Escal Vigor/Part I/Chapter VII
Whilst awaiting the fulfilment of these brilliant prognostications, Kehlmark applied himself again to those athletic exercises in which he had excelled at the boarding-school. Unfortunately, he brought to these sports the same fever and extravagance he put into his words and actions. He took pleasure in breakneck exploits, in swimming across broad rivers, in sailing boats in stormy weather, and in breaking in restive and vicious horses. One day his horse ran away, and galloped all along the railway, keeping head with an express train, side by side with the locomotive, until falling down exhausted, it dragged its rider under it. Kehlmark escaped with a sprain. Another time the same horse, whose recklessness was extreme, being then harnessed to a dog-cart, took offence at a mason's wheelbarrow, left in the middle of the street, and after a terrifying shy, took to a frantic gallop across a square planted with trees, until at last it dashed itself, together with the carriage, against a street-lamp. Kehlmark and his groom were pitched head over heels, but they immediately stood up again on their feet without a scratch. The horse also escaped unhurt by the collision. As for the carriage, which was broken up and twisted, a lounger was induced by a tip to wheel it as far as the coachmaker's. A merchant of the neighbourhood hastened to place his horse and carriage at the disposal of Monsieur de Kehlmark. It was about nightfall, the Dowager was expecting Henry for dinner, and he was far from home. The groom drew his master's attention to the very excited condition of the horse, which pricked up its ears, kept on snorting from fright and was trembling all over, and advised him to accept the gentleman's offer. But the Count only agreed to borrow the carriage. The fiery animal was harnessed to the merchant's carriage. Kehlmark resumed the reins, and the groom took his place on the box but not without surliness. Contrary to their expectation, the horse seemed calmed and behaved in an ordinary manner.
But in passing over a viaduct not far from the station, they noticed, below the flight of steps, a crowd of people excited at a train blazing with ignited petroleum, which shot forth flames as high as houses.
"Look, Monsieur le Comte, that will set him mad again! If I were you I would again turn about," suggested Landrillon, the servant. And he was about to descend.
But Henry prevented him, whipping up the horse and giving it the reins so that the scared animal started trotting across the crowd.
"A la grâce de Dieu!" exclaimed the Count with a disdainful smile.
Disappointing the alarmed anticipations of the valet, the animal, which a bit of paper or a dead leaf was generally sufficient to terrify, passed through the crowd, and trotted, without showing the least panic, through the midst of the crackling flames, the whistling of the water from the steam-pumps, and the cries and tumult of the spectators.
"All the same, Monsieur, we have escaped it finely!" said Landrillon when they had passed the critical zone. And he grumbled spitefully between his teeth:—
"With such antics as these he will one day wind up by leaving his skin behind. That's his business, but what right has he to risk my bones as well?"
It might be thought indeed that the Count was seeking occasions to do himself an injury. With what trouble could he be afflicted thus to despise the life which two loving women strove to render sweet and bright for him?
The Countess and Blandine were just now passing through agonies even more painful than before. The poor, old grandmother hoped, by gratifying his most expensive whims, to reconcile him to existence, but at the rate he was going he would, in the end, ruin himself both in health and fortune. "What will become of him when I am no more?" the good woman wondered. "He will have need, indeed, of a loving and prudent companion, a woman of good management, a guardian angel of profound and absolute devotion."
Out of respect for certain prejudices still remaining, Madame de Kehlmark would not go so far as to recommend marriage to those whom she called her two children, but all the same, she would not in any way have dissuaded them from it. When she was alone with Blandine she expressed her apprehensions for the young Count's future: "This big boy, full of illusions, will need a veritable angel, to serve him as a guide, and to conduct him through life; someone who, without snatching him roughly from his chimeras, will lead him gently by the hand into paths of reality."
Blandine promised her benefactress, with all her heart, to watch always over the young Count and never to leave him unless he drove her away. The Dowager would have gladly made their union indissoluble, but she dared not approach this delicate subject with Henry or communicate to him her dearest wish. Anxiety of mind at length affected her robust health and her state grew worse from day to day. She saw death approach with that proud resignation which she had imbibed from the works of her favourite philosophers; she would even have welcomed it with the joy that a worker, overcome by the fatigue of a hard week, shows at the approach of the Sunday's rest, if the fate of her dear boy had not stricken her with anguish.
Henry and Blandine were standing at her bedside, deceived by the calmness of the dying woman, and unable to believe in the imminence of her end. It would appear that the nearness of death confers on the sufferers the gift of second-sight and of prophecy. Did the Dowager of Kehlmark have a glimpse of the scabrous future in store for her grandson? Did she fear to ask Blandine to associate her destiny irrevocably with Henry's? At all events, she never gave expression to her supreme desire. With a smile full of unspeakable adjuration, she contented herself with pressing their joined hands together, as though performing a sacramental act, and passed away, grieving not at death, but at having to leave her children.
By her will she left to Blandine a sufficiently large sum to ensure her independence and to permit her to set up a house of her own. But, even if she had not promised it to the deeply venerated dead, the young woman would have remained for life with Henry de Kehlmark.
When, some months after the grandmother's death, Henry more and more disgusted with the banal and conventional world, announced to Blandine his intention of establishing himself at Escal-Vigor, far from the capital, in a fertile and barbarous island, she replied simply:
"That suits me perfectly, Monsieur Henry."
Notwithstanding their intimacy,she seldom omitted this respectful prefix before the young man's name.
Kehlmark, not having yet sounded the depth of the absolute affection which she devoted to him, had imagined that she would take advantage of the liberality of the deceased to return to her native country of Campine, and seek there a suitable husband.
"What do you mean?" he asked her, intimidated by the air of grieved surprise, which had overcast the young woman's countenance.
"With your permission, Monsieur Henry, I will follow you wherever you think it well to settle, unless my presence has become troublesome to you."
And reproachful tears fluttered on her trembling eye-lashes, although she made an effort to smile at him as usual.
"Forgive me, Blandine," stammered the awkward young man. "You know very well that no company, no presence, could be more welcome to me than yours. But still I do not want to abuse your self-devotion. After having sacrificed some of the best years of your youth to the care of my venerable grandmother, I cannot consent for you to bury yourself down there in a desert with me; in a false situation, exposed to the slanders of ill-disposed rustics; much less can I agree to it now, when you are free, the dear departed having endeavoured to recognise your devoted services by assuring to you an independence. You can therefore establish yourself advantageously."
He was going to add "and find a husband," but the eyes of his mistress, more and more in tears, made him aware that such a speech would have been abominable.
"Yes," he continued, taking her hands and looking at her with those enigmatic eyes, in which there was at once uneasiness and excitement, "you deserve to be happy, very happy, my good Blandine. For you were so affectionate, even better than I, her grandson, to the beloved dead. Ah! I occasioned her much anxiety—you know something about it, you, her confidant.—I caused her anguish in spite of myself, but cruelly, all the same. And perhaps, by my unsteady character and numerous extravagances I hastened her end. But believe me, Blandine, it was not my fault; I never did it on purpose. There were other things that caused it, things that nobody, not even you, could understand or imagine; a certain fatality, something inexplicable, was mixed up with it."
Here his look became still more cloudy, and with the back of his hand he wiped the perspiration off his forehead, no doubt regretting that he could not at the same time wipe from his brain the thought that oppressed him.
"Whilst you, Blandine," he added, "you were always pure balm to her, nothing but smiles and caresses. Ah, leave me, my poor child, the time has come to separate; it will be better for you, if not for me."
He turned aside, quite overcome, ready to weep himself, and was going away, waving her off with a gesture; but she eagerly seized upon the hand that thought to banish her.
"You do not really wish it, Henry," she cried with a voice of entreaty that pierced the young Count to the heart. "Where should I go to? After your sainted grandmother no one but you remains for me to cherish. You are the only motive of my existence. And above all do not talk to me of sacrifice. The years which I had the honour of passing with Madame de Kehlmark could never have been happier. I owe everything to your grandmother, Count. 0 suffer me humbly to repay to you the debt which I owe her! You will have need of a manager, a steward, to take charge of your affairs, manage your fortune, and direct your household. You entertain ideas too noble, too brilliant, for you to weary yourself with these prosaic and material details. Counting and reckoning is not in your line; as for me, it is my life. That indeed, is all 1 know. Now Monsieur Artist" (she became adorably wheedling), "here is a good suggestion: do not send me away this time; agree to keep me on in the employment which I filled with the Countess. If she were here she would herself intercede for me.—Unless you think of marrying!"
"I marry!" he cried. "I marry!"
It was impossible to mistake the intonation of these words. The Count of Kehlmark was evidently much averse to any matrimonial compact whatsoever.
Blandine could hardly conceal her joy; she laughed through her tears.
"Well, Henry, in that case I will never leave you. Who will look after your great château down there? Who will take care of you? Is there anyone who knows your tastes better than I do, or who is so careful to satisfy them? No, Henry, separation is impossible. You could no more do without me than I could banish myself from your presence. Even if you had married, I would have wished to live at your fireside in a corner, unnoticed, submissive, nothing but your humble servant. Yes, if you desire it, I will be nothing more than your faithful factotum. Ah, Monsieur Henry, take me with you; you will see I shall be hardly an encumbrance, I will never weary you with my presence, I will efface myself as much as you require. Besides, I can truly say, Henry, it was your grandmother's wish; keep me at least for the sake of the dear one who has gone."
And deeply moved, Blandine burst anew into sobs; Kehlmark also felt himself shaken to the depths of his heart. He drew the young girl gently to his bosom and gave her a brotherly kiss on the forehead.
"Well, let it be as you wish," he murmured, "but may you never repent of it and never reproach me with this fatal consent!"
In speaking these last words his voice trembled, and became smothered, as though conscious of the menace of an inevitable catastrophe.