I knew that tall young fellow, René de Bourneval. He was an agreeable man, though of a rather melancholy turn of mind, who seemed prejudiced against everything, very skeptical, and able to tear worldly hypocrisies to pieces. He often used to say:
“There are no honorable men, or at any rate, they only appear so when compared to low people.”
He had two brothers, whom he never saw, the Messieurs de Courcils, and I thought they were by another father, on account of the difference in the name. I had frequently heard that something strange had happened in the family, but I did not know the details.
As I took a great liking to him, we soon became intimate, and one evening, when I had been dining with him alone, I asked him by chance: “Are you by your mother’s first or second marriage?” He grew rather pale, and then flushed, and did not speak for a few moments; he was visibly embarrassed. Then he smiled in a melancholy and gentle manner, which was peculiar to him, and said:
“My dear friend, if it will not weary you, I can give you some very strange particulars about my life. I know that you are a sensible man, so I do not fear that our friendship will suffer by my revelations, and should it suffer, I should not care about having you for my friend any longer.
“My mother, Madame de Courcils, was a poor little timid woman, whom her husband had married for the sake of her fortune, and her whole life was one of martyrdom. Of a loving, delicate mind, she was constantly being ill-treated by the man who ought to have been my father, one of those bores called country gentleman. A month after their marriage he was living with a servant, and besides that, the wives and daughters of his tenants were his mistresses, which did not prevent him from having three children by his wife, or three, if you count me in. My mother said nothing, and lived in that noisy house like a little mouse. Set aside, disparaged, nervous, she looked at people with her bright, uneasy, restless eyes, the eyes of some terrified creature which can never shake off its fear. And yet she was pretty, very pretty and fair, a gray-blonde, as if her hair had lost its color through her constant fears.
“Among Monsieur de Courcil’s friends who constantly came to the château, there was an ex-cavalry officer, a widower, a man who was feared, who was at the same time tender and violent, capable of the most energetic resolutions, Monsieur de Bourneval, whose name I bear. He was a tall, thin man, with a heavy black moustache, and I am very like him. He was a man who had read a great deal, and whose ideas were not like those of most of his class. His great-grandmother had been a friend of J.J. Rousseau’s, and one might have said that he had inherited something of this ancestral connection. He knew the Contrat Social, and the Nouvelle Héloîse by heart, and all those philosophical books which long beforehand prepared the overthrow of our old usages, prejudices, superannuated laws and imbecile morality.
“It seems that he loved my mother, and she loved him, but their intrigue was carried on so secretly, that no one guessed it. The poor, neglected, unhappy woman, must have clung to him in a despairing manner, and in her intimacy with him must have imbibed all his ways of thinking, theories of free thought, audacious ideas of independent love; but as she was so timid that she never ventured to speak aloud, it was all driven back, condensed and expressed in her heart, which never opened itself.
“My two brothers were very hard towards her, like their father was, and never gave her a caress, and, used to seeing her count for nothing in the house, they treated her rather like a servant, and so I was the only one of her sons who really loved her, and whom she loved.
“When she died, I was seventeen, and I must add, in order that you may understand what follows, that there had been a law suit between my father and my mother, and that their property had been separated, to my mother’s advantage, as, thanks to the tricks of the law, and the intelligent devotion of a lawyer to her interests, she had preserved the right of making her will in favor of anyone she pleased.
“We were told that there was a will lying at the lawyer’s, and were invited to be present at the reading of it. I can remember it, as if it were yesterday. It was a grand, dramatic, burlesque, surprising scene, brought about by the posthumous revolt of that dead woman, by that cry for liberty, that claim from the depths of her tomb, of that martyred woman who had been crushed by our habits during her life, and, who, from her closed tomb, uttered a despairing appeal for independence.
“The man who thought that he was my father, a stout, ruddy-faced man, who gave everyone the idea of a butcher, and my brothers, two great fellows of twenty and twenty-two, were waiting quietly in their chairs. Monsieur de Bourneval, who had been invited to be present, came in and stood behind me. He was very pale, and bit his moustache, which was turning gray. No doubt he was prepared for what was going to happen, and the lawyer double-locked the door and began to read the will, after having opened the envelope, which was sealed with red wax, and whose contents he was ignorant of, in our presence.”
My friend stopped suddenly and got up, and from his writing-table he took an old paper, unfolded it, kissed it, and then continued: “This is the will of my beloved mother:
“‘I, the undersigned, Anne Catherine–Genevieve-Mathilde de
Croixlure, the legitimate wife of Leopold–Joseph Goutran de
Courcils, sound in body and mind, here express my last wishes.
“‘I first of all ask God, and then my dear son René, to pardon me
for the act I am about to commit. I believe that my child’s heart
is great enough to understand me, and to forgive me. I have
suffered my whole life long. I was married out of calculation, then
despised, misunderstood, oppressed and constantly deceived by my
“‘I forgive him, but I owe him nothing.
“‘My eldest sons never loved me, never spoilt me, scarcely treated
me as a mother, but during my whole life I was everything that I
ought to have been, and I owe them nothing more after my death. The
ties of blood cannot exist without daily and constant affection. An
ungrateful son is less than a stranger; he is a culprit, for he has
no right to be indifferent towards his mother.
“‘I have always trembled before men, before their unjust laws,
their inhuman customs, their shameful prejudices. Before God, I
have no longer any fear. Dead, I fling aside disgraceful hypocrisy;
I dare to speak my thoughts, and to avow and to sign the secret of
“‘I therefore leave that part of my fortune of which the law allows
me to dispose, as a deposit with my dear lover Pierre–Gennes-Simon
de Bourneval, to revert afterwards to our dear son, René.
“’(This wish is, moreover, formulated more precisely in a notarial
“‘And I declare before the Supreme Judge who hears me, that I
should have cursed heaven and my own existence, if I had not met my
lover’s deep, devoted, tender, unshaken affection, if I had not
felt in his arms that the Creator made His creatures to love,
sustain and console each other, and to weep together in the hours
“‘Monsieur de Courcils is the father of my two eldest sons; René
alone owes his life to Monsieur de Bourneval. I pray to the Master
of men and of their destinies, to place father and son above social
prejudices, to make them love each other until they die, and to
love me also in my coffin.
“‘These are my last thoughts, and my last wish.
“‘MATHILDE DE CROIXLUCE.’”
“‘Monsieur de Courcils had arisen and he cried:
“‘It is the will of a mad woman.’
“Then Monsieur de Bourneval stepped forward and said in a loud and penetrating voice: ‘I, Simon de Bourneval, solemnly declare that this writing contains nothing but the strict truth, and I am ready to prove it by letters which I possess.’
“On hearing that, Monsieur de Courcils went up to him, and I thought they were going to collar each other. There they stood, both of them tall, one stout and the other thin, both trembling. My mother’s husband stammered out: ‘You are a worthless wretch!’ And the other replied in a loud, dry voice: ‘We will meet somewhere else, monsieur. I should have already slapped your ugly face, and challenged you a long time ago, if I had not, before everything else, thought of the peace of mind of that poor woman whom you made suffer so much during her lifetime.’
“Then, turning to me, he said: ‘You are my son; will you come with me? I have no right to take you away, but I shall assume it, if you will kindly come with me.’ I shook his hand without replying, and we went out together; I was certainly three parts mad.
“Two days later Monsieur de Bourneval killed Monsieur de Courcils in a duel. My brothers, fearing some terrible scandal, held their tongues, and I offered them, and they accepted, half the fortune which my mother had left me. I took my real father’s name, renouncing that which the law gave me, but which was not really mine. Monsieur de Bourneval died three years afterwards, and I have not consoled myself yet.”
He rose from his chair, walked up and down the room, and, standing in front of me, he said:
“Well, I say that my mother’s will was one of the most beautiful and loyal, as well as one of the grandest acts that a woman could perform. Do you not think so?”
I gave him both my hands:
“Most certainly I do, my friend.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58