There were seven of us in a break, four women and three men, one of which latter was on the box seat beside the coachman, and we were following, at a foot pace, the broad highway which serpentines along the coast.
Setting out from Etretat at break of day, in order to visit the ruins of Tancarville, we were still asleep, benumbed by the fresh air of the morning. The women, especially, who were little accustomed to these early excursions, let their eyelids fall and rise every moment, nodding their heads or yawning, quite insensible to the emotion of the breaking of day.
It was autumn. On both sides of the road, the bare fields stretched out, yellowed by the corn and wheat stubble which covered the soil, like a beard that had been badly shaved. The spongy earth seemed to smoke. The larks were singing, high up in the air, while other birds piped in the bushes.
The sun rose at length in front of us, a bright red on the plane of the horizon; and in proportion as it ascended, growing clearer from minute to minute, the country seemed to awake, to smile, to shake itself, stretch itself, like a young girl who is leaving her bed, in her white vapor chemise. The Count of Etraille, who was seated on the box, cried:
“Look! look! a hare!” and he extended his arm towards the left, pointing to a piece of hedge. The animal threaded its way along, almost concealed by the field, raising only its large ears. Then it swerved across a deep rut, stopped, pursued again its easy course, changed its direction, stopped anew, disturbed, spying out every danger, undecided as to the route it should take; when suddenly it began to run with great bounds of the hind legs, disappearing finally, in a large patch of beet-root. All the men had woke up to watch the course of the beast.
René Lemanoir then exclaimed:
“We are not at all gallant this morning,” and regarding his neighbor, the little Baroness of Serennes, who struggled against sleep, he said to her in a subdued voice: “You are thinking of your husband, Baroness. Reassure yourself; he will not return before Saturday, so you have still four days.”
She responded to him with a sleepy smile: “How rude you are.” Then, shaking off her torpor, she added: “Now, let somebody say something that will make us all laugh. You, Monsieur Chenal, who have the reputation of possessing a larger fortune than the Duke of Richelieu, tell us a love story in which you have been mixed up, anything you like.”
Léon Chenal, an old painter, who had once been very handsome, very strong, very proud of his physique, and very amiable, took his long white beard in his hand and smiled, then, after a few moments’ reflection, he became suddenly grave.
“Ladies, it will not be an amusing tale; for I am going to relate to you the most lamentable love affair of my life, and I sincerely hope that none of my friends have ever passed through a similar experience.”
I was at the time twenty-five years of age, and I was making daubs along the coast of Normandy. I call “making daubs” that wandering about, with a bag on one’s back, from mountain to mountain, under the pretext of studying and of sketching nature. I know nothing more enjoyable than that happy-go-lucky wandering life, in which one is perfectly free, without shackles of any kind, without care, without preoccupation, without thinking even of tomorrow. One goes in any direction one pleases, without any guide, save his fancy, without any counselor save his eyes. One pulls up, because a running brook seduces one, because one is attracted, in front of an inn, by the smell of potatoes frying. Sometimes it is the perfume of clematis which decides one in his choice, or the naïve glance of the servant at an inn. Do not despise me for my affection for these rustics. These girls have a soul as well as feeling, not to mention firm cheeks and fresh lips; while their hearty and willing kisses have the flavor of wild fruit. Love always has its price, come whence it may. A heart that beats when you make your appearance, an eye that weeps when you go away, are things so rare, so sweet, so precious, that they must never be despised.
I have had rendezvoux in ditches in which cattle repose, and in barns among the straw, still steaming from the heat of the day. I have recollections of canvas being spread on rude and elastic benches, and of hearty and fresh, free kisses, more delicate and unaffectedly sincere than the subtle attractions of charming and distinguished women.
But what one loves most amidst all these varied adventures is the country, the woods, the risings of the sun, the twilight, the light of the moon. These are, for the painter, honeymoon trips with nature. One is alone with her in that long and tranquil rendezvous. You go to bed in the fields, amidst marguerites and wild poppies, and, with eyes wide open, you watch the going down of the sun, and descry in the distance the little village, with its pointed clock tower, which sounds the hour of midnight.
You sit down by the side of a spring which gushes out from the foot of an oak, amidst a covering of fragile herbs, upright and redolent of life. You go down on your knees, bend forward, you drink that cold and pellucid water which wets your moustache and nose, you drink it with a physical pleasure, as though you kissed the spring, lip to lip. Sometimes, when you encounter a deep hole, along the course of these tiny brooks, you plunge into it, quite naked, and you feel on your skin, from head to foot, like an icy and delicious caress, the lovely and gentle quivering of the current.
You are gay on the hills, melancholy on the verge of pools, exalted when the sun is crowned in an ocean of blood-red shadows, and when it casts on the rivers its red reflection. And, at night, under the moon, which passes across the vault of heaven, you think of things, and singular things, which would never have occurred to your mind under the brilliant light of day.
So, in wandering through the same country where we are this year, I came to the little village of Benouville, on the Falaise, between Yport and Etretat. I came from Fécamp, following the coast, a high coast, and as perpendicular as a wall, with its projecting and rugged rocks falling perpendicularly into the sea. I had walked since the morning on the shaven grass, as smooth and as yielding as a carpet. And singing lustily, I walked with long strides, looking sometimes at the slow and ambling flight of a gull, with its short, white wings, sailing in the blue heavens, sometimes on the green sea, at the brown sails of a fishing bark. In short, I had passed a happy day, a day of listlessness and of liberty.
I was shown a little farm house, where travelers were put up, a kind of inn, kept by a peasant, which stood in the center of a Norman court, which was surrounded by a double row of beeches.
Quitting the Falaise, I gained the hamlet, which was hemmed in by great trees, and I presented myself at the house of Mother Lecacheur.
She was an old, wrinkled and austere rustic, who seemed always to succumb to the pressure of new customs with a kind of contempt.
It was the month of May: the spreading apple-trees covered the court with a whirling shower of blossoms which rained unceasingly both upon people and upon the grass.
“Well, Madame Lecacheur, have you a room for me?”
Astonished to find that I knew her name, she answered:
“That depends; everything is let; but, all the same, there will be no harm in looking.”
In five minutes we were in perfect accord, and I deposited my bag upon the bare floor of a rustic room, furnished with a bed, two chairs, a table, and a wash-stand. The room looked into the large and smoky kitchen, where the lodgers took their meals with the people of the farm and the farmer, who was a widower.
I washed my hands, after which I went out. The old woman fricasseed a chicken for dinner in a large fireplace, in which hung the stew pot, black with smoke.
“You have travelers, then, at the present time?” I said to her.
She answered, in an offended tone of voice:
“I have a lady, an English lady, who has attained to years of maturity. She is going to occupy my other room.”
I obtained, by means of an extra five sous a day, the privilege of dining out in the court when the weather was fine.
My cover was then placed in front of the door, and I commenced to gnaw with my teeth the lean members of the Normandy chicken, to drink the clear cider, and to munch the hunk of white bread, which was four days old, though excellent.
Suddenly, the wooden barrier which gave into the highway, was opened, and a strange person directed her steps towards the house. She was very slender, very tall, enveloped in a Scotch shawl with red borders, and one might have believed that she had no arms, if one had not seen a long hand appear just above the haunches, holding a white tourist umbrella. The face of a mummy, surrounded with sausage rolls of plaited, gray hair, which bounded at every step she took, made me think, I know not why, of a sour herring adorned with curling papers. Lowering her eyes, she passed quickly in front of me, and entered the house.
That singular apparition made me yearn. She undoubtedly was my neighbor, the aged English lady of whom our hostess had spoken.
I did not see her again that day. The next day, when I had installed myself to commence painting, at the end of that beautiful valley, which you know, and which extends as far as Etretat, I perceived, in lifting my eyes suddenly, something singularly attired, standing on the crest of the declivity; one might indeed say, a pole decked out with flags. It was she. On seeing me, she suddenly disappeared. I re-entered the house at midday for lunch, and took my seat at the common table, so as to make the acquaintance of this old original. But she did not respond to my polite advances, was insensible even to my little attentions. I poured water out for her with great alacrity; I passed her the dishes with great eagerness. A slight, almost imperceptible movement of the head, and an English word, murmured so low that I did not understand it, were her only acknowledgments.
I ceased occupying myself with her, although she had disturbed my thoughts.
At the end of three days, I knew as much about her as did Madame Lecacheur herself.
She was called Miss Harriet. Seeking out a secluded village in which to pass the summer, she had been attracted to Benouville, some six months before, and did not seem disposed to quit it. She never spoke at table, ate rapidly, reading all the while a small book, treating of some protestant propaganda. She gave a copy of it to everybody. The curé himself had received no less than four copies, conveyed by an urchin to whom she had paid two sous’ commission. She said sometimes to our hostess, abruptly, without preparing her in the least for the declaration:
“I love the Savior more than all; I admire him in all creation; I adore him in all nature, I carry him always in my heart.”
And she would immediately present the old woman with one of her brochures which were destined to convert the universe.
In the village she was not liked. In fact, the schoolmaster had declared that she was an atheist, and that a kind of reprobation weighed down on her. The curé, who had been consulted by Madame Lecacheur, responded:
“She is a heretic, but God does not wish the death of the sinner, and I believe her to be a person of pure morals.”
These words, “Atheist,” “Heretic,” words which no one can precisely define, threw doubts into some minds. It was asserted, however, that this English woman was rich, and that she had passed her life in traveling through every country in the world, because her family had thrown her off. Why had her family thrown her off. Because of her natural impiety?
She was, in fact, one of those people of exalted principles, one of those opinionated puritans, of which England produces so many, one of those good and insupportable old women who haunt the table d’hôtes of every hotel in Europe, who spoil Italy, impoison Switzerland, render the charming cities of the Mediterranean uninhabitable, carry everywhere their fantastic manias, their petrified vestal manners, their indescribable toilettes and a certain odor of India rubber, which makes one believe that at night they slip themselves into a case of that material.
When I encounter one of these people some fine day in a hotel, I act like the birds, who see a manakin in a field.
This woman, however, appeared so singular that she did not displease me.
Madame Lecacheur, hostile by instinct to everything that was not rustic, felt in her narrow soul a kind of hatred for the ecstatic extravagances of the old girl. She had found a phrase by which to describe her, a phrase assuredly contemptible, which she had got, I know not whence, upon her lips, invented by I know not what confused and mysterious travail of soul. She said: “That woman is a demoniac.” This phrase, culled by that austere and sentimental creature, seemed to me irresistibly comic. I myself, never called her now anything else, but “the demoniac,” exercising a singular pleasure in pronouncing aloud this word on perceiving her.
I would ask Mother Lecacheur: “Well, what is our demoniac about today?”
To which my rustic friend responded, with an air of having been scandalized:
“What do you think, sir, she has picked up a toad which has had its paw battered, and carried it to her room, and has put it in her wash-stand, and dressed it up like a man. If that is not profanation, I should like to know what is!”
On another occasion, when walking along the Falaise, she had bought a large fish which had just been caught, simply to throw it back into the sea again. The sailor, from whom she had bought it, though paid handsomely, was greatly provoked at this act, more exasperated, indeed, than if she had put her hand into his pocket and taken his money. For a whole month he could not speak of the circumstance without getting into a fury and denouncing it as an outrage. Oh yes! She was indeed a demoniac, this Miss Harriet, and Mother Lecacheur must have had an inspiration of genius in thus christening her.
The stable-boy, who was called Sapeur, because he had served in Africa in his youth, entertained other aversions. He said, with a roguish air: “She is an old hag who has lived her days.”
If the poor woman had but known!
The little, kind-hearted Céleste, did not wait upon her willingly, but I was never able to understand why. Probably, her only reason was that she was a stranger, of another race, of a different tongue, and of another religion. She was, in good truth, a demoniac!
She passed her time wandering about the country, adoring and searching for God in nature. I found her one evening on her knees in a cluster of bushes. Having discovered something red through the leaves, I brushed aside the branches and Miss Harriet at once rose to her feet, confused at having been found thus, fixed on me eyes as terrible as those of a wild cat, surprised in open day.
Sometimes, when I was working among the rocks, I would suddenly descry her on the banks of the Falaise like a semaphore signal. She passionately gazed at the vast sea, glittering in the sunlight, and the boundless sky empurpled with fire. Sometimes I would distinguish her at the bottom of a valley, walking quickly, with an English, elastic step; and I would go towards her, attracted I know not by what, simply to see her illuminated visage, her dried-up, ineffable features, which seemed to glow with interior and profound happiness.
I would often encounter her also in the corner of a field sitting on the grass, under the shadow of an apple tree, with her little Bible lying open on her knee, which she looked at meditatively at the distance.
I could no longer tear myself away from that quiet country neighborhood, being bound to it by a thousand links of love for its sweeping and soft landscapes. At this farm I was unknown to the world, far removed from everything, but in close proximity to the soil, the good, healthy, beautiful and green soil. And, must I avow it; there was something besides curiosity which retained me at the residence of Mother Lecacheur. I wished to become acquainted a little with this strange Miss Harriet, and to know what passed in the solitary souls of those wandering old, English dames.
We became acquainted in a rather singular manner. I had just finished a study, which appeared to me to display play brain power; and so it must, as it was sold for ten thousand francs, fifteen years later. It was as simple, however, as that two and two make four, and had nothing to do with academic rules. The whole of the right side of my canvas represented a rock, an enormous rock, covered with sea-wrack, brown, yellow, and red, across which the sun poured like a stream of oil. The light, without which one could see the stars concealed in the back ground, fell upon the stone, and gilded it as if by fire. That was all. A first stupid attempt at dealing with light, burning rays, the sublime.
On the left was the sea, not the blue sea, the slate-colored sea, but a jade of a sea, as greenish, milky and thick as the overcast sky.
I was so pleased with my work that I danced from sheer delight as I carried it back to the inn. I had wished that the whole world could have seen it at one and the same moment. I can remember that I showed it to a cow, which was browsing by the wayside, exclaiming at the same time: “Look at that, my old beauty, you shall not often see its like again.”
When I had reached the front of the house, I immediately called out to Mother Lecacheur, shouting with all my might:
“Ohè! Ohè! my mistress, come here and look at this.”
The rustic advanced and regarded my work with her stupid eyes which distinguished nothing, and which did not even recognize whether the picture was the representation of an ox or a house.
Miss Harriet returned to the house, and she passed in rear of me just at the moment when, holding out my canvas at arm’s length, I was exhibiting it to the female innkeeper. The demoniac could not help but see it, for I took care to exhibit the thing in such a way that it could not escape her notice. She stopped abruptly and stood motionless, stupefied. It was her rock which was depicted, the one which she climbed to dream away her time undisturbed.
She uttered a British “Aoh,” which was at once so accentuated and so flattering, that I turned round to her, smiling, and said:
“This is my last work, Mademoiselle.”
She murmured ecstatically, comically and tenderly:
“Oh! Monsieur, you must understand what it is to have a palpitation.”
I colored up, of course, and was more excited by that compliment than if it had come from a queen. I was seduced, conquered, vanquished. I could have embraced her; upon my honor.
I took a seat at the table beside her, as I had always done. For the first time, she spoke, drawling out in a loud voice:
“Oh! I love nature so much.”
I offered her some bread, some water, some wine. She now accepted these with the vacant smile of a mummy. I then began to converse with her about the scenery.
After the meal, we rose from the table together and we walked leisurely across the court; then, being attracted by the fiery glow which the setting sun cast over the surface of the sea, I opened the outside gate which opened in the direction of the Falaise, and we walked on side by side, as satisfied as any two persons could be, who have just learned to understand and penetrate each other’s motives and feelings.
It was a muggy, relaxing evening, one of those enjoyable evenings, which impart happiness to mind and body alike. All is joy, all is charm. The luscious and balmy air, loaded with the perfumes of herbs, the perfumes of grass-wrack, which caresses the odor of the wild flowers, caresses the potato with its marine flavor, caresses the soul with a penetrating sweetness. We were going to the brink of the abyss, which overlooked the vast sea, and which rolled past us at the distance of less than a hundred meters.
And we drank with open mouth and expanded chest that fresh breath which came from the ocean and which glided slowly over the skin, salted by its long contact with the waves.
Wrapped up in her square shawl, inspired by the balmy air and with teeth firmly set, the English woman gazed fixedly at the great sun ball, as it descended towards the sea. Soon its rim touched the waters, just in rear of a ship which appeared on the horizon, until, by degrees, it was swallowed up by the ocean. It was seen to plunge, diminish, and finally to disappear.
Miss Harriet contemplated with a passionate regard the last glimmer of the flaming orb of day.
She muttered: “Aoh! I loved . . . I loved . . . ” I saw a tear start in her eye. She continued: “I wish I were a little bird, so that I could mount up into the firmament.”
She remained standing as I had often before seen her, perched on the river’s banks, her face as red as her purple shawl. I should have liked to have sketched her in my album. It would have been an ecstatic caricature.
I turned my face away from her so as to be able to laugh.
I then spoke to her of painting, as I would have done to a fellow artist, using the technical terms common among the devotees of the profession. She listened attentively to me, eagerly seeking to define the sense of the obscure words, so as to penetrate my thoughts. From time to time, she would exclaim: “Oh! I understand, I understand. This has been very interesting.”
We returned home.
The next day, on seeing me, she approached me eagerly, holding out her hand; and we became firm friends immediately.
She was a brave creature who had a kind of elastic soul, which became enthusiastic at a bound. She lacked equilibrium, like all women who are spinsters at the age of fifty. She seemed to be pickled in vinegar innocence, though her heart still retained something of youth and of girlish effervescence. She loved both nature and animals with a fervent ardor, a love like old wine, fermented through age, with a sensual love that she had never bestowed on men.
One thing is certain, that a bitch in pup, a mare roaming in a meadow with a foal at its side, a bird’s nest full of young ones, squeaking, with their open mouths and enormous heads, made her quiver with the most violent emotion.
Poor solitary beings! Tristias and wanderers from table d’hôte to table d’hôte, poor beings, ridiculous and lamentable. I love you ever since I became acquainted with Miss Harriet!
I soon discovered that she had something she would like to tell me, but she dare not, and I was amused at her timidity. When I started out in the morning with my box on my back, she accompanied me as far as the end of the village, silent, but evidently struggling inwardly to find words with which to begin a conversation. Then she left me abruptly, and, with a jaunty step, walked away quickly.
One day, however, she plucked up courage:
“I would like to see how you paint pictures? Will you? I have been very curious.”1
1 Jevôdre voir vô comment vô faites le painture? Velé vô? Je été très curièux.
And she colored up as though she had given utterance to words extremely audacious.
I conducted her to the bottom of the Petit–Val, where I had commenced a large picture.
She remained standing near me, following all my gestures with concentrated attention. Then, suddenly, fearing, perhaps, that she was disturbing me she said to me: “Thank you,” and walked away.
But in a short time she became more familiar, and accompanied me every day, her countenance exhibiting visible pleasure. She carried her folding stool under her arm, and would not consent to my carrying it, and she sat always by my side. She would remain there for hours, immovable and mute, following with her eye the point of my brush, in its every movement. When I would obtain, by a large splatch of color spread on with a knife, a striking and unexpected effect, she would, in spite of herself, give vent to a half-suppressed “Ah!” of astonishment, of joy, of admiration. She had the most tender respect for my canvases, an almost religious respect for that human reproduction of a part of nature’s work divine. My studies appeared to her as a kind of pictures of sanctity, and sometimes she spoke to me of God, with the idea of converting me.
Oh! He was a queer good-natured being, this God of hers. He was a sort of village philosopher without any great resources, and without great power; for she always figured him to herself as a being quivering over injustices committed under his eyes, and as though he was helpless to prevent them.
She was, however, on excellent terms with him, affecting even to be the confidant of his secrets and of his contrarieties. She said:
“God wills, or God does not will,” just like a sergeant announcing to a recruit: “The colonel has commanded.”
At the bottom of her heart, she deplored my ignorance of the intentions of the Eternal, which she strove, and felt herself compelled to impart to me.
Almost every day, I found in my pockets, in my hat when I lifted it from the ground, in my box of colors, in my polished shoes, standing in the mornings in front of my door, those little pious brochures, which she, no doubt, received directly from Paradise.
I treated her as one would an old friend, with unaffected cordiality. But I soon perceived that she had changed somewhat in her manner; but, for a while, I paid little attention to it.
When I walked about, whether to the bottom of the valley, or through some country lanes, I would see her suddenly appear, as though she were returning from a rapid walk. She would then sit down abruptly, out of breath, as though she had been running, or overcome by some profound emotion. Her face would be red, that English red which is denied to the people of all other countries; then, without any reason, she would grow pale, become the color of the ground and seem ready to faint away. Gradually, however, I would see her regain her ordinary color, whereupon she would begin to speak.
Then, without warning, she would break off in the middle of a sentence, spring up from her seat, and march off so rapidly and so strangely, that it would, sometimes, put me to my wits ends to try and discover whether I had done or said anything to displease or offend her.
I finally came to the conclusion that this arose from her early habits and training, somewhat modified, no doubt, in honor of me, since the first days of our acquaintanceship.
When she returned to the farm, after walking for hours on the wind-beaten coast, her long curled hair would be shaken out and hanging loose, as though it had broken away from its bearings. It was seldom that this gave her any concern; looking sometimes as though she had just returned from dining sans cèremonie; her locks having become dishevelled by the breezes.
She would then go up to her room in order to adjust what I called her glass lamps; and when I would say to her, in the familiar gallantry, which, however, always offended her:
“You are as beautiful as a planet today, Miss Harriet,” a little blood would immediately mount into her cheeks, the blood of a young maiden, the blood of sweet fifteen.
Then she would become abruptly savage and cease coming to watch me paint. I thought thus:
“This is only a fit of temper she is passing through.”
But it did not always pass away. When I spoke to her sometimes, she would answer me, either with an air of affected indifference, or in sullen anger; and became by turns rude, impatient, and nervous. For a time I never saw her except at meals, and we spoke but little. I concluded, at length, that I must have offended her in something: and, accordingly, I said to her one evening:
“Miss Harriet, why is it that you do not act towards me as formerly? What have I done to displease you? You are causing me much pain!”
She responded, in an angry tone, in a manner altogether sui generis:
“I be always with you the same as formerly.2 It is not true, not true,” and she ran upstairs and shut herself up in her room.
2 J’êtê joujours avec vô la même qu-autre fois.
At times she would look upon me with strange eyes. Since that time I have often said to myself that those who are condemned to death must look thus when they are informed that their last day has come. In her eye there lurked a species of folly, a folly at once mysterious and violent; and even more; a fever, an exasperated desire, impatient, and at once incapable of being realized and unrealizable!
Nay, it seemed to me that there was also going on within her a combat, in which her heart struggled against an unknown force that she wished to overcome, and even, perhaps, something else. But what could I know? What could I know?
This was indeed a singular revelation.
For some time I had commenced to work, as soon as daylight appeared, on a picture, the subject of which was as follows:
A deep ravine, steep banks, dominated by two declivities, lined with brambles and long rows of trees, hidden, drowned in that milky vapor, clad in that musty robe which sometimes floats over valleys, at break of day. And at the extreme end of that thick and transparent fog, you see coming or, rather already come, a human couple, a stripling and a maiden, embraced, inter-laced, she, with head leaning on him, he, inclined towards her, and lips to lips.
A first ray of the sun glistening through the branches, has traversed that fog of the dawn, has illuminated it with a rosy reflection, just behind the rustic lovers, on which can be seen their vague shadows in a clear silver. It was well done, yes, indeed, well done.
I was working on the declivity which led to the Val d’Etretat. This particular morning, I had, by chance, the sort of floating vapor, which was necessary for my purpose. Suddenly, an object appeared in front of me, a kind of phantom; it was Miss Harriet. On seeing me, she took to flight. But I called after her saying: “Come here, come here, Mademoiselle, I have a nice little picture for you.”
She came forward, though with seeming reluctance. I handed her my sketch. She said nothing, but stood for a long time, motionless, regarding it; and, suddenly, she burst into tears. She wept spasmodically, like men who have been struggling hard against shedding tears, but who can do so no longer, and abandon themselves to grief, though still resisting. I got up, trembling, moved myself by the sight of a sorrow I did not comprehend, and I took her by the hand with an impulse of brusque affection, a true French impulse which impels one quicker than one thinks.
She let her hands rest in mine for a few seconds, and I felt them quiver as if her whole nervous system was twisting and turning. Then she withdrew her hands abruptly, or, rather tore them out of mine.
I recognized that shiver, as soon as I had felt it; I was deceived in nothing. Ah! the live shiver of a woman, whether she is fifteen or fifty years of age, whether she is one of the people or one of the monde, goes so straight to my heart that I never had any compunctions in understanding it!
Her whole frail being trembled, vibrated, swooned. I knew it. She walked away before I had time to say a word, leaving me as surprised as if I had witnessed a miracle, and as troubled as if I had committed a crime.
I did not go in to breakfast. I went to make a tour on the banks of the Falaise, feeling that I would just as lieve weep as laugh, looking on the adventure as both comic and deplorable, and my position as ridiculous, fain to believe that I had lost my head.
I asked myself what I ought to do. I debated with myself whether I ought to take my leave of the place and almost immediately my resolution was formed.
Somewhat sad and perplexed, I wandered about until dinner time, and I entered the farm house just when the soup had been served up.
I sat down at the table, as usual. Miss Harriet was there, munching away solemnly, without speaking to anyone, without even lifting eyes. She wore, however, her usual expression, both of countenance and manner.
I waited, patiently, till the meal had been finished, when, turning towards the landlady I said: “See here, Madame Lecacheur, it will not be long now before I shall have to take my leave of you.”
The good woman, at once surprised and troubled, replied in a quivering voice: “My dear sir, what is it I have just heard you say? you are going to leave us, after I have become so much accustomed to you?”
I regarded Miss Harriet from the corner of my eye. Her countenance did not change in the least; but the under-servant came towards me with eyes wide open. She was a fat girl, of about eighteen years of age, rosy, fresh, as strong as a horse, yet possessing the rare attribute in one in her position — she was very neat and clean. I had embraced her at odd times, in out of the way corners, in the manner of a mountain guide, nothing more.
The dinner being at length over, I went to smoke my pipe under the apple trees, walking up and down at my ease, from one end of the court to the other. All the reflections which I had made during the day, the strange discovery of the morning, that grotesque love and passionate attachment for me, the recollections which that revelation had suddenly called up, recollections at once charming and perplexing, perhaps, also, that look which the servant had cast on me at the announcement of my departure — all these things, mixed up and combined, put me now in a jolly humor of body, recalling the tickling sensation of kisses on the lips, and in the veins, something which urged me on to commit some folly.
Night having come on, casting its dark shadows under the trees, I descried Céleste, who had gone to shut the hen coops, at the other end of the enclosure. I darted towards her, running so noiselessly that she heard nothing, and as she got up from closing the small traps by which the chickens got in and out, I clasped her in my arms and rained on her coarse, fat face a shower of kisses. She made a struggle, laughing all the same, as she was accustomed to do in such circumstances. Wherefore did I suddenly loose my grip of her? Why did I at once experience a shock? What was it that I heard behind me?
It was Miss Harriet who had come upon us, who had seen us, and who stood in front of us, as motionless as a specter. Then she disappeared in the darkness.
I was ashamed, embarrassed, more desperate at having been surprised by her than if she had caught me committing some criminal act.
I slept badly that night; I was completely enervated and haunted by sad thoughts. I seemed to hear loud weeping; but in this I was no doubt deceived. Moreover, I thought several times that I heard some one walking up and down in the house, and who had opened my door from the outside.
Towards morning, I was overcome by fatigue and sleep seized on me. I got up late and did not go downstairs until breakfast time, being still in a bewildered state, not knowing what kind of face to put on.
No one had seen Miss Harriet. We waited for her at table, but she did not appear. At length Mother Lecacheur went to her room. The English woman had gone out. She must have set out at break of day, as she was wont to do, in order to see the sun rise.
Nobody seemed astonished at this and we began to eat in silence.
The weather was hot, very hot, one of those still, boiling days, when not a leaf stirs. The table had been placed out of doors, under an apple tree; and from time to time Sapeur had gone to the cellar to draw a jug of cider, everybody was so thirsty. Céleste brought the dishes from the kitchen, a ragout of mutton with potatoes, a cold rabbit and a salad. Afterwards she placed before us a dish of strawberries, the first of the season.
As I wanted to wash and refresh these, I begged the servant to go and bring a pitcher of cold water.
In about five minutes she returned, declaring that the well was dry. She had lowered the pitcher to the full extent of the cord, and had touched the bottom, but on drawing the pitcher up again, it was empty. Mother Lecacheur, anxious to examine the thing for herself, went and looked down the hole. She returned announcing that one could see clearly something in the well, something altogether unusual. But this, no doubt, was pottles of straw, which, out of spite, had been cast down it by a neighbor.
I wished also to look down the well, hoping I would be able to clear up the mystery, and perched myself close to its brink. I perceived, indistinctly, a white object. What could it be? I then conceived the idea of lowering a lantern at the end of a cord. When I did so, the yellow flame danced on the layers of stone and gradually became clearer. All the four of us were leaning over the opening, Sapeur and Céleste having now joined us. The lantern rested on a black and white, indistinct mass, singular, incomprehensible. Sapeur exclaimed:
“It is a horse. I see the hoofs. It must have escaped from the meadow, during the night, and fallen in headlong.”
But, suddenly, a cold shiver attacked my spine, I first recognized a foot, then a clothed limb; the body was entire, but the other limb had disappeared under the water.
I groaned and trembled so violently that the light of the lamp danced hither and thither over the object, discovering a slipper.
“It is a woman! who . . . who . . . can it be? It is Miss Harriet.”
Sapeur alone did not manifest horror. He had witnessed many such scenes in Africa.
Mother Lecacheur and Céleste began to scream and to shriek, and ran away.
But it was necessary to recover the corpse of the dead. I attached the valet securely by the loins to the end of the pulley-rope, and I lowered him slowly, and watched him disappear in the darkness. In the one hand he had a lantern, and held on by the rope with the other. Soon I recognized his voice, which seemed to come from the center of the earth, crying:
I then saw him fish something out of the water. It was the other limb. He then bound the two feet together, and shouted anew:
I commenced to wind him up, but I felt my arms crack, my muscles twitch, and I was in terror lest I should let the man fall to the bottom. When his head appeared at the brink, I asked:
“Well, what is it?” as though I only expected that he would inform me of what he had discovered at the bottom.
We both got on to the stone slab at the edge of the well, and, face to face, we hoisted the body.
Mother Lecacheur and Céleste watched us from a distance, concealed from view behind the wall of the house. When they saw, issuing from the hole, the black slippers and the white stockings of the drowned person, they disappeared.
Sapeur seized the ankles of the poor chaste woman, and we drew it up, sloping, as it was, in the most immodest posture. The head was shocking to look at, being bruised and black; and the long, gray hair, hanging down tangled and disordered.
“In the name of all that is holy, how lean she is!” exclaimed Sapeur, in a contemptuous tone.
We carried her into the room, and as the women did not put in an appearance, I, with the assistance of the stable lad, dressed the corpse for burial.
I washed her disfigured face. To the touch of my hand, an eye was slightly opened, which regarded me with that pale regard, with that cold look, with that terrible look that corpses have, which seemed to come from beyond life. I plaited up, as well as I could, her disheveled hair, and I adjusted on her forehead, a novel and singularly formed lock. Then I took off her dripping wet garments, baring, not without a feeling of shame, as though I had been guilty of some profanation, her shoulders and her chest, and her long arms, as slim as the twigs of branches.
I next went to fetch some flowers, corn poppies, blue beetles, marguerites, and fresh and perfumed herbs, with which to strew her funeral couch.
I being the only person near her, it was necessary for me to perform the usual ceremonies. In a letter found in her pocket, written at the last moment, it was ordered that her body was to be buried in the village in which she had passed the last days of her life. A frightful thought then pressed on my heart. Was it not on my account that she wished to be laid to rest in this place?
Towards the evening, all the female gossips of the locality came to view the remains of the defunct; but I would not allow a single person to enter; I wanted to be alone; and I watched by the corpse the whole night.
I looked at the corpse by the flickering lights of the candles, this miserable woman, wholly unknown, who had died lamentably and so far away from home. Had she left no friends, no relations behind her? What had her infancy been? What had been her life? Whence had she hailed thither thus, all alone, wanderer, lost like a dog driven from its home? What secrets of sufferings and despair were sealed up in that disagreeable body, in that spent, tarnished body — tarnished during the whole of its existence, that impenetrable envelope which had driven her far away from all affection, from all love?
How many unhappy beings there are! I felt that there weighed upon that human creature the eternal injustice of implacable nature! It was all over with her, without her ever having experienced, perhaps, that which sustains the greatest outcasts — to wit, the hope of being loved for once! Otherwise, why should she thus have concealed herself, fled from the face of the others? Why did she love everything so tenderly and so passionately, everything living that was not a man?
I recognized, also, that she believed in a God, and that she hoped to receive compensation from the latter for all the miseries she had endured. She had begun now to decompose, and to become, in turn, a plant. She who had blossomed in the sun, was now to be eaten up by the cattle, carried away in seeds, and flesh of beasts, would become again human flesh. But that which is called the soul, had been extinguished at the bottom of the dark well. She suffered no longer. She had changed her life for that of others yet to be born.
Hours passed away in this silent and sinister communion with the dead. A pale light at length announced the dawn of a new day, when a bright ray glistened on the bed, shed a dash of fire on the bed clothes and on her hands. This was the hour she had so much loved, when the awakened birds began to sing in the trees.
I opened the window to its fullest extent, I drew back the curtains, so that the whole heavens might look in upon us, and bending towards the glassy corpse, I took in my hands the mutilated head; then, slowly, without terror or disgust, I imprinted a kiss, a long kiss, upon those lips, which had never before received any.
Léon Chenal remained silent. The women wept. We heard on the box seat the Count d’Etraille, who blows his nose, from time to time. The coachman alone had gone to sleep. The horses, which felt no longer the sting of the whip, had slowed their pace and dragged along softly, and the brake, hardly advancing at all, became suddenly torpid, as if it had been charged with sorrow.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11