At last, one morning after breakfast, Mr. Hubert took me to see his daughter. When the door of her room was opened I felt almost suffocated by the warm-scented air which met me. The room itself was charming in its simplicity; the curtains and coverings of chintz, with a white ground. Large china vases filled with flowers exhaled a delicate perfume. African birds were sporting in a gilded cage, and singing their sweet little love songs. The carpet was softer to the feet than is the moss of the woods in the month of March. I was in such a state of agitation that my eyes grew more and more dim every moment. My feet caught in one another most awkwardly, and I kept stumbling against the furniture without being able to advance. Edmee was lying on a long white chair, carelessly fingering a mother-of-pearl fan. She seemed to me even more beautiful than before, yet so changed that a feeling of apprehension chilled me in the middle of my ecstasy. She held out her hand to me; I did not like to kiss it in the presence of her father. I could not hear what she was saying to me — I believe her words were full of affection. Then, as if overcome with fatigue, she let her head fall back on the pillow and closed her eyes.
“I have some work to do,” said the chevalier to me. “Stay here with her; but do not make her talk too much, for she is still very weak.”
This recommendation really seemed a sarcasm. Edmee was pretending to be sleepy, perhaps to conceal some of the embarrassment that weighed on her heart; and, as for myself, I felt so incapable of overcoming her reserve that it was in reality a kindness to counsel silence.
The chevalier opened a door at one end of the room and closed it after him; but, as I could hear him cough from time to time, I gathered that his study was separated from his daughter’s room only by a wooden partition. Still, it was bliss to be alone with her for a few moments, as long as she appeared to be asleep. She did not see me, and I could gaze on her at will. So pale was she that she seemed as white as her muslin dressing-gown, or as her satin slippers with their trimming of swan’s down. Her delicate, transparent hand was to my eyes like some unknown jewel. Never before had I realized what a woman was; beauty for me had hitherto meant youth and health, together with a sort of manly hardihood. Edmee, in her riding-habit, as I first beheld her, had in a measure displayed such beauty, and I had understood her better then. Now, as I studied her afresh, my very ideas, which were beginning to get a little light from without, all helped to make this second tete-a-tete very different from the first.
But the strange, uneasy pleasure I experienced in gazing on her was disturbed by the arrival of a duenna, a certain Mademoiselle Leblanc, who performed the duties of lady’s maid in Edmee’s private apartments, and filled the post of companion in the drawing-room. Perhaps she had received orders from her mistress not to leave us. Certain it is that she took her place by the side of the invalid’s chair in such a way as to present to my disappointed gaze her own long, meagre back, instead of Edmee’s beautiful face. Then she took some work out of her pocket, and quietly began to knit. Meanwhile the birds continued to warble, the chevalier to cough, Edmee to sleep or to pretend to sleep, while I remained at the other end of the room with my head bent over the prints in a book that I was holding upside down.
After some time I became aware that Edmee was not asleep, and that she was talking to her attendant in a low voice. I fancied I noticed the latter glancing at me from time to time out of the corner of her eye in a somewhat stealthy manner. To escape the ordeal of such an examination, and also from an impulse of cunning, which was by no means foreign to my nature, I let my head fall on the book, and the book on the pier-table, and in this posture I remained as if buried in sleep or thought. Then, little by little, their voices grew louder, until I could hear what they were saying about me.
“It’s all the same; you have certainly have chosen a funny sort of page, mademoiselle.”
“A page, Leblanc! Why do you talk such nonsense? As if one had pages nowadays! You are always imagining we are still in my grandmother’s time. I tell you he is my father’s adopted son.”
“M. le Chevalier is undoubtedly quite right to adopt a son; but where on earth did he fish up such a creature as that?”
I gave a side glance at them and saw that Edmee was laughing behind her fan. She was enjoying the chatter of this old maid, who was supposed to be a wag and allowed perfect freedom of speech. I was very much hurt to see my cousin was making fun of me.
“He looks like a bear, a badger, a wolf, a kite, anything rather than a man,” continued Leblanc. “What hands! what legs! And now he has been cleaned up a little, he is nothing to what he was! You ought to have seen him the day he arrived with his smock and his leather gaiters; it was enough to take away one’s breath.”
“Do you think so?” answered Edmee. “For my part, I preferred him in his poacher’s garb. It suited his face and figure better.”
“He looked like a bandit. You could not have looked at him properly, mademoiselle.”
“Oh! yes, I did.”
The tone in which she pronounced these words, “Yes, I did,” made me shudder; and somehow I again felt upon my lips the impress of the kiss she had given me at Roche–Mauprat.
“It would not be so bad if his hair were dressed properly,” continued the duenna; “but, so far, no one had been able to persuade him to have it powdered. Saint–Jean told me that just as he was about to put the powder puff to his head he got up in a rage and said, ‘Anything you like except that confounded flour. I want to be able to move my head about without coughing and sneezing.’ Heavens, what a savage!”
“Yet, in reality, he is quite right. If fashion did not sanction the absurdity, everybody would perceive that it is both ugly and inconvenient. Look and see if it is not more becoming to have long black hair like his?”
“Long hair like that? What a mane. It is enough to frighten one.”
“Besides, boys do not have their hair powdered, and he is still a boy.”
“A boy? My stars! what a brat Boys? Why he would eat them for his breakfast; he’s a regular ogre. But where does the hulking dog spring from? I suppose M. le Chevalier brought him here from behind some plough. What is his name again? . . . You did tell me his name, didn’t you?”
“Yes, inquisitive; I told you he is called Bernard.”
“Bernard! And nothing else?”
“Nothing, for the present. What are you looking at?”
“He is sleeping like a dormouse. Look at the booby. I was wondering whether he resembled M. le Chevalier. Perhaps it was a momentary error — a fit of forgetfulness with some milk-maid.”
“Come, come, Leblanc; you are going too far . . .”
“Goodness gracious, mademoiselle, has not M. le Chevalier been young like any other man? And that does not prevent virtue coming on with years, does it?”
“Doubtless your own experience has shown you that this is possible. But listen: don’t take upon yourself to make fun of this young man. It is possible that you have guessed right; but my father requires him to be treated as one of the family.”
“Well, well; that must be pleasant for you, mademoiselle. As for myself, what does it matter to me? I have nothing to do with the gentleman.”
“Ah, if you were thirty years younger.”
“But did your father consult you, mademoiselle, before planting yon great brigand in your room?”
“Why ask such a question? Is there anywhere in the world a better father than mine?”
“But you are very good also. . . . There are many young ladies who would have been by no means pleased.”
“And why, I should like to know? There is nothing disagreeable about the fellow. When he has been polished a little . . .”
“He will always be perfectly ugly.”
“My dear Leblanc, he is far from ugly. You are too old; you are no longer a judge of young men.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the chevalier, who came in to look for a book.
“Mademoiselle Leblanc is here, is she?” he said in a very quiet tone. “I thought you were alone with my son. Well, Edmee, have you had a talk with him? Did you tell him that you would be his sister? Are you pleased with her, Bernard?”
Such answers as I gave could compromise no one. As a rule, they consisted of four or five incoherent words crippled by shame. M. de Mauprat returned to his study, and I had sat down again, hoping that my cousin was going to send away her duenna and talk to me. But they exchanged a few words in a whisper; the duenna remained, and two mortal hours passed without my daring to stir from my chair. I believe Edmee really was asleep this time. When the bell rang for dinner her father came in again to fetch me, and before leaving her room he said to her again:
“Well, have you had a chat?”
“Yes, father, dear,” she replied, with an assurance that astounded me.
My cousin’s behaviour seemed to me to prove beyond doubt that she had merely been trifling with me, and that she was not afraid of my reproaches. And yet hope sprang up again when I remembered the strain in which she had spoken of me to Mademoiselle Leblanc. I even succeeded in persuading myself that she feared arousing her father’s suspicions, and that she was now feigning complete indifference only to draw me the more surely to her arms as soon as the favourable moment had arrived. As it was impossible to ascertain the truth, I resigned myself to waiting. But days and nights passed without any explanation being sent, or any secret message bidding me be patient. She used to come down to the drawing-room for an hour in the morning; in the evening she was present at dinner, and then would play piquet or chess with her father. During all this time she was so well watched that I could not exchange a glance with her. For the rest of the day she remained in her own room — inaccessible. Noticing that I was chafing at the species of captivity in which I was compelled to live, the chevalier frequently said to me:
“Go and have a chat with Edmee. You can go to her room and tell her that I sent you.”
But it was in vain that I knocked. No doubt they had heard me coming and had recognised me by my heavy shuffling step. The door was never opened to me. I grew desperate, furious.
Here I must interrupt the account of my personal impressions to tell you what was happening at this time in the luckless Mauprat family. John and Antony had really managed to escape, and though a very close search had been made for them, they had not as yet been captured. All their property was seized, and an order issued by the courts for the sale of the Roche–Mauprat fief. As it proved, however, a sale was unnecessary. M. Hubert de Mauprat put an end to the proceedings by coming forward as purchaser. The creditors were paid off, and the title-deeds of Roche–Mauprat passed into his hands.
The little garrison kept by the Mauprats, made up of adventurers of the lowest type, had met the same fate as their masters. As I have already said, the garrison had long been reduced to a few individuals. Two or three of these were killed, others took to flight; one only was captured. This man was tried and made to suffer for all. A serious question arose as to whether judgment should not also be given against John and Antony de Mauprat by default. There was apparently no doubt that they had fled; the pond in which Walter’s body was found floating had been drained, yet no traces of the bodies had been discovered. The chevalier, however, for the sake of the name he bore, strove to prevent the disgrace of an ignominious sentence; as if such a sentence could have added aught to the horror of the name of Mauprat. He brought to bear all M. de la Marche’s influence and his own (which was very real in the province, especially on account of his high moral character), to hush up the affair, and he succeeded. As for myself, though I had certainly had a hand in more than one of my uncles’ robberies, there was no thought of discussing me even at the bar of public opinion. In the storm of anger that my uncles had aroused people were pleased to consider me simply as a young captive, a victim of their cruelty, and thoroughly well disposed towards everybody. Certainly, in his generous good nature and desire to rehabilitate the family, the chevalier greatly exaggerated my merits, and spread a report everywhere that I was an angel of sweetness and intelligence.
On the day that M. Hubert became purchaser of the estate he entered my room early in the morning accompanied by his daughter and the abbe. Showing me the documents which bore witness to his sacrifice (Roche–Mauprat was valued at about two hundred thousand francs), he declared that I was forthwith going to be put in possession not only of my share in the inheritance, which was by no means considerable, but also of half the revenue of the property. At the same time, he said, the whole estate, lands and produce, should be secured to me by his will on one condition, namely, that I would consent to receive an education suitable to my position.
The chevalier had made all these arrangements in the kindness of his heart and without ostentation, partly out of gratitude for the service he knew I had rendered Edmee, and partly from family pride; but he had not expected that I should prove so stubborn on the question of education. I cannot tell you the irritation I felt at this word “condition”; especially as I thought I detected in it signs of some plan that Edmee had formed to free herself from her promise to me.
“Uncle,” I answered, after listening to all his magnificent offers in absolute silence, “I thank you for all you wish to do for me; but it is not right that I should avail myself of your kindness. I have no need of a fortune. A man like myself wants nothing but a little bread, a gun, a hound, and the first inn he comes to on the edge of the wood. Since you are good enough to act as my guardian pay me the income on my eighth of the fief and do not ask me to learn that Latin bosh. A man of birth is sufficiently well educated when he knows how to bring down a snipe and sign his name. I have no desire to be seigneur of Roche–Mauprat; it is enough to have been a slave there. You are most kind, and on my honour I love you; but I have very little love for conditions. I have never done anything from interested motives. I would rather remain an ignoramus than develop a pretty wit for another’s dole. Moreover, I could never consent to make such a hole in my cousin’s fortune; though I know perfectly well that she would willingly sacrifice a part of her dowry to obtain release from . . .”
Edmee, who until now had remained very pale and apparently heedless of my words, all at once cast a lightning glance at me and said with an air of unconcern:
“To obtain a release from what, may I ask, Bernard?”
I saw that, in spite of this show of courage, she was very much perturbed; for she broke her fan while shutting it. I answered her with a look in which the artless malice of the rustic must have been apparent:
“To obtain release, cousin, from a certain promise you made me at Roche–Mauprat.”
She grew paler than ever, and on her face I could see an expression of terror, but ill-disguised by a smile of contempt.
“What was the promise you made him, Edmee?” asked the chevalier, turning towards her ingenuously.
At the same time the abbe pressed my arm furtively, and I understood that my cousin’s confessor was in possession of the secret.
I shrugged my shoulders; their fears did me an injustice, though they roused my pity.
“She promised me,” I replied, with a smile, “that she would always look upon me as a brother and a friend. Were not those your words, Edmee, and do you think it is possible to make them good by mere money?”
She rose as if filled with new life, and, holding out her hand to me, said in a voice full of emotion:
“You are right, Bernard; yours is a noble heart, and I should never forgive myself if I doubted it for a moment.”
I caught sight of a tear on the edge of her eye-lid, and I pressed her hand somewhat too roughly, no doubt, for she could not restrain a little cry, followed, however, by a charming smile. The chevalier clasped me to his breast, and the abbe rocked about in his chair and exclaimed repeatedly:
“How beautiful! How noble! How very beautiful! Ah,” he added, “that is something that cannot be learnt from books,” turning to the chevalier. “God writes his words and breathes forth his spirit upon the hearts of the young.”
“You will see,” said the chevalier, deeply moved, “that this Mauprat will yet build up the honour of the family again. And now, my dear Bernard, I will say no more about business. I know how I ought to act, and you cannot prevent me from taking such steps as I shall think fit to insure the rehabilitation of my name by yourself. The only true rehabilitation is guaranteed by your noble sentiments; but there is still another which I know you will not refuse to attempt — the way to this lies through your talents and intelligence. You will make the effort out of love for us, I hope. However, we need not talk of this at present. I respect your proud spirit, and I gladly renew my offers without conditions. And now, abbe, I shall be glad if you will accompany me to the town to see my lawyer. The carriage is waiting. As for you, children, you can have lunch together. Come, Bernard, offer your arm to your cousin, or rather, to your sister. You must acquire some courtesy of manner, since in her case it will be but the expression of your heart.”
“That is true, uncle,” I answered, taking hold of Edmee’s arm somewhat roughly to lead her downstairs.
I could feel her trembling; but the pink had returned to her cheeks, and a smile of affection was playing about her lips.
As soon as we were seated opposite each other at table our happy harmony was chilled in a very few moments. We both returned to our former state of embarrassment. Had we been alone I should have got out of the difficulty by one of those abrupt sallies which I knew how to force from myself when I grew too much ashamed of my bashfulness; but the presence of Saint–Jean, who was waiting upon us, condemned me to silence on the subject next to my heart. I decided, therefore, to talk about Patience. I asked her how it came to pass that she was on such good terms with him, and in what light I ought to look upon the pretended sorcerer. She gave me the main points in the history of the rustic philosopher, and explained that it was the Abbe Aubert who had taken her to Gazeau Tower. She had been much struck by the intelligence and wisdom of the stoic hermit, and used to derive great pleasure from conversation with him. On his side, Patience had conceived such a friendship for her that for some time he had relaxed his strict habits, and would frequently pay her a visit when he came to see the abbe.
As you may imagine, she had no little difficulty in making these explanations intelligible to me. I was very much surprised at the praise she bestowed on Patience, and at the sympathy she showed for his revolutionary ideas. This was the first time I had heard a peasant spoken of as a man. Besides, I had hitherto looked upon the sorcerer of Gazeau Tower as very much below the ordinary peasant, and here was Edmee praising him above most of the men she knew, and even siding with him against the nobles. From this I drew the comfortable conclusion that education was not so essential as the chevalier and the abbe would have me believe.
“I can scarcely read any better than Patience,” I added, “and I only wish you found as much pleasure in my society as in his; but it hardly appears so, cousin, for since I came here . . .”
We were then leaving the table, and I was rejoicing at the prospect of being alone with her at last, so that I might talk more freely, when on going into the drawing-room we found M. de la Marche there. He had just arrived, and was in the act of entering by the opposite door. In my heart I wished him at the devil.
M. de la March was one of the fashionable young nobles of the day. Smitten with the new philosophy, devoted to Voltaire, a great admirer of Franklin, more well-meaning than intelligent, understanding the oracles less than he desired or pretended to understand them; a pretty poor logician, since he found his ideas much less excellent and his political hopes much less sweet on the day that the French nation took it into its head to realize them; for the rest, full of fine sentiments, believing himself much more sanguine and romantic than he was in reality; rather more faithful to the prejudices of caste and considerably more sensitive to the opinion of the world than he flattered and prided himself on being — such was the man. His face was certainly handsome, but I found it excessively dull; for I had conceived the most ridiculous animosity for him. His polished manners seemed to me abjectly servile with Edmee. I should have blushed to imitate them, and yet my sole aim was to surpass him in the little services he rendered her. We went out into the park. This was very large, and through it ran the Indre, here merely a pretty stream. During our walk he made himself agreeable in a thousand ways; not a violet did he see but he must pluck it to offer to my cousin. But, when we arrived at the banks of the stream, we found that the plank which usually enabled one to cross at this particular spot had been broken and washed away by the storms of a few days before. Without asking permission, I immediately took Edmee in my arms, and quietly walked through the stream. The water came up to my waist, but I carried my cousin at arm’s length so securely and skilfully that she did not wet a single ribbon. M. de la Marche, unwilling to appear more delicate than myself, did not hesitate to wet his fine clothes and follow me, though with some rather poor efforts the while to force a laugh. However, though he had not any burden to carry, he several times stumbled over the stones which covered the bed of the river, and rejoined us only with great difficulty. Edmee was far from laughing. I believe that this proof of my strength and daring, forced on her in spite of herself, terrified her as an evidence of the love she had stirred in me. She even appeared to be annoyed; and, as I set her down gently on the bank, said:
“Bernard, I must request you never to play such a prank again.”
“That is all very well,” I said; “you would not be angry if it were the other fellow.”
“He would not think of doing such a thing,” she replied.
“I quite believe it,” I answered; “he would take very good care of that. Just look at the chap. . . . And I— I did not ruffle a hair of your head. He is very good at picking violets; but, take my word for it, in a case of danger, don’t make him your first choice.”
M. de la Marche paid me great compliments on this exploit. I had hoped that he would be jealous; he did not even appear to dream of it, but rather made merry over the pitiable state of his toilet. The day was excessively hot, and we were quite dry before the end of the walk. Edmee, however, remained sad and pensive. It seemed to me that she was making an effort to show me as much friendship as at luncheon. This affected me considerably; for I was not only enamoured of her — I loved her. I could not make the distinction then, but both feelings were in me — passion and tenderness.
The chevalier and the abbe returned in time for dinner. They conversed in a low voice with M. de la Marche about the settlement of my affairs, and, from the few words which I could not help overhearing, I gathered that they had just secured my future on the bright lines they had laid before me in the morning. I was too shy and proud to express my simple thanks. This generosity perplexed me; I could not understand it, and I almost suspected that it was a trap they were preparing to separate me from my cousin. I did not realize the advantage of a fortune. Mine were not the wants of a civilized being; and the prejudices of rank were with me a point of honour, and by no means a social vanity. Seeing that they did not speak to me openly, I played the somewhat ungracious part of feigning complete ignorance.
Edmee grew more and more melancholy. I noticed that her eyes rested now on M. de la Marche, now on her father, with a vague uneasiness. Whenever I spoke to her, or even raised my voice in addressing others, she would start and then knit her brows slightly, as if my voice had caused her physical pain. She retired immediately after dinner. Her father followed her with evident anxiety.
“Have you not noticed,” said the abbe, turning to M. de la Marche, as soon as they had left the room, “that Mademoiselle de Mauprat has very much changed of late?”
“She has grown thinner,” answered the lieutenant-general; “but in my opinion she is only the more beautiful for that.”
“Yes; but I fear she may be more seriously ill than she owns,” replied the abbe. “Her temperament seems no less changed than her face; she has grown quite sad.”
“Sad? Why, I don’t think I ever saw her so gay as she was this morning; don’t you agree with me, Monsieur Bernard? It was only after our walk that she complained of a slight headache.”
“I assure you that she is really sad,” rejoined the abbe. “Nowadays, when she is gay, her gaiety is excessive; at such a time there seems to be something strange and forced about her which is quite foreign to her usual manner. Then the next minute she relapses into a state of melancholy, which I never noticed before the famous night in the forest. You may be certain that night was a terrible experience.”
“True, she was obliged to witness a frightful scene at Gazeau Tower,” said M. de la Marche; “and then she must have been very much exhausted and frightened when her horse bolted from the field and galloped right through the forest. Yet her pluck is so remarkable that . . . What do you think, my dear Monsieur Bernard? When you met her in the forest, did she seem very frightened?”
“In the forest?” I said. “I did not meet her in the forest at all.”
“No; it was in Varenne that you met her, wasn’t it?”
The abbe hastened to intervene. . . . “By-the-bye, Monsieur Bernard, can you spare me a minute to talk over a little matter connected with your property at . . .”
Hereupon he drew me out of the drawing-room, and said in a low voice:
“There is no question of business; I only want to beg of you not to let a single soul, not even M. de la Marche, suspect that Mademoiselle de Mauprat was at Roche–Mauprat for the fraction of a second.”
“And why?” I asked. “Was she not under my protection there? Did she not leave it pure, thanks to me? Must it not be well known to the neighbourhood that she passed two hours there?”
“At present no one knows,” he answered. “At the very moment she left it, Roche–Mauprat fell before the attack of the police, and not one of its inmates will return from the grave or from exile to proclaim the fact. When you know the world better, you will understand how important it is for the reputation of a young lady that none should have reason to suppose that even a shadow of danger has fallen upon her honour. Meanwhile, I implore you, in the name of her father, in the name of the affection for her which you expressed this morning in so noble and touching a manner . . .”
“You are very clever, Monsieur l’Abbe,” I said, interrupting him. “All your words have a hidden meaning which I can grasp perfectly well, clown as I am. Tell my cousin that she may set her mind at ease. I have nothing to say against her virtue, that is very certain; and I trust I am not capable of spoiling the marriage she desires. Tell her that I claim but one thing of her, the fulfilment of that promise of friendship which she made me at Roche–Mauprat.”
“In your eyes, then, that promise has a peculiar solemnity?” said the abbe. “If so, what grounds for distrusting it have you?”
I looked at him fixedly, and as he appeared very much agitated, I took a pleasure in keeping him on the rack, hoping that he would repeat my words to Edmee.
“None,” I answered. “Only I observe that you are afraid that M. de la Marche may break off the marriage, if he happens to hear of the adventure at Roche–Mauprat. If the gentleman is capable of suspecting Edmee, and of grossly insulting her on the eve of his wedding, it seems to me that there is one very simple means of mending matters.”
“What would you suggest?”
“Why, to challenge him and kill him.”
“I trust you will do all you can to spare the venerable M. Hubert the necessity of facing such a hideous danger.”
“I will spare him this and many others by taking upon myself to avenge my cousin. In truth, this is my right, Monsieur l’Abbe. I know the duties of a gentleman quite as well as if I had learnt Latin. You may tell her this from me. Let her sleep in peace. I will keep silence, and if that is useless I will fight.”
“But, Bernard,” replied the abbe in a gentle, insinuating tone, “have you thought of your cousin’s affection for M. de la Marche?”
“All the more reason that I should fight him,” I cried, in a fit of anger.
And I turned my back on him abruptly.
The abbe retailed the whole of our conversation to the penitent. The part that the worthy priest had to play was very embarrassing. Under the seal of confession he had been intrusted with a secret to which in his conversations with me he could make only indirect allusions, to bring me to understand that my pertinacity was a crime, and that the only honourable course was to yield. He hoped too much of me. Virtue such as this was beyond my power, and equally beyond my understanding.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:54