the commonplace sofa with its quilted mattress. What poetry I could read in that room! What renunciations of luxury for herself; the only luxury being its spotless cleanliness. Sacred cell of a married nun, filled with holy resignation; its sole adornments were the crucifix of her bed, and above it the portrait of her aunt; then, on each side of the holy water basin, two drawings of the children made by herself, with locks of their hair when they were little. What a retreat for a woman whose appearance in the great world of fashion would have made the handsomest of her sex jealous! Such was the chamber where the daughter of an illustrious family wept out her days, sunken at this moment in anguish, and denying herself the love that might have comforted her. Hidden, irreparable woe! Tears of the victim for her slayer, tears of the slayer for his victim! When the children and waiting-woman came at length into the room I left it. The count was waiting for me; he seemed to seek me as a mediating power between himself and his wife. He caught my hands, exclaiming, "Stay, stay with us, Felix!"
"Unfortunately," I said, "Monsieur de Chessel has a party, and my absence would cause remark. But after dinner I will return."
He left the house when I did, and took me to the lower gate without speaking; then he accompanied me to Frapesle, seeming not to know what he was doing. At last I said to him, "For heaven's sake, Monsieur le comte, let her manage your affairs if it pleases her, and don't torment her."
"I have not long to live," he said gravely; "she will not suffer long through me; my head is giving way."
He left me in a spasm of involuntary self-pity. After dinner I returned for news of Madame de Mortsauf, who was already better. If such were the joys of marriage, if such scenes were frequent, how could she survive them long? What slow, unpunished murder was this? During that day I understood the tortures by which the count was wearing out his wife. Before what tribunal can we arraign such crimes? These thoughts stunned me; I could say nothing to Henriette by word of mouth, but I spent the night in writing to her. Of the three or four letters that I wrote I have kept only the beginning of one, with which I was not satisfied. Here it is, for though it seems to me to express nothing, and to speak too much of myself when I ought only to have thought of her, it will serve to show you the state my soul was in:—
To Madame de Mortsauf:
How many things I had to say to you when I reached the house! I
thought of them on the way, but I forgot them in your presence.
Yes, when I see you, dear Henriette, I find my thoughts no longer
in keeping with the light from your soul which heightens your
beauty; then, too, the happiness of being near you is so ineffable
as to efface all other feelings. Each time we meet I am born into
a broader life; I am like the traveller who climbs a rock and sees
before him a new horizon. Each time you talk with me I add new
treasures to my treasury. There lies, I think, the secret of long
and inexhaustible affections. I can only speak to you of yourself
when away from you. In your presence I am too dazzled to see, too
happy to question my happiness, too full of you to be myself, too
eloquent through you to speak, too eager in seizing the present
moment to remember the past. You must think of this state of
intoxication and forgive me its consequent mistakes.
When near you I can only feel. Yet, I have courage to say, dear
Henriette, that never, in all the many joys you have given me,
never did I taste such joy as filled my soul when, after that
dreadful storm through which you struggled with superhuman
courage, you came to yourself alone with me, in the twilight of
your chamber where that unhappy scene had brought me. I alone
know the light that shines from a woman when through the portals
of death she re-enters life with the dawn of a rebirth tinting her
brow. What harmonies were in your voice! How words, even your
words, seemed paltry when the sound of that adored voice—in
itself the echo of past pains mingled with divine consolations
—blessed me with the gift of your first thought. I knew you were
brilliant with all human splendor, but yesterday I found a new
Henriette, who might be mine if God so willed; I beheld a spirit
freed from the bodily trammels which repress the ardors of the
soul. Ah! thou wert beautiful indeed in thy weakness, majestic in
thy prostration. Yesterday I found something more beautiful than
thy beauty, sweeter than thy voice; lights more sparkling than the
light of thine eyes, perfumes for which there are no words
—yesterday thy soul was visible and palpable. Would I could have
opened my heart and made thee live there! Yesterday I lost the
respectful timidity with which thy presence inspires me; thy
weakness brought us nearer together. Then, when the crisis passed
and thou couldst bear our atmosphere once more, I knew what it was
to breathe in unison with thy breath. How many prayers rose up to
heaven in that moment! Since I did not die as I rushed through
space to ask of God that he would leave thee with me, no human
creature can die of joy nor yet of sorrow. That moment has left
memories buried in my soul which never again will reappear upon
its surface and leave me tearless. Yes, the fears with which my
soul was tortured yesterday are incomparably greater than all
sorrows that the future can bring upon me, just as the joys which
thou hast given me, dear eternal thought of my life! will be
forever greater than any future joy God may be pleased to grant
me. Thou hast made me comprehend the love divine, that sure love,
sure in strength and in duration, that knows no doubt or jealousy.
Deepest melancholy gnawed my soul; the glimpse into that hidden life was agonizing to a young heart new to social emotions; it was an awful thing to find this abyss at the opening of life,—a bottomless abyss, a Dead Sea. This dreadful aggregation of misfortunes suggested many thoughts; at my first step into social life I found a standard of comparison by which all other events and circumstances must seem petty.
The next day when I entered the salon she was there alone. She looked at me for a moment, held out her hand, and said, "My friend is always too tender." Her eyes grew moist; she rose, and then she added, in a tone of desperate entreaty, "Never write thus to me again."
Monsieur de Mortsauf was very kind. The countess had recovered her courage and serenity; but her pallor betrayed the sufferings of the previous night, which were calmed, but not extinguished. That evening she said to me, as she paced among the autumn leaves which rustled beneath our footsteps, "Sorrow is infinite; joys are limited,"—words which betrayed her sufferings by the comparison she made with the fleeting delights of the previous week.
"Do not slander life," I said to her. "You are ignorant of love; love gives happiness which shines in heaven."
"Hush!" she said. "I wish to know nothing of it. The Icelander would die in Italy. I am calm and happy beside you; I can tell you all my thoughts; do not destroy my confidence. Why will you not combine the virtue of the priest with the charm of a free man."
"You make me drink the hemlock!" I cried, taking her hand and laying it on my heart, which was beating fast.
"Again!" she said, withdrawing her hand as if it pained her. "Are you determined to deny me the sad comfort of letting my wounds be stanched by a friendly hand? Do not add to my sufferings; you do not know them all; those that are hidden are the worst to bear. If you were a woman you would know the melancholy disgust that fills her soul when she sees herself the object of attentions which atone for nothing, but are thought to atone for all. For the next few days I shall be courted and caressed, that I may pardon the wrong that has been done. I could then obtain consent to any wish of mine, however unreasonable. I am humiliated by his humility, by caresses which will cease as soon as he imagines that I have forgotten that scene. To owe our master's good graces to his faults—"
"His crimes!" I interrupted quickly.
"Is not that a frightful condition of existence?" she continued, with a sad smile. "I cannot use this transient power. At such times I am like the knights who could not strike a fallen adversary. To see in the dust a man whom we ought to honor, to raise him only to enable him to deal other blows, to suffer from his degradation more than he suffers himself, to feel ourselves degraded if we profit by such influence for even a useful end, to spend our strength, to waste the vigor of our souls in struggles that have no grandeur, to have no power except for a moment when a fatal crisis comes—ah, better death! If I had no children I would let myself drift on the wretched current of this life; but if I lose my courage, what will become of them? I must live for them, however cruel this life may be. You talk to me of love. Ah! my dear friend, think of the hell into which I should fling myself if I gave that pitiless being, pitiless like all weak creatures, the right to despise me. The purity of my conduct is my strength. Virtue, dear friend, is holy water in which we gain fresh strength, from which we issue renewed in the love of God."
"Listen to me, dear Henriette; I have only another week to stay here, and I wish—"
"Ah, you mean to leave us!" she exclaimed.
"You must know what my father intends to do with me," I replied. "It is now three months—"
"I have not counted the days," she said, with momentary self-abandonment. Then she checked herself and cried, "Come, let us go to Frapesle."
She called the count and the children, sent for a shawl, and when all were ready she, usually so calm and slow in all her movements, became as active as a Parisian, and we started in a body to pay a visit at Frapesle which the countess did not owe. She forced herself to talk to Madame de Chessel, who was fortunately discursive in her answers. The count and Monsieur de Chessel conversed on business. I was afraid the former might boast of his carriage and horses; but he committed no such solecisms. His neighbor questioned him about his projected improvements at the Cassine and the Rhetoriere. I looked at the count, wondering if he would avoid a subject of conversation so full of painful memories to all, so cruelly mortifying to him. On the contrary, he explained how urgent a duty it was to better the agricultural condition of the canton, to build good houses and make the premises salubrious; in short, he glorified himself with his wife's ideas. I blushed as I looked at her. Such want of scruple in a man who, on certain occasions, could be scrupulous enough, this oblivion of the dreadful scene, this adoption of ideas against which he had fought so violently, this confident belief in himself, petrified me.
When Monsieur de Chessel said to him, "Do you expect to recover your outlay?"
"More than recover it!" he exclaimed, with a confident gesture.
Such contradictions can be explained only by the word "insanity." Henriette, celestial creature, was radiant. The count was appearing to be a man of intelligence, a good administrator, an excellent agriculturist; she played with her boy's curly head, joyous for him, happy for herself. What a comedy of pain, what mockery in this drama; I was horrified by it. Later in life, when the curtain of the world's stage was lifted before me, how many other Mortsaufs I saw without the loyalty and the religious faith of this man. What strange, relentless power is it that perpetually awards an angel to a madman; to a man of heart, of true poetic passion, a base woman; to the petty, grandeur; to this demented brain, a beautiful, sublime being; to Juana, Captain Diard, whose history at Bordeaux I have told you; to Madame de Beauseant, an Ajuda; to Madame d'Aiglemont, her husband; to the Marquis d'Espard, his wife! Long have I sought the meaning of this enigma. I have ransacked many mysteries, I have discovered the reason of many natural laws, the purport of some divine hieroglyphics; of the meaning of this dark secret I know nothing. I study it as I would the form of an Indian weapon, the symbolic construction of which is known only to the Brahmans. In this dread mystery the spirit of Evil is too visibly the master; I dare not lay the blame to God. Anguish irremediable, what power finds amusement in weaving you? Can Henriette and her mysterious philosopher be right? Does their mysticism contain the explanation of humanity?
The autumn leaves were falling during the last few days which I passed in the valley, days of lowering clouds, which do sometimes obscure the heaven of Touraine, so pure, so warm at that fine season. The evening before my departure Madame de Mortsauf took me to the terrace before dinner.
"My dear Felix," she said, after we had taken a turn in silence under the leafless trees, "you are about to enter the world, and I wish to go with you in thought. Those who have suffered much have lived and known much. Do not think that solitary souls know nothing of the world; on the contrary, they are able to judge it. Hear me: If I am to live in and for my friend I must do what I can for his heart and for his conscience. When the conflict rages it is hard to remember rules; therefore let me give you a few instructions, the warnings of a mother to her son. The day you leave us I shall give you a letter, a long letter, in which you will find my woman's thoughts on the world, on society, on men, on the right methods of meeting difficulty in this great clash of human interests. Promise me not to read this letter till you reach Paris. I ask it from a fanciful sentiment, one of those secrets of womanhood not impossible to understand, but which we grieve to find deciphered; leave me this covert way where as a woman I wish to walk alone."
"Yes, I promise it," I said, kissing her hand.
"Ah," she added, "I have one more promise to ask of you; but grant it first."
"Yes, yes!" I cried, thinking it was surely a promise of fidelity.
"It does not concern myself," she said smiling, with some bitterness. "Felix, do not gamble in any house, no matter whose it be; I except none."
"I will never play at all," I replied.
"Good," she said. "I have found a better use for your time than to waste it on cards. The end will be that where others must sooner or later be losers you will invariably win."
"The letter will tell you," she said, with a playful smile, which took from her advice the serious tone which might certainly have been that of a grandfather.
The countess talked to me for an hour, and proved the depth of her affection by the study she had made of my nature during the last three months. She penetrated the recesses of my heart, entering it with her own; the tones of her voice were changeful and convincing; the words fell from maternal lips, showing by their tone as well as by their meaning how many ties already bound us to each other.
"If you knew," she said in conclusion, "with what anxiety I shall follow your course, what joy I shall feel if you walk straight, what tears I must shed if you strike against the angles! Believe that my affection has no equal; it is involuntary and yet deliberate. Ah, I would that I might see you happy, powerful, respected,—you who are to me a living dream."
She made me weep, so tender and so terrible was she. Her feelings came boldly to the surface, yet they were too pure to give the slightest hope even to a young man thirsting for pleasure. Ignoring my tortured flesh, she shed the rays, undeviating, incorruptible, of the divine love, which satisfies the soul only. She rose to heights whither the prismatic pinions of a love like mine were powerless to bear me. To reach her a man must needs have won the white wings of the seraphim.
"In all that happens to me I will ask myself," I said, "'What would my Henriette say?'"
"Yes, I will be the star and the sanctuary both," she said, alluding to the dreams of my childhood.
"You are my light and my religion," I cried; "you shall be my all."
"No," she answered; "I can never be the source of your pleasures."
She sighed; the smile of secret pain was on her lips, the smile of the slave who momentarily revolts. From that day forth she was to me, not merely my beloved, but my only love; she was not IN my heart as a woman who takes a place, who makes it hers by devotion or by excess of pleasure given; but she was my heart itself,—it was all hers, a something necessary to the play of my muscles. She became to me as Beatrice to the Florentine, as the spotless Laura to the Venetian, the mother of great thoughts, the secret cause of resolutions which saved me, the support of my future, the light shining in the darkness like a lily in a wood. Yes, she inspired those high resolves which pass through flames, which save the thing in peril; she gave me a constancy like Coligny's to vanquish conquerors, to rise above defeat, to weary the strongest wrestler.
The next day, having breakfasted at Frapesle and bade adieu to my kind hosts, I went to Clochegourde. Monsieur and Madame de Mortsauf had arranged to drive with me to Tours, whence I was to start the same night for Paris. During the drive the countess was silent; she pretended at first to have a headache; then she blushed at the falsehood, and expiated it by saying that she could not see me go without regret. The count invited me to stay with them whenever, in the absence of the Chessels, I might long to see the valley of the Indre once more. We parted heroically, without apparent tears, but Jacques, who like other delicate children was quickly touched, began to cry, while Madeleine, already a woman, pressed her mother's hand.
"Dear little one!" said the countess, kissing Jacques passionately.
When I was alone at Tours after dinner a wild, inexplicable desire known only to young blood possessed me. I hired a horse and rode from Tours to Pont-de-Ruan in an hour and a quarter. There, ashamed of my folly, I dismounted, and went on foot along the road, stepping cautiously like a spy till I reached the terrace. The countess was not there, and I imagined her ill; I had kept the key of the little gate, by which I now entered; she was coming down the steps of the portico with the two children to breathe in sadly and slowly the tender melancholy of the landscape, bathed at that moment in the setting sun.
"Mother, here is Felix," said Madeleine.
"Yes," I whispered; "it is I. I asked myself why I should stay at Tours while I still could see you; why not indulge a desire that in a few days more I could not gratify."
"He won't leave us again, mother," cried Jacques, jumping round me.
"Hush!" said Madeleine; "if you make such a noise the general will come."
"It is not right," she said. "What folly!"
The tears in her voice were the payment of what must be called a usurious speculation of love.
"I had forgotten to return this key," I said smiling.
"Then you will never return," she said.
"Can we ever be really parted?" I asked, with a look which made her drop her eyelids for all answer.
I left her after a few moments passed in that happy stupor of the spirit where exaltation ends and ecstasy begins. I went with lagging step, looking back at every minute. When, from the summit of the hill, I saw the valley for the last time I was struck with the contrast it presented to what it was when I first came there. Then it was verdant, then it glowed, glowed and blossomed like my hopes and my desires. Initiated now into the gloomy secrets of a family, sharing the anguish of a Christian Niobe, sad with her sadness, my soul darkened, I saw the valley in the tone of my own thoughts. The fields were bare, the leaves of the poplars falling, the few that remained were rusty, the vine-stalks were burned, the tops of the trees were tan-colored, like the robes in which royalty once clothed itself as if to hide the purple of its power beneath the brown of grief. Still in harmony with my thoughts, the valley, where the yellow rays of the setting sun were coldly dying, seemed to me a living image of my heart.
To leave a beloved woman is terrible or natural, according as the mind takes it. For my part, I found myself suddenly in a strange land of which I knew not the language. I was unable to lay hold of things to which my soul no longer felt attachment. Then it was that the height and the breadth of my love came before me; my Henriette rose in all her majesty in this desert where I existed only through thoughts of her. That form so worshipped made me vow to keep myself spotless before my soul's divinity, to wear ideally the white robe of the Levite, like Petrarch, who never entered Laura's presence unless clothed in white. With what impatience I awaited the first night of my return to my father's roof, when I could read the letter which I felt of during the journey as a miser fingers the bank-bills he carries about him. During the night I kissed the paper on which my Henriette had manifested her will; I sought to gather the mysterious emanations of her hand, to recover the intonations of her voice in the hush of my being. Since then I have never read her letters except as I read that first letter; in bed, amid total silence. I cannot understand how the letters of our beloved can be read in any other way; yet there are men, unworthy to be loved, who read such letters in the turmoil of the day, laying them aside and taking them up again with odious composure.
Here, Natalie, is the voice which echoed through the silence of that night. Behold the noble figure which stood before me and pointed to the right path among the cross-ways at which I stood.
To Monsieur le Vicomte Felix de Vandenesse:
What happiness for me, dear friend, to gather the scattered
elements of my experience that I may arm you against the dangers
of the world, through which I pray that you pass scatheless. I
have felt the highest pleasures of maternal love as night after
night I have thought of these things. While writing this letter,
sentence by sentence, projecting my thoughts into the life you are
about to lead, I went often to my window. Looking at the towers of
Frapesle, visible in the moonlight, I said to myself, "He sleeps,
I wake for him." Delightful feelings! which recall the happiest of
my life, when I watched Jacques sleeping in his cradle and waited
till he wakened, to feed him with my milk. You are the man-child
whose soul must now be strengthened by precepts never taught in
schools, but which we women have the privilege of inculcating.
These precepts will influence your success; they prepare the way
for it, they will secure it. Am I not exercising a spiritual
motherhood in giving you a standard by which to judge the actions
of your life; a motherhood comprehended, is it not, by the child?
Dear Felix, let me, even though I may make a few mistakes, let me
give to our friendship a proof of the disinterestedness which
In yielding you to the world I am renouncing you; but I love you
too well not to sacrifice my happiness to your welfare. For the
last four months you have made me reflect deeply on the laws and
customs which regulate our epoch. The conversations I have had
with my aunt, well-known to you who have replaced her, the events
of Monsieur de Mortsauf's life, which he has told me, the tales
related by my father, to whom society and the court are familiar
in their greatest as well as in their smallest aspects, all these
have risen in my memory for the benefit of my adopted child at the
moment when he is about to be launched, well-nigh alone, among
men; about to act without adviser in a world where many are
wrecked by their own best qualities thoughtlessly displayed, while
others succeed through a judicious use of their worst.
I ask you to ponder this statement of my opinion of society as a
whole; it is concise, for to you a few words are sufficient.
I do not know whether societies are of divine origin or whether
they were invented by man. I am equally ignorant of the direction
in which they tend. What I do know certainly is the fact of their
existence. No sooner therefore do you enter society, instead of
living a life apart, than you are bound to consider its conditions
binding; a contract is signed between you. Does society in these
days gain more from a man than it returns to him? I think so; but
as to whether the individual man finds more cost than profit, or
buys too dear the advantages he obtains, concerns the legislator
only; I have nothing to say to that. In my judgment you are bound
to obey in all things the general law, without discussion, whether
it injures or benefits your personal interests. This principle may
seem to you a very simple one, but it is difficult of application;
it is like sap, which must infiltrate the smallest of the
capillary tubes to stir the tree, renew its verdure, develop its
flowers, and ripen fruit. Dear, the laws of society are not all
written in a book; manners and customs create laws, the more
important of which are often the least known. Believe me, there
are neither teachers, nor schools, nor text-books for the laws
that are now to regulate your actions, your language, your visible
life, the manner of your presentation to the world, and your quest
of fortune. Neglect those secret laws or fail to understand them,
and you stay at the foot of the social system instead of looking
down upon it. Even though this letter may seem to you diffuse,
telling you much that you have already thought, let me confide to
you a woman's ethics.
To explain society on the theory of individual happiness adroitly
won at the cost of the greater number is a monstrous doctrine,
which in its strict application leads men to believe that all they
can secretly lay hold of before the law or society or other
individuals condemn it as a wrong is honestly and fairly theirs.
Once admit that claim and the clever thief goes free; the woman
who violates her marriage vow without the knowledge of the world
is virtuous and happy; kill a man, leaving no proof for justice,
and if, like Macbeth, you win a crown you have done wisely; your
selfish interests become the higher law; the only question then is
how to evade, without witnesses or proof, the obstacles which law
and morality place between you and your self-indulgence. To those
who hold this view of society, the problem of making their
fortune, my dear friend, resolves itself into playing a game where
the stakes are millions or the galleys, political triumphs or
dishonor. Still, the green cloth is not long enough for all the
players, and a certain kind of genius is required to play the
game. I say nothing of religious beliefs, nor yet of feelings;
what concerns us now is the running-gear of the great machine of
gold and iron, and its practical results with which men's lives
are occupied. Dear child of my heart, if you share my horror at
this criminal theory of the world, society will present to your
mind, as it does to all sane minds, the opposite theory of duty.
Yes, you will see that man owes himself to man in a thousand
differing ways. To my mind, the duke and peer owe far more to the
workman and the pauper than the pauper and the workman owe to the
duke. The obligations of duty enlarge in proportion to the
benefits which society bestows on men; in accordance with the
maxim, as true in social politics as in business, that the burden
of care and vigilance is everywhere in proportion to profits. Each
man pays his debt in his own way. When our poor toiler at the
Rhetoriere comes home weary with his day's work has he not done
his duty? Assuredly he has done it better than many in the ranks
If you take this view of society, in which you are about to seek a
place in keeping with your intellect and your faculties, you must
set before you as a generating principle and mainspring, this
maxim: never permit yourself to act against either your own
conscience or the public conscience. Though my entreaty may seem
to you superfluous, yet I entreat, yes, your Henriette implores
you to ponder the meaning of that rule. It seems simple but, dear,
it means that integrity, loyalty, honor, and courtesy are the
safest and surest instruments for your success. In this selfish
world you will find many to tell you that a man cannot make his
way by sentiments, that too much respect for moral considerations
will hinder his advance. It is not so; you will see men
ill-trained, ill-taught, incapable of measuring the future, who are
rough to a child, rude to an old woman, unwilling to be irked by
some worthy old man on the ground that they can do nothing for
him; later, you will find the same men caught by the thorns which
they might have rendered pointless, and missing their triumph for
some trivial reason; whereas the man who is early trained to a
sense of duty does not meet the same obstacles; he may attain
success less rapidly, but when attained it is solid and does not
crumble like that of others.
When I show you that the application of this doctrine demands in
the first place a mastery of the science of manners, you may think
my jurisprudence has a flavor of the court and of the training I
received as a Lenoncourt. My dear friend, I do attach great
importance to that training, trifling as it seems. You will find
that the habits of the great world are as important to you as the
wide and varied knowledge that you possess. Often they take the
place of such knowledge; for some really ignorant men, born with
natural gifts and accustomed to give connection to their ideas,
have been known to attain a grandeur never reached by others far
more worthy of it. I have studied you thoroughly, Felix, wishing
to know if your education, derived wholly from schools, has
injured your nature. God knows the joy with which I find you fit
for that further education of which I speak.
The manners of many who are brought up in the traditions of the
great world are purely external; true politeness, perfect manners,
come from the heart, and from a deep sense of personal dignity.
This is why some men of noble birth are, in spite of their
training, ill-mannered, while others, among the middle classes,
have instinctive good taste and only need a few lessons to give
them excellent manners without any signs of awkward imitation.
Believe a poor woman who no longer leaves her valley when she
tells you that this dignity of tone, this courteous simplicity in
words, in gesture, in bearing, and even in the character of the
home, is a living and material poem, the charm of which is
irresistible; imagine therefore what it is when it takes its
inspiration from the heart. Politeness, dear, consists in seeming
to forget ourselves for others; with many it is social cant, laid
aside when personal self-interest shows its cloven-foot; a noble
then becomes ignoble. But—and this is what I want you to
practise, Felix—true politeness involves a Christian principle;
it is the flower of Love, it requires that we forget ourselves
really. In memory of your Henriette, for her sake, be not a
fountain without water, have the essence and the form of true
courtesy. Never fear to be the dupe and victim of this social
virtue; you will some day gather the fruit of seeds scattered
apparently to the winds.
My father used to say that one of the great offences of sham
politeness was the neglect of promises. When anything is demanded
of you that you cannot do, refuse positively and leave no
loopholes for false hopes; on the other hand, grant at once
whatever you are willing to bestow. Your prompt refusal will make
you friends as well as your prompt benefit, and your character
will stand the higher; for it is hard to say whether a promise
forgotten, a hope deceived does not make us more enemies than a
favor granted brings us friends.
Dear friend, there are certain little matters on which I may
dwell, for I know them, and it comes within my province to impart
them. Be not too confiding, nor frivolous, nor over enthusiastic,
—three rocks on which youth often strikes. Too confiding a nature
loses respect, frivolity brings contempt, and others take
advantage of excessive enthusiasm. In the first place, Felix, you
will never have more than two or three friends in the course of
your life. Your entire confidence is their right; to give it to
many is to betray your real friends. If you are more intimate with
some men than with others keep guard over yourself; be as cautious
as though you knew they would one day be your rivals, or your
enemies; the chances and changes of life require this. Maintain an
attitude which is neither cold nor hot; find the medium point at
which a man can safely hold intercourse with others without
compromising himself. Yes, believe me, the honest man is as far
from the base cowardice of Philinte as he is from the harsh virtue
of Alceste. The genius of the poet is displayed in the mind of
this true medium; certainly all minds do enjoy more the ridicule
of virtue than the sovereign contempt of easy-going selfishness
which underlies that picture of it; but all, nevertheless, are
prompted to keep themselves from either extreme.
As to frivolity, if it causes fools to proclaim you a charming
man, others who are accustomed to judge of men's capacities and
fathom character, will winnow out your tare and bring you to
disrepute, for frivolity is the resource of weak natures, and
weakness is soon appraised in a society which regards its members
as nothing more than organs—and perhaps justly, for nature
herself puts to death imperfect beings. A woman's protecting
instincts may be roused by the pleasure she feels in supporting
the weak against the strong, and in leading the intelligence of
the heart to victory over the brutality of matter; but society,
less a mother than a stepmother, adores only the children who
flatter her vanity.
As to ardent enthusiasm, that first sublime mistake of youth,
which finds true happiness in using its powers, and begins by
being its own dupe before it is the dupe of others, keep it within
the region of the heart's communion, keep it for woman and for
God. Do not hawk its treasures in the bazaars of society or of
politics, where trumpery will be offered in exchange for them.
Believe the voice which commands you to be noble in all things
when it also prays you not to expend your forces uselessly.
Unhappily, men will rate you according to your usefulness, and not
according to your worth. To use an image which I think will strike
your poetic mind, let a cipher be what it may, immeasurable in
size, written in gold, or written in pencil, it is only a cipher
after all. A man of our times has said, "No zeal, above all, no
zeal!" The lesson may be sad, but it is true, and it saves the
soul from wasting its bloom. Hide your pure sentiments, or put
them in regions inaccessible, where their blossoms may be
passionately admired, where the artist may dream amorously of his
master-piece. But duties, my friend, are not sentiments. To do
what we ought is by no means to do what we like. A man who would
give his life enthusiastically for a woman must be ready to die
coldly for his country.
One of the most important rules in the science of manners is that
of almost absolute silence about ourselves. Play a little comedy
for your own instruction; talk of yourself to acquaintances, tell
them about your sufferings, your pleasures, your business, and you
will see how indifference succeeds pretended interest; then
annoyance follows, and if the mistress of the house does not find
some civil way of stopping you the company will disappear under
various pretexts adroitly seized. Would you, on the other hand,
gather sympathies about you and be spoken of as amiable and witty,
and a true friend? talk to others of themselves, find a way to
bring them forward, and brows will clear, lips will smile, and
after you leave the room all present will praise you. Your
conscience and the voice of your own heart will show you the line
where the cowardice of flattery begins and the courtesy of
One word more about a young man's demeanor in public. My dear
friend, youth is always inclined to a rapidity of judgment which
does it honor, but also injury. This was why the old system of
education obliged young people to keep silence and study life in a
probationary period beside their elders. Formerly, as you know,
nobility, like art, had its apprentices, its pages, devoted body
and soul to the masters who maintained them. To-day youth is
forced in a hot-house; it is trained to judge of thoughts,
actions, and writings with biting severity; it slashes with a
blade that has not been fleshed. Do not make this mistake. Such
judgments will seem like censures to many about you, who would
sooner pardon an open rebuke than a secret wound. Young people are
pitiless because they know nothing of life and its difficulties.
The old critic is kind and considerate, the young critic is
implacable; the one knows nothing, the other knows all. Moreover,
at the bottom of all human actions there is a labyrinth of
determining reasons on which God reserves for himself the final
judgment. Be severe therefore to none but yourself.
Your future is before you; but no one in the world can make his
way unaided. Therefore, make use of my father's house; its doors
are open to you; the connections that you will create for yourself
under his roof will serve you in a hundred ways. But do not yield
an inch of ground to my mother; she will crush any one who gives
up to her, but she will admire the courage of whoever resists her.
She is like iron, which if beaten, can be fused with iron, but
when cold will break everything less hard than itself. Cultivate
my mother; for if she thinks well of you she will introduce you
into certain houses where you can acquire the fatal science of the
world, the art of listening, speaking, answering, presenting
yourself to the company and taking leave of it; the precise use of
language, the something—how shall I explain it?—which is no more
superiority than the coat is the man, but without which the
highest talent in the world will never be admitted within those
I know you well enough to be quite sure I indulge no illusion when
I imagine that I see you as I wish you to be; simple in manners,
gentle in tone, proud without conceit, respectful to the old,
courteous without servility, above all, discreet. Use your wit but
never display it for the amusement of others; for be sure that if
your brilliancy annoys an inferior man, he will retire from the
field and say of you in a tone of contempt, "He is very amusing."
Let your superiority be leonine. Moreover, do not be always
seeking to please others. I advise a certain coldness in your
relations with men, which may even amount to indifference; this
will not anger others, for all persons esteem those who slight
them; and it will win you the favor of women, who will respect you
for the little consequence that you attach to men. Never remain in
company with those who have lost their reputation, even though
they may not have deserved to do so; for society holds us
responsible for our friendships as well as for our enmities. In
this matter let your judgments be slowly and maturely weighed, but
see that they are irrevocable. When the men whom you have repulsed
justify the repulsion, your esteem and regard will be all the more
sought after; you have inspired the tacit respect which raises a
man among his peers. I behold you now armed with a youth that
pleases, grace which attracts, and wisdom with which to preserve
your conquests. All that I have now told you can be summed up in
two words, two old-fashioned words, "Noblesse oblige."
Now apply these precepts to the management of life. You will hear
many persons say that strategy is the chief element of success;
that the best way to press through the crowd is to set some men
against other men and so take their places. That was a good system
for the Middle Ages, when princes had to destroy their rivals by
pitting one against the other; but in these days, all things being
done in open day, I am afraid it would do you ill-service. No, you
must meet your competitors face to face, be they loyal and true
men, or traitorous enemies whose weapons are calumny,
evil-speaking, and fraud. But remember this, you have no more
powerful auxiliaries than these men themselves; they are their own
enemies; fight them with honest weapons, and sooner or later they
are condemned. As to the first of them, loyal men and true, your
straightforwardness will obtain their respect, and the differences
between you once settled (for all things can be settled), these
men will serve you. Do not be afraid of making enemies; woe to him
who has none in the world you are about to enter; but try to give
no handle for ridicule or disparagement. I say try, for in Paris a
man cannot always belong solely to himself; he is sometimes at the
mercy of circumstances; you will not always be able to avoid the
mud in the gutter nor the tile that falls from the roof. The moral
world has gutters where persons of no reputation endeavor to
splash the mud in which they live upon men of honor. But you can
always compel respect by showing that you are, under all
circumstances, immovable in your principles. In the conflict of
opinions, in the midst of quarrels and cross-purposes, go straight
to the point, keep resolutely to the question; never fight except
for the essential thing, and put your whole strength into that.
You know how Monsieur de Mortsauf hates Napoleon, how he curses
him and pursues him as justice does a criminal; demanding
punishment day and night for the death of the Duc d'Enghien, the
only death, the only misfortune, that ever brought the tears to
his eyes; well, he nevertheless admired him as the greatest of
captains, and has often explained to me his strategy. May not the
same tactics be applied to the war of human interests; they would
economize time as heretofore they economized men and space. Think
this over, for as a woman I am liable to be mistaken on such
points which my sex judges only by instinct and sentiment. One
point, however, I may insist on; all trickery, all deception, is
certain to be discovered and to result in doing harm; whereas
every situation presents less danger if a man plants himself
firmly on his own truthfulness. If I may cite my own case, I can
tell you that, obliged as I am by Monsieur de Mortsauf's condition
to avoid litigation and to bring to an immediate settlement all
difficulties which arise in the management of Clochegourde, and
which would otherwise cause him an excitement under which his mind
would succumb, I have invariably settled matters promptly by
taking hold of the knot of the difficulty and saying to our
opponents: "We will either untie it or cut it!"
It will often happen that you do a service to others and find
yourself ill-rewarded; I beg you not to imitate those who complain
of men and declare them to be all ungrateful. That is putting
themselves on a pedestal indeed! and surely it is somewhat silly
to admit their lack of knowledge of the world. But you, I trust,
will not do good as a usurer lends his money; you will do it—will
you not?—for good's sake. Noblesse oblige. Nevertheless, do not
bestow such services as to force others to ingratitude, for if you
do, they will become your most implacable enemies; obligations
sometimes lead to despair, like the despair of ruin itself, which
is capable of very desperate efforts. As for yourself, accept as
little as you can from others. Be no man's vassal; and bring
yourself out of your own difficulties.
You see, dear friend, I am advising you only on the lesser points
of life. In the world of politics things wear a different aspect;
the rules which are to guide your individual steps give way before
the national interests. If you reach that sphere where great men
revolve you will be, like God himself, the sole arbiter of your
determinations. You will no longer be a man, but law, the living
law; no longer an individual, you are then the Nation incarnate.
But remember this, though you judge, you will yourself be judged;
hereafter you will be summoned before the ages, and you know
history well enough to be fully informed as to what deeds and what
sentiments have led to true grandeur.
I now come to a serious matter, your conduct towards women.
Wherever you visit make it a principle not to fritter yourself
away in a petty round of gallantry. A man of the last century who
had great social success never paid attention to more than one
woman of an evening, choosing the one who seemed the most
neglected. That man, my dear child, controlled his epoch. He
wisely reckoned that by a given time all women would speak well of
him. Many young men waste their most precious possession, namely,
the time necessary to create connections which contribute more
than all else to social success. Your springtime is short,
endeavor to make the most of it. Cultivate influential women.
Influential women are old women; they will teach you the
intermarriages and the secrets of all the families of the great
world; they will show you the cross-roads which will bring you
soonest to your goal. They will be fond of you. The bestowal of
protection is their last form of love—when they are not devout.
They will do you innumerable good services; sing your praises and
make you desirable to society. Avoid young women. Do not think I
say this from personal self-interest. The woman of fifty will do
all for you, the woman of twenty will do nothing; she wants your
whole life while the other asks only a few attentions. Laugh with
the young women, meet them for pastime merely; they are incapable
of serious thought. Young women, dear friend, are selfish, vain,
petty, ignorant of true friendship; they love no one but
themselves; they would sacrifice you to an evening's success.
Besides, they all want absolute devotion, and your present
situation requires that devotion be shown to you; two
irreconcilable needs! None of these young women would enter into
your interests; they would think of themselves and not of you;
they would injure you more by their emptiness and frivolity than
they could serve you by their love; they will waste your time
unscrupulously, hinder your advance to fortune, and end by
destroying your future with the best grace possible. If you
complain, the silliest of them will make you think that her glove
is more precious than fortune, and that nothing is so glorious as
to be her slave. They will all tell you that they bestow
happiness, and thus lull you to forget your nobler destiny.
Believe me, the happiness they give is transitory; your great
career will endure. You know not with what perfidious cleverness
they contrive to satisfy their caprices, nor the art with which
they will convert your passing fancy into a love which ought to be
eternal. The day when they abandon you they will tell you that the
words, "I no longer love you," are a full justification of their
conduct, just as the words, "I love," justified their winning you;
they will declare that love is involuntary and not to be coerced.
Absurd! Believe me, dear, true love is eternal, infinite, always
like unto itself; it is equable, pure, without violent
demonstration; white hair often covers the head but the heart that
holds it is ever young. No such love is found among the women of
the world; all are playing comedy; this one will interest you by
her misfortunes; she seems the gentlest and least exacting of her
sex, but when once she is necessary to you, you will feel the
tyranny of weakness and will do her will; you may wish to be a
diplomat, to go and come, and study men and interests,—no, you
must stay in Paris, or at her country-place, sewn to her
petticoat, and the more devotion you show the more ungrateful and
exacting she will be. Another will attract you by her
submissiveness; she will be your attendant, follow you
romantically about, compromise herself to keep you, and be the
millstone about your neck. You will drown yourself some day, but
the woman will come to the surface.
The least manoeuvring of these women of the world have many nets.
The silliest triumph because too foolish to excite distrust. The
one to be feared least may be the woman of gallantry whom you love
without exactly knowing why; she will leave you for no motive and
go back to you out of vanity. All these women will injure you,
either in the present or the future. Every young woman who enters
society and lives a life of pleasure and of gratified vanity is
semi-corrupt and will corrupt you. Among them you will not find
the chaste and tranquil being in whom you may forever reign. Ah!
she who loves you will love solitude; the festivals of her heart
will be your glances; she will live upon your words. May she be
all the world to you, for you will be all in all to her. Love her
well; give her neither griefs nor rivals; do not rouse her
jealousy. To be loved, dear, to be comprehended, is the greatest
of all joys; I pray that you may taste it! But run no risk of
injuring the flower of your soul; be sure, be very sure of the
heart in which you place your affections. That woman will never be
her own self; she will never think of herself, but of you. She
will never oppose you, she will have no interests of her own; for
you she will see a danger where you can see none and where she
would be oblivious of her own. If she suffers it will be in
silence; she will have no personal vanity, but deep reverence for
whatever in her has won your love. Respond to such a love by
surpassing it. If you are fortunate enough to find that which I,
your poor friend, must ever be without, I mean a love mutually
inspired, mutually felt, remember that in a valley lives a mother
whose heart is so filled with the feelings you have put there that
you can never sound its depths. Yes, I bear you an affection which
you will never know to its full extent; before it could show
itself for what it is you would have to lose your mind and
intellect, and then you would be unable to comprehend the length
and breadth of my devotion.
Shall I be misunderstood in bidding you avoid young women (all
more or less artful, satirical, vain, frivolous, and extravagant)
and attach yourself to influential women, to those imposing
dowagers full of excellent good-sense, like my aunt, who will help
your career, defend you from attacks, and say for you the things
that you cannot say for yourself? Am I not, on the contrary,
generous in bidding you reserve your love for the coming angel
with the guileless heart? If the motto Noblesse oblige sums up the
advice I gave you just now, my further advice on your relations to
women is based upon that other motto of chivalry, "Serve all, love
Your educational knowledge is immense; your heart, saved by early
suffering, is without a stain; all is noble, all is well with you.
Now, Felix, WILL! Your future lies in that one word, that word of
great men. My child, you will obey your Henriette, will you not?
You will permit her to tell you from time to time the thoughts
that are in her mind of you and of your relations to the world? I
have an eye in my soul which sees the future for you as for my
children; suffer me to use that faculty for your benefit; it is a
faculty, a mysterious gift bestowed by my lonely life; far from
its growing weaker, I find it strengthened and exalted by solitude
I ask you in return to bestow a happiness on me; I desire to see
you becoming more and more important among men, without one single
success that shall bring a line of shame upon my brow; I desire
that you may quickly bring your fortunes to the level of your
noble name, and be able to tell me I have contributed to your
advancement by something better than a wish. This secret
co-operation in your future is the only pleasure I can allow
myself. For it, I will wait and hope.
I do not say farewell. We are separated; you cannot put my hand to
your lips, but you must surely know the place you hold in the
heart of your
As I read this letter I felt the maternal heart beating beneath my fingers which held the paper while I was still cold from the harsh greeting of my own mother. I understood why the countess had forbidden me to open it in Touraine; no doubt she feared that I would fall at her feet and wet them with my tears.
I now made the acquaintance of my brother Charles, who up to this time had been a stranger to me. But in all our intercourse he showed a haughtiness which kept us apart and prevented brotherly affection. Kindly feelings depend on similarity of soul, and there was no point of touch between us. He preached to me dogmatically those social trifles which head or heart can see without instruction; he seemed to mistrust me. If I had not had the inward support of my great love he would have made me awkward and stupid by affecting to believe that I knew nothing of life. He presented me in society under the expectation that my dulness would be a foil to his qualities. Had I not remembered the sorrows of my childhood I might have taken his protecting vanity for brotherly affection; but inward solitude produces the same effects as outward solitude; silence within our souls enables us to hear the faintest sound; the habit of taking refuge within ourselves develops a perception which discerns every quality of the affections about us. Before I knew Madame de Mortsauf a hard look grieved me, a rough word wounded me to the heart; I bewailed these things without as yet knowing anything of a life of tenderness; whereas now, since my return from Clochegourde, I could make comparisons which perfected my instinctive perceptions. All deductions derived only from sufferings endured are incomplete. Happiness has a light to cast. I now allowed myself the more willingly to be kept under the heel of primogeniture because I was not my brother's dupe.
I always went alone to the Duchesse de Lenoncourt's, where Henriette's name was never mentioned; no one, except the good old duke, who was simplicity itself, ever spoke of her to me; but by the way he welcomed me I guessed that his daughter had privately commended me to his care. At the moment when I was beginning to overcome the foolish wonder and shyness which besets a young man at his first entrance into the great world, and to realize the pleasures it could give through the resources it offers to ambition, just, too, as I was beginning to make use of Henriette's maxims, admiring their wisdom, the events of the 20th of March took place.
My brother followed the court to Ghent; I, by Henriette's advice (for I kept up a correspondence with her, active on my side only), went there also with the Duc de Lenoncourt. The natural kindness of the old duke turned to a hearty and sincere protection as soon as he saw me attached, body and soul, to the Bourbons. He himself presented me to his Majesty. Courtiers are not numerous when misfortunes are rife; but youth is gifted with ingenuous admiration and uncalculating fidelity. The king had the faculty of judging men; a devotion which might have passed unobserved in Paris counted for much at Ghent, and I had the happiness of pleasing Louis XVIII.
A letter from Madame de Mortsauf to her father, brought with despatches by an emissary of the Vendeens, enclosed a note to me by which I learned that Jacques was ill. Monsieur de Mortsauf, in despair at his son's ill-health, and also at the news of a second emigration, added a few words which enabled me to guess the situation of my dear one. Worried by him, no doubt, when she passed all her time at Jacques' bedside, allowed no rest either day or night, superior to annoyance, yet unable always to control herself when her whole soul was given to the care of her child, Henriette needed the support of a friendship which might lighten the burden of her life, were it only by diverting her husband's mind. Though I was now most impatient to rival the career of my brother, who had lately been sent to the Congress of Vienna, and was anxious at any risk to justify Henriette's appeal and become a man myself, freed from all vassalage, nevertheless my ambition, my desire for independence, the great interest I had in not leaving the king, all were of no account before the vision of Madame de Mortsauf's sad face. I resolved to leave the court at Ghent and serve my true sovereign. God rewarded me. The emissary sent by the Vendeens was unable to return. The king wanted a messenger who would faithfully carry back his instructions. The Duc de Lenoncourt knew that the king would never forget the man who undertook so perilous an enterprise; he asked for the mission without consulting me, and I gladly accepted it, happy indeed to be able to return to Clochegourde employed in the good cause.
After an audience with the king I returned to France, where, both in Paris and in Vendee, I was fortunate enough to carry out his Majesty's instructions. Towards the end of May, being tracked by the Bonapartist authorities to whom I was denounced, I was obliged to fly from place to place in the character of a man endeavoring to get back to his estate. I went on foot from park to park, from wood to wood, across the whole of upper Vendee, the Bocage and Poitou, changing my direction as danger threatened.
I reached Saumur, from Saumur I went to Chinon, and from Chinon I reached, in a single night, the woods of Nueil, where I met the count on horseback; he took me up behind him and we reached Clochegourde without passing any one who recognized me.
"Jacques is better," were the first words he said to me.
I explained to him my position of diplomatic postman, hunted like a wild beast, and the brave gentleman in his quality of royalist claimed the danger over Chessel of receiving me. As we came in sight of Clochegourde the past eight months rolled away like a dream. When we entered the salon the count said: "Guess whom I bring you?—Felix!"
"Is it possible!" she said, with pendant arms and a bewildered face.
I showed myself and we both remained motionless; she in her armchair, I on the threshold of the door; looking at each other with that hunger of the soul which endeavors to make up in a single glance for the lost months. Then, recovering from a surprise which left her heart unveiled, she rose and I went up to her.
"I have prayed for your safety," she said, giving me her hand to kiss.
She asked news of her father; then she guessed my weariness and went to prepare my room, while the count gave me something to eat, for I was dying of hunger. My room was the one above hers, her aunt's room; she requested the count to take me there, after setting her foot on the first step of the staircase, deliberating no doubt whether to accompany me; I turned my head, she blushed, bade me sleep well, and went away. When I came down to dinner I heard for the first time of the disasters at Waterloo, the flight of Napoleon, the march of the Allies to Paris, and the probable return of the Bourbons. These events were all in all to the count; to us they were nothing. What think you was the great event I was to learn, after kissing the children?—for I will not dwell on the alarm I felt at seeing the countess pale and shrunken; I knew the injury I might do by showing it and was careful to express only joy at seeing her. But the great event for us was told in the words, "You shall have ice to-day!" She had often fretted the year before that the water was not cold enough for me, who, never drinking anything else, liked it iced. God knows how many entreaties it had cost her to get an ice-house built. You know better than any one that a word, a look, an inflection of the voice, a trifling attention, suffices for love; love's noblest privilege is to prove itself by love. Well, her words, her look, her pleasure, showed me her feelings, as I had formerly shown her mine by that first game of backgammon. These ingenuous proofs of her affection were many; on the seventh day after my arrival she recovered her freshness, she sparkled with health and youth and happiness; my lily expanded in beauty just as the treasures of my heart increased. Only in petty minds or in common hearts can absence lessen love or efface the features or diminish the beauty of our dear one. To ardent imaginations, to all beings through whose veins enthusiasm passes like a crimson tide, and in whom passion takes the form of constancy, absence has the same effect as the sufferings of the early Christians, which strengthened their faith and made God visible to them. In hearts that abound in love are there not incessant longings for a desired object, to which the glowing fire of our dreams gives higher value and a deeper tint? Are we not conscious of instigations which give to the beloved features the beauty of the ideal by inspiring them with thought? The past, dwelt on in all its details becomes magnified; the future teems with hope. When two hearts filled with these electric clouds meet each other, their interview is like the welcome storm which revives the earth and stimulates it with the swift lightnings of the thunderbolt. How many tender pleasures came to me when I found these thoughts and these sensations reciprocal! With what glad eyes I followed the development of happiness in Henriette! A woman who renews her life from that of her beloved gives, perhaps, a greater proof of feeling than she who dies killed by a doubt, withered on her stock for want of sap; I know not which of the two is the more touching.
The revival of Madame de Mortsauf was wholly natural, like the effects of the month of May upon the meadows, or those of the sun and of the brook upon the drooping flowers. Henriette, like our dear valley of love, had had her winter; she revived like the valley in the springtime. Before dinner we went down to the beloved terrace. There, with one hand stroking the head of her son, who walked feebly beside her, silent, as though he were breeding an illness, she told me of her nights beside his pillow.
For three months, she said, she had lived wholly within herself, inhabiting, as it were, a dark palace; afraid to enter sumptuous rooms where the light shone, where festivals were given, to her denied, at the door of which she stood, one glance turned upon her child, another to a dim and distant figure; one ear listening for moans, another for a voice. She told me poems, born of solitude, such as no poet ever sang; but all ingenuously, without one vestige of love, one trace of voluptuous thought, one echo of a poesy orientally soothing as the rose of Frangistan. When the count joined us she continued in the same tone, like a woman secure within herself, able to look proudly at her husband and kiss the forehead of her son without a blush. She had prayed much; she had clasped her hands for nights together over her child, refusing to let him die.
"I went," she said, "to the gate of the sanctuary and asked his life of God."
She had had visions, and she told them to me; but when she said, in that angelic voice of hers, these exquisite words, "While I slept my heart watched," the count harshly interrupted her.
"That is to say, you were half crazy," he cried.
She was silent, as deeply hurt as though it were a first wound; forgetting that for thirteen years this man had lost no chance to shoot his arrows into her heart. Like a soaring bird struck on the wing by vulgar shot, she sank into a dull depression; then she roused herself.
"How is it, monsieur," she said, "that no word of mine ever finds favor in your sight? Have you no indulgence for my weakness,—no comprehension of me as a woman?"
She stopped short. Already she regretted the murmur, and measured the future by the past; how could she expect comprehension? Had she not drawn upon herself some virulent attack? The blue veins of her temples throbbed; she shed no tears, but the color of her eyes faded. Then she looked down, that she might not see her pain reflected on my face, her feelings guessed, her soul wooed by my soul; above all, not see the sympathy of young love, ready like a faithful dog to spring at the throat of whoever threatened his mistress, without regard to the assailant's strength or quality. At such cruel moments the count's air of superiority was supreme. He thought he had triumphed over his wife, and he pursued her with a hail of phrases which repeated the one idea, and were like the blows of an axe which fell with unvarying sound.
"Always the same?" I said, when the count left us to follow the huntsman who came to speak to him.
"Always," answered Jacques.
"Always excellent, my son," she said, endeavoring to withdraw Monsieur de Mortsauf from the judgment of his children. "You see only the present, you know nothing of the past; therefore you cannot criticise your father without doing him injustice. But even if you had the pain of seeing that your father was to blame, family honor requires you to bury such secrets in silence."
"How have the changes at the Cassine and the Rhetoriere answered?" I asked, to divert her mind from bitter thoughts.
"Beyond my expectations," she replied. "As soon as the buildings were finished we found two excellent farmers ready to hire them; one at four thousand five hundred francs, taxes paid; the other at five thousand; both leases for fifteen years. We have already planted three thousand young trees on the new farms. Manette's cousin is delighted to get the Rabelaye; Martineau has taken the Baude. All our efforts have been crowned with success. Clochegourde, without the reserved land which we call the home-farm, and without the timber and vineyards, brings in nineteen thousand francs a year, and the plantations are becoming valuable. I am battling to let the home-farm to Martineau, the keeper, whose eldest son can now take his place. He offers three thousand francs if Monsieur de Mortsauf will build him a farm-house at the Commanderie. We might then clear the approach to Clochegourde, finish the proposed avenue to the main road, and have only the woodland and the vineyards to take care of ourselves. If the king returns, our pension will be restored; WE shall consent after clashing a little with our wife's common-sense. Jacques' fortune will then be permanently secured. That result obtained, I shall leave monsieur to lay by as much as he likes for Madeleine, though the king will of course dower her, according to custom. My conscience is easy; I have all but accomplished my task. And you?" she said.
I explained to her the mission on which the king had sent me, and showed her how her wise counsel had borne fruit. Was she endowed with second sight thus to foretell events?
"Did I not write it to you?" she answered. "For you and for my children alone I possess a remarkable faculty, of which I have spoken only to my confessor, Monsieur de la Berge; he explains it by divine intervention. Often, after deep meditation induced by fears about the health of my children, my eyes close to the things of earth and see into another region; if Jacques and Madeleine there appear to me as two luminous figures they are sure to have good health for a certain period of time; if wrapped in mist they are equally sure to fall ill soon after. As for you, I not only see you brilliantly illuminated, but I hear a voice which explains to me without words, by some mental communication, what you ought to do. Does any law forbid me to use this wonderful gift for my children and for you?" she asked, falling into a reverie. Then, after a pause, she added, "Perhaps God wills to take the place of their father."
"Let me believe that my obedience is due to none but you," I cried.
She gave me one of her exquisitely gracious smiles, which so exalted my heart that I should not have felt a death-blow if given at that moment.
"As soon as the king returns to Paris, go there; leave Clochegourde," she said. "It may be degrading to beg for places and favors, but it would be ridiculous to be out of the way of receiving them. Great changes will soon take place. The king needs capable and trustworthy men; don't fail him. It is well for you to enter young into the affairs of the nation and learn your way; for statesmen, like actors, have a routine business to acquire, which genius does not reveal, it must be learnt. My father heard the Duc de Choiseul say this. Think of me," she said, after a pause; "let me enjoy the pleasures of superiority in a soul that is all my own; for are you not my son?"
"Your son?" I said, sullenly.
"Yes, my son!" she cried, mocking me; "is not that a good place in my heart?"
The bell rang for dinner; she took my arm and leaned contentedly upon it.
"You have grown," she said, as we went up the steps. When we reached the portico she shook my arm a little, as if my looks were importunate; for though her eyes were lowered she knew that I saw only her. Then she said, with a charming air of pretended impatience, full of grace and coquetry, "Come, why don't you look at our dear valley?"
She turned, held her white silk sun-shade over our heads and drew Jacques closely to her side. The motion of her head as she looked towards the Indre, the punt, the meadows, showed me that in my absence she had come to many an understanding with those misty horizons and their vaporous outline. Nature was a mantle which sheltered her thoughts. She now knew what the nightingale was sighing the livelong night, what the songster of the sedges hymned with his plaintive note.
At eight o'clock that evening I was witness of a scene which touched me deeply, and which I had never yet witnessed, for in my former visits I had played backgammon with the count while his wife took the children into the dining-room before their bedtime. The bell rang twice, and all the servants of the household entered the room.
"You are now our guest and must submit to convent rule," said the countess, leading me by the hand with that air of innocent gaiety which distinguishes women who are naturally pious.
The count followed. Masters, children, and servants knelt down, all taking their regular places. It was Madeleine's turn to read the prayers. The dear child said them in her childish voice, the ingenuous tones of which rose clear in the harmonious silence of the country, and gave to the words the candor of holy innocence, the grace of angels. It was the most affecting prayer I ever heard. Nature replied to the child's voice with the myriad murmurs of the coming night, like the low accompaniment of an organ lightly touched, Madeleine was on the right of the countess, Jacques on her left. The graceful curly heads, between which rose the smooth braids of the mother, and above all three the perfectly white hair and yellow cranium of the father, made a picture which repeated, in some sort, the ideas aroused by the melody of the prayer. As if to fulfil all conditions of the unity which marks the sublime, this calm and collected group were bathed in the fading light of the setting sun; its red tints coloring the room, impelling the soul—be it poetic or superstitious—to believe that the fires of heaven were visiting these faithful servants of God as they knelt there without distinction of rank, in the equality which heaven demands. Thinking back to the days of the patriarchs my mind still further magnified this scene, so grand in its simplicity.
The children said good-night, the servants bowed, the countess went away holding a child by each hand, and I returned to the salon with the count.
"We provide you with salvation there, and hell here," he said, pointing to the backgammon-board.
The countess returned in half an hour, and brought her frame near the table.
"This is for you," she said, unrolling the canvas; "but for the last three months it has languished. Between that rose and this heartsease my poor child was ill."
"Come, come," said Monsieur de Mortsauf, "don't talk of that any more. Six—five, emissary of the king!"
When alone in my room I hushed my breathing that I might hear her passing to and fro in hers. She was calm and pure, but I was lashed with maddening ideas. "Why should she not be mine?" I thought; "perhaps she is, like me, in this whirlwind of agitation." At one o'clock, I went down, walking noiselessly, and lay before her door. With my ear pressed to a chink I could hear her equable, gentle breathing, like that of a child. When chilled to the bone I went back to bed and slept tranquilly till morning. I know not what prenatal influence, what nature within me, causes the delight I take in going to the brink of precipices, sounding the gulf of evil, seeking to know its depths, feeling its icy chill, and retreating in deep emotion. That hour of night passed on the threshold of her door where I wept with rage,—though she never knew that on the morrow her foot had trod upon my tears and kisses, on her virtue first destroyed and then respected, cursed and adored,—that hour, foolish in the eyes of many, was nevertheless an inspiration of the same mysterious impulse which impels the soldier. Many have told me they have played their lives upon it, flinging themselves before a battery to know if they could escape the shot, happy in thus galloping into the abyss of probabilities, and smoking like Jean Bart upon the gunpowder.
The next day I went to gather flowers and made two bouquets. The count admired them, though generally nothing of the kind appealed to him. The clever saying of Champcenetz, "He builds dungeons in Spain," seemed to have been made for him.
I spent several days at Clochegourde, going but seldom to Frapesle, where, however, I dined three times. The French army now occupied Tours. Though my presence was health and strength to Madame de Mortsauf, she implored me to make my way to Chateauroux, and so round by Issoudun and Orleans to Paris with what haste I could. I tried to resist; but she commanded me, saying that my guardian angel spoke. I obeyed. Our farewell was, this time, dim with tears; she feared the allurements of the life I was about to live. Is it not a serious thing to enter the maelstrom of interests, passions, and pleasures which make Paris a dangerous ocean for chaste love and purity of conscience? I promised to write to her every night, relating the events and thoughts of the day, even the most trivial. When I gave the promise she laid her head on my shoulder and said: "Leave nothing out; everything will interest me."
She gave me letters for the duke and duchess, which I delivered the second day after my return.
"You are in luck," said the duke; "dine here to-day, and go with me this evening to the Chateau; your fortune is made. The king spoke of you this morning, and said, 'He is young, capable, and trustworthy.' His Majesty added that he wished he knew whether you were living or dead, and in what part of France events had thrown you after you had executed your mission so ably."
That night I was appointed master of petitions to the council of State, and I also received a private and permanent place in the employment of Louis XVIII. himself,—a confidential position, not highly distinguished, but without any risks, a position which put me at the very heart of the government and has been the source of all my subsequent prosperity. Madame de Mortsauf had judged rightly. I now owed everything to her; power and wealth, happiness and knowledge; she guided and encouraged me, purified my heart, and gave to my will that unity of purpose without which the powers of youth are wasted. Later I had a colleague; we each served six months. We were allowed to supply each other's place if necessary; we had rooms at the Chateau, a carriage, and large allowances for travelling when absent on missions. Strange position! We were the secret disciples of a monarch in a policy to which even his enemies have since done signal justice; alone with us he gave judgment on all things, foreign and domestic, yet we had no legitimate influence; often we were consulted like Laforet by Moliere, and made to feel that the hesitations of long experience were confirmed or removed by the vigorous perceptions of youth.
In other respects my future was secured in a manner to satisfy ambition. Beside my salary as master of petitions, paid by the budget of the council of State, the king gave me a thousand francs a month from his privy purse, and often himself added more to it. Though the king knew well that no young man of twenty-three could long bear up under the labors with which he loaded me, my colleague, now a peer of France, was not appointed till August, 1817. The choice was a difficult one; our functions demanded so many capabilities that the king was long in coming to a decision. He did me the honor to ask which of the young men among whom he was hesitating I should like for an associate. Among them was one who had been my school-fellow at Lepitre's; I did not select him. His Majesty asked why.
"The king," I replied, "chooses men who are equally faithful, but whose capabilities differ. I choose the one whom I think the most able, certain that I shall always be able to get on with him."
My judgment coincided with that of the king, who was pleased with the sacrifice I had made. He said on this occasion, "You are to be the chief"; and he related these circumstances to my colleague, who became, in return for the service I had done him, my good friend. The consideration shown to me by the Duc de Lenoncourt set the tone of that which I met with in society. To have it said, "The king takes an interest in the young man; that young man has a future, the king likes him," would have served me in place of talents; and it now gave to the kindly welcome accorded to youth a certain respect that is only given to power. In the salon of the Duchesse de Lenoncourt and also at the house of my sister who had just married the Marquis de Listomere, son of the old lady in the Ile St. Louis, I gradually came to know the influential personages of the Faubourg St. Germain.
Henriette herself put me at the heart of the circle then called "le Petit Chateau" by the help of her great-aunt, the Princesse de Blamont-Chauvry, to whom she wrote so warmly in my behalf that the princess immediately sent for me. I cultivated her and contrived to please her, and she became, not my protectress but a friend, in whose kindness there was something maternal. The old lady took pains to make me intimate with her daughter Madame d'Espard, with the Duchesse de Langeais, the Vicomtesse de Beauseant, and the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, women who held the sceptre of fashion, and who were all the more gracious to me because I made no pretensions and was always ready to be useful and agreeable to them. My brother Charles, far from avoiding me, now began to lean upon me; but my rapid success roused a secret jealousy in his mind which in after years caused me great vexation. My father and mother, surprised by a triumph so unexpected, felt their vanity flattered, and received me at last as a son. But their feeling was too artificial, I might say false, to let their present treatment have much influence upon a sore heart. Affectations stained with selfishness win little sympathy; the heart abhors calculations and profits of all kinds.
I wrote regularly to Henriette, who answered by two letters a month. Her spirit hovered over me, her thoughts traversed space and made the atmosphere around me pure. No woman could captivate me. The king noticed my reserve, and as, in this respect, he belonged to the school of Louis XV., he called me, in jest, Mademoiselle de Vandenesse; but my conduct pleased him. I am convinced that the habit of patience I acquired in my childhood and practised at Clochegourde had much to do in my winning the favor of the king, who was always most kind to me. He no doubt took a fancy to read my letters, for he soon gave up his notion of my life as that of a young girl. One day when the duke was on duty, and I was writing at the king's dictation, the latter suddenly remarked, in that fine, silvery voice of his, to which he could give, when he chose, the biting tone of epigram:—
"So that poor devil of a Mortsauf persists in living?"
"Yes," replied the duke.
"Madame de Mortsauf is an angel, whom I should like to see at my court," continued the king; "but if I cannot manage it, my chancellor here," turning to me, "may be more fortunate. You are to have six months' leave; I have decided on giving you the young man we spoke of yesterday as colleague. Amuse yourself at Clochegourde, friend Cato!" and he laughed as he had himself wheeled out of the room.
I flew like a swallow to Touraine. For the first time I was to show myself to my beloved, not merely a little less insignificant, but actually in the guise of an elegant young man, whose manners had been formed in the best salons, his education finished by gracious women; who had found at last a compensation for all his sufferings, and had put to use the experience given to him by the purest angel to whom heaven had ever committed the care of a child. You know how my mother had equipped me for my three months' visit at Frapesle. When I reached Clochegourde after fulfilling my mission in Vendee, I was dressed like a huntsman; I wore a jacket with white and red buttons, striped trousers, leathern gaiters and shoes. Tramping through underbrush had so injured my clothes that the count was obliged to lend me linen. On the present occasion, two years' residence in Paris, constant intercourse with the king, the habits of a life at ease, my completed growth, a youthful countenance, which derived a lustre from the placidity of the soul within magnetically united with the pure soul that beamed on me from Clochegourde,—all these things combined had transformed me. I was self-possessed without conceit, inwardly pleased to find myself, in spite of my years, at the summit of affairs; above all, I had the consciousness of being secretly the support and comfort of the dearest woman on earth, and her unuttered hope. Perhaps I felt a flutter of vanity as the postilions cracked their whips along the new avenue leading from the main road to Clochegourde and through an iron gate I had never seen before, which opened into a circular enclosure recently constructed. I had not written to the countess of my coming, wishing to surprise her. For this I found myself doubly in fault: first, she was overwhelmed with the excitement of a pleasure long desired, but supposed to be impossible; and secondly, she proved to me that all such deliberate surprises are in bad taste.
When Henriette saw a young man in him who had hitherto seemed but a child to her, she lowered her eyes with a sort of tragic slowness. She allowed me to take and kiss her hand without betraying her inward pleasure, which I nevertheless felt in her sensitive shiver. When she raised her face to look at me again, I saw that she was pale.
"Well, you don't forget your old friends?" said Monsieur de Mortsauf, who had neither changed nor aged.
The children sprang upon me. I saw them behind the grave face of the Abbe Dominis, Jacques' tutor.
"No," I replied, "and in future I am to have six months' leave, which will always be spent here—Why, what is the matter?" I said to the countess, putting my arm round her waist and holding her up in presence of them all.
"Oh, don't!" she said, springing away from me; "it is nothing."
I read her mind, and answered to its secret thought by saying, "Am I not allowed to be your faithful slave?"
She took my arm, left the count, the children, and the abbe, and led me to a distance on the lawn, though still within sight of the others; then, when sure that her voice could not be heard by them, she spoke.
"Felix, my dear friend," she said, "forgive my fears; I have but one thread by which to guide me in the labyrinth of life, and I dread to see it broken. Tell me that I am more than ever Henriette to you, that you will never abandon me, that nothing shall prevail against me, that you will ever be my devoted friend. I have suddenly had a glimpse into my future, and you were not there, as hitherto, your eyes shining and fixed upon me—"
"Henriette! idol whose worship is like that of the Divine,—lily, flower of my life, how is it that you do not know, you who are my conscience, that my being is so fused with yours that my soul is here when my body is in Paris? Must I tell you that I have come in seventeen hours, that each turn of the wheels gathered thoughts and desires in my breast, which burst forth like a tempest when I saw you?"
"Yes, tell me! tell me!" she cried; "I am so sure of myself that I can hear you without wrong. God does not will my death. He sends you to me as he sends his breath to his creatures; as he pours the rain of his clouds upon a parched earth,—tell me! tell me! Do you love me sacredly?"
"As a virgin Mary, hidden behind her veil, beneath her white crown."
"As a virgin visible."
"As a sister?"
"As a sister too dearly loved."
"With chivalry and without hope?"
"With chivalry and with hope."
"As if you were still twenty years of age, and wearing that absurd blue coat?"
"Oh better far! I love you thus, and I also love you"—she looked at me with keen apprehension—"as you loved your aunt."
"I am happy! You dispel my terrors," she said, returning towards the family, who were surprised at our private conference. "Be still a child at Clochegourde—for you are one still. It may be your policy to be a man with the king, but here, let me tell you, monsieur, your best policy is to remain a child. As a child you shall be loved. I can resist a man, but to a child I can refuse nothing, nothing! He can ask for nothing I will not give him.—Our secrets are all told," she said, looking at the count with a mischievous air, in which her girlish, natural self reappeared. "I leave you now; I must go and dress."
Never for three years had I heard her voice so richly happy. For the first time I heard those swallow cries, the infantile notes of which I told you. I had brought Jacques a hunting outfit, and for Madeleine a work-box—which her mother afterwards used. The joy of the two children, delighted to show their presents to each other, seemed to annoy the count, always dissatisfied when attention was withdrawn from himself. I made a sign to Madeleine and followed her father, who wanted to talk to me of his ailments.
"My poor Felix," he said, "you see how happy and well they all are. I am the shadow on the picture; all their ills are transferred to me, and I bless God that it is so. Formerly I did not know what was the matter with me; now I know. The orifice of my stomach is affected; I can digest nothing."
"How do you come to be as wise as the professor of a medical school?" I asked, laughing. "Is your doctor indiscreet enough to tell you such things?"
"God forbid I should consult a doctor," he cried, showing the aversion most imaginary invalids feel for the medical profession.
I now listened to much crazy talk, in the course of which he made the most absurd confidences,—complained of his wife, of the servants, of the children, of life, evidently pleased to repeat his daily speeches to a friend who, not having heard them daily, might be alarmed, and who at any rate was forced to listen out of politeness. He must have been satisfied, for I paid him the utmost attention, trying to penetrate his inconceivable nature, and to guess what new tortures he had been inflicting on his wife, of which she had not written to me. Henriette presently put an end to the monologue by appearing in the portico. The count saw her, shook his head, and said to me: "You listen to me, Felix; but here no one pities me."
He went away, as if aware of the constraint he imposed on my intercourse with Henriette, or perhaps from a really chivalrous consideration for her, knowing he could give her pleasure by leaving us alone. His character exhibited contradictions that were often inexplicable; he was jealous, like all weak beings, but his confidence in his wife's sanctity was boundless. It may have been the sufferings of his own self-esteem, wounded by the superiority of that lofty virtue, which made him so eager to oppose every wish of the poor woman, whom he braved as children brave their masters or their mothers.
Jacques was taking his lessons, and Madeleine was being dressed; I had therefore a whole hour to walk with the countess alone on the terrace.
"Dear angel!" I said, "the chains are heavier, the sands hotter, the thorns grow apace."
"Hush!" she said, guessing the thoughts my conversation with the count had suggested. "You are here, and all is forgotten! I don't suffer; I have never suffered."
She made a few light steps as if to shake her dress and give to the breeze its ruches of snowy tulle, its floating sleeves and fresh ribbons, the laces of her pelerine, and the flowing curls of her coiffure a la Sevigne; I saw her for the first time a young girl,—gay with her natural gaiety, ready to frolic like a child. I knew then the meaning of tears of happiness; I knew the joy a man feels in bringing happiness to another.
"Sweet human flower, wooed by my thought, kissed by my soul, oh my lily!" I cried, "untouched, untouchable upon thy stem, white, proud, fragrant, and solitary—"
"Enough, enough," she said, smiling. "Speak to me of yourself; tell me everything."
Then, beneath the swaying arch of quivering leaves, we had a long conversation, filled with interminable parentheses, subjects taken, dropped, and retaken, in which I told her my life and my occupations; I even described my apartment in Paris, for she wished to know everything; and (happiness then unappreciated) I had nothing to conceal. Knowing thus my soul and all the details of a daily life full of incessant toil, learning the full extent of my functions, which to any one not sternly upright offered opportunities for deception and dishonest gains, but which I had exercised with such rigid honor that the king, I told her, called me Mademoiselle de Vandenesse, she seized my hand and kissed it, and dropped a tear, a tear of joy, upon it.
This sudden transposition of our roles, this homage, coupled with the thought—swiftly expressed but as swiftly comprehended—"Here is the master I have sought, here is my dream embodied!" all that there was of avowal in the action, grand in its humility, where love betrayed itself in a region forbidden to the senses,—this whirlwind of celestial things fell on my heart and crushed it. I felt myself too small; I wished to die at her feet.
"Ah!" I said, "you surpass us in all things. Can you doubt me?—for you did doubt me just now, Henriette."
"Not now," she answered, looking at me with ineffable tenderness, which, for a moment, veiled the light of her eyes. "But seeing you so changed, so handsome, I said to myself, 'Our plans for Madeleine will be defeated by some woman who will guess the treasures in his heart; she will steal our Felix, and destroy all happiness here.'"
"Always Madeleine!" I replied. "Is it Madeleine to whom I am faithful?"
We fell into a silence which Monsieur de Mortsauf inconveniently interrupted. I was forced to keep up a conversation bristling with difficulties, in which my honest replies as to the king's policy jarred with the count's ideas, and he forced me to explain again and again the king's intentions. In spite of all my questions as to his horses, his agricultural affairs, whether he was satisfied with his five farms, whether he meant to cut the timber of the old avenue, he returned to the subject of politics with the pestering faculty of an old maid and the persistency of a child. Minds like his prefer to dash themselves against the light; they return again and again and hum about it without ever getting into it, like those big flies which weary our ears as they buzz upon the glass.
Henriette was silent. To stop the conversation, in which I feared my young blood might take fire, I answered in monosyllables, mostly acquiescent, avoiding discussion; but Monsieur de Mortsauf had too much sense not to perceive the meaning of my politeness. Presently he was angry at being always in the right; he grew refractory, his eyebrows and the wrinkles of his forehead worked, his yellow eyes blazed, his rufous nose grew redder, as it did on the day I first witnessed an attack of madness. Henriette gave me a supplicating look, making me understand that she could not employ on my behalf an authority to which she had recourse to protect her children. I at once answered the count seriously, taking up the political question, and managing his peevish spirit with the utmost care.
"Poor dear! poor dear!" she murmured two or three times; the words reaching my ear like a gentle breeze. When she could intervene with success she said, interrupting us, "Let me tell you, gentlemen, that you are very dull company."
Recalled by this conversation to his chivalrous sense of what was due to a woman, the count ceased to talk politics, and as we bored him in our turn by commonplace matters, he presently left us to continue our walk, declaring that it made his head spin to go round and round on the same path.
My sad conjectures were true. The soft landscape, the warm atmosphere, the cloudless skies, the soothing poetry of this valley, which for fifteen years had calmed the stinging fancies of that diseased mind, were now impotent. At a period of life when the asperities of other men are softened and their angles smoothed, the disposition of this man became more and more aggressive. For the last few months he had taken a habit of contradicting for the sake of contradiction, without reason, without even trying to justify his opinions; he insisted on knowing the why and the wherefore of everything; grew restless under a delay or an omission; meddled with every item of the household affairs, and compelled his wife and the servants to render him the most minute and fatiguing account of all that was done; never allowing them the slightest freedom of action. Formerly he did not lose his temper except for some special reason; now his irritation was constant. Perhaps the care of his farms, the interests of agriculture, an active out-door life had formerly soothed his atrabilious temper by giving it a field for its uneasiness, and by furnishing employment for his activity. Possibly the loss of such occupation had allowed his malady to prey upon itself; no longer exercised on matters without, it was showing itself in more fixed ideas; the moral being was laying hold of the physical being. He had lately become his own doctor; he studied medical books, fancied he had the diseases he read of, and took the most extraordinary and unheard of precautions about his health,—precautions never the same, impossible to foresee, and consequently impossible to satisfy. Sometimes he wanted no noise; then, when the countess had succeeded in establishing absolute silence, he would declare he was in a tomb, and blame her for not finding some medium between incessant noise and the stillness of La Trappe. Sometimes he affected a perfect indifference for all earthly things. Then the whole household breathed freely; the children played; family affairs went on without criticism. Suddenly he would cry out lamentably, "They want to kill me!—My dear," he would say to his wife, increasing the injustice of his words by the aggravating tones of his sharp voice, "if it concerned your children you would know very well what was the matter with them."
He dressed and re-dressed himself incessantly, watching every change of temperature, and doing nothing without consulting the barometer. Notwithstanding his wife's attentions, he found no food to suit him, his stomach being, he said, impaired, and digestion so painful as to keep him awake all night. In spite of this he ate, drank, digested, and slept, in a manner to satisfy any doctor. His capricious will exhausted the patience of the servants, accustomed to the beaten track of domestic service and unable to conform to the requirements of his conflicting orders. Sometimes he bade them keep all the windows open, declaring that his health required a current of fresh air; a few days later the fresh air, being too hot or too damp, as the case might be, became intolerable; then he scolded, quarrelled with the servants, and in order to justify himself, denied his former orders. This defect of memory, or this bad faith, call it which you will, always carried the day against his wife in the arguments by which she tried to pit him against himself. Life at Clochegourde had become so intolerable that the Abbe Dominis, a man of great learning, took refuge in the study of scientific problems, and withdrew into the shelter of pretended abstraction. The countess had no longer any hope of hiding the secret of these insane furies within the circle of her own home; the servants had witnessed scenes of exasperation without exciting cause, in which the premature old man passed the bounds of reason. They were, however, so devoted to the countess that nothing so far had transpired outside; but she dreaded daily some public outburst of a frenzy no longer controlled by respect for opinion.
Later I learned the dreadful details of the count's treatment of his wife. Instead of supporting her when the children were ill, he assailed her with dark predictions and made her responsible for all future illnesses, because she refused to let the children take the crazy doses which he prescribed. When she went to walk with them the count would predict a storm in the face of a clear sky; if by chance the prediction proved true, the satisfaction he felt made him quite indifferent to any harm to the children. If one of them was ailing, the count gave his whole mind to fastening the cause of the illness upon the system of nursing adopted by his wife, whom he carped at for every trifling detail, always ending with the cruel words, "If your children fall ill again you have only yourself to thank for it."
He behaved in the same way in the management of the household, seeing the worst side of everything, and making himself, as his old coachman said, "the devil's own advocate." The countess arranged that Jacques and Madeleine should take their meals alone at different hours from the family, so as to save them from the count's outbursts and draw all the storms upon herself. In this way the children now saw but little of their father. By one of the hallucinations peculiar to selfish persons, the count had not the slightest idea of the misery he caused. In the confidential communication he made to me on my arrival he particularly dwelt on his goodness to his family. He wielded the flail, beat, bruised, and broke everything about him as a monkey might have done. Then, having half-destroyed his prey, he denied having touched it. I now understood the lines on Henriette's forehead,—fine lines, traced as it were with the edge of a razor, which I had noticed the moment I saw her. There is a pudicity in noble minds which withholds them from speaking of their personal sufferings; proudly they hide the extent of their woes from hearts that love them, feeling a merciful joy in doing so. Therefore in spite of my urgency, I did not immediately obtain the truth from Henriette. She feared to grieve me; she made brief admissions, and then blushed for them; but I soon perceived myself the increase of trouble which the count's present want of regular occupation had brought upon the household.
"Henriette," I said, after I had been there some days, "don't you think you have made a mistake in so arranging the estate that the count has no longer anything to do?"
"Dear," she said, smiling, "my situation is critical enough to take all my attention; believe me, I have considered all my resources, and they are now exhausted. It is true that the bickerings are getting worse and worse. As Monsieur de Mortsauf and I are always together, I cannot lessen them by diverting his attention in other directions; in fact the pain would be the same to me in any case. I did think of advising him to start a nursery for silk-worms at Clochegourde, where we have many mulberry-trees, remains of the old industry of Touraine. But I reflected that he would still be the same tyrant at home, and I should have many more annoyances through the enterprise. You will learn, my dear observer, that in youth a man's ill qualities are restrained by society, checked in their swing by the play of passions, subdued under the fear of public opinion; later, a middle-aged man, living in solitude, shows his native defects, which are all the more terrible because so long repressed. Human weaknesses are essentially base; they allow of neither peace nor truce; what you yield to them to-day they exact to-morrow, and always; they fasten on concessions and compel more of them. Power, on the other hand, is merciful; it conforms to evidence, it is just and it is peaceable. But the passions born of weakness are implacable. Monsieur de Mortsauf takes an absolute pleasure in getting the better of me; and he who would deceive no one else, deceives me with delight."
One morning as we left the breakfast table, about a month after my arrival, the countess took me by the arm, darted through an iron gate which led into the vineyard, and dragged me hastily among the vines.
"He will kill me!" she cried. "And I want to live—for my children's sake. But oh! not a day's respite! Always to walk among thorns! to come near falling every instant! every instant to have to summon all my strength to keep my balance! No human being can long endure such strain upon the system. If I were certain of the ground I ought to take, if my resistance could be a settled thing, then my mind might concentrate upon it—but no, every day the attacks change character and leave me without defence; my sorrows are not one, they are manifold. Ah! my friend—" she cried, leaning her head upon my shoulder, and not continuing her confidence. "What will become of me? Oh, what shall I do?" she said presently, struggling with thoughts she did not express. "How can I resist? He will kill me! No, I will kill myself—but that would be a crime! Escape? yes, but my children! Separate from him? how, after fifteen years of marriage, how could I ever tell my parents that I will not live with him? for if my father and mother came here he would be calm, polite, intelligent, judicious. Besides, can married women look to fathers or mothers? Do they not belong body and soul to their husbands? I could live tranquil if not happy—I have found strength in my chaste solitude, I admit it; but if I am deprived of this negative happiness I too shall become insane. My resistance is based on powerful reasons which are not personal to myself. It is a crime to give birth to poor creatures condemned to endless suffering. Yet my position raises serious questions, so serious that I dare not decide them alone; I cannot be judge and party both. To-morrow I will go to Tours and consult my new confessor, the Abbe Birotteau—for my dear and virtuous Abbe de la Berge is dead," she said, interrupting herself. "Though he was severe, I miss and shall always miss his apostolic power. His successor is an angel of goodness, who pities but does not reprimand. Still, all courage draws fresh life from the heart of religion; what soul is not strengthened by the voice of the Holy Spirit? My God," she said, drying her tears and raising her eyes to heaven, "for what sin am I thus punished?—I believe, yes, Felix, I believe it, we must pass through a fiery furnace before we reach the saints, the just made perfect of the upper spheres. Must I keep silence? Am I forbidden, oh, my God, to cry to the heart of a friend? Do I love him too well?" She pressed me to her heart as though she feared to lose me. "Who will solve my doubts? My conscience does not reproach me. The stars shine from above on men; may not the soul, the human star, shed its light upon a friend, if we go to him with pure thoughts?"
I listened to this dreadful cry in silence, holding her moist hand in mine that was still more moist. I pressed it with a force to which Henriette replied with an equal pressure.
"Where are you?" cried the count, who came towards us, bareheaded.
Ever since my return he had insisted on sharing our interviews,—either because he wanted amusement, or feared the countess would tell me her sorrows and complain to me, or because he was jealous of a pleasure he did not share.
"How he follows me!" she cried, in a tone of despair. "Let us go into the orchard, we shall escape him. We can stoop as we run by the hedge, and he will not see us."
We made the hedge a rampart and reached the enclosure, where we were soon at a good distance from the count in an alley of almond-trees.
"Dear Henriette," I then said to her, pressing her arm against my heart and stopping to contemplate her in her sorrow, "you have guided me with true knowledge along the perilous ways of the great world; let me in return give you some advice which may help you to end this duel without witnesses, in which you must inevitably be worsted, for you are fighting with unequal weapons. You must not struggle any longer with a madman—"
"Hush!" she said, dashing aside the tears that rolled from her eyes.
"Listen to me, dear," I continued. "After a single hour's talk with the count, which I force myself to endure for love of you, my thoughts are bewildered, my head heavy; he makes me doubtful of my own intellect; the same ideas repeated over and over again seem to burn themselves on my brain. Well-defined monomanias are not communicated; but when the madness consists in a distorted way of looking at everything, and when it lurks under all discussions, then it can and does injure the minds of those who live with it. Your patience is sublime, but will it not end in disordering you? For your sake, for that of your children, change your system with the count. Your adorable kindness has made him selfish; you have treated him as a mother treats the child she spoils; but now, if you want to live—and you do want it," I said, looking at her, "use the control you have over him. You know what it is; he loves you and he fears you; make him fear you more; oppose his erratic will with your firm will. Extend your power over him, confine his madness to a moral sphere just as we lock maniacs in a cell."
"Dear child," she said, smiling bitterly, "a woman without a heart might do it. But I am a mother; I should make a poor jailer. Yes, I can suffer, but I cannot make others suffer. Never!" she said, "never! not even to obtain some great and honorable result. Besides, I should have to lie in my heart, disguise my voice, lower my head, degrade my gesture—do not ask of me such falsehoods. I can stand between Monsieur de Mortsauf and his children, I willingly receive his blows that they may not fall on others; I can do all that, and will do it to conciliate conflicting interests, but I can do no more."
"Let me worship thee, O saint, thrice holy!" I exclaimed, kneeling at her feet and kissing her robe, with which I wiped my tears. "But if he kills you?" I cried.
She turned pale and said, lifting her eyes to heaven:
"God's will be done!"
"Do you know that the king said to your father, 'So that devil of a Mortsauf is still living'?"
"A jest on the lips of the king," she said, "is a crime when repeated here."
In spite of our precautions the count had tracked us; he now arrived, bathed in perspiration, and sat down under a walnut-tree where the countess had stopped to give me that rebuke. I began to talk about the vintage; the count was silent, taking no notice of the dampness under the tree. After a few insignificant remarks, interspersed with pauses that were very significant, he complained of nausea and headache; but he spoke gently, and did not appeal to our pity, or describe his sufferings in his usual exaggerated way. We paid no attention to him. When we reached the house, he said he felt worse and should go to bed; which he did, quite naturally and with much less complaint than usual. We took advantage of the respite and went down to our dear terrace accompanied by Madeleine.
"Let us get that boat and go upon the river," said the countess after we had made a few turns. "We might go and look at the fishing which is going on to-day."
We went out by the little gate, found the punt, jumped into it and were presently paddling up the Loire. Like three children amused with trifles, we looked at the sedges along the banks and the blue and green dragon-flies; the countess wondered perhaps that she was able to enjoy such peaceful pleasures in the midst of her poignant griefs; but Nature's calm, indifferent to our struggles, has a magic gift of consolation. The tumults of a love full of restrained desires harmonize with the wash of the water; the flowers that the hand of man has never wilted are the voice of his secret dreams; the voluptuous swaying of the boat vaguely responds to the thoughts that are floating in his soul. We felt the languid influence of this double poesy. Words, tuned to the diapason of nature, disclosed mysterious graces; looks were impassioned rays sharing the light shed broadcast by the sun on the glowing meadows. The river was a path along which we flew. Our spirit, no longer kept down by the measured tread of our footsteps, took possession of the universe. The abounding joy of a child at liberty, graceful in its motions, enticing in its play, is the living expression of two freed souls, delighting themselves by becoming ideally the wondrous being dreamed of by Plato and known to all whose youth has been filled with a blessed love. To describe to you that hour, not in its indescribable details but in its essence, I must say to you that we loved each other in all the creations animate and inanimate which surrounded us; we felt without us the happiness our own hearts craved; it so penetrated our being that the countess took off her gloves and let her hands float in the water as if to cool an inward ardor. Her eyes spoke; but her mouth, opening like a rose to the breeze, gave voice to no desire. You know the harmony of deep tones mingling perfectly with high ones? Ever, when I hear it now, it recalls to me the harmony of our two souls in this one hour, which never came again.
"Where do you fish?" I asked, "if you can only do so from the banks you own?"
"Near Pont-de-Ruan," she replied. "Ah! we now own the river from Pont-de-Ruan to Clochegourde; Monsieur de Mortsauf has lately bought forty acres of the meadow lands with the savings of two years and the arrearage of his pension. Does that surprise you?"
"Surprise me?" I cried; "I would that all the valley were yours." She answered me with a smile. Presently we came below the bridge to a place where the Indre widens and where the fishing was going on.
"Well, Martineau?" she said.
"Ah, Madame la comtesse, such bad luck! We have fished up from the mill the last three hours, and have taken nothing."
We landed near them to watch the drawing in of the last net, and all three of us sat down in the shade of a "bouillard," a sort of poplar with a white bark, which grows on the banks of the Danube and the Loire (probably on those of other large rivers), and sheds, in the spring of the year, a white and silky fluff, the covering of its flower. The countess had recovered her august serenity; she half regretted the unveiling of her griefs, and mourned that she had cried aloud like Job, instead of weeping like the Magdalen,—a Magdalen without loves, or galas, or prodigalities, but not without beauty and fragrance. The net came in at her feet full of fish; tench, barbels, pike, perch, and an enormous carp, which floundered about on the grass.
"Madame brings luck!" exclaimed the keeper.
All the laborers opened their eyes as they looked with admiration at the woman whose fairy wand seemed to have touched the nets. Just then the huntsman was seen urging his horse over the meadows at a full gallop. Fear took possession of her. Jacques was not with us, and the mother's first thought, as Virgil so poetically says, is to press her children to her breast when danger threatens.
"Jacques! Where is Jacques? What has happened to my boy?"
She did not love me! If she had loved me I should have seen upon her face when confronted with my sufferings that expression of a lioness in despair.
"Madame la comtesse, Monsieur le comte is worse."
She breathed more freely and started to run towards Clochegourde, followed by me and by Madeleine.
"Follow me slowly," she said, looking back; "don't let the dear child overheat herself. You see how it is; Monsieur de Mortsauf took that walk in the sun which put him into a perspiration, and sitting under the walnut-tree may be the cause of a great misfortune."
The words, said in the midst of her agitation, showed plainly the purity of her soul. The death of the count a misfortune! She reached Clochegourde with great rapidity, passing through a gap in the wall and crossing the fields. I returned slowly. Henriette's words lighted my mind, but as the lightning falls and blasts the gathered harvest. On the river I had fancied I was her chosen one; now I felt bitterly the sincerity of her words. The lover who is not everything is nothing. I loved with the desire of a love that knows what it seeks; which feeds in advance on coming transports, and is content with the pleasures of the soul because it mingles with them others which the future keeps in store. If Henriette loved, it was certain that she knew neither the pleasures of love nor its tumults. She lived by feelings only, like a saint with God. I was the object on which her thoughts fastened as bees swarm upon the branch of a flowering tree. In my mad jealousy I reproached myself that I had dared nothing, that I had not tightened the bonds of a tenderness which seemed to me at that moment more subtile than real, by the chains of positive possession.
The count's illness, caused perhaps by a chill under the walnut-tree, became alarming in a few hours. I went to Tours for a famous doctor named Origet, but was unable to find him until evening. He spent that night and the next day at Clochegourde. We had sent the huntsman in quest of leeches, but the doctor, thinking the case urgent, wished to bleed the count immediately, but had brought no lancet with him. I at once started for Azay in the midst of a storm, roused a surgeon, Monsieur Deslandes, and compelled him to come with the utmost celerity to Clochegourde. Ten minutes later and the count would have died; the bleeding saved him. But in spite of this preliminary success the doctor predicted an inflammatory fever of the worst kind. The countess was overcome by the fear that she was the secret cause of this crisis. Two weak to thank me for my exertions, she merely gave me a few smiles, the equivalent of the kiss she had once laid upon my hand. Fain would I have seen in those haggard smiles the remorse of illicit love; but no, they were only the act of contrition of an innocent repentance, painful to see in one so pure, the expression of admiring tenderness for me whom she regarded as noble while reproaching herself for an imaginary wrong. Surely she loved as Laura loved Petrarch, and not as Francesca da Rimini loved Paolo,—a terrible discovery for him who had dreamed the union of the two loves.
The countess half lay, her body bent forwards, her arms hanging, in a soiled armchair in a room that was like the lair of a wild boar. The next evening before the doctor departed he said to the countess, who had sat up the night before, that she must get a nurse, as the illness would be a long one.
"A nurse!" she said; "no, no! We will take care of him," she added, looking at me; "we owe it to ourselves to save him."
The doctor gave us both an observing look full of astonishment. The words were of a nature to make him suspect an atonement. He promised to come twice a week, left directions for the treatment with Monsieur Deslandes, and pointed out the threatening symptoms that might oblige us to send for him. I asked the countess to let me sit up the alternate nights and then, not without difficulty, I persuaded her to go to bed on the third night. When the house was still and the count sleeping I heard a groan from Henriette's room. My anxiety was so keen that I went to her. She was kneeling before the crucifix bathed in tears. "My God!" she cried; "if this be the cost of a murmur, I will never complain again."
"You have left him!" she said on seeing me.
"I heard you moaning, and I was frightened."
"Oh, I!" she said; "I am well."
Wishing to be certain that Monsieur de Mortsauf was asleep she came down with me; by the light of the lamp we looked at him. The count was weakened by the loss of blood and was more drowsy than asleep; his hands picked the counterpane and tried to draw it over him.
"They say the dying do that," she whispered. "Ah! if he were to die of this illness, that I have caused, never will I marry again, I swear it," she said, stretching her hand over his head with a solemn gesture.
"I have done all I could to save him," I said.
"Oh, you!" she said, "you are good; it is I who am guilty."
She stooped to that discolored brow, wiped the perspiration from it and laid a kiss there solemnly; but I saw, not without joy, that she did it as an expiation.
"Blanche, I am thirsty," said the count in a feeble voice.
"You see he knows me," she said giving him to drink.
Her accent, her affectionate manner to him seemed to me to take the feelings that bound us together and immolate them to the sick man.
"Henriette," I said, "go and rest, I entreat you."
"No more Henriette," she said, interrupting me with imperious haste.
"Go to bed if you would not be ill. Your children, he himself would order you to be careful; it is a case where selfishness becomes a virtue."
"Yes," she said.
She went away, recommending her husband to my care by a gesture which would have seemed like approaching delirium if childlike grace had not been mingled with the supplicating forces of repentance. But the scene was terrible, judged by the habitual state of that pure soul; it alarmed me; I feared the exaltation of her conscience. When the doctor came again, I revealed to him the nature of my pure Henriette's self-reproach. This confidence, made discreetly, removed Monsieur Origet's suspicions, and enabled him to quiet the distress of that noble soul by telling her that in any case the count had to pass through this crisis, and that as for the nut-tree, his remaining there had done more good than harm by developing the disease.
For fifty-two days the count hovered between life and death. Henriette and I each watched twenty-six nights. Undoubtedly, Monsieur de Mortsauf owed his life to our nursing and to the careful exactitude with which we carried out the orders of Monsieur Origet. Like all philosophical physicians, whose sagacious observation of what passes before them justifies many a doubt of noble actions when they are only the accomplishment of a duty, this man, while assisting the countess and me in our rivalry of devotion, could not help watching us, with scrutinizing glances, so afraid was he of being deceived in his admiration.
"In diseases of this nature," he said to me at his third visit, "death has a powerful auxiliary in the moral nature when that is seriously disturbed, as it is in this case. The doctor, the family, the nurses hold the patient's life in their hands; sometimes a single word, a fear expressed by a gesture, has the effect of poison."
As he spoke Origet studied my face and expression; but he saw in my eyes the clear look of an honest soul. In fact during the whole course of this distressing illness there never passed through my mind a single one of the involuntary evil thoughts which do sometimes sear the consciences of the innocent. To those who study nature in its grandeur as a whole all tends to unity through assimilation. The moral world must undoubtedly be ruled by an analogous principle. In an pure sphere all is pure. The atmosphere of heaven was around my Henriette; it seemed as though an evil desire must forever part me from her. Thus she not only stood for happiness, but for virtue; she was virtue. Finding us always equally careful and attentive, the doctor's words and manners took a tone of respect and even pity; he seemed to say to himself, "Here are the real sufferers; they hide their ills, and forget them." By a fortunate change, which, according to our excellent doctor, is common enough in men who are completely shattered, Monsieur de Mortsauf was patient, obedient, complained little, and showed surprising docility,—he, who when well never did the simplest thing without discussion. The secret of this submission to medical care, which he formerly so derided, was an innate dread of death; another contradiction in a man of tried courage. This dread may perhaps explain several other peculiarities in the character which the cruel years of exile had developed.
Shall I admit to you, Natalie, and will you believe me? these fifty days and the month that followed them were the happiest moments of my life. Love, in the celestial spaces of the soul is like a noble river flowing through a valley; the rains, the brooks, the torrents hie to it, the trees fall upon its surface, so do the flowers, the gravel of its shores, the rocks of the summits; storms and the loitering tribute of the crystal streams alike increase it. Yes, when love comes all comes to love!
The first great danger over, the countess and I grew accustomed to illness. In spite of the confusion which the care of the sick entails, the count's room, once so untidy, was now clean and inviting. Soon we were like two beings flung upon a desert island, for not only do anxieties isolate, but they brush aside as petty the conventions of the world. The welfare of the sick man obliged us to have points of contact which no other circumstances would have authorized. Many a time our hands, shy or timid formerly, met in some service that we rendered to the count—was I not there to sustain and help my Henriette? Absorbed in a duty comparable to that of a soldier at the pickets, she forgot to eat; then I served her, sometimes on her lap, a hasty meal which necessitated a thousand little attentions. We were like children at a grave. She would order me sharply to prepare whatever might ease the sick man's suffering; she employed me in a hundred petty ways. During the time when actual danger obscured, as it does during the battle, the subtile distinctions which characterize the facts of ordinary life, she necessarily laid aside the reserve which all women, even the most unconventional, preserve in their looks and words and actions before the world or their own family. At the first chirping of the birds she would come to relieve my watch, wearing a morning garment which revealed to me once more the dazzling treasures that in my folly I had treated as my own. Always dignified, nay imposing, she could still be familiar.
Thus it came to pass that we found ourselves unconsciously intimate, half-married as it were. She showed herself nobly confiding, as sure of me as she was of herself. I was thus taken deeper and deeper into her heart. The countess became once more my Henriette, Henriette constrained to love with increasing strength the friend who endeavored to be her second soul. Her hand unresistingly met mine at the least solicitation; my eyes were permitted to follow with delight the lines of her beauty during the long hours when we listened to the count's breathing, without driving her from their sight. The meagre pleasures which we allowed ourselves—sympathizing looks, words spoken in whispers not to wake the count, hopes and fears repeated and again repeated, in short, the thousand incidents of the fusion of two hearts long separated—stand out in bright array upon the sombre background of the actual scene. Our souls knew each other to their depths under this test, which many a warm affection is unable to bear, finding life too heavy or too flimsy in the close bonds of hourly intercourse.
You know what disturbance follows the illness of a master; how the affairs of life seem to come to a standstill. Though the real care of the family and estate fell upon Madame de Mortsauf, the count was useful in his way; he talked with the farmers, transacted business with his bailiff, and received the rents; if she was the soul, he was the body. I now made myself her steward so that she could nurse the count without neglecting the property. She accepted this as a matter of course, in fact without thanking me. It was another sweet communion to share her family cares, to transmit her orders. In the evenings we often met in her room to discuss these interests and those of her children. Such conversations gave one semblance the more to our transitory marriage. With what delight she encouraged me to take a husband's place, giving me his seat at table, sending me to talk with the bailiff,—all in perfect innocence, yet not without that inward pleasure the most virtuous woman in the world will feel when she finds a course where strict obedience to duty and the satisfaction of her wishes are combined.
Nullified, as it were, by illness, the count no longer oppressed his wife or his household, the countess then became her natural self; she busied herself with my affairs and showed me a thousand kindnesses. With what joy I discovered in her mind a thought, vaguely conceived perhaps, but exquisitely expressed, namely, to show me the full value of her person and her qualities and make me see the change that would come over her if she lived understood. This flower, kept in the cold atmosphere of such a home, opened to my gaze, and to mine only; she took as much delight in letting me comprehend her as I felt in studying her with the searching eyes of love. She proved to me in all the trifling things of daily life how much I was in her thoughts. When, after my turn of watching, I went to bed and slept late, Henriette would keep the house absolutely silent near me; Jacques and Madeleine played elsewhere, though never ordered to do so; she invented excuses to serve my breakfast herself—ah, with what sparkling pleasure in her movements, what swallow-like rapidity, what lynx-eyed perception! and then! what carnation on her cheeks, what quiverings in her voice!
Can such expansions of the soul be described in words?
Often she was wearied out; but if, at such moments of lassitude my welfare came in question, for me, as for her children, she found fresh strength and sprang up eagerly and joyfully. How she loved to shed her tenderness like sunbeams in the air! Ah, Natalie, some women share the privileges of angels here below; they diffuse that light which Saint-Martin, the mysterious philosopher, declared to be intelligent, melodious, and perfumed. Sure of my discretion, Henriette took pleasure in raising the curtain which hid the future and in showing me two women in her,—the woman bound hand and foot who had won me in spite of her severity, and the woman freed, whose sweetness should make my love eternal! What a difference. Madame de Mortsauf was the skylark of Bengal, transported to our cold Europe, mournful on its perch, silent and dying in the cage of a naturalist; Henriette was the singing bird of oriental poems in groves beside the Ganges, flying from branch to branch like a living jewel amid the roses of a volkameria that ever blooms. Her beauty grew more beautiful, her mind recovered strength. The continual sparkle of this happiness was a secret between ourselves, for she dreaded the eye of the Abbe Dominis, the representative of the world; she masked her contentment with playfulness, and covered the proofs of her tenderness with the banner of gratitude.
"We have put your friendship to a severe test, Felix; we may give you the same rights we give to Jacques, may we not, Monsieur l'abbe?" she said one day.
The stern abbe answered with the smile of a man who can read the human heart and see its purity; for the countess he always showed the respect mingled with adoration which the angels inspire. Twice during those fifty days the countess passed beyond the limits in which we held our affection. But even these infringements were shrouded in a veil, never lifted until the final hour when avowal came. One morning, during the first days of the count's illness, when she repented her harsh treatment in withdrawing the innocent privileges she had formerly granted me, I was expecting her to relieve my watch. Much fatigued, I fell asleep, my head against the wall. I wakened suddenly at the touch of something cool upon my forehead which gave me a sensation as if a rose had rested there. I opened my eyes and saw the countess, standing a few steps distant, who said, "I have just come." I rose to leave the room, but as I bade her good-bye I took her hand; it was moist and trembling.
"Are you ill?" I said.
"Why do you ask that question?" she replied.
I looked at her blushing and confused. "I was dreaming," I replied.
Another time, when Monsieur Origet had announced positively that the count was convalescent, I was lying with Jacques and Madeleine on the step of the portico intent on a game of spillikins which we were playing with bits of straw and hooks made of pins; Monsieur de Mortsauf was asleep. The doctor, while waiting for his horse to be harnessed, was talking with the countess in the salon. Monsieur Origet went away without my noticing his departure. After he left, Henriette leaned against the window, from which she watched us for some time without our seeing her. It was one of those warm evenings when the sky is copper-colored and the earth sends up among the echoes a myriad mingling noises. A last ray of sunlight was leaving the roofs, the flowers in the garden perfumed the air, the bells of the cattle returning to their stalls sounded in the distance. We were all conforming to the silence of the evening hour and hushing our voices that we might not wake the count. Suddenly, I heard the guttural sound of a sob violently suppressed; I rushed into the salon and found the countess sitting by the window with her handkerchief to her face. She heard my step and made me an imperious gesture, commanding me to leave her. I went up to her, my heart stabbed with fear, and tried to take her handkerchief away by force. Her face was bathed in tears and she fled into her room, which she did not leave again until the hour for evening prayer. When that was over, I led her to the terrace and asked the cause of her emotion; she affected a wild gaiety and explained it by the news Monsieur Origet had given her.
"Henriette, Henriette, you knew that news when I saw you weeping. Between you and me a lie is monstrous. Why did you forbid me to dry your tears? were they mine?"
"I was thinking," she said, "that for me this illness has been a halt in pain. Now that I no longer fear for Monsieur de Mortsauf I fear for myself."
She was right. The count's recovery was soon attested by the return of his fantastic humor. He began by saying that neither the countess, nor I, nor the doctor had known how to take care of him; we were ignorant of his constitution and also of his disease; we misunderstood his sufferings and the necessary remedies. Origet, infatuated with his own doctrines, had mistaken the case, he ought to have attended only to the pylorus. One day he looked at us maliciously, with an air of having guessed our thoughts, and said to his wife with a smile, "Now, my dear, if I had died you would have regretted me, no doubt, but pray admit you would have been quite resigned."
"Yes, I should have mourned you in pink and black, court mourning," she answered laughing, to change the tone of his remarks.
But it was chiefly about his food, which the doctor insisted on regulating, that scenes of violence and wrangling now took place, unlike any that had hitherto occurred; for the character of the count was all the more violent for having slumbered. The countess, fortified by the doctor's orders and the obedience of her servants, stimulated too by me, who thought this struggle a good means to teach her to exercise authority over the count, held out against his violence. She showed a calm front to his demented cries, and even grew accustomed to his insulting epithets, taking him for what he was, a child. I had the happiness of at last seeing her take the reins in hand and govern that unsound mind. The count cried out, but he obeyed; and he obeyed all the better when he had made an outcry. But in spite of the evidence of good results, Henriette often wept at the spectacle of this emaciated, feeble old man, with a forehead yellower than the falling leaves, his eyes wan, his hands trembling. She blamed herself for too much severity, and could not resist the joy she saw in his eyes when, in measuring out his food, she gave him more than the doctor allowed. She was even more gentle and gracious to him than she had been to me; but there were differences here which filled my heart with joy. She was not unwearying, and she sometimes called her servants to wait upon the count when his caprices changed too rapidly, and he complained of not being understood.
The countess wished to return thanks to God for the count's recovery; she directed a mass to be said, and asked if I would take her to church. I did so, but I left her at the door, and went to see Monsieur and Madame Chessel. On my return she reproached me.
"Henriette," I said, "I cannot be false. I will throw myself into the water to save my enemy from drowning, and give him my coat to keep him warm; I will forgive him, but I cannot forget the wrong."
She was silent, but she pressed my arm.
"You are an angel, and you were sincere in your thanksgiving," I said, continuing. "The mother of the Prince of the Peace was saved from the hands of an angry populace who sought to kill her, and when the queen asked, 'What did you do?' she answered, 'I prayed for them.' Women are ever thus. I am a man, and necessarily imperfect."
"Don't calumniate yourself," she said, shaking my arm, "perhaps you are more worthy than I."
"Yes," I replied, "for I would give eternity for a day of happiness, and you—"
"I!" she said haughtily.
I was silent and lowered my eyes to escape the lightning of hers.
"There is many an I in me," she said. "Of which do you speak? Those children," pointing to Jacques and Madeleine, "are one—Felix," she cried in a heartrending voice, "do you think me selfish? Ought I to sacrifice eternity to reward him who devotes to me his life? The thought is dreadful; it wounds every sentiment of religion. Could a woman so fallen rise again? Would her happiness absolve her? These are questions you force me to consider.—Yes, I betray at last the secret of my conscience; the thought has traversed my heart; often do I expiate it by penance; it caused the tears you asked me to account for yesterday—"
"Do you not give too great importance to certain things which common women hold at a high price, and—"
"Oh!" she said, interrupting me; "do you hold them at a lower?"
This logic stopped all argument.
"Know this," she continued. "I might have the baseness to abandon that poor old man whose life I am; but, my friend, those other feeble creatures there before us, Madeleine and Jacques, would remain with their father. Do you think, I ask you do you think they would be alive in three months under the insane dominion of that man? If my failure of duty concerned only myself—" A noble smile crossed her face. "But shall I kill my children! My God!" she exclaimed. "Why speak of these things? Marry, and let me die!"
She said the words in a tone so bitter, so hollow, that they stifled the remonstrances of my passion.
"You uttered cries that day beneath the walnut-tree; I have uttered my cries here beneath these alders, that is all," I said; "I will be silent henceforth."
"Your generosity shames me," she said, raising her eyes to heaven.
We reached the terrace and found the count sitting in a chair, in the sun. The sight of that sunken face, scarcely brightened by a feeble smile, extinguished the last flames that came from the ashes. I leaned against the balustrade and considered the picture of that poor wreck, between his sickly children and his wife, pale with her vigils, worn out by extreme fatigue, by the fears, perhaps also by the joys of these terrible months, but whose cheeks now glowed from the emotions she had just passed through. At the sight of that suffering family beneath the trembling leafage through which the gray light of a cloudy autumn sky came dimly, I felt within me a rupture of the bonds which hold the body to the spirit. There came upon me then that moral spleen which, they say, the strongest wrestlers know in the crisis of their combats, a species of cold madness which makes a coward of the bravest man, a bigot of an unbeliever, and renders those it grasps indifferent to all things, even to vital sentiments, to honor, to love—for the doubt it brings takes from us the knowledge of ourselves and disgusts us with life itself. Poor, nervous creatures, whom the very richness of your organization delivers over to this mysterious, fatal power, who are your peers and who your judges? Horrified by the thoughts that rose within me, and demanding, like the wicked man, "Where is now thy God?" I could not restrain the tears that rolled down my cheeks.
"What is it, dear Felix?" said Madeleine in her childish voice.
Then Henriette put to flight these dark horrors of the mind by a look of tender solicitude which shone into my soul like a sunbeam. Just then the old huntsman brought me a letter from Tours, at sight of which I made a sudden cry of surprise, which made Madame de Mortsauf tremble. I saw the king's signet and knew it contained my recall. I gave her the letter and she read it at a glance.
"What will become of me?" she murmured, beholding her desert sunless.
We fell into a stupor of thought which oppressed us equally; never had we felt more strongly how necessary we were to one another. The countess, even when she spoke indifferently of other things, seemed to have a new voice, as if the instrument had lost some chords and others were out of tune. Her movements were apathetic, her eyes without light. I begged her to tell me her thoughts.
"Have I any?" she replied in a dazed way.
She drew me into her chamber, made me sit upon the sofa, took a package from the drawer of her dressing-table, and knelt before me, saying: "This hair has fallen from my head during the last year; take it, it is yours; you will some day know how and why."
Slowly I bent to meet her brow, and she did not avoid my lips. I kissed her sacredly, without unworthy passion, without one impure impulse, but solemnly, with tenderness. Was she willing to make the sacrifice; or did she merely come, as I did once, to the verge of the precipice? If love were leading her to give herself could she have worn that calm, that holy look; would she have asked, in that pure voice of hers, "You are not angry with me, are you?"
I left that evening; she wished to accompany me on the road to Frapesle; and we stopped under my walnut-tree. I showed it to her, and told her how I had first seen her four years earlier from that spot. "The valley was so beautiful then!" I cried.
"And now?" she said quickly.
"You are beneath my tree, and the valley is ours!"
She bowed her head and that was our farewell; she got into her carriage with Madeleine, and I into mine alone.
On my return to Paris I was absorbed in pressing business which took all my time and kept me out of society, which for a while forgot me. I corresponded with Madame de Mortsauf, and sent her my journal once a week. She answered twice a month. It was a life of solitude yet teeming, like those sequestered spots, blooming unknown, which I had sometimes found in the depths of woods when gathering the flowers for my poems.
Oh, you who love! take these obligations on you; accept these daily duties, like those the Church imposes upon Christians. The rigorous observances of the Roman faith contain a great idea; they plough the furrow of duty in the soul by the daily repetition of acts which keep alive the sense of hope and fear. Sentiments flow clearer in furrowed channels which purify their stream; they refresh the heart, they fertilize the life from the abundant treasures of a hidden faith, the source divine in which the single thought of a single love is multiplied indefinitely.
My love, an echo of the Middle Ages and of chivalry, was known, I know not how; possibly the king and the Duc de Lenoncourt had spoken of it. From that upper sphere the romantic yet simple story of a young man piously adoring a beautiful woman remote from the world, noble in her solitude, faithful without support to duty, spread, no doubt quickly, through the faubourg St. Germain. In the salons I was the object of embarrassing notice; for retired life has advantages which if once experienced make the burden of a constant social intercourse insupportable. Certain minds are painfully affected by violent contrasts, just as eyes accustomed to soft colors are hurt by glaring light. This was my condition then; you may be surprised at it now, but have patience; the inconsistencies of the Vandenesse of to-day will be explained to you.
I found society courteous and women most kind. After the marriage of the Duc de Berry the court resumed its former splendor and the glory of the French fetes revived. The Allied occupation was over, prosperity reappeared, enjoyments were again possible. Noted personages, illustrious by rank, prominent by fortune, came from all parts of Europe to the capital of the intellect, where the merits and the vices of other countries were found magnified and whetted by the charms of French intellect.
Five months after leaving Clochegourde my good angel wrote me, in the middle of the winter, a despairing letter, telling me of the serious illness of her son. He was then out of danger, but there were many fears for the future; the doctor said that precautions were necessary for his lungs—the suggestion of a terrible idea which had put the mother's heart in mourning. Hardly had Jacques begun to convalesce, and she could breathe again, when Madeleine made them all uneasy. That pretty plant, whose bloom had lately rewarded the mother's culture, was now frail and pallid and anemic. The countess, worn-out by Jacques' long illness, found no courage, she said, to bear this additional blow, and the ever present spectacle of these two dear failing creatures made her insensible to the redoubled torment of her husband's temper. Thus the storms were again raging; tearing up by the roots the hopes that were planted deepest in her bosom. She was now at the mercy of the count; weary of the struggle, she allowed him to regain all the ground he had lost.
"When all my strength is employed in caring for my children," she wrote, "how is it possible to employ it against Monsieur de Mortsauf; how can I struggle against his aggressions when I am fighting against death? Standing here to-day, alone and much enfeebled, between these two young images of mournful fate, I am overpowered with disgust, invincible disgust for life. What blow can I feel, to what affection can I answer, when I see Jacques motionless on the terrace, scarcely a sign of life about him, except in those dear eyes, large by emaciation, hollow as those of an old man and, oh, fatal sign, full of precocious intelligence contrasting with his physical debility. When I look at my pretty Madeleine, once so gay, so caressing, so blooming, now white as death, her very hair and eyes seem to me to have paled; she turns a languishing look upon me as if bidding me farewell; nothing rouses her, nothing tempts her. In spite of all my efforts I cannot amuse my children; they smile at me, but their smile is only in answer to my endearments, it does not come from them. They weep because they have no strength to play with me. Suffering has enfeebled their whole being, it has loosened even the ties that bound them to me.
"Thus you can well believe that Clochegourde is very sad. Monsieur de Mortsauf now rules everything—Oh my friend! you, my glory!" she wrote, farther on, "you must indeed love me well to love me still; to love me callous, ungrateful, turned to stone by grief."