Strong as Death, by Guy de Maupassant

Chapter III

A Dangerous Warning

As soon as the Countess was alone with her daughter in her carriage, which was taking her back to her home, she suddenly felt tranquil and quieted, as if she had just passed through a serious crisis. She breathed easier, smiled at the houses, recognized with joy the look of the city, whose details all true Parisians seem to carry in their eyes and hearts. Each shop she passed suggested the ones beyond, on a line along the Boulevard, and the tradesman’s face so often seen behind his show-case. She felt saved. From what? Reassured. Why? Confident. Of what?

When the carriage stopped under the arch of the porte-cochere, she alighted quickly and entered, as if flying, the shadow of the stairway; then passed to the shadow of her drawing-room, then to that of her bedroom. There she remained standing a few moments, glad to be at home, in security, in the dim and misty daylight of Paris, which, hardly brightening, compels one to guess as well as to see, where one may show what he pleases and hide what he will; and the unreasoning memory of the dazzling glare that bathed the country remained in her like an impression of past suffering.

When she went down to dinner, her husband, who had just arrived at home, embraced her affectionately, and said, smiling: “Ah, ha! I knew very well that our friend Bertin would bring you back. It was very clever of me to send him after you.”

Annette responded gravely, in the peculiar tone she affected when she said something in jest without smiling:

“Oh, he had a great deal of trouble. Mamma could not decide for herself.”

The Countess said nothing, but felt a little confused.

The doors being closed to visitors, no one called that evening. Madame de Guilleroy passed the whole of the following day in different shops, choosing or ordering what she needed. She had loved, from her youth, almost from her infancy, those long sittings before the mirrors of the great shops. From the moment of entering one, she took delight in thinking of all the details of that minute rehearsal in the green-room of Parisian life. She adored the rustle of the dresses worn by the salesgirls, who hastened forward to meet her, all smiles, with their offers, their queries; and Madame the dressmaker, the milliner, or corset-maker, was to her a person of consequence, whom she treated as an artist when she expressed an opinion in asking advice. She enjoyed even more to feel herself in the skilful hands of the young girls who undressed her and dressed her again, causing her to turn gently around before her own gracious reflection. The little shiver that the touch of their fingers produced on her skin, her neck, or in her hair, was one of the best and sweetest little pleasures that belonged to her life of an elegant woman.

This day, however, she passed before those candid mirrors, without her veil or hat, feeling a certain anxiety. Her first visit, at the milliner’s, reassured her. The three hats which she chose were wonderfully becoming; she could not doubt it, and when the milliner said, with an air of conviction, “Oh, Madame la Comtesse, blondes should never leave off mourning” she went away much pleased, and entered other shops with a heart full of confidence.

Then she found at home a note from the Duchess, who had come to see her, saying that she would return in the evening; then she wrote some letters; then she fell into dreamy reverie for some time, surprised that this simple change of place had caused to recede into a past that already seemed far away the great misfortune that had overwhelmed her. She could not even convince herself that her return from Roncieres dated only from the day before, so much was the condition of her soul modified since her return to Paris, as if that little change had healed her wounds.

Bertin, arriving at dinner-time, exclaimed on seeing her:

“You are dazzling this evening!”

And this exclamation sent a warm wave of happiness through her being.

When they were leaving the table, the Count, who had a passion for billiards, offered to play a game with Bertin, and the two ladies accompanied them to the billiard-room, where the coffee was served.

The men were still playing when the Duchess was announced, and they all returned to the drawing-room. Madame de Corbelle and her husband presented themselves at the same time, their voices full of tears. For some minutes it seemed, from the doleful tones, that everyone was about to weep; but little by little, after a few tender words and inquiries, another current of thought set in; the voices took on a more cheerful tone, and everyone began to talk naturally, as if the shadow of the misfortune that had saddened them had suddenly been dissipated.

Then Bertin rose, took Annette by the hand, led her under the portrait of her mother, in the ray of light from the reflector, and said:

“Isn’t this stupefying?”

The Duchess was so greatly surprised that she seemed dazed; she repeated many times: “Heavens! is it possible? Heavens! is it possible? It is like someone raised from the dead. To think that I did not see that when I came in! Oh, my little Any, I find you again, I, who knew you so well then in your first mourning as a woman — no, in your second, for you had already lost your father. Oh, that Annette, in black like that — why, it is her mother come back to earth! What a miracle! Without that portrait we never should have perceived it. Your daughter resembles you very much, but she resembles that portrait much more.”

Musadieu now appeared, having heard of Madame de Guilleroy’s return, as he wished to be one of the first to offer her the “homage of his sorrowful sympathy.”

He interrupted his first speech on perceiving the young girl standing against the frame, illumined by the same ray of light, appearing like the living sister of the painting.

“Ah, that is certainly one of the most astonishing things I ever have seen,” he exclaimed.

The Corbelles, whose convictions always followed established opinions, marveled in their turn with a little less exuberant ardor.

The Countess’s heart seemed to contract, little by little, as if all these exclamations of astonishment had hurt it. Without speaking, she looked at her daughter standing by the image of herself, and a sudden feeling of weakness came over her. She longed to cry out: “Say no more! I know very well that she resembles me!”

Until the end of the evening she remained in a melancholy mood, having lost once more the confidence she had felt the day before.

Bertin was chatting with her when the Marquis de Farandal was announced. As soon as the painter saw him enter and approach the hostess he rose and glided behind her armchair, murmuring: “This is delightful! There comes that great animal now.” Then, making a detour of the apartment, he reached the door and departed.

After receiving the salutations of the newcomer, the Countess looked around to find Olivier, to resume with him the talk in which she had been interested. Not seeing him, she asked:

“What, has the great man gone?”

“I believe so, my dear,” her husband answered; “I just saw him going away in the English fashion.”

She was surprised, reflected a few moments, and then began to talk to the Marquis.

Her intimate friends, however, discreetly took their leave early, for, so soon after her affliction, she had only half-opened her door, as it were.

When she found herself again lying on her bed, all the griefs that had assailed her in the country reappeared. They took a more distinct form; she felt them more keenly. She realized that she was growing old!

That evening, for the first time, she had understood that, in her own drawing-room, where until now she alone had been admired, complimented, flattered, loved, another, her daughter, was taking her place. She had comprehended this suddenly, when feeling that everyone’s homage was paid to Annette. In that kingdom, the house of a pretty woman, where she will permit no one to overshadow her, where she eliminated with discreet and unceasing care all disadvantageous comparisons, where she allows the entrance of her equals only to attempt to make them her vassals, she saw plainly that her daughter was about to become the sovereign. How strange had been that contraction of her heart when all eyes were turned upon Annette as Bertin held her by the hand standing before the portrait! She herself felt as if she had suddenly disappeared, dispossessed, dethroned. Everyone looked at Annette; no one had a glance for her any more! She was so accustomed to hear compliments and flattery, whenever her portrait was admired, she was so sure of eulogistic phrases, which she had little regarded but which pleased her nevertheless, that this desertion of herself, this unexpected defection, this admiration intended wholly for her daughter, had moved, astonished, and hurt her more than if it had been a question of no matter what rivalry under any kind of conditions.

But, as she had one of those natures which, in all crises, after the first blow, react, struggle, and find arguments for consolation, she reasoned that, once her dear little daughter should be married, when they should no longer live under the same roof, she herself would no longer be compelled to endure that incessant comparison which was beginning to be too painful for her under the eyes of her friend Olivier.

But the shock had been too much for her that evening. She was feverish and hardly slept at all. In the morning she awoke weary and overcome by extreme lassitude, and then within her surged up an irresistible longing to be comforted again, to be succored, to ask help from someone who could cure all her ills, all her moral and physical ailments.

Indeed, she felt so ill at ease and weak that she had an idea of consulting her physician. Perhaps she was about to be seriously affected, for it was not natural that in a few hours she should pass through those successive phases of suffering and relief. So she sent him a telegram, and awaited his coming.

He arrived about eleven o’clock. He was one of those dignified, fashionable physicians whose decorations and titles guarantee their ability, whose tact at least equals mere skill, and who have, above all, when treating women, an adroitness that is surer than medicines.

He entered, bowed, looked at his patient, and said with a smile: “Come, this is not a very grave case. With eyes like yours one is never very ill.”

She felt immediate gratitude to him for this beginning, and told him of her troubles, her weakness, her nervousness and melancholy; then she mentioned, without laying too much stress on the matter, her alarmingly ill appearance. After listening to her with an attentive air, though asking no questions except as to her appetite, as if he knew well the secret nature of this feminine ailment, he sounded her, examined her, felt of her shoulders with the tips of his fingers, lifted her arms, having undoubtedly met her thought and understood with the shrewdness of a practitioner who lifts all veils that she was consulting him more for her beauty than for her health. Then he said:

“Yes, we are a little anemic, and have some nervous troubles. That is not surprising, since you have experienced such a great affliction. I will write you a little prescription that will set you right again. But above all, you must eat strengthening food, take beef-tea, no water, but drink beer. I will indicate an excellent brand. Do not tire yourself by late hours, but walk as much as you can. Sleep a good deal and grow a little plumper. This is all that I can advise you, my fair patient.”

She had listened to him with deep interest, trying to guess at what his words implied. She caught at the last word.

“Yes, I am too thin,” said she. “I was a little too stout at one time, and perhaps I weakened myself by dieting.”

“Without any doubt. There is no harm in remaining thin when one has always been so; but when one grows thin on principle it is always at the expense of something else. Happily, that can be soon remedied. Good-bye, Madame.”

She felt better already, more alert; and she wished to send for the prescribed beer for her breakfast, at its headquarters, in order to obtain it quite fresh.

She was just leaving the table when Bertin was announced.

“It is I, again,” said he, “always I. I have come to ask you something. Have you anything particular to do this afternoon?”

“No, nothing. Why?”

“And Annette?”

“Nothing, also.”

“Then, can you come to the studio about four o’clock?”

“Yes, but for what purpose?”

“I am sketching the face of my Reverie, of which I spoke to you when I asked you whether Annette might pose for me a few moments. It would render me a great service if I could have her for only an hour to-day. Will you?”

The Countess hesitated, annoyed, without knowing the reason why. But she replied:

“Very well, my friend; we shall be with you at four o’clock.”

“Thank you! You are goodness itself!”

He went away to prepare his canvas and study his subject, so that he need not tire his model too much.

Then the Countess went out alone, on foot, to finish her shopping. She went down to the great central streets, then walked slowly up the Boulevard Malesherbes, for she felt as if her limbs were breaking. As she passed Saint Augustin’s, she was seized with a desire to enter the church and rest. She pushed open the door, sighed with satisfaction in breathing the cool air of the vast nave, took a chair and sat down.

She was religious as very many Parisians are religious. She believed in God without a doubt, not being able to admit the existence of the universe without the existence of a creator. But associating, as does everyone, the attributes of divinity with the nature of the created matter that she beheld with her own eyes, she almost personified the Eternal God with what she knew of His work, without having a very clear idea as to what this mysterious Maker might really be.

She believed in Him firmly, adored Him theoretically, feared Him very vaguely, for she did not profess to understand His intentions or His will, having a very limited confidence in the priests, whom she regarded merely as the sons of peasants revolting from military service. Her father, a middle-class Parisian, never had imposed upon her any particular principles of devotion, and she had lived on thinking little about religious matters until her marriage. Then, her new station in life indicating more strictly her apparent duties toward the Church, she had conformed punctiliously to this light servitude, as do so many of her station.

She was lady patroness to numerous and very well known infant asylums, never failed to attend mass at one o’clock on Sundays, gave alms for herself directly, and for the world by means of an abbe, the vicar of her parish.

She had often prayed, from a sense of duty, as a soldier mounts guard at a general’s door. Sometimes she had prayed because her heart was sad, especially when she suspected Olivier of infidelity to her. At such times, without confiding to Heaven the cause for her appeal, treating God with the same naïve hypocrisy that is shown to a husband, she asked Him to succor her. When her father died, long before, and again quite recently, at her mother’s death, she had had violent crises of religious fervor, and had passionately implored Him who watches over us and consoles us.

And, now behold! to-day, in that church where she had entered by chance, she suddenly felt a profound need to pray, not for some one nor for some thing, but for herself, for herself alone, as she had already prayed the other day at her mother’s grave. She must have help from some source, and she called on God now as she had summoned the physician that very morning.

She remained a long time on her knees, in the deep silence of the church, broken only by the sound of footsteps. Then suddenly, as if a clock had struck in her heart, she awoke from her memories, drew out her watch and started to see that it was already four o’clock. She hastened away to take her daughter to the studio, where Olivier must already be expecting them.

They found the artist in his studio, studying upon the canvas the pose of his Reverie. He wished to reproduce exactly what he had seen in the Parc Monceau while walking with Annette: a young girl, dreaming, with an open book upon her knees. He had hesitated as to whether he should make her plain or pretty. If she were ugly she would have more character, would arouse more thought and emotion, would contain more philosophy. If pretty, she would be more seductive, would diffuse more charm, and would please better.

The desire to make a study after his little friend decided him. The Reveuse should be pretty, and therefore might realize her poetic vision one day or other; whereas if ugly she would remain condemned to a dream without hope and without end.

As soon as the two ladies entered Olivier said, rubbing his hands:

“Well, Mademoiselle Nane, we are going to work together, it seems!”

The Countess seemed anxious. She sat in an armchair, and watched Olivier as he placed an iron garden-chair in the right light. He opened his bookcase to get a book, then asked, hesitating:

“What does your daughter read?”

“Dear me! anything you like! Give her a volume of Victor Hugo.”

“’La Legende des Siecles?’”

“That will do.”

“Little one, sit down here,” he continued, “and take this volume of verse. Look for page — page 336, where you will find a poem entitled ‘Les Pauvres Gens.’ Absorb it, as one drinks the best wines, slowly, word by word, and let it intoxicate you and move you. Then close the book, raise your eyes, think and dream. Now I will go and prepare my brushes.”

He went into a corner to put the colors on his palette, but while emptying on the thin board the leaden tubes whence issued slender, twisting snakes of color, he turned from time to time to look at the young girl absorbed in her reading.

His heart was oppressed, his fingers trembled; he no longer knew what he was doing, and he mingled the tones as he mixed the little piles of paste, so strongly did he feel once more before this apparition, before that resurrection, in that same place, after twelve years, an irresistible flood of emotion overwhelming his heart.

Now Annette had finished her reading and was looking straight before her. Approaching her, Olivier saw in her eyes two bright drops which, breaking forth, ran down her cheeks. He was startled by one of those shocks that make a man forget himself, and turning toward the Countess he murmured:

“God! how beautiful she is!”

But he remained stupefied before the livid and convulsed face of Madame de Guilleroy. Her large eyes, full of a sort of terror, gazed at her daughter and the painter. He approached her, suddenly touched with anxiety.

“What is the matter?” he asked.

“I wish to speak to you.”

Rising, she said quickly to Annette; “Wait a moment, my child; I have a word to say to Monsieur Bertin.”

She passed swiftly into the little drawing-room near by, where he often made his visitors wait. He followed her, his head confused, understanding nothing. As soon as they were alone, she seized his hands and stammered:

“Olivier! Olivier, I beg you not to make her pose for you!”

“But why?” he murmured, disturbed.

“Why? Why?” she said precipitately. “He asks it! You do not feel it, then yourself? Why? Oh, I should have guessed it sooner myself, but I only discovered it this moment. I cannot tell you anything now. Go and find my daughter. Tell her that I am ill; fetch a cab, and come to see me in an hour. I will receive you alone.”

“But, really, what is the matter with you?”

She seemed on the verge of hysterics.

“Leave me! I cannot speak here. Get my daughter and call a cab.”

He had to obey and reentered the studio. Annette, unsuspicious, had resumed her reading, her heart overflowing with sadness by the poetic and lamentable story.

“Your mother is indisposed,” said Olivier. “She became very ill when she went into the other room. I will take some ether to her.”

He went out, ran to get a flask from his room and returned.

He found them weeping in each other’s arms. Annette, moved by “Les Pauvres Gens,” allowed her feelings full sway, and the Countess was somewhat solaced by blending her grief with that sweet sorrow, in mingling her tears with those of her daughter.

He waited for some time, not daring to speak; he looked at them, his own heart oppressed with an incomprehensible melancholy.

“Well,” said he at last. “Are you better?”

“Yes, a little,” the Countess replied. “It was nothing. Have you ordered a carriage?”

“Yes, it will come directly.”

“Thank you, my friend — it is nothing. I have had too much grief for a long time.”

“The carriage is here,” a servant announced.

And Bertin, full of secret anguish, escorted his friend, pale and almost swooning, to the door, feeling her heart throb against his arm.

When he was alone he asked himself what was the matter with her, and why had she made this scene. And he began to seek a reason, wandering around the truth without deciding to discover it. Finally, he began to suspect. “Well,” he said to himself, “is it possible she believes that I am making love to her daughter? No, that would be too much!” And, combating with ingenious and loyal arguments that supposititious conviction, he felt indignant that she had lent for an instant to this healthy and almost paternal affection any suspicion of gallantry. He became more and more irritated against the Countess, utterly unwilling to concede that she had dared suspect him of such villainy, of an infamy so unqualifiable; and he resolved, when the time should come for him to answer her, that he would not soften the expression of his resentment.

He soon left his studio to go to her house, impatient for an explanation. All along the way he prepared, with a growing irritation, the arguments and phrases that must justify him and avenge him for such a suspicion.

He found her on her lounge, her face changed by suffering.

“Well,” said he, drily, “explain to me, my dear friend, the strange scene that has just occurred.”

“What, you have not yet understood it?” she said, in a broken voice.

“No, I confess I have not.”

“Come, Olivier, search your own heart well.”

“My heart?”

“Yes, at the bottom of your heart.”

“I don’t understand. Explain yourself better.”

“Look well into the depths of your heart, and see whether you find nothing there that is dangerous for you and for me.”

“I repeat that I do not comprehend you. I guess that there is something in your imagination, but in my own conscience I see nothing.”

“I am not speaking of your conscience, but of your heart.”

“I cannot guess enigmas. I entreat you to be more clear.”

Then, slowing raising her hands, she took the hands of the painter and held them; then, as if each word broke her heart, she said:

“Take care, my friend, or you will fall in love with my daughter!”

He withdrew his hands abruptly, and with the vivacity of innocence which combats a shameful accusation, with animated gesture and increasing excitement, he defended himself, accusing her in her turn of having suspected him unjustly.

She let him talk for some time, obstinately incredulous, sure of what she had said. Then she resumed:

“But I do not suspect you, my friend. You were ignorant of what was passing within you, as I was ignorant of it until this morning. You treat me as if I had accused you of wishing to seduce Annette. Oh, no, no! I know how loyal you are, worthy of all esteem and of every confidence. I only beg you, I entreat you to look into the depths of your heart and see whether the affection which, in spite of yourself, you are beginning to have for my daughter, has not a characteristic a little different from simple friendship.”

Now he was offended, and, growing still more excited, he began once more to plead his loyalty, just as he argued all alone in the street.

She waited until he had finished his defense; then, without anger, but without being shaken in her conviction, though frightfully pale, she murmured:

“Olivier, I know very well all that you have just said to me, and I think as you do. But I am sure that I do not deceive myself. Listen, reflect, understand. My daughter resembles me too much, she is too much what I was once when you began to love me, that you should not begin to love her, too.”

“Then,” he exclaimed, “you dare to throw in my face such a thing as that on this simple supposition and ridiculous reasoning: ‘He loves me; my daughter resembles me; therefore he will love her’!”

But seeing the Countess’s face changing more and more, he continued in a softer tone:

“Now, my dear Any, it is precisely because I do find you once more in her that this young girl pleases me so much. It is you, you alone, that I love when I look at her.”

“Yes, and it is just that from which I begin to suffer, and which makes me so anxious. You are not yet aware of what you feel, but by and by you will no longer be able to deceive yourself regarding it.”

“Any, I assure you that you are mad.”

“Do you wish proofs?”

“Yes.”

“You had not come to Roncieres for three years, in spite of my desire to have you come. But you rushed down there when it was proposed that you should come to fetch us.”

“Oh, indeed! You reproach me for not leaving you alone down there, knowing that you were ill, after your mother’s death!”

“So be it! I do not insist. But look: the desire to see Annette again is so imperious with you that you could not pass this day without asking me to take her to your studio, under the pretext of posing her.”

“And do you not suppose it was you I wished to see?”

“At this moment you are arguing against yourself, trying to convince yourself — but you do not deceive me. Listen again: Why did you leave abruptly, the night before last, when the Marquis de Farandal entered? Do you know why?”

He hesitated, very much surprised, disturbed, disarmed by this observation. Then he said slowly:

“But — I hardly know — I was tired, and then, to be candid, that imbecile makes me nervous.”

“Since when?”

“Always.”

“Pardon me, I have heard you sing his praises. You liked him once. Be quite sincere, Olivier.”

He reflected a few moments; then, choosing his words, he said:

“Yes, it is possible that the great love I have for you makes me love so much everything that belongs to you as to modify my opinion of that bore, whom I might meet occasionally with indifference, but whom I should not like to see in your house almost every day.”

“My daughter’s house will not be mine. But this is sufficient. I know the uprightness of your heart. I know that you will reflect deeply on what I have just said to you. When you have reflected you will understand that I have pointed out a great danger to you, while yet there is time to escape it. And you will beware. Now let us talk of something else, will you?”

He did not insist, but he was much disturbed; he no longer knew what to think, though indeed he had need for reflection. He went away after a quarter of an hour of unimportant conversation.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09