Mauprat (Heinemann)/Chapter 29
If Antony Mauprat had been a man of mettle he might have done me a bad turn by declaring that he had been a witness of my attempt to assassinate Edmée. As he had reasons for hiding himself before this last crime, he could have explained why he had kept out of sight, and why he had been silent about the occurrences at Gazeau Tower. I had nothing in my favour except Patience's evidence. Would this have been sufficient to procure my acquittal? The evidence of so many others was against me, even that given by my friends, and by Edmée, who could not deny my violent temper and the possibility of such a crime.
But Antony, in words the most insolent of all the "Hamstringers," was the most cowardly in deeds. He no sooner found himself in the hands of justice than he confessed everything, even before knowing that his brother had thrown him over.
At his trial there were some scandalous scenes, in which the two brothers accused each other in a loathsome way. The Trappist, whose rage was kept in check by his hypocrisy, coldly abandoned the ruffian to his fate, and denied that he had ever advised him to commit the crime. The other, driven to desperation, accused him of the most horrible deeds, including the poisoning of my mother and Edmée's mother, who had both died of violent inflammation of the intestines within a short time of each other. John Mauprat, he declared, used to be very skilful in the art of preparing poisons and would introduce himself into houses under various disguises to mix them with the food. He affirmed that, on the day that Edmée had been brought to Roche-Mauprat, John had called together all his brothers to discuss plans for making away with this heiress to a considerable fortune, a fortune which he had striven to obtain by crime, since he had tried to destroy the effects of the Chevalier Hubert's marriage. My mother's life, too, had been the price paid for the latter's wish to adopt his brother's child. All the Mauprats had been in favour of making away with Edmée and myself simultaneously, and John was actually preparing the poison when the police happened to turn aside their hideous designs by attacking the castle. John denied the charges with pretended horror, saying humbly that he had committed quite enough mortal sins of debauchery and irreligion without having these added to his list. As it was difficult to take Antony's word for them without further investigation; as this investigation was almost impossible, and as the clergy were too powerful and too much interested in preventing a scandal to allow it, John Mauprat was acquitted on the charge of complicity and merely sent back to the Trappist monastery; the archbishop forbade him ever to set foot in the diocese again, and, moreover, sent a request to his superiors that they would never allow him to leave the convent. He died there a few years later in all the terrors of a fanatic penitence very much akin to insanity.
It is probable that, as a result of feigning remorse in order to find favour among his fellows, he had at last, after the failure of his plans, and under the terrible asceticism of his order, actually experienced the horrors and agonies of a bad conscience and tardy repentance. The fear of hell is the only creed of vile souls.
No sooner was I acquitted and set at liberty, with my character completely cleared, than I hastened to Edmée. I arrived in time to witness my great-uncle's last moments. Towards the end, though his mind remained a blank as to past events, the memory of his heart returned. He recognised me, clasped me to his breast, blessed me at the same time as Edmée, and put my hand into his daughter's. After we had paid the last tribute of affection to our excellent and noble kinsman, whom we were as grieved to lose as if we had not long foreseen and expected his death, we left the province for some time, so as not to witness the execution of Antony, who was condemned to be broken on the wheel. The two false witnesses who had accused me were flogged, branded, and expelled from the jurisdiction of the court. Mademoiselle Leblanc, who could not exactly be accused of giving false evidence, since hers had consisted of mere inferences from facts, avoided the public displeasure by going to another province. Here she lived in sufficient luxury to make us suspect that she had been paid considerable sums to bring about my ruin.
Edmée and I would not consent to be separated, even temporarily, from our good friends, my sole defenders, Marcasse, Patience, Arthur, and the Abbé Aubert. We all travelled in the same carriage; the first two, being accustomed to the open air, were only too glad to sit outside; but we treated them on a footing of perfect equality. From that day forth they never sat at any table but our own. Some persons had the bad taste to express astonishment at this; we let them talk. There are circumstances that obliterate all distinctions, real or imaginary, of rank and education.
We paid a visit to Switzerland. Arthur considered this was essential to the complete restoration of Edmée's health. The delicate, thoughtful attentions of this devoted friend, and the loving efforts we made to minister to her happiness, combined with the beautiful spectacle of the mountains to drive away her melancholy and efface the recollection of the troublous times through which we had just passed. On Patience's poetic nature Switzerland had quite a magic effect. He would frequently fall into such a state of ecstasy that we were entranced and terrified at the same time. He felt strongly tempted to build himself a châlet in the heart of some valley and spend the rest of his life there in the contemplation of Nature; but his affection for us made him abandon this project. As for Marcasse, he declared subsequently that, despite all the pleasure he had derived from our society, he looked upon this visit as the most unlucky event of his life. At the inn at Martigny, on our return journey, Blaireau, whose digestion had been impaired by age, fell a victim to the excess of hospitality shown him in the kitchen. The sergeant said not a word, but gazed on him awhile with heavy eye, and then went and buried him under the most beautiful rose-tree in the garden; nor did he speak of his loss until more than a year later.
During our journey Edmée was for me a veritable angel of kindness and tender thought; abandoning herself henceforth to all the inspirations of her heart, and no longer feeling any distrust of me, or perhaps thinking that I deserved some compensation for all my sufferings, she repeatedly confirmed the celestial assurances of love which she had given in public, when she lifted up her voice to proclaim my innocence. A few reservations that had struck me in her evidence, and a recollection of the damning words that had fallen from her lips when Patience found her shot, continued, I must confess, to cause me pain for some time longer. I thought, rightly perhaps, that Edmée had made a great effort to believe in my innocence before Patience had given his evidence. But on this point she always spoke most unwillingly and with a certain amount of reserve. However, one day she quite healed my wound by saying with her charming abruptness:
"And if I loved you enough to absolve you in my own heart, and defend you in public at the cost of a lie, what would you say to that?"
A point on which I felt no less concern was to know how far I might believe in the love which she declared she had had for me from the very beginning of our acquaintance. Here she betrayed a little confusion, as if, in her invincible pride, she regretted having revealed a secret she had so jealously guarded. It was the abbé who undertook to confess for her. He assured me that at that time he had frequently scolded Edmée for her affection for "the young savage." As an objection to this, I told him of the conversation between Edmée and himself which I had overheard one evening in the park. This I repeated with that great accuracy of memory I possess. However, he replied:
"That very evening, if you had followed us a little farther under the trees, you might have overheard a dispute that would have completely reassured you, and have explained how, from being repugnant (I may almost say odious) to me, as you then were, you became at first endurable, and gradually very dear."
"You must tell me," I exclaimed, "who worked the miracle."
"One word will explain it," he answered; "Edmée loved you. When she had confessed this to me, she covered her face with her hands and remained for a moment as if overwhelmed with shame and vexation; then suddenly she raised her head and exclaimed:
"'Well, since you wish to know the absolute truth, I love him! Yes, I love him! I am smitten with him, as you say. It is not my fault; why should I blush at it? I cannot help it; it is the work of fate. I have never loved M. de la Marche; I merely feel a friendship for him. For Bernard I have a very different feeling a feeling so strong, so varied, so full of unrest, of hatred, of fear, of pity, of anger, of tenderness, that I understand nothing about it, and no longer try to understand anything.'"
"'Oh, woman, woman!' I exclaimed, clasping my hands in bewilderment, 'thou art a mystery, an abyss, and he who thinks to know thee is totally mad!'
"'As many times as you like, abbé,' she answered, with a firmness in which there were signs of annoyance and confusion, 'it is all the same to me. On this point I have lectured myself more than you have lectured all your flocks in your whole life. I know that Bernard is a bear, a badger, as Mademoiselle Leblanc calls him, a savage, a boor, and anything else you like. There is nothing more shaggy, more prickly, more cunning, more malicious than Bernard. He is an animal who scarcely knows how to sign his name; he is a coarse brute who thinks he can break me in like one of the jades of Varenne. But he makes a great mistake; I will die rather than ever be his, unless he becomes civilized enough to marry me. But one might as well expect a miracle. I try to improve him, without daring to hope. However, whether he forces me to kill myself or to turn nun, whether he remains as he is or becomes worse, it will be none the less true that I love him. My dear abbé, you know that it must be costing me something to make this confession; and, when my affection for you brings me as a penitent to your feet and to your bosom, you should not humiliate me by your expressions of surprise and your exorcisms! Consider the matter now; examine, discuss, decide! The evil is—I love him. The symptoms are—I think of none but him, I see none but him; and I could eat no dinner this evening because he had not come back. I find him handsomer than any man in the world. When he says that he loves me, I can see, I can feel that it is true; I feel displeased, and at the same time delighted. M. de la Marche seems insipid and prim since I have known Bernard. Bernard alone seems as proud, as passionate, as bold as myself—and as weak as myself; for he cries like a child when I vex him, and here I am crying, too, as I think of him.'"
"Dear abbé," I said, throwing myself on his neck, "let me embrace you till I have crushed your life out for remembering all this."
"The abbé is drawing the long bow," said Edmée archly.
"What!" I exclaimed, pressing her hands as if I would break them. "You have made me suffer for seven years, and now you repent a few words that console me . . ."
"In any case do not regret the past," she said. "Ah, with you such as you were in those days, we should have been ruined if I had not been able to think and decide for both of us. Good God! what would have become of us by now? You would have had far more to suffer from my sternness and pride; for you would have offended me from the very first day of our union, and I should have had to punish you by running away or killing myself, or killing you—for we are given to killing in our family; it is a natural habit. One thing is certain, and that is that you would have been a detestable husband; you would have made me blush for your ignorance; you would have wanted to rule me, and we should have fallen foul of each other; that would have driven my father to despair, and, as you know, my father had to be considered before everything. I might, perhaps, have risked my own fate lightly enough, if I had been alone in the world, for I have a strain of rashness in my nature; but it was essential that my father should remain happy, and tranquil, and respected. He had brought me up in happiness and independence, and I should never have forgiven myself if I had deprived his old age of the blessings he had lavished on my whole life. Do not think that I am full of virtues and noble qualities, as the abbé pretends; I love, that is all; but I love strongly, exclusively, steadfastly. I sacrificed you to my father, my poor Bernard; and Heaven, who would have cursed us if I had sacrificed my father, rewards us to-day by giving us to each other, tried and not found wanting. As you grew greater in my eyes I felt that I could wait, because I knew I had to love you long, and I was not afraid of seeing my passion vanish before it was satisfied, as do the passions of feeble souls. We were two exceptional characters; our loves had to be heroic: the beaten track would have led both of us to ruin."