On a hot, sunshiny day in January last I started from Saint-Paul and wandered into the wild forests of Ile Bourbon to muse and dream. I dreamed of you, my friend; those virgin forests had retained for me the memory of your wanderings and your studies, the ground had kept the imprint of your feet. I found everywhere the marvellous things with which your magical tales charmed the tedium of my vigils in the old days, and, in order that we might enjoy them together, I called upon old Europe, where obscurity encompasses you with its modest advantages, to send you to me. Happy man, whose intellect and merits no treacherous friend has made known to the world!
I walked in the direction of a lonely spot in the highest part of the island, called Brulé de Saint-Paul.
A huge fragment of mountain, which was dislodged and fell during some volcanic disturbance, has formed on the slope of the principle mountain a sort of long arena studded with rocks arranged in the most magical disorder, in the most extraordinary confusion. Here, a huge boulder balances itself on a number of small fragments; there, rises a wall of slender, light, porous rocks with dentilated edges and openwork decoration like a Moorish building; farther on, an obelisk of basalt, whose sides an artist seems to have carved and polished, stands upon a crenelated bastion; in another place, a gothic fortress is crumbling to decay beside a curious, shapeless pagoda. That spot is the rendezvous of all the rough drafts of art, all the sketches of architecture; it would seem that all the geniuses of all nations and of all ages went for their inspiration to that vast work of hazard and demolition. There, doubtless some magically elaborate design of chance gave birth to the Moorish style of sculpture. In the heart of the forests, art found in the palm-tree one of its most beautiful models. The vacoa which anchors itself in the ground and clings to it with a hundred arms branched from its main stalk, evidently furnished the first suggestion of the plan of a cathedral supported by its lightly flying buttresses. In the Brulé de Saint-Paul all shapes, all types of beauty, all humorous and bold conceits were assembled, piled upon one another, arranged and constructed in one tempestuous night. The spirits of air and fire undoubtedly presided over this diabolical operation; they alone could give to their productions that awe-inspiring, fanciful, incomplete character which distinguishes their works from those of man; they alone could have piled up those monstrous boulders, moved those gigantic masses, toyed with mountains as with grains of sand, and strewn, amid creations which man has tried to copy, those grand conceptions of art, those sublime contrasts impossible of realization, which seem to defy the audacity of the artist and to say to him derisively: “Try it again.”
I halted at the foot of a crystallized basaltic monument, about sixty feet high and cut with facets as if by a lapidary. At the top of this strange object an inscription seemed to have been traced in bold characters by an immortal hand. Those vulcanized rocks often present that phenomenon; long ago, when their substance, softened by the action of fire, was still warm and malleable, they received and retained the imprint of the shells and climbing plants that clung to them. These chance contacts have resulted in some strange freaks, curious hieroglyphics, mysterious characters which seem to have been stamped there like the seal of some supernatural being, written in cabalistic letters.
I stood there a long time, detained by a foolish idea that I might find a meaning for those ciphers. This profitless search caused me to fall into a profound meditation, during which I forgot that time was flying.
Already the mists were gathering about the peaks of the mountains, creeping down the sides and rapidly shutting out their outlines. Before I had descended half way to the plateau, they reached the belt that I was crossing and enveloped it in an impenetrable curtain. A moment later a high wind came up and swept the mist away in a twinkling. Then it fell; the mist settled down once more, to be once more driven away by a terrific squall.
I sought shelter from the storm in a grotto which afforded me some protection; but another scourge came to the assistance of the wind. Torrents of rain swelled the streams, all of which flow from the summit of the mountain. In an hour, everything was inundated and the sides of the mountain, with water pouring down on every side, formed one vast cascade which rushed madly down toward the lowlands.
After two days of most painful and dangerous travelling, I found myself, guided by Providence, I doubt not, at the door of a house built in an exceedingly wild locality. The simple but attractive cottage had withstood the tempest, being sheltered by a rampart of cliffs which leaned over it as if to act as an umbrella. A little lower, a waterfall plunged madly down into a ravine and formed at the bottom a brimming lake, above which, clumps of lovely trees still reared their storm-tossed, tired heads.
I knocked vigorously; but the face that appeared in the doorway made me recoil. Before I had opened my mouth to ask for shelter the master of the house had welcomed me gravely and silently with a wave of his hand. I entered and found myself alone with him, face to face with Sir Ralph Brown.
In the year that had passed since the Nahandove brought Sir Ralph and his companion back to the colony, he had not been seen in the town three times; and, as for Madame Delmare, her seclusion had been so absolute that her existence was still a problematical matter to many of the people. It was about the same time that I first landed at Bourbon, and my present interview with Monsieur Brown was the second one I had had in my life.
The first had left an ineradicable impression on me; it was at Saint-Paul, on the seashore. His features and bearing had impressed me only slightly at first; but when, through mere idle curiosity, I questioned the colonists concerning him, their replies were so strange, so contradictory, that I scrutinized the recluse of Bernica more closely.
“He’s a clown-a man of no education,” said one; “an absolute nullity, who has only one good quality-that of keeping his mouth shut.”
“He’s an extremely well educated and profound man,” said another, “but too strongly persuaded of his own superiority, contemptuous and conceited-so much so that he considers any words wasted that he happens to exchange with the common herd.”
“He’s a man who cares for nobody but himself,” said a third; “a man of inferior capacity, but not stupid; profoundly selfish and, they say, hopelessly unsociable.”
“Why, don’t you know?” said a young man brought up in the colony and thoroughly imbued with the characteristic narrow-mindedness of provincials, “he’s a knave, a villain who poisoned his friend in the most dastardly way in order to marry his wife.”
This assertion bewildered me so that I turned to another, older colonist, whom I knew to be possessed of considerable common sense.
As my glance eagerly requested a solution of these enigmas, he answered:
“Sir Ralph was formerly an excellent man, who was not a favorite because he was not communicative, but whom everybody esteemed. That is all I can say about him; for, since his unfortunate experience, I have had no relations with him.”
“What experience?” I inquired.
He told me about Colonel Delmare’s sudden death, his wife’s flight during the same night, and Monsieur Brown’s departure and return. The obscurity which surrounded all these circumstances had been in nowise lessened by the investigations of the authorities; there was no evidence that the fugitive had committed the crime. The king’s attorney had refused to prosecute; but the partiality of the magistrates for Monsieur Brown was well known, and they had been severely criticised for not having at least enlightened public opinion concerning an affair which left the reputations of two persons marred by a hateful suspicion.
A fact that seemed to justify these suspicions was the furtive return of the two accused persons and their mysterious establishment in the depths of the ravine of Bernica. They had run away at first, so it was said, to give the affair time to die out; but public opinion had been so cold in France that they had been driven to return and take refuge in the desert, to gratify their criminal attachment in peace.
But all these theories were set at naught by another fact which was vouched for by persons who seemed better informed: Madame Delmare, I was told, had always manifested a decided coolness, almost downright aversion for her cousin Monsieur Brown.
I had thereupon scrutinized the hero of so many strange tales carefully-conscientiously, if I may say so. He was sitting on a bale of merchandise, awaiting the return of a sailor whom he had sent to make some purchase or other for him. His eyes, blue as the sea, were gazing pensively at the horizon, with such a placid and honest expression; all the lines of his face were so perfectly in harmony with one another; nerves, muscles, blood, all seemed so tranquil, so perfect, so well-ordered in that robust and healthy individual, that I would have sworn that all the tales were deadly insults, that he had no crime on his conscience, that he had never had one in his mind, that his heart and his hands were as pure as his brow.
But suddenly the baronet’s distraught glance had fallen upon me, as I was staring at him with eager and impertinent curiosity. Confused and embarrassed as a thief caught in the act, I lowered my eyes, for Sir Ralph’s expression conveyed a stern rebuke. Since then I had often thought of him, involuntarily; he had appeared in my dreams. I was conscious, as I thought of him, of that vague feeling of uneasiness, that indescribable emotion, which are like the magnetic fluid with which an unusual destiny is encompassed.
My desire to know Sir Ralph was very real, therefore, and very keen; but I should have preferred to watch him furtively, without being seen myself. It seemed to me that I had wronged him. The crystalline appearance of his eyes froze me with terror. It was so evident that he was a man of towering superiority, either in virtue or in villainy, that I felt very small and mean in his presence.
His hospitality was neither showy nor vulgar. He took me to his room, lent me some clothes and clean linen; then led me to his companion, who was awaiting us to take supper.
As I saw how young and lovely she still was-she seemed barely eighteen-and admired her bloom, her grace, and her sweet voice, I felt a thrill of painful emotion. I reflected that that woman was either very guilty or very unfortunate: guilty of a detestable crime or dishonored by a detestable accusation.
I was detained at Bernica for a week by the overflowing of the rivers, the inundation of the plains, the rain and the wind; and then came the sun, and it never occurred to me to leave my hosts.
Neither of them could be called brilliant. They had little wit, I should say-perhaps indeed they had none at all; but they had that quality which makes one’s words impressive and pleasant to hear; they had intellect of the heart. Indiana is ignorant, but not with that narrow, vulgar ignorance which proceeds from indolence, from carelessness or nullity of character. She is eager to learn what the engrossing preoccupations of her life had prevented her from finding out; and then, too, there may have been a little coquetry in the way she questioned Sir Ralph, in order to bring into the light her friend’s vast stores of knowledge.
I found her playful, but without petulance; her manners have retained a trace of the languor and melancholy natural to creoles, but in her they seemed to me to have a more abiding charm; her eyes especially have an incomparably soft expression and seem to tell the story of a life of suffering; and when her mouth smiles, there is still a touch of melancholy in those eyes, but the melancholy that seems to be the contemplation of happiness or the emotion of gratitude.
One morning I said to them that at last I was going away.
“Already!” was their answer.
The accent of regret was so genuine, so touching, that I felt encouraged. I had determined that I would not leave Sir Ralph without asking him to tell me his story; but I felt an insurmountable timidity because of the horrible suspicion that had been planted in my mind.
I tried to overcome it.
“Men are great villains,” I said to him; “they have spoken ill of you to me. I am not surprised, now that I know you. Your life must have been a very beautiful one, to be so slandered–”
I stopped abruptly when I detected an expression of innocent surprise on Madame Delmare’s features. I understood that she knew nothing of the atrocious calumnies current in the colony, and I encountered upon Sir Ralph’s face an unequivocal look of haughty displeasure. I rose at once to take my leave of them, shamefaced and sad, crushed by Monsieur Brown’s glance, which reminded me of our first meeting and the silent interview of the same sort we had had on the sea-shore.
Bitterly chagrined to leave that excellent man in such a frame of mind, regretting that I had annoyed and wounded him in return for the happy days I owed to him, I felt my heart swell within me and I burst into tears.
“Young man,” he said, taking my hand, “remain with us another day; I have not the courage to let the only friend we have on the island leave us in this way–I understand you,” he added, after Madame Delmare had left the room; “I will tell you my story, but not before Indiana. There are wounds which one must not reopen.”
That evening we went for a walk in the woods. The trees, which had been so fresh and lovely a fortnight earlier, were entirely stripped of their leaves, but they were already covered with great resinous buds. The birds and insects had resumed possession of their empire. The withered flowers already had young buds to replace them. The streams perseveringly carried seaward the gravel with which their beds were filled. Everything was returning to life and health and happiness.
“Just see,” said Ralph to me, “with what astounding rapidity this kindly, fecund nature repairs its losses! Does it not seem as if it were ashamed of the time wasted, and were determined, by dint of a lavish expenditure of sap and vigor, to do over in a few days the work of a year?”
“And it will succeed,” rejoined Madame Delmare. “I remember last year’s storms; at the end of a month there was no trace of them.”
“It is the image of a heart broken by sorrow,” I said to her; “when happiness comes back, it renews its youth and blooms again very quickly.”
Indiana gave me her hand and looked at Monsieur Brown with an indescribable expression of affection and joy.
When night fell she went to her room, and Sir Ralph, bidding me sit beside him on a bench in the garden, told me his history to the point at which we dropped it in the last chapter.
There he made a long pause and seemed to have forgotten my presence completely.
Impelled by my interest in his narrative, I decided to interrupt his meditation by one last question.
He started like a man suddenly awakened; then, smiling pleasantly, he said:
“My young friend, there are memories which we rob of their bloom by putting them in words. Let it suffice you to know that I was fully determined to kill Indiana with myself. But doubtless the consummation of our sacrifice was still unrecorded in the archives of Heaven. A doctor would tell you perhaps that a very natural attack of vertigo took possession of my wits and led me astray as to the location of the path. For my own part, who am not a doctor at all in such matters, I prefer to believe that the angel of Abraham and Tobias, that beautiful white angel with the blue eyes and the girdle of gold, whom you often saw in your childish dreams, came down from Heaven on a moonbeam, and, as he hovered in the trembling vapor of the cataract, stretched his silvery wings over my gentle companion’s head. The only thing that I am able to tell you is that the moon sank behind the great peaks of the mountain and no ominous sound disturbed the peaceful murmur of the waterfall; the birds on the cliff did not take their flight until a white streak appeared on the horizon; and the first ruddy beam that fell upon the clump of orange-trees found me on my knees blessing God.
“Do not think, however, that I accepted instantly the unhoped-for happiness which gave a new turn to my destiny. I was afraid to sound the radiant future that was dawning for me; and when Indiana raised her eyes and smiled upon me, I pointed to the waterfall and talked of dying.
“‘If you do not regret having lived until this morning,’ I said to her, ‘we can both declare that we have tasted happiness in all its plentitude; and it is an additional reason for ceasing to live, for perhaps my star would pale to-morrow. Who can say that, on leaving this spot, on coming forth from this intoxicating situation to which thoughts of death and love have brought me, I shall not become once more the detestable brute whom you despised yesterday? Will you not blush for yourself when you find me again as you have always known me? Oh! Indiana, spare me that horrible agony; it would be the complement of my destiny.’
“‘Do you doubt your heart, Ralph?’ said Indiana with an adorable expression of love and confidence, ‘or does not mine offer you sufficient guarantee?’
“Shall I tell you? I was not happy at first. I did not doubt Madame Delmare’s sincerity, but I was terrified by thought of the future. Having distrusted myself beyond measure for thirty years, I could not feel assured in a single day of my ability to please and to retain her love. I had moments of uncertainty, alarm and bitterness; I sometimes regretted that I had not jumped into the lake when a word from Indiana had made me so happy.
“She too must have had attacks of melancholy. She found it difficult to break herself of the habit of suffering, for the heart becomes used to unhappiness, it takes root in it and cuts loose from it only with an effort. However, I must do her heart the justice to say that she never had a regret for Raymon; she did not even remember him enough to hate him.
“At last, as always happens in deep and true attachments, time, instead of weakening our love, established it firmly and sealed it; each day gave it added intensity, because each day brought fresh obligations on both sides to esteem and to bless. All our fears vanished one by one; and when we saw how easy it was to destroy those causes of distrust, we smilingly confessed to each other that we took our happiness like cowards and that neither of us deserved it. From that moment we have loved each other in perfect security.”
Ralph paused; then, after a few moments of profound meditation in which we were equally absorbed, he continued, pressing my hand:
“I say nothing of my happiness; if there are griefs that never betray their existence and envelop the heart like a shroud, so there are joys that remain buried in the heart of a man because no earthly voice can describe them. Moreover, if some angel from heaven should light upon one of these flowering branches and describe those joys in the language of his native land, you would not understand them, young man, for the tempest has not bruised and shattered you. Alas! what can the heart that has not suffered understand of happiness? As to our crimes–” he added with a smile.
“Oh!” I cried, my eyes wet with tears.
“Listen, monsieur,” he continued, interrupting me; “you have lived but a few hours with the two outlaws of Bernica, but a single hour would suffice for you to learn their whole life. All our days resemble one another; they are all calm and lovely; they pass by as swiftly and as pure as those of our childhood. Every night we bless God; we pray to him every morning, we implore at his hands the sunshine and shade of the day before. The greater part of our income is devoted to the redemption of poor and infirm blacks. That is the principle cause of the evil that the colonists say of us. Would that we were rich enough to set free all those who live in slavery! Our servants are our friends; they share our joys, we nurse them in sickness. This is the way our life is spent, without vexations, without remorse. We rarely speak of the past, rarely of the future; but always of the former without bitterness, of the latter without alarm. If we sometimes surprise ourselves with tears in our eyes, it is because great joys always cause tears to flow; the eyes are dry in great misery.”
“My friend,” I said after a long silence, “if the accusations of the world should reach your ears, your happiness would answer loudly enough.”
“You are young,” he replied, “in your eyes, for your conscience is ingenuous and pure and unsoiled by the world, our happiness is the proof of our virtue; in the eyes of the world it is our crime. Solitude is sweet, I tell you, and men are not worth a regret.”
“All do not accuse you,” I said; “but even those who appreciate your true character blame you for despising public opinion, and those who acknowledge your virtue say that you are arrogant and proud.”
“Believe me,” replied Ralph, “there is more pride in that reproach than in any alleged scorn. As for public opinion, monsieur, judging from those whom it exalts, ought we not always to hold out our hand to those whom it tramples upon? It is said that its approval is necessary to happiness; they who think so should respect it. For my part, I sincerely pity any happiness that rises or falls with its capricious breath.”
“Some moralists criticise your solitary life; they claim that every man belongs to society, which demands his presence. They add that you set an example which it is dangerous to follow.”
“Society should demand nothing of the man who expects nothing from it,” Sir Ralph replied. “As for the contagion of example, I do not believe in it, monsieur; too much energy is required to break with the world, and too much suffering to acquire that energy. So let this unknown happiness flow on in peace, for it costs nobody anything, and conceals itself for fear of making others envious. Go, young man, follow the course of your destiny; have friends, a profession, a reputation, a fatherland. As for me, I have Indiana. Do not break the chains that bind you to society, respect its judgments if they are fair to you: but if some day it calumniates you and spurns you, have pride enough to find a way to do without it.”
“Yes,” said I, “a pure heart will enable us to endure exile; but, to make us love it, one must have such a companion as yours.”
“Ah!” he said, “if you knew how I pity this world of yours, which looks down on me!”
The next day I left Ralph and Indiana; one embraced me, the other shed a few tears.
“Adieu,” they said to me; “return to the world; if some day it banishes you, remember our Indian cottage.”
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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13