Mauprat (Heinemann)/Chapter 23
The abbé came in and greeted me in a cold and sombre manner. Then he made a sign to me, and drawing me away from the bed, said:
"You must be mad! Return at once; and if you are wise, you will remain away. It is the only thing left for you to do."
"And since when," I cried, flying into a passion, "have you had the right to drive me out of the bosom of my family?"
"Alas! you have no longer a family," he answered, with an accent of sorrow that somewhat disarmed me. "What were once father and daughter are now naught but two phantoms, whose souls are already dead and whose bodies soon will be. Show some respect for the last days of those who loved you."
"And how can I show my respect and grief by quitting them?" I replied, quite crushed.
"On this point," said the abbé, "I neither wish nor ought to say anything; for you know that your presence here is an act of rashness and a profanation. Go away. When they are no more (and the day cannot be far distant), if you have any claims to this house, you may return, and you will certainly not find me here to contest them or affirm them. Meanwhile, as I have no knowledge of these claims, I believe I may take upon myself to see that some respect is paid to the last hours of these two holy people."
"Wretched man!" I said, "I do not know what prevents me from tearing you to pieces! What abominable impulse urges you to be everlastingly turning the dagger in my breast? Are you afraid that I may survive this blow? Cannot you see that three coffins will be taken out together from this house? Do you imagine that I have come here for aught but a farewell look and a farewell blessing?"
"You might say a farewell pardon," replied the abbé, in a bitter tone, and with a gesture of merciless condemnation.
"What I say is that you are mad!" I cried, "and that if you were not a priest, this hand of mine should crush the life out of you for daring to speak to me in this way."
"I have but little fear of you, sir," he rejoined. "To take my life would be doing me a great service; but I am sorry that your threats and anger should lend weight to the charges under which you lie. If I saw that you were moved to penitence, I would weep with you; but your assurance fills me with loathing. Hitherto, I had seen in you nothing worse than a raging lunatic; to-day I seem to see a scoundrel. Begone, sir!"
I fell into an arm-chair, choking with rage and anguish. For a moment I hoped that I was about to die. Edmée was dying by my side, and before me was a judge so firmly convinced of my guilt that his usual gentle, timid nature had become harsh and pitiless. The imminent loss of her I loved was hurrying me into a longing for death. Yet the horrible charge hanging over me began to rouse my energies. I did not believe that such an accusation could stand for a single instant against the voice of truth. I imagined that one word from me, one look, would be sufficient to make it fall to the ground; but I felt so dazed, so deeply wounded, that this means of defence was denied me. The more grievously the disgrace of such a suspicion weighed upon my mind, the more clearly I realized that it is almost impossible for a man to defend himself successfully when his only weapon is the pride of slandered innocence.
I sat there overwhelmed, unable to utter a word. It seemed as if a dome of lead were weighing on my skull. Suddenly the door opened and Mademoiselle Leblanc approached me stiffly; in a tone full of hatred she informed me that some one outside wished to speak to me. I went out mechanically, and found Patience waiting with his arms folded, in his most dignified attitude, and with an expression on his face which would have compelled both respect and fear if I had been guilty.
"Monsieur de Mauprat," he said, "I must request you to grant me a private interview. Will you kindly follow me to my cottage?"
"Yes, I will," I replied. "I am ready to endure any humiliation, if only I can learn what is wanted of me, and why you are all pleased to insult the most unfortunate of men. Lead the way, Patience, and go quickly; I am eager to return here."
Patience walked in front of me with an impassive air. When we arrived at his little dwelling, we found my poor sergeant, who had just arrived likewise. Not finding any horse on which he could follow me, and not wishing to quit me, he had come on foot, and so quickly that he was bathed in perspiration. Nevertheless, the moment he saw us he sprang up full of life from the bench on which he had thrown himself under the bower of vine-branches, and came to meet us.
"Patience!" he cried, in a dramatic style which would have made me smile had it been possible for me to display a glimmer of mirth at such a moment. "Old fool! . . . Slanderer at your age? . . . Fie, sir! . . . Ruined by good fortune . . . you are . . . yes."
Patience, impassive as ever, shrugged his shoulders and said to his friend:
"Marcasse, you do not know what you are saying. Go and rest awhile at the bottom of the orchard. This matter does not concern you. I want to speak to your master alone. I wish you to go," he added, taking him by the arm; and there was a touch of authority in his manner to which the sergeant, in spite of his ticklish pride, yielded from instinct and habit.
As soon as we were alone Patience proceeded to the point; he began by a series of questions to which I resolved to submit, so that I might the more quickly obtain some light on the state of affairs around me.
"Will you kindly inform me, monsieur," he said, "what you purpose doing now?"
"I purpose remaining with my family," I answered, "as long as I have a family; and when this family is no more, what I shall do concerns no one."
"But, sir," replied Patience, "if you were told that you could not remain under the same roof with them without causing the death of one or the other, would you persist in staying?"
"If I were convinced that this was so," I rejoined, "I would not appear in their presence. I would remain at their door and await the last day of their life, or the first day of their renewed health, and again implore a love I have not yet ceased to deserve."
"Ah, we have come to this!" said Patience, with a smile of contempt. "I should not have believed it. However, I am very glad; it makes matters clearer."
"What do you mean?" I cried. "Speak, you wretch! Explain yourself!"
"You are the only wretch here," he answered coldly, at the same time sitting down on the one stool in the cottage, while I remained standing before him.
I wanted to draw an explanation from him, at all costs. I restrained my feelings; I even humbled myself so far as to say that I should be ready to accept advice, if he would consent to tell me the words that Edmée had uttered immediately after the event, and those which she had repeated in her hours of delirium.
"That I will not," replied Patience sternly; "you are not worthy to hear any words from that mouth, and I shall certainly never repeat them to you. Why do you want to know them? Do you hope to hide anything from men hereafter? God saw you; for Him there are no secrets. Leave this place; stay at Roche-Mauprat; keep quiet there; and when your uncle is dead and your affairs are settled, leave this part of the country. If you take my advice, you will leave it this very day. I do not want to put the law on your track, unless your actions force me. But others besides myself, if they are not certain of the truth, have at least a suspicion of it. Before two days have passed a chance word said in public, the indiscretion of some servant, may awaken the attention of justice, and from that point to the scaffold, when a man is guilty, is but a single step. I used not to hate you; I even had a liking for you; take this advice, then, which you say you are ready to follow. Go away at once, or remain in hiding and ready for flight. I do not desire your ruin; Edmée would not desire it either—so—do you understand?"
"You must be insane to think that I could listen to such advice. I, hide myself! or flee like a murderer! You can't dream of that! Come on! come on! I defy the whole of you! I know not what fury and hatred are fretting you and uniting you all against me; I know not why you want to keep me from seeing my uncle and cousin; but I despise your follies. My place is here; I shall not quit it except by order of my cousin or uncle; and this order, too, I must take from their own lips; I cannot allow sentence to be brought me by any outsider. So, thanks for your wisdom, Monsieur Patience; in this case my own will suffice. I am your humble servant, sir."
I was preparing to leave the cottage when he rushed in front of me, and for a moment I saw that he was ready to use force to detain me. In spite of his advanced age, in spite of my height and strength, he might still have been a match, perhaps more than a match, for me in a struggle of this kind. Short, bent, broad-shouldered, he was a Hercules.
He stopped, however, just as he was about to lay hands on me, and, seized with one of those fits of deep tenderness to which he was subject in his moments of greatest passion, he gazed at me with eyes of pity, and said, in a gentle tone:
"My poor boy! you whom I loved as a son (for I looked upon you as Edmée's brother), do not hasten to your ruin. I beseech you in the name of her whom you have murdered, and whom you still love—I can see it— but whom you may never behold again. Believe me, but yesterday your family was a proud vessel, whose helm was in your hands; to-day it is a drifting wreck, without either sail or pilot—left to be handled by cabin-boys, as friend Marcasse says. Well, my poor mariner, do not persist in drowning yourself; I am throwing you a rope; take it—a day more, and it may be too late. Remember that if the law gets hold of you, the man who is trying to save you to-day, to-morrow will be obliged to appear against you and condemn you. Do not compel me to do a thing the very thought of which brings tears to my eyes. Bernard, you have been loved, my lad; even to-day you may live on the past."
I burst into tears, and the sergeant, who returned at this moment, began to weep also; he implored me to go back to Roche-Mauprat; but I soon recovered and, thrusting them both away, said:
"I know that both of you are excellent men, and both most generous; you must have some love for me too, since, though you believe me blackened with a hideous crime, you can still think of saving my life. But have no fears on my account, good friends; I am innocent of this crime, and my one wish is that the matter may be fully investigated, so that I may be acquitted yes, this is inevitable. I owe it to my family to live until my honour has been freed from stain. Then, if I am condemned to see my cousin die, as I have no one in the world to love but her, I will blow my brains out. Why, then, should I be downcast? I set little store by my life. May God make the last hours of her whom I shall certainly not survive painless and peaceful—that is all I ask of Him."
Patience shook his head with a gloomy, dissatisfied expression. He was so convinced of my crime that all my denials only served to alienate his pity. Marcasse still loved me, though he thought I was guilty. I had no one in the world to answer for my innocence, except myself.
"If you insist on returning to the château," exclaimed Patience, "you must swear before you leave here that you will not enter your cousin's room, or your uncle's, without the abbé's permission."
"What I swear is that I am innocent," I replied, "and that I will allow no man to saddle me with a crime. Back, both of you! Let me pass! Patience, if you consider it your duty to denounce me, go and do so. All that I ask is that I may not be condemned without a hearing; I prefer the bar of justice to that of mere opinion."
I rushed out of the cottage and returned to the château. However, not wishing to make a scandal before the servants, and knowing quite well that they could not hide Edmée's real condition from me, I went and shut myself up in the room I usually occupied.
But in the evening, just as I was leaving it to get news of the two patients, Mademoiselle Leblanc again told me that some one wished to speak with me outside. I noticed that her face betrayed a sense of joy as well as fear. I concluded that they had come to arrest me, and I suspected (rightly, as it transpired) that Mademoiselle Leblanc had denounced me. I went to the window, and saw some of the mounted police in the courtyard.
"Good," I said; "let my destiny take its course."
But, before quitting, perhaps forever, this house in which I was leaving my soul, I wished to see Edmée again for the last time. I walked straight to her room. Mademoiselle Leblanc tried to throw herself in front of the door; I pushed her aside so roughly that she fell, and, I believe, hurt herself slightly. She immediately filled the house with her cries; and later, in the trial, made a great pother about what she was pleased to call an attempt to murder her. I at once entered Edmée's room; there I found the abbé and the doctor. I listened in silence to what the latter was saying. I learnt that the wounds in themselves were not mortal, that they would not even be very serious, had not a violent disturbance in the brain complicated the evil and made him fear tetanus. This frightful word fell upon me like a death sentence. In America I had seen many men die of this terrible malady, the result of wounds received in the war. I approached the bed. The abbé was so alarmed that he did not think of preventing me. I took Edmée's hand, cold and lifeless, as ever. I kissed it a last time, and, without saying a single word to the others, went and gave myself up to the police.