My friend, you have asked me to relate to you the liveliest recollections of my life. I am very old, without relatives, without children; so I am free to make a confession to you. Promise me one thing — never to reveal my name.
I have been much loved, as you know; I have often myself loved. I was very beautiful; I may say this today, when my beauty is gone. Love was for me the life of the soul, just as the air is the life of the body. I would have preferred to die rather than exist without affection, without having somebody always to care for me. Women often pretend to love only once with all the strength of their hearts; it has often happened to be so violent in one of my attachments that I thought it would be impossible for my transports ever to end. However, they always died out in a natural fashion, like a fire when it has no more fuel.
I will tell you today the first of my adventures, in which I was very innocent, but which led to the others. The horrible vengeance of that dreadful chemist of Pecq recalls to me the shocking drama of which I was, in spite of myself, a spectator.
I had been a year married to a rich man, Comte Herve de Ker —— a Breton of ancient family, whom I did not love, you understand. True love needs, I believe at any rate, freedom and impediments at the same time. The love which is imposed, sanctioned by law, and blessed by the priest — can we really call that love? A legal kiss is never as good as a stolen kiss. My husband was tall in stature, elegant, and a really fine gentleman in his manners. But he lacked intelligence. He spoke in a downright fashion, and uttered opinions that cut like the blade of a knife. He created the impression that his mind was full of ready-made views instilled into him by his father and mother, who had themselves got them from their ancestors. He never hesitated, but on every subject immediately made narrow-minded suggestions, without showing any embarrassment and without realizing that there might be other ways of looking at things. One felt that his head was closed up, that no ideas circulated in it, none of those ideas which renew a man’s mind and make it sound, like a breath of fresh air passing through an open window into a house.
The chateau in which we lived was situated in the midst of a desolate tract of country. It was a large, melancholy structure, surrounded by enormous trees, with tufts of moss on it resembling old men’s white beards. The park, a real forest, was enclosed in a deep trench called the ha-ha; and at its extremity, near the moorland, we had big ponds full of reeds and floating grass. Between the two, at the edge of a stream which connected them, my husband had got a little hut built for shooting wild ducks.
We had, in addition to our ordinary servants, a keeper, a sort of brute devoted to my husband to the death, and a chambermaid, almost a friend, passionately attached to me. I had brought her back from Spain with me five years before. She was a deserted child. She might have been taken for a gipsy with her dusky skin, her dark eyes, her hair thick as a wood and always clustering around her forehead. She was at the time sixteen years old, but she looked twenty.
The autumn was beginning. We hunted much, sometimes on neighboring estates, sometimes on our own; and I noticed a young man, the Baron de C— — whose visits at the chateau became singularly frequent. Then he ceased to come; I thought no more about it; but I perceived that my husband changed in his demeanor towards me.
He seemed taciturn and preoccupied; he did not kiss me; and, in spite of the fact that he did not come into my room, as I insisted on separate apartments in order to live a little alone, I often at night heard a furtive step drawing near my door, and withdrawing a few minutes after.
As my window was on the ground-floor I thought I had also often heard someone prowling in the shadow around the chateau. I told my husband about it, and, having looked at me intently for some seconds, he answered:
“It is nothing — it is the keeper.”
Now, one evening, just after dinner, Herve, who appeared to be extraordinarily gay, with a sly sort of gaiety, said to me:
“Would you like to spend three hours out with the guns, in order to shoot a fox who comes every evening to eat my hens?”
I was surprised. I hesitated; but, as he kept staring at me with singular persistency, I ended by replying:
“Why, certainly, my friend.” I must tell you that I hunted like a man the wolf and the wild boar. So it was quite natural that he should suggest this shooting expedition to me.
But my husband, all of a sudden, had a curiously nervous look; and all the evening he seemed agitated, rising up and sitting down feverishly.
About ten o’clock, he suddenly said to me:
“Are you ready?”
I rose; and, as he was bringing me my gun himself, I asked:
“Are we to load with bullets or with deershot?”
He showed some astonishment; then he rejoined:
“Oh! only with deershot; make your mind easy! that will be enough.”
Then, after some seconds, he added in a peculiar tone:
“You may boast of having splendid coolness.”
I burst out laughing.
“I? Why, pray? Coolness because I went to kill a fox? But what are you thinking of, my friend?”
And we quietly made our way across the park. All the household slept. The full moon seemed to give a yellow tint to the old gloomy building, whose slate roof glittered brightly. The two turrets that flanked it had two plates of light on their summits, and no noise disturbed the silence of this clear, sad night, sweet and still, which seemed in a death-trance. Not a breath of air, not a shriek from a toad, not a hoot from an owl; a melancholy numbness lay heavy on everything. When we were under the trees in the park, a sense of freshness stole over me, together with the odor of fallen leaves. My husband said nothing; but he was listening, he was watching, he seemed to be smelling about in the shadows, possessed from head to foot by the passion for the chase.
We soon reached the edges of the ponds.
Their tufts of rushes remained motionless; not a breath of air caressed it; but movements which were scarcely perceptible ran through the water. Sometimes the surface was stirred by something, and light circles gathered around, like luminous wrinkles enlarging indefinitely.
When we reached the hut where we were to lie in wait, my husband made me go in first; then he slowly loaded his gun, and the dry cracking of the powder produced a strange effect on me. He saw that I was shuddering, and asked:
“Does this trial happen to be quite enough for you? If so, go back.”
I was much surprised, and I replied:
“Not at all. I did not come to go back without doing anything. You seem queer this evening.”
He murmured, “As you wish,” and we remained there without moving.
At the end of about half-an-hour, as nothing broke the oppressive stillness of this bright autumn night, I said, in a low tone:
“Are you quite sure he is passing this way?”
Herve winced as if I had bitten him, and with his mouth close to my ear, he said:
“Make no mistake about it. I am quite sure.”
And once more there was silence.
I believe I was beginning to get drowsy when my husband pressed my arm, and his voice, changed to a hiss, said:
“Do you see him over there under the trees?”
I looked in vain; I could distinguish nothing. And slowly Herve now cocked his gun, all the time fixing his eyes on my face.
I was myself making ready to fire, and suddenly, thirty paces in front of us, appeared in the full light of the moon a man who was hurrying forward with rapid movements, his body bent, as if he were trying to escape.
I was so stupefied that I uttered a loud cry; but, before I could turn round, there was a flash before my eyes; I heard a deafening report, and I saw the man rolling on the ground, like a wolf hit by a bullet.
I burst into dreadful shrieks, terrified, almost going mad; then a furious hand — it was Herve’s — seized me by the throat. I was flung down on the ground, then carried off by his strong arms. He ran, holding me up, till we reached the body lying on the grass, and he threw me on top of it violently, as if he wanted to break my head.
I thought I was lost; he was going to kill me; and he had just raised his heel up to my forehead when, in his turn, he was gripped, knocked down before I could yet realize what had happened.
I rose up abruptly, and I saw kneeling on top of him Porquita, my maid, clinging like a wild cat to him with desperate energy, tearing off his beard, his moustache, and the skin of his face.
Then, as if another idea had suddenly taken hold of her mind, she rose up, and, flinging herself on the corpse, she threw her arms around the dead man, kissing his eyes and his mouth, opening the dead lips with her own lips, trying to find in them a breath and a long, long kiss of lovers.
My husband, picking himself up, gazed at me. He understood, and falling at my feet, said:
“Oh! forgive me, my darling, I suspected you, and I killed this girl’s lover. It was my keeper that deceived me.”
But I was watching the strange kisses of that dead man and that living woman, and her sobs and her writhings of sorrowing love —
And at that moment I understood that I might be unfaithful to my husband.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58