It was all an accident, a pure accident. Tired of standing, Baron d’Etraille went, as all the Princess’s rooms were open on that particular evening, into an empty bedroom, which appeared almost dark after coming out of the brilliantly lighted drawing-rooms.
He looked round for a chair in which to have a doze, as he was sure his wife would not go away before daylight. As soon as he got inside the door he saw the big bed with its azure-and-gold hangings, in the middle of the great room, looking like a catafalque in which love was buried, for the Princess was no longer young. Behind it, a large bright spot looked like a lake seen at a distance from the window. It was a large looking-glass, which, discreetly covered with dark drapery, that, however, was very rarely let down, seemed to look at the bed, which was its accomplice. One might almost fancy that it felt regrets, and that one was going to see in it charming shapes of naked women, and the gentle movement of arms about to embrace them.
The Baron stood still for a moment, smiling, rather moved, on the threshold of this chamber dedicated to love. But suddenly something appeared in the looking-glass, as if the phantoms which he had evoked had risen up before him. A man and a woman who had been sitting on a low couch hidden in the shade had got up, and the polished surface, reflecting their figures, showed that they were kissing each other before separating.
The Baron recognized his wife and the Marquis de Cervigné. He turned and went away like a man who is fully master of himself, and waited till it was day before taking away the Baroness; but he had no longer any thoughts of sleeping.
As soon as they were alone he said.
“Madame, I saw you just now in Princess de Raynes’ room; I need say no more, and I am not fond either of reproaches, acts of violence, or of ridicule. As I wish to avoid all such things, we shall separate without any scandal. Our lawyers will settle your position according to my orders. You will be free to live as you please when you are no longer under my roof; but, as you will continue to bear my name, I must warn you that, should any scandal arise, I shall show myself inflexible.”
She tried to speak, but he stopped her, bowed, and left the room.
He was more astonished and sad than unhappy. He had loved her dearly during the first period of their married life; but his ardor had cooled, and now he often had a caprice, either in a theater or in society, though he always preserved a certain liking for the Baroness.
She was very young, hardly four-and-twenty, small, slight — too slight — and very fair. She was a true Parisian doll: clever, spoilt, elegant, coquettish, witty, with more charm than real beauty. He used to say familiarly to his brother, when speaking of her:
“My wife is charming, attractive, but — there is nothing to lay hold of. She is like a glass of champagne that is all froth — when you have got to the wine it is very good, but there is too little of it, unfortunately.”
He walked up and down the room in great agitation, and thinking of a thousand things. At one moment he felt in a great rage, and felt inclined to give the Marquis a good thrashing or to smack his face publicly, in the club. But he thought that would not do, it would not be at all the thing; he would be laughed at, and not the Marquis, and as he felt that his anger proceeded more from wounded vanity than from a broken heart he went to bed, but could not go to sleep.
A few days afterwards it was known in Paris that the Baron and Baroness d’Etraille had agreed to an amicable separation on account of incompatibility of temper. Nobody suspected anything, nobody laughed, and nobody was astonished.
The Baron, however, to avoid meeting her, traveled for a year, then he spent the summer at the seaside, and the autumn in shooting, returning to Paris for the winter. He did not meet his wife once.
He did not even know what people said about her. At any rate, she took care to save appearances, and that was all he asked for.
He got dreadfully bored, traveled again, restored his old castle of Villebosc, which took him two years; then for over a year he received relays of friends there, till at last, tired of all these commonplace, so-called pleasures, he returned to his mansion in the Rue de Lills, just six years after their separation.
He was then forty-five, with a good crop of gray hair, rather stout, and with that melancholy look of people who have been handsome, sought after, and much liked, and who are deteriorating daily.
A month after his return to Paris he took cold on coming out of his club, and had a bad cough, so his medical man ordered him to Nice for the rest of the winter.
He started by the express on Monday evening. He was late, and got to the station only a very short time before the departure of the train, and had barely time to get into a carriage, with only one occupant, who was sitting in a corner so wrapped in furs and cloaks that he could not even make out whether it were a man or a woman, as nothing of the figure could be seen. When he perceived that he could not find out, he put on his traveling-cap, rolled himself up in his rugs, and stretched himself out comfortably to sleep.
He did not wake up till the day was breaking, and looked immediately at his fellow-traveler. He had not stirred all night, and seemed still to be sound asleep.
M. d’Etraille made use of the opportunity to brush his hair and his beard, and to try and freshen himself up a little generally, for a night’s traveling changes one’s looks very much when one has attained to a certain age.
A great poet has said:—
“When we are young, our mornings are triumphant.”
Then we wake up with a cool skin, a bright eye, and glossy hair.
When one grows older one wakes up in a very different state. Dull eyes, red, swollen cheeks, dry lips, the hair and beard all disarranged, impart an old, fatigued, wornout look to the face.
The Baron opened his traveling dressing-case, and made himself as tidy as he could, and then he waited.
The engine whistled and the train stopped, and his neighbor moved. No doubt he was awake. They started off again, and then an oblique ray of sun shone into the carriage just on to the sleeper, who moved again, shook himself, and then calmly showed his face.
It was a young, fair, pretty, stout woman, and the Baron looked at her in amazement. He did not know what to believe. He could really have sworn that it was — his wife, but wonderfully changed for the better: stouter — why she had grown as stout as he was — only it suited her much better than it did him.
She looked at him quietly, did not seem to recognize him, and then slowly laid aside her wraps. She had that calm assurance of a woman who is sure of herself, the insolent audacity of a first awakening, knowing and feeling that she was in her full beauty and freshness.
The Baron really lost his head. Was it his wife, or somebody else who was as like her as any sister could be? As he had not seen her for six years he might be mistaken.
She yawned, and he knew her by her gesture, and she turned and looked at him again, calmly, indifferently, as if she scarcely saw him, and then looked out at the country again.
He was upset and dreadfully perplexed, and waited, looking at her sideways, steadfastly.
Yes; it was certainly his wife. How could he possibly have doubted? There could certainly not be two noses like that, and a thousand recollections flashed through him, slight details of her body, a beauty-spot on one of her thighs, and another opposite to it on her back. How often he had kissed them! He felt the old feeling of the intoxication of love stealing over him, and he called to mind the sweet odor of her skin, her smile when she put her arms on to his shoulders, the soft intonations of her voice, all her graceful, coaxing ways.
But how she had changed and improved! It was she and yet not she. He thought her riper, more developed, more of a woman, more seductive, more desirable, adorably desirable.
And this strange, unknown woman, whom he had accidentally met in a railway-carriage belonged to him; he had only to say to her:
“I insist upon it.”
He had formerly slept in her arms, existed only in her love, and now he had found her again certainly, but so changed that he scarcely knew her. It was another, and yet she at the same time. It was another who had been born, and had formed and grown since he had left her. It was she, indeed; she whom he had possessed but who was now altered, with a more assured smile and greater self-possession. There were two women in one, mingling a great past of what was new and unknown with many sweet recollections of the past. There was something singular, disturbing, exciting about it — a kind of mystery of love in which there floated a delicious confusion. It was his wife in a new body and in new flesh which lips had never pressed.
And he thought that in six years everything changes in us, only the outline can be recognized, and sometimes even that disappears.
The blood, the hair, the skin all change, and is reconstituted, and when people have not seen each other for a long time, when they meet they find another totally different being, although it be the same and bear the same name.
And the heart also can change. Ideas may be modified and renewed, so that in forty years of life we may, by gradual and constant transformations, become four or five totally new and different beings.
He dwelt on this thought till it troubled him; it had first taken possession of him when he surprised her in the Princess’s room. He was not the least angry; it was not the same woman that he was looking at — that thin, excitable little doll of those days.
What was he to do? How should he address her? and what could he say to her? Had she recognized him?
The train stopped again. He got up, bowed, and said: “Bertha, do you want anything I could bring you? . . . ”
She looked at him from head to foot, and answered, without showing the slightest surprise or confusion, or anger, but with the most perfect indifference:
“I do not want anything, — thank you.”
He got out and walked up and down the platform a little in order to recover himself, and, as it were, to recover his senses after a fall. What should he do now? If he got into another carriage it would look as if he were running away. Should he be polite or importunate? That would look as if he were asking for forgiveness. Should he speak as if he were her master? He would look like a fool, and besides, he really had no right to do so.
He got in again and took his place.
During his absence she had hastily arranged her dress and hair, and was now lying stretched out on the seat, radiant, and without showing any emotion.
He turned to her, and said: “My dear Bertha, since this singular chance has brought us together after a separation of six years — a quite friendly separation — are we to continue to look upon each other as irreconcilable enemies? We are shut up together, tête-à-tête, which is so much the better or so much the worse. I am not going to get into another carriage, so don’t you think it is preferable to talk as friends till the end of our journey?”
She answered quite calmly again:
“Just as you please.”
Then he suddenly stopped, really not knowing what to say; but as he had plenty of assurance, he sat down on the middle-seat, and said:
“Well, I see I must pay my court to you; so much the better. It is, however, really a pleasure, for you are charming. You cannot imagine how you have improved in the last six years. I do not know any woman who could give me that delightful sensation which I experienced just now when you emerged from your wraps. I could really have thought such a change impossible. . . . ”
Without moving her head or looking at him, she said: “I cannot say the same with regard to you; you have certainly deteriorated a great deal.”
He got red and confused, and then, with a smile of resignation, he said:
“You are rather hard.”
“Why?” was her reply. “I am only stating facts. I don’t suppose you intend to offer me your love? It must, therefore, be a matter of perfect indifference to you what I think about you. But I see it is a painful subject, so let us talk of something else. What have you been doing since I last saw you?”
He felt rather out of countenance, and stammered:
“I? I have traveled, shot, and grown old, as you see. And you?”
She said, quite calmly: “I have taken care of appearances, as you ordered me.”
He was very near saying something brutal, but he checked himself, and kissed his wife’s hand:
“And I thank you,” he said.
She was surprised. He was indeed cool and always master of himself.
He went on: “As you have acceded to my first request, shall we now talk without any bitterness?”
She made a little movement of surprise.
“Bitterness? I don’t feel any; you are a complete stranger to me; I am only trying to keep up a difficult conversation.”
He was still looking at her, carried away in spite of her harshness, and he felt seized with a brutal desire, the desire of the master.
Perceiving that she had hurt his feelings, she said:
“How old are you now? I thought you were younger than you look.”
He grew rather pale.
“I am forty-five;” and then he added: “I forgot to ask after Princess de Raynes. Are you still intimate with her?”
She looked at him as if she hated him:
“Yes, I certainly am. She is very well, thank you.”
They remained sitting side-by-side, agitated and irritated. Suddenly he said:
“My dear Bertha, I have changed my mind. You are my wife, and I expect you to come with me today. You have, I think, improved both morally and physically, and I am going to take you back again. I am your husband, and it is my right to do so.”
She was stupefied, and looked at him, trying to divine his thoughts; but his face was resolute and impenetrable.
“I am very sorry,” she said, “but I have made other engagements.”
“So much the worse for you,” was his reply. “The law gives me the power, and I mean to use it.”
They were getting to Marseilles, and the train whistled and slackened speed. The Baroness got up, carefully rolled up her wraps, and then turning to her husband, she said:
“My dear Raymond, do not make a bad use of the tête-à-tête which I had carefully prepared. I wished to take precautions, according to your advice, so that I might have nothing to fear from you or from other people, whatever might happen. You are going to Nice, are you not?”
“I shall go wherever you go.”
“Not at all; just listen to me, and I am sure that you will leave me in peace. In a few moments, when we get to the station, you will see the Princess de Raynes and Countess Hermit waiting for me with their husbands. I wished them to see us, and to know that we had spent the night together in the railway-carriage. Don’t be alarmed; they will tell it everywhere as a most surprising fact.
“I told you just now that I had most carefully followed your advice and saved appearances. Anything else does not matter, does it? Well, in order to do so, I wished to be seen with you. You told me carefully to avoid any scandal, and I am avoiding it, for, I am afraid — I am afraid — ”
She waited till the train had quite stopped, and as her friends ran up to open the carriage-door, she said:
“I am afraid that I am in the family-way.”
The Princess stretched out her arms to embrace her, and the Baroness said, pointing to the Baron, who was dumb with astonishment, and was trying to get at the truth:
“You do not recognize Raymond? He has certainly changed a good deal, and he agreed to come with me so that I might not travel alone. We take little trips like this, occasionally, like good friends who cannot live together. We are going to separate here; he has had enough of me already.”
She put out her hand, which he took mechanically, and then she jumped out on to the platform among her friends, who were waiting for her.
The Baron hastily shut the carriage-door, for he was too much disturbed to say a word or come to any determination. He heard his wife’s voice, and their merry laughter as they went away.
He never saw her again, nor did he ever discover whether she had told him a lie or was speaking the truth.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11