Transcribed from The Works of Prosper Mérimée. Vol. 1. Trans Emily Mary Waller, Lady Mary Loyd, Edmund Burke Thompson. New York: Frank S. Holby, 1906. For educational use only.
Paris and Phoebus Apollo shall destroy thee, even though thou art worthy, beside the Skoean gate.
HOMER, II, xxii, 360.
Chapters: I II III IV
The last mass had been said at Saint Roch, and the beadle was making his rounds to close the deserted chapels. He was about to draw the grille to one of those aristocratic sanctuaries where certain devotees purchase permission to worship God, apart from the rest of the faithful, when he observed that a woman was there still, apparently absorbed in meditation and prayer. “It is Madame de Piennes,” he said to himself, pausing at the door of the chapel. Madame de Piennes was well known to the beadle. At that epoch, a woman of the world, young, rich and pretty, who gave the consecrated bread, donated the altar cloths, and made large contributions to charity through the agency of her curate, deserved some credit for being devout, when she had not a husband in the employ of the government, and had nothing to gain by frequenting the churches, aside from her salvation. Such was Madame de Piennes.
The beadle wished to go to his dinner, for people of his class dine at one o’clock, but he dared not disturb the devotions of a person so distinguished in the parish of Saint-Roch. He walked away therefore, making his worn shoes resound upon the flags, hoping to find the chapel empty upon his return after finishing the rounds of the church.
He had gained the other side of the choir when a young woman entered the church and began walking up and down a side aisle, looking curiously at her surroundings. Reredos, stations, holy-water fonts appeared as strange to her, as would appear to you, madam, the sacred niche or the inscriptions of a mosque in Cairo. She was about twenty-five years old, though to a casual observer she would have appeared much older. Although very brilliant, her black eyes were sunken, and encircled by dark rings; her sallow complexion and discoloured lips were indicative of suffering, and yet a certain air of audacity and gaiety in her bearing contrasted strangely with her sickly appearance. In her dress you would have remarked a grotesque mingling of carelessness and studied elegance. Her rose-coloured bonnet, adorned with artificial flowers, would have been more in keeping with an evening toilet. Beneath a long cashmere shawl, of which the experienced eye of a woman would have discerned she was not the original owner, was hidden a cheap cotton frock, a little the worse for wear. Finally, only a man would have admired her feet, incased as they were in worn stockings, and felt shoes which bore the marks of long contact with the pavements – you will recall, madam, that asphalt had not yet been invented.
That woman, whose social position you have already divined, approached the chapel still occupied by Madame de Piennes, and regarding her a moment with a troubled and embarrassed air, she accosted her when she saw that she had arisen and was about to depart.
“Can you tell me, madam,” she demanded in a low voice, and with a smile of timidity, “can you tell me to whom I should address myself in order to offer a wax taper?”
The language was so strange to the ears of Madame de Piennes that she did not understand at first. She repeated the question to herself.
“Yes, I wish very much to offer a wax taper to Saint Roch; but I know not to whom I should give the money.”
Madame de Piennes was too enlightened to believe in popular superstitions. Nevertheless she respected them; for there is something touching in all forms of worship, however crude they may be. Persuaded that it was a question pertaining to a vow, or something of that nature, and too charitable to draw from the costume of the young woman in rose-coloured bonnet, conclusions which you perhaps have not scrupled to form, she referred her to the beadle who was coming toward them. The stranger thanked her, and hastening to meet that man, she repeated to him her wish, which he seemed to understand at half a word. While Madame de Piennes was gathering up her prayer-book and adjusting her veil, she saw the lady of the taper draw a small purse from her pocket, select a single five-franc piece from many smaller coins, and give it to the beadle, whispering meanwhile, minute instructions to which he gave smiling attention.
The two women left the church at the same time, but she of the taper walked very fast, and Madame de Piennes soon lost sight of her, although her path lay in the same direction. At the corner of the street where she resided she again encountered her. Beneath her cashmere shawl, the stranger endeavoured to hide a loaf of bread which she had just purchased at a neighbouring bakery. When she saw Madame de Piennes she dropped her head, smiled involuntarily, and hastened her footsteps. Her smile seemed to say: “How can I help it? I am poor. Laugh at me if you choose. I am aware that one does not buy bread in a rose-coloured bonnet and cashmere shawl.” This mingling of bashfulness, resignation, and good humour did not escape the notice of Madame de Piennes. She thought of the probable position of that young girl with sadness. “Her piety,” she said to herself, “is more meritorious than mine. Assuredly her offering of a five-franc piece is a much greater sacrifice than the superfluity which I donate to charity, without imposing the least privation upon myself.” Then she remembered the widow’s mite, more acceptable to God than the ostentatious alms-giving of the rich. “I do not do enough good,” she thought; “I do not do all that I should.” While thus addressing to herself mentally the reproaches which she was far from meriting, she reached her own door. The wax taper, the penny loaf, and specially the offering of her only five-franc piece, had impressed upon the memory of Madame de Piennes the face of the young woman whom she regarded as a model of piety.
She frequently saw her afterward in the street leading to the church, but never at the service. Whenever the stranger passed Madame de Piennes she dropped her head and smiled faintly. That humble smile pleased Madame de Piennes. She would have been glad of an occasion to befriend the poor girl, who at first had aroused her interest, and who now excited her pity; for she noticed that the rose-coloured bonnet was fading and that the cashmere shawl had disappeared. Doubtless it had been returned to the pawnbroker.
It was evident that Saint Roch had not repaid a hundredfold the offering which had been made to him.
One day Madame de Piennes saw a coffin borne into the church, followed by a poorly clad man, with not even a band of crape upon his hat; he was evidently a porter. For more than a month she had not met the young woman of the taper, and the idea came to her that she was assisting at her burial. Nothing was more probable, pale and emaciated as she was the last time that Madame de Piennes had seen her. The beadle being questioned, he interrogated in turn the man who followed the coffin. He replied that he was the porter of a house in Louis le Grand Street; that a tenant had died, one Madame Guillot, who had neither relatives nor friends, with the exception of one daughter, and that out of the pure kindness of his heart he, the porter, was attending the funeral of a person who was nothing to him. Madame de Piennes imagined at once that her stranger had died in her misery, leaving a motherless child without care, and promised herself to send a priest, whom she usually employed in dispensing her charities, to inquire into the case.
Three days later, as she was going for a drive, a cart crosswise of the street arrested her carriage for a few moments. In looking carelessly out of the carriage door she saw, sitting in the cart, the young girl whom she had believed to be dead. She readily recognised her, although she was more pale and emaciated than ever, dressed in mourning, though poorly so, with neither gloves nor hat. She had a strange expression. Instead of her accustomed smile, all of her features were drawn; her great black eyes were haggard; she turned them toward Madame de Piennes, but without recognition, for she saw nothing. Her countenance was expressive of a fierce determination rather than sorrow. The cart turned aside, and the carriage of Madame de Piennes rolled rapidly away; but the picture of the young girl and her expression of despair haunted her for several hours.
Upon her return she saw a great crowd of people in her street. All the portresses were at their street doors, telling some story, to which their neighbours listened with a lively interest. The mob was especially dense in front of a house near to the one inhabited by Madame de Piennes herself. All eyes were turned toward an open window at the third story, and in each little group one or two arms were raised to point it out to public notice; then suddenly the arms dropped, and all eyes followed the movement. Some extraordinary thing had happened.
Passing through her antechamber, Madame de Piennes found her frightened servants, each one pressing toward her, eager to relate the exciting news of the neighbourhood. But before she could ask a single question her maid cried:
“Oh! madam! – if madam knew!” And opening the doors with incredible swiftness, she followed her mistress into the holy of holies – in other words, her dressing-room, which was inaccessible to the rest of the household.
“Ah! madam,” said Mademoiselle Josephine, as she was removing the shawl of Madame de Piennes, “my blood runs cold. Never have I seen anything so terrible; that is to say, I have not seen it, although I reached the spot immediately after. But, for all that – ”
“What has happened? Speak quickly, mademoiselle.”
“Well, madam, it is that, three doors from here, a poor unfortunate young girl threw herself from a window, not three minutes ago; if madam had arrived a minute sooner she would have heard the crash.”
“Merciful Heaven! And the poor creature killed herself?”
“Madam, it is horrible. Baptiste, who has been to the war, says that he has never seen anything equal to it. From the third story, madam.”
“Was she killed instantly?”
“Oh! madam, she was still alive, she even spoke. ‘I wish some one would put me out of my misery,’ she said. Her bones were in pulp. Madam can imagine what a terrible fall she had.”
“But that poor soul – has anyone gone to her? Did anyone send for a doctor, a priest?”
“For a priest – madam knows better than I, of course. But if I were a priest – A creature so abandoned as to kill herself! Besides, this one was so bad – one could see that readily enough. She belonged to the opera, I was told. All of those creatures come to some bad end. She placed herself before the window, tied her skirts about her with a rose-coloured ribbon, and – ”
“It is that poor girl in mourning!” cried Madame de Piennes, speaking to herself.
“Yes, madam, her mother died three or four days ago. Her head may have been turned with grief. With all that, perhaps her lover left her in the lurch – and then the end came – No money; such people don’t know how to work – Bad heads! By-and-by misfortune comes – ”
Mademoiselle Josephine continued in this strain for some time, unheeded by Madame de Piennes. She seemed to be thinking sadly over the story she had just heard. Suddenly she demanded of Mademoiselle Josephine:
“Does anyone know if that poor girl has what she needs in her present condition – linen, pillows? I wish to know immediately.”
“I will go and make inquiries for madam, if madam wishes,” cried the maid, delighted at the chance of seeing at close range a woman who had wished to kill herself. Then reflecting:
“But,” she added, “I do not know as I would have the strength to see that – a woman who has fallen from the third story! When they bled Baptiste it made me quite ill. Even that was too much for me.”
“Very well, send Baptiste,” cried Madame de Piennes; “but let me know at once how that poor child is.” Fortunately her own physician, Dr. K***, arrived as she was giving that order. He came to dine with her, as was his custom every Tuesday, the day of Italian opera.
“Hurry, doctor,” she cried to him, without giving him time to put down his walking-stick or lay aside his wadded greatcoat; “Baptiste will lead you two steps from here. A poor young girl has thrown herself out of a window, and is without assistance.”
“Out of a window?” said the doctor. “If it was high, probably there is nothing for me to do.”
The doctor would have preferred to dine rather than perform an operation, but Madame de Piennes insisted, and upon her promise that the dinner should be delayed he consented to follow Baptiste.
The latter returned in a few minutes in quest of linen, pillows, etc. At the same time he brought the opinion of the doctor.
“It is nothing serious. She will recover, if she doesn’t die of – I don’t remember what he said she might die of, but it ended in us.”
“Of tetanus!” exclaimed Madame de Piennes.
“Precisely, madam; but it was very fortunate that the doctor arrived as he did, for there was already a quack doctor there, the same one that treated little Berthelot for the measles, and she was dead at his third visit.”
At the end of an hour the doctor reappeared, his hair slightly unpowdered and his beautiful cambric frill in disorder.
“These would-be suicides are born to good luck,” he said. “The other day a woman was brought to my hospital who had shot herself in the mouth with a pistol. A bad way of attempting it! She broke three teeth, made a hole in her left cheek. She will be a little plainer-looking for it, and that is all. This one throws herself from a third story. A poor devil of an honest man would fall accidentally from the first and break his neck. This girl breaks a leg. Two ribs were driven it, add a few contusions and all is said. A lean-to was opportunely there, which broke the force of her fall. It is the third case of the kind which I have seen since my return to Paris. She fell upon her feet. The tibia and fibula will unite again. What is worse is that the sauce for the turbot is completely dried up. I have fears for the roast, and we shall miss the first act of ‘Othello.'”
“And that poor girl, did she tell you what drove her to – ”
“Oh! I never listen to those stories, madam. I ask them: ‘When did you eat last, etc., etc.?’ – because that is important for the treatment. Zounds! when one kills himself it is for some bad reason. A lover leaves you, a landlord turns you out of doors; one jumps from the window to be revenged. But one is no sooner in the air than he repents of it.”
“She is repentant, I hope, the poor child?”
“Doubtless, doubtless. She wept and made noise enough to deafen me. Baptiste is a famous assistant, madam; he was much better than a medical student who was there, and who scratched his head, not knowing where to begin. The saddest thing in her case is that she escapes death by suicide only to die of consumption; for that she is a consumptive I would take my oath. I did not auscultate, but the facies never deceives me. To be in such haste, when one has only to wait so short a time!”
“You will see her tomorrow, doctor, will you not?”
“Certainly, if you wish me to. I assured her that you would do something for her. The best thing would be to send her to a hospital. There she would be furnished, gratis, an appliance for the reduction of her leg. But at the word ‘hospital’ she cried that that would finish her, and all the old gossips joined in chorus. However, when one hasn’t a penny – ”
“I will bear the small expense necessary, doctor. I confess that the word terrifies me also, in spite of myself, like the gossips of whom you speak. Moreover, to remove her to a hospital now that she is in such a horrible condition, would be the death of her.”
“Prejudice! pure prejudice on the part of the public. One is nowhere as well off as in a hospital, and when my time comes to be ferried over the Styx, it is from there that I wish to embark in Charon’s boat; I shall bequeath my body to the students – thirty or forty years hence, of course. Seriously, my dear, consider well: I am not sure that your protégée is worthy of your interest. She appears to me like some ballet girl – it requires the legs of a ballet dancer to make a leap like that so happily – ”
“But I have seen her at the church – and, well, doctor, you know my weakness; I construct a complete story upon a face, a glance. Laugh as much as you please, I am rarely deceived. That poor girl has made recently a votive offering for her mother, who was ill. Her mother died. Then she lost her reason. Despair and misery drove her to that terrible deed.”
“Very well! Yes, in fact, she has upon the top of her head a protuberance which indicates exaggeration. All that you say is quite probable. You remind me that there was a palm-branch above her cot-bed. That is proof of her piety, is it not?”
“A cot-bed! Ah! how pitiful! Poor girl! But, doctor, you have that wicked little smile that I know so well. I am not speaking of the devoutness which she has or has not. That which especially impels me to interest myself in that girl is that I have to reproach myself on her account – ”
“To reproach yourself? I have it. Doubtless you should have ordered cushions placed in the street to receive her?”
“Yes, to reproach myself. I noticed her destitution, I ought to have sent her assistance; but poor Father Dubignon was ill, and – ”
“You must indeed suffer from remorse, madam, if you think it is not doing enough to give, as is your custom, to all who beg openly; it is incumbent upon you also to seek out those who are too proud to beg. But, madam, let us talk no more of broken legs – or rather, three words more. If you are going to take my new patient under your protection, order for her a better bed, a nurse tomorrow – the gossips will do well enough for today – broths, cough mixtures, etc. And it would not be a bad idea to send to her some kind-hearted priest, who will comfort her and mend her morals, as I have mended her leg. That young woman is nervous; we may have to meet sudden complications. You would be – yes, now that I think of it, you would be the very best comforter; but you have to adapt your sermons better. I am done. It is half after eight; for the love of God, go and get ready for the opera. Baptiste will bring me some coffee and the daily paper. I have been too busy today to learn what is going on in the world.”
Several days passed, and the invalid was a little better. The doctor only complained that the moral excitement did not diminish.
“I have no great faith in any of your abbés,” he said to Madame de Piennes. “If the sight of human suffering were not too repulsive to you, and I know that you have the courage, you could soothe the mind of that poor child better than any preacher of Saint Roch.”
Madame de Piennes asked nothing better, and proposed to go with him at once. They climbed the stairs to the chamber of the sick girl.
In a chamber furnished with three rush-bottomed chairs and a small table she was stretched upon a comfortable bed, the gift of Madame de Piennes. The fine linen sheets, thick mattress, and a pile of large pillows indicated a thoughtful attention, the author of which you will readily guess. The young girl, horribly pale, with burning eyes, had one arm outside of the coverlet, and that portion of the arm below the sleeve was livid and bruised, indicating the condition of the rest of her body. When she saw Madame de Piennes she raised her head, and with a smile, sweet and sad:
“I knew very well that it was you who have had pity upon me, madam,” she said. “They told me your name, and I was sure that it was the lady whom I had seen at Saint Roch.”
It seems to me that I have already said to you that Madame de Piennes made some pretensions of divining people by their appearance. She was delighted to discover a similar talent in her protégée, and that discovery interested her still further in her favour.
“This room is not very cheerful, my poor child!” she said, casting a glance over the sombre furnishings of the chamber. “Why have they not sent you some curtains? You must ask Baptiste for any little articles which you need.”
“You are very kind, madam. But what more do I need? Nothing. This is the end. A little better or a little worse, what does it matter?”
And, turning her head, she began to weep.
“Do you suffer much, my poor child?” inquired Madame de Piennes, seating herself beside the bed.
“No, not much, only I have always in my ears the rushing sound as of wind when I fell, and then the noise – crack! when I struck the pavement.”
“You were mad then, my dear; you are sorry for it now, are you not?”
“Yes; but when people are unhappy, they are no longer in their right mind.”
“I deeply regret that I did not know your position sooner. But, my child, under no circumstances ought we to abandon ourselves to despair.”
“That is easy enough for you to say,” said the doctor, who was writing a prescription at the little table. “You do not know what it means to lose a fine, mustachioed young man. But, zounds! it is not necessary to jump out of the window in order to run after him.”
“For shame, doctor!” said Madame de Piennes; “the poor girl doubtless had other motives for – ”
“Ah! I don’t know what I had,” cried the sick girl; “a hundred reasons in one. In the first place, when mamma died it was a terrible blow. Then I felt myself abandoned – nobody left to care for me! Finally, somebody who was more to me than all the world – Madam, to forget even my name! yes, my name is Arsène Guillot – G, U, I, two L’s; he spelled it with a Y.”
“Just as I said, a faithless lover!” cried the doctor. “That is always the case. Tut, tut, my beauty, forget him. A man without a memory is unworthy of a thought.” He looked at his watch. “Four o’clock?” he said, arising; “I am late for my consultation. Madam, I beg ten thousand pardons, but I must leave you; I haven’t even the time to escort you home. Goodbye, my child. Calm yourself, that will amount to nothing. You will be able to dance just as well on that foot as the other. And you, nurse, have this prescription filled, and continue the same treatment as yesterday.”
The doctor and the nurse had gone out. Madame de Piennes remained alone with the sick girl, a little alarmed at finding a love affair in a history which she had arranged quite otherwise in her imagination.
“So somebody deceived you, unhappy child!” she resumed after a brief silence.
“Me! no. How deceive a miserable girl like me? Simply he no longer cared for me. He was right; I am not what he needs. He has always been good and generous. I had written to him to tell him where I was, and if he wished me to come to him. Then he wrote me – things which gave me much pain. The other day, when I returned home, I let fall a mirror which he had given me, a Venetian mirror he said. The mirror was broken. I said to myself: ‘This is the last stroke!’ It is a sign that all is at an end between us – I had nothing left of his. I had placed all the jewels in pawn – and then I said to myself, that if I were to take my life, that would be a grief to him, and I should be revenged. The window was open, and I threw myself out.”
“But, miserable girl, the motive was as frivolous as the act was criminal.”
“Well and good! But how can it be helped? When one is sorrowful, one does not reflect. It is very easy for happy people to say: ‘Be reasonable.'”
“Yes, I know. Misfortune is a bad counsellor. But even in the midst of the greatest trials there are things that one should not forget. I saw you perform an act of piety at Saint Roch but recently. You have the support which comes from Christian faith. Religion, my dear, should prevent you from abandoning yourself to despair. The good God has given you your life; it does not belong to you. But I am doing wrong to scold you now, my dear. You repent, you suffer, God will have mercy upon you.”
Arsène bowed her head and her eyes were bathed in tears.
“Alas! madam,” she said, sighing deeply, “you believe me to be better than I am. You believe me to be pious, but I am not very. I have never been taught and if you saw me at the church, offering a wax-taper, it was because I didn’t know which way to turn.”
“Well, my dear, it was a happy thought. When trouble comes, always go to God for comfort.”
“Somebody told me – that if I were to offer a wax-taper at Saint Roch – but no, madam, I ought not to tell you that. A lady like you does not know what people do when they have spent their last penny.”
“It is courage above all things that one should ask of God.”
“After all, madam, I do not wish you to think me better than I am, and it is robbing you to profit by the charities which you do without knowing me. I am an unfortunate girl – but in this world one lives as he can. To have done, madam, I offered the taper because my mother said that when one offers a taper to Saint Roch one never fails to find a lover within the week. But I have lost my good looks, I look like a mummy. Nobody cares for me any more. Ah, well, there is nothing left but to die. Already it is half accomplished.”
All that was said very rapidly, in a voice broken by sobs, and with an accent so frenzied that Madame de Piennes was more inspired with fright than with horror. Involuntarily she drew away from the bedside of the invalid. Perhaps she would have left the chamber if her humanity had not been stronger than her disgust for that lost creature, and prevented her from leaving her alone at a moment when she was a prey to the most violent despair. There was a moment of silence; then Madame de Piennes, with drooping eyelids, murmured faintly:
“Your mother! Unhappy girl! What dare you to say?”
“Oh, my mother was like all mothers, all mothers of our class. She provided for her mother, I supported her in turn. Fortunately, I have no child. I see, madam, that I frighten you, but how could it be helped? You have been delicately reared. You have never endured suffering. When one is rich it is easy to be virtuous. I, too, would have been virtuous if I had had the means. I have had many lovers. I never loved but one man. He has brought me to this. If I had been rich we would have married. We would have reared a virtuous family. Think of it, madam. I talk to you like that, so frankly, although I can see what you think of me, and you are right. But you are the only virtuous woman to whom I have ever spoken in my life, and you appear to be so kind, so good! – that I said to myself: ‘Even when she knows me she will pity me.’ I am going to die. I request but one thing of you. That is, when I am dead, to have one mass said for me, in the church where I saw you for the first time. Only one prayer, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart – ”
“No, you will not die!” cried Madame de Piennes, greatly moved. “God will have mercy upon you, poor sinner. You will repent of your misdemeanours, and He will pardon you. If my prayers can do anything for your salvation they will not be wanting. They who have reared you are more guilty than you. Only have courage and hope. Try to be more calm, my poor child. It is necessary to heal the body; the soul is sick also, but I charge myself with its healing.”
She arose as she said that, and folding a little roll of gold pieces:
“Take this,” she said; “if you have a wish for anything – ”
And she slipped her little present under the pillow.
“No, madam,” cried Arsène, impetuously thrusting the paper aside, “I wish nothing of you but what you have promised. Farewell, we shall never meet again. Have me taken to a hospital, that I may die without troubling anyone. You would never be able to make anything of me. A great lady like you will have prayed for me; I am content. Farewell.”
And turning herself as well as she was able, she hid her head in the pillow in order to see nothing more.
“Listen, Arsène,” said Madame de Piennes in a serious tone. “I have plans concerning you. I wish to make of you a good woman. I am sure that you are repentant. I am coming to see you often. I am going to take care of you. Some day you will owe to me your proper self-respect.”
And she took her hand and pressed it gently.
“You have touched me!” cried the poor girl, “you have pressed my hand.”
And before Madame de Piennes could draw her hand away she had seized it, and had covered it with her kisses and her tears.
“Calm yourself, calm yourself, my dear,” said Madame de Piennes, “tell me nothing more. Now I know all about it and I know you better than you know yourself. It is I who am the doctor for your head – your poor, disordered head. I shall require you to obey me, just as you do your other doctor. I will send you one of my friends who is a preacher, you will listen to him. I will select some good books for you to read. We will have some little talks, you and I, and then, when you are better, we will make plans for your future.”
The nurse came back from the drug store with the bottle of medicine. Arsène continued to weep. Madame de Piennes pressed her hand once more, placed the roll of gold pieces upon the little table and departed, more kindly disposed toward her penitent, perhaps, than before she had heard her strange confession.
Why is it, madam, that one always loves the erring ones? From the prodigal son to your dog Diamond, who snaps at everybody, and is the very worst little beast that I know. One is the most interested in those who deserve it the least. Vanity! pure vanity, madam, that sentiment there! pride over a difficulty conquered! The father of the prodigal son conquered the devil and robbed him of his prey; you subdued the viciousness of Diamond by coaxing him with tid-bits. Madame de Piennes was proud to have conquered the perversity of a courtesan, to have destroyed by her eloquence, barriers which twenty years of vice had built around a poor abandoned soul. And then, perhaps, shall I say it? to the pride of that victory, to the pleasure of having done a good deed, there was added the sentiment of curiosity which many virtuous women have to know a woman of the other sort. When a public singer enters a drawing-room I have remarked the looks of curiosity turned toward her. It is not the men who observe her the most closely. You, yourself, madam, the other evening at the theatre, did you not look with all your eyes at that variety actress who was pointed out to you in the dressing-room?How can one be like that? How often one asks himself that question?
Thus, madam, Madame de Piennes thought much about Mademoiselle Arsène Guillot, and said to herself: “I will rescue her.”
She sent her a priest, who exhorted her to repentance. Repentance was not difficult for poor Arsène, who, with the exception of a few brief hours of pleasure, had known only the miseries of life.
Say to one who is unhappy: “It is your fault,” and he is only half convinced, but if at the same time you soften your reproach with a little consolation, he will bless you, and promise everything for the future. A Greek has said somewhere, or rather Amyot puts it into his mouth:
The day that sets a man free of his chains,
Strips him of half of his virtue and pains.
Which returns in simple prose to this aphorism: Misfortune makes us as gentle as lambs. The priest said to Madame de Piennes that while Mademoiselle Guillot was very ignorant, she was not bad at heart, and that he had great hopes of her salvation.
In truth, Arsène listened to him with respectful attention. She read the passages marked for her perusal in the books chosen for her, as scrupulous to obey Madame de Piennes, as to follow the prescriptions of the doctor. But that which most won the heart of the good preacher, and appeared to her protectress the strongest evidence of moral healing, was the use made by Arsène Guillot of a portion of the little sum which had been placed in her hands. She had requested that a solemn mass be said at Saint Roch, for the soul of Pamèla Guillot, her dead mother. Assuredly, never had a soul greater need of the prayers of the Church.
One morning, as Madame de Piennes was dressing, a servant tapped lightly at the door of the dressing-room, and handed to Mademoiselle Josephine a visiting card which a young man had sent up.
“Max in Paris!” cried Madame de Piennes, glancing at the card; “hurry, mademoiselle, tell M. de Salligny to wait for me in the drawing-room.”
A moment later laughter and suppressed cries were heard in the drawing-room, and Mademoiselle Josephine returned with a heightened colour, and her cap very much awry.
“What is the matter, mademoiselle?” demanded Madame de Piennes.
“Nothing, madam, only M. de Salligny says that I have grown fat.”
In reality the plumpness of Mademoiselle Josephine might have surprised M. de Salligny who had been travelling for more than two years. In days of old he had been a favourite of Mademoiselle Josephine, and very attentive to her mistress. Nephew of an intimate friend of Madame de Piennes, he had been seen constantly at her house in the train of his aunt. Moreover, it was almost the only respectable house where he was seen. Max de Salligny had the reputation of a worthless fellow, a gambler, quarreller, wine-bibber, but the best fellow in the world withal. He was the despair of his aunt, Madame Aubrée, who adored him nevertheless. Many times had she tried to draw him from the life which he led, but always had his evil habits triumphed over her wise counsels. Max was two years older than Madame de Piennes. They had known each other from childhood, and before her marriage he appeared to regard her with more than a common interest. Madame Aubrée often said to her: “My dear, if you chose, I am sure that you could manage him with your little finger.” Madame de Piennes – she was then Élise de Guicard – would perhaps have had courage to attempt the enterprise, for Max was so animated, so witty, so amusing at a house party, so untiring at a ball, that surely he ought to make a good husband; but the parents of Élise were more farseeing. Madame Aubrée herself would not altogether vouch for her nephew; it was ascertained that he had debts and a mistress; suddenly a duel took place over a performer at the Gymnasium. The marriage, which Madame de Piennes had never had very seriously in view, was declared to be impossible. Then M. de Piennes presented himself, a grave and moral man, rich moreover, and of good family. There is little to be said of him, excepting that he had the reputation of a gentleman which he merited. He talked little but when he did open his mouth, it was to say something of importance. Upon doubtful subjects he maintained a discreet silence. If he did not add great charm to assemblies which he frequented, he was nowhere out of place. He was everywhere well enough liked because of his wife, but when he was absent, – upon his estates, as was the case nine months of the year, and notably at the moment when my story begins, – nobody noticed it, his wife scarcely more than the rest.
Madame de Piennes, having finished her toilet in five minutes, left her chamber in some agitation, for the arrival of Max de Salligny recalled to her the recent death of the friend whom she had loved the best in the world; it was, I believe, the sole recollection which presented itself to her memory, and vivid enough to arrest any embarrassing conjectures that a person in a less serious frame of mind would have formed over the crumpled cap of Mademoiselle Josephine. Upon nearing the drawing-room she was a little shocked to hear a fine bass voice, jovially singing to its own accompaniment upon the piano the Neapolitan barcarolle:
Al mio ritorno,
She opened the door and interrupted the singer by extending to him her hand:
“My poor Max, how glad I am to see you again!”
Max hurriedly arose and shook her hand, regarding her wildly, without finding a single word to say.
“I was so sorry,” continued Madame de Piennes, “that I was unable to go to Rome when your good aunt was taken ill. I know the tender care with which you surrounded her, and I thank you very much for the last souvenir of her which you were kind enough to send me.”
The face of Max, naturally bright, not to say merry, suddenly became grave.
“She talked so much of you,” he said, “even to the last moment. You received her ring I see, and the book she was reading the morning – ”
“Yes, Max, I thank you. You announced, in sending that sad present, that you were leaving Rome, but you did not give me your address; I did not know where to write you. My poor friend! to die so far from home! Happily, you hastened to her immediately. You are better than you wish to appear, Max – I know you well.”
“My aunt said to me during her illness: ‘When I am gone, there will be no one left to scold you but Madame de Piennes.'” (And he could not refrain from smiling.) “‘Try to avoid her scolding you too often.’ You see, madam, that you acquit yourself badly of your prerogative.”
“I hope that I shall have a sinecure now. They tell me that you have reformed, settled down and become altogether reasonable?”
“And you are not deceived, madam; I promised my poor aunt to become a good citizen, and – ”
“You will keep your promise, I am sure!”
“I shall try. While travelling it is easier than in Paris; however – think of it, madam, I am only here a few hours, and already I have had to resist temptation. As I was on my way here I met an old friend who invited me to dine with a crowd of worthless fellows, – and I refused.”
“You did quite right.”
“Yes, but need I say to you that I hoped that you would invite me?”
“How unfortunate! I am dining out. But tomorrow – ”
“In that case, I no longer answer for myself. Yours is the responsibility for the dinner-party which I make.”
“Listen, Max: The important point is to begin well. Do not go to that bachelor dinner. I am to dine with Madame Darsenay; come there this evening and we will talk.”
“Yes, but Madame Darsenay is a little tiresome; she will ask me a hundred questions. I shall not be able to say one word to you: I shall say the improprieties; and besides she has a tall, raw-boned daughter who is perhaps unmarried still – ”
“She is a charming girl – and in regard to improprieties, it is one to speak of her as you are doing.”
“I am wrong, it is true; but – as I have but just arrived, would I not appear to be a little too attentive?”
“Very well, do as you please; but see here, Max, – as the friend of your aunt, I have the right to speak frankly to you – avoid your old associates. Time has naturally broken off the friendships which were worthless to you; do not renew them. I am sure of you so long as you are not under bad influences. At your age – at our age, one should be rational. But enough of good advice and sermonising! What have you been doing since we last met? I know that you travelled through Germany, then Italy; no more. You have written me twice only, if you will remember. Two letters in two years, you must know that that has scarcely kept me informed concerning you.”
“Is it possible, madam? I am indeed culpable – but I am so – it must be confessed I suppose – so lazy! – I commenced writing you scores of times, but what could I say to you that would interest you? I do not know how to write letters, I – if I had written to you as often as I thought of you, all the paper in Italy would not have sufficed for it.”
“Very well; what have you been doing? How have you occupied yourself? I know already that it is not with letter-writing.”
“Occupied! You know very well that I do not occupy myself, unfortunately. I have seen, I have strolled about. I had plans of paintings, but the sight of so many beautiful pictures has effectually cured me of that useless passion. Ah! – and then old Nibby almost made an antiquarian of me. Yes, he persuaded me to order an excavation made. They found an old pipe, and I don’t know how many bits of broken pottery. And then at Naples I took lessons in singing, but I am no more clever for it. I have – ”
“I do not much approve of your music, although you have a fine voice and you sing well. That puts you in touch with people whose society you are altogether too fond of.”
“I understand you; but at Naples, when I was there at least, there was scarcely any danger. The prima donna weighed three hundred pounds and the second singer had a mouth like an oven, and a nose like the tower of Lebanon. In short, two years have passed without me knowing how. I have done nothing, learned nothing, but I have lived two years almost unperceived.”
“I would like to know that you were occupied. I would like to see you have a lively interest in something useful. I fear idleness for you.”
“Frankly speaking, madam, my travels did this for me. While I accomplished nothing, I was not absolutely idle. When one sees things of interest, one is not bored; and I when I am bored, am very apt to do foolish things. True, I have sown my wild oats, and I have likewise forgotten a certain number of expeditious ways which I had of spending my money. My poor aunt paid my debts, and I have made no others, I wish to make no others. I have enough to live as a bachelor; and as I make no pretensions of being richer than I am I shall not be extravagant. You smile; you do not believe in my reformation? You need the proof? Listen then to a fact. Today, Famin, the friend who invited me to dinner, wished to sell me his horse. A thousand dollars! He is a superb animal! My first impulse was to buy him. Then I said to myself that I was not rich enough to put a thousand dollars into a fancy, and I continued to walk.”
“It is marvellous, Max. But do you know what it is necessary to do in order to continue undisturbed in that good resolution? It is necessary for you to marry.”
“Ah! for me to marry? Why not? But who would have me? I, who have no right to be particular, I should wish for a wife – Oh! no, there is no one left who pleases me.”
Madame de Piennes coloured slightly, and he continued without noticing it:
“A woman who would care for me – but don’t you know, madam, that that would be almost a reason why I should not care for her?”
“Why so? How foolish!”
” Does not Othello say somewhere, – it is, I believe, to justify himself for the suspicions which he has against Desdemona: ‘That woman must have a silly head and depraved tastes to have chosen me, me who am black!’ Should I not say in turn: The woman who would care for me must have a strange head?”
“You have been bad enough, Max, to make it needless to picture yourself to be worse than you are. Do not speak so slightingly of yourself, for there are people who might take you at your word. For myself, I am sure, if some day – yes, if you were to truly love a woman who would have all of your esteem – then you would appear to her worthy.”
Madame de Piennes experienced some difficulty in finishing her badly turned sentence, and Max, who regarded her attentively and with extreme curiosity, did not aid her in the least.
“You mean to say,” he finally continued, “that if I were really in love, one would love me in return, because then I should be worth the pains?”
“Yes, then you would be worthy to be loved.”
“If it were only necessary to love in order to be loved. That is not altogether true what you say, madam – Pshaw! find me a woman brave enough, and I will marry. If she is not too homely, I am not too old to be inflamed still. – You can answer for me for the rest.”
“Where do you come from now?” interrupted Madame de Piennes in a serious tone.
Max talked very laconically of his travels, but nevertheless in a way to indicate that he had not done as certain tourists, of whom the Greeks say, “Empty he went away, empty he has returned.” His short observations denoted a sound mind, and one which did not form its opinions at second hand, although he was in reality more cultured than he cared to appear. He withdrew presently, noticing that Madame de Piennes glanced at the clock, and promised, not without some embarrassment, that he would go to Madame Darsenay’s in the evening.
He did not come, however, and Madame de Piennes was a little vexed about it. In return, he was at her house the following morning to apologise, excusing himself upon the plea of fatigue from his journey, which obliged him to remain at home; but he lowered his eyes and talked with such a hesitating tone that it was not necessary to have the cleverness of Madame de Piennes in reading physiognomies to perceive that he was not telling the truth. When he had concluded she menaced him with her finger, without replying.
“Do you not believe me?” he said.
“No! Fortunately, you do not yet know how to lie. It was not to rest yourself from your fatigue that you did not go to Madame Darsenay’s yesterday. You did not stay at home.”
“Very well,” replied Max with a forced smile, “you are right. I dined at the Rocher-de-Cancale with its rogues, and then went to Famin’s for tea; they would not let me go, and then I gambled.”
“And you lost, that goes without saying.”
“No, I won.”
“So much the worse. I would like better if you had lost, especially if that could have disgusted you forever with a habit as foolish as it is detestable.”
She bent over her work, and pursued her task with a somewhat affected industry.
“Were there many people at Madame Darsenay’s?” demanded Max timidly.
“No, very few.”
“No marriageable young ladies?”
“I am depending upon you, however, madam. You know what you promised me?”
“We have time enough to think of that.”
There was an accent of coldness and constraint in the voice of Madame de Piennes which was not usual with her.
After a silence, Max continued with an air of humility:
“You are displeased with me, madam? Why don’t you give me a good scolding as my aunt used to do, only to forgive me afterward? Come, do you wish me to give you my word never to gamble again?”
“When one makes a promise it is necessary to feel that he has the strength to keep it.”
“A promise made to you, madam, I should keep; I believe that I have the strength and the courage.”
“Well, then, Max, I accept it,” she said, extending her hand to him.
“I won two hundred dollars,” he continued; “do you wish it for your poor? Never would ill-gotten gains have been put to better use.”
She hesitated a moment.
“Why not: She said to herself; aloud: “Well, Max, you will remember the lesson. I enter you my debtor for two hundred dollars.”
“My aunt used to say that the best way to keep out of debt is always to pay cash.”
As he spoke he drew out his purse to get the bills. In its half-open folds Madame de Piennes thought that she saw a picture of a woman. Max noticed that she was looking at it, coloured, and hastened to close the purse and present her the money.
“I would like very much to see that purse – if that were possible,” she added with an arch smile.
Max was completely disconcerted: he stammered a few unintelligible words, and endeavoured to turn the attention of Madame de Piennes.
Her first thought had been that the purse contained the portrait of some Italian beauty; but the evident trouble of Max and the general colour of the miniature – that was all that she had been able to see of it – had presently aroused in her breast another suspicion. She had once given her portrait to Madame Aubrée; and she imagined that Max, in his quality of direct heir, had believed that he had the right to appropriate it. That appeared to her an enormous impropriety. However, she said nothing about it immediately; but when M. de Salligny was about to leave:
“By the way,” she said to him, “your aunt had a portrait of me which I would like very much to see.”
“I don’t know – what portrait? What was it like?” demanded Max in an irresolute voice.
This time Madame de Piennes was determined not to notice that he was trying to deceive her.
“Look for it,” she said in the most natural tone possible. “You will give me great pleasure.”
Aside from the incident of the portrait she was well enough pleased with the docility of Max, and promised herself again to save a lost sheep.
The next day, Max had recovered the portrait and brought it to her with an air of indifference. He remarked that the resemblance had never been great, and that the painter had given her a stiffness of pose, and a severity of expression which were not at all natural. From that time his visits to Madame de Piennes were shorter, and he had with her an air of coolness that she had never seen before. She attributed that mood to the first efforts which he was making to keep his promise to her, and to resist his evil inclinations.
A fortnight after the arrival of M. de Salligny, Madame de Piennes went as usual to see her protégée, Arsène Guillot, whom she had not forgotten in the meantime, nor you either, madam, as I hope. After asking her several questions concerning her health and the instructions she was receiving, she observed that the sick girl was more prostrated than she had been for several days, and offered to read to her, to avoid tiring her with the effort of talking. The poor girl would doubtless have preferred to talk, rather than listen to the sort of reading proposed to her, for you may well believe that it was from a very serious book, and Arsène had never read anything but the lightest novels. It was a religious book that Madame de Piennes selected; but I shall not name it, in the first place to avoid wronging its author, and in the second place because you might accuse me of wishing to draw some bad inference against such works in general. It suffices to say that the book in question was written by a young man of nineteen, and especially dedicated to the reconciliation of hardened sinners; that Arsène was extremely depressed, and that she had not been able to close her eyes the night before. At the third page, there happened what would inevitably have happened with any other book, serious or not: I mean to say that Mademoiselle Guillot closed her eyes and fell fast asleep. Madame de Piennes noticed it, and congratulated herself upon the calming effect which she had produced. At first she lowered her voice to avoid awakening the patient by stopping too suddenly, then she laid down the book and arose quietly to withdraw upon tiptoe; but the nurse usually spent her time with the janitress when Madame de Piennes was present, for her visits somewhat resembled those of a confessor. Madame de Piennes wished to await the return of the nurse; and as she was of all people the worse enemy of idleness, she looked about for something to employ her time while she remained with the sleeper. In an alcove of the chamber there was a table supplied with writing materials; she seated herself at it and began to write a note. As she was searching for a bit of sealing wax in the table drawer, someone entered the chamber precipitately, which awakened the sick girl.
“My God! What do I see?” cried Arsène in a voice so altered that Madame de Piennes trembled.
“Well this is a pretty thing that I hear! What does it all mean? To throw herself out of the window like an imbecile! Did anybody ever see anyone so foolish as this girl!”
I know not if I use the exact terms; it is at least the sense of the language used by the person who had come into the room, and who by the voice, Madame de Piennes recognised at once to be Max de Salligny. Several exclamations followed, a few suppressed cries from Arsène, and then a loud kiss. Presently Max resumed:
“Poor Arsène, in what condition do I find you? Do you know that I would never have deserted you, if Julie had told me your last address? But did anyone ever see such folly!”
“Oh! Salligny! Salligny! how happy I am! How sorry I am for what I have done! You will no longer find me pretty. You will not care for me anymore?”
“How silly you are,” said Max. “Why did you not write me that you were in need of money? What has become of your Russian? Has he left you, your Cossack?”
When she recognised the voice of Max, Madame de Piennes had at first been almost as much astonished as Arsène. Her surprise had prevented her from showing herself immediately; then she had begun to reflect whether to show herself or not, and when one reflects and listens at the same time, one does not decide quickly. The consequence was that she heard the edifying dialogue which I have just reported; but then she recognised that if she were to remain in the alcove she was exposed to the necessity of hearing more. She decided upon her course, and stepped into the chamber with the calm and dignified bearing which a self-possessed woman rarely loses, and which she commands at need.
“Max,” she said ” you are injuring that poor girl; leave the room. Come and talk with me in an hour.”
Max had turned as pale as death when Madame de Piennes appeared in the last place in the world where he would have expected to meet her; his first impulse was to obey, and he took a step toward the door.
“You are going! – don’t go!” cried Arsène, raising herself in her bed with an effort of despair.
“My child,” said Madame de Piennes, taking her hand, “be reasonable; listen to me. Remember what you have promised me!”
Then she cast a calm but imperious look toward Max, who went out immediately. Arsène fell back upon the bed; upon seeing him depart she had fainted.
Madame de Piennes and the nurse, who came in just after, revived her with the skill which women possess in such emergencies. By degrees Arsène regained consciousness. At first she cast a glance around the room, as though searching for him whom she remembered to have seen there but a few moments before; then she turned her great black eyes toward Madame de Piennes, and regarding her fixedly:
“Is he your husband?” she said.
“No,” replied Madame de Piennes, colouring slightly, but without the sweetness of her voice being altered; “M. de Salligny is a relative of mine.”
She thought that she might allow herself that little untruth, to explain the influence which she had over him.
“Then,” said Arsène, “it is you that he loves!”
And she fixed her eyes steadily upon her, burning like two flames of fire.
“He!” A light flashed upon the brow of Madame de Piennes. For a moment her cheeks were the colour of scarlet, and her voice died upon her lips; but she quickly regained her serenity.
“You are mistaken, my dear child,” she said in a grave tone. “M. de Salligny understands that he did wrong to awaken memories which are happily far from your recollection. You have forgotten – ”
“Forgotten,” cried Arsène, with a smile of the damned, which was pitiful to see.
“Yes, Arsène, you have renounced all of those foolish ideas of a time which will never return. Think, my poor child, it is to that sinful intimacy that you owe all of your misfortunes. Think – ”
“He does not love you!” interrupted Arsène without listening to her, “he does not love you, and he understands a mere look! I saw your eyes and his, I am not deceived. In fact – it is just! You are beautiful, young, brilliant. I maimed, disfigured – nigh unto death – ”
She could not finish. Sobs choked her voice, so strong, so painful, that the nurse cried that she would go for the doctor; for, she said, the doctor feared nothing so much as these convulsions, and if that were to continue the poor dear would die.
Little by little, the species of energy that Arsène had found in the keenness of her sorrow gave place to a stuporous collapse, which Madame de Piennes mistook for calmness. She continued her exhortations; but Arsène, immovable, did not listen to all of the good and beautiful reasons which were given her for preferring divine love rather than worldly; her eyes were dry, her teeth pressed convulsively together. While her protectress talked to her of heaven and the hereafter, she dreamed of the present. The sudden arrival of Max had instantly awakened in her breast foolish illusions, but the look of Madame de Piennes had dissipated them still more quickly. After the happy dream of a moment, Arsène awakened to the sad reality, grown a hundredfold more horrible for having been momentarily forgotten.
Your physician will tell you, madam, that shipwrecked sailors, overcome by sleep in the midst of their pangs of hunger, dream that they are feasting at a bountiful table. They awaken still more famished, and wish that they had not slept. Arsène suffered a torture comparable to these shipwrecked mariners. In days of old she had loved Max in such a manner as she was capable of loving. It was with him that she would always have preferred going to the theatre, or amusing herself at a picnic, it was of him that she talked incessantly to her friends. When Max left she had cried bitterly; but, nevertheless, she received the attentions of a Russian whom Max was delighted to have for a successor, because he took him for a gallant man, that is to say, for a generous one. So long as she was able to lead the mad life of women of her class, her love for Max was but an agreeable memory which sometimes made her sigh. She thought of him as one thinks of the amusements of his childhood, without however wishing to return to them; but when Arsène no longer had lovers, when she found herself abandoned, when she felt the full weight of her misery and shame, then her love for Max was purified in a measure, because it was the sole memory which awakened in her breast neither regrets nor remorse. It even raised her in her own eyes, and the more she felt herself degraded, the more she exalted Max in her imagination. ” He was my friend, he loved me,” she would say to herself with a sort of pride when she was seized with disgust in reflecting upon her depraved life. In prison at Minturnæ, Marius fortified his courage by saying to himself: “I overcame the Cimbri!” This pampered mistress – alas! she was that no longer – had nothing to oppose to her shame and despair but this thought: “Max has loved me – he loves me still!” A moment she had been able to believe it; but now she was stripped even of her memories, the sole possession which remained to her in the world.
While Arsène abandoned herself to her bitter reflections, Madame de Piennes demonstrated to her with animation the necessity of renouncing forever what she called her criminal errors. A strong conviction blunts the sensibilities; and as a surgeon applies steel and cautery to a wound, without heeding the cries of the patient, so Madame de Piennes pursued her task with pitiless firmness. She told her that that period of happiness in which poor Arsène took refuge in order to escape from herself, was a period of crime and shame for which she was paying the just penalty. These illusions, it was necessary to detest, and to banish them from her heart; the man whom she looked upon as her protector, and almost a tutelary genius, should no longer be to her eyes but a pernicious accomplice, a seducer from whom she should flee forever.
That word “seducer,” of which Madame de Piennes was not able to feel the ridiculousness, almost caused Arsène to smile in the midst of her tears; but her worthy protectress failed to observe it. She continued imperturbably her exhortation, and ended with a peroration which redoubled the sobs of the poor girl: “You will never see him more.”
The arrival of the doctor and the complete prostration of the patient reminded Madame de Piennes that she had already said enough. She pressed the hand of Arsène, and said to her in leaving:
“Be brave, my child, and God will not forsake you.”
She had accomplished a duty; there remained another still more difficult. Another culprit awaited her, whose mind she must open to repentance; and in spite of the confidence which she derived from her religious zeal, in spite of the influence which she exercised over Max, and of which she already had the proof, finally, in spite of the good opinion which she conserved at the bottom of her heart for that libertine, she experienced a strange anxiety in thinking of the combat in which she was about to engage.
Before entering upon that terrible struggle, she wished to renew her strength, and entering the church, she demanded of God renewed inspiration for defending her cause.
When she reached home she was told that M. de Salligny was in the drawing-room, where he had been waiting for her for a long time. She found him pale, agitated, full of uneasiness. They seated themselves. Max dared not to open his mouth; and Madame de Piennes, agitated herself, without knowing positively why, remained silent for some time, and only furtively regarding her companion. At last she began:
“Max,” she said, “I am not going to reproach you – ”
He raised his head proudly enough. Their glances met, and he lowered his eyes immediately.
“Your good heart,” she continued, “tells you more at this moment than I should be able to do. It is a lesson which Providence has wished to give you; I hope, I am convinced – it will not be lost.”
“Madam,” interrupted Max, “I scarcely know what has happened. That unfortunate girl threw herself out of the window, as I was told; but I have not the vanity, I should say the sorrow – to believe that the former relations between us have been the means of determining that act of madness.”
“Say rather, Max, that when you were doing evil, you did not forsee the consequences. When you led that young girl astray, you did not think that one day she would attempt her life.”
“Madam,” cried Max with some vehemence, “permit me to say to you that it was not I who first led Arsène Guillot astray. When I met her she was already started upon her career. She was my mistress, I do not deny it. I will even acknowledge that I loved her – as one can love a person of that class. I believe that she had for me a little stronger attachment than for another. But all relations between us came to an end long ago, and without her expressing any great regret. The last time that I had any news of her I wished to give her some money; but she refused it. She was ashamed to demand more of me, for she had a certain amount of pride. Misery forced her to that terrible resolution. I am very sorry for it. But I repeat to you, madam, that in all that, I have nothing with which to reproach myself.”
Madame de Piennes crumpled some work upon the table, then she resumed:
“Doubtless, from a worldly point of view you are guiltless, you have incurred no responsibility, but there is a morality other than that of the world, and it is by its rules that I would like to see you guided. At this time you are not in a condition to listen to me, perhaps. Let us leave that. Today, that which I have to ask of you is a promise which you will not refuse, I am sure. That unhappy girl is moved to repentance. She has listened with attention to the counsels of a venerable priest who wished to see her. We have every reason to hope for her. You must not see her again, for her heart is still hesitating between good and evil, and unfortunately, you have neither the will, nor perhaps the power to be of use to her. By seeing her you would do her much harm. That is why I ask you to promise that you will not go to see her again.”
Max made a movement of surprise.
“You will not refuse me, Max; if your aunt were living she would make you the same plea. Imagine that it is she who speaks to you.”
“For the love of God, madam, what is this you demand of me? What wrong do you wish me to do to that poor girl? Is it not, on the other hand, an obligation for me, who have known her in the time of her follies, not to abandon her now that she is ill, and very dangerously ill, if what I am told is true?”
“That is doubtless the moral of the world, but it is not my own. The more dangerous her malady the more important it is that you should not see her again.”
“But, madam, consider that in her condition it would be impossible, even to a prudery the most easily alarmed. Why, madam, if I had a dog that was ill, and I knew that it would give him a certain pleasure to see me, I should deem myself guilty of an unkindness if I were to allow him to die alone. It is not possible that you think otherwise, you who are so kind and so good. Think of it, madam; for my part, I should consider it downright cruelty.”
“Just now I asked you to make me that promise in the name of your good aunt – in behalf of the friendship which you have for me. Now, it is on account of that unhappy girl herself that I ask it. If you really love her – ”
“Ah! madam, I beg of you do not compare thus, things incapable of comparison. Believe me, madam, it pains me exceedingly to refuse any request of yours whatsoever, but in this case, I believe that honour compels me. That word displeases you? Forget it. Only, madam, in my turn, let me implore you for pity of that unfortunate girl – and also a little for pity of me. If I have done wrong – if I have been the means of contributing to her ruin – I should now take care of her. It would be terrible to abandon her. I should never forgive myself. No, I cannot abandon her. You will not exact that of me, madam.”
“She would not lack for care from others. But, answer me, Max: do you love her?”
“Do I love her! Do I love her! No, I do not love her. That is a word which is out of place here. Love her! Alas! no. I only sought in her society distraction from a more serious sentiment which it was necessary to combat. That appears to you ridiculous, incomprehensible? The purity of your mind would not admit that one could seek a remedy like that. Well, that is not the worst deed of my life. If the rest of us had not sometimes the means of diverting our passions – perhaps now – perhaps it would be I who had thrown myself out of the window. But I do not know what I am saying, and you must not listen to me. I scarcely comprehend myself.”
“I asked you if you loved her,” resumed Madame de Piennes with lowered eyes and some hesitation, “because if you had a – a friendship for her, you would doubtless have courage to do her a little evil in order to do her a great good afterward. To be sure, the sorrow of not seeing you would be hard for her to bear; but it would be much more serious now to turn her from the path into which she has been almost miraculously led. It is important for her salvation, Max, that she should entirely forget a time which your presence would recall too vividly to her mind.”
Max shook his head without replying. He was not a believer, and the word “salvation,” which had so much weight with Madame de Piennes did not appeal so strongly to his mind. But upon that point it was not necessary to dispute with her. He always carefully avoided revealing to her his doubts, and this time, as usual, he kept silent; it was easy to see however that he was not convinced.
“I will talk to you in the language of the world,” pursued Madame de Piennes, “since unfortunately it is the only one which you can comprehend. We will argue, in fact, upon a mathematical calculation. She has nothing to gain by seeing you, but much to lose. Now, make your choice.”
“Madam,” said Max with a voice of emotion, “you no longer doubt, I hope that there can be any other sentiment on my part in regard to Arsène but an interest – quite natural. What danger would there be? None whatever. Do you distrust me? Do you think that I wish to injure the good counsels which you give her? No, indeed! I, who detest sad scenes, who avoid them with a sort of abhorrence, do you believe that I seek the sight of a dying girl with culpable intentions? I repeat it, madam, it is for me a sense of duty, an expiation, a punishment if you will, which I seek concerning her.”
At those words Madame de Piennes raised her head and regarded him fixedly with an air of exaltation which gave to her features an expression of sublimity.
“An expiation, you say, a punishment? – Very well, yes! Unknown to you, Max, you obey perhaps an admonition from on high, and you are right in resisting me. Yes, I consent to it. See that girl, and may she become the means of your salvation as you have nearly been that of her ruin.”
Probably Max did not comprehend as well as you, madam, the meaning of the term, admonition from on high. This sudden change of resolution astonished him; he knew not what to attribute it; he knew not if he ought to thank Madame de Piennes for having yielded in the end; but for the moment his great preoccupation was to divine if his obstinacy had wearied, or indeed convinced, the person whom he feared above all things to displease.
“Only, Max,” pursued Madame de Piennes, “I have to demand of you, or rather I exact of you – ”
She paused a moment, and Max nodded his head, indicating that he submitted to everything.
“I exact,” she resumed, ” that you only see her in my presence.”
He gave a start of surprise, but he hastened to add that he would obey.
“I do not trust you absolutely,” she continued, with a smile. “I still fear that you will spoil my work, and I wish so much to succeed. Under my supervision, on the other hand, you might become a valuable aid and then, as I hope, your obedience would be rewarded.”
As she said these words she extended her hand to him. It was agreed that Max should go the following day to see Arsène Guillot, and that Madame de Piennes should precede him to prepare her for the visit.
You understand her design. At first she had thought that she would find Max fully repentant, and that she could easily draw from the example of Arsène the text of an eloquent sermon against his evil passions; but, contrary to her expectations, he refused to accept any responsibility. It was necessary to change her exordium, and, at a decisive moment to change a studied address is an enterprise almost as perilous as to change the order of battle in the midst of an ambush. Madame de Piennes had not been able to improvise a manœuvre. Instead of preaching to Max she had discussed with him a question of expediency. Suddenly a new idea presented itself to her mind. The remorse for his complicity would touch him, she thought. The Christian death of a woman whom he had loved (and unfortunately she could not doubt but it was near) would doubtless carry a decisive blow. It was with such a hope that she suddenly determined to permit Max to see Arsène. She also gained an excuse for postponing the exhortation which she had planned; for I think that I have already said to you that in spite of her keen desire to save a man whose errors she deplored, she shrank involuntarily from the thought of engaging with him in so serious a discussion.
She had counted much upon the goodness of her cause; still she doubted of her success, and to fail was to despair of the salvation of Max, it was to condemn herself to a change of sentiment concerning him. The devil, perhaps, to prevent her from guarding herself against the warm affection which she bore for a friend of childhood, the devil had taken pains to justify that affection upon the strength of a Christian hope. All weapons are acceptable to the Tempter, and such practices are familiar to him; that is why the Portuguese say quite elegantly: “De boâs intençôes esta a inferno cheio”: “Hell is paved with good intentions.” You say in French that it is paved with women’s tongues, and that amounts to the same thing; for women, in my opinion, always mean well.
You recall me to my story. The following day, then, Madame de Piennes went to see her protégée whom she found very weak, very much depressed, but nevertheless more calm and resigned than she had expected. She talked of M. de Salligny, but with more consideration than the day before. Arsène, in truth, ought absolutely to give him up and no longer to think of him but to deplore their mutual blindness. She ought further, and it was a part of her repentance, she ought to show her penitence to Max himself, to set him the example of a changed life, and to secure for his future the peace of conscience which she herself enjoyed. To these Christian exhortations Madame de Piennes did not fail to add certain worldly arguments, such as, for example, that Arsène, truly loving M. de Salligny, ought to wish for his welfare above all things, and that by her change of conduct she would merit the esteem of a man who had not really as yet been able to accord it to her.
Anything severe or sorrowful in her discourse was suddenly effaced when Madame de Piennes in finishing announced to her that she would see Max again and that he would soon be there. At the lively colour which suddenly suffused her cheeks, so long pale from suffering, at the extraordinary brilliancy of her eyes, Madame de Piennes almost repented of giving her consent to that interview; but it was too late to change her resolution. She employed the few minutes remaining to her before the arrival of Max in pious and energetic exhortations, but they were listened to with marked inattention, for Arsène only seemed interested in arranging her hair and smoothing the crumpled ribbon of her cap.
At last M. de Salligny appeared, contracting all of his features to give them an air of cheerfulness and assurance. He asked how she was feeling in a tone of voice which he strove to make natural, but which no cold in the head would have been able to give him. On her side, Arsène was no more at her ease; she stammered, she was unable to utter a single sentence, but she took the hand of Madame de Piennes and carried it to her lips as though to thank her. What was said during the next quarter of an hour was what is said everywhere between embarrassed people. Madame de Piennes alone maintained her accustomed calm demeanour, or rather, being better prepared she was more self-controlled. She frequently replied for Arsène, who found that her interpreter expressed her thoughts rather badly. The conversation languishing, Madame de Piennes remarked that the invalid was coughing a good deal, reminded her that the doctor had forbidden her to talk, and addressing herself to Max she told him that he would do better to read aloud for a time, rather than tire Arsène with his questions. Max seized a book with alacrity and seated himself near the window, for the light in the room was a little dim. He read without much comprehension. Doubtless Arsène did not comprehend any more, but she had the air of listening with a lively interest. Madame de Piennes worked at a piece of embroidery which she had brought, the nurse pinched herself to avoid falling asleep. The eyes of Madame de Piennes wandered incessantly from the bed to the window; never did Argus keep so good a watch with his hundred eyes. At the end of a few minutes she leaned toward the ear of Arsène:
“How well he reads!” she whispered.
Arsène gave her a look which contrasted strangely with the smile upon her lips:
“Oh! yes,” she replied.
Then her eyes drooped, and a great tear would appear from time to time upon her lashes and roll down her cheeks without her heeding it. Max did not once turn his head. After he had read a few pages Madame de Piennes said to Arsène:
“We are going to let you rest, my child. I fear that we may have tired you a little. We will come back to see you presently.”
She arose and Max arose like her shadow. Arsène bade him farewell without scarcely regarding him.
“I am pleased with you, Max,” said Madame de Piennes, whom he had accompanied to her door, “and still more with her. That poor girl is filled with resignation. She sets you a good example.”
“To suffer and be silent, madam, is it very difficult to learn?”
“The most important thing to learn is to school one’s mind against evil thoughts.”
Max saluted her and hurried away.
When Madame de Piennes went to see Arsène the following day, she found her contemplating a bouquet of rare flowers which had been placed upon the table beside her bed.
“M. de Salligny sent them to me,” she said. “He sent someone to inquire for me, but he has not been here.”
“The flowers are very beautiful,” said Madame de Piennes a little drily.
“I used to be very fond of flowers,” said the invalid, sighing as she said it; “and he spoiled me. M. de Salligny spoiled me by giving me all the most beautiful ones that he could find. But that makes no difference now. These are too fragrant. You may have this bouquet, madam; he will not care if I give it to you.”
“No, my dear; it gives you pleasure to look at the flowers,” said Madame de Piennes, in a gentler tone, for she had been greatly affected by the note of profound sadness in the voice of poor Arsène. “I will take the fragrant ones, you keep the camellias.”
“No, I detest camellias. They remind me of the only quarrel that we ever had – when I was with him.”
“Think no more of those follies, my dear child.”
“One day,” continued Arsène, looking steadily at Madame de Piennes, “one day I found a beautiful red camellia in a glass of water in his room. I wished to take it, he would not let me, he even forbade me to touch it. I insisted, I said very insulting things to him. He took it, locked it in a closet and put the key in his pocket. I acted like a fiend incarnate, I even smashed a porcelain vase of which he was very fond. It was of no use. I saw very well that he had received it from some woman of respectability. I have never known where that camellia came from.”
As she spoke, Arsène regarded Madame de Piennes with a fixed and almost spiteful look, which caused her to drop her eyes involuntarily. There was a long silence, broken only by the oppressed breathing of the invalid. Madame de Piennes had a confused recollection of an incident in regard to a camellia. One day, when she was dining with Madame Aubrée, Max had said to her that his aunt had been congratulating him upon his birthday, and asked her to give him a bouquet also. She had laughingly taken a camellia from her hair and given it to him. But why had such an insignificant act been so impressed upon her memory? Madame de Piennes was unable to explain it to herself. She was almost alarmed by it. Scarcely had she recovered from her confusion of mind in regard to it when Max entered and she felt herself growing red in the face.
“Thank you for your flowers,” said Arsène; “but they sicken me. They will not be lost; I have given them to madam. Do not make me talk, that is forbidden. Will you read me something?”
Max seated himself and began to read. This time nobody listened, I think. Each one, including the reader, followed the thread of his own thoughts.
When Madame de Piennes arose to depart, she was leaving the bouquet upon the table, but Arsène reminded her of her forgetfulness. She took it consequently, annoyed with herself for having shown, perhaps, some affectation by not accepting that trifle in the first place.
“What harm could there be in that?” she thought. But there was already harm since it made her ask herself that simple question.
Max followed her home unbidden. They seated themselves, and, averting their eyes from each other, they were silent long enough to be embarrassed by it.
“That poor girl,” said Madame de Piennes at last, “grieves me profoundly. It appears as though all hope were at an end.”
“Did you see the doctor?” demanded Max. “What did he say?”
Madame de Piennes shook her head. “She has but a few more days to live. They administered the last sacraments to her this morning.”
“Her face haunts one,” said Max, advancing into the embrasure of a window, probably to hide his emotion.
“No doubt, it is cruel to die at her age,” resumed Madame de Piennes sadly; “but had she lived longer, who knows but it would have been a misfortune to her? In saving her from a violent death Providence wished to give her time for repentance. It is a great mercy, which she herself fully appreciates now. The Abbé Dubignon is much pleased with her; it is not necessary to pity her so much, Max!”
“I don’t know that it is necessary to pity those who die young,” he replied a little gruffly. “For myself, I should like to die young; what most affects me is to see her suffer so.”
“Physical suffering is often of benefit to the soul.”
Max, without replying, went and placed himself at the other end of the room in an obscure corner, partially hidden by thick curtains. Madame de Piennes worked, or pretended to work, upon a piece of tapestry which she had in her hands; but it seemed to her that she felt the regard of Max like a heavy weight upon her. That regard which she shunned, she imagined she felt wandering over her hands, her shoulders, and across her brow. It seemed to her to rest upon her foot, and she hastened to hide it beneath her robe. There is perhaps some truth in that which is called magnetic fluid, madam.
“Do you know Admiral de Rigny?” Max suddenly demanded.
“I shall perhaps have a favour to ask of you concerning him – a letter of recommendation.”
“For several days I have been making plans”, he continued with affected cheerfulness. I am trying to be converted, and I would like to do some pious act, but am embarrassed how to begin it.”
Madame de Piennes glanced at him a little severely.
“This is my position,” he continued. “I am very sorry that I am not versed in military practice, but that can be learned – and, even as I have the honour of telling you, I have an extraordinary desire to go to Greece and there strive to kill a few Turks for the highest glory of the Cross.”
“To Greece!” cried Madame de Piennes, dropping her ball.
“To Greece. Here, I am doing nothing; I am weary of everything; I am good for nothing, I can do nothing of any use; there is nobody in the world to whom I am of any account. Why should I not go to reap laurels or sacrifice my life for a good cause? Moreover, I scarcely see any other means of winning glory and having my name inscribed in the Temple of Fame, as I so much desire. Picture to yourself, madam, what an honour for me when you read in the paper: ‘Word is received from Tripoli that M. Max de Salligny, a young Philhellene of the greatest promise’ – one can well say that in a paper – ‘of the greatest promise, has just perished, a victim to his enthusiasm for the sacred cause of religion and liberty. The ferocious Kourschid Pacha has carried his forgetfulness of the proprieties to the extent of having him beheaded.’ That is really the worst part of me in everybody’s opinion, is it not, madam?
And he broke into a forced laugh.
“Are you talking seriously, Max? You would go to Greece?”
“Very seriously, madam, only I shall strive to have my obituary notice appear at the latest possible date.”
“What would you do in Greece? The Greeks are not lacking for soldiers. You would make an excellent soldier, I am sure; but – ”
“A superb grenadier of five feet six!” he exclaimed, raising himself upon his feet; “the Greeks would be very hard to please if they did not wish for a recruit like this. Joking aside, madam,” he added, dropping into an armchair, “it is, I believe, the best thing for me to do. I cannot stay in Paris” – he pronounced these words with a certain degree of violence – “here I am unhappy, here I should do a hundred foolish things – I have not the strength to resist – But we will talk of this again; I do not leave immediately – but I shall go. Oh! yes, it is necessary; I have taken my oath upon it. Do you know that for two days I have been studying Greek? ‘Ζωημον σας αγαπω.’ It is a beautiful language, is it not?”
Madame de Piennes had read Lord Byron and remembered that Greek phrase, the refrain of one of his fugitive poems. The translation, as you know, is found in a footnote; it is: “My life, I love you.” It is a fashion of speech peculiar to that country. Madame de Piennes cursed her too good memory; she was careful not to ask the meaning of that Greek phrase, and only feared that her countenance might betray the fact that she had understood.
Max had wandered to the piano, and his fingers falling upon the keys as by accident, performed a few melancholy chords. Suddenly, he took his hat; and turning to Madame de Piennes asked if she were going to Madame Darsenay’s that evening.
“I think so,” she replied, with some hesitation.
He pressed her hand and immediately took his departure, leaving her a prey to an agitation that she had never before experienced.
All of her ideas were so confused, and followed each other with so much rapidity that she was unable to fix upon any one of them. It was like the series of impressions which appear and disappear as suddenly when one views the landscape from a car window. But, as, in the midst of the most fleeting panorama the eye which does not perceive all the details nevertheless gets a general impression of the whole, so, in the midst of the chaotic thoughts which besieged her, Madame de Piennes experienced a sensation of terror and felt as though she were being borne upon a steep plane to the brink of a frightful precipice. That Max was in love with her she had no doubt. That love (she called it: “that affection”) was of long standing; but hitherto she had not been alarmed by it. Between a devout person like herself and a libertine like Max there was an insurmountable barrier which had reassured her until now. Although she was not insensible to the pleasure or the vanity of inspiring a serious sentiment in a man as frivolous as was Max in her estimation, she had never thought that that affection could some day become dangerous to her peace of mind. Now that the scapegrace had mended his ways she began to fear him. His conversion, which she attributed to herself, might become for her and for him a cause of sorrow and torture. At times she tried to persuade herself that the dangers which she vaguely foresaw had no real foundation. That journey, suddenly resolved upon, the change which she had remarked in the conduct of M. de Salligny might strictly be explained by the love which he still bore for Arsène Guillot; but, strange to say! that thought was to her more insupportable than the others, and it was almost a relief to her to demonstrate to her own mind its improbability.
Madame de Piennes spent the entire evening in creating phantoms, destroying them and recreating them again. She did not wish to go to Madame Darsenay’s, and, in order to be more sure of herself she allowed her coachman to go out, and resolved to retire at an early hour; but as soon as she had taken that high-minded resolution, and there was no longer a means of retracting it, she represented to herself that it was a weakness unworthy of her, and repented of it. She feared above all things, that Max would suspect the cause; and as she could not disguise from herself the real motive for staying at home, she already looked upon herself as guilty, for that sole preoccupation concerning M. de Salligny appeared to her a crime. She prayed for a long time, but without being comforted by it. I know not at what hour she succeeded in falling asleep; what is certain is that when she awakened, her ideas were as confused as the evening before, and she was as far as ever from forming a resolution.
As she was at breakfast – for one always breakfasts, madam, especially when one has dined poorly – she read in the paper that – I know not what – Pacha had sacked a city in Roumelia. Women and children had been massacred; many Philhellenes had perished arms in hand, or had been slowly put to death by horrible tortures. That newspaper article was little calculated to give Madame de Piennes a taste for the journey to Greece for which Max was preparing himself. She was meditating sadly over what she was reading, when a servant handed her a note from him. The evening before he had been greatly bored at Madame Darsenay’s; and, disquieted not to have found Madame de Piennes there, he wrote her for news of herself, and to ask at what hour she was going to see Arsène Guillot. Madame de Piennes had not the courage to write, and sent word that she would go at the accustomed hour. Then the idea came to her to go at once, in order to avoid meeting Max; but, upon reflection, she decided that that was a childish and shameful falsehood, worse than her weakness of yesterday. She therefore fortified her courage, said a fervent prayer, and, when it was time, she went out and walked with a firm step to the chamber of Arsène.
She found the poor girl in a pitiful condition. It was apparent that her last hour was near, and since the day before the disease had made horrible progress. Her breathing was no more than a painful death-rattle, and they told Madame de Piennes that she had been delirious several times during the morning, and that the doctor did not think that she could live until the morrow.
Arsène, however, recognised her protectress and thanked her for coming to see her.
“You will no longer fatigue yourself by mounting my staircase,” she said to her in a voice almost inaudible.
Each word seemed to cost her a painful effort and weaken the little strength remaining to her. It was necessary to lean over her bed in order to hear her. Madame de Piennes had taken her hand, and it was already cold and lifeless.
Max arrived presently and silently approached the bed of the dying girl. She made him a slight sign with her head, and observing that he had a book in his hand:
“You will not read today,” she murmured feebly.
Madame de Piennes glanced at the book, so-called; it was a bound chart of Greece, which he had purchased in passing.
The Abbé Dubignon, who had been with Arsène throughout the morning, observing how rapidly her strength was failing, wished to turn to profit for her salvation, the few minutes that still remained to him. He waved aside Max and Madame de Piennes, and bending over the bed of suffering, he addressed to the poor girl the solemn and consoling words which religion reserves for such moments. In a corner of the chamber Madame de Piennes was kneeling in prayer, and Max, standing by the window seemed transformed to a statue.
“You forgive all those who have injured you, my daughter,” said the preacher, in a voice choked with emotion.
“Yes! May they be happy!” replied the dying girl, with an effort to make herself heard.
“Put your trust in God’s mercy, my daughter!” continued the abbé. “Repentance opens the gates of heaven.”
For some minutes longer the abbé continued his exhortations; then he ceased to speak, uncertain whether he had anything but a corpse before him. Madame de Piennes arose softly, and everyone remained for a time immovable, anxiously regarding the livid face of Arsène. Her eyes were closed. Each one held his breath, lest he should disturb the terrible sleep which had perhaps already begun for her, and there could be distinctly heard in the chamber the ticking of a watch which lay upon the table.
“She is gone, the poor girl!” the nurse said at last, after holding her snuff-box to the lips of Arsène; “see, the glass is not tarnished. She is dead!”
“Poor child!” exclaimed Max, arousing from the stupor in which he seemed to be lost. “What happiness has she had in this world?”
Suddenly, as though reanimated by his voice, Arsène opened her eyes.
“I have loved,” she murmured in a hollow voice.
She moved her fingers and appeared to wish to stretch out her hands. Max and Madame de Piennes had approached and each took one of them. “I have loved,” she repeated with a sad smile.
Those were her last words. Max and Madame de Piennes held her cold hands for a long time without daring to raise their eyes.
Well, madam, you tell me that my story is finished, and you do not wish to hear more. I would have believed that you would be curious to know whether M. de Salligny made the voyage to Greece or not; if – but it is late, you have had enough. Very well! At least refrain from rash judgments, I protest that I have said nothing to authorise you to indulge in them.
Above all do not doubt that my story is true. You do doubt it? Go to Père-Lachaise: twenty paces to the left of the tomb of General Foy, you will find a simple stone, surrounded with flowers always well kept. Upon the stone you can read the name of my heroine graven in large characters: ARSÈNE GUILLOT, and, by bending over that tomb, you will discover, if the rain has not already effaced it, a line traced with a pencil, in very fine writing: “Poor Arsène! she prays for us.”