Escal Vigor/Part I/Chapter V

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V.

About this time the Dowager of Kehlmark, having given up her troublesome establishment and retinue of servants, to retire into a pleasant villa in an aristocratic suburb of the capital, was seeking for a trustworthy young person, something between a lady-companion and a waiting woman. One of her old friends, passing the summer at Blandine's village, spoke of the girl highly, even at the vicar's request, to the great lady, without omitting to mention the adventure of which she had once been the victim. It turned out that that particular account of the poor girl's past proved the means of winning her the sympathies of Henry's grandmother, who engaged her immediately she was presented.

But what a graceful and polished village-girl! She was the picture of health and uprightness. The contour of a modernised Greek statue vivified by rosy cheeks; eyes, limpid and trusting, of clear sapphire blue; a mouth curved gracefully and with a touch of melancholy; somewhat curly hair, of a light ash hue, parted in two halves on a forehead of immaculate ivory. Of moderate stature and admirable proportions, in her peasant dress she might have passed for a young lady of quality masquerading as a shepherdess.

On her side, Blandine felt herself drawn to this septuagenarian lady, who, though of noble family, was free from haughtiness and affectation, and would not have been out of place, by reason of her philosophical bent, in the days of Diderot and the Encyclopedia. A woman of liberal culture and without prejudices, if she still retained some feeling of pride in her aristocratic birth, it was because, in comparing herself with the upstarts who surrounded her, she was compelled to recognize the superiority in sentiments, tone and education of a caste ever decreasing in numbers, and even more reduced and proscribed by the puddled blood of financial misalliances than by the guillotine and September massacres. But, on the other hand, she considered as a truly aristocratic appanage those high qualities of heart and mind which are to be met with in every walk of life, and the possession of which was equivalent with her to letters patent, taking the place, to a large extent, of a genealogical tree.

Malvina de Kehlmark, née De Taxandrie, whose former striking beauty the "Almanac of the Muses" in 1830 proclaimed as Ossianic, possessed lively eyes of azure grey, whose iridescence could be compared only to superfine pearls, hair that hung English-wise in ringlets, an elegantly arched nose, and lips teeming with wit. She was tall and lithe, with the carriage of a queen, or in painters' parlance a splendid outline, rendered more impressive by trailing velvet or black satin robes, with wide lace sleeves, caps à la Marie Stuart: a rich but reserved costume, in which the carbuncles of her rings and especially her brooch, a sphinx-head cut in onyx and surmounted with a couronne of diamonds and rubies, shone like constellations.

In this majestic woman was nothing of pedantry or affected gravity; she was neither prude nor vulgar; but good, without being priggish, and even with a touch of brusqueness and banter; affectionate, faithful, and of infinite sensibility; by no means a Pharisee, she abhorred nothing but treachery, duplicity, and baseness of soul.

Such an evangelical freethinker was bound infallibly to agree with an equally very dissenting Christian. The Dowager laughed, not ill-naturedly, at what she called the mummeries of Blandine, but in no way interfered with her in the practice of her religion, which, indeed, was on a very reduced scale. With her gay, optimistic, critical disposition, Madame de Kehlmark formed a striking contrast with the prematurely reflective and hardened character of the young girl, whom she nicknamed her little Minerva, her Pallas Athene.

The old lady amused herself by instructing her, and taught her so well to read and write that she made her at last her reader and secretary.

But she instilled into the girl above all things a devotion to her grandson, her Henry, who was then studying at Bodemberg Schloss, and of whom Madame de Kehlmark said archly, that he was her only prejudice, her superstition, her fanaticism. Without ceasing, she talked to her young companion of this little prodigy, this precocious child. She read and read over to her again the schoolboy's letters. Blandine replied to them under the grandmother's dictation; but very often she was the first to find the affectionate word, or turn of phrase, which the old lady was seeking. She finally wound up by writing the whole epistle straight off the reel, according to the sketch which she asked for from her mistress, the latter confessing that Blandine's style was even more maternal than her own.

The Dowager also showed her the portraits of the young Count, and the two women would go over for hours, without weariness, the various pictures of their fetish, from the daguerreotype which represented him as a restless baby with one foot bare, on his mother's knees, up to the most recent proof showing a slender youth, with two big wide-staring eyes, at his first communion.

At the outset, Blandine only pretended to interest herself in everything which concerned the little Kehlmark, and would herself start the conversation about him, solely to please the excellent woman and flatter her touching solicitude, but, by degrees, she was surprised to find herself sharing this worship of the absent boy. She cherished him deeply in her heart even before she had seen him. It will be observed in the sequel that there was in this attachment a profounder and more providential influence than that of a simple case of auto-suggestion.

"How tall he must be now! And strong! And handsome!" the two women would surmise. They described him to each other mutually, the one supplying flattering retouches to the image that the other sketched. H ow Blandine longed to see him! She even languished in waiting. And lo! bad news comes from Switzerland at the moment of the vacations which were to send him back to his grandmother. Henry had fallen ill. Never had Blandine known such misgivings. She would have flown to the schoolboy's bed, had she not been detained by the side of his grandparent, hanging between life and death as long as her grandson was in danger. Then what jubilation when Blandine learned the recovery of the young man!

The prospect of the return to his country home of this pampered child rendered Blandine not the less anxious of the two women. She counted the days and even, in a sort of puerile way, struck them out on the calendar as they passed, just as the boy himself was doubtless doing at school.

When Henry rang at the villa gate it was Blandine who opened the door to him. She thought she beheld a god! All her blood rushed back to her heart. She adored him at first sight, respectfully with no self-interested hope, or ambition for herself, understanding that in living ever in the presence of the young Kehlmark, she would have her full desire, the complete aim of her aspirations. Later, she better understood what had passed within her at this first and decisive meeting. Therefore, her complex impression can only become really definite through the successive phases of this narrative. In short, the pious Blandine was strongly affected by Henry. Into this climax of feeling, towards which her sympathies had long been directed, there was mingled fear, anguish and admiration, perhaps even a little of that secret pity, which we experience in the presence of things rare, ephemeral, and almost incompatible with ordinary life.

"It is Mademoiselle Blandine, doubtless, the little fairy, whom my good grandmamma has praised to me so highly," said the young man, extending his hand to the lady's companion. "I am very, very grateful to you for all your care of her," he added, with a little timidity.

The two young people were not long before they treated each other on a footing of comradeship. Under a frolicsome manner, Blandine concealed the deep and serious love which possessed her. Was it because she knew herself won to Kehlmark for life that she had no recourse to any of those artful manœuvres by which a woman binds a lover to her side. Her absence of coquetry contributed to put the timid and whimsical youth at his ease, unused as he was to poses of gallantry. Some days there were when he showed himself particularly attentive, whilst on others he looked at her strangely, and seemed to avoid, and even to flee from her.

Three years elapsed. It was in the month of May and the day was drawing to a close. The Dowager of Kehlmark was dining out alone, at the house of her old friend, Madame de Gasterlé, as was her custom once a month. Blandine was to call for her at this lady's, near the stroke of ten o'clock. Henry had retired to his room where he was working,—or rather pretending to work, for the moment and the season of the year produced an enervating effect, exciting him to fancies and curious imaginations.

Through the open window the young Count hears the sound of organs and accordions coming from a workmen's quarter, across some acres of cultivated gardens, distributed between the dowager's villa and those of her neighbours, and divided from each other by bright green hedges. For several evenings the plaintive strains of brass-bellied instruments calling "all lights out" in an artillery barracks situated away down at the further extremity of the faubourg, had come, wafted along on the warm breeze to Kehlmark's ears, mingled with the music of the lilies that agitated their fragrant-tipped thyrses.

There was also building a-going on in the neighbourhood: the principal construction is on the morrow to receive its roof, and throughout the day the young patrician has heard the silvery music made by the masons as they strike the bricks with their trowels. Several times, feeling disturbed, he has leaned out and has seen the labourers, covered with white dust and wild of aspect, pretty country boys, with trough or hod on shoulder, unconscious balancers, mount up the high scaffoldings and risk the giddiness of lofty ascent. At times they remain masked by the foliage, then all on a sudden they emerge from behind the tall-grown trees, their active bodies standing out in dramatic silhouette against the neutral blue of the sky.

Why does his heart swell with indescribable nostalgia, when, after sunset, he sees them pass the rustic blue smock over their work-a-day clothes as daubed and besmeared as a painter's palette? It will be still worse the day after to-morrow when they will have finished; their harmonious activity, like an orchestra, was becoming an habitual pleasure to his eyes, and he foresees that he will miss them, these toilers, especially one, an alert, light-haired youth, who was better made, had finer curves than the others, and whose supple and statuesque movements of the hips, calves, and shoulders would have driven a sculptor to despair.

"Some of these masons' assistants will be withdrawn later from their decorative trade to serve in the barracks," Kehlmark reflects, when he heard the calls of the clarion, meant one day for them, die away in a quaking of leaves and a stirring of fragrant odours. Workmen, peasants, torn from their villages, soldiers in barracks, ardently longing after their villages far away, sharp-pointed steeples which rend your heart with homesickness:—this association of fugitive ideas in Kehlmark's mind turned into one dominant idea of the peasant, from whence stood out all at once, as though symbolic, the image of Blandine, not at all the Blandine of the present day, but the little peasant girl, such as she seemed retrospectively to him, the poet enamoured of strength and simple nature.

"She is upstairs at her toilette," he said to himself, "for it is nearly time for her to join grandmamma."

Somnambulistic, his eyes blinded with rustic licence and desperate embracings, he ascended the stairs to the young girl's room.

Although she was in her chemise Blandine only experienced a slight shiver, scarcely perceptible, at this intrusion. It was as though she had expected him. In the act of combing out her luxuriant head of hair, which was flowing over her shoulders, and wafting forth the scent of lavender and other fragrant herbs of the country, she turned towards him with a trusting smile. He took her by the hands, but almost without looking at her, as though scrutinising things absent, or at a distance, even closing his eyes to fathom these baffling scenes; and pushed her, unresisting, without a word, towards the bed which had just been remade. She, quivering and ravished, continued to smile, and surrendered herself as though to a new vagabond.

Why did he recollect, before the spasm, the accordion music in the twilight, across the lilac-flowers in bloom and the youthful villagers putting on their blue smocks over their faded working clothes? Was it because these country lads might have come from his mistress's village? He gloried to be in touch through her with an entire rustic humanity; it was the strength, the savour, the rough and carnal gesture, the fleshly passion redolent of the soil, which he loved in Blandine on this nuptial evening. This time, as well as those that followed, he possessed her in the thought of the desires which she would have excited in sturdy rural labourers, who might embrace her in one of those impetuous, savage onslaughts, smoking hot, with clothes all undone and wind-tost, that took place in the priapic orgies of the annual Fair.

During a moment, Blandine had caught the look in his half-open eyes. What abyss did she discover there? The abyss attracts, and love is partly made up of dizziness. Without abandoning herself to the fulness of the joy which she had hoped for, without swooning as in the midst of the phosphorescent heather, in the arms of the King of the Winnowers, she felt throughout her being a tenderness more tragic for the young Count of Kehlmark. She had surprised in Henry's expression an infinite anguish, in his embrace the tight clinging of a drowning person, in his kiss the suffocation of a man being murdered, who cries for help.

She had given herself up to him, dominated by his superiority of mind; and she was always respectful and humble in their relations. Ariaan, that fine healthy brute, had never, Blandine was now convinced, been consumed with erotic terrors comparable to those which stirred the flesh and the imagination of this too intellectual and too speculative young patrician.

While worshipping him absolutely, she always approached him with a certain disquietude, like the shivering of the swimmer at his first contact with the water. She found him strange, fantastic, almost terrifying. At times, there seemed to hang about him a sadness like that of a melancholy landscape; he was dull and sombre like a canal traversing a district encumbered with gravel and ash. The gloom, which thus intermittently weighed upon his mind passed like a film over his fine blue eyes. At the very height of his accesses of kindness and tenderness occurred reactions, chilliness, sudden shrinkings. His character seemed drawn-and-quartered by continual set-backs. No matter, from the first appearance of Kehlmark she felt herself in the presence of a mysterious being in whom spoke an unknown voice, which would always thrill her; she had vowed herself to him without hope of salvation as to a god who would banish her eternally far from his paradise, and when she looked at him there was in her eyes the expression of a martyr vainly searching the skies for the flight of angels that should come and deliver him. And yet, she was still ignorant of the rites and the worst trials of the religion of love to which she had consecrated herself.