Strong as Death, by Guy de Maupassant

Chapter IV

Sweet Poison

With slow steps, Olivier returned to his own house, troubled as if he had just learned some shameful family secret. He tried to sound his heart, to see clearly within himself, to read those intimate pages of the inner book which seemed glued together, and which sometimes only a strange hand can turn over by separating them. Certainly he did not believe himself in love with Annette. The Countess, whose watchful jealousy never slept, had foreseen this danger from afar, and had signaled it before it even existed. But might that peril exist to-morrow, the day after, in a month? It was the frank question that he tried to answer sincerely. It was true that the child stirred his instincts of tenderness, but these instincts in men are so numerous that the dangerous ones should not be confounded with the inoffensive. Thus he adored animals, especially cats, and could not see their silky fur without being seized with an irresistible sensuous desire to caress their soft, undulating backs and kiss their electric fur.

The attraction that impelled him toward this girl a little resembled those obscure yet innocent desires that go to make up part of all the ceaseless and unappeasable vibrations of human nerves. His eye of the artist, as well as that of the man, was captivated by her freshness, by that springing of beautiful clear life, by that essence of youth that glowed in her; and his heart, full of memories of his long intimacy with the Countess, finding in the extraordinary resemblance of Annette to her mother a reawakening of old feelings, of emotions sleeping since the beginning of his love, had been startled perhaps by the sensation of an awakening. An awakening? Yes. Was it that? This idea illumined his mind. He felt that he had awakened after years of sleep. If he had loved the young girl without being aware of it, he should have experienced near her that rejuvenation of his whole being which creates a different man as soon as the flame of a new desire is kindled within him. No, the child had only breathed upon the former fire. It had always been the mother that he loved, but now a little more than recently, no doubt, because of her daughter, this reincarnation of herself. And he formulated this decision with the reassuring sophism: “One loves but once! The heart may often be affected at meeting some other being, for everyone exercises on others either attractions or repulsions. All these influences create friendship, caprices, desire for possession, quick and fleeting ardors, but not real love. That this love may exist it is necessary that two beings should be so truly born for each other, should be linked together in so many different ways, by so many similar tastes, by so many affinities of body, of mind, and of character, and so many ties of all kinds that the whole shall form a union of bonds. That which we love, in short, is not so much Madame X. or Monsieur Z.; it is a women or a man, a creature without a name, something sprung from Nature, that great female, with organs, a form, a heart, a mind, a combination of attributes which like a magnet attract our organs, our eyes, our lips, our hearts, our thoughts, all our appetites, sensual as well as intellectual. We love a type, that is, the reunion in one single person of all the human qualities that may separately attract us in others.”

For him, the Comtesse de Guilleroy had been this type, and their long- standing liaison, of which he had not wearied, proved it to him beyond doubt. Now, Annette so much resembled physically what her mother had been as to deceive the eye; so there was nothing astonishing in the fact that this man’s heart had been surprised, if even it had not been wholly captured. He had adored one woman! Another woman was born of her, almost her counterpart. He could not prevent himself from bestowing on the latter a little tender remnant of the passionate attachment he had had for the former. There was no harm nor danger in that. Only his eyes and his memory allowed themselves to be deluded by this appearance of resurrection; but his instinct never had been affected, for never had he felt the least stirring of desire for the young girl.

However, the Countess had reproached him with being jealous of the Marquis! Was it true? Again he examined his conscience severely, and decided that as a matter of fact he was indeed a little jealous. What was there astonishing in that, after all? Are we not always being jealous of men who pay court to no matter what woman? Does not one experience in the street, at a restaurant, or a theater, a little feeling of enmity toward the gentleman who is passing or who enters with a lovely girl on his arm? Every possessor of a woman is a rival, a triumphant male, a conqueror envied by all the other males. And then, without considering these physiological reasons, if it was natural that he should have for Annette a sympathy a little excessive because of his love for her mother, was it not natural also that he should feel in his heart a little masculine hatred of the future husband? He could conquer this unworthy feeling without much trouble.

But in the depths of his heart he still felt a sort of bitter discontent with himself and with the Countess. Would not their daily intercourse be made disagreeable by the suspicion that he would be aware of in her? Should he not be compelled to watch with tiresome and scrupulous attention all that he said and did, his very looks, his slightest approach toward the young girl? for all that he might do or say would appear suspicious to the mother. He reached his home in a gloomy mood and began to smoke cigarettes, with the vehemence of an irritated man who uses ten matches to light his tobacco. He tried in vain to work. His hand, his eye, and his brain seemed to have lost the knack of painting, as if they had forgotten it, or never had known and practised the art. He had taken up to finish a little sketch on canvas — a street corner, at which a blind man stood singing — and he looked at it with unconquerable indifference, with such a lack of power to continue it that he sat down before it, palette in hand, and forgot it, though continuing to gaze at it with attention and abstracted fixity.

Then, suddenly, impatience at the slowness of time, at the interminable minutes, began to gnaw him with its intolerable fever. What should he do until he could go to the club for dinner, since he could not work at home? The thought of the streets tired him only to think of, filled him with disgust for the sidewalks, the pedestrians, the carriages and shops; and the idea of paying visits that day, to no matter whom, aroused in him an instantaneous hatred for everyone he knew.

Then, what should he do? Should he pace to and fro in his studio, looking at the clock at every turn, watching the displacement of the long hand every few seconds? Ah, he well knew those walks from the door to the cabinet, covered with ornaments. In his hours of excitement, impulse, ambition, of fruitful and facile execution, these pacings had been delicious recreation — these goings and comings across the large room, brightened, animated, and warmed by work; but now, in his hours of powerlessness and nausea, the miserable hours, when nothing seemed worth the trouble of an effort or a movement, it was like the terrible tramping of a prisoner in his cell. If only he could have slept, even for an hour, on his divan! But no, he should not sleep; he should only agitate himself until he trembled with exasperation. Whence came this sudden attack of bad temper? He thought: “I am becoming excessively nervous to have worked myself into such a state for so insignificant a cause.”

Then he thought he would take a book. The volume of La Legende des Siecles had remained on the iron chair where Annette had laid it. He opened it and read two pages of verse without understanding them. He understood them no more than if they had been written in a foreign tongue. He was determined, however, and began again, only to find that what he read had not really penetrated to his mind. “Well,” said he to himself, “it appears that I am becoming imbecile!” But a sudden inspiration reassured him as to how he should fill the two hours that must elapse before dinner-time. He had a hot bath prepared, and there he remained stretched out, relaxed and soothed by the warm water, until his valet, bringing his clothes, roused him from a doze. Then he went to the club, where he found the usual companions. He was received with open arms and exclamations, for they had not seen him for several days.

“I have just returned from the country,” he explained.

All those men, except Musadieu, the landscape painter, professed a profound contempt for the fields. Rocdiane and Landa, to be sure, went hunting there, but among plains or woods they only enjoyed the pleasure of seeing pheasants, quail, or partridges falling like handfuls of feathers under their bullets, or little rabbits riddled with shot, turning somersaults like clowns, going heels over head four or five times, showing their white bellies and tails at every bound. Except for these sports of autumn and winter, they thought the country a bore. As Rocdiane would say: “I prefer little women to little peas!”

The dinner was lively and jovial as usual, animated by discussions wherein nothing unforeseen occurs. Bertin, to arouse himself, talked a great deal. They found him amusing, but as soon as he had had coffee, and a sixty-point game of billiards with the banker Liverdy, he went out, rambling from the Madeleine to the Rue Taitbout; after passing three times before the Vaudeville, he asked himself whether he should enter; almost called a cab to take him to the Hippodrome; changed his mind and turned toward the Nouveau Cirque, then made an abrupt half turn, without motive, design, or pretext, went up the Boulevard Malesherbes, and walked more slowly as he approached the dwelling of the Comtesse de Guilleroy. “Perhaps she will think it strange to see me again this evening,” he thought. But he reassured himself in reflecting that there was nothing astonishing in his coming a second time to inquire how she felt.

She was alone with Annette, in the little back drawing-room, and was still working on her coverlets for the poor.

She said simply, on seeing him enter: “Ah, is it you, my friend?”

“Yes, I felt anxious; I wished to see you. How are you?”

“Thank you, very well.”

She paused a moment, then added, significantly:

“And you?”

He began to laugh unconcernedly, as he replied: “Oh. I am very well, very well. Your fears were entirely without foundation.”

She raised her eyes, pausing in her work, and fixed her gaze upon him, a gaze full of doubt and entreaty.

“It is true,” said he.

“So much the better,” she replied, with a smile that was slightly forced.

He sat down, and for the first time in that house he was seized with irresistible uneasiness, a sort of paralysis of ideas, still greater than that which had seized him that day as he sat before his canvas.

“You may go on, my child; it will not annoy him,” said the Countess to her daughter.

“What was she doing?”

“She was studying a fantaisie.”

Annette rose to go to the piano. He followed her with his eyes, unconsciously, as he always did, finding her pretty. Then he felt the mother’s eye upon him, and turned his head abruptly, as if he were seeking something in the shadowy corner of the drawing-room.

The Countess took from her work-table a little gold case that he had given her, opened it, and offered him some cigarettes.

“Pray smoke, my friend,” said she; “you know I like it when we are alone here.”

He obeyed, and the music began. It was the music of the distant past, graceful and light, one of those compositions that seem to have inspired the artist on a soft moonlight evening in springtime.

“Who is the composer of that?” asked Bertin.

“Schumann,” the Countess replied. “It is little known and charming.”

A desire to look at Annette grew stronger within him, but he did not dare. He would have to make only a slight movement, merely a turn of the neck, for he could see out of the corner of his eye the two candles lighting the score; but he guessed so well, read so clearly, the watchful gaze of the Countess that he remained motionless, his eyes looking straight before him, interested apparently in the gray thread of smoke from his cigarette.

“Was that all you had to say to me?” Madame de Guilleroy murmured to him.

He smiled.

“Don’t be vexed with me. You know that music hypnotizes me; it drinks my thoughts. I will talk soon.”

“I must tell you,” said the Countess, “that I had studied something for you before mamma’s death. I never had you hear it, but I will play it for you immediately, as soon as the little one has finished; you shall see how odd it is.”

She had real talent, and a subtle comprehension of the emotion that flows through sounds. It was indeed one of her surest powers over the painter’s sensibility.

As soon as Annette had finished the pastoral symphony by Mehul, the Countess rose, took her place, and awakened a strange melody with her fingers, a melody of which all the phrases seemed complaints, divers complaints, changing, numerous, interrupted by a single note, beginning again, falling into the midst of the strains, cutting them short, scanning them, crashing into them, like a monotonous, incessant, persecuting cry, an unappeasable call of obsession.

But Olivier was looking at Annette, who had sat down facing him, and he heard nothing, comprehended nothing.

He looked at her, without thinking, indulging himself with the sight of her, as a good and habitual possession of which he had been deprived, drinking her youthful beauty wholesomely, as we drink water when thirsty.

“Well,” said the Countess, “was not that beautiful?”

“Admirable! Superb!” he said, aroused. “By whom?”

“You do not know it?”

“No.”

“What, really, you do not know it?”

“No, indeed.”

“By Schubert.”

“That does not astonish me at all,” he said, with an air of profound conviction. “It is superb! You would be delightful if you would play it over again.”

She began once more, and he, turning his head, began again to contemplate Annette, but listened also to the music, that he might taste two pleasures at the same time.

When Madame de Guilleroy had returned to her chair, in simple obedience to the natural duplicity of man he did not allow his gaze to rest longer on the fair profile of the young girl, who knitted opposite her mother, on the other side of the lamp.

But, though he did not see her, he tasted the sweetness of her presence, as one feels the proximity of a fire on the hearth; and the desire to cast upon her swift glances only to transfer them immediately to the Countess, tormented him — the desire of the schoolboy who climbs up to the window looking into the street as soon as the master’s back is turned.

He went away early, for his power of speech was as paralyzed as his mind, and his persistent silence might be interpreted.

As soon as he found himself in the street a desire to wander took possession of him, for whenever he heard music it remained in his brain a long time, threw him into reveries that seemed the music itself in a dream, but in a clearer sequel. The sound of the notes returned, intermittent and fugitive, bringing separate measures, weakened, and far off as an echo; then, sinking into silence, appeared to leave it to the mind to give a meaning to the themes, and to seek a sort of tender and harmonious ideal. He turned to the left on reaching the outer Boulevard, perceiving the fairylike illumination of the Parc Monceau, and entered its central avenue, curving under the electric moons. A policeman was slowly strolling along; now and then a belated cab passed; a man, sitting on a bench in a bluish bath of electric light, was reading a newspaper, at the foot of a bronze mast that bore the dazzling globe. Other lights on the broad lawns, scattered among the trees, shed their cold and powerful rays into the foliage and on the grass, animating this great city garden with a pale life.

Bertin, with hands behind his back, paced the sidewalk, thinking of his walk with Annette in this same park when he had recognized in her the voice of her mother.

He let himself fall upon a bench, and, breathing in the cool freshness of the dewy lawns, he felt himself assailed by all the passionate expectancy that transforms the soul of youth into the incoherent canvas of an unfinished romance of love. Long ago he had known such evenings, those evenings of errant fancy, when he had allowed his caprice to roam through imaginary adventures, and he was astonished to feel a return of sensations that did not now belong to his age.

But, like the persistent note in the Schubert melody, the thought of Annette, the vision of her face bent beside the lamp, and the strange suspicion of the Countess, recurred to him at every instant. He continued, in spite of himself, to occupy his heart with this question, to sound the impenetrable depths where human feelings germinate before being born. This obstinate research agitated him; this constant preoccupation regarding the young girl seemed to open to his soul the way to tender reveries. He could not drive her from his mind; he bore within himself a sort of evocation of her image, as once he had borne the image of the Countess after she had left him; he often had the strange sensation of her presence in the studio.

Suddenly, impatient at being dominated by a memory, he arose, muttering: “Any was stupid to say that to me. Now she will make me think of the little one!”

He went home, disturbed about himself. After he had gone to bed he felt that sleep would not come to him, for a fever coursed in his veins, and a desire for reverie fermented in his heart. Dreading a wakeful night, one of those enervating attacks of insomnia brought about by agitation of the spirit, he thought he would try to read. How many times had a short reading served him as a narcotic! So he got up and went into his library to choose a good and soporific work; but his mind, aroused in spite of himself, eager for any emotion it could find, sought among the shelves for the name of some author that would respond to his state of exaltation and expectancy. Balzac, whom he loved, said nothing to him; he disdained Hugo, scorned Lamartine, who usually touched his emotions, and fell eagerly upon Musset, the poet of youth. He took the volume and carried it to bed, to read whatever he might chance to find.

When he had settled himself in bed, he began to drink, as with the thirst of a drunkard, those flowing verses of an inspired being who sang, like a bird, of the dawn of existence, and having breath only for the morning, was silent in the arid light of day; those verses of a poet who above all mankind was intoxicated with life, expressing his intoxication in fanfares of frank and triumphant love, the echo of all young hearts bewildered with desires.

Never had Bertin so perfectly comprehended the physical charm of those poems, which move the senses but hardly touch the intelligence. With his eyes on those vibrating stanzas, he felt that his soul was but twenty years old, radiant with hopes, and he read the volume through in a state of youthful intoxication. Three o’clock struck, and he was astonished to find that he had not yet grown sleepy. He rose to shut his window and to carry his book to a table in the middle of the room; but at the contact of the cold air a pain, of which several seasons at Aix had not cured him, ran through his loins, like a warning or a recall; and he threw aside the poet with an impatient movement, muttering: “Old fool!” Then he returned to bed and blew out his light.

He did not go to see the Countess the next day, and he even made the energetic resolution not to return there for two days. But whatever he did, whether he tried to paint or to walk, whether he bore his melancholy mood with him from house to house, his mind was everywhere harassed by the preoccupation of those two women, who would not be banished.

Having forbidden himself to go to see them, he solaced himself by thinking of them, and he allowed both mind and heart to give themselves up to memories of both. It happened often that in that species of hallucination in which he lulled his isolation the two faces approached each other, different, such as he knew them; then, passing one before the other, mingled, blended together, forming only one face, a little confused, a face that was no longer the mother’s, not altogether that of the daughter, but the face of a woman loved madly, long ago, in the present, and forever.

Then he felt remorse at having abandoned himself to the influence of these emotions, which he knew were powerful and dangerous. To escape them, to drive them away, to deliver his soul from this sweet and captivating dream, he directed his mind toward all imaginable ideas, all possible subjects of reflection and meditation. Vain efforts! All the paths of distraction that he took led him back to the same point, where he met a fair young face that seemed to be lying in wait for him. It was a vague and inevitable obsession that floated round him, recalling him, stopping him, no matter what detour he might make in order to fly from it.

The confusion of these two beings, which had so troubled him on the evening of their walk at Roncieres, rose again in his memory as soon as he evoked them, after ceasing to reflect and reason, and he attempted to comprehend what strange emotion was this that stirred his being. He said to himself: “Now, have I for Annette a more tender feeling than I should have?” Then, probing his heart, he felt it burning with affection for a woman who was certainly young, who had Annette’s features, but who was not she. And he reassured himself in a cowardly way by thinking: “No, I do not love the little one; I am the victim of a resemblance.”

However, those two days at Roncieres remained in his soul like a source of heat, of happiness, of intoxication; and the least details of those days returned to him, one by one, with precision, sweeter even than at the time they occurred. Suddenly, while reviewing the course of these memories, he saw once more the road they had followed on leaving the cemetery, the young girl plucking flowers, and he recollected that he had promised her a cornflower in sapphires as soon as they returned to Paris.

All his resolutions took flight, and without struggling longer he took his hat and went out, rejoiced at the thought of the pleasure he was about to give her.

The footman answered him, when he presented himself:

“Madame is out, but Mademoiselle is at home.”

Again he felt a thrill of joy.

“Tell her that I should like to speak to her.”

Annette appeared very soon.

“Good-day, dear master,” said she gravely.

He began to laugh, shook hands with her, and sitting near her, said:

“Guess why I have come.”

She thought a few seconds.

“I don’t know.”

“To take you and your mother to the jeweler’s to choose the sapphire cornflower I promised you at Roncieres.”

The young girl’s face was illumined with delight.

“Oh, and mamma has gone out,” said she. “But she will return soon. You will wait for her, won’t you?”

“Yes, if she is not too long.”

“Oh, how insolent! Too long, with me! You treat me like a child.”

“No, not so much as you think,” he replied.

He felt in his heart a longing to please her, to be gallant and witty, as in the most successful days of his youth, one of those instinctive desires that excite all the faculties of charming, that make the peacock spread its tail and the poet write verses. Quick and vivacious phrases rose to his lips, and he talked as he knew how to talk when he was at his best. The young girl, animated by his vivacity, answered him with all the mischief and playful shrewdness that were in her.

Suddenly, while he was discussing an opinion, he exclaimed: “But you have already said that to me often, and I answered you —”

She interrupted him with a burst of laughter.

“Ah, you don’t say ‘tu‘ to me any more! You take me for mamma!”

He blushed and was silent, then he stammered:

“Your mother has already sustained that opinion with me a hundred times.”

His eloquence was extinguished; he knew no more what to say, and he now felt afraid, incomprehensibly afraid, of this little girl.

“Here is mamma,” said she.

She had heard the door open in the outer drawing-room, and Olivier, disturbed as if some one had caught him in a fault, explained how he had suddenly bethought him of his promise, and had come for them to take them to the jeweler’s.

“I have a coupe,” said he. “I will take the bracket seat.”

They set out, and a little later they entered Montara’s.

Having passed all his life in the intimacy, observation, study, and affection of women, having always occupied his mind with them, having been obliged to sound and discover their tastes, to know the details of dress and fashion as they knew them, being familiar with the minute details of their private life, he had arrived at a point that enabled him often to share certain of their sensations, and he always experienced, when entering one of the great shops where the charming and delicate accessories of their beauty are to be found, an emotion of pleasure that almost equaled that which stirred their hearts. He interested himself as they did in those coquettish trifles with which they set forth their beauty; the stuffs pleased his eyes; the laces attracted his hands; the most insignificant furbelows held his attention. In jewelers’ shops he felt for the showcases a sort of religious respect, as if before a sanctuary of opulent seduction; and the counter, covered with dark cloth, upon which the supple fingers of the goldsmith make the jewels roll, displaying their precious reflections, filled him with a certain esteem.

When he had seated the Countess and her daughter before this severe piece of furniture, on which each, with a natural movement, placed one hand, he indicated what he wanted, and they showed him models of little flowers.

Then they spread sapphires before him, from which it was necessary to choose four. This took a long time. The two women turned them over on the cloth with the tips of their fingers, then lifted them carefully, looked through them at the light, studying them with knowing and passionate attention. When they had laid aside those they had chosen, three emeralds had to be selected to make the leaves, then a tiny diamond that would tremble in the center like a drop of dew.

Then Olivier, intoxicated with the joy of giving, said to the Countess:

“Will you do me the favor to choose two rings?”

“I?”

“Yes. One for you, one for Annette. Let me make you these little presents in memory of the two days I passed at Roncieres.”

She refused. He insisted. A long discussion followed, a struggle of words and arguments, which ended, not without difficulty, in his triumph.

Rings were brought, some, the rarest, alone in special cases; others arranged in similar groups in large square boxes, wherein all the fancifulness of their settings were displayed in alignment on the velvet. The painter was seated between the two women, and began, with the same ardent curiosity, to take up the gold rings, one by one, from the narrow slits that held them. He deposited them before him on the cloth-covered counter where they were massed in two groups, those that had been rejected at first sight and those from which a choice would be made.

Time was passing, insensibly and sweetly, in this pretty work of selection, more captivating than all the pleasures of the world, distracting and varied as a play, stirring also an exquisite and almost sensuous pleasure in a woman’s heart.

Then they compared, grew animated, and, after some hesitation, the choice of the three judges settled upon a little golden serpent holding a beautiful ruby between his thin jaws and his twisted tail.

Olivier, radiant, now arose.

“I will leave you my carriage,” said he; “I have something to look after, and I must go.”

But Annette begged her mother to walk home, since the weather was so fine. The Countess consented, and, having thanked Bertin, went out into the street with her daughter.

They walked for some time in silence, enjoying the sweet realization of presents received; then they began to talk of all the jewels they had seen and handled. Within their minds still lingered a sort of glittering and jingling, an echo of gaiety. They walked quickly through the crowd which fills the street about five o’clock on a summer evening. Men turned to look at Annette, and murmured in distinct words of admiration as they passed. It was the first time since her mourning, since black attire had added brilliancy to her daughter’s beauty, that the Countess had gone out with her in the streets of Paris; and the sensation of that street success, that awakened attention, those whispered compliments, that little wake of flattering emotion which the passing of a pretty woman leaves in a crowd of men, contracted her heart little by little with the same painful feeling she had had the other evening in her drawing-room, when her guests had compared the little one with her own portrait. In spite of herself, she watched for those glances that Annette attracted; she felt them coming from a distance, pass over her own face without stopping and suddenly settle upon the fair face beside her own. She guessed, she saw in the eyes the rapid and silent homage to this blooming youth, to the powerful charm of that radiant freshness, and she thought: “I was as pretty as she, if not prettier.” Suddenly the thought of Olivier flashed across her mind, and she was seized, as at Roncieres, with a longing to flee.

She did not wish to feel herself any longer in this bright light, amid this stream of people, seen by all those men who yet did not look at her. Those days seemed far away, though in reality quite recent, when she had sought and provoked comparison with her daughter. Who, to-day, among the passers, thought of comparing them? Only one person had thought of it, perhaps, a little while ago, in the jeweler’s shop. He? Oh, what suffering! Could it be that he was thinking continually of that comparison? Certainly he could not see them together without thinking of it, and without remembering the time when she herself had entered his house, so fresh, so pretty, so sure of being loved!

“I feel ill,” said she. “We will take a cab, my child.”

Annette was uneasy.

“What is the matter, mamma?” she asked.

“It is nothing; you know that since your grandmother’s death I often have these moments of weakness.”

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