The baron, one morning, entered Jeanne’s room before she was up, and sitting down at the foot of her bed, said:
“M. le Vicomte de Lamare has asked us for your hand in marriage.”
She wanted to hide her face under the sheets.
Her father continued:
“We have postponed our answer for the present.”
She gasped, choking with emotion. At the end of a minute the baron, smiling, added:
“We did not wish to do anything without consulting you. Your mother and I are not opposed to this marriage, but we would not seek to influence you. You are much richer than he is; but, when it is a question of the happiness of a life, one should not think too much about money. He has no relations left. If you marry him, then, it would be as if a son should come into our family; if it were anyone else, it would be you, our daughter, who would go among strangers. The young fellow pleases us. Would he please you?”
She stammered, blushing up to the roots of her hair:
“I am willing, papa.”
And the father, looking into her eyes and still smiling, murmured:
“I half suspected it, young lady.”
She lived till evening in a condition of exhilaration, not knowing what she was doing, mechanically thinking of one thing by mistake for another, and with a feeling of weariness, although she had not walked at all.
Toward six o’clock, as she was sitting with her mother under the plane tree, the vicomte appeared.
Jeanne’s heart began to throb wildly. The young man approached them apparently without any emotion. When he was close beside them, he took the baroness’ hand and kissed her fingers, then raising to his lips the trembling hand of the young girl, he imprinted upon it a long, tender and grateful kiss.
And the radiant season of betrothal commenced. They would chat together alone in the corner of the parlor, or else seated on the moss at the end of the wood overlooking the plain. Sometimes they walked in Little Mother’s Avenue; he, talking of the future, she, with her eyes cast down, looking at the dusty footprints of the baroness.
Once the matter was decided, they desired to waste no time in preliminaries. It was, therefore, decided that the ceremony should take place in six weeks, on the fifteenth of August; and that the bride and groom should set out immediately on their wedding journey. Jeanne, on being consulted as to which country she would like to visit, decided on Corsica where they could be more alone than in the cities of Italy.
They awaited the moment appointed for their marriage without too great impatience, but enfolded, lost in a delicious affection, expressed in the exquisite charm of insignificant caresses, pressure of hands, long passionate glances in which their souls seemed to blend; and, vaguely tortured by an uncertain longing for they knew not what.
They decided to invite no one to the wedding except Aunt Lison, the baron’s sister, who boarded in a convent at Versailles. After the death of their father, the baroness wished to keep her sister with her. But the old maid, possessed by the idea that she was in every one’s way, was useless, and a nuisance, retired into one of those religious houses that rent apartments to people that live a sad and lonely existence. She came from time to time to pass a month or two with her family.
She was a little woman of few words, who always kept in the background, appeared only at mealtimes, and then retired to her room where she remained shut in.
She looked like a kind old lady, though she was only forty-two, and had a sad, gentle expression. She was never made much of by her family as a child, being neither pretty nor boisterous, she was never petted, and she would stay quietly and gently in a corner. She had been neglected ever since. As a young girl nobody paid any attention to her. She was something like a shadow, or a familiar object, a living piece of furniture that one is accustomed to see every day, but about which one does not trouble oneself.
Her sister, from long habit, looked upon her as a failure, an altogether insignificant being. They treated her with careless familiarity which concealed a sort of contemptuous kindness. She called herself Lise, and seemed embarrassed at this frivolous youthful name. When they saw that she probably would not marry, they changed it from Lise to Lison, and since Jeanne’s birth, she had become “Aunt Lison,” a poor relation, very neat, frightfully timid, even with her sister and her brother-in-law, who loved her, but with an uncertain affection verging on indifference, with an unconscious compassion and a natural benevolence.
Sometimes, when the baroness talked of far away things that happened in her youth, she would say, in order to fix a date: “It was the time that Lison had that attack.”
They never said more than that; and this “attack” remained shrouded, as in a mist.
One evening, Lise, who was then twenty, had thrown herself into the water, no one knew why. Nothing in her life, her manner, gave any intimation of this seizure. They fished her out half dead, and her parents, raising their hands in horror, instead of seeking the mysterious cause of this action, had contented themselves with calling it “that attack,” as if they were talking of the accident that happened to the horse “Coco,” who had broken his leg a short time before in a ditch, and whom they had been obliged to kill.
From that time Lise, presently Lison, was considered feeble-minded. The gentle contempt which she inspired in her relations gradually made its way into the minds of all those who surrounded her. Little Jeanne herself, with the natural instinct of children, took no notice of her, never went up to kiss her good-night, never went into her room. Good Rosalie, alone, who gave the room all the necessary attention, seemed to know where it was situated.
When Aunt Lison entered the dining-room for breakfast, the little one would go up to her from habit and hold up her forehead to be kissed; that was all.
If anyone wished to speak to her, they sent a servant to call her, and if she was not there, they did not bother about her, never thought of her, never thought of troubling themselves so much as to say: “Why, I have not seen Aunt Lison this morning!”
When they said “Aunt Lison,” these two words awakened no feeling of affection in anyone’s mind. It was as if one had said: “The coffee pot, or the sugar bowl.”
She always walked with little, quick, silent steps, never made a noise, never knocking up against anything; and seemed to communicate to surrounding objects the faculty of not making any sound. Her hands seemed to be made of a kind of wadding, she handled everything so lightly and delicately.
She arrived about the middle of July, all upset at the idea of this marriage. She brought a quantity of presents which, as they came from her, remained almost unnoticed. On the following day they had forgotten she was there at all.
But an unusual emotion was seething in her mind, and she never took her eyes off the engaged couple. She interested herself in Jeanne’s trousseau with a singular eagerness, a feverish activity, working like a simple seamstress in her room, where no one came to visit her.
She was continually presenting the baroness with handkerchiefs she had hemmed herself, towels on which she had embroidered a monogram, saying as she did so: “Is that all right, Adelaide?” And little mother, as she carelessly examined the objects, would reply: “Do not give yourself so much trouble, my poor Lison.”
One evening, toward the end of the month, after an oppressively warm day, the moon rose on one of those clear, mild nights which seem to move, stir and affect one, apparently awakening all the secret poetry of one’s soul. The gentle breath of the fields was wafted into the quiet drawing-room. The baroness and her husband were playing cards by the light of a lamp, and Aunt Lison was sitting beside them knitting; while the young people, leaning on the window sill, were gazing out at the moonlit garden.
The linden and the plane tree cast their shadows on the lawn which extended beyond it in the moonlight, as far as the dark wood. Attracted by the tender charm of the night, and by this misty illumination that lighted up the trees and the bushes, Jeanne turned toward her parents and said: “Little father, we are going to take a short stroll on the grass in front of the house.”
The baron replied, without looking up: “Go, my children,” and continued his game.
They went out and began to walk slowly along the moonlit lawn as far as the little wood at the end. The hour grew late and they did not think of going in. The baroness grew tired, and wishing to retire, she said:
“We must call the lovers in.”
The baron cast a glance across the spacious garden where the two forms were wandering slowly.
“Let them alone,” he said; “it is so delicious outside! Lison will wait for them, will you not, Lison?”
The old maid raised her troubled eyes and replied in her timid voice:
“Certainly, I will wait for them.”
Little father gave his hand to the baroness, weary himself from the heat of the day.
“I am going to bed, too,” he said, and went up with his wife.
Then Aunt Lison rose in her turn, and leaving on the arm of the chair her canvas with the wool and the knitting needles, she went over and leaned on the window sill and gazed out at the night.
The two lovers kept on walking back and forth between the house and the wood. They squeezed each other’s fingers without speaking, as though they had left their bodies and formed part of this visible poetry that exhaled from the earth.
All at once Jeanne perceived, framed in the window, the silhouette of the aunt, outlined by the light of the lamp behind her.
“See,” she said, “there is Aunt Lison looking at us.”
The vicomte raised his head, and said in an indifferent tone without thinking:
“Yes, Aunt Lison is looking at us.”
And they continued to dream, to walk slowly, and to love each other. But the dew was falling fast, and the dampness made them shiver a little.
“Let us go in now,” said Jeanne. And they went into the house.
When they entered the drawing-room, Aunt Lison had gone back to her work. Her head was bent over her work, and her fingers were trembling as if she were very tired.
“It is time to go to bed, aunt,” said Jeanne, approaching her.
Her aunt turned her head, and her eyes were red as if she had been crying. The young people did not notice it; but suddenly M. de Lamare perceived that Jeanne’s thin shoes were covered with dew. He was worried, and asked tenderly:
“Are not your dear little feet cold?”
All at once the old lady’s hands shook so violently that she let fall her knitting, and hiding her face in her hands, she began to sob convulsively.
The engaged couple looked at her in amazement, without moving. Suddenly Jeanne fell on her knees, and taking her aunt’s hands away from her face, said in perplexity:
“Why, what is the matter, Aunt Lison?”
Then the poor woman, her voice full of tears, and her whole body shaking with sorrow, replied:
“It was when he asked you — are not your — your — dear little feet cold? — no one ever said such things to me — to me — never — never ——”
Jeanne, surprised and compassionate, could still hardly help laughing at the idea of an admirer showing tender solicitude for Lison; and the vicomte had turned away to conceal his mirth.
But the aunt suddenly rose, laying her ball of wool on the floor and her knitting in the chair, and fled to her room, feeling her way up the dark staircase.
Left alone, the young people looked at one another, amused and saddened. Jeanne murmured:
“Poor aunt!” Julien replied. “She must be a little crazy this evening.”
They held each other’s hands and presently, gently, very gently, they exchanged their first kiss, and by the following day had forgotten all about Aunt Lison’s tears.
The two weeks preceding the wedding found Jeanne very calm, as though she were weary of tender emotions. She had no time for reflection on the morning of the eventful day. She was only conscious of a feeling as if her flesh, her bones and her blood had all melted beneath her skin, and on taking hold of anything, she noticed that her fingers trembled.
She did not regain her self-possession until she was in the chancel of the church during the marriage ceremony.
Married! So she was married! All that had occurred since daybreak seemed to her a dream, a waking dream. There are such moments, when all appears changed around us; even our motions seem to have a new meaning; even the hours of the day, which seem to be out of their usual time. She felt bewildered, above all else, bewildered. Last evening nothing had as yet been changed in her life; the constant hope of her life seemed only nearer, almost within reach. She had gone to rest a young girl; she was now a married woman. She had crossed that boundary that seems to conceal the future with all its joys, its dreams of happiness. She felt as though a door had opened in front of her; she was about to enter into the fulfillment of her expectations.
When they appeared on the threshold of the church after the ceremony, a terrific noise caused the bride to start in terror, and the baroness to scream; it was a rifle salute given by the peasants, and the firing did not cease until they reached “The Poplars.”
After a collation served for the family, the family chaplain, and the priest from Yport, the mayor and the witnesses, who were some of the large farmers of the district, they all walked in the garden. On the other side of the château one could hear the boisterous mirth of the peasants, who were drinking cider beneath the apple trees. The whole countryside, dressed in their best, filled the courtyard.
Jeanne and Julien walked through the copse and then up the slope and, without speaking, gazed out at the sea. The air was cool, although it was the middle of August; the wind was from the north, and the sun blazed down unpityingly from the blue sky. The young people sought a more sheltered spot, and crossing the plain, they turned to the right, toward the rolling and wooded valley that leads to Yport. As soon as they reached the trees the air was still, and they left the road and took a narrow path beneath the trees, where they could scarcely walk abreast.
Jeanne felt an arm passed gently round her waist. She said nothing, her breath came quick, her heart beat fast. Some low branches caressed their hair, as they bent to pass under them. She picked a leaf; two ladybirds were concealed beneath it, like two delicate red shells.
“Look, a little family,” she said innocently, and feeling a little more confidence.
Julien placed his mouth to her ear, and whispered: “This evening you will be my wife.”
Although she had learned many things during her sojourn in the country, she dreamed of nothing as yet but the poetry of love, and was surprised. His wife? Was she not that already?
Then he began to kiss her temples and neck, little light kisses. Startled each time afresh by these masculine kisses to which she was not accustomed, she instinctively turned away her head to avoid them, though they delighted her. But they had come to the edge of the wood. She stopped, embarrassed at being so far from home. What would they think?
“Let us go home,” she said.
He withdrew his arm from her waist, and as they turned round they stood face to face, so close that they could feel each other’s breath on their faces. They gazed deep into one another’s eyes with that gaze in which two souls seem to blend. They sought the impenetrable unknown of each other’s being. They sought to fathom one another, mutely and persistently. What would they be to one another? What would this life be that they were about to begin together? What joys, what happiness, or what disillusions were they preparing in this long, indissoluble tête-à-tête of marriage? And it seemed to them as if they had never yet seen each other.
Suddenly, Julien, placing his two hands on his wife’s shoulders, kissed her full on the lips as she had never before been kissed. The kiss, penetrating as it did her very blood and marrow, gave her such a mysterious shock that she pushed Julien wildly away with her two arms, almost falling backward as she did so.
“Let us go away, let us go away,” she faltered.
He did not reply, but took both her hands and held them in his. They walked home in silence, and the rest of the afternoon seemed long. The dinner was simple and did not last long, contrary to the usual Norman custom. A sort of embarrassment seemed to paralyze the guests. The two priests, the mayor, and the four farmers invited, alone betrayed a little of that broad mirth that is supposed to accompany weddings.
They had apparently forgotten how to laugh, when a remark of the mayor’s woke them up. It was about nine o’clock; coffee was about to be served. Outside, under the apple-trees of the first court, the bal champêtre was beginning, and through the open window one could see all that was going on. Lanterns, hung from the branches, gave the leaves a grayish green tint. Rustics and their partners danced in a circle shouting a wild dance tune to the feeble accompaniment of two violins and a clarinet, the players seated on a large table as a platform. The boisterous singing of the peasants at times completely drowned the instruments, and the feeble strains torn to tatters by the unrestrained voices seemed to fall from the air in shreds, in little fragments of scattered notes.
Two large barrels surrounded by flaming torches were tapped, and two servant maids were kept busy rinsing glasses and bowls in order to refill them at the tap whence flowed the red wine, or at the tap of the cider barrel. On the table were bread, sausages and cheese. Every one swallowed a mouthful from time to time, and beneath the roof of illuminated foliage this wholesome and boisterous fête made the melancholy watchers in the dining-room long to dance also, and to drink from one of those large barrels, while they munched a slice of bread and butter and a raw onion.
The mayor, who was beating time with his knife, cried: “By Jove, that is all right; it is like the wedding of Ganache.”
A suppressed giggle was heard, but Abbé Picot, the natural enemy of civil authority, cried: “You mean of Cana.” The other did not accept the correction. “No, monsieur le curé, I know what I am talking about; when I say Ganache, I mean Ganache.”
They rose from table and went into the drawing-room, and then outside to mix with the merrymakers. The guests soon left.
They went into the house. They were surprised to see Madame Adelaide sobbing on Julien’s shoulder. Her tears, noisy tears, as if blown out by a pair of bellows, seemed to come from her nose, her mouth and her eyes at the same time; and the young man, dumfounded, awkward, was supporting the heavy woman who had sunk into his arms to commend to his care her darling, her little one, her adored daughter.
The baron rushed toward them, saying: “Oh, no scenes, no tears, I beg of you,” and, taking his wife to a chair, he made her sit down, while she wiped away her tears. Then, turning to Jeanne: “Come, little one, kiss your mother and go to bed.”
What happened then? She could hardly have told, for she seemed to have lost her head, but she felt a shower of little grateful kisses on her lips.
Day dawned. Julien awoke, yawned, stretched, looked at his wife, smiled and asked: “Did you sleep well, darling?”
She noticed that he now said “thou,” and she replied, bewildered, “Why, yes. And you?” “Oh, very well,” he answered. And turning toward her, he kissed her and then began to chat quietly. He set before her plans of living, with the idea of economy, and this word occurring several times, astonished Jeanne. She listened without grasping the meaning of his words, looked at him, but was thinking of a thousand things that passed rapidly through her mind hardly leaving a trace.
The clock struck eight. “Come, we must get up,” he said. “It would look ridiculous for us to be late.” When he was dressed he assisted his wife with all the little details of her toilet, not allowing her to call Rosalie. As they left the room he stopped. “You know, when we are alone, we can now use ‘thou,’ but before your parents it is better to wait a while. It will be quite natural when we come back from our wedding journey.”
She did not go down till luncheon was ready. The day passed like any ordinary day, as if nothing new had occurred. There was one man more in the house, that was all.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58