Calyste ran with the lightness of a young fawn to Les Touches and reached the portico just as Camille and Beatrix were leaving the grand salon after their dinner. He had the sense to offer his arm to Felicite.
"So you have abandoned your viscountess and her daughter for us," she said, pressing his arm; "we are able now to understand the full merit of that sacrifice."
"Are these Kergarouets related to the Portendueres, and to old Admiral de Kergarouet, whose widow married Charles de Vandenesse?" asked Madame de Rochefide.
"The viscountess is the admiral's great-niece," replied Camille.
"Well, she's a charming girl," said Beatrix, placing herself gracefully in a Gothic chair. "She will just do for you, Monsieur du Guenic."
"The marriage will never take place," said Camille hastily.
Mortified by the cold, calm air with which the marquise seemed to consider the Breton girl as the only creature fit to mate him, Calyste remained speechless and even mindless.
"Why so, Camille?" asked Madame de Rochefide.
"Really, my dear," said Camille, seeing Calyste's despair, "you are not generous; did I advise Conti to marry?"
Beatrix looked at her friend with a surprise that was mingled with indefinable suspicions.
Calyste, unable to understand Camille's motive, but feeling that she came to his assistance and seeing in her cheeks that faint spot of color which he knew to mean the presence of some violent emotion, went up to her rather awkwardly and took her hand. But she left him and seated herself carelessly at the piano, like a woman so sure of her friend and lover that she can afford to leave him with another woman. She played variations, improvising them as she played, on certain themes chosen, unconsciously to herself, by the impulse of her mind; they were melancholy in the extreme.
Beatrix seemed to listen to the music, but she was really observing Calyste, who, much too young and artless for the part which Camille was intending him to play, remained in rapt adoration before his real idol.
After about an hour, during which time Camille continued to play, Beatrix rose and retired to her apartments. Camille at once took Calyste into her chamber and closed the door, fearing to be overheard; for women have an amazing instinct of distrust.
"My child," she said, "if you want to succeed with Beatrix, you must seem to love me still, or you will fail. You are a child; you know nothing of women; all you know is how to love. Now loving and making one's self beloved are two very different things. If you go your own way you will fall into horrible suffering, and I wish to see you happy. If you rouse, not the pride, but the self-will, the obstinacy which is a strong feature in her character, she is capable of going off at any moment to Paris and rejoining Conti; and what will you do then?"
"I shall love her."
"You won't see her again."
"Oh! yes, I shall," he said.
"I shall follow her."
"Why, you are as poor as Job, my dear boy."
"My father, Gasselin, and I lived for three months in Vendee on one hundred and fifty francs, marching night and day."
"Calyste," said Mademoiselle des Touches, "now listen to me. I know that you have too much candor to play a part, too much honesty to deceive; and I don't want to corrupt such a nature as yours. Yet deception is the only way by which you can win Beatrix; I take it therefore upon myself. In a week from now she shall love you."
"Is it possible?" he said clasping his hands.
"Yes," replied Camille, "but it will be necessary to overcome certain pledges which she has made to herself. I will do that for you. You must not interfere in the rather arduous task I shall undertake. The marquise has a true aristocratic delicacy of perception; she is keenly distrustful; no hunter could meet with game more wary or more difficult to capture. You are wholly unable to cope with her; will you promise me a blind obedience?"
"What must I do?" replied the youth.
"Very little," said Camille. "Come here every day and devote yourself to me. Come to my rooms; avoid Beatrix if you meet her. We will stay together till four o'clock; you shall employ the time in study, and I in smoking. It will be hard for you not to see her, but I will find you a number of interesting books. You have read nothing as yet of George Sand. I will send one of my people this very evening to Nantes to buy her works and those of other authors whom you ought to know. The evenings we will spend together, and I permit you to make love to me if you can—it will be for the best."
"I know, Camille, that your affection for me is great and so rare that it makes me wish I had never met Beatrix," he replied with simple good faith; "but I don't see what you hope from all this."
"I hope to make her love you."
"Good heavens! it cannot be possible!" he cried, again clasping his hands toward Camille, who was greatly moved on seeing the joy that she gave him at her own expense.
"Now listen to me carefully," she said. "If you break the agreement between us, if you have—not a long conversation—but a mere exchange of words with the marquise in private, if you let her question you, if you fail in the silent part I ask you to play, which is certainly not a very difficult one, I do assure you," she said in a serious tone, "you will lose her forever."
"I don't understand the meaning of what you are saying to me," cried Calyste, looking at Camille with adorable naivete.
"If you did understand it, you wouldn't be the noble and beautiful Calyste that you are," she replied, taking his hand and kissing it.
Calyste then did what he had never before done; he took Camille round the waist and kissed her gently, not with love but with tenderness, as he kissed his mother. Mademoiselle des Touches did not restrain her tears.
"Go now," she said, "my child; and tell your viscountess that my carriage is at her command."
Calyste wanted to stay longer, but he was forced to obey her imperious and imperative gesture.
He went home gaily; he believed that in a week the beautiful Beatrix would love him. The players at mouche found him once more the Calyste they had missed for the last two months. Charlotte attributed this change to herself. Mademoiselle de Pen-Hoel was charming to him. The Abbe Grimont endeavored to make out what was passing in the mother's mind. The Chevalier du Halga rubbed his hands. The two old maids were as lively as lizards. The viscountess lost one hundred sous by accumulated mouches, which so excited the cupidity of Zephirine that she regretted not being able to see the cards, and even spoke sharply to her sister-in-law, who acted as the proxy of her eyes.
The party lasted till eleven o'clock. There were two defections, the baron and the chevalier, who went to sleep in their respective chairs. Mariotte had made galettes of buckwheat, the baroness produced a tea-caddy. The illustrious house of du Guenic served a little supper before the departure of its guests, consisting of fresh butter, fruits, and cream, in addition to Mariotte's cakes; for which festal event issued from their wrappings a silver teapot and some beautiful old English china sent to the baroness by her aunts. This appearance of modern splendor in the ancient hall, together with the exquisite grace of its mistress, brought up like a true Irish lady to make and pour out tea (that mighty affair to Englishwomen), had something charming about them. The most exquisite luxury could never have attained to the simple, modest, noble effect produced by this sentiment of joyful hospitality.
A few moments after Calyste's departure from Les Touches, Beatrix, who had heard him go, returned to Camille, whom she found with humid eyes lying back on her sofa.
"What is it, Felicite?" asked the marquise.
"I am forty years old, and I love him!" said Mademoiselle des Touches, with dreadful tones of agony in her voice, her eyes becoming hard and brilliant. "If you knew, Beatrix, the tears I have shed over the lost years of my youth! To be loved out of pity! to know that one owes one's happiness only to perpetual care, to the slyness of cats, to traps laid for innocence and all the youthful virtues—oh, it is infamous! If it were not that one finds absolution in the magnitude of love, in the power of happiness, in the certainty of being forever above all other women in his memory, the first to carve on that young heart the ineffaceable happiness of an absolute devotion, I would—yes, if he asked it,—I would fling myself into the sea. Sometimes I find myself wishing that he would ask it; it would then be an oblation, not a suicide. Ah, Beatrix, by coming here you have, unconsciously, set me a hard task. I know it will be difficult to keep him against you; but you love Conti, you are noble and generous, you will not deceive me; on the contrary, you will help me to retain my Calyste's love. I expected the impression you would make upon him, but I have not committed the mistake of seeming jealous; that would only have added fuel to the flame. On the contrary, before you came, I described you in such glowing colors that you hardly realize the portrait, although you are, it seems to me, more beautiful than ever."
This vehement elegy, in which truth was mingled with deception, completely duped the marquise. Claude Vignon had told Conti the reasons for his departure, and Beatrix was, of course, informed of them. She determined therefore to behave with generosity and give the cold shoulder to Calyste; but at the same instant there came into her soul that quiver of joy which vibrates in the heart of every woman when she finds herself beloved. The love a woman inspires in any man's heart is flattery without hypocrisy, and it is impossible for some women to forego it; but when that man belongs to a friend, his homage gives more than pleasure,—it gives delight. Beatrix sat down beside her friend and began to coax her prettily.
"You have not a white hair," she said; "you haven't even a wrinkle; your temples are just as fresh as ever; whereas I know more than one woman of thirty who is obliged to cover hers. Look, dear," she added, lifting her curls, "see what that journey to Italy has cost me."
Her temples showed an almost imperceptible withering of the texture of the delicate skin. She raised her sleeves and showed Camille the same slight withering of the wrists, where the transparent tissue suffered the blue network of swollen veins to be visible, and three deep lines made a bracelet of wrinkles.
"There, my dear, are two spots which—as a certain writer ferreting for the miseries of women, has said—never lie," she continued. "One must needs have suffered to know the truth of his observation. Happily for us, most men know nothing about it; they don't read us like that dreadful author."
"Your letter told me all," replied Camille; "happiness ignores everything but itself. You boasted too much of yours to be really happy. Truth is deaf, dumb, and blind where love really is. Consequently, seeing very plainly that you have your reasons for abandoning Conti, I have feared to have you here. My dear, Calyste is an angel; he is as good as he is beautiful; his innocent heart will not resist your eyes; already he admires you too much not to love you at the first encouragement; your coldness can alone preserve him to me. I confess to you, with the cowardice of true passion, that if he were taken from me I should die. That dreadful book of Benjamin Constant, 'Adolphe,' tells us only of Adolphe's sorrows; but what about those of the woman, hey? The man did not observe them enough to describe them; and what woman would have dared to reveal them? They would dishonor her sex, humiliate its virtues, and pass into vice. Ah! I measure the abyss before me by my fears, by these sufferings that are those of hell. But, Beatrix, I will tell you this: in case I am abandoned, my choice is made."
"What is it?" cried Beatrix, with an eagerness that made Camille shudder.
The two friends looked at each other with the keen attention of Venetian inquisitors; their souls clashed in that rapid glance, and struck fire like flints. The marquise lowered her eyes.
"After man, there is nought but God," said the celebrated woman. "God is the Unknown. I shall fling myself into that as into some vast abyss. Calyste has sworn to me that he admires you only as he would a picture; but alas! you are but twenty-eight, in the full magnificence of your beauty. The struggle thus begins between him and me by falsehood. But I have one support; happily I know a means to keep him true to me, and I shall triumph."
"That is my secret, dear. Let me have the benefits of my age. If Claude Vignon, as Conti has doubtless told you, flings me back into the gulf, I, who had climbed to a rock which I thought inaccessible,—I will at least gather the pale and fragile, but delightful flowers that grow in its depths."
Madame de Rochefide was moulded like wax in those able hands. Camille felt an almost savage pleasure in thus entrapping her rival in her toils. She sent her to bed that night piqued by curiosity, floating between jealousy and generosity, but most assuredly with her mind full of the beautiful Calyste.
"She will be enchanted to deceive me," thought Camille, as she kissed her good-night.
Then, when she was alone, the author, the constructor of dramas, gave place to the woman, and she burst into tears. Filling her hookah with tobacco soaked in opium, she spent the greater part of the night in smoking, dulling thus the sufferings of her soul, and seeing through the clouds about her the beautiful young head of her late lover.
"What a glorious book to write, if I were only to express my pain!" she said to herself. "But it is written already; Sappho lived before me. And Sappho was young. A fine and touching heroine truly, a woman of forty! Ah! my poor Camille, smoke your hookah; you haven't even the resource of making a poem of your misery—that's the last drop of anguish in your cup!"
The next morning Calyste came before mid-day and slipped upstairs, as he was told, into Camille's own room, where he found the books. Felicite sat before the window, smoking, contemplating in turn the marshes, the sea, and Calyste, to whom she now and then said a few words about Beatrix. At one time, seeing the marquise strolling about the garden, she raised a curtain in a way to attract her attention, and also to throw a band of light across Calyste's book.
"To-day, my child, I shall ask you to stay to dinner; but you must refuse, with a glance at the marquise, which will show her how much you regret not staying."
When the three actors met in the salon, and this comedy was played, Calyste felt for a moment his equivocal position, and the glance that he cast on Beatrix was far more expressive than Felicite expected. Beatrix had dressed herself charmingly.
"What a bewitching toilet, my dearest!" said Camille, when Calyste had departed.
These manoeuvres lasted six days, during which time many conversations, into which Camille Maupin put all her ability, took place, unknown to Calyste, between herself and the marquise. They were like the preliminaries of a duel between two women,—a duel without truce, in which the assault was made on both sides with snares, feints, false generosities, deceitful confessions, crafty confidences, by which one hid and the other bared her love; and in which the sharp steel of Camille's treacherous words entered the heart of her friend, and left its poison there. Beatrix at last took offence at what she thought Camille's distrust; she considered it out of place between them. At the same time she was enchanted to find the great writer a victim to the pettiness of her sex, and she resolved to enjoy the pleasure of showing her where her greatness ended, and how even she could be humiliated.
"My dear, what is to be the excuse to-day for Monsieur du Guenic's not dining with us?" she asked, looking maliciously at her friend. "Monday you said we had engagements; Tuesday the dinner was poor; Wednesday you were afraid his mother would be angry; Thursday you wanted to take a walk with me; and yesterday you simply dismissed him without a reason. To-day I shall have my way, and I mean that he shall stay."
"Already, my dear!" said Camille, with cutting irony. The marquise blushed. "Stay, Monsieur du Guenic," said Camille, in the tone of a queen.
Beatrix became cold and hard, contradictory in tone, epigrammatic, and almost rude to Calyste, whom Felicite sent home to play mouche with Charlotte de Kergarouet.
"She is not dangerous at any rate," said Beatrix, sarcastically.
Young lovers are like hungry men; kitchen odors will not appease their hunger; they think too much of what is coming to care for the means that bring it. As Calyste walked back to Guerande, his soul was full of Beatrix; he paid no heed to the profound feminine cleverness which Felicite was displaying on his behalf. During this week the marquise had only written once to Conti, a symptom of indifference which had not escaped the watchful eyes of Camille, who imparted it to Calyste. All Calyste's life was concentrated in the short moment of the day during which he was allowed to see the marquise. This drop of water, far from allaying his thirst, only redoubled it. The magic promise, "Beatrix shall love you," made by Camille, was the talisman with which he strove to restrain the fiery ardor of his passion. But he knew not how to consume the time; he could not sleep, and spent the hours of the night in reading; every evening he brought back with him, as Mariotte remarked, cartloads of books.
His aunt called down maledictions on the head of Mademoiselle des Touches; but his mother, who had gone on several occasions to his room on seeing his light burning far into the night, knew by this time the secret of his conduct. Though for her love was a sealed book, and she was even unaware of her own ignorance, Fanny rose through maternal tenderness into certain ideas of it; but the depths of such sentiment being dark and obscured by clouds to her mind, she was shocked at the state in which she saw him; the solitary uncomprehended desire of his soul, which was evidently consuming him, simply terrified her. Calyste had but one thought; Beatrix was always before him. In the evenings, while cards were being played, his abstraction resembled his father's somnolence. Finding him so different from what he was when he loved Camille, the baroness became aware, with a sort of horror, of the symptoms of real love,—a species of possession which had seized upon her son,—a love unknown within the walls of that old mansion.
Feverish irritability, a constant absorption in thought, made Calyste almost doltish. Often he would sit for hours with his eyes fixed on some figure in the tapestry. One morning his mother implored him to give up Les Touches, and leave the two women forever.
"Not go to Les Touches!" he cried.
"Oh! yes, yes, go! do not look so, my darling!" she cried, kissing him on the eyes that had flashed such flames.
Under these circumstances Calyste often came near losing the fruit of Camille's plot through the Breton fury of his love, of which he was ceasing to be the master. Finally, he swore to himself, in spite of his promise to Felicite, to see Beatrix, and speak to her. He wanted to read her eyes, to bathe in their light, to examine every detail of her dress, breathe its perfume, listen to the music of her voice, watch the graceful composition of her movements, embrace at a glance the whole figure, and study her as a general studies the field where he means to win a decisive battle. He willed as lovers will; he was grasped by desires which closed his ears and darkened his intellect, and threw him into an unnatural state in which he was conscious of neither obstacles, nor distances, nor the existence even of his own body.
One morning he resolved to go to Les Touches at an earlier hour than that agreed upon, and endeavor to meet Beatrix in the garden. He knew she walked there daily before breakfast.
Mademoiselle des Touches and the marquise had gone, as it happened, to see the marshes and the little bay with its margin of fine sand, where the sea penetrates and lies like a lake in the midst of the dunes. They had just returned, and were walking up a garden path beside the lawn, conversing as they walked.
"If the scenery pleases you," said Camille, "we must take Calyste and make a trip to Croisic. There are splendid rocks there, cascades of granite, little bays with natural basins, charmingly unexpected and capricious things, besides the sea itself, with its store of marble fragments,—a world of amusement. Also you will see women making fuel with cow-dung, which they nail against the walls of their houses to dry in the sun, after which they pile it up as we do peat in Paris."
"What! will you really risk Calyste?" cried the marquise, laughing, in a tone which proved that Camille's ruse had answered its purpose.
"Ah, my dear," she replied, "if you did but know the angelic soul of that dear child, you would understand me. In him, mere beauty is nothing; one must enter that pure heart, which is amazed at every step it takes into the kingdom of love. What faith! what grace! what innocence! The ancients were right enough in the worship they paid to sacred beauty. Some traveller, I forget who, relates that when wild horses lose their leader they choose the handsomest horse in the herd for his successor. Beauty, my dear, is the genius of things; it is the ensign which Nature hoists over her most precious creations; it is the trust of symbols as it is the greatest of accidents. Did any one ever suppose that angels could be deformed? are they not necessarily a combination of grace and strength? What is it that makes us stand for hours before some picture in Italy, where genius has striven through years of toil to realize but one of those accidents of Nature? Come, call up your sense of the truth of things and answer me; is it not the Idea of Beauty which our souls associate with moral grandeur? Well, Calyste is one of those dreams, those visions, realized. He has the regal power of a lion, tranquilly unsuspicious of its royalty. When he feels at his ease, he is witty; and I love his girlish timidity. My soul rests in his heart away from all corruptions, all ideas of knowledge, literature, the world, society, politics,—those useless accessories under which we stifle happiness. I am what I have never been,—a child! I am sure of him, but I like to play at jealousy; he likes it too. Besides, that is part of my secret."
Beatrix walked on pensively, in silence. Camille endured unspeakable martyrdom, and she cast a sidelong look at her companion which looked like flame.
"Ah, my dear; but you are happy," said Beatrix presently, laying her hand on Camille's arm like a woman wearied out with some inward struggle.
"Yes, happy indeed!" replied Felicite, with savage bitterness.
The two women dropped upon a bench from a sense of exhaustion. No creature of her sex was ever played upon like an instrument with more Machiavellian penetration than the marquise throughout this week.
"Yes, you are happy, but I!" she said,—"to know of Conti's infidelities, and have to bear them!"
"Why not leave him?" said Camille, seeing the hour had come to strike a decisive blow.
"Oh! poor boy!"
Both were gazing into a clump of trees with a stupefied air.
"I will go and hasten breakfast; my walk has given me an appetite," she said.
"Our conversation has taken away mine," remarked Beatrix.
The marquise in her morning dress was outlined in white against the dark greens of the foliage. Calyste, who had slipped through the salon into the garden, took a path, along which he sauntered as though he were meeting her by accident. Beatrix could not restrain a quiver as he approached her.
"Madame, in what way did I displease you yesterday?" he said, after the first commonplace sentences had been exchanged.
"But you have neither pleased me nor displeased me," she said, in a gentle voice.
The tone, air, and manner in which the marquise said these words encouraged Calyste.
"Am I so indifferent to you?" he said in a troubled voice, as the tears came into his eyes.
"Ought we not to be indifferent to each other?" replied the marquise. "Have we not, each of us, another, and a binding attachment?"
"Oh!" cried Calyste, "if you mean Camille, I did love her, but I love her no longer."
"Then why are you shut up together every morning?" she said, with a treacherous smile. "I don't suppose that Camille, in spite of her passion for tobacco, prefers her cigar to you, or that you, in your admiration for female authors, spend four hours a day in reading their romances."
"So then you know—" began the guileless young Breton, his face glowing with the happiness of being face to face with his idol.
"Calyste!" cried Camille, angrily, suddenly appearing and interrupting him. She took his arm and drew him away to some distance. "Calyste, is this what you promised me?"
Beatrix heard these words of reproach as Mademoiselle des Touches disappeared toward the house, taking Calyste with her. She was stupefied by the young man's assertion, and could not comprehend it; she was not as strong as Claude Vignon. In truth, the part being played by Camille Maupin, as shocking as it was grand, is one of those wicked grandeurs which women only practise when driven to extremity. By it their hearts are broken; in it the feelings of their sex are lost to them; it begins an abnegation which ends by either plunging them to hell, or lifting them to heaven.
During breakfast, which Calyste was invited to share, the marquise, whose sentiments could be noble and generous, made a sudden return upon herself, resolving to stifle the germs of love which were rising in her heart. She was neither cold nor hard to Calyste, but gently indifferent,—a course which tortured him. Felicite brought forward a proposition that they should make, on the next day but one, an excursion into the curious and interesting country lying between Les Touches, Croisic, and the village of Batz. She begged Calyste to employ himself on the morrow in hiring a boat and sailors to take them across the little bay, undertaking herself to provide horses and provisions, and all else that was necessary for a party of pleasure, in which there was to be no fatigue. Beatrix stopped the matter short, however, by saying that she did not wish to make excursions round the country. Calyste's face, which had beamed with delight at the prospect, was suddenly overclouded.
"What are you afraid of, my dear?" asked Camille.
"My position is so delicate I do not wish to compromise—I will not say my reputation, but my happiness," she said, meaningly, with a glance at the young Breton. "You know very well how suspicious Conti can be; if he knew—"
"Who will tell him?"
"He is coming back here to fetch me," said Beatrix.
Calyste turned pale. In spite of all that Camille could urge, in spite of Calyste's entreaties, Madame de Rochefide remained inflexible, and showed what Camille had called her obstinacy. Calyste left Les Touches the victim of one of those depressions of love which threaten, in certain men, to turn into madness. He began to revolve in his mind some decided means of coming to an explanation with Beatrix.