MONSIEUR DE CAMORS
By Octave Feuillet
With a Preface by MAXIME DU CAMP, of the French Academy
OCTAVE FEUILLET'S works abound with rare qualities, forming a harmonious ensemble; they also exhibit great observation and knowledge of humanity, and through all of them runs an incomparable and distinctive charm. He will always be considered the leader of the idealistic school in the nineteenth century. It is now fifteen years since his death, and the judgment of posterity is that he had a great imagination, linked to great analytical power and insight; that his style is neat, pure, and fine, and at the same time brilliant and concise. He unites suppleness with force, he combines grace with vigor.
Octave Feuillet was born at Saint-Lo (Manche), August 11, 1821, his father occupying the post of Secretary-General of the Prefecture de la Manche. Pupil at the Lycee Louis le Grand, he received many prizes, and was entered for the law. But he became early attracted to literature, and like many of the writers at that period attached himself to the "romantic school." He collaborated with Alexander Dumas pere and with Paul Bocage. It can not now be ascertained what share Feuillet may have had in any of the countless tales of the elder Dumas. Under his own name he published the novels 'Onesta' and 'Alix', in 1846, his first romances. He then commenced writing for the stage. We mention 'Echec et Mat' (Odeon, 1846); 'Palma, ou la Nuit du Vendredi-Saint' (Porte St. Martin, 1847); 'La Vieillesse de Richelieu' (Theatre Francais, 1848); 'York' (Palais Royal, 1852). Some of them are written in collaboration with Paul Bocage. They are dramas of the Dumas type, conventional, not without cleverness, but making no lasting mark.
Realizing this, Feuillet halted, pondered, abruptly changed front, and began to follow in the footsteps of Alfred de Musset. 'La Grise' (1854), 'Le Village' (1856), 'Dalila' (1857), 'Le Cheveu Blanc', and other plays obtained great success, partly in the Gymnase, partly in the Comedie Francaise. In these works Feuillet revealed himself as an analyst of feminine character, as one who had spied out all their secrets, and could pour balm on all their wounds. 'Le Roman d'un Jeune Homme Pauvre' (Vaudeville, 1858) is probably the best known of all his later dramas; it was, of course, adapted for the stage from his romance, and is well known to the American public through Lester Wallack and Pierrepont Edwards. 'Tentation' was produced in the year 1860, also well known in this country under the title 'Led Astray'; then followed 'Montjoye' (1863), etc. The influence of Alfred de Musset is henceforth less perceptible. Feuillet now became a follower of Dumas fils, especially so in 'La Belle au Bois Dormant' (Vaudeville, 1865); 'Le Cas de Conscience (Theatre Francais, 1867); 'Julie' (Theatre Francais 1869). These met with success, and are still in the repertoire of the Comedie Francaise.
As a romancer, Feuillet occupies a high place. For thirty years he was the representative of a noble and tender genre, and was preeminently the favorite novelist of the brilliant society of the Second Empire. Women literally devoured him, and his feminine public has always remained faithful to him. He is the advocate of morality and of the aristocracy of birth and feeling, though under this disguise he involves his heroes and heroines in highly romantic complications, whose outcome is often for a time in doubt. Yet as the accredited painter of the Faubourg Saint-Germain he contributed an essential element to the development of realistic fiction. No one has rendered so well as he the high-strung, neuropathic women of the upper class, who neither understand themselves nor are wholly comprehensible to others. In 'Monsieur de Camors', crowned by the Academy, he has yielded to the demands of a stricter realism. Especially after the fall of the Empire had removed a powerful motive for gilding the vices of aristocratic society, he painted its hard and selfish qualities as none of his contemporaries could have done. Octave Feuillet was elected to the Academie Francaise in 1862 to succeed Scribe. He died December 29, 1890.
MAXIME DU CAMP de l'Acadamie Francaise.
MONSIEUR DE CAMORS
CHAPTER I. "THE WAGES OF SIN IS DEATH"
Near eleven o'clock, one evening in the month of May, a man about fifty years of age, well formed, and of noble carriage, stepped from a coupe in the courtyard of a small hotel in the Rue Barbet-de-Jouy. He ascended, with the walk of a master, the steps leading to the entrance, to the hall where several servants awaited him. One of them followed him into an elegant study on the first floor, which communicated with a handsome bedroom, separated from it by a curtained arch. The valet arranged the fire, raised the lamps in both rooms, and was about to retire, when his master spoke:
"Has my son returned home?"
"No, Monsieur le Comte. Monsieur is not ill?"
"Because Monsieur le Comte is so pale."
"Ah! It is only a slight cold I have taken this evening on the banks of the lake."
"Will Monsieur require anything?"
"Nothing," replied the Count briefly, and the servant retired. Left alone, his master approached a cabinet curiously carved in the Italian style, and took from it a long flat ebony box.
This contained two pistols. He loaded them with great care, adjusting the caps by pressing them lightly to the nipple with his thumb. That done, he lighted a cigar, and for half an hour the muffled beat of his regular tread sounded on the carpet of the gallery. He finished his cigar, paused a moment in deep thought, and then entered the adjoining room, taking the pistols with him.
This room, like the other, was furnished in a style of severe elegance, relieved by tasteful ornament. It showed some pictures by famous masters, statues, bronzes, and rare carvings in ivory. The Count threw a glance of singular interest round the interior of this chamber, which was his own—on the familiar objects—on the sombre hangings—on the bed, prepared for sleep. Then he turned toward a table, placed in a recess of the window, laid the pistols upon it, and dropping his head in his hands, meditated deeply many minutes. Suddenly he raised his head, and wrote rapidly as follows:
"TO MY SON:
"Life wearies me, my son, and I shall relinquish it. The true superiority of man over the inert or passive creatures that surround him, lies in his power to free himself, at will, from those, pernicious servitudes which are termed the laws of nature. Man, if he will it, need not grow old: the lion must. Reflect, my son, upon this text, for all human power lies in it.
"Science asserts and demonstrates it. Man, intelligent and free, is an animal wholly unpremeditated upon this planet. Produced by unexpected combinations and haphazard transformations, in the midst of a general subordination of matter, he figures as a dissonance and a revolt!
"Nature has engendered without having conceived him. The result is as if a turkey-hen had unconsciously hatched the egg of an eagle. Terrified at the monster, she has sought to control it, and has overloaded it with instincts, commonly called duties, and police regulations known as religion. Each one of these shackles broken, each one of these servitudes overthrown, marks a step toward the thorough emancipation of humanity.
"I must say to you, however, that I die in the faith of my century, believing in matter uncreated, all-powerful, and eternal—the Nature of the ancients. There have been in all ages philosophers who have had conceptions of the truth. But ripe to-day, it has become the common property of all who are strong enough to stand it—for, in sooth, this latest religion of humanity is food fit only for the strong. It carries sadness with it, for it isolates man; but it also involves grandeur, making man absolutely free, or, as it were, a very god. It leaves him no actual duties except to himself, and it opens a superb field to one of brain and courage.
"The masses still remain, and must ever remain, submissive under the yoke of old, dead religions, and under the tyranny of instincts. There will still be seen very much the same condition of things as at present in Paris; a society the brain of which is atheistic, and the heart religious. And at bottom there will be no more belief in Christ than in Jupiter; nevertheless, churches will continue to be built mechanically. There are no longer even Deists; for the old chimera of a personal, moral God-witness, sanction, and judge,—is virtually extinct; and yet hardly a word is said, or a line written, or a gesture made, in public or private life, which does not ever affirm that chimera. This may have its uses perchance, but it is nevertheless despicable. Slip forth from the common herd, my son, think for yourself, and write your own catechism upon a virgin page.
"As for myself, my life has been a failure, because I was born many years too soon. As yet the earth and the heavens were heaped up and cumbered with ruins, and people did not see. Science, moreover, was relatively still in its infancy. And, besides, I retained the prejudices and the repugnance to the doctrines of the new world that belonged to my name. I was unable to comprehend that there was anything better to be done than childishly to pout at the conqueror; that is, I could not recognize that his weapons were good, and that I should seize and destroy him with them. In short, for want of a definite principle of action I have drifted at random, my life without plan—I have been a mere trivial man of pleasure.
"Your life shall be more complete, if you will only follow my advice.
"What, indeed, may not a man of this age become if he have the good sense and energy to conform his life rigidly to his belief!
"I merely state the question, you must solve it; I can leave you only some cursory ideas, which I am satisfied are just, and upon which you may meditate at your leisure. Only for fools or the weak does materialism become a debasing dogma; assuredly, in its code there are none of those precepts of ordinary morals which our fathers entitled virtue; but I do find there a grand word which may well counterbalance many others, that is to say, Honor, self-esteem! Unquestionably a materialist may not be a saint; but he can be a gentleman, which is something. You have happy gifts, my son, and I know of but one duty that you have in the world—that of developing those gifts to the utmost, and through them to enjoy life unsparingly. Therefore, without scruple, use woman for your pleasure, man for your advancement; but under no circumstances do anything ignoble.
"In order that ennui shall not drive you, like myself, prematurely from the world so soon as the season for pleasure shall have ended, you should leave the emotions of ambition and of public life for the gratification of your riper age. Do not enter into any engagements with the reigning government, and reserve for yourself to hear its eulogium made by those who will have subverted it. That is the French fashion. Each generation must have its own prey. You will soon feel the impulse of the coming generation. Prepare yourself, from afar, to take the lead in it.
"In politics, my son, you are not ignorant that we all take our principles from our temperament. The bilious are demagogues, the sanguine, democrats, the nervous, aristocrats. You are both sanguine and nervous, an excellent constitution, for it gives you a choice. You may, for example, be an aristocrat in regard to yourself personally, and, at the same time, a democrat in relation to others; and in that you will not be exceptional.
"Make yourself master of every question likely to interest your contemporaries, but do not become absorbed in any yourself. In reality, all principles are indifferent—true or false according to the hour and circumstance. Ideas are mere instruments with which you should learn to play seasonably, so as to sway men. In that path, likewise, you will have associates.
"Know, my son, that having attained my age, weary of all else, you will have need of strong sensations. The sanguinary diversions of revolution will then be for you the same as a love-affair at twenty.
"But I am fatigued, my son, and shall recapitulate. To be loved by women, to be feared by men, to be as impassive and as imperturbable as a god before the tears of the one and the blood of the other, and to end in a whirlwind—such has been the lot in which I have failed, but which, nevertheless, I bequeath to you. With your great faculties you, however, are capable of accomplishing it, unless indeed you should fail through some ingrained weakness of the heart that I have noticed in you, and which, doubtless, you have imbibed with your mother's milk.
"So long as man shall be born of woman, there will be something faulty and incomplete in his character. In fine, strive to relieve yourself from all thraldom, from all natural instincts, affections, and sympathies as from so many fetters upon your liberty, your strength.
"Do not marry unless some superior interest shall impel you to do so. In that event, have no children.
"Have no intimate friends. Caesar having grown old, had a friend. It was Brutus!
"Contempt for men is the beginning of wisdom.
"Change somewhat your style of fencing, it is altogether too open, my son. Do not get angry. Rarely laugh, and never weep. Adieu.
The feeble rays of dawn had passed through the slats of the blinds. The matin birds began their song in the chestnut-tree near the window. M. de Camors raised his head and listened in an absent mood to the sound which astonished him. Seeing that it was daybreak, he folded in some haste the pages he had just finished, pressed his seal upon the envelope, and addressed it, "For the Comte Louis de Camors." Then he rose.
M. de Camors was a great lover of art, and had carefully preserved a magnificent ivory carving of the sixteenth century, which had belonged to his wife. It was a Christ the pallid white relieved by a medallion of dark velvet.
His eye, meeting this pale, sad image, was attracted to it for a moment with strange fascination. Then he smiled bitterly, seized one of the pistols with a firm hand and pressed it to his temple.
A shot resounded through the house; the fall of a heavy body shook the floor-fragments of brains strewed the carpet. The Comte de Camors had plunged into eternity!
His last will was clenched in his hand.
To whom was this document addressed? Upon what kind of soil will these seeds fall?
At this time Louis de Camors was twenty-seven years old. His mother had died young. It did not appear that she had been particularly happy with her husband; and her son barely remembered her as a young woman, pretty and pale, and frequently weeping, who used to sing him to sleep in a low, sweet voice. He had been brought up chiefly by his father's mistress, who was known as the Vicomtesse d'Oilly, a widow, and a rather good sort of woman. Her natural sensibility, and the laxity of morals then reigning at Paris, permitted her to occupy herself at the same time with the happiness of the father and the education of the son. When the father deserted her after a time, he left her the child, to comfort her somewhat by this mark of confidence and affection. She took him out three times a week; she dressed him and combed him; she fondled him and took him with her to church, and made him play with a handsome Spaniard, who had been for some time her secretary. Besides, she neglected no opportunity of inculcating precepts of sound morality. Thus the child, being surprised at seeing her one evening press a kiss upon the forehead of her secretary, cried out, with the blunt candor of his age:
"Why, Madame, do you kiss a gentleman who is not your husband?"
"Because, my dear," replied the Countess, "our good Lord commands us to be charitable and affectionate to the poor, the infirm, and the exile; and Monsieur Perez is an exile."
Louis de Camors merited better care, for he was a generous-hearted child; and his comrades of the college of Louis-le-Grand always remembered the warm-heartedness and natural grace which made them forgive his successes during the week, and his varnished boots and lilac gloves on Sunday. Toward the close of his college course, he became particularly attached to a poor bursar, by name Lescande, who excelled in mathematics, but who was very ungraceful, awkwardly shy and timid, with a painful sensitiveness to the peculiarities of his person. He was nicknamed "Wolfhead," from the refractory nature of his hair; but the elegant Camors stopped the scoffers by protecting the young man with his friendship. Lescande felt this deeply, and adored his friend, to whom he opened the inmost recesses of his heart, letting out some important secrets.
He loved a very young girl who was his cousin, but was as poor as himself. Still it was a providential thing for him that she was poor, otherwise he never should have dared to aspire to her. It was a sad occurrence that had first thrown Lescande with his cousin—the loss of her father, who was chief of one of the Departments of State.
After his death she lived with her mother in very straitened circumstances; and Lescande, on occasion of his last visit, found her with soiled cuffs. Immediately after he received the following note:
"Pardon me, dear cousin! Pardon my not wearing white cuffs. But I must tell you that we can change our cuffs—my mother and I—only three times a week. As to her, one would never discover it. She is neat as a bird. I also try to be; but, alas! when I practise the piano, my cuffs rub. After this explanation, my good Theodore, I hope you will love me as before.
Lescande wept over this note. Luckily he had his prospects as an architect; and Juliette had promised to wait for him ten years, by which time he would either be dead, or living deliciously in a humble house with his cousin. He showed the note, and unfolded his plans to Camors. "This is the only ambition I have, or which I can have," added Lescande. "You are different. You are born for great things."
"Listen, my old Lescande," replied Camors, who had just passed his rhetoric examination in triumph. "I do not know but that my destiny may be ordinary; but I am sure my heart can never be. There I feel transports—passions, which give me sometimes great joy, sometimes inexpressible suffering. I burn to discover a world—to save a nation—to love a queen! I understand nothing but great ambitions and noble alliances, and as for sentimental love, it troubles me but little. My activity pants for a nobler and a wider field!
"I intend to attach myself to one of the great social parties, political or religious, that agitate the world at this era. Which one I know not yet, for my opinions are not very fixed. But as soon as I leave college I shall devote myself to seeking the truth. And truth is easily found. I shall read all the newspapers.
"Besides, Paris is an intellectual highway, so brilliantly lighted it is only necessary to open one's eyes and have good faith and independence, to find the true road.
"And I am in excellent case for this, for though born a gentleman, I have no prejudices. My father, who is himself very enlightened and very liberal, leaves me free. I have an uncle who is a Republican; an aunt who is a Legitimist—and what is still more, a saint; and another uncle who is a Conservative. It is not vanity that leads me to speak of these things; but only a desire to show you that, having a foot in all parties, I am quite willing to compare them dispassionately and make a good choice. Once master of the holy truth, you may be sure, dear old Lescande, I shall serve it unto death—with my tongue, with my pen, and with my sword!"
Such sentiments as these, pronounced with sincere emotion and accompanied by a warm clasp of the hand, drew tears from the old Lescande, otherwise called Wolfhead.
CHAPTER II. FRUIT FROM THE HOTBED OF PARIS
Early one morning, about eight years after these high resolves, Louis de Camors rode out from the 'porte-cochere' of the small hotel he had occupied with his father.
Nothing could be gayer than Paris was that morning, at that charming golden hour of the day when the world seems peopled only with good and generous spirits who love one another. Paris does not pique herself on her generosity; but she still takes to herself at this charming hour an air of innocence, cheerfulness, and amiable cordiality.
The little carts with bells, that pass one another rapidly, make one believe the country is covered with roses. The cries of old Paris cut with their sharp notes the deep murmur of a great city just awaking.
You see the jolly concierges sweeping the white footpaths; half-dressed merchants taking down their shutters with great noise; and groups of ostlers, in Scotch caps, smoking and fraternizing on the hotel steps.
You hear the questions of the sociable neighborhood; the news proper to awakening; speculations on the weather bandied across from door to door, with much interest.
Young milliners, a little late, walk briskly toward town with elastic step, making now a short pause before a shop just opened; again taking wing like a bee just scenting a flower.
Even the dead in this gay Paris morning seem to go gayly to the cemetery, with their jovial coachmen grinning and nodding as they pass.
Superbly aloof from these agreeable impressions, Louis de Camors, a little pale, with half-closed eyes and a cigar between his teeth, rode into the Rue de Bourgogne at a walk, broke into a canter on the Champs Elysees, and galloped thence to the Bois. After a brisk run, he returned by chance through the Porte Maillot, then not nearly so thickly inhabited as it is to-day. Already, however, a few pretty houses, with green lawns in front, peeped out from the bushes of lilac and clematis. Before the green railings of one of these a gentleman played hoop with a very young, blond-haired child. His age belonged in that uncertain area which may range from twenty-five to forty. He wore a white cravat, spotless as snow; and two triangles of short, thick beard, cut like the boxwood at Versailles, ornamented his cheeks. If Camors saw this personage he did not honor him with the slightest notice. He was, notwithstanding, his former comrade Lescande, who had been lost sight of for several years by his warmest college friend. Lescande, however, whose memory seemed better, felt his heart leap with joy at the majestic appearance of the young cavalier who approached him. He made a movement to rush forward; a smile covered his good-natured face, but it ended in a grimace. Evidently he had been forgotten. Camors, now not more than a couple of feet from him, was passing on, and his handsome countenance gave not the slightest sign of emotion. Suddenly, without changing a single line of his face, he drew rein, took the cigar from his lips, and said, in a tranquil voice:
"Hello! You have no longer a wolf head!"
"Ha! Then you know me?" cried Lescande.
"Know you? Why not?"
"I thought—I was afraid—on account of my beard—"
"Bah! your beard does not change you—except that it becomes you. But what are you doing here?"
"Doing here! Why, my dear friend, I am at home here. Dismount, I pray you, and come into my house."
"Well, why not?" replied Camors, with the same voice and manner of supreme indifference; and, throwing his bridle to the servant who followed him, he passed through the gardengate, led, supported, caressed by the trembling hand of Lescande.
The garden was small, but beautifully tended and full of rare plants. At the end, a small villa, in the Italian style, showed its graceful porch.
"Ah, that is pretty!" exclaimed Camors, at last.
"And you recognize my plan, Number Three, do you not?" asked Lescande, eagerly.
"Your plan Number Three? Ah, yes, perfectly," replied Camors, absently. "And your pretty little cousin—is she within?"
"She is there, my dear friend," answered Lescande, in a low voice—and he pointed to the closed shutters of a large window of a balcony surmounting the veranda. "She is there; and this is our son."
Camors let his hand pass listlessly over the child's hair. "The deuce!" he said; "but you have not wasted time. And you are happy, my good fellow?"
"So happy, my dear friend, that I am sometimes uneasy, for the good God is too kind to me. It is true, though, I had to work very hard. For instance, I passed two years in Spain—in the mountains of that infernal country. There I built a fairy palace for the Marquis of Buena-Vista, a great nobleman, who had seen my plan at the Exhibition and was delighted with it. This was the beginning of my fortune; but you must not imagine that my profession alone has enriched me so quickly. I made some successful speculations—some unheard of chances in lands; and, I beg you to believe, honestly, too. Still, I am not a millionaire; but you know I had nothing, and my wife less; now, my house paid for, we have ten thousand francs' income left. It is not a fortune for us, living in this style; but I still work and keep good courage, and my Juliette is happy in her paradise!"
"She wears no more soiled cuffs, then?" said Camors.
"I warrant she does not! Indeed, she has a slight tendency to luxury—like all women, you know. But I am delighted to see you remember so well our college follies. I also, through all my distractions, never forgot you a moment. I even had a foolish idea of asking you to my wedding, only I did not dare. You are so brilliant, so petted, with your establishment and your racers. My wife knows you very well; in fact, we have talked of you a hundred thousand times. Since she patronizes the turf and subscribes for 'The Sport', she says to me, 'Your friend's horse has won again'; and in our family circle we rejoice over your triumphs."
A flush tinged the cheek of Camors as he answered, quietly, "You are really too good."
They walked a moment in silence over the gravel path bordered by grass, before Lescande spoke again.
"And yourself, dear friend, I hope that you also are happy."
"I—happy!" Camors seemed a little astonished. "My happiness is simple enough, but I believe it is unclouded. I rise in the morning, ride to the Bois, thence to the club, go to the Bois again, and then back to the club. If there is a first representation at any theatre, I wish to see it. Thus, last evening they gave a new piece which was really exquisite. There was a song in it, beginning:
'He was a woodpecker, A little woodpecker, A young woodpecker—'
and the chorus imitated the cry of the woodpecker! Well, it was charming, and the whole of Paris will sing that song with delight for a year. I also shall do like the whole of Paris, and I shall be happy."
"Good heavens! my friend," laughed Lescande, "and that suffices you for happiness?"
"That and—the principles of 'eighty-nine," replied Camors, lighting a fresh cigar from the old one.
Here their dialogue was broken by the fresh voice of a woman calling from the blinds of the balcony—
"Is that you, Theodore?"
Camors raised his eyes and saw a white hand, resting on the slats of the blind, bathed in sunlight.
"That is my wife. Conceal yourself!" cried Lescande, briskly; and he pushed Camors behind a clump of catalpas, as he turned to the balcony and lightly answered:
"Yes, my dear; do you wish anything?"
"Maxime is with you?"
"Yes, mother. I am here," cried the child. "It is a beautiful morning. Are you quite well?"
"I hardly know. I have slept too long, I believe." She opened the shutters, and, shading her eyes from the glare with her hand, appeared on the balcony.
She was in the flower of youth, slight, supple, and graceful, and appeared, in her ample morning-gown of blue cashmere, plumper and taller than she really was. Bands of the same color interlaced, in the Greek fashion, her chestnut hair—which nature, art, and the night had dishevelled—waved and curled to admiration on her small head.
She rested her elbows on the railing, yawned, showing her white teeth, and looking at her husband, asked:
"Why do you look so stupid?"
At the instant she observed Camors—whom the interest of the moment had withdrawn from his concealment—gave a startled cry, gathered up her skirts, and retired within the room.
Since leaving college up to this hour, Louis de Camors had never formed any great opinion of the Juliet who had taken Lescande as her Romeo. He experienced a flash of agreeable surprise on discovering that his friend was more happy in that respect than he had supposed.
"I am about to be scolded, my friend," said Lescande, with a hearty laugh, "and you also must stay for your share. You will stay and breakfast with us?"
Camors hesitated; then said, hastily, "No, no! Impossible! I have an engagement which I must keep."
Notwithstanding Camors's unwillingness, Lescande detained him until he had extorted a promise to come and dine with them—that is, with him, his wife, and his mother-in-law, Madame Mursois—on the following Tuesday. This acceptance left a cloud on the spirit of Camors until the appointed day. Besides abhorring family dinners, he objected to being reminded of the scene of the balcony. The indiscreet kindness of Lescande both touched and irritated him; for he knew he should play but a silly part near this pretty woman. He felt sure she was a coquette, notwithstanding which, the recollections of his youth and the character of her husband should make her sacred to him. So he was not in the most agreeable frame of mind when he stepped out of his dog-cart, that Tuesday evening, before the little villa of the Avenue Maillot.
At his reception by Madame Lescande and her mother he took heart a little. They appeared to him what they were, two honest-hearted women, surrounded by luxury and elegance. The mother—an ex-beauty—had been left a widow when very young, and to this time had avoided any stain on her character. With them, innate delicacy held the place of those solid principles so little tolerated by French society. Like a few other women of society, Madame had the quality of virtue just as ermine has the quality of whiteness. Vice was not so repugnant to her as an evil as it was as a blemish. Her daughter had received from her those instincts of chastity which are oftener than we imagine hidden under the appearance of pride. But these amiable women had one unfortunate caprice, not uncommon at this day among Parisians of their position. Although rather clever, they bowed down, with the adoration of bourgeoises, before that aristocracy, more or less pure, that paraded up and down the Champs Elysees, in the theatres, at the race-course, and on the most frequented promenades, its frivolous affairs and rival vanities.
Virtuous themselves, they read with interest the daintiest bits of scandal and the most equivocal adventures that took place among the elite. It was their happiness and their glory to learn the smallest details of the high life of Paris; to follow its feasts, speak in its slang, copy its toilets, and read its favorite books. So that if not the rose, they could at least be near the rose and become impregnated with her colors and her perfumes. Such apparent familiarity heightened them singularly in their own estimation and in that of their associates.
Now, although Camors did not yet occupy that bright spot in the heaven of fashion which was surely to be his one day, still he could here pass for a demigod, and as such inspire Madame Lescande and her mother with a sentiment of most violent curiosity. His early intimacy with Lescande had always connected a peculiar interest with his name: and they knew the names of his horses—most likely knew the names of his mistresses.
So it required all their natural tact to conceal from their guest the flutter of their nerves caused by his sacred presence; but they did succeed, and so well that Camors was slightly piqued. If not a coxcomb, he was at least young: he was accustomed to please: he knew the Princess de Clam-Goritz had lately applied to him her learned definition of an agreeable man—"He is charming, for one always feels in danger near him!"
Consequently, it seemed a little strange to him that the simple mother of the simple wife of simple Lescande should be able to bear his radiance with such calmness; and this brought him out of his premeditated reserve.
He took the trouble to be irresistible—not to Madame Lescande, to whom he was studiously respectful—but to Madame Mursois. The whole evening he scattered around the mother the social epigrams intended to dazzle the daughter; Lescande meanwhile sitting with his mouth open, delighted with the success of his old schoolfellow.
Next afternoon, Camors, returning from his ride in the Bois, by chance passed the Avenue Maillot. Madame Lescande was embroidering on the balcony, by chance, and returned his salute over her tapestry. He remarked, too, that she saluted very gracefully, by a slight inclination of the head, followed by a slight movement of her symmetrical, sloping shoulders.
When he called upon her two or three days after—as was only his duty—Camors reflected on a strong resolution he had made to keep very cool, and to expatiate to Madame Lescande only on her husband's virtues. This pious resolve had an unfortunate effect; for Madame, whose virtue had been piqued, had also reflected; and while an obtrusive devotion had not failed to frighten her, this course only reassured her. So she gave up without restraint to the pleasure of receiving in her boudoir one of the brightest stars from the heaven of her dreams.
It was now May, and at the races of La Marche—to take place the following Sunday—Camors was to be one of the riders. Madame Mursois and her daughter prevailed upon Lescande to take them, while Camors completed their happiness by admitting them to the weighing-stand. Further, when they walked past the judge's stand, Madame Mursois, to whom he gave his arm, had the delight of being escorted in public by a cavalier in an orange jacket and topboots. Lescande and his wife followed in the wake of the radiant mother-in-law, partaking of her ecstasy.
These agreeable relations continued for several weeks, without seeming to change their character. One day Camors would seat himself by the lady, before the palace of the Exhibition, and initiate her into the mysteries of all the fashionables who passed before them. Another time he would drop into their box at the opera, deign to remain there during an act or two, and correct their as yet incomplete views of the morals of the ballet. But in all these interviews he held toward Madame Lescande the language and manner of a brother: perhaps because he secretly persisted in his delicate resolve; perhaps because he was not ignorant that every road leads to Rome—and one as surely as another.
Madame Lescande reassured herself more and more; and feeling it unnecessary to be on her guard, as at first, thought she might permit herself a little levity. No woman is flattered at being loved only as a sister.
Camors, a little disquieted by the course things were taking, made some slight effort to divert it. But, although men in fencing wish to spare their adversaries, sometimes they find habit too strong for them, and lunge home in spite of themselves. Besides, he began to be really interested in Madame Lescande—in her coquettish ways, at once artful and simple, provoking and timid, suggestive and reticent—in short, charming.
The same evening that M. de Camors, the elder, returned to his home bent on suicide, his son, passing up the Avenue Maillot, was stopped by Lescande on the threshold of his villa.
"My friend," said the latter, "as you are here you can do me a great favor. A telegram calls me suddenly to Melun—I must go on the instant. The ladies will be so lonely, pray stay and dine with them! I can't tell what the deuce ails my wife. She has been weeping all day over her tapestry; my mother-in-law has a headache. Your presence will cheer them. So stay, I beg you."
Camors refused, hesitated, made objections, and consented. He sent back his horse, and his friend presented him to the ladies, whom the presence of the unexpected guest seemed to cheer a little. Lescande stepped into his carriage and departed, after receiving from his wife an embrace more fervent than usual.
The dinner was gay. In the atmosphere was that subtle suggestion of coming danger of which both Camors and Madame Lescande felt the exhilarating influence. Their excitement, as yet innocent, employed itself in those lively sallies—those brilliant combats at the barriers—that ever precede the more serious conflict. About nine o'clock the headache of Madame Mursois—perhaps owing to the cigar they had allowed Camors—became more violent. She declared she could endure it no longer, and must retire to her chamber. Camors wished to withdraw, but his carriage had not yet arrived and Madame Mursois insisted that he should wait for it.
"Let my daughter amuse you with a little music until then," she added.
Left alone with her guest, the younger lady seemed embarrassed. "What shall I play for you?" she asked, in a constrained voice, taking her seat at the piano.
"Oh! anything—play a waltz," answered Camors, absently.
The waltz finished, an awkward silence ensued. To break it she arose hesitatingly; then clasping her hands together exclaimed, "It seems to me there is a storm. Do you not think so?" She approached the window, opened it, and stepped out on the balcony. In a second Camors was at her side.
The night was beautifully clear. Before them stretched the sombre shadow of the wood, while nearer trembling rays of moonlight slept upon the lawn.
How still all was! Their trembling hands met and for a moment did not separate.
"Juliette!" whispered the young man, in a low, broken voice. She shuddered, repelled the arm that Camors passed round her, and hastily reentered the room.
"Leave me, I pray you!" she cried, with an impetuous gesture of her hand, as she sank upon the sofa, and buried her face in her hands.
Of course Camors did not obey. He seated himself by her.
In a little while Juliette awoke from her trance; but she awoke a lost woman!
How bitter was that awakening! She measured at a first glance the depth of the awful abyss into which she had suddenly plunged. Her husband, her mother, her infant, whirled like spectres in the mad chaos of her brain.
Sensible of the anguish of an irreparable wrong, she rose, passed her hand vacantly across her brow, and muttering, "Oh, God! oh, God!" peered vainly into the dark for light—hope—refuge! There was none!
Her tortured soul cast herself utterly on that of her lover. She turned her swimming eyes on him and said:
"How you must despise me!"
Camors, half kneeling on the carpet near her, kissed her hand indifferently and half raised his shoulders in sign of denial. "Is it not so?" she repeated. "Answer me, Louis."
His face wore a strange, cruel smile—"Do not insist on an answer, I pray you," he said.
"Then I am right? You do despise me?"
Camors turned himself abruptly full toward her, looked straight in her face, and said, in a cold, hard voice, "I do!"
To this cruel speech the poor child replied by a wild cry that seemed to rend her, while her eyes dilated as if under the influence of strong poison. Camors strode across the room, then returned and stood by her as he said, in a quick, violent tone:
"You think I am brutal? Perhaps I am, but that can matter little now. After the irreparable wrong I have done you, there is one service—and only one which I can now render you. I do it now, and tell you the truth. Understand me clearly; women who fall do not judge themselves more harshly than their accomplices judge them. For myself, what would you have me think of you?
"To his misfortune and my shame, I have known your husband since his boyhood. There is not a drop of blood in his veins that does not throb for you; there is not a thought of his day nor a dream of his night that is not yours; your every comfort comes from his sacrifices—your every joy from his exertion! See what he is to you!
"You have only seen my name in the journals; you have seen me ride by your window; I have talked a few times with you, and you yield to me in one moment the whole of his life with your own—the whole of his happiness with your own.
"I tell you, woman, every man like me, who abuses your vanity and your weakness and afterward tells you he esteems you—lies! And if after all you still believe he loves you, you do yourself fresh injury. No: we soon learn to hate those irksome ties that become duties where we only sought pleasures; and the first effort after they are formed is to shatter them.
"As for the rest: women like you are not made for unholy love like ours. Their charm is their purity, and losing that, they lose everything. But it is a blessing to them to encounter one wretch, like myself, who cares to say—Forget me, forever! Farewell!"
He left her, passed from the room with rapid strides, and, slamming the door behind him, disappeared. Madame Lescande, who had listened, motionless, and pale as marble, remained in the same lifeless attitude, her eyes fixed, her hands clenched—yearning from the depths of her heart that death would summon her. Suddenly a singular noise, seeming to come from the next room, struck her ear. It was only a convulsive sob, or violent and smothered laughter. The wildest and most terrible ideas crowded to the mind of the unhappy woman; the foremost of them, that her husband had secretly returned, that he knew all—that his brain had given way, and that the laughter was the gibbering of his madness.
Feeling her own brain begin to reel, she sprang from the sofa, and rushing to the door, threw it open. The next apartment was the dining-room, dimly lighted by a hanging lamp. There she saw Camors, crouched upon the floor, sobbing furiously and beating his forehead against a chair which he strained in a convulsive embrace. Her tongue refused its office; she could find no word, but seating herself near him, gave way to her emotion, and wept silently. He dragged himself nearer, seized the hem of her dress and covered it with kisses; his breast heaved tumultuously, his lips trembled and he gasped the almost inarticulate words, "Pardon! Oh, pardon me!"
This was all. Then he rose suddenly, rushed from the house, and the instant after she heard the rolling of the wheels as his carriage whirled him away.
If there were no morals and no remorse, French people would perhaps be happier. But unfortunately it happens that a young woman, who believes in little, like Madame Lescande, and a young man who believes in nothing, like M. de Camors, can not have the pleasures of an independent code of morals without suffering cruelly afterward.
A thousand old prejudices, which they think long since buried, start up suddenly in their consciences; and these revived scruples are nearly fatal to them.
Camors rushed toward Paris at the greatest speed of his thoroughbred, Fitz-Aymon, awakening along the route, by his elegance and style, sentiments of envy which would have changed to pity were the wounds of the heart visible. Bitter weariness, disgust of life and disgust for himself, were no new sensations to this young man; but he never had experienced them in such poignant intensity as at this cursed hour, when flying from the dishonored hearth of the friend of his boyhood. No action of his life had ever thrown such a flood of light on the depths of his infamy in doing such gross outrage to the friend of his purer days, to the dear confidant of the generous thoughts and proud aspirations of his youth. He knew he had trampled all these under foot. Like Macbeth, he had not only murdered one asleep, but had murdered sleep itself.
His reflections became insupportable. He thought successively of becoming a monk, of enlisting as a soldier, and of getting drunk—ere he reached the corner of the Rue Royale and the Boulevard. Chance favored his last design, for as he alighted in front of his club, he found himself face to face with a pale young man, who smiled as he extended his hand. Camors recognized the Prince d'Errol.
"The deuce! You here, my Prince! I thought you in Cairo."
"I arrived only this morning."
"Ah, then you are better?—Your chest?"
"Bah! you look perfectly well. And isn't Cairo a strange place?"
"Rather; but I really believe Providence has sent you to me."
"You really think so, my Prince? But why?"
"Because—pshaw! I'll tell you by-and-bye; but first I want to hear all about your quarrel."
"Your duel for Sarah."
"That is to say, against Sarah!"
"Well, tell me all that passed; I heard of it only vaguely while abroad."
"Well, I only strove to do a good action, and, according to custom, I was punished for it. I heard it said that that little imbecile La Brede borrowed money from his little sister to lavish it upon that Sarah. This was so unnatural that you may believe it first disgusted, and then irritated me. One day at the club I could not resist saying, 'You are an ass, La Bride, to ruin yourself—worse than that, to ruin your sister, for the sake of a snail, as little sympathetic as Sarah, a girl who always has a cold in her head, and who has already deceived you.' 'Deceived me!' cried La Brede, waving his long arms. 'Deceived me! and with whom?'—'With me.' As he knew I never lied, he panted for my life. Luckily my life is a tough one."
"You put him in bed for three months, I hear."
"Almost as long as that, yes. And now, my friend, do me a service. I am a bear, a savage, a ghost! Assist me to return to life. Let us go and sup with some sprightly people whose virtue is extraordinary."
"Agreed! That is recommended by my physician."
"From Cairo? Nothing could be better, my Prince."
Half an hour later Louis de Camors, the Prince d'Errol, and a half-dozen guests of both sexes, took possession of an apartment, the closed doors of which we must respect.
Next morning, at gray dawn, the party was about to disperse; and at the moment a ragpicker, with a gray beard, was wandering up and down before the restaurant, raking with his hook in the refuse that awaited the public sweepers. In closing his purse, with an unsteady hand, Camors let fall a shining louis d'or, which rolled into the mud on the sidewalk. The ragpicker looked up with a timid smile.
"Ah! Monsieur," he said, "what falls into the trench should belong to the soldier."
"Pick it up with your teeth, then," answered Camors, laughing, "and it is yours."
The man hesitated, flushed under his sunburned cheeks, and threw a look of deadly hatred upon the laughing group round him. Then he knelt, buried his chest in the mire, and sprang up next moment with the coin clenched between his sharp white teeth. The spectators applauded. The chiffonnier smiled a dark smile, and turned away.
"Hello, my friend!" cried Camors, touching his arm, "would you like to earn five Louis? If so, give me a knock-down blow. That will give you pleasure and do me good."
The man turned, looked him steadily in the eye, then suddenly dealt him such a blow in the face that he reeled against the opposite wall. The young men standing by made a movement to fall upon the graybeard.
"Let no one harm him!" cried Camors. "Here, my man, are your hundred francs."
"Keep them," replied the other, "I am paid;" and walked away.
"Bravo, Belisarius!" laughed Camors. "Faith, gentlemen, I do not know whether you agree with me, but I am really charmed with this little episode. I must go dream upon it. By-bye, young ladies! Good-day, Prince!"
An early cab was passing, he jumped in, and was driven rapidly to his hotel, on the Rue Babet-de-Jouy.
The door of the courtyard was open, but being still under the influence of the wine he had drunk, he failed to notice a confused group of servants and neighbors standing before the stable-doors. Upon seeing him, these people became suddenly silent, and exchanged looks of sympathy and compassion. Camors occupied the second floor of the hotel; and ascending the stairs, found himself suddenly facing his father's valet. The man was very pale, and held a sealed paper, which he extended with a trembling hand.
"What is it, Joseph?" asked Camors.
"A letter which—which Monsieur le Comte wrote for you before he left."
"Before he left! my father is gone, then? But—where—how? What, the devil! why do you weep?"
Unable to speak, the servant handed him the paper. Camors seized it and tore it open.
"Good God! there is blood! what is this!" He read the first words—"My son, life is a burden to me. I leave it—" and fell fainting to the floor.
The poor lad loved his father, notwithstanding the past.
They carried him to his chamber.
CHAPTER III. DEBRIS FROM THE REVOLUTION
De Camors, on leaving college had entered upon life with a heart swelling with the virtues of youth—confidence, enthusiasm, sympathy. The horrible neglect of his early education had not corrupted in his veins those germs of weakness which, as his father declared, his mother's milk had deposited there; for that father, by shutting him up in a college to get rid of him for twelve years, had rendered him the greatest service in his power.
Those classic prisons surely do good. The healthy discipline of the school; the daily contact of young, fresh hearts; the long familiarity with the best works, powerful intellects, and great souls of the ancients—all these perhaps may not inspire a very rigid morality, but they do inspire a certain sentimental ideal of life and of duty which has its value.
The vague heroism which Camors first conceived he brought away with him. He demanded nothing, as you may remember, but the practical formula for the time and country in which he was destined to live. He found, doubtless, that the task he set himself was more difficult than he had imagined; that the truth to which he would devote himself—but which he must first draw from the bottom of its well—did not stand upon many compliments. But he failed no preparation to serve her valiantly as a man might, as soon as she answered his appeal. He had the advantage of several years of opposing to the excitements of his age and of an opulent life the austere meditations of the poor student.
During that period of ardent, laborious youth, he faithfully shut himself up in libraries, attended public lectures, and gave himself a solid foundation of learning, which sometimes awakened surprise when discovered under the elegant frivolity of the gay turfman. But while arming himself for the battle of life, he lost, little by little, what was more essential than the best weapons-true courage.
In proportion as he followed Truth day by day, she flew before and eluded him, taking, like an unpleasant vision, the form of the thousand-headed Chimera.
About the middle of the last century, Paris was so covered with political and religious ruins, that the most piercing vision could scarcely distinguish the outlines of the fresh structures of the future. One could, see that everything was overthrown; but one could not see any power that was to raise the ruins. Over the confused wrecks and remains of the Past, the powerful intellectual life of the Present-Progress—the collision of ideas—the flame of French wit, criticism and the sciences—threw a brilliant light, which, like the sun of earlier ages, illuminated the chaos without making it productive. The phenomena of Life and of Death were commingled in one huge fermentation, in which everything decomposed and whence nothing seemed to spring up again.
At no period of history, perhaps, has Truth been less simple, more enveloped in complications; for it seemed that all essential notions of humanity had been fused in a great furnace, and none had come out whole.
The spectacle is grand; but it troubles profoundly all souls—or at least those that interest and curiosity do not suffice to fill; which is to say, nearly all. To disengage from this bubbling chaos one pure religious moral, one positive social idea, one fixed political creed, were an enterprise worthy of the most sincere. This should not be beyond the strength of a man of good intentions; and Louis de Camors might have accomplished the task had he been aided by better instruction and guidance.
It is the common misfortune of those just entering life to find in it less than their ideal. But in this respect Camors was born under a particularly unfortunate star, for he found in his surroundings—in his own family even—only the worst side of human nature; and, in some respects, of those very opinions to which he was tempted to adhere.
The Camors were originally from Brittany, where they had held, in the eighteenth century, large possessions, particularly some extensive forests, which still bear their name. The grandfather of Louis, the Comte Herve de Camors, had, on his return from the emigration, bought back a small part of the hereditary demesne. There he established himself in the old-fashioned style, and nourished until his death incurable prejudices against the French Revolution and against Louis XVIII.
Count Herve had four children, two boys and two girls, and, feeling it his duty to protest against the levelling influences of the Civil Code, he established during his life, by a legal subterfuge, a sort of entail in favor of his eldest son, Charles-Henri, to the prejudice of Robert-Sosthene, Eleanore-Jeanne and Louise-Elizabeth, his other heirs. Eleanore-Jeanne and Louise-Elizabeth accepted with apparent willingness the act that benefited their brother at their expense—notwithstanding which they never forgave him. But Robert-Sosthene, who, in his position as representative of the younger branch, affected Liberal leanings and was besides loaded with debt, rebelled against the paternal procedure. He burned his visiting-cards, ornamented with the family crest and his name "Chevalier Lange d'Ardennes"—and had others printed, simply "Dardennes, junior (du Morbihan)."
Of these he sent a specimen to his father, and from that hour became a declared Republican.
There are people who attach themselves to a party by their virtues; others, again, by their vices. No recognized political party exists which does not contain some true principle; which does not respond to some legitimate aspiration of human society. At the same time, there is not one which can not serve as a pretext, as a refuge, and as a hope, for the basest passions of our nature.
The most advanced portion of the Liberal party of France is composed of generous spirits, ardent and absolute, who torture a really elevated ideal; that of a society of manhood, constituted with a sort of philosophic perfection; her own mistress each day and each hour; delegating few of her powers, and yielding none; living, not without laws, but without rulers; and, in short, developing her activity, her well-being, her genius, with that fulness of justice, of independence, and of dignity, which republicanism alone gives to all and to each one.
Every other system appears to them to preserve some of the slaveries and iniquities of former ages; and it also appears open to the suspicion of generating diverse interests—and often hostile ones—between the governors and the governed. They claim for all that political system which, without doubt, holds humanity in the most esteem; and however one may despise the practical working of their theory, the grandeur of its principles can not be despised.
They are in reality a proud race, great-hearted and high-spirited. They have had in their age their heroes and their martyrs; but they have had, on the other hand, their hypocrites, their adventurers, and their radicals—their greatest enemies.
Young Dardennes, to obtain grace for the equivocal origin of his convictions, placed himself in the front rank of these last.
Until he left college Louis de Camors never knew his uncle, who had remained on bad terms with his father; but he entertained for him, in secret; an enthusiastic admiration, attributing to him all the virtues of that principle of which he seemed the exponent.
The Republic of '48 soon died: his uncle was among the vanquished; and this, to the young man, had but an additional attraction. Without his father's knowledge, he went to see him, as if on a pilgrimage to a holy shrine; and he was well received.
He found his uncle exasperated—not so much against his enemies as against his own party, to which he attributed all the disasters of the cause.
"They never can make revolutions with gloves on," he said in a solemn, dogmatic tone. "The men of 'ninety-three did not wear them. You can not make an omelette without first breaking the eggs.
"The pioneers of the future should march on, axe in hand!
"The chrysalis of the people is not hatched upon roses!
"Liberty is a goddess who demands great holocausts. Had they made a Reign of Terror in 'forty-eight, they would now be masters!"
These high-flown maxims astonished Louis de Camors. In his youthful simplicity he had an infinite respect for the men who had governed his country in her darkest hour; not more that they had given up power as poor as when they assumed it, than that they left it with their hands unstained with blood: To this praise—which will be accorded them in history, which redresses many contemporary injustices—he added a reproach which he could not reconcile with the strange regrets of his uncle. He reproached them with not having more boldly separated the New Republic, in its management and minor details, from the memories of the old one. Far from agreeing with his uncle that a revival of the horrors of 'ninety-three would have assured the triumph of the New Republic, he believed it had sunk under the bloody shadow of its predecessor. He believed that, owing to this boasted Terror, France had been for centuries the only country in which the dangers of liberty outweighed its benefits.
It is useless to dwell longer on the relations of Louis de Camors with his uncle Dardennes. It is enough that he was doubtful and discouraged, and made the error of holding the cause responsible for the violence of its lesser apostles, and that he adopted the fatal error, too common in France at that period, of confounding progress with discord, liberty with license, and revolution with terrorism!
The natural result of irritation and disenchantment on this ardent spirit was to swing it rapidly around to the opposite pole of opinion. After all, Camors argued, his birth, his name, his family ties all pointed out his true course, which was to combat the cruel and despotic doctrines which he believed he detected under these democratic theories. Another thing in the habitual language of his uncle also shocked and repelled him—the profession of an absolute atheism. He had within him, in default of a formal creed, a fund of general belief and respect for holy things—that kind of religious sensibility which was shocked by impious cynicism. Further he could not comprehend then, or ever afterward, how principles alone, without faith in some higher sanction, could sustain themselves by their own strength in the human conscience.
God—or no principles! This was the dilemma from which no German philosophy could rescue him.
This reaction in his mind drew him closer to those other branches of his family which he had hitherto neglected. His two aunts, living at Paris, had been compelled, in consequence of their small fortunes, to make some sacrifices to enter into the blessed state of matrimony. The elder, Eleanore-Jeanne, had married, during her father's life, the Comte de la Roche-Jugan—a man long past fifty, but still well worthy of being loved. Nevertheless, his wife did not love him. Their views on many essential points differed widely. M. de la Roche-Jugan was one of those who had served the Government of the Restoration with an unshaken but hopeless devotion. In his youth he had been attached to the person and to the ministry of the Duc de Richelieu; and he had preserved the memory of that illustrious man—of the elevated moderation of his sentiments—of the warmth of his patriotism and of his constancy. He saw the pitfalls ahead, pointed them out to his prince—displeased him by so doing, but still followed his fortunes. Once more retired to private life with but small means, he guarded his political principles rather like a religion than a hope. His hopes, his vivacity, his love of right—all these he turned toward God.
His piety, as enlightened as profound, ranked him among the choicest spirits who then endeavored to reconcile the national faith of the past with the inexorable liberty of thought of the present. Like his co-laborers in this work, he experienced only a mortal sadness under which he sank. True, his wife contributed no little to hasten his end by the intemperance of her zeal and the acrimony of her bigotry.
She had little heart and great pride, and made her God subserve her passions, as Dardennes made liberty subserve his malice.
No sooner had she become a widow than she purified her salons. Thenceforth figured there only parishioners more orthodox than their bishops, French priests who denied Bossuet; consequently she believed that religion was saved in France. Louis de Camors, admitted to this choice circle by title both of relative and convert, found there the devotion of Louis XI and the charity of Catherine de Medicis; and he there lost very soon the little faith that remained to him.
He asked himself sadly whether there was no middle ground between Terror and Inquisition; whether in this world one must be a fanatic or nothing. He sought a middle course, possessing the force and cohesion of a party; but he sought in vain. It seemed to him that the whole world of politics and religion rushed to extremes; and that what was not extreme was inert and indifferent—dragging out, day by day, an existence without faith and without principle.
Thus at least appeared to him those whom the sad changes of his life showed him as types of modern politics.
His younger aunt, Louise-Elizabeth, who enjoyed to the full all the pleasures of modern life, had already profited by her father's death to make a rich misalliance. She married the Baron Tonnelier, whose father, although the son of a miller, had shown ability and honesty enough to fill high positions under the First Empire.
The Baron Tonnelier had a large fortune, increasing every day by successful speculation. In his youth he had been a good horseman, a Voltairian, and a Liberal.
In time—though he remained a Voltairian—he renounced horsemanship, and Liberalism. Although he was a simple deputy, he had a twinge of democracy now and then; but after he was invested with the peerage, he felt sure from that moment that the human species had no more progress to make.
The French Revolution was ended; its giddiest height attained. No longer could any one walk, talk, write, or rise. That perplexed him. Had he been sincere, he would have avowed that he could not comprehend that there could be storms, or thunder-clouds in the heavens—that the world was not perfectly happy and tranquil, while he himself was so. When his nephew was old enough to comprehend him, Baron Tonnelier was no longer peer of France; but being one who does himself no hurt—and sometimes much good by a fall, he filled a high office under the new government. He endeavored to discharge its duties conscientiously, as he had those of the preceding reign.
He spoke with peculiar ease of suppressing this or that journal—such an orator, such a book; of suppressing everything, in short, except himself. In his view, France had been in the wrong road since 1789, and he sought to lead her back from that fatal date.
Nevertheless, he never spoke of returning, in his proper person, to his grandfather's mill; which, to say the least, was inconsistent. Had Liberty been mother to this old gentleman, and had he met her in a clump of woods, he would have strangled her. We regret to add that he had the habit of terming "old duffers" such ministers as he suspected of liberal views, and especially such as were in favor of popular education. A more hurtful counsellor never approached a throne; but luckily, while near it in office, he was far from it in influence.
He was still a charming man, gallant and fresh—more gallant, however, than fresh. Consequently his habits were not too good, and he haunted the greenroom of the opera. He had two daughters, recently married, before whom he repeated the most piquant witticisms of Voltaire, and the most improper stories of Tallemant de Reaux; and consequently both promised to afford the scandalmongers a series of racy anecdotes, as their mother had before them.
While Louis de Camors was learning rapidly, by the association and example of the collateral branches of his family, to defy equally all principles and all convictions, his terrible father finished the task.
Worldling to the last extreme, depraved to his very core; past-master in the art of Parisian high life; an unbridled egotist, thinking himself superior to everything because he abased everything to himself; and, finally, flattering himself for despising all duties, which he had all his life prided himself on dispensing with—such was his father. But for all this, he was the pride of his circle, with a pleasing presence and an indefinable charm of manner.
The father and son saw little of each other. M. de Camors was too proud to entangle his son in his own debaucheries; but the course of every-day life sometimes brought them together at meal-time. He would then listen with cool mockery to the enthusiastic or despondent speeches of the youth. He never deigned to argue seriously, but responded in a few bitter words, that fell like drops of sleet on the few sparks still glowing in the son's heart.
Becoming gradually discouraged, the latter lost all taste for work, and gave himself up, more and more, to the idle pleasures of his position. Abandoning himself wholly to these, he threw into them all the seductions of his person, all the generosity of his character—but at the same time a sadness always gloomy, sometimes desperate.
The bitter malice he displayed, however, did not prevent his being loved by women and renowned among men. And the latter imitated him.
He aided materially in founding a charming school of youth without smiles. His air of ennui and lassitude, which with him at least had the excuse of a serious foundation, was servilely copied by the youth around him, who never knew any greater distress than an overloaded stomach, but whom it pleased, nevertheless, to appear faded in their flower and contemptuous of human nature.
We have seen Camors in this phase of his existence. But in reality nothing was more foreign to him than the mask of careless disdain that the young man assumed. Upon falling into the common ditch, he, perhaps, had one advantage over his fellows: he did not make his bed with base resignation; he tried persistently to raise himself from it by a violent struggle, only to be hurled upon it once more.
Strong souls do not sleep easily: indifference weighs them down.
They demand a mission—a motive for action—and faith.
Louis de Camors was yet to find his.
CHAPTER IV. A NEW ACTRESS IN A NOVEL ROLE
Louis de Camor's father had not I told him all in that last letter.
Instead of leaving him a fortune, he left him only embarrassments, for he was three fourths ruined. The disorder of his affairs had begun a long time before, and it was to repair them that he had married; a process that had not proved successful. A large inheritance on which he had relied as coming to his wife went elsewhere—to endow a charity hospital. The Comte de Camors began a suit to recover it before the tribunal of the Council of State, but compromised it for an annuity of thirty thousand francs. This stopped at his death. He enjoyed, besides, several fat sinecures, which his name, his social rank, and his personal address secured him from some of the great insurance companies. But these resources did not survive him; he only rented the house he had occupied; and the young Comte de Camors found himself suddenly reduced to the provision of his mother's dowry—a bare pittance to a man of his habits and rank.
His father had often assured him he could leave him nothing, so the son was accustomed to look forward to this situation. Therefore, when he realized it, he was neither surprised nor revolted by the improvident egotism of which he was the victim. His reverence for his father continued unabated, and he did not read with the less respect or confidence the singular missive which figures at the beginning of this story. The moral theories which this letter advanced were not new to him. They were a part of the very atmosphere around him; he had often revolved them in his feverish brain; yet, never before had they appeared to him in the condensed form of a dogma, with the clear precision of a practical code; nor as now, with the authorization of such a voice and of such an example.
One incident gave powerful aid in confirming the impression of these last pages on his mind. Eight days after his father's death, he was reclining on the lounge in his smoking-room, his face dark as night and as his thoughts, when a servant entered and handed him a card. He took it listlessly, and read "Lescande, architect." Two red spots rose to his pale cheeks—"I do not see any one," he said.
"So I told this gentleman," replied the servant, "but he insists in such an extraordinary manner—"
"In an extraordinary manner?"
"Yes, sir; as if he had something very serious to communicate."
"Something serious—aha! Then let him in." Camors rose and paced the chamber, a smile of bitter mockery wreathing his lips. "And must I now kill him?" he muttered between his teeth.
Lescande entered, and his first act dissipated the apprehension his conduct had caused. He rushed to the young Count and seized him by both hands, while Camors remarked that his face was troubled and his lips trembled. "Sit down and be calm," he said.
"My friend," said the other, after a pause, "I come late to see you, for which I crave pardon; but—I am myself so miserable! See, I am in mourning!"
Camors felt a chill run to his very marrow. "In mourning! and why?" he asked, mechanically.
"Juliette is dead!" sobbed Lescande, and covered his eyes with his great hands.
"Great God!" cried Camors in a hollow voice. He listened a moment to Lescande's bitter sobs, then made a movement to take his hand, but dared not do it. "Great God! is it possible?" he repeated.
"It was so sudden!" sobbed Lescande, brokenly. "It seems like a dream—a frightful dream! You know the last time you visited us she was not well. You remember I told you she had wept all day. Poor child! The morning of my return she was seized with congestion—of the lungs—of the brain—I don't know!—but she is dead! And so good!—so gentle, so loving! to the last moment! Oh, my friend! my friend! A few moments before she died, she called me to her side. 'Oh, I love you so! I love you so!' she said. 'I never loved any but you—you only! Pardon me!—oh, pardon me!' Pardon her, poor child! My God, for what? for dying?—for she never gave me a moment's grief before in this world. Oh, God of mercy!"
"I beseech you, my friend—"
"Yes, yes, I do wrong. You also have your griefs.
"But we are all selfish, you know. However, it was not of that that I came to speak. Tell me—I know not whether a report I hear is correct. Pardon me if I mistake, for you know I never would dream of offending you; but they say that you have been left in very bad circumstances. If this is indeed so, my friend—"
"It is not," interrupted Camors, abruptly.
"Well, if it were—I do not intend keeping my little house. Why should I, now? My little son can wait while I work for him. Then, after selling my house, I shall have two hundred thousand francs. Half of this is yours—return it when you can!"
"I thank you, my unselfish friend," replied Camors, much moved, "but I need nothing. My affairs are disordered, it is true; but I shall still remain richer than you."
"Yes, but with your tastes—"
"At all events, you know where to find me. I may count upon you—may I not?"
"Adieu, my friend! I can do you no good now; but I shall see you again—shall I not?"
Lescande departed, and the young Count remained immovable, with his features convulsed and his eyes fixed on vacancy.
This moment decided his whole future.
Sometimes a man feels a sudden, unaccountable impulse to smother in himself all human love and sympathy.
In the presence of this unhappy man, so unworthily treated, so broken-spirited, so confiding, Camors—if there be any truth in old spiritual laws—should have seen himself guilty of an atrocious act, which should have condemned him to a remorse almost unbearable.
But if it were true that the human herd was but the product of material forces in nature, producing, haphazard, strong beings and weak ones—lambs and lions—he had played only the lion's part in destroying his companion. He said to himself, with his father's letter beneath his eyes, that this was the fact; and the reflection calmed him.
The more he thought, that day and the next, in depth of the retreat in which he had buried himself, the more was he persuaded that this doctrine was that very truth which he had sought, and which his father had bequeathed to him as the whole rule of his life. His cold and barren heart opened with a voluptuous pleasure under this new flame that filled and warmed it.
From this moment he possessed a faith—a principle of action—a plan of life—all that he needed; and was no longer oppressed by doubts, agitation, and remorse. This doctrine, if not the most elevated, was at least above the level of the most of mankind. It satisfied his pride and justified his scorn.
To preserve his self-esteem, it was only necessary for him to preserve his honor, to do nothing low, as his father had said; and he determined never to do anything which, in his eyes, partook of that character. Moreover, were there not men he himself had met thoroughly steeped in materialism, who were yet regarded as the most honorable men of their day?
Perhaps he might have asked himself whether this incontestable fact might not, in part, have been attributed rather to the individual than to the doctrine; and whether men's beliefs did not always influence their actions. However that might have been, from the date of this crisis Louis de Camors made his father's will the rule of his life.
To develop in all their strength the physical and intellectual gifts which he possessed; to make of himself the polished type of the civilization of the times; to charm women and control men; to revel in all the joys of intellect, of the senses, and of rank; to subdue as servile instincts all natural sentiments; to scorn, as chimeras and hypocrisies, all vulgar beliefs; to love nothing, fear nothing, respect nothing, save honor—such, in fine, were the duties which he recognized, and the rights which he arrogated to himself.
It was with these redoubtable weapons, and strengthened by a keen intelligence and vigorous will, that he would return to the world—his brow calm and grave, his eye caressing while unyielding, a smile upon his lips, as men had known him.
From this moment there was no cloud either upon his mind or upon his face, which wore the aspect of perpetual youth. He determined, above all, not to retrench, but to preserve, despite the narrowness of his present fortune, those habits of elegant luxury in which he still might indulge for several years, by the expenditure of his principal.
Both pride and policy gave him this council in an equal degree. He was not ignorant that the world is as cold toward the needy as it is warm to those not needing its countenance. Had he been thus ignorant, the attitude of his family, just after the death of his father, would have opened his eyes to the fact.
His aunt de la Roche-Jugan and his uncle Tonnelier manifested toward him the cold circumspection of people who suspected they were dealing with a ruined man. They had even, for greater security, left Paris, and neglected to notify the young Count in what retreat they had chosen to hide their grief. Nevertheless he was soon to learn it, for while he was busied in settling his father's affairs and organizing his own projects of fortune and ambition, one fine morning in August he met with a lively surprise.
He counted among his relatives one of the richest landed proprietors of France, General the Marquis de Campvallon d'Armignes, celebrated for his fearful outbursts in the Corps Legislatif. He had a voice of thunder, and when he rolled out, "Bah! Enough! Stop this order of the day!" the senate trembled, and the government commissioners bounced on their chairs. Yet he was the best fellow in the world, although he had killed two fellow-creatures in duels—but then he had his reasons for that.
Camors knew him but slightly, paid him the necessary respect that politeness demanded toward a relative; met him sometimes at the club, over a game of whist, and that was all.
Two years before, the General had lost a nephew, the direct heir to his name and fortune. Consequently he was hunted by an eager pack of cousins and relatives; and Madame de la Roche-Jugan and the Baroness Tonnelier gave tongue in their foremost rank.
Camors was indifferent, and had, since that event, been particularly reserved in his intercourse with the General. Therefore he was considerably astonished when he received the following letter:
"Your two aunts and their families are with me in the country. When it is agreeable to you to join them, I shall always feel happy to give a cordial greeting to the son of an old friend and companion-in-arms.
"I presented myself at your house before leaving Paris, but you were not visible.
"Believe me, I comprehend your grief: that you have experienced an irreparable loss, in which I sympathize with you most sincerely.
"Receive, my dear kinsman, the best wishes of GENERAL, THE MARQUIS DE CAMPVALLON D'ARMIGNES.
"CHATEAU DE CAMPVALLON, Voie de l'ouest.
"P.S.—It is probable, my young cousin, that I may have something of interest to communicate to you!"
This last sentence, and the exclamation mark that followed it, failed not to shake slightly the impassive calm that Camors was at that moment cultivating. He could not help seeing, as in a mirror, under the veil of the mysterious postscript, the reflection of seven hundred thousand francs of ground-rent which made the splendid income of the General. He recalled that his father, who had served some time in Africa, had been attached to the staff of M. de Campvallon as aide-de-camp, and that he had besides rendered him a great service of a different nature.
Notwithstanding that he felt the absurdity of these dreams, and wished to keep his heart free from them, he left the next day for Campvallon. After enjoying for seven or eight hours all the comforts and luxuries the Western line is reputed to afford its guests, Camors arrived in the evening at the station, where the General's carriage awaited him. The seignorial pile of the Chateau Campvallon soon appeared to him on a height, of which the sides were covered with magnificent woods, sloping down nearly to the plain, there spreading out widely.
It was almost the dinner-hour; and the young man, after arranging his toilet, immediately descended to the drawing-room, where his presence seemed to throw a wet blanket over the assembled circle. To make up for this, the General gave him the warmest welcome; only—as he had a short memory or little imagination—he found nothing better to say than to repeat the expressions of his letter, while squeezing his hand almost to the point of fracture.
"The son of my old friend and companion-in-arms," he cried; and the words rang out in such a sonorous voice they seemed to impress even himself—for it was noticeable that after a remark, the General always seemed astonished, as if startled by the words that came out of his mouth—and that seemed suddenly to expand the compass of his ideas and the depth of his sentiments.
To complete his portrait: he was of medium size, square, and stout; panting when he ascended stairs, or even walking on level ground; a face massive and broad as a mask, and reminding one of those fabled beings who blew fire from their nostrils; a huge moustache, white and grizzly; small gray eyes, always fixed, like those of a doll, but still terrible. He marched toward a man slowly, imposingly, with eyes fixed, as if beginning a duel to the death, and demanded of him imperatively—the time of day!
Camors well knew this innocent weakness of his host, but, notwithstanding, was its dupe for one instant during the evening.
They had left the dining-table, and he was standing carelessly in the alcove of a window, holding a cup of coffee, when the General approached him from the extreme end of the room with a severe yet confidential expression, which seemed to preface an announcement of the greatest importance.
The postscript rose before him. He felt he was to have an immediate explanation.
The General approached, seized him by the buttonhole, and withdrawing him from the depth of the recess, looked into his eyes as if he wished to penetrate his very soul. Suddenly he spoke, in his thunderous voice. He said:
"What do you take in the morning, young man?"
"Aha! Then give your orders to Pierre—just as if you were at home;" and, turning on his heel and joining the ladies, he left Camors to digest his little comedy as he might.
Eight days passed. Twice the General made his guest the object of his formidable advance. The first time, having put him out of countenance, he contented himself with exclaiming:
"Well, young man!" and turned on his heel.
The next time he bore down upon Camors, he said not a word, and retired in silence.
Evidently the General had not the slightest recollection of the postscript. Camors tried to be contented, but would continually ask himself why he had come to Campvallon, in the midst of his family, of whom he was not overfond, and in the depths of the country, which he execrated. Luckily, the castle boasted a library well stocked with works on civil and international law, jurisprudence, and political economy. He took advantage of it; and, resuming the thread of those serious studies which had been broken off during his period of hopelessness, plunged into those recondite themes that pleased his active intelligence and his awakened ambition. Thus he waited patiently until politeness would permit him to bring to an explanation the former friend and companion-in-arms of his father. In the morning he rode on horseback; gave a lesson in fencing to his cousin Sigismund, the son of Madame de la Roche-Jugan; then shut himself up in the library until the evening, which he passed at bezique with the General. Meantime he viewed with the eye of a philosopher the strife of the covetous relatives who hovered around their rich prey.
Madame de la Roche-Jugan had invented an original way of making herself agreeable to the General, which was to persuade him he had disease of the heart. She continually felt his pulse with her plump hand, sometimes reassuring him, and at others inspiring him with a salutary terror, although he denied it.
"Good heavens! my dear cousin!" he would exclaim, "let me alone. I know I am mortal like everybody else. What of that? But I see your aim-it is to convert me! Ta-ta!"
She not only wished to convert him, but to marry him, and bury him besides.
She based her hopes in this respect chiefly on her son Sigismund; knowing that the General bitterly regretted having no one to inherit his name. He had but to marry Madame de la Roche-Jugan and adopt her son to banish this care. Without a single allusion to this fact, the Countess failed not to turn the thoughts of the General toward it with all the tact of an accomplished intrigante, with all the ardor of a mother, and with all the piety of an unctuous devotee.
Her sister, the Baroness Tonnelier, bitterly confessed her own disadvantage. She was not a widow. And she had no son. But she had two daughters, both of them graceful, very elegant and sparkling. One was Madame Bacquiere, the wife of a broker; the other, Madame Van-Cuyp, wife of a young Hollander, doing business at Paris.
Both interpreted life and marriage gayly; both floated from one year into another dancing, riding, hunting, coquetting, and singing recklessly the most risque songs of the minor theatres. Formerly, Camors, in his pensive mood, had taken an aversion to these little examples of modern feminine frivolity. Since he had changed his views of life he did them more justice. He said, calmly:
"They are pretty little animals that follow their instincts."
Mesdames Bacquiere and Van-Cuyp, instigated by their mother, applied themselves assiduously to making the General feel all the sacred joys that cluster round the domestic hearth. They enlivened his household, exercised his horses, killed his game, and tortured his piano. They seemed to think that the General, once accustomed to their sweetness and animation, could not do without it, and that their society would become indispensable to him. They mingled, too, with their adroit manoeuvres, familiar and delicate attentions, likely to touch an old man. They sat on his knees like children, played gently with his moustache, and arranged in the latest style the military knot of his cravat.
Madame de la Roche-Jugan never ceased to deplore confidentially to the General the unfortunate education of her nieces; while the Baroness, on her side, lost no opportunity of holding up in bold relief the emptiness, impertinence, and sulkiness of young Count Sigismund.
In the midst of these honorable conflicts one person, who took no part in them, attracted the greatest share of Camors's interest; first for her beauty and afterward for her qualities. This was an orphan of excellent family, but very poor, of whom Madame de la Roche-Jugan and Madame Tonnelier had taken joint charge. Mademoiselle Charlotte de Luc d'Estrelles passed six months of each year with the Countess and six with the Baroness. She was twenty-five years of age, tall and blonde, with deep-set eyes under the shadow of sweeping, black lashes. Thick masses of hair framed her sad but splendid brow; and she was badly, or rather poorly dressed, never condescending to wear the cast-off clothes of her relatives, but preferring gowns of simplest material made by her own hands. These draperies gave her the appearance of an antique statue.
Her Tonnelier cousins nicknamed her "the goddess." They hated her; she despised them. The name they gave her, however, was marvellously suitable.
When she walked, you would have imagined she had descended from a pedestal; the pose of her head was like that of the Greek Venus; her delicate, dilating nostrils seemed carved by a cunning chisel from transparent ivory. She had a startled, wild air, such as one sees in pictures of huntress nymphs. She used a naturally fine voice with great effect; and had already cultivated, so far as she could, a taste for art.
She was naturally so taciturn one was compelled to guess her thoughts; and long since Camors had reflected as to what was passing in that self-centred soul. Inspired by his innate generosity, as well as his secret admiration, he took pleasure in heaping upon this poor cousin the attentions he might have paid a queen; but she always seemed as indifferent to them as she was to the opposite course of her involuntary benefactress. Her position at Campvallon was very odd. After Camors's arrival, she was more taciturn than ever; absorbed, estranged, as if meditating some deep design, she would suddenly raise the long lashes of her blue eyes, dart a rapid glance here and there, and finally fix it on Camors, who would feel himself tremble under it.
One afternoon, when he was seated in the library, he heard a gentle tap at the door, and Mademoiselle entered, looking very pale. Somewhat astonished, he rose and saluted her.
"I wish to speak with you, cousin," she said. The accent was pure and grave, but slightly touched with evident emotion. Camors stared at her, showed her to a divan, and took a chair facing her.
"You know very little of me, cousin," she continued, "but I am frank and courageous. I will come at once to the object that brings me here. Is it true that you are ruined?"
"Why do you ask, Mademoiselle?"
"You always have been very good to me—you only. I am very grateful to you; and I also—" She stopped, dropped her eyes, and a bright flush suffused her cheeks. Then she bent her head, smiling like one who has regained courage under difficulty. "Well, then," she resumed, "I am ready to devote my life to you. You will deem me very romantic, but I have wrought out of our united poverty a very charming picture, I believe. I am sure I should make an excellent wife for the husband I loved. If you must leave France, as they tell me you must, I will follow you—I will be your brave and faithful helpmate. Pardon me, one word more, Monsieur de Camors. My proposition would be immodest if it concealed any afterthought. It conceals none. I am poor. I have but fifteen hundred francs' income. If you are richer than I, consider I have said nothing; for nothing in the world would then induce me to marry you!"
She paused; and with a manner of mingled yearning, candor, and anguish, fixed on him her large eyes full of fire.
There was a solemn pause. Between these strange natures, both high and noble, a terrible destiny seemed pending at this moment, and both felt it.
At length Camors responded in a grave, calm voice: "It is impossible, Mademoiselle, that you can appreciate the trial to which you expose me; but I have searched my heart, and I there find nothing worthy of you. Do me the justice to believe that my decision is based neither upon your fortune nor upon my own: but I am resolved never to marry." She sighed deeply, and rose. "Adieu, cousin," she said.
"I beg—I pray you to remain one moment," cried the young man, reseating her with gentle force upon the sofa. He walked half across the room to repress his agitation; then leaning on a table near the young girl, said:
"Mademoiselle Charlotte, you are unhappy; are you not?"
"A little, perhaps," she answered.
"I do not mean at this moment, but always?"
"Aunt de la Roche-Jugan treats you harshly?"
"Undoubtedly; she dreads that I may entrap her son. Good heavens!"
"The little Tonneliers are jealous of you, and Uncle Tonnelier torments you?"
"Basely!" she said; and two tears swam on her eyelashes, then glistened like diamonds on her cheek.
"And what do you believe of the religion of our aunt?"
"What would you have me believe of religion that bestows no virtue—restrains no vice?"
"Then you are a non-believer?"
"One may believe in God and the Gospel without believing in the religion of our aunt."
"But she will drive you into a convent. Why, then, do you not enter one?"
"I love life," the girl said.
He looked at her silently a moment, then continued "Yes, you love life—the sunlight, the thoughts, the arts, the luxuries—everything that is beautiful, like yourself. Then, Mademoiselle Charlotte, all these are in your hands; why do you not grasp them?"
"How?" she queried, surprised and somewhat startled.
"If you have, as I believe you have, as much strength of soul as intelligence and beauty, you can escape at once and forever the miserable servitude fate has imposed upon you. Richly endowed as you are, you might become to-morrow a great artiste, independent, feted, rich, adored—the mistress of Paris and of the world!"
"And yours also?—No!" said this strange girl.
"Pardon, Mademoiselle Charlotte. I did not suspect you of any improper idea, when you offered to share my uncertain fortunes. Render me, I pray you, the same justice at this moment. My moral principles are very lax, it is true, but I am as proud as yourself. I never shall reach my aim by any subterfuge. No; strive to study art. I find you beautiful and seductive, but I am governed by sentiments superior to personal interests. I was profoundly touched by your sympathetic leaning toward me, and have sought to testify my gratitude by friendly counsel. Since, however, you now suspect me of striving to corrupt you for my own ends, I am silent, Mademoiselle, and permit you to depart."