“Really,” Paul repeated, “really!”
“Yes, I who am here before you have been violated, and violated by! . . . But if I were to tell you immediately by whom, there would be no story, eh? And as you want a story, eh? And as you want a story, I will tell you all about it from beginning to end, and I shall begin at the beginning.
“I had been shooting over the waste land in the heart of Brittany for a week, which borders on the Black Mountain. It is a desolate and wild country, but it abounds in game. One can walk for hours without meeting a human being, and when one meets anybody, it is just the same as if one had not, for the people are absolutely ignorant of French, and when I got to an inn at night, I had to employ signs to let the people know that I wanted supper and bed.
“As I happened to be in a melancholy frame of mind at the time, that solitude delighted me, and my dog’s companionship was quite enough for me, and so you may guess my irritation when I perceived one morning that I was being followed, absolutely followed, by another sportsman who seemed to wish to enter into conversation with me. The day before, I had already noticed him obstructing the horizon several times, and I had attributed it to the chances of sport, which brought us both to the same likely spots for game, but now I could not be mistaken! The fellow was evidently following me, and was stretching his little pair of compasses as much as he could, so as to keep up with my long strides, and took short cuts, so as to catch me up at the half circle.
“As he seemed bent upon the matter, I naturally grew obstinate also, and he spent his whole day in trying to catch me up, while I spent mine in trying to baffle him, and we seemed to be playing at hide-and-seek; the consequences were, that when it was getting dark, I had completely lost myself in the most deserted part of the moor. There was no cottage near, and not even a church spire in the distance. The only land-mark, was the hateful outline of that cursed man, about five hundred yards off.
“Of course he had won the game! I should have to put a good face on the matter, and allow him to join me, or rather I should have to join him myself, if I did not wish to sleep in the open air and with an empty stomach, and so I went up to him, and asked my way in a half-surly manner.
“He replied very affably, that there was no inn in the neighborhood, as the nearest village was five leagues off, but that he lived only about an hour’s walk off, and that he considered himself very fortunate in being able to offer me hospitality.
“I was utterly done up, and how could I refuse? So we went off through the heather and furze; I walking slowly because I was so tired, and he went tripping along merrily with his legs like a basset hound’s, which seemed untirable.
“And yet he was an old man, and not strongly built, for I could have knocked him over by blowing on him; but how he could walk, the beast!
“But he was not a troublesome companion, as I imagined he would have been, and he did not at all seem to wish to enter into conversation with me, as I feared he would. When he had given his invitation, and I had accepted it and thanked him in a few words, he did not open his lips again, and we walked on in silence, and only his glances worried me, for I felt them on me, as if he wished to force me into an intimacy, which my closed lips refused. But on the whole, his tenacious looks, which I noticed furtively, appeared sympathetic and even admiring — yes; really admiring!
“But I could not give him as good as he brought, for he was certainly not handsome; his legs were short, and rather bandy and he was thin and narrow-chested. His face was like a bit of parchment, furrowed and wrinkled, without a hair on it to hide the folds in his skin. His hair resembled that of an Ignorantin1 brother, with its gray locks falling onto his greasy collar; he had a nose like a ferret, and rat’s eyes, but he was able to offer me food and quarters for the night, and it was not requisite that he should be handsome, in order to do that.
1 A lay brother in a monastery, who is devoted to the instruction of the poor. — TRANSLATOR.]
“Capital food, and very comfortable quarters! A manorial dwelling, a real old, well-furnished manor-house; and in the large dining-room, in front of the huge fireplace, where a large fire was blazing, dinner was laid; I will say no more than that! A hotch-potch, which had been stewing since morning, no doubt! A salmis of woodcock, in defense of which angels would have taken up arms; buckwheat cakes, in cream, flavored with aniseed, and a cheese, which is a rare thing and hardly ever to be found in Brittany, a cheese to make any one eat a four pound loaf if he only smelt the rind! The whole washed clown by Chambertin, and then brandy distilled by cider, which was so good that it made a man fancy that he had swallowed a deity in velvet breeches; not to mention the cigars, pure, smuggled havannahs; large, strong, not dry but green, on the contrary, which made a strong and intoxicating smoke.
“And how the little old gentleman stuffed, and drank and smoked! He was an ogre, a choirister, a sapper, and so was I, I must confess, and, upon my word, I cannot remember what we talked about during our Gargantuan feed! But we certainly talked, but what about? About shooting, certainly, and about women most probably. Confound it! Among men, after drinking! Yes, yes, about women, I am quite sure, and he told some funny stories, did the little old man! Especially about a portrait which was hanging over the large fireplace, and which represented his grandmother, a marchioness of the old régime. She was a woman who had certainly played some pranks, and they said that she was still frisky and had good legs and thighs when she was seventy.
“‘It is extraordinary,’ I remarked, ‘how like you are to that portrait.’
“‘Yes,’ the old man replied with a smile; and then he added in his harsh, tremulous voice: ‘I resemble her in everything. I am only sixty, and I feel as if I should have lusty, hot blood in me until I am seventy.’
“And then suddenly, very much moved, and looking at me admiringly, as he had done once before, he said to the portrait:
“‘I say, marchioness, what a pity that you did not know this handsome young fellow!’
“I remembered that apostrophe and that look very well, when I went to bed about an hour later, nearly drunk, in the large room papered in white and gold, to which I was shown by a tall, broad-shouldered footman, who wished me good-night in Breton.
“Good-night, yes! But that implied going to sleep, which was just what I could not do. The Chambertin, the cider brandy and the cigars had certainly made me drunk, but not so as to overcome me altogether. On the contrary, I was excited, my nerves were highly strung, my blood was heated, and I was in a half-sleep in which I felt that I was very much alive, and my whole being was in a vibration and expansion, just as if I had been smoking hashecah.
“Of course! That was it; I was dreaming while I was awake; but I saw the door open and the marchioness come in, who had stepped down, out of her frame. She had taken off her furbelows, and was in her nightgown. Her high head-dress was replaced by a simple knot of ribbon, which confined her powdered hair into a small chignon, but I recognized her quite plainly, by the trembling light of the candle which she was carrying. It was her face with its piercing eyes, its pointed nose and its smiling and sensual mouth. She did not look so young to me as she appeared in her portrait. Bah! Perhaps that was merely caused by the feeble, flickering light! But I had not even time to account for it, not to reflect on the strangeness of the sight, nor to discuss the matter with myself and to say: ‘Am I dead drunk, or is it a ghost?’
“No, I had no time, and that is the fact, for the candle was suddenly blown out and the marchioness was in my bed and holding me in her arms, and one fixed idea, the only one that I had, haunted me, which was:
“‘Had the marchioness good limbs, and was she still frisky at seventy?’ And I did not care much if she was seventy and if she was a ghost or not; I only thought of one thing: ‘Has she really good limbs?’”
“By Jove, yes! She did not speak. Oh, marchioness! marchioness! And suddenly in spite of myself and to convince myself that it was not a mere fantastic dream, I exclaimed:
“‘Why, good heavens! I am not dreaming!’
“‘No, you are not dreaming,’ two lips replied, trying to press themselves against mine.
“But, oh! horror! The mouth smelt of cigars and brandy! The voice was that of the little old man!
“With a bound I sent him flying on to the ground, and jumped out of bed, shouting:
“Then I heard the door slam, and bare feet pattering on the stairs as he ran away; so I dressed hastily in the dark and went downstairs, still shouting.
“In the hall below, where I could see through the upper windows that the dawn was breaking, I met the broad-shouldered footman, who was holding a great cudgel in his hand. He was bawling also, in Breton, and pointed to the open door, outside where my dog was waiting. What could I say to this savage who did not speak French? Should I face his cudgel? There was no reason for doing so; and besides, I was even more ashamed than furious; so I hastily took up my gun and my game-bag, which were in the hall, and went off without turning round.
“Disgusted with sport in that part of the country, I returned to Brest the same day, and there, timidly and with many precautions, I tried to find out something about the little old man. . . .
“‘Oh, I know!’ somebody replied at last to my question; ‘you are speaking of the manor-house at Hervénidozse, where the old countess lives, who dresses like a man and sleeps with her coachman.’
“And with a deep sigh of relief, and much to the astonishment of my informant, I replied:
“‘Oh! so much the better!’”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58