DUEL BETWEEN WOMEN
Perhaps one of the greatest enjoyments that small minds or inferior minds can obtain is that of deceiving a great soul, and laying snares for it. Beatrix knew herself far beneath Camille Maupin. This inferiority lay not only in the collection of mental and moral qualities which we call talent, but in the things of the heart called passion.
At the moment when Calyste was hurrying to Les Touches with the impetuosity of a first love borne on the wings of hope, the marquise was feeling a keen delight in knowing herself the object of the first love of so charming a young man. She did not go so far as to wish herself a sharer in the sentiment, but she thought it heroism on her part to repress the capriccio, as the Italians say. She thought she was equalling Camille's devotion, and told herself, moreover, that she was sacrificing herself to her friend. The vanities peculiar to Frenchwomen, which constitute the celebrated coquetry of which she was so signal an instance, were flattered and deeply satisfied by Calyste's love. Assailed by such powerful seduction, she was resisting it, and her virtues sang in her soul a concert of praise and self-approval.
The two women were half-sitting, half lying, in apparent indolence on the divan of the little salon, so filled with harmony and the fragrance of flowers. The windows were open, for the north wind had ceased to blow. A soothing southerly breeze was ruffling the surface of the salt lake before them, and the sun was glittering on the sands of the shore. Their souls were as deeply agitated as the nature before them was tranquil, and the heat within was not less ardent.
Bruised by the working of the machinery which she herself had set in motion, Camille was compelled to keep watch for her safety, fearing the amazing cleverness of the friendly enemy, or, rather, the inimical friend she had allowed within her borders. To guard her own secrets and maintain herself aloof, she had taken of late to contemplations of nature; she cheated the aching of her own heart by seeking a meaning in the world around her, finding God in that desert of heaven and earth. When an unbeliever once perceives the presence of God, he flings himself unreservedly into Catholicism, which, viewed as a system, is complete.
That morning Camille's brow had worn the halo of thoughts born of these researches during a night-time of painful struggle. Calyste was ever before her like a celestial image. The beautiful youth, to whom she had secretly devoted herself, had become to her a guardian angel. Was it not he who led her into those loftier regions, where suffering ceased beneath the weight of incommensurable infinity? and now a certain air of triumph about Beatrix disturbed her. No woman gains an advantage over another without allowing it to be felt, however much she may deny having taken it. Nothing was ever more strange in its course than the dumb, moral struggle which was going on between these two women, each hiding from the other a secret,—each believing herself generous through hidden sacrifices.
Calyste arrived, holding the letter between his hand and his glove, ready to slip it at some convenient moment into the hand of Beatrix. Camille, whom the subtle change in the manner of her friend had not escaped, seemed not to watch her, but did watch her in a mirror at the moment when Calyste was just entering the room. That is always a crucial moment for women. The cleverest as well as the silliest of them, the frankest as the shrewdest, are seldom able to keep their secret; it bursts from them, at any rate, to the eyes of another woman. Too much reserve or too little; a free and luminous look; the mysterious lowering of eyelids,—all betray, at that sudden moment, the sentiment which is the most difficult of all to hide; for real indifference has something so radically cold about it that it can never be simulated. Women have a genius for shades,—shades of detail, shades of character; they know them all. There are times when their eyes take in a rival from head to foot; they can guess the slightest movement of a foot beneath a gown, the almost imperceptible motion of the waist; they know the significance of things which, to a man, seem insignificant. Two women observing each other play one of the choicest scenes of comedy that the world can show.
"Calyste has committed some folly," thought Camille, perceiving in each of her guests an indefinable air of persons who have a mutual understanding.
There was no longer either stiffness or pretended indifference on the part of Beatrix; she now regarded Calyste as her own property. Calyste was even more transparent; he colored, as guilty people, or happy people color. He announced that he had come to make arrangements for the excursion on the following day.
"Then you really intend to go, my dear?" said Camille, interrogatively.
"Yes," said Beatrix.
"How did you know it, Calyste?" asked Mademoiselle des Touches.
"I came here to find out," replied Calyste, on a look flashed at him by Madame de Rochefide, who did not wish Camille to gain the slightest inkling of their correspondence.
"They have an agreement together," thought Camille, who caught the look in the powerful sweep of her eye.
Under the pressure of that thought a horrible discomposure overspread her face and frightened Beatrix.
"What is the matter, my dear?" she cried.
"Nothing. Well, then, Calyste, send my horses and yours across to Croisic, so that we may drive home by way of Batz. We will breakfast at Croisic, and get home in time for dinner. You must take charge of the boat arrangements. Let us start by half-past eight. You will see some fine sights, Beatrix, and one very strange one; you will see Cambremer, a man who does penance on a rock for having wilfully killed his son. Oh! you are in a primitive land, among a primitive race of people, where men are moved by other sentiments than those of ordinary mortals. Calyste shall tell you the tale; it is a drama of the seashore."
She went into her bedroom, for she was stifling. Calyste gave his letter to Beatrix and followed Camille.
"Calyste, you are loved, I think; but you are hiding something from me; you have done some foolish thing."
"Loved!" he exclaimed, dropping into a chair.
Camille looked into the next room; Beatrix had disappeared. The fact was odd. Women do not usually leave a room which contains the man they admire, unless they have either the certainty of seeing him again, or something better still. Mademoiselle des Touches said to herself:—
"Can he have given her a letter?"
But she thought the innocent Breton incapable of such boldness.
"If you have disobeyed me, all will be lost, through your own fault," she said to him very gravely. "Go, now, and make your preparations for to-morrow."
She made a gesture which Calyste did not venture to resist.
As he walked toward Croisic, to engage the boatmen, fears came into Calyste's mind. Camille's speech foreshadowed something fatal, and he believed in the second sight of her maternal affection. When he returned, four hours later, very tired, and expecting to dine at Les Touches, he found Camille's maid keeping watch over the door, to tell him that neither her mistress nor the marquise could receive him that evening. Calyste, much surprised, wished to question her, but she bade him hastily good-night and closed the door.
Six o'clock was striking on the steeple of Guerande as Calyste entered his own house, where Mariotte gave him his belated dinner; after which, he played mouche in gloomy meditation. These alternations of joy and gloom, happiness and unhappiness, the extinction of hopes succeeding the apparent certainty of being loved, bruised and wounded the young soul which had flown so high on outstretched wings that the fall was dreadful.
"Does anything trouble you, my Calyste?" said his mother.
"Nothing," he replied, looking at her with eyes from which the light of the soul and the fire of love were withdrawn.
It is not hope, but despair, which gives the measure of our ambitions. The finest poems of hope are sung in secret, but grief appears without a veil.
"Calyste, you are not nice," said Charlotte, after vainly attempting on him those little provincial witcheries which degenerate usually into teasing.
"I am tired," he said, rising, and bidding the company good-night.
"Calyste is much changed," remarked Mademoiselle de Pen-Hoel.
"We haven't beautiful dresses trimmed with lace; we don't shake our sleeves like this, or twist our bodies like that; we don't know how to give sidelong glances, and turn our eyes," said Charlotte, mimicking the air, and attitude, and glances of the marquise. "We haven't that head voice, nor the interesting little cough, heu! heu! which sounds like the sigh of a spook; we have the misfortune of being healthy and robust, and of loving our friends without coquetry; and when we look at them, we don't pretend to stick a dart into them, or to watch them slyly; we can't bend our heads like a weeping willow, just to look the more interesting when we raise them—this way."
Mademoiselle de Pen-Hoel could not help laughing at her niece's gesture; but neither the chevalier nor the baron paid any heed to this truly provincial satire against Paris.
"But the Marquise de Rochefide is a very handsome woman," said the old maid.
"My dear," said the baroness to her husband, "I happen to know that she is going over to Croisic to-morrow. Let us walk on the jetty; I should like to see her."
While Calyste was racking his brains to imagine what could have closed the doors of Les Touches to him, a scene was passing between Camille and Beatrix which was to have its influence on the events of the morrow.
Calyste's last letter had stirred in Madame de Rochefide's heart emotions hitherto unknown to it. Women are not often the subject of a love so young, guileless, sincere, and unconditional as that of this youth, this child. Beatrix had loved more than she had been loved. After being all her life a slave, she suddenly felt an inexplicable desire to be a tyrant. But, in the midst of her pleasure, as she read and re-read the letter, she was pierced through and through with a cruel idea.
What were Calyste and Camille doing together ever since Claude Vignon's departure? If, as Calyste said, he did not love Camille, and if Camille knew it, how did they employ their mornings, and why were they alone together? Memory suddenly flashed into her mind, in answer to these questions, certain speeches of Camille; a grinning devil seemed to show her, as in a magic mirror, the portrait of that heroic woman, with certain gestures, certain aspects, which suddenly enlightened her. What! instead of being her equal, was she crushed by Felicite? instead of over-reaching her, was she being over-reached herself? was she only a toy, a pleasure, which Camille was giving to her child, whom she loved with an extraordinary passion that was free from all vulgarity?
To a woman like Beatrix this thought came like a thunder-clap. She went over in her mind minutely the history of the past week. In a moment the part which Camille was playing, and her own, unrolled themselves to their fullest extent before her eyes; she felt horribly belittled. In her fury of jealous anger, she fancied she could see in Camille's conduct an intention of vengeance against Conti. Was the hidden wrath of the past two years really acting upon the present moment?
Once on the path of these doubts and superstitions, Beatrix did not pause. She walked up and down her room, driven to rapid motion by the impetuous movements of her soul, sitting down now and then, and trying to decide upon a course, but unable to do so. And thus she remained, a prey to indecision until the dinner hour, when she rose hastily, and went downstairs without dressing. No sooner did Camille see her, than she felt that a crisis had come. Beatrix, in her morning gown, with a chilling air and a taciturn manner, indicated to an observer as keen as Maupin the coming hostilities of an embittered heart.
Camille instantly left the room and gave the order which so astonished Calyste; she feared that he might arrive in the midst of the quarrel, and she determined to be alone, without witnesses, in fighting this duel of deception on both sides. Beatrix, without an auxiliary, would infallibly succumb. Camille well knew the barrenness of that soul, the pettiness of that pride, to which she had justly applied the epithet of obstinate.
The dinner was gloomy. Camille was gentle and kind; she felt herself the superior being. Beatrix was hard and cutting; she felt she was being managed like a child. During dinner the battle began with glances, gestures, half-spoken sentences,—not enough to enlighten the servants, but enough to prepare an observer for the coming storm. When the time to go upstairs came, Camille offered her arm maliciously to Beatrix, who pretended not to see it, and sprang up the stairway alone. When coffee had been served Mademoiselle des Touches said to the footman, "You may go,"—a brief sentence, which served as a signal for the combat.
"The novels you make, my dear, are more dangerous than those you write," said the marquise.
"They have one advantage, however," replied Camille, lighting a cigarette.
"What is that?" asked Beatrix.
"They are unpublished, my angel."
"Is the one in which you are putting me to be turned into a book?"
"I've no fancy for the role of OEdipus; I know you have the wit and beauty of a sphinx, but don't propound conundrums. Speak out, plainly, my dear Beatrix."
"When, in order to make a man happy, amuse him, please him, and save him from ennui, we allow the devil to help us—"
"That man would reproach us later for our efforts on his behalf, and would think them prompted by the genius of depravity," said Camille, taking the cigarette from her lips to interrupt her friend.
"He forgets the love which carried us away, and is our sole justification—but that's the way of men, they are all unjust and ungrateful," continued Beatrix. "Women among themselves know each other; they know how proud and noble their own minds are, and, let us frankly say so, how virtuous! But, Camille, I have just recognized the truth of certain criticisms upon your nature, of which you have sometimes complained. My dear, you have something of the man about you; you behave like a man; nothing restrains you; if you haven't all a man's advantages, you have a man's spirit in all your ways; and you share his contempt for women. I have no reason, my dear, to be satisfied with you, and I am too frank to hide my dissatisfaction. No one has ever given or ever will give, perhaps, so cruel a wound to my heart as that from which I am now suffering. If you are not a woman in love, you are one in vengeance. It takes a woman of genius to discover the most sensitive spot of all in another woman's delicacy. I am talking now of Calyste, and the trickery, my dear,—that is the word,—trickery,—you have employed against me. To what depths have you descended, Camille Maupin! and why?"
"More and more sphinx-like!" said Camille, smiling.
"You want me to fling myself at Calyste's head; but I am still too young for that sort of thing. To me, love is sacred; love is love with all its emotions, jealousies, and despotisms. I am not an author; it is impossible for me to see ideas where the heart feels sentiments."
"You think yourself capable of loving foolishly!" said Camille. "Make yourself easy on that score; you still have plenty of sense. My dear, you calumniate yourself; I assure you that your nature is cold enough to enable your head to judge of every action of your heart."
The marquise colored high; she darted a look of hatred, a venomous look, at Camille, and found, without searching, the sharpest arrows in her quiver. Camille smoked composedly as she listened to a furious tirade, which rang with such cutting insults that we do not reproduce it here. Beatrix, irritated by the calmness of her adversary, condescended even to personalities on Camille's age.
"Is that all?" said Felicite, when Beatrix paused, letting a cloud of smoke exhale from her lips. "Do you love Calyste?"
"No; of course not."
"So much the better," replied Camille. "I do love him—far too much for my own peace of mind. He may, perhaps, have had a passing fancy for you; for you are, you know, enchantingly fair, while I am as black as a crow; you are slim and willowy, while I have a portly dignity; in short, you are young!—that's the final word, and you have not spared it to me. You have abused your advantages as a woman against me. I have done my best to prevent what has now happened. However little of a woman you may think me, I am woman enough, my dear, not to allow a rival to triumph over me unless I choose to help her." (This remark, made in apparently the most innocent manner, cut the marquise to the heart). "You take me for a very silly person if you believe all that Calyste tries to make you think of me. I am neither so great nor so small; I am a woman, and very much of a woman. Come, put off your grand airs, and give me your hand!" continued Camille, taking Madame de Rochefide's hand. "You do not love Calyste, you say; that is true, is it not? Don't be angry, therefore; be hard, and cold, and stern to him to-morrow; he will end by submitting to his fate, especially after certain little reproaches which I mean to make to him. Still, Calyste is a Breton, and very persistent; if he should continue to pay court to you, tell me frankly, and I will lend you my little country house near Paris, where you will find all the comforts of life, and where Conti can come out and see you. You said just now that Calyste calumniated me. Good heavens! what of that? The purest love lies twenty times a day; its deceptions only prove its strength."
Camille's face wore an air of such superb disdain that the marquise grew fearful and anxious. She knew not how to answer. Camille dealt her a last blow.
"I am more confiding and less bitter than you," she said. "I don't suspect you of attempting to cover by a quarrel a secret injury, which would compromise my very life. You know me; I shall never survive the loss of Calyste, but I must lose him sooner or later. Still, Calyste loves me now; of that I am sure."
"Here is what he answered to a letter of mine, urging him to be true to you," said Beatrix, holding out Calyste's last letter.
Camille took it and read it; but as she read it, her eyes filled with tears; and presently she wept as women weep in their bitterest sorrows.
"My God!" she said, "how he loves her! I shall die without being understood—or loved," she added.
She sat for a few moments with her head leaning against the shoulder of her companion; her grief was genuine; she felt to the very core of her being the same terrible blow which the Baronne du Guenic had received in reading that letter.
"Do you love him?" she said, straightening herself up, and looking fixedly at Beatrix. "Have you that infinite worship for him which triumphs over all pains, survives contempt, betrayal, the certainty that he will never love you? Do you love him for himself, and for the very joy of loving him?"
"Dear friend," said the marquise, tenderly, "be happy, be at peace; I will leave this place to-morrow."
"No, do not go; he loves you, I see that. Well, I love him so much that I could not endure to see him wretched and unhappy. Still, I had formed plans for him, projects; but if he loves you, all is over."
"And I love him, Camille," said the marquise, with a sort of naivete, and coloring.
"You love him, and yet you cast him off!" cried Camille. "Ah! that is not loving; you do not love him."
"I don't know what fresh virtue he has roused in me, but certainly he has made me ashamed of my own self," said Beatrix. "I would I were virtuous and free, that I might give him something better than the dregs of a heart and the weight of my chains. I do not want a hampered destiny either for him or for myself."
"Cold brain!" exclaimed Camille, with a sort of horror. "To love and calculate!"
"Call it what you like," said Beatrix, "but I will not spoil his life, or hang like a millstone round his neck, to become an eternal regret to him. If I cannot be his wife, I shall not be his mistress. He has—you will laugh at me? No? Well, then, he has purified me."
Camille cast on Beatrix the most sullen, savage look that female jealousy ever cast upon a rival.
"On that ground, I believed I stood alone," she said. "Beatrix, those words of yours must separate us forever; we are no longer friends. Here begins a terrible conflict between us. I tell you now; you will either succumb or fly."
So saying, Camille bounded into her room, after showing her face, which was that of a maddened lioness, to the astonished Beatrix. Then she raised the portiere and looked in again.
"Do you intend to go to Croisic to-morrow," she asked.
"Certainly," replied the marquise, proudly. "I shall not fly, and I shall not succumb."
"I play above board," replied Camille; "I shall write to Conti."
Beatrix became as white as the gauze of her scarf.
"We are staking our lives on this game," she replied, not knowing what to say or do.
The violent passions roused by this scene between the two women calmed down during the night. Both argued with their own minds and returned to those treacherously temporizing courses which are so attractive to the majority of women,—an excellent system between men and women, but fatally unsafe among women alone. In the midst of this tumult of their souls Mademoiselle des Touches had listened to that great Voice whose counsels subdue the strongest will; Beatrix heard only the promptings of worldly wisdom; she feared the contempt of society.
Thus Felicite's last deception succeeded; Calyste's blunder was repaired, but a fresh indiscretion might be fatal to him.