You will readily believe that all the homage paid to my cousin fanned into fresh flames the jealousy which had been smouldering in my breast. Since the day when, in obedience to her command, I began to devote myself to work, I could hardly say whether I had dared to count on her promise that she would become my wife as soon as I was able to understand her ideas and feelings. To me, indeed, it seemed that the time for this had already arrived; for it is certain that I understood Edmee, better perhaps than any of the men who were paying their addresses to her in prose and verse. I had firmly resolved not to presume upon the oath extorted from her at Roche–Mauprat; yet, when I remembered her last promise, freely given at the chapel window, and the inferences which I could have drawn from her conversation with the abbe which I had overheard in the parlour at Sainte–Severe; when I remembered her earnestness in preventing me from going away and in directing my education; the motherly attentions she had lavished on me during my illness — did not all these things give me, if not some right, at least some reason to hope? It is true that her friendship would become icy as soon as my passion betrayed itself in words or looks; it is true that since the first day I saw her I had not advanced a single step towards close affection; it is also true that M. de la Marche frequently came to the house, and that she always showed him as much friendship as myself, though with less familiarity and more respect in it, a distinction which was naturally due to the difference in our characters and our ages, and did not indicate any preference for one or the other. It was possible, therefore, to attribute her promise to the prompting of her conscience; the interest which she took in my studies to her worship of human dignity as it stood rehabilitated by philosophy; her quiet and continued affection for M. de la March to a profound regret, kept in subjection by the strength and wisdom of her mind. These perplexities I felt very acutely. The hope of compelling her love by submission and devotion had sustained me; but this hope was beginning to grow weak; for though, as all allowed, I had made prodigious efforts and extraordinary progress, Edmee’s regard for me had been very far from increasing in the same proportion. She had not shown any astonishment at what she called my lofty intellect; she had always believed in it; she had praised it unreasonably. But she was not blind to the faults in my character, to the vices of my soul. She had reproached me with these with an inexorable sweetness, with a patience calculated to drive me to despair; for she seemed to have made up her mind that, whatever the future might bring, she would never love me more and never less.
Meanwhile all were paying court to her and none were accepted. It had, indeed, been given out that she was engaged to M. de la Marche, but no one understood any better than myself the indefinite postponement of the marriage. People came to the conclusion that she was seeking a pretext to get rid of him, and they could find no ground for her repugnance except by supposing that she had conceived a great passion for myself. My strange history had caused some stir; the women examined me with curiosity; the men seemed interested in me and showed me a sort of respect which I affected to despise, but to which, however, I was far from insensible. And, since nothing finds credence in the world until it is embellished with some fiction, people strangely exaggerated my wit, my capabilities and my learning; but, as soon as they had seen M. de la Marche and myself in Edmee’s company, all their inferences were annihilated by the composure and ease of our manners. To both of us Edmee was the same in public as in private; M. de la Marche, a soulless puppet, was perfectly drilled in conventional manners; and myself, a prey to divers passions, but inscrutable by reason of my pride and also, I must confess, of my pretensions to the sublimity of the American manner. I should tell you that I had been fortunate enough to be introduced to Franklin as a sincere devotee of liberty. Sir Arthur Lee had honoured me with a certain kindness and some excellent advice; consequently my head was somewhat turned, even as the heads of those whom I railed at so bitterly were turned, and to such an extent that this little vainglory brought sorely needed relief to my agonies of mind. Perhaps you will shrug your shoulders when I own that I took the greatest pleasure in the world in leaving my hair unpowdered, in wearing big shoes, and appearing everywhere in a dark-coloured coat, of aggressively simple cut and stiffly neat — in a word, in aping, as far as was then permissible without being mistaken for a regular plebeian, the dress and ways of the Bonhomme Richard! I was nineteen, and I was living in an age when every one affected a part — that is my only excuse.
I might plead also that my too indulgent and too simple tutor openly approved of my conduct; that my Uncle Hubert, though he occasionally laughed at me, let me do as I wished, and that Edmee said absolutely nothing about this ridiculous affectation, and appeared never to notice it.
Meanwhile spring had returned; we were going back to the country; the salons were being gradually deserted. For myself, I was still in the same state of uncertainty. I noticed one day that M. de la Marche seemed anxious to find an opportunity of speaking to Edmee in private. At first I found pleasure in making him suffer, and did not stir from my chair. However, I thought I detected on Edmee’s brow that slight frown which I knew so well, and after a silent dialogue with myself I went out of the room, resolving to observe the results of this tete-a-tete, and to learn my fate, whatever it might be.
At the end of an hour I returned to the drawing-room. My uncle was there; M. de la Marche was staying to dinner; Edmee seemed meditative but not melancholy; the abbe’s eyes were putting questions to her which she did not understand, or did not wish to understand.
M. de la Marche accompanied my uncle to the Comedie Francaise. Edmee said that she had some letters to write and requested permission to remain at home. I followed the count and the chevalier, but after the first act I made my escape and returned to the house. Edmee had given orders that she was not to be disturbed; but I did not consider that this applied to myself; the servants thought it quite natural that I should behave as the son of the house. I entered the drawing-room, fearful lest Edmee should have retired to her bed-room; for there I could not have followed her. She was sitting near the fire and amusing herself by pulling out the petals of the blue and white asters which I had gathered during a walk to the tomb of Jean Jacques Rousseau. These flowers brought back to me a night of ecstasy, under the clear moonlight, the only hours of happiness, perhaps, that I could mention in all my life.
“Back already?” she said, without any change of attitude.
“Already is an unkind word,” I replied. “Would you like me to retire to my room, Edmee?”
“By no means; you are not disturbing me at all; but you would have derived more profit from seeing Merope than from listening to my conversation this evening; for I warn you that I feel a complete idiot.”
“So much the better, cousin; I shall not feel humiliated this evening, since for the first time we shall be upon a footing of equality. But, might I ask you why you so despise my asters? I thought that you would probably keep them as a souvenir.”
“Of Rousseau?” she asked with a malicious little smile, and without raising her eyes to mine.
“Naturally that was my meaning,” I answered.
“I am playing a most interesting game,” she said; “do not interrupt me.”
“I know it,” I said. “All the children in Varenne play it, and there is not a lass but believes in the decree of fate that it revels. Would you like me to read your thoughts as you pull out these petals four by four?”
“Come, then, O mighty magician!”
“A little, that is how some one loves you; much, that is how you love him; passionately, that is how another loves you; not at all, thus do you love this other.”
“And might I inquire, Sir Oracle,” replied Edmee, whose face became more serious, “who some one and another may be? I suspect that you are like the Pythonesses of old; you do not know the meaning of your auguries yourself.”
“Could you not guess mine, Edmee?”
“I will try to interpret the riddle, if you will promise that afterward you will do what the Sphinx did when vanquished by OEdipus.”
“Oh, Edmee,” I cried; “think how long I have been running my head against walls on account of you and your interpretations. And yet you have not guessed right a single time.”
“Oh, good heavens! I have,” she said, throwing the bouquet on to the mantel-piece. “You shall see. I love M. de la Marche a little, and I love you much. He loves me passionately, and you love me not at all. That is the truth.”
“I forgive you this malicious interpretation with all my heart for the sake of the word ‘much,’” I replied.
I tried to take her hands. She drew them away quickly, though, in fact, she had no need to fear; for had she given me them, I merely intended to press them in brotherly fashion; but this appearance of distrust aroused memories which were dangerous for me. I fancy she showed a great deal of coquetry that evening in her expression and manners; and, until then, I had never seen the least inclination toward it. I felt my courage rising, though I could not explain why; and I ventured on some pointed remarks about her interview with M. de la Marche. She made no effort to deny my interpretations, and began to laugh when I told her that she ought to thank me for my exquisite politeness in retiring as soon as I saw her knit her brow.
Her supercilious levity was beginning to irritate me a little, when a servant entered and handed her a letter, saying that some one was waiting for an answer.
“Go to my writing-table and cut a pen for me, please,” she said to me.
With an air of unconcern she broke the seal and ran through the letter, while I, quite ignorant of the contents, began preparing her writing materials.
For some time the crow-quill had been cut ready for use; for some time the paper with its coloured vignette had been waiting by the side of the amber writing-case; yet Edmee paid no attention to them and made no attempt to use them. The letter lay open in her lap; her feet were on the fire-dogs, her elbows on the arm of her chair in her favourite attitude of meditation. She was completely absorbed. I spoke to her softly; she did not hear me. I thought that she had forgotten the letter and had fallen asleep. After a quarter of an hour the servant came back and said that the messenger wished to know if there was any answer.
“Certainly,” she replied; “ask him to wait.”
She read the letter again with the closest attention, and began to write slowly; then she threw her reply into the fire, pushed away the arm-chair with her foot, walked round the room a few times, and suddenly stopped in front of me and looked at me in a cold, hard manner.
“Edmee,” I cried, springing to me feet, “what is the matter, and how does that letter which is worrying you so much concern myself?”
“What is that to you?” she replied.
“What is that to me?” I cried. “And what is the air I breathe to me? and what is the blood that flows in my veins? Ask me that, if you like, but do not ask how one of your words or one of your glances can concern me; for you know very well that my life depends on them.”
“Do not talk nonsense now, Bernard,” she answered, returning to her arm-chair in a distracted manner. “There is a time for everything.”
“Edmee, Edmee! do not play with the sleeping lion, do not stir up the fire which is smouldering in the ashes.”
She shrugged her shoulders, and began to write with great rapidity. Her face was flushed, and from time to time she passed her fingers through the long hair which fell in ringlets over her shoulders. She was dangerously beautiful in her agitation; she looked as if in love — but with whom? Doubtless with him to whom she was writing. I began to feel the fires of jealousy. I walked out of the room abruptly and crossed the hall. I looked at the man who had brought the letter; he was in M. de la Marche’s livery. I had no further doubts; this, however, only increased my rage. I returned to the drawing-room and threw open the door violently. Edmee did not even turn her head; she continued writing. I sat down opposite her, and stared at her with flashing eyes. She did not deign to raise her own to mine. I even fancied that I noticed on her ruby lips the dawn of a smile which seemed an insult to my agony. At last she finished her letter and sealed it. I rose and walked towards her, feeling strongly tempted to snatch it from her hands. I had learnt to control myself somewhat better than of old; but I realized how, with passionate souls, a single instant may destroy the labours of many days.
“Edmee,” I said to her, in a bitter tone, and with a frightful grimace that was intended to be a sarcastic smile, “would you like me to hand this letter to M. de la Marche’s lackey, and at the same time tell him in a whisper at what time his master may come to the tryst?”
“It seems to me,” she replied, with a calmness that exasperated me, “that it was possible to mention the time in my letter, and that there is no need to inform a servant of it.”
“Edmee, you ought to be a little more considerate of me,” I cried.
“That doesn’t trouble me the least in the world,” she replied.
And throwing me the letter she had received across the table she went out to give the answer to the messenger herself. I do not know whether she had told me to read this letter; but I do know that the impulse which urged me to do so was irresistible. It ran somewhat as follows:
“Edmee, I have at last discovered the fatal secret which, according to you, sets an impassable barrier in the way of our union. Bernard loves you; his agitation this morning betrayed him. But you do not love him, I am sure . . . that would be impossible! You would have told me frankly. The obstacle, then, must be elsewhere. Forgive me! It has come to my knowledge that you spent two hours in the brigand’s den. Unhappy girl! your misfortune, your prudence, your sublime delicacy make you still nobler in my eyes. And why did you not confide to me at once the misfortune of which you were a victim? I could have eased your sorrow and my own by a word. I could have helped you to hide your secret. I could have wept with you; or, rather, I could have wiped out the odious recollection by displaying an attachment proof against anything. But there is no need to despair; there is still time to say this word, and I do so now: Edmee, I love you more than ever; more than ever I am resolved to offer you my name; will you deign to accept it?”
This note was signed Adhemar de la Marche.
I had scarcely finished reading it when Edmee returned, and came towards the fire-place with an anxious look, as if she had forgotten some precious object. I handed her the letter that I had just read; but she took it absently, and, stooping over the hearth with an air of relief, eagerly seized a crumpled piece of paper which the flames had merely scorched. This was the first answer she had written to M. de la Marche’s note, the one she had not judged fit to send.
“Edmee,” I said, throwing myself on my knees, “let me see that letter. Whatever if may be, I will submit to the decree dictated by your first impulse.”
“You really would?” she asked, with an indefinable expression. “Supposing I loved M. de la Marche, and that I was making a great sacrifice for your sake in refusing him, would you be generous enough to release me from my word?”
I hesitated for a moment. A cold sweat broke out all over me. I looked her full in the face; but her eyes were inscrutable and betrayed no hint of her thoughts. If I had fancied that she really loved me and that she was putting my virtue to the test, I should perhaps have played the hero; but I was afraid of some trap. My passion overmastered me. I felt that I had not the strength to renounce my claim with a good grace; and hypocrisy was repugnant to me. I rose to my feet, trembling with rage.
“You love him!” I cried. “Confess that you love him!”
“And if I did,” she answered, putting the letter in her pocket, “where would be the crime?”
“The crime would be that hitherto you have lied in telling me that you did not love him.”
“Hitherto is saying a good deal,” she rejoined, looking at me fixedly; “we have not discussed the matter since last year. At that time it was possible that I did not love Adhemar very much, and at present it might be possible that I loved him more than you. If I compare the conduct of both to-day I see on the one hand a man without proper pride and without delicacy, presuming upon a promise which my heart perhaps has never ratified; on the other I see an admirable friend whose sublime devotion is ready to brave all prejudices; who — believing that I bear the smirch of an indelible shame — is none the less prepared to cover the blot with his protection.”
“What! this wretch believes that I have done violence to you, and yet does not challenge me to a duel?”
“That is not what he believes, Bernard. He knows that you rescued me from Roche–Mauprat; but he thinks that you helped me too late, and that I was the victim of the other brigands.”
“And he wants to marry you, Edmee? Either the man’s devotion is sublime, as you say, or he is deeper in debt than you think.”
“How dare you say that?” said Edmee angrily. “Such an odious explanation of generous conduct can proceed only from an unfeeling soul or a perverse mind. Be silent, unless you wish me to hate you.”
“Say that you hate me, Edmee; say so without fear; I know it.”
“Without fear! You should know likewise that I have not yet done you the honour to fear you. However, tell me this: without inquiring into what I intend to do, can you understand that you ought to give me my liberty, and abandon your barbarous rights?”
“I understand nothing except that I love you madly, and that these nails of mine shall tear out the heart of any man who tries to win you from me. I know that I shall force you to love me, and that, if I do not succeed, I will at any rate not let you belong to another while I am alive. The man will have to walk over my body riddled with wounds and bleeding from every pore, ere he can put the wedding-ring on your finger; with my last breath, too, I will dishonour you by proclaiming that you are my mistress, and thus cloud the joy of any man who may triumph over me; and if I can stab you as I die, I will, so that in the tomb, at least, you may be my wife. That is what I purpose doing, Edmee. And now, practise all your arts on me; lead me on from trap to trap; rule me with your admirable diplomacy. I may be duped a hundred times because of my ignorance, but have I not sworn by the name of Mauprat?”
“Mauprat the Hamstringer!” she added with freezing irony.
And she turned to go out.
I was about to seize her arm when the bell rang; it was the abbe who had returned. As soon as he appeared Edmee shook hands with him, and retired to her room without saying a single word to me.
The good abbe, noticing my agitation, questioned me with that assurance which his claims on my affections were henceforth to give him. The present matter, however, was the only one on which we had never had an explanation. In vain had he sought to introduce it. He had not given me a single lesson in history without leading up to some famous love affairs and drawing from them an example or a precept of moderation or generosity; but he had not succeeded in making me breathe a word on this subject. I could not bring myself to forgive him altogether for having done me an ill turn with Edmee. I even had a suspicion that he was still injuring my cause; and I therefore put myself on guard against all the arguments of his philosophy and all the seductions of his friendship. On this special evening I was more unassailable than ever. I left him ill at ease and depressed, and went and threw myself on my bed, where I buried my head in the clothes so as to stifle the customary sobs, those pitiless conquerors of my pride and my rage.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13