A few days passed in apparent calm. Edmee said she was unwell, and rarely quitted her room. M. de la Marche called nearly every day, his chateau being only a short distance off. My dislike for him grew stronger and stronger in spite of all the politeness he showed me. I understood nothing whatever of his dabblings in philosophy, and I opposed all his opinions with the grossest prejudices and expressions at my command. What consoled me in a measure for my secret sufferings was to see that he was no more admitted than myself to Edmee’s rooms.
For a week the sole event of note was that Patience took up his abode in a hut near the chateau. Ever since the Abbe Aubert had found a refuge from ecclesiastical persecution under the chevalier’s roof, he had no longer been obliged to arrange secret meetings with the hermit. He had, therefore, strongly urged him to give up his dwelling in the forest and to come nearer to himself. Patience had needed a great deal of persuasion. Long years of solitude had so attached him to his Gazeau Tower that he hesitated to desert it for the society of his friend. Besides, he declared that the abbe would assuredly be corrupted with commerce with the great; that soon, unknown to himself, he would come under the influence of the old ideas, and that his zeal for the sacred cause would grow cold. It is true that Edmee had won Patience’s heart, and that, in offering him a little cottage belonging to her father situated in a picturesque ravine near the park gate, she had gone to work with such grace and delicacy that not even his techy pride could feel wounded. In fact, it was to conclude these important negotiations that the abbe had betaken himself to Gazeau Tower with Marcasse on that very evening when Edmee and myself sought shelter there. The terrible scene which followed our arrival put an end to any irresolution still left in Patience. Inclined to the Pythagorean doctrines, he had a horror of all bloodshed. The death of a deer drew tears from him, as from Shakespeare’s Jacques; still less could he bear to contemplate the murder of a human being, and the instant that Gazeau Tower had served as the scene of two tragic deaths, it stood defiled in his eyes, and nothing could have induced him to pass another night there. He followed us to Sainte–Severe, and soon allowed his philosophical scruples to be overcome by Edmee’s persuasive powers. The little cottage which he was prevailed on to accept was humble enough not to make him blush with shame at a too palpable compromise with civilization; and, though the solitude he found there was less perfect than at Gazeau Tower, the frequent visits of the abbe and of Edmee could hardly have given him a right to complain.
Here the narrator interrupted his story again to expatiate on the development of Mademoiselle de Mauprat’s character.
Edmee, hidden away in her modest obscurity, was — and, believe me, I do not speak from bias — one of the most perfect women to be found in France. Had she desired or been compelled to make herself known to the world, she would assuredly have been famous and extolled beyond all her sex. But she found her happiness in her own family, and the sweetest simplicity crowned her mental powers and lofty virtues. She was ignorant of her worth, as I myself was at that time, when, brutelike, I saw only with the eyes of the body, and believed I loved her only because she was beautiful. It should be said, too, that her fiance, M. de la Marche, understood her but little better. He had developed the weakly mind with which he was endowed in the frigid school of Voltaire and Helvetius. Edmee had fired her vast intellect with the burning declamations of Jean Jacques. A day came when I could understand her — the day when M. de la Marche could have understood her would never have come.
Edmee, deprived of her mother from the very cradle, and left to her young devices by a father full of confidence and careless good nature, had shaped her character almost alone. The Abbe Aubert, who had confirmed her, had by no means forbidden her to read the philosophers by whom he himself had been lured from the paths of orthodoxy. Finding no one to oppose her ideas or even to discuss them — for her father, who idolized her, allowed himself to be led wherever she wished — Edmee had drawn support from two sources apparently very antagonistic: the philosophy which was preparing the downfall of Christianity, and Christianity which was proscribing the spirit of inquiry. To account for this contradiction, you must recall what I told you about the effect produced on the Abbe Aubert by the Profession de Foi du Vicaire Savoyard. Moreover, you must be aware that, in poetic souls, mysticism and doubt often reign side by side. Jean Jacques himself furnishes a striking example of this, and you know what sympathies he stirred among priests and nobles, even when he was chastising them so unmercifully. What miracles may not conviction work when helped by sublime eloquence! Edmee had drunk of this living fount with all the eagerness of an ardent soul. In her rare visits to Paris she had sought for spirits in sympathy with her own. There, however, she had found so many shades of opinion, so little harmony, and — despite the prevailing fashion — so many ineradicable prejudices, that she had returned with a yet deeper love to her solitude and her poetic reveries under the old oaks in the park. She would even then speak of her illusions, and — with a good sense beyond her years, perhaps, too, beyond her sex — she refused all opportunities of direct intercourse with the philosophers whose writings made up her intellectual life.
“I am somewhat of a Sybarite,” she would say with a smile. “I would rather have a bouquet of roses arranged for me in a vase in the early morning, than go and gather them myself from out their thorns in the heat of the sun.”
As a fact, this remark about her sybaritism was only a jest. Brought up in the country, she was strong, active, brave, and full of life. To all her charms of delicate beauty she united the energy of physical and moral health. She was the proud-spirited and fearless girl, no less than the sweet and affable mistress of the house. I often found her haughty and disdainful. Patience and the poor of the district never found her anything but modest and good-natured.
Edmee loved the poets almost as much as the transcendental philosophers. In her walks she always carried a book in her hand. One day when she had taken Tasso with her she met Patience, who, as was his wont, inquired minutely into both author and subject. Edmee thereupon had to give him an account of the Crusades. This was not the most difficult part of her task. Thanks to the stores of information derived from the abbe and to his prodigious memory for facts, Patience had a passable knowledge of the outlines of universal history. But what he had great trouble in grasping was the connection and difference between epic poetry and history. At first he was indignant at the inventions of the poets, and declared that such impostures ought never to have been allowed. Then, when he had realized that epic poetry, far from leading generations into error, only raised heroic deeds to vaster proportions and a more enduring glory, he asked how it was that all important events had not been sung by the bards, and why the history of man had not been embodied in a popular form capable of impressing itself on every mind without the help of letters. He begged Edmee to explain to him a stanza of Jerusalem Delivered. As he took a fancy to it, she read him a canto in French. A few days later she read him another, and soon Patience knew the whole poem. He rejoiced to hear that the heroic tale was popular in Italy; and, bringing together his recollections of it, endeavoured to give them an abridged form in rude prose, but he had no memory for words. Roused by his vivid impressions, he would call up a thousand mighty images before his eyes. He would give utterance to them in improvisations wherein his genius triumphed over the uncouthness of his language, but he could never repeat what he had once said. One would have had to take it down from his dictation, and even that would have been of no use to him; for, supposing he had managed to read it, his memory, accustomed to occupy itself solely with thoughts, had never been able to retain any fragment whatever in its precise words. And yet he was fond of quoting, and at times his language was almost biblical. Beyond, however, certain expressions that he loved, and a number of short sentences that he found means to make his own, he remembered nothing of the pages which had been read to him so often, and he always listened to them again with the same emotion as at first. It was a veritable pleasure to watch the effect of beautiful poetry on this powerful intellect. Little by little the abbe, Edmee, and subsequently I myself, managed to familiarize him with Homer and Dante. He was so struck by the various incidents in the Divine Comedy that he could give an analysis of the poem from beginning to end, without forgetting or misplacing the slightest detail in the journey, the encounters, and the emotions of the poet. There, however, his power ended. If he essayed to repeat some of the phrases which had so charmed him when they were read, he flung forth a mass of metaphors and images which savoured of delirium. This initiation into the wonders of poetry marked an epoch in the life of Patience. In the realm of fancy it supplied the action wanting to his real life. In his magic mirror he beheld gigantic combats between heroes ten cubits high; he understood love, which he himself had never known; he fought, he loved, he conquered; he enlightened nations, gave peace to the world, redressed the wrongs of mankind, and raised up temples to the mighty spirit of the universe. He saw in the starry firmament all the gods of Olympus, the fathers of primitive humanity. In the constellations he read the story of the golden age, and of the ages of brass; in the winter wind he heard the songs of Morven, and in the storm-clouds he bowed to the ghosts of Fingal and Comala.
“Before I knew the poets,” he said towards the end of his life, “I was a man lacking in one of the senses. I could see plainly that this sense was necessary, since there were so many things calling for its operation. In my solitary walks at night I used to feel a strange uneasiness; I used to wonder why I could not sleep; why I should find such pleasure in gazing upon the stars that I could not tear myself from their presence; why my heart should suddenly beat with joy on seeing certain colours, or grow sad even to tears on hearing certain sounds. At times I was so alarmed on comparing my continual agitation with the indifference of other men of my class that I even began to imagine that I was mad. But I soon consoled myself with the reflection that such madness was sweet, and I would rather have ceased to exist than be cured of it. Now that I know these things have been thought beautiful in all times and by all intelligent beings, I understand what they are, and how they are useful to man. I find joy in the thought that there is not a flower, not a colour, not a breath of air, which has not absorbed the minds and stirred the hearts of other men till it has received a name sacred among all peoples. Since I have learnt that it is allowed to man, without degrading his reason, to people the universe and interpret it by his dreams, I live wholly in the contemplation of the universe; and when the sight of the misery and crime in the world bruises my heart and shakes my reason, I fall back upon my dreams. I say to myself that, since all men are united in their love of the works of God, some day they will also be united in their love of one another. I imagine that education grows more and more perfect from father to son. It may be that I am the first untutored man who has divined truths of which no glimpse was given him from without. It may be, too, that many others before myself have been perplexed by the workings of their hearts and brains and have died without ever finding an answer to the riddle.” “Ah, we poor folk,” added Patience, “we are never forbidden excess in labour, or in wine, or in any of the debauches which may destroy our minds. There are some people who pay dearly for the work of our arms, so that the poor, in their eagerness to satisfy the wants of their families, may work beyond their strength. There are taverns and other places more dangerous still, from which, so it is said, the government draws a good profit; and there are priests, too, who get up in their pulpits to tell us what we owe to the lord of our village, but never what the lord owes to us. Nowhere is there a school where they teach us our real rights; where they show us how to distinguish our true and decent wants from the shameful and fatal ones; where, in short, they tell us what we can and ought to think about when we have borne the burden and heat of the day for the profit of others, and are sitting in the evening at the door of our huts, gazing on the red stars as they come out on the horizon.”
Thus would Patience reason; and, believe me, in translating his words into our conventional language, I am robbing them of all their grace, all their fire, and all their vigour. But who could repeat the exact words of Patience? His was a language used by none but himself; it was a mixture of the limited, though forcible, vocabulary of the peasants and of the boldest metaphors of the poets, whose poetic turns he would often make bolder still. To this mixed idiom his sympathetic mind gave order and logic. An incredible wealth of thought made up for the brevity of the phrases that clothed it. You should have seen how desperately his will and convictions strove to overcome the impotence of his language; any other than he would have failed to come out of the struggle with honour. And I assure you that any one capable of something more serious than laughing at his solecisms and audacities of phrase, would have found in this man material for the most important studies on the development of the human mind, and an incentive to the most tender admiration for primitive moral beauty.
When, subsequently, I came to understand Patience thoroughly, I found a bond of sympathy with him in my own exceptional destiny. Like him, I had been without education; like him, I had sought outside myself for an explanation of my being — just as one seeks the answer to a riddle. Thanks to the accidents of my birth and fortune, I had arrived at complete development, while Patience, to the hour of his death, remained groping in the darkness of an ignorance from which he neither would nor could emerge. To me, however, this was only an additional reason for recognising the superiority of that powerful nature which held its course more boldly by the feeble light of instinct, than I myself by all the brilliant lights of knowledge; and which, moreover, had not had a single evil inclination to subdue, while I had had all that a man may have.
At the time, however, at which I must take up my story, Patience was still, in my eyes, merely a grotesque character, an object of amusement for Edmee, and of kindly compassion for the Abbe Aubert. When they spoke to me about him in a serious tone, I no longer understood them, and I imagined they took this subject as a sort of text whereon to build a parable proving to me the advantages of education, the necessity of devoting myself to study early in life, and the futility of regrets in after years.
Yet this did not prevent me from prowling about the copses about his new abode, for I had seen Edmee crossing the park in that direction, and I hoped that if I took her by surprise as she was returning, I should get a conversation with her. But she was always accompanied by the abbe, and sometimes even by her father, and if she remained alone with the old peasant, he would escort her to the chateau afterwards. Frequently I have concealed myself in the foliage of a giant yew-tree, which spread out its monstrous shoots and drooping branches to within a few yards of the cottage, and have seen Edmee sitting at the door with a book in her hand while Patience was listening with his arms folded and his head sunk on his breast, as though he were overwhelmed by the effort of attention. At that time I imagined that Edmee was trying to teach him to read, and thought her mad to persist in attempting an impossible education. But how beautiful she seemed in the light of the setting sun, beneath the yellowing vine leaves that overhung the cottage door! I used to gaze on her and tell myself that she belonged to me, and vow never to yield to any force or persuasion which should endeavour to make me renounce my claim.
For some days my agony of mind had been intense. My only method of escaping from it had been to drink heavily at supper, so that I might be almost stupefied at the hour, for me so painful and so galling, when she would leave the drawing-room after kissing her father, giving her hand to M. de la Marche, and saying as she passed by me, “Good-night, Bernard,” in a tone which seemed to say, “To-day has ended like yesterday, and to-morrow will end like to-day.”
In vain would I go and sit in the arm-chair nearest her door, so that she could not pass without at least her dress brushing against me; this was all I ever got from her. I would not put out my hand to beg her own, for she might have given it with an air of unconcern, and I verily believe I should have crushed it in my anger.
Thanks to my large libations at supper, I generally succeeded in besotting myself, silently and sadly. I then used to sink into my favourite arm-chair and remain there, sullen and drowsy, until the fumes of the wine had passed away, and I could go and air my wild dreams and sinister plans in the park.
None seemed to notice this gross habit of mine. They showed me such kindness and indulgence in the family that they seemed afraid to express disapproval, however much I deserved it. Nevertheless, they were well aware of my shameful passion for wine, and the abbe informed Edmee of it. One evening at supper she looked at me fixedly several times and with a strange expression. I stared at her in return, hoping that she would say something to provoke me, but we got no further than an exchange of malevolent glances. On leaving the table she whispered to me very quickly, and in an imperious tone:
“Break yourself of this drinking, and pay attention to what the abbe has to say to you.”
This order and tone of authority, so far from filling me with hope, seemed to me so revolting that all my timidity vanished in a moment. I waited for the hour when she usually went up to her room and, going out a little before her, took up my position on the stairs.
“Do you think,” I said to her when she appeared, “that I am the dupe of your lies, and that I have not seen perfectly, during the month I have been here, without your speaking a word to me, that you are merely fooling me, as if I were a booby? You lied to me and now you despise me because I was honest enough to believe your word.”
“Bernard,” she said, in a cold tone, “this is neither the time nor the place for an explanation.”
“Oh, I know well enough,” I replied, “that, according to you, it will never be the time or the place. But I shall manage to find both, do not fear. You said that you loved me. You threw your arms about my neck and said, as you kissed me — yes, here, I can still feel your lips on my cheeks: ‘Save me, and I swear on the gospel, on my honour, by the memory of my mother and your own, that I will be yours.’ I can see through it; you said that because you were afraid that I should use my strength, and now you avoid me because you are afraid I shall claim my right. But you will gain nothing by it. I swear that you shall not trifle with me long.”
“I will never be yours,” she replied, with a coldness which was becoming more and more icy, “if you do not make some change in your language, and manners, and feelings. In your present state I certainly do not fear you. When you appeared to me good and generous, I might have yielded to you, half from fear and half from affection. But from the moment I cease to care for you, I also cease to be afraid of you. Improve your manners, improve your mind, and we will see.”
“Very good,” I said, “that is a promise I can understand. I will act on it, and if I cannot be happy, I will have my revenge.”
“Take your revenge as much as you please,” she said. “That will only make me despise you.”
So saying, she drew from her bosom a piece of paper, and burnt it in the flame of her candle.
“What are you doing?” I exclaimed.
“I am burning a letter I had written to you,” she answered. “I wanted to make you listen to reason, but it is quite useless; one cannot reason with brutes.”
“Give me that letter at once,” I cried, rushing at her to seize the burning paper.
But she withdrew it quickly and, fearlessly extinguishing it in her hand, threw the candle at my feet and fled in the darkness. I ran after her, but in vain. She was in her room before I could get there, and had slammed the door and drawn the bolts. I could hear the voice of Mademoiselle Leblanc asking her young mistress the cause of her fright.
“It is nothing,” replied Edmee’s trembling voice, “nothing but a joke.”
I went into the garden, and strode up and down the walks at a furious rate. My anger gave place to the most profound melancholy. Edmee, proud and daring, seemed to me more desirable than ever. It is the nature of all desire to be excited and nourished by opposition. I felt that I had offended her, and that she did not love me, that perhaps she would never love me; and, without abandoning my criminal resolution to make her mine by force, I gave way to grief at the thought of her hatred of me. I went and leaned upon a gloomy old wall which happened to be near, and, burying my face in my hands, I broke into heart-rending sobs. My sturdy breast heaved convulsively, but tears would not bring the relief I longed for. I could have roared in my anguish, and I had to bite my handkerchief to prevent myself from yielding to the temptation. The weird noise of my stifled sobs attracted the attention of some one who was praying in the little chapel on the other side of the wall which I had chanced to lean against. A Gothic window, with its stone mullions surmounted by a trefoil, was exactly on a level with my head.
“Who is there?” asked some one, and I could distinguish a pale face in the slanting rays of the moon which was just rising.
It was Edmee. On recognising her I was about to move away, but she passed her beautiful arm between the mullions, and held me back by the collar of my jacket, saying:
“Why are you crying, Bernard?”
I yielded to her gentle violence, half ashamed at having betrayed my weakness, and half enchanted at finding that Edmee was not unmoved by it.
“What are you grieved at?” she continued. “What can draw such bitter tears from you?”
“You despise me; you hate me; and you ask why I am in pain, why I am angry!”
“It is anger, then, that makes you weep?” she said, drawing back her arm.
“Yes; anger or something else,” I replied.
“But what else?” she asked.
“I can’t say; probably grief, as you suggest. The truth is my life here is unbearable; my heart is breaking. I must leave you, Edmee, and go and live in the middle of the woods. I cannot stay here any longer.”
“Why is life unbearable? Explain yourself, Bernard. Now is our opportunity for an explanation.”
“Yes, with a wall between us. I can understand that you are not afraid of me now.”
“And yet it seems to me that I am only showing an interest in you; and was I not as affectionate an hour ago when there was no wall between us?”
“I begin to see why you are fearless, Edmee; you always find some means of avoiding people, or of winning them over with pretty words. Ah, they were right when they told me that all women are false, and that I must love none of them.”
“And who told you that? Your Uncle John, I suppose, or your Uncle Walter; or was it your grandfather, Tristan?”
“You can jeer — jeer at me as much as you like. It is not my fault that I was brought up by them. There were times, however, when they spoke the truth.”
“Bernard, would you like me to tell you why they thought women false?”
“Yes, tell me.”
“Because they were brutes and tyrants to creatures weaker than themselves. Whenever one makes one’s self feared one runs the risk of being deceived. In your childhood, when John used to beat you, did you never try to escape his brutal punishment by disguising your little faults?”
“I did; that was my only resource.”
“You can understand, then, that deception is, if not the right, at least the resource of the oppressed.”
“I understand that I love you, and in that at any rate there can be no excuse for your deceiving me.”
“And who says that I have deceived you?”
“But you have; you said you loved me; you did not love me.”
“I loved you, because at a time when you were wavering between detestable principles and the impulses of a generous heart I saw that you were inclining towards justice and honesty. And I love you now, because I see that you are triumphing over these vile principles, and that your evil inspirations are followed by tears of honest regret. This I say before God, with my hand on my heart, at a time when I can see your real self. There are other times when you appear to me so below yourself that I no longer recognise you and I think I no longer love you. It rests with you, Bernard, to free me from all doubts, either about you or myself.”
“And what must I do?”
“You must amend your bad habits, open your ears to good counsel and your heart to the precepts of morality. You are a savage, Bernard; and, believe me, it is neither your awkwardness in making a bow, nor your inability to turn a compliment that shocks me. On the contrary, this roughness of manner would be a very great charm in my eyes, if only there were some great ideas and noble feelings beneath it. But your ideas and your feelings are like your manners, that is what I cannot endure. I know it is not your fault, and if I only saw you resolute to improve I should love you as much for your defects as for your qualities. Compassion brings affection in its train. But I do not love evil, I never loved it; and, if you cultivate it in yourself instead of uprooting it, I can never love you. Do you understand me?”
“No, I say. I am not aware that there is any evil in me. If you are not displeased at the lack of grace in my legs, or the lack of whiteness in my hands, or the lack of elegance in my words, I fail to see what you find to hate in me. From my childhood I have had to listen to evil precepts, but I have not accepted them. I have never considered it permissible to do a bad deed; or, at least, I have never found it pleasurable. If I have done wrong, it is because I have been forced to do it. I have always detested my uncles and their ways. I do not like to see others suffer; I do not rob a fellow-creature; I despise money, of which they made a god at Roche–Mauprat; I know how to keep sober, and, though I am fond of wine, I would drink water all my life if, like my uncles, I had to shed blood to get a good supper. Yet I fought for them; yet I drank with them. How could I do otherwise? But now, when I am my own master, what harm am I doing? Does your abbe, who is always prating of virtue, take me for a murderer or a thief? Come, Edmee, confess now; you know well enough that I am an honest man; you do not really think me wicked; but I am displeasing to you because I am not clever, and you like M. de la Marche because he has a knack of making unmeaning speeches which I should blush to utter.”
“And if, to be pleasing to me,” she said with a smile, after listening most attentively, and without withdrawing her hand which I had taken through the bars, “if, in order to be preferred to M. de la Marche, it were necessary to acquire more wit, as you say, would you not try?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, after hesitating a moment; “perhaps I should be fool enough; for the power you have over me is more than I can understand; but it would be a sorry piece of cowardice and a great folly.”
“Because a woman who could love a man, not for his honest heart, but for his pretty wit, would be hardly worth the pains I should have to take; at least so it seems to me.”
She remained silent in her turn, and then said to me as she pressed my hand:
“You have much more sense and wit than one might think. And since you force me to be quite frank with you, I will own that, as you now are and even should you never change, I have an esteem and an affection for you which will last as long as my life. Rest assured of that, Bernard, whatever I may say in a moment of anger. You know I have a quick temper — that runs in the family. The blood of the Mauprats will never flow as smoothly as other people’s. Have a care for my pride, then, you know so well what pride is, and do not ever presume upon rights you have acquired. Affection cannot be commanded; it must be implored or inspired. Act so that I may always love you; never tell me that I am forced to love you.”
“That is reasonable enough,” I answered; “but why do you sometimes speak to me as if I were forced to obey you? Why, for instance, this evening did you forbid me to drink and order me to study?”
“Because if one cannot command affection which does not exist, one can at least command affection which does exist; and it is because I am sure yours exists that I commanded it.”
“Good!” I cried, in a transport of joy; “I have a right then to order yours also, since you have told me that it certainly exists. . . . Edmee, I order you to kiss me.”
“Let go, Bernard!” she cried; “you are breaking my arm. Look, you have scraped it against the bars.”
“Why have you intrenched yourself against me?” I said, putting my lips to the little scratch I had made on her arm. “Ah, woe is me! Confound the bars! Edmee, if you would only bend your head down I should be able to kiss you . . . kiss you as my sister. Edmee, what are you afraid of?”
“My good Bernard,” she replied, “in the world in which I live one does not kiss even a sister, and nowhere does one kiss in secret. I will kiss you every day before my father, if you like; but never here.”
“You will never kiss me!” I cried, relapsing into my usual passion. “What of your promise? What of my rights?”
“If we marry,” she said, in an embarrassed tone, “when you have received the education I implore you to receive, . . .”
“Death of my life! Is this a jest? Is there any question of marriage between us? None at all. I don’t want your fortune, as I have told you.”
“My fortune and yours are one,” she replied. “Bernard, between near relations as we are, mine and thine are words without meaning. I should never suspect you of being mercenary. I know that you love me, that you will work to give me proof of this, and that a day will come when your love will no longer make me fear, because I shall be able to accept it in the face of heaven and earth.”
“If that is your idea,” I replied, completely drawn away from my wild passion by the new turn she was giving to my thoughts, “my position is very different; but, to tell you the truth, I must reflect on this; I had not realized that this was your meaning.”
“And how should I have meant otherwise?” she answered. “Is not a woman dishonoured by giving herself to a man who is not her husband? I do not wish to dishonour myself; and, since you love me, you would not wish it either. You would not do me an irreparable wrong. If such were your intention you would be my deadliest enemy.”
“Stay, Edmee, stay!” I answered. “I can tell you nothing about my intentions in regard to you, for I have never had any very definite. I have felt nothing but wild desires, nor have I ever thought of you without going mad. You wish me to marry you? But why — why?”
“Because a girl who respects herself cannot be any man’s except with the thought, with the intention, with the certainty of being his forever. Do you not know that?”
“There are so many things I do not know or have never thought of.”
“Education will teach you, Bernard, what you ought to think about the things which must concern you — about your position, your duties, your feelings. At present you see but dimly into your heart and conscience. And I, who am accustomed to question myself on all subjects and to discipline my life, how can I take for master a man governed by instinct and guided by chance?”
“For master! For husband! Yes, I understand that you cannot surrender your whole life to an animal such as myself . . . but that is what I have never asked of you. No, I tremble to think of it.”
“And yet, Bernard, you must think of it. Think of it frequently, and when you have done so you will realize the necessity of following my advice, and of bringing your mind into harmony with the new life upon which you have entered since quitting Roche–Mauprat. When you have perceived this necessity you must tell me, and then we will make several necessary resolutions.”
She withdrew her hand from mine quickly, and I fancy she bade me good-night; but this I did not hear. I stood buried in my thoughts, and when I raised my head to speak to her she was no longer there. I went into the chapel, but she had returned to her room by an upper gallery which communicated with her apartments.
I went back into the garden, walked far into the park, and remained there all night. This conversation with Edmee had opened a new world to me. Hitherto I had not ceased to be the Roche–Mauprat man, nor had I ever contemplated that it was possible or desirable to cease to be so. Except for some habits which had changed with circumstances, I had never moved out of the narrow circle of my old thoughts. I felt annoyed that these new surroundings of mine should have any real power over me, and I secretly braced my will so that I should not be humbled. Such was my perseverance and strength of character that I believed nothing would ever have driven me from my intrenchment of obstinacy, had not Edmee’s influence been brought to bear upon me. The vulgar comforts of life, the satisfactions of luxury, had no attraction for me beyond their novelty. Bodily repose was a burden to me, and the calm that reigned in this house, so full of order and silence, would have been unbearable, had not Edmee’s presence and the tumult of my own desires communicated to it some of my disorder, and peopled it with some of my visions. Never for a single moment had I desired to become the head of this house, the possessor of this property; and it was with genuine pleasure that I had just heard Edmee do justice to my disinterestedness. The thought of coupling two ends so entirely distinct as my passion and my interests was still more repugnant to me. I roamed about the park a prey to a thousand doubts, and then wandered into the open country unconsciously. It was a glorious night. The full moon was pouring down floods of soft light upon the ploughed lands, all parched by the heat of the sun. Thirsty plants were straightening their bowed stems — each leaf seemed to be drinking in through all its pores all the dewy freshness of the night. I, too, began to feel a soothing influence at work. My heart was still beating violently, but regularly. I was filled with a vague hope; the image of Edmee floated before me on the paths through the meadows, and no longer stirred the wild agonies and frenzied desires which had been devouring me since the night I first beheld her.
I was crossing a spot where the green stretches of pasture were here and there broken by clumps of young trees. Huge oxen with almost white skins were lying in the short grass, motionless, as if plunged in peaceful thought. Hills sloped gently up to the horizon, and their velvety contours seemed to ripple in the bright rays of the moon. For the first time in my life I realized something of the voluptuous beauty and divine effluence of the night. I felt the magic touch of some unknown bliss. It seemed that for the first time in my life I was looking on moon and meadows and hills. I remembered hearing Edmee say that nothing our eyes can behold is more lovely than Nature; and I was astonished that I had never felt this before. Now and them I was on the point of throwing myself on my knees and praying to God: but I feared that I should not know how to speak to Him, and that I might offend Him by praying badly. Shall I confess to you a singular fancy that came upon me, a childish revelation, as it were, of poetic love from out of the chaos of my ignorance? The moon was lighting up everything so plainly that I could distinguish the tiniest flowers in the grass. A little meadow daisy seemed to me so beautiful with its golden calyx full of diamonds of dew and its white collaret fringed with purple, that I plucked it, and covered it with kisses, and cried in a sort of delirious intoxication:
“It is you, Edmee! Yes, it is you! Ah, you no longer shun me!”
But what was my confusion when, on rising, I found there had been a witness of my folly. Patience was standing before me.
I was so angry at having been surprised in such a fit of extravagance that, from a remnant of the Hamstringer instinct, I immediately felt for a knife in my belt; but neither belt nor knife was there. My silk waistcoat with its pocket reminded me that I was doomed to cut no more throats. Patience smiled.
“Well, well! What is the matter?” said the anchorite, in a calm and kindly tone. “Do you imagine that I don’t know perfectly well how things stand? I am not so simple but that I can reason; I am not so old but that I can see. Who is it that makes the branches of my yew shake whenever the holy maiden is sitting at my door? Who is it that follows us like a young wolf with measured steps through the copse when I take the lovely child to her father? And what harm is there in it? You are both young; you are both handsome; you are of the same family; and, if you chose, you might become a noble and honest man as she is a noble and honest girl.”
All my wrath had vanished as I listened to Patience speaking of Edmee. I had such a vast longing to talk about her that I would even have been willing to have heard evil spoken of her, for the sole pleasure of hearing her name pronounced. I continued my walk by the side of Patience. The old man was tramping through the dew with bare feet. It should be mentioned, however, that his feet had long been unacquainted with any covering and had attained a degree of callosity that rendered them proof against anything. His only garments were a pair of blue canvas breeches which, in the absence of braces, hung loosely from his hips, and a coarse shirt. He could not endure any constraint in his clothes; and his skin, hardened by exposure, was sensitive to neither heat nor cold. Even when over eighty he was accustomed to go bareheaded in the broiling sun and with half-open shirt in the winter blasts. Since Edmee had seen to his wants he had attained a certain cleanliness. Nevertheless, in the disorder of his toilet and his hatred of everything that passed the bounds of the strictest necessity (though he could not have been charged with immodesty, which had always been odious to him), the cynic of the old days was still apparent. His beard was shining like silver. His bald skull was so polished that the moon was reflected in it as in water. He walked slowly, with his hands behind his back and his head raised, like a man who is surveying his empire. But most frequently his glances were thrown skywards, and he interrupted his conversation to point to the starry vault and exclaim:
“Look at that; look how beautiful it is!”
He is the only peasant I have ever known to admire the sky; or, at least, he is the only one I have ever seen who was conscious of his admiration.
“Why, Master Patience,” I said to him, “do you think I might be an honest man if I chose? Do you think that I am not one already?”
“Oh, do not be angry,” he answered. “Patience is privileged to say anything. Is he not the fool of the chateau?”
“On the contrary, Edmee maintains that you are its sage.”
“Does the holy child of God say that? Well, if she believes so, I will try to act as a wise man, and give you some good advice, Master Bernard Mauprat. Will you accept it?”
“It seems to me that in this place every one takes upon himself to give advice. Never mind, I am listening.”
“You are in love with your cousin, are you not?”
“You are very bold to ask such a question.”
“It is not a question, it is a fact. Well, my advice is this: make your cousin love you, and become her husband.”
“And why do you take this interest in me, Master Patience?”
“Because I know you deserve it.”
“Who told you so? The abbe?”
“Partly. And yet she is certainly not very much in love with you. But it is your own fault.”
“How so, Patience?”
“Because she wants you to become clever; and you — you would rather not. Oh, if I were only your age; yes, I, poor Patience; and if I were able, without feeling stifled, to shut myself up in a room for only two hours a day; and if all those I met were anxious to teach me; if they said to me, ‘Patience, this is what was done yesterday; Patience, this is what will be done to-morrow.’ But, enough! I have to find out everything myself, and there is so much that I shall die of old age before finding out a tenth part of what I should like to know. But, listen: I have yet another reason for wishing you to marry Edmee.”
“What is that, good Monsieur Patience?”
“This La Marche is not the right man for her. I have told her so — yes, I have; and himself too, and the abbe, and everybody. He is not a man, that thing. He smells as sweet as a whole flower-garden; but I prefer the tiniest sprig of wild thyme.”
“Faith! I have but little love for him myself. But if my cousin likes him, what then, Patience?”
“Your cousin does not like him. She thinks he is a good man; she thinks him genuine. She is mistaken; he deceives her, as he deceives everybody. Yes, I know: he is a man who has not any of this (and Patience put his hand to his heart). He is a man who is always proclaiming: ‘In me behold the champion of virtue, the champion of the unfortunate, the champion of all the wise men and friends of the human race, etc., etc.’ While I— Patience — I know that he lets poor folk die of hunger at the gates of his chateau. I know that if any one said to him, ‘Give up your castle and eat black bread, give up your lands and become a soldier, and then there will be no more misery in the world, the human race — as you call it — will be saved,’ his real self would answer, ‘Thanks, I am lord of my lands, and I am not yet tired of my castle.’ Oh! I know them so well, these sham paragons. How different with Edmee! You do not know that. You love her because she is as beautiful as the daisy in the meadows, while I— I love her because she is good as the moon that sheds light on all. She is a girl who gives away everything that she has; who would not wear a jewel, because with the gold in a ring a man could be kept alive for a year. And if she finds a foot-sore child by the road-side, she takes off her shoes and gives them to him, and goes on her way bare-footed. Then, look you, hers is a heart that never swerves. If to-morrow the village of Saint–Severe were to go to her in a body and say: ‘Young lady, you have lived long enough in the lap of wealth, give us what you have, and take your turn at work’—‘That is but fair, my good friends,’ she would reply, and with a glad heart she would go and tend the flocks in the fields. Her mother was the same. I knew her mother when she was quite young, young as yourself; and I knew yours too. Oh, yes. She was a lady with a noble mind, charitable and just to all. And you take after her, they say.”
“Alas, no,” I answered, deeply touched by these words of Patience. “I know neither charity nor justice.”
“You have not been able to practise them yet, but they are written in your heart. I can read them there. People call me a sorcerer, and so I am in a measure. I know a man directly I see him. Do you remember what you said to me one day on the heath at Valide? You were with Sylvain and I with Marcasse. You told me that an honest man avenges his wrongs himself. And, by-the-bye, Monsieur Mauprat, if you are not satisfied with the apologies I made you at Gazeau Tower, you may say so. See, there is no one near; and, old as I am, I have still a fist as good as yours. We can exchange a few healthy blows — that is Nature’s way. And, though I do not approve of it, I never refuse satisfaction to any one who demands it. There are some men, I know, who would die of mortification if they did not have their revenge: and it has taken me — yes, the man you see before you — more than fifty years to forget an insult I once received . . . and even now, whenever I think of it, my hatred of the nobles springs up again, and I hold it as a crime to have let my heart forgive some of them.”
“I am fully satisfied, Master Patience; and in truth I now feel nothing but affection for you.”
“Ah, that comes of my scratching your back. Youth is ever generous. Come, Mauprat, take courage. Follow the abbe’s advice; he is a good man. Try to please your cousin; she is a star in the firmament. Find out truth; love the people; hate those who hate them; be ready to sacrifice yourself for them. . . . Yes, one word more — listen. I know what I am saying — become the people’s friend.”
“Is the people, then, better than the nobility, Patience? Come now, honestly, since you are a wise man, tell me the truth.”
“Ay, we are worth more than the nobles, because they trample us under foot, and we let them. But we shall not always bear this, perhaps. No; you will have to know it sooner or later, and I may as well tell you now. You see yonder stars? They will never change. Ten thousand years hence they will be in the same place and be giving forth as much light as to-day; but within the next hundred years, maybe within less, there will be many a change on this earth. Take the word of a man who has an eye for the truth of things, and does not let himself be led astray by the fine airs of the great. The poor have suffered enough; they will turn upon the rich, and their castles will fail and their lands be carved up. I shall not see it; but you will. There will be ten cottages in the place of this park, and ten families will live on its revenue. There will no longer be servants or masters, or villein or lord. Some nobles will cry aloud and yield only to force, as your uncles would do if they were alive, and as M. de la Marche will do in spite of all his fine talk. Others will sacrifice themselves generously, like Edmee, and like yourself, if you listen to wisdom. And in that hour it will be well for Edmee that her husband is a man and not a mere fop. It will be well for Bernard Mauprat that he knows how to drive a plough or kill the game which the good God has sent to feed his family; for old Patience will then be lying under the grass in the churchyard, unable to return the services which Edmee has done him. Do not laugh at what I say, young man; it is the voice of God that is speaking. Look at the heavens. The stars live in peace, and nothing disturbs their eternal order. The great do not devour the small, and none fling themselves upon their neighbours. Now, a day will come when the same order will reign among men. The wicked will be swept away by the breath of the Lord. Strengthen your legs, Seigneur Mauprat, that you may stand firm to support Edmee. It is Patience that warns you; Patience who wishes you naught but good. But there will come others who wish you ill, and the good must make themselves strong.”
We had reached Patience’s cottage. He had stopped at the gate of his little inclosure, resting one hand on the cross-bar and waving the other as he spoke. His voice was full of passion, his eyes flashed fire, and his brow was bathed in sweat. There seemed to be some weird power in his words as in those of the prophets of old. The more than plebeian simplicity of his dress still further increased the pride of his gestures and the impressiveness of his voice. The French Revolution has shown since that in the ranks of the people there was no lack of eloquence or of pitiless logic; but what I saw at that moment was so novel, and made such an impression on me, that my unruly and unbridled imagination was carried away by the superstitious terrors of childhood. He held out his hand, and I responded with more of terror than affection. The sorcerer of Gazeau Tower hanging the bleeding owl above my head had just risen before my eyes again.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13