It was a great misfortune, that sojourn of the two families at Savigny for a month.
After an interval of two years Georges and Sidonie found themselves side by side once more on the old estate, too old not to be always like itself, where the stones, the ponds, the trees, always the same, seemed to cast derision upon all that changes and passes away. A renewal of intercourse under such circumstances must have been disastrous to two natures that were not of a very different stamp, and far more virtuous than those two.
As for Claire, she never had been so happy; Savigny never had seemed so lovely to her. What joy to walk with her child over the greensward where she herself had walked as a child; to sit, a young mother, upon the shaded seats from which her own mother had looked on at her childish games years before; to go, leaning on Georges’s arm, to seek out the nooks where they had played together. She felt a tranquil contentment, the overflowing happiness of placid lives which enjoy their bliss in silence; and all day long her skirts swept along the paths, guided by the tiny footsteps of the child, her cries and her demands upon her mother’s care.
Sidonie seldom took part in these maternal promenades. She said that the chatter of children tired her, and therein she agreed with old Gardinois, who seized upon any pretext to annoy his granddaughter. He believed that he accomplished that object by devoting himself exclusively to Sidonie, and arranging even more entertainments for her than on her former visit. The carriages that had been shut up in the carriage-house for two years, and were dusted once a week because the spiders spun their webs on the silk cushions, were placed at her disposal. The horses were harnessed three times a day, and the gate was continually turning on its hinges. Everybody in the house followed this impulse of worldliness. The gardener paid more attention to his flowers because Madame Risler selected the finest ones to wear in her hair at dinner. And then there were calls to be made. Luncheon parties were given, gatherings at which Madame Fromont Jeune presided, but at which Sidonie, with her lively manners, shone supreme. Indeed, Claire often left her a clear field. The child had its hours for sleeping and riding out, with which no amusements could interfere. The mother was compelled to remain away, and it often happened that she was unable to go with Sidonie to meet the partners when they came from Paris at night.
“You will make my excuses,” she would say, as the went up to her room.
Madame Risler was triumphant. A picture of elegant indolence, she would drive away behind the galloping horses, unconscious of the swiftness of their pace, without a thought in her mind.
Other carriages were always waiting at the station. Two or three times she heard some one near her whisper, “That is Madame Fromont Jeune,” and, indeed, it was a simple matter for people to make the mistake, seeing the three return together from the station, Sidonie sitting beside Georges on the back seat, laughing and talking with him, and Risler facing them, smiling contentedly with his broad hands spread flat upon his knees, but evidently feeling a little out of place in that fine carriage. The thought that she was taken for Madame Fromont made her very proud, and she became a little more accustomed to it every day. On their arrival at the chateau, the two families separated until dinner; but, in the presence of his wife sitting tranquilly beside the sleeping child, Georges Fromont, too young to be absorbed by the joys of domesticity, was continually thinking of the brilliant Sidonie, whose voice he could hear pouring forth triumphant roulades under the trees in the garden.
While the whole chateau was thus transformed in obedience to the whims of a young woman, old Gardinois continued to lead the narrow life of a discontented, idle, impotent ‘parvenu’. The most successful means of distraction he had discovered was espionage. The goings and comings of his servants, the remarks that were made about him in the kitchen, the basket of fruit and vegetables brought every morning from the kitchen-garden to the pantry, were objects of continual investigation.
For the purposes of this constant spying upon his household, he made use of a stone bench set in the gravel behind an enormous Paulownia. He would sit there whole days at a time, neither reading nor thinking, simply watching to see who went in or out. For the night he had invented something different. In the great vestibule at the main entrance, which opened upon the front steps with their array of bright flowers, he had caused an opening to be made leading to his bedroom on the floor above. An acoustic tube of an improved type was supposed to convey to his ears every sound on the ground floor, even to the conversation of the servants taking the air on the steps.
Unluckily, the instrument was so powerful that it exaggerated all the noises, confused them and prolonged them, and the powerful, regular ticking of a great clock, the cries of a paroquet kept in one of the lower rooms, the clucking of a hen in search of a lost kernel of corn, were all Monsieur Gardinois could hear when he applied his ear to the tube. As for voices, they reached him in the form of a confused buzzing, like the muttering of a crowd, in which it was impossible to distinguish anything. He had nothing to show for the expense of the apparatus, and he concealed his wonderful tube in a fold of his bed-curtains.
One night Gardinois, who had fallen asleep, was awakened suddenly by the creaking of a door. It was an extraordinary thing at that hour. The whole house hold was asleep. Nothing could be heard save the footsteps of the watch-dogs on the sand, or their scratching at the foot of a tree in which an owl was screeching. An excellent opportunity to use his listening-tube! Upon putting it to his ear, M. Gardinois was assured that he had made no mistake. The sounds continued. One door was opened, then another. The bolt of the front door was thrown back with an effort. But neither Pyramus nor Thisbe, not even Kiss, the formidable Newfoundland, had made a sign. He rose softly to see who those strange burglars could be, who were leaving the house instead of entering it; and this is what he saw through the slats of his blind:
A tall, slender young man, with Georges’s figure and carriage, arm-in-arm with a woman in a lace mantilla. They stopped first at the bench by the Paulownia, which was in full bloom.
It was a superb moonlight night. The moon, silvering the treetops, made numberless flakes of light amid the dense foliage. The terraces, white with moonbeams, where the Newfoundlands in their curly coats went to and fro, watching the night butterflies, the smooth, deep waters of the ponds, all shone with a mute, calm brilliance, as if reflected in a silver mirror. Here and there glow-worms twinkled on the edges of the greensward.
The two promenaders remained for a moment beneath the shade of the Paulownia, sitting silent on the bench, lost in the dense darkness which the moon makes where its rays do not reach. Suddenly they appeared in the bright light, wrapped in a languishing embrace; then walked slowly across the main avenue, and disappeared among the trees.
“I was sure of it!” said old Gardinois, recognizing them. Indeed, what need had he to recognize them? Did not the silence of the dogs, the aspect of the sleeping house, tell him more clearly than anything else could, what species of impudent crime, unknown and unpunished, haunted the avenues in his park by night? Be that as it may, the old peasant was overjoyed by his discovery. He returned to bed without a light, chuckling to himself, and in the little cabinet filled with hunting-implements, whence he had watched them, thinking at first that he had to do with burglars, the moon’s rays shone upon naught save the fowling-pieces hanging on the wall and the boxes of cartridges of all sizes.
Sidonie and Georges had taken up the thread of their love at the corner of the same avenue. The year that had passed, marked by hesitation, by vague struggles, by fruitless resistance, seemed to have been only a preparation for their meeting. And it must be said that, when once the fatal step was taken, they were surprised at nothing so much as the fact that they had postponed it so long. Georges Fromont especially was seized by a mad passion. He was false to his wife, his best friend; he was false to Risler, his partner, the faithful companion of his every hour.
He felt a constant renewal, a sort of overflow of remorse, wherein his passion was intensified by the magnitude of his sin. Sidonie became his one engrossing thought, and he discovered that until then he had not lived. As for her, her love was made up of vanity and spite. The thing that she relished above all else was Claire’s degradation in her eyes. Ah! if she could only have said to her, “Your husband loves me — he is false to you with me,” her pleasure would have been even greater. As for Risler, in her view he richly deserved what had happened to him. In her old apprentice’s jargon, in which she still thought, even if she did not speak it, the poor man was only “an old fool,” whom she had taken as a stepping-stone to fortune. “An old fool” is made to be deceived!
During the day Savigny belonged to Claire, to the child who ran about upon the gravel, laughing at the birds and the clouds, and who grew apace. The mother and child had for their own the daylight, the paths filled with sunbeams. But the blue nights were given over to sin, to that sin firmly installed in the chateau, which spoke in undertones, crept noiselessly behind the closed blinds, and in face of which the sleeping house became dumb and blind, and resumed its stony impassibility, as if it were ashamed to see and hear.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:49