On this day, on arriving at La Souleiade, old Mme. Rougon perceived Martine in the kitchen garden, engaged in planting leeks; and, as she sometimes did, she went over to the servant to have a chat with her, and find out from her how things were going on, before entering the house.
For some time past she had been in despair about what she called Clotilde’s desertion. She felt truly that she would now never obtain the documents through her. The girl was behaving disgracefully, she was siding with Pascal, after all she had done for her; and she was becoming perverted to such a degree that for a month past she had not been seen in Church. Thus she returned to her first idea, to get Clotilde away and win her son over when, left alone, he should be weakened by solitude. Since she had not been able to persuade the girl to go live with her brother, she eagerly desired the marriage. She would like to throw her into Dr. Ramond’s arms to-morrow, in her impatience at so many delays. And she had come this afternoon with a feverish desire to hurry on matters.
“Good-day, Martine. How is every one here?”
The servant, kneeling down, her hands full of clay, lifted up her pale face, protected against the sun by a handkerchief tied over her cap.
“As usual, madame, pretty well.”
They went on talking, Felicite treating her as a confidante, as a devoted daughter, one of the family, to whom she could tell everything. She began by questioning her; she wished to know if Dr. Ramond had come that morning. He had come, but they had talked only about indifferent matters. This put her in despair, for she had seen the doctor on the previous day, and he had unbosomed himself to her, chagrined at not having yet received a decisive answer, and eager now to obtain at least Clotilde’s promise. Things could not go on in this way, the young girl must be compelled to engage herself to him.
“He has too much delicacy,” she cried. “I have told him so. I knew very well that this morning, even, he would not venture to demand a positive answer. And I have come to interfere in the matter. We shall see if I cannot oblige her to come to a decision.”
Then, more calmly:
“My son is on his feet now; he does not need her.”
Martine, who was again stooping over the bed, planting her leeks, straightened herself quickly.
“Ah, that for sure!”
And a flush passed over her face, worn by thirty years of service. For a wound bled within her; for some time past the master scarcely tolerated her about him. During the whole time of his illness he had kept her at a distance, accepting her services less and less every day, and finally closing altogether to her the door of his room and of the workroom. She had a vague consciousness of what was taking place, an instinctive jealousy tortured her, in her adoration of the master, whose chattel she had been satisfied to be for so many years.
“For sure, we have no need of mademoiselle. I am quite able to take care of monsieur.”
Then she, who was so discreet, spoke of her labors in the garden, saying that she made time to cultivate the vegetables, so as to save a few days’ wages of a man. True, the house was large, but when one was not afraid of work, one could manage to do all there was to be done. And then, when mademoiselle should have left them, that would be always one less to wait upon. And her eyes brightened unconsciously at the thought of the great solitude, of the happy peace in which they should live after this departure.
“It would give me pain,” she said, lowering her voice, “for it would certainly give monsieur a great deal. I would never have believed that I could be brought to wish for such a separation. Only, madame, I agree with you that it is necessary, for I am greatly afraid that mademoiselle will end by going to ruin here, and that there will be another soul lost to the good God. Ah, it is very sad; my heart is so heavy about it sometimes that it is ready to burst.”
“They are both upstairs, are they not?” said Felicite. “I will go up and see them, and I will undertake to oblige them to end the matter.”
An hour later, when she came down again, she found Martine still on her knees on the soft earth, finishing her planting. Upstairs, from her first words, when she said that she had been talking with Dr. Ramond, and that he had shown himself anxious to know his fate quickly, she saw that Dr. Pascal approved — he looked grave, he nodded his head as if to say that this wish seemed to him very natural. Clotilde, herself, ceasing to smile, seemed to listen to him with deference. But she manifested some surprise. Why did they press her? Master had fixed the marriage for the second week in June; she had, then, two full months before her. Very soon she would speak about it with Ramond. Marriage was so serious a matter that they might very well give her time to reflect, and let her wait until the last moment to engage herself. And she said all this with her air of good sense, like a person resolved on coming to a decision. And Felicite was obliged to content herself with the evident desire that both had that matters should have the most reasonable conclusion.
“Indeed I believe that it is settled,” ended Felicite. “He seems to place no obstacle in the way, and she seems only to wish not to act hastily, like a girl who desires to examine her heart closely, before engaging herself for life. I will give her a week more for reflection.”
Martine, sitting on her heels, was looking fixedly on the ground with a clouded face.
“Yes, yes,” she murmured, in a low voice, “mademoiselle has been reflecting a great deal of late. I am always meeting her in some corner. You speak to her, and she does not answer you. That is the way people are when they are breeding a disease, or when they have a secret on their mind. There is something going on; she is no longer the same, no longer the same.”
And she took the dibble again and planted a leek, in her rage for work; while old Mme. Rougon went away, somewhat tranquillized; certain, she said, that the marriage would take place.
Pascal, in effect, seemed to accept Clotilde’s marriage as a thing settled, inevitable. He had not spoken with her about it again, the rare allusions which they made to it between themselves, in their hourly conversations, left them undisturbed; and it was simply as if the two months which they still had to live together were to be without end, an eternity stretching beyond their view.
She, especially, would look at him smiling, putting off to a future day troubles and decisions with a pretty vague gesture, as if to leave everything to beneficent life. He, now well and gaining strength daily, grew melancholy only when he returned to the solitude of his chamber at night, after she had retired. He shuddered and turned cold at the thought that a time would come when he would be always alone. Was it the beginning of old age that made him shiver in this way? He seemed to see it stretching before him, like a shadowy region in which he already began to feel all his energy melting away. And then the regret of having neither wife nor child filled him with rebelliousness, and wrung his heart with intolerable anguish.
Ah, why had he not lived! There were times when he cursed science, accusing it of having taken from him the best part of his manhood. He had let himself be devoured by work; work had consumed his brain, consumed his heart, consumed his flesh. All this solitary, passionate labor had produced only books, blackened paper, that would be scattered to the winds, whose cold leaves chilled his hands as he turned them over. And no living woman’s breast to lean upon, no child’s warm locks to kiss! He had lived the cold, solitary life of a selfish scientist, and he would die in cold solitude. Was he indeed going to die thus? Would he never taste the happiness enjoyed by even the common porters, by the carters who cracked their whips, passing by under his windows? But he must hasten, if he would; soon, no doubt, it would be too late. All his unemployed youth, all his pent-up desires, surged tumultuously through his veins. He swore that he would yet love, that he would live a new life, that he would drain the cup of every passion that he had not yet tasted, before he should be an old man. He would knock at the doors, he would stop the passers-by, he would scour the fields and town.
On the following day, when he had taken his shower bath and left his room, all his fever was calmed, the burning pictures had faded away, and he fell back into his natural timidity. Then, on the next night, the fear of solitude drove sleep away as before, his blood kindled again, and the same despair, the same rebelliousness, the same longing not to die without having known family joys returned. He suffered a great deal in this crisis.
During these feverish nights, with eyes wide open in the darkness, he dreamed always, over and over again the same dream. A girl would come along the road, a girl of twenty, marvelously beautiful; and she would enter and kneel down before him in an attitude of submissive adoration, and he would marry her. She was one of those pilgrims of love such as we find in ancient story, who have followed a star to come and restore health and strength to some aged king, powerful and covered with glory. He was the aged king, and she adored him, she wrought the miracle, with her twenty years, of bestowing on him a part of her youth. In her love he recovered his courage and his faith in life.
Ah, youth! he hungered fiercely for it. In his declining days this passionate longing for youth was like a revolt against approaching age, a desperate desire to turn back, to be young again, to begin life over again. And in this longing to begin life over again, there was not only regret for the vanished joys of youth, the inestimable treasure of dead hours, to which memory lent its charm; there was also the determined will to enjoy, now, his health and strength, to lose nothing of the joy of loving! Ah, youth! how eagerly he would taste of its every pleasure, how eagerly he would drain every cup, before his teeth should fall out, before his limbs should grow feeble, before the blood should be chilled in his veins. A pang pierced his heart when he remembered himself, a slender youth of twenty, running and leaping agilely, vigorous and hardy as a young oak, his teeth glistening, his hair black and luxuriant. How he would cherish them, these gifts scorned before, if a miracle could restore them to him!
And youthful womanhood, a young girl who might chance to pass by, disturbed him, causing him profound emotion. This was often even altogether apart from the individual: the image, merely, of youth, the perfume and the dazzling freshness which emanated from it, bright eyes, healthy lips, blooming cheeks, a delicate neck, above all, rounded and satin-smooth, shaded on the back with down; and youthful womanhood always presented itself to him tall and slight, divinely slender in its chaste nudeness. His eyes, gazing into vacancy, followed the vision, his heart was steeped in infinite longing. There was nothing good or desirable but youth; it was the flower of the world, the only beauty, the only joy, the only true good, with health, which nature could bestow on man. Ah, to begin life over again, to be young again, to clasp in his embrace youthful womanhood!
Pascal and Clotilde, now that the fine April days had come, covering the fruit trees with blossoms, resumed their morning walks in La Souleiade. It was the first time that he had gone out since his illness, and she led him to the threshing yard, along the paths in the pine wood, and back again to the terrace crossed by the two bars of shadows thrown by the secular cypresses. The sun had already warmed the old flagstones there, and the wide horizon stretched out under a dazzling sky.
One morning when Clotilde had been running, she returned to the house in such exuberant spirits and so full of pleasant excitement that she went up to the workroom without taking off either her garden hat or the lace scarf which she had tied around her neck.
“Oh,” she said, “I am so warm! And how stupid I am, not to have taken off my things downstairs. I will go down again at once.”
She had thrown the scarf on a chair on entering.
But her feverish fingers became impatient when she tried to untie the strings of her large straw hat.
“There, now! I have fastened the knot. I cannot undo it, and you must come to my assistance.”
Pascal, happy and excited too by the pleasure of the walk, rejoiced to see her so beautiful and so merry. He went over and stood in front of her.
“Wait; hold up your chin. Oh, if you keep moving like that, how do you suppose I can do it?”
She laughed aloud. He could see the laughter swelling her throat, like a wave of sound. His fingers became entangled under her chin, that delicious part of the throat whose warm satin he involuntarily touched. She had on a gown cut sloping in the neck, and through the opening he inhaled all the living perfume of the woman, the pure fragrance of her youth, warmed by the sunshine. All at once a vertigo seized him and he thought he was going to faint.
“No, no! I cannot do it,” he said, “unless you keep still!”
The blood throbbed in his temples, and his fingers trembled, while she leaned further back, unconsciously offering the temptation of her fresh girlish beauty. It was the vision of royal youth, the bright eyes, the healthy lips, the blooming cheeks, above all, the delicate neck, satin-smooth and round, shaded on the back by down. And she seemed to him so delicately graceful, with her slender throat, in her divine bloom!
“There, it is done!” she cried.
Without knowing how, he had untied the strings. The room whirled round, and then he saw her again, bareheaded now, with her starlike face, shaking back her golden curls laughingly. Then he was seized with a fear that he would catch her in his arms and press mad kisses on her bare neck, and arms, and throat. And he fled from the room, taking with him the hat, which he had kept in his hand, saying:
“I will hang it in the hall. Wait for me; I want to speak to Martine.”
Once downstairs, he hurried to the abandoned room and locked himself into it, trembling lest she should become uneasy and come down here to seek him. He looked wild and haggard, as if he had just committed a crime. He spoke aloud, and he trembled as he gave utterance for the first time to the cry that he had always loved her madly, passionately. Yes, ever since she had grown into womanhood he had adored her. And he saw her clearly before him, as if a curtain had been suddenly torn aside, as she was when, from an awkward girl, she became a charming and lovely creature, with her long tapering limbs, her strong slender body, with its round throat, round neck, and round and supple arms. And it was monstrous, but it was true — he hungered for all this with a devouring hunger, for this youth, this fresh, blooming, fragrant flesh.
Then Pascal, dropping into a rickety chair, hid his face in his hands, as if to shut out the light of day, and burst into great sobs. Good God! what was to become of him? A girl whom his brother had confided to him, whom he had brought up like a good father, and who was now — this temptress of twenty-five — a woman in her supreme omnipotence! He felt himself more defenseless, weaker than a child.
And above this physical desire, he loved her also with an immense tenderness, enamored of her moral and intellectual being, of her right-mindedness, of her fine intelligence, so fearless and so clear. Even their discord, the disquietude about spiritual things by which she was tortured, made her only all the more precious to him, as if she were a being different from himself, in whom he found a little of the infinity of things. She pleased him in her rebellions, when she held her ground against him — she was his companion and pupil; he saw her such as he had made her, with her great heart, her passionate frankness, her triumphant reason. And she was always present with him; he did not believe that he could exist where she was not; he had need of her breath; of the flutter of her skirts near him; of her thoughtfulness and affection, by which he felt himself constantly surrounded; of her looks; of her smile; of her whole daily woman’s life, which she had given him, which she would not have the cruelty to take back from him again. At the thought that she was going away, that she would not be always here, it seemed to him as if the heavens were about to fall and crush him; as if the end of all things had come; as if he were about to be plunged in icy darkness. She alone existed in the world, she alone was lofty and virtuous, intelligent and beautiful, with a miraculous beauty. Why, then, since he adored her and since he was her master, did he not go upstairs and take her in his arms and kiss her like an idol? They were both free, she was ignorant of nothing, she was a woman in age. This would be happiness.
Pascal, who had ceased to weep, rose, and would have walked to the door. But suddenly he dropped again into his chair, bursting into a fresh passion of sobs. No, no, it was abominable, it could not be! He felt on his head the frost of his white hair; and he had a horror of his age, of his fifty-nine years, when he thought of her twenty-five years. His former chill fear again took possession of him, the certainty that she had subjugated him, that he would be powerless against the daily temptation. And he saw her giving him the strings of her hat to untie; compelling him to lean over her to make some correction in her work; and he saw himself, too, blind, mad, devouring her neck with ardent kisses. His indignation against himself at this was so great that he arose, now courageously, and had the strength to go upstairs to the workroom, determined to conquer himself.
Upstairs Clotilde had tranquilly resumed her drawing. She did not even look around at his entrance, but contented herself with saying:
“How long you have been! I was beginning to think that Martine must have made a mistake of at least ten sous in her accounts.”
This customary jest about the servant’s miserliness made him laugh. And he went and sat down quietly at his table. They did not speak again until breakfast time. A great sweetness bathed him and calmed him, now that he was near her. He ventured to look at her, and he was touched by her delicate profile, by her serious, womanly air of application. Had he been the prey of a nightmare, downstairs, then? Would he be able to conquer himself so easily?
“Ah!” he cried, when Martine called them, “how hungry I am! You shall see how I am going to make new muscle!”
She went over to him, and took him by the arm, saying:
“That’s right, master; you must be gay and strong!”
But that night, when he was in his own room, the agony began again. At the thought of losing her he was obliged to bury his face in the pillow to stifle his cries. He pictured her to himself in the arms of another, and all the tortures of jealousy racked his soul. Never could he find the courage to consent to such a sacrifice. All sorts of plans clasped together in his seething brain; he would turn her from the marriage, and keep her with him, without ever allowing her to suspect his passion; he would take her away, and they would go from city to city, occupying their minds with endless studies, in order to keep up their companionship as master and pupil; or even, if it should be necessary, he would send her to her brother to nurse him, he would lose her forever rather than give her to a husband. And at each of these resolutions he felt his heart, torn asunder, cry out with anguish in the imperious need of possessing her entirely. He was no longer satisfied with her presence, he wished to keep her for himself, with himself, as she appeared to him in her radiant beauty, in the darkness of his chamber, with her unbound hair falling around her.
His arms clasped the empty air, and he sprang out of bed, staggering like a drunken man; and it was only in the darkness and silence of the workroom that he awoke from this sudden fit of madness. Where, then, was he going, great God? To knock at the door of this sleeping child? to break it in, perhaps, with a blow of his shoulder? The soft, pure respiration, which he fancied he heard like a sacred wind in the midst of the profound silence, struck him on the face and turned him back. And he returned to his room and threw himself on his bed, in a passion of shame and wild despair.
On the following day when he arose, Pascal, worn out by want of sleep, had come to a decision. He took his daily shower bath, and he felt himself stronger and saner. The resolution to which he had come was to compel Clotilde to give her word. When she should have formally promised to marry Ramond, it seemed to him that this final solution would calm him, would forbid his indulging in any false hopes. This would be a barrier the more, an insurmountable barrier between her and him. He would be from that moment armed against his desire, and if he still suffered, it would be suffering only, without the horrible fear of becoming a dishonorable man.
On this morning, when he told the young girl that she ought to delay no longer, that she owed a decisive answer to the worthy fellow who had been awaiting it so long, she seemed at first astonished. She looked straight into his eyes, but he had sufficient command over himself not to show confusion; he insisted merely, with a slightly grieved air, as if it distressed him to have to say these things to her. Finally, she smiled faintly and turned her head aside, saying:
“Then, master, you wish me to leave you?”
“My dear,” he answered evasively, “I assure you that this is becoming ridiculous. Ramond will have the right to be angry.”
She went over to her desk, to arrange some papers which were on it. Then, after a moment’s silence, she said:
“It is odd; now you are siding with grandmother and Martine. They, too, are persecuting me to end this matter. I thought I had a few days more. But, in truth, if you all three urge me —”
She did not finish, and he did not press her to explain herself more clearly.
“When do you wish me to tell Ramond to come, then?”
“Why, he may come whenever he wishes; it does not displease me to see him. But don’t trouble yourself. I will let him know that we will expect him one of these afternoons.”
On the following day the same scene began over again. Clotilde had taken no step yet, and Pascal was now angry. He suffered martyrdom; he had crises of anguish and rebelliousness when she was not present to calm him by her smiling freshness. And he insisted, in emphatic language, that she should behave seriously and not trifle any longer with an honorable man who loved her.
“The devil! Since the thing is decided, let us be done with it. I warn you that I will send word to Ramond, and that he will be here to-morrow at three o’clock.”
She listened in silence, her eyes fixed on the ground. Neither seemed to wish to touch upon the question as to whether the marriage had really been decided on or not, and they took the standpoint that there had been a previous decision, which was irrevocable. When she looked up again he trembled, for he felt a breath pass by; he thought she was on the point of saying that she had questioned herself, and that she refused this marriage. What would he have done, what would have become of him, good God! Already he was filled with an immense joy and a wild terror. But she looked at him with the discreet and affectionate smile which never now left her lips, and she answered with a submissive air:
“As you please, master. Send him word to be here to-morrow at three o’clock.”
Pascal spent so dreadful a night that he rose late, saying, as an excuse, that he had one of his old headaches. He found relief only under the icy deluge of the shower bath. At ten o’clock he left the house, saying he would go himself to see Ramond; but he had another object in going out — he had seen at a show in Plassans a corsage of old point d’Alencon; a marvel of beauty which lay there awaiting some lover’s generous folly, and the thought had come to him in the midst of the tortures of the night, to make a present of it to Clotilde, to adorn her wedding gown. This bitter idea of himself adorning her, of making her beautiful and fair for the gift of herself, touched his heart, exhausted by sacrifice. She knew the corsage, she had admired it with him one day wonderingly, wishing for it only to place it on the shoulders of the Virgin at St. Saturnin, an antique Virgin adored by the faithful. The shopkeeper gave it to him in a little box which he could conceal, and which he hid, on his return to the house, in the bottom of his writing-desk.
At three o’clock Dr. Ramond presented himself, and he found Pascal and Clotilde in the parlor, where they had been awaiting him with secret excitement and a somewhat forced gaiety, avoiding any further allusion to his visit. They received him smilingly with exaggerated cordiality.
“Why, you are perfectly well again, master!” said the young man. “You never looked so strong.”
Pascal shook his head.
“Oh, oh, strong, perhaps! only the heart is no longer here.”
This involuntary avowal made Clotilde start, and she looked from one to the other, as if, by the force of circumstances, she compared them with each other — Ramond, with his smiling and superb face — the face of the handsome physician adored by the women — his luxuriant black hair and beard, in all the splendor of his young manhood; and Pascal, with his white hair and his white beard. This fleece of snow, still so abundant, retained the tragic beauty of the six months of torture that he had just passed through. His sorrowful face had aged a little, only his eyes remained still youthful; brown eyes, brilliant and limpid. But at this moment all his features expressed so much gentleness, such exalted goodness, that Clotilde ended by letting her gaze rest upon him with profound tenderness. There was silence for a moment and each heart thrilled.
“Well, my children,” resumed Pascal heroically, “I think you have something to say to each other. I have something to do, too, downstairs. I will come up again presently.”
And he left the room, smiling back at them.
And soon as they were alone, Clotilde went frankly straight over to Ramond, with both hands outstretched. Taking his hands in hers, she held them as she spoke.
“Listen, my dear friend; I am going to give you a great grief. You must not be too angry with me, for I assure you that I have a very profound friendship for you.”
He understood at once, and he turned very pale.
“Clotilde give me no answer now, I beg of you; take more time, if you wish to reflect further.”
“It is useless, my dear friend, my decision is made.”
She looked at him with her fine, loyal look. She had not released his hands, in order that he might know that she was not excited, and that she was his friend. And it was he who resumed, in a low voice:
“Then you say no?”
“I say no, and I assure you that it pains me greatly to say it. Ask me nothing; you will no doubt know later on.”
He sat down, crushed by the emotion which he repressed like a strong and self-contained man, whose mental balance the greatest sufferings cannot disturb. Never before had any grief agitated him like this. He remained mute, while she, standing, continued:
“And above all, my friend, do not believe that I have played the coquette with you. If I have allowed you to hope, if I have made you wait so long for my answer, it was because I did not in very truth see clearly myself. You cannot imagine through what a crisis I have just passed — a veritable tempest of emotions, surrounded by darkness from out of which I have but just found my way.”
He spoke at last.
“Since it is your wish, I will ask you nothing. Besides, it is sufficient for you to answer one question. You do not love me, Clotilde?”
She did not hesitate, but said gravely, with an emotion which softened the frankness of her answer:
“It is true, I do not love you; I have only a very sincere affection for you.”
He rose, and stopped by a gesture the kind words which she would have added.
“It is ended; let us never speak of it again. I wished you to be happy. Do not grieve for me. At this moment I feel as if the house had just fallen about me in ruins. But I must only extricate myself as best I can.”
A wave of color passed over his pale face, he gasped for air, he crossed over to the window, then he walked back with a heavy step, seeking to recover his self-possession. He drew a long breath. In the painful silence which had fallen they heard Pascal coming upstairs noisily, to announce his return.
“I entreat you,” murmured Clotilde hurriedly, “to say nothing to master. He does not know my decision, and I wish to break it to him myself, for he was bent upon this marriage.”
Pascal stood still in the doorway. He was trembling and breathless, as if he had come upstairs too quickly. He still found strength to smile at them, saying:
“Well, children, have you come to an understanding?”
“Yes, undoubtedly,” responded Ramond, as agitated as himself.
“Then it is all settled?”
“Quite,” said Clotilde, who had been seized by a faintness.
Pascal walked over to his work-table, supporting himself by the furniture, and dropped into the chair beside it.
“Ah, ah! you see the legs are not so strong after all. It is this old carcass of a body. But the heart is strong. And I am very happy, my children, your happiness will make me well again.”
But when Ramond, after a few minutes’ further conversation, had gone away, he seemed troubled at finding himself alone with the young girl, and he again asked her:
“It is settled, quite settled; you swear it to me?”
After this he did not speak again. He nodded his head, as if to repeat that he was delighted; that nothing could be better; that at last they were all going to live in peace. He closed his eyes, feigning to drop asleep, as he sometimes did in the afternoon. But his heart beat violently, and his closely shut eyelids held back the tears.
That evening, at about ten o’clock, when Clotilde went downstairs for a moment to give an order to Martine before she should have gone to bed, Pascal profited by the opportunity of being left alone, to go and lay the little box containing the lace corsage on the young girl’s bed. She came upstairs again, wished him the accustomed good-night, and he had been for at least twenty minutes in his own room, and was already in his shirt sleeves, when a burst of gaiety sounded outside his door. A little hand tapped, and a fresh voice cried, laughing:
“Come, come and look!”
He opened the door, unable to resist this appeal of youth, conquered by his joy.
“Oh, come, come and see what a beautiful little bird has put on my bed!”
And she drew him to her room, taking no refusal. She had lighted the two candles in it, and the antique, pleasant chamber, with its hangings of faded rose color, seemed transformed into a chapel; and on the bed, like a sacred cloth offered to the adoration of the faithful, she had spread the corsage of old point d’Alencon.
“You would not believe it! Imagine, I did not see the box at first. I set things in order a little, as I do every evening. I undressed, and it was only when I was getting into bed that I noticed your present. Ah, what a surprise! I was overwhelmed by it! I felt that I could never wait for the morning, and I put on a skirt and ran to look for you.”
It was not until then that he perceived that she was only half dressed, as on the night of the storm, when he had surprised her stealing his papers. And she seemed divine, with her tall, girlish form, her tapering limbs, her supple arms, her slender body, with its small, firm throat.
She took his hands and pressed them caressingly in her little ones.
“How good you are; how I thank you! Such a marvel of beauty, so lovely a present for me, who am nobody! And you remember that I had admired it, this antique relic of art. I said to you that only the Virgin of St. Saturnin was worthy of wearing it on her shoulders. I am so happy! oh, so happy! For it is true, I love beautiful things; I love them so passionately that at times I wish for impossibilities, gowns woven of sunbeams, impalpable veils made of the blue of heaven. How beautiful I am going to look! how beautiful I am going to look!”
Radiant in her ecstatic gratitude, she drew close to him, still looking at the corsage, and compelling him to admire it with her. Then a sudden curiosity seized her.
“But why did you make me this royal present?”
Ever since she had come to seek him in her joyful excitement, Pascal had been walking in a dream. He was moved to tears by this affectionate gratitude; he stood there, not feeling the terror which he had dreaded, but seeming, on the contrary, to be filled with joy, as at the approach of a great and miraculous happiness. This chamber, which he never entered, had the religious sweetness of holy places that satisfy all longings for the unattainable.
His countenance, however, expressed surprise. And he answered:
“Why, this present, my dear, is for your wedding gown.”
She, in her turn, looked for a moment surprised as if she had not understood him. Then, with the sweet and singular smile which she had worn of late she said gayly:
“Ah, true, my marriage!”
Then she grew serious again, and said:
“Then you want to get rid of me? It was in order to have me here no longer that you were so bent upon marrying me. Do you still think me your enemy, then?”
He felt his tortures return, and he looked away from her, wishing to retain his courage.
“My enemy, yes. Are you not so? We have suffered so much through each other these last days. It is better in truth that we should separate. And then I do not know what your thoughts are; you have never given me the answer I have been waiting for.”
She tried in vain to catch his glance, which he still kept turned away. She began to talk of the terrible night on which they had gone together through the papers. It was true, in the shock which her whole being had suffered, she had not yet told him whether she was with him or against him. He had a right to demand an answer.
She again took his hands in hers, and forced him to look at her.
“And it is because I am your enemy that you are sending me away? I am not your enemy. I am your servant, your chattel, your property. Do you hear? I am with you and for you, for you alone!”
His face grew radiant; an intense joy shone within his eyes.
“Yes, I will wear this lace. It is for my wedding day, for I wish to be beautiful, very beautiful for you. But do you not understand me, then? You are my master; it is you I love.”
“No, no! be silent; you will make me mad! You are betrothed to another. You have given your word. All this madness is happily impossible.”
“The other! I have compared him with you, and I have chosen you. I have dismissed him. He has gone away, and he will never return. There are only we two now, and it is you I love, and you love me. I know it, and I give myself to you.”
He trembled violently. He had ceased to struggle, vanquished by the longing of eternal love.
The spacious chamber, with its antique furniture, warmed by youth, was as if filled with light. There was no longer either fear or suffering; they were free. She gave herself to him knowingly, willingly, and he accepted the supreme gift like a priceless treasure which the strength of his love had won. Suddenly she murmured in his ear, in a caressing voice, lingering tenderly on the words:
“Master, oh, master, master!”
And this word, which she used formerly as a matter of habit, at this hour acquired a profound significance, lengthening out and prolonging itself, as if it expressed the gift of her whole being. She uttered it with grateful fervor, like a woman who accepts, and who surrenders herself. Was not the mystic vanquished, the real acknowledged, life glorified with love at last confessed and shared.
“Master, master, this comes from far back. I must tell you; I must make my confession. It is true that I went to church in order to be happy. But I could not believe. I wished to understand too much; my reason rebelled against their dogmas; their paradise appeared to me an incredible puerility. But I believed that the world does not stop at sensation; that there is a whole unknown world, which must be taken into account; and this, master, I believe still. It is the idea of the Beyond, which not even happiness, found at last upon your neck, will efface. But this longing for happiness, this longing to be happy at once, to have some certainty — how I have suffered from it. If I went to church, it was because I missed something, and I went there to seek it. My anguish consisted in this irresistible need to satisfy my longing. You remember what you used to call my eternal thirst for illusion and falsehood. One night, in the threshing yard, under the great starry sky, do you remember? I burst out against your science, I was indignant because of the ruins with which it strews the earth, I turned my eyes away from the dreadful wounds which it exposes. And I wished, master, to take you to a solitude where we might both live in God, far from the world, forgotten by it. Ah, what torture, to long, to struggle, and not to be satisfied!”
Softly, without speaking, he kissed her on both eyes.
“Then, master, do you remember again, there was the great moral shock on the night of the storm, when you gave me that terrible lesson of life, emptying out your envelopes before me. You had said to me already: ‘Know life, love it, live it as it ought to be lived.’ But what a vast, what a frightful flood, rolling ever onward toward a human sea, swelling it unceasingly for the unknown future! And, master, the silent work within me began then. There was born, in my heart and in my flesh, the bitter strength of the real. At first I was as if crushed, the blow was so rude. I could not recover myself. I kept silent, because I did not know clearly what to say. Then, gradually, the evolution was effected. I still had struggles, I still rebelled against confessing my defeat. But every day after this the truth grew clearer within me, I knew well that you were my master, and that there was no happiness for me outside of you, of your science and your goodness. You were life itself, broad and tolerant life; saying all, accepting all, solely through the love of energy and effort, believing in the work of the world, placing the meaning of destiny in the labor which we all accomplish with love, in our desperate eagerness to live, to love, to live anew, to live always, in spite of all the abominations and miseries of life. Oh, to live, to live! This is the great task, the work that always goes on, and that will doubtless one day be completed!”
Silent still, he smiled radiantly, and kissed her on the mouth.
“And, master, though I have always loved you, even from my earliest youth, it was, I believe, on that terrible night that you marked me for, and made me your own. You remember how you crushed me in your grasp. It left a bruise, and a few drops of blood on my shoulder. Then your being entered, as it were into mine. We struggled; you were the stronger, and from that time I have felt the need of a support. At first I thought myself humiliated; then I saw that it was but an infinitely sweet submission. I always felt your power within me. A gesture of your hand in the distance thrilled me as though it had touched me. I would have wished that you had seized me again in your grasp, that you had crushed me in it, until my being had mingled with yours forever. And I was not blind; I knew well that your wish was the same as mine, that the violence which had made me yours had made you mine; that you struggled with yourself not to seize me and hold me as I passed by you. To nurse you when you were ill was some slight satisfaction. From that time, light began to break upon me, and I at last understood. I went no more to church, I began to be happy near you, you had become certainty and happiness. Do you remember that I cried to you, in the threshing yard, that something was wanting in our affection. There was a void in it which I longed to fill. What could be wanting to us unless it were God? And it was God — love, and life.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02