Monsier de Saint–Juéry would not have deceived his old mistress for anything in the world: perhaps from an instinctive fear that he had heard of adventures that turn out badly, make a noise, and bring about hateful family quarrels, crises from which one emerges enervated and exasperated with destiny, and, as it were, with the weight of a bullet on one’s feet, and also from his requirement for a calm, sheep-like existence, whose monotony was never disturbed by any shock, and perhaps from the remains of the love which had so entirely made him, during the first years of their connection, the slave of the proud, dominating beauty, and of the enthralling charm of that woman.
He kept out of the way of temptation almost timidly, and was faithful to her, and as submissive as a spaniel. He paid her every attention, did not appear to notice that the outlines of her figure, which had formerly been so harmonious and supple, were getting too full and puffy, that her face, which used to remind him of a blush rose, was getting wrinkled, and that her eyes were getting dull. He admired her in spite of everything, almost blindly, and clothed her with imaginary charms, with an autumnal beauty, with the majestic and serene softness of an October twilight, and with the last blossoms which unfold by the side of the walks, strewn with dead leaves.
But although their connection had lasted for many years, though they were as closely bound to each other as if they had been married, and although Charlotte Guindal pestered him with entreaties, and upset him with continual quarrels on the subject, and, in spite of the fact that he believed her to be absolutely faithful to him, and worthy of his most perfect confidence and love, yet Monsieur de Saint–Juéry had never been able to make up his mind to give her his name, and to put their false position on a legal footing.
He really suffered from this, but remained firm and defended his position, quibbled, sought for subterfuges, replied by the eternal and vague: “What would be the good of it,” which nearly sent Charlotte mad, made her furious and caused her to say angry and ill-tempered things. But he remained passive and listless, with his back bent like a restive horse under the whip.
He asked her whether it was really necessary to their happiness, as they had no children? Did not everybody think that they were married? Was not she everywhere called Madame de Saint–Juéry, and had their servants any doubt that they were in the service of respectable, married people? Was not the name which had been transmitted to a man from father to son, intact, honored, and often with a halo of glory round it, a sacred trust which no one had a right to touch? What would she gain if she bore it legitimately? Did she for a moment suppose that she would rise higher in people’s estimation, and be more admitted into society, or that people would forget that she had been his regular mistress before becoming his wife? Did not everybody know that formerly, before he rescued her from that Bohemian life in which she had been waiting for her chance in vain, and was losing her good looks, Charlotte Guindal frequented all the public balls, and showed her legs liberally at the Moulin–Rouge1.
1 A café chantant, and casino.]
Charlotte knew his crabbed, though also kindly character, which was at the same time logical and obstinate, too well to hope that she would ever be able to overcome his opposition and scruples, except by some clever woman’s trick, some well-acted scene in a comedy; so she appeared to be satisfied with his reasons, and to renounce her bauble, and outwardly she showed an equable and conciliatory temper, and no longer worried Monsieur de Saint–Juéry with her recriminations, and thus the time went by, in calm monotony, without fruitless battles or fierce assaults.
Charlotte Guindal’s medical man was Doctor Rabatel, one of those clever men who appear to know everything, but whom a country bone-setter would reduce to a “why?” by a few questions; one of those men who wish to impress everybody with their apparent value, and who make use of their medical knowledge as if it were some productive commercial house, which carried on a suspicious business; who can scent out those persons whom they can manage as they please, as if they were a piece of soft wax, who keep them in a continual state of terror, by keeping the idea of death constantly before their eyes.
They soon manage to obtain the mastery over such persons, scrutinize their consciences as well as the cleverest priest could do, make sure of being well paid for their complicity as soon as they have obtained a footing anywhere, and drain their patients of their secrets, in order to use them as a weapon for extorting money on occasions. He felt sure immediately that this middle-aged lady wanted something of him, as by some extraordinary perversion of taste, he was rather fond of the remains of a good-looking woman, if they were well got up, and offered to him; of that high flavor which arises from soft lips, which had been made tender through years of love, from gray hair powdered with gold, from a body engaged in its last struggle, and which dreams of one more victory before abdicating power altogether, he did not hesitate to become his new patient’s lover.
When winter came, however, a thorough change took place in Charlotte’s health, that had hitherto been so good. She had no strength left, she felt ill after the slightest exertion, complained of internal pains, and spent whole days lying on the couch, with set eyes and without uttering a word, so that everybody thought that she was dying of one of those mysterious maladies which cannot be coped with, but which, by degrees, undermines the whole system. It was sad to see her rapidly sinking, lying motionless on her pillows, while a mist seemed to have come over her eyes, and her hands lay helplessly on the bed and her mouth seemed sealed by some invisible finger. Monsieur de Saint–Juéry was in despair; he cried like a child, and he suffered as if somebody had plunged a knife into him, when the doctor said to him in his unctuous voice:
“I know that you are a brave man, my dear sir, and I may venture to tell you the whole truth. . . . Madame de Saint–Juéry is doomed, irrevocably doomed. . . . Nothing but a miracle can save her, and alas! there are no miracles in these days. The end is only a question of a few hours, and may come quite suddenly. . . . ”
Monsieur de Saint–Juéry had thrown himself into a chair, and was sobbing bitterly, covering his face with his hands.
“My poor dear, my poor darling,” he said, through his tears.
“Pray compose yourself, and be brave,” the doctor continued, sitting down by his side, “for I have to say something serious to you, and to convey to you our poor patient’s last wishes. . . . A few minutes ago, she told me the secret of your double life, and of your connection with her. . . . And now, in view of death, which she feels approaching so rapidly, for she is under no delusion, the unhappy woman wishes to die at peace with heaven, with the consolation of having regulated her equivocal position, and of having become your wife.”
Monsieur de Saint–Juéry sat upright, with a bewildered look, while he moved his hands nervously; in his grief he was incapable of manifesting any will of his own, or of opposing this unexpected attack.
“Oh! anything that Charlotte wishes, doctor; anything, and I will myself go and tell her so, on my knees!”
The wedding took place discreetly, with something funereal about it, in the darkened room, where the words which were spoken had a strange sound, almost of anguish. Charlotte, who was lying in bed, with her eyes dilated through happiness, had put both trembling hands into those of Monsieur de Saint–Juéry, and she seemed to expire with the word: “Yes” on her lips. The doctor looked at the moving scene, grave and impassive, with his chin buried in his white cravat, and his two arms resting on the mantel-piece, while his eyes twinkled behind his glasses. . . .
The next week, Madame de Saint–Juéry began to get better, and that wonderful recovery about which Monsieur de Saint–Juéry tells everybody with effusive gratitude, who will listen to him, has so increased Doctor Rabatel’s reputation, that at the next election he will be made a member of the Academy of Medicine.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58