Mauprat (Heinemann)/Chapter 21
These days, passed in Edmée's presence, were for me days of delight, yet of suffering. To see her at all hours, without fear of being indiscreet, since she herself would summon me to her side, to read to her, talk with her on all subjects, share the loving attentions she bestowed on her father, enter into half her life exactly as if we had been brother and sister—this was great happiness, no doubt, but it was a dangerous happiness, and again the volcano kindled in my breast. A few confused words, a few troubled glances betrayed me. Edmée was by no means blind, but she was impenetrable; her dark and searching eyes, fixed on me as on her father, with the solicitude of an absorbing affection, would at times suddenly grow cold, just as the violence of my passion was ready to break out. Her countenance would then express nothing but patient curiosity and an unswerving resolve to read to the bottom of my soul without letting me see even the surface of her own.
My sufferings, though acute, were dear to me at first; it pleased me to think that I was secretly offering them to Edmée as an expiation of my past faults. I hoped that she would perceive this and be satisfied with me. She saw it, and said nothing. My agony grew more intense; but still some days passed before I lost all power to hide it. I say days, because whoever has loved a woman, and has been much alone with her, yet always kept in check by her severity, must have found days like centuries. How full life seemed and yet how consuming! What languor and unrest! What tenderness and rage! It was as though the hours were years; and at this very day, if I did not bring in dates to rectify the error of my memory, I could easily persuade myself that these two months filled half my life.
Perhaps, too, I should like to persuade myself of this, in order to find some excuse for the foolish and culpable conduct into which I fell in spite of all the good resolutions which I had but lately formed. The relapse was so sudden and complete that I should still blush at the thought, if I had not cruelly atoned for it, as you will soon see.
After a night of agony, I wrote her an insane letter which came nigh to producing terrible consequences for me; it was somewhat as follows:
"You do not love me, Edmée; you will never love me. I know this; I ask for nothing, I hope for nothing. I would only remain near you and consecrate my life to your service and defence. To be useful to you I will do all that my strength will allow; but I shall suffer, and, however I try to hide it, you will see it; and perhaps you will attribute to wrong causes the sadness I may not be able to suppress with uniform heroism. You pained me deeply yesterday, when you advised me to go out a little 'to distract my thoughts.' To distract my thoughts from you, Edmée! What bitter mockery! Do not be cruel, sister; for then you become my haughty betrothed of the evil days again . . . and, in spite of myself, I again become the brigand whom you used to hate. . . . Ah, if you knew how unhappy I am! In me there are two men who are incessantly waging a war to the death. It is to be hoped that the brigand will fall; but he defends himself step by step, and he cries aloud because he feels himself covered with wounds and mortally stricken. If you knew, Edmée, if you only knew what struggles, what conflicts, rend my bosom; what tears of blood my heart distils; and what passions often rage in that part of my nature which the rebel angels rule! There are nights when I suffer so much that in the delirium of my dreams I seem to be plunging a dagger into your heart, and thus, by some sombre magic, to be forcing you to love me as I love you. When I awake, in a cold sweat, bewildered, beside myself, I feel tempted to go and kill you, so as to destroy the cause of my anguish. If I refrain from this, it is because I fear that I should love you dead with as much passion and tenacity as if you were alive. I am afraid of being restrained, governed, swayed by your image as I am by your person. Then, again, a man cannot destroy the being he loves and fears; for when she has ceased to exist on earth she still exists in himself. It is the lover's soul which serves as a coffin for his mistress and which forever preserves her burning remains, that it may feed on them without ever consuming them. But, great Heaven! what is this tumult in my thoughts? You see, Edmée, to what an extent my mind is sick; take pity on me, then. Bear with me, let me be sad, never doubt my devotion. I am often mad, but I worship you always. A word, a look from you, will always recall me to a sense of my duty, and this duty will be sweet when you deign to remind me of it. As I write to you, Edmée, the sky is full of clouds that are darker and heavier than lead; the thunder is rumbling, and doleful ghosts of purgatory seem to be floating in the glare of the lightning. The weight of the storm lies on my soul; my bewildered mind quivers like the flashes which leap from the firmament. It seems as if my whole being were about to burst like the tempest. Ah, could I but lift up to you a voice like unto its voice! Had I the power to lay bare the agonies and passions which rend me within! Often, when a storm has been sweeping over the great oaks above, you have told me that you enjoy gazing upon the fury of the one and the resistance of the other. This, you say, is a battle of mighty forces; and in the din in the air you fancy you can detect the curses of the north wind and the mournful cries of the venerable branches. Which suffers the more, Edmée, the tree which resists, or the wind which exhausts itself in the attack? Is it not always the wind that yields and falls? And then the sky, grieved at the defeat of her noble son, sheds a flood of tears upon the earth. You love these wild images, Edmée; and whenever you behold strength vanquished by resistance you smile cruelly, and there is a look in your inscrutable eyes that seems to insult my misery. Well, you have cast me to the ground, and, though shattered, I still suffer; yes, learn this, since you wish to know it, since you are merciless enough to question me and to feign compassion. I suffer, and I no longer try to remove the foot which the proud conqueror has placed on my broken heart."
The rest of this letter, which was very long, very rambling and absurd from beginning to end, was in the same strain. It was not the first time that I had written to Edmée, though I lived under the same roof, and never left her except during the hours of rest. My passion possessed me to such a degree that I was irresistibly drawn to encroach upon my sleep in order to write to her. I could never feel that I had talked enough about her, that I had sufficiently renewed my promises of submission—a submission in which I was constantly failing. The present letter, however, was more daring and more passionate than any of the others. Perhaps, in some mysterious way, it was written under the influence of the storm which was rending the heavens while I, bent over my table, with moist brow and dry, burning hand, drew this frenzied picture of my sufferings. A great calm, akin to despair, seemed to come over me as I threw myself upon my bed after going down to the drawing-room and slipping my letter into Edmée's work-basket. Day was breaking, and the horizon showed heavy with the dark wings of the storm, which was flying to other regions. The trees, laden with rain, were tossing under the breeze, which was still blowing freshly. Profoundly sad, but blindly resigned to my suffering, I fell asleep with a sense of relief, as if I had made a sacrifice of my life and hopes. Apparently Edmée did not find my letter, for she gave me no answer. She generally replied verbally, and these letters of mine were a means of drawing from her those professions of sisterly friendship with which I had perforce to be satisfied, and which, at least, poured soothing balm into my wound. I ought to have known that this time my letter must either lead to a decisive explanation, or be passed over in silence. I suspected the abbé of having taken it and thrown it into the fire; I accused Edmée of scorn and cruelty; nevertheless, I held my tongue.
The next day the weather was quite settled again. My uncle went for a drive, and during the course of it told us that he should not like to die without having had one last great fox-hunt. He was passionately devoted to this sport, and his health had so far improved that he again began to show a slight inclination for pleasure and exercise. Seated in a very light, narrow berline, drawn by strong mules, so that he might move rapidly over the sandy paths in our woods, he had already followed one or two little hunts which we had arranged for his amusement. Since the Trappist's visit, the chevalier had entered, as it were, upon a fresh term of life. Endowed with strength and pertinacity, like all his race, it seemed as if he had been decaying for want of excitement, for the slightest demand on his energy immediately set his stagnant blood in motion. As he was very much pleased with this idea of a hunt, Edmée undertook to organize, with my help, a general battue and to join in the sport herself. One of the greatest delights of the good old man was to see her on horseback, as she boldly pranced around his carriage and offered him all the flowering sprigs which she plucked from the bushes she passed. It was arranged that I should ride with her, and that the abbé should accompany the chevalier in the carriage. All the gamekeepers, foresters, huntsmen, and even poachers of Varenne were invited to this family function. A splendid meal was prepared with many goose-pies and much local wine. Marcasse, whom I had made my manager at Roche-Mauprat, and who had a considerable knowledge of the art of fox-hunting, spent two whole days in stopping up the earths. A few young farmers in the neighbourhood, interested in the battue and able to give useful advice, graciously offered to join the party; and, last of all, Patience, in spite of his aversion for the destruction of innocent animals, consented to follow the hunt as a spectator. On the appointed day, which opened warm and cloudless on our happy plans and my own implacable destiny, some fifty individuals met with horns, horses, and hounds. At the end we were to play havoc with the rabbits, of which there were too many on the estate. It would be easy to destroy them wholesale by falling back upon that part of the forest which had not been beaten during the hunt. Each man therefore armed himself with a carbine, and my uncle also took one, to shoot from his carriage, which he could still do with much skill.
Edmée was mounted on a very spirited Limousin mare, which she amused herself by exciting and quieting with a touching coquetry to please her old father. For the first two hours she hardly left the carriage at all, and the chevalier, now full of new life, gazed on her with smiles and tears of love. Just as in the daily rotation of our globe, ere passing into night, we take leave of the radiant orb which is going to reign over another hemisphere, even so did the old man find some consolation for his death in the thought that the youth and vigour and beauty of his daughter were surviving him for another generation.
When the hunt was in full swing, Edmée, who certainly inherited some of the martial spirit of the family, and the calmness of whose soul could not always restrain the impetuosity of her blood, yielded to her father's repeated signs—for his great desire now was to see her gallop—and went after the field, which was already a little distance ahead.
"Follow her! follow her!" cried the chevalier, who had no sooner seen her galloping off than his fond paternal vanity had given place to uneasiness.
I did not need to be told twice; and digging my spurs into my horse's flanks, I rejoined Edmée in a cross-path which she had taken to come up with the hunt. I shuddered as I saw her bending like a reed under the branches, while her horse, which she was still urging on, carried her between the trees with the rapidity of lightning.
"For God's sake, Edmée," I cried, "do not ride so fast! You will be killed!"
"Let me have a gallop," she said gaily. "My father has allowed me. You must not interfere; I shall rap you on the knuckles if you try to stop my horse."
"At least let me follow you, then," I said, keeping close to her. "Your father wished it; and I shall at least be there to kill myself if anything happens to you."
Why I was filled with these gloomy forebodings I do not know, for I had often seen Edmée galloping through the woods. I was in a peculiar state; the heat of noon seemed mounting to my brain, and my nerves were strangely excited. I had eaten no breakfast, as I had felt somewhat out of sorts in the morning, and, to sustain myself, had swallowed several cups of coffee mixed with rum. At first I experienced a horrible sense of fear; then, after a few minutes, the fear gave way to an inexpressible feeling of love and delight. The excitement of the gallop became so intense that I imagined my only object was to pursue Edmée. To see her flying before me, as light as her own black mare, whose feet were speeding noiselessly over the moss, one might have taken her for a fairy who had suddenly appeared in this lonely spot to disturb the mind of man and lure him away to her treacherous haunts. I forgot the hunt and everything else. I saw nothing but Edmée; then a mist fell upon my eyes, and I could see her no more. Still, I galloped on; I was in a state of silent frenzy, when she suddenly stopped.
"What are we doing?" she said. "I cannot hear the hunt any longer, and here is the river in front. We have come too far to the left."
"No, no, Edmée," I answered, without knowing in the least what I was saying. "Another gallop and we shall be there."
"How red you are!" she said. "But how shall we cross the river?"
"Since there is a road, there must be a ford," I replied. "Come on! come on!"
I was filled with an insane desire to go on galloping. I believe my idea was to plunge deeper and deeper into the forest with her; but this idea was wrapped in a haze, and when I tried to pierce it, I was conscious of nothing but a wild throbbing of my breast and temples.
Edmée made a gesture of impatience.
"These woods are accursed!" she said. "I am always losing my way in them."
No doubt she was thinking of the fatal day when she had been carried far from another hunt and brought to Roche-Mauprat. I thought of it too, and the ideas that came into my mind produced a sort of dizziness. I followed her mechanically towards the river. Suddenly I realized that she was on the other bank. I was filled with rage on seeing that her horse was cleverer and braver than my own. Before I could get the animal to take the ford, which was rather a nasty one, Edmée was a long way ahead of me again. I dug my spurs into its sides till the blood streamed from them. At last, after being nearly thrown several times, I reached the other bank, and, blind with rage, started in pursuit of Edmée. I overtook her, and seizing the mare's bridle, I exclaimed: "Stop, Edmée, I say! You shall not go any farther."
At the same time I shook the reins so violently that her horse reared. She lost her balance, and, to avoid falling, jumped lightly to the ground between our two animals, at the risk of being hurt. I was on the ground almost as soon as herself. I at once pushed the horses away. Edmée's, which was very quiet, stopped and began to browse. Mine bolted out of sight. All this was the affair of an instant.
I had caught Edmée in my arms; she freed herself and said, in a sharp tone:
"You are very brutal, Bernard; and I hate these ways of yours. What is the matter with you?"
Perplexed and confused, I told her that I thought her mare was bolting, and that I was afraid some accident might happen to her if she allowed herself to be carried away by the excitement of the ride.
"And to save me," she replied, "you make me fall, at the risk of killing me! Really, that was most considerate of you."
"Let me help you to mount again," I said.
And without waiting for her permission, I took her in my arms and lifted her off the ground.
"You know very well that I do not mount in this way!" she exclaimed, now quite irritated. "Leave me alone; I don't want your help."
But I was no longer in a state to obey her. I was losing my head; my arms were tightening around her waist, and it was in vain that I endeavoured to take them away. My lips touched her bosom in spite of myself. She grew pale with anger.
"Oh, how unfortunate I am!" I said, with my eyes full of tears; "how unfortunate I am to be always offending you, and to be hated more and more in proportion as my love for you grows greater!"
Edmée was of an imperious and violent nature. Her character, hardened by trials, had every year developed greater strength. She was no longer the trembling girl making a parade of courage, but in reality more ingenuous than bold, whom I had clasped in my arms at Roche-Mauprat. She was now a proud, fearless woman, who would have let herself be killed rather than give the slightest countenance to an audacious hope. Besides, she was now the woman who knows that she is passionately loved and is conscious of her power. She repulsed me, therefore, with scorn; and as I followed her distractedly, she raised her whip and threatened to leave a mark of ignominy on my face if I dared to touch even her stirrup.
I fell on my knees and begged her not to leave me thus without forgiving me. She was already in her saddle, and, as she looked around for the way back, she exclaimed:
"That was the one thing wanting—to behold this hateful spot again! Do you see where we are?"
I looked in my turn, and saw that we were on the edge of the forest, quite close to the shady little pond at Gazeau. A few yards from us, through the trees which had grown denser since Patience left, I perceived the door of the tower, opening like a big black mouth behind the green foliage.
I was seized with a fresh dizziness. A terrible struggle was taking place between two instincts. Who shall explain the mysterious workings of man's brain when his soul is grappling with the senses, and one part of his being is striving to strangle the other? In an organization like mine, such a conflict, believe me, was bound to be terrible; and do not imagine that the will makes but a feeble resistance in natures carried away by passion; it is idiotic to say to a man who lies spent with such struggles, "You ought to have conquered yourself."