By OCTAVE FEUILLET, author of "Romance of a Poor Young Man," etc.
NEW YORK AND LONDON
STREET & SMITH, PUBLISHERS
By STREET & SMITH
A GRAPHIC DESCRIPTION.
GEORGE L—— to PAUL B., PARIS.
ROZEL, 15th September.
It's nine o'clock in the evening, my dear friend, and you have just arrived from Germany. They hand you my letter, the post-mark of which informs you at once that I am absent from Paris. You indulge in a gesture of annoyance, and call me a vagabond. Nevertheless, you settle down in your best arm-chair, you open my letter, and you hear that I have been for the past five days domesticated in a flour-mill in Lower Normandy. In a flour-mill! What the duse can he be doing in a mill? A wrinkle appears on your forehead, your eyebrows are drawn together; you lay down my letter for a moment; you attempt to penetrate this mystery by the unaided power of your imagination. Suddenly a playful expression beams upon your countenance; your mouth expresses the irony of a wise man tempered by the indulgence of a friend; you have caught a glimpse, through an opera-comique cloud, of a miller's pretty wife with powdered hair, a waist all trimmed with gay ribbons, a light and short skirt, and stockings with gilded clocks; in short, one of those fair young millers' wives whose heart goes pit-a-pat with hautboy accompaniment. But the graces who are ever sporting in your mind sometimes lead it astray; my fair miller is as much like the creature of your imagination as I am like a youthful Colin; her head is adorned with a towering cotton night-cap to which the thickest possible coating of flour fails to restore its primitive color; she wears a coarse woolen petticoat which would abrade the hide of an elephant; in short, it frequently happens to me to confound the miller's wife with the miller himself, after which it is sufficient to add that I am not the least curious to know whether or not her heart goes pit-a-pat. The truth is, that, not knowing how to kill time in your absence, and having no reason to expect you to return before another month; (it's your own fault!), I solicited a mission. The council-general of the department of —— had lately, and quite opportunely, expressed officially the wish that a certain ruined abbey, called Rozel Abbey, should be classed among historical monuments. I have been commissioned to investigate closely the candidate's titles. I hastened with all possible speed to the chief town of this artistic department, where I effected my entrance with the important gravity of a man who holds within his hands the life or the death of a monument dear to the country. I made some inquiries at the hotel; great was my mortification when I discovered that no one seemed to suspect that such a thing as Rozel Abbey existed within a circuit of a hundred leagues. I called at the prefecture while still laboring under the effect of this disappointment; the prefect, Valton, whom you know very well, received me with his usual affability; but to the questions I addressed him on the subject of the condition of the ruins which the council seemed so desirous of preserving for the admiration of its constituents, he replied with an absent smile, that his wife, who had visited these ruins on the occasion of an excursion into the country, while she was sojourning on the sea shore, could tell me a great deal more about the ruins than he possibly could himself.
He invited me to dinner, and in the evening, Madame Valton, after the usual struggles of expiring modesty, showed me, in her album, some views of the famous ruins sketched with considerable taste. She became mildly excited while speaking to me of these venerable remains, situated, if she is to be believed, in the midst of an enchanting site, and, above all, particularly well suited for picnics and country excursions. A beseeching and corrupting look terminated her harangue. It seems evident to me that this worthy lady is the only person in the department who takes any real interest in that poor old abbey, and that the conscript fathers of the general council have passed their resolution authorizing an investigation out of pure gallantry. It is impossible for me, however, not to concur in their opinion; the abbey has beautiful eyes; she deserves to be classed—she shall be classed.
My decision was therefore settled, from that moment, but it was still necessary to write it down and back it with some documentary evidence. Unfortunately, the local archives and libraries do not abound in traditions relative to my subject; after two days of conscientious rummaging, I had collected but a few rare and insignificant documents, which may be summed up in these two lines; "Rozel Abbey, in Rozel township, was inhabited from time immemorial by monks, who left it when it fell in ruins."
That is why I resolved to go, without further delay, and ask their secret of these mysterious ruins, and to multiply, if need be, the artifices of my pencil, to make up for the compulsory conciseness of my pen. I left on Wednesday morning for the town of Vitry, which is only two or three leagues distant from the abbey. A Norman coach, complemented with a Norman coachman, jogged me about all day, like an indolent monarch, along the Norman hedges. When night came, I had traveled twelve miles and my coachman had taken twelve meals.
The country is fine, though of a character somewhat uniformly rustic. Under everlasting groves is displayed an opulent and monotonous verdure, in the thickness of which contented-looking oxen ruminate. I can understand my coachman's twelve meals; the idea of eating must occur frequently and almost exclusively to the imagination of any man who spends his life in the midst of this rich nature, the very grass of which gives an appetite.
Toward evening, however, the aspect of the landscape changed; we entered a rolling prairie, quite low, marshy, bare as a Russian steppe, and extending on both sides of the road; the sound of the wheels on the causeway assumed a hollow and vibrating sonority; dark-colored reeds and tall, unhealthy-looking grass covered, as far as the eye could reach, the blackish surface of the marsh. I noticed in the distance, through the deepening twilight, and behind a cloud of rain, two or three horsemen running at full speed, and as if demented, through these boundless spaces; they disappeared at intervals in the depressions of the meadows, and suddenly came to sight again, still galloping with the same frenzy. I could not imagine toward what imaginary goal these equestrian phantoms were thus madly rushing. I took good care not to inquire; mystery is a sweet and sacred thing.
The next morning, I started for the abbey, taking with me in my cabriolet a tall young peasant who had yellow hair, like Ceres. He was a farm-boy who had lived since his birth within a rod of my monument; he had heard me in the morning asking for information in the court-yard of the inn, and had obligingly volunteered to show me the way to the ruins, which were the first thing he had seen on coming into the world. I had no need whatever of a guide; I accepted, nevertheless, the fellow's offer, his officious chattering seeming to promise a well-sustained conversation, in the course of which I hoped to detect some interesting legend; but as soon as he had taken his seat by my side, the rascal became dumb; my questions seemed even, I know not why, to inspire him with a deep mistrust, almost akin to anger. I had to deal with the genius of the ruins, the faithful guardian of their treasures. On the other hand, I had the gratification of taking him home in my carriage; it was apparently all he wished, and he had every reason to be satisfied with my accommodating spirit.
After landing this agreeable companion at his own door, it became necessary for me to alight also; a rocky path, or rather a rude flight of stone steps, winding down the side of a steep declivity, led me to the bottom of a narrow valley which spreads and stretches between a double chain of high wooded hills. A small river flows lazily through it under the shade of alder-bushes, dividing two strips of meadows as fine and velvety as the lawns of a park; it is crossed over by an old bridge with a single arch, which reflects in the placid water the outlines of its graceful ogive. On the right, the hills stand close together in the form of a circus, and seemed to join their verdure-clad curves; on the left, they spread out until they become merged in the deep and somber masses of a vast forest. The valley is thus closed on all sides, and offers a picture of which the calm, the freshness, and the isolation penetrate the soul.
The ruins of the abbey stand with their back against the forest. What remains of the abbey proper is not a great deal. At the entrance of the court-yard, a monumental gateway; a wing of the building, dating from the twelfth century, in which dwell the family of the miller of whom I am the guest; the chapter-hall, remarkable for some elegant arches and a few remnants of mural painting; finally, two or three cells, one of which seems to have been used for the purposes of correction, if I may judge from the solidity of the door and the strength of the bolts. The rest has been torn down, and may be found in fragments among the cottages of the neighborhood. The church, which has almost the proportions of a cathedral, is finely preserved, and produces a marvelous effect. The portal and the apse have alone disappeared; the whole interior architecture, the copings, the tall columns, are intact and as if built yesterday. There, it seems, that an artist must have presided over the work of destruction; a masterly stroke of the pick-ax has opened at the two extremities of the church, where stood the portal and where stood the altar, two gigantic bays, so that, from the threshold of the edifice, the eye plunges into the forest beyond as through a deep triumphal arch. In this solitary spot the effect is unexpected and solemn. I was delighted with it. "Monsieur," I said to the miller, who, since my arrival, had been watching my every step from a distance with that fierce mistrust which is a peculiarity of this part of the country, "I have been requested to examine and to sketch these ruins. That work will require several days; could you not spare me a daily trip from the town to the abbey and back, by furnishing me with such accommodations as you can, for a week or two?"
The miller, a thorough Norman, examined me from head to foot without answering, like a man who knows that silence is of gold; he measured me, he gauged me, he weighed me, and finally, opening his flour-coated lips, he called his wife. The latter appeared at once upon the threshold of the chapter-hall, converted into a cow-pen, and I had to repeat my request to her. She examined me in her turn, but not at such great length as her husband, and, with the superior scent of her sex, her conclusion was, as I had the right to expect, that of the praeses in the Malade Imaginaire: "Dignus es intrare." The miller, who saw what turn things were taking, lifted his cap and treated me to a smile. I must add that these excellent people, once the ice was broken, tried in every way to compensate me, by a thousand eager attentions, for the excessive caution of their reception. They wished to give up to me their own room, adorned with the Adventures of Telemachus, but I preferred—as Mentor would have done—a cell of austere nudity, of which the window, with small, lozenge-shaped panes, opens on the ruined portal of the church and the horizon of the forest.
Had I been a few years younger, I would have enjoyed keenly this poetic installation; but I am turning gray, friend Paul, or at least I fear so, though I try still to attribute to a mere effect of light the doubtful shades that dot my beard under the rays of the noon-day sun. Nevertheless, if my reverie has changed its object, it still lasts, and still has its charms for me. My poetic feeling has become modified and, I think, more elevated. The image of a woman is no longer the indispensable element of my dreams; my heart, peaceful now, and striving to become still more so, is gradually withdrawing from the field of my mind's labors. I cannot, I confess, find enough pleasure in the pure and dry meditations of the intellect; my imagination must speak first and set my brain in motion, for I was born romantic, and romantic I shall die; and all that can be asked of me, all I can obtain of myself, at an age when propriety already commands gravity, is to build romances without love.
Up to this time, ennui has spared me in my solitude. Shall I confess to you that I even experience in it a singular feeling of contentment? It seems as though I were a thousand leagues away from the things of the world, and that there is a sort of truce and respite in the miserable routine of my existence, at once so agitated and so commonplace. I relish my complete independence with the naive joy of a twelve-year-old Robinson Crusoe. I sketch when I feel like it; the rest of the time, I walk here and there at random, being careful only never to go beyond the bounds of the sacred valley. I sit down upon the parapet of the bridge, and I watch the running water; I go on voyages of discovery among the ruins; I dive into the underground vaults; I scale the shattered steps of the belfry, and being unable to come down again the same way, I remain astride a gargoyle, cutting a rather sorry figure, until the miller brings me a ladder. I wander at night through the forest, and I see deer running by in the moonlight. All these things have a soothing effect on my mind, and produce the effect of child's dream in middle age.
Your letter dated from Cologne, and which was forwarded to me here according to my instructions, has alone disturbed my beatitude. I console myself with some difficulty for having left Paris almost on the eve of your return. May Heaven confound your whims and your want of decision! All I can do now, is to hurry my work; but where shall I find the historical documents I still need? I am seriously anxious to save these ruins. There is here a rare landscape, a valuable picture, which it would be sheer vandalism to allow to perish.
And then, I admire the old monks! I wish to offer up to their departed shades this homage of my sympathy. Yes, had I lived some thousand years ago, I would certainly have sought among them the repose of the cloister while waiting for the peace of heaven. What existence could have suited me better? Free from the cares of this world, and assured of the other, free from any agitations of the heart or the mind, I would have placidly written simple legends which I would have been credulous enough to believe; I would have unraveled with intense curiosity some unknown manuscripts, and discovered with tears of joy the Iliad or the AEneid; I would have sketched imaginary cathedrals; I would have heated alembics—and perhaps have invented gunpowder; which is by no means the best thing I might have done.
Come! 'tis midnight; brother, we must sleep!
Postscriptum.—There are ghosts! I was closing this letter, my dear friend, in the midst of a solemn silence, when suddenly my ears were filled with mysterious and confused sounds that seemed to come from the outside, and among which I thought I could distinguish the buzzing murmur of a large crowd. I approached, quite surprised, the window of my cell, and I could not exactly tell you the nature of the emotion I felt on discovering the ruins of the church illuminated with a resplendent blaze; the vast portal and the yawning ogives cast floods of light far as the distant woods. It was not, it could not be, an accidental conflagration. Besides, I could see, through the stone trefoils, shadows of superhuman size flitting through the nave, apparently performing, with a sort of rhythm, some mysterious ceremony. I threw my window abruptly open; at the same instant, a loud blast broke forth in the ruins, and rang again through all the echoes of the valley; after which, I saw issuing from the church a double file of horsemen bearing torches and blowing horns, some dressed in red, others draped in black, with plumes waving over their heads. This strange procession followed, still in the same order, amid the same dazzling light and the same clangor of trumpets, the shaded path that skirts the edge of the meadows. Having reached the little bridge, it stopped; I saw the torches rise, wave, and cast showers of sparks; the horns sounded a weird and prolonged blast; then suddenly every light disappeared, every noise ceased, and the valley was again wrapped in the darkness and the deep silence of the night. That is what I saw and heard. You who have just arrived from Germany, did you meet the Black Huntsman? No? Hang yourself, then!
HUNTING A WILD MAN.
The forest which once formed part of the demesnes of the abbey, now belongs to a wealthy landed proprietor of the district, the Marquis de Malouet, a lineal descendant of Nimrod, whose chateau seems to be the social center of the district. There are almost daily at this season grand hunts in the forest; yesterday, the party ended with a supper on the grass, and afterward a ride home by torch-light. I felt very much disposed to strangle the honest miller, who gave me this morning, in vulgar language, this explanation of my midnight ballad.
There is the world, then, invading with all its pomp my beloved solitude. I curse it, Paul, with all the bitterness of my heart. I became indebted to it, last night, it is true, for a fantastic apparition that both charmed and delighted me; but I am also indebted to it to-day for a ridiculous adventure which I am the only one not to laugh at, for I was its unlucky hero.
I was but little disposed to work this morning; I went on sketching, however, until noon, but had to give it up then; my head was heavy, I felt dull and disagreeable, I had a vague presentiment of something fatal in the air. I returned for a moment to the mill to get rid of my traps; I quarreled, to her surprise and grief, with the miller's wife, on the subject of I know not what cruelly indigenous mess she had served me for breakfast; I scolded the good woman's two children because they were touching my pencils; finally, I administered a vigorous kick to the house-dog, accompanied with the celebrated formula: "Judge whether you had done anything to me!"
Rather dissatisfied with myself, as you may imagine, after these three mean little tricks, I directed my steps toward the forest, in order to hide as much as possible from the light of the day. I walked about for nearly an hour without being able to shake off the prophetic melancholy that oppressed me. Perceiving at last, on the edge of one of the avenues that traverse the forest, and under the dense shade of some beech-trees, a thick bed of moss, I stretched myself upon it, together with my remorse, and it was not long before I fell into a sound sleep. Mon Dieu! why was it not the sleep of death?
I have no idea how long I had been asleep, when I was suddenly awakened by a certain concussion of the soil in my immediate vicinity; I jumped abruptly to my feet, and I saw, within five steps of me, on the road, a young lady on horseback. My unexpected apparition had somewhat frightened the horse, who had shied with some violence. The fair equestrian, who had not yet noticed me, was talking to him and trying to quiet him. She appeared to be pretty, slender, elegant. I caught a rapid glimpse of blond hair, eyebrows of a darker shade, keen eyes, a bold expression of countenance, and a felt hat with blue feathers, set over one ear in rather too rakish a style. For the better understanding of what is about to follow, you should know that I was attired in a tourist's blouse stained with red ochre; besides, I must have had that haggard look and startled expression which impart to one rudely snatched from sleep a countenance at once comical and alarming. Add to all this, my hair in utter disorder, my beard strewn with dead leaves, and you will have no difficulty in understanding the terror that suddenly overpowered the young huntress at the first glance she cast upon me; she uttered a feeble cry, and wheeling her horse around, she fled at full gallop.
It was impossible for me to mistake the nature of the impression I had just produced; there was nothing flattering about it. However, I am thirty-five years of age, and the more or less kindly glance of a woman is no longer sufficient to disturb the serenity of my soul. I followed with a smiling look the flying Amazon. At the extremity of the avenue in which I had just failed to make her conquest, she turned abruptly to the left, to go and take a parallel road. I only had to cross the adjoining thicket to see her overtake a cavalcade composed of ten or twelve persons, who seemed to be waiting for her, and to whom she shouted from a distance, in a broken voice:
"Gentlemen! gentlemen! a wild man! there is a wild man in the forest!"
My interest being highly excited by this beginning, I settle myself comfortably behind a thick bush, with eye and ear equally attentive. They crowd around the lady; it is supposed at first that she is jesting, but her emotion is too serious to have been causeless. She saw, distinctly saw, not exactly a savage, perhaps, but a man in rags, whose tattered blouse seemed covered with blood, whose face, hands, and whole person were repulsively filthy, whose beard was frightful, and whose eyes half protruded from their sockets; in short, an individual, by the side of whom the most atrocious of Salvator Rosa's brigands would be as one of Watteau's shepherds. Never did a man's vanity enjoy such a treat! This charming person added that I had threatened her, and that I had jumped at her horse's bridle like the specter of the forest of Mans.[A]
The response to this marvelous story is a general and enthusiastic shout:
"Let us chase him! let us surround him! let us track him! hip, hip, hurrah!"—whereupon the whole cavalry force starts off at a gallop in the direction given by the amiable story teller.
I had, to all appearances, but to remain quietly ensconced in my hiding-place in order to completely foil the hunters who were going in search of me in the avenue where I had met the beautiful Amazon. Unfortunately, I had the unlucky idea, for greater safety, of making my way into the opposite thicket. As I was cautiously crossing the open space, a wild shout of joy informs me that I have been discovered; at the same time, I see the whole squadron wheeling about and coming down upon me like a torrent. There remained but one reasonable course for me to pursue; it was to stop, to affect the surprise of a quiet stroller disturbed in his walk, and to disconcert my assailants by an attitude at once simple and dignified; but, seized with a foolish shame which it is easier to conceive than to explain—convinced, moreover, that a vigorous effort would be sufficient to rid me of this importunate pursuit and to spare me the annoyance of an explanation—I commit the error—the ever deplorable error—of hurrying on faster, or rather, to be frank with you, of running away as fast as my legs would carry me. I cross the road like a hare, I penetrate into the thicket, greeted on my passage with a volley of joyous clamors. From that moment my fate was sealed; all honorable explanation became impossible for me; I had ostensibly accepted the struggle with its most extreme chances.
However, I still possessed a certain presence of mind, and while tearing furiously through the brambles, I soothed myself with comforting reflections. Once separated from my persecutors by the whole depth of a thicket inaccessible to cavalry, it would be an easy matter to gain a sufficient advance upon them to be able to laugh at their fruitless search. This last illusion vanished when, on reaching the limit of the covered space, I discovered that the cursed troop had divided into two squads, who were both waiting for me at the outlet. At the sight of me, a fresh storm of shouts and laughter broke forth, and the hunting-horns sounded in all directions. I became dizzy; I felt the forest whirling around me; I rushed into the first path that offered itself to me, and my flight assumed the character of a hopeless rout.
The implacable legion of hunters and huntresses did not fail to start on my heels with renewed ardor and stupid mirth. I still recognized at their head the lady with the waving blue plume, who distinguished herself by her peculiar animosity, and upon whom I invoked with all my heart the most serious accidents to which equestrianism may be subject. It was she who encouraged her odious accomplices, when I had succeeded for a moment in eluding the pursuit; she discovered me with infernal keen-sightedness, pointed me out with the tip of her whip, and broke into a barbarous laugh whenever she saw me resume my race through the bushes, blowing, panting, desperate, absurd. I ran thus during a space of time of which I am unable to form any estimate, accomplishing unprecedented feats of gymnastics, tearing through the thorny brambles, sinking into the miry spots, leaping over the ditches, bounding upon my feet with the elasticity of a panther, galloping to the devil, without reason, without object, and without any other hope but that of seeing the earth open beneath my feet.
At last, and surely by chance—for I had long since lost all topographical notions—I discovered the ruins just ahead of me; with a last effort, I cleared the open space that separates them from the forest; I ran through the church as if I had been excommunicated, and I arrived panting before the door of the mill. The miller and his wife were standing on the threshold, attracted, doubtless, by the noise of the cavalcade that was following close on my heels; they looked at me with an expression of stupor; I tried in vain to find a few words of explanation to cast to them as I ran by, and after incredible efforts of intelligence, I was only able to murmur in a silly tone: "If any one asks for me, say I am not in!" Then I cleared in three jumps the stairs leading to my cell, and I sank upon my bed in a state of complete prostration.
In the meantime, Paul, the hunting-party were crowding tumultuously into the court-yard of the abbey; I could hear the stamping of the horses' feet, the voices of the riders, and even the sound of their boots on the flagging, which proved that some of them had alighted and were threatening me with a last assault. I started up with a gesture of rage, and I glanced at my pistols. Fortunately, after a few minutes' conversation with the miller, the hunters withdrew, not without giving me to understand that, if they had formed a better opinion of my character, they went away with a most amusing idea of the eccentricity of my disposition.
Such is, my dear friend, a faithful historical account of that unlucky day, during which I covered myself frankly, and from head to foot, with a species of humiliation to which any Frenchman would prefer that of crime. I have, at this moment, the satisfaction of knowing that I am in a neighboring chateau, in the midst of a gathering of brilliant men and lovely young women, an inexhaustible subject for jokes. I feel, moreover, since my flank movement (as it is customary in war to call precipitate retreats), that I have lost something of my dignity in my own eyes, and I cannot conceal to myself, besides, that I am far from enjoying the same consideration on the part of my rustic hosts.
In presence of a situation so seriously compromised, it became necessary to hold council; after a brief deliberation, I rejected far, far from me, as puerile and pusillanimous, the project suggested to me by my vanity at bay, that of giving up my lodgings, and even of leaving the district entirely. I made up my mind to pursue philosophically the course of my labors and my pleasures, to show a soul superior to circumstances, and in short, to give to the Amazons, the centaurs, and the millers the fine spectacle of the wise man in adversity.
[A] Charles VI., King of France, became demented in consequence of his horse being stopped, during a hunt in the forest of Mans, by what seemed to him a supernatural being.—(TRANS.)
THE MARQUIS DE MALOUET.
MALOUET, 20th September.
I have just received your letter. You belong to the true breed of Monomotapa friends, Paul. But what puerility! And such is the case of your sudden return! A trifle, a silly nightmare which for two successive nights caused you to hear the sound of my voice calling on you for help! Ah! bitter fruits of the wretched German cuisine! Really, Paul, you are foolish! And yet, you tell me things that move me to tears. I cannot answer you as I would like to. My heart is tender, but my speech is dry. I have never been able to tell any one, "I love you!" There is a jealous fiend who checks on my lips every word of affection, and imparts to it a tone of irony. But, thank God, you know me!
It seems that I make you laugh while you make me weep! Well, I am glad of it. Yes, my noble adventure in the forest has had a sequel, and a sequel with which I might very well have dispensed. All the misfortunes which you felt were threatening me have actually happened to me; rest easy, therefore.
The day following this fatal day, I began by re-conquering the esteem of my hosts at the mill, by relating to them good-naturedly the most piquant episodes of my famous race. I saw them beaming as they heard the narrative; the woman in particular was writhing in atrocious convulsions, and with formidable stretches of her jaws. I have never seen anything so hideous, in all my life, as this coarse, cowherd's joy!
As a testimonial of the complete restoration of his sympathy, the miller asked me if I was fond of hunting, took down from a hook over his mantelpiece a long, rusty tube, that made me think of Leather Stocking's rifle, and laid it into my hands, while boasting of the murderous qualities of that instrument. I acknowledged his kindness with an outward appearance of lively satisfaction, never having had the heart to undeceive people who think they are doing something to please me, and I started for the woods that cover the hill-sides, carrying like a lance that venerable weapon, which seemed indeed to me of the most dangerous kind. I went to take a seat on the heather, and I carefully laid down the long gun by me; then I amused myself driving away, by throwing stones at them, the young rabbits that ventured imprudently in the vicinity of an engine of war for the effects of which I could not be responsible. Thanks to these precautions, for over an hour that this hunt lasted, no accident happened either to the game or to myself.
To speak candidly, I was rather glad to allow the hour to pass when the hunting-party from the chateau are in the habit of taking the field, not caring very much, through a remnant of vain glory, to find myself on their passage that day. Toward two o'clock in the afternoon, I left my seat of mint and wild thyme, satisfied that I had henceforth no unpleasant encounter to apprehend. I handed the blunderbuss to the miller, who seemed somewhat surprised to see me empty-handed, and more so, probably, to see me alive still. I went to take a stand opposite the portal, and I undertook to finish a general view of the ruin, a water-color, which, I feel, is certain to secure the approbation of the minister.
I was deeply absorbed in my work, when I suddenly fancied I could hear more distinctly than usual that sound of running horses which, since my misadventure, was forever haunting my ears. I turned around sharply, and I discovered the enemy within two hundred paces of me. This time, he was attired in plain clothes, being apparently equipped for an ordinary ride; he had obtained, since the previous day, several recruits of both sexes, and now really formed an imposing body. Though long prepared for such an occurrence, I could not help feeling a certain discomfort, and I secretly cursed those indefatigable idlers. Nevertheless, the thought of retreating never occurred to me; I had lost all taste for flight for the rest of my days.
As the cavalcade drew nearer, I could hear smothered laughter and whisperings, the subject of which was but too evident to me. I must confess that a spark of anger was beginning to burn in my heart, and while going on with my work with an appearance of unabated interest, and indulging in admiring motions of the head before my water-color, I was lending to the scene going on behind me a somber and vigilant attention. However, the first intention of the party seemed to be to spare my misfortune; instead of following the path by the side of which I was established, and which was the shortest way to the ruins, they turned aside toward the right, and filed by in silence. One alone among them, falling out of the main group, came rapidly in my direction, and stopped within ten steps of my studio; though my face was bent over my drawing, I felt, by that strange intuition which every one knows, a human look fixed upon me. I raised my eyes with an air of indifference, dropping them again almost immediately; that rapid gesture had been sufficient to enable me to recognize in that indiscreet observer the young lady with the blue feathers, the original cause of all my mishaps. She was there, boldly seated on her horse, her chin raised, her eyes half closed, examining me from head to foot with admirable insolence. I had thought it best at first, out of respect for her sex, to abandon myself without resistance to her impertinent curiosity; but after a few seconds, as she manifested no intention of putting an end to her proceedings, I lost patience, and raising my head more openly, I fixed my eyes upon her with polite gravity, but persistent steadiness. She blushed; seeing which, I bowed. She returned me a slight inclination of the head, and moving off at a canter, she disappeared under the vault of the old church. I thus remained master of the field, keenly relishing the triumph of fascination I had just obtained over that little person, whom there certainly was considerable merit in putting out of countenance.
The ride through the forest lasted some twenty minutes, and I soon beheld the brilliant fantasia debouching pell-mell from the portal. I feigned again a profound abstraction; but this time again, one of the riders left the company and advanced toward me; he was a man of tall stature, who wore a blue frock-coat, buttoned up to his chin, in military style. He was marching so straight upon my little establishment, that I could not help supposing he intended passing right over it for the amusement of the ladies. I was therefore watching him with a furtive but wide-awake glance, when I had the satisfaction of seeing him stop within three steps of my camp-stool, and removing his hat.
"Monsieur," he said, in a full and frank tone of voice, "will you permit me to look at your drawing?"
I returned his salutation, nodded in token of acquiescence, and went on with my work. After a moment of silent contemplation, the unknown equestrian, apparently yielding to the violence of his impressions, allowed a few laudatory epithets to escape him; then, resuming his direct allocution:
"Monsieur," he said, "allow me to return thanks to your talent; we shall be indebted to it, I feel quite sure, for the preservation of these ruins, which are the ornament of our district."
I abandoned at once my reserve, which could no longer be anything but childish sulkiness, and I replied, as I thought I should, that he was appreciating with too much indulgence a mere amateur's sketch; that I certainly had the greatest desire of saving these beautiful ruins, but that the most important part of my work threatened to remain quite insignificant, for want of historical information which I had vainly tried to find in the archives of the county-seat.
"Parbleu, monsieur," rejoined the horseman, "you please me greatly. I have in my library a large proportion of the archives of the abbey. Come and consult them at your leisure. I shall feel grateful to you for doing so."
I thanked him with some embarrassment. I regretted not to have known it sooner. I feared being recalled to Paris by a letter which I was expecting this very day. Nevertheless, I had risen to make this answer, the ill grace of which I strove to attenuate by the courteousness of my attitude. At the same time, I formed a clearer idea of my interlocutor; he was a handsome old man, with broad shoulders, who seemed to carry with ease the weight of some sixty winters, and whose bright blue eyes expressed the kindliest good feeling.
"Come! come!" he exclaimed, "let us speak frankly. You feel some repugnance at mingling with that band of hare-brained scamps you see yonder, and whom I tried in vain yesterday to keep out of a silly affair, for which I now beg to tender you my sincere apologies. My name is the Marquis de Malouet, sir. After all, you went off with the honors of the day. They wished to see you; you did not wish to be seen. You carried your point. What else can you ask?"
I could not help laughing on hearing such a favorable interpretation of my unlucky scrape.
"You laugh!" rejoined the old marquis; "bravo! we'll soon come to an understanding, then. Now, what's to prevent your coming to spend a few days at my house? My wife has requested me to invite you; she has heard in detail all your annoyances of yesterday. She has an angel's disposition, my wife. She is no longer young, always ill; a mere breath; but she is an angel. I'll locate you in the library—you'll live like a hermit, if you like. Mon Dieu! I see it all, I tell you; these madcaps of mine frighten you; you are a serious man; I know all about that sort of disposition! Well! you'll find congenial company—my wife is full of sense; I am no fool myself. I am fond of exercise; in fact, it is indispensable to my health—but you must not take me for a brute! The devil! not at all! I'll astonish you. You must be fond of whist; we'll have a game together; you must like to live well—delicately, I mean, as it is proper and suitable for a man of taste and intelligence. Well! since you appreciate good living, I am your man; I have an excellent cook. I may even say that I have two for the present; one coming in and the other going out; it is a conjunction; the result is, a contest of skill, an academic tourney, of which you will assist me in adjudging the prize! Come! sir," he added, laughing ingenuously at his own chattering, "it's settled, isn't it? I'm going to carry you off."
Happy Paul, thrice happy is the man who can say No! Alone, he is really master of his time, of his fortune, and of his honor. One should be able to say No! even to a beggar, even to a woman, even to an amiable old man, under penalty of surrendering at hazard his charity, his dignity, and his independence. For want of a manly No, how much misery, how many downfalls, how many crimes since Adam!
While I was considering in my own mind the invitation which had just been extended to me, these thoughts crowded in my brain; I recognized their profound wisdom, and I said Yes! Fatal word, through which I lost my paradise, exchanging a retreat wholly to my taste—peaceful, laborious, romantic, and free—for the stiffness of a residence where society displays all the fury of its insipid dissipations.
I demanded the necessary time for effecting my removal, and Monsieur de Malouet left me, after grasping my hand cordially, declaring that he was extremely pleased with me, and that he was going to stimulate his two cooks to give me a triumphant reception. "I am going," he said in conclusion, "to announce to them an artist, a poet: that'll work up their imagination."
Toward five o'clock, two valets from the chateau came to take charge of my light baggage, and to advise me that a carriage was waiting for me on top of the hills. I bade farewell to my cell; I thanked my hosts; and I kissed their little urchins, all besmeared and ill-kempt as they were. These kind people seemed to see me going with regret. I felt, myself, an extraordinary and unaccountable sadness. I know not what strange sentiment attached me to that valley, but I left it with an aching heart, as one leaves his native country.
More to-morrow, Paul, for I am exhausted.
THE LITTLE COUNTESS.
The chateau of Malouet is a massive and rather vulgar construction, which dates some one hundred years back. Fine avenues, a court of honor of a handsome style, and an ancient park impart to it, however, an aspect truly seigneurial.
The old marquis came to receive me at the foot of the stoop, passed his arm under mine, and after leading me through a long maze of corridors, introduced me into a vast drawing-room, where almost complete obscurity prevailed; I could only vaguely distinguish, by the intermittent blaze of the hearth, some twenty persons of both sexes, scattered here and there in small groups. Thanks to this blessed twilight, I effected safely my entrance, which had at a distance offered itself to my imagination, under a solemn and somewhat alarming light. I had barely time to receive the compliment of welcome which Madame de Malouet addressed me in a feeble but penetrating voice. She took my arm almost at once to pass into the dining-room, having resolved, it appears, to refuse no mark of consideration to a pedestrian of such surprising agility.
Once at the table and in the bright light, I was not long in discovering that my feats of the previous day had by no means been forgotten, and that I was the center of general attention; but I stood bravely this cross-fire of curious and ironical glances, intrenched on the one hand behind a mountain of flowers that ornamented the center of the table, and on the other assisted in my defensive position by the ingenious kindness of my neighbor. Madame de Malouet is one of those rare old women whom superior strength of mind or great purity of soul has preserved against despair at the fatal hour of the fortieth year, and who have saved from the wreck of their youth a single waif, itself a supreme charm, grace. Small, frail, her face pale and withered from the effects of habitual suffering, she justifies exactly her husband's expression: "She is a breath, a breath that exhales intelligence and good-nature!" Not a shadow of any pretension unbecoming her age, an exquisite care of her person without the faintest trace of coquetry, a complete oblivion of her departed youth, a sort of bashfulness at being old, and a touching desire, not to please, but to be forgiven; such is my adorable marquise. She has traveled much, read much, and knows Paris well. I roamed with her through one of those rapid conversations in which two minds whirl and for the first time seek to become acquainted, rambling from one pole to the other, touching lightly upon all things, disputing gayly, and happy to agree.
Monsieur de Malouet seized the opportunity of the removal of the colossal dish that separated us, to ascertain the condition of my relations with his wife. He seemed satisfied at our evident good intelligence, and raising his sonorous and cordial voice:
"Monsieur," he said to me, "I have spoken to you of my two rival cooks; now is the time to justify the reputation of high discernment which I have attributed to you in the minds of these artists.
"Alas! I am about to lose the oldest, and without doubt the most skillful, of these masters—the illustrious Jean Rostain. It was he, sir, who, on his arrival from Paris, two years ago, made this remarkable speech to me: 'A man of taste, Monsieur le Marquis, can no longer live in Paris; they practice there now, a certain romantic style of cooking which will lead us Heaven knows where!' In short, sir, Rostain is a classic; this singular man has an opinion of his own! Well! you have just tasted in succession two entremets dishes of which cream forms the essential foundation; according to my idea, these dishes are both a success; but Rostain's work has struck me as greatly superior. Ah, ah! sir, I am curious to know if you can of your own accord and upon that simple indication, assign to each tree its fruit, and render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Ah, ah, let us see if you can!"
I cast a furtive glance at the remnants of the two dishes to which the marquis had just called my attention, and I had no hesitation in designating as "classic" the one that was surmounted with a temple of cupid, and a figure of that god in polychromatic pastry.
"A hit!" exclaimed the marquis. "Bravo! Rostain shall hear of it, and his heart will rejoice. Ah! monsieur, why has it not been my good fortune to receive you in my house a few days sooner? I might perhaps have kept Rostain, or, to speak more truly, Rostain might perhaps have kept me; for I cannot conceal the fact, gentlemen hunters, that you are not in the good graces of the old chef, and I am not far from attributing his departure with whatever pretexts he may choose to color it, to the annoyance he feels at your complete indifference. Thinking it might be agreeable to him, I informed him, a few weeks ago, that our hunting-meetings were about to secure him a concourse of connoisseurs worthy of his talents."
"Monsiuer le Marquis will excuse me," replied Rostain with a melancholy smile, "if I do not share his illusions; in the first place, the hunter devours and does not eat; he brings to the table the stomach of a man just saved from shipwreck, iratum ventrem, as Horace says, and swallows up without choice and without reflection, gulae parens, the most serious productions of an artist; in the second place, the violent exercise of the chase has developed in such guests an inordinate thirst, which they generally slake without moderation. Now, Monsieur le Marquis is not ignorant of the opinion of the ancients on the excessive use of wine during meals; it blunts the taste—ersurdant vina palatum! Nevertheless, Monsieur le Marquis may rest assured that I shall labor to please his guests with my usual conscientiousness, though with the painful certainty of not being understood."
After uttering these words, Rostain draped himself in his toga, cast to heaven the look of an unappreciated genius, and left my study.
"I would have thought," I said to the marquis, "that you would have spared no sacrifice to retain that great man."
"You judge me correctly, sir," replied Monsieur de Malouet; "but you'll see that he carried me to the very limits of impossibility. Precisely a week ago, Monsieur Rostain, having solicited a private audience, announced to me that he found himself under the painful necessity of leaving my service. 'Heavens! Monsieur Rostain to leave my service! And where do you expect to go?' 'To Paris.' 'What! to Paris! But you had shaken upon the great Babylon the dust of your sandals! The decadence of taste, the increasing development of the romantic cuisine! Such are your own words, Rostain!' He replied: 'Doubtless, Monsieur le Marquis; but provincial life has bitter trials which I had not foreseen!' I offered him fabulous wages; he refused. 'Come, my good fellow, what is the matter? Ah! I see, you don't like the scullery-maid; she disturbs your meditations by her vulgar songs; very well, consider her dismissed! That is not enough? Is it Antoine, then, who is objectionable? I'll discharge him! Is it the coachman? I'll send him away!' In short, I offered him, gentlemen, the whole household as a holocaust. But, at all these prodigious concessions, the old chef shook his head with indifference. But finally, I exclaimed, 'in the name of Heaven, Monsieur Rostain, do explain!' 'Mon Dieu! Monsieur le Marquis,' then said Jean Rostain, 'I must confess to you that it is impossible for me to live in a place where I find no one to play a game of billiards with me!' Ma foi! it was a little too much!" added the marquis, with a cheerful good-nature.
"I could not really offer to play billiards with him myself! I had to submit. I wrote at once to Paris, and last evening a young cook arrived, who wears a mustache and gave his name as Jacquemart (of Bordeaux). The classic Rostain, in a sublime impulse of artistic pride, volunteered to assist Monsieur Jacquemart (of Bordeaux) in his first effort, and that's how, gentlemen, I was able to-day to serve this great eclectic dinner, of which, I fear, we will alone, monsieur and myself, have appreciated the mysterious beauties."
Monsieur de Malouet rose from the table as he was concluding the story of Rostain's epic. After coffee, I followed the smokers into the garden. The evening was magnificent. The marquis led me away along the main avenue, the fine sand of which sparkled in the moonlight between the dense shadows of the tall chestnuts. While talking with apparent carelessness, he submitted me to a sort of examination upon a variety of subjects, as if to make sure that I was worthy of the interest he had so gratuitously manifested toward me up to this time. We were far from agreeing on all points; but, gifted both with sincerity and good-nature, we found almost as much pleasure in arguing as we did in agreeing. That epicurean is a thinker; his thought, always generously inclined, has assumed, in the solitude where it has developed itself, a peculiar and paradoxical turn. I wish I could give you an idea of it.
As we were returning to the chateau, we heard a great noise of voices and laughter, and we saw at the foot of the stoop some ten or twelve young men who were jumping and bounding, as if trying to reach, without the help of the steps, the platform that crowns the double staircase. We were enabled to understand the explanation of these passionate gymnastics as soon as the light of the moon enabled us to distinguish a white dress on the platform. It was evidently a tournament of which the white dress was to crown the victor. The young lady (had she not been young, they would not have jumped so high) was leaning over the balustrade, exposing boldly to the dew of an autumn night, and to the kisses of Diana, her flower-wreathed head and her bare shoulders; she was slightly stooping down, and held out to the competitors an object somewhat difficult to discern at a distance; it was a slender cigarette, the delicate handiwork of her white fingers and her rosy nails. Although there was nothing in the sight that was not charming, Monsieur de Malouet probably found in it something he did not like, for his tone of cheerful good-humor became suddenly shaded with a perceptible tint of annoyance, when he murmured:
"There it is again! I was sure of it! It is the Little Countess!"
It is hardly necessary for me to add that I had recognized, in the Little Countess, my Amazon with the blue plume, who, with or without plume, seems to have always the same disposition. She recognized me perfectly also, on her side, as you'll see directly. At the moment when we were reaching, Monsieur Malouet and myself, the top of the stoop, leaving the rival pretenders to vie and struggle with increasing ardor, the little countess, intimidated perhaps by the presence of the marquis, resolved to put an end to the scene, and thrust abruptly her cigarette into my hand, saying:
"Here! it's for you! After all, you jump better than any of them."
And she disappeared after this parting shaft, which possessed the double advantage of hitting at once both the victor and the vanquished.
This was, so far as I am concerned, the last noticeable episode of the evening. After a game or two of whist, I pretended a little fatigue, and Monsieur de Malouet had the kindness to escort me in person to a pretty little room, hung with chintz and contiguous to the library. I was disturbed during part of the night by the monotonous sound of the piano and the rumbling noise of the carriages, indications of civilization which made me regret more bitterly than ever my poor Thebais.
A DENUNCIATION OVERHEARD.
I had the satisfaction of discovering in the library of the marquis the historical documents I needed. They form, indeed, a part of the ancient archives of the abbey, and have a special interest for the family of Malouet. It was one William Malouet, a very noble man and a knight, who, about the middle of the twelfth century, with the consent of messieurs his sons, Hughes, Foulgues, John, and Thomas, restored the church and founded the abbey in favor of the order of the Benedictine monks, and for the salvation of his soul and of the souls of his ancestors, granting unto the congregation, among other dues and privileges, the fee-simple of the lands of the abbey, the tithe of all its revenues, half the wool of its flocks, three loads of wax to be received every year at Mount Saint-Michel-on-the-sea; then the river, the moors, the woods, and the mill, et molendinum in eodem situ. I took pleasure in following through the wretched latin of the time the description of this familiar landscape. It has not changed.
The foundation charter bears date 1145. Subsequent charters show that the abbey of Rozel was in possession, in the thirteenth century, of a sort of patriarchate over all the institutions of the order of Saint Benedict that were then in existence in the province of Normandy. A general chapter of the order was held there every year, presided over by the Abbot of Rozel, and at which some ten or a dozen other convents were represented by their highest dignitaries. The discipline, the labors, the temporal and spiritual management of all the Benedictines of the province were here controlled and reformed with a severity which the minutes of these little councils attest in the noblest terms. These scenes replete with dignity, took place in that Capitulary Hall now so shamefully defiled.
Aside from the archives, this library is very rich, and this is apt to divert attention. Moreover, the vortex of worldly dissipation that rages in the chateau is not without occasionally doing some prejudice to my independence. Finally, my worthy hosts frequently take away with one hand the liberty they have granted me with the other; like many persons of the world, they have not a very clear idea of the degree of connected occupation which deserves the name of work, and an hour or two of reading appears to them the utmost extent of labor that a man can bear in a day.
"Consider yourself wholly free," Monsieur le Malouet tells me every morning; "go up to your hermitage; work at your ease."
An hour later he is knocking at my door:
"Well! are we hard at work?"
"Why, yes, I am beginning to get into it."
"What! the duse! You have been at it more than two hours! You are killing yourself, my friend. However, you are free. By the way, my wife is in the parlor; when you have done you'll go and keep her company, won't you?"
"Most undoubtdedly I will."
"But only when you have entirely done, of course."
And, he goes off for a hunt or a ride by the seaside. As to myself, preoccupied with the idea than I am expected, and satisfied that I shall be unable to do any further work of value, I soon resolve to go and join Madame de Malouet, whom I find deeply engaged in conversation with the parish priest, or with Jacquemart (of Bordeaux). She has disturbed me, I am in her way, and we smile pleasantly to each other.
Such is the manner in which the middle of the day usually passes off.
In the morning, I ride on horseback with the marquis, who is kind enough to spare me the crowd and tumult of the general riding-parties. In the evening, I take a hand at whist, then I chat a while with the ladies, and I try my best to cast off at their feet my bear's skin and reputation; for I dislike to display any eccentricity of my own, this one rather more so than any other. There is in a grave disposition, when carried to the point of stiffness and ill-grace toward women, something coarsely pedantic, that is unbecoming in great talents and ridiculous in lesser ones. I retire afterward, and I work rather late in the library. That's the best of my day.
The society at the chateau is usually made up of the marquis' guests, who are always numerous at this season, and of a few persons of the neighborhood. The object of these entertainments on a grand scale is, above all, to celebrate the visit of Monsieur de Malouet's only daughter, who comes every year to spend the autumn with her family. She is a person of statuesque beauty, who amuses herself with queenly dignity, and who communicates with ordinary mortals by means of contemptuous mono-syllables uttered in a deep bass voice. She married, some twelve years ago, an Englishman, a member of the diplomatic corps, Lord A——, a personage equally handsome and impassive as herself. He addresses at intervals to his wife an English monosyllable, to which the latter replies imperturbably with a French monosyllable. Nevertheless, three little lords, worthy the pencil of Lawrence, who strut majestically around this Olympian couple, attest between the two nations a secret intelligence which escapes the vulgar observer.
A scarcely less remarkable couple comes over to us daily from a neighboring chateau. The husband is one Monsiuer de Breuilly, formerly an officer in King Charles X's body-guards, and a bosom friend of the marquis. He is a very lively old man, still quite fine-looking, and wearing over close-cropped gray hair a hat too small for his head. He has an odd, though perhaps natural, way of scanning his words, and of speaking with a degree of deliberation that seems affected. He would be quite pleasant, however, were it not that his mind is constantly tortured by an ardent jealousy, and by a no less ardent apprehension of betraying his weakness, which, nevertheless, is a glaring and obvious fact to every one. It is difficult to understand how, with such a disposition and a great deal of common sense, he has committed the signal error of marrying, at the age of fifty-five, a young and pretty woman, and a creole, I believe, in the bargain.
"Monsieur de Breuilly!" said the marquis, as he presented me to the punctilious gentleman, "my best friend, who will infallibly become yours also, and who, quite as infallibly, will cut your throat if you attempt to show any attention to his wife."
"Mon Dieu! my dear friend," replied Monsieur de Breuilly, with a laugh that was anything but joyful, and accentuating each word in his peculiar style, "why represent me to this gentleman as a Norman Othello? Monsieur may surely—monsieur is perfectly free to—besides, he knows and can observe the proper limits of things. At any rate, sir, here is Madame de Breuilly; suffer me to recommend her myself to your kind attentions."
Somewhat surprised at this language, I had the simplicity, or perhaps the innocent malice, of interpreting it literally. I sat down squarely by the side of Madame de Breuilly, and I began paying her marked attention, while, however, "observing the proper limits of things." In the meantime, Monsieur de Breuilly was watching us from a distance, with an extraordinary countenance. I could see his little gray eyes sparkling like glowing ashes; he was laughing loud, grinning, stamping, and fairly disjointing his fingers with sinister cracks. Monsieur de Malouet came suddenly to me, handed me a whist card, and taking me aside:
"What the duse has got into you?" he said.
"Into me? why, nothing!"
"Have I not warned you? It's quite a serious matter. Look at Breuilly! It is the only weakness of that gallant man; every one respects it here. Do likewise, I beg of you."
From the weakness of that gallant man, it results that his wife is condemned in society to perpetual quarantine. The fighting propensities of a husband are often but an additional attraction for the lightning; but men hesitate to risk their lives without any prospect of possible compensation, and we have here a man who threatens you at least with a public scandal, not only before harvest, as they say, but even before the seed has been fairly sown. Such a state of affairs manifestly discourages the most enterprising, and it is quite rare that Madame de Breuilly has not two vacant seats on her right and on her left, despite her nonchalant grace, despite her great creole eyes, and despite her plaintive and beseeching looks, that seem to be ever saying: "Mon Dieu! will no one lead me into temptation?"
You would doubtless think that the evident neglect in which the poor wife lives ought to be, for her husband, a motive of security. Not at all! His ingenious mania manages to discover in that fact a fresh motive of perplexity.
"My friend," he was saying yesterday to Monsieur de Malouet, "you know that I am no more jealous than any one else; but without being Orosmane, I do not pretend to be George Dandin. Well! one thing troubles me, my friend; have you noticed that apparently no one pays any attention to my wife?"
"Parbleu! if that's what troubles you—"
"Of course it is; you must admit that it is not natural. My wife is pretty; why don't they pay attention to her as well as to other ladies? There is something suspicious there!"
Fortunately, and to the great advantage of the social question, all the young women who reside in turn at the chateau are not guarded by dragons of that caliber. A few even, and among them two or three Parisians out for a holiday, display a freedom of manner, a love of pleasure, and an exaggerated elegance that certainly pass the bounds of discretion. You are aware that I have not the highest opinion of that sort of behavior, which does not answer my idea of the duties of a woman, and even of a woman of the world; nevertheless, I take side without hesitation with these giddy ones; and their conduct even appears to me the very ideal of truth and sincerity, when I hear nightly certain pious matrons distilling against them, amid low and vulgar gossip, the venom of the basest envy that can swell a rural heart. Moreover, it is not always necessary to leave Paris in order to have the ugly spectacle of these provincials let loose against what they call vice, namely, youth, elegance, distinction, charm—in a word, all the qualities which the worthy ladies possess no more, or have perhaps never possessed.
Nevertheless, with whatever disgust, these chaste vixens inspire me for the virtue they pretend to uphold (Oh, virtue! how many crimes are committed in thy name!), I am compelled, to my great regret to agree with them on one point, and to admit that one of their victims at least gives an appearance of justice to their reprobation and to their calumnies. The angel of kindness himself would hide his face in presence of this complete specimen of dissipation, of turbulence, of futility, and finally of worldly extravagance that bears the name of Countess de Palme, and the nickname of the Little Countess; a rather ill-fitting nickname, by the way, for the lady is not small, but simply slender and lithe. Madame de Palme is twenty-five years of age; she is a widow; she spends the winter in Paris with her sister, and the summer in an old Norman manor-house, with her aunt, Madame de Pontbrian. Let me get rid of the aunt first.
This aunt, who is of very ancient nobility, is particularly noted for the fervor of her hereditary opinions, and for her strict devotion. Those are both claims to consideration which I admit fully, so far as I am concerned. Every solid principle and every sincere sentiment command in these days a peculiar respect. Unfortunately Madame de Pontbrian seems to be one of those intensely devout persons who are but very indifferent Christians. She is one of those who, reducing to a few minor observances, of which they are ridiculously proud, all the duties of their religious or political faith, impart to both a harsh and hateful appearance, the effect of which is not exactly to attract proselytes. The outer forms, in all things, are sufficient for her conscience; otherwise, no trace of charity or kindness; above all, no trace of humility. Her genealogy, her assiduity to church, and her annual pilgrimages to the shrine of an illustrious exile (who would probably be glad to dispense with the sight of her countenance), inspire in this fairy such a lofty idea of herself and such a profound contempt for her neighbor, that they make her positively unsociable. She remains forever absorbed in the latrian worship which she believes due to herself. She deigns to speak but to God, and He must indeed be a kind and merciful God if He listens to her.
Under the nominal patronage of this mystic duenna, the Little Countess enjoys an absolute independence, which she uses to excess. After spending the winter in Paris, where she kills off regularly two horses and a coachman every month for the sole gratification of waltzing ten minutes every night in half a dozen different balls, Madame de Palme feels the necessity of seeking rest in the peace of rural life. She arrives at her aunt's, she jumps upon a horse, and she starts at full gallop. It matters not which way she goes, provided she keeps going. Most generally she comes to the Chateau de Malouet, where the kind-hearted mistress of the house manifests for her an amount of predilection which I can hardly understand. Familiar with men, impertinent with women, the Little Countess offers a broad mark to the most indiscreet homage of the former, and to the jealous hostility of the latter. Indifferent to the outrages of public opinion, she seems ready to aspire to the coarsest incense of gallantry; but what she requires above all things is noise, movement, a whirl, worldly pleasure carried to its most extreme and most extravagant fury; what she requires every morning, every evening, and every night, is a break-neck chase, which she conducts with frenzy; a reckless game, in which she may break the bank; an uninterrupted German, which she leads until dawn. A stoppage of a single minute, a moment of rest, of meditation and reflection, would kill her. Never was an existence at once so busy and so idle; never a more unceasing and more sterile activity.
Thus she goes through life hurriedly and without a halt, graceful, careless, busy, and ignorant as the horse she rides. When she reaches the fatal goal, that woman will fall from the nothingness of her agitation into the nothingness of eternal rest, without the shadow of a serious idea, the faintest notion of duty, the lightest cloud of a thought worthy a human being, having ever grazed, even in a dream, the narrow brain that is sheltered behind her pure, smiling, and stupid brow. It might be said that death, at whatever age it may overtake her, will find the Little Countess just as she left the cradle, if it were possible to suppose that she has preserved its innocence as well as she has retained its profound puerility. Has that madcap a soul? The word nothingness has escaped me. It is indeed difficult for me to conceive what might survive that body when it has once lost the vain fever and the frivolous breath that seem alone to animate it.
I know too well the miserable ways of the world, to take to the letter the accusations of immorality of which Madame de Palme is here the object on the part of the witches, as also on the part of some of her rivals who are silly enough to envy her social success. It is not in that respect, as you may understand, that I treat her with so much severity. Men, when they show themselves unmerciful for certain errors, are too apt to forget that they have all, more or less, spent part of their lives seeking to bring them about for their own benefit. But there is in the feminine type which I have just sketched something more shocking than immorality itself, which, however, it is rather difficult to separate from it. And so, notwithstanding my desire of not making myself conspicuous in anything, I have been unable to take upon myself to join the throng of admirers whom Madame de Palme drags after her triumphal car. I know not whether
"Le tyran dans sa cour remarqua mon absence:"
I am sometimes tempted to believe it, from the glances of astonishment and scorn with which I am overwhelmed when we meet; but it is more simple to attribute these hostile symptoms to the natural antipathy that separates two creatures as dissimilar as we are. I look at her at times, myself, with the gaping surprise which must be excited in the mind of any thinking being by the monstrosity of such a psychological phenomenon. In that way we are even. I ought rather to say we were even, for we are really no longer so, since a rather cruel little adventure that happened to me last night, and which constitutes in my account-current with Madame de Palme a considerable advance, which she will find it difficult to make up. I have told you that Madame de Malouet, through I know not what refinement of Christian charity, manifested a genuine predilection for the Little Countess. I was talking with the marquise last evening in a corner of the drawing-room. I took the liberty of telling her that this predilection, coming from a woman like her, was a bad example; that I had never very well understood, for my part, that passage of the Holy Scriptures in which the return of a single sinner is celebrated above the constant merit of a thousand just, and that this had always appeared to me very discouraging for the just.
"In the first place," answered Madame de Malouet, "the just do not get discouraged; and in the next place, there are none. Do you fancy yourself one, by chance?"
"Certainly not; I am perfectly well aware of the contrary."
"Well, then, where do you get the right of judging your neighbor so severely?"
"I do not acknowledge Madame de Palme as my neighbor."
"That's convenient! Madame de Palme, sir, has been badly brought up, badly married, and always spoilt; but, believe me, she is a genuine rough diamond."
"I only see the roughness."
"And rest assured that it only requires a skillful workman—I mean a good husband—to cut and polish it."
"Allow me to pity that future lapidary."
Madame de Malouet tapped the carpet with her foot, and manifested other signs of impatience, which I knew not at first how to interpret, for she is never out of humor; but suddenly a thought, which I took for a luminous one, occurred in my mind; I had no doubt that I had at last discovered the weak side and the only failing in that charming old woman. She was possessed with the mania of match making, and, in her Christian anxiety to snatch the Little Countess from the abyss of perdition, she was secretly meditating to hurl me into it with her, unworthy though I be. Penetrated with this modest conviction, I kept upon a defensive that seems to me, at the present moment, perfectly ridiculous.
"Mon Dieu!" said Madame de Malouet, "because you doubt her learning!"
"I do not doubt her learning," I said; "I doubt whether she knows how to read."
"But, in short, what fault do you find with her?" rejoined Madame de Malouet in a singularly agitated tone of voice.
I determined to demolish, at a single stroke, the matrimonial dream with which I supposed the marchioness to be deluding herself.
"I find fault with her," I replied, "for giving to the world the spectacle, supremely irritating even for a profane being like me, of triumphant nullity and haughty vice. I am not worth much, it's true, and I have no right to judge, but there is in me, as well as in any theatrical audience, a certain sentiment of reason and morality that rises in indignation in presence of personages wholly devoid of common-sense or virtue, and that protests against their triumph."
The old lady's indignation seemed to increase.
"Do you think I would receive her, if she deserved all the stones which slander casts at her?"
"I think it is impossible for you to believe any evil."
"Bah! I assure you that you do not show in this case any evidence of penetration. These love-stories which are attributed to her are so little like her! She is a child who does not even know what it is to love!"
"I am convinced of that, madame. Her commonplace coquetry is sufficient evidence of that. I am even ready to swear that the allurements of the imagination or the impulses of passion are wholly foreign to her errors, which thus remain without excuse."
"Oh! mon Dieu!" exclaimed Madame de Malouet, clasping her hands, "do hush! she is a poor, forsaken child! I know her better than you do. I assure you that beneath her appearance—much too frivolous, I admit—she possesses in fact as much heart as she does sense."
"That is precisely what I think, madam; as much one of as of the other."
"Ah! that is really intolerable," murmured Madame de Malouet, dropping her arms in a disconsolate manner.
At the same moment, I saw the curtain that half covered the door by the side of which we sat shake violently, and the Little Countess, leaving the hiding-place where she had been confined by the exigencies of I know not what game, showed herself to us for a moment in the aperture of the door, and returned to join the group of players that stood in the adjoining parlor. I looked at Madame de Malouet:
"What! she was there!"
"Of course she was. She heard us, and, what's more, she could see us. I made all the signs I could, but you were off!"
I remained somewhat embarrassed. I regretted the harshness of my words; for, in attacking so violently this young person, I had yielded to the excitement of controversy much more than to a sentiment of serious animadversion. In point of fact, she is indifferent to me, but it's a little too much to hear her praised.
"And now what am I to do?" I said to Madame de Malouet.
She reflected for a moment, and replied with a slight shrug of her shoulders:
"Ma foi! nothing; that's the best thing you can do."
The least breath causes a full cup to overflow; thus the little unpleasantness of this scene seems to have intensified this feeling of ennui which has scarce left me since my advent into this abode of joy. This continuous gayety, this restless agitation, this racing and dancing and dining, this ceaseless merry-making, and this eternal round of festivity importune me to the point of disgust. I regret bitterly the time I have wasted in reading and investigations which in no wise concern my official mission and have but little advanced its termination; I regret the engagements which the kind entreaties of my hosts have extorted from my weakness; I regret my vale of Tempe; above all, Paul, I regret you. There are certainly in this little social center a sufficient number of superior and kindly disposed minds to form the elements of the pleasantest and even the most elevated relations; but these elements are fairly submerged in the worldly and vulgar throng, and can only be eliminated from it with much trouble and difficulty, and never without admixture. Monsieur and Madame de Malouet, Monsieur de Breuilly even, when his insane jealously does not deprive him of the use of his faculties, certainly possess choice minds and hearts; but the mere difference of age opens an abyss between us. As to the young men and the men of my own age whom I meet here, they all march with more or less eager step in Madame de Palme's wake. It is enough that I should decline to follow them in that path, to cause them to manifest toward me a coolness akin to antipathy. My pride does not attempt to break that ice, though two or three among them appear well gifted, and reveal instincts superior to the life they have adopted.
There is one question I sometimes ask of myself on that subject; are we any better, you and I, youthful Paul, than this crowd of joyous companions and pleasant viveurs, or are we simply different from them? Like ourselves, they possess honesty and honor; like ourselves, they have neither virtue nor religion properly so-called. So far, we are equal. Our tastes alone and our pleasures differ; all their preoccupations turn to the lighter ways of the world, to the cares of gallantry and material activity; ours are almost exclusively given up to the exercise of thought, to the talents of the mind, to the works, good or evil, of the intellect. In the light of human truth, and according to common estimation, it is doubtful whether the difference in this particular is wholly in our favor; but in a more elevated order, in the moral order, and, so to speak, in the presence of God, does that superiority hold good? Are we merely yielding, as they do, to an inclination that leads us rather more to one side than to another, or are we obeying an imperative duty? What is in the eyes of God the merit of intellectual life? It seems to me sometimes that we possess for thought a species of pagan worship to which He attaches no value, and which perhaps even offends Him. More frequently, however, I think that He wishes us to make use of thought, were it even to be turned against Him, and that He accepts as a homage all the quiverings of that noble instrument of joy and torture which He has placed within us.
Is not sadness, in periods of doubt and anxiety, a species of religion? I trust so. We are, you and I, somewhat like those poor dreaming sphinxes who have been asking in vain for so many centuries, from the solitudes of the desert, the solution of the eternal riddle. Would it be a greater and more guilty folly than the happy carelessness of the Little Countess? We shall see. In the meantime, retain, for my sake, that ground-work of melancholy upon which you weave your own gentle mirth; for, thank God! you are not a pedant; you can live, you can laugh, and even laugh aloud; but thy soul is sad unto death, and that is only why I love unto death thy fraternal soul.
THE MARQUISE INTERCEDES.
Paul, there is something going on here that does not please me. I would like to have your advice; send it as soon as possible.
On Thursday morning, after finishing my letter, I went down to give it to the messenger, who leaves quite early; then, as it only wanted a few minutes of the breakfast-hour, I walked into the drawing-room, which was still empty. I was quietly looking over a review by the fireside, when the door was suddenly flung open; I heard the crushing and rustling of a silk dress too broad to get easily through an aperture three feet wide, and I saw the Little Countess appear: she had spent the night at the chateau.
If you remember the unfortunate conversation in which I had become entangled, the previous evening, and which Madame de Palme had overheard from beginning to end, you will readily understand that this lady was the last person in the world with whom it might prove pleasant to find myself alone that morning.
I rose and I addressed to her a deep courtsey; she replied with a nod, which, though slight, was still more than I deserved from her. The first steps she took in the parlor after she had seen me were stamped with hesitation and a sort of wavering; it was like the action of a partridge lightly hit on the wing and somewhat stunned by the shot. Would she go to the piano, to the window, to the right or to the left, or opposite? It was clear that she did not know herself; but indecision is not the weak point of her disposition; she soon made up her mind, and crossing the immense drawing room with very firm step, she came in the direction of the chimney, that is, toward my immediate domain.
Standing in front of my arm-chair with my review in my hand, I was awaiting the event with an apparent gravity that concealed but imperfectly, I fear, a rather powerful inward anxiety. I had indeed every reason to apprehend an explanation and a scene. In every circumstance of this kind, the natural feelings of our heart and the refinement which education and the habits of society add to them, the absolute freedom of the attack and the narrow limits allowed to the defense, give to women an overwhelming superiority over any man who is not a boor or a lover. In the particular crisis that was threatening me, the stinging consciousness of my wrongs, the recollection of the almost insulting form under which my offense had manifested itself, united to deprive me of all thought of resistance; I found myself delivered over, bound hand and foot, to the frightful wrath of a young and imperious woman thirsting for vengeance. My attitude was, therefore, not very brilliant.
Madame de Palme stopped within two steps of me, spread her right hand on the marble of the mantel, and extended toward the blazing hearth the bronzed slipper within which her left foot was held captive. Having accomplished these preliminary dispositions, she turned toward me, and without addressing me a single word, she seemed to enjoy my countenance, which, I repeat, was not worth much. I resolved to sit down again and resume my reading; but previously, and by way of transition, I thought best to say politely:
"Wouldn't you like to have this review, madam?"
"Thank you, sir, I cannot read."
Such was the answer that was promptly shot off at me in a brief tone of voice. I made with my head and my hand a courteous gesture, by which I seemed to sympathize gently with the infirmity that was thus revealed to me, after which I sat down, feeling more easy. I had drawn my adversary's fire. Honor seemed to me satisfied.
Nevertheless, after a few moments of silence, I began again to feel the awkwardness of my situation; I strove in vain to become absorbed in my reading; I kept seeing a multitude of little bronzed slippers dancing all over the paper. An open scene would have appeared to me decidedly preferable to this unpleasant and persistent proximity, to the mute hostility betrayed to my furtive glance by Madame de Palme's restless foot, the jingle of her rings on the marble mantel, and the quivering mobility of her nostrils. I therefore unconsciously uttered a sigh of relief when the door, opening suddenly, introduced upon the stage a new personage, whom I felt justified in considering as an ally.
It was a lady—a school-friend of Lady A——, whose name is Madame Durmaitre. She is a widow, and extremely handsome; she is noted for a lesser degree of folly amid the wild and worldly ladies of the chateau. For this reason, and somewhat also on account of her superior charms, she has long since conquered the ill-will of Madame de Palme, who, in allusion to her rival's somber style of dress, to the languid character of her beauty, and to the somewhat elegiac turn of her conversation, is pleased to designate her, among the young people, as the Malabar Widow. Madame Durmaitre is positively lacking in wit; but she is intelligent, tolerably well read, and much inclined to reverie. She prides herself upon a certain talent for conversation. Seeing that I am myself destitute of any other social accomplishment, she has got it into her head that I must possess that particular one, and she has undertaken to make sure of it. The result has been, between us, a rather assiduous and almost cordial intercourse; for, if I have been unable to fully respond to all her hopes, I listen, at least with religious attention, to the little melancholy pathos which is habitual with her. I appear to understand her, and she seems grateful for it. The truth is that I never tire hearing her voice, which is musical, gazing at her features, which are exquisitely regular, and admiring her large black eyes, over which a fringe of heavy eyelashes casts a mystic shadow. However, do not feel uneasy; I have decided that the time for being loved, and consequently for loving, is over for me; now, love is a malady which no one need fear, if he sincerely strive to repress its first symptoms.
Madame de Palme had turned around at the sound of the opening door; when she recognized Madame Durmaitre, a fierce light gleamed in her blue eyes; chance had sent her a victim. She allowed the beautiful widow to advance a few paces toward us, with the slow and mournful step which is characteristic of her manner, and bursting out laughing:
"Bravo!" she exclaimed, with emphasis, "the march to the scaffold! the victim dragged to the altar! Iphigenia; or, rather, Hermione:
"'Pleurante apres son char vous voulez qu'on me voie!'
"Who is it that has written this verse? I am so ignorant! Ah! it's your friend, M. de Lamartine, I believe. He was thinking of you, my dear!"
"Ah! you quote poetry now, dear madam," said Madame Durmaitre, who is not very skilled at retort.
"Why not, dear madam? Have you a monopoly of it?—'Pleurante apres son char?' I have heard Rachel say that. By the way, it is not by Lamartine, it's by Boileau. I must tell you, dear Nathalie, that I intend to ask you to give me lessons in serious and virtuous conversation. It's so amusing! And to begin at once, come! tell me whom you prefer, Lamartine or Boileau?"
"But, Bathilde, there is no connection," replied Madame Durmaitre, rather sensibly and much too candidly.
"Ah!" rejoined Madame de Palme. And suddenly pointing me out with her finger: "You perhaps prefer this gentleman, who also writes poetry?"
"No, madam," I said, "it is a mistake; I write none."
"Ah! I thought you did. I beg your pardon."
Madame Durmaitre, who doubtless owes the unalterable serenity of her soul to the consciousness of her supreme beauty, had been content with smiling with disdainful nonchalance. She dropped into the arm-chair, which I had given up to her.
"What gloomy weather!" she said to me; "really, this autumnal sky weighs upon the soul. I was looking out of the window; all the trees look like cypress-trees, and the whole country looks like a graveyard. It would really seem that——"
"No, ah! no. I beg of you, Nathalie," interrupted Madame de Palme, "say no more. That's enough fun before breakfast. You'll make yourself sick."
"Well, now! my dear Bathilde, you must really have slept very badly last night," said the beautiful widow.
"I, my dear? ah! do not say that. I had celestial, ecstatic dreams; ecstasies, you know. My soul held converse with other souls—like your own soul. Angels smiled at me through the foliage of the cypress-trees—and so forth, and so forth!"
Madame Durmaitre blushed slightly, shrugged her shoulders, and took up the review I had laid upon the mantel-piece.
"By the bye, Nathalie," resumed Madame de Palme, "do you know who we are going to have at dinner to-day, in the way of men?" The good-natured Nathalie mentioned Monsieur de Breuilly, two or three other married gentlemen, and the parish priest.
"Then I am going away after breakfast," said the Little Countess, looking at me.
"That's very polite to us," murmured Madame Durmaitre.
"You know," replied the other with imperturbable assurance, "that I only like men's society, and there are three classes of individuals whom I do not consider as belonging to that sex, or to any other; those are married men, priests, and savants."
As she concluded this sentence, Madame de Palme cast another glance at me, by which however, I had no need to understand that she included me in her classification of neutral species; it could only be among the individuals of the third category, though I have no claim to it whatever; but it does not require much to be considered a savant by the ladies.
Almost at this very moment, the breakfast-bell rang in the court-yard of the chateau, and she added:
"Ah! there's breakfast, thank Heaven! for I am develish hungry, with all respect for pure spirits and troubled souls."
She then ran and skipped to the other end of the parlor to greet Monsieur de Malouet, who was coming in followed by his guests. As to myself, I promptly offered my arm to Madame Durmaitre, and I endeavored by earnest attentions, to make her forget the storm which the mere shade of sympathy she manifests toward me had just attracted upon her.
As you may have remarked, the Little Countess had exhibited in the course of this scene, as always, an unmeasured and unseemly freedom of language; but she displayed greater resources of mind than I supposed her capable of doing, and though they had been directed against me, I could not help feeling thankful to her—to such an extent do I hate fools, whom I have ever found in this world more pernicious than wicked people. The result was, that with the feeling of repulsion and contempt with which the extravagantly worldly woman inspired me, there was henceforth mingled a shade of gentle pity for the badly brought-up child and the misdirected woman.
Women are prompt in catching delicate shades of feeling, and the latter did not escape Madame de Palme. She became vaguely conscious of a slightly favorable change in my opinion of her, and it was not long before she even began to exaggerate its extent and to attempt abusing it. For two days she pursued me with her keenest shafts, which I bore good-naturedly, and to which I even responded with some little attentions, for I had still at heart the rude expressions of my dialogue with Madame de Malouet, and I did not think I had sufficiently expiated them by the feeble martyrdom I had undergone the following day in common with the beautiful Malabar Widow.
This was enough to cause Madame Bathilde de Palme to imagine that she could treat me as a conquered province, and add Ulysses to his companions. Day before yesterday she had tested several times during the day the extent of her growing power over my heart and my will, by asking two or three little services of me; services to the honor of which every one here eagerly aspires, and which for my part, I discharged politely but with evident coolness.
In spite of the extreme reserve with which I had lent myself to these trials during the day, Madame de Palme believed in her complete success; she hastily judged that she now had but to rivet my chains and bind me to her triumph, a feeble addition of glory assuredly, but which had, after all, the merit, in her eyes, of having been contested. During the evening, as I was leaving the whist-table, she advanced toward me deliberately, and requested me to do her the honor of figuring with her in the character dance called the cotillon.[B] I excused myself laughingly on my complete inexperience; she insisted, declaring that I had evident dispositions for dancing, and reminding me of the agility I had displayed in the forest. Finally, and to close the debate, she led me away familiarly by the arm, adding that she was not in the habit of being refused.
"Nor I, madam," I said, "in that of making a show of myself."
"What! not even to gratify me?"
"Not even for that, madam, and were it the only means of succeeding in doing so."
I bowed to her smilingly after these words, which I had emphasized in such a positive manner that she insisted no more. She dropped my arm abruptly and returned to join a group of dancers who were observing us at a distance with manifest interest. She was received by them with whispers and smiles, to which she replied with a few rapid sentences, among which I only caught the word revanche. I paid no further attention to the matter for the time being, and my soul went to converse amid the clouds with the soul of Madame Durmaitre.
The next day a grand hunt was to take place in the forest. I had arranged to take no share in it, wishing to make the best of a whole day of solitude to push forward my hopeless undertaking. Toward noon, the hunters met in the court-yard of the chateau, which rang again for some fifteen minutes with the loud blast of the trumpets, the stamping of horses, and the yelping of the pack. Then the tumultuous crowd disappeared down the avenue, the noise gradually died away, and I remained master of myself and of my mind, in the midst of a silence the more grateful that it is the more rare on this meridian.