That same evening in the kitchen, after they left the dinner-table, Angelique confessed everything to Hubert, telling him of her interview with the Bishop, and of the latter’s refusal. She was very pale, but not at all excited.
Hubert was quite overcome. What? Could it be possible that his dear child already suffered? That she also had been so deeply wounded in her affections? His eyes were filled with tears from his sympathy with her, as they were both of that excessively sensitive nature that at the least breath they were carried away by their imaginations.
“Ah! my poor darling, why did you not consult me? I would willingly have accompanied you, and perhaps I might have persuaded Monseigneur to yield to your prayers.”
With a look Hubertine stopped him. He was really unreasonable. Was it not much better to seize this occasion to put an end at once to all ideas of a marriage which would be impossible? She took the young girl in her arms, and tenderly kissed her forehead.
“Then, now it is ended, my dear child; all ended?”
Angelique at first did not appear to understand what was said to her. Soon the words returned to her as if from a distance. She looked fixedly before her, seeming anxious to question the empty space, and at last she replied:
“Without doubt, mother.”
Indeed, on the morrow she seated herself at the work-frame and embroidered as she was wont to do. She took up her usual routine of daily work, and did not appear to suffer. Moreover, no allusion was made to the past; she no longer looked from time to time out of the window into the garden, and gradually losing her paleness, the natural colour came back to her cheeks. The sacrifice appeared to have been accomplished.
Hubert himself thought it was so, and, convinced of the wisdom of Hubertine, did all in his power to keep Felicien at a distance. The latter, not daring to openly revolt against his father, grew feverishly impatient, to such a degree that he almost broke the promise he had made to wait quietly without trying to see Angelique again. He wrote to her, and the letters were intercepted. He even went to the house one morning, but it was Hubert alone who received him. Their explanatory conversation saddened them both to an equal degree, so much did the young man appear to suffer when the embroiderer told him of his daughter’s calmness and her air of forgetfulness. He besought him to be loyal, and go to away, that he might not again throw the child into the fearful trouble of the last few weeks.
Felicien again pledged himself to be patient, but he violently refused to take back his word, for he was still hopeful that he might persuade his father in the end. He could wait; he would let affairs remain in their present state with the Voincourts, where he dined twice a week, doing so simply to avoid a direct act of open rebellion.
And as he left the house he besought Hubert to explain to Angelique why he had consented to the torment of not seeing her for the moment; he thought only of her, and the sole aim of everything he did was to gain her at last.
When her husband repeated this conversation to her, Hubertine grew very serious. Then, after a short silence, she asked:
“Shall you tell our daughter what he asked you to say to her?”
“I ought to do so.”
She was again silent, but finally added:
“Act according to your conscience. But he is now under a delusion. He will eventually be obliged to yield to his father’s wishes, and then our poor, dear little girl will die in consequence.”
Hubert, overcome with grief, hesitated. But after contending with himself, he concluded to repeat nothing. Moreover, he became a little reassured each day when his wife called his attention to Angelique’s tranquil appearance.
“You see well that the wound is healing. She is learning to forget.”
But she did not forget; she also was simply waiting. All hope of human aid having died within her, she now had returned to the idea of some wonderful prodigy. There would surely be one, if God wished her to be happy. She had only to give herself up entirely into His hands; she believed that this new trial had been sent to her as a punishment for having attempted to force His will in intruding upon Monseigneur. Without true grace mankind was weak, and incapable of success. Her need of that grace made her humble, bringing to her as an only hope the aid of the Invisible; so that she gave up acting for herself, but left everything to the mysterious forces which surrounded her. Each evening at lamplight she recommenced her reading of the “Golden Legend,” being as delighted with it as when she was a young child. She doubted none of the miracles related therein, being convinced that the power of the Unknown is without limit for the triumph of pure souls.
Just at this time the upholsterer of the Cathedral ordered of the Huberts a panel of the very richest embroidery for the throne of Monseigneur the Bishop. This panel, one yard and a half in width and three yards in length, was to be set in old carved wood, and on it were to be represented two angels of life-size, holding a crown, on which were to be the arms of the Hautecoeurs. It was necessary that the embroidery should be in bas-relief, a work which not only required great artistic knowledge, but also needed physical strength, to be well done. When proposed to the Huberts, they at first declined the offer, being not only fearful of fatiguing Angelique, but especially dreading that she would be saddened by the remembrances which would be brought to her mind as she wrought thread after thread during the several weeks. But she insisted upon accepting the command, and every morning applied herself to her task with an extraordinary energy. It seemed as if she found her happiness in tiring herself, and that she needed to be physically exhausted in order to be calm.
So in the old workroom life continued in the same regular way, as if their hearts had not even for a moment beaten more quickly than usual. Whilst Hubert occupied himself with arranging the frames, or drew the patterns, or stretched or relaxed the materials, Hubertine helped Angelique, both of them having their hands terribly tired and bruised when evening came. For the angels and the ornaments it had been necessary at the beginning to divide each subject into several parts, which were treated separately. In order to perfect the most salient points, Angelique first took spools of coarse unbleached thread, which she re-covered with the strong thread of Brittany in a contrary direction; and as the need came, making use of a heavy pair of shears, as well as of a roughing-chisel, she modelled these threads, shaped the drapery of the angels, and detached the details of the ornaments. In all this there was a real work of sculpture. At last, when the desired form was obtained, with the aid of Hubertine she threw on masses of gold thread, which she fastened down with little stitches of silk. Thus there was a bas-relief of gold, incomparably soft and bright, shining like a sun in the centre of this dark, smoky room. The old tools were arranged in the same lines as they had been for centuries — the punches, the awls, the mallets, and the hammers; on the work-frame the little donkey waste-basket and the tinsel, the thimbles and the needles, moved up and down as usual, while in the different corners, where they ended by growing rusty, the diligent, the hand spinning-wheel, and the reel for winding, seemed to sleep in the peaceful quiet which entered through the open window.
Days passed. Angelique broke many needles between morning and evening, so difficult was it to sew down the gold, through the thickness of the waxed threads. To have seen her, one would have said she was so thoroughly absorbed by her hard work that she could think of nothing else. At nine o’clock she was exhausted by fatigue, and, going to bed, she sank at once into a heavy, dreamless sleep. When her embroidery gave her mind a moment’s leisure, she was astonished not to see Felicien. Although she took no step towards seeking him, it seemed to her that he ought to have tried every possible way to come to her. Yet she approved of his wisdom in acting as he did, and would have scolded him had he tried to hasten matters. No doubt he also looked for something supernatural to happen. It was this expectation upon which she now lived, thinking each night that it would certainly come on the morrow. Until now she had never rebelled. Still, at times she lifted up her head inquiringly, as if asking “What! Has nothing yet come to pass?” And then she pricked her finger so deeply that her hand bled, and she was obliged to take the pincers to draw the needle out. When her needle would break with a sharp little sound, as if of glass, she did not even make a movement of impatience.
Hubertine was very anxious on seeing her apply herself so desperately to her work, and as the time for the great washing had come again, she forced her to leave her panel of embroidery, that she might have four good days of active outdoor life in the broad sunlight. The mere Gabet, now free of her rheumatism, was able to help in the soaping and rinsing. It was a regular fete in the Clos-Marie, these last August days, in which the weather was splendid, the sky almost cloudless, while a delicious fragrance came up from the Chevrotte, the water of which as it passed under the willows was almost icy cold. The first day Angelique was very gay, as she beat the linen after plunging it in the stream; enjoying to the full the river, the elms, the old ruined mill, the wild herbs, and all those friendly surroundings, so filled with pleasant memories. Was it not there she had become acquainted with Felicien, who under the moonlight had at first seemed so mysterious a being, and who, later on, had been so adorably awkward the morning when he ran after the dressing-sacque that was being carried away by the current? As she rinsed each article, she could not refrain from glancing at the gateway of the Bishop’s garden, which until recently had been nailed up. One evening she had passed through it on his arm, and who could tell but he might suddenly now open it and come to take her as she applied herself to her work in the midst of the frothy foam that at times almost covered her.
But the next day, as the mere Gabet brought the last barrow of linen, which she spread out on the grass with Angelique, she interrupted her interminable chattering upon the gossip of the neighbourhood to say maliciously:
“By the way, you know that Monseigneur is to marry his son?”
The young girl, who was just smoothing out a sheet, knelt down in the grass, her strength leaving her all at once, from the rudeness of the shock.
“Yes, everyone is talking of it. The son of Monseigneur will in the autumn marry Mademoiselle de Voincourt. It seems that everything was decided upon and arranged yesterday.”
She remained on her knees, as a flood of confused ideas passed through her brain, and a strange humming was in her ears. She was not at all surprised at the news, and she realised it must be true. Her mother had already warned her, so she ought to have been prepared for it. She did not yet even doubt Felicien’s love for her, as that was her faith and her strength. But at the present moment, that which weakened her so greatly and excited her to the very depths of her being was the thought that, trembling before the commands of his father, he could at last yield from weariness, and consent to wed one whom he did not love. Then he would be lost to her whom he really adored. Never had she thought such an act on his part possible; but now she saw him obliged by his filial duty and his sense of obedience to make them both unhappy for ever. Still motionless, her eyes fixed upon the little gate, she at last revolted against the facts, feeling as if she must go and shake the bars, force them open with her hands, run to Felicien, and, aiding him by her own courage, persuade him not to yield. She was surprised to hear herself reply to the mere Gabet, in the purely mechanical instinct of hiding her trouble:
“Ah! then he is to marry Mademoiselle Claire. She is not only very beautiful, but it is said she is also very good.”
Certainly, as soon as the old woman went away, she must go and find him. She had waited long enough; she would break her promise of not seeing him as if it were a troublesome obstacle. What right had anyone to separate them in this way? Everything spoke to her of their affection — the Cathedral, the fresh water, and the old elm-trees under which they had been so happy. Since their affection had grown on this spot, it was there that she wished to find him again, to go with him arm-in-arm far away, so far that no one would ever see them.
“That is all,” said at last the mere Gabet, as she hung the last napkins on a bush. “In two hours they will be dry. Good-night, mademoiselle, as you no longer have need of me.”
Now, standing in the midst of this efflorescence of linen that shone on the green grass, Angelique thought of that other day, when, in the tempest of wind, among the flapping of the sheets and tablecloths, they unfolded so ingenuously the secrets of their lives to each other. Why had he discontinued his visits to her? Why had he not come to meet her during her healthy exercise of the past three days? But it would not be long before she would run to him, and when he had clasped her in his arms, he would know well that he was hers, and hers only. She would not even need to reproach him for his apparent weakness; it would be enough for her to show herself to make him realise that their happiness was in being together.
He would dare everything for her sake when once she had rejoined him.
An hour passed, and Angelique walked slowly between the pieces of linen, all white herself from the blinding reflection of the sun; and a confused sentiment awoke in her breast, which, growing stronger and stronger, prevented her from going over to the gate, as she had wished to do. She was frightened before this commencement of a struggle. What did it mean? She certainly could act according to her own will. Yet something new, inexplicable, thwarted her and changed the simplicity of her passion. It was such a simple thing to go to a beloved one; yet she could not possibly do so now, being kept back by a tormenting doubt. Also, since she had given her promise, perhaps it would be wrong to break it. In the evening, when the whole “wash” was dry, and Hubertine came to help her to take it to the house, she was still undecided what to do, and concluded to reflect upon it during the night. With her arms filled to overflowing with linen, white as snow, and smelling fresh and clean, she cast an anxious look towards the Clos-Marie, already bathed in the twilight, as if it were a friendly corner of Nature refusing to be her accomplice.
In the morning Angelique was greatly troubled when she awoke. Several other nights passed without her having come to any decision. She could not recover her ease of mind until she had the certainty that she was still beloved. Were her faith in that unshaken she would be perfectly at rest. If loved, she could bear anything. A fit of being charitable had again taken possession of her, so that she was touched by the slightest suffering, and her eyes were filled with tears ready to overflow at any moment. The old man Mascart made her give him tobacco, and the Chouarts drew from her everything they wished, even to preserved fruits. But the Lemballeuses also profited by her gifts, and Tiennette had been seen dancing at the fetes, dressed in one of “the good young lady’s “ gowns. And one day, as she was taking to the grandmother some chemises promised her the previous evening, she saw from a distance, in the midst of the poor family, Madame de Voincourt and her daughter Claire, accompanied by Felicien. The latter, no doubt, had taken them there. She did not show herself, but returned home at once, chilled to the heart. Two days later she saw the two again as they came out from the Chateau; then one morning the old man Mascart told her of a visit he had received from the handsome young gentleman and two ladies. Then she abandoned her poor people, who seemed no longer to have claims upon her, since Felicien had taken them and given them to his new friends. She gave up her walks for fear she might see them, and thus be so deeply wounded that her sufferings would be increased tenfold. She felt as if something were dying within her, as if, little by little, her very life was passing away.
One evening, after one of these meetings, when alone in her chamber, stifling from anguish, she uttered this cry:
“But he loves me no longer.”
She saw before her, mentally, Claire de Voincourt, tall, beautiful, with her crown of black hair, and he was at her side, slight, proud, and handsome. Were they not really created for each other, of the same race, so well mated that one might think they were already married?
“He no longer loves me! Oh! he no longer loves me!”
This exclamation broke from her lips as if it were the ruin of all her hopes, and, her faith once shaken, everything gave way without her being able to examine the facts of the case or to regard them calmly. The previous evening she believed in something, but that had now passed by. A breath, coming from she knew not where, had been sufficient, and all at once by a single blow she had fallen into the greatest despair — that of thinking she was not beloved. He had indeed spoken wisely when he told her once that this was the only real grief, the one insupportable torture. Now her turn had come. Until then she had been resigned, she felt so strong and confident as she awaited the miracle. But her strength passed away with her faith; she was tormented by her distress like a child; her whole being seemed to be only an open wound. And a painful struggle commenced in her soul.
At first she called upon her pride to help her; she was too proud to care for him any more. She tried to deceive herself, she pretended to be free from all care, as she sang while embroidering the Hautecoeur coat of arms, upon which she was at work. But her heart was so full it almost stifled her, and she was ashamed to acknowledge to herself that she was weak enough to love him still in spite of all, and even to love him more than ever. For a week these armorial bearings, as they grew thread by thread under her fingers, filled her with a terrible sorrow. Quartered one and four, two and three, of Jerusalem and d’Hautecoeur; of Jerusalem, which is argent, a cross potence, or, between four cross-crosslets of the last; and d’Hautecoeur, azure, on a castle, or, a shield, sable, charged with a human heart, argent; the whole accompanied by three fleurs-de-lys, or, two at the top and one in the point. The enamels were made of twist, the metals of gold and silver thread. What misery it was to feel that her hands trembled, and to be obliged to lower her head to hide her eyes, that were blinded with tears, from all this brightness. She thought only of him; she adored him in the lustre of his legendary nobility. And when she embroidered the motto of the family, ”Si Dieu veult, je veux,” in black silk on a streamer of silver, she realised that she was his slave, and that never again could she reclaim him. Then tears prevented her from seeing, while mechanically she continued to make little stitches in her work.
After this it was indeed pitiable. Angelique loved in despair, fought against this hopeless affection, which she could not destroy. She still wished to go to Felicien, to reconquer him by throwing her arms around his neck; and thus the contest was daily renewed. Sometimes she thought she had gained control over her feelings, so great a silence appeared to have fallen within and around her. She seemed to see herself as if in a vision, a stranger in reality, very little, very cold, and kneeling like an obedient child in the humility of renunciation. Then it was no longer herself, but a sensible young girl, made so by her education and her home life. Soon a rush of blood mounted to her face, making her dizzy; her perfect health, the ardent feelings of her youth, seemed to gallop like runaway colts, and she resaw herself, proud and passionate, in all the reality of her unknown origin. Why, then, had she been so obedient? There was no true duty to consult, only free-will. Already she had planned her flight, and calculated the most favourable hour for forcing open the gate of the Bishop’s garden. But already, also, the agony, the grave uneasiness, the torment of a doubt had come back to her. Were she to yield to evil she would suffer eternal remorse in consequence. Hours, most abominable hours, passed in this uncertainty as to what part she should take under this tempestuous wind, which constantly threw her from the revolt of her love to the horror of a fault. And she came out of the contest weakened by each victory over her heart.
One evening, as she was about leaving the house to go to join Felicien, she suddenly thought of her little book from the Society of Aid to Abandoned Children. She was so distressed to find that she no longer had strength to resist her pride. She took it from the depths of the chest of drawers, turned over its leaves, whispered to herself at each page the lowness of her birth, so eager was she in her need of humility. Father and mother unknown; no name; nothing but a date and a number; a complete neglect, like that of a wild plant that grows by the roadside! Then crowds of memories came to her: the rich pastures of the Mievre and the cows she had watched there; the flat route of Soulanges, where she had so often walked barefooted; and Maman Nini, who boxed her ears when she stole apples. Certain pages specially attracted her by their painful associations:— those which certified every three months to the visits of the under-inspector and of the physician, whose signatures were sometimes accompanied by observations or information, as, for instance, a severe illness, during which she had almost died; a claim from her nurse on the subject of a pair of shoes that had been burnt; and bad marks that had been given her for her uncontrollable temper. It was, in short, the journal of her misery. But one thing disturbed her above all others — the report in reference to the breaking of the necklace she had worn until she was six years of age. She recollected that she had instinctively hated it, this string of beads of bone, cut in the shape of little olives, strung on a silken cord, and fastened by a medallion of plaited silver, bearing the date of her entrance into the “Home” and her number. She considered it as a badge of slavery, and tried several times to break it with her little hands, without any fear as to the consequences of doing so. Then, when older, she complained that it choked her. For a year longer she was obliged to wear it. Great, indeed, was her joy when, in the presence of the mayor of the parish, the inspector’s aid had cut the cord, replacing this sign of individuality by a formal description, in which allusion was made to her violet-coloured eyes and her fine golden hair. Yet she always seemed to feel around her neck this collar, as if she were an animal that was marked in order that she might be recognised if she went astray; it cut into her flesh and stifled her. When she came to that page on this day, her humility came back to her, she was frightened, and went up to her chamber, sobbing as if unworthy of being loved. At two other times this little book saved her. At last it lost its power, and could not help her in checking her rebellious thoughts.
Now, her greatest temptation came to her at night. Before going to bed, that her sleep might be calm, she imposed upon herself the task of resuming reading the Legends. But, resting her forehead on her hands, notwithstanding all her efforts she could understand nothing. The miracles stupefied her; she saw only a discoloured flight of phantoms. Then in her great bed, after a most intense prostration, she started suddenly from her sleep, in agony, in the midst of the darkness. She sat upright, distracted; then knelt among the half thrown-back clothes, as the perspiration started from her forehead, while she trembled from head to foot. Clasping her hands together, she stammered in prayer, “Oh! my God! Why have You forsaken me?”
Her great distress was to realise that she was alone in the obscurity at such moments. She had dreamed of Felicien, she was eager to dress herself and go to join him, before anyone could come to prevent her from fleeing. It was as if the Divine grace were leaving her, as if God ceased to protect her, and even the elements abandoned her. In despair, she called upon the unknown, she listened attentively, hoping for some sign from the Invisible. But there was no reply; the air seemed empty. There were no more whispering voices, no more mysterious rustlings. Everything seemed to be dead — the Clos-Marie, with the Chevrotte, the willows, the elm-trees in the Bishop’s garden, and the Cathedral itself. Nothing remained of the dreams she had placed there; the white flight of her friends in passing away left behind them only their sepulchre. She was in agony at her powerlessness, disarmed, like a Christian of the Primitive Church overcome by original sin, as soon as the aid of the supernatural had departed. In the dull silence of this protected corner she heard this evil inheritance come back, howling triumphant over everything. If in ten minutes more no help came to her from figurative forces, if things around her did not rouse up and sustain her, she would certainly succumb and go to her ruin. “My God! My God! Why have You abandoned me?” Still kneeling on her bed, slight and delicate, it seemed to her as if she were dying.
Each time, until now, at the moment of her greatest distress she had been sustained by a certain freshness. It was the Eternal Grace which had pity upon her, and restored her illusions. She jumped out on to the floor with her bare feet, and ran eagerly to the window. Then at last she heard the voices rising again; invisible wings brushed against her hair, the people of the “Golden Legend” came out from the trees and the stones, and crowded around her. Her purity, her goodness, all that which resembled her in Nature, returned to her and saved her. Now she was no longer afraid, for she knew that she was watched over. Agnes had come back with the wandering, gentle virgins, and in the air she breathed was a sweet calmness, which, notwithstanding her intense sadness, strengthened her in her resolve to die rather than fail in her duty or break her promise. At last, quite exhausted, she crept back into her bed, falling asleep again with the fear of the morrow’s trials, constantly tormented by the idea that she must succumb in the end, if her weakness thus increased each day.
In fact, a languor gained fearfully upon Angelique since she thought Felicien no longer loved her. She was deeply wounded and silent, uncomplaining; she seemed to be dying hourly. At first it showed itself by weariness. She would have an attack of want of breath, when she was forced to drop her thread, and for a moment remain with her eyes half closed, seeing nothing, although apparently looking straight before her. Then she left off eating, scarcely taking even a little milk; and she either hid her bread or gave it to the neighbours’ chickens, that she need not make her parents anxious. A physician having been called, found no acute disease, but considering her life too solitary, simply recommended a great deal of exercise. It was like a gradual fading away of her whole being; a disappearing by slow degrees, an obliterating of her physique from its immaterial beauty. Her form floated like the swaying of two great wings; a strong light seemed to come from her thin face, where the soul was burning. She could now come down from her chamber only in tottering steps, as she supported herself by putting her two hands against the wall of the stairway. But as soon as she realised she was being looked at, she made a great effort, and even persisted in wishing to finish the panel of heavy embroidery for the Bishop’s seat. Her little, slender hands had no more strength, and when she broke a needle she could not draw it from the work with the pincers.
One morning, when Hubert and Hubertine had been obliged to go out, and had left her alone at her work, the embroiderer, coming back first, had found her on the floor near the frame, where she had fallen from her chair after having fainted away. She had at last succumbed before her task, one of the great golden angels being still unfinished. Hubert took her in his arms, and tried to place her on her feet. But she fell back again, and did not recover consciousness.
“My darling! My darling! Speak to me! Have pity on me!”
At last she opened her eyes and looked at him in despair. Why had he wished her to come back to life! She would so gladly die!
“What is the matter with you, my dear child? Have you really deceived us? Do you still love him?”
She made no answer, but simply looked at him with intense sadness. Then he embraced her gently, took her in his arms, and carried her up to her room. Having placed her upon her bed, when he saw how white and frail she was he wept that he had had so cruel a task to perform as to keep away from her the one whom she so loved.
“But I would have given him to you, my dear! Why did you say nothing to me?”
She did not speak; her eyelids closed, and she appeared to fall asleep. He remained standing, his looks fixed upon the thin, lily-white countenance, his heart bleeding with pity. Then, as her breathing had become quiet, he went downstairs, as he heard his wife come in.
He explained everything to her in the working-room. Hubertine had just taken off her hat and gloves, and he at once told her of his having found the child on the floor in a dead faint, that she was now sleeping on her bed, overcome with weakness, and almost lifeless.
“We have really been greatly mistaken. She thinks constantly of this young man, and it is killing her by inches. Ah! if you knew what a shock it gave me, and the remorse which has made me almost distracted, since I have realised the truth of the case, and carried her upstairs in so pitiable a state. It is our fault. We have separated them by falsehoods, and I am not only ashamed, but so angry with myself it makes me ill. But what? Will you let her suffer so, without saying anything to save her?”
Still Hubertine was as silent as Angelique, and, pale from anxiety, looked at him calmly and soothingly. But he, always an excitable man, was now so overcome by what he had just seen that, forgetting his usual submission, he was almost beside himself, could not keep still, but threw his hands up and down in his feverish agitation.
“Very well, then! I will speak, and I will tell her that Felicien loves her, and that it is we who have had the cruelty to prevent him from returning, in deceiving him also. Now, every tear she sheds cuts me to the heart. Were she to die, I should consider myself as having been her murderer. I wish her to be happy. Yes! happy at any cost, no matter how, but by all possible means.”
He had approached his wife, and he dared to cry out in the revolt of his tenderness, being doubly irritated by the sad silence she still maintained.
“Since they love each other, it is they alone who should be masters of the situation. There is surely nothing in the world greater than to love and be loved. Yes, happiness is always legitimate.”
At length Hubertine, standing motionless, spoke slowly:
“You are willing, then, that he should take her from us, are you not? That he should marry her notwithstanding our opposition, and without the consent of his father? Would you advise them to do so? Do you think that they would be happy afterwards, and that love would suffice them?”
And without changing her manner she continued in the same heart-broken voice:
“On my way home I passed by the cemetery, and an undefinable hope made me enter there again. I knelt once more on the spot that is worn by our knees, and I prayed there for a long time.”
Hubert had turned very pale, and a cold chill replaced the fever of a few moments before. Certainly he knew well the tomb of the unforgiving mother, where they had so often been in tears and in submission, as they accused themselves of their disobedience, and besought the dead to send them her pardon from the depths of the earth. They had remained there for hours, sure that if the grace they demanded were ever granted them they would be cognisant of it at once. That for which they pleaded, that for which they hoped, was for another infant, a child of pardon, the only sign which would assure them that at last they themselves had been forgiven. But all was in vain. The cold, hard mother was deaf to all their entreaties, and left them under the inexorable punishment of the death of their firstborn, whom she had taken and carried away, and whom she refused to restore to them.
“I prayed there for a long time,” repeated Hubertine. “I listened eagerly to know if there would not be some slight movement.”
Hubert questioned her with an anxious look.
“But there was nothing — no! no sound came up to me from the earth, and within me there was no feeling of relief. Ah! yes, it is useless to hope any longer. It is too late. We brought about our own unhappiness.”
Then, trembling, he asked:
“Do you accuse me of it?”
“Yes, you are to blame, and I also did wrong in following you. We disobeyed in the beginning, and all our life has been spoiled in consequence of that one false step.”
“But are you not happy?”
“No, I am not happy. A woman who has no child can never be happy. To love merely is not enough. That love must be crowned and blest.”
He had fallen into a chair, faint and overcome, as tears came to his eyes. Never before had she reproached him for the ever-open wound which marred their lives, and she who always after having grieved him by an involuntary allusion to the past had quickly recovered herself and consoled him, this time let him suffer, looking at him as she stood near, but making no sign, taking no step towards him. He wept bitterly, exclaiming in the midst of his tears:
“Ah! the dear child upstairs — it is she you condemn. You are not willing that Felicien should marry her, as I married you, and that she should suffer as you have done.”
She answered simply by a look: a clear, affectionate glance, in which he read the strength and simplicity of her heart.
“But you said yourself, my dear, that our sweet daughter would die of grief if matters were not changed. Do you, then, wish for her death?”
“Yes. Her death now would be preferable to an unhappy life.”
He left his seat, and clasped her in his arms as they both sobbed bitterly. For some minutes they embraced each other. Then he conquered himself, and she in her turn was obliged to lean upon his shoulder, that he might comfort her and renew her courage. They were indeed distressed, but were firm in their decision to keep perfectly silent, and, if it were God’s will that their child must die in consequence, they must accept it submissively, rather than advise her to do wrong.
From that day Angelique was obliged to keep in her room. Her weakness increased so rapidly and to such a degree that she could no longer go down to the workroom. Did she attempt to walk, her head became dizzy at once and her limbs bent under her. At first, by the aid of the furniture, she was able to get to the balcony. Later, she was obliged to content herself with going from her armchair to her bed. Even that distance seemed long to her, and she only tried it in the morning and evening, she was so exhausted.
However, she still worked, giving up the embroidery in bas-relief as being too difficult, and simply making use of coloured silks. She copied flowers after Nature, from a bunch of hydrangeas and hollyhocks, which, having no odour, she could keep in her room. The bouquet was in full bloom in a large vase, and often she would rest for several minutes as she looked at it with pleasure, for even the light silks were too heavy for her fingers. In two days she had made one flower, which was fresh and bright as it shone upon the satin; but this occupation was her life, and she would use her needle until her last breath. Softened by suffering, emaciated by the inner fever that was consuming her, she seemed now to be but a spirit, a pure and beautiful flame that would soon be extinguished.
Why was it necessary to struggle any longer if Felicien did not love her? Now she was dying with this conviction; not only had he no love for her to-day, but perhaps he had never really cared for her. So long as her strength lasted she had contended against her heart, her health, and her youth, all of which urged her to go and join him. But now that she was unable to move, she must resign herself and accept her fate.
One morning, as Hubert placed her in her easy chair, and put a cushion under her little, motionless feet, she said, with a smile:
“Ah! I am sure of being good now, and not trying to run away.”
Hubert hastened to go downstairs, that she might not see his tears.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15