THE CROSS OF BERNY
BY MADAME EMILE DE GIRARDIN MM. THEOPHILE GAUTIER JULES SANDEAU AND MERY
PREFACE TO THE AMERICAN EDITION.
Literary partnerships have often been tried, but very rarely with success in the more imaginative branches of literature. Occasionally two minds have been found to supplement each other sufficiently to produce good joint writing, as in the works of MM. Erckman-Chatrian; but when the partnership has included more than two, it has almost invariably proved a failure, even when composed of individually the brightest intellects, and where the highest hopes have been entertained. Standing almost if not quite alone, in contrast with these failures of the past, THE CROSS OF BERNY is the more remarkable; and has achieved the success not merely of being the simply harmonious joint work of four individual minds,—but of being in itself, and entirely aside from its interest as a literary curiosity, a great book.
A high rank, then, is claimed for it not upon its success as a literary partnership, for that at best would but excite a sort of curious interest, but upon its intrinsic merit as a work of fiction. The spirit of rivalry in which it was undertaken was perhaps not the best guarantee of harmony in the tone of the whole work, but it has certainly added materially to the wit and brilliancy of the letters, while harmony has been preserved by much tact and skill. No one of its authors could alone have written THE CROSS OF BERNY—together, each one has given us his best, and their joint effort will long live to their fame.
The shape in which it appears, as a correspondence between four characters whose names are the pseudonyms of the four authors of the book, although at first it may seem to the reader a little awkward, will upon reflection be seen to be wisely chosen, since it allows to each of the prominent characters an individuality otherwise very difficult of attainment. In this way also any differences of style which there may be, tend rather to heighten the effect, and to increase the reality of the characters.
The title under which the original French edition appeared has been retained in the translation, although since its applicability depends upon a somewhat local allusion, the general reader may possibly fail to appreciate it.
ORIGINAL PREFACE TO THE FRENCH EDITION.
The Cross of Berny was, it will be remembered, a brilliant tourney, where Madame de Girardin (nee Delphine Gay), Theophile Gautier, Jules Sandeau and Mery, broke lances like valiant knights of old.
We believe we respond to the general wish by adding to the Bibliotheque Nouvelle this unique work, which assumed and will ever retain a high position among the literary curiosities of the day.
Not feeling called upon to decide who is the victor in the tilt, we merely lift the pseudonymous veil concealing the champions.
The letters signed Irene de Chateaudun are by Madame de Girardin. " " " Edgar de Meilhan " M. Theophile Gautier. " " " Raymond de Villiers " M. Jules Sandeau. " " " Roger de Monbert " M. Mery.
Who are recognised as the four most brilliant of our celebrated contemporaneous authors.—EDITOR.
CROSS OF BERNY.
IRENE DE CHATEAUDUN to MME. LA VICOMTESSE DE BRAIMES, Hotel de la Prefecture, GRENOBLE (Isere).
PARIS, May 16th, 18—.
You are a great prophetess, my dear Valentino. Your predictions are verified.
Thanks to my peculiar disposition, I am already in the most deplorably false position that a reasonable mind and romantic heart could ever have contrived.
With you, naturally and instinctively, I have always been sincere; indeed it would be difficult to deceive one whom I have so often seen by a single glance read the startled conscience, and lead it from the ways of insolence and shame back into the paths of rectitude.
It is to you I would confide all my troubles; your counsel may save me ere it be too late.
You must not think me absurd in ascribing all my unhappiness to what is popularly regarded as "a piece of good luck."
Governed by my weakness, or rather by my fatal judgment, I have plighted my troth!... Good Heavens! is it really true that I am engaged to Prince de Monbert?
If you knew the prince you would laugh at my sadness, and at the melancholy tone in which I announce this intelligence.
Monsieur de Monbert is the most witty and agreeable man in Paris; he is noble-hearted, generous and ...in fact fascinating!... and I love him! He alone pleases me; in his absence I weary of everything; in his presence I am satisfied and happy—the hours glide away uncounted; I have perfect faith in his good heart and sound judgment, and proudly recognise his incontestable superiority—yes, I admire, respect, and, I repeat it, love him!...
Yet, the promise I have made to dedicate my life to him, frightens me, and for a month I have had but one thought—to postpone this marriage I wished for—to fly from this man whom I have chosen!...
I question my heart, my experience, my imagination, for an answer to this inexplicable contradiction; and to interpret so many fears, find nothing but school-girl philosophy and poetic fancies, which you will excuse because you love me, and I know my imaginary sufferings will at least awaken pity in your sympathetic breast.
Yes, my dear Valentine, I am more to be pitied now, than I was in the days of my distress and desolation. I, who so courageously braved the blows of adversity, feel weak and trembling under the weight of a too brilliant fortune.
This happy destiny for which I alone am responsible, alarms me more than did the bitter lot that was forced upon me one year ago.
The actual trials of poverty exhaust the field of thought and prevent us from nursing imaginary cares, for when we have undergone the torture of our own forebodings, struggled with the impetuosity and agony of a nature surrendered to itself, we are disposed to look almost with relief on tangible troubles, and to end by appreciating the cares of poverty as salutary distractions from the sickly anxieties of an unemployed mind.
Oh! believe me to be serious, and accuse me not of comic-opera philosophy, my dear Valentine! I feel none of that proud disdain for importunate fortune that we read of in novels; nor do I regret "my pretty boat," nor "my cottage by the sea;" here, in this beautiful drawing-room of the Hotel de Langeac, writing to you, I do not sigh for my gloomy garret in the Marais, where my labors day and night were most tiresome, because a mere parody of the noblest arts, an undignified labor making patience and courage ridiculous, a cruel game which we play for life while cursing it.
No! I regret not this, but I do regret the indolence, the idleness of mind succeeding such trivial exertions. For then there were no resolutions to make, no characters to study, and, above all, no responsibility to bear, nothing to choose, nothing to change.
I had but to follow every morning the path marked out by necessity the evening before.
If I were able to copy or originate some hundred designs; if I possessed sufficient carmine or cobalt to color some wretched engravings—worthless, but fashionable—which I must myself deliver on the morrow; if I could succeed in finding some new patterns for embroidery and tapestry, I was content—and for recreation indulged at evenings in the sweetest, that is most absurd, reveries.
Revery then was a rest to me, now it is a labor, and a dangerous labor when too often resorted to; good thoughts then came to assist me in my misery; now, vexatious presentiments torment my happiness. Then the uncertainty of my future made me mistress of events. I could each day choose a new destiny, and new adventures. My unexpected and undeserved misfortune was so complete that I had nothing more to dread and everything to hope for, and experienced a vague feeling of gratitude for the ultimate succor that I confidently expected.
I would pass long hours gazing from my window at a little light shining from the fourth-story window of a distant house. What strange conjectures I made, as I silently watched the mysterious beacon!
Sometimes, in contemplating it, I recalled the questions addressed by Childe Harold to the tomb of Cecilia Metella, asking the cold marble if she who rested there were young and beautiful, a dark-eyed, delicate-featured woman, whose destiny was that reserved by Heaven for those it loves; or was she a venerable matron who had outlived her charms, her children and her kindred?
So I also questioned this solitary light:
To what distressed soul did it lend its aid? Some anxious mother watching and praying beside her sick child, or some youthful student plunging with stern delight into the arcana of science, to wrest from the revealing spirits of the night some luminous truth?
But while the poet questioned death and the past, I questioned the living present, and more than once the distant beacon seemed to answer me. I even imagined that this busy light flickered in concert with mine, and that they brightened and faded in unison.
I could only see it through a thick foliage of trees, for a large garden planted with poplars, pines and sycamores separated the house where I had taken refuge from the tall building whence the beacon shone for me night after night.
As I could never succeed in finding the points of the compass, I was ignorant of the exact locality of the house, or even on what street it fronted, and knew nothing of its occupants. But still this light was a friend; it spoke a sympathetic language to my eyes—it said: "Courage! you do not suffer alone; behind these trees and under those stars there is one who watches, labors, dreams." And when the night was majestic and beautiful, when the morn rose slowly in the azure sky, like a radiant host offered by the invisible hand of God to the adoration of the faithful who pray, lament and die by night; when these ever-new splendors dazzled my troubled soul; when I felt myself seized with that poignant admiration which makes solitary hearts find almost grief in joys that cannot be shared, it seemed to me that a dear voice came to calm my excitement, and exclaimed, with fervor, "Is not the night beautiful? What happiness in enjoying it together!"
When the nightingale, deceived by the silence of the deserted spot, and attracted by these dark shades, became a Parisian for a few days, rejuvenating with his vernal songs the old echoes of the city, again it seemed that the same voice whispered softly through the trembling leaves: "He sings, come listen!"
So the sad nights glided peacefully away, comforted by these foolish reveries.
Then I invoked my dear ideal, beloved shadow, protector of every honest heart, proud dream, a perfect choice, a jealous love sometimes making all other love impossible! Oh, my beautiful ideal! Must I then say farewell? Now I no longer dare to invoke thee!...
But what folly! Why am I so silly as to permit the remembrance of an ideal to haunt me like a remorse? Why do I suffer it to make me unjust towards noble and generous qualities that I should worthily appreciate?
Do not laugh at me, Valentine, when I assure you that my greatest distress is that my lover does not resemble in any respect my ideal, and I am provoked that I love him—I cannot deceive myself, the contrast is striking—judge for yourself.
You may laugh if you will, but the whole secret of my distress is the contrast between these two portraits.
My lover has handsome, intelligent blue eyes—my ideal's eyes are black, full of sadness and fire, not the soft, troubadour eye with long drooping lids—no! My ideal's glance has none of the languishing tenderness of romance, but is proud, powerful, penetrating, the look of a thinker, of a great mind yielding to the influence of love, the gaze of a hero disarmed by passion!
My lover is tall and slender—my ideal is only a head taller than myself ... Ah! I know you are laughing at me, Valentine! Well! I sometimes laugh at myself....
My lover is frankness personified—my ideal is not a sly knave, but he is mysterious; he never utters his thoughts, but lets you divine, or rather he speaks to a responsive sentiment in your own bosom.
My lover is what men call "A good fellow," you are intimate with him in twenty-four hours.
My ideal is by no means "a good fellow," and although he inspires confidence and respect, you are never at ease in his presence, there is a graceful dignity in his carriage, an imposing gentleness in his manner, that always inspires a kind of fear, a pleasing awe.
You remember, Valentine, when we were very young girls how we were wont to ask each other, in reading the annals of the past, what situations would have pleased us, what parts we would have liked to play, what great emotions we would have wished to experience; and how you pityingly laughed at my odd taste.
My dream,par excellence, was to die of fear; I never envied with you the famed heroines, the sublime shepherdesses who saved their country. I envied the timid Esther fainting in the arms of her women at the fierce tones of Ahasuerus, and restored to consciousness by the same voice musically whispering the fondest words ever inspired by a royal love.
I also admired Semele, dying of fear and admiration at the frowns of a wrathful Jove, but her least of all, because I am terrified in a thunderstorm.
Well, I am still the same—to love tremblingly is my fondest dream; I do not say, like pretty Madame de S., that I can only be captivated by a man with the passions of a tiger and the manners of a diplomate, I only declare that I cannot understand love without fear.
And yet my lover does not inspire me with the least fear, and against all reasoning, I mistrust a love that so little resembles the love I imagined.
The strangest doubts trouble me. When Roger speaks to me tenderly; when he lovingly calls me his dear Irene, I am troubled, alarmed—I feel as if I were deceiving some one, that I am not free, that I belong to another. Oh! what foolish scruples! How little do I deserve sympathy! You who have known me from my childhood and are interested in my happiness, will understand and commiserate my folly, for folly I know it to be, and judge myself as severely as you would.
I have resolved to treat these wretched misgivings and childish fears as the creations of a diseased mind, and have arranged a plan for their cure.
I will go into the country for a short time; good Madame Taverneau offers me the hospitality of her house at Pont-de-l'Arche; she knows nothing of what has happened during the last six months, and still believes me to be a poor young widow, forced to paint fans and screens for her daily bread.
I am very much amused at hearing her relate my own story without imagining she is talking to the heroine of that singular romance.
Where could she have learned about my sad situation, the minute details that I supposed no one knew?
"A young orphan girl of noble birth, at the age of twenty compelled by misfortune to change her name and work for her livelihood, is suddenly restored to affluence by an accident that carried off all her relatives, an immensely rich uncle, his wife and son."
She also said my uncle detested me, which proved that she was well informed—only she adds that the young heiress is horribly ugly, which I hope is not true!
I will go to Mme. Taverneau and again become the interesting widow of Monsieur Albert Guerin, of the Navy.
Perilous widowhood which invited from my dear Mme. Taverneau confidences prematurely enlightening, and which Mlle. Irene de Chateaudun had some difficulty in forgetting.
Ah! misery is a cruel emancipation! Angelic ignorance, spotless innocence of mind is a luxury that poor young girls, even the most circumspect, cannot enjoy.
What presence of mind I had to exercise for three long years in order to sustain my part!
How often have I felt myself blush, when Mme. Taverneau would say: "Poor Albert! he must have adored you."
How often have I had to restrain my laughter, when, in enumerating the perfections of her own husband, she would add, with a look of pity: "It must distress you to see Charles and me together, our love must recall your sad loss."
To these remarks I listened with marvellous self-possession; if comedy or acting of any kind were not distasteful to me, I would make a good actress.
But now I must finish telling you of my plan. To-morrow I will set out ostensibly with my cousin, accompanying her as far as Fontainbleau, where she is going to join her daughter, then I will return and hide myself in my modest lodging, for a day or two, before going to Pont-de-l'Arche.
With regard to my cousin, I must say, people abuse her unjustly; she is not very tiresome, this fat cousin of mine; I heard of nothing but her absurdities, and was warned against taking up my abode with her and choosing her for my chaperone, as her persecutions would drive me frantic and our life would be one continuous quarrel. I am happy to say that none of these horrors have been realized. We understand each other perfectly, and, if I am not married next winter, the Hotel de Langeac will still be my home.
Roger, uninformed of my departure, will be furious, which is exactly what I want, for from his anger I expect enlightenment, and this is the test I will apply. Like all inexperienced people, I have a theory, and this theory I will proceed to explain.
If in your analysis of love you seek sincerity, you must apply a little judicious discouragement, for the man who loves hopefully, confidently, is an enigma.
Follow carefully my line of reasoning; it maybe complicated, laborious, but—it is convincing.
All violent love is involuntary hypocrisy.
The more ardent the lover the more artful the man.
The more one loves, the more one lies.
The reason of all this is very simple.
The first symptom of a profound passion is an all-absorbing self-abnegation. The fondest dream of a heart really touched, is to make for the loved one the most extraordinary and difficult sacrifice.
How hard it is to subdue the temper, or to change one's nature! yet from the moment a man loves he is metamorphosed. If a miser, to please he will become a spendthrift, and he who feared a shadow, learns to despise death. The corrupt Don Juan emulates the virtuous Grandison, and, earnest in his efforts, he believes himself to be really reformed, converted, purified regenerated.
This happy transformation will last through the hopeful period. But as soon as the remodelled pretender shall have a presentiment that his metamorphosis is unprofitable; as soon as the implacable voice of discouragement shall have pronounced those two magic words, by which flights are stayed, thoughts paralyzed, and hopeful hearts deadened, "Never! Impossible!" the probation is over and the candidate returns to the old idols of graceless, dissolute nature.
The miser is shocked as he reckons the glittering gold he has wasted. The quondam hero thinks with alarm of his borrowed valor, and turns pale at the sight of his scars.
The roue, to conceal the chagrin of discomfiture, laughs at the promises of a virtuous love, calls himself a gay deceiver, great monster, and is once more self-complacent.
Freed from restraint, their ruling passions rush to the surface, as when the floodgates are opened the fierce torrent sweeps over the field.
These hypocrites will feel for their beloved vices, lost and found again, the thirst, the yearning we feel for happiness long denied us. And they will return to their old habit, with a voracious eagerness, as the convalescent turns to food, the traveller to the spring, the exile to his native land, the prisoner to freedom.
Then will reckless despair develop their genuine natures; then, and then only, can you judge them.
Ah! I breathe freely now that I have explained my feelings What do you think of my views on this profound subject—discouragement in love?
I am confident that this test must sometimes meet with the most favorable results. I believe, for example, that with Roger it will be eminently successful, for his own character is a thousand times more attractive than the one he has assumed to attract me. He would please me better if he were less fascinating—his only fault, if it be a fault, is his lack of seriousness.
He has travelled too much, and studied different manners and subjects too closely, to have that power of judging character, that stock of ideas and principles without which we cannot make for ourselves what is called a philosophy, that is, a truth of our own.
In the savage and civilized lands he traversed, he saw religions so ridiculous, morals so wanton, points of honor so ludicrous, that he returned home with an indifference, a carelessness about everything, which adds brilliancy to his wit, but lessens the dignity of his love.
Roger attaches importance to nothing—a bitter sorrow must teach him the seriousness of life, that everything must not be treated jestingly. Grief and trouble are needed to restore his faith.
I hope he will be very unhappy when he hears of my inexplicable flight, and I intend returning for the express purpose of watching his grief; nothing is easier than to pass several days in Paris incog.
My beloved garret remains unrented, and I will there take sly pleasure in seeing for myself how much respect is paid to my memory—I very much enjoy the novel idea of assisting at my own absence.
But I perceive that my letter is unpardonably long; also that in confiding my troubles to you, I have almost forgotten them; and here I recognise your noble influence, my dear Valentine; the thought of you consoles and encourages me. Write soon, and your advice will not be thrown away. I confess to being foolish, but am sincerely desirous of being cured of my folly. My philosophy does not prevent my being open to conviction, and willing to sacrifice my logic to those I love.
Kiss my godchild for me, and give her the pretty embroidered dress I send with this. I have trimmed it with Valenciennes to my heart's content. Oh! my friend, how overjoyed I am to once more indulge in these treasured laces, the only real charm of grandeur, the only unalloyed gift of fortune. Fine country seats are a bore, diamonds a weight and a care, fast horses a danger; but lace! without whose adornment no woman is properly dressed—every other privation is supportable; but what is life without lace?
I have tried to please your rustic taste in the wagon-load of newly imported plants, one of which is a Padwlonia (do not call it a Polonais), and is now acclimated in France; its leaves are a yard in circumference, and it grows twenty inches a month—malicious people say it freezes in the winter, but don't you believe the slander.
Adieu, adieu, my Valentine, write to me, a line from you is happiness.
IRENE DE CHATEAUDUN.
My address is, Madame Albert Guerin, Care Mme. Taverneau, Pont de l'Arche, Department of the Eure.
ROGER DE MONBERT to M. DE MEILHAN, Pont-de-l'Arche (Eure.)
Paris, May 19th, 18—.
Dear Edgar,—It cannot be denied that friendship is the refuge of adversity—the roof that shelters from the storm.
In my prosperous days I never wrote you. Happiness is selfish. We fear to distress a friend who may be in sorrow, by sending him a picture of our own bliss.
I am oppressed with a double burden; your absence, and my misfortunes.
This introduction will, doubtless, impress you with the idea that I wander about Paris with dejected visage and neglected dress. Undeceive yourself. It is one of my principles never to expose my sacred griefs to the gaze of an unsympathetic world, that only looks to laugh.
Pity I regard as an insult to my pride: the comforter humiliates the inconsolable mourner; besides, there are sorrows that all pretend to understand, but which none really appreciate. It is useless, then, to enumerate one's maladies to a would-be physician; and the world is filled with those who delight in the miseries of others; who follow the sittings of courts and luxuriate in heart-rending pictures of man's injustice to his fellow.
I do not care to serve as a relaxation to this class of mankind, who, since the abolition of the circus and amphitheatre, are compelled to pick up their pleasure wherever they can find it; seeking the best places to witness the struggle of Christian fortitude with adversity.
But every civilized age has its savage manners, and, knowing this, I resemble in public the favorite of fortune. I simulate content, and my face is radiant with deceit.
The idle and curious of the Boulevard Italien, the benches of the circus would hardly recognise me as the gladiator struggling with an iron-clawed monster—they are all deceived.
I feel a repugnance, dear Edgar, to entertaining you with a recital of my mysterious sorrow. I would prefer to leave you in ignorance, or let you divine them, but I explain to prevent your friendship imagining afflictions that are not mine.
In the first place, to reassure you, my fortune has not suffered during my absence. On my return to Paris, my agent dazzled me with the picture of my wealth.
"Happy man!" said he; "a great name, a large fortune, health that has defied the fires of the tropics, the ice of the poles,—and only thirty!" The notary reasoned well from a notary's stand-point. If I were to reduce my possessions to ingots, they would certainly balance a notary's estimate of happiness; therefore, fear nothing for my fortune.
Nor must you imagine that I grieve over my political and military prospects that were lost in the royal storm of '30, when plebeian cannon riddled the Tuilleries and shattered a senile crown. I was only sixteen, and hardly understood the lamentations of my father, whose daily refrain was, "My child, your future is destroyed."
A man's future lies in any honorable career. If I have left the epaulettes of my ancestors reposing in their domestic shrine, I can bequeath to my children other decorations.
I have just returned from a ten years' campaign against all nations, bringing back a marvellous quantity of trophies, but without causing one mother to mourn. In the light of a conqueror, Caesar, Alexander, and Hannibal pale in comparison, and yet to a certainty my military future could not have gained me the epaulettes of these illustrious commanders.
You would not, my dear Edgar, suppose, from the gaiety of this letter, that I had passed a frightful night.
You shall see what becomes of life when not taken care of; when there is an unguarded moment in the incessant duel that, forced by nature, we wage with her from the cradle to the grave.
What a long and glorious voyage I had just accomplished! What dangers I escaped! The treacherous sea defeated by a motion of the helm! The sirens to whom I turned a deaf ear. The Circes deserted under a baleful moon, ere the brutalizing change had come!
I returned to Paris, a man with soul so dead that his country was not dear to him—I felt guilty of an unknown crime, but reflection reduced the enormity of the offence. Long voyages impart to us a nameless virtue—or vice, made up of tolerance, stoicism and disdain. After having trodden over the graveyards of all nations, it seems as if we had assisted at the funeral ceremonies of the world, and they who survive on its surface seem like a band of adroit fugitives who have discovered the secret of prolonging to-day's agony until to-morrow.
I walked upon the Boulevard Italien without wonder, hatred, love, joy or sorrow. On consulting my inmost thoughts I found there an unimpassioned serenity, a something akin to ennui; I scarcely heard the noise of the wheels, the horses—the crowd that surrounded me.
Habituated to the turmoil of those grand dead nations near the vast ruins of the desert, this little hubbub of wearied citizens scarcely attracted my attention.
My face must have reflected the disdainful quietude of my soul.
By contemplative communion with the mute, motionless colossal faces of Egypt's and Persia's monuments, I felt that unwittingly my countenance typified the cold imperturbable tranquillity of their granite brows.
That evening La Favorita was played at the opera. Charming work! full of grace, passion, love. Reaching the end of Le Pelletier street, my walk was blocked by a line of carriages coming down Provence street; not having the patience to wait the passage of this string of vehicles, nor being very dainty in my distinction between pavement and street, I followed in the wake of the carriages, and as they did not conceal the facade of the opera at the end of the court, I saw it, and said "I will go in."
I took a box below, because my family-box had changed hands, hangings and keys at least five times in ten years, and seated myself in the background to avoid recognition, and leave undisturbed friends who would feel in duty bound to pay fashionable court to a traveller due ten years. I was not familiar with La Favorita, and my ear took in the new music slowly. Great scores require of the indolent auditor a long novitiate.
While I listened indolently to the orchestra and the singers, I examined the boxes with considerable interest, to discover what little revolutions a decade could bring about in the aristocratic personnel of the opera. A confused noise of words and some distinct sentences reached my ear from the neighboring boxes when the orchestra was silent. I listened involuntarily; the occupants were not talking secrets, their conversation was in the domain of idle chat, that divides with the libretto the attention of the habitues of the opera.
They said, "I could distinguish her in a thousand, I mistrust my sight a little, but my glass is infallible; it is certainly Mlle. de Bressuire—a superb figure, but she spoils her beauty by affectation."
"Your glass deceives you, my dear sir, we know Mlle. de Bressuire."
"Madame is right; it is not Mlle. That young lady at whom everybody is gazing, and who to-night is the favorite—excuse the pun—of the opera, is a Spaniard; I saw her at the Bois de Boulogne in M. Martinez de la Hosa's carriage. They told me her name, but I have forgotten. I never could remember names."
"Ladies," said a young man, who noisily entered the box, "we are at last enlightened. I have just questioned the box-keeper—she is a maid of honor to the Queen of Belgium."
"And her name?" demanded five voices.
"She has a Belgian name, unpronounceable by the box-keeper; something like Wallen, or Meulen."
"We are very much wiser."
From the general commotion it was easy to perceive that the same subject was being discussed by the whole house, and doubtless in the same terms; for people do not vary their formulas much on such occasions.
A strain of music recalled to the stage every eye that during the intermission had been fastened upon one woman. I confess that I felt some interest in the episode, but, owing to my habitual reserve, barely discovered by random and careless glances the young girl thus handed over to the curious glances of the fashionable world. She was in a box of the first tier, and the native grace of her attitude first riveted my attention. The cynosure of all eyes, she bore her triumph with the ease of a woman accustomed to admiration.
To appear unconscious she assumed with charming cleverness a pose of artistic contemplation. One would have said that she was really absorbed in the music, or that she was following the advice of the Tuscan poet:
"Bel ange, descendu d'un monde aerien, Laisse-toi regarder et ne regarde rien."
From my position I could only distinguish the outline of her figure, except by staring through my glasses, which I regard as a polite rudeness, but she seemed to merit the homage that all eyes looked and all voices sang.
Once she appeared in the full blaze of the gas as she leaned forward from her box, and it seemed as if an apparition by some theatro-optical delusion approached and dazzled me.
The rapt attention of the audience, the mellow tones of the singer, the orchestral accompaniment full of mysterious harmony, seemed to awaken the ineffable joy that love implants in the human heart. How much weakness there is in the strength of man!
To travel for years over oceans, through deserts, among all varieties of peoples and sects; shipwrecked, to cling with bleeding hands to sea-beaten rocks; to laugh at the storm and brave the tiger in his lair; to be bronzed in torrid climes; to subject one's digestion to the baleful influences of the salt seas; to study wisdom before the ruins of every portico where rhetoricians have for three thousand years paraphrased in ten tongues the words of Solomon, "All is vanity;" to return to one's native shores a used-up man, persuaded of the emptiness of all things save the overhanging firmament and the never-fading stars; to scatter the fancies of too credulous youth by a contemptuous smile, or a lesson of bitter experience, and yet, while boasting a victory over all human fallacies and weaknesses, to be enslaved by the melody of a song, the smile of a woman.
Life is full of hidden mysteries. I looked upon the stranger's face with a sense of danger, so antagonistic to my previous tranquillity that I felt humiliated.
By the side of the beautiful unknown, I saw a large fan open and shut with a certain affectation, but not until its tenth movement did I glance at its possessor. She was my nearest relative, the Duchess de Langeac.
The situation now began to be interesting. In a moment the interlude would procure for me a position to be envied by every one in the house. At the end of the act I left my box and made a rapid tour of the lobby before presenting myself. The Duchess dispelled my embarrassment by a cordial welcome. Women have a keen and supernatural perception about everything concerning love, that is alarming.
The Duchess carelessly pronounced Mlle. de Chateaudun's name and mine, as if to be rid of the ceremonies of introduction as soon as possible, and touching a sofa with the end of her fan, said:
"My dear Roger, it is quite evident that you have come from everywhere except from the civilized world. I bowed to you twenty times, and you declined me the honor of a recognition. Absorbed in the music, I suppose. La Favorita is not performed among the savages, so they remain savages. How do you like our barytone? He has sung his aria with delicious feeling."
While the Duchess was indulging her unmeaning questions and comments, a rapid and careless glance at Mlle. de Chateaudun explained the admiration that she commanded from the crowded house. Were I to tell you that this young creature was a pretty, a beautiful woman, I would feebly express my meaning, such phrases mean nothing. It would require a master hand to paint a peerless woman, and I could not make the attempt when the bright image of Irene is now surrounded by the gloomy shadows of an afflicted heart.
After the first exchange of insignificant words, the skirmish of a conversation, we talk as all talk who are anxious to appear ignorant of the fact that they are gazed upon by a whole assembly.
Concealing my agitation under a strain of light conversation, "Mademoiselle," I said, in answer to a question, "music is to-day the necessity of the universe. France is commissioned to amuse the world. Suppress our theatre, opera, Paris, and a settled melancholy pervades the human family. You have no idea of the ennui that desolates the hemispheres.
"Occasionally Paris enlivens the two Indias by dethroning a king. Once Calcutta was in extremis, it was dying of the blues; the East India company was rich but not amusing; with all its treasure it could not buy one smile for Calcutta, so Paris sent Robert le Diable, La Muette de Portici, a drama or two of Hugo and Dumas. Calcutta became convalescent and recovered. Its neighbor, Chandernagore, scarcely existed then, but in 1842, when I left the Isle de Bourbon, La Favorita was announced; it planted roses in the cheeks of the jaundiced inhabitants, and Madras, possessed by the spleen, was exorcised by William Tell.
"Whenever a tropical city is conscious of approaching decline, she always stretches her hands beseechingly to Paris, who responds with music, books, newspapers; and her patient springs into new life.
"Paris does not seem to be aware of her influences. She detracts from herself; says she is not the Paris of yesterday, the Paris of the great century; that her influence is gone, she is in the condition of the Lower Empire.
"She builds eighty leagues of fortifications to sustain the siege of Mahomet II. She weeps over her downfall and accuses Heaven of denying to her children of '44 the genius and talents that characterized the statesmen and poets of her past.
"But happily the universe does not coincide with Paris; go ask it; having just come from there, I know it."
Indulging my traveller's extravagancies laughingly, to the amusement of my fair companion, she said:
"Truly your philosophy is of the happy school, and the burden of life must be very light when it is so lightly borne."
"You must know, my dear Roger," said the Duchess, feigning commiseration, "that my young cousin, Mlle. de Chateaudun, is pitiably unhappy, and you and I can weep over her lot in chorus with orchestral accompaniment; poor child! she is the richest heiress in Paris."
"How wide you are from the mark!" said Irene, with a charming look of annoyance in the brightest eye that ever dazzled the sober senses of man; "it is not an axiom that wealth is happiness. The poor spread such a report, but the rich know it to be false."
Here the curtain arose, and my return to my box explained my character as the casual visitor and not the lover. And what intentions could I have had at that moment? I cannot say.
I was attracted by the loveliness of Mlle. Chateaudun; chance gave the opportunity for studying her charms, the fair unknown improved on acquaintance. Hers was the exquisite grace of face and feature and winningness of manner which attracts, retains and is never to be forgotten.
From the superb tranquillity of her attitude, the intelligence of her eyes, it was easy to infer that a wider field would bring into action the hidden treasures of a gifted nature. Over the dazzling halo that surrounded the fair one, which left me the alternative of admiring silence or heedless vagrancy of speech, one cloud lowered, eclipsing all her charms and bringing down my divinity from her pedestal—Irene was an heiress!
The Duchess had clipped the wings of the angel with the phrase of a marriage-broker. An heiress! the idea of a beautiful woman, full of poetry and love, inseparately linked to pounds, shillings and pence!
It was a day of amnesty to men, a fete day in Paradise, when God gave to this young girl that crown of golden hair, that seraphic brow, those eyes that purified the moral miasma of earth. The ideal of poetry, the reality of my love!
Think of this living master-piece of the divine studio as the theme of money-changers, the prize of the highest bidder!
Of course, my dear Edgar, I saw Mlle. de Chateaudun again and again after this memorable evening; thanks to the facilities afforded me by my manoeuvring kinswoman, the Duchess, who worshipped the heiress as I worshipped the woman, I could Add a useless volume of romantic details leading you to the denouement, which you have already guessed, for you must see in me the lover of Mlle. de Chateaudun.
I wished to give you the beginning and end of my story; what do you care for the rest, since it is but the wearisome calendar of all lovers?—The journal of a thousand incidents as interesting and important to two people as they are stupid and ridiculous to every one else. Each day was one of progress; finally, we loved each other. Excuse the homely platitude in this avowal.
Irene seemed perfect; her only fault, being an heiress, was lost in the intoxication of my love; everything was arranged, and in spite of her money I was to marry her.
I was delirious with joy, my feet spurned the earth. My bliss was the ecstasy of the blest. My delight seemed to color the contentment of other men with gloom, and I felt like begging pardon for being so happy. It seemed that this valley of tears, astonished that any one should from a terrestrial paradise gaze upon its afflictions and still be happy, would revolt against me!
My dear Edgar, the smoke of hell has darkened my vision—I grope in the gloom of a terrible mystery—Vainly do I strive to solve it, and I turn to you for aid.
Irene has left Paris! Home, street, city, all deserted! A damp, dark nothingness surrounds me!
Not an adieu! a line! a message! to console me—
Women do such things—
I have done all in my power, and attempted the impossible to find Irene, but without success. If she only had some ground of complaint against me, how happy I would be.
A terrible thought possesses my fevered brain—she has fallen into some snare, my marvellously beautiful Irene.
Hide my sorrows, dear Edgar, from the world as I have hidden them.
You would not have recognised the writer of this, had you seen him on the boulevard this morning. I was a superb dandy, with the poses of a Sybarite and the smiles of a young sultan. I trod as one in the clouds, and looked so benevolently on my fellow man that three beggars sued for aid as if they recognised Providence in a black coat. The last observation that reached my ear fell from the lips of an observing philosopher:
"Heavens! how happy that young man must be!"
Dear Edgar, I long to see you.
ROGER DE MONBERT.
EDGAR DE MEILHAN to the PRINCE DE MONBERT, St. Dominique Street, Paris.
RICHEPORT, 20th May, 18—
No, no, I cannot console you in Paris. I will escort your grief to Smyrna, Grand Cairo, Chandernagore, New Holland, if you wish, but I would rather be scalped alive than turn my steps towards that fascinating city surrounded by fortifications.
Your elegy found me moderately impressible. Fortune has apparently always treated you like a spoiled child; were your misfortunes mine I should be delighted, and in your torment I should find a paradise. A disappearance afflicts you with agony. I was forced to beat a retreat once, but not from creditors; my debts are things of the past. You are fled from—I am pursued; and whatever you may say to the contrary, it is much more agreeable to be the dog than the hare.
Ah! if the beauty that I adore (this is melo-dramatic) had only conceived such a triumphant idea! I should not be the one who—but no one knows when he is well off. This Mlle. Irene de Chateaudun pleases me, for by this opportune and ingenious eclipse she prevents you from committing a great absurdity. What put marriage into your head, forsooth! You who have housed with Bengal tigers and treated the lions of Atlas as lapdogs; who have seen, like Don Caesar de Bazan, women of every color and clime; how could you have centred your affections upon this Parisian doll, and chained the fancies of your cosmopolitan soul to the dull, rolling wheel of domestic and conjugal duty?
So don't swear at her; bless her with a grateful heart, put a bill of credit in your pocket, and off we'll sail for China. We will make a hole in the famous wall, and pry into the secrets of lacquered screens and porcelain cups. I have a strong desire to taste their swallow-nest soup, their shark's fins served with jujube sauce, the whole washed down by small glasses of castor oil. We will have a house painted apple-green and vermilion, presided over by a female mandarin with no feet, circumflex eyes, and nails that serve as toothpicks. When shall I order the post-horses?
A wise man of the Middle Empire said that we should never attempt to stem the current of events. Life takes care of itself. The loss of your fiancee proves that you are not predestined for matrimony, therefore do not attempt to coerce chance; let it act, for perhaps it is the pseudonym of God.
Thanks to this very happy disappearance, your love remains young and fresh; besides, you have, in addition to the Pleasures of Memory, the Pleasures of Hope (considered the finest work of the poet Campbell); for there is nothing to show that your divinity has been translated to that better world, where, however, no one seems over-anxious to go.
Let not my retreat give rise to any unfavorable imputations against my courage. Achilles, himself, would have incontinently fled if threatened with the blessings in store for me. From what oriental head-dresses, burnous affectedly draped, golden rings after the style of the Empress of the Lower Empire, have I not escaped by my prudence?
But this is all an enigma to you. You are in ignorance of my story, unless some too-well-posted Englishman hinted it to you in the temple of Elephanta. I will relate it to you by way of retaliation for the recital of your love affair with Mlle. Irene de Chateaudun.
You have probably met that celebrated blue-stocking called the "Romantic Marquise." She is handsome, so the painters say; and, perhaps, they are not far from right, for she is handsome after the style of an old picture. Although young, she seems to be covered with yellow varnish, and to walk surrounded by a frame, with a background of bitumen.
One evening I found myself with this picturesque personage at Madame de Blery's. I was listlessly intrenched in a corner, far from the circle of busy talkers, just sufficiently awake to be conscious that I was asleep—a delirious condition, which I recommend to your consideration, resembling the beginning of haschish intoxication—when by some turn in the conversation Madame de Blery mentioned my name and pointed me out. I was immediately awakened from my torpor and dragged out of my corner.
I have been weak enough at times, as Gubetta says, to jingle words at the end of an idea, or to speak more modestly, at the end of certain measured syllables. The Marquise, cognisant of the offence, but not of the extenuating circumstances, launched forth into praise and flattering hyperbole that lifted me to the level of Byron, Goethe, Lamartine, discovered that I had a satanic look, and went on so that I suspected an album.
This affected me gloomily and ferociously. There is nothing I despise more than an album, unless it be two of them.
To avoid any such attempt, I broke into the most of the conversation with several innocent provincialisms, and effected my retreat in a masterly manner; advancing towards the door by degrees, and reaching it, I sprang outside so suddenly and nimbly that I had gotten to the bottom of the stairs before my absence was discovered.
Alas! no one can escape au album when it is predestined! The next day a book, magnificently bound in Russia, arrived in a superb moire case in the hands of a groom, with an accompanying note from the Infanta soliciting the honor, &c.
All great men have their antipathies. James I. could not look upon a glittering sword; Roger Bacon fainted at the sight of an apple; and blank paper fills me with melancholy.
However, I resigned myself to the decrees of fate, and scribbled, I don't know what, in the corner, and subscribed my initials as illegible as those of Napoleon when in a passion.
This, I flattered myself, was the end of the tragedy, but no: a few days afterwards I received an invitation to a select gathering, in such amiable terms that I resolved to decline it.
Talleyrand said, "Never obey your first impulse, because it is good;" I obeyed this Machiavellian maxim, and erred!
"Eucharis" was being performed at the opera; the sky was filled with ugly, threatening clouds; I sought in vain for a companion to get tight with, and moralize over a few bottles of wine, and so for want of a gayer occupation I went to the Marquise.
Her apartments are a perfect series of catafalques, and seem to have been upholstered by an undertaker. The drawing-room is hung in violet damask; the bed-rooms in black velvet; the furniture is of ebony or old oak; crucifixes, holy-water basins, folio bibles, death's-heads and poniards adorned the enlivening interior. Several Zurbarans, real or false, representing monks and martyrs, hung on the walls, frightening visitors with their grimaces. These sombre tints are intended to contrast with the waxy cheeks and painted eyes of the lady who looks more like the ghost than the mistress of this dwelling; for she does not inhabit, she haunts it.
You must not think, dear Roger, from this funereal introduction, that your friend became the prey of a ghoul or a vampire. The Marquise is handsome enough, after all. Her features are noble, regular, but a little Jewish, which induces her to wear a turban earlier and oftener than is necessary. She would not be so pale, if instead of white she put on red. Her hands, though too thin, are rather pretty and aristocratic, and weighted heavily with odd-looking rings. Her foot is not too large for her slipper. Uncommon thing! for women, in regard to their shoes, have falsified the geometrical axiom: the receptacle should be greater than its contents.
She is, however, to a certain point, a gentlewoman, and holds a good position in society.
I was received with all manner of caresses, stuffed with small cake, inundated with tea, of which beverage I hold the same opinion as Madame Gibou. I was assailed by romantic and transcendental dissertations, but possessing the faculty of abstraction and fixing my gaze upon the facets of a crystal flagon, my attitude touched the Marquise, who believed me plunged into a gulf of thought.
In short, I had the misfortune to charm her, and the weakness, like the greater part of men, to surrender myself to my good or evil fortune; for this unhung canvas did not please me, and though tolerably stylish and pretty well preserved, I suspected some literature underneath, and closely scanned the edge of her dress to see if some azure reflection had not altered the whiteness of her stocking. I abhor women who take blue-ink baths. Alas! they are much worse than the avowed literary woman; she affects to talk of nothing but ribbons, dress and bonnets, and confidentially gives you a receipt for preserving lemons and making strawberry cream; they take pride in not ignoring housekeeping, and faithfully follow the fashions. At their homes ink, pen and paper are nowhere to be seen; their odes and elegies are written on the back of a bill or on a page torn from an account-book.
La Marquise contemplates reform, romances, social poetry, humanitarian and palingenesic treatises, and scattered about on the tables and chairs were to be seen solemn old books, dog-leaved at their most tiresome pages, all of which is very appalling. Nothing is more convenient than a muse whose complete works are printed; one knows then what to expect, and you have not always the reading of Damocles hanging over your head.
Dragged by a fatality that so often makes me the victim of women I do not admire, I became the Conrad, the Lara of this Byronic heroine.
Every morning she sent me folio-sized epistles, dated three hours after midnight. They were compilations from Frederick Soulie, Eugene Sue, and Alexander Dumas, glorious authors, whom I delight to read save in my amorous correspondence, where a feminine mistake in orthography gives me more pleasure than a phrase plagiarised from George Sand, or a pathetic tirade stolen from a popular dramatist.
In short, I do not believe in a passion told in language that smells of the lamp; and the expression "Je t'aime" will scarcely persuade me if it be not written "Je theme."
It made no difference how often the beauty wrote, I fortified myself against her literary visitations by consigning her billets-doux unopened to an empty drawer. By this means I was enabled to endure her prose with great equanimity. But she expected me to reply—now, as I did not care to keep my hand in for my next romance, I viewed her claims as extravagant and unreasonable, and feigning a strong desire to see my mother, I fled, less curious than Lot's wife, without looking behind.
Had I not taken this resolution I should have died of ennui in that dimly-lighted house, among those sepulchral toys, in the presence of that pale phantom enveloped in a dismal wrapper, cut in the monkish style, and speaking in a trembling and languishing tone of voice.
La Trappe or Chartreuse would have been preferable—I would have gained at least my salvation. Although it may be the act of a Cossack, a shocking irregularity, I have given her no sign of my existence, except that I told her that my mother's recovery promised to be very slow, and she would need the devoted attention of a good son.
Judge, dear Roger, after this recital, of which I have subdued the horrors and dramatic situations out of regard to your sensibility, whether I could return to Paris to be the comforter in your sorrow. Yet I could brave an encounter with the Marquise were it not that I am retained in Normandy by an expected visit of two months from our friend Raymond. This fact certainly ought to make you decide to share our solitude. Our friend is so poetical, so witty, so charming. He has but one fault, that of being a civilized Don Quixote de la Mancha; instead of the helmet of Mambrino he wears a Gibus hat, a Buisson coat instead of a cuirass, a Verdier cane by way of a lance. Happy nature! in which the heart is not sacrificed to the intellect; where the subtlety of a diplomate is united to the ingenuousness of a child.
Since your ideal has fled, are not all places alike to you? Then why should you not come to me, to Richeport, but a step from Pont de l'Arch?
I am perched upon the bank of the river, in a strange old building, which I know will please you. It is an old abbey half in ruins, in which is enshrined a dwelling, with many windows at regular intrevals, and is surmounted by a slate roof and chimneys of all sizes. It is built of hewn stone, that time has covered with its gray leprosy, and the general effect, looking through the avenue of grand old trees, is fine. Here my mother dwells. Profiting by the walls and the half-fallen towers of the old enclosure, for the abbey was fortified to resist the Norman invasions, she has made upon the brow of the hill a garden terrace filled with roses, myrtles and orange trees, while the green boxes surrounding them replace the old battlements. In this quarter of the old domain, I have not interfered with any of these womanly fancies.
She has collected around her all manner of pretty rusticities; all the comfortable elegancies she could imagine. I have not opposed any system of hot-air stoves, nor the upholstering of the rooms, nor objected to mahogany and ebony, wedgwood ware, china in blue designs, and English plate. For this is the way that middle-aged, and in fact, all reasonable people live.
For myself, I have reserved the refectory and library of the brave monks, that is, all that overlooks the river. I have not permitted the least repairing of the walls, which present the complete flora of the native wild flowers. An arched door, closed by old boards covered with a remnant of red paint, and opening on the bank, serves me as a private entrance. A ferry worked by a rope and pulley establishes communication with an island opposite the abbey, which is verdant with a mass of osiers, elder bushes and willows. It is here also that my fleet of boats is moored.
Seen from without, nothing would indicate a human habitation; the ruins lie in all the splendor of their downfall.
I have not replaced one stone—walled up one lizard—the house-leek, St. John's-wort, bell-flower, sea-green saxifrage, woody nightshade and blue popion flower have engaged in a struggle upon the walls of arabesques, and carvings which would discourage the most patient ornamental sculptor. But above all, a marvel of nature attracts your admiring gaze: it is a gigantic ivy, dating back at least to Richard Coeur de Lion, it defies by the intricacy of its windings those geneological trees of Jesus Christ, which are seen in Spanish churches; the top touching the clouds, and its bearded roots embedded in the bosom of the patriarchal Abraham; there are tufts, garlands, clusters, cascades of a green so lustrous, so metallic, so sombre and yet so brilliant, that it seems as if the whole body of the old building, the whole life of the dead abbey had passed into the veins of this parasitic friend, which smothers with its embrace, holding in place one stone, while it dislodges two to plant its climbing spurs.
You cannot imagine what tufted elegance, what richness of open-work tracery this encroachment of the ivy throws upon the rather gaunt and sharp gable-end of the building, which on this front has for ornament but four narrow-pointed windows, surmounted by three trefoil quadrilobes.
The shell of the adjoining building is flanked at its angle by a turret, which is chiefly remarkable for its spiral stairway and well. The great poet who invented Gothic cathedrals would, in the presence of this architectural caprice, ask the question, "Does the tower contain the well, or the well the tower?" You can decide; you who know everything, and more besides—except, however, Mlle. de Chateaudun's place of concealment.
Another curiosity of the old building is a moucharaby, a kind of balcony open at the bottom, picturesquely perched above a door, from which the good fathers could throw stones, beams and boiling oil on the heads of those tempted to assault the monastery for a taste of their good fare and a draught of their good wine.
Here I live alone, or in the company of four or five choice books, in a lofty hall with pointed roof; the points where the ribs intersect being covered with rosework of exquisite delicacy. This comprises my suite of apartments, for I never could understand why the little space that is given one in this world to dream, to sleep, to live, to die in, should be divided into a set of compartments like a dressing-case. I detest hedges, partitions and walls like a phalansterian.
To keep off dampness I have had the sides of the market-house, as my mother calls it, wainscoted in oak to the height of twelve or fifteen feet.
By a kind of gallery with two stairways, I can reach the windows and enjoy the beauty of the landscape, which is lovely. My bed is a simple hammock of aloes-fibre, slung in a corner; very low divans, and huge tapestry arm-chairs, for the rest of the furniture. Hung up on the wainscoting are pistols, guns, masks, foils, gloves, plastrons, dumb-bells and other gymnastic equipments. My favorite horse is installed in the opposite angle, in a box of bois des iles, a precaution that secures him from the brutalizing society of grooms, and keeps him a horse of the world.
The whole is heated by a cyclopean chimney, which devours a load of wood at a mouthful, and before which a mastodon might be roasted.
Come, then, dear Roger, I can offer you a friendly ruin, the chapel with the trefoil quadrilobes.
We will walk together, axe in hand, through my park, which is as dense and impenetrable as the virgin forests of America, or the jungles of India. It has not been touched for sixty years, and I have sworn to break the head of the first gardener who dares to approach it with a pruning-hook.
It is glorious to see the abandonment of Nature in this extravagance of vegetation, this wild luxuriance of flowers and foliage; the trees stretch out their arms, breed and intertwine in the most fantastic manner; the branches make a hundred curiously-distorted turns, and interlace in beautiful disorder; sometimes hanging the red berries of the mountain-ash among the silver foliage of the aspen.
The rapid slope of the ground produces a thousand picturesque accidents; the grass, brightened by a spring which at a little distance plays a thousand pranks over the rocks, flourishes in rich luxuriance; the burdock, with large velvet leaves, the stinging nettles, the hemlock with greenish umbels; the wild oats—every weed prospers wonderfully. No stranger approaches the enclosure, whose denizens are two or three little deer with tawny coats gleaming through the trees.
This eminently romantic spot would harmonize with your melancholy. Mlle. de Chateaudun not being in Paris, you have better chance of finding her elsewhere.
Who knows if she has not taken refuge in one of these pretty bird's-nests embedded in moss and foliage, their half-open blinds overlooking the limpid flow of the Seine? Come quickly, my dear fellow; I will not take advantage of your position as I did of Alfred's, to overwhelm you from my moucharaby with a shower of green frogs, a miracle which he has not been able to explain to his entire satisfaction. I will show you an excellent spot to fish for white-bait; nothing calms the passions so much as fishing with rod and line; a philosophical recreation which fools have turned into ridicule, as they do everything else they do not understand.
If the fish won't bite, you can gaze at the bridge, its piers blooming with wild flowers and lavender; its noisy mills, its arches obstructed by nets; the church, with its truncated roof; the village covering the hill-side, and, against the horizon, the sharp line of woody hills.
EDGAR DE MEILHAN
RAYMOND DE VILLIERS to M. EDGAR DE MEILHAN, Richeport, near Pont de l'Arche (Eure).
GRENOBLE, Hotel of the Prefecture, May 22d 18—.
Do not expect me, dear Edgar, I shall not be at Richeport the 24th. When shall I? I cannot tell.
I write to you from a bed of pain, bruised, wounded, burnt, half dead. It served me right, you will say, on learning that I am here for the commission of the greatest crime that can be tried before your tribunal. It is only too true—I have saved the life of an ugly woman!
But I saved her at night, when I innocently supposed her beautiful—let this be the extenuating circumstance. That no delay may attend your decision, here is the whole story.
Travel from pole to pole—wander to and fro over the world, it is not impossible, by God's help, to escape the thousand and one annoyances that are scattered over the surface of this terraqueous globe, but it is impossible, go where you will, to evade England, the gayest nation to be found, especially in travelling.
At Rome, this winter, Lord K. told me seriously that he had set out from London, some years since, with the one object of finding some corner of the earth on which no foot had ever trod before, and there to fix the first glorious impress of a British boot. The English occasionally, for amusement, indulge in such notions.
After having examined a scale of the comparative heights of the mountains of the universe, he noted the two highest points. Lord K. first reached the Peruvian Andes, and began to climb the sides of Chimborazo with that placidity, that sang-froid, which is the characteristic of an elevated soul instinctively attracted to realms above.
Reaching the summit with torn feet and bleeding hands, he was about to fix a conqueror's grasp upon the rock, when he saw in one of the crevices a heap of visiting-cards, placed there successively, during a half century, by two or three hundred of his compatriots.
Disappointed but not discouraged, Lord K. drew from his case a shining, satiny card, and having gravely added it to the many others, began to descend Chimborazo with the same coolness and deliberation that he had climbed up.
Half way down he found himself face to face with Sir Francis P., about to attempt the ascent that Lord K. had just accomplished. Although alienated by difference of party, they were old friends, dating their acquaintance, I believe, from the University of Oxford.
Without appearing astonished at so unexpected an encounter, they bowed politely, and on Chimborazo, as in politics, went their separate ways.
Betrayed by the New World, Lord K. directed his steps towards the Old. He penetrated the heart of Asia, plunged into the Dobrudja region, and paused only at the foot of Tschamalouri, upon the borders of Bootan. It is fair that I should thus visit on you the formidable erudition inflicted upon me by Milord.
You must know, then, dear Edgar, that the Tschamalouri is the highest peak of the Himalayan group.
The Jungfrau, Mount Blanc, Mount Cervin, and Mount Rosa, piled one upon the other, would make at best but a stepping-stone to it. Judge, then, of Milord's transports in the presence of this giant, whose hoary head was lost in the clouds! They might rob him of Chimborazo, but Tschamalouri was his.
After a few days for repose and preparation, one fine morning at sunrise, behold Milord commencing the ascent, with the proud satisfaction of a lover who sees his rival dancing attendance in the antechamber while he glides unseen up the secret stairway with a key to the boudoir in his pocket.
He journeyed up, and on the first day had passed the region of tempests. Passing the night in his cloak, he began again his task at the dawn of day.
Nothing dismayed him—no obstacle discouraged him. He bounded like a chamois from ridge to ridge, he crawled like a snake and hung like a vine from the sharp aretes—wounds and lacerations covered his body—after scorching he froze. The eagles whirled about his head and flapped their wings in his face. But on he went. His lungs, distended by the rarified atmosphere, threatened to burst with an explosion akin to a steamboat's. Finally, after superhuman efforts, bleeding, panting, gasping for breath, Milord sank exhausted upon the rocks.
What a labor! but what a triumph! what a struggle! but what a conquest! The thought of being able, the coming winter, to boast of having carved his name where, until then, God alone had written his.
And Sir Francis! who would not fail to plume himself on the joint favors of Chimborazo, how humiliated he would be to learn that Lord K., more fastidious in his amours, more exalted in his ambition, had not, four thousand fathoms above sea, feared to pluck the rose of Tschamalouri!
I remember that the first night I passed in Rome I heard in my sleep a mysterious voice murmuring at my pillow: "Rome! Rome! thou art in Rome!"
Milord, shattered, sore and helpless, also heard a charming voice singing sweetly in his ear: "Thou art stretched full length upon the summit of Tschamalouri."
This melody insensibly affected him as the balm of Fier-a-Bras. He rallied, he arose, and with radiant face, sparkling eyes and bosom swelling with pride, drew a poniard from its sheath and prepared to cut his name upon the rock. Suddenly he turned pale, his limbs gave way under him, the knife dropped from his grasp and fell blunted upon the rocks. What had he seen? What could have happened to so agitate him in these inaccessible regions?
There, upon the tablet of granite where he was about to inscribe the name of his ancestors, he read, unhappy man, distinctly read, these two names distinctly cut in the flint, "William and Lavinia," with the following inscription, in English, underneath: "Here, July 25th, 1831, two tender hearts communed."
Surmounting the whole was a flaming double heart pierced by an arrow, an arrow that then pierced three hearts at once. The rock was covered besides with more than fifty names, all English, and as many inscriptions, all English too, of a kindred character to the one he had read. Milord's first impulse was to throw himself head foremost down the mountain side; but, fortunately, raising his eyes in his despair, he discovered a final plateau, so steep that neither cat nor lizard could climb it. Lord K. became a bird and flew up, and what did he see? Oh, the vanity of human ambition! Upon the last round of the most gigantic ladder, extending from earth to heaven, Milord perceived Sir Francis, who, having just effected the same ascent from the other side of the colossus, was quietly reading the "Times" and breakfasting upon a chop and a bottle of porter!
The two friends coolly saluted each other, as they had before done on the side of Chimborazo; then, with death in his heart, but impassive and grave, Lord K. silently drew forth a box of conserves, a flask of ale and a copy of the "Standard." The repast and the two journals being finished, the tourists separated and descended, each on his own side, without having exchanged a word.
Lord K. has never forgiven Sir Francis; they accuse each other of plagiarism, a mortal hatred has sprung up between them, and thus Tschamalouri finished what politics began.
I had this story from Lord K. himself, who drags out a disenchanted and gloomy existence, which would put an end to itself had he not in present contemplation a journey to the moon; still he is half convinced that he would find Sir Francis there.
Entertain your mother with this story, it would be improved by your narration.
You must agree with me that if the English grow four thousand fathoms above the sea, the plant must necessarily thrive on the plains and the low countries. It is acclimated everywhere, like the strawberry, without possessing its sweet savor.
Italy is, I believe, the land where it best flourishes. There I have traversed fields of English, sown everywhere, mixed with a few Italians.
But I would have been happy if I had encountered only Englishmen along my route. Some poet has said that England is a swan's nest in the midst of the waves. Alas! how few are the swans that come to us at long intervals, compared with the old ostriches in bristling plumage, and the young storks with their long, thin necks that flock to us.
When in Rome only a few hours, and wandering through the Campo Vaccino, I found among the ruins one I did not seek. It was Lady Penock. I had met her so often that I could not fail to know her name. Edgar, you know Lady Penock; it is impossible that you should not. But if not, it is easy for you to picture her to yourself. Take a keepsake, pick out one of those faces more beautiful than the fairies of our dreams, so lovely that it might be doubted whether the painter found his model among the daughters of earth. Passionate lover of form, feast your eye upon the graceful curve of that neck, those shoulders; gaze upon that pure brow where grace and youth preside; bathe your soul in the soft brightness of that blue and limpid glance; bend to taste the perfumed breath of that smiling mouth; tremble at the touch of those blonde tresses, twined in bewildering mazes behind the head and falling over the temples in waving masses; fervent worshipper at the shrine of beauty, fall into ecstasies; then imagine the opposite of this charming picture, and you have Lady Penock.
This apparition, in the centre of the ancient forum, completely upset my meditations. J.J. Rousseau says in his Confessions that he forgot Mme. de Larnage in seeing the Pont du Gard. So I forgot the Coliseum at the sight of Lady Penock. Explain, dear Edgar, what fatality attended my steps, that ever afterwards this baleful beauty pursued me?
Under the arches of the Coliseum, beneath the dome of St. Peter, in Pagan Rome and in Catholic Rome, in front of the Laocoeon, before the Communion of St. Jerome, by Dominichino, on the banks of Lake Albano, under the shades of the Villa Borghese, at Tivoli in the Sibyl's temple, at Subiaco in the Convent of St. Benoit, under every moon and by every sun I saw her start up at my side. To get away from her I took flight and travelled post to Tuscany. I found her at the foot of the falls of Terni, at the tomb of St. Francis d'Assise, under Hannibal's gate at Spoletta, at the table d'hote Perouse at Arezzo, on the threshold of Petrarch's house; finally, the first person I met in the Piazza of the Grand Duke at Florence, before the Perseus of Benvenuto Cellini, Edgar, was Lady Penock. At Pisa she appeared to me in the Campo Santo; in the Gulf of Genoa her bark came near capsizing mine; at Turin I found her at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities; her and no one else! And, what was so amusing, my Lady on seeing me became agitated, blushed and looked down, and believing herself the object of an ungovernable passion, she mumbled through her long teeth, "Shocking! Shocking!"
Tired of war, I bade adieu to Italy and crossed the mountains; besides, dear country, I sighed to see you once more. I passed through Savoy and when I saw the mountains of Dauphiny loom up against the distant horizon my heart beat wildly, my eyes filled with tears, and I felt like a returning exile, and know not what false pride restrained me from springing to the ground and kissing the soil of France!
Hail! noble and generous land, the home of intelligence and of liberty! On touching thee the soul swells within us, the mind expands; no child of thine can return to thy bosom without a throb of holy joy, a feeling of noble pride. I passed along filled with delirious happiness. The trees smiled on me, the winds whispered softly in my ear, the little flowers that carpeted the wayside welcomed me; it required an effort to restrain myself from embracing as brothers the noble fellows that passed me on the way.
Then, Edgar, I was to find you again, and it was the spot of my birthplace, the paternal acres which in our common land seem to us a second country.
The night was dark, no moon, no stars; I had just left Grenoble and was passing through Voreppe, a little village not without some importance because in the neighborhood of the Grande Chartreuse, which, at this season of the year, attracts more curiosity-hunters than believers—suddenly the horses stopped, I heard a rumbling noise outside, and a crimson glare lighted up the carriage windows. I might have taken it for sunset, if the sun had not set long since.
I got out and found the only inn of the village on fire; great was the confusion in the small hamlet, there was a general screaming, struggling and running about. The innkeeper with his wife, children, and servants emptied the stables and barns. The horses neighed, the oxen bellowed, and the pigs, feeling that they were predestined to be roasted anyhow, offered to their rescuers an obstinate and philosophical resistance.
Meantime the notables of the place, formed in groups, discussed magisterially the origin of a fire which no one made an effort to stay. Left alone, it brightened the night, fired the surrounding hills and shot its jets and rockets of sparks far into the sky. You, a poet, would have thought it fine. Sublime egotist that you are, everything is effect, color, mirages, decorations. Endeavoring to make myself useful in this disaster, I thought I heard it whispered around me that some travellers remained in the inn, who, if not already destroyed, were seriously threatened.
Among others a young stranger was mentioned who had come that day from the Grande Chartreuse, which she had been visiting. I went straight to the innkeeper who was dragging one of his restive pigs by the tail, reminding me of one of the most ridiculous pictures of Charlet. "All right," said the man, "all the travellers are gone, and as to those who remain—" "Then some do remain?" I asked, and by insisting learned that an Englishwoman occupied a room in the second story.
I hate England—I hate it absurdly, in true, old-fashioned style. To me England is still "Perfidious Albion."
You may laugh, but I hate in proportion to the love I bear my country. I hate because my heart has always bled for the wounds she has opened in the bosom of France. Yes, but coward is he who has the ability to save a fellow-creature, yet folds his arms, deaf to pity! My enemy in the jaws of death is my brother. If need be I would jump into the flood to save Sir Hudson Lowe, free to challenge him afterwards, and try to kill him as I would a dog.
The ground-floor of the inn was enveloped in flames. I took a ladder, and resting it against the sill, I mounted to the window that had been pointed out to me. On the hospitable soil of France a stranger must not perish for want of a Frenchman to save him. Like Anthony, with one blow I broke the glass and raised the sash; I found myself in a passage that the fire had not reached. I sprang towards a door.—an excited voice said, "Don't come in." I entered, looked around for the young stranger, and, immortal gods! what did I see? In the charming neglige of a beauty suddenly awakened,—you are right, it was she. Yes, my dear fellow, it was Lady Penock—Lady Penock, who recognised and screamed furiously! "Madame," said I, turning away with a sincere and proper feeling of respect, "you are mistaken. The house is on fire, and if you do not leave it"—"You! you!" she cried, "have set fire to it, like Lovelace, to carry me off." "Madame," said I, "we have no time to lose." The floor smoked under our feet, the rafters cracked over our heads, the flames roared at the door, delay was dangerous; so, in spite of the eternal refrain that sounded like the crying of a bird,—"Shocking! shocking!" I dragged Lady Penock from behind the bed where she cowered to escape my wild embraces, picked her up as if she were a stick of dry wood, and bearing the precious burden, appeared at the top of the ladder. Meanwhile the fire raged, the flames and the smoke enveloped us on all sides. "For pity's sake, madame," said I, "don't scream and kick so." My lady screamed all the louder and struggled all the worse. When half way down the ladder she said, "Young man, go back immediately, I have forgotten something very valuable to me." At these words the roof fell in, the walls crumbled away, the ladder shook, the earth opened under my feet, and I felt as if I were falling into the abyss of Taenarus.
I awoke, under an humble roof whose poor owner had received me.
I had a fracture of my shoulder, and three doctors by my side. I have known many men to die with less. As for Lady Penock, I learned with satisfaction of her escape, barring a sprained ankle; she had departed indignant at the impertinence of my conduct, and to the people who had charitably suggested to her to instal herself as a gray nun at the bedside of her preserver, she said, coloring angrily, "Oh, I should die if I were to see that young man again."
Be reassured, France has again atoned for Albion. My adventure having made some noise, a few days after the fire Providence came into my room and sat beside my bed in the shape of a noble woman named Madame de Braimes.
It appears that M. de Braimes has been, for a year past, prefect of Grenoble; that he knew my father intimately, and my name sufficed to bring these two noble beings to my side.
As soon as I could bear the motion of a carriage, they took me from Voreppe, and I am now writing to you, my dear Edgar, from the hotel of the Prefecture.
I received in Florence the last letter you directed to me at Rome. What a number of questions you ask, and how am I to answer them all?
Don't speak to me of Jerusalem, Cedron, Lebanon, Palmyra and Baalbec, or anything of the sort. Read over again Rene's Guide-book, Jocelyn's Travels, the Orientales of Olympio, and you will know as much about the East as I do, though I have been there, according to your account, for the last two years. However, I have performed all the commissions you gave me, on the eve of my departure, three years ago. I bring you pipes from Constantinople, to your mother chaplets from Bethlehem—only I bought the pipes at Leghorn, and the chaplets at Rome.
Do you remember a cold, rainy December evening in Paris, eighteen months ago, when I should have been on the borders of Afghanistan, or the shores of the Euphrates, you were walking along the quays, between eleven o'clock and midnight, walking rapidly, wrapped like a Castilian in the folds of your cloak?
Do you remember that between the Pont Neuf and the Pont Saint Michel you stumbled against a young man, enveloped likewise in a cloak, and following rapidly the course of the Seine in a direction opposite to yours? The shock was violent, and nailed us both to the spot. Do you remember that having scrutinized each other under the gaslight, you exclaimed, "Raymond," and opened your arms to embrace me; then, seeing the cold and reserved attitude of him who stood silently before you, how you changed your mind and went your way, laughing at the mistake but struck by the resemblance?
The resemblance still exists; the young man that you called Raymond, was Raymond.
One more story, and I have done. I will tell it without pride or pretence, a thing so natural, so simple, that it is neither worth boasting of nor concealing.
You know Frederick B. You remember that I have always spoken of him as a brother. We played together in the same cradle; we grew up, as it were, under the same roof. At school I prepared his lessons: out of gratitude he ate my sugar-plums. At college I performed his tasks and fought his battles. At twenty, I received a sword-thrust in my breast on his account. Later he plunged into matrimony and business, and we lost sight of, without ceasing to love each other. I knew that he prospered, and I asked nothing more. As for myself, tired of the sterile life I was leading, called fashionable life, I turned my fortune into ready money, and prepared to set out on a long journey.
The day of my departure—I had bidden you good-bye the evening before—Frederick entered my room. A year had nearly passed since we had met; I did not know that he was in Paris. I found him changed; his preoccupied air alarmed me. However, I concealed my anxiety. We cannot treat with too much reserve and delicacy the sadness of our married friends. As he talked, two big tears rolled silently down his cheeks. I had to speak.
"What is the matter?" I asked abruptly; and I pressed him with questions, tormented him until he told me all. Bankruptcy was at his door; and he spoke of his wife and children in such heart-rending terms, that I mingled my tears with his, thinking of course that I was not rich enough to give him the money he needed.
"My poor Frederic," I finally said, "is it such a very large amount?" He replied with a gesture of despair. "Come, how much?" I asked again.
"Five hundred thousand francs!" he cried, in a gloomy stupor. I arose, took him by the arm, and under the pretext of diverting him, drew him on the boulevards. I left him at the door of my notary and joined him on coming out. "Frederick," I said, giving him a line I had just written, "take that and hasten to embrace your wife and children." Then I jumped into a cab which carried me home; my journey was over. I returned from Jerusalem.
Dupe! I hear you say, Ah, no, Edgar! I am young and I understand men, but there dwell in them both the good and the beautiful, and to expect to derive any other satisfaction than that found in cultivating these qualities has always seemed to me to be an unreasonable expectation.
What! you, as a poet, enjoy the intoxication of inspiration, the feast of solitude, the silence of serene and starry nights and that does not satisfy you; you would have fortune hasten to the sound of the Muses' kisses.
What! as a generous man, you can enjoy the delights of giving and only sow a field of benefits in the hope of reaping some day the golden harvest of gratitude!
Of what do you complain? wretched man! You are the ingrate. Besides, even with this view, be convinced, dear Edgar, that the good and the beautiful are still two of the best speculations that can be made here below, and nothing in the world succeeds better than fine verses and noble deeds. Only wicked hearts and bad poets dare to affirm the contrary. For myself, experience has taught me that self-abnegation is profit enough to him who exercises it, and disinterestedness is a blossom of luxury that well cultivated bears most savory fruit. I encountered fortune in turning my back on her. I owe to Lady Penock the touching care and precious friendship of Madame de Braimes, and if this system of remuneration continue I shall end by believing that in throwing myself into the gulf of Curtius I would fall upon a bed of roses.