Mauprat (Heinemann)/Chapter 22
How shall I describe to you what I felt at the unexpected sight of Gazeau Tower? I had seen it but twice in my life; each time I had taken part in a painfully stirring scene there. Yet these scenes were as naught beside the one awaiting me on this third encounter; there must be a curse on certain places.
I fancied I could still see the blood of the two Mauprats sprinkled on the shattered door. Their life of crime and their tragic end made me shudder at the violent instincts which I felt in myself. I was filled with a horror of my own feelings, and I understood why Edmée did not love me. But, as if yonder deplorable blood had power to stir a fatal sympathy, I felt the wild strength of my passion increasing in proportion as my will made greater efforts to subdue it. I had trampled down all other passions; scarcely a trace of them remained in me. I was sober; if not gentle and patient, I was at least capable of affection and sympathy; I had a profound sense of the laws of honour, and the highest respect for the dignity of others. Love, however, was still the most formidable of my enemies; for it was inseparably connected with all that I had acquired of morality and delicacy; it was the tie that bound the old man to the new, an indissoluble tie, which made it almost impossible for me to find the golden mean between reason and passion.
Standing before Edmée, who was about to leave me behind and on foot; furious at seeing her escape me for the last time (since after the insult I had just offered her she would doubtless never run the risk of being alone with me again), I gazed on her with a terrible expression. I was livid; my fists were clinched. I had but to resolve, and the slightest exertion of my strength would have snatched her from her horse, thrown her to the ground and left her at the mercy of my desires. I had but to let my old savage instincts reign for a second and I could have slaked, extinguished the fires which had been consuming me for seven years. Never did Edmée know the danger her honour ran in that minute of agony, and never have I ceased to feel remorse for it; but God alone shall be my Judge, for I triumphed, and this was the last evil thought of my life. In this thought, moreover, lay the whole of my crime; the rest was the work of fate.
Filled with fear, I suddenly turned my back on her and, wringing my hands in despair, hastened away by the path which had brought me thither. I cared little where I went; I only knew that I had to tear myself away from perilous temptations. It was a broiling day; the odour of the woods seemed intoxicating; the mere sight of them was stirring up the instincts of my old savage life; I had to flee or fall. With an imperious gesture, Edmée ordered me to depart from her presence. The idea that any danger could possibly threaten her except from myself naturally did not come into my head or her own. I plunged into the forest. I had not gone more than thirty paces when I heard the report of a gun from the spot where I had left Edmée. I stopped, petrified with horror; why, I know not; for in the middle of a battue the report of a gun was by no means extraordinary; but my soul was so sorrowful that it seemed ready to find fresh woe in everything. I was about to retrace my steps and rejoin Edmée at the risk of offending her still more when I thought I heard the moaning of a human being in the direction of Gazeau Tower. I rushed forward, and then fell upon my knees, as if stunned by emotion. It took me some minutes to recover; my brain seemed full of doleful sights and sounds; I could no longer distinguish between illusion and reality; though the sun was shining brightly I began to grope my way among the trees. All of a sudden I found myself face to face with the abbé; he was anxiously looking for Edmée. The chevalier had driven to a certain spot to watch the field pass, and not seeing his daughter, had been filled with apprehension. The abbé had plunged into the forest at once, and, soon finding the tracks of our horses, had come to see what had happened to us. He had heard the gun, but had thought nothing of it. Seeing me pale and apparently dazed, with my hair disarranged, and without either horse or gun (I had let mine fall on the spot where I had half fainted, and had not thought of picking it up), he was as terrified as myself; nor did he know any more than I for what reason.
"Edmée!" he said to me, "where is Edmée?"
I made a rambling reply. He was so alarmed at seeing me in such a state that he felt secretly convinced I had committed some crime, as he subsequently confessed to me.
"Wretched boy!" he said, shaking me vigorously by the arm to bring me to my senses. "Be calm; collect your thoughts, I implore you! . . ."
I did not understand a word, but I led him towards the fatal spot; and there—a sight never to be forgotten —Edmée was lying on the ground rigid and bathed in blood. Her mare was quietly grazing a few yards away. Patience was standing by her side with his arms crossed on his breast, his face livid, and his heart so full that he was unable to answer a word to the abbé's cries and sobs. For myself, I could not understand what was taking place. I fancy that my brain, already bewildered by my previous emotions, must have been completely paralyzed. I sat down on the ground by Edmée's side. She had been shot in the breast in two places. I gazed on her lifeless eyes in a state of absolute stupor.
"Take away that creature," said Patience to the abbé, casting a look of contempt on me. "His perverse nature is what it always was."
"Edmée, Edmée!" cried the abbé, throwing himself upon the grass and endeavouring to stanch the blood with his handkerchief.
"Dead, dead!" said Patience. "And there is the murderer! She said so as she gave up her pure soul to God; and Patience will avenge her! It is very hard; but it must be so! It is God's will, since I alone was here to learn the truth."
"Dead, dead!" said Patience. "And there
is the murderer!"
"Horrible! horrible!" exclaimed the abbé.
I heard the sound of this last word, and with a smile I repeated it like an echo.
Some huntsmen now appeared. Edmée was carried away. I believe that I caught sight of her father walking without help. However, I should not dare to affirm that this was not a mere extravagant vision (for I had no definite consciousness of anything, and these awful moments have left in my mind nothing but vague memories, as of a dream), had I not been assured that the chevalier got out of the carriage without any help, walked about, and acted with as much presence of mind as a young man. On the following day he fell into a state of absolute dotage and insensibility, and never rose from his arm-chair again.
But what happened to myself? I do not know. When I recovered my reason, I found that I was in another part of the forest near a little waterfall, to the murmur of which I was listening mechanically with a sort of vague delight. Blaireau was asleep at my feet, while his master, leaning against a tree, was watching me attentively. The setting sun was sending shafts of ruddy gold between the slender stems of the young ash-trees; the wild flowers seemed to be smiling at me; and birds were warbling sweet melodies. It was one of the most beautiful days of the year.
"What a gorgeous evening!" I said to Marcasse. "This spot is as beautiful as an American forest. Well, old friend, what are you doing there? You ought to have awakened me sooner. I have had such hideous dreams."
Marcasse came and knelt down beside me; two streams of tears were running down his withered, sallow cheeks. On his face, usually so impassive, there was an ineffable expression of pity and sorrow and affection.
"Poor master!" he said; "delirium, head bad, that's all. Great misfortune! But fidelity not changed. Always with you; if need be, ready to die with you."
His tears and words filled me with sadness; but this was owing to an instinctive sympathy enhanced by the weak state of my nerves, for I did not remember a thing. I threw myself into his arms and wept like himself; he pressed me to his bosom, as a father might his son. I was fully conscious that some frightful misfortune had overtaken me, but I was afraid to learn what it was, and nothing in the world would have induced me to ask him.
He took me by the arm and led me through the forest. I let myself be taken like a child. Then a fresh sense of weariness came over me, and he was obliged to let me sit down again for half an hour. At last he lifted me up and succeeded in leading me to Roche-Mauprat, where we arrived very late. I do not know what happened to me during the night. Marcasse told me subsequently that I had been very delirious. He took upon himself to send to the nearest village for a barber, who bled me early in the morning, and a few minutes later I recovered my reason.
But what a frightful service they seemed to have done me. Dead! Dead! Dead! This was the only word I could utter. I did nothing but groan and toss about on my bed. I wanted to get up and run to Sainte-Sévère. My poor sergeant would throw himself at my feet, or plant himself in front of the door to prevent me. To keep me back, he would tell me various things which I did not in the least understand. However, his manifest solicitude for me and my own feeling of exhaustion made me yield, though I could not explain his conduct. In one of these struggles my vein opened again, and I returned to bed before Marcasse noticed it. Gradually I sank into a deep swoon, and I was almost dead when, seeing my blue lips and purple cheeks, he took it into his head to lift up the bed-clothes, and found me lying in a pool of blood.
However, this was the most fortunate thing that could have happened to me. For several days I remained in a state of prostration in which there was but little difference between my waking and sleeping hours. Thanks to this, I understood nothing, and therefore did not suffer.
One morning, having managed to make me take a little nourishment, and noticing that with my strength my melancholy and anxiety were returning, Marcasse announced, with a simple, genuine delight, that Edmée was not dead, and that they did not despair of saving her. These words fell upon me like a thunderbolt; for I was still under the impression that this frightful adventure was a delusion of my delirium. I began to shout and to brandish my arms in a terrible manner. Marcasse fell on his knees by my bed and implored me to be calm, and a score of times he repeated the following words, which to me were like the meaningless words one hears in dreams:
"You did not do it on purpose; I know well enough. No, you did not do it on purpose. It was an accident; a gun going off in your hand by chance."
"Come, now, what do you mean?" I exclaimed impatiently. "What gun? What accident? What have I to do with it?"
"Don't you know, then, sir, how she was hit?"
I passed my hands over my brow as if to bring back to my mind the energy of life, and as I had no clear recollection of the mysterious event which had unhinged it, I thought that I was mad, and remained silent and dismayed, fearful lest any word should escape to betray the loss of my faculties.
At last, little by little, I collected my thoughts. I asked for some wine, as I felt weak; and no sooner had I drunk a few drops than all the scenes of the fatal day unrolled themselves before me as if by magic. I even remembered the words that I had heard Patience utter immediately after the event. It was as if they had been graven in that part of the memory which preserves the sound of words, even when the other part which treasures up their sense is asleep. For one more moment I was uncertain; I wondered if my gun could have gone off in my hands just as I was leaving Edmée. I distinctly remembered firing it at a pewit an hour before, for Edmée had wanted to examine the bird's plumage. Further, when I heard the shot which had hit her, my gun was in my hands, and I had not thrown it down until a few seconds later, so it could not have been this weapon which had gone off on falling. Besides, even granting a fatality which was incredible, I was much too far from Edmée at that moment to have shot her. Finally, I had not a single bullet on me throughout the day; and it was impossible for my gun to have been loaded, unknown to myself, since I had not unslung it after killing the pewit.
Quite convinced, therefore, that I was not the cause of the hideous accident, it remained for me to find an explanation of this crushing catastrophe. To me it was perfectly simple; some booby with a gun, I thought, must have caught sight of Edmée's horse through the branches, and mistaken it for a wild beast; and I did not dream of accusing any one of a deliberate attempt at murder. I discovered, however, that I was accused myself. I drew the truth from Marcasse. He informed me that the chevalier and all the people who took part in the hunt had attributed the misfortune to a pure accident, their opinion being that, to my great sorrow, my gun had gone off when my horse threw me, for it was believed that I had been thrown. This was practically the view they all took. In the few words that Edmée had been able to utter she seemed to confirm the supposition. Only one person accused me, and that was Patience; but he had accused me before none but his two friends, Marcasse and the Abbé Aubert, and then only after pledging them to secrecy.
"There is no need," added Marcasse, "for me to tell you that the abbé maintains an absolute silence, and refuses to believe that you are guilty. As for myself, I swear to you that I shall never———"
"Stop! stop!" I said. "Do not tell me even that; it would imply that some one in the world might actually believe it. But Edmée said something extraordinary to Patience just as she was dying; for she is dead; it is useless for you to try to deceive me. She is dead, and I shall never see her again."
"She is not dead!" cried Marcasse.
And his solemn oaths convinced me, for I knew that he would have tried in vain to lie; his simple soul would have risen in revolt against his charitable intentions. As for Edmée's words, he frankly refused to repeat them; from which I gathered that their testimony seemed overwhelming. Thereupon I dragged myself out of bed, and stubbornly resisted all Marcasse's efforts to keep me back; I had the farmer's horse saddled and started off at a gallop. When I reached the château I looked like a ghost. I staggered into the drawing-room without meeting any one except Saint-Jean, who uttered a cry of terror on seeing me, and rushed off without answering my questions.
The drawing-room was empty. Edmée's embroidery frame, buried under the green cloth, which her hand, perchance, would never lift again, seemed to me like a bier under its pall. My uncle's big arm-chair was no longer in the chimney-corner. My portrait, which I had had painted in Philadelphia and had sent over during the American war, had been taken down from the wall. These were signs of death and malediction.
I left this room with all haste and went upstairs with the courage of innocence, but with despair in my soul. I walked straight to Edmée's room, knocked, and entered at once. Mademoiselle Leblanc was coming towards the door; she gave a loud scream and ran away, hiding her face in her hands as if she had seen a wild beast. Who, then, could have been spreading hideous reports about me? Had the abbé been disloyal enough to do so? I learnt later that Edmée, though generous and unshaken in her lucid moments, had openly accused me in her delirium.
I approached her bed and, half delirious myself, forgetting that my sudden appearance might be a death-blow to her, I pulled the curtains aside with an eager hand and gazed on her. Never have I seen more marvellous beauty. Her big dark eyes had grown half as large again; they were shining with an extraordinary brilliancy, though without any expression, like diamonds. Her drawn, colourless cheeks, and her lips, as white as her cheeks, gave her the appearance of a beautiful marble head. She looked at me fixedly, with as little emotion as if she had been looking at a picture or a piece of furniture; then, turning her face slightly towards the wall, she said, with a mysterious smile:
"This is the flower they call Edmea sylvestris."
I fell upon my knees; I took her hand; I covered it with kisses; I broke into sobs. But she gave no heed; her hand remained in mine icy and still, like a piece of alabaster.