During nearly his whole life, he had had an insatiable love for sport. He went out every day, from morning till night, with the greatest ardor, in summer and winter, spring and autumn, on the marshes, when it was close time on the plains and in the woods. He shot, he hunted, he coursed, he ferreted; he spoke of nothing but shooting and hunting, he dreamt of it, and continually repeated:
“How miserable any man must be who does not care for sport!”
And now that he was past fifty, he was well, robust, stout and vigorous, though rather bald, and he kept his moustache cut quite short, so that it might not cover his lips, and interfere with his blowing the horn.
He was never called by anything but his first Christian name, Monsieur Hector, but his full name was Baron Hector Gontran de Coutelier, and he lived in a small manor house which he had inherited, in the middle of the woods; and though he knew all the nobility of the department, and met its male representatives out shooting and hunting, he only regularly visited one family, the Courvilles, who were very pleasant neighbors, and had been allied to his race for centuries, and in their house he was liked, and taken the greatest care of, and he used to say: “If I were not a sportsman, I should like to be here always.”
Monsieur de Courville had been his friend and comrade from childhood, and lived quietly as a gentleman farmer with his wife, daughter and son-inlaw, Monsieur de Darnetot, who did nothing, under the pretext of being devoted to historical studies.
Baron de Coutelier often went and dined with his friends, as much with the object of telling them of the shots he had made, as of anything else. He had long stories about dogs and ferrets, of which he spoke as if they were persons of note, whom he knew very well. He analyzed them, and explained their thoughts and intentions:
“When Medor saw that the corn-crake was leading him such a dance, he said to himself: ‘Wait a bit, my friend, we will have a joke.’ And then, with a jerk of the head to me, to make me go into the corner of the clover field, he began to quarter the sloping ground, noisily brushing through the clover to drive the bird into a corner from which it could not escape.
“Everything happened as he had foreseen. Suddenly, the corn-crake found itself on the borders of the clover, and it could not go any further without showing itself; Medor stood and pointed, half-looking round at me, but at a sign from me, he drew up to it, flushed the corn-crake; bang! down it came, and Medor, as he brought it to me, wagged his tail, as much as to say: ‘How about that, Monsieur Hector?’”
Courville, Darnetot, and the two ladies laughed very heartily at those picturesque descriptions into which the Baron threw his whole heart. He grew animated, moved his arms about, and gesticulated with his whole body; and when he described the death of anything he had killed, he gave a formidable laugh, and said:
“Was not that a good shot?”
As soon as they began to speak about anything else, he left off listening, and hummed a hunting song, or a few notes to imitate a hunting horn, to himself.
He had only lived for field sports, and was growing old, without thinking about it, or guessing it, when he had a severe attack of rheumatism, and was confined to his bed for two months, and nearly died of grief and weariness.
As he kept no female servant, for an old footman did all the cooking, he could not get any hot poultices, nor could he have any of those little attentions, nor anything that an invalid requires. His gamekeeper was his sick nurse, and as the servant found the time hang just as heavily on his hands as it did on his master’s, he slept nearly all day and all night in any easy chair, while the Baron was swearing and flying into a rage between the sheets.
The ladies of the De Courville family came to see him occasionally, and those were hours of calm and comfort for him. They prepared his herb tea, attended to the fire, served him his breakfast up daintily, by the side of his bed, and when they were going again, he used to say:
“By Jove! You ought to come here altogether,” which made them laugh heartily.
When he was getting better, and was beginning to go out shooting again, he went to dine with his friends one evening; but he was not at all in his usual spirits. He was tormented by one continual fear — that he might have another attack before shooting began, and when he was taking his leave at night, when the women were wrapping him up in a shawl, and tying a silk handkerchief round his neck, which he allowed to be done for the first time in his life, he said in a disconsolated voice:
“If it goes on like this, I shall be done for.”
As soon as he had gone, Madame Darnetot said to her mother:
“We ought to try and get the Baron married.”
They all raised their hands at the proposal. How was it that they had never thought of it before? And during all the rest of the evening they discussed the widows whom they knew, and their choice fell on a woman of forty, who was still pretty, fairly rich, very good-tempered and in excellent health, whose name was Madame Berthe Vilers, and, accordingly, she was invited to spend a month at the château. She was very dull at home, and was very glad to come; she was lively and active, and Monsieur de Coutelier took her fancy immediately. She amused herself with him as if he had been a living toy, and spent hours in asking him slyly about the sentiments of rabbits and the machinations of foxes, and he gravely distinguished between the various ways of looking at things which different animals had, and ascribed plans and subtle arguments to them, just as he did to men of his acquaintance.
The attention she paid him, delighted him, and one evening, to show his esteem for her, he asked her to go out shooting with him, which he had never done to any woman before, and the invitation appeared so funny to her that she accepted it.
It was quite an amusement for them to fit her out; everybody offered her something, and she came out in a sort of short riding habit, with boots and men’s breeches, a short petticoat, a velvet jacket, which was too tight for her across the chest, and a huntsman’s black velvet cap.
The Baron seemed as excited as if he were going to fire his first shot. He minutely explained to her the direction of the wind, and how different dogs worked. Then he took her into a field, and followed her as anxiously as a nurse does when her charge is trying to walk for the first time.
Medor soon made a point, and stopped with his tail out stiff and one paw up, and the Baron, standing behind his pupil, was trembling like a leaf, and whispered:
“Look out, they are par . . . par . . . partridges.” And almost before he had finished, there was a loud whirr — whirr, and a covey of large birds flew up in the air, with a tremendous noise.
Madame Vilers was startled, shut her eyes, fired off both barrels and staggered at the recoil of the gun; but when she had recovered her self-possession, she saw that the Baron was dancing about like a madman, and that Medor was bringing back the first of the two partridges which she had killed.
From that day, Monsieur de Coutelier was in love with her, and used to say, raising his eyes: “What a woman!” And he used to go and see them every evening now, and talked about shooting.
One day, Monsieur de Courville, who was walking part of the way with him, asked him, suddenly:
“Why don’t you marry her?”
The Baron was altogether taken by surprise, and said:
“What? I? Marry her? . . . Well . . . really. . . . ”
And he said no more for a while, but then, suddenly shaking hands with his companion, he said:
“Good-bye, my friend,” and quickly disappeared in the darkness.
He did not go again for three days, but when he reappeared, he was pale from thinking the matter over, and graver than usual. Taking Monsieur de Courville aside, he said:
“That was a capital idea of yours; try and persuade her to accept me, for one might say that a woman like she is, was made for me, and you and I shall be able to have some sort of sport together, all the year round.”
As Monsieur de Courville felt certain that his friend would not meet with a refusal, he replied:
“Propose to her immediately, my dear fellow, or would you rather that I did it for you?”
But the Baron grew suddenly nervous, and said, with some hesitation:
“No, . . . no. . . . I must go to Paris for . . . for a few days. As soon as I come back, I will give you a definite answer.” No other explanation was forthcoming, and he started the next morning.
He made a long stay. One, two, three weeks passed, but Monsieur de Coutelier did not return, and the Courvilles, who were surprised and uneasy, did not know what to say to their friend, whom they had informed of the Baron’s wishes. Every other day they sent to his house for news of him, but none of his servants had a line.
But one evening, while Madame Vilers was singing, and accompanying herself on the piano, a servant came with a mysterious air, and told Monsieur de Courville that a gentleman wanted to see him. It was the Baron, in a traveling suit, who looked much altered and older, and as soon as he saw his old friend, he seized both his hands, and said, in a somewhat tired voice: “I have just returned, my dear friend, and I have come to you immediately; I am thoroughly knocked up.”
Then he hesitated in visible embarrassment, and presently said:
“I wished to tell you . . . immediately . . . that . . . that business . . . you know what I mean . . . must come to nothing.”
Monsieur de Courville looked at him in stupefaction. “Must come to nothing? . . . Why?”
“Oh! Do not ask me, please; it would be too painful for me to tell you; but you may rest assured that I am acting like an honorable man. I cannot . . . I have no right . . . no right, you understand, to marry this lady, and I will wait until she has gone, to come here again; it would be too painful for me to see her. Good-bye.” And he absolutely ran away.
The whole family deliberated and discussed the matter, surmising a thousand things. The conclusion they came to was, that the Baron’s past life concealed some great mystery, that, perhaps, he had natural children, or some connection of long standing. At any rate, the matter seemed serious, and so as to avoid any difficult complications, they adroitly informed Madame Vilers of the state of affairs, who returned home just as much of a widow as she had come.
Three months more passed, when one evening, when he had dined rather too well, and was rather unsteady on his legs, Monsieur de Coutelier, while he was smoking his pipe with Monsieur de Courville, said to him:
“You would really pity me, if you only knew how continually I am thinking about your friend.”
But the other, who had been rather vexed at the Baron’s behavior in the circumstances, told him exactly what he thought of him:
“By Jove, my good friend, when a man has any secrets in his existence, like you have, he does not make advances to a woman, immediately, as you did, for you must surely have foreseen the reason why you had to draw back.”
The Baron left off smoking in some confusion.
“Yes, and no; at any rate, I could not have believed what actually happened.”
Whereupon, Monsieur de Courville lost his patience, and replied:
“One ought to foresee everything.”
But Monsieur de Coutelier replied in a low voice, in case anybody should be listening: “I see that I have hurt your feelings, and will tell you everything, so that you may forgive me. You know that for twenty years I have lived only for sport; I care for nothing else, and think about nothing else. Consequently, when I was on the point of undertaking certain obligations with regard to this lady, I felt some scruples of conscience. Since I have given up the habit of . . . of love, there! I have not known whether I was still capable of . . . you know what I mean . . . Just think! It is exactly sixteen years since . . . I for the last time . . . you understand what I mean. In this neighborhood, it is not easy to . . . you know. And then, I had other things to do. I prefer to use my gun, and so before entering into an engagement before the Mayor1 and the Priest to . . . well, I was frightened. I said to myself: ‘Confound it; suppose I missed fire!’ An honorable man always keeps his engagements, and in this case, I was undertaking sacred duties with regard to this lady, and so, to feel sure, I made up my mind to go and spend a week in Paris.
1 Civil marriage is obligatory in France, whether a religious ceremony takes place or not. — TRANSLATOR.]
“At the end of that time, nothing, absolutely nothing occurred. I always lost the game. . . . I waited for a fortnight, three weeks, continually hoping. In the restaurants, I ate a number of highly seasoned dishes, which upset my stomach, and . . . and it was still the same thing . . . or rather, nothing. You will, therefore, understand, that, in such circumstances, and having assured myself of the fact, the only thing I could do was . . . was . . . to withdraw; and I did so.”
Monsieur de Courville had to struggle very hard not to laugh, and he shook hands with the Baron, saying:
“I am very sorry for you,” and accompanied him half-way home.
When he got back, and was alone with his wife, he told her everything, nearly choking with laughter; she, however, did not laugh, but listened very attentively, and when her husband had finished, she said, very seriously:
“The Baron is a fool, my dear; he was frightened, that is all. I will write and ask Berthe to come back here as soon as possible.”
And when Monsieur de Courville observed that their friend had made such long and useless attempts, she merely said:
“Nonsense! When a man loves his wife, you know . . . that sort of thing adjusts itself to the situation.”
And Monsieur de Courville made no reply, as he felt rather confused himself.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53