How Dorante Crossed the Rubicon
How Dorante Crossed the Rubicon
BY ARTHUR SHERBURNE HARDY
DORANTE always addressed M. Joly as "monsieur." Having no recollection of her own father, it might be supposed that when M. Joly assumed the paternal rôle, Dorante would have recognized his claim to the paternal title. It is not to be inferred that because she did not do so she had withheld her love. She adored him. When, dressed in her best frock, she went out for a walk with him, to hold his hand produced in her a sort of ecstasy. That M. Joly returned this adoration was a secret Dorante had discovered at the very beginning of their acquaintance. Perhaps the very fact that this man who had rescued her from poverty and toil was not her father had something to do with the ecstasy and timidity of her love. For Dorante, if not at this time a woman, was going to be one, and therefore discriminated between the affection of a real father and that of a substitute—that is, between love acquired by the accident of birth and love inspired by herself. To say "father" was to say something commonplace. To say "monsieur " was to liberate emotions which gave her much happiness which she did not comprehend.
With this title M. Joly was equally content. That he should be so addressed when, a stranger, he first took her hand in his, was to be expected. That she should persist in so addressing him both amused and pleased him. Dorante had not arrived in the ordinary course of nature—an event which, however agreeable, is nevertheless to be expected. Dorante was the unexpected. Her love was not an obligation; it was a gift. In each case there was that vague sense of possessing something which was not a primary right. Perhaps these subtle distinctions were the result of sex. Perhaps, if Dorante had been a boy, they would have vanished. For it was also true that from the very outset she had not hesitated to call Madame Joly "mamma."
On none of the new duties consequent upon Dorante's adoption had M. Joly entered with more enthusiasm than that of her education. Having peculiar views on this subject, it was fortunate that he could begin with a blank page; for the atmosphere of the Restaurant des Tournelles, in which Dorante's earlier years had been passed, redolent as it was of delectable things, was suggestive of drudgery rather than learning. In arithmetic, for example, she had never gone beyond the calculation of the number of revolutions of the spit required to roast the fowls and joints in whose subsequent fate she had so infinitesimal a share. In this direction M. Joly confined his instruction to the lower levels of the multiplication table; for, he said, as mathematics is an organ of expression, and as Dorante will never have any ideas worthy of expression in that language, it is useless to acquire it.
In history, especially that of his beloved France, he had his own methods. When making an excursion into the past, he followed the same path which he took in their walks—that is to say, the path of the woods and the flowers—with the result that a stretch of monotonous white road which covered her shoes with dust was forgiven for the sake of the mystery and charm of the byway to which it led. Thus, even of that dreary and chaotic period of the Merovingian Kings, Dorante had some very definite knowledge, her memory being tricked into obedience by such romantic details as that the slave Ingonda had become the wife of Clother, and that the great Queen Fredegond was reputed to be a witch with a magic ring. M. Joly himself had felt no great interest in Fredegond's ring until after Dorante had proclaimed its importance. Not infrequently, in opening her eyes to one world, he was surprised to find that she opened his to another, and that while he was beginning her education she was completing his own. In sharing thus with her his mental estate he found a number of coins which had been overlooked.
While he was beginning her Education she was completing his own
The fear that somewhere in Dorante's unknown past the seeds of evil were waiting for their springtime had gradually faded from Madame Joly's thought. Dorante was uniformly happy, and happiness rarely mates with predestined evil. She illustrated the paradox that happiness forgets past misery, though misery never forgets past happiness. The Restaurant des Tournelles, from which she had been rescued, before whose big fireplace she had so often turned the spit at the peril of her complexion, had passed into an oblivion which would have been complete but for an occasional dream, in which M. Joly's protecting hand was suddenly transformed into another—a hand rough and hard, which had a disagreeable habit of cuffing. She awoke then with a start of terror, endeavoring to grasp the handle of the spit which in her sleep had slipped from her tired fingers—to realize subsequently the immense advantage of misery in dreams over misery in life.
Nevertheless, entranced as Madame Joly had been to take to her bosom what the good God had not seen fit to give her, she had had her misgivings. What might not this waif from the nest of criminals whom her husband had tracked to the cellar of the Restaurant des Tournelles inherit from her mysterious past! She had therefore devoted herself to that branch of Dorante's education to which M. Joly paid no attention whatever. Contrary to all that might be expected from a man whose life had been spent in the detection of crime, M. Joly, late inspector of police, seemed absolutely oblivious to any danger from the malignant germs which might lurk in the dower bequeathed to Dorante by her ancestors. He had a theory that with good material the problem of education did not exist, and that with bad material it was hopeless. Association with criminals, and above all with Madame Joly, had confirmed his theory of human nature. Madame Joly went regularly to confession. He had ceased to speculate upon what she confessed, never having been able to convict her of anything worth confessing. He classified this act of contrition with certain other harmless luxuries necessary to normal feminine life—as the lace and like trifles in the upper drawer of Madame Joly's chest. He even shared some of Dorante's excitement over the white dress in preparation for her first communion.
With the consummation of this sacrament, Madame Joly's confidence in the future deepened. She was therefore astonished when, one day, M. Joly said:
"Wait till she has crossed the Rubicon."
"What Rubicon?" she asked, looking up in surprise.
"The Rubicon of Knowledge."
At this remark Madame Joly became lost in reflection. She had crossed that Rubicon at the door of a little cabinet in a certain restaurant known as the Fountain of Health—not at the Mairie, where signatures were affixed to official documents, nor at St. Médard, where the cure had mumbled his Latin, not even when friends kissed her cheeks and said farewell as if she were setting out for some far country—but on the threshold of that cabinet where the door opened upon the little table set for two, and closed upon the world. Her head bent lower over her needle, but not in disquietude. The Promised Land had made good the promise. If M. Joly had not been there, the needle would have dropped from her hand.
"Monsieur," asked Dorante, on the day of the ceremony at St. Médard, "why do you not go to confession like mamma?"
"Dorante," said M. Joly, unable on the spur of the moment to explain why heresy was not synonymous with depravity, "get my hat and we will go for that scarf embroidered with paillettes which you admired in the window of that brigand who sells the treasures of the Orient made in Nuremburg."
With the passing of years Dorante made a discovery. In the Restaurant des Tournelles the strange characters on the menu which in some mysterious manner stood for the delicacies in its larder had often excited her curiosity. Why should any one devote so much time to the study of that bit of pasteboard in order to satisfy so simple a thing as hunger? When, later, Madame Joly had with much labor pieced together for her these strange characters into words, she was on the road to knowledge—the knowledge of all those discoveries made by her forebears and recorded for her benefit or undoing. Her astonishment at this unexpected freedom to satisfy her curiosity without asking questions was as if, in the Restaurant des Tournelles, permission had suddenly been given her to work her will in its larder. On "monsieur's" bookshelves were inexhaustible mines of information. Not all that she found there was wholly intelligible. But that did not matter. When she did not understand, it was enough to wonder.
He even shared some of Dorante's Excitement over the white Dress
It was not, however, in a book that she made her discovery. The book had only said—it was a lady of the Middle Ages speaking through the lips of a troubadour—"all that I possess would I give for the beauty that was mine on that day when my lover kissed me in the wood"—and straightway closing the book, Dorante looked in her mirror and made her discovery.
"Monsieur," she asked one day, "is not Dorante the name of a man?"
They were sitting under the lime-tree in the wood of Verrières, from which the forest paths radiated like the spokes of an immense wheel.
"Yes, of a certain nobleman, a count or marquis, in one of Monsieur Molière's comedies."
Dorante knew this nobleman well, having made his acquaintance on one of M. Joly's bookshelves. She also recollected at that moment that the lover who had stolen that kiss in the Middle Ages was a marquis, keeper of the Marches of Poitou.
"It does not please you?" asked M. Joly.
"I am accustomed to it, monsieur; but it seems to me that—if it belongs to a man—"
"Be tranquil. We also are accustomed to it, and those who are not so will not on that account mistake you for a marquis."
At the thought of being so mistaken Dorante smiled, her eyes fixed upon the far reaches of the forest road already filling with shadows.
"Are there marquises at the present time?" she asked, after a silence.
"They exist," replied M. Joly, thoughtfully, "but they are no longer of the same importance."
It was not long after this conversation that, sitting with Madame Joly one evening in the library, he said:
"Marie, do you know that Dorante is seventeen?"
"And that—" he hesitated.
"Yes, I have been thinking of that," said Madame Joly, tranquilly.
"You have been thinking of what?"
"Of what you were about to speak to me."
"How could you know of what I was about to speak when it only occurred to me to-day?"
"Why to-day?" asked Madame Joly, looking up quickly.
"Why does any idea occur at any time?"
"It occurs to me often."
M. Joly laid down his book and took off his glasses.
"Marie, you have something to tell me."
"I? What should I tell you that you do not know?"
"Tell me what I know, if you please."
Madame Joly's needles fell into her lap.
"You observed nothing last week at the theater?"
"I observed Monsieur Coquelin and Madame Bartet."
"And in the garden, when Dorante reads with you, you observe nothing?"
"Really, Marie, one would say I was entering upon my dotage."
"No, but we observe different things."
"Well, are you never going to tell me what it is you observe which I do not?"
"I observe that when sitting in the arbor you turn your back to the wall of our neighbor's garden."
"And that consequently you do not see the young man at the window which overlooks the wall."
"That is true, I had not observed him. And this young man, is he also interested in the House of Molière?"
"Since he always selects the same evening which we do, you can judge whether it is Monsieur Coquelin on the stage or some one in the audience who most interests him," said Madame Joly, taking up her needles again.
M. Joly watched for a time their regular movements in silence.
Her Head bent lower over her Needle
"Marie," he said, at length, "I have imagined that some day Dorante would disappear as she came—that in some moment of aberration—for what happens to others when the blood takes fire might also happen to her. I have thought, too, of those ruffians who once abused her—that they would some day return to claim her—for that also happens. But I had not thought of the young man in our neighbor's garden."
Madame Joly smiled.
"Have you made other observations also?"
This time Madame Joly laid aside her work altogether, sitting down on the footstool beside him and resting her cheek on his knee.
"Do you remember the seat in the Luxembourg garden?"
"By the Fontaine de Medicis? Yes, certainly. It was there I first saw you. You used to sit there dreaming, your hands folded in your lap."
"I was not dreaming."
"And once, as I passed on the way to the Prefecture, you looked up and smiled."
"Not the first time."
"Well, no, I admit it was not the first time."
"Nor the second."
"In those days I was not keeping account of the number of times I passed, but of the time that must elapse before I should pass again. At all events, you confess that you smiled."
Madame Joly raised her head.
"So has Dorante."
"The little wretch!" exclaimed M. Joly. "But why have you not spoken of all this before?"
"Because for the past few days this young man has disappeared. I said to myself, he has perhaps gone away altogether and will be forgotten. But from certain signs I discovered to-day I know that Dorante has not forgotten."
Hitherto M. Joly had found the duties of paternity agreeable. Now for the first time they began to oppress him. There had never been in his mind the least doubt that Dorante would marry—in some indefinite future. He would in due time select a suitable companion for her, with the result that in addition to a daughter he would have a son. It had not occurred to him that, like Diogenes, he would require a lantern to find this suitable person, or that for Dorante there should exist a Fontaine de Médicis.
The truth is that this marriage, like death, of all things the most certain, had been, like death, of all things the least thought of. The buds were swelling, the sap beginning to flow, and he was not ready! Marriage! What uncertainties, what tragedies it concealed! To transplant to an unknown soil a plant just about to flower was to coquette with chance, that element which in his professional life lie had above all others sought to eliminate. It was contrary to all reason that this most common of all human events should be the least subject to control. Who the devil was this young man who, without asking leave, uprose in his life like an island from the sea, to disturb its peace! He went back in thought to the little girl of the Restaurant des Tournelles. How willingly, how confidingly, she had forsaken the old for the new. To be sure, that was only natural. No one would hesitate to exchange blows and misery for caresses and comfort. Was she grateful? Unquestionably. But what is gratitude, or even affection, when opposed to love? . . .
"What signs, Marie?"
"When you spoke to me just now," said Madame Joly, who had been waiting patiently during these reflections, "I was about to confide them to you. To-day, while you were absent with Dorante in the town, I entered her room to put away the clothes which came from the laundry. While so doing, I saw in a drawer, hidden under a night-dress, the silver box in which she keeps the chain you gave her on her birthday, and which always stands on the writing-desk by the window. 'What is it doing here?' I said to myself. When I had finished, as I was leaving, I saw the chain hanging by her mirror. She had forgotten to put it away, I thought; I will put it back in its place myself—and I went again to the drawer and took out the box. Always she kept the key in her desk. I opened it. The key was not there. 'She has taken it with her,' I said—and replaced the box where I found it. At that moment the key fell from the folds of the night-dress. I opened the box. Inside was another key—a much larger one."
"Go on," said M. Joly.
"You remember, before our neighbor bought from us the land which adjoins ours, there was in the wall a wooden door leading to the kitchen garden which we formerly had in the plot where his house now stands. When that garden was abandoned to him the door was closed—and then forgotten. It is now quite hidden by shrubbery."
M. Joly made a movement of assent.
"And under the key was a paper, on which I recognized the handwriting of Dorante. Did I do wrong in reading it?"
"What did it say?"
"It said, 'All that I possess would I give for the beauty that was mine on that day when my lover kissed me in the wood.'"
"The devil!" muttered M. Joly.
"Within this paper was folded another—rolled into the shape of a little ball—and containing three words in a handwriting which I did not recognize."
"What were those three words? Speak, Marie."
"Can you not guess? There are only three words which, when they cannot be spoken, must be written, and which no wall can separate from the one for whom they are destined."
M. Joly was silent. It was useless to pretend that he did not comprehend. He went to the window, drawing aside the curtain.
"She is asleep. There is no light on the trees from her room."
"Yes, doubtless, she is asleep."
He turned toward her, throwing up his hand with one of those gestures of mingled incredulity and distress.
"What you tell me, Marie, I would not believe if another than you told it to me."
She looked up at him, a momentary smile passing over her face.
"Such things occur only on the stage," he said, stubbornly.
"They occur on the stage," replied Madame Joly, "for the reason that they have first occurred elsewhere. When you were inspector you used to tell me of things far more incredible."
"Have you that key, Marie?"
"No, I replaced it. Where are you going?"
"I am going into the garden to get the air."
The night was warm and dark. Stirred by the light summer wind the leaves made a whispering sound. His hands crossed behind his back, M. Joly walked slowly down the gravel path. At the arbor where he was in the habit of reading with Dorante he stopped, "The little wretch!" he kept repeating—"the little wretch!" It was only by repeating these words that he kept alive the flame of his resentment. When arresting the counterfeiter in the Restaurant des Tourneys, he had said, "You will pay with twenty years for the few thousand francs you have enjoyed. A laborer at three francs a day makes a better bargain." Why should Dorante seek by stealth what was to be had for the asking? Was there, then, a pleasure in what could be possessed only under the cover of darkness? and did darkness itself give zest as well as cover to crime? Bah! what madness! to speak of Dorante and crime in the same breath. He would light a cigar. To smoke was tranquilizing.
A distant bell was striking ten. At the last stroke, feeling for his match-box, he heard a sound—yes, the sound of footsteps. He was about to say: 'Marie, is it you?' when he realized that the footsteps were approaching, not the arbor, by the gravel path, but the gate in the shrubbery, over the soft turf. He returned the cigar to his pocket and listened. Another sound, as of a key grating in a rusty lock. An older hand would have oiled that lock, he thought, mechanically. Low voices warned him that to remain was to be discovered. He stepped out softly on the grass, and sat down on the wooden seat encircling the arbor.
"Dorante, dear Dorante—how good you are—"
"I do not know whether I am good or not—"
"Oh yes, you are good—since you are here—"
"But I love you, Dorante—are you not happy as I am?"
"Yes, I am happy—but I am afraid."
"Of what? Have you not confidence in me? Tell me—once—that you love me?"
"Oh yes, I think so—"
"But say so, Dorante—will you not say so—I wish to hear it!"
"I do—I do."
Silence. M. Jo!y rose to his feet.
"Do you remember the day I first saw you? You were sitting here—your hands folded in your lap—like one dreaming—"
"And in the Garden, you observe Nothing?"
"I was not dreaming."
"And when you raised your eyes to mine you smiled—"
"Not the first time."
M. Joly sighed. He saw Marie sitting by the Fontaine de Médecis.
"The second, then—"
"No, nor the second."
"Does that matter? You smiled, and at that smile I loved you; and you—did you not love me then also—a little?"
"Perhaps—a little—I do not know."
"But now—you know now?"
"It is nothing."
"Hush! I heard something."
"Dorante, you are trembling—yes, you shall go—but once more, tell me—"
"Yes—yes—yes—Oh, I am afraid—let me go—I cannot bear it."
"There—see—I obey you—you will come again?—"
"No—yes—I do not know—"
A light footstep hurried over the grass and all was still.
M. Joly had made up his mind. To the entrance of the arbor was but a step, and, taking this step, he drew from his pocket his match-box and began lighting his cigar. By the light of the taper he saw a young man, pale and trembling.
"Sit down," he said, quietly. "We will have a little conversation together. It is true that it is dark here, but I observe darkness does not prevent people from coming to an understanding."
"But I love you, Dorante-are you not happy as I am?"
"I owe you no apology for listening," pursued M. Joly, calmly, "for if I had not listened you would not have heard much that was agreeable to you. Moreover, in one's own garden one is not obliged to retire to some distant corner at the mere sound of voices. Have you, perchance, the key to my gate?"
"Here it is, monsieur."
"Good. Hereafter you will come in by the other door, which has a bell provided for visitors."
"Monsieur, I have done wrong—I confess it."
"At the Prefecture we value confessions only when we lack evidence. Or do you take me for a priest who gives absolution?"
"Monsieur, you have the right to upbraid me—I have done wrong—but, believe me, I love her—"
"Oh, as to that sentiment, I share it. Between us there is, however, a difference. In expressing this sentiment, I choose the daytime, whereas you prefer the night."
"Monsieur, I entreat you. Mademoiselle Dorante is innocent—I swear it—it is I who am to blame."
"Have I blamed her?" said M. Joly, blandly. "If there is blame it will fall where it belongs. But what is done is done. There remains only Madame Joly who is ignorant of your sentiments. Come, then, I wish to present you to my wife."
"Oh, Madame Joly is a most amiable person. Fear nothing," and M. Joly led the way up the gravel path.
"Marie," he said, opening the library door, "here is a gentleman who wishes to pay you his respects. For the moment I leave you. I have a visit to make."
As he passed through the gate into the street M. Joly saw a light shining in Dorante's room. "Ah," he muttered, "that young man will arouse the whole neighborhood." Closing the gate behind him, he hurried down the deserted street and rang his neighbor's bell. A servant, astonished to see a man without a hat at such an hour, opened the door grudgingly.
"Is your master in?"
"He has not gone out, Monsieur Joly," replied the servant, recognizing him.
"Well, then, announce me."
She led the way along a narrow hall, and threw open a door at its farther extremity. Following close upon her heels, M. Joly announced himself.
A little old man in a dressing-gown and velvet skull-cap was seated at a table loaded with books and papers and lighted by a single candle.
"Ah, it is you, neighbor, at this hour!"
"I disturb you?" said M. Joly.
"By no means, by no means; I am delighted. Sophie, another candle."
"One is sufficient," said M. Joly, bestowing on Sophie a glance which said, leave us, and seating himself in the chair offered him. "You will pardon my visit at this hour, which as you have just observed, is a late one. For that, however, it is not I who am responsible—but your son."
"My son! but my son is in Paris."
"At this moment," said M. Joly, dryly, "your son is asking Madame Joly for the hand of Dorante."
"What are you saying, Monsieur Joly! It is impossible."
"When the impossible becomes true, in time one gets accustomed to it, and I assure you I am not inventing anything, Monsieur Laurens."
"He has done this without asking my permission—without consulting me."
"Oh, as to that, you are under no disadvantage. Dorante has not consulted me, either."
"But, monsieur, I repeat, this is impossible. I have other plans for Edmond—I—"
"In that respect, then, the advantage is mine. For as regards Dorante, I have made none. As to yours, they are impossible."
"I understand nothing," said M. Joly's neighbor, staring at his guest, bewildered.
"Monsieur," replied M. Joly, smiling, "my life has been spent in interfering with the plans of others. At the Prefecture it is our sole business. It is with regret that in this instance I interfere with yours. Whether we two shall interfere with those of two children whom a wall four meters in height has not been able to separate is the question I have come to propose to you. When, taking the air in my garden, I find these two children exchanging—what shall I say?—those promises which to persons of our age would seem extravagant if we did not remember that we also were at one time inclined to indulge in them—"
"Monsieur Joly, you amaze me."
"The question arises whether your son, who, as I said, is at this moment asking my wife for the hand of Dorante, is worthy of that hand, and whether the hand of which he has already possessed himself in my garden can be withdrawn without doing violence to the heart which has surrendered it. I have not the honor of knowing your son intimately. Doubtless he will explain to you what he is now explaining to Madame Joly—ah!" turning to the door at whose threshold appeared a face radiant with that hope of youth which fears no obstacles—"here he is. I leave you together."
"Papa! Papa!" cried Dorante, springing to his neck before he had time to close the door of his library.
"It is not worth while at this late day to begin calling me papa," said M. Joly, half-suffocated.
When, some months later, he stood for the second time before the altar of St. Medard, and Dorante, on tiptoe, lifted her face for the kiss of blessing, he whispered:
"Well, he is not a marquis:—but, as I once told you, marquises are no longer of the same importance."