The midnight meeting of Lieutenant Réal and Peyrol was perfectly silent. Peyrol, sitting on the bench outside the salle, had heard the footsteps coming up the Madrague track long before the lieutenant became visible. But he did not move. He did not even look at him. The lieutenant, unbuckling his sword-belt, sat down without uttering a word. The moon, the only witness of the meeting, seemed to shine on two friends so identical in thought and feeling that they could commune with each other without words. It was Peyrol who spoke first.
“You are up to time.”
“I had the deuce of a job to hunt up the people and get the certificate stamped. Everything was shut up. The Port-Admiral was giving a dinner-party, but he came out to speak to me when I sent in my name. And all the time, do you know, gunner, I was wondering whether I would ever see you again in my life. Even after I had the certificate, such as it is, in my pocket, I wondered whether I would.”
“What the devil did you think was going to happen to me?” growled Peyrol perfunctorily. He had thrown the incomprehensible stable fork under the narrow bench, and with his feet drawn in he could feel it there, lying against the wall.
“No, the question with me was whether I would ever come here again.”
Réal drew a folded paper from his pocket and dropped it on the bench. Peyrol picked it up carelessly. That thing was meant only to throw dust into Englishmen's eyes. The lieutenant, after a moment's silence, went on with the sincerity of a man who suffered too much to keep his trouble to himself.
“I had a hard struggle.”
“That was too late,” said Peyrol, very positively. “You had to come back here for very shame; and now you have come, you don't look very happy.”
“Never mind my looks, gunner. I have made up my mind.”
A ferocious, not unpleasing thought flashed through Peyrol's mind. It was that this intruder on the Escampobar sinister solitude in which he, Peyrol, kept order was under a delusion. Mind! Pah! His mind had nothing to do with his return. He had returned because in Catherine's words, “death had made a sign to him.” Meantime, Lieutenant Réal raised his hat to wipe his moist brow.
“I made up my mind to play the part of dispatch-bearer. As you have said yourself, Peyrol, one could not bribe a man — I mean an honest man — so you will have to find the vessel and leave the rest to me. In two or three days . . . You are under a moral obligation to let me have your tartane.”
Peyrol did not answer. He was thinking that Réal had got his sign, but whether it meant death from starvation or disease on board an English prison hulk, or in some other way, it was impossible to say. This naval officer was not a man he could trust; to whom he could, for instance, tell the story of his prisoner and what he had done with him. Indeed, the story was altogether incredible. The Englishman commanding that corvette had no visible, conceivable or probable reason for sending a boat ashore to the cove of all places in the world. Peyrol himself could hardly believe that it had happened. And he thought: “If I were to tell that lieutenant he would only think that I was an old scoundrel who had been in treasonable communication with the English for God knows how long. No words of mine could persuade him that this was as unforeseen to me as the moon falling from the sky.”
“I wonder,” he burst out, but not very loud, “what made you keep on coming back here time after time!” Réal leaned his back against the wall and folded his arms in the familiar attitude of their leisurely talks.
“Ennui, Peyrol,” he said in a far-away tone. “Confounded boredom.”
Peyrol also, as if unable to resist the force of example, assumed the same attitude, and said:
“You seem to be a man that makes no friends.”
“True, Peyrol. I think I am that sort of man.”
“What, no friends at all? Not even a little friend of any sort?”
Lieutenant Réal leaned the back of his head against the wall and made no answer. Peyrol got on his legs.
“Oh, then, it wouldn't matter to anybody if you were to disappear for years in an English hulk. And so if I were to give you my tartane you would go?”
“Yes, I would go this moment.”
Peyrol laughed quite loud, tilting his head back. All at once the laugh stopped short and the lieutenant was amazed to see him reel as though he had been hit in the chest. While giving way to his bitter mirth, the rover had caught sight of Arlette's face at the, open window of the lieutenant's room. He sat heavily on the bench and was unable to make a sound. The lieutenant was startled enough to detach the back of his head from the wall to look at him. Peyrol stooped low suddenly, and began to drag the stable fork from its concealment. Then he got on his feet and stood leaning on it, glaring down at Réal, who gazed upwards with languid surprise. Peyrol was asking himself, “Shall I pick him up on that pair of prongs, carry him down and fling him in the sea?” He felt suddenly overcome by a heaviness of arms and a heaviness of heart that made all movement impossible. His stiffened and powerless limbs refused all service. . . . Let Catherine look after her niece. He was sure that the old woman was not very far away. The lieutenant saw him absorbed in examining the points of the prongs carefully. There was something queer about all this.
“Hallo, Peyrol! What's the matter?” he couldn't help asking.
“I was just looking,” said Peyrol. “One prong is chipped a little. I found this thing in a most unlikely place.”
The lieutenant still gazed at him curiously.
“I know! It was under the bench.”
“H'm,” said Peyrol, who had recovered some self-control. “It belongs to Scevola.”
“Does it?” said the lieutenant, falling back again.
His interest seemed exhausted, but Peyrol didn't move.
“You go about with a face fit for a funeral,” he remarked suddenly in a deep voice. “Hang it all, lieutenant, I have heard you laugh once or twice, but the devil take me if I ever saw you smile. It is as if you had been bewitched in your cradle.”
Lieutenant Réal got up as if moved by a spring. “Bewitched,” he repeated, standing very stiff: “In my cradle, eh? . . . No, I don't think it was so early as that.”
He walked forward with a tense still face straight at Peyrol as though he had been blind. Startled, the rover stepped out of the way and, turning on his heels, followed him with his eyes. The lieutenant paced on, as if drawn by a magnet, in the direction of the door of the house. Peyrol, his eyes fastened on Réal's back, let him nearly reach it before he called out tentatively: “I say, lieutenant!” To his extreme surprise, Réal swung round as if to a touch.
“Oh, yes,” he answered, also in an undertone. “We will have to discuss that matter to-morrow.”
Peyrol, who had approached him close, said in a whisper which sounded quite fierce: “Discuss? No! We will have to carry it out to-morrow. I have been waiting half the night just to tell you that.”
Lieutenant Réal nodded. The expression on his face was so stony that Peyrol doubted whether he had understood. He added:
“It isn't going to be child's play.” The lieutenant was about to open the door when Peyrol said: “A moment,” and again the lieutenant turned about silently.
“Michel is sleeping somewhere on the stairs. Will you just stir him up and tell him I am waiting outside? We two will have to finish our night on board the tartane, and start work at break of day to get her ready for sea. Yes, lieutenant, by noon. In twelve hours' time you will be saying good-bye to la belle France.”
Lieutenant Réal's eyes staring over his shoulder, seemed glazed and motionless in the moonlight like the eyes of a dead man. But he went in. Peyrol heard presently sounds within of somebody staggering in the passage and Michel projected himself outside headlong, but after a stumble or two pulled up, scratching his head and looking on every side in the moonlight without perceiving Peyrol, who was regarding him from a distance of five feet. At last Peyrol said:
“Come, wake up! Michel! Michel!”
“Voilà, notre maître.”
“Look at what I have picked up,” said Peyrol. “Take it and put it away.”
Michel didn't offer to touch the stable fork extended to him by Peyrol.
“What's the matter with you?” asked Peyrol.
“Nothing, nothing! Only last time I saw it, it was on Scevola's shoulder.” He glanced up at the sky.
“A little better than an hour ago.”
“What was he doing?”
“Going into the yard to put it away.”
“Well, now you go into the yard to put it away,” said Peyrol, “and don't be long about it.” He waited with his hand over his chin till his henchman reappeared before him. But Michel had not got over his surprise.
“He was going to bed, you know,” he said.
“Eh, what? He was going. . . . He hasn't gone to sleep in the stable, perchance? He does sometimes, you know.”
“I know. I looked. He isn't there,” said Michel, very awake and round-eyed.
Peyrol started towards the cove. After three or four steps he turned round and found Michel motionless where he had left him.
“Come on,” he cried, “we will have to fit the tartane for sea directly the day breaks.”
Standing in the lieutenant's room just clear of the open window, Arlette listened to their voices and to the sound of their footsteps diminishing down the slope. Before they had quite died out she became aware of a light tread approaching the door of the room.
Lieutenant Réal had spoken the truth. While in Toulon he had more than once said to himself that he could never go back to that fatal farmhouse. His mental state was quite pitiable. Honour, decency, every principle forbade him to trifle with the feelings of a poor creature with her mind darkened by a very terrifying, atrocious and, as it were, guilty experience. And suddenly he had given way to a base impulse and had betrayed himself by kissing her hand! He recognized with despair that this was no trifling, but that the impulse had come from the very depths of his being. It was an awful discovery for a man who on emerging from boyhood had laid for himself a rigidly straight line of conduct amongst the unbridled passions and the clamouring falsehoods of revolution which seemed to have destroyed in him all capacity for the softer emotions. Taciturn and guarded, he had formed no intimacies. Relations he had none. He had kept clear of social connections. It was in his character. At first he visited Escampobar because when he took his leave he had no place in the world to go to, and a few days there were a complete change from the odious town. He enjoyed the sense of remoteness from ordinary mankind. He had developed a liking for old Peyrol, the only man who had nothing to do with the revolution — who had not even seen it at work. The sincere lawlessness of the ex-Brother of the Coast was refreshing. That one was neither a hypocrite nor a fool. When he robbed or killed it was not in the name of the sacred revolutionary principles or for the love of humanity.
Of course Réal had remarked at once Arlette's black, profound and unquiet eyes and the persistent dim smile on her lips, her mysterious silences and the rare sound of her voice which made a caress of every word. He heard something of her story from the reluctant Peyrol who did not care to talk about it. It awakened in Réal more bitter indignation than pity. But it stimulated his imagination, confirmed him in that scorn and angry loathing for the revolution he had felt as a boy and had nursed secretly ever since. She attracted him by her unapproachable aspect. Later he tried not to notice that, in common parlance, she was inclined to hang about him. He used to catch her gazing at him stealthily. But he was free from masculine vanity. It was one day in Toulon that it suddenly dawned on him what her mute interest in his person might mean. He was then sitting outside a café sipping some drink or other with three or four officers, and not listening to their uninteresting conversation. He marvelled that this sort of illumination should come to him like this, under these circumstances; that he should have thought of her while seated in the street with these men round him, in the midst of more or less professional talk! And then it suddenly dawned on him that he had been thinking of nothing but that woman for days.
He got up brusquely, flung the money for his drink on the table, and without a word left his companions. But he had the reputation of an eccentric man and they did not even comment on his abrupt departure. It was a clear evening. He walked straight out of town, and that night wandered beyond the fortifications, not noticing the direction he took. All the countryside was asleep. There was not a human being stirring, and his progress in that desolate part of the country between the forts could have been traced only by the barking of dogs in the rare hamlets and scattered habitations.
“What has become of my rectitude, of my self-respect, of the firmness of my mind?” he asked himself pedantically. “I have let myself be mastered by an unworthy passion for a mere mortal envelope, stained with crime and without a mind.”
His despair at this awful discovery was so profound that if he had not been in uniform he would have tried to commit suicide with the small pistol he had in his pocket. He shrank from the act, and the thought of the sensation it would produce, from the gossip and comments it would raise, the dishonouring suspicions it would provoke. “No,” he said to himself, “what I will have to do is to unmark my linen, put on civilian old clothes and walk out much farther away, miles beyond the forts, hide myself in some wood or in an overgrown hollow and put an end to my life there. The gendarmes or a garde-champêtre discovering my body after a few days, a complete stranger without marks of identity, and being unable to find out anything about me, will give me an obscure burial in some village churchyard.”
On that resolution he turned back abruptly and at daybreak found himself outside the gate of the town. He had to wait till it was opened, and then the morning was so far advanced that he had to go straight to work at his office at the Toulon Admiralty. Nobody noticed anything peculiar about him that day. He went through his routine tasks with outward composure, but all the same he never ceased arguing with himself. By the time he returned to his quarters he had come to the conclusion that as an officer in war-time he had no right to take his own life. His principles would not permit him to do that. In this reasoning he was perfectly sincere. During a deadly struggle against an irreconcilable enemy his life belonged to his country. But there were moments when his loneliness, haunted by the forbidden vision of Escampobar with the figure of that distracted girl, mysterious, awful, pale, irresistible in her strangeness, passing along the walls, appearing on the hill-paths, looking out of the window, became unbearable. He spent hours of solitary anguish shut up in his quarters, and the opinion amongst his comrades was that Réal's misanthropy was getting beyond all bounds.
One day it dawned upon him clearly that he could not stand this. It affected his power of thinking. “I shall begin to talk nonsense to people,” he said to himself. “Hasn't there been once a poor devil who fell in love with a picture or a statue? He used to go and contemplate it. His misfortune cannot be compared with mine! Well, I will go to look at her as at a picture too; a picture as untouchable as if it had been under glass.” And he went on a visit to Escampobar at the very first opportunity. He made up for himself a repellent face, he clung to Peyrol for society, out there on the bench, both with their arms folded and gazing into space. But whenever Arlette crossed his line of sight it was as if something had moved in his breast. Yet these visits made life just bearable; they enabled him to attend to his work without beginning to talk nonsense to people. He said to himself that he was strong enough to rise above temptation, that he would never overstep the line; but it had happened to him upstairs in his room at the farm, to weep tears of sheer tenderness while thinking of his fate. These tears would put out for a while the gnawing fire of his passion. He assumed austerity like an armour and in his prudence he, as a matter of fact, looked very seldom at Arlette for fear of being caught in the act.
The discovery that she had taken to wandering at night had upset him all the same, because that sort of thing was unaccountable. It gave him a shock which unsettled, not his resolution, but his fortitude. That morning he had allowed himself, while she was waiting on him, to be caught looking at her and then, losing his self-control, had given her that kiss on the hand. Directly he had done it he was appalled. He had overstepped the line. Under the circumstances this was an absolute moral disaster. The full consciousness of it came to him slowly. In fact this moment of fatal weakness was one of the reasons why he had let himself be sent off so unceremoniously by Peyrol to Toulon. Even while crossing over he thought the only thing was not to come back any more. Yet while battling with himself he went on with the execution of the plan. A bitter irony presided over his dual state. Before leaving the Admiral who had received him in full uniform in a room lighted by a single candle, he was suddenly moved to say: “I suppose if there is no other way I am authorized to go myself,” and the Admiral had answered: “I didn't contemplate that, but if you are willing I don't see any objection. I would only advise you to go in uniform in the character of an officer entrusted with dispatches. No doubt in time the Government would arrange for your exchange. But bear in mind that it would be a long captivity, and you must understand it might affect your promotion.”
At the foot of the grand staircase in the lighted hall of the official building Réal suddenly thought: “And now I must go back to Escampobar.” Indeed he had to go to Escampobar because the false dispatches were there in the valise he had left behind. He couldn't go back to the Admiral and explain that he had lost them. They would look on him as an unutterable idiot or a man gone mad. While walking to the quay where the naval boat was waiting for him he said to himself. “This, in truth, is my last visit for years — perhaps for life.”
Going back in the boat, notwithstanding that the breeze was very light, he would not let the men take to the oars. He didn't want to return before the women had gone to bed. He said to himself that the proper and honest thing to do was not to see Arlette again. He even managed to persuade himself that his uncontrolled impulse had had no meaning for that witless and unhappy creature. She had neither started nor exclaimed; she had made no sign. She had remained passive and then she had backed away and sat down quietly. He could not even remember that she had coloured at all. As to himself, he had enough self-control to rise from the table and go out without looking at her again. Neither did she make a sign. What could startle that body without mind? She had made nothing of it, he thought with self-contempt. “Body without mind! Body without mind!” he repeated with angry derision directed at himself. And all at once he thought: “No. It isn't that. All in her is mystery, seduction, enchantment. And then — what do I care for her mind!”
This thought wrung from him a faint groan so that the coxswain asked respectfully: “Are you in pain, lieutenant?” “It's nothing,” he muttered and set his teeth with the desperation of a man under torture.
While talking with Peyrol outside the house, the words “I won't see her again,” and “body without mind” rang through his head. By the time he had left Peyrol and walked up the stairs his endurance was absolutely at an end. All he wanted was to be alone. Going along the dark, passage he noticed that the door of Catherine's room was standing ajar. But that did not arrest his attention. He was approaching a state of insensibility. As he put his hand on the door handle of his room he said to himself. “It will soon be over!”
He was so tired out that he was almost unable to hold up his head, and on going in he didn't see Arlette, who stood against the wall on one side of the window, out of the moonlight and in the darkest corner of the room. He only became aware of somebody's presence in the room as she flitted past him with the faintest possible rustle, when he staggered back two paces and heard behind him the key being turned in the lock. If the whole house had fallen into ruins, bringing him to the ground, lie could not have been more overwhelmed and, in a manner, more utterly bereft of all his senses. The first that came back to him was the sense of touch when Arlette seized his hand. He regained his hearing next. She was whispering to him: “At last. At last! But you are careless. If it had been Scevola instead of me in this room you would have been dead now. I have seen him at work.” He felt a significant pressure on his hand, but he couldn't see her properly yet, though he was aware of her nearness with every fibre of his body. “It wasn't yesterday though,” she added in a low tone. Then suddenly: “Come to the window so that I may look at you.”
A great square of moonlight lay on the floor. He obeyed the tug like a little child. She caught hold of his other hand as it hung by his side. He was rigid all over, without joints, and it did not seem to him that he was breathing. With her face a little below his she stared at him closely, whispering gently: “Eugène, Eugène,” and suddenly the livid immobility of his face frightened her. “You say nothing. You look ill. What is the matter? Are you hurt?” She let go his insensitive hands and began to feel him all over for evidence of some injury. She even snatched off his hat and flung it away in her haste to discover that his head was unharmed; but finding no sign of bodily damage, she calmed down like a sensible, practical person. With her hands clasped round his neck she hung back a little. Her little even teeth gleamed, her black eyes, immensely profound, looked into his, not with a transport of passion or fear but with a sort of reposeful satisfaction, with a searching and appropriating expression. He came back to life with a low and reckless exclamation, felt horribly insecure at once as if he were standing on a lofty pinnacle above a noise as of breaking waves in his cars, in fear lest her fingers should part and she would fall off and be lost to him for ever. He flung his arms round her waist and hugged her close to his breast. In the great silence, in the bright moonlight falling through the window, they stood like that for a long, long time. He looked at her head resting on his shoulder. Her eyes were closed and the expression of her unsmiling face was that of a delightful dream, something infinitely ethereal, peaceful and, as it were, eternal. Its appeal pierced his heart with a pointed sweetness. “She is exquisite. It's a miracle,” he thought with a snort of terror. “It's impossible.”
She made a movement to disengage herself, and instinctively he resisted, pressing her closer to his breast. She yielded for a moment and then tried again. He let her go. She stood at arm's length, her hands on his shoulders, and her charm struck him suddenly as funny in the seriousness of expression as of a very capable, practical woman.
“All this is very well,” she said in a businesslike undertone. “We will have to think how to get away from here. I don't mean now, this moment,” she added, feeling his slight start. “Scevola is thirsting for your blood.” She detached one hand to point a finger at the inner wall of the room, and lowered her voice. “He's there, you know. Don't trust Peyrol either. I was looking at you two out there. He has changed. I can trust him no longer.” Her murmur vibrated. “He and Catherine behave strangely. I don't know what came to them. He doesn't talk to me. When I sit down near him he turns his shoulder to me . . . .”
She felt Réal sway under her hands, paused in concern and said: “You are tired.” But as he didn't move, she actually led him to a chair, pushed him into it, and sat on the floor at his feet. She rested her head against his knees and kept possession of one of his hands. A sigh escaped her. “I knew this was going to be,” she said very low. “But I was taken by surprise.”
“Oh, you knew it was going to be,” he repeated faintly.
“Yes! I had prayed for it. Have you ever been prayed for, Eugène?” she asked, lingering on his name.
“Not since I was a child,” answered Réal in a sombre tone.
“Oh yes! You have been prayed for to-day. I went down to the church . . . .” Réal could hardly believe his ears. . . . The abbé let me in by the sacristy door. He told me to renounce the world. I was ready to renounce anything for you.” Réal, turning his face to the darkest part of the room, seemed to see the spectre of fatality awaiting its time to move forward and crush that calm, confident joy. He shook off the dreadful illusion, raised her hand to his lips for a lingering kiss, and then asked:
“So you knew that it was going to be? Everything? Yes! And of me, what did you think?”
She pressed strongly the hand to which she had been clinging all the time. “I thought this.”
“But what did you think of my conduct at times? You see, I did not know what was going to be. I . . . I was afraid,” he added under his breath.
“Conduct? What conduct? You came, you went. When you were not here I thought of you, and when you were here I could look my fill at you. I tell you I knew how it was going to be. I was not afraid then.”
“You went about with a little smile,” he whispered, as one would mention an inconceivable marvel.
“I was warm and quiet,” murmured Arlette, as if on the borders of dreamland. Tender murmurs flowed from her lips describing a state of blissful tranquillity in phrases that sounded like the veriest nonsense, incredible, convincing and soothing to Réal's conscience.
“You were perfect,” it went on. “Whenever you came near me everything seemed different.”
“What do you mean? How different?”
“Altogether. The light, the very stones of the house, the hills, the little flowers amongst the rocks! Even Nanette was different.”
Nanette was a white Angora with long silken hair, a pet that lived mostly in the yard.
“Oh, Nanette was different too,” said Réal, whom delight in the modulations of that voice had cut off from all reality, and even from a consciousness of himself, while he sat stooping over that head resting against his knee, the soft grip of her hand being his only contact with the world.
“Yes. Prettier. It's only the people. . . . She ceased on an uncertain note. The crested wave of enchantment seemed to have passed over his head ebbing out faster than the sea, leaving the dreary expanses of the sand. He felt a chill at the roots of his hair.
“What people?” he asked.
“They are so changed. Listen, to-night while you were away — why did you go away? — I caught those two in the kitchen, saying nothing to each other. That Peyrol — he is terrible.”
He was struck by the tone of awe, by its profound conviction. He could not know that Peyrol, unforeseen, unexpected, inexplicable, had given by his mere appearance at Escampobar a moral and even a physical jolt to all her being, that he was to her an immense figure, like a messenger from the unknown entering the solitude of Escampobar; something immensely strong, with inexhaustible power, unaffected by familiarity and remaining invincible.
“He will say nothing, he will listen to nothing. He can do what he likes.”
“Can he?” muttered Réal.
She sat up on the floor, moved her head up and down several times as if to say that there could be no doubt about that.
“Is he, too, thirsting for my blood?” asked Réal bitterly.
“No, no. It isn't that. You could defend yourself. I could watch over you. I have been watching over you. Only two nights ago I thought I heard noises outside and I went downstairs, fearing for you; your window was open but I could see nobody, and yet I felt. . . . No, it isn't that! It's worse. I don't know what he wants to do. I can't help being fond of him, but I begin to fear him now. When he first came here and I saw him he was just the same — only his hair was not so white — big, quiet. It seemed to me that something moved in my head. He was gentle, you know. I had to smile at him. It was as if I had recognized him. I said to myself. `That's he, the man himself.' ”
“And when I came?” asked Réal with a feeling of dismay.
“You! You were expected,” she said in a low tone with a slight tinge of surprise at the question, but still evidently thinking of the Peyrol mystery. “Yes, I caught them at it last evening, he and Catherine in the kitchen, looking at each other and as quiet as mice. I told him he couldn't order me about. Oh, mon chéri, mon chéri, don't you listen to Peyrol — don't let him. . .”
With only a slight touch on his knee she sprang to her feet. Réal stood up too.
“He can do nothing to me,” he mumbled.
`Don't tell him anything. Nobody can guess what he thinks, and now even I cannot tell what he means when he speaks. It was as if he knew a secret.” She put an accent into those words which made Réal feel moved almost to tears. He repeated that Peyrol could have no influence over him, and he felt that he was speaking the truth. He was in the power of his own word. Ever since he had left the Admiral in a gold-embroidered uniform, impatient to return to his guests, he was on a service for which he had volunteered. For a moment he had the sensation of an iron hoop very tight round his chest. She peered at his face closely, and it was more than he could bear.
“All right. I'll be careful,” he said. “And Catherine, is she also dangerous?”
In the sheen of the moonlight Arlette, her neck and head above the gleams of the fichu, visible and elusive, smiled at him and moved a step closer.
“Poor Aunt Catherine,” she said. . . . “Put your arm round me, Eugéne. . . . She can do nothing. She used to follow me with her eyes always. She thought I didn't notice, but I did. And now she seems unable to look me in the face. Peyrol too, for that matter. He used to follow me with his eyes. Often I wondered what made them look at me like that. Can you tell, Eugéne? But it's all changed now.”
“Yes, it is all changed,” said Réal in a tone which he tried to make as light as possible. “Does Catherine know you are here?”
“When we went upstairs this evening I lay down all dressed on my bed and she sat on hers. The candle was out, but in the moonlight I could see her quite plainly with her hands on her lap. When I could lie still no longer I simply got up and went out of the room. She was still sitting at the foot of her bed. All I did was to put my finger on my lips and then she dropped her head. I don't think I quite closed the door. . . . Hold me tighter, Eugène, I am tired. . . . Strange, you know! Formerly, a long time ago, before I ever saw you, I never rested and never felt tired.” She stopped her murmur suddenly and lifted a finger recommending silence. She listened and Réal listened too, he did not know for what; and in this sudden concentration on a point, all that had happened since he had entered the room seemed to him a dream in its improbability and in the more than life-like force dreams have in their inconsequence. Even the woman letting herself go on his arm seemed to have no weight as it might have happened in a dream.
“She is there,” breathed Arlette suddenly, rising on tiptoe to reach up to his ear. “She must have heard you go past.”
“Where is she?” asked Réal with the same intense secrecy.
“Outside the door. She must have been listening to the murmur of our voices . . . .” Arlette breathed into his ear as if relating an enormity. “She told me one day that I was one of those who are fit for no man's arms.”
At this he flung his other arm round her and looked into her enlarged as if frightened eyes, while she clasped him with all her strength and they stood like that a long time, lips pressed on lips without a kiss, and breathless in the closeness of their contact. To him the stillness seemed to extend to the limits of the universe. The thought “Am I going to die?” flashed through that stillness and lost itself in it like a spark flying in an everlasting night. The only result of it was the tightening of his hold on Arlette.
An aged and uncertain voice was heard uttering the word “Arlette.” Catherine, who had been listening to their murmurs, could not bear the long silence. They heard her trembling tones as distinctly as though she had been in the room. Réal felt as if it had saved his life. They separated silently.
“Go away,” called out Arlette.
“Arl ——— . . .”
“Be quiet,” she cried louder. “You can do nothing.”
“Arlette,” came through the door, tremulous and commanding.
“She will wake up Scevola,” remarked Arlette to Réal in a conversational tone. And they both waited for sounds that did not come. Arlette pointed her finger at the wall. “He is there, you know.”
“He is asleep,” muttered Réal. But the thought “I am lost” which he formulated in his mind had no reference to Scevola.
“He is afraid,” said Arlette contemptuously in an undertone. “But that means little. He would quake with fright one moment and rush out to do murder the next.”
Slowly, as if drawn by the irresistible authority of the old woman, they had been moving towards the door. Réal thought with the sudden enlightenment of passion: “If she does not go now I won't have the strength to part from her in the morning.” He had no image of death before his eyes but of a long and intolerable separation. A sigh verging upon a moan reached them from the other side of the door and made the air around them heavy with sorrow against which locks and keys will not avail.
“You had better go to her,” he whispered in a penetrating tone.
“Of course I will,” said Arlette with some feeling. “Poor old thing. She and I have only each other in the world, but I am the daughter here, she must do what I tell her.” With one of her hands on Réal's shoulder she put her mouth close to the door and said distinctly:
“I am coming directly. Go back to your room and wait for me,” as if she had no doubt of being obeyed.
A profound silence ensued. Perhaps Catherine had gone already. Réal and Arlette stood still for a whole minute as if both had been changed into stone.
“Go now,” said Réal in a hoarse, hardly audible voice.
She gave him a quick kiss on the lips and again they stood like a pair of enchanted lovers bewitched into immobility.
“If she stays on,” thought Réal, “I shall never have the courage to tear myself away, and then I shall have to blow my brains out.” But when at last she moved he seized her again and held her as if she had been his very life. When he let her go he was appalled by hearing a very faint laugh of her secret joy.
“Why do you laugh?” he asked in a scared tone.
She stopped to answer him over her shoulder.
“I laughed because I thought of all the days to come. Days and days and days. Have you thought of them?”
“Yes,” Réal faltered, like a man stabbed to the heart, holding the door half open. And he was glad to have something to hold on to.
She slipped out with a soft rustle of her silk skirt, but before he had time to close the door behind her she put back her arm for an instant. He had just time to press the palm of her hand to his lips. It was cool. She snatched it away and he had the strength of mind to shut the door after her. He felt like a man chained to the wall and dying of thirst, from whom a cold drink is snatched away. The room became dark suddenly. He thought, “A cloud over the moon, a cloud over the moon, an enormous cloud,” while he walked rigidly to the window, insecure and swaying as if on a tight rope. After a moment he perceived the moon in a sky on which there was no sign of the smallest cloud anywhere. He said to himself, “I suppose I nearly died just now. But no,” he went on thinking with deliberate cruelty, “Oh, no, I shall not die. I shall only suffer, suffer, suffer . . . .”
“Suffer, suffer.” Only by stumbling against the side of the bed did he discover that he had gone away from the window. At once he flung himself violently on the bed with his face buried in the pillow, which he bit to restrain the cry of distress about to burst through his lips. Natures schooled into insensibility when once overcome by a mastering passion are like vanquished giants ready for despair. He, a man on service, felt himself shrinking from death and that doubt contained in itself all possible doubts of his own fortitude. The only thing he knew was that he would be gone to-morrow morning. He shuddered along his whole extended length, then lay still gripping a handful of bedclothes in each hand to prevent himself from leaping up in panicky restlessness. He was saying to himself pedantically, “I must lie down and rest, I must rest to have strength for to-morrow, I must rest,” while the tremendous struggle to keep still broke out in waves of perspiration on his forehead. At last sudden oblivion must have descended on him because he turned over and sat up suddenly with the sound of the word “Ecoutez” in his ears.
A strange, dim, cold light filled the room; a light he did not recognize for anything he had known before, and at the foot of his bed stood a figure in dark garments with a dark shawl over its head, with a fleshless predatory face and dark hollows for its eyes, silent, expectant, implacable. . . . Is this death?” he asked himself, staring at it terrified. It resembled Catherine. It said again: “Ecoutez.” He took away his eyes from it and glancing down noticed that his clothes were torn open on his chest. He would not look up at that thing, whatever it was, spectre or old woman, and said:
“Yes, I hear you.”
“You are an honest man.” It was Catherine's unemotional voice. “The day has broken. You will go away.”
“Yes,” he said without raising his head.
“She is asleep,” went on Catherine or whoever it was, “exhausted, and you would have to shake her hard before she would wake. You will go. You know,” the voice continued inflexibly, “she is my niece, and you know that there is death in the folds of her skirt and blood about her feet. She is for no man.”
Réal felt all the anguish of an unearthly experience. This thing that looked like Catherine and spoke like a cruel fate had to be faced. He raised his head in this light that seemed to him appalling and not of this world.
“Listen well to me, you too,” he said. “If she had all the madness of the world and the sin of all the murders of the Revolution on her shoulders, I would still hug her to my breast. Do you understand?”
The apparition which resembled Catherine lowered and raised its hooded head slowly. “There was a time when I could have hugged l'enfer même to my breast. He went away. He had his vow. You have only your honesty. You will go.”
“I have my duty,” said Lieutenant Réal in measured tones, as if calmed by the excess of horror that old woman inspired him with.
“Go without disturbing her, without looking at her.”
“I will carry my shoes in my hand,” he said. He sighed deeply and felt as if sleepy. “It is very early,” he muttered.
“Peyrol is already down at the well,” announced Catherine. “What can he be doing there all this time?” she added in a troubled voice. Réal, with his feet now on the ground, gave her a side glance; but she was already gliding away, and when he looked again she had vanished from the room and the door was shut.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06