Between the Seine and the little river Loing lies a wide flat country, skirted on the one side by the Forest of Fontainebleau, and marked out as to its southern limits by the towns of Moret, Montereau, and Nemours. It is a dreary country; little knolls of hills appear only at rare intervals, and a coppice here and there among the fields affords for game; and beyond, upon every side, stretches the endless gray or yellowish horizon peculiar to Beauce, Sologne, and Berri.
In the very centre of the plain, at equal distances from Moret and Montereau, the traveler passes the old chateau of Saint–Lange, standing amid surroundings which lack neither dignity nor stateliness. There are magnificent avenues of elm-trees, great gardens encircled by the moat, and a circumference of walls about a huge manorial pile which represents the profits of the maltote, the gains of farmers-general, legalized malversation, or the vast fortunes of great houses now brought low beneath the hammer of the Civil Code.
Should any artist or dreamer of dreams chance to stray along the roads full of deep ruts, or over the heavy land which secures the place against intrusion, he will wonder how it happened that this romantic old place was set down in a savanna of corn-land, a desert of chalk, and sand, and marl, where gaiety dies away, and melancholy is a natural product of the soil. The voiceless solitude, the monotonous horizon line which weigh upon the spirits are negative beauties, which only suit with sorrow that refuses to be comforted.
Hither, at the close of the year 1820, came a woman, still young, well known in Paris for her charm, her fair face, and her wit; and to the immense astonishment of the little village a mile away, this woman of high rank and corresponding fortune took up her abode at Saint–Lange.
From time immemorial, farmers and laborers had seen no gentry at the chateau. The estate, considerable though it was, had been left in charge of a land-steward and the house to the old servants. Wherefore the appearance of the lady of the manor caused a kind of sensation in the district.
A group had gathered in the yard of the wretched little wineshop at the end of the village (where the road forks to Nemours and Moret) to see the carriage pass. It went by slowly, for the Marquise had come from Paris with her own horses, and those on the lookout had ample opportunity of observing a waiting-maid, who sat with her back to the horses holding a little girl, with a somewhat dreamy look, upon her knee. The child’s mother lay back in the carriage; she looked like a dying woman sent out into the country air by her doctors as a last resource. Village politicians were by no means pleased to see the young, delicate, downcast face; they had hoped that the new arrival at Saint–Lange would bring some life and stir into the neighborhood, and clearly any sort of stir or movement must be distasteful to the suffering invalid in the traveling carriage.
That evening, when the notables of Saint–Lange were drinking in the private room of the wineshop, the longest head among them declared that such depression could admit of but one construction — the Marquise was ruined. His lordship the Marquis was away in Spain with the Duc d’Angouleme (so they said in the papers), and beyond a doubt her ladyship had come to Saint–Lange to retrench after a run of ill-luck on the Bourse. The Marquis was one of the greatest gamblers on the face of the globe. Perhaps the estate would be cut up and sold in little lots. There would be some good strokes of business to be made in that case, and it behooved everybody to count up his cash, unearth his savings and to see how he stood, so as to secure his share of the spoil of Saint–Lange.
So fair did this future seem, that the village worthies, dying to know whether it was founded on fact, began to think of ways of getting at the truth through the servants at the chateau. None of these, however, could throw any light on the calamity which had brought their mistress into the country at the beginning of winter, and to the old chateau of Saint–Lange of all places, when she might have taken her choice of cheerful country-houses famous for their beautiful gardens.
His worship the mayor called to pay his respects; but he did not see the lady. Then the land-steward tried with no better success.
Madame la Marquise kept her room, only leaving it, while it was set in order, for the small adjoining drawing-room, where she dined; if, indeed, to sit down to a table, to look with disgust at the dishes, and take the precise amount of nourishment required to prevent death from sheer starvation, can be called dining. The meal over, she returned at once to the old-fashioned low chair, in which she had sat since the morning, in the embrasure of the one window that lighted her room.
Her little girl she only saw for a few minutes daily, during the dismal dinner, and even for a short time she seemed scarcely able to bear the child’s presence. Surely nothing but the most unheard-of anguish could have extinguished a mother’s love so early.
None of the servants were suffered to come near, her own woman was the one creature whom she liked to have about her; the chateau must be perfectly quiet, the child must play at the other end of the house. The slightest sound had grown so intolerable, that any human voice, even the voice of her own child, jarred upon her.
At first the whole countryside was deeply interested in these eccentricities; but time passed on, every possible hypothesis had been advanced to account for them and the peasants and dwellers in the little country towns thought no more of the invalid lady.
So the Marquise was left to herself. She might live on, perfectly silent, amid the silence which she herself had created; there was nothing to draw her forth from the tapestried chamber where her grandmother died, whither she herself had come that she might die, gently, without witnesses, without importunate solicitude, without suffering from the insincere demonstrations of egoism masquerading as affection, which double the agony of death in great cities.
She was twenty-six years old. At that age, with plenty of romantic illusions still left, the mind loves to dwell on the thought of death when death seems to come as a friend. But with youth, death is coy, coming up close only to go away, showing himself and hiding again, till youth has time to fall out of love with him during this dalliance. There is that uncertainty too that hangs over death’s tomorrow. Youth plunges back into the world of living men, there to find the pain more pitiless than death, that does not wait to strike.
This woman who refused to live was to know the bitterness of these reprieves in the depths of her loneliness; in moral agony, which death would not come to end, she was to serve a terrible apprenticeship to the egoism which must take the bloom from her heart and break her in to the life of the world.
This harsh and sorry teaching is the usual outcome of our early sorrows. For the first, and perhaps for the last time in her life, the Marquise d’Aiglemont was in very truth suffering. And, indeed, would it not be an error to suppose that the same sentiment can be reproduced in us? Once develop the power to feel, is it not always there in the depths of our nature? The accidents of life may lull or awaken it, but there it is, of necessity modifying the self, its abiding place. Hence, every sensation should have its great day once and for all, its first day of storm, be it long or short. Hence, likewise, pain, the most abiding of our sensations, could be keenly felt only at its first irruption, its intensity diminishing with every subsequent paroxysm, either because we grow accustomed to these crises, or perhaps because a natural instinct of self-preservation asserts itself, and opposes to the destroying force of anguish an equal but passive force of inertia.
Yet of all kinds of suffering, to which does the name of anguish belong? For the loss of parents, Nature has in a manner prepared us; physical suffering, again, is an evil which passes over us and is gone; it lays no hold upon the soul; if it persists, it ceases to be an evil, it is death. The young mother loses her firstborn, but wedded love ere long gives her a successor. This grief, too, is transient. After all, these, and many other troubles like unto them, are in some sort wounds and bruises; they do not sap the springs of vitality, and only a succession of such blows can crush in us the instinct that seeks happiness. Great pain, therefore, pain that arises to anguish, should be suffering so deadly, that past, present, and future are alike included in its grip, and no part of life is left sound and whole. Never afterwards can we think the same thoughts as before. Anguish engraves itself in ineffaceable characters on mouth and brow; it passes through us, destroying or relaxing the springs that vibrate to enjoyment, leaving behind in the soul the seeds of a disgust for all things in this world.
Yet, again, to be measureless, to weigh like this upon body and soul, the trouble should befall when soul and body have just come to their full strength, and smite down a heart that beats high with life. Then it is that great scars are made. Terrible is the anguish. None, it may be, can issue from this soul-sickness without undergoing some dramatic change. Those who survive it, those who remain on earth, return to the world to wear an actor’s countenance and to play an actor’s part. They know the side-scenes where actors may retire to calculate chances, shed their tears, or pass their jests. Life holds no inscrutable dark places for those who have passed through this ordeal; their judgments are Rhadamanthine.
For young women of the Marquise d’Aiglemont’s age, this first, this most poignant pain of all, is always referable to the same cause. A woman, especially if she is a young woman, greatly beautiful, and by nature great, never fails to stake her whole life as instinct and sentiment and society all unite to bid her. Suppose that that life fails her, suppose that she still lives on, she cannot but endure the most cruel pangs, inasmuch as a first love is the loveliest of all. How comes it that this catastrophe has found no painter, no poet? And yet, can it be painted? Can it be sung? No; for the anguish arising from it eludes analysis and defies the colors of art. And more than this, such pain is never confessed. To console the sufferer, you must be able to divine the past which she hugs in bitterness to her soul like a remorse; it is like an avalanche in a valley; it laid all waste before it found a permanent resting-place.
The Marquise was suffering from this anguish, which will for long remain unknown, because the whole world condemns it, while sentiment cherishes it, and the conscience of a true woman justifies her in it. It is with such pain as with children steadily disowned of life, and therefore bound more closely to the mother’s heart than other children more bounteously endowed. Never, perhaps, was the awful catastrophe in which the whole world without dies for us, so deadly, so complete, so cruelly aggravated by circumstance as it had been for the Marquise. The man whom she had loved was young and generous; in obedience to the laws of the world, she had refused herself to his love, and he had died to save a woman’s honor, as the world calls it. To whom could she speak of her misery? Her tears would be an offence against her husband, the origin of the tragedy. By all laws written and unwritten she was bound over to silence. A woman would have enjoyed the story; a man would have schemed for his own benefit. No; such grief as hers can only weep freely in solitude and in loneliness; she must consume her pain or be consumed by it; die or kill something within her — her conscience, it may be.
Day after day she sat gazing at the flat horizon. It lay out before her like her own life to come. There was nothing to discover, nothing to hope. The whole of it could be seen at a glance. It was the visible presentment in the outward world of the chill sense of desolation which was gnawing restlessly at her heart. The misty mornings, the pale, bright sky, the low clouds scudding under the gray dome of heaven, fitted with the moods of her soul-sickness. Her heart did not contract, was neither more nor less seared, rather it seemed as if her youth, in its full blossom, was slowly turned to stone by an anguish intolerable because it was barren. She suffered through herself and for herself. How could it end save in self-absorption? Ugly torturing thoughts probed her conscience. Candid self-examination pronounced that she was double, there were two selves within her; a woman who felt and a woman who thought; a self that suffered and a self that could fain suffer no longer. Her mind traveled back to the joys of childish days; they had gone by, and she had never known how happy they were. Scenes crowded up in her memory as in a bright mirror glass, to demonstrate the deception of a marriage which, all that it should be in the eyes of the world, was in reality wretched. What had the delicate pride of young womanhood done for her — the bliss foregone, the sacrifices made to the world? Everything in her expressed love, awaited love; her movements still were full of perfect grace; her smile, her charm, were hers as before; why? she asked herself. The sense of her own youth and physical loveliness no more affected her than some meaningless reiterated sound. Her very beauty had grown intolerable to her as a useless thing. She shrank aghast from the thought that through the rest of life she must remain an incomplete creature; had not the inner self lost its power of receiving impressions with that zest, that exquisite sense of freshness which is the spring of so much of life’s gladness? The impressions of the future would for the most part be effaced as soon as received, and many of the thoughts which once would have moved her now would move her no more.
After the childhood of the creature dawns the childhood of the heart; but this second infancy was over, her lover had taken it down with him into the grave. The longings of youth remained; she was young yet; but the completeness of youth was gone, and with that lost completeness the whole value and savor of life had diminished somewhat. Should she not always bear within her the seeds of sadness and mistrust, ready to grow up and rob emotion of its springtide of fervor? Conscious she must always be that nothing could give her now the happiness so longed for, that seemed so fair in her dreams. The fire from heaven that sheds abroad its light in the heart, in the dawn of love, had been quenched in tears, the first real tears which she had shed; henceforth she must always suffer, because it was no longer in her power to be what once she might have been. This is a belief which turns us in aversion and bitterness of spirit from any proffered new delight.
Julie had come to look at life from the point of view of age about to die. Young though she felt, the heavy weight of joyless days had fallen upon her, and left her broken-spirited and old before her time. With a despairing cry, she asked the world what it could give her in exchange for the love now lost, by which she had lived. She asked herself whether in that vanished love, so chaste and pure, her will had not been more criminal than her deeds, and chose to believe herself guilty; partly to affront the world, partly for her own consolation, in that she had missed the close union of body and soul, which diminishes the pain of the one who is left behind by the knowledge that once it has known and given joy to the full, and retains within itself the impress of that which is no more.
Something of the mortification of the actress cheated of her part mingled with the pain which thrilled through every fibre of her heart and brain. Her nature had been thwarted, her vanity wounded, her woman’s generosity cheated of self-sacrifice. Then, when she had raised all these questions, set vibrating all the springs in those different phases of being which we distinguish as social, moral, and physical, her energies were so far exhausted and relaxed that she was powerless to grasp a single thought amid the chase of conflicting ideas.
Sometimes as the mists fell, she would throw her window open, and would stay there, motionless, breathing in unheedingly the damp earthly scent in the air, her mind to all appearance an unintelligent blank, for the ceaseless burden of sorrow humming in her brain left her deaf to earth’s harmonies and insensible to the delights of thought.
One day, towards noon, when the sun shone out for a little, her maid came in without a summons.
“This is the fourth time that M. le Cure has come to see Mme. la Marquise; today he is so determined about it, that we did not know what to tell him.”
“He has come to ask for some money for the poor, no doubt; take him twenty-five louis from me.”
The woman went only to return.
“M. le Cure will not take the money, my lady; he wants to speak to you.”
“Then let him come!” said Mme. d’Aiglemont, with an involuntary shrug which augured ill for the priest’s reception. Evidently the lady meant to put a stop to persecution by a short and sharp method.
Mme. d’Aiglemont had lost her mother in her early childhood; and as a natural consequence in her bringing-up, she had felt the influence of the relaxed notions which loosened the hold of religion upon France during the Revolution. Piety is a womanly virtue which women alone can really instil; and the Marquise, a child of the eighteenth century, had adopted her father’s creed of philosophism, and practised no religious observances. A priest, to her way of thinking, was a civil servant of very doubtful utility. In her present position, the teaching of religion could only poison her wounds; she had, moreover, but scanty faith in the lights of country cures, and made up her mind to put this one gently but firmly in his place, and to rid herself of him, after the manner of the rich, by bestowing a benefit.
At first sight of the cure the Marquise felt no inclination to change her mind. She saw before her a stout, rotund little man, with a ruddy, wrinkled, elderly face, which awkwardly and unsuccessfully tried to smile. His bald, quadrant-shaped forehead, furrowed by intersecting lines, was too heavy for the rest of his face, which seemed to be dwarfed by it. A fringe of scanty white hair encircled the back of his head, and almost reached his ears. Yet the priest looked as if by nature he had a genial disposition; his thick lips, his slightly curved nose, his chin, which vanished in a double fold of wrinkles, — all marked him out as a man who took cheerful views of life.
At first the Marquise saw nothing but these salient characteristics, but at the first word she was struck by the sweetness of the speaker’s voice. Looking at him more closely, she saw that the eyes under the grizzled eyebrows had shed tears, and his face, turned in profile, wore so sublime an impress of sorrow, that the Marquise recognized the man in the cure.
“Madame la Marquise, the rich only come within our province when they are in trouble. It is easy to see that the troubles of a young, beautiful, and wealthy woman, who has lost neither children nor relatives, are caused by wounds whose pangs religion alone can soothe. Your soul is in danger, madame. I am not speaking now of the hereafter which awaits us. No, I am not in the confessional. But it is my duty, is it not, to open your eyes to your future life here on earth? You will pardon an old man, will you not, for importunity which has your own happiness for its object?”
“There is no more happiness for me, monsieur. I shall soon be, as you say, in your province; but it will be for ever.”
“Nay, madame. You will not die of this pain which lies heavy upon you, and can be read in your face. If you had been destined to die of it, you would not be here at Saint–Lange. A definite regret is not so deadly as hope deferred. I have known others pass through more intolerable and more awful anguish, and yet they live.”
The Marquise looked incredulous.
“Madame, I know a man whose affliction was so sore that your trouble would seem to you to be light compared with his.”
Perhaps the long solitary hours had begun to hang heavily; perhaps in the recesses of the Marquise’s mind lay the thought that here was a friendly heart to whom she might be able to pour out her troubles. However, it was, she gave the cure a questioning glance which could not be mistaken.
“Madame,” he continued, “the man of whom I tell you had but three children left of a once large family circle. He lost his parents, his daughter, and his wife, whom he dearly loved. He was left alone at last on the little farm where he had lived so happily for so long. His three sons were in the army, and each of the lads had risen in proportion to his time of service. During the Hundred Days, the oldest went into the Guard with a colonel’s commission; the second was a major in the artillery; the youngest a major in a regiment of dragoons. Madame, those three boys loved their father as much as he loved them. If you but knew how careless young fellows grow of home ties when they are carried away by the current of their own lives, you would realize from this one little thing how warmly they loved the lonely old father, who only lived in and for them — never a week passed without a letter from one of the boys. But then he on his side had never been weakly indulgent, to lessen their respect for him; nor unjustly severe, to thwart their affection; or apt to grudge sacrifices, the thing that estranges children’s hearts. He had been more than a father; he had been a brother to them, and their friend.
“At last he went to Paris to bid them good-bye before they set out for Belgium; he wished to see that they had good horses and all that they needed. And so they went, and the father returned to his home again. Then the war began. He had letters from Fleurus, and again from Ligny. All went well. Then came the battle of Waterloo, and you know the rest. France was plunged into mourning; every family waited in intense anxiety for news. You may imagine, madame, how the old man waited for tidings, in anxiety that knew no peace nor rest. He used to read the gazettes; he went to the coach office every day. One evening he was told that the colonel’s servant had come. The man was riding his master’s horse — what need was there to ask any questions? — the colonel was dead, cut in two by a shell. Before the evening was out the youngest son’s servant arrived — the youngest had died on the eve of the battle. At midnight came a gunner with tidings of the death of the last; upon whom, in those few hours, the poor father had centered all his life. Madame, they all had fallen.”
After a pause the good man controlled his feelings, and added gently:
“And their father is still living, madame. He realized that if God had left him on earth, he was bound to live on and suffer on earth; but he took refuge in the sanctuary. What could he be?”
The Marquise looked up and saw the cure’s face, grown sublime in its sorrow and resignation, and waited for him to speak. When the words came, tears broke from her.
“A priest, madame; consecrated by his own tears previously shed at the foot of the altar.”
Silence prevailed for a little. The Marquise and the cure looked out at the foggy landscape, as if they could see the figures of those who were no more.
“Not a priest in a city, but a simple country cure,” added he.
“At Saint–Lange,” she said, drying her eyes.
Never had the majesty of grief seemed so great to Julie. The two words sank straight into her heart with the weight of infinite sorrow. The gentle, sonorous tones troubled her heart. Ah! that full, deep voice, charged with plangent vibration, was the voice of one who had suffered indeed.
“And if I do not die, monsieur, what will become of me?” The Marquise spoke almost reverently.
“Have you not a child, madame?”
“Yes,” she said stiffly.
The cure gave her such a glance as a doctor gives a patient whose life is in danger. Then he determined to do all that in him lay to combat the evil spirit into whose clutches she had fallen.
“We must live on with our sorrows — you see it yourself, madame, and religion alone offers us real consolation. Will you permit me to come again? — to speak to you as a man who can sympathize with every trouble, a man about whom there is nothing very alarming, I think?”
“Yes, monsieur, come back again. Thank you for your thought of me.”
“Very well, madame; then I shall return very shortly.”
This visit relaxed the tension of soul, as it were; the heavy strain of grief and loneliness had been almost too much for the Marquise’s strength. The priest’s visit had left a soothing balm in her heart, his words thrilled through her with healing influence. She began to feel something of a prisoner’s satisfaction, when, after he has had time to feel his utter loneliness and the weight of his chains, he hears a neighbor knocking on the wall, and welcomes the sound which brings a sense of human friendship. Here was an unhoped-for confidant. But this feeling did not last for long. Soon she sank back into the old bitterness of spirit, saying to herself, as the prisoner might say, that a companion in misfortune could neither lighten her own bondage nor her future.
In the first visit the cure had feared to alarm the susceptibilities of self-absorbed grief, in a second interview he hoped to make some progress towards religion. He came back again two days later, and from the Marquise’s welcome it was plain that she had looked forward to the visit.
“Well, Mme. la Marquise, have you given a little thought to the great mass of human suffering? Have you raised your eyes above our earth and seen the immensity of the universe? — the worlds beyond worlds which crush our vanity into insignificance, and with our vanity reduce our sorrows?”
“No, monsieur,” she said; “I cannot rise to such heights, our social laws lie too heavily upon me, and rend my heart with a too poignant anguish. And laws perhaps are less cruel than the usages of the world. Ah! the world!”
“Madame, we must obey both. Law is the doctrine, and custom the practice of society.”
“Obey society?” cried the Marquise, with an involuntary shudder. “Eh! monsieur, it is the source of all our woes. God laid down no law to make us miserable; but mankind, uniting together in social life, have perverted God’s work. Civilization deals harder measure to us women than nature does. Nature imposes upon us physical suffering which you have not alleviated; civilization has developed in us thoughts and feelings which you cheat continually. Nature exterminates the weak; you condemn them to live, and by so doing, consign them to a life of misery. The whole weight of the burden of marriage, an institution on which society is based, falls upon us; for the man liberty, duties for the woman. We must give up our whole lives to you, you are only bound to give us a few moments of yours. A man, in fact, makes a choice, while we blindly submit. Oh, monsieur, to you I can speak freely. Marriage, in these days, seems to me to be legalized prostitution. This is the cause of my wretchedness. But among so many miserable creatures so unhappily yoked, I alone am bound to be silent, I alone am to blame for my misery. My marriage was my own doing.”
She stopped short, and bitter tears fell in the silence.
“In the depths of my wretchedness, in the midst of this sea of distress,” she went on, “I found some sands on which to set foot and suffer at leisure. A great tempest swept everything away. And here am I, helpless and alone, too weak to cope with storms.”
“We are never weak while God is with us,” said the priest. “And if your cravings for affection cannot be satisfied here on earth, have you no duties to perform?”
“Duties continually!” she exclaimed, with something of impatience in her tone. “But where for me are the sentiments which give us strength to perform them? Nothing from nothing, nothing for nothing — this, monsieur, is one of the most inexorable laws of nature, physical or spiritual. Would you have these trees break into leaf without the sap which swells the buds? It is the same with our human nature; and in me the sap is dried up at its source.”
“I am not going to speak to you of religious sentiments of which resignation is born,” said the cure, “but of motherhood, madame, surely —”
“Stop, monsieur!” said the Marquise, “with you I will be sincere. Alas! in future I can be sincere with no one; I am condemned to falsehood. The world requires continual grimaces, and we are bidden to obey its conventions if we would escape reproach. There are two kinds of motherhood, monsieur; once I knew nothing of such distinctions, but I know them now. Only half of me has become a mother; it were better for me if I had not been a mother at all. Helene is not his child! Oh! do not start. At Saint–Lange there are volcanic depths whence come lurid gleams of light and earthquake shocks to shake the fragile edifices of laws not based on nature. I have borne a child, that is enough, I am a mother in the eyes of the law. But you, monsieur, with your delicately compassionate soul, can perhaps understand this cry from an unhappy woman who has suffered no lying illusions to enter her heart. God will judge me, but surely I have only obeyed His laws by giving way to the affections which He Himself set in me, and this I have learned from my own soul. — What is a child, monsieur, but the image of two beings, the fruit of two sentiments spontaneously blended? Unless it is owned by every fibre of the body, as by every chord of tenderness in the heart; unless it recalls the bliss of love, the hours, the places where two creatures were happy, their words that overflowed with the music of humanity, and their sweet imaginings, that child is an incomplete creation. Yes, those two should find the poetic dreams of their intimate double life realized in their child as in an exquisite miniature; it should be for them a never-failing spring of emotion, implying their whole past and their whole future.
“My poor little Helene is her father’s child, the offspring of duty and of chance. In me she finds nothing but the affection of instinct, the woman’s natural compassion for the child of her womb. Socially speaking, I am above reproach. Have I not sacrificed my life and my happiness to my child? Her cries go to my heart; if she were to fall into the water, I should spring to save her, but she is not in my heart.
“Ah! love set me dreaming of a motherhood far greater and more complete. In a vanished dream I held in my arms a child conceived in desire before it was begotten, the exquisite flower of life that blossoms in the soul before it sees the light of day. I am Helene’s mother only in the sense that I brought her forth. When she needs me no longer, there will be an end of my motherhood; with the extinction of the cause, the effects will cease. If it is a woman’s adorable prerogative that her motherhood may last through her child’s life, surely that divine persistence of sentiment is due to the far-reaching glory of the conception of the soul? Unless a child has lain wrapped about from life’s first beginnings by the mother’s soul, the instinct of motherhood dies in her as in the animals. This is true; I feel that it is true. As my poor little one grows older, my heart closes. My sacrifices have driven us apart. And yet I know, monsieur, that to another child my heart would have gone out in inexhaustible love; for that other I should not have known what sacrifice meant, all had been delight. In this, monsieur, my instincts are stronger than reason, stronger than religion or all else in me. Does the woman who is neither wife nor mother sin in wishing to die when, for her misfortune, she has caught a glimpse of the infinite beauty of love, the limitless joy of motherhood? What can become of her? I can tell you what she feels. I cannot put that memory from me so resolutely but that a hundred times, night and day, visions of a happiness, greater it may be than the reality, rise before me, followed by a shudder which shakes brain and heart and body. Before these cruel visions, my feelings and thoughts grow colorless, and I ask myself, ‘What would my life have been if ——?’”
She hid her face in her hands and burst into tears.
“There you see the depths of my heart!” she continued. “For his child I could have acquiesced in any lot however dreadful. He who died, bearing the burden of the sins of the world will forgive this thought of which I am dying; but the world, I know, is merciless. In its ears my words are blasphemies; I am outraging all its codes. Oh! that I could wage war against this world and break down and refashion its laws and traditions! Has it not turned all my thoughts, and feelings, and longings, and hopes, and every fibre in me into so many sources of pain? Spoiled my future, present, and past? For me the daylight is full of gloom, my thoughts pierce me like a sword, my child is and is not.
“Oh, when Helene speaks to me, I wish that her voice were different, when she looks into my face I wish that she had other eyes. She constantly keeps me in mind of all that should have been and is not. I cannot bear to have her near me. I smile at her, I try to make up to her for the real affection of which she is defrauded. I am wretched, monsieur, too wretched to live. And I am supposed to be a pattern wife. And I have committed no sins. And I am respected! I have fought down forbidden love which sprang up at unawares within me; but if I have kept the letter of the law, have I kept it in my heart? There has never been but one here,” she said, laying her right hand on her breast, “one and no other; and my child feels it. Certain looks and tones and gestures mould a child’s nature, and my poor little one feels no thrill in the arm I put about her, no tremor comes into my voice, no softness into my eyes when I speak to her or take her up. She looks at me, and I cannot endure the reproach in her eyes. There are times when I shudder to think that some day she may be my judge and condemn her mother unheard. Heaven grant that hate may not grow up between us! Ah! God in heaven, rather let the tomb open for me, rather let me end my days here at Saint–Lange! — I want to go back to the world where I shall find my other soul and become wholly a mother. Ah! forgive me, sir, I am mad. Those words were choking me; now they are spoken. Ah! you are weeping too! You will not despise me —”
She heard the child come in from a walk. “Helene, my child, come here!” she called. The words sounded like a cry of despair.
The little girl ran in, laughing and calling to her mother to see a butterfly which she had caught; but at the sight of that mother’s tears she grew quiet of a sudden, and went up close, and received a kiss on her forehead.
“She will be very beautiful some day,” said the priest.
“She is her father’s child,” said the Marquise, kissing the little one with eager warmth, as if she meant to pay a debt of affection or to extinguish some feeling of remorse.
“How hot you are, mamma!”
“There, go away, my angel,” said the Marquise.
The child went. She did not seem at all sorry to go; she did not look back; glad perhaps to escape from a sad face, and instinctively comprehending already an antagonism of feeling in its expression. A mother’s love finds language in smiles, they are a part of the divine right of motherhood. The Marquise could not smile. She flushed red as she felt the cure’s eyes. She had hoped to act a mother’s part before him, but neither she nor her child could deceive him. And, indeed, when a woman loves sincerely, in the kiss she gives there is a divine honey; it is as if a soul were breathed forth in the caress, a subtle flame of fire which brings warmth to the heart; the kiss that lacks this delicious unction is meagre and formal. The priest had felt the difference. He could fathom the depths that lie between the motherhood of the flesh and the motherhood of the heart. He gave the Marquise a keen, scrutinizing glance, then he said:
“You are right, madame; it would be better for you if you were dead ——”
“Ah!” she cried, “then you know all my misery; I see you do if, Christian priest as you are, you can guess my determination to die and sanction it. Yes, I meant to die, but I have lacked the courage. The spirit was strong, but the flesh was weak, and when my hand did not tremble, the spirit within me wavered.
“I do not know the reason of these inner struggles, and alternations. I am very pitiably a woman no doubt, weak in my will, strong only to love. Oh, I despise myself. At night, when all my household was asleep, I would go out bravely as far as the lake; but when I stood on the brink, my cowardice shrank from self-destruction. To you I will confess my weakness. When I lay in my bed, again, shame would come over me, and courage would come back. Once I took a dose of laudanum; I was ill, but I did not die. I thought I had emptied the phial, but I had only taken half the dose.”
“You are lost, madame,” the cure said gravely, with tears in his voice. “You will go back into the world, and you will deceive the world. You will seek and find a compensation (as you imagine it to be) for your woes; then will come a day of reckoning for your pleasures —”
“Do you think,” she cried, “that I shall bestow the last, the most precious treasures of my heart upon the first base impostor who can play the comedy of passion? That I would pollute my life for a moment of doubtful pleasure? No; the flame which shall consume my soul shall be love, and nothing but love. All men, monsieur, have the senses of their sex, but not all have the man’s soul which satisfies all the requirements of our nature, drawing out the melodious harmony which never breaks forth save in response to the pressure of feeling. Such a soul is not found twice in our lifetime. The future that lies before me is hideous; I know it. A woman is nothing without love; beauty is nothing without pleasure. And even if happiness were offered to me a second time, would not the world frown upon it? I owe my daughter an honored mother. Oh! I am condemned to live in an iron circle, from which there is but one shameful way of escape. The round of family duties, a thankless and irksome task, is in store for me. I shall curse life; but my child shall have at least a fair semblance of a mother. I will give her treasures of virtue for the treasures of love of which I defraud her.
“I have not even the mother’s desire to live to enjoy her child’s happiness. I have no belief in happiness. What will Helene’s fate be? My own, beyond doubt. How can a mother ensure that the man to whom she gives her daughter will be the husband of her heart? You pour scorn on the miserable creatures who sell themselves for a few coins to any passer-by, though want and hunger absolve the brief union; while another union, horrible for quite other reasons, is tolerated, nay encouraged, by society, and a young and innocent girl is married to a man whom she has only met occasionally during the previous three months. She is sold for her whole lifetime. It is true that the price is high! If you allow her no compensation for her sorrows, you might at least respect her; but no, the most virtuous of women cannot escape calumny. This is our fate in its double aspect. Open prostitution and shame; secret prostitution and unhappiness. As for the poor, portionless girls, they may die or go mad, without a soul to pity them. Beauty and virtue are not marketable in the bazaar where souls and bodies are bought and sold — in the den of selfishness which you call society. Why not disinherit daughters? Then, at least, you might fulfil one of the laws of nature, and guided by your own inclinations, choose your companions.”
“Madame, from your talk it is clear to me that neither the spirit of family nor the sense of religion appeals to you. Why should you hesitate between the claims of the social selfishness which irritates you, and the purely personal selfishness which craves satisfactions —”
“The family, monsieur — does such a thing exist? I decline to recognize as a family a knot of individuals bidden by society to divide the property after the death of father and mother, and to go their separate ways. A family means a temporary association of persons brought together by no will of their own, dissolved at once by death. Our laws have broken up homes and estates, and the old family tradition handed down from generation to generation. I see nothing but wreck and ruin about me.”
“Madame, you will only return to God when His hand has been heavy upon you, and I pray that you have time enough given to you in which to make your peace with Him. Instead of looking to heaven for comfort, you are fixing your eyes on earth. Philosophism and personal interest have invaded your heart; like the children of the sceptical eighteenth century, you are deaf to the voice of religion. The pleasures of this life bring nothing but misery. You are about to make an exchange of sorrows, that is all.”
She smiled bitterly.
“I will falsify your predictions,” she said. “I shall be faithful to him who died for me.”
“Sorrow,” he answered, “is not likely to live long save in souls disciplined by religion,” and he lowered his eyes respectfully lest the Marquise should read his doubts in them. The energy of her outburst had grieved him. He had seen the self that lurked beneath so many forms, and despaired of softening a heart which affliction seemed to sear. The divine Sower’s seed could not take root in such a soil, and His gentle voice was drowned by the clamorous outcry of self-pity. Yet the good man returned again and again with an apostle’s earnest persistence, brought back by a hope of leading so noble and proud a soul to God; until the day when he made the discovery that the Marquise only cared to talk with him because it was sweet to speak of him who was no more. He would not lower his ministry by condoning her passion, and confined the conversation more and more to generalities and commonplaces.
Spring came, and with the spring the Marquise found distraction from her deep melancholy. She busied herself for lack of other occupation with her estate, making improvements for amusement.
In October she left the old chateau. In the life of leisure at Saint–Lange she had recovered from her grief and grown fair and fresh. Her grief had been violent at first in its course, as the quoit hurled forth with all the player’s strength, and like the quoit after many oscillations, each feebler than the last, it had slackened into melancholy. Melancholy is made up of a succession of such oscillations, the first touching upon despair, the last on the border between pain and pleasure; in youth, it is the twilight of dawn; in age, the dusk of night.
As the Marquise drove through the village in her traveling carriage, she met the cure on his way back from the church. She bowed in response to his farewell greeting, but it was with lowered eyes and averted face. She did not wish to see him again. The village cure had judged this poor Diana of Ephesus only too well.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47