For a week or two nothing occurred at the Rolands’. The father went fishing; Jean, with his mother’s help, was furnishing and settling himself; Pierre, very gloomy, never was seen excepting at mealtimes.
His father having asked him one evening:
“Why the deuce do you always come in with a face as cheerful as a funeral? This is not the first time I have remarked it” — the doctor replied:
“The fact is I am terribly conscious of the burden of life.”
The old man had not a notion what he meant, and with an aggrieved look he went on: “It really is too bad. Ever since we had the good luck to come into this legacy, every one seems unhappy. It is as though some accident had befallen us, as if we were in mourning for some one.”
“I am in mourning for some one,” said Pierre.
“You are? For whom?”
“For some one you never knew, and of whom I was too fond.”
Roland imagined that his son alluded to some girl with whom he had had some love passages, and he said:
“A woman, I suppose.”
“Yes, a woman.”
“No. Worse. Ruined!”
Though he was startled by this unexpected confidence, in his wife’s presence too, and by his son’s strange tone about it, the old man made no further inquiries, for in his opinion such affairs did not concern a third person.
Mme. Roland affected not to hear; she seemed ill and was very pale. Several times already her husband, surprised to see her sit down as if she were dropping into her chair, and to hear her gasp as if she could not draw her breath, had said:
“Really, Louise, you look very ill; you tire yourself too much with helping Jean. Give yourself a little rest. Sacristi! The rascal is in no hurry, as he is a rich man.”
She shook her head without a word.
But today her pallor was so great that Roland remarked on it again.
“Come, come,” said he, “this will not do at all, my dear old woman. You must take care of yourself.” Then, addressing his son, “You surely must see that your mother is ill. Have you questioned her, at any rate?”
Pierre replied: “No; I had not noticed that there was anything the matter with her.”
At this Roland was angry.
“But it stares you in the face, confound you! What on earth is the good of your being a doctor if you cannot even see that your mother is out of sorts? Why, look at her, just look at her. Really, a man might die under his very eyes and this doctor would never think there was anything the matter!”
Mme. Roland was panting for breath, and so white that her husband exclaimed:
“She is going to faint.”
“No, no, it is nothing — I shall get better directly — it is nothing.”
Pierre had gone up to her and was looking at her steadily.
“What ails you?” he said. And she repeated in an undertone:
“Nothing, nothing — I assure you, nothing.”
Roland had gone to fetch some vinegar; he now returned and handing the bottle to his son he said:
“Here — do something to ease her. Have you felt her heart?”
As Pierre bent over to feel her pulse she pulled away her hand so vehemently that she struck it against a chair which was standing by.
“Come,” said he in icy tones, “let me see what I can do for you, as you are ill.”
Then she raised her arm and held it out to him. Her skin was burning, the blood throbbing in short irregular leaps.
“You are certainly ill,” he murmured. “You must take something to quiet you. I will write you a prescription.” And as he wrote, stooping over the paper, a low sound of choked sighs, smothered, quick breathing and suppressed sobs made him suddenly look round at her. She was weeping, her hands covering her face.
Roland, quite distracted, asked her:
“Louise, Louise, what is the matter with you? What on earth ails you?”
She did not answer, but seemed racked by some deep and dreadful grief. Her husband tried to take her hands from her face, but she resisted him, repeating:
“No, no, no.”
He appealed to his son.
“But what is the matter with her? I never saw her like this.”
“It is nothing,” said Pierre, “she is a little hysterical.”
And he felt as if it were a comfort to him to see her suffering thus, as if this anguish mitigated his resentment and diminished his mother’s load of opprobrium. He looked at her as a judge satisfied with his day’s work.
Suddenly she rose, rushed to the door with such a swift impulse that it was impossible to forestall or to stop her, and ran off to lock herself into her room.
Roland and the doctor were left face to face.
“Can you make head or tail of it?” said the father.
“Oh, yes,” said the other. “It is a little nervous disturbance, not alarming or surprising; such attacks may very likely recur from time to time.”
They did in fact recur, almost every day; and Pierre seemed to bring them on with a word, as if he had the clue to her strange and new disorder. He would discern in her face a lucid interval of peace and with the willingness of a torturer would, with a word, revive the anguish that had been lulled for a moment.
But he, too, was suffering, as cruelly as she. It was dreadful pain to him that he could no longer love her nor respect her, that he must put her on the rack. When he had laid bare the bleeding wound which he had opened in her woman’s, her mother’s heart, when he felt how wretched and desperate she was, he would go out alone, wander about the town, so torn by remorse, so broken by pity, so grieved to have thus hammered her with his scorn as her son, that he longed to fling himself into the sea and put an end to it all by drowning himself.
Ah! How gladly, now, would he have forgiven her. But he could not, for he was incapable of forgetting. If only he could have desisted from making her suffer; but this again he could not, suffering as he did himself. He went home to his meals, full of relenting resolutions; then, as soon as he saw her, as soon as he met her eye — formerly so clear and frank, now so evasive, frightened, and bewildered — he struck at her in spite of himself, unable to suppress the treacherous words which would rise to his lips.
The disgraceful secret, known to them alone, goaded him up against her. It was as a poison flowing in his veins and giving him an impulse to bite like a mad dog.
And there was no one in the way now to hinder his reading her; Jean lived almost entirely in his new apartments, and only came home to dinner and to sleep every night at his father’s.
He frequently observed his brother’s bitterness and violence, and attributed them to jealousy. He promised himself that some day he would teach him his place and give him a lesson, for life at home was becoming very painful as a result of these constant scenes. But as he now lived apart he suffered less from this brutal conduct, and his love of peace prompted him to patience. His good fortune, too, had turned his head, and he scarcely paused to think of anything which had no direct interest for himself. He would come in full of fresh little anxieties, full of the cut of a morning-coat, of the shape of a felt hat, of the proper size for his visiting-cards. And he talked incessantly of all the details of his house — the shelves fixed in his bedroom cupboard to keep linen on, the pegs to be put up in the entrance hall, the electric bells contrived to prevent illicit visitors to his lodgings.
It had been settled that on the day when he should take up his abode there they should make an excursion to Saint Jouin, and return after dining there, to drink tea in his rooms. Roland wanted to go by water, but the distance and the uncertainty of reaching it in a sailing-boat if there should be a head-wind, made them reject his plan, and a break was hired for the day.
They started by ten to get there to breakfast. The dusty high road lay across the plain of Normandy, which, by its gentle undulations, dotted with farms embowered in trees, wears the aspect of an endless park. In the vehicle, as it jogged on at the slow trot of a pair of heavy horses, sat the four Rolands, Mme. Rosémilly, and Captain Beausire, all silent, deafened by the rumble of the wheels, and with their eyes shut to keep out the clouds of dust.
It was harvest-time. Alternating with the dark hue of clover and the raw green of beetroot, the yellow corn lighted up the landscape with gleams of pale gold; the fields looked as if they had drunk in the sunshine which poured down on them. Here and there the reapers were at work, and in the plots where the scythe had been put in the men might be seen see-sawing as they swept the level soil with the broad, wing-shaped blade.
After a two-hours’ drive the break turned off to the left, past a windmill at work — a melancholy, gray wreck, half rotten and doomed, the last survivor of its ancient race; then it went into a pretty inn yard, and drew up at the door of a smart little house, a hostelry famous in those parts.
The mistress, well known as “La belle Alphonsine,” came smiling to the threshold, and held out her hand to the two ladies who hesitated to take the high step.
Some strangers were already at breakfast under a tent by a grass plot shaded by apple trees — Parisians, who had come from Etretat; and from the house came sounds of voices, laughter, and the clatter of plates and pans.
They were eating in a room, as the outer dining halls were all full. Roland suddenly caught sight of some shrimping nets hanging against the wall.
“Ah! ha!” cried he, “you catch prawns here?”
“Yes,” replied Beausire. “Indeed it is the place on all the coast where most are taken.”
“First rate! Suppose we try to catch some after breakfast.”
As it happened it would be low tide at three o’clock, so it was settled that they should all spend the afternoon among the rocks, hunting prawns.
They made a light breakfast, as a precaution against the tendency of blood to the head when they should have their feet in the water. They also wished to reserve an appetite for dinner, which had been ordered on a grand scale and to be ready at six o’clock, when they came in.
Roland could not sit still for impatience. He wanted to buy the nets specially constructed for fishing prawns, not unlike those used for catching butterflies in the country. Their name on the French coast is lanets; they are netted bags on a circular wooden frame, at the end of a long pole. Alphonsine, still smiling, was happy to lend them. Then she helped the two ladies to make an impromptu change of toilet, so as not to spoil their dresses. She offered them skirts, coarse worsted stockings and hemp shoes. The men took off their socks and went to the shoemaker’s to buy wooden shoes instead.
Then they set out, the nets over their shoulders and creels on their backs. Mme. Rosémilly was quite sweet in this costume, with an unexpected charm of countrified audacity. The skirt which Alphonsine had lent her, coquettishly tucked up and firmly stitched so as to allow of her running and jumping fearlessly on the rocks, displayed her ankle and lower calf — the firm calf of a strong and agile little woman. Her dress was loose to give freedom to her movements, and to cover her head she had found an enormous garden hat of coarse yellow straw with an extravagantly broad brim; and to this, a bunch of tamarisk pinned in to cock it on one side, gave a very dashing and military effect.
Jean, since he had come into his fortune, had asked himself every day whether or no he should marry her. Each time he saw her he made up his mind to ask her to be his wife, and then, as soon as he was alone again, he considered that by waiting he would have time to reflect. She was now less rich than he, for she had but twelve thousand francs a year; but it was in real estate, in farms and lands near the docks in Havre; and this by-and-by might be worth a great deal. Their fortunes were thus approximately equal, and certainly the young widow attracted him greatly.
As he watched her walking in front of him that day he said to himself:
“I must really decide; I cannot do better, I am sure.”
They went down a little ravine, sloping from the village to the cliff, and the cliff, at the end of this comb, rose about eighty meters above the sea. Framed between the green slopes to the right and left, a great triangle of silvery blue water could be seen in the distance, and a sail, scarcely visible, looked like an insect out there. The sky, pale with light, was so merged into one with the water that it was impossible to see where one ended and the other began; and the two women, walking in front of the men, stood out against this bright background, their shapes clearly defined in their closely-fitting dresses.
Jean, with a sparkle in his eye, watched the smart ankle, the neat leg, the supple waist, and the coquettish broad hat of Mme. Rosémilly as they fled away before him. And this flight fired his ardor, urging him on to the sudden determination which comes to hesitating and timid natures. The warm air, fragrant with seacoast odors — gorse, clover and thyme, mingling with the salt smell of the rocks at low tide — excited him still more, mounting to his brain; and every moment he felt a little more determined, at every step, at every glance he cast at the alert figure; he made up his mind to delay no longer, to tell her that he loved her and hoped to marry her. The prawn-fishing would favor him by affording him an opportunity; and it would be a pretty scene too, a pretty spot for love-making — their feet in a pool of limpid water while they watched the long feelers of the shrimps lurking under the wrack.
When they had reached the end of the comb and the edge of cliff, they saw a little footpath slanting down the face of it; and below them, about half-way between the sea and the foot of the precipice, an amazing chaos of enormous boulders tumbled over and piled one above the other on a sort of grassy and undulating plain which extended as far as they could see to the southward, formed by an ancient landslip. On this long shelf of brushwood and grass, disrupted, as it seemed, by the shocks of a volcano, the fallen rocks seemed the wreck of a great ruined city which had once looked out on the ocean, sheltered by the long white wall of the overhanging cliff.
“That is fine!” exclaimed Mme. Rosémilly, standing still. Jean had come up with her, and with a beating heart offered his hand to help her down the narrow steps cut in the rock.
They went on in front, while Beausire, squaring himself on his little legs, gave his arm to Mme. Roland, who felt giddy at the gulf before her.
The two young people who led the way, went fast till on a sudden they saw, by the side of a wooden bench which afforded a resting place about half-way down the slope, a thread of clear water, springing from a crevice in the cliff. It fell into a hollow as large as a washing basin which it had worn in the stone; then, falling in a cascade, hardly two feet high, it trickled across the footpath, which it had carpeted with cresses, and was lost among the briars and grass on the raised shelf where the boulders were piled.
“Oh, I am so thirsty!” cried Mme. Rosémilly.
But how could she drink? She tried to catch the water in her hand, but it slipped away between her fingers. Jean had an idea; he placed a stone on the path and on this she knelt down to put her lips to the spring itself, which was thus on the same level.
When she raised her head, covered with myriads of tiny drops, sprinkled all over her face, her hair, her eyelashes, and her dress, Jean bent over her and murmured: “How pretty you look!”
She answered in the tone in which she might have scolded a child:
“Will you be quiet!”
These were the first words of flirtation they had ever exchanged.
“Come,” said Jean, much agitated. “Let us go on before they come up with us.”
For in fact they could see quite near them now, Captain Beausire’s back as he came down, stern foremost, so as to give both hands to Mme. Roland; and further up, further off, Roland still letting himself slip, lowering himself on his hams and clinging on with both his hand and elbows at the speed of a tortoise, Pierre keeping in front of him to watch his movements.
The path, now less steep, was here almost a road, zigzagging between the huge rocks which had at some former time rolled from the hilltop. Mme. Rosémilly and Jean set off at a run and they were soon on the beach. They crossed it and reached the rocks, which stretched in a long and flat expanse covered with seaweed, and broken by endless gleaming pools. The ebbed waters lay beyond, very far away, across this plain of slimy weed, of a black and shining olive-green.
Jean rolled up his trousers above his calf, and his sleeves to his elbows, that he might get wet without caring; then saying: “Forward!” he leaped boldly into the first tidepool they came to.
The lady, more cautious, though fully intending to go in too, presently, made her way round the little pond, stepping timidly, for she slipped on the grassy weed.
“Do you see anything?” she asked.
“Yes, I see your face reflected in the water.”
“If that is all you see, you will not have good fishing.”
He murmured tenderly in reply:
“Of all fishing it is that I should like best to succeed in.”
She laughed: “Try; you will see how it will slip through your net.”
“But yet — if you will?”
“I will see you catch prawns — and nothing else — for the moment.”
“You are cruel — let us go a little further; there are none here.”
He gave her his hand to steady her on the slippery rocks. She leaned on him rather timidly, and he suddenly felt himself overpowered by love and insurgent with passion, as if the fever that had been incubating in him had waited till today to declare its presence.
They soon came to a deeper rift, in which long slender weeds, fantastically tinted, like floating green and rose-colored hair, were swaying under the quivering water as it trickled off to the distant sea through some invisible crevice.
Mme. Rosémilly cried out: “Look, look, I see one, a big one. A very big one, just there!” He saw it too, and stepped boldly into the pool though he got wet up to the waist. But the creature, waving its long whiskers, gently retired in front of the net. Jean drove it toward the seaweed, making sure of his prey. When it found itself blockaded it rose with a dart over the net, shot across the mere, and was gone. The young woman, who was watching the chase in great excitement, could not help exclaiming: “Oh! Clumsy!”
He was vexed, and without a moment’s thought dragged his net over a hole full of weed. As he brought it to the surface again he saw in it three large transparent prawns, caught blindfold in their hiding place.
He offered them in triumph to Mme. Rosémilly, who was afraid to touch them, for fear of the sharp, serrated crest which arms their heads. However, she made up her mind to it, and taking them up by the tips of their long whiskers she dropped them one by one into her creel, with a little seaweed to keep them alive. Then, having found a shallower pool of water, she stepped in with some hesitation, for the cold plunge of her feet took her breath away, and began to fish on her own account. She was dextrous and artful, with the light hand and the hunter’s instinct, which are indispensable. At almost every dip she caught up some prawns, beguiled and surprised by her ingeniously gentle pursuit.
Jean now caught nothing; but he followed her, step by step, touched her now and again, bent over her, pretended great distress at his own awkwardness, and besought her to teach him.
“Show me,” he kept saying. “Show me how.”
And then, as their two faces were reflected side by side in water so clear that the black weeds at the bottom made a mirror, Jean smiled at the face which looked up at him from the depth, and now and then from his finger tips blew it a kiss which seemed to light upon it.
“Oh! how tiresome you are!” she exclaimed. “My dear fellow, you should never do two things at once.”
He replied: “I am only doing one — loving you.”
She drew herself up and said gravely:
“What has come over you these ten minutes; have you lost your wits?”
“No, I have not lost my wits. I love you, and at last I dare to tell you so.”
They were at this moment both standing in the salt pool wet half-way up to their knees and with dripping hands, holding their nets. They looked into each other’s eyes.
She went on in a tone of amused annoyance.
“How very ill-advised to tell me so here and now. Could you not wait till another day instead of spoiling my fishing?”
“Forgive me,” he murmured, “but I could not longer hold my peace. I have loved you a long time. To-day you have intoxicated me and I lost my reason.”
Then suddenly she seemed to have resigned herself to talk business and think no more of pleasure.
“Let us sit down on that stone,” said she, “we can talk more comfortably.” They scrambled up a rather high boulder, and when they had settled themselves side by side in the bright sunshine, she began again:
“My good friend, you are no longer a child, and I am not a young girl. We both know perfectly well what we are about and we can weigh the consequences of our actions. If you have made up your mind to make love to me today I must naturally infer that you wish to marry me.”
He was not prepared for this matter-of-fact statement of the case, and he answered blandly:
“Have you mentioned it to your father and mother?”
“No; I wanted to know first whether you would accept me.”
She held out her hand, which was still wet, and as he eagerly clasped it:
“I am ready and willing,” she said. “I believe you to be kind and true-hearted. But remember, I should not like to displease your parents.”
“Oh, do you think that my mother has never foreseen it, or that she would be as fond of you as she is if she did not hope that you and I should marry?”
“That is true. I am a little disturbed.”
They said no more. He, for his part, was amazed at her being so little disturbed, so rational. He had expected pretty little flirting ways, refusals which meant yes, a whole coquettish comedy of love chequered by prawn-fishing in the splashing water. And it was all over; he was pledged, married with twenty words. They had no more to say about it since they were agreed, and they now sat, both somewhat embarrassed by what had so swiftly passed between them; a little perplexed, indeed, not daring to speak, not daring to fish, not knowing what to do.
Roland’s voice rescued them.
“This way, this way, children. Come and watch Beausire. The fellow is positively clearing out the sea!”
The captain had, in fact, had a wonderful haul. Wet above his hips, he waded from pool to pool, recognizing the likeliest spots at a glance, and searching all the hollows hidden under seaweed, with a steady slow sweep of his net. And the beautiful transparent, sandy-gray prawns skipped in his palm as he picked them out of the net with a dry jerk and put them into his creel. Mme. Rosémilly, surprised and delighted, remained at his side, almost forgetful of her promise to Jean, who followed them in a dream, giving herself up entirely to the childish enjoyment of pulling the creatures out from among the waving seagrasses.
Roland suddenly exclaimed:
“Ah, here comes Mme. Roland to join us.”
She had remained at first on the beach with Pierre, for they had neither of them any wish to play at running about among the rocks and paddling in the tide-pools; and yet they had felt doubtful about staying together. She was afraid of him, and her son was afraid of her and of himself; afraid of his own cruelty, which he could not control. But they sat down side by side on the stones. And both of them, under the heat of the sun, mitigated by the sea breeze, gazing at the wide, fair horizon of blue water streaked and shot with silver, thought as if in unison: “How delightful this would have been — once.”
She did not venture to speak to Pierre, knowing that he would return some hard answer; and he dared not address his mother, knowing that in spite of himself he should speak violently. He sat twitching the water-worn pebbles with the end of his cane, switching them and turning them over. She, with a vague look in her eyes, had picked up three or four little stones and was slowly and mechanically dropping them from one hand into the other. Then her unsettled gaze, wandering over the scene before her, discerned, among the weedy rocks, her son Jean fishing with Mme. Rosémilly. She looked at them, watching their movements, dimly understanding, with motherly instinct, that they were talking as they did not talk every day. She saw them leaning over side by side when they looked into the water, standing face to face when they questioned their hearts, then scrambled up the rock and seated themselves to come to an understanding. Their figures stood out very sharply, looking as if they were alone in the middle of the wide horizon, and assuming a sort of symbolic dignity in that vast expanse of sky and sea and cliff.
Pierre, too, was looking at them, and a harsh laugh suddenly broke from his lips. Without turning to him Mme. Roland said:
“What is it?”
He spoke with a sneer.
“I am learning. Learning how a man lays himself out to be cozened by his wife.”
She flushed with rage, exasperated by the insinuation she believed was intended.
“In whose name do you say that?”
“In Jean’s, by heaven! It is immensely funny to see those two.”
She murmured in a low voice, tremulous with feeling: “O Pierre, how cruel you are. That woman is honesty itself. Your brother could not find a better.”
He laughed aloud, a hard, satirical laugh:
“Ha! hah! hah! Honesty itself! All wives are honesty itself, — and all husbands are — betrayed.” And he shouted with laughter.
She made no reply, but rose, hastily went down the sloping beach, and at the risk of tumbling into one of the rifts hidden by the seaweed, of breaking a leg or an arm, she hastened, almost running, plunging through the pools without looking, straight to her other son.
Seeing her approach, Jean called out:
“Well, mother? So you have made the effort?”
Without a word she seized him by the arm, as if to say: “Save me, protect me!”
He saw her agitation, and greatly surprised he said:
“How pale you are; what is the matter?”
She stammered out:
“I was nearly falling; I was frightened at the rocks.”
So then Jean guided her, supported her, explained the sport to her that she might take an interest in it. But as she scarcely heeded him, and as he was bursting with the desire to confide in some one, he led her away and in a low voice said to her:
“Guess what I have done!”
“But — what — I don’t know.”
“I cannot. I don’t know.”
“Well, I have told Mme. Rosémilly that I wish to marry her.”
She did not answer, for her brain was buzzing, her mind in such distress that she could scarcely take it in. She echoed: “Marry her?”
“Yes. Have I done well? She is charming, do not you think?”
“Yes, charming. You have done very well.”
“Then you approve?”
“Yes, I approve.”
“But how strangely you say so. I could fancy that — that you were not glad.”
“Yes, indeed, I am — very glad.”
“Really and truly?”
“Really and truly.”
And to prove it she threw her arms round him and kissed him heartily with warm motherly kisses. Then, when she had wiped her eyes, which were full of tears, she observed upon the beach a man lying flat at full length like a dead body, his face hidden against the stones; it was the other one, Pierre, sunk in thought and desperation.
At this she led her little Jean further away, quite to the edge of the waves, and there they talked for a long time of this marriage on which he had set his heart.
The rising tide drove them back to rejoin the fishers, and then they all made their way to the shore. They roused Pierre, who pretended to be sleeping; and then came a long dinner washed down with many kinds of wine.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58