The Blue Room
The Blue Room
Adapted from the translation of Emily Mary Waller and Louise Paul found in The Novels, Tales and Letters of Prosper Mérimée. New York: Frank S. Holby, 1905. For educational use only.
To Madame de la Rhune
A young man was walking up and down the waiting-room of a railway station, in an agitated condition. He wore blue spectacles, and, although he had not a cold, he used his pocket-handkerchief incessantly. He held a little black bag in his left hand which, as I learned later, contained a silk dressing-gown and a pair of Turkish pants.
Every now and again he went to the entrance and looked into the street, then he drew out his watch and consulted the station clock. The train did not leave for an hour; but there are people who always imagine they will be late. This train was not for people in a pressing hurry; there were very few first-class carriages on it. It was not an hour at which stock-brokers left, after business was finished, to go to their country homes for dinner. When travelers began to appear, a Parisian would have recognised from their bearing that they were either farmers, or small suburban tradesmen. Nevertheless, every time anyone came into the station, or a carriage drew up at the door, the heart of the young man with the blue spectacles became inflated like a balloon, his knees trembled, his bag almost fell from his hands, and his glasses off his nose, where, we may mention in passing, they were seated crookedly.
His agitation increased when, after a long wait, a woman appeared by a side door, from precisely the direction in which he had not kept a constant lookout. She was dressed in black with a thick veil over her face, and she held a brown morocco leather bag in her hand, containing, as I subsequently discovered, a wondrous morning-gown and blue satin slippers. The woman and the young man advanced towards each other looking to the right and the left, but never in front of them. They came up to one another, shook hands, and stood several minutes without speaking a word, trembling and gasping, a prey to one of those intense emotions for which I would give in exchange a hundred years of a philosopher’s life.
“Léon,” said the young woman, when she had summoned up courage to speak (I had forgotten to mention that she was young and pretty)—“Léon, what a happy thought! I should never have recognised you with those blue spectacles.”
“What a happy thought!” said Léon. “I should never have known you under that black veil.”
“What a happy thought!” she repeated. “Let us be quick and take our seats; suppose the train were to start without us! . . .” (and she squeezed his arm tightly). “No one will suspect us. I am now with Clara and her husband, on the way to their country house, where,tomorrow, I must say good-bye to her; . . . and,” she added, laughing and lowering her head, “she left an hour ago; and tomorrow, . . . after passing the last evening with her, . . . (again she pressed his arm), to-morrow, in the morning, she will leave me at the station, where I shall meet Ursula, whom I sent on ahead to my aunt’s. . . . Oh! I have arranged everything. Let us take our tickets. . . . They can not possibly guess who we are. Oh! suppose they ask our names at the inn? I have forgotten them already. . . .”
“Monsieur and Madame Duru.”
“Oh no! Not Duru. There was a shoemaker called that at the pension.”
“Very well. But no one will ask us.”
The bell rang, the door of the waiting-room opened, and the carefully veiled young woman rushed into a carriage with her youthful companion. The bell rang a second time, and the door of their compartment was closed.
“We are alone!” they exclaimed delightedly. But, almost at the same moment, a man of about fifty, dressed completely in black, with a grave and bored expression, entered the carriage and settled himself in a corner. The engine whistled, and the train began to move.
The two young people drew back as far as they could from their unwelcome neighbour and began to whisper in English as an additional precaution.
“Monsieur,” said the other traveler, in the same tongue, and with a much purer British accent, “if you have secrets to tell each other, you had better not tell them in English before me, for I am an Englishman. I am extremely sorry to annoy you; but there was only a single man in the other compartment, and I make it a rule never to travel alone with one man only. . . . He had the face of the assassin Judas. Besides, this might have tempted him.”
He pointed to his travelling-bag, which he had thrown in before him on the cushion.
“In any case, if I do not sleep I shall read.”
And, indeed, he did make a gallant effort to sleep. He opened his bag, drew out a comfortable cap, put it on his head, and kept his eyes shut for several minutes; then he reopened them with a gesture of impatience, searched in his bag for his spectacles, then for a Greek book. At length he began to read attentively. While getting his book out of the bag he displaced many randomly packed objects. Among others, he drew out of the depths of the bag a large bundle of Bank of England notes, placed it on the seat opposite him, and, before putting it back in the bag, he showed it to the young man, and asked him if there was a place in N— where he could change bank-notes.
“Probably. It is on the route to England.”
N— was where the two young people were going. There is quite a tidy little hotel in N—, where people seldom stop except on Saturday evenings. It is reputed to have good rooms. The owner and his staff are not curious being close enough to Paris to avoid this provincial vice. The young man whom I have already called by the name of Léon, had visited this hotel some time previously, minus the blue spectacles, and, based on the recommendation he made, his companion and friend seemed struck by a desire to visit it. Indeed, that day she was in such a state of mind that the walls of a prison would have seemed delightful to her, should she have been enclosed in them with Léon.
In the meantime the train journeyed on; the Englishman read his Greek without looking up at his companions, who conversed in that low tone that only lovers can understand. Perhaps I shall not astonish my readers when I tell them that these two were lovers in the fullest sense of the term, and what was deplorable was that they were not married, and there were reasons for which they were not.
The train reached N—. The Englishman got out first. While Léon helped his friend to descend from the carriage without showing her legs, a man jumped on the platform from the next compartment. He was pale, even sallow; his eyes sunken and bloodshot, his beard unkempt, a sign by which great criminals are often detected. His clothes were clean, but worn almost threadbare. His coat, once black, but now grey at the back and by the elbows, was buttoned up to his chin, probably to hide an equally worn vest. He went up to the Englishman and, in a very deferential tone:
“Uncle!” he said to him.
“Leave me alone, you wretch!” cried the Englishman, whose grey eyes flashed with anger; and he took a step forward to leave the station.
“Don’t drive me to despair,” replied the other, in a tone that was both pathetic and menacing.
“Will you be good enough to watch my bag for a moment?” said the old Englishman, throwing his travelling-bag at Léon’s feet.
He then took the man who had accosted him by the arm, and led, or rather pushed, him into a corner, where he hoped they would not be overheard, and there he addressed him for a moment in what seemed to be a very harsh tone. He then drew some papers from his pocket, crumpled them up, and put them in the hand of the man who had called him uncle. The latter took the papers without offering any thanks, and almost immediately walked away and disappeared.
As there is but one hotel in N— it should come as no surprise that, after a short interval, all the characters of this true story came together again there. In France every traveler who has the good fortune to have a well-dressed woman on his arm is certain to obtain the best room in any hotel; therefore, it is well established that we are the most polite nation in Europe. If the bedroom that was assigned to Léon was the best, it would be rash to conclude that it was excellent. It had a great walnut bedstead, with chintz curtains, on which was printed in violet the magic story of Pyramis and Thisbé. The walls were covered in wallpaper that depicted a view of Naples with a multitude of people; unfortunately, idle and indiscreet visitors had drawn moustaches and pipes on all the figures, both male and female, and many silly things had been scribbled in lead pencil in rhyme and prose on the sky and ocean. Upon this background hung several engravings: “Louis Philippe taking the Oath of the Charter of 1830,” “The first Interview between Julie and Saint-Preux,” “Waiting for Happiness,” and “Regrets,” after M. Dubuffe. This room was called the Blue Room, because the two armchairs to the left and right of the fireplace were upholstered in Utrecht velvet of that colour; but for a number of years they had been hidden beneath upholstery covers of grey canvas edged with purple braids.
While the hotel servants crowded round the new arrival and offered their services, Léon, who, although in love, was not destitute of common sense, went to order dinner. It required all his eloquence and various kinds of bribes to extract the promise of a dinner by themselves alone. Great was his dismay when he learned that in the principal dining-room, which was next to his room, the officers of the 3rd Hussars, who were about to relieve the officers of the 3rd Chasseurs at N—, were going to join at a farewell dinner that very day, which would be a lively affair. The host swore by all his gods that, except a certain amount of gaiety which was natural to every French soldier, the officers of the Hussars and Chasseurs were known throughout the town for their gentlemanly and discreet behaviour, and that their proximity would not inconvenience madam in the least; the officers were in the habit of rising from table before midnight.
As Léon went back to the Blue Chamber but slightly reassured, he noticed that the Englishman sat at a table upon which were a glass and a bottle. He was looking at the ceiling with profound attention, as though he were counting the flies walking on it.
“What matter if they are so near,” said Léon to himself. “The Englishman will soon be tipsy, and the Hussars will leave before midnight.”
On entering the Blue Chamber his first care was to make sure that the communicating doors were tightly locked, and that they had bolts to them. There were double doors on the Englishman’s side, and the walls were thick. The partition was thinner on the Hussar’s side, but the door had a lock and a bolt. After all, this was a more effectual barrier to curiosity than the blinds of a carriage, and how many people think they are hidden from the world in a hackney carriage!
Assuredly the most opulent imagination could certainly never have pictured a more complete state of happiness than that of these two young lovers, who, after waiting so long, found themselves alone and far away from jealous and prying eyes, preparing to relate their past sufferings at their ease and to taste the delights of a perfect reunion. But the devil always finds out a way to pour his drop of wormwood into the cup of happiness.
Johnson was not the first who wrote—he took it from a Greek writer—that no man could say, “To-day I shall be happy.” This truth was recognised at a very remote period by the greatest philosophers, and yet is ignored by a certain number of mortals, and especially by most lovers.
Whilst taking a poorly served dinner in the Blue Chamber from some dishes filched from the Hussars’ and the Chasseurs’ banquet, Léon and his lover were much disturbed by the conversation in which the gentlemen in the neighbouring room were engaged. They held forth on abstruse subjects concerning strategy and tactics, which I shall refrain from repeating.
There were a succession of wild stories—nearly all of them broad and accompanied by shrieks of laughter, in which it was often difficult for our lovers not to join. Léon’s friend was no prude; but there are things one prefers not to hear, particularly during a tête-à-tête with the man one loves. The situation became more and more embarrassing, and when they were taking in the officers’ dessert, Léon felt he must go downstairs to beg the host to tell the gentlemen that he had an invalid wife in the room adjoining theirs, and they would deem it a matter of courtesy if a little less noise were made.
The noise was nothing out of the way for a regimental dinner, and the host was taken aback and did not know what to reply. Just when Léon gave his message for the officers, a waiter asked for champagne for the Hussars, and a maidservant for port wine for the Englishman.
“I told him there was none,” she added.
“You are a fool. I have every kind of wine. I will go and find him some. Port is it? Bring me the bottle of ratafia, a bottle of quince and a small decanter of brandy.”
When the host had concocted the port in a trice, he went into the large dining-room to execute Léon’s commission, which at first roused a furious storm.
Then a deep voice, which dominated all others, asked what kind of woman their neighbour was. There was a brief silence before the host replied—
“Really, gentlemen, I do not know how to answer you. She is very pretty and very shy. Marie-Jeanne says she has a wedding ring on her finger. She is probably a bride come here on her honeymoon, as so many others come here.”
“A bride?” exclaimed forty voices! “She must come and clink glasses with us! We will drink to her health and teach the husband his conjugal duties!”
At these words there was a great jingling of spurs, and our lovers trembled, fearing that their room was about to be taken by storm. All at once a voice was raised which stopped the maneuver. It evidently belonged to the commanding officer. He reproached the officers with their want of politeness, ordered them to sit down again and to talk decently, without shouting. Then he added some words too low to be heard in the Blue Chamber. He was listened to with deference, but, nevertheless, not without exciting a certain amount of covert hilarity. From that moment there was comparative quiet in the officers’ room; and our lovers, blessing the salutary reign of discipline, began to talk together with more freedom. . . . But after such confusion it was a little time before they regained that peace of mind which anxiety, the worries of travelling, and, worse than all, the loud merriment of their neighbours, had so greatly agitated. This was not very difficult to accomplish, however, at their age, and they had very soon forgotten all the troubles of their adventurous expedition in thinking of its more important consequences.
They thought peace was declared with the Hussars. Alas! it was but a truce. Just when they expected it least, when they were a thousand leagues away from this sublunary world, twenty-four trumpets, supported by several trombones, struck up the air well known to French soldiers, “La victoire est nous!” How could anyone withstand such a tempest? The poor lovers might well complain.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But they had not much longer to complain, for at the end the officers left the dining-room, filed past the door of the Blue Chamber with a great clattering of spurs and sabres, and shouted one after the other—
“Good night, madam bride!”
Then all noise stopped. No, I am mistaken; the Englishman came out into the passage and cried out—
“Waiter! bring me another bottle of the same port.”
Quiet was restored in the hotel of N—. The night was fine and the moon at the full. From time immemorial lovers have been pleased to gaze at our satellite. Léon and his lover opened their window, which looked on a small garden, and breathed with delight the fresh air, which was filled with the scent of a bower of clematis.
They had not looked out long, however, before a man came to walk in the garden. His head was bowed, his arms crossed, and he had a cigar in his mouth. Léon thought he recognised the nephew of the Englishman who was fond of good port wines.
I dislike useless details, and, besides, I do not feel called upon to tell the reader things he can readily imagine, nor to relate all that happened hour by hour in the inn at N—. I will merely say that the candle which burned on the fireless mantelpiece of the Blue chamber was more than half consumed when a strange sound issued from the Englishman’s room, in which there had been silence until now; it was like the fall of a heavy body. To this noise was added a kind of cracking, quite as odd, followed by a smothered cry and several inarticulate words like an oath. The two young occupants of the Blue Chamber shuddered. Perhaps they had been waked up suddenly by it. The noise seemed a sinister one to both of them, for they could not explain it.
“Our friend the Englishman is dreaming,” said Léon, trying to force a smile.
But although he wanted to reassure his companion, he shivered involuntarily. Two or three minutes afterwards a door in the corridor opened cautiously, as it seemed, then closed very quietly. They heard a slow and unsteady footstep which appeared to be trying to disguise its gate.
“What a cursed inn!” exclaimed Léon.
“Ah, it is paradise!” replied the young woman, letting her head fall on Léon’s shoulder. “I am dead with sleep. . . .”
She sighed, and was very soon fast asleep again.
A famous moralist has said that men are never garrulous when they have all their heart’s desire. It is not surprising, therefore, that Léon made no further attempt to renew the conversation or to discourse upon the noises in the hotel at N—. Nevertheless, he was preoccupied, and his imagination pieced together many events to which in another mood he would have paid no attention. The evil countenance of the Englishman’s nephew returned to his memory. There was hatred in the look that he threw at his uncle even while he spoke humbly to him, doubtless because he was asking for money.
What would be easier than for a man, still young and vigorous, and desperate besides, to climb from the garden to the window of the next room? Moreover, he was staying at the hotel, and would walk in the garden after dark, perhaps . . . quite possibly . . . undoubtedly, he knew that his uncle’s black bag contained a thick bundle of bank-notes. . . . And that heavy blow, like the blow of a club on a bald head! . . . that stifled cry! . . . that fearful oath! and those steps afterwards! That nephew looked like an assassin . . . But people do not assassinate in a hotel full of officers. Surely the Englishman, like a wise man, had locked himself in, specially knowing the rogue was about. . . . He evidently mistrusted him, since he had not wished to accost him bag in hand. . . . But why allow such hideous thoughts when one is so happy?
Thus did Léon cogitate to himself. In the midst of his thoughts, which I will refrain from analyzing at greater length, and which passed in his mind like so many confused dreams, he fixed his eyes mechanically on the door of communication between the Blue Chamber and the Englishman’s room.
In France, doors fit badly. Between this one and the floor there was a space of nearly an inch. Suddenly, from this space, which was hardly lighted by the reflection from the polished floor, there appeared something blackish and flat, like a knife blade, for the edge which the candlelight caught showed a thin line which shone brightly. It moved slowly in the direction of a little blue satin slipper, which had been carelessly thrown close to this door. Was it some insect like a centipede? . . . No, it was not insect. It had no definite shape. . . . Two or three brown streams, each with its line of light on its edges, had come through into the room. Their pace quickened, for the floor was a sloping one. . . . They came on rapidly and touched the little slipper. There was no longer any doubt! It was a liquid, and that liquid, the colour of which could now be distinctly seen by the candlelight, was blood! While Léon paralysed with horror, watched these frightful streams, the young woman slept on peacefully, her regular breathing warming her lover’s neck and shoulders.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The care which Léon had taken in ordering the dinner on their arrival at the inn of N— adequately proved that he had a pretty level head, a high degree of intelligence and that he could look ahead. He did not in this emergency belie the character we have already indicated. He did not stir, and the whole strength of his mind was strained to keep this resolve in the presence of the frightful disaster which threatened him.
I can image that most of my readers, and, above all, my lady readers, filled with heroic sentiments, will blame the conduct of Léon on this occasion for remaining motionless. They will tell me he ought to have rushed to the Englishman’s room and arrested the murderer, or, at least, to have pulled his bell and rung up the people of the hotel. To this I reply that, in the first case, the bells in French inns are only room ornaments, and their cords do not correspond to any metallic apparatus. I would add respectfully, but decidedly, that, if it is wrong to leave an Englishman to die close by one, it is not praiseworthy to sacrifice for him a woman who is sleeping with her head on your shoulder. What would have happened if Léon had made an uproar and roused the hotel? The police, the inspector and his assistant would have come at once. These gentlemen are by profession so curious, that, before asking him what he had seen or heard, they would have questioned him as follows:—
“What is your name? Where are your papers? And what about Madam? What were you doing together in the Blue Chamber? You will have to appear in court to explain the exact month, at what hour in the night, you were witnesses of this deed.”
Now it was precisely this thought of the inspector and officers of the law which first occurred to Léon’s mind. Everywhere throughout life there are questions of conscience difficult to solve. Is it better to allow an unknown traveler to have his throat cut, or to disgrace and lose the woman one loves?
It is unpleasant to have to propose such a problem. I defy the cleverest person to solve it.
Léon did then what probably most would have done in his place. He never moved.
He remained fascinated for a long time with his eyes fixed upon the blue slipper and the little red stream which touched it. A cold sweat moistened his temples, and his heart beat in his breast as though it would burst.
A host of thoughts and strange and horrible fancies took possession of him, and an inward voice cried out all the time, “In an hour all will be known, and it is your own fault!” Nevertheless, by dint of repeating to himself “Qu-allais-je faire dans cette galère?” he finished up by perceiving some few rays of hope. “If we leave this accursed hotel,” he said to himself at last, “before the discovery of what has happened in the adjoining room, perhaps they may lose trace of us. No one knows us here. I have only been seen in blue spectacles, and she has only been seen in a veil. We are only two steps from the station, and should be far away from it in an hour.”
Then, as he had studied the time-table at great length to make out his journey, he recollected that a train for Paris stopped at eight o’clock. Very soon afterwards they would be lost in the vastness of that town, where so many guilty persons are concealed. Who could discover two innocent people there? But would they not go into the Englishman’s room before eight o’clock? That was the vital question.
Quite convinced that there was no other course before him, he made a desperate effort to shake off the torpor which had taken possession of him for so long, but at the first movement he made his young companion woke up and kissed him half-consciously. At the touch of his icy cheek she uttered a little cry.
“What is the matter?” she said to him anxiously. “Your forehead is as cold as marble.”
“It is nothing,” he replied in a voice which belied his words. “I heard a noise in the next room. . . .”
“He freed himself from her arms, then he moved the blue slipper and put an armchair in front of the door of communication so as to hide the horrid liquid from his lover’s eyes. It had stopped flowing, and had now collected into quite a big pool on the floor. Then he half opened the door which led to the passage, and listened attentively. He even ventured to go up to the Englishman’s door, which was closed. There were already stirrings in the hotel, for day had begun. The stablemen were grooming the horses in the yard, and an officer came downstairs from the second story, clinking his spurs. He was on his way to preside at that interesting piece of work, more agreeable to horses than to men, which is technically known as la botte.
Léon re-entered the Blue Chamber, and, with every precaution that love could invent, with the help of much circumlocution and many euphemisms, he revealed their situation to his friend.
It was dangerous to stay and dangerous to leave too precipately; still much more dangerous to wait at the hotel until the catastrophe in the next room was discovered.
There is no need to describe the terror caused by this communication, or the tears which followed it, the senseless suggestions which were advanced, or how many times the two unhappy young people flung into each other’s arms, saying, “Forgive me! forgive me!” Each took the blame. They vowed to die together, for the young woman did not doubt that the law would find them guilty of the murder of the Englishman, and as they were not sure that they would be allowed to embrace each other again on the scaffold they did it now to suffocation, and vied with each other in watering themselves with tears. At length, after having talked much rubbish and exchanged many tender and harrowing words, they decided, in the midst of a thousand kisses, that the plan thought out by Léon, to leave by the eight o’clock train, was really the only one practicable, and the best to follow. But there were two mortal hours to get through. At each step in the corridor they trembled in every limb. Each creak of boots proclaimed the arrival of the inspector.
Their small packing was done in a flash. The young woman wanted to burn the blue slipper in the fireplace; but Léon picked it up and, after wiping it by the bedside, he kissed it and put it in his pocket. He was astonished to find that it smelt of vanilla, though his lover’s perfume was “Bouquet de l’impératrice Eugénie.”
Everybody in the hotel was now awake. They heard the laughing of waiters, servant-girls singing at their work, and soldiers brushing their officers’ clothes. Seven o’clock had just struck. Léon wanted to make his friend drink a cup of coffee, but she declared that her throat was so choked up that she should die if she tried to drink anything.
Léon, armed with the blue spectacles, went down to pay the bill. The host begged his pardon for the noise that had been made; he could not at all understand it, for the officers were always so quiet! Léon assured him that he had heard nothing, but had slept profoundly.
“I don’t think your neighbour on the other side would inconvenience you,” continued the landlord; “he did not make much noise. I bet he is still sleeping soundly.”
Léon leaned hard against the desk to keep from falling, and the young woman, who had followed him closely, clutched at his arm and tightened the veil over her face.
“He is a swell,” added the pitiless host. “He will have the best of everything. Ah! he is a good sort. But all the English are not like him. There was one here who is a skinflint. He thought everything too dear: his room, his dinner. He wanted me to take a five-pound Bank of England note in settlement of his bill for one hundred and eighty-five francs, . . . and to risk whether it was a good one! But stop, Monsieur; perhaps you will know, for I heard you talking English with Madam. . . . Is it a good one?”
With these words he showed Léon a five-pound bank-note. On one of its corners there was a little spot of red which Léon could readily explain to himself.
“I think it is quite good,” he said in a stifled voice.
“Oh, you have plenty of time,” replied the host; “the train is not due here till eight o’clock, and it is always late. Will you not sit down, Madam? You seem tired. . . .”
At this moment a fat servant-girl came up.
“Hot water, quick,” she said, “for milord’s tea. Give me a sponge too. He has broken a bottle of wine and the whole room is flooded.”
At these words Léon fell into a chair, and his companion did the same. An intense desire to laugh overtook them both, and they had the greatest difficulty in restraining themselves. The young woman squeezed his hand joyfully.
“I think we will not go until the two o’clock train,” said Léon to the landlord. “Let us have a good meal at midday.”