The Immortal, by Alphonse Daudet

Chapter xiii.

‘Pray for the repose of the soul of the most noble Lord, the Duke Charles Henri François Padovani, Prince d’Olmitz, formerly Member of the Senate, Ambassador and Minister, Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, who departed this life September 20, 1880, at his estate of Barbicaglia, where his remains have been interred. A mass for the deceased will be celebrated on Sunday next in the private chapel, where you are invited to attend.’

This quaint summons was being proclaimed on both banks of the Loire, between Mousseaux and Onzain, by mourners hired from Vafflard’s, wearing tall hats with crape mufflers that reached the ground, and ringing their heavy bells as they walked. Paul Astier, hearing the words as he came downstairs to the midday breakfast, felt his heart beat high with joy and pride. Four days ago the news of the Duke’s death had startled Mousseaux as the report of a gun startles a covey of partridges, and had unexpectedly dispersed and scattered the second instalment of guests to various seaside and holiday resorts. The Duchess had had to set off at once for Corsica, leaving at the castle only a few very intimate friends. The melancholy sound of the voices and moving bells, carried to Paul’s ear by a breeze from the river through the open panes of the staircase window, the antiquated and princely form of the funeral invitation, could not but invest the domain of Mousseaux with an impressive air of grandeur, which added to the height of its four towers and its immemorial trees. And as all this was to be his (for the Duchess on leaving had begged him to stay at the castle, as there were important decisions to be taken on her return), the proclamation of death sounded in his ears like the announcement of his approaching installation. ‘Pray for the repose of the soul,’ said the voices. At last he really had fortune within his grasp, and this time it should not be taken from him. ‘Member of the Senate, Ambassador and Minister,’ said the voices again.

‘Those bells are depressing, are they not, Monsieur Paul?’ said Mdlle. Moser who was sitting at breakfast between her father and the Academician Laniboire. The Duchess had kept these guests at Mousseaux, partly to amuse Paul’s solitude and partly to give a little more rest and fresh air to the poor ‘Antigone,’ kept in bondage by the interminable candidature of her father. There was certainly no fear that the Duchess would find a rival in this woman, who had eyes like a beaten hound, hair without colour, and no other thought but her humiliating petition for the unattainable place in the Académie. But on this particular morning she had taken more pains than usual with her appearance, and wore a bright dress open at the neck. The poor neck was very thin and lean, but — there was no higher game. So Laniboire, in high spirits, was teasing her with a gay freedom. No, he did not think the death-bells at all depressing, nor the repetition of ‘Pray for the repose,’ as it died away in the distance. No, life seemed to him by contrast more enjoyable than usual, the Vouvray sparkled more brightly in the decanters, and his good stories had a telling echo in the huge half-empty dining-room. The sodden subservient face of Moser the candidate wore a fawning smile, though he wished his daughter away. But the philosopher was a man of great influence in the Académie.

After coffee had been served on the terrace, Laniboire, with his face coloured like a Redskin, called out, ‘Now let’s go and work, Mdlle. Moser; I feel quite in the humour. I believe I shall finish my report to-day.’ The gentle little lady, who sometimes acted as his secretary, rose with some regret. On a delicious day like this, hazy with the first mists of autumn, a good walk, or perhaps a continuation on the gallery of her talk with the charming and well-mannered M. Paul, would have pleased her better than writing at old M. Laniboire’s dictation commendations of devoted hospital-nurses or exemplary attendants. But her father urged her to go, as the great man wanted her. She obeyed and went upstairs behind Laniboire, followed by old Moser, who was going to have his afternoon nap.

Laniboire may have had Pascal’s nose, but he had not his manners. When Paul came back from cooling his ambitious hopes by a long walk in the woods, he found the break waiting at the foot of the steps in the great court. The two fine horses were pawing the ground, and Mdlle. Moser was inside, surrounded by boxes and bags, while Moser, looking bewildered, stood on the doorstep, feeling in his pockets and bestowing coins on two or three sneering footmen. Paul went up to the carriage, ‘So you are leaving us, Mademoiselle.’ She gave him a thin clammy hand, on which she had forgotten to put a glove, and without saying a word, or removing the handkerchief with which she was wiping her eyes under her veil, she bent her head in sign of good-bye. He learnt little more from old Moser, who stammered out in a low voice, as he stood vexed and gloomy, with one foot on the step of the carriage ‘It’s her doing: she will go. He was rude to her she says, but I can’t believe it.’ Then with a profound sigh, and knitting the wrinkle in his brow, the deep, red, scar-like wrinkle of the Academic candidate, he added, ‘It’s a very bad thing for my election.’

Laniboire stayed all the afternoon in his room, and at dinner, as he took his seat opposite Paul, he said, ‘Do you know why our friends the Mosers went off so suddenly?’

‘No, sir, do you?’

‘It’s very strange, very strange.’

He assumed an air of great composure for the benefit of the servants, but it was obvious that he was disturbed, worried, and in desperate fear of a scandal. Gradually he regained his serenity and satisfaction, not being able to think ill of life at dinner, and ended by admitting to his young friend that he had perhaps been a little too attentive. ‘But it is her father’s fault; he pesters me; and even an awarder of good-conduct prizes has his feelings, eh?’ He lifted his glass of liqueur with a triumphant flourish, cut short by Paul’s remark, ‘What will the Duchess say? Of course Mdlle. Moser must have written to her to explain why she left.’

Laniboire turned pale. ‘Really, do you think she did?’

Paul pressed the point, in the hopes of ridding himself of such a far from gay gallant. If the lady had not written, there was the chance that a servant might say something. Then, wrinkling his deceitful little nose, he said, ‘If I were you, my dear sir ——’

‘Pooh, pooh! Nonsense! I may get a scolding, but it won’t really do me any harm.’

But in spite of his assumed confidence, the day before the Duchess returned, upon the pretext that the election to the Académie was coming on, and that the damp evenings were bad for his rheumatism, he went off, taking in his portmanteau his completed report on the prizes for good-conduct.

The Duchess arrived for Sunday’s mass, celebrated with great magnificence in the Renaissance chapel, where Védrine’s versatility had restored both the fine stained glass and the wonderful carving of the reredos. A huge crowd from the villages of the neighbourhood filled the chapel to overflowing, and gathered in the great court. Everywhere were awkward fellows in hideous black coats, and long blue blouses shining from the iron, everywhere white caps and kerchiefs stiff with starch round sunburnt necks. All these people were brought together not by the religious ceremony, nor by the honours paid to the old Duke, who was unknown in the district, but by the open-air feast which was to follow the mass. The long tables and benches were arranged on both sides of the long lordly avenue; and here, after the service, between two and three thousand peasants had no difficulty in finding room. At first there was some constraint; the guests, overawed by the troop of servants in mourning and the rangers with crape on their caps, spoke in whispers under the shadow of the majestic elms. But as they warmed with the wine and the victuals, the funeral feast grew more lively, and ended in a vast merrymaking.

To escape this unpleasant carnival, the Duchess and Paul went for a drive, sweeping rapidly in an open carriage draped with black along the roads and fields, abandoned to the desertion of Sunday. The mourning cockades of the tall footmen and the long veil of the widow opposite reminded the young man of other similar drives. He thought to himself, ‘My destiny seems to lie in the way of dead husbands.’ He felt a touch of regret at the thought of Colette de Rosen’s little curly head, contrasting so brightly with the black mass of her surroundings. The Duchess however, tired as she was by her journey, and looking stouter than usual in her improvised mourning, had a magnificence of manner entirely wanting in Colette, and besides, her dead husband did not embarrass her, for she was much too frank to feign a grief which ordinary women think necessary under such circumstances, even when the deceased has been cordially detested and completely abandoned. The road rang under the horses’ hoofs, as it unrolled before them, climbing or descending gentle slopes, bordered now by little oak plantations, now by huge plains which, in the neighbourhood of the isolated mills, were swept by circling flights of crows. A pale sunlight gleamed through rare gaps in a sky soft, rainy, and low: and to protect them from the wind as they drove, the same wrap enveloped them both, so that their knees were closely pressed together under the furs. The Duchess was talking of her native Corsica, and of a wonderful vocero which had been improvised at the funeral by her maid.

‘Matéa?’

‘Yes, Matéa. She’s quite a poet, fancy’— and the Duchess quoted some of the lines of the voceratrice, in the spirited Corsican dialect, admirably suited to her contralto voice. But to the ‘important decision’ she did not refer.

But it was the important decision that interested Paul Astier, and not the verses of the lady’s -maid. No doubt it would be discussed that evening. To pass the time, he told her, in a low tone, how he had got rid of Laniboire. ‘Poor little Moser,’ said the Duchess, ‘her father really must be elected this time.’ After that they spoke but a word now and then. They only drew together, lulled, as it were, by the gentle movement of the carriage, while the daylight left the darkening fields, and let them see over towards the furnaces sudden flashes of flame and flickering gleams like lightning against the sky. Unfortunately the drive home was spoilt by the drunken cries and songs of the crowds returning from the feast. The peasants got among the wheels of the carriage like cattle, and from the ditches on either side of the road, into which they rolled, came snores and grunts, their peculiar fashion of praying for the repose of the soul of the most noble Lord Duke.

They walked, as usual, on the gallery, and the Duchess, leaning against Paul’s shoulder to look out at the darkness between the massive pillars which cut the dim line of the horizon, murmured, ‘This is happiness! Together, and alone!’ Still not a word on the subject which Paul was waiting for. He tried to bring her to it, and with his lips in her hair asked what she was going to do in the winter. Should she go back to Paris? Oh, no! certainly not. She was sick of Paris and its false society, its disguises and its treachery! She was still undecided, however, whether to shut herself up at Mousseaux, or to set out on a long journey to Syria and Palestine. What did he think? Why, this must be the important decision they were to consider! It had been a mere pretext to keep him there! She had been afraid that if he went back to Paris, and away from her, some one else would carry him off! Paul, thinking that he had been taken in, bit his lips as he said to himself, ‘Oh, if that’s your game, my lady, we’ll see!’ Tired by her journey and a long day in the open air, the Duchess bid him good-night and went wearily up to her room.

The next day they hardly met. The Duchess was busy settling accounts with her steward and her tenants, much to the admiration of Maître Gobineau, the notary, who observed to Paul as they sat at breakfast, with slyness marked in every wrinkle of his shrivelled old face, ‘Ah, it’s not easy to get on the blind side of the Duchess!’

‘Little he knows,’ was the thought of the Duchess’s young pursuer as he played with his light brown beard. But when he heard the hard cold tones which his lady’s tender contralto could assume in a business discussion, he felt that he would have to play his cards carefully.

After breakfast there arrived some trunks from Paris with Spricht’s forewoman and two fitters. And at last, about four o’clock, the Duchess appeared in a marvellous costume, which made her look quite young and slim, and proposed a walk in the park. They went along briskly, side by side, keeping to the bye-paths to avoid the noise of the heavy rakes. Three times a day the gardeners struggled against the accumulation of the falling leaves. But in vain; in an hour the walks were again covered by the same Oriental carpet, richly coloured with purple, green, and bronze; and their feet rustled in it as they walked under the soft level rays of the sun. The Duchess spoke of the husband who had brought so much sorrow into her youth; she was anxious to make Paul feel that her mourning was entirely conventional and did not affect her feelings. Paul understood her object, and smiled coldly, determined to carry out his plan.

At the lower end of the park they sat down, near a little building hidden behind maples and privet, where the fishing nets and oars of the boats were kept. From their seat they looked across the sloping lawns and the plantations and shrubberies showing patches of gold. The castle, seen in the background, with its long array of closed windows and deserted terraces, lifting its towers and turrets proudly to the sky, seemed withdrawn, as it were, into the past, and grander than ever.

‘I am sorry to leave all that,’ said Paul, with a sigh. She looked at him in amazement with storm in her knitted brows. Go away? Did he mean to go away? Why?

‘No help. Such is life.’

‘Are we to part? And what is to become of me? — and the journey we were to make together?’

‘I could not interrupt you ——’ he said. But how could a poor artist like him afford himself a journey to Palestine? It was an impossible dream, like Védrine’s dahabeeah ending in a punt on the Loire.

She shrugged her aristocratic shoulders, and said, ‘Why, Paul, what nonsense! You know that all I have is yours.’

‘Mine? By what right?’

It was out! But she did not see yet what he was driving at. Fearing that he had gone too far, he added, ‘I mean, what right, in the prejudiced view of society, shall I have to travel with you?’

‘Well then, we will stay at Mousseaux.’

He made her a little mocking bow as he said, ‘Your architect has finished his work on the castle.’

‘Oh, we will find him something to do, if I have to set fire to it to-night!’

She laughed her open-hearted tender laugh, leant against him, and taking his hands pressed them against her cheeks — fond trifling this, not the word which he was waiting for, and trying to make her say. Then he burst out, ‘If you love me, Antonia, let me go. I must make a living for myself and mine. Society would not forgive my living on the bounty of a woman who is not and never will be my wife.’

She understood, and closed her eyes as if on the brink of an abyss. In the long silence that followed was heard all over the park the falling of the leaves in the breeze, some still heavy with sap, dropping in bunches from bough to bough, others stealing down with a scarcely audible sound, like the rustling of a dress. Round the little hut, under the maples, it was more like the pattering footsteps of some voiceless crowd which moved around. She rose with a shiver. ‘It is cold; let us go in.’ She had made her sacrifice. It would kill her, very probably, but the world should not see the degradation of the Duchess Padovani into Madame Paul Astier, who had married her architect.

Paul spent the evening in making the obvious arrangements for his departure. He gave orders about his luggage, bestowed princely gratuities upon the servants, and inquired about the time of the trains, chatting away without constraint, but quite unsuccessful in breaking through the gloomy silence of the fair Antonia, who read with absorbed attention a magazine, of which she did not turn the pages. But when he took his leave of her and thanked her for her prolonged and gracious hospitality, in the light of the huge lace lamp-shade he saw on her haughty face a look of anguish, and in her eyes, magnificent as those of a dying lion, a beseeching supplication.

When he reached his room the young man looked to see that the door to the smoking-room was bolted; then he put out his light and waited, sitting quite still on the divan close to the communication. If she did not come, he had made a mistake and must begin again. But there was a slight noise in the private passage, the sound of a gown, then after a momentary surprise at not being able to come straight in, a touch with the tip of a finger, scarcely a knock. He did not move, and paid no attention to a little significant coughing. Then he heard her go away, with an agitated, uneven step.

‘Now,’ thought he, ‘she is mine. I can do what I like with her.’ And he went quietly to bed.

‘If I were called the Prince d’Athis, would you not have married me when your mourning was over? Yet D’Athis did not love you, and Paul Astier does. Proud of his love, he would gladly have proclaimed it abroad instead of hiding it as a thing to be ashamed of. Ah, Mari’ Anto! I have awaked from a beautiful dream! Farewell for ever.’

She read his letter with her eyes hardly open, swollen with the tears she had been shedding all night. ‘Is Monsieur Astier gone?’ The maid who was leaning out of the window to fasten back the shutters that moment caught sight of the carriage that was taking away M. Paul, right at the end of the avenue, too far off to be called back. The Duchess sprang out of bed and flew to the clock. ‘Nine o’clock.’ The express did not reach Onzain till ten. ‘Quick, a messenger — Bertoli, and the best of the horses!’ By taking the short cut through the woods he could reach the station before the carriage. Whilst her orders were being hastily carried out she wrote a note, standing, without waiting to dress. ‘Come back; all shall be as you wish.’ No, that was too cold. That would not bring him back. She tore up the note, wrote another, ‘What you will, so long as I am yours,’ and signed it with her title. Then, wild at the thought that perhaps even that would not bring him, she cried, ‘I’ll go myself! My habit, quick!’ And she called out of the window to Bertoli, whose horse was by this time waiting impatiently at the foot of the steps, and gave orders to saddle ‘Mademoiselle Oger’ for herself.

She had not ridden for five years. Her figure had grown stouter, the stitches of the habit gave way, some of the hooks were missing. ‘Never mind, Matéa, never mind.’ She went down the staircase with the train over her arm, between the footmen who stood with blank looks of astonishment, and set off full speed down the avenue, through the gate, into the road, into the wood, and down the cool green paths and long avenues, where the wild creatures fluttered and leapt away as she galloped madly by. She must and will have him. He is her death and life. She has tasted love; and what else does the world contain? Leaning forward, she listens for the sound of the train and watches in every distant view for the steam skirting the horizon. If only she is in time! Poor thing! She might let her horse walk, and yet she would overtake that handsome runaway He is her evil genius, and he is not to be escaped.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:53