The Middle Classes/Part II/Chapter VI
Not only once when the countess met the barrister at the Thuilliers had she left the room; but the same performance took place at each of their encounters; and la Peyrade had convinced himself, without knowing exactly why, that in each case, this affectation of avoiding him, signified something that was not indifference. To have paid her another visit immediately would certainly have been very unskilful; but now a sufficient time had elapsed to prove him to be a man who was master of himself. Accordingly, he returned upon his steps to the Boulevard de la Madeleine, and without asking the porter if the countess was at home, he passed the lodge as if returning to the Thuilliers', and rang the bell of the entresol.
The maid who opened the door asked him, as before, to wait until she notified her mistress; but, on this occasion, instead of showing him into the dining-room, she ushered him into a little room arranged as a library.
He waited long, and knew not what to think of the delay. Still, he reassured himself with the thought that if she meant to dismiss him he would not have been asked to wait at all. Finally the maid reappeared, but even then it was not to introduce him.
"Madame la comtesse," said the woman, "was engaged on a matter of business, but she begged monsieur be so kind as to wait, and to amuse himself with the books in the library, because she might be detained longer than she expected."
The excuse, both in form and substance, was certainly not discouraging, and la Peyrade looked about him to fulfil the behest to amuse himself. Without opening any of the carved rosewood bookcases, which enclosed a collection of the most elegantly bound volumes he had ever laid his eyes upon, he saw on an oblong table with claw feet a pell-mell of books sufficient for the amusement of a man whose attention was keenly alive elsewhere.
But, as he opened one after another of the various volumes, he began to fancy that a feast of Tantalus had been provided for him: one book was English, another German, a third Russian; there was even one in cabalistic letters that seemed Turkish. Was this a polyglottic joke the countess had arranged for him?
One volume, however, claimed particular attention. The binding, unlike those of the other books, was less rich than dainty. Lying by itself at a corner of the table, it was open, with the back turned up, the edges of the leaves resting on the green table-cloth in the shape of a tent. La Peyrade took it up, being careful not to lose the page which it seemed to have been some one's intention to mark. It proved to be a volume of the illustrated edition of Monsieur Scribe's works. The engraving which presented itself on the open page to la Peyrade's eyes, was entitled "The Hatred of a Woman"; the principal personage of which is a young widow, desperately pursuing a poor young man who cannot help himself. There is hatred all round. Through her devilries she almost makes him lose his reputation, and does make him miss a rich marriage; but the end is that she gives him more than she took away from him, and makes a husband of the man who was thought her victim.
If chance had put this volume apart from the rest, and had left it open at the precise page where la Peyrade found it marked, it must be owned that, after what had passed between himself and the countess, chance can sometimes seem clever and adroit. As he stood there, thinking over the significance which this more or less accidental combination might have, la Peyrade read through a number of scenes to see whether in the details as well as the general whole they applied to the present situation. While thus employed, the sound of an opening door was heard, and he recognized the silvery and slightly drawling voice of the countess, who was evidently accompanying some visitor to the door.
"Then I may promise the ambassadress," said a man's voice, "that you will honor her ball with your presence?"
"Yes, commander, if my headache, which is just beginning to get a little better, is kind enough to go away."
"Au revoir, then, fairest lady," said the gentleman. After which the doors were closed, and silence reigned once more.
The title of commander reassured la Peyrade somewhat, for it was not the rank of a young dandy. He was nevertheless curious to know who this personage was with whom the countess had been shut up so long. Hearing no one approach the room he was in, he went to the window and opened the curtain cautiously, prepared to let it drop back at the slightest noise, and to make a quick right-about-face to avoid being caught, "flagrante delicto," in curiosity. An elegant coupe, standing at a little distance, was now driven up to the house, a footman in showy livery hastened to open the door, and a little old man, with a light and jaunty movement, though it was evident he was one of those relics of the past who have not yet abandoned powder, stepped quickly into the carriage, which was then driven rapidly away. La Peyrade had time to observe on his breast a perfect string of decorations. This, combined with the powdered hair, was certain evidence of a diplomatic individual.
La Peyrade had picked up his book once more, when a bell from the inner room sounded, quickly followed by the appearance of the maid, who invited him to follow her. The Provencal took care not to replace the volume where he found it, and an instant later he entered the presence of the countess.
A pained expression was visible on the handsome face of the foreign countess, who, however, lost nothing of her charm in the languor that seemed to overcome her. On the sofa beside her was a manuscript written on gilt-edged paper, in that large and opulent handwriting which indicates an official communication from some ministerial office or chancery. She held in her hand a crystal bottle with a gold stopper, from which she frequently inhaled the contents, and a strong odor of English vinegar pervaded the salon.
"I fear you are ill, madame," said la Peyrade, with interest.
"Oh! it is nothing," replied the countess; "only a headache, to which I am very subject. But you, monsieur, what has become of you? I was beginning to lose all hope of ever seeing you again. Have you come to announce to me some great news? The period of your marriage with Mademoiselle Colleville is probably so near that I think you can speak of it."
This opening disconcerted la Peyrade.
"But, madame," he answered, in a tone that was almost tart, "you, it seems to me, must know too well everything that goes on in the Thuillier household not to be aware that the event you speak of is not approaching, and, I may add, not probable."
"No, I assure you, I know nothing; I have strictly forbidden myself from taking any further interest in an affair which I felt I had meddled with very foolishly. Mademoiselle Brigitte and I talk of everything except Celeste's marriage."
"And it is no doubt the desire to allow me perfect freedom in the matter that induces you to take flight whenever I have the honor to meet you in the Thuillier salon?"
"Yes," said the countess, "that ought to be the reason that makes me leave the room; else, why should I be so distant?"
"Ah! madame, there are other reasons that might make a woman avoid a man's presence. For instance, if he has displeased her; if the advice, given to him with rare wisdom and kindness, was not received with proper eagerness and gratitude."
"Oh, my dear monsieur," she replied, "I have no such ardor in proselytizing that I am angry with those who are not docile to my advice. I am, like others, very apt to make mistakes."
"On the contrary, madame, in the matter of my marriage your judgment was perfectly correct."
"How so?" said the countess, eagerly. "Has the seizure of the pamphlet, coming directly after the failure to obtain the cross, led to a rupture?"
"No," said la Peyrade, "my influence in the Thuillier household rests on a solid basis; the services I have rendered Mademoiselle Brigitte and her brother outweigh these checks, which, after all, are not irreparable."
"Do you really think so?" said the countess.
"Certainly," replied la Peyrade; "when the Comtesse du Bruel takes it into her head to seriously obtain that bit of red ribbon, she can do so, in spite of all obstacles that are put in her way."
The countess received this assertion with a smile, and shook her head.
"But, madame, only a day or two ago Madame du Bruel told Madame Colleville that the unexpected opposition she had met with piqued her, and that she meant to go in person to the minister."
"But you forget that since then this seizure has been made by the police; it is not usual to decorate a man who is summoned before the court of assizes. You seem not to notice that the seizure argues a strong ill-will against Monsieur Thuillier, and, I may add, against yourself, monsieur, for you are known to be the culprit. You have not, I think, taken all this into account. The authorities appear to have acted not wholly from legal causes."
La Peyrade looked at the countess.
"I must own," he said, after that rapid glance, "that I have tried in vain to find any passage in that pamphlet which could be made a legal pretext for the seizure."
"In my opinion," said the countess, "the king's servants must have a vivid imagination to persuade themselves they were dealing with a seditious publication. But that only proves the strength of the underground power which is thwarting all your good intentions in favor of Monsieur Thuillier."
"Madame," said la Peyrade, "do you know our secret enemies?"
"Perhaps I do," replied the countess, with another smile.
"May I dare to utter a suspicion, madame?" said la Peyrade, with some agitation.
"Yes, say what you think," replied Madame de Godollo. "I shall not blame you if you guess right."
"Well, madame, our enemies, Thuillier's and mine, are—a woman."
"Supposing that is so," said the countess; "do you know how many lines Richelieu required from a man's hand in order to hang him?"
"Four," replied la Peyrade.
"You can imagine, then, that a pamphlet of two hundred pages might afford a—slightly intriguing woman sufficient ground for persecution."
"I see it all, madame, I understand it!" cried la Peyrade, with animation. "I believe that woman to be one of the elite of her sex, with as much mind and malice as Richelieu! Adorable magician! it is she who has set in motion the police and the gendarmes; but, more than that, it is she who withholds that cross the ministers were about to give."
"If that be so," said the countess, "why struggle against her?"
"Ah! I struggle no longer," said la Peyrade. Then, with an assumed air of contrition, he added, "You must, indeed, hate me, madame."
"Not quite as much as you may think," replied the countess; "but, after all, suppose that I do hate you?"
"Ah! madame," cried la Peyrade, ardently, "I should then be the happiest of unhappy men; for that hatred would seem to me sweeter and more precious than your indifference. But you do not hate me; why should you feel to me that most blessed feminine sentiment which Scribe has depicted with such delicacy and wit?"
Madame de Godollo did not answer immediately. She lowered her eyelids, and the deeper breathing of her bosom gave to her voice when she did speak a tremulous tone:—
"The hatred of a woman!" she said. "Is a man of your stoicism able to perceive it?"
"Ah! yes, madame," replied la Peyrade, "I do indeed perceive it, but not to revolt against it; on the contrary, I bless the harshness that deigns to hurt me. Now that I know my beautiful and avowed enemy, I shall not despair of touching her heart; for never again will I follow any road but the one that she points out to me, never will I march under any banner but hers. I shall wait—for her inspiration, to think; for her will, to will; for her commands, to act. In all things I will be her auxiliary,—more than that, her slave; and if she still repulses me with that dainty foot, that snowy hand, I will bear it resignedly, asking, in return for such obedience one only favor,—that of kissing the foot that spurns me, of bathing with tears the hand that threatens me."
During this long cry of the excited heart, which the joy of triumph wrung from a nature so nervous and impressionable as that of the Provencal, he had slidden from his chair, and now knelt with one knee on the ground beside the countess, in the conventional attitude of the stage, which is, however, much more common in real life than people suppose.
"Rise, monsieur," said the countess, "and be so good as to answer me." Then, giving him a questioning look from beneath her beautiful frowning brows, she continued: "Have you well-weighed the outcome of the words you have just uttered? Have you measured the full extent of your pledge, and its depth? With your hand on your heart and on your conscience, are you a man to fulfil those words? Or are you one of the falsely humble and perfidious men who throw themselves at our feet only to make us lose the balance of our will and our reason?"
"I!" exclaimed la Peyrade; "never can I react against the fascination you have wielded over me from the moment of our first interview! Ah! madame, the more I have resisted, the more I have struggled, the more you ought to trust in my sincerity and its tardy expression. What I have said, I think; that which I think aloud to-day I have thought in my soul since the hour when I first had the honor of admittance to you; and the many days I have passed in struggling against this allurement have ended in giving me a firm and deliberate will, which understands itself, and is not cast down by your severity."
"Severity?" said the countess; "possibly. But you ought to think of the kindness too. Question yourself carefully. We foreign women do not understand the careless ease with which a Frenchwoman enters upon a solemn engagement. To us, our yes is sacred; our word is a bond. We do and we will nothing by halves. The arms of my family bear a motto which seems significant under the present circumstances,—'All or Nothing'; that is saying much, and yet, perhaps, not enough."
"That is how I understand my pledge," replied la Peyrade; "and on leaving this room my first step will be to break with that ignoble past which for an instant I seemed to hold in the balance against the intoxicating future you do not forbid me to expect."
"No," said the countess, "do it calmly and advisedly; I do not like rash conduct; you will not please me by taking open steps. These Thuilliers are not really bad at heart; they humiliated you without knowing that they did so; their world is not yours. Is that their fault? Loosen the tie between you, but do not violently break it. And, above all, reflect. Your conversion to my beliefs is of recent date. What man is certain of what his heart will say to him to-morrow?"
"Madame," said la Peyrade, "I am that man. We men of Southern blood do not love as you say a Frenchwoman loves."
"But," said the countess, with a charming smile, "I thought it was hatred we were talking of."
"Ah, madame," cried the barrister, "explained and understood as it has been, that word is still a thing that hurts me. Tell me rather, not that you love me, but that the words you deigned to say to me at our first interview were indeed the expression of your thoughts."
"My friend," said the countess, dwelling on the word; "one of your moralists has said: 'There are persons who say, that is or that is not.' Do me the favor to count me among such persons."
So saying, she held out her hand to her suitor with a charming gesture of modesty and grace. La Peyrade, quite beside himself, darted upon that beautiful hand and devoured it with kisses.
"Enough, child!" said the countess, gently freeing her imprisoned fingers; "adieu now, soon to meet again! Adieu! My headache, I think, has disappeared."
La Peyrade picked up his hat, and seemed about to rush from the apartment; but at the door he turned and cast upon the handsome creature a look of tenderness. The countess made him, with her head, a graceful gesture of adieu; then, seeing that la Peyrade was inclined to return to her, she raised her forefinger as a warning to control himself and go.
La Peyrade turned and left the apartment.