Mauprat (Heinemann)/Chapter 18
While Marcasse was devoting himself to serious investigations, I was spending days of delight and agony in Edmée's presence. Her behaviour, so constant and devoted, and yet in many respects so reserved, threw me into continual alternations of joy and grief. One day while I was taking a walk the chevalier had a long conversation with her. I happened to return when their discussion had reached its most animated stage. As soon as I appeared, my uncle said to me:
"Here, Bernard; come and tell Edmée that you love her; that you will make her happy; that you have got rid of your old faults. Do something to get yourself accepted; for things cannot go on as they are. Our position with our neighbours is unbearable; and before I go down to the grave I should like to see my daughter's honour cleared from stain, and to feel sure that some stupid caprice of hers will not cast her into a convent, when she ought to be filling that position in society to which she is entitled, and which I have worked all my life to win for her. Come, Bernard, at her feet, lad! Have the wit to say something that will persuade her! Otherwise I shall think—God forgive me!—that it is you that do not love her and do not honestly wish to marry her."
"I! Great heavens!" I exclaimed. "Not wish to marry her—when for seven years I have had no other thought; when that is the one wish of my heart, and the only happiness my mind can conceive!"
Then I poured forth all the thoughts that the sincerest passion could suggest. She listened to me in silence, and without withdrawing her hands, which I covered with kisses. But there was a serious expression in her eyes, and the tone of her voice made me tremble when, after reflecting a few moments, she said:
"Father, you should not doubt my word; I have promised to marry Bernard; I promised him, and I promised you; it is certain, therefore, that I shall marry him."
Then she added, after a fresh pause, and in a still severe tone:
"But if, father, you believe that you are on the brink of the grave, what sort of heart do you suppose I can have, that you bid me think only of myself, and put on my wedding-dress in the hour of mourning for you? If, on the contrary, you are, as I believe, still full of vigour, in spite of your sufferings, and destined to enjoy the love of your family for many a long year yet, why do you urge me so imperiously to cut short the time I have requested? Is not the question important enough to demand my most serious reflection? A contract which is to bind me for the rest of my life, and on which depends, I do not say my happiness, for that I would gladly sacrifice to your least wish, but the peace of my conscience and the dignity of my conduct (since no woman can be sufficiently sure of herself to answer for a future which has been fettered against her will), does not such a contract bid me weigh all its risks and all its advantages for several years at least?"
"Good God!" said the chevalier. "Have you not been weighing all this for the last seven years? You ought to have arrived at some conclusion about your cousin by now. If you are willing to marry him, marry him; but if not, for God's sake say so, and let another man come forward."
"Father," replied Edmée, somewhat coldly, "I shall marry none but him."
"'None but him' is all very well," said the chevalier, tapping the logs with the tongs; "but that does not necessarily mean that you will marry him."
"Yes, I will marry him, father," answered Edmée. "I could have wished to be free a few months more; but since you are displeased at all these delays, I am ready to obey your orders, as you know."
"Parbleu! that is a pretty way of consenting," exclaimed my uncle, "and no doubt most gratifying to your cousin! By Jove! Bernard, I have lived many years in the world, but I must own that I can't understand these women yet, and it is very probable that I shall die without ever having understood them."
"Uncle," I said, "I can quite understand my cousin's aversion for me; it is only what I deserve. I have done all I could to atone for my errors. But, is it altogether in her power to forget a past which has doubtless caused her too much pain? However, if she does not forgive me, I will imitate her severity: I will not forgive myself. Abandoning all hope in this world, I will tear myself away from her and you, and chasten myself with a punishment worse than death."
"That's it! Go on! There's an end of everything!" said the chevalier, throwing the tongs into the fire. "That is just what you have been aiming at, I suppose, Edmée?"
I had moved a few steps towards the door; I was suffering intensely. Edmée ran after me, took me by the arm, and brought me back towards her father.
"It is cruel and most ungrateful of you to say that," she said. "Does it show a modest spirit and generous heart, to forget a friendship, a devotion, I may even venture to say, a fidelity of seven years, because I ask to prove you for a few months more? And even if my affection for you should never be as deep as yours for me, is what I have hitherto shown you of so little account that you despise it and reject it, because you are vexed at not inspiring me with precisely as much as you think you are entitled to? You know at this rate a woman would have no right to feel affection. However, tell me, is it your wish to punish me for having been a mother to you by leaving me altogether, or to make some return only on condition that I become your slave?"
"No, Edmée, no," I replied, with my heart breaking and my eyes full of tears, as I raised her hand to my lips; "I feel that you have done far more for me than I deserved; I feel that it would be idle to think of tearing myself from your presence; but can you account it a crime in me to suffer by your side? In any case it is so involuntary, so inevitable a crime, that it must needs escape all your reproaches and all my own remorse. But let us talk of this no more. It is all I can do. Grant me your friendship still; I shall hope to show myself always worthy of you in the future."
"Come, kiss each other," said the chevalier, much affected, "and never separate. Bernard, however capricious Edmée may seem, never abandon her, if you would deserve the blessing of your foster-father. Though you should never be her husband, always be a brother to her. Remember, my lad, that she will soon be alone in the world, and that I shall die in sorrow if I do not carry with me to the grave a conviction that a support and a defender still remains to her. Remember, too, that it is on your account, on account of a vow, which her inclination, perhaps, would reject, but which her conscience respects, that she is thus forsaken and slandered . . ."
The chevalier burst into tears, and in a moment all the sorrows of the unfortunate family were revealed to me.
"Enough, enough!" I cried, falling at their feet. "All this is too cruel. I should be the meanest wretch on earth if I had need to be reminded of my misdeeds and my duties. Let me weep at your knees; let me atone for the wrong I have done you by eternal grief, by eternal renunciation. Why not have driven me away when I did the wrong? Why not, uncle, have blown out my brains with your pistol, as if I had been a wild beast? What have I done to be spared, I who repaid your kindness with the ruin of your honour? No, no; I can see that Edmée ought not to marry me; that would be accepting the shame of the insult I have drawn upon her. All I ask is to be allowed to remain here; I will never see her face, if she makes this a condition; but I will lie at her door like a faithful dog and tear to pieces the first man who dares to present himself otherwise than on his knees; and if some day an honest man, more fortunate than myself, shows himself worthy of her love, far from opposing him, I will intrust to him the dear and sacred task of protecting and vindicating her. I will be but a friend, a brother to her, and when I see that they are happy together, I will go far away from them and die in peace."
My sobs choked me; the chevalier pressed his daughter and myself to his heart, and we mingled our tears, swearing to him that we would never leave each other, either during his life or after his death.
"Still, do not give up all hope of marrying her," whispered the chevalier to me a few moments later, when we were somewhat calmer. "She has strange whims; but nothing will persuade me to believe that she does not love you. She does not want to explain matters yet. Woman's will is God's will."
"And Edmée's will is my will," I replied.
A few days after this scene, which brought the calmness of death into my soul in place of the tumult of life, I was strolling in the park with the abbé.
"I must tell you," he said, "of an adventure which befell me yesterday. There is a touch of romance in it. I had been for a walk in the woods of Briantes, and had made my way down to the spring of Fougères. It was as warm, you remember, as in the middle of summer; and our beautiful plants, in their autumn red, seemed more beautiful than ever as they stretched their delicate tracery over the stream. The trees have very little foliage left; but the carpet of dried leaves one walks upon gives forth a sound which to me is full of charm. The satiny trunks of the birches and young oaks are covered with moss and creepers of all shades of brown, and tender green, and red and fawn, which spread out into delicate stars and rosettes, and maps of all countries, wherein the imagination can behold new worlds in miniature. I kept gazing lovingly on these marvels of grace and delicacy, these arabesques in which infinite variety is combined with unfailing regularity, and as I remembered with pleasure that you are not, like the vulgar, blind to these adorable coquetries of nature, I gathered a few with the greatest care, even bringing away the bark of the tree on which they had taken root, in order not to destroy the perfection of their designs. I made a little collection, which I left at Patience's as I passed; we will go and see them, if you like. But, on our way, I must tell you what happened to me as I approached the spring. I was walking upon the wet stones with my head down, guided by the slight noise of the clear little jet of water which bursts from the heart of the mossy rock. I was about to sit down on the stone which forms a natural seat at the side of it, when I saw that the place was already occupied by a good friar whose pale, haggard face was half-hidden by his cowl of coarse cloth. He seemed much frightened at my arrival; I did my best to reassure him by declaring that my intention was not to disturb him, but merely to put my lips to the little bark channel which the woodcutters have fixed to the rock to enable one to drink more easily.
"'Oh, holy priest,' he said to me in the humblest tone, 'why are you not the prophet whose rod could smite the founts of grace? and why cannot my soul, like this rock, give forth a stream of tears?'
"Struck by the manner in which this monk expressed himself, by his sad air, by his thoughtful attitude in this poetic spot, which has often made me dream of the meeting of the Saviour and the woman of Samaria, I allowed myself to be drawn into a more intimate conversation. I learnt from the monk that he was a Trappist, and that he was making a penitential tour.
"'Ask neither my name nor whence I come,' he said. 'I belong to an illustrious family who would blush to know that I am still alive. Besides, on entering the Trappist order, we abjure all pride in the past; we make ourselves like to new-born children; we become dead to the world that we may live again in Jesus Christ. But of this be sure: you behold in me one of the most striking examples of the miraculous power of grace; and if I could make known to you the tale of my religious life, of my terrors, my remorse, and my expiations, you would certainly be touched by it. But of what avail the indulgence and compassion of man, if the pity of God will not deign to absolve me?'
"You know," continued the abbé, "that I do not like monks, that I distrust their humility and abhor their lives of inaction. But this man spoke in so sad and kindly a manner; he was so filled with a sense of his duty; he seemed so ill, so emaciated by asceticism, so truly penitent, that he won my heart. In his looks and in his talk were bright flashes which betrayed a powerful intellect, indefatigable energy, and indomitable perseverance. We spent two whole hours together, and I was so moved by what he said that on leaving him I expressed a wish to see him again before he left this neighbourhood. He had found a lodging for the night at the Goulets farm, and I tried in vain to persuade him to accompany me to the château. He told me that he had a companion he could not leave.
"'But, since you are so sympathetic,' he said, 'I shall esteem it a pleasure to meet you here to-morrow towards sunset; perhaps I may even venture to ask a favour of you; you can be of service to me in an important matter which I have to arrange in this neighbourhood; more than this I cannot tell you at the present moment.'
"I assured him that he could reckon on me, and that I should only be too happy to oblige a man such as himself."
"And the result is, I suppose, that you are waiting impatiently for the hour of your appointment?" I said to the abbé.
"I am," he replied; "and my new acquaintance has so many attractions for me that, if I were not afraid of abusing the confidence he has placed in me, I should take Edmée to the spring of Fougères."
"I fancy," I replied, "that Edmée has something better to do than to listen to the declamations of your monk, who perhaps, after all, is only a knave, like so many others to whom you have given money blindly. You will forgive me, I know, abbé; but you are not a good physiognomist, and you are rather apt to form a good or bad opinion of people for no reason except that your own romantic nature happens to feel kindly or timidly disposed towards them."
The abbé smiled and pretended that I said this because I bore him a grudge; he again asserted his belief in the Trappist's piety, and then went back to botany. We passed some time at Patience's, examining the collection of plants; and as my one desire was to escape from my own thoughts, I left the hut with the abbé and accompanied him as far as the wood where he was to meet the monk. In proportion as we drew near to the place the abbé seemed to lose more and more of his eagerness of the previous evening, and even expressed a fear that he had gone too far. This hesitation, following so quickly upon enthusiasm, was very characteristic of the abbé's mobile, loving, timid nature, with its strange union of the most contrary impulses, and I again began to rally him with all the freedom of friendship.
"Come, then," he said, "I should like to be satisfied about this; you must see him. You can study his face for a few minutes, and then leave us together, since I have promised to listen to his secrets."
As I had nothing better to do I followed the abbé; but as soon as we reached a spot overlooking the shady rocks whence the water issues, I stopped and examined the monk through the branches of a clump of ash-trees. Seated immediately beneath us by the side of the spring, he had his eyes turned inquiringly on the angle of the path by which he expected the abbé to arrive; but he did not think of looking at the place where we were, and we could examine him at our ease without being seen by him.
No sooner had I caught sight of him than, with a bitter laugh, I took the abbé by the arm, drew him back a short distance, and, not without considerable agitation, said to him:
"My dear abbé, in bygone years did you never catch sight of the face of my uncle, John de Mauprat?"
"Never, as far as I know," replied the abbé, quite amazed. "But what are you driving at?"
"Only this, my friend; you have made a pretty find here; this good and venerable Trappist, in whom you see so much grace, and candour, and contrition, and intelligence, is none other than John de Mauprat, the Hamstringer."
"You must be mad!" cried the abbé, starting back. "John de Mauprat died a long time ago."
"John Mauprat is not dead, nor perhaps Antony Mauprat either; and my surprise is less than yours only because I have already met one of these two ghosts. That he has become a monk, and is repenting for his sins, is very possible; but alas! it is by no means impossible that he has disguised himself in order to carry out some evil design, and I advise you to be on your guard."
The abbé was so frightened that he no longer wanted to keep his appointment. I suggested that it would be well to learn what the old sinner was aiming at. But, as I knew the abbé's weak character, and feared that my Uncle John would manage to win his heart by his lying confessions and wheedle him into some false step, I made up my mind to hide in a thicket whence I could see and hear everything.
But things did not happen as I had expected. The Trappist, instead of playing the politician, immediately made known his real name to the abbé. He declared that he was full of contrition, and that, as his conscience would not allow him to make the monk's habit a refuge from punishment (he had really been a Trappist for several years), he was about to put himself into the hands of justice, that he might atone in a striking way for the crimes with which he was polluted. This man, endowed as he was with conspicuous abilities, had acquired a mystic eloquence in the cloister. He spoke with so much grace and persuasiveness that I was fascinated no less than the abbé. It was in vain that the latter attempted to combat a resolution which appeared to him insane; John Mauprat showed the most unflinching devotion to his religious ideas. He declared that, having committed the crimes of the old barbarous paganism, he could not ransom his soul save by a public expiation worthy of the early Christians.
"It is possible," he said, "to be a coward with God as well as with man, and in the silence of my vigils I hear a terrible voice answering to my tears: 'Miserable craven, it is the fear of man that has thrown you upon the bosom of God, and if you had not feared temporal death, you would never have thought of life eternal!'
"Then I realize that what I most dread is not God's wrath, but the rope and the hangman that await me among my fellows. Well, it is time to end this sense of secret shame; not until the day when men crush me beneath their abuse and punishment shall I feel absolved and restored in the sight of Heaven; then only shall I account myself worthy to say to Jesus my Saviour: 'Give ear to me, innocent victim, Thou who heardest the penitent thief; give ear to a sullied but contrite victim, who has shared in the glory of Thy martyrdom and been ransomed by Thy blood!'"
"If you persist in your enthusiastic design," said the abbé, after unsuccessfully bringing forward all possible objections, "you must at least let me know in what way you thought I could be of service to you."
"I cannot act in this matter," replied the Trappist, "without the consent of a young man who will soon be the last of the Mauprats; for the chevalier has not many days to wait before he will receive the heavenly reward due to his virtues; and as for myself, I cannot avoid the punishment I am about to seek, except by falling back into the endless night of the cloister. I speak of Bernard Mauprat; I will not call him my nephew, for if he heard me he would blush to think that he bore this shameful title. I heard of his return from America, and this news decided me to undertake the journey at the painful end of which you now behold me."
It seemed to me that while he was saying this he kept casting side-glances towards the clump of trees where I was, as if he had guessed my presence there. Perhaps the movement of some branches had betrayed me.
"May I ask," said the abbé, "what you now have in common with this young man? Are you not afraid that, embittered by the harsh treatment formerly lavished on him at Roche-Mauprat, he may refuse to see you?"
"I am certain that he will refuse; for I know the hatred that he still has for me," said the Trappist, once more looking towards the spot where I was. "But I hope that you will persuade him to grant me an interview; for you are a good and generous man, Monsieur l'Abbé. You promised to oblige me; and, besides, you are young Mauprat's friend, and you will be able to make him understand that his interests are at stake and the honour of his name."
"How so?" answered the abbé. "No doubt he will be far from pleased to see you appear before the courts to answer for crimes which have since been effaced in the gloom of the cloister. He will certainly wish you to forego this public expiation. How can you hope that he will consent?"
"I have hope, because God is good and great; because His grace is mighty; because it will touch the heart of him who shall deign to hear the prayer of a soul which is truly penitent and deeply convinced; because my eternal salvation is in the hands of this young man, and he cannot wish to avenge himself on me beyond the grave. Moreover, I must die at peace with those I have injured; I must fall at the feet of Bernard Mauprat and obtain his forgiveness of my sins. My tears will move him, or, if his unrelenting soul despises them, I shall at least have fulfilled an imperious duty."
Seeing that he was speaking with a firm conviction that he was being heard by me, I was filled with disgust; I thought I could detect the deceit and cowardice that lay beneath this vile hypocrisy. I moved away and waited for the abbé some distance off. He soon rejoined me; the interview had ended by a mutual promise to meet again soon. The abbé had undertaken to convey the Trappist's words to me, while the latter had threatened in the most honeyed tone in the world to come and see me if I refused his request. The abbé and I agreed to consult together, without informing the chevalier or Edmée, that we might not disquiet them unnecessarily. The Trappist had gone to stay at La Châtre, at the Carmelite convent; this had thoroughly aroused the abbé's suspicions, in spite of his first enthusiasm at the penitence of the sinner. The Carmelites had persecuted him in his youth, and in the end the prior had driven him to secularize himself. The prior was still alive, old but implacable; infirm, and withdrawn from the world, but strong in his hatred, and his passion for intrigue. The abbé could not hear his name without shuddering, and he begged me to act prudently in this affair.
"Although John Mauprat," he said, "is under the bane of the law, and you are at the summit of honour and prosperity, do not despise the weakness of your enemy. Who knows what cunning and hatred may do? They can usurp the place of the just and cast him out on the dung-heap; they can fasten their crimes on others and sully the robe of innocence with their vileness. Maybe you have not yet finished with the Mauprats."
The poor abbé did not know that there was so much truth in his words.