It was a large, upholstered house, with long white terraces shaded by vines, from which one could see the sea. Large pines stretched a dark dome over the sacked facade, and there was a look of neglect, of want and wretchedness about it all, such as irreparable losses, departures to other countries, and death leave behind them.
The interior wore a strange look, with half unpacked boxes serving for wardrobes, piles of band boxes, and for seats there was an array of worm-eaten armchairs, into which bits of velvet and silk, which had been cut from old dresses, had been festooned anyhow, and along the walls there were rows of rusty nails which made one think of old portraits and of pictures full of associations, which had one by one been bought for a low price by some second-hand furniture broker.
The rooms were in disorder and furnished no matter how, while velvets were hanging from the ceilings and in the corners, and seemed to show that as the servants were no longer paid except by hopes, they no longer did more than give them an accidental, careless touch with the broom occasionally. The drawing-room, which was extremely large, was full of useless knick-knacks, rubbish which is put up for sale at stalls at watering places, daubs, they could not be called paintings of portraits and of flowers, and an old piano with yellow keys.
Such is the home where she, who had been called the handsome Madame de Maurillac, was spending her monotonous existence, like some unfortunate doll which inconstant, childish hands have thrown into a corner in a loft, she who, almost passed for a professional seductress, and whose coquetries, at least so the Faithful ones of the Party said, had been able to excite a passing and last spark of desire in the dull eyes of the Emperor.
Like so many others, she and her husband had waited for his return from Elba, had discounted a fresh, immediate chance, had kept up boldly and spent the remains of his fortune at that game of luxury.
On the day when the illusion vanished, and he was forced to awake from his dream, Monsieur de Maurillac, without considering that he was leaving his wife and daughter behind him almost penniless, but not being able to make up his mind to come down in the world, to vegetate, to fight against his creditors, to accept the derisive alms of some sinecure, poisoned himself, like a shop girl who is forsaken by her lover.
Madame de Maurillac did not mourn for him, and as this lamentable disaster had made her interesting, and as she was assisted and supported by unexpected acts of kindness, and had a good adviser in one of those old Parisian lawyers who would get anybody out of the most inextricable difficulties, she managed to save something from the wreck, and to keep a small income. Then reassured and emboldened, and resting her ultimate illusions and her chimerical hopes on her daughter’s radiant beauty, and preparing for that last game in which they would risk everything, and perhaps also hoping that she might herself marry again, the ancient flirt arranged a double existence.
For months and months she disappeared from the world, and as a pretext for her isolation and for hiding herself in the country, she alleged her daughter’s delicate health, and also the important interests she had to look after in the South of France.
Her frivolous friends looked upon that as a great act of heroism, as something almost super-human, and so courageous, that they tried to distract her by their incessant letters, religiously kept her up in all the scandal, and love adventures, in the falls, as well as in the apotheosis of the capital.
The difficult struggle which Madame de Maurillac had to keep up in order to maintain her rank, was really as fine as any of those campaigns in the twilight of glory, as those slow retreats where men only give way inch by inch and fight until the last cartridge is expended, until at last fresh troops arrive, reinforcement which bar the way to the enemy, and save the threatened flag.
Broken in by the same discipline, and haunted by the same dream, mother and daughter lived on almost nothing in the dull, dilapidated house which the peasants called the château, and economized like poor people who only have a few hundred francs a year to live on. But Fabienne de Maurillac developed well in spite of everything, and grew up into a woman like some rare flower which is preserved from all contact with the outer air and is reared in a hot-house.
In order that she might not lose her Parisian accent by speaking too much with the servants, who had remained peasants under their livery, Madame de Maurillac, who had not been able to bring a lady’s maid with her, on account of the extra cost which her traveling expenses and wages would have entailed, and who, moreover, was afraid that some indiscretion might betray her maneuvers and cover her with ridicule, made up her mind to wait on her daughter herself. And Fabienne talked with nobody but her, saw nobody but her, and was like a little novice in a convent. Nobody was allowed to speak to her, or to interfere with her walks in the large garden, or on the white terraces that were reflected in the blue water.
As soon as the season for the country and the seaside came, however, they packed up their trunks, and locked the doors of their house of exile. As they were not known, and taking those terrible trains which stop at every station, and by which travelers arrive at their destination in the middle of the night, with the certainty that nobody will be waiting for you, and see you get out of the carriage, they traveled third class, so that they might have a few bank notes the more, with which to make a show.
A fortnight in Paris in the family house at Auteuil, a fortnight in which to try on dresses and bonnets and to show themselves, and then Trouville, Aix or Biarritz, the whole show complete, with parties succeeding parties, money was spent as if they did not know its value, balls at the Casinos, constant flirtations, compromising intimacies, and those kind of admirers who immediately surround two pretty women, one in the radiant beauty of her eighteen years, and the other in the brightness of that maturity, which beautiful September days bring with them.
Unfortunately, however, they had to do the same thing over again every year, and as if bad luck were continuing to follow them implacably, Madame de Maurillac and her daughter did not succeed in their endeavors, and did not manage during her usual absence from home, to pick up some nice fellow who fell in love immediately, who took them seriously, and asked for Fabienne’s hand, consequently, they were very unhappy. Their energies flagged, and their courage left them like water that escapes, drop by drop, through a crack in a jug. They grew low-spirited and no longer dared to be open towards each other and to exchange confidences and projects.
Fabienne, with her pale cheeks, her large eyes with blue circles round them and her tight lips, looked like some captive princess who is tormented by constant ennui, and troubled by evil suggestions; who dreams of flight, and of escape from that prison where fate holds her captive.
One night, when the sky was covered with heavy thunderclouds and the heat was most oppressive, Madame de Maurillac called her daughter whose room was next to hers. After calling her loudly for some time in vain, she sprang out of bed in terror and almost broke open the door with her trembling hands. The room was empty, and the pillows untouched.
Then, nearly mad and foreseeing some irreparable misfortune, the poor woman ran all over the large house, and then rushed out into the garden, where the air was heavy with the scent of flowers. She had the appearance of some wild animal that is being pursued by a pack of hounds, tried to penetrate the darkness with her anxious looks, and gasped as if some one were holding her by the throat; but suddenly she staggered, uttered a painful cry and fell down in a fit.
There before her, in the shadow of the myrtle trees, Fabienne was sitting on the knees of a man — of the gardener — with both her arms round his neck and kissing him ardently, and as if to defy her, and to show her how vain all her precautions and her vigilance had been, the girl was telling her lover in the country dialect, and in a cooing and delightful voice, how she adored him and that she belonged to him. . . .
Madame de Maurillac is in a lunatic asylum, and Fabienne has married the gardener.
What could she have done better?
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53