It was not only her long, silky curls, which covered her small, fairy-like head, like a golden halo, nor her beautiful complexion, nor her mouth, which was like some delicate shell, nor was it her supreme innocence, which was shown by her sudden blushes, and by her somewhat awkward movements, nor was it her ingenious questions which had assailed and conquered George d’Harderme’s heart. He had a peculiar temper, and any appearance of a yoke frightened him and put him to flight immediately, and his unstable heart was ready to yield to any temptation, and he was incapable of any lasting attachment, while a succession of women had left no more traces on it than on the seashore, which is constantly being swept by the waves.
It was not the dream of a life of affection, of peace, the want of loving and of being loved, which a fast man so often feels between thirty and forty. His insurmountable lassitude of that circle of pleasure in which he has turned, like a horse in a circus, the voids in his existence which the marriage of his bachelor friends cause, and which in his selfishness he looks upon as desertion, and whom he, nevertheless, envies, which had at last induced him to listen to the prayers and advice of his old mother, and to marry Mademoiselle Suzanne de Gouvres; but the vision that he had had when he saw her playing with quite little children, covering them with kisses, and looking at them with ecstacy in her limpid eyes, and in hearing her talk of the pleasures and the anguish that they must feel who are mothers in the fullest sense of the word-the vision of a happy home where a man feels that he is living again in others of that house, which is full of laughter and of song, and seems as if it were full of birds.
As a matter of fact, he loved children, like some men love animals, and he was interested in them, as in some delightful spectacle, and they attracted him.
He was very gentle, kind and thoughtful with them, invented games for them, took them on his knees, was never tired of listening to their chatter, or of watching the development of their instincts, of their intellect, and of their little, delicate souls.
He used to go and sit in the Parc Monceau, and in the squares, to watch them playing and romping and prattling round him, and one day, as a joke, somebody, a jealous mistress, or some friends in joke, had sent him a splendid wet nurse’s cap, with long, pink ribbons.
At first, he was under the influence of the charm that springs from the beginning of an intimacy, from the first kisses, and devoted himself altogether to that amorous education which revealed a new life to him, as it were, and enchanted him.
He thought of nothing except of increasing the ardent love that his wife bestowed on him, and lived in a state of perpetual adoration. Suzanne’s feelings, the metamorphosis of that virginal heart, which was beginning to glow with love, and which vibrated, her passion, her modesty, her sensations, were all delicious surprises to him.
He felt that feverish pleasure of a traveler who has discovered some marvelous Eden, and loses his head over it, and, at times, with a long affectionate and proud look at her, which grew even warmer on looking into Suzanne’s limpid, blue eyes, he would put his arms round her waist, and pressing her to him so strongly that it hurt the young woman, he exclaimed:
“Oh! I am quite sure that nowhere on earth are there two people who love each other as we do, and who are as happy as you and I are, my darling!”
Months of uninterrupted possession and enchantment succeeded each other without George altering, and without any lassitude mingling with the ardor of their love, or the fire of their affection dying out.
Then, however, suddenly he ceased to be happy, and, in spite of all his efforts to hide his invincible lowness of spirits, he became another man, restless, being irritated at nothing, morose, and bored at everything and everywhere; whimsical, and never knowing what he wanted.
But there was certainly something that was now poisoning that affection which had formerly been his delight, which was coming more and more between him and his wife every day, and which was giving him a distaste for home.
By degrees, that vague suffering assumed a definite shape in his heart, got implanted and fixed there, like a nail. He had not attained his object, and he felt the weight of chains, understood that he could never get used to such an existence, that he could not love a woman who seemed incapable of becoming a mother, who lowered herself to the part of a lawful mistress, and who was not faithful to him.
Alas! To awake from such a dream, to say to himself that he was reduced to envying the good fortune of others, that he should never cover a little, curly, smiling head with kisses, where some striking likeness, some undecided gleams of growing intellect fill a man with joy, but that he would be obliged to take the remainder of his journey in solitude, heart-broken, with nothing but old age around him; that no branch would again spring from the family tree, and that on his death-bed he should not have that last consolation of pressing his dear ones, for whom he struggled and made so many sacrifices, in his failing arms, and who were sobbing with grief, but that soon he should be the prey of indifferent and greedy heirs, who were discounting his approaching death like some valuable security!
George had not told Suzanne the feelings which were tormenting him, and took care that she should not see his state of unhappiness, and he did not worry her with trying questions, that only end in some violent and distressing scene.
But she was too much of a woman, and she loved her husband too much, not to guess what was making him so gloomy, and was imperiling their love.
And every month there came a fresh disappointment, and hope was again deferred. She, however, persisted in believing that their wish would be granted, and grew ill with this painful waiting, and refused to believe that she should never be a mother.
She would have looked upon it as a humiliation either to consult a medical man, or to make a pilgrimage to some shrine, like so many women did, in their despair, and her proud, loyal and loving nature at last rebelled against that hostility, which showed itself in the angry outbursts, the painful silence, and the haughty coldness of the man who could, however, have done anything he liked with her, by a little kindness.
With death in her soul, she had a presentiment of the way of the cross, which is an end of love, of all the bitterness, which sooner or later would end in terrible quarrels, and in words which would put an impassable barrier between them.
At last, one evening, when George d’Hardermes had lost his temper, had wounded her by equivocal words and bad jokes, Suzanne, who was very pale, and who was clutching the arms of her easy chair convulsively, interrupted him with the accents of farewell in her melancholy face:
“As you do not love me any more, why not tell me so, at once, instead of wounding me like this by small, traitorous blows, and, above all, why continue to live together? . . . You want your liberty, and I will give it to you; you have your fortune, and I have mine. Let us separate without a scandal and without a lawsuit, so that, at least, a little friendship may survive our love . . . I shall leave Paris and go and live in the country with my mother. . . . God is my witness, however, that I still love you, my poor George, as much as ever, and that I shall remain your wife, whether I am with you, or separated from you!”
George hesitated for a few moments before replying, with an uneasy, sad look on his face, and then said, turning away his head:
“Yes, perhaps it will be best for both of us!”
They voluntarily broke their marriage contract, as she had heroically volunteered to do. She kept her resolution, exiled herself, buried herself in obscurity, accepted the trial with calm fortitude, and was as resigned as only faithful and devoted souls can be.
They wrote to each other, and she deluded herself, pursued the chimera that George would return to her, would call her back to his side, would escape from his former associates, would understand of what deep love he had voluntarily deprived himself, and would love her again as he had formerly loved her; and she resisted all the entreaties and the advice of her friends, to cut such a false position short, and to institute a suit for divorce against her husband, as the issue would be certain.
He, at the end of a few months of solitude, of evanescent love affairs, when to beguile his loneliness, a man passes from the arms of one woman to those of another, had set up a new home, and had tied himself to a woman whom he had accidentally met at a party of friends, and who had managed to please him and to amuse him.
His deserted wife was naturally not left in ignorance of the fact, and, stifling her jealousy and her grief, she put on a smile, and thought that it would be the same with this one as it had been with all his other ephemeral mistresses, whom her husband had successively got rid of.
Was not that, after all, the best thing to bring about the issue which she longed and hoped for? Would not that doubtful passion, that close intimacy certainly make Monsieur d’Hardermes compare the woman he possessed with the woman he had formerly had, and cause him to invoke that lost paradise and that heart full of forgiveness, of love and of goodness, which had not forgotten him, but which would respond to his first appeal?
And that confidence of hers in a happier future, which neither all the proofs of that connection, in which Monsieur d’Hardermes was becoming more and more involved, and which her friends so kindly furnished her with, nor the disdainful silence with which he treated all her gentle, indulgent letters could shake, had something touching, angelic in it, and reminded those who knew her well, of certain passages in the Lives of the Saints.
At length, however, the sympathy of those who had so often tried to save the young woman, to cure her, and to open her eyes, became exhausted, and, left to herself, Suzanne proudly continued her dream, and absorbed herself in it.
Two interminable years had passed since she had lived with Monsieur d’Hardermes, and since he had put that hateful mistress in her place. She had lost all trace of them, knew nothing about him, and, in spite of everything, did not despair of seeing him again, and regaining her hold over him, who could tell when, or by what miracle, but surely before those eyes which he had so loved were tired of shedding tears, and her fair hair, which he had so often covered with kisses, had grown white.
And the arrival of the postman every morning and evening, made her start and shiver with nervousness.
One day, however, when she was going to Paris, Madame d’Hardermes found herself alone in the ladies’ carriage, into which she had got in a hurry, with a peasant woman in her Sunday best, who had a child with pretty pink cheeks and rosy lips, and which was like the dimpled cherubs that one sees in pictures of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, on her lap.
The nurse said affectionate words to the child in a coaxing voice, wrapped it up in the folds of her large cloak, sometimes gave it a noisy, hearty kiss, and it beat the air with little hands, and crowed and laughed with those pretty, attractive babyish movements, that Suzanne could not help exclaiming: “Oh! the pretty little thing!” and taking it into her arms.
At first the child was surprised at the strange face, and for a moment, seemed as if it were going to cry; but it became reassured immediately, smiled at the stranger who looked at it so kindly, inhaled the delicate scent of the iris in the bodice of her dress, with dilated nostrils, and cuddled up against her.
The two women began to talk, and, without knowing why, Madame d’Hardermes questioned the nurse, asked her where she came from, and where she was taking the little thing to.
The other, rather flattered that Suzanne admired the child and took an interest in it, replied, somewhat vaingloriously, that she lived at Bois-le-Roy, and that her husband was a wagoner.
The child had been entrusted to their care by some people in Paris, who appeared very happy, and extremely well off. And the nurse added in a drawling voice:
“Perhaps, Madame, you know my master and mistress, Monsieur and Madame d’Hardermes?”
Suzanne started with surprise and grief, and grew as pale as if all her blood were streaming from some wound, and thinking that she had not heard correctly, with a fixed look and trembling lips, she said, slowly, as if every word hurt her throat:
“You said, Monsieur and Madame d’Hardermes?”
“Yes; do you know them?”
“I, yes . . . formerly . . . but it is a long time ago.”
She could scarcely speak, and was as pale as death; she hardly knew what she was saying, with her eyes on this pretty child, which George must be so fond of.
She saw him, as if in a window which had suddenly been lifted up, where everything had been dark before, with their arms round each other, and radiant with happiness, with that fair head, that divine dawn, the living, smiling proof of their love, between them.
They would never leave each other; they were already almost as good as married, and were robbing her of the name which she had defended and guarded as a sacred deposit.
She would never succeed in breaking such bonds. It was a shipwreck where nothing could survive, and where the waves did not even drift some shapeless waif and stray ashore.
And great tears rolled down her cheeks, one by one, and wet her veil.
The train stopped at the station, and the nurse scarcely liked to ask Suzanne for the child, who was holding it against her heaving bosom, and kissing it as if she intended to smother it, and she said:
“I suppose the baby reminds you of one you have lost, my poor, dear lady, but the loss can be repaired at your age, surely; a second is as good as a first, and if one does not do oneself justice . . . ”
Madame d’Hardermes gave her back the child, and hurried out straight ahead of her, like a hunted animal, and threw herself into the first cab that she saw . . .
She sued for a divorce, and obtained it.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58