They had set the table on the veranda which overlooked the river. The Printemps villa, leased by the Marquise Obardi, was halfway up this hill, just at the corner of the Seine, which turned before the garden wall, flowing toward Marly.
Opposite the residence, the island of Croissy formed a horizon of tall trees, a mass of verdure, and they could see a long stretch of the big river as far as the floating cafe of La Grenouillere hidden beneath the foliage.
The evening fell, one of those calm evenings at the waterside, full of color yet soft, one of those peaceful evenings which produces a sensation of pleasure. No breath of air stirred the branches, no shiver of wind ruffled the smooth clear surface of the Seine. It was not too warm, it was mild — good weather to live in. The grateful coolness of the banks of the Seine rose toward a serene sky.
The sun disappeared behind the trees to shine on other lands, and one seemed to absorb the serenity of the already sleeping earth, to inhale, in the peace of space, the life of the infinite.
As they left the drawing-room to seat themselves at the table everyone was joyous. A softened gaiety filled their hearts, they felt that it would be so delightful to dine there in the country, with that great river and that twilight for a setting, breathing that pure and fragrant air.
The Marquise had taken Saval’s arm, and Yvette, Servigny’s. The four were alone by themselves. The two women seemed entirely different persons from what they were at Paris, especially Yvette. She talked but little, and seemed languid and grave.
Saval, hardly recognizing her in this frame of mind, asked her: “What is the matter, Mademoiselle? I find you changed since last week. You have become quite a serious person.”
“It is the country that does that for me,” she replied. “I am not the same, I feel queer; besides I am never two days alike. To-day I have the air of a mad woman, and to-morrow shall be as grave as an elegy. I change with the weather, I don’t know why. You see, I am capable of anything, according to the moment. There are days when I would like to kill people, — not animals, I would never kill animals, — but people, yes, and other days when I weep at a mere thing. A lot of different ideas pass through my head. It depends, too, a good deal on how I get up. Every morning, on waking, I can tell just what I shall be in the evening. Perhaps it is our dreams that settle it for us, and it depends on the book I have just read.”
She was clad in a white flannel suit which delicately enveloped her in the floating softness of the material. Her bodice, with full folds, suggested, without displaying and without restraining, her free chest, which was firm and already ripe. And her superb neck emerged from a froth of soft lace, bending with gentle movements, fairer than her gown, a pilaster of flesh, bearing the heavy mass of her golden hair.
Servigny looked at her for a long time: “You are adorable this evening, Mam’zelle,” said he, “I wish I could always see you like this.”
“Don’t make a declaration, Muscade. I should take it seriously, and that might cost you dear.”
The Marquise seemed happy, very happy. All in black, richly dressed in a plain gown which showed her strong, full lines, a bit of red at the bodice, a cincture of red carnations falling from her waist like a chain, and fastened at the hips, and a red rose in her dark hair, she carried in all her person something fervid, — in that simple costume, in those flowers which seemed to bleed, in her look, in her slow speech, in her peculiar gestures.
Saval, too, appeared serious and absorbed. From time to time he stroked his pointed beard, trimmed in the fashion of Henri III., and seemed to be meditating on the most profound subjects.
Nobody spoke for several minutes. Then as they were serving the trout, Servigny remarked:
“Silence is a good thing, at times. People are often nearer to each other when they are keeping still than when they are talking. Isn’t that so, Marquise?”
She turned a little toward him and answered:
“It is quite true. It is so sweet to think together about agreeable things.”
She raised her warm glance toward Saval, and they continued for some seconds looking into each other’s eyes. A slight, almost inaudible movement took place beneath the table.
Servigny resumed: “Mam’zelle Yvette, you will make me believe that you are in love if you keep on being as good as that. Now, with whom could you be in love? Let us think together, if you will; I put aside the army of vulgar sighers. I’ll only take the principal ones. Is it Prince Kravalow?”
At this name Yvette awoke: “My poor Muscade, can you think of such a thing? Why, the Prince has the air of a Russian in a wax-figure museum, who has won medals in a hairdressing competition.”
“Good! We’ll drop the Prince. But you have noticed the Viscount Pierre de Belvigne?”
This time she began to laugh, and asked: “Can you imagine me hanging to the neck of ‘Raisine’?” She nicknamed him according to the day, Raisine, Malvoisie, [Footnote: Preserved grapes and pears, malmsey,- -a poor wine.] Argenteuil, for she gave everybody nicknames. And she would murmur to his face: “My dear little Pierre,” or “My divine Pedro, darling Pierrot, give your bow-wow’s head to your dear little girl, who wants to kiss it.”
“Scratch out number two. There still remains the Chevalier Valreali whom the Marquise seems to favor,” continued Servigny.
Yvette regained all her gaiety: “‘Teardrop’? Why he weeps like a Magdalene. He goes to all the first-class funerals. I imagine myself dead every time he looks at me.”
“That settles the third. So the lightning will strike Baron Saval, here.”
“Monsieur the Colossus of Rhodes, Junior? No. He is too strong. It would seem to me as if I were in love with the triumphal arch of L’Etoile.”
“Then Mam’zelle, it is beyond doubt that you are in love with me, for I am the only one of your adorers of whom we have not yet spoken. I left myself for the last through modesty and through discretion. It remains for me to thank you.”
She replied with happy grace: “In love with you, Muscade? Ah! no. I like you, but I don’t love you. Wait — I— I don’t want to discourage you. I don’t love you — yet. You have a chance — perhaps. Persevere, Muscade, be devoted, ardent, submissive, full of little attentions and considerations, docile to my slightest caprices, ready for anything to please me, and we shall see — later.”
“But, Mam’zelle, I would rather furnish all you demand afterward than beforehand, if it be the same to you.”
She asked with an artless air: “After what, Muscade?”
“After you have shown me that you love me, by Jove!”
“Well, act as if I loved you, and believe it, if you wish.”
“But you — ”
“Be quiet, Muscade; enough on the subject.”
The sun had sunk behind the island, but the whole sky still flamed like a fire, and the peaceful water of the river seemed changed to blood. The reflections from the horizon reddened houses, objects, and persons. The scarlet rose in the Marquise’s hair had the appearance of a splash of purple fallen from the clouds upon her head.
As Yvette looked on from her end, the Marquise rested, as if by carelessness, her bare hand upon Saval’s hand; but the young girl made a motion and the Marquise withdrew her hand with a quick gesture, pretending to readjust something in the folds of her corsage.
Servigny, who was looking at them, said:
“If you like, Mam’zelle, we will take a walk on the island after dinner.”
“Oh, yes! That will be delightful. We will go all alone, won’t we, Muscade?”
“Yes, all alone, Mam’zelle!”
The vast silence of the horizon, the sleepy tranquillity of the evening captured heart, body, and voice. There are peaceful, chosen hours when it becomes almost impossible to talk.
The servants waited on them noiselessly. The firmamental conflagration faded away, and the soft night spread its shadows over the earth.
“Are you going to stay long in this place?” asked Saval.
And the Marquise answered, dwelling on each word: “Yes, as long as I am happy.”
As it was too dark to see, lamps were brought. They cast upon the table a strange, pale gleam beneath the great obscurity of space; and very soon a shower of gnats fell upon the tablecloth — the tiny gnats which immolate themselves by passing over the glass chimneys, and, with wings and legs scorched, powder the table linen, dishes, and cups with a kind of gray and hopping dust.
They swallowed them in the wine, they ate them in the sauces, they saw them moving on the bread, and had their faces and hands tickled by the countless swarm of these tiny insects. They were continually compelled to throw away the beverages, to cover the plates, and while eating to shield the food with infinite precautions.
It amused Yvette. Servigny took care to shelter what she bore to her mouth, to guard her glass, to hold his handkerchief stretched out over her head like a roof. But the Marquise, disgusted, became nervous, and the end of the dinner came quickly. Yvette, who had not forgotten Servigny’s proposition, said to him:
“Now we’ll go to the island.”
Her mother cautioned her in a languid tone: “Don’t be late, above all things. We will escort you to the ferry.”
And they started in couples, the young girl and her admirer walking in front, on the road to the shore. They heard, behind them, the Marquise and Saval speaking very rapidly in low tones. All was dark, with a thick, inky darkness. But the sky swarmed with grains of fire, and seemed to sow them in the river, for the black water was flecked with stars.
The frogs were croaking monotonously upon the bank, and numerous nightingales were uttering their low, sweet song in the calm and peaceful air.
Yvette suddenly said: “Gracious! They are not walking behind us any more, where are they?” And she called out: “Mamma!” No voice replied. The young girl resumed: “At any rate, they can’t be far away, for I heard them just now.”
Servigny murmured: “They must have gone back. Your mother was cold, perhaps.” And he drew her along.
Before them a light gleamed. It was the tavern of Martinet, restaurant-keeper and fisherman. At their call a man came out of the house, and they got into a large boat which was moored among the weeds of the shore.
The ferryman took his oars, and the unwieldy barge, as it advanced, disturbed the sleeping stars upon the water and set them into a mad dance, which gradually calmed down after they had passed. They touched the other shore and disembarked beneath the great trees. A cool freshness of damp earth permeated the air under the lofty and clustered branches, where there seemed to be as many nightingales as there were leaves. A distant piano began to play a popular waltz.
Servigny took Yvette’s arm and very gently slipped his hand around her waist and gave her a slight hug.
“What are you thinking about?” he said.
“I? About nothing at all. I am very happy!”
“Then you don’t love me?”
“Oh, yes, Muscade, I love you, I love you a great deal; only leave me alone. It is too beautiful here to listen to your nonsense.”
He drew her toward him, although she tried, by little pushes, to extricate herself, and through her soft flannel gown he felt the warmth of her flesh. He stammered:
“I do love you!”
“But you are not in earnest, Muscade.”
“Oh, yes I am. I have loved you for a long time.”
She continually kept trying to separate herself from him, trying to release the arm crushed between their bodies. They walked with difficulty, trammeled by this bond and by these movements, and went zigzagging along like drunken folk.
He knew not what to say to her, feeling that he could not talk to a young girl as he would to a woman. He was perplexed, thinking what he ought to do, wondering if she consented or did not understand, and curbing his spirit to find just the right, tender, and decisive words. He kept saying every second:
“Yvette! Speak! Yvette!”
Then, suddenly, risking all, he kissed her on the cheek. She gave a little start aside, and said with a vexed air:
“Oh! you are absurd. Are you going to let me alone?”
The tone of her voice did not at all reveal her thoughts nor her wishes; and, not seeing her too angry, he applied his lips to the beginning of her neck, just beneath the golden hair, that charming spot which he had so often coveted.
Then she made great efforts to free herself. But he held her strongly, and placing his other hand on her shoulder, he compelled her to turn her head toward him and gave her a fond, passionate kiss, squarely on the mouth.
She slipped from his arms by a quick undulation of the body, and, free from his grasp, she disappeared into the darkness with a great swishing of skirts, like the whir of a bird as it flies away.
He stood motionless a moment, surprised by her suppleness and her disappearance, then hearing nothing, he called gently: “Yvette!”
She did not reply. He began to walk forward, peering through the shadows, looking in the underbrush for the white spot her dress should make. All was dark. He cried out more loudly:
“Mam’zelle Yvette! Mam’zelle Yvette!”
Nothing stirred. He stopped and listened. The whole island was still; there was scarcely a rustle of leaves over his head. The frogs alone continued their deep croakings on the shores. Then he wandered from thicket to thicket, going where the banks were steep and bushy and returning to places where they were flat and bare as a dead man’s arm. He proceeded until he was opposite Bougival and reached the establishment of La Grenouillere, groping the clumps of trees, calling out continually:
“Mam’zelle Yvette, where are you? Answer. It is ridiculous! Come, answer! Don’t keep me hunting like this.”
A distant clock began to strike. He counted the hours: twelve. He had been searching through the island for two hours. Then he thought that perhaps she had gone home; and he went back very anxiously, this time by way of the bridge. A servant dozing on a chair was waiting in the hall.
Servigny awakened him and asked: “Is it long since Mademoiselle Yvette came home? I left her at the foot of the place because I had a call to make.”
And the valet replied: “Oh! yes, Monsieur, Mademoiselle came in before ten o’clock.”
He proceeded to his room and went to bed. But he could not close his eyes. That stolen kiss had stirred him to the soul. He kept wondering what she thought and what she knew. How pretty and attractive she was!
His desires, somewhat wearied by the life he led, by all his procession of sweethearts, by all his explorations in the kingdom of love, awoke before this singular child, so fresh, irritating, and inexplicable. He heard one o’clock strike, then two. He could not sleep at all. He was warm, he felt his heart beat and his temples throb, and he rose to open the window. A breath of fresh air came in, which he inhaled deeply. The thick darkness was silent, black, motionless. But suddenly he perceived before him, in the shadows of the garden, a shining point; it seemed a little red coal.
“Well, a cigar!” he said to himself. “It must be Saval,” and he called softly: “Leon!”
“Is it you, Jean?”
“Yes. Wait. I’ll come down.” He dressed, went out, and rejoining his friend who was smoking astride an iron chair, inquired: “What are you doing here at this hour?”
“I am resting,” Saval replied. And he began to laugh. Servigny pressed his hand: “My compliments, my dear fellow. And as for me, I- -am making a fool of myself.”
“You mean — ”
“I mean that — Yvette and her mother do not resemble each other.”
“What has happened? Tell me.”
Servigny recounted his attempts and their failure. Then he resumed:
“Decidedly, that little girl worries me. Fancy my not being able to sleep! What a queer thing a girl is! She appears to be as simple as anything, and yet you know nothing about her. A woman who has lived and loved, who knows life, can be quickly understood. But when it comes to a young virgin, on the contrary, no one can guess anything about her. At heart I begin to think that she is making sport of me.”
Saval tilted his chair. He said, very slowly: “Take care, my dear fellow, she will lead you to marriage. Remember those other illustrious examples. It was just by this same process that Mademoiselle de Montijo, who was at least of good family, became empress. Don’t play Napoleon.”
Servigny murmured: “As for that, fear nothing. I am neither a simpleton nor an emperor. A man must be either one or the other to make such a move as that. But tell me, are you sleepy?”
“Not a bit.”
“Will you take a walk along the river?”
They opened the iron gate and began to walk along the river bank toward Marly. It was the quiet hour which precedes dawn, the hour of deep sleep, of complete rest, of profound peacefulness. Even the gentle sounds of the night were hushed. The nightingales sang no longer; the frogs had finished their hubbub; some kind of an animal only, probably a bird, was making somewhere a kind of sawing sound, feeble, monotonous, and regular as a machine. Servigny, who had moments of poetry, and of philosophy too, suddenly remarked: “Now this girl completely puzzles me. In arithmetic, one and one make two. In love one and one ought to make one but they make two just the same. Have you ever felt that? That need of absorbing a woman in yourself or disappearing in her? I am not speaking of the animal embrace, but of that moral and mental eagerness to be but one with a being, to open to her all one’s heart and soul, and to fathom her thoughts to the depths.”
“And yet you can never lay bare all the fluctuations of her wishes, desires, and opinions. You can never guess, even slightly, all the unknown currents, all the mystery of a soul that seems so near, a soul hidden behind two eyes that look at you, clear as water, transparent as if there were nothing beneath a soul which talks to you by a beloved mouth, which seems your very own, so greatly do you desire it; a soul which throws you by words its thoughts, one by one, and which, nevertheless, remains further away from you than those stars are from each other, and more impenetrable. Isn’t it queer, all that?”
“I don’t, ask so much,” Saval rejoined. “I don’t look behind the eyes. I care little for the contents, but much for the vessel.” And Servigny replied: “What a singular person Yvette is! How will she receive me this morning?”
As they reached the works at Marly they perceived that the sky was brightening. The cocks began to crow in the poultry-yards. A bird twittered in a park at the left, ceaselessly reiterating a tender little theme.
“It is time to go back,” said Saval.
They returned, and as Servigny entered his room, he saw the horizon all pink through his open windows.
Then he shut the blinds, drew the thick, heavy curtains, went back to bed and fell asleep. He dreamed of Yvette all through his slumber. An odd noise awoke him. He sat on the side of the bed and listened, but heard nothing further. Then suddenly there was a crackling against the blinds, like falling hail. He jumped from the bed, ran to the window, opened it, and saw Yvette standing in the path and throwing handfuls of gravel at his face. She was clad in pink, with a wide-brimmed straw hat ornamented with a mousquetaire plume, and was laughing mischievously.
“Well! Muscade, are you asleep? What could you have been doing all night to make you wake so late? Have you been seeking adventures, my poor Muscade?”
He was dazzled by the bright daylight striking him full in the eyes, still overwhelmed with fatigue, and surprised at the jesting tranquillity of the young girl.
“I’ll be down in a second, Mam’zelle,” he answered. “Just time to splash my face with water, and I will join you.” “Hurry,” she cried, “it is ten o’clock, and besides I have a great plan to unfold to you, a plot we are going to concoct. You know that we breakfast at eleven.”
He found her seated on a bench, with a book in her lap, some novel or other. She took his arm in a familiar and friendly way, with a frank and gay manner, as if nothing had happened the night before, and drew him toward the end of the garden.
“This is my plan,” she said. “We will disobey mamma, and you shall take me presently to La Grenouillere restaurant. I want to see it. Mamma says that decent women cannot go to the place. Now it is all the same to me whether persons can go there or cannot. You’ll take me, won’t you, Muscade? And we will have a great time — with the boatmen.”
She exhaled a delicious fragrance, although he could not exactly define just what light and vague odor enveloped her. It was not one of those heavy perfumes of her mother, but a discreet breath in which he fancied he could detect a suspicion of iris powder, and perhaps a suggestion of vervain.
Whence emanated that indiscernible perfume? From her dress, her hair, or her skin? He puzzled over this, and as he was speaking very close to her, he received full in the face her fresh breath, which seemed to him just as delicious to inhale.
Then he thought that this evasive perfume which he was trying to recognize was perhaps only evoked by her charming eyes, and was merely a sort of deceptive emanation of her young and alluring grace.
“That is agreed, isn’t it, Muscade? As it will be very warm after breakfast, mamma will not go out. She always feels the heat very much. We will leave her with your friend, and you shall take me. They will think that we have gone into the forest. If you knew how much it will amuse me to see La Grenouillere!”
They reached the iron gate opposite the Seine. A flood of sunshine fell upon the slumberous, shining river. A slight heat-mist rose from it, a sort of haze of evaporated water, which spread over the surface of the stream a faint gleaming vapor.
From time to time, boats passed by, a quick yawl or a heavy passage boat, and short or long whistles could be heard, those of the trains which every Sunday poured the citizens of Paris into the suburbs, and those of the steamboats signaling their approach to pass the locks at Marly.
But a tiny bell sounded. Breakfast was announced, and they went back into the house. The repast was a silent one. A heavy July noon overwhelmed the earth, and oppressed humanity. The heat seemed thick, and paralyzed both mind and body. The sluggish words would not leave the lips, and all motion seemed laborious, as if the air had become a resisting medium, difficult to traverse. Only Yvette, although silent, seemed animated and nervous with impatience. As soon as they had finished the last course she said:
“If we were to go for a walk in the forest, it would be deliciously cool under the trees.”
The Marquise murmured with a listless air: “Are you mad? Does anyone go out in such weather?”
And the young girl, delighted, rejoined: “Oh, well! We will leave the Baron to keep you company. Muscade and I will climb the hill and sit on the grass and read.”
And turning toward Servigny she asked: “That is understood?”
“At your service, Mam’zelle,” he replied.
Yvette ran to get her hat. The Marquise shrugged her shoulders with a sigh. “She certainly is mad.” she said.
Then with an indolence in her amorous and lazy gestures, she gave her pretty white hand to the Baron, who kissed it softly. Yvette and Servigny started. They went along the river, crossed the bridge and went on to the island, and then seated themselves on the bank, beneath the willows, for it was too soon to go to La Grenouillere.
The young girl at once drew a book from her pocket and smilingly said: “Muscade, you are going to read to me.” And she handed him the volume.
He made a motion as if of fright. “I, Mam’zelle? I don’t know how to read!”
She replied with gravity: “Come, no excuses, no objections; you are a fine suitor, you! All for nothing, is that it? Is that your motto?”
He took the book, opened it, and was astonished. It was a treatise on entomology. A history of ants by an English author. And as he remained inert, believing that he was making sport of her, she said with impatience: “Well, read!”
“Is it a wager, or just a simple fad?” he asked.
“No, my dear. I saw that book in a shop. They told me that it was the best authority on ants and I thought that it would be interesting to learn about the life of these little insects while you see them running over the grass; so read, if you please.”
She stretched herself flat upon the grass, her elbows resting upon the ground, her head between her hands, her eyes fixed upon the ground. He began to read as follows:
“The anthropoid apes are undoubtedly the animals which approach nearest to man by their anatomical structure, but if we consider the habits of the ants, their organization into societies, their vast communities, the houses and roads that they construct, their custom of domesticating animals, and sometimes even of making slaves of them, we are compelled to admit that they have the right to claim a place near to man in the scale of intelligence.”
He continued in a monotonous voice, stopping from time to time to ask: “Isn’t that enough?”
She shook her head, and having caught an ant on the end of a severed blade of grass, she amused herself by making it go from one end to the other of the sprig, which she tipped up whenever the insect reached one of the ends. She listened with mute and contented attention to all the wonderful details of the life of these frail creatures: their subterranean homes; the manner in which they seize, shut up, and feed plant-lice to drink the sweet milk which they secrete, as we keep cows in our barns; their custom of domesticating little blind insects which clean the anthills, and of going to war to capture slaves who will take care of their victors with such tender solicitude that the latter even lose the habit of feeding themselves.
And little by little, as if a maternal tenderness had sprung up in her heart for the poor insect which was so tiny and so intelligent, Yvette made it climb on her finger, looking at it with a moved expression, almost wanting to embrace it.
And as Servigny read of the way in which they live in communities, and play games of strength and skill among themselves, the young girl grew enthusiastic and sought to kiss the insect which escaped her and began to crawl over her face. Then she uttered a piercing cry, as if she had been threatened by a terrible danger, and with frantic gestures tried to brush it off her face. With a loud laugh Servigny caught it near her tresses and imprinted on the spot where he had seized it a long kiss without Yvette withdrawing her forehead.
Then she exclaimed as she rose: “That is better than a novel. Now let us go to La Grenouillere.”
They reached that part of the island which is set out as a park and shaded with great trees. Couples were strolling beneath the lofty foliage along the Seine, where the boats were gliding by.
The boats were filled with young people, working-girls and their sweethearts, the latter in their shirt-sleeves, with coats on their arms, tall hats tipped back, and a jaded look. There were tradesmen with their families, the women dressed in their best and the children flocking like little chicks about their parents. A distant, continuous sound of voices, a heavy, scolding clamor announced the proximity of the establishment so dear to the boatmen.
Suddenly they saw it. It was a huge boat, roofed over, moored to the bank. On board were many men and women drinking at tables, or else standing up, shouting, singing, bandying words, dancing, capering, to the sound of a piano which was groaning — out of tune and rattling as an old kettle.
Two tall, russet-haired, half-tipsy girls, with red lips, were talking coarsely. Others were dancing madly with young fellows half clad, dressed like jockeys, in linen trousers and colored caps. The odors of a crowd and of rice-powder were noticeable.
The drinkers around the tables were swallowing white, red, yellow, and green liquids, and vociferating at the top of their lungs, feeling as it were, the necessity of making a noise, a brutal need of having their ears and brains filled with uproar. Now and then a swimmer, standing on the roof, dived into the water, splashing the nearest guests, who yelled like savages.
On the stream passed the flotillas of light craft, long, slender wherries, swiftly rowed by bare-armed oarsmen, whose muscles played beneath their bronzed skin. The women in the boats, in blue or red flannel skirts, with umbrellas, red or blue, opened over their heads and gleaming under the burning sun, leaned back in their chairs at the stern of the boats, and seemed almost to float upon the water, in motionless and slumberous pose.
The heavier boats proceeded slowly, crowded with people. A collegian, wanting to show off, rowed like a windmill against all the other boats, bringing the curses of their oarsmen down upon his head, and disappearing in dismay after almost drowning two swimmers, followed by the shouts of the crowd thronging in the great floating cafe.
Yvette, radiantly happy, taking Servigny’s arm, went into the midst of this noisy mob. She seemed to enjoy the crowding, and stared at the girls with a calm and gracious glance.
“Look at that one, Muscade,” she said. “What pretty hair she has! They seem to be having such fun!”
As the pianist, a boatman dressed in red with a huge straw hat, began a waltz, Yvette grasped her companion and they danced so long and madly that everybody looked at them. The guests, standing on the tables, kept time with their feet; others threw glasses, and the musician, seeming to go mad, struck the ivory keys with great bangs; swaying his whole body and swinging his head covered with that immense hat. Suddenly he stopped and, slipping to the deck, lay flat, beneath his head-gear, as if dead with fatigue. A loud laugh arose and everybody applauded.
Four friends rushed forward, as they do in cases of accident, and lifting up their comrade, they carried him by his four limbs, after carefully placing his great hat on his stomach. A joker following them intoned the “De Profundis,” and a procession formed and threaded the paths of the island, guests and strollers and everyone they met falling into line.
Yvette darted forward, delighted, laughing with her whole heart, chatting with everybody, stirred by the movement and the noise. The young men gazed at her, crowded against her, seeming to devour her with their glances; and Servigny began to fear lest the adventure should terminate badly.
The procession still kept on its way; hastening its step; for the four bearers had taken a quick pace, followed by the yelling crowd. But suddenly, they turned toward the shore, stopped short as they reached the bank, swung their comrade for a moment, and then, all four acting together, flung him into the river.
A great shout of joy rang out from all mouths, while the poor pianist, bewildered, paddled, swore, coughed, and spluttered, and though sticking in the mud managed to get to the shore. His hat which floated down the stream was picked up by a boat. Yvette danced with joy, clapping and repeating: “Oh! Muscade, what fun! what fun!”
Servigny looked on, having become serious, a little disturbed, a little chilled to see her so much at her ease in this common place. A sort of instinct revolted in him, that instinct of the proper, which a well-born man always preserves even when he casts himself loose, that instinct which avoids too common familiarities and too degrading contacts. Astonished, he muttered to himself:
“Egad! Then YOU are at home here, are you?” And he wanted to speak familiarly to her, as a man does to certain women the first time he meets them. He no longer distinguished her from the russet-haired, hoarse-voiced creatures who brushed against them. The language of the crowd was not at all choice, but nobody seemed shocked or surprised. Yvette did not even appear to notice it.
“Muscade, I want to go in bathing,” she said. “We’ll go into the river together.”
“At your service,” said he.
They went to the bath-office to get bathing-suits. She was ready the first, and stood on the bank waiting for him, smiling on everyone who looked at her. Then side by side they went into the luke-warm water.
She swam with pleasure, with intoxication, caressed by the wave, throbbing with a sensual delight, raising herself at each stroke as if she were going to spring from the water. He followed her with difficulty, breathless, and vexed to feel himself mediocre at the sport.
But she slackened her pace, and then, turning over suddenly, she floated, with her arms folded and her eyes wide open to the blue sky. He observed, thus stretched out on the surface of the river, the undulating lines of her form, her firm neck and shoulders, her slightly submerged hips, and bare ankles, gleaming in the water, and the tiny foot that emerged.
He saw her thus exhibiting herself, as if she were doing it on purpose, to lure him on, or again to make sport of him. And he began to long for her with a passionate ardor and an exasperating impatience. Suddenly she turned, looked at him, and burst into laughter.
“You have a fine head,” she said.
He was annoyed at this bantering, possessed with the anger of a baffled lover. Then yielding brusquely to a half felt desire for retaliation, a desire to avenge himself, to wound her, he said:
“Well, does this sort of life suit you?”
She asked with an artless air: “What do you mean?”
“Oh, come, don’t make game of me. You know well enough what I mean!”
“No, I don’t, on my word of honor.”
“Oh, let us stop this comedy! Will you or will you not?”
“I do not understand you.”
“You are not as stupid as all that; besides I told you last night.”
“Told me what? I have forgotten!”
“That I love you.”
“I swear it.”
“Then prove it.”
“That is all I ask.”
“To prove it.”
“Well, do so.”
“But you did not say so last night.”
“You did not ask anything.”
“And besides it is not to me to whom you should make your proposition.”
“To whom, then?”
“Why, to mamma, of course.”
He burst into laughter. “To your mother. No, that is too much!”
She had suddenly become very grave, and looking him straight in the eyes, said:
“Listen, Muscade, if you really love me enough to marry me, speak to mamma first, and I will answer you afterward.”
He thought she was still making sport of him, and angrily replied: “Mam’zelle, you must be taking me for somebody else.”
She kept looking at him with her soft, clear eyes. She hesitated and then said:
“I don’t understand you at all.”
Then he answered quickly with somewhat of ill nature in his voice:
“Come now, Yvette, let us cease this absurd comedy, which has already lasted too long. You are playing the part of a simple little girl, and the role does not fit you at all, believe me. You know perfectly well that there can be no question of marriage between us, but merely of love. I have told you that I love you. It is the truth. I repeat, I love you. Don’t pretend any longer not to understand me, and don’t treat me as if I were a fool.”
They were face to face, treading water, merely moving their hands a little, to steady themselves. She was still for a moment, as if she could not make out the meaning of his words, then she suddenly blushed up to the roots of her hair. Her whole face grew purple from her neck to her ears, which became almost violet, and without answering a word she fled toward the shore, swimming with all her strength with hasty strokes. He could not keep up with her and panted with fatigue as he followed. He saw her leave the water, pick up her cloak, and go to her dressing-room without looking back.
It took him a long time to dress, very much perplexed as to what he ought to do, puzzled over what he should say to her, and wondering whether he ought to excuse himself or persevere. When he was ready, she had gone away all alone. He went back slowly, anxious and disturbed.
The Marquise was strolling, on Saval’s arm, in the circular path around the lawn. As she observed Servigny, she said, with that careless air which she had maintained since the night before.
“I told you not to go out in such hot weather. And now Yvette has come back almost with a sun stroke. She has gone to lie down. She was as red as a poppy, the poor child, and she has a frightful headache. You must have been walking in the full sunlight, or you must have done something foolish. You are as unreasonable as she.”
The young girl did not come down to dinner. When they wanted to send her up something to eat she called through the door that she was not hungry, for she had shut herself in, and she begged that they would leave her undisturbed. The two young men left by the ten o’clock train, promising to return the following Thursday, and the Marquise seated herself at the open window to dream, hearing in the distance the orchestra of the boatmen’s ball, with its sprightly music, in the deep and solemn silence of the night.
Swayed by love as a person is moved by a fondness for horses or boating, she was subject to sudden tendernesses which crept over her like a disease. These passions took possession of her suddenly, penetrated her entire being, maddened her, enervated or overwhelmed her, in measure as they were of an exalted, violent, dramatic, or sentimental character.
She was one of those women who are created to love and to be loved. Starting from a very low station in life, she had risen in her adventurous career, acting instinctively, with inborn cleverness, accepting money and kisses, naturally, without distinguishing between them, employing her extraordinary ability in an unthinking and simple fashion. From all her experiences she had never known either a genuine tenderness or a great repulsion.
She had had various friends, for she had to live, as in traveling a person eats at many tables. But occasionally her heart took fire, and she really fell in love, which state lasted for some weeks or months, according to conditions. These were the delicious moments of her life, for she loved with all her soul. She cast herself upon love as a person throws himself into the river to drown himself, and let herself be carried away, ready to die, if need be, intoxicated, maddened, infinitely happy. She imagined each time that she never had experienced anything like such an attachment, and she would have been greatly astonished if some one had told her of how many men she had dreamed whole nights through, looking at the stars.
Saval had captivated her, body and soul. She dreamed of him, lulled by his face and his memory, in the calm exaltation of consummated love, of present and certain happiness.
A sound behind her made her turn around. Yvette had just entered, still in her daytime dress, but pale, with eyes glittering, as sometimes is the case after some great fatigue. She leaned on the sill of the open window, facing her mother.
“I want to speak to you,” she said.
The Marquise looked at her in astonishment. She loved her like an egotistical mother, proud of her beauty, as a person is proud of a fortune, too pretty still herself to become jealous, too indifferent to plan the schemes with which they charged her, too clever, nevertheless, not to have full consciousness of her daughter’s value.
“I am listening, my child,” she said; “what is it?”
Yvette gave her a piercing look, as if to read the depths of her soul and to seize all the sensations which her words might awake.
“It is this. Something strange has just happened.”
“What can it be?”
“Monsieur de Servigny has told me that he loves me.”
The Marquise, disturbed, waited a moment, and, as Yvette said nothing more, she asked:
“How did he tell you that? Explain yourself!”
Then the young girl, sitting at her mother’s feet, in a coaxing attitude common with her, and clasping her hands, added:
“He asked me to marry him.”
Madame Obardi made a sudden gesture of stupefaction and cried:
“Servigny! Why! you are crazy!”
Yvette had not taken her eyes off her mother’s face, watching her thoughts and her surprise. She asked with a serious voice:
“Why am I crazy? Why should not Monsieur de Servigny marry me?”
The Marquise, embarrassed, stammered:
“You are mistaken, it is not possible. You either did not hear or did not understand. Monsieur de Servigny is too rich for you, and too much of a Parisian to marry.” Yvette rose softly. She added: “But if he loves me as he says he does, mamma?”
Her mother replied, with some impatience: “I thought you big enough and wise enough not to have such ideas. Servigny is a man-about-town and an egotist. He will never marry anyone but a woman of his set and his fortune. If he asked you in marriage, it is only that he wants — ”
The Marquise, incapable of expressing her meaning, was silent for a moment, then continued: “Come now, leave me alone and go to bed.”
And the young girl, as if she had learned what she sought to find out, answered in a docile voice: “Yes, mamma!”
She kissed her mother on the forehead and withdrew with a calm step. As she reached the door, the Marquise called out: “And your sunstroke?” she said.
“I did not have one at all. It was that which caused everything.”
The Marquise added: “We will not speak of it again. Only don’t stay alone with him for some time from now, and be very sure that he will never marry you, do you understand, and that he merely means to — compromise you.”
She could not find better words to express her thought. Yvette went to her room. Madame Obardi began to dream. Living for years in an opulent and loving repose, she had carefully put aside all reflections which might annoy or sadden her. Never had she been willing to ask herself the question. — What would become of Yvette? It would be soon enough to think about the difficulties when they arrived. She well knew, from her experience, that her daughter could not marry a man who was rich and of good society, excepting by a totally improbable chance, by one of those surprises of love which place adventuresses on thrones.
She had not considered it, furthermore, being too much occupied with herself to make any plans which did not directly concern herself.
Yvette would do as her mother, undoubtedly. She would lead a gay life. Why not? But the Marquise had never dared ask when, or how. That would all come about in time.
And now her daughter, all of a sudden, without warning, had asked one of those questions which could not be answered, forcing her to take an attitude in an affair, so delicate, so dangerous in every respect, and so disturbing to the conscience which a woman is expected to show in matters concerning her daughter.
Sometimes nodding but never asleep, she had too much natural astuteness to be deceived a minute about Servigny’s intentions, for she knew men by experience, and especially men of that set. So at the first words uttered by Yvette, she had cried almost in spite of herself: “Servigny, marry you? You are crazy!”
How had he come to employ that old method, he, that sharp man of the world? What would he do now? And she, the young girl, how should she warn her more clearly and even forbid her, for she might make great mistakes. Would anyone have believed that this big girl had remained so artless, so ill informed, so guileless? And the Marquise, greatly perplexed and already wearied with her reflections, endeavored to make up her mind what to do without finding a solution of the problem, for the situation seemed to her very embarrassing. Worn out with this worry, she thought:
“I will watch them more clearly, I will act according to circumstances. If necessary, I will speak to Servigny, who is sharp and will take a hint.”
She did not think out what she should say to him, nor what he would answer, nor what sort of an understanding could be established between them, but happy at being relieved of this care without having had to make a decision, she resumed her dreams of the handsome Saval, and turning toward that misty light which hovers over Paris, she threw kisses with both hands toward the great city, rapid kisses which she tossed into the darkness, one after the other, without counting; and, very low, as if she were talking to Saval still, she murmured:
“I love you, I love you!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58