The cemetery, filled with officers, looked like a field covered with flowers. The kepis and the red trousers, the stripes and the gold buttons, the shoulder-knots of the staff, the braid of the chasseurs and the hussars, passed through the midst of the tombs, whose crosses, white or black, opened their mournful arms — their arms of iron, marble, or wood — over the vanished race of the dead.
Colonel Limousin’s wife had just been buried. She had been drowned, two days before, while taking a bath. It was over. The clergy had left; but the colonel, supported by two brother-officers, remained standing in front of the pit, at the bottom of which he saw still the oaken coffin, wherein lay, already decomposed, the body of his young wife.
He was almost an old man, tall and thin, with white moustache; and, three years ago, he had married the daughter of a comrade, left an orphan on the death of her father, Colonel Sortis.
The captain and the lieutenant, on whom their commanding officer was leaning, attempted to lead him away. He resisted, his eyes full of tears, which he heroically held back, and murmuring, “No, no, a little while longer!” he persisted in remaining there, his legs bending under him, at the side of that pit, which seemed to him bottomless, an abyss into which had fallen his heart and his life, all that he held dear on earth.
Suddenly, General Ormont came up, seized the colonel by the arm, and dragging him from the spot almost by force said: “Come, come, my old comrade! you must not remain here.”
The colonel thereupon obeyed, and went back to his quarters. As he opened the door of his study, he saw a letter on the table. When he took it in his hands, he was near falling with surprise and emotion; he recognized his wife’s handwriting. And the letter bore the post-mark and the date of the same day. He tore open the envelope and read:
“Permit me to call you still father, as in days gone by. When you receive this letter, I shall be dead and under the clay. Therefore, perhaps, you may forgive me.
“I do not want to excite your pity or to extenuate my sin. I only want to tell the entire and complete truth, with all the sincerity of a woman who, in an hour’s time, is going to kill herself.
“When you married me through generosity, I gave myself to you through gratitude, and I loved you with all my girlish heart. I loved you as I loved my own father — almost as much; and one day, while I sat on your knee, and you were kissing me, I called you ‘Father’ in spite of myself. It was a cry of the heart, instinctive, spontaneous. Indeed, you were to me a father, nothing but a father. You laughed, and you said to me, ‘Address me always in that way, my child; it gives me pleasure.’
“We came to the city; and — forgive me, father — I fell in love. Ah! I resisted long, well, nearly two years — and then I yielded, I sinned, I became a fallen woman.
“And as to him? You will never guess who he is. I am easy enough about that matter, since there were a dozen officers always around me and with me, whom you called my twelve constellations.
“Father, do not seek to know him, and do not hate him. He only did what any man, no matter whom, would have done in his place, and then I am sure that he loved me, too, with all his heart.
“But listen! One day we had an appointment in the isle of Becasses — you know the little isle, close to the mill. I had to get there by swimming, and he had to wait for me in a thicket, and then to remain there till nightfall, so that nobody should see him going away. I had just met him when the branches opened, and we saw Philippe, your orderly, who had surprised us. I felt that we were lost, and I uttered a great cry. Thereupon he said to me — he, my lover — ‘Go, swim back quietly, my darling, and leave me here with this man.’
“I went away so excited that I was near drowning myself, and I came back to you expecting that something dreadful was about to happen.
“An hour later, Philippe said to me in a low tone, in the lobby outside the drawing-room where I met him: ‘I am at madame’s orders, if she has any letters to give me.’ Then I knew that he had sold himself, and that my lover had bought him.
“I gave him some letters, in fact — all my letters — he took them away, and brought me back the answers.
“This lasted about two months. We had confidence in him, as you had confidence in him yourself.
“Now, father, here is what happened. One day, in the same isle which I had to reach by swimming, but this time alone, I found your orderly. This man had been waiting for me; and he informed me that he was going to reveal everything about us to you, and deliver to you the letters which he had kept, stolen, if I did not yield to his desires.
“Oh! father, father, I was filled with fear — a cowardly fear, an unworthy fear, a fear above all of you who had been so good to me, and whom I had deceived — fear on his account too — you would have killed him — for myself also perhaps! I cannot tell; I was mad, desperate; I thought of once more buying this wretch who loved me, too — how shameful!
“We are so weak, we women, we lose our heads more easily than you do. And then, when a woman once falls, she always falls lower and lower. Did I know what I was doing? I understood only that one of you two and I were going to die — and I gave myself to this brute.
“You see, father, that I do not seek to excuse myself.
“Then, then — then what I should have foreseen happened — he had the better of me again and again, when he wished, by terrifying me. He, too, has been my lover, like the other, every day. Is not this abominable? And what punishment, father?
“So then it is all over with me. I must die. While I lived, I could not confess such a crime to you. Dead, I dare everything. I could not do otherwise than die — nothing could have washed me clean — I was too polluted. I could no longer love or be loved. It seemed to me that I stained everyone by merely allowing my hand to be touched.
“Presently I am going to take my bath, and I will never come back.
“This letter for you will go to my lover. It will reach him when I am dead, and without anyone knowing anything about it, he will forward it to you, accomplishing my last wishes. And you shall read it on your return from the cemetery.
“Adieu, father! I have no more to tell you. Do whatever you wish, and forgive me.”
The colonel wiped his forehead, which was covered with perspiration. His coolness; the coolness of days when he had stood on the field of battle, suddenly came back to him. He rang.
A man-servant made his appearance. “Send in Philippe to me,” said he. Then, he opened the drawer of his table.
The man entered almost immediately — a big soldier with red moustache, a malignant look, and a cunning eye.
The colonel looked him straight in the face.
“You are going to tell me the name of my wife’s lover.”
“But, my colonel — ”
The officer snatched his revolver out of the half-open drawer.
“Come! quick! You know I do not jest!”
“Well — my colonel — it is Captain Saint–Albert.”
Scarcely had he pronounced this name when a flame flashed between his eyes, and he fell on his face, his forehead pierced by a ball.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58