When I awoke on the morrow in a state of exhaustion, all the incidents of the previous night appeared to me as a dream. I began to think that Edmee’s suggestion of becoming my wife had been a perfidious trick to put off my hopes indefinitely; and, as to the sorcerer’s words, I could not recall them without a feeling of profound humiliation. Still, they had produced their effect. My emotions had left traces which could never be effaced. I was no longer the man of the day before, and never again was I to be quite the man of Roche–Mauprat.
It was late, for not until morning had I attempted to make good my sleepless night. I was still in bed when I heard the hoofs of M. de la Marche’s horse on the stones of the courtyard. Every day he used to come at this hour; every day he used to see Edmee at the same time as myself; and now, on this very day, this day when she had tried to persuade me to reckon on her hand, he was going to see her before me, and to give his soulless kiss to this hand that had been promised to myself. The thought of it stirred up all my doubts again. How could Edmee endure his attentions if she really meant to marry another man? Perhaps she dared not send him away; perhaps it was my duty to do so. I was ignorant of the ways of the world into which I was entering. Instinct counselled me to yield to my hasty impulses; and instinct spoke loudly.
I hastily dressed myself. I entered the drawing-room pale and agitated. Edmee was pale too. It was a cold, rainy morning. A fire was burning in the great fire-place. Lying back in an easy chair, she was warming her little feet and dozing. It was the same listless, almost lifeless, attitude of the days of her illness. M. de la Marche was reading the paper at the other end of the room. On seeing that Edmee was more affected than myself by the emotions of the previous night, I felt my anger cool, and, approaching her noiselessly, I sat down and gazed on her tenderly.
“Is that you, Bernard?” she asked without moving a limb, and with eyes still closed.
Her elbows were resting on the arms of her chair and her hands were gracefully crossed under her chin. At that period it was the fashion for women to have their arms half bare at all times. On one of Edmee’s I noticed a little strip of court-plaster that made my heart beat. It was the slight scratch I had caused against the bars of the chapel window. I gently lifted the lace which fell over her elbow, and, emboldened by her drowsiness, pressed my lips to the darling wound. M. de la Marche could see me, and, in fact, did see me, as I intended he should. I was burning to have a quarrel with him. Edmee started and turned red; but immediately assuming an air of indolent playfulness, she said:
“Really, Bernard, you are as gallant this morning as a court abbe. Do you happen to have been composing a madrigal last night?”
I was peculiarly mortified at this jesting. However, paying her back in her own coin, I answered:
“Yes; I composed one yesterday evening at the chapel window; and if it is a poor thing, cousin, it is your fault.”
“Say, rather, that it is the fault of your education,” she replied, kindling.
And she was never more beautiful than when her natural pride and spirit were roused.
“My own opinion is that I am being very much over-educated,” I answered; “and that if I gave more heed to my natural good sense you would not jeer at me so much.”
“Really, it seems to me that you are indulging in a veritable war of wits with Bernard,” said M. de la Marche, folding his paper carelessly and approaching us.
“I cry quits with her,” I answered, annoyed at this impertinence. “Let her keep her wit for such as you.”
I had risen to insult him, but he did not seem to notice it; and standing with his back to the fire he bent down towards Edmee and said, in a gentle and almost affectionate voice:
“What is the matter with him?” as if he were inquiring after the health of her little dog.
“How should I know?” she replied, in the same tone.
Then she rose and added:
“My head aches too much to remain here. Give me your arm and take me up to my room.”
She went out, leaning upon his arm. I was left there stupefied.
I remained in the drawing-room, resolved to insult him as soon as he should return. But the abbe now entered, and soon afterward my Uncle Hubert. They began to talk on subjects which were quite strange to me (the subjects of their conversation were nearly always so). I did not know what to do to obtain revenge. I dared not betray myself in my uncle’s presence. I was sensible to the respect I owed to him and to his hospitality. Never had I done such violence to myself at Roche–Mauprat. Yet, in spite of all efforts, my anger showed itself. I almost died at being obliged to wait for revenge. Several times the chevalier noticed the change in my features and asked in a kind tone if I were ill. M. de la Marche seemed neither to observe nor to guess anything. The abbe alone examined me attentively. More than once I caught his blue eyes anxiously fixed on me, those eyes in which natural penetration was always veiled by habitual shyness. The abbe did not like me. I could easily see that his kindly, cheerful manners grew cold in spite of himself as soon as he spoke to me; and I noticed, too, that his face would invariably assume a sad expression at my approach.
The constraint that I was enduring was so alien to my habits and so beyond my strength that I came nigh to fainting. To obtain relief I went and threw myself on the grass in the park. This was a refuge to me in all my troubles. These mighty oaks, this moss which had clung to their branches through the centuries, these pale, sweet-scented wild flowers, emblems of secret sorrow, these were the friends of my childhood, and these alone I had found the same in social as in savage life. I buried my face in my hands; and I never remember having suffered more in any of the calamities of my life, though some that I had to bear afterward were very real. On the whole I ought to have accounted myself lucky, on giving up the rough and perilous trade of a cut-throat, to find so many unexpected blessings — affection, devotion, riches, liberty, education, good precepts and good examples. But it is certain that, in order to pass from a given state to its opposite, though it be from evil to good, from grief to joy, from fatigue to repose, the soul of a man must suffer; in this hour of birth of a new destiny all the springs of his being are strained almost to breaking — even as at the approach of summer the sky is covered with dark clouds, and the earth, all a-tremble, seems about to be annihilated by the tempest.
At this moment my only thought was to devise some means of appeasing my hatred of M. de la Marche without betraying and without even arousing a suspicion of the mysterious bond which held Edmee in my power. Though nothing was less respected at Roche–Mauprat than the sanctity of an oath, yet the little reading I had had there — those ballads of chivalry of which I have already spoken — had filled me with an almost romantic love of good faith; and this was about the only virtue I had acquired there. My promise of secrecy to Edmee was therefore inviolable in my eyes.
“However,” I said to myself, “I dare say I shall find some plausible pretext for throwing myself upon my enemy and strangling him.”
To confess the truth, this was far from easy with a man who seemed bent on being all politeness and kindness.
Distracted by these thoughts, I forgot the dinner hour; and when I saw the sun sinking behind the turrets of the castle I realized too late that my absence must have been noticed, and that I could not appear without submitting to Edmee’s searching questions, and to the abbe’s cold, piercing gaze, which, though it always seemed to avoid mine, I would suddenly surprise in the act of sounding the very depths of my conscience.
I resolved not to return to the house till nightfall, and I threw myself upon the grass and tried to find rest for my aching head in sleep. I did fall asleep in fact. When I awoke the moon was rising in the heavens, which were still red with the glow of sunset. The noise which had aroused me was very slight; but there are some sounds which strike the heart before reaching the ear; and the subtlest emanations of love will at times pierce through the coarsest organization. Edmee’s voice had just pronounced my name a short distance away, behind some foliage. At first I thought I had been dreaming; I remained where I was, held my breath and listened. It was she, on her way to the hermit’s, in company with the abbe. They had stopped in a covered walk five or six yards from me, and they were talking in low voices, but in those clear tones which, in an exchange of confidence, compels attention with peculiar solemnity.
“I fear,” Edmee was saying, “that there will be trouble between him and M. de la Marche; perhaps something very serious — who knows? You do not understand Bernard.”
“He must be got away from here, at all costs,” answered the abbe. “You cannot live in this way, continually exposed to the brutality of a brigand.”
“It cannot be called living. Since he set foot in the house I have not had a moment’s peace of mind. Imprisoned in my room, or forced to seek the protection of my friends, I am almost afraid to move. It is as much as I dare to do to creep downstairs, and I never cross the corridor without sending Leblanc ahead as a scout. The poor woman, who has always found me so brave, now thinks I am mad. The suspense is horrible. I cannot sleep unless I first bolt the door. And look, abbe, I never walk about without a dagger, like the heroine of a Spanish ballad, neither more nor less.”
“And if this wretch meets you and frightens you, you will plunge it into your bosom? Oh! that must not be. Edmee, we must find some means of changing a position which is no longer tenable. I take it that you do not wish to deprive him of your father’s friendship by confessing to the latter the monstrous bargain you were forced to make with this bandit at Roche–Mauprat. But whatever may happen — ah! my poor little Edmee, I am not a bloodthirsty man, but twenty times a day I find myself deploring that my character of priest prevents me from challenging this creature, and ridding you of him forever.”
This charitable regret, expressed so artlessly in my very ear, made me itch to reveal myself to them at once, were it only to put the abbe’s warlike humour to the proof; but I was restrained by the hope that I should at last discover Edmee’s real feelings and real intentions in regard to myself.
“Have no fear,” she said, in a careless tone. “If he tries my patience too much, I shall not have the slightest hesitation in planting this blade in his cheek. I am quite sure that a little blood-letting will cool his ardour.”
Then they drew a few steps nearer.
“Listen to me, Edmee,” said the abbe, stopping again. “We cannot discuss this matter with Patience. Let us come to some decision before we put it aside. Your relations with Bernard are now drawing to a crisis. It seems to me, my child, that you are not doing all you ought to ward off the evils that may strike us; for everything that is painful to you will be painful to all of us, and will touch us to the bottom of our hearts.”
“I am all attention, excellent friend,” answered Edmee; “scold me, advise me, as you will.”
So saying she leant back against the tree at the foot of which I was lying among the brushwood and long grass. I fancy she might have seen me, for I could see her distinctly. However, she little thought that I was gazing on her divine face, over which the night breeze was throwing, now the shadows of the rustling leaves, and now the pale diamonds that the moon showers down through the trees of the forest.
“My opinion, Edmee,” answered the abbe, crossing his arms on his breast and striking his brow at intervals, “is that you do not take the right view of your situation. At times it distresses you to such an extent that you lose all hope and long to die — yes, my dear child, to such an extent that your health plainly suffers. At other times, and I must speak candidly at the risk of offending you a little, you view your perils with a levity and cheerfulness that astound me.”
“That last reproach is delicately put, dear friend,” she replied; “but allow me to justify myself. Your astonishment arises from the fact that you do not know the Mauprat race. It is a tameless, incorrigible race, from which naught but Headbreakers and Hamstringers may issue. Even in those who have been most polished by education there remains many a stubborn knot — a sovereign pride, a will of iron, a profound contempt for life. Look at my father. In spite of his adorable goodness, you see that he is sometimes so quick-tempered that he will smash his snuff-box on the table, when you get the better of him in some political argument, or when you win a game of chess. For myself, I am conscious that my veins are as full-blooded as if I had been born in the noble ranks of the people; and I do not believe that any Mauprat has ever shone at court for the charm of his manners. Since I was born brave, how would you have me set much store by life? And yet there are weak moments in which I get discouraged more than enough, and bemoan my fate like the true woman that I am. But, let some one offend me, or threaten me, and the blood of the strong surges through me again; and then, as I cannot crush my enemy, I fold my arms and smile with compassion at the idea that he should ever have hoped to frighten me. And do not look upon this as mere bombast, abbe. To-morrow, this evening perhaps, my words may turn to deeds. This little pearl-handled knife does not look like deeds of blood; still, it will be able to do its work, and ever since Don Marcasse (who knows what he is about) sharpened it, I have had it by me night and day, and my mind is made up. I have not a very strong fist, but it will no doubt manage to give myself a good stab with this knife, even as it manages to give my horse a cut with the whip. Well, that being so, my honour is safe; it is only my life, which hangs by a thread, which is at the mercy of a glass of wine, more or less, that M. Bernard may happen to drink one of these evenings; of some change meeting, or some exchange of looks between De la Marche and myself that he may fancy he has detected; a breath of air perhaps! What is to be done? Were I to grieve, would my tears wash away the past? We cannot tear out a single page of our lives; but we can throw the book into the fire. Though I should weep from night till morn, would that prevent Destiny from having, in a fit of ill-humour, taken me out hunting, sent me astray in the woods, and made me stumble across a Mauprat, who led me to his den, where I escaped dishonour and perhaps death only by binding my life forever to that of a savage who had none of my principles, and who probably (and who undoubtedly, I should say) never will have them? All this is a misfortune. I was in the full sunlight of a happy destiny; I was the pride and joy of my old father; I was about to marry a man I esteem and like; no sorrows, no fears had come near my path; I knew neither days fraught with danger nor nights bereft of sleep. Well, God did not wish such a beautiful life to continue; His will be done. There are days when the ruin of all my hopes seems to me so inevitable that I look upon myself as dead and my fiance as a widower. If it were not for my poor father, I should really laugh at it all; for I am so ill built for vexation and fears that during the short time I have known them they have already tired me of life.”
“This courage is heroic, but it is also terrible,” cried the abbe, in a broken voice. “It is almost a resolve to commit suicide, Edmee.”
“Oh, I shall fight for my life,” she answered, with warmth; “but I shall not stand haggling with it a moment if my honour does not come forth safe and sound from all these risks. No; I am not pious enough ever to accept a soiled life by way of penance for sins of which I never had a thought. If God deals so harshly with me that I have to choose between shame and death . . .”
“There can never be any shame for you, Edmee; a soul so chaste, so pure in intention . . .”
“Oh, don’t talk of that, dear abbe! Perhaps I am not as good as you think; I am not very orthodox in religion — nor are you, abbe! I give little heed to the world; I have no love for it. I neither fear nor despise public opinion; it will never enter into my life. I am not very sure what principle of virtue would be strong enough to prevent me from falling, if the spirit of evil took me in hand. I have read La Nouvelle Heloise, and I shed many tears over it. But, because I am a Mauprat and have an unbending pride, I will never endure the tyranny of any man — the violence of a lover no more than a husband’s blow; only a servile soul and a craven character may yield to force that which it refuses to entreaty. Sainte Solange, the beautiful shepherdess, let her head be cut off rather than submit to the seigneur’s rights. And you know that from mother to daughter the Mauprats have been consecrated in baptism to the protection of the patron saint of Berry.”
“Yes; I know that you are proud and resolute,” said the abbe, “and because I respect you more than any woman in the world I want you to live, and be free, and make a marriage worthy of you, so that in the human family you may fill the part which beautiful souls still know how to make noble. Besides, you are necessary to your father; your death would hurry him to his grave, hearty and robust as the Mauprat still is. Put away these gloomy thoughts, then, and these violent resolutions. It is impossible. This adventure of Roche–Mauprat must be looked upon only as an evil dream. We both had a nightmare in those hours of horror; but it is time for us to awake; we cannot remain paralyzed with fear like children. You have only one course open to you, and that I have already pointed out.”
“But, abbe, it is the one which I hold the most impossible of all. I have sworn by everything that is most sacred in the universe and the human heart.”
“An oath extorted by threats and violence is binding on none; even human laws decree this. Divine laws, especially in a case of this nature, absolve the human conscience beyond a doubt. If you were orthodox, I would go to Rome — yes, I would go on foot — to get you absolved from so rash a vow; but you are not a submissive child of the Pope, Edmee — nor am I.”
“You wish me, then, to perjure myself?”
“Your soul would not be perjured.”
“My soul would! I took an oath with a full knowledge of what I was doing and at a time when I might have killed myself on the spot; for in my hand I had a knife three times as large as this. But I wanted to live; above all, I wanted to see my father again and kiss him. To put an end to the agony which my disappearance must have caused him, I would have bartered more than my life, I would have bartered my immortal soul. Since then, too, as I told you last night, I have renewed my vow, and of my own free-will, moreover; for there was a wall between my amiable fiance and myself.”
“How could you have been so imprudent, Edmee? Here again I fail to understand you.”
“That I can quite believe, for I do not understand myself,” said Edmee, with a peculiar expression.
“My dear child, you must open your hear to me freely. I am the only person here who can advise you, since I am the only one to whom you can tell everything under the seal of a friendship as sacred as the secrecy of Catholic confession can be. Answer me, then. You do not really look upon a marriage between yourself and Bernard Mauprat as possible?”
“How should that which is inevitable be impossible?” said Edmee. “There is nothing more possible than throwing one’s self into the river; nothing more possible than surrendering one’s self to misery and despair; nothing more possible, consequently, than marrying Bernard Mauprat.”
“In any case I will not be the one to celebrate such an absurd and deplorable union,” cried the abbe. “You, the wife and the slave of this Hamstringer! Edmee, you said just now that you would no more endure the violence of a lover than a husband’s blow.”
“You think the he would beat me?”
“If he did not kill you.”
“Oh, no,” she replied, in a resolute tone, with a wave of the knife, “I would kill him first. When Mauprat meets Mauprat . . .!”
“You can laugh, Edmee? O my God! you can laugh at the thought of such a match! But, even if this man had some affection and esteem for you, think how impossible it would be for you to have anything in common; think of the coarseness of his ideas, the vulgarity of his speech. The heart rises in disgust at the idea of such a union. Good God! In what language would you speak to him?”
Once more I was on the point of rising and falling on my panegyrist; but I overcame my rage. Edmee began to speak, and I was all ears again.
“I know very well that at the end of three or four days I should have nothing better to do than cut my own throat; but since sooner or later it must come to that, why should I not go forward to the inevitable hour? I confess that I shall be sorry to leave life. Not all those who have been to Roche–Mauprat have returned. I went there not to meet death, but to betroth myself to it. Well, then, I will go on to my wedding-day, and if Bernard is too odious, I will kill myself after the ball.”
“Edmee, your head seems full of romantic notions at present,” said the abbe, losing patience. “Thank God, your father will never consent to the marriage. He has given his word to M. de la March, and you too have given yours. This is the only promise that is valid.”
“My father would consent — yes, with joy — to an arrangement which perpetuated his name and line directly. As to M. de la March, he will release me from any promise without my taking the trouble to ask him; as soon as he hears that I passed two hours at Roche–Mauprat there will be no need of any other explanation.”
“He would be very unworthy of the esteem I feel for him, if he considered your good name tarnished by an unfortunate adventure from which you came out pure.”
“Thanks to Bernard,” said Edmee; “for after all I ought to be grateful to him; in spite of his reservations and conditions, he performed a great and inconceivable action, for a Hamstringer.”
“God forbid that I should deny the good qualities which education may have developed in this young man; and it may still be possible, by approaching him on this better side of his, to make him listen to reason.”
“And make him consent to be taught? Never. Even if he should show himself willing, he would no more be able than Patience. When the body is made for an animal life, the spirit can no longer submit to the laws of the intellect.”
“I think so too; but that is not the point. I suggest that you should have an explanation with him, and make him understand that he is bound in honour to release you from your promise and resign himself to your marriage with M. de la Marche. Either he is a brute unworthy of the slightest esteem and consideration, or he will realize his crime and folly and yield honestly and with a good grace. Free me from the vow of secrecy to which I am bound; authorize me to deal plainly with him and I will guarantee success.”
“And I— I will guarantee the contrary,” said Edmee. “Besides, I could not consent to this. Whatever Bernard may be, I am anxious to come out of our duel with honour; and if I acted as you suggest, he would have cause to believe that up to the present I have been unworthily trifling with him.”
“Well, there is only one means left, and that is to trust to the honour and discretion of M. de la Marche. Set before him the details of your position, and then let him give the verdict. You have a perfect right to intrust him with your secret, and you are quite sure of his honour. If he is coward enough to desert you in such a position, your remaining resource is to take shelter from Bernard’s violence behind the iron bars of a convent. You can remain there a few years; you can make a show of taking the veil. The young man will forget you, and they will set you free again.”
“Indeed, that is the only reasonable course to take, and I had already thought of it; but it is not yet time to make the move.”
“Very true; you must first see the result of your confession to M. de la Marche. If, as I make no doubt, he is a man of mettle, he will take you under his protection, and then procure the removal of this Bernard, whether by persuasion or authority.”
“What authority, abbe, if you please?”
“The authority which our customs allow one gentleman to exercise over his equal — honour and the sword.”
“Oh, abbe! You too, then are a man with a thirst for blood. Well, that is precisely what I have hitherto tried to avoid, and what I will avoid, though it cost me my life and honour. I do not wish that there should be any fight between these two men.”
“I understand: one of the two is very rightly dear to you. But evidently in this duel it is not M. de la Marche who would be in danger.”
“Then it would be Bernard,” cried Edmee. “Well, I should hate M. de la Marche, if he insisted on a duel with this poor boy, who only knows how to handle a stick or a sling. How can such ideas occur to you, abbe? You must really loathe this unfortunate Bernard. And fancy me getting my husband to cut his throat as a return for having saved my life at the risk of his own. No, no; I will not suffer any one either to challenge him, or humiliate him, or persecute him. He is my cousin; he is a Mauprat; he is almost a brother. I will not let him be driven out of this home. Rather I will go myself.”
“These are very generous sentiments, Edmee,” answered the abbe. “But with what warmth you express them! I stand confounded; and, if I were not afraid of offending you, I should confess that this solicitude for young Mauprat suggests to me a strange thought.”
“Well, what is it, then?” said Edmee, with a certain brusqueness.
“If you insist, of course I will tell you: you seem to take a deeper interest in this young man than in M. de la Marche, and I could have wished to think otherwise.”
“Which has the greater need of this interest, you bad Christian?” said Edmee with a smile. “Is it not the hardened sinner whose eyes have never looked upon the light?”
“But, come, Edmee! You love M. de la Marche, do you not? For Heaven’s sake do not jest.”
“If by love,” she replied in a serious tone, “you mean a feeling of trust and friendship, I love M. de la Marche; but if you mean a feeling of compassion and solicitude, I love Bernard. It remains to be seen which of these two affections is the deeper. That is your concern, abbe. For my part, it troubles me but little; for I feel that there is only one being whom I love with passion, and that is my father; and only one thing that I love with enthusiasm, and that is my duty. Probably I shall regret the attentions and devotion of the lieutenant-general, and I shall share in the grief that I must soon cause him when I announce that I can never be his wife. This necessity, however, will by no means drive me to desperation, because I know that M. de la Marche will quickly recover. . . . I am not joking, abbe; M. de la Marche is a man of no depth, and somewhat cold.”
“If your love for him is no greater than this, so much the better. It makes one trial less among your many trials. Still, this indifference robs me of my last hope of seeing you rescued from Bernard Mauprat.”
“Do not let this grieve you. Either Bernard will yield to friendship and loyalty and improve, or I shall escape him.”
“By the gate of the convent — or of the graveyard.”
As she uttered these words in a calm tone, Edmee shook back her long black hair, which had fallen over her shoulders and partly over her pale face.
“Come,” she said, “God will help us. It is folly and impiety to doubt him in the hour of danger. Are we atheists, that we let ourselves be discouraged in this way? Let us go and see Patience. . . . He will bring forth some wise saw to ease our minds; he is the old oracle who solves all problems without understanding any.”
They moved away, while I remained in a state of consternation.
Oh, how different was this night from the last! How vast a step I had just taken in life, no longer on the path of flowers but on the arid rocks! Now I understood all the odious reality of the part I had been playing. In the bottom of Edmee’s heart I had just read the fear and disgust I inspired in her. Nothing could assuage my grief; for nothing now could arouse my anger. She had no affection for M. de la Marche; she was trifling neither with him nor with me; she had no affection for either of us. How could I have believed that her generous sympathy for me and her sublime devotion to her word were signs of love? How, in the hours when this presumptuous fancy left me, could I have believed that in order to resist my passion she must needs feel love for another? It had come to pass, then, that I had no longer any object on which to vent my rage; now it could result only in Edmee’s flight or death? Her death! At the mere thought of it the blood ran cold in my veins, a weight fell on my heart, and I felt all the stings of remorse piercing it. This night of agony was for me the clearest call of Providence. At last I understood those laws of modesty and sacred liberty which my ignorance had hitherto outraged and blasphemed. They astonished me more than ever; but I could see them; their sanction was their own existence. Edmee’s strong, sincere soul appeared before me like the stone of Sinai on which the finger of God has traced the immutable truth. Her virtue was not feigned; her knife was sharpened, ready to cut out the stain of my love. I was so terrified at having been in danger of seeing her die in my arms; I was so horrified at the gross insult I had offered her while seeking to overcome her resistance, that I began to devise all manner of impossible plans for righting the wrongs I had done, and restoring her peace of mind.
The only one which seemed beyond my powers was to tear myself away from her; for while these feelings of esteem and respect were springing up in me, my love was changing its nature, so to speak, and growing vaster and taking possession of all my being. Edmee appeared to me in a new light. She was no longer the lovely girl whose presence stirred a tumult in my senses; she was a young man of my own age, beautiful as a seraph, proud, courageous, inflexible in honour, generous, capable of that sublime friendship which once bound together brothers in arms, but with no passionate love except for Deity, like the paladins of old, who, braving a thousand dangers, marched to the Holy Land under their golden armour.
From this hour I felt my love descending from the wild storms of the brain into the healthy regions of the heart. Devotion seemed no longer an enigma to me. I resolved that on the very next morning I would give proof of my submission and affection. It was quite late when I returned to the chateau, tired out, dying of hunger, and exhausted by the emotions I had experienced. I entered the pantry, found a piece of bread, and began eating it, all moist with my tears. I was leaning against the stove in the dime light of a lamp that was almost out, when I suddenly saw Edmee enter. She took a few cherries from a chest and slowly approached the stove, pale and deep in thought. On seeing me she uttered a cry and let the cherries fall.
“Edmee,” I said, “I implore you never to be afraid of me again. That is all I can say now; for I do not know how to explain myself; and yet I had resolved to say many things.”
“You must tell me them some other time, cousin,” she answered, trying to smile.
But she was unable to disguise the fear she felt at finding herself alone with me.
I did not try to detain her. I felt deeply pained and humiliated at her distrust of me, and I knew I had no right to complain. Yet never had any man stood in greater need of a word of encouragement.
Just as she was going out of the room I broke down altogether, and burst into tears, as on the previous night at the chapel window. Edmee stopped on the threshold and hesitated a moment. Then, yielding to the kindly impulses of her heart, she overcame her fears and returned towards me. Pausing a few yards from my chair, she said:
“Bernard, you are unhappy. Tell me; is it my fault?”
I was unable to reply; I was ashamed of my tears, but the more I tried to restrain them the more my breast heaved with sobs. With men as physically strong as I was, tears are generally convulsions; mine were like the pangs of death.
“Come now! Just tell me what is wrong,” cried Edmee, with some of the bluntness of sisterly affection.
And she ventured to put her hand on my shoulder. She was looking at me with an expression of wistfulness, and a big tear was trickling down her cheek. I threw myself on my knees and tried to speak, but that was still impossible. I could do no more than mutter the word to-morrow several times.
“‘To-morrow?’ What of tomorrow?” said Edmee. “Do you not like being here? Do you want to go away?”
“I will go, if it will please you,” I replied. “Tell me; do you wish never to see me again?”
“I do not wish that at all,” she rejoined. “You will stop here, won’t you.”
“It is for you to decide,” I answered.
She looked at me in astonishment. I was still on my knees. She leant over the back of my chair.
“Yes; I am quite sure that you are good at heart,” she said, as if she were answering some inner objection. “A Mauprat can be nothing by halves; and as soon as you have once known a good quarter of an hour, it is certain you ought to have a noble life before you.”
“I will make it so,” I answered.
“You mean it?” she said with unaffected joy.
“On my honour, Edmee, and on yours. Dare you give me your hand?”
“Certainly,” she said.
She held out her hand to me; but she was still trembling.
“You have been forming good resolutions, then?” she said.
“I have been forming such resolutions,” I replied, “that you will never have to reproach me again. And now, Edmee, when you return to your room, please do not bolt your door any more. You need no longer be afraid of me. Henceforth I shall only wish what you wish.”
She again fixed on me a look of amazement. Then, after pressing my hand, she moved away, but turned round several times to look at me again, as if unable to believe in such a sudden conversion. At last, stopping in the doorway, she said to me in an affectionate tone:
“You, too, must go and get some rest. You look tired; and for the last two days you have seemed sad and very much altered. If you do not wish to make me anxious, you will take care of yourself, Bernard.”
She gave me a sweet little nod. In her big eyes, already hollowed by suffering, there was an indefinable expression, in which distrust and hope, affection and wonder, were depicted alternately or at times all together.
“I will take care of myself; I will get some sleep; and I will not be sad any longer,” I answered.
“And you will work?”
“And I will work — but, you, Edmee, will you forgive me for all the pain I have caused you? and will you try to like me a little?”
“I shall like you very much,” she replied, “if you are always as you are this evening.”
On the morrow, at daybreak, I went to the abbe’s room. He was already up and reading.
“Monsieur Aubert,” I said to him, “you have several times offered to give me lessons. I now come to request you to carry out your kind offer.”
I had spent part of the night in preparing this opening speech and in deciding how I had best comport myself in the abbe’s presence. Without really hating him, for I could quite see that he meant well and that he bore me ill-will only because of my faults, I felt very bitter towards him. Inwardly I recognised that I deserved all the bad things he had said about me to Edmee; but it seemed to me that he might have insisted somewhat more on the good side of mine to which he had given a merely passing word, and which could not have escaped the notice of a man so observant as himself. I had determined, therefore, to be very cold and very proud in my bearing towards him. To this end I judged with a certain show of logic, that I ought to display great docility as long as the lesson lasted, and that immediately afterwards I ought to leave him with a very curt expression of thanks. In a word, I wished to humiliate him in his post of tutor; for I was not unaware that he depended for his livelihood on my uncle, and that, unless he renounced this livelihood or showed himself ungrateful, he could not well refuse to undertake my education. My reasoning here was very good; but the spirit which prompted it was very bad; and subsequently I felt so much regret for my behaviour that I made him a sort of friendly confession with a request for absolution.
However, not to anticipate events, I will simply say that the first few days after my conversation afforded me an ample revenge for the prejudices, too well founded in many respects, which this man had against me. He would have deserved the title of “the just,” assigned him by Patience, had not a habit of distrust interfered with his first impulses. The persecutions of which he had so long been the object had developed in him this instinctive feeling of fear, which remained with him all his life, and made trust in others always very difficult to him, though all the more flattering and touching perhaps when he accorded it. Since then I have observed this characteristic in many worthy priests. They generally have the spirit of charity, but not the feeling of friendship.
I wished to make him suffer, and I succeeded. Spite inspired me. I behaved as a nobleman might to an inferior. I preserved an excellent bearing, displayed great attention, much politeness, and an icy stiffness. I determined to give him no chance to make me blush at my ignorance, and, to this end, I acted so as to anticipate all his observations by accusing myself at once of knowing nothing, and by requesting him to teach me the very rudiments of things. When I had finished my first lesson I saw in his penetrating eyes, into which I had managed to penetrate myself, a desire to pass from this coldness to some sort of intimacy; but I carefully avoided making any response. He thought to disarm me by praising my attention and intelligence.
“You are troubling yourself unnecessarily, monsieur,” I replied. “I stand in no need of encouragement. I have not the least faith in my intelligence, but of my attention I certainly am very sure; but since it is solely for my own good that I am doing my best to apply myself to this work, there is no reason why you should compliment me on it.”
With these words I bowed to him and withdrew to my room, where I immediately did the French exercise that he had set me.
When I went down to luncheon, I saw that Edmee was already aware of the execution of the promise I had made the previous evening. She at once greeted me with outstretched hand, and frequently during luncheon called me her “dear cousin,” till at last M. de la Marche’s face, which was usually expressionless, expressed surprise or something very near it. I was hoping that he would take the opportunity to demand an explanation of my insulting words of the previous day; and although I had resolved to discuss the matter in a spirit of great moderation, I felt very much hurt at the care which he took to avoid it. This indifference to an insult that I had offered implied a sort of contempt, which annoyed me very much; but the fear of displeasing Edmee gave me strength to restrain myself.
Incredible as it may seem, my resolve to supplant him was not for one moment shaken by this humiliating apprenticeship which I had now to serve before I could manage to obtain the most elementary notions of things in general. Any other than I, filled like myself with remorse for wrongs committed, would have found no surer method of repairing them than by going away, and restoring to Edmee her perfect independence and absolute peace of mind. This was the only method which did not occur to me; or if it did, it was rejected with scorn, as a sign of apostasy. Stubbornness, allied to temerity, ran through my veins with the blood of the Mauprats. No sooner had I imagined a means of winning her whom I loved than I embraced it with audacity; and I think it would not have been otherwise even had her confidences to the abbe in the park shown me that her love was given to my rival. Such assurance on the part of a young man who, at the age of seventeen, was taking his first lesson in French grammar, and who, moreover, had a very exaggerated notion of the length and difficulty of the studies necessary to put him on a level with M. de la March, showed, you must allow, a certain moral force.
I do not know if I was happily endowed in the matter of intelligence. The abbe assured me that I was; but, for my own part, I think that my rapid progress was due to nothing but my courage. This was such as to make me presume too much on my physical powers. The abbe had told me that, with a strong will, any one of my age could master all the rules of the language within a month. At the end of the month I expressed myself with facility and wrote correctly. Edmee had a sort of occult influence over my studies; at her wish I was not taught Latin; for she declared that I was too old to devote several years to a fancy branch of learning, and that the essential thing was to shape my heart and understanding with ideas, rather than to adorn my mind with words.
Of an evening, under pretext of wishing to read some favourite book again, she read aloud, alternately with the abbe, passages from Condillac, Fenelon, Bernardin de Saint–Pierre, Jean Jacques, and even from Montaigne and Montesquieu. These passages, it is true, were chosen beforehand and adapted to my powers. I understood them fairly well, and I secretly wondered at this; for if during the day I opened these same books at random, I found myself brought to a standstill at every line. With the superstition natural to young lovers, I willingly imagined that in passing through Edmee’s mouth the authors acquired a magic clearness, and that by some miracle my mind expanded at the sound of her voice. However, Edmee was careful to disguise the interest she took in teaching me herself. There is no doubt that she was mistaken in thinking that she ought not to betray her solicitude: it would only have roused me to still greater efforts in my work. But in this, imbued as she was with the teachings of Emile, she was merely putting into practice the theories of her favourite philosopher.
As it was, I spared myself but little; for my courage would not admit of any forethought. Consequently I was soon obliged to stop. The change of air, of diet, and of habits, my lucubrations, the want of vigorous exercise, my intense application, in a word, the terrible revolution which my nature had to stir up against itself in order to pass from the state of a man of the woods to that of an intelligent being, brought on a kind of brain fever which made me almost mad for some weeks, then an idiot for some days, and finally disappeared, leaving me a mere wreck physically, with a mind completely severed from the past, but sternly braced to meet the future.
One night, when I was at the most critical stage of my illness, during a lucid interval, I caught sight of Edmee in my room. At first I thought I was dreaming. The night-light was casting an unsteady glimmer over the room. Near me was a pale form lying motionless on an easy chair. I could distinguish some long black tresses falling loosely over a white dress. I sat up, weak though I was and scarcely able to move, and tried to get out of bed. Patience, however, suddenly appeared by the bedside and gently stopped me. Saint–Jean was sleeping in another arm-chair. Every night there used to be two men watching me thus, ready to hold me down by force whenever I became violent during my delirium. Frequently the abbe was one; sometimes the worthy Marcasse, who, before leaving Berry to go on his annual round through the neighbouring province, had returned to have a farewell hunt in the outhouses of the chateau, and who kindly offered to relieve the servants in their painful task of keeping watch over me.
As I was wholly unconscious of my illness, it was but natural that the unexpected presence of the hermit in my room should cause me considerable astonishment, and throw me into a state of great agitation. My attacks had been so violent that evening that I had no strength left. I abandoned myself, therefore, to my melancholy ravings, and, taking the good man’s hand, I asked him if it was really Edmee’s corpse that he had placed in the arm-chair by my bedside.
“It is Edmee’s living self,” he answered, in a low voice; “but she is still asleep, my dear monsieur, and we must not wake her. If there is anything you would like, I am here to attend to you, and right gladly I do it.”
“My good Patience, you are deceiving me,” I said; “she is dead, and so am I, and you have come to bury us. But you must put us in the same coffin, do you hear? for we are betrothed. Where is her ring? Take it off and put it on my finger; our wedding-night has come.”
He tried in vain to dispel this hallucination. I held to my belief that Edmee was dead, and declared that I should never be quiet in my shroud until I had been given my wife’s ring. Edmee, who had sat up with me for several nights, was so exhausted that our voices did not awaken her. Besides, I was speaking in a whisper, like Patience, with that instinctive tendency to imitate which is met with only in children or idiots. I persisted in my fancy, and Patience, who was afraid that it might turn into madness, went and very carefully removed a cornelian ring from one of Edmee’s fingers and put it on mine. As soon as I felt it there, I carried it to my lips; and then with my arms crossed on my breast, in the manner of a corpse in a coffin, I fell into a deep sleep.
On the morrow when they tried to take the ring from me I resisted violently, and they abandoned the attempt. I fell asleep again and the abbe removed it during my sleep. But when I opened my eyes I noticed the theft, and once more began to rave. Edmee, who was in the room, ran to me at once and pressed the ring over my finger, at the same time rebuking the abbe. I immediately grew calm, and gazing, on her with lack-lustre eyes, said:
“Is it not true that you are my wife in death as in life?”
“Certainly,” she replied. “Set your mind at rest.”
“Eternity is long,” I said, “and I should like to spend it in recalling your caresses. But I send my thoughts back in vain; they bring me no remembrance of your love.”
She leant over and gave me a kiss.
“Edmee, that is very wrong,” said the abbe; “such remedies turn to poison.”
“Let me do as I like, abbe,” she replied, with evident impatience, sitting down near my bed; “I must ask you to let me do as I please.”
I fell asleep with one of my hands in hers, repeating at intervals:
“How sweet it is in the grave! Are we not fortunate to be dead?”
During my convalescence Edmee was much more reserved, but no less attentive. I told her my dreams and learnt from her how far my recollections were of real events. Without her testimony I should always have believed that I had dreamt everything. I implored her to let me keep the ring, and she consented. I ought to have added, to show my gratitude for all her goodness, that I should keep it as a pledge of friendship, and not as a sign of our engagement; but such a renunciation was beyond me.
One day I asked for news of M. de la Marche. It was only to Patience that I dared to put this question.
“Gone,” he answered.
“What! Gone?” I replied. “For long?”
“Forever, please God! I don’t know anything about it, for I ask no questions; but I happened to be in the garden when he took leave of her, and it was all as cold as a December night. Still, au revoir was said on both sides, but though Edmee’s manner was kind and honest as it always is, the other had the face of a farmer when he sees frosts in April. Mauprat, Mauprat, they tell me that you have become a great student and a genuine good fellow. Remember what I told you; when you are old there will probably no longer be any titles or estate. Perhaps you will be called ‘Father’ Mauprat, as I am called ‘Father’ Patience, though I have never been either a priest or a father of a family.”
“Well, what are you driving at?”
“Remember what I once told you,” he repeated. “There are many ways of being a sorcerer, and one may read the future without being a servant of the devil. For my part, I give my consent to your marriage with your cousin. Continue to behave decently. You are a wise man now, and can read fluently from any book set before you. What more do you want? There are so many books here that the sweat runs from my brow at the very sight of them; it seems as if I were again starting the old torment of not being able to learn to read. But you have soon cured yourself. If M. Hubert were willing to take my advice, he would fix the wedding for the next Martinmas.”
“That is enough, Patience!” I said. “This is a painful subject with me; my cousin does not love me.”
“I tell you she does. You lie in your throat, as the nobles say. I know well enough how she nursed you; and Marcasse from the housetop happened to look through her window and saw her on her knees in the middle of the room at five o’clock in the morning the day that you were so ill.”
These imprudent assertions of Patience, Edmee’s tender cares, the departure of M. de la Marche, and, more than anything else, the weakness of my brain, enabled me to believe what I wished; but in proportion as I regained my strength Edmee withdrew further and further within the bounds of calm and discreet friendship. Never did man recover his health with less pleasure than I mine; for each day made Edmee’s visits shorter; and when I was able to leave my room I had merely a few hours a day near her, as before my illness. With marvellous skill she had given me proof of the tenderest affection without ever allowing herself to be drawn into a fresh explanation concerning our mysterious betrothal. If I had not yet sufficient greatness of soul to renounce my rights, I had at least developed enough honour not to refer to them; and I found myself on exactly the same terms with her as at the time when I had fallen ill. M. de la Marche was in Paris; but according to her he had been summoned thither by his military duties and ought to return at the end of the winter on which we were entering. Nothing that the chevalier or the abbe said tended to show that there had been a quarrel between Edmee and him. They rarely spoke of the lieutenant-general, but when they had to speak of him they did so naturally and without any signs of repugnance. I was again filled with my old doubts, and could find no remedy for them except in the kingdom of my own will. “I will force her to prefer me,” I would say to myself as I raised my eyes from my book and watched Edmee’s great, inscrutable eyes calmly fixed on the letters which her father occasionally received from M. de la Marche, and which he would hand to her as soon as he had read them. I buried myself in my work again. For a long time I suffered from frightful pains in the head, but I overcame them stoically. Edmee again began the course of studies which she had indirectly laid down for my winter evenings. Once more I astonished the abbe by my aptitude and the rapidity of my conquests. The kindness he had shown me during my illness had disarmed me; and although I was still unable to feel any genuine affection for him, knowing well that he was of little service to me with my cousin, I gave him proof of much more confidence and respect than in the past. His talks were as useful to me as my reading. I was allowed to accompany him in his walks in the park and in his philosophical visits to Patience’s snow-covered hut. This gave me an opportunity of seeing Edmee more frequently and for longer periods. My behaviour was such that all her mistrust vanished, and she no longer feared to be alone with me. On such occasions, however, I had but little scope for displaying my heroism; for the abbe, whose vigilance nothing could lull to sleep, was always at our heels. This supervision no longer annoyed me; on the contrary, I was pleased at it; for, in spite of all my resolutions, the storms of passion would still sweep my senses into a mysterious disorder; and once or twice when I found myself alone with Edmee I left her abruptly and went away, so that she might not perceive my agitation.
Our life, then, was apparently calm and peaceful, and for some time it was so in reality; but soon I disturbed it more than ever by a vice which education developed in me, and which had hitherto been hidden under coarser but less fatal vices. This vice, the bane of my new period of life, was vanity.
In spite of their theories, the abbe and my cousin made the mistake of showing too much pleasure at my rapid progress. They had so little expected perseverance from me that they gave all the credit to my exceptional abilities. Perhaps, too, in the marked success of the philosophical ideas they had applied to my education they saw something of a triumph for themselves. Certain it is, I was not loath to let myself be persuaded that I had great intellectual powers, and that I was a man very much above the average. My dear instructors were soon to gather the sad fruit of their imprudence, and it was already too late to check the flight of my immoderate conceit.
Perhaps, too, this abominable trait in my character, kept under by the bad treatment I had endured in childhood, was now merely revealing its existence. There is reason to believe that we carry within us from our earliest years the seeds of those virtues and vices which are in time made to bear fruit by the action of our environment. As for myself, I had not yet found anything whereon my vanity could feed; for on what could I have prided myself at the beginning of my acquaintance with Edmee? But no sooner was food forthcoming than suffering vanity rose up in triumph, and filled me with as much presumption as previously it had inspired me with bashfulness and boorish reserve. I was, moreover, as delighted at being able at last to express my thoughts with ease as a young falcon fresh from the nest trying its wings for the first time. Consequently, I became as talkative as I had been silent. The others were too indulgent to my prattle. I had not sense enough to see that they were merely listening to me as they would to a spoilt child. I thought myself a man, and what is more, a remarkable man. I grew arrogant and superlatively ridiculous.
My uncle, the chevalier, who had not taken any part in my education, and who only smiled with fatherly good-nature at the first steps I took in my new career, was the first to notice the false direction in which I was advancing. He found it unbecoming that I should raise my voice as loudly as his own, and mentioned the matter to Edmee. With great sweetness she warned me of this, and, lest I should feel annoyed at her speaking of it, told me that I was quite right in my argument, but that her father was now too old to be converted to new ideas, and that I ought to sacrifice my enthusiastic affirmations to his patriarchal dignity. I promised not to repeat the offence; and I did not keep my word.
The fact is, the chevalier was imbued with many prejudices. Considering the days in which he lived, he had received a very good education for a country nobleman; but the century had moved more rapidly than he. Edmee, ardent and romantic; the abbe, full of sentiment and systems, had moved even more rapidly than the century; and if the vast gulf which lay between them and the patriarch was scarcely perceptible, this was owing to the respect which they rightly felt for him, and to the love he had for his daughter. I rushed forward at full speed, as you may imagine, into Edmee’s ideas, but I had not, like herself, sufficient delicacy of feeling to maintain a becoming reticence. The violence of my character found an outlet in politics and philosophy, and I tasted unspeakable pleasure in those heated disputes which at that time in France, not only at all public meetings but also in the bosoms of families, were preluding the tempests of the Revolution. I doubt if there was a single house, from palace to hovel, which had not its orator — rugged, fiery, absolute, and ready to descend into the parliamentary arena. I was the orator of the chateau of Sainte–Severe, and my worthy uncle, accustomed to a resemblance of authority over those about him, which prevented him from seeing the real revolt of their minds, could ill endure such candid opposition as mine. He was proud and hot-tempered, and, moreover, had a difficulty in expressing himself which increased his natural impatience, and made him feel annoyed with himself. He would give a furious kick to the burning logs on the hearth; he would smash his eye-glasses into a thousand pieces; scatter clouds of snuff about the floor, and shout so violently as to make the lofty ceilings of his mansion ring with his resonant voice. All this, I regret to say, amused me immensely; and with some sentence but newly spelt out from my books I loved to destroy the frail scaffolding of ideas which had served him all his life. This was great folly and very foolish pride on my part; but my love of opposition and my desire to display intellectually the energy which was wanting in my physical life were continually carrying me away. In vain would Edmee cough, as a hint that I should say no more, and make an effort to save her father’s amour propre by bringing forward some argument in his favour, though against her own judgement; the lukewarmness of her help, and my apparent submission to her only irritated my adversary more and more.
“Let him have his say,” he would cry; “Edmee, you must not interfere; I want to beat him on all points. If you continually interrupt us, I shall never be able to make him see his absurdity.”
And then the squall would blow stronger from both sides, until at last the chevalier, seriously offended, would walk out of the room, and go and vent his ill-humour on his huntsman or his hounds.
What most contributed to the recurrence of these unseemly wrangles and to the growth of my ridiculous obstinacy was my uncle’s extreme goodness and the rapidity of his recovery. At the end of an hour he had entirely forgotten my rudeness and his own irritation. He would speak to me as usual and inquire into all my wishes and all my wants with that fatherly solicitude which always kept him in a benevolent mood. This incomparable man could never had slept had he not, before going to bed, embraced all his family, and atoned, either by a word or a kindly glance, for any ebullitions of temper which the meanest of his servants might have had to bear during the day. Such goodness ought to have disarmed me and closed my mouth forever. Each evening I vowed that it should; but each morning I returned, as the Scriptures say, to my vomit again.
Edmee suffered more and more every day from this development of my character. She cast about for means to cure it. If there was never fiancee stronger-minded and more reserved than she, never was there mother more tender. After many discussions with the abbe she resolved to persuade her father to change the routine of our life somewhat, and to remove our establishment to Paris for the last weeks of the carnival. Our long stay in the country; the isolation which the position of Sainte–Severe and the bad state of the roads had left us since the beginning of winter; the monotony of our daily life — all tended to foster our wearisome quibbling. My character was being more and more spoilt by it; and though it afforded my uncle even greater pleasure than myself, his health suffered as a result, and the childish passions daily aroused were no doubt hastening his decay. The abbe was suffering from ennui; Edmee was depressed. Whether in consequence of our mode of life or owing to causes unknown to the rest, it was her wish to go, and we went; for her father was uneasy about her melancholy, and sought only to do as she desired. I jumped for joy at the thought of seeing Paris; and while Edmee was flattering herself that intercourse with the world would refine the grossness of my pedantry, I was dreaming of a triumphal progress through the world which had been held up to such scorn by our philosophers. We started on our journey one fine morning in March; the chevalier with his daughter and Mademoiselle Leblanc in one post-chaise; myself in another with the abbe, who could ill conceal his delight at the thought of seeing the capital for the first time in him life; and my valet Saint–Jean, who, lest he should forget his customary politeness, made profound bows to every individual we passed.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59