Mauprat, by George Sand

xxviii

After this important evidence the trial was suspended for a few minutes. When the judges returned Edmee was brought back into the court. Pale and weak, scarcely able to drag herself to the arm-chair which was reserved for her, she nevertheless displayed considerable mental vigour and presence of mind.

“Do you think you can answer the questions which will be put to you without unduly exciting yourself?” asked the president.

“I hope so, sir,” she replied. “It is true that I have recently been seriously ill, and that it is only within the last few days that I have recovered my memory; but I believe I have completely recovered it, and my mind feels quite clear.”

“Your name?”

“Solange–Edmonde de Mauprat; Edmea sylvestris,” she added in an undertone.

I shuddered. As she said these unseasonable words her eyes had assumed a strange expression. I feared that her mind was going to wander still further. My counsel was also alarmed and looked at me inquiringly. No one but myself had understood these two words which Edmee had been in the habit of frequently repeating during the first and last days of her illness. Happily this was the last sign of any disturbance in her faculties. She shook her beautiful head, as if to drive out any troublesome ideas; and, the president having asked her for an explanation of these unintelligible words, she replied with sweetness and dignity:

“It is nothing, sir. Please continue my examination.”

“Your age, mademoiselle?”

“Twenty-four.”

“Are you related to the prisoner?”

“He is my second cousin, and my father’s grand-nephew.”

“Do you swear to speak the truth, the whole truth?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Raise your hand.”

Edmee turned towards Arthur with a sad smile. He took off her glove, and helped to raise her arm, which hung nerveless and powerless by her side. I felt big tears rolling down my cheeks.

With delicacy and simplicity Edmee related how she and I had lost our way in the woods; how I, under the impression that her horse had bolted, had unseated her in my eager anxiety to stop the animal; how a slight altercation had ensued, after which, with a little feminine temper, foolish enough, she had wished to mount her mare again without help; how she had even spoken unkindly to me, not meaning a word of what she said, for she loved me like a brother; how, deeply hurt by her harshness, I had moved away a few yards to obey her; and how, just as she was about to follow me, grieved herself at our childish quarrel, she had felt a violent shock in her breast, and had fallen almost without hearing any report. It was impossible for her to say in which direction she was looking, or from which side the shot had come.

“That is all that happened,” she added. “Of all people I am least able to explain this occurrence. In my soul and conscience I can only attribute it to the carelessness of one of the hunting party, who is afraid to confess. Laws are so severe. And it is so difficult to prove the truth.”

“So, mademoiselle, you do not think that your cousin was the author of this attempt?”

“No, sir, certainly not! I am no longer delirious, and I should not have let myself be brought before you if I had felt that my mind was at all weak.”

“Apparently, then, you consider that a state of mental aberration was responsible for the revelations you made to Patience, to Mademoiselle Leblanc, your companion, and also, perhaps, to Abbe Aubert.”

“I made no revelations,” she replied emphatically, “either to the worthy Patience, the venerable abbe, or my servant Leblanc. If the meaningless words we utter in a state of delirium are to be called ‘revelations,’ all the people who frighten us in our dreams would have to be condemned to death. How could I have revealed facts of which I never had any knowledge?”

“But at the time you received the wound, and fell from your horse, you said: ‘Bernard, Bernard! I should never have thought that you would kill me!’”

“I do not remember having said so; and, even if I did, I cannot conceive that any one would attach much importance to the impressions of a person who had suddenly been struck to the ground, and whose mind was annihilated, as it were. All that I know is that Bernard de Mauprat would lay down his life for my father or myself; which does not make it very probable that he wanted to murder me. Great God! what would be his object?”

In order to embarrass Edmee, the president now utilized all the arguments which could be drawn from Mademoiselle Leblanc’s evidence. As a fact, they were calculated to cause her not a little confusion. Edmee, who was at first somewhat astonished to find that the law was in possession of so many details which she believed were unknown to others, regained her courage and pride, however, when they suggested, in those brutally chaste terms which are used by the law in such a case, that she had been a victim of my violence at Roche–Mauprat. Her spirit thoroughly roused, she proceeded to defend my character and her own honour, and declared that, considering how I had been brought up, I had behaved much more honourably than might have been expected. But she still had to explain all her life from this point onward, the breaking off of her engagement with M. de la Marche, her frequent quarrels with myself, my sudden departure for America, her refusal of all offers of marriage.

“All these questions are abominable,” she said, rising suddenly, her physical strength having returned with the exercise of her mental powers. “You ask me to give an account of my inmost feelings; you would sound the mysteries of my soul; you put my modesty on the rack; you would take to yourself rights that belong only to God. I declare to you that, if my own life were now at stake and not another’s, you should not extract a word more from me. However, to save the life of the meanest of men I would overcome my repugnance; much more, therefore, will I do for him who is now at the bar. Know then — since you force me to a confession which is painful to the pride and reserve of my sex — that everything which to you seems inexplicable in my conduct, everything which you attribute to Bernard’s persecutions and my own resentment, to his threats and my terror, finds its justification in one word: I love him!”

On uttering this word, the red blood in her cheeks, and in the ringing tone of the proudest and most passionate soul that ever existed, Edmee sat down again and buried her face in her hands. At this moment I was so transported that I could not help crying out:

“Let them take me to the scaffold now; I am king of all the earth!”

“To the scaffold! You!” said Edmee, rising again. “Let them rather take me. Is it your fault, poor boy, if for seven years I have hidden from you the secret of my affections; if I did not wish you to know it until you were the first of men in wisdom and intelligence as you are already the first in greatness of heart? You are paying dearly for my ambition, since it has been interpreted as scorn and hatred. You have good reason to hate me, since my pride has brought you to the felon’s dock. But I will wash away your shame by a signal reparation; though they send you to the scaffold, you shall go there with the title of my husband.”

“Your generosity is carrying you too far, Edmee de Mauprat,” said the president. “It would seem that, in order to save your relative, you are accusing yourself of coquetry and unkindness; for, how otherwise do you explain the fact that you exasperated this young man’s passion by refusing him for seven years?”

“Perhaps, sir,” replied Edmee archly, “the court is not competent to judge this matter. Many women think it no great crime to show a little coquetry with the man they love. Perhaps we have a right to this when we have sacrificed all other men to him. After all, it is a very natural and very innocent ambition to make the man of one’s choice feel that one is a soul of some price, that one is worth wooing, and worth a long effort. True, if this coquetry resulted in the condemnation of one’s lover to death, one would speedily correct one’s self of it. But, naturally, gentlemen, you would not think of atoning for my cruelty by offering the poor young man such a consolation as this.”

After saying these words in an animated, ironical tone, Edmee burst into tears. This nervous sensibility which brought to the front all the qualities of her soul and mind, tenderness, courage, delicacy, pride, modesty, gave her face at the same time an expression so varied, so winning in all its moods, that the grave, sombre assembly of judges let fall the brazen cuirass of impassive integrity and the leaden cope of hypocritical virtue. If Edmee had not triumphantly defended me by her confession, she had at least roused the greatest interest in my favour. A man who is loved by a beautiful woman carries with him a talisman that makes him invulnerable; all feel that his life is of greater value than other lives.

Edmee still had to submit to many questions; she set in their proper light the facts which had been misrepresented by Mademoiselle Leblanc. True, she spared me considerably; but with admirable skill she managed to elude certain questions, and so escaped the necessity of either lying or condemning me. She generously took upon herself the blame for all my offences, and pretended that, if we had had various quarrels, it was because she herself took a secret pleasure in them; because they revealed the depth of my love; that she had let me go to America to put my virtue to the proof, thinking that the campaign would not last more than a year, as was then supposed; that afterwards she had considered me in honour bound to submit to the indefinite prolongation, but that she had suffered more than myself from my absence; finally, she quite remembered the letter which had been found upon her, and, taking it up, she gave the mutilated passages with astonishing accuracy, and at the same time called the clerk to follow as she deciphered the words which were half obliterated.

“This letter was so far from being a threatening letter,” she said, “and the impression it left on me was so far from filling me with fear or aversion, that it was found on my heart, where I had been carrying it for a week, though I had not even let Bernard know that I had received it.”

“But you have not yet explained,” said the president, “how it was that seven years ago, when your cousin first came to live in your house, you armed yourself with a knife which you used to put under your pillow every night, after having it sharpened as if to defend yourself in case of need.”

“In my family,” she answered with a blush, “we have a somewhat romantic temperament and a very proud spirit. It is true that I frequently thought of killing myself, because I felt an unconquerable affection for my cousin springing up in me. Believing myself bound by indissoluble ties to M. de la Marche. I would have died rather than break my word, or marry any other than Bernard. Subsequently M. de la Marche freed me from my promise with much delicacy and loyalty, and I no longer thought of dying.”

Edmee now withdrew, followed by all eyes and by a murmur of approbation. No sooner had she passed out of the hall than she fainted again; but this attack was without any grave consequences, and left no traces after a few days.

I was so bewildered, so intoxicated by what she had just said, that henceforth I could scarcely see what was taking place around me. Wholly wrapped up in thoughts of my love, I nevertheless could not cast aside all doubts; for, if Edmee had been silent about some of my actions, it was also possible that she had exaggerated her affection for me in the hope of extenuating my faults. I could not bring myself to think that she had loved me before my departure for America, and, above all, from the very beginning of my stay at Sainte–Severe. This was the one thought that filled my mind; I did not even remember anything further about the case or the object of my trial. It seemed to me that the sole question at issue in this chill Areopagus was this: Is he loved, or is he not? For me, victory or defeat, life or death, hung on that, and that alone.

I was roused from these reveries by the voice of Abbe Aubert. He was thin and wasted, but seemed perfectly calm; he had been kept in solitary confinement and had suffered all the hardships of prison life with the resignation of a martyr. In spite, however, of all precautions, the clever Marcasse, who could work his way anywhere like a ferret, had managed to convey to him a letter from Arthur, to which Edmee had added a few words. Authorized by this letter to say everything, he made a statement similar to that made by Patience, and owned that Edmee’s first words after the occurrence had made him believe me guilty; but that subsequently, seeing the patient’s mental condition, and remembering my irreproachable behaviour for more than six years, and obtaining a little new light from the preceding trial and the public rumours about the possible existence of Antony Mauprat, he had felt too convinced of my innocence to be willing to give evidence which might injure me. If he gave his evidence now, it was because he thought that further investigations might have enlightened the court, and that his words would not have the serious consequences they might have had a month before.

Questioned as to Edmee’s feelings for me, he completely destroyed all Mademoiselle Leblanc’s inventions, and declared that not only did Edmee love me ardently, but that she had felt an affection for me from the very first day we met. This he affirmed on oath, though emphasizing my past misdeeds somewhat more than Edmee had done. He owned that at first he had frequently feared that my cousin would be foolish enough to marry me, but that he had never had any fear for her life, since he had always seen her reduce me to submission by a single word or a mere look, even in my most boorish days.

The continuation of the trial was postponed to await the results of the warrants issued for the arrest of the assassin. People compared my trial to that of Calas, and the comparison had no sooner become a general topic of conversation than my judges, finding themselves exposed to a thousand shafts, realized very vividly that hatred and prejudice are bad counsellors and dangerous guides. The sheriff of the province declared himself the champion of my cause and Edmee’s knight, and he himself escorted her back to her father. He set all the police agog. They acted with vigour and arrested John Mauprat. When he found himself a prisoner and threatened, he betrayed his brother, and declared that they might find him any night at Roche–Mauprat, hiding in a secret chamber which the tenant’s wife helped him to reach, without her husband’s knowledge.

They took the Trappist to Roche–Mauprat under a good escort, so that he might show them this secret chamber, which, in spite of his genius for exploring walls and timber-work, the old pole-cat hunter and mole-catcher Marcasse had never managed to reach. They took me there, likewise, so that I might help to find this room or passage leading to it, in case the Trappist should repent of his present sincere intentions. Once again, then, I revisited this abhorred manor with the ancient chief of the brigands transformed into a Trappist. He showed himself so humble and cringing in my presence, he made so light of his brother’s life, and expressed such abject submission that I was filled with disgust, and after a few moments begged him not to speak to me any more. Keeping in touch with the mounted police outside, we began our search for the secret chamber. At first John had pretended that he knew of its existence, without knowing its exact location now that three-quarters of the keep had been destroyed. When he saw me, however, he remembered that I had surprised him in my room, and that he had disappeared through the wall. He resigned himself, therefore, to taking us to it, and showing us the secret; this was very curious; but I will not amuse myself by giving you an account of it. The secret chamber was opened; no one was there. Yet the expedition had been made with despatch and secrecy. It did not appear probable that John had had time to warn his brother. The keep was surrounded by the police and all the doors were well guarded. The night was dark, and our invasion had filled all the inmates of the farm with terror. The tenant had no idea what we were looking for, but his wife’s agitation and anxiety seemed a sure sign that Antony was still in the keep. She had not sufficient presence of mind to assume a reassured air after we had explored the first room, and that made Marcasse think that there must be a second. Did the Trappist know of this, and was he pretending ignorance? He played his part so well that we were all deceived. We set to work to explore all the nooks and corners of the ruins again. There was one large tower standing apart from the other buildings; it did not seem as if this could offer any one a refuge. The staircase had completely fallen in at the time of the fire, and there could not be found a ladder long enough to reach the top story; even the farmer’s ladders tied together with ropes were too short. This top story seemed to be in a state of good preservation and to contain a room lighted by two loopholes. Marcasse, after examining the thickness of the wall, affirmed that there might be a staircase inside, such as might be found in many an old tower. But where was the exit? Perhaps it was connected with some subterranean passage. Would the assassin dare to issue from his retreat as long as we were there? If, in spite of the darkness of the night and the silence of our proceedings, he had got wind of our presence, would he venture into the open as long as we continued on the watch at all points?

“That is not probable,” said Marcasse. “We must devise some speedy means of getting up there; and I see one.”

He pointed to a beam at a frightful height, all blackened by the fire, and running from the tower over a space of some twenty feet to the garrets of the nearest building. At the end of this beam there was a large gap in the wall of the tower caused by the falling-in of the adjoining parts. In his explorations, indeed, Marcasse had fancied that he could see the steps of a narrow staircase through this gap. The wall, moreover, was quite thick enough to contain one. The mole-catcher had never cared to risk his life on this beam; not that he was afraid of its narrowness or its height; he was accustomed to these perilous “crossings,” as he called them; but the beam had been partly consumed by the fire and was so thin in the middle that it was impossible to say whether it would bear the weight of a man, even were he as slender and diaphanous as the worthy sergeant. Up to the present nothing had happened here of sufficient importance for him to risk his life in the experiment. Now, however, the case was different. Marcasse did not hesitate. I was not near him when he formed his plan; I should have dissuaded him from it at all costs. I was not aware of it until he had already reached the middle of the beam, the spot where the burnt wood was perhaps nothing more than charcoal. How shall I describe to you what I felt when I beheld my faithful friend in mid-air, gravely walking toward his goal? Blaireau was trotting in front of him as calmly as in the old days when it was a question of hunting through bundles of hay in search of stoats and dormice. Day was breaking, and the hildalgo’s slim outline and his modest yet stately bearing could be clearly seen against the gray sky. I put my hands to my face; I seemed to hear the fatal beam cracking; I stifled a cry of terror lest I should unnerve him at this solemn and critical moment. But I could not suppress this cry, or help raising my head when I heard two shots fired from the tower. Marcasse’s hat fell at the first shot; the second grazed his shoulder. He stopped a moment.

“Not touched!” he shouted at us.

And making a rush he was quickly across the aerial bridge. He got into the tower through the gap and darted up the stairs, crying:

“Follow me, my lads! The beam will bear.”

Immediately five other bold and active men who had accompanied him got astride upon the beam, and with the help of their hands reached the other end one by one. When the first of them arrived in the garret whither Antony Mauprat had fled, he found him grappling with Marcasse, who, quite carried away by his triumph and forgetting that it was not a question of killing an enemy but of capturing him, set about lunging at him with his long rapier as if he had been a weasel. But the sham Trappist was a formidable enemy. He had snatched the sword from the sergeant’s hands, hurled him to the ground, and would have strangled him had not a gendarme thrown himself on him from behind. With his prodigious strength he held his own against the first three assailants; but, with the help of the other two, they succeeded in overcoming him. When he saw that he was caught he made no further resistance and let his hands be bound together. They brought him down the stairs, which were found to lead to the bottom of a dry well in the middle of the tower. Antony was in the habit of leaving and entering by means of a ladder which the farmer’s wife held for him and immediately afterwards withdrew. In a transport of delight I threw myself into my sergeant’s arms.

“A mere trifle,” he said; “enjoyed it. I found that my foot was still sure and my head cool. Ha! ha! old sergeant,” he added, looking at his leg, “old hidalgo, old mole-catcher, after this they won’t make so many jokes about your calves!”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29