Escal Vigor/Part II/Chapter VIII

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VIII.

Left alone, the idea came to Kehlmark for the first time to look over his account books and inform himself at first hand of the state of his affairs. He had given his procuration to Blandine. It was she who managed his fortune. He knew the cabinet in which she locked up the documents relative to the accounts. The key was not in the drawer; but, without hesitation, he broke the lock and set to work rummaging among the papers and examining columns of figures and notary's deeds. Before he reached the end of his investigations he saw the truth: he was as good as ruined. Escal-Vigor was almost the only one of his estates not hypothecated. But whence came the money then by which his luxury, liberalities, and princely mode of life were kept up? What generous banker advanced him such considerable sums without security and without the least chance of being ever repaid?

All at once he understood.

It was Blandine! Blandine! whom he had just insulted so grossly. The rôles were reversed. He was the kept man, the guest! Instead of calming him, this discovery in his then state of mind only exasperated him.

At the height of passion to which he had risen nothing could balance the injustice of which he had to complain.

He again attacked the young woman:

"Better and better," he said; "I know all. Thou wouldst buy me; support me; no longer do I possess an available penny. Escal-Vigor ought by rights to belong to thee; it will hardly represent the value of the sums thou hast given me. But, my dear, you have made a wrong calculation in flattering yourself thus to bind me to you and make me your loyal vassal. No, no, I am not for sale. I will depart from this place. I will leave you the château. I want nothing from you."

"Then," he continued, with atrocious banter, as though he were torturing himself, "after what I have confessed to thee thou would'st have made a sorry purchase in my person. Ah! Ah! Ah!

"Our mutual situation is even more extraordinary than I thought. It takes a lot to turn thy stomach. But, little fool, with the money left thee by my grandmother thou'dst have been able to obtain a real male, a solid woman-fancier. Ah, I have it! Thou'dst have no need to look a great way off. This Landrillon—"

Unhappy Kehlmark.

In his desire of revolt and revenge he had just caused Blandine the worst of wounds. Ah, the wretched man! He did not yet suspect the greatest of the sacrifices she had made for him. The loss of her fortune was nothing in comparison with this other holocaust. What demon had just brought to Kehlmark's comminatory lips the last name he should have pronounced?

Kehlmark was never to know how abominable he had shown himself at that moment, but scarcely had the name of Landrillon left his mouth than a pang passed through him; the pale face and beseeching eyes of Blandine revealed to him a part of the blow which he had just dealt her.

He caught the swooning woman in his arms.

"It was not I who spoke just now, my darling. Forgive me, it is a past of ineffable pain and secret shame; it is my exasperated senses which are avenging themselves."

And to win her pardon, he made a general confession to her, or rather, drew her a complete picture of his inner life.

Whilst recalling his dark hours he became once more, as erstwhile, cruel and aggressive, but then would again caress her; and his sardonic excitement bordered at times on madness.

"Ah, Blandine! Blandine! how much I have suffered and still suffer no one will ever know, who has not passed through the same terrors.

"Poor darling, that thought I was angry with thee and that I took pleasure in hurting thee. But see, be reasonable. Thou hast before thee a person tied at the stake, burning over a slow fire, and it's thou who would'st reproach him with the atrocious spectacle his sufferings inflict on sensitive souls? Ah, a spectacle that he shows thee indeed against his will!

"And it is this martyred victim,this patient sufferer, whose whole being is a perpetual torture, an agonising irritation, it's this man burnt alive whom thou'dst accuse of being thy executioner.

"Henceforth, O sister mine, spare him thy shocked looks, thy virtuous disapprobation.

"Ah, I've had enough of it. Seeing I have hurt thee unwittingly, the best of women, for what reason, I wonder, should I spare the feelings of the crowd. Far from humbling myself, I'll hold up my head.

Would'st thou judge me, condemn me like the rest? Be it so! But I contest even thy right to absolve me. I am neither diseased nor guilty. I feel my heart bigger and spirit broader than their most boasted apostles. Therefore do not play the pharisee towards me, O Blandine! my irreproachable one.

"Above all, a truce to those insulting and withering words when speaking of my loves—my only possible loves.

"Those words, O angel mine, that made thee in a moment lose all the benefits of thy whole past life of kindness and good sense. Enough of a devotion that burns as with a hot iron! Enough of cauteries!"

"Henry," the poor woman groaned," let us not go back into the past. Tear out my heart, but speak never again to me like that. It is all done with. Far from blaming thee, I now more than excuse thee, I approve. Is it that thou wishest of me? Why, I will damn myself with thee, I'll renounce my baptism, the sacred gospel, Jesus, all!"

He scarcely heeded her; he burst forth, opening all the sluices of his heart.

She, transfigured, had made him sit down in an armchair; made him a necklace of her arms, and cheek by cheek they mingled their tears. But she, being aware that Kehlmark's despair had precedence, was greater even than her own, took up none but a maternal attitude.

"Tell me, Blandine," said he, "to whom have I ever done harm? To thee? But without meaning it; I was not at all the man thou had'st dreamed of, or at least, the sort thou would'st have wished. I cannot help it. The first to suffer was I myself through thy suffering. Thou weep'st in listening to me; thou art right, Blandine, if thou shed'st these tears at the thought of my calvary, of my long Passion. Thy pity does me honour and does me good. But, if it be from shame for me that thou weep'st, my darling, if thou condemn'st and renouncest me, if thou sharest the prejudice of this western and Protestant world—Oh, then, abandon me, stop thy tears; I have naught to do with sympathy of which thou'rt ashamed.

"Yes, from to-day onwards I'll no longer fear the opinions of men, have no more cowardly modesty, Blandine.

"A time will come when I'll proclaim my raison d'être in face of all the world …

"It is high time. My hell has lasted long enough. It commenced at puberty. Sent to college, my boyish friendships took on all the tenderness, vivacity, and melancholy of true love. At the baths, the quivering nudity of my comrades induced in me a troublous but delicious ecstasy. In drawing from the antique I revelled in the noble male models; a born Pagan, I could think of no good quality without clothing it in the harmonious forms of an athlete, of a youthful hero or a young god; and voluptuously, I attuned the dreams and aspirations of my soul to the hymning of the glory of athletic limbs. At the same time, cocks and pheasants I thought more beautiful than their hens, lions and tigers more imposing than lionesses and tigresses. But I kept silence and concealed my predilections. I even tried to impose on my eyes and my other senses; I did violence to my heart and my flesh to convince them of their error and the aberration of their sympathies. Thus, at the boarding-school, I loved to desperation William Percy, a young English lord (the same who almost drowned me) without ever daring to show him, otherwise than by a brotherly affection, the ardour with which I was consumed for him. On leaving Bodemberg Schloss, when I met thee, Blandine, I hoped through my love for thee, to enter again into the common order. But, unfortunately for us both, this encounter was only an accident in my sexual life. In spite of loyal and heroic efforts, and a determined concentration of will, to fix my affections on the best and most desirable of women, the promptings of my flesh soon turned away from thee and I no longer loved thee Blandine save with my whole soul! At this period some remains of Christian, or rather Biblical scruples, caused me to feel disgusted with myself. I felt horror at my own being and verily believed that I was curséd, possessed, and destined to the fires of Sodom!

"Then the injustice, the iniquity of my destiny, reconciled me tacitly to myself. I arrived at the pitch of accepting in my innermost heart nothing except the testimony of my own conscience. Strong in my absolute integrity, I revolted against the amorous disposition that prevails in the great majority. Reading further enlightened me as to the meaning and legitimacy of my inclinations. Artists, philosophers, heroes, kings, popes, even gods, justified and exalted by their example the cult of male beauty. In my reaction from doubt and remorse, I read again, to confirm my sexual faith and religion, the ardent sonnets of Shakespeare to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and those no less idolatrous, of Michael Angelo to Tommoso di Cavalieri; I fortified myself by perusing passages from Montaigne, Tennyson, Wagner, Walt Whitman and Carpenter; I recalled to my mind the young people of the Banquet of Plato, the lovers of the Sacred Band of Thebes, Achilles and Patroclus, Damon and Pythias, Hadrian and Antinous, Chariton and Melanippe, Diocles, Cleomachus,—I shared in all these generous, virile passions of antiquity and of the Renascence, that they boast to us about in such a ridiculously pedantical way at college, while glozing over the superb eroticism, inspirer of purest art, doughtiest deeds, and loftiest patriotism. "My external life, however, continued to be one perpetual constraint and dissimulation. I attained, through dint of unrighteous discipline, to a mastery of falsehood. But my upright and honourable nature never ceased to revolt against this imposture. Imagine, my dear friend, the awful antagonism between my open and expansive character and such a mask, belying and Vilifying my impulses and affinities! Ah, I may confess to thee now, that more than once, my carnal indifference to women threatened to turn into a veritable hate. And thou, Blandine mine, almost exasperated me against thy entire sex, thou, the best of women. The day, when thou thought'st to separate me from Guidon Govaertz, I felt my almost filial affection for thee changing into complete execration. Under these conditions, thou wilt understand that,—outraged often in my sentiments and isolated, practically anathematised,—I came nigh to losing my reason.

"More than once I trembled on the brink of complete aberration. Since I am taxed with monstrosity, I said to myself, since I am fallen and socially an outcast, I may as well enjoy the benefit of my ignominy.

"The sadistic enormities of a Gilles de Rais tempted my waking dreams.

"Dost thou remember the child thou did'st snatch one day from my arms? Mad with rage, I struck at thee with a knife, and yet never did'st thou guess what lay at the back of my mind! Another day, when we were still living in town, I accosted a young urchin of the harbour, a ragged boy, like the little ragamuffins of the Klaarvatsch beach. Urged by an abominable perversion I was going to carry him aside, behind a heap of bales.

"I lifted the brat into my arms; the little boy smiled broadly, in nowise afraid, although, at that moment, I must have had the congested face of an apoplectic strangled by asphyxia. The gentleman wished to play no doubt and would afterwards give him a coin. The child was as chubby as a peach, as brown as his ragged corduroys, and his chestnut eyes sparkled with a roguish twinkle. Whilst I hurried on, with dry throat, he began playfully to pull my beard. Then the sulphurous, bituminous veil was torn from my eyes. I remembered my childhood, my grandmother, thou, Blandine, my angel! No, no! I put the youngster down and fled. Since then I have repelled those sinister suggestions engendered by the Catholic faith. No, do not deflower innocence, or at least spare weakness, I said to myself. Breathe only the perfume which exhales towards thee. Take no advantage of the self-ignorant child, or of the future male!

"Soon after this my grandmother died. I determined to set to work to search for the being whom I could love according to my nature; that is why I exiled myself to, this island; I had the presentiment of meeting here my elect. Guidon had only to show himself for my heart to leap at once towards him. I recognised in him aptitudes for the arts that I love, elevated ideas and sentiments on life, of a kind different from those of the downtrodden crowd. Besides, how could I remain indifferent to the mute and delicate entreaty of his eyes? He had divined me as well as I had forefelt him. He was the first and the only one to satisfy the first need of my being. If our flesh has done aught ill, the most complete moral fervour was our accomplice. Our feelings coincided with our desires.

"But no, Nature disavows nothing, denies nothing which renders us happy. It is the Biblical religions which will have it that the earth has produced us for abstinence and pain. Imposture! He would be an execrable Creator who would take pleasure in the torture of his creatures. At this rate, the worst of sadisms would be that of a pretended God of love. Our punishment would form his pleasure!

"Now, can'st thou understand my life and wilt comprehend why I speak so proudly to thee, notwithstanding the splendour of thy soul, Blandine.

"Thou hast known friends of mine, of my own class, excellent people, a chosen few, capable of every indulgence and of all understanding, thinkers, minds of the first rank, whom no speculation, even the most daring, seemed likely to alarm. Thou wilt recollect how they sought me. Well, remember my sudden fits of sadness in their otherwise gay company, my prolonged absences from home, my apparent bouts of sulkiness. What was the cause? In the midst of lively conversation, at the height of our confidences and frank disclosures, it occurred to me what welcome would these self-same friends give me if they could read my soul, if they had any suspicion of my peculiarity. And, at the bare idea, I revolted inwardly against that opprobrium with which they would not have failed to visit me, "advanced" and audacious as they pretended to be. The most generous, while refraining from blame, would have shunned me like a leper. How often in less cultivated circles, when I heard people speak with withering contempt and with horrible words and gestures, of lovers of my sort, was I not on the point of bursting out and proclaiming my identity with the alleged transgressors and spitting in the face of these merciless honest people!

"And my sufferings also, when the conversation turned on gallantry and good fortunes! Forced to laugh and to join in the competition of licentious stories and to relate in my turn, a broad jest or a feat of libertinism, I felt my heart rise and I reproached myself for my base compliance.

"The "Fire Shepherd," whose legend lately thou heard'st me relate, refused to go on pilgrimage to Rome to throw himself at the feet of the Pope and implore his pardon. That sinner repudiated any arbiter between his conscience and the crowd. I was humbler. One day I wrote to an illustrious revolutionary, one of those torch-bearers, who pass for being in advance of their age and dream of a world of brotherhood, happiness and love. I consulted him on my state as though it concerned one of my friends. The man from whom I expected consolation, a reassuring word, a sign of tolerance, wrote me a letter of anathema and ban. He cried raca on the deserter of the ordinary moral love-code, showing himself as merciless to exceptional beings as the Pope of the legend was to the knight Tannhäuser. Ah! this pope of the new revolution vowed me for life to Venusberg, or rather to Uranienberg!

"This major excommunication, which should have made me despair, restored me to the sentiment of my personal dignity and my duties towards my own nature. I derived the strength to live conformably to my conscience and my needs, from the very injustice which was done me by humanity, but in my isolation I went through alternate crises of discouragement and revolt; and thou'lt understand now, dear one, my eccentric humours, my prodigalities and excesses, my break-neck exploits. Yes, I sought always for forgetfulness and more than once for death!"

"Thou hast suffered more than I," said Blandine, as he stopped, consoled, with a sort of serenity, his face almost blooming, lighted up with frankness, "but, thou shalt at least suffer no more by my fault. I am converted to thy religion of love; I strip off my last prejudices. I not only excuse, but I admire and exalt thee and I agree to whatever thou wilt. Be at thy ease, Henry, thou'lt never hear another complaint, much less a reproach. Guidon, whom thou lov'st with body and soul, shall be my friend; I will be his sister. We will leave this country if thou wilt, Henry; we will go and live elsewhere, we three, modestly, but henceforth, in peace and reconciliation."

Amazed at so much self-sacrifice, the Dykgrave cried:

"Oh, to be unable to love thee, save as a mother, yet as a mother tenderer than the best, my saintly Blandine, but only a mother!" She stopped his words with this cry:—

"Ah, that is why something prevented me long ago from going to seek the other in his prison!"

There was triumph and rejoicing in the despair of Blandine. It was the sublime madness of sacrifice. The woman rose to the angel!

She was to rise still higher and to cast aside all carnal jealousy.

Adding deeds to words, she bade Kehlmark call Guidon, and when the young man appeared, she took his hands, placed them herself in those of the master and then let fall a kiss, chaste but as comforting as the salute of death, upon the blushing forehead of the disciple.