On the fifth of September, at ten o’clock in the morning, Leon Renault, emaciated, dejected and scarcely recognizable, was at the feet of Clementine Sambucco in her aunt’s parlor. There were flowers on the mantel and flowers in all the vases. Two great burglar sunbeams broke through the open windows. A million of little bluish atoms were playing in the light, crossing each other and getting fantastically mixed up, like the ideas in a volume of M. Alfred Houssaye. In the garden, the apples were falling, the peaches were ripe, the hornets were ploughing broad, deep furrows in the duchesse pears; the trumpet-flowers and clematis-vines were in blossom, and to crown all, a great mass of heliotropes, trained over the left window, was flourishing in all its beauty. The sun had given all the grapes in the arbor a tint of golden bronze; and the great Yucca on the lawn, shaken by the wind like a Chinese hat, noiselessly clashed its silver bells. But the son of M. Renault was more pale and haggard than the white lilac sprays, more blighted than the leaves on the old cherry-tree; his heart was without joy and without hope, like the currant bushes without leaves and without fruit!
To be exiled from his native land, to have lived three years in an inhospitable climate, to have passed so many days in deep mines, so many nights over an earthenware stove in the midst of an infinity of bugs and a multiplicity of serfs, and to see himself set aside for a twenty-five-louis Colonel whom he himself had brought to life by soaking him in water!
All men are subject to disappointments, but surely never had one encountered a misfortune so unforeseen and so extraordinary. Leon knew that Earth is not a valley flowing with chocolate and soup à la reine. He knew the list of the renowned unfortunates beginning with Abel slain in the garden of Paradise, and ending with Rubens assassinated in the gallery of the Louvre at Paris. But history, which seldom instructs us, never consoles us. The poor engineer in vain repeated to himself that a thousand others had been supplanted on the day before marriage, and a hundred thousand on the day after. Melancholy was stronger than Reason, and three or four soft locks were beginning to whiten about his temples.
“Clementine!” said he, “I am the most miserable of men. In refusing me the hand which you have promised, you condemn me to agony a hundred times worse than death. Alas! What would you have me become without you? I must live alone, for I love you too well to marry another. For four long years, all my affections, all my thoughts have been centred upon you; I have become accustomed to regard other women as inferior beings, unworthy of attracting the interest of a man! I will not speak to you of the efforts I have made to deserve you; they brought their reward in themselves, and I was already too happy in working and suffering for you. But see the misery in which your desertion has left me! A sailor thrown upon a desert island has less to deplore than I: I will be forced to live near you, to witness the happiness of another, to see you pass my windows upon the arm of my rival! Ah! death would be more endurable than this constant agony. But I have not even the right to die! My poor old parents have already sorrows enough. What would it be, Great God! if I were to condemn them to bear the loss of their son?”
This complaint, punctuated with sighs and tears, lacerated the heart of Clementine. The poor child wept too, for she loved Leon with her whole soul, but she was interdicted from telling him so. More than once, on seeing him half dying before her, she felt tempted to throw her arms about his neck, but the recollection of Fougas paralyzed all her tender impulses.
“My poor friend,” said she, “you judge me very wrongfully if you think me insensible to your sufferings. I have known you thoroughly, Leon, and that too since my very childhood. I know all that there is in you of devotion, delicacy and precious and noble virtues. Since the time when you carried me in your arms to the poor, and put a penny in my hand to teach me to give alms, I have never heard benevolence spoken of without involuntarily thinking of you. When you whipped a boy twice your size for taking away my doll, I felt that courage was noble and that a woman would be happy in being able to lean on a brave man. All that I have ever seen you do since that time, has only redoubled my esteem and my sympathy. Believe me that it is neither from wickedness or ingratitude that I make you suffer now. Alas! I no longer belong to myself, I am under external control; I am like those automatons that move without knowing why. Yes, I feel an impulse within me more powerful than my self control, and it is the will of another that leads me.”
“If I could but be sure that you will be happy! But no! This man, before whom you immolate me, will never know the worth of a soul as delicate as yours. He is a brute, a swash-buckler, a drunkard.”
“I beseech you, Leon, remember that he has a right to my unreserved respect!”
“Respect! For him! And why? I ask of you, in Heaven’s name, what you find respectable in the character of Mister Fougas? His age? He is younger than I. His talents? He never shows them anywhere but at the table. His education? It’s lovely! His virtues? I know what is to be thought of his refinement and gratitude!”
“I have respected him, Leon, since I first saw him in his coffin. It is a sentiment stronger than all else; I cannot explain it, I can but submit to it.”
“Very well! Respect him as much as you please! Yield to the superstition that enchains you. See in him a miraculous being, consecrated, rescued from the grip of Death to accomplish something great on earth! But this itself, Oh my dear Clementine, is a barrier between you and him! If Fougas is outside of the conditions of humanity, if he is a phenomenon, a being apart, a hero, a demigod, a fetich, you cannot seriously think of becoming his wife. As for me, I am but a man like others, born to work, to suffer and to love. I love you! Love me!”
“Scoundrel!” cried Fougas, opening the door.
Clementine uttered a cry, Leon sprung up quickly, but the Colonel had already seized him by the most practicable part of his nankeen suit, before he had even time to think of a single word in reply. The engineer was lifted up, balanced like an atom in one of the sunbeams, and flung into the very midst of the heliotropes. Poor Leon! Poor heliotropes!
In less than a second, the young man was on his feet. He dusted the earth from his knees and elbows, approached the window, and said in a calm but resolute voice: “Mister Colonel, I sincerely regret having brought you back to life, but possibly the folly of which I have been guilty is not irreparable. I hope soon to have an opportunity to find out if it be! As for you, Mademoiselle, I love you!”
The Colonel shrugged his shoulders and put himself at the young girl’s feet on the very cushion which still bore the impression left by Leon. Mlle. Virginie Sambucco, attracted by the noise, came down stairs like an avalanche and heard the following conversation.
“Idol of a great soul! Fougas returns to thee like the eagle to his eyrie. I have long traversed the world in pursuit of rank, fortune and family which I was burning to lay at thy feet. Fortune has obeyed me as a slave: she knows in what school I learned the art of controlling her. I have gone through Paris and Germany like a victorious meteor led by its star. I have everywhere associated as an equal with the powers of Earth, and made the trumpet of truth resound in the halls of kings. I have put my foot on the throat of greedy Avarice, and snatched from him a part, at least, of the treasures which he had stolen from too-confiding Honor. One only blessing is denied me: the son I hoped to see has escaped the lynx-eyes of paternal love. Neither have I found the ancient object of my first affections. But what matters it? I shall feel the want of nothing, if you fill for me the place of all. What do we wait for now? Are you deaf to the voice of Happiness which calls you? Let us go to the temple of the laws, then you shall follow me to the foot of the altar; a priest shall consecrate our bonds, and we will go through life leaning on one another, I like the oak sustaining weakness, thou like the graceful ivy ornamenting the emblem of strength.”10
10 The Translator has intentionally used both the singular and the plural of the second person in Fougas’ apostrophe to Clementine, as it seemed to him naturally required by the variations of the sentiment.
Clementine remained a few moments without answering, as if stunned by the Colonel’s vehement rhetoric. “Monsieur Fougas,” she said to him, “I have always obeyed you, I promise to obey you all my life. If you do not wish me to marry poor Leon, I will renounce him. I love him devotedly, nevertheless, and a single word from him arouses more emotion in my heart than all the fine things you have said to me.”
“Good! Very good!” cried the Aunt. “As for me, sir, although you have never done me the honor to consult me, I will tell you my opinion. My niece is not at all the woman to suit you. Were you richer than M. de Rothschild and more illustrious than the Duke of Malakoff, I would not advise Clementine to marry you.”
“And why, chaste Minerva?”
“Because you would love her fifteen days, and then, at the first sound of cannon, be off to the wars! You would abandon her, sir, just as you did that unhappy Clementine whose misfortunes have been recounted to us!”
“Zounds! Lady Aunt! I do advise you to bestow your pity on her! Three months after Leipzic, she married a fellow named Langevin at Nancy.”
“What do you say?”
“I say that she married a military commissary named Langevin.”
“At that identical town.”
“This is strange!
“But this woman — this young girl — her name?
“I’ve told you a hundred times: Clementine!”
“Gracious Heavens! My keys! Where are my keys? I’m sure I put them in my pocket! Clementine Pichon! M. Langevin! It’s impossible! My senses are forsaking me! Come, my child, bestir yourself! The happiness of your whole life is concerned. Where did you poke my keys? Ah! Here they are!”
Fougas bent over to Clementine’s ear, and said:
“Is she subject to these attacks? One, would suppose that the poor old girl had lost her head!”
But Virginie Sambucco had already opened a little rosewood secretary. Her unerring glance discovered in a file of papers, a sheet yellow with age.
“I’ve got it!” said she with a cry of joy. “Marie Clementine Pichon, legitimate daughter of August Pichon, hotel keeper, rue des Merlettes, in this town of Nancy; married June 10th, 1814, to Joseph Langevin, military sub-commissary. Is it surely she, Monsieur? Dare to say it isn’t she!”
“Well! But how do you happen to have my family papers?”
“Poor Clementine! And you accuse her of unfaithfulness! You do not understand then that you had been taken for dead! That she supposed herself a widow without having been a wife; that —”
“It’s all right! It’s all right! I forgive her. Where is she? I want to see her, to embrace her, to tell her —”
“She is dead, Monsieur! She died three months after she was married,”
“Ah! The Devil!”
“In giving birth to a daughter —”
“Where is my daughter? I’d rather have had a son, but never mind! Where is she? I want to see her, to embrace her, to tell her —”
“Alas! She is no more! But I can conduct you to her tomb.”
“But how the Devil did you know her?”
“Because she married my brother!”
“Without my consent? But never mind! At least she left some children, didn’t she?”
“A son! He is my grandson!”
“Never mind! She is my granddaughter! I’d rather have had a grandson, but where is she? I want to see her, to embrace her, to tell her —”
“Embrace away, Monsieur! Her name is Clementine: after her grandmother, and there she is!”
“She! That accounts for the resemblance! But then I can’t marry her! Never mind! Clementine! Come to my arms! Embrace your grandfather!”
The poor child had not been able entirely to comprehend this rapid conversation, from which events had been falling like tiles, upon the head of the Colonel. She had always heard M. Langevin spoken of as her maternal grandfather, and now she seemed to hear that her mother was the daughter of Fougas. But she knew at the first words, that it was no longer possible for her to marry the Colonel, and that she would soon be married to Leon Renault. It was, therefore, from an impulse of joy and gratitude that she flung herself into the arms of the young-old man.
“Ah, Monsieur!” said she, “I have always loved and respected you like a grandfather!”
“And I, my poor child, have always behaved myself like an old beast! All men are brutes, and all women are angels. You divined with the delicate instinct of your sex, that you owed me respect, and I, fool that I am, didn’t divine anything at all! Whew! Without the venerable Aunt there, I’d have made a pretty piece of work!”
“No,” said the aunt.” You would have found out the truth in going over our family papers.”
“Would that I could have seen them and nothing more! Just to think that I went off to seek my heirs in the department of Meurthe, when I had left my family in Fontainebleau! Imbecile! Bah! But never mind. Clementine! You shall be rich, you shall marry the man you love! Where is he, the brave boy? I want to see him, to embrace him, to tell him —”
“Alas, Monsieur; you just threw him out of the window.”
“I? Hold on, it is true. I had forgotten all about it. Fortunately he’s not hurt, and I’ll go at once and make amends for my folly. You shall get married when you want to; the two weddings shall come off together. — But in fact, no! What am I saying? I shall not marry now! It will all be well soon, my child, my dear granddaughter. Mademoiselle Sambucco you’re a model aunt; embrace me!”
He ran to M. Renault’s house, and Gothon, who saw him coming, ran down to shut him out.
“Ain’t you ashamed of yourself,” said she, “to act this way with them as brought you to life again? Ah! If it had to be done over again! We wouldn’t turn the house upside down again for the sake of your fine eyes! Madame’s crying, Monsieur is tearing his hair, M. Leon has just been sending two officers to hunt you up. What have you been at again since morning?”
Fougas gave her a twirl on her feet and found himself face to face with the engineer. Leon had heard the sound of a quarrel, and on seeing the Colonel excited, with flashing eyes, he expected some brutal aggression and did not wait for the first blow. A struggle took place in the passage amid the cries of Gothon, M. Renault and the poor old lady, who was screaming: “Murder!” Leon wrestled, kicked, and from time to time launched a vigorous blow into the body of his antagonist. He had to succumb, nevertheless; the Colonel finished by upsetting him on the ground and holding him there. Then he kissed him on both cheeks and said to him:
“Ah! You naughty boy! Now I’m pretty sure to make you listen to me! I am Clementine’s grandfather, and I give her to you in marriage, and you can have the wedding to-morrow if you want to! Do you hear? Now get up, and don’t you punch me in the stomach any more. It would be almost parricide!”
Mlle. Sambucco and Clementine arrived in the midst of the general stupefaction. They completed the recital of Fougas, who had gotten himself pretty badly mixed up in the genealogy. Leon’s seconds appeared in their turn. They had not found the enemy in the hotel where he had taken up his quarters, and came to give an account of their mission. A tableau of perfect happiness met their astonished gaze, and Leon invited them to the wedding.
“My friends,” said Fougas, “you shall see undeceived Nature bless the chains of Love.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50