The next day I was in a state of gloomy despair; Edmee was icily cold; M. de la Marche did not come. I fancied I had seen the abbe going to call on him, and subsequently telling Edmee the result of their interview. However, they betrayed no signs of agitation, and I had to endure my suspense in silence. I could not get a minute with Edmee alone. In the morning I went on foot to M. de la Marche’s house. What I intended saying to him I do not know; my state of exasperation was such that it drove me to act without either object or plan. Having learnt that he had left Paris, I returned. I found my uncle very depressed. On seeing me he frowned, and, after forcing himself to exchange a few meaningless words with me, left me to the abbe, who tried to draw me on to speak, but succeeded no better than the night before. For several days I sought an opportunity of speaking with Edmee, but she always managed to avoid it. Preparations were being made for the return to Sainte–Severe; she seemed neither sorry nor pleased at the prospect. I determined to slip a note between the page of her book asking for an interview. Within five minutes I received the following reply:
“An interview would lead to nothing. You are persisting in your boorish behaviour; I shall persevere in what I believe to be the path of integrity. An upright conscience cannot go from its word. I had sworn never to be any man’s but yours. I shall not marry, for I did not swear that I would be yours whatever might happen. If you continue to be unworthy of my esteem I shall take steps to remain free. My poor father is sinking into the grave; a convent shall be my refuge when the only tie which binds me to the world is broken.”
I had fulfilled all the conditions imposed by Edmee, and now, it seemed, her only return was an order that I should break them. I thus found myself in the same position as on the day of her conversation with the abbe.
I passed the remainder of the day shut up in my room. All through the night I walked up and down in violent agitation. I made no effort to sleep. I will not tell you the thoughts that passed through my mind; they were not unworthy of an honest man. At daybreak I was at Lafayette’s house. He procured me the necessary papers for leaving France. He told me to go and await him in Spain, whence he was going to sail for the United States. I returned to our house to get the clothes and money indispensable to the humblest of travellers. I left a note for my uncle, so that he might not feel uneasy at my absence; this I promised to explain very soon in a long letter. I begged him to refrain from passing sentence on me until it arrived, and assured him that I should never forget all his goodness.
I left before any one in the house was up; for I was afraid that my resolution might be shaken at the least sign of friendship, and I felt that I could no longer impose upon a too generous affection. I could not, however, pass Edmee’s door without pressing my lips to the lock. Then, hiding my head in my hands, I rushed away like a madman, and scarcely stopped until I had reached the other side of the Pyrenees. There I took a short rest, and wrote to Edmee that, as far as concerned myself, she was free; that I would not thwart a single wish of hers; but that it was impossible for me to be a witness of my rival’s triumph. I felt firmly convinced that she loved him; and I resolved to crush out my own love. I was promising more than I could perform; but these first manifestations of wounded pride gave me confidence in myself. I also wrote to my uncle to tell him I should not hold myself worthy of the boundless affection he had bestowed on me until I had won my spurs as a knight. I confided to him my hopes of a soldier’s fame and fortune with all the candour of conceit; and since I felt sure that Edmee would read this letter I feigned unclouded delight and an ardour that knew no regrets; I did not know whether my uncle was aware of the real cause of my departure; but my pride could not bring itself to confess. It was the same with the abbe, to whom I likewise wrote a letter full of gratitude and affection. I ended by begging my uncle to put himself to no expense on my account over the gloomy keep at Roche–Mauprat, assuring him that I could never bring myself to live there. I urged him to consider the fief as his daughter’s property, and only asked that he would be good enough to advance me my share of the income for two or three years, so that I might pay the expenses of my own outfit, and thus prevent my devotion to the American cause from being a burden to the noble Lafayette.
My conduct and my letters apparently gave satisfaction. Soon after I reached the coast of Spain I received from my uncle a letter full of kindly exhortations, and of mild censure for my abrupt departure. He gave me a father’s blessing, and declared on his honour that the fief of Roche–Mauprat would never be accepted by Edmee, and sent me a considerable sum of money exclusive of the income due me in the future. The abbe expressed the same mild censure, together with still warmer exhortations. It was easy to see that he preferred Edmee’s tranquility to my happiness, and that he was full of genuine joy at my departure. Nevertheless he had a liking for me, and his friendship showed itself touchingly through the cruel satisfaction that was mingled with it. He expressed envy of my lot; proclaimed his enthusiasm for the cause of independence; and declared that he himself had more than once felt tempted to throw off the cassock and take up the musket. All this, however, was mere boyish affectation; his timid, gentle nature always kept him the priest under the mask of the philosopher.
Between these two letters I found a little note without any address, which seemed as if it had been slipped in as an after-thought. I was not slow to see that it was from the one person in the world who was of real interest to me. Yet I had not the courage to open it. I walked up and down the sandy beach, turning over this little piece of paper in my hands, fearful that by reading it I might destroy the kind of desperate calm my resolution had given me. Above all, I dreaded lest it might contain expressions of thanks and enthusiastic joy, behind which I should have divined the rapture of contented love for another.
“What can she be writing to me about?” I said to myself. “Why does she write at all? I do not want her pity, still less her gratitude.”
I felt tempted to throw this fateful little note into the sea. Once, indeed I held it out over the waves, but I immediately pressed it to my bosom, and kept it hidden there a few moments as if I had been a believer in that second sight preached by the advocates of magnetism, who assert that they can read with the organs of feeling and thought as well as with their eyes.
At last I resolved to break the seal. The words I read were these:
“You have done well, Bernard; but I give you no thanks, as your absence will cause me more suffering than I can tell. Still, go wherever honour and love of truth call you; you will always be followed by my good wishes and prayers. Return when your mission is accomplished; you will find me neither married nor in a convent.”
In this note she had inclosed the cornelian ring she had given me during my illness and which I had returned on leaving Paris. I had a little gold box made to hold this ring and note, and I wore it near my heart as a talisman. Lafayette, who had been arrested in France by order of the Government, which was opposed to his expedition, soon came and joined us after escaping from prison. I had had time to make my preparations, and I sailed full of melancholy, ambition, and hope.
You will not expect me to give an account of the American war. Once again I will separate my existence from the events of history as I relate my own adventures. Here, however, I shall suppress even my personal adventures; in my memory these form a special chapter in which Edmee plays the part of a Madonna, constantly invoked but invisible. I cannot think that you would be the least interested in listening to a portion of my narrative from which this angelic figure, the only one worthy of your attention, firstly by reason of her own worth, and then from her influence on myself, was entirely absent. I will only state that from the humble position which I gladly accepted in the beginning in Washington’s army, I rose regularly but rapidly to the rank of officer. My military education did not take long. Into this, as into everything that I have undertaken during my life, I put my whole soul, and through the pertinacity of my will I overcame all obstacles.
I won the confidence of my illustrious chiefs. My excellent constitution fitted me well for the hardships of war; my old brigand habits too were of immense service to me; I endured reverses with a calmness beyond the reach of most of the young Frenchmen who had embarked with me, however brilliant their courage might otherwise have been. My own was cool and tenacious, to the great surprise of our allies, who more than once doubted my origin, on seeing how quickly I made myself at home in the forests, and how often my cunning and suspiciousness made me a match for the savages who sometimes harassed our manoeuvres.
In the midst of my labours and frequent changes of place I was fortunate enough to be able to cultivate my mind through my intimacy with a young man of merit whom Providence sent me as a companion and friend. Love of the natural sciences had decided him to join our expedition, and he never failed to show himself a good soldier; but it was easy to see that political sympathy had played only a secondary part in his decision. He had no desire for promotion, no aptitude for strategic studies. His herbarium and his zoological occupations engaged his thoughts much more than the successes of the war and the triumph of liberty. He fought too well, when occasion arose, to ever deserve the reproach of lukewarmness; but up to the eve of a fight and from the morrow he seemed to have forgotten that he was engaged in anything beyond a scientific expedition into the wilds of the New World. His trunk was always full, not of money and valuables, but of natural history specimens; and while we were lying on the grass on the alert for the least noise which might reveal the approach of the enemy, he would be absorbed in the analysis of some plant or insect. He was an admirable young man, as pure as an angel, as unselfish as a stoic, as patient as a savant, and withal cheerful and affectionate. When we were in danger of being surprised, he could think and talk of nothing but the precious pebbles and the invaluable bits of grass that he had collected and classified; and yet were one of us wounded, he would nurse him with a kindness and zeal that none could surpass.
One day he noticed my gold box as I was putting it in my bosom, and he immediately begged me to let him have it, to keep a few flies’ legs and grasshoppers’ wings which he would have defended with the last drop of his blood. It needed all the reverence I had for the relics of my love to resist the demands of friendship. All he could obtain from me was permission to hide away a very pretty little plant in my precious box. This plant, which he declared he was the first to discover, was allowed a home by the side of my fiancee’s ring and note only on condition that it should be called Edmunda sylvestris; to this he consented. He had given the name of Samuel Adams to a beautiful wild apple-tree; he had christened some industrious bee or other Franklin; and nothing pleased him more than to associate some honoured name with his ingenious observations.
The attachment I felt for him was all the more genuine from its being my first friendship with a man of my own age. The pleasure which I derived from this intimacy gave me a new insight into life, and revealed capacities and needs of the soul of which I had hitherto been ignorant. As I could never wholly break away from that love of chivalry which had been implanted in me in early childhood, it pleased me to look upon him as my “brother in arms,” and I expressed a wish that he would give me this special title too, to the exclusion of every other intimate friend. He caught at the idea with a gladness of heart that showed me how lively was the sympathy between us. He declared that I was a born naturalist, because I was so fitted for a roving life and rough expeditions. Sometimes he would reproach me with absent-mindedness, and scold me seriously for carelessly stepping upon interesting plants, but he would assert that I was endowed with a sense of method, and that some day I might invent, not a theory of nature, but an excellent system of classification. His prophecy was never fulfilled, but his encouragement aroused a taste for study in me, and prevented my mind from being wholly paralyzed by camp life. To me he was as a messenger from heaven; without him I should perhaps have become, if not the Hamstringer of Roche–Mauprat, at all events the savage of Varenne again. His teachings revived in me the consciousness of intellectual life. He enlarged my ideas and also ennobled my instincts; for, though his marvellous integrity and his modest disposition prevented him from throwing himself into philosophical discussions, he had an innate love of justice, and he judged all questions of sentiment and morality with unerring wisdom. He acquired an ascendency over me which the abbe had never been able to acquire, owing to the attitude of mutual distrust in which we had been placed from the beginning. He revealed to me the wonders of a large part of the physical world, but what he taught me of chiefest value was to learn to know myself, and to ponder over my own impressions. I succeeded in controlling my impulses up to a certain point. I could never subdue my pride and violent temper. A man cannot change the essence of his nature, but he can guide his divers faculties towards a right path; he can almost succeed in turning his faults to account — and this, indeed, is the great secret and the great problem of education.
The conversations with my friend Arthur led me into such a train of thought that from my recollections of Edmee’s conduct I came to deduce logically the motives which must have inspired it. I found her noble and generous, especially in those matters which, owing to my distorted vision and false judgment, had caused me most pain. I did not love her the more for this — that would have been impossible — but I succeeded in understanding why I loved her with an unconquerable love in spite of all she had made me suffer. This sacred fire burned in my soul without growing dim for one instant during the whole six years of our separation. In spite of the rich vitality which pulsed through my veins; in spite of the promptings of an external nature full of voluptuousness; in spite of the bad examples and numerous opportunities which tempted mortal weakness in the freedom of a roving, military life, I call God to witness that I preserved my robe of innocence undefiled, and that I never felt the kiss of a woman. Arthur, whose calmer organization was less susceptible to temptation, and who, moreover, was almost entirely engrossed in intellectual labour, did not always practise the same austerity; nay, he frequently advised me not to run the risk of an exceptional life, contrary to the demands of Nature. When I confided to him that a master-passion removed all weaknesses from my path and made a fall impossible, he ceased to reason against what he called my fanaticism (this was a word very much in vogue and applied indiscriminately to almost everything). I observed, indeed, that he had a more profound esteem for me, I may even say a sort of respect which did not express itself in words, but which was revealed by a thousand little signs of compliance and deference.
One day, when he was speaking of the great power exercised by gentleness of manners in alliance with a resolute will, citing both good and bad examples from the history of men, especially the gentleness of the apostles and the hypocrisy of the priests of all religions, it came into my mind to ask him if, with my headstrong nature and hasty temper, I should ever be able to exercise any influence on my fellows. When I used this last word I was, of course, thinking only of Edmee. Arthur replied that the influence which I exercised would be other than that of studied gentleness.
“Your influence,” he said, “will be due to your natural goodness of heart. Warmth of soul, ardour and perseverance in affection, these are what are needed in family life, and these qualities make our defects loved even by those who have to suffer from them most. We should endeavour, therefore, to master ourselves out of love for those who love us; but to propose to one’s self a system of moderation in the most intimate concerns of love and friendship would, in my opinion, be a childish task, a work of egotism which would kill all affection, in ourselves first, and soon afterwards in the others. I was speaking of studied moderation only in the exercise of authority over the masses. Now, should your ambition ever . . .”
“You believe, then,” I said, without listening to the last part of his speech, “that, such as I am, I might make a woman happy and force her to love me, in spite of all my faults and the harm they cause?”
“O lovelorn brain!” he exclaimed. “How difficult it is to distract your thoughts! . . . Well, if you wish to know, Bernard, I will tell you what I think of your love-affair. The person you love so ardently loves you, unless she is incapable of love or quite bereft of judgment.”
I assured him that she was as much above all other women as the lion is above the squirrel, the cedar above the hyssop, and with the help of metaphors I succeeded in convincing him. Then he persuaded me to tell him a few details, in order, as he said, that he might judge of my position with regard to Edmee. I opened my heart without reserve, and told him my history from beginning to end. At this time we were on the outskirts of a beautiful forest in the last rays of the setting sun. The park at Sainte–Severe, with its fine lordly oaks which had never known the insult of an axe, came into my thoughts as I gazed on these trees of the wilds, exempt from all human care, towering out above our heads in their might and primitive grace. The glowing horizon reminded me of the evening visits to Patience’s hut, and Edmee sitting under the golden vine-leaves, and the notes of the merry parrots brought back to me the warbling of the beautiful exotic birds she used to keep in her room. I wept as I thought of the land of my birth so far away, of the broad ocean between us which had swallowed so many pilgrims in the hour of their return to their native shores. I also thought of the prospects of fortune, of the dangers of war, and for the first time I felt the fear of death; for Arthur, pressing my hand in his, assured me that I was loved, and that in each act of harshness or distrust he found but a new proof of affection.
“My boy,” he said, “cannot you see that if she did not want to marry you, she would have found a hundred ways of ridding herself of your pretensions forever? And if she had not felt an inexhaustible affection for you, would she have taken so much trouble, and imposed so many sacrifices upon herself to raise you from the abject condition in which she found you, and make you worthy of her? Well, you are always dreaming of the mighty deeds of the knight-errants of old: cannot you see that you are a noble knight condemned by your lady to rude trials for having failed in the laws of gallantry, for having demanded in an imperious tone the love which ought to be sued for on bended knee?”
He then entered into a detailed examination of my misdeeds, and found that the chastisement was severe but just. Afterwards he discussed the probabilities of the future, and very sensibly advised me to submit until she thought right to pardon me.
“But,” I said, “is there no shame in a man ripened, as I am now, by reflection, and roughly tried by war, submitting like a child to the caprices of a woman?”
“No,” replied Arthur, “there is no shame in that; and the conduct of this woman is not dictated by caprice. One can win nothing but honour in repairing any evil one has done; and how few men are capable of it! It is only just that offended modesty should claim its rights and its natural independence. You have behaved like Albion; do not be astonished that Edmee behaves like Philadelphia. She will not yield, except on condition of a glorious peace, and she is right.”
He wished to know how she had treated me during the two years we had been in America. I showed him the few short letters I had received from her. He was struck by the good sense and perfect integrity which seemed manifested in their lofty tone and manly precision. In them Edmee had made me no promise, nor had she even encouraged me by holding out any direct hopes; but she had displayed a lively desire for my return, and had spoken of the happiness we should all enjoy when, as we sat around the fire, I should while away the evenings at the chateau with accounts of my wonderful adventures; and she had not hesitated to tell me that, together with her father, I was the one object of her solicitude in life. Yet, in spite of this never-failing tenderness, a terrible suspicion harassed me. In these short letters from my cousin, as in those from her father and in the long, florid and affectionate epistles from the Abbe Aubert, they never gave me any news of the events which might be, and ought to be, taking place in the family. Each spoke of his or her own self and never mentioned the others; or at most they only spoke of the chevalier’s attacks of the gout. It was as though an agreement had been made between the three that none should talk about the occupations and state of mind of the other two.
“Shed light and ease my mind on this matter if you can,” I said to Arthur. “There are moments when I fancy that Edmee must be married, and that they have agreed not to inform me until I return, and what is to prevent this, in fact? Is it probable that she likes me enough to live a life of solitude out of love for me, when this very love, in obedience to the dictation of a cold reason and an austere conscience, can resign itself to seeing my absence indefinitely prolonged with the war? I have duties to perform here, no doubt; honour demands that I should defend my flag until the day of the triumph or the irreparable defeat of the cause I serve; but I feel that Edmee is dearer to me than these empty honours, and that to see her but one hour sooner I would leave my name to the ridicule or the curses of the world.”
“This last thought,” replied Arthur, with a smile, “is suggested to you by the violence of your passion; but you would not act as you say, even if the opportunity occurred. When we are grappling with a single one of our faculties we fancy the others annihilated; but let some extraneous shock arouse them, and we realize that our soul draws its life from several sources at the same time. You are not insensible to fame, Bernard; and if Edmee invited you to abandon it you would perceive that it was dearer to you than you thought. You have ardent republican convictions, and Edmee herself was the first to inspire you with them. What, then, would you think of her, and, indeed, what sort of woman would she be, if she said to you to-day, ‘There is something more important than the religion I preached to you and the gods I revealed; something more august and more sacred, and that is my own good pleasure’? Bernard, your love is full of contradictory desires. Inconsistency, moreover, is the mark of all human loves. Men imagine that a woman can have no separate existence of her own, and that she must always be wrapped up in them; and yet the only woman they love deeply is she whose character seems to raise her above the weakness and indolence of her sex. You see how all the settlers in this country dispose of the beauty of their slaves, but they have no love for them, however beautiful they may be; and if by chance they become genuinely attached to one of them, their first care is to set her free. Until then they do not think that they are dealing with a human being. A spirit of independence, the conception of virtue, a love of duty, all these privileges of lofty souls are essential, therefore, in the woman who is to be one’s companion through life; and the more your mistress gives proof of strength and patience, the more you cherish her, in spite of what you may have to suffer. You must learn, then, to distinguish love from desire; desire wishes to break through the very impediments by which it is attracted, and it dies amid the ruins of the virtue it has vanquished; love wishes to live, and in order to do that, it would fain see the object of its worship long defended by that wall of adamant whose strength and splendour mean true worth and true beauty.”
In this way would Arthur explain to me the mysterious springs of my passion, and throw the light of his wisdom upon the stormy abyss of my soul. Sometimes he used to add:
“If Heaven had granted me the woman I have now and then dreamed of, I think I should have succeeded in making a noble and generous passion of my love; but science has asked for too much of my time. I have not had leisure to look for my ideal; and if perchance it has crossed my path, I have not been able either to study it or recognise it. You have been fortunate, Bernard, but then, you do not sound the deeps of natural history; one man cannot have everything.”
As to my suspicions about Edmee’s marriage, he rejected them with contempt as morbid fancies. To him, indeed, Edmee’s silence showed an admirable delicacy of feeling and conduct.
“A vain person,” he said, “would take care to let you know all the sacrifices she had made on your account, and would enumerate the titles and qualities of the suitors she had refused. Edmee, however, has too noble a soul, too serious a mind, to enter into these futile details. She looks upon your covenant as inviolable, and does not imitate those weak consciences which are always talking of their victories, and making a merit of doing that in which true strength finds no difficulty. She is so faithful by nature that she never imagines that any one can suspect her of being otherwise.”
These talks poured healing balm on my wounds. When at last France openly declared herself an ally of America, I received a piece of news from the abbe that entirely set my mind at ease on one point. He wrote to me that I should probably meet an old friend again in the New World; the Count de la Marche had been given command of a regiment, and was setting out for the United States.
“And between ourselves,” added the abbe, “it is quite time that he made a position for himself. This young man, though modest and steady, has always been weak enough to yield to the prejudices of noble birth. He has been ashamed of his poverty, and has tried to hide it as one hides a leprosy. The result is that his efforts to prevent others from seeing the progress of his ruin, have now ruined him completely. Society attributes the rupture between Edmee and him to these reverses of fortune; and people even go so far as to say that he was but little in love with her person, and very much with her dowry. I cannot bring myself to credit him with contemptible views; and I can only think that he is suffering those mortifications which arise from a false estimate of the value of the good things of this world. If you happen to meet him, Edmee wishes you to show him some friendship, and to let him know how great an interest she has always taken in him. Your excellent cousin’s conduct in this matter, as in all others, has been full of kindness and dignity.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:54