THE ABBÉ AUBAIN AND MOSAICS
EMILY MARY WALLER
With an Introduction by
THE ABBÉ AUBAIN
THE VISION OF CHARLES XI.
HOW WE STORMED THE FORT
THE GAME OF BACKGAMMON
THE ETRUSCAN VASE
THE VENUS OF ILLE
THE BLUE CHAMBER
THE "VICCOLO" OF MADAM LUCREZIA
THE ABBÉ AUBAIN
THE VISION OF CHARLES XI.
HOW WE STORMED THE FORT
THE GAME OF BACKGAMMON
THE ETRUSCAN VASE
THE VENUS OF ILLE
THE BLUE CHAMBER
THE "VICCOLO" OF MADAM LUCREZIA
Mérimée's temperament was really that of the scholar, not of the artist, and even his art came to him as a kind of scholarship. He did one thing after another, as if challenging himself to accomplish a certain end, and then, that end accomplished, he no longer cared to repeat it. That is the scholar's way, not the artist's; and the scholar's instinct is seen, too, in that too purely critical attitude which he adopted, towards others and towards himself, working in almost a hostile fashion upon every impulse, so as to destroy his interest in any part of his work but the way in which it was done. He began his career by two very serious mystifications, Le Théâtre de Clara Gazul, a collection of short plays supposed to be translated from the Spanish, and La Guzla, a collection of ballads in prose supposed to be translated from the Illyrian. Later on he was, perhaps, a little too anxious to represent himself as having intended from the first to parody the fierceness and the "local colour" of the Romantics. "Vers l'an de grâce 1827 j'étais romantique," he says ironically, in the preface of 1840, as he reprints his work of thirteen years ago. "Nous disions aux classiques: 'Vos Grecs ne sont point des Grecs; vos Romains ne sont point des Romains; vous ne savez pas donner à vos compositions la couleur locale. Point de salut sans couleur locale.'" But no doubt he wished from the first to show that he also, by a mere disinterested effort of intelligence, could be as exotic as the Romantics; that Romanticism, like everything else, was a thing that could be done deliberately, done and then dropped. The invention of history and archaeology leads to history and archaeology themselves. Mérimée next produced a piece in dialogue on La Jacquerie, in which there is more and better history than drama; then followed his historical novel, the Chronique du Règne de Charles IX., in which he set himself, as deliberately as usual, to do more carefully what Walter Scott, then a fashion in France, had done with genius. He produced the most perfect of historical novels, and looked about for some new difficulty to conquer.
He found it in the short story, of which he was to make something firmer, more architectural, than anything yet made in this form of fiction. It was then that he wrote the best of his short stories, from the Mateo Falcone of 1829 to the Carmen of 1845. Here, anyone else would have said, he had found himself; here was the moment to pause, to "settle down" to the task of doing what he could do best, better than anyone else. But Mérimée had no sooner perfected his method than he began to tire of it. His imagination perhaps tired; he turned to history, and wrote books on the history of Spain and Russia; he became Inspector of Ancient Monuments, and wrote minute descriptions of churches; he translated from the Russian, from Poushkin, Gogol, and Tourguenieff; he travelled, and wrote somewhat dry accounts of his travels; he wrote Lokis, La Chambre Bleue, and Djoumane, the only stories which he had written for twenty-five years; and he seems to have written them in order to prove to himself that he could still write them. He died at Cannes in 1870, "claquemuré entre deux vieilles governess," notes Goncourt in his Journal: "une des plus tristes fins du monde."
Mérimée is perhaps the only writer in whom form is equivalent to what is called in slang "good form." He did his best to assimilate his mind to what seemed to him, the English pattern, as others of his compatriots have had their clothes made by English tailors. The English pattern of mind seemed to him, not that mind as it has expressed itself heroically in poetry, and with something of loose splendour in prose, but the typical middle-class mind, severe, precise, doing things by rule, stiffly proud, a mask for emotion. It was not English literature which he cared for and wished to rival, but those sides which he saw most clearly of the English temperament. As the greatest English writers have not put those sides of the national character, to any considerable extent, into their books (perhaps because, being men of genius, they were exceptions to a rule), Mérimée's work, with its cold, exact, polite record of warm and savage things, has no resemblance with English literature, and becomes, in French literature, a new thing, the personal expression of a new, singular temperament.
"Ce comédien de l'insensibilité," Goncourt calls him; and it is Goncourt who relates the famous story of his childish resolve to keep his emotions to himself, after the discovery that even his parents could turn them into ridicule. "Il était né avec un cœur tendre et aimant," says Mérimée of the hero of his Vase Etrusque, "mais, à un age où l'on prend trop facilement des impressions qui durent toute la vie, sa sensibilité trop expansive lui avait attiré les railleries de ses camarades." In the exterior which Mérimée so carefully made for himself, it is not necessary to decide how much was genuine at the beginning and how much became genuine through force of habit. It made, at all events, the art of his stories; and we have only to turn to another page of the Goncourts' Journal to see how precisely that art corresponds with what struck those acute observers in the manner of his conversation. "Il cause en s'écoutant avec de mortels silences, lentement, mot par mot, goutte à goutte, comme s'il distillait ses effects, faisant tomber autour de ce qu'il dit une froideur glaciale." It is such an icy coldness that disengages itself from the finest of his stories; from Mateo Falcone, for instance, perhaps his masterpiece, in its intensity of effect and in its economy of means. It amused him to tell moving and pitiful things so relentlessly, getting the same pleasure in the anticipation of what his readers would feel that he got from the actual looks and words of the people to whom he talked in the drawing-rooms. He counted on a certain repugnance in those who most admired him, as men of his disposition count on the help of a certain instinctive dislike in those of whom they are most anxious to make themselves masters.
In his stories, with their force, clearness, concise energy, Mérimée is without charm; "as if," says Walter Pater, in his remarkable and closely packed essay, "in theological language, he were incapable of grace." "Gifted as he was with pure mind," with a style "the perfection of nobody's style," he is a kind of hard taskmaster, who is at least sure of getting his own way, sure of never loosening his hold. He has, above all things, a mastery over effect; and he has none of those preoccupations of the poet, of the thinker, or of the "inspired" writer, which so often come to shake the equilibrium of that to which they add a heavy and toppling burden of splendour. Each of his stories is a story, nothing more or less, and in each he does exactly what he set out to do, even the dry, scholarly digressions, as they may sometimes seem, being only a part of the plan, of the building up of the illusion. He is interested in his characters only as they come into the light of a crisis; they live for him only in that moment; all the rest is so much detail, so much psychology in the abstract, with which he has nothing to do. Maupassant was to follow him, while thinking that he followed Flaubert, in this rigorous art of cutting your coat to your cloth. It was Mérimée, really, who perfected the short story in France, who left it a model for the writers of every nation.
Towards the end of his life Mérimée became deeply interested in Russia, and it was through his translations and studies that Tourguenieff became almost a French writer. In Tourguenieff he had partly a follower, but one who gave a new, more profound, more essentially human character to the short story, which has since been developed so fruitfully in Russia. To the Russian, to Tourguenieff, to Tolstoi, to Gorki, the soul is interesting in itself, for its own sake. Mérimée only pays heed to it when it does something interesting, when it precipitates itself into action. That is why so many Russian stories, with all their charm and meaning, remain nebulous, and why Mérimée's are always hard, firm, each complete as a drama. Look at Gorki, and how easily he loses the thread of his narrative or how often he forgets to have a thread to follow, so significant to him is the mere existence of these people, among whose actions he is embarrassed to choose. Take the first act of his play, Les Petits Bourgeois, and see how little selection or composition there is, with what an assemblage of little intimate details, each closely observed, but each observed without relation to any other or to the movement of the whole. Mérimée gives us no detail which has not its almost mathematical significance, but in this orderly arrangement of life it sometimes happens that we are left with a sense of something out of which life has been trimmed dead.
"In history," says Mérimée, in the preface to his Chronique du Règne de Charles IX., "I care only for anecdotes." It was the anecdote which he cared for also in fiction, and with him, as with Stendhal, from whom he got the word and perhaps some of his taste for the thing, the anecdote was a somewhat more formal variety of what was afterwards to be called the document. Mérimée as a writer stands somewhere between Choderlos de Laclos or Crébillon fils, and the generation of "Realists" which was to follow him. He has the naïve immorality, the deliberate frivolity of the eighteenth century; but he is frivolous with the gravity of a scholar. Genuinely interested in those questions which women discuss among themselves, he knew how to work artistically upon his own interest, giving it an ironical turn, which saves it from the criticism of his intelligence. And in those anecdotes, to which he reduces history, and out of which he makes the more living history of his fiction, he finds as much of the soul of great passions and profound emotions as he cares to consider. The document is not yet crude fact, as with the Realists; it is fact chosen carefully for its significance, and arranged just so much as it needs in order to seem as well as be significant. "Dans chaque anecdote pouvant servir à porter la lumière dans quelque coin du cœur," says Mérimée, speaking of Stendhal (he might be speaking for himself), "il retenait toujours ce qu'il appelait le trait, c'est à dire le mot ou l'action qui révèle la passion." It was for this word or action in which passion reveals itself that Mérimée was always a seeker: how often and how absolutely he found it, the tales which follow may be left to prove for themselves.
"THE ABBÉ AUBAIN" was published in Le Constitutionnel, February 24, 1846; "Mateo Falcone" and "The Vision of Charles XI" in the Revue de Paris, May and July, 1829; "How we Stormed the Fort" in the Revue française, September-October, 1829; "Tamango" in the Revue de Paris, October, 1829; "The Game of Backgammon" and "The Etruscan Vase" in the Revue de Paris, June and January, 1830, respectively; "The Venus of Ille" in the Revue des Deux Mondes, May 15, 1837; "Lokis" in the Revue des Deux Mondes, September 15, 1869; "The Blue Chamber," dated Biarritz, September, 1866, in L'Indépendance belge, September 6-7, 1871; "The 'Viccolo' of Madam Lucrezia," dated April 27, 1846, in Dernières Nouvelles, 1873; and "Djoumane" in Le Moniteur Universel, July 9-12, 1873.
Born at Paris, September 28th, 1803
Died at Cannes, September 23rd, 1870
THE ABBÉ AUBAIN
It were idle to say how the following letters came into our possession. They seem to us curious, moral and instructive. We publish them without any change other than the suppression of certain proper names, and a few passages which have no connection with the incident in the life of the Abbé Aubain.
From Madame de P—— to Madame de G——
NOIRMOUTIERS,... November, 1844.
I promised to write to you, my dear Sophie, and I keep my word; besides, I have nothing better to do these long evenings.
My last letter informed you that I had made the simultaneous discovery that I was thirty and ruined. For the first of these misfortunes, alas! there is no remedy; as for the second, we have resigned ourselves to it badly enough, but, after all, we are resigned. We must pass at least two years, to repair our fortune, in the dreary manor-house, from whence I write this to you. I have been simply heroic. Directly I knew of the state of our finances I proposed to Henry that he should economise in the country, and eight days later we were at Noirmoutiers.
I will not tell you anything of the journey. It was many years since I had found myself alone with my husband for such a length of time. Of course, we were both in a bad temper; but, as I was thoroughly determined to put on a good face, all went off well.
You were acquainted with my good resolutions, and you shall see if I am keeping to them. Behold us, then, installed. By the way, Noirmoutiers, from a picturesque point of view, leaves nothing to be desired. There are woods, and cliffs, and the sea within a quarter of a league. We have four great towers, the walls of which are fifteen feet thick. I have fitted a workroom in the recess of the window. My drawing-room, which is sixty feet long, is decorated with figured tapestry; it is truly magnificent when lighted up by eight candles: quite a Sunday illumination. I die of fright every time I pass it after sunset. We are very badly furnished, as you may well believe. The doors do not fit closely, the wainscoting cracks, the wind whistles, and the sea roars in the most lugubrious fashion imaginable. Nevertheless I am beginning to grow accustomed to it.
I arrange and mend things, and I plant; before the hard frosts set in I shall have made a tolerable habitation. You may be certain that your tower will be ready by the spring. If I could but have you here now! The advantage of Noirmoutiers is that we have no neighbours: we are completely isolated. I am thankful to say I have no other callers but my priest, the Abbé Aubain. He is a well-mannered young man, although he has arched and bushy eyebrows and great dark eyes like those of a stage villain. Last Sunday he did not give us so bad a sermon for the country. It sounded very appropriate. "Misfortune was a benefit from Providence to purify our souls." Be it so. At that rate we ought to give thanks to that honest stockbroker who desired to purify our souls by running off with our money.
Good-bye, dear friend.
My piano has just come, and some big packing-cases. I must go and unpack them all.
P.S.—I reopen this letter to thank you for your present. It is most beautiful, far too beautiful for Noirmoutiers. The grey hood is charming. I recognise your taste there. I shall put it on for Mass on Sunday; perhaps a commercial traveller will be there to admire it. But for whom do you take me, with your novels? I wish to be, I am, a serious-minded person. Have I not sufficiently good reasons? I am going to educate myself. On my return to Paris, in three years from now (good heavens! I shall be thirty-three), I mean to be a Philaminte. But really, I do not know what books to ask you to send me. What do you advise me to learn? German or Latin? It would be very nice to read Wilhelm Meister in the original, or the tales of Hoffmann. Noirmoutiers is the right place for whimsical stories. But how am I to learn German at Noirmoutiers? Latin would suit me well, for I think it so unfair that men should keep it all to themselves. I should like to have lessons given me by my priest.
The same to the same.
NOIRMOUTIERS,... December, 1844.
You may well be astonished. The time passes more quickly than you would believe, more quickly than I should have believed myself. The weakness of my lord and master supports my courage through everything. Really, men are very inferior to us. He is depressed beyond measure. He gets up as late as he can, rides his horse or goes hunting, or else pays calls on the dullest people imaginable—lawyers and magistrates who live in town, that is to say, six leagues from here. He goes to see them when it is wet! He began to read Mauprat eight days ago, and he is still in the first volume. "It is much better to be pleased with oneself than to slander one's neighbours." This is one of your proverbs. But I will leave him in order to talk of myself.
The country air does me incalculable good. I am magnificently well, and when I see myself in the glass (such a glass!) I do not look thirty; but then I walk a good deal. Yesterday I managed to get Henry to come with me to the seashore. While he shot gulls I read the pirate's song in the Giaour. On the beach, facing a rough sea, the fine verses seemed finer than ever. Our sea cannot rival that of Greece, but it has its poetry, as the sea everywhere has. Do you know what strikes me in Lord Byron? —his insight and understanding of nature. He does not talk of the sea from only having eaten turbot and oysters. He has sailed on it; he has seen storms. All his descriptions are from life. Our poets put rhyme first, then common sense—if there is any in verse. While I walk up and down, reading, watching and admiring, the Abbé Aubain—I do not know whether I have mentioned my Abbé to you; he is the village priest—came up and joined me. He is a young priest who often comes to me. He is well educated, and knows "how to talk with well-bred people." Besides, from his large dark eyes and pale, melancholy look, I can very well see that he has an interesting story, and I try to make it up for myself. We talked of the sea, of poetry; and, what will surprise you much in a priest of Noirmoutiers, he talked well. Then he took me to the ruins of an old abbey upon a cliff and pointed out to me a great gateway carved with delightful goblins. Oh! if only I had the money to restore it all! After this, in spite of Henry's remonstrances, who wanted his dinner, I insisted upon going to the priest's house to see a curious relic which the curé had found in a peasant's house. It was indeed very beautiful: a small box of Limoges enamel which would make a lovely jewel-case. But, good gracious! what a dwelling! And we, who believe ourselves poor! Imagine a tiny room on the ground floor, badly paved, whitewashed, furnished with a table and four chairs, and an armchair padded with straw, with a little flat cake of a cushion in it, stuffed, I should think, with peachstones, and covered with small pieces of white and red cotton. On the table were three or four large Greek and Latin folios. These were the Fathers of the Church, and below, as though hidden, I came upon Jocelin. He blushed. He was very attentive, however, in doing the honours of his wretched lodgings without pride or false modesty. I suspected he had had a romantic story. I soon had a proof of it. In the Byzantine casket which he showed us there was a faded bouquet five or six years old at least. "Is that a relic?" I asked him. "No," he replied, with some agitation. "I do not know how it came there." Then he took the bouquet and slipped it carefully in his table drawer. Is that clear enough? I went back to the château saddened to have seen such poverty, but encouraged to bear my own, which, beside his, seemed of oriental opulence. You should have seen his surprise when Henry gave him twenty francs for a woman whom he had introduced to our notice! I really must make him a present. That straw armchair in which I sat is far too hard. I will give him one of those folding iron chairs like that which I took to Italy. You must choose me one, and send it to me as soon as possible.
The same to the same.
NOIRMOUTIERS,... February, 1845.
I certainly am not bored at Noirmoutiers. Besides, I have found an interesting occupation, and I owe it to my Abbé. He really knows everything, botany included. It reminds me of Rousseau's Letters to hear the Latin name for a nasty onion I laid on the chimney-piece for want of a better place. "You know botany, then?" "Not very well," he replied; "just enough to teach the country folk the herbs which might be useful to them; just enough, I might say, to give a little interest to my solitary walks." I thought at once that it would be very amusing to gather pretty flowers in my walks, to dry them, and to arrange them in order in "my old Plutarch tied up with ribbons." "Do teach me botany," I said to him. He wished to wait until the spring, for there are no flowers at this bad time of the year. "But you have some dried flowers," I said; "I saw them at your house." I meant to refer to his tenderly preserved old bouquet. If you could have seen his face!... Poor wretched man! I pretty quickly repented of my indiscreet allusion. To make him forget it I hastened to tell him that one ought to have a collection of dried plants. This is called a herbarium. He agreed at once, and the very next day he brought me in a grey paper parcel several pretty plants, each with its own label. The course of botany had begun, and I made astonishing progress from the very first. But I had no idea botany was so immoral, or of the difficulty of the first explanations, above all from a priest. You know, my dear, plants marry just as we do, but most of them have many husbands. One set is called phanerogams, if I have remembered the barbarous name properly. It is Greek, and means to marry openly at the townhall. Then there are the cryptogams—those who marry secretly. The mushrooms that you eat marry in secret. All this is very shocking, but he did not come out of it so badly—better than I did, who had the silliness to shout with laughter, once or twice, at the most delicate passages. But I have become cautious now and I do not put any more questions.
The same to the same.
NOIRMOUTIERS,... February, 1845.
You must be burning to hear the story of that preciously preserved bouquet; but, the fact is, I dare not ask him about it. In the first place it is more than probable that there is no story underneath; then, if there is one, perhaps it would be a story which he did not like to talk about. As for me, I am quite convinced that ... but come, don't let us tell fibs! You know that I cannot keep any secrets from you. I know this story, and I will tell it you in a few words; nothing easier. "How did it come about, Monsieur l'abbé," I said to him one day, "that with your brains and education you resigned yourself to the care of a little village?" He replied, with a sad smile: "It is easier to be the pastor of poor peasants than of townspeople. Everyone must cut his coat according to his cloth." "That is why," said I, "you ought to be in a better position." "I was once told," he went on, "that your uncle, the Bishop of N——, had deigned to notice me in order to offer me the cure of Sainte-Marie; it is the best in the diocese. My old aunt, who is my only surviving relative, and who lives at N——, said that it was a very desirable position for me. But I am all right here, and I learnt with pleasure that the bishop had made another choice. What does it matter to me? Am I not happy at Noirmoutiers? If I can do a little good here it is my place; I ought not to leave it. Besides, town life reminds me...." He stopped, his eyes became sad and dreamy, then, recovering himself suddenly, he said, "We are not working at our botany...." I could not think any longer of the litter of old hay on the table, and I continued my questions. "When did you take orders?" "Nine years ago." "Nine years ... but surely you were then old enough to be established in a profession? I do not know, but I have always imagined it was not a youthful call which led you to the priesthood." "Alas! no," he said, in an ashamed manner; "but if my vocation came late, it was determined by causes ... by a cause...." He became embarrassed and could not finish. As for me, I plucked up courage. "I will wager," I said, "that a certain bouquet which I have seen had some part in that determination." Hardly had the impertinent question escaped me than I could have bitten out my tongue rather than have uttered such a thing, but it was too late. "Why, yes, Madam, that is true; I will tell you all about it, but not to-day—another time. The Angelus is about to ring." And he had left before the first stroke of the bell. I expected some terrible story. He came again the next day, and he himself took up the conversation of the previous day. He confessed to me that he had loved a young person of N——, but she had little fortune, and he, a student, had no other resources besides his wits. He said to her: "I am going to Paris, where I hope to obtain an opening; you will not forget me while I am working day and night to make myself worthy of you?" The young lady was sixteen or seventeen years old, and was very sentimental. She gave him her bouquet as a token of faith. A year after he heard of her marriage with the lawyer of N—— just when he had obtained a professorship in a college. He was overwhelmed by the blow, and renounced the chair. He told me that during these years he could not think of anything else, and he seemed as much moved whilst reciting this simple love story as though it had only just happened. Then he took the bouquet out of his pocket. "It was childish of me to keep it," he said, "perhaps even it was wrong," and he threw it on the fire. When the poor flowers had finished crackling and blazing, he went on in a calmer voice: "I am grateful to you for having asked me to tell this story. I have to thank you for making me part with a souvenir which it is scarcely suitable I should keep." But his heart was full, and it was easy to see how much the sacrifice had cost him. Poor priests! what a life is theirs! They must forbid themselves the most innocent thoughts, and must banish from their hearts every feeling which makes the happiness of other men ... even those recollections which are a part of life itself. Priests remind us of ourselves, of all unfortunate women to whom every living feeling is forbidden as criminal. We are allowed to suffer, but even in that we must hide our pain. Good-bye, I reproach myself for my ill-advised curiosity, but it was indulged in on your behalf.
(We omit here several letters which do not contain any reference to the Abbé Aubain.)
The same to the same.
NOIRMOUTIERS,... May, 1845.
I have meant to write to you for a long time, my dear Sophie, but have always been kept back by a feeling of shame. What I want to tell you is so strange, so ridiculous and, withal, so sad, that I scarcely know whether you will be moved to tears or to laughter. I am still at a loss to understand it myself. But I will come to the facts without more beating about the bush. I have mentioned the Abbé Aubain to you several times in my previous letters: he is the curé of our village, Noirmoutiers. I also told you the story which led to his entering into the priesthood. Living away from everybody, and my mind full of those melancholy thoughts which you know trouble me, the companionship of a clever, cultivated and agreeable man was extremely congenial to me. Very likely I let him see that he interested me, for, in a very short time, he came to our house as though he were an old friend. I admit it was quite a novel pleasure to me to talk with a man of cultured mind. The ignorance of the world did but enhance his intellectual distinction. Perhaps, too—for I must tell you everything; I do not wish to hide from you any little failings of my character—perhaps, too, the naïvete of my coquetry (to use your own expression), for which you have often scolded me, has been at work unconsciously. I love to be pleasant to people who please me, and I want to be liked by those whom I like.... I see you open your eyes wide at this discourse, and I think I can hear you exclaim "Julie!" Don't be anxious; I am too old to be silly. But to continue. A degree of intimacy has sprung up between us without—let me hasten to say—anything either having been said or done inconsistent with his sacred calling. He is very happy in my society. We often talk of his earlier days, and more than once my evil genius has prompted me to bring up the subject of that romantic attachment which cost him a bouquet (now lying in ashes on my hearth) and the gloomy cassock he wears. It was not difficult to see that he thought of his faithless mistress less often. One day he met her in the town, and even spoke to her. He told me all about it on his return, and added quite calmly that she was happy and had several charming children. He saw, by chance, some of Henry's fits of temper; hence ensued almost unavoidable confidences from my side, and on his increased sympathy. He understood my husband as though he had known him for a matter of ten years. Furthermore, his advice was as wise as yours, and more impartial, for you always hold that both sides are in the wrong. He always thinks I am in the right, but at the same time recommends prudence and tact. In short, he proves himself a devoted friend. There is something almost feminine about him which captivates me. His disposition reminds me of yours: it is great-minded and strong, sensitive and reserved, with an exaggerated sense of duty.... I jostle my words together one on top of the other in order to delay what I want to tell you. I cannot speak openly; this paper frightens me. If only I had you in the fireside corner, with a little frame between us, embroidering the same piece of work! But at length, at length, Sophie, I must tell you the real truth. The poor fellow is in love with me. You may laugh, or perhaps you are shocked? I wish I could see you just now. He has not of course said a word to me, but those large dark eyes of his cannot lie.... At these words I believe you will laugh. What wonderful eyes those are which speak unconsciously! I have seen any number of men try to make theirs expressive who only managed to look idiotic. I must confess that my bad angel almost rejoiced at first over this unlucky state of things. To make a conquest—such a harmless conquest as this one—at my age! It is something to be able to excite such a feeling, such an impossible passion!... But shame on me! This vile feeling soon passed away. I said to myself I have done wrong to a worthy man by my thoughtless conduct. It is dreadful; I must put a stop to it immediately. I racked my brains to think how I could send him away. One day we were walking together on the beach at low tide; he did not dare to utter one word, and I was equally embarrassed. Five moments of deadly silence followed, during which I picked up shells to cover my confusion. At last I said to him, "My dear Abbé, you must certainly have a better living than this. I shall write to my uncle the bishop; I will go to see him if necessary." "Leave Noirmoutiers!" he exclaimed, clasping his hands. "But I am so happy here! What more can I desire while you are here? You have overwhelmed me with good things, and my little house has become a palace." "No," I replied, "my uncle is very old; if I had the misfortune to lose him I should not know whom to address to obtain a suitable post." "Alas! Madam, I should be very sorry to leave this village!... The curé de Sainte-Marie is dead,... but I am not troubled, because I believe he will be replaced by l'abbé Raton, who is a most excellent priest. I am delighted with his appointment, for if Monseigneur had thought of me——"
"The curé de Sainte-Marie is dead!" I cried.
"I will go to my uncle at N—— to-day."
"Ah, Madam, do nothing in the matter. The Abbé Raton is much better fitted for it than I; and, then, to leave Noirmoutiers!..."
"Monsieur l'abbé," I said resolutely, "you must!" At these words he lowered his head and did not venture to oppose. I nearly ran back to the château. He followed me a couple of paces behind, poor man, too much upset to open his mouth. He was quite crushed. I did not lose a minute. By eight o'clock I was at my uncle's house. I found him very much prejudiced in favour of his Raton; but he is fond of me, and I know my power. At length, after a long discussion, I got my way. Raton is cast aside, and l'abbé Aubain is curé of Sainte-Marie. He has been at the town for two days. The poor fellow understood my "You must." He thanked me seriously, but spoke of nothing beyond his gratitude. I am grateful to him for leaving Noirmoutiers so soon, and for telling me even that he was in haste to go and thank Monseigneur. He sent me at parting his pretty Byzantine casket, and asked permission to write to me sometimes. Ah, well, my dear. Are you satisfied, Coucy? This is a lesson which I shall not forget when I get back into the world. But then I shall be thirty-three, and shall hardly expect to be admired ... and with such devotion as his!... Truly, that would be out of the question. Never mind, from the ruins of all this folly I save a pretty casket and a true friend. When I am forty, and a grandmother, I will plot to obtain the Abbé Aubain a living in Paris. Some day you will see this come to pass, my dear, and he will give your daughter her first communion.
The Abbé Aubain to the Abbé Bruneau. Professor of Theology at Saint-A——.
N——, May, 1845.
My Dear Professor,—It is the curé of Sainte-Marie who is writing to you, not any longer the humble, officiating priest of Noirmoutiers. I have left my solitary marshes and behold me a citizen, installed in a fine living, in the best street in N——; curé of a large, well-built church, well kept up, of splendid architecture, depicted in every album in France. The first time that I said Mass before a marble altar, which glittered with gilding, I had to ask myself if I really were myself. But it is true enough, and one of my delights is the hope that at the next vacation you will come and pay me a visit. I shall have a comfortable room to offer you, and a good bed, not to mention some bordeaux, which I call my bordeaux of Noirmoutiers; and I venture to say it is worth your acceptance. But, you ask me, how did you get from Noirmoutiers to Sainte-Marie? You left me at the entrance to the nave, you find me now at the steeple.
O Melibœe deus nobis hæc otia fecit.
Providence, my dear Professor, sent a grand lady from Paris to Noirmoutiers. Misfortunes of a kind we shall never know had temporarily reduced them to an income of 10,000 crowns per annum. She is an agreeable and good woman, unfortunately a bit jaded by frivolous reading, and by association with the dandies of the capital. Bored to death by a husband with whom she has little in common, she did me the honour of becoming interested in me. There were endless presents and continual invitations, then every day some fresh scheme in which I was wanted. "M. l'abbé, I want to learn Latin.... M. l'abbé, I want to be taught botany." Horresco referens, did she not also desire that I should expound theology to her? What would you have, my dear Professor? In fact, to quench such thirst for knowledge would have required all the professors of Saint-A——. Fortunately, such whims never last long: the course of studies rarely lasted beyond the third lesson. When I told her that the Latin for rose was rosa, she exclaimed, "What a well of learning you are, M. l'abbé! How could you allow yourself to be buried at Noirmoutiers?" To tell you the truth, my dear Professor, the good lady, through reading the silly books that are produced nowadays, got all sorts of queer ideas into her head. One day she lent me a book which she had just received from Paris, and which enraptured her. Abélard, by M. de Rémusat. Doubtless you have read it, and admired the learned research made by the author, unfortunately in so wrong a spirit. At first I skipped to the second volume, containing the "Philosophy of Abélard," and, after reading that with the greatest interest, I returned to the first, to the life of the great heresiarch. This, of course, was all Madam had deigned to read. That, my dear Professor, opened my eyes. I realised that there was danger in the society of fine ladies enamoured of learning. This one of Noirmoutiers could give points to Héloïse in the matter of infatuation. This, to me, extremely novel situation was troubling me much, when, suddenly, she said to me, "M. l'abbé, the incumbent of Sainte-Marie is dead, and I want you to have the living. You must." Immediately she drove off in her carriage to see Monseigneur; and, a few days later, I was curé of Sainte-Marie, somewhat ashamed of having obtained the living by favour, but in other respects delighted to be far away from the toils of a lioness of the capital. A lioness, my dear Professor, is the Parisian expression for a woman of fashion.
Ω Ζεῠ, γυναικῶν οἳον ὦπάσὰς γένος.
Ought I to have rejected this good fortune in order to defy the temptation? What nonsense! Did not St. Thomas of Canterbury accept castles from Henry II.? Good-bye, my dear Professor, I look forward to discussing philosophy with you in a few months' time, each of us in a comfortable armchair, before a plump chicken and a bottle of bordeaux, more philosophorum. Vac let me ama.
 A line taken, I believe, from the Seven Against Thebes, of Æschylus, "O Jupiter! women!... what a race thou hast given us!" The Abbé Aubain and his Professor, the Abbé Bruneau, are good classical scholars.
Coming out of Porto-Vecchio, and turning north-west towards the centre of the island, the ground is seen to rise very rapidly, and, after three hours' walk by tortuous paths, blocked by large boulders of rocks, and sometimes cut by ravines, the traveller finds himself on the edge of a very broad mâquis, or open plateau. These plateaus are the home of the Corsican shepherds, and the resort of those who have come in conflict with the law. The Corsican peasant sets fire to a certain stretch of forest to spare himself the trouble of manuring his lands: so much the worse if the flames spread further than is needed. Whatever happens, he is sure to have a good harvest by sowing upon this ground, fertilised by the ashes of the trees which grew on it. When the corn is gathered, they leave the straw because it is too much trouble to gather. The roots, which remain in the earth without being consumed, sprout, in the following spring, into very thick shoots, which, in a few years, reach to a height of seven or eight feet. It is this kind of underwood which is called mâquis. It is composed of different kinds of trees and shrubs mixed up and entangled as in a wild state of nature. It is only with hatchet in hand that man can open a way through, and there are mâquis so dense and so thick that not even the wild sheep can penetrate them.
If you have killed a man, go into the mâquis of Porto-Vecchio, with a good gun and powder and shot, and you will live there in safety. Do not forget to take a brown cloak, furnished with a hood, which will serve as a coverlet and mattress. The shepherds will give you milk, cheese, chestnuts, and you will have nothing to fear from the hand of the law, nor from the relatives of the dead, except when you go down into the town to renew your stock of ammunition.
When I was in Corsica in 18— Mateo Falcone's house was half a league from this mâquis. He was a comparatively rich man for that country, living handsomely, that is to say, without doing anything, from the produce of his herds, which the shepherds, a sort of nomadic people, led to pasture here and there over the mountains. When I saw him, two years after the event that I am about to tell, he seemed about fifty years of age at the most. Imagine a small, but robust man, with jet-black, curly hair, an aquiline nose, thin lips, large and piercing eyes, and a deeply tanned complexion. His skill in shooting passed for extraordinary, even in his country, where there are so many crack shots. For example, Mateo would never fire on a sheep with swanshot, but, at one hundred and twenty paces, he would strike it with a bullet in its head or shoulders as he chose. He could use his gun at night as easily as by day, and I was told the following example of his adroitness, which will seem almost incredible to those who have not travelled in Corsica. A lighted candle was placed behind a transparent piece of paper, as large as a plate, at eighty paces off. He put himself into position, then the candle was extinguished, and in a minute's time, in complete darkness, he shot and pierced the paper three times out of four.
With this conspicuous talent Mateo Falcone had earned a great reputation. He was said to be a loyal friend, but a dangerous enemy; in other respects he was obliging and gave alms, and he lived at peace with everybody in the district of Porto-Vecchio. But it is told of him that when at Corte, where he had found his wife, he had very quickly freed himself of a rival reputed to be equally formidable in love as in war; at any rate, people attributed to Mateo a certain gunshot which surprised his rival while in the act of shaving before a small mirror hung in his window. After the affair had been hushed up Mateo married. His wife Giuseppa at first presented him with three daughters, which enraged him, but finally a son came whom he named Fortunato; he was the hope of the family, the inheritor of its name. The girls were well married; their father could reckon in case of need upon the poniards and rifles of his sons-in-law. The son was only ten years old, but he had already shown signs of a promising disposition.
One autumn day Mateo and his wife set out early to visit one of their flocks in a clearing of the mâquis. Little Fortunato wanted to go with them, but the clearing was too far off; besides, it was necessary that someone should stay and mind the house; so his father refused. We shall soon see that he had occasion to repent of this.
He had been gone several hours and little Fortunato was quietly lying out in the sunshine, looking at the blue mountains, and thinking that on the following Sunday he would be going to town to have dinner at his uncle's, the corporal, when his meditations were suddenly interrupted by the firing of a gun. He got up and turned towards that side of the plain from which the sound had proceeded. Other shots followed, fired at irregular intervals, and each time they came nearer and nearer until he saw a man on the path which led from the plain to Mateo's house. He wore a pointed cap like a mountaineer, he was bearded, and clothed in rags, and he dragged himself along with difficulty, leaning on his gun. He had just received a gunshot in the thigh.
This man was a bandit (Corsican for one who is proscribed) who, having set out at night to get some powder from the town, had fallen on the way into an ambush of Corsican soldiers. After a vigorous defence he had succeeded in escaping, but they gave chase hotly, firing at him from rock to rock. He was only a little in advance of the soldiers, and his wound made it out of the question for him to reach the mâquis before being overtaken.
He came up to Fortunato and said—
"Are you the son of Mateo Falcone?"
"I am Gianetto Sanpiero. I am pursued by the yellow-collars. Hide me, for I cannot go any further."
"But what will my father say if I hide you without his permission?"
"He will say that you did right."
"How do you know?"
"Hide me quickly; they are coming."
"Wait till my father returns."
"Good Lord! how can I wait? They will be here in five minutes. Come, hide me, or I will kill you."
Fortunato replied with the utmost coolness—
"Your gun is unloaded, and there are no more cartridges in your carchera."
"I have my stiletto."
"But could you run as fast as I can?"
With a bound he put himself out of reach.
"You are no son of Mateo Falcone! Will you let me be taken in front of his house?"
The child seemed moved.
"What will you give me if I hide you?" he said, drawing nearer.
The bandit felt in the leather pocket that hung from his side and took out a five-franc piece, which he had put aside, no doubt, for powder. Fortunato smiled at the sight of the piece of silver, and, seizing hold of it, he said to Gianetto—
"Don't be afraid."
He quickly made a large hole in a haystack which stood close by the house. Gianetto crouched down in it, and the child covered him up so as to leave a little breathing space, and yet in such a way as to make it impossible for anyone to suspect that the hay concealed a man. He acted, further, with the ingenious cunning of the savage. He fetched a cat and her kittens and put them on the top of the haystack to make believe that it had not been touched for a long time. Then he carefully covered over with dust the bloodstains which he had noticed on the path near the house, and, this done, he lay down again in the sun with the utmost sangfroid.
Some minutes later six men with brown uniform with yellow collars, commanded by an adjutant, stood before Mateo's door. This adjutant was a distant relative of the Falcones. (It is said that further degrees of relationship are recognised in Corsica than anywhere else.) His name was Tiodoro Gamba; he was an energetic man, greatly feared by the banditti, and had already hunted out many of them.
"Good day, youngster," he said, coming up to Fortunato. "How you have grown! Did you see a man pass just now?"
"Oh, I am not yet so tall as you, cousin," the child replied, with a foolish look.
"You soon will be. But, tell me, have you not seen a man pass by?"
"Have I seen a man pass by?"
"Yes, a man with a pointed black velvet cap and a waistcoat embroidered in red and yellow."
"A man with a pointed cap and a waistcoat embroidered in scarlet and yellow?"
"Yes; answer sharply and don't repeat my questions."
"The priest passed our door this morning on his horse Piero. He asked me how papa was, and I replied——"
"You are making game of me, you rascal. Tell me at once which way Gianetto went, for it is he we are after; I am certain he took this path."
"How do you know that?"
"How do I know that? I know you have seen him."
"How can one see passers-by when one is asleep?"
"You were not asleep, you little demon: the gunshots would wake you."
"You think, then, cousin, that your guns make noise enough? My father's rifle makes much more noise."
"May the devil take you, you young scamp. I am absolutely certain you have seen Gianetto. Perhaps you have even hidden him. Here, you fellows, go into the house, and see if our man is not there. He could only walk on one foot, and he has too much common sense, the villain, to have tried to reach the mâquis limping. Besides, the traces of blood stop here."
"Whatever will papa say?" Fortunato asked, with a chuckle. "What will he say when he finds out that his house has been searched during his absence?"
"Do you know that I can make you change your tune, you scamp?" cried the adjutant Gamba, seizing him by the ear. "Perhaps you will speak when you have had a thrashing with the flat of a sword."
Fortunato kept on laughing derisively.
"My father is Mateo Falcone," he said significantly.
"Do you know, you young scamp, that I can take you away to Corte or to Bastia? I shall put you in a dungeon, on a bed of straw, with your feet in irons, and I shall guillotine you if you do not tell me where Gianetto Sanpiero is."
The child burst out laughing at this ridiculous menace.
"My father is Mateo Falcone," he repeated.
"Adjutant, do not let us embroil ourselves with Mateo," one of the soldiers whispered.
Gamba was evidently embarrassed. He talked in a low voice with his soldiers, who had already been all over the house. It was not a lengthy operation, for a Corsican hut only consists of a single square room. The furniture comprises a table, benches, boxes and utensils for cooking and hunting. All this time little Fortunato caressed his cat, and seemed, maliciously, to enjoy the confusion of his cousin and the soldiers.
One soldier came up to the haycock. He looked at the cat and carelessly stirred the hay with his bayonet, shrugging his shoulders as though he thought the precaution ridiculous. Nothing moved, and the face of the child did not betray the least agitation.
The adjutant and his band were in despair; they looked solemnly out over the plain, half inclined to return the way they had come; but their chief, convinced that threats would produce no effect upon the son of Falcone, thought he would make one last effort by trying the effect of favours and presents.
"My boy," he said, "you are a wide-awake young dog, I can see. You will get on. But you play a dangerous game with me; and, if I did not want to give pain to my cousin Mateo, devil take it! I would carry you off with me."
"But, when my cousin returns I shall tell him all about it, and he will give you the whip till he draws blood for having told me lies."
"How do you know that?"
"You will see. But, look here, be a good lad and I will give you something."
"You had better go and look for Gianetto in the mâquis, cousin, for if you stay any longer it will take a cleverer fellow than you to catch him."
The adjutant drew a watch out of his pocket, a silver watch worth quite ten crowns. He watched how little Fortunato's eyes sparkled as he looked at it, and he held out the watch at the end of its steel chain.
"You rogue," he said, "you would like to have such a watch as this hung round your neck, and to go and walk up and down the streets of Porto-Vecchio as proud as a peacock; people would ask you the time, and you would reply, 'Look at my watch!'"
"When I am grown up, my uncle the corporal will give me a watch."
"Yes; but your uncle's son has one already—not such a fine one as this, however—for he is younger than you."
The boy sighed.
"Well, would you like this watch, kiddy?"
Fortunato ogled the watch out of the corner of his eyes, just as a cat does when a whole chicken is given to it. It dares not pounce upon the prey, because it is afraid a joke is being played on it, but it turns its eyes away now and then, to avoid succumbing to the temptation, licking its lips all the time as though to say to its master, "What a cruel joke you are playing on me!"
The adjutant Gamba, however, seemed really willing to give the watch. Fortunato did not hold out his hand; but he said to him with a bitter smile—
"Why do you make fun of me?"
"I swear I am not joking. Only tell me where Gianetto is, and this watch is yours."
Fortunato smiled incredulously, and fixed his black eyes on those of the adjutant. He tried to find in them the faith he would fain have in his words.
"May I lose my epaulettes," cried the adjutant, "if I do not give you the watch upon that condition! I call my men to witness, and then I cannot retract."
As he spoke, he held the watch nearer and nearer until it almost touched the child's pale cheeks. His face plainly expressed the conflict going on in his mind between covetousness and the claims of hospitality. His bare breast heaved violently almost to suffocation. All the time the watch dangled and twisted and even hit the tip of his nose. By degrees he raised his right hand towards the watch, his finger ends touched it; and its whole weight rested on his palm although the adjutant still held the end of the chain loosely.... The watch face was blue.... The case was newly polished.... It seemed blazing in the sun like fire.... The temptation was too strong.
Fortunato raised his left hand at the same time, and pointed with his thumb over his shoulder to the haycock against which he was leaning. The adjutant understood him immediately, and let go the end of the chain. Fortunato felt himself sole possessor of the watch. He jumped up with the agility of a deer, and stood ten paces distant from the haycock, which the soldiers at once began to upset.
It was not long before they saw the hay move, and a bleeding man came out, poniard in hand; when, however, he tried to rise to his feet his stiffening wound prevented him from standing. He fell down. The adjutant threw himself upon him and snatched away his dagger. He was speedily and strongly bound, in spite of his resistance.
Gianetto was bound and laid on the ground like a bundle of faggots. He turned his head towards Fortunato, who had come up to him.
"Son of ——," he said to him more in contempt than in anger.
The boy threw to him the silver piece that he had received from him, feeling conscious that he no longer deserved it; but the outlaw took no notice of the action. He merely said in a cool voice to the adjutant—
"My dear Gamba, I cannot walk; you will be obliged to carry me to the town."
"You could run as fast as a kid just now," his captor retorted brutally. "But don't be anxious, I am glad enough to have caught you: I would carry you for a league on my own back and not feel tired. All the same, my friend, we will make a litter for you out of the branches and your cloak. The farm at Crespoli will provide us with horses."
"All right," said the prisoner; "I hope you will put a little straw on your litter to make it easier for me."
While the soldiers were busy, some making a rough stretcher out of chestnut boughs and others dressing Gianetto's wound, Mateo Falcone and his wife suddenly appeared in a turning of the path from the mâquis. The wife came in bending laboriously under the weight of a huge sack of chestnuts, while her husband jaunted up carrying his gun in one hand, and a second gun slung in his shoulder-belt. It is considered undignified for a man to carry any other burden but his weapons.
When he saw the soldiers, Mateo's first thought was that they had come to arrest him. But he had no ground for this fear, he had never quarrelled with the law. On the contrary he bore a good reputation. He was, as the saying is, particularly well thought of. But he was a Corsican, and mountain bred, and there are but few Corsican mountaineers who, if they search their memories sufficiently, cannot recall some little peccadillo, some gunshot, or dagger thrust, or such-like bagatelle. Mateo's conscience was clearer than most, for it was fully ten years since he had pointed his gun at any man; yet at the same time he was cautious, and he prepared to make a brave defence if needs be.
"Wife, put down your sack," he said, "and keep yourself in readiness."
She obeyed immediately. He gave her the gun which was slung over his shoulder, as it was likely to be the one that would inconvenience him the most. He held the other gun in readiness, and proceeded leisurely towards the house by the side of the trees which bordered the path, ready to throw himself behind the largest trunk for cover, and to fire at the least sign of hostility. His wife walked close behind him holding her reloaded gun and her cartridges. It was the duty of a good housewife, in case of a conflict, to reload her husband's arms.
On his side, the adjutant was very uneasy at the sight of Mateo advancing thus upon them with measured steps, his gun pointed and finger on trigger.
"If it happens that Gianetto is related to Mateo," thought he, "or he is his friend, and he means to protect him, two of his bullets will be put into two of us as sure as a letter goes to the post, and he will aim at me in spite of our kinship!..."
In this perplexity, he put on a bold face and went forward alone towards Mateo to tell him what had happened, greeting him like an old acquaintance. But the brief interval which separated him from Mateo seemed to him of terribly long duration.
"Hullo! Ah! my old comrade," he called out. "How are you, old fellow? I am your cousin Gamba."
Mateo did not say a word, but stood still; and while the other was speaking, he softly raised the muzzle of his rifle in such a manner that by the time the adjutant came up to him it was pointing sky-wards.
"Good day, brother," said the adjutant, holding out his hand. "It is a very long time since I saw you."
"Good day, brother."
"I just called in when passing to say 'good day' to you and cousin Pepa. We have done a long tramp to-day; but we must not complain of fatigue, for we have taken a fine catch. We have got hold of Gianetto Sanpiero."
"Thank Heaven!" exclaimed Giuseppa. "He stole one of our milch goats last week."
Gamba rejoiced at these words.
"Poor devil!" said Mateo, "he was hungry."
"The fellow fought like a lion," continued the adjutant, slightly nettled. "He killed one of the men, and, not content to stop there, he broke Corporal Chardon's arm; but that is not of much consequence, for he is only a Frenchman.... Then he hid himself so cleverly that the devil could not have found him. If it had not been for my little cousin Fortunato, I should never have discovered him."
"Fortunato?" cried Mateo.
"Fortunato?" repeated Giuseppa.
"Yes; Gianetto was concealed in your haycock there, but my little cousin showed me his trick. I will speak of him to his uncle the corporal, who will send him a nice present as a reward. And both his name and yours will be in the report which I shall send to the superintendent."
"Curse you!" cried Mateo under his breath.
By this time they had rejoined the company. Gianetto was already laid on his litter, and they were ready to set out. When he saw Mateo in Gamba's company he smiled a strange smile; then, turning towards the door of the house, he spat on the threshold.
"It is the house of a traitor!" he exclaimed.
No man but one willing to die would have dared to utter the word "traitor" in connection with Falcone. A quick stroke from a dagger, without need for a second, would have immediately wiped out the insult. But Mateo made no other movement beyond putting his hand to his head like a dazed man.
Fortunato went into the house when he saw his father come up. He reappeared shortly carrying a jug of milk, which he offered with downcast eyes to Gianetto.
"Keep off me!" roared the outlaw.
Then, turning to one of the soldiers, he said——
"Comrade, give me a drink of water."
The soldier placed the flask in his hands, and the bandit drank the water given him by a man with whom he had but now exchanged gunshots. He then asked that his hands might be tied crossed over his breast instead of behind his back.
"I prefer," he said, "to lie down comfortably."
They granted him his request. Then, at a sign from the adjutant, they set out, first bidding adieu to Mateo, who answered never a word, and descended at a quick pace towards the plain.
Well-nigh ten minutes elapsed before Mateo opened his mouth. The child looked uneasily first at his mother, then at his father, who leant on his gun, looking at him with an expression of concentrated anger.
"Well, you have made a pretty beginning," said Mateo at last in a voice calm, but terrifying, to those who knew the man.
"Father," the boy cried out, with tears in his eyes, just ready to fall at his knees.
"Out of my sight!" shouted Mateo.
The child stopped motionless a few steps off his father, and began to sob.
Giuseppa came near him. She had just seen the end of the watch-chain hanging from out his shirt.
"Who gave you that watch?" she asked severely.
"My cousin the adjutant."
Falcone seized the watch, and threw it against a stone with such force that it broke into a thousand pieces.
"Woman," he said, "is this my child?"
Giuseppa's brown cheeks flamed brick-red.
"What are you saying, Mateo? Do you know to whom you are speaking?"
"Yes, very well. This child is the first traitor of his race."
Fortunato's sobs and hiccoughs redoubled, and Falcone kept his lynx eyes steadily fixed on him. At length he struck the ground with the butt end of his gun; then he flung it across his shoulder, retook the way to the mâquis, and ordered Fortunato to follow him. The child obeyed.
Giuseppa ran after Mateo, and seized him by the arm.
"He is your son," she said in a trembling voice, fixing her black eyes on those of her husband, as though to read all that was passing in his mind.
"Leave go," replied Mateo; "I am his father."
Giuseppa kissed her son, and went back crying into the hut. She threw herself on her knees before an image of the Virgin, and prayed fervently. When Falcone had walked about two hundred yards along the path he stopped at a little ravine and went down into it. He sounded the ground with the butt end of his gun, and found it soft and easy to dig. The spot seemed suitable to his purpose.
"Fortunato, go near to that large rock."
The boy did as he was told, then knelt down.
"Father, father, do not kill me!"
"Say your prayers!" repeated Mateo in a terrible voice.
The child repeated the Lord's Prayer and the Creed, stammering and sobbing. The father said "Amen!" in a firm voice at the close of each prayer.
"Are those all the prayers you know?"
"I know also the Ave Maria and Litany, that my aunt taught me, father."
"It is long, but never mind."
The child finished the Litany in a faint voice.
"Have you finished?"
"Oh, father, forgive me! forgive me! I will never do it again. I will beg my cousin the corporal with all my might to pardon Gianetto!"
He went on imploring. Mateo loaded his rifle and took aim.
"May God forgive you!" he said.
The boy made a frantic effort to get up and clasp his father's knees, but he had no time. Mateo fired, and Fortunato fell stone dead.
Without throwing a single glance at the body, Mateo went back to his house to fetch a spade with which to bury his son. He had only returned a little way along the path when he met Giuseppa, who had run out alarmed by the sound of firing.
"What have you done?" she cried.
"Where is he?"
"In the ravine; I am going to bury him. He died a Christian. I shall have a mass sung for him. Let someone tell my son-in-law Tiodoro Bianchi to come and live with us."
 Corporals were formerly the chief officers of the Corsican communes after they had rebelled against the feudal lords. To-day the name is still given sometimes to a man who, by his property, his connections and his clients, exercises influence, and a kind of effective magistracy over a pieve or canton. By an ancient custom Corsicans divide themselves into five castes: gentlemen (of whom some are of higher, magnifiques, some of lower, signori, estate), corporals, citizens, plebeians and foreigners.
 Voltigeurs: a body raised of late years by the Government, which acts in conjunction with the gendarmes in the maintenance of order.
 The uniform of the voltigeurs was brown with a yellow collar.
 A leather belt which served the joint purposes of a cartridge-box and pocket for despatches and orders.
 The ordinary greeting of Corsicans.
"There are more things in heav'n and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Though people laugh at visions and supernatural apparitions, several have been too well authenticated to be discredited, for, should one be consistent, it would be necessary to ignore the whole witness of historic evidence.
A correctly drawn-up report, signed by four reliable witnesses, is the guarantee of the truth of the incident about to be related. I should add that the prediction set forth in this report was so set forth and cited a very long time before the events occurred in our days which seemed to fulfil it.
Charles XI., father of the famous Charles XII., was a most despotic king, but at the same time the wisest of the monarchs who have reigned over Sweden. He restricted the overbearing privileges of the nobility, abolished the power of the Senate, and created laws by his own authority; in fact, he changed the constitution of the country, which before was an oligarchy, and compelled the states to vest the absolute control in him. He was, besides, an enlightened man, steadfastly attached to the Lutheran religion, brave, of an inflexible, self-contained, decided character, and entirely devoid of imagination.
He had just lost his wife, Ulrique Eléonore. Although it is said that his severity had hastened her end, he held her in esteem, and appeared more affected by her death than would have been expected of a man so hard of heart. After that event he grew still more taciturn and gloomy than before, and gave himself up to work with an application that showed an urgent desire to dispel sad thoughts.
At the close of one autumn evening he was sitting in his private apartment in the Stockholm Palace, in his dressing-gown and slippers, before a great fire. With him was his chamberlain, Count Brahé, who was one of his most favoured courtiers, and his physician, Baumgarten, who, it may be remarked in passing, set up for a sceptic, and who would have liked people to disbelieve in everything but in medicine. This night he had been summoned to advise on some slight ailment.
The evening lengthened, but contrary to his habit the King made no sign of dismissal to his companions. He sat in deep silence, his head lowered, and his eyes fixed upon the burning logs, wearied of their company, but afraid, without knowing why, of being left alone. Count Brahé had shrewdly observed that his presence was distasteful to the King, and had several times hinted that he feared His Majesty was in need of repose; but the King had signified by a gesture that he wished him to remain. The physician, in his turn, spoke of the ill-effects to health of keeping late hours. Charles only muttered, "Stay where you are; I have no desire to sleep yet."
At this stage the courtiers tried several different topics of conversation, but all fell flat at the end of the second or third sentence. It was evident that His Majesty was in one of his black moods, and in such circumstance the position of a courtier is decidedly delicate. Count Brahé, suspecting that the King was brooding over the loss of his wife, gazed for some time at the portrait of the Queen which hung on the wall of the room, and remarked with a deep sigh—
"What an excellent likeness! Just the expression she wore, so majestic and yet so gentle."
"Bah!" the King broke in rudely. "That portrait is too flattering. The Queen was ugly."
He was always suspicious of there being underlying reproaches whenever anyone mentioned her name in his presence. Then, vexed at his harshness, he rose and paced the room to hide a blush of shame. He stopped in front of the window which looked on to the courtyard.
It was a dark night and the moon was in its first quarter. The palace in which the Kings of Sweden now reside was not then finished, so that Charles XI., who had begun it, lived then in the old palace on the promontory of Ritterholm overlooking the Lake Mœler. It was a vast building in the form of a horse-shoe. The King's cabinet was at one of the extremities, and nearly opposite it was the large audience hall where Parliament assembled to receive communications from the Crown.
The windows of this chamber appeared to be illuminated with a bright light. This struck the King as strange, but at first he thought the light might be produced by the torch of some valet. Still, what could anybody be doing there at such an hour, and in a room which had not been opened for some time? Besides, the light was too bright to proceed from a single torch. It might be the work of an incendiary, but there was no smoke, and the windows were not broken.
Charles watched the windows some time in silence. No sound could be heard; everything betokened simply an illumination. Meanwhile Count Brahé extended his hand towards the bellrope to summon a page in order to send him to find out the cause of this singular light, but the King stopped him. "I will go to the hall myself," he said.
Whilst he spoke they saw his face grow pale with superstitious fear; but he went out with a firm tread, followed by the chamberlain and physician, each holding a lighted candle.
Baumgarten went to rouse the sleeping porter who had charge of the keys with an order from the King to open immediately the doors of the assembly hall. The man was greatly surprised at this unexpected order. He dressed himself quickly, and joined the King with his bunch of keys. At first he opened the door of a gallery which was used as an antechamber or private entrance to the assembly hall. The King entered. Imagine his surprise at finding the walls completely draped in black.
"Who gave the order for hanging this room thus?" he demanded angrily.
"No one, Sire, to my knowledge," replied the uneasy porter. "The last time I swept out the gallery it was panelled, as it always has been.... I am certain this hanging never came out of Your Majesty's depository."
The King, walking at a rapid pace, had already traversed more than two-thirds of the gallery. The Count and porter followed closely; the physician Baumgarten was a little behind, divided between his fears of being left alone and of being exposed to the consequences of what promised to be such a strange adventure.
"Go no further, Sire," exclaimed the porter. "Upon my soul, there is sorcery behind this. At such an hour ... and since the death of the Queen your gracious wife ... they say she walks in this gallery.... May God protect us!"
"Stop, Sire," entreated the Count in turn. "Do you not hear the noise that comes from the assembly hall? Who knows to what dangers Your Majesty may be exposed?"
"Sire," broke in Baumgarten, whose candle had just been blown out by a gust of wind, "at least allow me to go and fetch a score of your halberdiers."
"Let us go in," said the King sternly, stopping before the door of the great apartment. "Porter, open the door immediately."
He kicked it with his feet, and the noise, echoing from the roof, resounded along the gallery like the report of a cannon.
The porter trembled so much that he could not find the keyhole.
"An old soldier trembling!" said Charles, shrugging his shoulders. "Come, Count, you open the door."
"Sire," replied the Count, recoiling a step, "if Your Majesty commanded me to walk up to the mouth of a German or a Danish cannon I would obey unhesitatingly, but you wish me to defy the powers of hell."
The King snatched the key from the hands of the porter.
"I quite see," he observed contemptuously, "that I must attend this matter myself," and before his suite could stay him he had opened the heavy oaken door and entered the great hall, pronouncing the words "By the power of God!" His three acolytes, urged by a curiosity stronger than their fear—and perhaps ashamed to desert their King—went in after him. The great hall was lighted up by innumerable torches, and the old figured tapestry had been replaced by black hangings. Along the walls hung, as usual, the German, Danish, and Russian flags—trophies taken by the soldiers of Gustavus Adolphus. In their midst were the Swedish banners, covered with crape as for a funeral.
An immense assembly filled the seats. The four orders of the State (the nobility, clergy, citizens and peasants) were arranged in their proper order. All were clothed in black, and this array of human faces, lit up against a dark background, so dazzled the eyes of the four witnesses of this extraordinary scene that not one figure was recognisable in the crowd. Thus an actor who stands before a large audience is not able to distinguish a single individual; he sees but a confused mass of faces.
Seated on the raised throne from which the King usually addressed his Parliament, they saw a bleeding corpse clothed in the royal insignia. At his right stood a child with a crown on his head and a sceptre in his hand; at his left an old man, or rather another spectre, leant against the throne. He wore the State cloak as used by the former administrators of Sweden before Vasa had made it a kingdom. In front of the throne, seated before a table covered with large books and rolls of documents, were several grave and austere-looking personages, clothed in long black robes, who looked like judges. Between the throne and the seats of the assembly a block was raised covered with black crepe; against it lay an axe.
No one in that supernatural assembly seemed to notice the presence of Charles and the three people with him. At their entry they could only hear at first a confused murmur of inarticulate words; then the oldest of the black-robed judges arose—the one who seemed to be the president—and struck the book which lay open in front of him three times with his hand. Deep silence immediately followed. Then there came into the hall by a door opposite to that by which Charles had entered several young men of noble bearing and richly clad. Their hands were tied behind their backs, but they walked with heads erect and confident looks. Behind them a stalwart man in a jerkin of brown leather held the ends of the cords which bound their hands. The most important of the prisoners—he who walked first—stopped in the middle of the hall before the block and looked at it with supreme disdain. While this was going on the corpse seemed to shake convulsively, and a fresh stream of crimson blood flowed out of its wound. The youth kneeled down and laid his head on the block, the axe flashed in the air and the sound of its descent followed immediately. A stream of blood gushed over the dais and mingled with that from the corpse; the head bounded several times on the crimsoned pavement, and then rolled at the feet of Charles. It dyed him with its blood.
Up to this moment surprise had held the King dumb, but this frightful spectacle unloosed his tongue. He stepped forward towards the dais, and, addressing himself to the figure who was clothed in the administrator's robes, he pronounced boldly the well-known form of words—
"If thou art of God, speak; if thou art from the Other, leave us in peace."
The phantom spoke to him slowly in solemn tones—
"KING CHARLES! this blood will not be shed during your reign...." (here the voice grew less distinct) "but five reigns later. Woe, woe, woe to the House of Vasa!"
Then the spectres of the countless personages who formed this extraordinary assembly gradually became fainter, until they soon looked like coloured shadows, and then they completely disappeared. All the fantastic lights were extinguished, and those of Charles and his suite revealed only the old tapestries, slightly waving in the draught. They heard for some time afterwards a melodious sound, which one of the witnesses described as like the sighing of wind amongst leaves, and another to the rasping sound given by the strings of a harp that is being tuned. All agreed as to the duration of the apparition, which they judged to have lasted about ten minutes.
The black draperies, the dissevered head, the drops of blood which had stained the dais—all had vanished with the phantoms; only upon Charles's slipper was there a bloodstain. This was the sole witness left by which to recall the scene of that night, had it not been sufficiently engraved upon his memory.
When the King returned to his chamber he had an account written of what he had seen, signed it himself, and caused it to be signed by his fellow-witnesses. In spite of the precautions taken to keep the contents of this document secret it was soon known, even during the lifetime of Charles XI. It still exists, and up to the present time no one has thought fit to throw doubts upon its authenticity. In it the King concludes with these remarkable words:—
"And if that which I herein relate is not the simple truth, I renounce all my hope in the life to come, the which I may have merited for some good deeds done, and, above all, for my zeal in working for the welfare of my people, and in preserving the faith of my forefathers."
Now, when the reader recollects the death of Gustavus III., and the doom of Ankarstrœm, his assassin, they will find more than a mere coincidence between that event and the circumstances of this extraordinary prophecy.
The young man beheaded before the States Assembly should be called Ankarstrœm.
The crowned corpse should be Gustavus III.
The child, his son and successor, Gustavus Adolphus IV.
Finally, the old man was the Duke of Sudermania, uncle of Gustavus IV., regent of the Crown, and, in the end, King, after the deposition of his nephew.
(L'enlèvement de la redoute.)
A military friend of mine, who died of fever in Greece some years ago, related to me one day the story of the first engagement in which he had taken part. His narrative was so striking that I wrote it down from memory as soon as I had an opportunity. It is as follows:—
On the evening of the 4th September I rejoined my regiment. I found the colonel in bivouac. At first he received me rather coolly, but, after having read General B——'s letter of recommendation, his manner changed, and he said a few kind words.
He introduced me to my captain, who had just returned from a reconnoitring expedition. This captain, whose acquaintance I had scarcely the time to make, was a tall, dark man, with a severe and forbidding expression. He had been a common soldier, and had won his commission and the cross on the battlefield. His voice was weak and hoarse, and contrasted strangely with his almost gigantic height. I was told that this strange voice was due to a ball which had pierced him through at the Battle of Jéna.
On hearing that I came from the school at Fontainebleau he shrugged his shoulders and said, "My lieutenant died yesterday." I understood that he meant to imply, "You are intended to take his place, and you are not up to it." A cutting reply rose to my lips, but I restrained myself.
Behind Fort Cheverino, which stood about two gunshots off our bivouac, rose the moon. It was large and red as it usually is when rising. But this evening it seemed to me to have an unusual splendour. For an instant the fort stood outlined in black against the shining orb, which looked like the cone of a volcano during eruption. An old soldier, near whom I was standing, remarked on the moon's colour.
"How very red it is!" he said; "it is a sign that it will cost much to take this precious fort."
I was always superstitious, and this omen, above all at such a moment, impressed me greatly. I laid myself down, but could not sleep. I got up and walked about for some time, watching the long lines of fire scattered over the heights beyond the village of Cheverino.
When I thought the fresh, sharp night air had sufficiently quickened my blood, I returned to the fire. I wrapped myself carefully in my cloak and closed my eyes, thinking not to open them before the morning. But sleep obstinately evaded me. Gradually my thoughts took a melancholy hue. I told myself I had not one friend amongst the hundred thousand men who covered that plain. If I were wounded I should go to the hospital, there to be treated without consideration by ignorant surgeons. All I had heard of surgical operations returned to my memory. My heart beat fast, and instinctively I arranged my handkerchief and pocket-book over my breast as a kind of cuirass. I was overcome with weariness, and I became more drowsy each moment, but at each moment some dark thought sprang up with greater force and woke me into a start.
Nevertheless weariness overcame me, and, when the reveille sounded, I was fast asleep. We fell into our ranks; the roll was called; then we piled arms again, and everything suggested that we were going to pass a quiet day.
About three o'clock an aide-de-camp arrived, bearing a despatch, and we were ordered to shoulder arms. Our skirmishers scattered themselves over the plain; we followed them slowly, and in about twenty minutes' time we saw all the outposts of the Russians fall back and re-enter the fort.
One battery of artillery was on our right, another on our left, but both were well in advance of us. They opened a sharp fire on the enemy, who answered briskly; and very soon the fort of Cheverino was hidden under thick clouds of smoke.
Our regiment was almost protected from the Russian fire by a ridge of earth. Since they aimed rather at our artillery than at us, their balls passed over our heads, or at the most cast earth and small stone at us.
The moment the order to advance was given us my captain looked at me so closely that I felt impelled to stroke my budding moustache two or three times with as nonchalant an air as possible. In fact, I had no fear; my only dread was that people might think me afraid. Furthermore, these inoffensive shots contributed to keep me in a calm state of mind. My vanity told me that I was really in danger, being at last under battery fire. I was delighted to find myself so cool, and I dreamed of the pleasure of relating in the drawing-room of Madame B——, Rue de Provence, the story of the taking of the fort of Cheverino.
The colonel rode past our company and said to me, "Well, you are going to get it hot at your first battle."
I smiled with a truly military air, at the same time brushing from my sleeve some dust which a ball thirty paces off had thrown up.
It was evident that the Russians had noticed the miscarriage of their balls, for they replaced them by shells which could more easily reach us in the hollow where we were posted. One that burst near by knocked off my cap and killed a man close to me.
"I congratulate you," said the captain to me, as I picked up my cap. "Now you are safe for the day."
I was acquainted with the soldier's superstition that the axiom non bis in idem holds good as much on the battlefield as in the court of justice. I replaced my cap jauntily.
"That's a free and easy kind of greeting," I replied as jovially as possible. This poor joke seemed excellent under the circumstances.
"You are lucky," said the captain; "you need not fear anything more, and you will command a company to-night. I know very well that a bullet for me will find its billet to-day. Each time I have been wounded the officer next to me has been grazed by a spent bullet, and," he added in a lower and half-ashamed tone, "their names always began with a P."
I took courage; most people would have done the same; most people would have been equally struck with such prophetic words. Conscript as I was, I did not think I could confide my feelings to anybody. I thought I ought always to appear cool and brave.
About half an hour after, the fire of the Russians slackened considerably: then we sallied out of our cover to storm the fort.
Our regiment was composed of three battalions. The second was ordered to outflank the fort from the side of the gorge; the other two were to make the assault. I was in the third battalion.
Coming out from behind the buttress which had protected us, we were greeted by several rounds of fire, which did but little harm in our ranks. The whistling of the balls startled me: I kept looking round, thus bringing upon myself joking remarks from my more seasoned comrades.
"Upon the whole," I said, "a battle is not so very dreadful."
We advanced at the double, preceded by our sharpshooters; suddenly the Russians gave three cheers, three distinct hurrahs, then they stopped firing and became silent.
"I do not like that silence," said my captain; "it bodes no good to us."
I thought our men were a little too noisy, and I could not help inwardly contrasting their tumultuous clamour with the impressive silence of the enemy.
We quickly reached the outskirts of the fort, where the palisades had been broken and the earth thrown up by our balls. The soldiers leapt upon this newly-broken ground with shouts of "Vive l'Empereur!" more loudly than one could have thought possible from men who had already shouted so much.
I raised my eyes, and never shall I forget the spectacle before me. Most of the smoke had risen, and was hanging like a canopy about twenty feet above the fort. Through the blue haze I could see the Russian Grenadiers, with arms fixed, like motionless statues, behind their half-destroyed parapet. I can see now each soldier, his left eye fixed on us, his right hidden by his raised gun. In an embrasure a few feet from us a man was holding a lighted fuse to a cannon.
I shuddered, and I thought my last hour had come.
"Now the fun begins," cried my captain. "Here goes!"
These were the last words I heard him speak.
A roll of drums sounded in the fort. I saw all the muskets levelled. I closed my eyes, and heard an appalling uproar, followed by shrieks and groans. I opened my eyes, surprised to find myself still alive. The fort was again wrapped in smoke. I was surrounded with wounded and dying. My captain lay stretched at my feet: his head had been smashed by a ball, and I was covered with his brains and blood. Out of all my company there were only six men and myself left standing.
A moment of stupor followed this carnage. The colonel, putting his hat on the end of his sword, was the first to climb the parapet, shouting "Vive l'Empereur!" He was soon followed by all the survivors. I cannot remember clearly what followed. I do not know how we entered the fort. We fought hand to hand in such a dense smoke that we could not see. I suppose I hit, for I found my sabre covered with blood. At last I heard the shout "Victory!" and, the smoke clearing away, I saw the ground of the fort covered with blood and corpses. The guns especially were buried under heaps of dead. Scattered about in disorder stood about two hundred men in French uniform: some were loading their pieces, others wiping their bayonets. Eleven Russian prisoners were with them.
The colonel was lying covered with blood on a broken ammunition box near the gorge. Several soldiers crowded round him. I joined them.
"Where is the senior captain?" he asked one of the sergeants.
The sergeant shrugged his shoulders in a significant way.
"And the senior lieutenant?"
"Here is the gentleman who came yesterday," said the sergeant in a perfectly calm voice.
The colonel smiled bitterly.
"Well, monsieur, you are commander-in-chief," said he to me. "Have the gorge of the fort fortified at once with these waggons. The enemy is in force, but General C—— is coming to support you."
"Colonel," I said to him, "you are badly wounded."
"A fig for that, my lad. We have taken the fort!"
Captain Ledoux was a born sailor. He had started at the bottom and worked his way up to the rank of assistant quarter-master. At the battle of Trafalgar his left hand was so severely damaged by splinters of wood that he had to have it amputated, and, consequently, he received his discharge, together with first-rate testimonials. The quiet monotony of home life was distasteful to him, and, when he was offered the post of second lieutenant on board a corsair, he eagerly seized the opportunity of going to sea again. The money which came to him as his share of a few captures enabled him to buy books and to study the theory of navigation as a supplement to the practical knowledge he already possessed. In due time he became captain of a pirate lugger which could boast of three guns and a crew of sixty dauntless sailors: the longshoremen of Jersey still remember the exploits of this pirate lugger. Then came the peace, which was a great grief to him; he had amassed a considerable amount of money during the war and had looked forward to increase his little fortune at the expense of the English. But he was obliged to offer his services to peaceful merchants; and, as he was known to be a man of courage and experience, he had no difficulty in finding a ship. When slave trading was prohibited by law it could not be undertaken without running great risks, for it was necessary not only to evade the watchfulness of the French Customs officers (which was not so very difficult), but also to escape being captured by English cruisers. Captain Ledoux proved invaluable to these "ebony" merchants.
Unlike the majority of sailors who spend many years in subordinate positions, Captain Ledoux had not that deep-rooted dread of innovation, nor that innate feeling of routine, which even their elevation to higher rank is seldom able to expunge. On the contrary, he was the first to suggest to his shipbuilder the use of metal tanks for holding fresh water. He had the handcuffs, too, and the chains—indispensable articles on board such vessels—made in a particular fashion and carefully varnished to prevent their rusting. But that for which he was well known to all the slave traders was the brig he had constructed under his personal supervision and according to his own ideas. He had christened her Hope. Built for slave trading, she was a fast sailer, narrow and long like a war-ship, and yet able to hold a great number of blacks. He had had the 'tween decks made narrower and less lofty; had reduced the height to forty inches, declaring that that left sufficient room for any nigger of reasonable stature to sit at ease—why should they want to stand up? There would be more than enough standing for them when they reached the colonies, he explained.
The slaves would sit with their backs against the sides of the ship in two parallel lines, leaving a free space between their feet which, in all other slave ships, was only used as a gangway. It was Ledoux's idea to make use of this free space by putting more slaves there, forcing them to sit at right angles to the others. In this way his brig would hold at least ten slaves more than any other ship of the same size. In case of need, more still could have been put on board, but he was considerate enough to insist that each nigger should have a space measuring about five foot by two in which to stretch his limbs during the six weeks' journey. For, after all, niggers were human beings like the white men, he explained to the shipwright, as an excuse for his generous treatment.
The Hope weighed anchor in the port of Nantes on a Friday—a fact which superstitious people subsequently recalled. The Customs officers who visited the brig for the purpose of inspecting everything on board did not come across six large cases full of chains, handcuffs, and those irons which were for some unknown reason called "bonds of justice." The very considerable supply of fresh water which had been stowed on board did not seem to astonish them, in spite of the fact that the Hope (according to her bills) was only going to Senegambia for the purpose of trading in wood and ivory. The journey was certainly not a long one, but perhaps they thought there was no harm in erring on the safe side—for the water would be invaluable if they happened to be becalmed.
So the good ship Hope set sail on a Friday, thoroughly well provisioned and equipped. Ledoux fancied at first that the masts seemed hardly stout enough; but in the course of time he found that the vessel fulfilled his expectations in every way. They had a first-rate journey, and the coast of Africa was soon sighted. The anchor was lowered at Joal (if I mistake not), that portion of the coast being at the time unguarded by English cruisers; and the native merchants immediately came on board.
The moment could not have been more favourable. Tamango, a well-known warrior and slave dealer, had just reached the coast with a convoy of slaves, which he was selling at cheap rates with the confidence of a man who feels that he has the power of meeting any demands as soon as the article of his trade becomes scarcer.
Captain Ledoux landed at the mouth of the river and called on Tamango. He found him sitting in a straw hut, which had been hastily erected for him, together with his two wives, a few petty traders, and the slave drivers. Tamango had felt bound to put some clothes on to receive the white captain. The old blue uniform which he wore could still be recognised as having been a corporal's, but there were two gold epaulettes on each shoulder, both fastened to the same button and hanging down, one behind, the other in front. As he did not wear a shirt, and the tunic was too small for a man of his stature, a broad zone of black skin was visible between the white facings of the uniform and the canvas breeches. It looked like a belt. A heavy cavalry sword which hung at his side was fastened by a string, and a fine double-barrelled English rifle completed the outfit in which the African warrior doubtless considered himself more than a match for the most exquisite dandy from London or Paris.
Captain Ledoux stared at him for some time in silence, and Tamango, flattered by the belief that he was making a great impression on the white man, drew himself up like a grenadier being inspected by a strange general. Ledoux, after having critically examined him, turned to his chief officer and observed, "There's a piece of brawn which would fetch at least a thousand crowns if we could only land him safe and sound in Martinique."
As soon as they had sat down the customary greetings were exchanged, a sailor who had a smattering of the Volof language acting as interpreter. A basket full of bottles of brandy was brought, drinking began at once, and the captain thought to propitiate Tamango by making him a present of a fine copper powder-flask with a portrait of Napoleon embossed on it. The gift was acknowledged with the conventional show of gratitude. Tamango then suggested that they should go and sit outside in the shade (not forgetting the brandy bottle) and inspect the slaves he had to sell.
They came forward in a long file, worn out by fear and fatigue, all bearing on their shoulders a huge fork over two yards long, the two prongs of which were fastened at the back of the neck with a wooden bar. Whenever they set out on a march one of the slave drivers bears on his shoulder the handle of the yoke of the first slave, who carries that of the man behind him; the second slave carries the yoke-handle of the third slave, and so on with the others. When a halt is made, the leader of the file drives the pointed end of his yoke-handle into the ground and the whole column comes to a stand-still. Of course, there can be no question of escape from the file with a heavy yoke two yards long fastened round one's neck.
The captain shrugged his shoulders as each slave, male or female, passed before him; he called them puny creatures, said that the females were too old or too young, and complained of the degeneracy of the black race.
"The whole race is deteriorating," he declared. "It used to be quite different in the olden days when every woman was five foot six, and four men could easily have worked a frigate's capstan and raised the sheet anchor."
However, he critically picked out a first assortment of blacks, choosing the strong and the good-looking, for which he was willing to pay the usual price; on the remainder he demanded a considerable reduction. But Tamango knew his own mind; he insisted that his wares were valuable, and spoke of the scarcity of men and the dangers of the traffic. He ended by quoting the very lowest price he could possibly accept for the slaves the white captain still had room for on board.
Ledoux stared at him in amazement and indignation when he heard Tamango's proposal interpreted. The captain got up, swearing like a trooper, apparently with the intention of putting an end there and then to all bargaining with a man so unreasonable. But Tamango, after some difficulty, persuaded him to sit down. Another bottle was opened and the discussion renewed. Now it was the black man's turn to call the white captain's views outrageous and extravagant. They talked and haggled as bottle after bottle was emptied; but the liquor was having quite a different effect on the two contracting parties. The more the Frenchman drank the less became his offers, and the more the nigger drank the less he insisted on his demands. So, when the case of brandy was finished, it was found that they had come to terms. In exchange for the hundred and sixty slaves, Tamango accepted a quantity of worthless cotton, powder, gun-flints, three casks of brandy, and fifty rusty rifles. The captain, to ratify the compact, shook the half-tipsy nigger by the hand, and immediately the slaves were handed over to the French sailors, who lost no time in putting on iron chains and handcuffs in place of the wooden yokes—a striking demonstration of the superiority of European civilisation.
There were still about thirty slaves—children, old men, or infirm women. But there was no more room on board. Tamango, not knowing what to do with this refuse, offered to sell them to the captain at the rate of a bottle of brandy a head. The offer was a tempting one. Ledoux remembered a performance of the Sicilian Vespers, at Nantes, at which he had noticed that a considerable number of sturdy and well-furnished people had managed to push their way into the pit which was already full, and ultimately find seats, thanks to the compressibility of human bodies. He agreed to take the twenty slimmest of the thirty slaves. Tamango then offered to dispose of the ten remaining for a glass of brandy a head. The fact that children go half-price and take up half-room in railway carriages crossed the captain's mind. So he accepted three children, but said he would not take one more. Tamango, seeing himself left still with seven slaves on his hands, seized his rifle and took aim at the nearest woman. She was the mother of the three children.
"Buy her," he said to the white man, "or I'll fire. Half a glass of brandy, or she dies."
"But what the deuce am I to do with her?" asked Ledoux.
Tamango fired, and the slave fell down dead.
"Now for another!" cried Tamango, taking aim at a decrepit old man. "A glass of brandy, or——"
The bullet went off at random, for one of his wives had suddenly seized his arm. She had happened to recognise in the old man whom her husband was about to kill a guiriot, or magician, who had prophesied that she would be queen.
Tamango, excited by all the brandy he had consumed, lost control of himself when he found himself thus thwarted. He struck his wife roughly with the butt end of his gun, and turned towards the captain.
"Take her," he said; "I'll make you a present of this woman."
"I shall be able to find room for you," said Ledoux, as he took her by the hand, and he smiled when he saw how beautiful she was.
The interpreter—a charitable man—asked Tamango for the remaining six slaves in exchange for a cardboard snuff-box. He took off their yokes and told them to go whither they would. They hurried away in different directions, at a loss to know how to reach their homes, two hundred leagues from the coast.
In the meantime the captain had said good-bye to Tamango and was hard at work getting his cargo on board. He did not think it safe to remain longer in the river, for fear of the cruisers which might return at any moment. So he made up his mind to set sail on the morrow. Tamango could not do anything but lie down on the grass in the shade, and sleep away the effects of the brandy.
When he woke up the vessel was already under sail, and moving down the river. Tamango, still very dizzy from the effects of his recent debauch, called for his wife Ayché. He was reminded that she had been unfortunate enough to displease him, and that he had made a present of her to the white captain who had taken her away on board with him. Half stupefied at this news, Tamango clasped his head in his hands; then, seizing his gun, he rushed away by the most direct route towards a little creek about half a mile from the sea. He knew the river made several detours before it reached the sea, and, by means of a small boat which ought to be there, he hoped to overtake the brig, delayed in her voyage, as she would be, by the winding river. He was not deceived; he leaped into the boat and just managed to reach the slave ship in time.
Ledoux was surprised to see him; still more so to learn that he wanted his wife back.
"You gave her to me," he said, "and I have no intention of giving you back your present," and he turned and left him.
But the black insisted, said he would give back some of the goods he had received in exchange for the slaves. The captain laughed, and told him that Ayché was a fine woman and that he intended to keep her. Poor Tamango burst into a torrent of tears, and groaned and cried like a man being tortured by a surgeon. He flung himself about the deck calling for his darling Ayché, and dashed his head against the planks as though he were trying to commit suicide. The captain, quite unmoved, pointed to the shore, and suggested that it was time for him to go. But Tamango held to his point. He went to the length of offering his golden epaulettes, his sword, his rifle. All in vain.
Meantime the lieutenant of the Hope suggested to the captain, "Why not take this lusty brute in place of the three slaves who died during the night; he is worth more than they."
Ledoux looked at him. Yes. He was worth at least a thousand crowns. Besides, this journey, which promised to be exceptionally remunerative, would probably be his last; his fortune would be made, and he would give up the slave trade. If so, what did it matter what sort of a reputation he left behind on the coast of Guinea? There was not a soul in sight on the shore, and the black chieftain was entirely at his mercy. It would only be a matter of disarming him, for it would hardly be safe to lay hands on him while he still had arms in his possession. So Ledoux asked him for his gun, as if he wished to examine it to see whether it was really worth exchanging for the beautiful negress. Whilst he was scrutinising it, he took care to jerk the charge out. The lieutenant succeeded in obtaining his sword, and Tamango stood disarmed. Two sturdy sailors sprang on him, brought him to the ground, and tried to bind him. But the black man struggled heroically as soon as he recovered from the surprise, and he fought for long with the two sailors in spite of the disadvantage at which they had him. By sheer strength he sprang to his feet, and with one blow he felled the man who held him by the neck. Leaving half his coat in the hands of the other sailor, he dashed furiously towards the lieutenant to regain his sword, and received a cut on the head which, without going deep, made a large wound. He fell a second time, and the sailors soon bound him hand and foot. He yelled with rage and struggled and writhed like a wild boar caught in a net; after a while, seeing that all resistance was useless, he shut his eyes and remained absolutely motionless. Had it not been for his heavy and hurried breathing, one might have thought him dead.
"Bless my soul!" exclaimed the captain, "won't these slaves he sold to us chuckle heartily when they see him a slave like them! They will begin to think there must be such a thing as Providence."
Meanwhile poor Tamango was bleeding fast. The charitable interpreter, who, the day before, had saved the lives of the six slaves, came to bind up his wound and speak a few words of sympathy with him. No record exists of what he said, and Tamango remained as motionless as a corpse. Two sailors carried him like a package down to his allotted place in the 'tween decks. For two days he refused to touch anything to eat or drink, and he scarcely opened his eyes. His companions in captivity, once his prisoners, had watched him brought into their midst with terror-stricken amazement. So great was the awe with which his mere presence still inspired them that not one of them durst jeer at the misery of the man who was the cause of all their suffering.
Sailing rapidly on the wings of a strong land breeze, the vessel was soon out of sight of the coast of Africa. The captain's mind, no longer haunted with visions of English cruisers, began to dwell on the prospective fortune he hoped to reap in the colonies towards which he was sailing. His cargo of "ebony" was in good health. There were no contagious diseases. Only twelve negroes had died of suffocation, and they were the weakest—a mere trifle. But in order to preserve his human cargo as much as possible from the effects of the passage he had them brought up on deck once a day. Three successive batches of these unhappy slaves came up to inhale, for one hour each batch, the stock of fresh air which was to last through the twenty-four hours. A portion of the crew mounted guard, armed to the teeth for fear of insurrection; but they took care that the slaves were never entirely freed from their shackles. Sometimes a sailor who could play the violin would treat them to some music, and it was curious to watch all those black faces gazing up at the fiddler, gradually losing their look of abject despair, and then breaking forth into loud laughter—clapping their hands too, as much as their chains would allow them. Exercise being essential to health, one of Captain Ledoux's salutary regulations was that all the slaves should be made to dance, just as horses are made to prance when embarked on a long journey.
"Come along, my boys, dance and amuse yourselves!" the captain would shout in a voice of thunder, cracking his heavy slave-whip. In less than no time the poor blacks were leaping and dancing.
For some time Tamango's wound kept him below the hatches. But at length he appeared on deck; at first he stood in the midst of the crowd of cringing slaves, holding his proud head very high, and his sad but untroubled eyes gazed over the wide expanse of ocean which surrounded the ship; then he lay down, or rather threw himself down on deck, without even troubling to shift his chains into a less awkward position. Ledoux was sitting behind him on the quarter-deck, smoking his pipe at ease. Near him stood Ayché, holding in her hand a tray of liquors which she was ready to pour out for him. Instead of shackles she wore a pretty blue cotton dress and dainty morocco shoes, which clearly showed that she occupied a position of honour in the captain's domestic circle. One of the black men who loathed Tamango pointed her out to him. As soon as he caught sight of her he cried out, and, springing up impetuously, reached the quarter-deck before the sailors on guard could prevent such a flagrant breach of naval discipline.
"Ayché!" he shouted at the top of his voice—and Ayché shrieked as he added, "do you imagine that there is no MAMA JUMBO in the land of the white man?"
The sailors rushed to his side with uplifted clubs, but he calmly folded his arms and walked slowly back to his place, whilst Ayché burst into a flood of tears, and seemed appalled at his mysterious question.
The interpreter explained what the awful Mama Jumbo was, the very mention of which had roused such terror.
"It is the bogey of the black men," he said. "When a husband is afraid his wife is going to behave as some wives do, as well in France as Africa, he threatens her with Mama Jumbo. I have seen Mama Jumbo with my own eyes, and I understand the trick; but the poor blacks ... they are so unsophisticated they do not understand anything. Picture to yourself a group of women dancing in an evening—having a folgar, as they call it in their dialect—near a thick and sombre grove. Suddenly weird music is heard. Not a soul is to be seen, for all the musicians are hidden amongst the trees. The sounds of the reed flutes, wooden drums, balafos, and guitars made of the half of a gourd make a melody calculated to produce the devil himself. No sooner do the women hear the music than they begin to tremble and would run away if their husbands would let them; they know too well what is going to happen. Suddenly a huge white figure as tall as our top-gallant-mast comes stalking out of the wood, with a head as big as a pumpkin, eyes like hawse-holes, and a mouth like the devil's, full of fire. It moves slowly, very slowly, and does not come more than half a cable's length away from the grove. The women shriek and yell like costermongers. It is 'Mama Jumbo.' And then their husbands tell them to confess their sins, for if they do not speak the Mama Jumbo is there to gobble them up alive. Some of the women are foolish enough to acknowledge everything, and their husbands proceed to give them a sound thrashing."
"But what is the white figure, this Mama Jumbo?" asked the captain.
"Why, it's only some Merry Andrew, muffled up in a white sheet, holding up on the end of a stick a hollow gourd, with a lighted candle inside, that serves as a head. It is nothing worse than that, for it does not require much ingenuity to deceive these poor blacks. But, when all's said and done, it's not such a bad invention, this Mama Jumbo of theirs; I wish my wife believed in it."
"If my wife knows nothing of Mistress Jumbo," said Ledoux, "she has met with Master Stick, and she knows well enough what the result would be if she played any pranks with me. We are not a long-suffering family, we Ledoux, and though I have only one fist left it can still use a rope's-end to some purpose. As to that joker who started the subject of Mama Jumbo, tell him to keep still, and that if he frightens this little woman again I'll have him flogged till his skin changes from black to the colour of an underdone beefsteak."
The captain led Ayché down to his room and tried to comfort her, but neither his caresses nor his blows (there was a limit even to the captain's patience) succeeded in pacifying the beautiful negress; her tears flowed in torrents. Ledoux went up on deck in a bad humour and vented his feelings on the officer on duty concerning the first thing that came uppermost.
During the night, when nearly everyone on board was sound asleep and the men on watch were listening to a low, sad, monotonous chant, which seemed to come from the 'tween decks, they heard the shrill, piercing shriek of a woman. Then they heard Ledoux's fierce voice swearing and threatening, and the sound of his heavy whip echoed through the whole vessel. Then the noise ceased, and all was silent. On the morrow Tamango came on deck, his face disfigured, but still as proud and undaunted as ever.
As soon as Ayché caught sight of him she rushed from the quarter-deck, where she had been sitting by the side of the captain, and fell on her knees before Tamango, exclaiming in a frenzy of despair—
"Forgive me, Tamango, forgive me!"
Tamango looked steadily into her eyes for a minute, and then, seeing that the interpreter was not within earshot, he ejaculated "A file!" and, turning his back upon her, lay down on the deck. The captain chid her savagely, even struck her once or twice, and enjoined her never again to speak to her ex-husband. But he had not the least inkling of the meaning of the few words they had exchanged, and he did not ask any questions about them.
Tamango meanwhile, locked up with the other slaves, continually exhorted them to make one great effort to regain their liberty. He spoke to them of the small number of the white men, and called their attention to the increasing carelessness of their guards; and, without going into details, he promised them that he would find some way of leading them back to their country. He boasted of his knowledge of the occult sciences, for which the black races have great veneration, and declared that any who refused to assist in the attempt would incur the wrath of the devil. All these harangues were delivered in the dialect of the Peules, which was known to most of the slaves, but which the interpreter did not understand. Such was the credit of the dreaded orator, and so inveterate was their habit of obeying him, that his eloquence worked wonders, and he was begged to fix a day for their emancipation long before he had even had time to work out all his plans. So he told the conspirators vaguely that the time was not yet come, and that the devil, who appeared to him at night, had not yet given the word; but he bade them hold themselves in readiness for the first signal. In the meantime he did not lose any opportunity of testing the vigilance of the crew. One day he saw a sailor leaning over the side of the vessel watching a shoal of flying-fish which were following the ship. Tamango took the rifle which had been left standing against the gunwale, and began to handle it, mimicing grotesquely the exercises he had seen the sailors do. The rifle was immediately taken from him, but he had learnt that it was possible to touch a weapon without at once arousing suspicion. When the time came for him to use one in earnest, woe betide the man who tried then to wrest it from him!
One morning Ayché threw him a biscuit, making at the same time a sign which he alone understood. The biscuit contained a small file, and on that tool hung the success of the plot. Tamango took good care not to let his companions see the file; but, when night had fallen, he began to utter unintelligible sounds, accompanied by weird gestures. Gradually he became more and more excited, and the mutterings increased to loud groans. As they listened to the varied intonations of his voice, the slaves felt convinced that he was engaged in an animated conversation with an unseen person. They were all terrified, not doubting that the devil was at that moment in their midst. Tamango put the finishing touch to the scene by exclaiming joyfully—
"Comrades! the spirit which I have conjured has at length fulfilled his promises, and I hold in my hand the talisman which is to save us. Now you only need to summon up a little courage, and you are free men."
Those near him were allowed to feel the file, and not one of them was sharp enough to suspect that the whole thing was a gross imposture.
At length, after many days of expectation, the great day of liberty and vengeance dawned. The conspirators had been sworn to secrecy by a solemn oath, and the arrangements had been settled after much deliberation. The strongest amongst those who happened to go on deck at the same time as Tamango were to seize the arms of their guards, some of the others were to go to the captain's room to fetch the arms which were kept there. Those who had succeeded in filing through their handcuffs were to lead the way; but in spite of several nights' persistent toil, the majority of the slaves were still unable to take any active part in the attack. So three lusty negroes were singled out to slay the man who kept in his pocket the keys of the manacles, and to return at once and unfetter their companions.
That day Captain Ledoux seemed in the best of tempers. Contrary to his usual habits, he pardoned a cabin boy who had incurred a flogging. He congratulated the officer of the watch on his seamanship, told the crew he was pleased with their work and promised to give them all a gratuity at Martinique, which they would reach very soon. All the sailors at once began to amuse themselves by making plans as to how they would use the gratuity. Their thoughts were of brandy and of the swart women of Martinique, when Tamango and his fellow—conspirators were brought up on deck.
They had been careful to file their handcuffs in such a way that nothing was noticeable, but at the same time so that they could break them open easily. Furthermore, they rattled their chains so much that morning, that they seemed to be twice as heavily laden as usual. When they had had time to drink in the air, they all joined hands and began to dance, whilst Tamango intoned his tribal war song which he always used before going to battle. After they had danced for some time, Tamango, as if tired out, stretched himself at full length near a sailor who was leaning back at his ease against the ship's bulwarks; all the others followed his example, so that every one of the guards was singled out by the several negroes.
As soon as he had managed to remove his handcuffs quietly, Tamango gave a tremendous shout, which was the signal, seized the sailor near him violently by the legs, threw him head over heels, and, planting his foot on his stomach, wrenched the gun away from him and shot the officer of the watch. Simultaneously every other sailor on deck was seized, disarmed, and forthwith strangled. From all sides came sounds of the struggle. The boatswain's mate, who had the keys of the handcuffs, was one of the first victims. In a moment the deck was swarming with a crowd of niggers. Those who could not find arms seized the bars of the capstan or the oars of the gig. The fate of the white men was already sealed; a few sailors made a show of resistance on the quarter-deck, but they lacked weapons and resolution. Ledoux, however, was still alive, and had not lost any of his courage.
Seeing that Tamango was the soul of the revolt, he hoped that if he could kill him short work might be made of his accomplices. So he sprang forward, sword in hand, calling to him at the top of his voice. Tamango lost no time in rushing to the encounter. The two commanders met in one of the gangways—one of those narrow passages leading aft from the quarter-deck. Tamango, holding his gun by the barrel, and using it as a club, was the first to strike. The white man dexterously avoided the blow: the butt end of the musket, falling violently on the planks, was smashed, and the weapon was dashed out of Tamango's hand. He stood defenceless, and Ledoux advanced with a diabolical grin. But before he had time to make use of his sword, Tamango, as agile as the panthers of his native country, sprang into his adversary's arms and seized the hand which held the sword. The one strained to hold the sword, the other to wrench it from him. During this desperate struggle both stumbled, but the black man fell undermost. Without a moment's hesitation Tamango hugged his adversary with all his strength, and bit his neck with such vehemence that the blood spurted out as it does under the teeth of a lion. The sword slipped from the weakened hand of the captain. Tamango seized it, sprang up, and, his mouth streaming with blood, yelled his triumph as he stabbed his dying enemy through and through.
The victory was complete. The few remaining sailors entreated the negroes to have pity on them, but all, even the interpreter who had never done them any harm, were mercilessly massacred. The lieutenant fell fighting heroically. He had withdrawn aft, behind one of those small cannons which turn on a pivot, and are loaded with grape-shot. With his left hand he worked the gun and with his right he used the sword so dexterously that he attracted a crowd of negroes round him. Then he fired the gun into their midst and paved a way with dead and dying. The next moment he was torn to pieces.
When the body of the last white man had been hacked to pieces and thrown overboard the negroes began to feel that their thirst for vengeance was satiated, and they gazed up at the ship's sails which were swollen by the fresh breeze, and seemed still to obey their oppressors and to carry the conquerors in spite of their triumph to the land of slavery.
"All our labour is lost!" they murmured in their despair. "Will the great fetish of the white men lead us back to our homes now that we have shed the blood of so many of his worshippers?"
Someone suggested that Tamango might be able to make the fetish obey. So they all began to shout for Tamango.
He was in no hurry to hear them. They found him standing in the fore cabin, one hand resting on the captain's bloody sword, the other stretched out to his wife Ayché, who was on her knees kissing it. But the joy of victory could not obliterate a strange look of anxiety which was visible in every line of his face. Less fatuous than the rest, he was better able to understand the difficulties of the situation.
At last he came upon deck, affecting a serenity which he did not feel. Urged by a hundred confused voices to change the course of the vessel, he stalked slowly towards the helm as if to postpone for a while the moment which would determine both for himself and for the others the extent of his power.
Not even the dullest negro on board had failed to notice the influence exercised on the movements of the ship by a certain wheel and the box fixed in front of it; but the whole mechanism was a profound mystery to them. Tamango examined the compass for some time, moving his lips as if he were reading the characters which were printed on it; then he put his hand to his head and assumed the pensive look of a man doing mental arithmetic. All the negroes stood round him, their mouths wide open, their eyes one stare, anxiously taking note of his slightest movement. At length, with that mixture of fear and confidence which ignorance inspires, he gave the guiding wheel a tremendous turn.
Like a noble steed which rears when some imprudent rider drives in his spurs, the good ship Hope plunged into the waves at this unwonted handling, as if she felt insulted and wished to sink together with her stupid pilot. The sails being now entirely at cross purposes with the helm, the ship heeled over so suddenly that it looked as if she were bound to founder. Her long yards soused into the sea; many of the niggers stumbled and some fell overboard. However, the ship righted herself and stood proudly against the swell, as if to make one last effort to avoid destruction. But there came a sudden gust of wind, and, with a deafening crash, the two masts fell, snapped a few feet above the deck, which was strewn with wreckage and covered with a tangled network of ropes. The terrified negroes fled below the hatchway howling with fear, but as there was nothing left to catch the breeze, the vessel remained steady and merely rocked to and fro on the billows.
Presently the more daring amongst them came up again and began clearing away the wreckage which encumbered the deck. Tamango remained motionless, leaning on the binnacle, his face buried in his folded arms. Ayché, who was beside him, did not dare to speak. One by one the negroes approached him; they began to murmur, and soon a torrent of insults and abuse was let loose upon him.
"Traitor! impostor!" they cried, "you are the cause of all our ills: you sold us to the white men, you persuaded us to rebel, you boasted your wisdom, you promised to take us back to our homes. We trusted you, fools that we were! and now we have narrowly escaped destruction because you have offended the white man's fetish."
Tamango raised his head proudly, and the negroes who stood round him slunk back. He picked up two guns, beckoned to his wife to follow him, and strode through the group of men, who made way for him. He went to the bow of the vessel, where he constructed a kind of barricade of planks and barrels; behind this entrenchment he fixed the two muskets in such a way that the bayonets were menacingly prominent. There he sat down and they left him alone.
Some of the negroes were in tears; others raised their hands to the sky, and called on their own and the white man's fetishes; others knelt down by the compass and wondered at its ceaseless movements, entreating it to take them to their homes again; the remainder lay on the deck in a state of abject despair. Amongst these wretches were women and children shrieking from sheer terror, and a score of wounded men imploring the relief which no one dreamt of bringing them.
All of a sudden a negro appeared on deck, his face beaming with joy. He came to tell them that he had discovered where the white men stored their brandy; and his excitement and general demeanour clearly showed that he had already helped himself to some. This piece of news silenced for a while the cries of the distracted slaves. They rushed down to the steward's room and gorged the liquor. In about an hour's time they were all dancing and roaring on deck, giving vent to the excesses of brutish drunkenness. The noise of their singing and dancing mingled with the groans and sobs of the wounded. Night fell, and still the orgy continued.
Next morning, when they woke, despair again possessed them. During the night a great number of the wounded had died. The vessel was surrounded by floating corpses, and clouds were lowering over the heavy sea. They held a conference. Several experts in the art of magic, who had not dared speak of their knowledge before for fear of Tamango, now offered their services, and several potent incantations were tried. The failure of each attempt increased their despondency till at length they appealed to Tamango, who was still behind his barricade. After all, he was the wisest of them, and he alone could extricate them from the desperate condition into which he had brought them. An old man approached him with overtures of peace, and begged him to give them his advice. But Tamango, as inexorable as Coriolanus, turned a deaf ear to his entreaties. During the night, in the midst of the tumult, he had fetched a supply of biscuits and salt meat. To all appearance he had no intention of leaving the solitude of his retreat.
There was still plenty of brandy left. That, at all events, helped them to forget the sea, slavery and the approach of death. They went to sleep, and in their dreams saw Africa with its forests of gum trees, its thatched huts, and its baobabs, whose foliage shaded whole villages. The orgy of the day before was renewed, and continued for some time. They did nothing but howl and weep and tear their hair, or drink and sleep. Several died of drinking, others jumped into the sea or stabbed themselves.
One morning Tamango left his fort and advanced to the stump of the mainmast.
"Slaves!" he shouted, "the Spirit has appeared to me in a dream and revealed to me the means of helping you to return to your homes. You deserve to be abandoned to your fates, but I pity the women and children who are crying. I pardon you. Listen!"
All the negroes bowed their their heads submissively, and gathered round him.
"Only the white men," continued Tamango, "know the mystic formulas which guide these massive wooden houses; but we can steer without difficulty those small boats, which are like our own" (he pointed to the sloop and the other ship's boats). "Let us fill them with provisions, set out in them, and row in the direction of the wind. My Master and yours will make it blow in the direction of our homes."
They took his word for it. No plan could have been more reckless. Without any knowledge of the compass, ignorant as to their whereabouts, they could not do anything but row at random. His belief was that by rowing straight ahead they were certain to come, sooner or later, to a land inhabited by black men; for he had heard his mother say that white men lived in their ships, and that black men possessed the earth.
Soon afterwards everything was ready to be embarked, but only the sloop and one small boat were found to be serviceable. It was impossible to find room for the eighty negroes who were still alive, so the sick and wounded had to be abandoned. The majority of them begged to be slain rather than be left.
After endless difficulties the two boats were got under way, so heavily laden that they might at any moment be swamped in such a choppy sea. Tamango and Ayché were in the sloop, which was soon left behind by the other boat—a mere cock-boat, and far less overcharged. The wailing of the poor wretches who had been left behind on board the brig was still audible when a big wave suddenly caught the sloop athwart and swamped her. In less than a minute she had disappeared. The smaller boat saw the catastrophe, and immediately the oars were plied with redoubled energy, for fear of having to pick up those who were shipwrecked. Nearly all who were in the sloop were drowned. Only a dozen or so managed to reach the vessel again; amongst whom were Tamango and Ayché. When the sun set they could see the other boat far away on the horizon; no one knows what became of it.
Why should I weary the reader with a revolting description of the tortures of famine? About a score of human beings, crowded together, now tossed about on a stormy sea, now scorched by the fierce heat of the sun, fought daily for what scanty remains of food there were—every scrap of biscuit entailing a fight.... The weaker died, not because the stronger killed him, but because he chose to let him expire. After a few days only two were still alive on board the good brig Hope—Ayché and Tamango.
One night the sea was rough, the wind blew high, and the darkness was so intense that one end of the ship could not be seen from the other. Ayché lay on a mattress in the captain's room and Tamango sat at her feet. They had not spoken a word for many hours.
"Tamango," murmured Ayché at length, "it is I who have brought all this suffering upon you."
"I do not suffer," he answered quickly, and threw the half-biscuit, which he still had left, on the mattress beside her.
"Keep it yourself," she said gently, returning the biscuit. "I am no longer hungry. Besides, why eat? Is not mine hour come?"
Tamango got tip without answering and staggered to the deck, where he sat down against the stump of the mast. His head lolled on his breast, and he began to whistle his tribal war song. Suddenly a loud cry reached his ear in spite of the noise of the tempest; a light flashed; other shouts followed, and a huge black ship glided swiftly past the brig—so close that Tamango could see her yards pass over his head. He only saw two faces in the light of a lantern which hung from a mast. They shouted again; then their vessel, swept along by the storm, disappeared into the darkness. Doubtless the men on watch had caught sight of the disabled hulk, but the violence of the tempest had prevented their tacking. The next moment Tamango saw the flash of a cannon and heard the report; then another flash, but no report; then he saw nothing more. On the morrow not a sail was visible on the horizon. Tamango threw himself down on his mattress and closed his eyes. His wife Ayché had died that night.
I do not know how long it was before an English frigate, the Bellona, sighted a dismasted vessel, to all appearances abandoned by her crew. They sent a sloop alongside and found a negress dead and a negro by her side, so haggard and so thin that he looked like a skeleton. He was unconscious, but there was still a breath left in him. The doctor took charge of him and did all he could for him, so that when they reached Kingston, Tamango had regained his health. He was asked to give an account of his adventures, and he told them all he could remember. The Jamaica planters suggested that he should be hung as a rebel, but the governor was a kind-hearted man and took an interest in the negro, whose crime was, after all, justifiable, since he had but acted in self-defence; and, besides, the men he had murdered were only Frenchmen. He was treated in the same way as the slaves who are found on board a captured slave trader. They set him at liberty—that is to say they made him work for the Government. And he earned threepence a day besides his keep. One day the colonel of the 75th caught sight of this splendid specimen of a man, and made him a drummer in his regimental band. Tamango learnt a little English, but hardly ever spoke. To make up for that he was always drinking rum or tafia. He died in the hospital of congestion of the lungs.
 Slave dealers used to style themselves ebony merchants.
 Each negro chief has his own.
The sails hung motionless, clinging to the masts; the sea was as smooth as glass; the heat was stifling and the calm discouraging.
During a sea voyage the resources of amusement open to passengers on board ship are soon exhausted. Anyone who has spent four months together in a wooden house of one hundred and twenty feet in length knows this fact, alas! only too well. When you see the first lieutenant coming towards you you know that he will first begin talking about Rio de Janeiro, from whence he came; then of the famous Essling Bridge, which he saw made by the Marine Guards to which he belonged. After the fifteenth day you know exactly the expressions he is fond of, even the punctuation of his sentences and the different intonations of his voice. When did he ever miss dwelling sadly on the word "emperor" when he pronounced it for the first time in his recital?... He invariably added, "If you had only seen him then!!!" (three exclamation marks to denote his admiration). And the incident of the trumpeter's horse, and the ball that rebounded and carried away a cartridge-box which contained seven thousand five hundred francs in money and jewellery, etc., etc.! The second lieutenant is a great politician; he makes critical remarks every day on the last number of the Constitutionnel which he brought from Brest, or, if he leaves the sublime heights of politics to descend to literature, he sets you to rights on the last vaudeville he saw played. Good Lord! The Commissioner of the Navy has a very interesting story to relate. How he enchanted us the first time he told us his escape from the pontoon at Cadiz, but, by the twentieth repetition, upon my word, it is barely endurable!... And the ensigns and the midshipmen!... The recollection of their conversation makes my hair stand on end. Generally speaking, the captain is the least tedious person on board. In his position of despotic commander he is in a state of secret hostility against the whole staff; he annoys and oppresses at times, but there is a certain amount of pleasure to be gained by inveighing against him. If he is furiously angry with some of his subordinates, his superior tone is a pleasure to listen to, which is some slight consolation.
On board the vessel on which I was sailing the officers were the best fellows going, all good company, liking each other as brothers, but bored of each other all the same. The captain was the gentlest of men, and, what is very rare, was nothing of a busybody. He was always unwilling to exercise his authoritative power. But, in spite of all, the voyage seemed terribly long, especially when the calm set in which overtook us a few days only before we made land!...
One day, after dinner, which want of employment had made us spin out as long as it was humanly possible, we were all assembled on the bridge, watching the monotonous but ever majestic spectacle of a sunset over the sea. Some were smoking, others were re-reading for the twentieth time one of the thirty volumes which comprised our wretched library; all were yawning till the tears ran down their cheeks. One ensign, who was sitting by me, was amusing himself, with the gravity worthy of a serious occupation, by letting the poniard, worn ordinarily by naval officers in undress, fall, point downwards, on the planks of the deck. It was as amusing as anything else on board, and required skill to throw the point so that it should stick in the wood quite perpendicularly. I wanted to follow the ensign's example, and, not having a poniard with me, I tried to borrow the captain's, but he refused it me. He was singularly attached to that weapon, and it would have vexed him to see it put to such a futile use. It had formerly belonged to a brave officer who had been mortally wounded in the last war. I guessed a story would be forthcoming, nor was I mistaken. The captain began before he was asked for it, but the officers, who stood round us, and who knew the misfortunes of Lieutenant Roger by heart, soon beat a circumspect retreat. Here is the captain's story almost in his own words:
Roger was three years older than I when I first knew him; he was a lieutenant and I was an ensign. He was quite one of the best officers on our staff; he was, moreover, good-natured, talented, quick and well educated; in a word, he was a fascinating young fellow. But unfortunately he was rather proud and sensitive; this arose, I think, from the fact of his being an illegitimate child, and his fear that his birth might make people look down upon him; but, to tell the truth, the greatest of all his faults was a passionate and ever-present desire to take the lead wherever he was. His father, whom he had never seen, made him an allowance which would have been more than enough for his needs, had he not been the soul of generosity. All that he had was at the service of his friends. When he drew his quarter's pay, and met a friend with a sad and anxious face, he would say—
"Why, mate, what's the matter? You look as though you had difficulty in making your pockets jingle when you slap them; come, here is my purse, take what you want, and have dinner with me."
A very pretty young actress came to Brest named Gabrielle, and she quickly made conquest among the naval and army officers. She was not a perfect beauty, but she had a good figure, fine eyes, a small foot and a pleasant, saucy manner; these chings are all very delightful when one is voyaging between the latitudes of twenty and twenty-five years of age. She was, in addition, the most capricious of her sex, and her style of playing did not belie this reputation. Sometimes she played enchantingly, and one would have called her a comédienne of the highest order; on the following day she would be cold and lifeless in the very same piece: she would deliver her part as a child recites its catechism. But more than all else it was the story told of her which I am about to relate that interested our young men. It seems she had been kept in sumptuous style by a Parisian senator, who, it was said, committed all sorts of follies for her sake. One day this man put his hat on in her house; she begged him to take it off, and even complained that he showed a want of respect towards her. The senator burst out laughing, shrugged his shoulders and said, as he elaborately settled himself in his chair, "The least I can do is to make myself at home in the house of a girl whom I keep." Gabrielle's white hand smacked his face as soundly as though she had a navvy's hand, and she also paid him back for his words by throwing his hat to the other end of the room. From that moment there was a complete rupture between them. Bankers and generals made considerable offers to the lady, but she refused them all and became an actress, so that she could, as she expressed it, live independently.
When Roger saw her and learnt her history, he decided that she was—must be his, and with the somewhat uncouth freedom with which we sailors are credited, he took the following methods to show her how much he was affected by her charms. He bought the rarest and loveliest flowers to be found in Brest, had them made into a bouquet which he tied with a beautiful rose-coloured ribbon, and in the knot he carefully placed a roll of twenty-five napoleons, all he possessed for the time being. I remember accompanying him behind the scenes during an interval between the acts. He paid Gabrielle a brief compliment upon the grace with which she wore her costume, offered her the bouquet and asked leave to call upon her. He managed to get through all this in about three words.
Whilst Gabrielle only saw the flowers and the handsome youth who offered them to her, she smiled upon him, accompanying her smile with a most gracious bow; but when she held the bouquet between her hands and felt the weight of the gold, her face changed more rapidly than the surface of the sea when roused by a tropical hurricane; and certainly it could scarcely have looked more evil, for she hurled the bouquet and the napoleons with all her strength at my poor friend's head, so that he carried the marks of it on his face for more than a week after. The manager's bell rang and Gabrielle went on and played wildly.
Covered with confusion, Roger picked up his bouquet and packet of gold, went to a café, offered the bouquet (but not the money) to the girl at the desk, and tried to forget his cruel mistress in a glass of punch. But he did not succeed, and, in spite of his vexation at not being able to show himself without a black eye, he fell madly in love with the enraged Gabrielle. He wrote her twenty letters a day, and such letters!—abject, tender, full of obsequious phrases that might have been addressed to a princess. The first were returned to him unopened, and the rest received no answer. Roger, however, kept up hope, until he discovered that the theatre orange-seller wrapped up his oranges in Roger's love-letters, which Gabrielle, with the very refinement of maliciousness, had given him. This was a terrible blow to our friend's pride; but his passion did not die out. He talked of asking the actress to marry him, and threatened to blow his brains out when we told him that the Minister for Marine Affairs would never give his consent.
While all this was going on the officers of a regiment of the line in the garrison at Brest wished to make Gabrielle repeat a vaudeville couplet, and she refused the encore out of pure caprice. The officers and the actress both remained so obstinate that it came to the former hooting until the curtain had to be dropped and the latter left the stage. You know what the pit of a garrison town is like. The officers plotted together to hiss her without intermission the next day and for a few days after, and not allow her to play a single part unless she made humble amends for her bad behaviour. Roger had taken no part in these proceedings; but he heard of the scandal which put the whole theatre in an uproar that very night, and also the plans for revenge which were being hatched for the morrow. He immediately made up his mind what he would do.
When Gabrielle made her appearance the next night an ear-splitting noise of hooting and catcalls rose from the officers' seats. Roger, who had purposely placed himself near the roisterers, got up and harangued the noisiest in such scathing language that the whole of their fury was soon turned on himself. He then drew his notebook from his pocket, and, with the utmost sang-froid, wrote down the names cried out to him from all sides; he would have arranged to fight with the whole regiment if a great many naval officers had not come up, out of loyalty to their order, and taken part against his adversaries. The hubbub was something frightful.
The whole garrison was confined for several days, but when we regained liberty, there was a terrible score to settle. There were threescore of us at the rendez-vous. Roger, alone, fought three officers in succession; he pilled one, and badly wounded the other two without receiving a scratch. I, as luck would have it, came off less fortunately; a cursed lieutenant, who had been a fencing master, gave me a neat thrust through the chest which nearly finished me. The duel, or rather battle, was a fine sight, I can tell you. The naval officers had gained the victory, and the regiment was obliged to leave Brest.
You may guess that our superior officers did not overlook the author of the quarrel. They placed a guard outside his door for a fortnight.
When his term of arrest was over I came out of hospital and went to see him. Judge my surprise when I entered his room and found him sitting at breakfast tête-à-tête with Gabrielle. They seemed to have been on friendly terms for some time, and already called each other thee and thou, and drank out of the same glass. Roger introduced me to his mistress as his dearest friend, and told her I had been wounded in the slight skirmish on her behalf. This charming young girl then condescended to kiss me, for all her sympathies were with fighters.
They spent three months together in perfect happiness, and never left each other for a moment. Gabrielle seemed to love him to distraction, and Roger declared that he had never known love before he met Gabrielle.
One day a Dutch frigate came into harbour. The officers gave us a dinner, and we drank deeply of all sorts of wines; but when the cloth was removed, we did not know what to do, for these gentlemen spoke very bad French. We began to play. The Dutchmen seemed to have plenty of money; and their first lieutenant especially offered to play such high stakes that none of us cared to take a hand with him. But Roger, who did not play as a rule, felt it incumbent upon him to uphold the honour of his country in the matter. So he played for the stakes that the Dutch lieutenant fixed. At first he gained, then he lost, and after several ups and downs of gaining and losing they stopped without anything having been done on either side. We returned this dinner, and invited the Dutch officers. Again we played, and Roger and the lieutentant set to work afresh. In short, they played for several days, meeting either in cafés or on board ship; they tried all kinds of games, backgammon more than any, always increasing their wagers until they came to the point of playing for twenty-five napoleons each game. It was an enormous sum for poverty-stricken officers like us—more than two months' pay! At the week's end Roger had lost every penny he possessed, and more than three or four thousand francs which he had borrowed on all sides.
You will gather that Roger and Gabrielle had ended by sharing household and purse in common, that is to say that Roger, who had just received a large payment on account of his allowance, contributed ten or twenty times more than the actress. He always considered that this sum, large as was his share in it, belonged chiefly to his mistress, and he had only kept back for his own expenses about fifty napoleons. He was, however, obliged to draw from this reserve to go on playing, and Gabrielle did not make the slightest objection.
The house-keeping money went the same way as his pocket money. Very soon Roger was reduced to playing his last twenty-five napoleons. The game was long and hotly contested, and it was horrible to see the intense efforts Roger made to gain it. The moment came when Roger, who held the dice-box, had only one more chance left to win; I think he wanted to get six, four. The night was far advanced, and an officer who had been looking at their play had fallen asleep in an armchair. The Dutchman was tired out and drowsy; moreover, he had drunk too much punch. Roger alone was wide awake and a prey to the depths of despair. He trembled as he threw the dice. He threw them so roughly upon the board that the shock knocked a candle over on to the floor. The Dutchman turned his head first towards the candle, which had covered his new trousers with wax, then he looked at the dice. They showed six and four. Roger, who was as pale as death, received his twenty-five napoleons, and they went on playing. Chance again favoured my unlucky friend, who, however, made blunder upon blunder, and secured points as though he wanted to lose. The Dutch lieutenant lost his head, and doubled and quadrupled his stakes; he lost every time. I can see him now—a tall, fair man of a phlegmatic nature, whose face seemed made of wax. At last he got up, after he lost forty thousand francs, and paid it without his features betraying the least trace of emotion.
"We will not take into account what we have played for to-night," said Roger. "You were more than half asleep. I do not want your money."
"You are joking," replied the phlegmatic Dutchman; "I played well, but the dice were against me. I am quite capable of winning off you always. Good evening!"
And he went out.
We learnt next day that, made desperate by his losses, he had blown out his brains in his room, after drinking a bowl of punch.
The forty thousand francs that Roger had won from him were spread out on the table, and Gabrielle gazed at them with a smile of satisfaction.
"See how rich we are!" she said. "What shall we do with all this money?"
Roger did not answer her; he seemed stunned since the Dutchman's death.
"We can do a thousand delicious things," she went on. "Money gained so easily ought to be spent as lightly. Let us set up a carriage, and snap our fingers at the Maritime Prefect and his wife. I want some diamonds and some Cashmere shawls. Ask for a holiday, and let us go to Paris; we could never spend so much money here!"
She stopped to look at Roger, whose eyes were fixed on the ceiling; his head was leant on his hand, and he had not heard a word; he seemed to be a prey to the most miserable thoughts.
"What on earth's wrong with you, Roger?" she cried, leaning her hand on his shoulder. "You will make me pull faces at you presently. I cannot get a word out of you."
"I am very unhappy," he said at length, with a smothered sigh.
"Unhappy! Why, I do believe you regret having pinked that big mynheer."
He raised his head and looked at her with haggard eyes.
"What does it matter?" she went on. "Why mind if he did take the thing tragically and blew out his few brains? I don't pity losing players; and his money is better in our hands than in his. He would have wasted it in drinking and smoking, whilst we will do a thousand lovely things with it, each one nicer than the last."
Roger walked about the room with his head bent on his breast, his eyes half closed and filled with tears. "You would have been sorry for him if you had seen him."
"Don't you know," said Gabrielle to him, "that people who do not know how romantically sensitive you are might imagine you had been cheating?"
"And if it were the truth?" he cried in hollow tones, stopping before her.
"Bah!" she answered, smiling; "you are not clever enough to cheat at play."
"Yes, I cheated, Gabrielle; I cheated—wretch that I am!"
She understood from his agitation of mind that he spoke but too truly. She sat down on a couch and remained speechless for some time.
"I would much rather you had killed ten men than cheated at cards," she said at length in a very troubled voice.
There was a deathlike silence for half an hour. They both sat on the same sofa, and never looked at each other once. Roger got up first and wished her good night in a calm voice.
"Good night," she replied in cold and hard tones.
Roger has since told me that he would have killed himself that very day if he had not been afraid that his comrades would have guessed the reason for his suicide. He did not wish his memory to be disgraced.
Gabrielle was as gay as usual next day. She seemed, already, to have forgotten the confidences of the previous evening. But Roger became gloomy, capricious and morose. He avoided his friends, and scarcely left his rooms, often passing a whole day without saying a word to his mistress. I attributed his melancholy to an honourable, but excessive sensitiveness, and tried several times to console him; but he put me at a distance by affecting a supreme indifference towards his unhappy partner. One day he even inveighed against the Dutch nation in violent terms, and tried to make me believe that there was not a single honourable man in Holland. All the same, he tried secretly to find out the Dutch lieutenant's relatives; but no one could give him any information about them.
Six weeks after that unlucky game of backgammon Roger found a note in Gabrielle's rooms, written by an admirer who thanked her for the kind feeling she had shown him. Gabrielle was the very personification of untidiness, and the note in question had been left by her on her mantelpiece. I do not know whether she was unfaithful to Roger or not, but he believed her to be so, and his anger was frightful. His love and a remnant of pride were the only feelings which still attached him to life, and the strongest of these sentiments was thus suddenly destroyed. He overwhelmed the proud actress with insults; and was so violent that I do not know how he refrained from striking her.
"No doubt," he said to her, "this puppy gave you lots of money. It is the only thing you love. You would give yourself to the dirtiest of our sailors if he had anything to pay you with."
"Why not?" retorted the actress icily. "Yes, I would take payment from a sailor; but I should not have stolen it!"
Roger uttered a cry of rage. He tremblingly drew his sword, and for one second looked at Gabrielle with the eyes of a madman; then he collected himself with a tremendous effort, threw the weapon at her feet, and rushed from the room to prevent himself yielding to the temptation which beset him.
That same evening I passed his lodging at a late hour, and, seeing his light burning, I went in to borrow a book. I found him busy, writing. He did not disturb himself, and scarcely seemed to notice my presence in his room. I sat down by his desk and studied his features; they were so much altered that anyone else but I would hardly have recognised him. All at once I noticed a letter already sealed on his desk, addressed to myself. I immediately opened it. In it Roger announced to me his intention to put an end to himself, and gave me various instructions to carry out. While I read this, he went on writing the whole time without noticing me. He was bidding farewell to Gabrielle. You can judge of my astonishment, and of what I felt bound to say to him. I was thunderstruck by his decision.
"What! you want to kill yourself when you are so happy?"
"My friend," he said, as he hid his letter, "you know nothing about it; you do not know me; I am a rascal; I am so guilty that a prostitute has power to insult me; and I am so aware of my baseness that I have no power to strike her."
He then related the story of the game of backgammon, and all that you already know. As I listened I was as moved as he was. I did not know what to say to him; with tears in my eyes I pressed his hands, but I could not speak. Then the idea came to me to try and show him that he need not reproach himself with having intentionally caused the ruin of the Dutchman, and that, after all, he had only made him lose, by his ... cheating ... twenty-five napoleons.
"Then," he cried, with bitter irony, "I am a petty thief and not a great one. I, who was so ambitious, to be nothing but a scurvy little scoundrel!"
He shrieked with laughter.
I burst into tears.
Suddenly the door opened and Gabrielle rushed into his arms.
"Forgive me!" she cried, strangling him almost in her passion; "forgive me! I know it now; I love only you; and I love you better now than if you had not done what you blame yourself for. If you like, I will steal; I have stolen before now.... Yes, I have stolen; I took a gold watch.... What worse could one do?"
Roger shook his head incredulously, but his face seemed to brighten.
"No, my poor child," he said, gently repulsing her. "I must kill myself; there is no other course for me. I suffer so greatly that I cannot bear my grief."
"Very well, then, if you intend to die, Roger, I shall die with you. What is life to me without you? I have plenty of courage; I have fired pistols; I shall kill myself like anyone else. Besides, I have played at tragedy and am used to it." At first there were tears in her eyes, but this last idea amused her, and even Roger could not help smiling with her. "You are laughing, my soldier-boy," she cried, clapping her hands and hugging him; "you will not kill yourself."
All the time she embraced him she was first crying, then laughing, then swearing like a sailor; for she was not, like many women, afraid of a coarse word.
In the meantime I possessed myself of Roger's pistols and poniard; then I turned to him and said—
"My dear Roger, you have a mistress and a friend who love you. Believe me, there can still be happiness for you in this life." I embraced him and went out, leaving him alone with Gabrielle.
I do not believe we should have succeeded in doing more than delaying his fatal design if he had not received an order from the Admiralty to set out as first lieutenant on board a frigate bound for a cruise in the Indian seas—if it could first cross the lines of the English fleet, which blockaded the port. It was a dangerous venture. I put it to him that it would be much better to die nobly by an English bullet than to put an inglorious end to his life himself, without rendering any service to his country. So he promised to live. He distributed half the forty thousand francs to maimed sailors or the widows and orphans of seamen; the rest he gave to Gabrielle, who at first vowed to him only to use the money for charitable purposes. She fully meant to keep her word, poor girl! but enthusiasm with her was short-lived. I have heard since that she gave some thousands of francs to the poor, but she spent the remainder on finery.
Roger and I boarded the fine frigate La Galatée; our men were brave, experienced, and well-drilled, but our commander was an idiot, who thought himself a Jean Bart because he could swear better than an army captain, because he murdered French, and because he had never studied the theory of his profession, the practice of which he understood only very indifferently. However, fate favoured us at the outset. We got well out of the roadstead—thanks to a gust of wind which compelled the blockading fleet to give us a wide berth—and we began our cruise by burning an English sloop and an East Indiaman off the coast of Portugal.
We were slowly sailing towards the Indian seas, hampered by contrary winds and our captain's bad handling of the ship, whose stupidity increased the danger of our cruise. Sometimes we were chased by superior forces, sometimes pursued by merchant vessels; we did not pass a single day without some fresh adventure. But neither the risky life he led nor the labours caused him by the irksome ship-duties devolving upon him could distract Roger from the sad thoughts which unceasingly haunted him. He who was once considered the most brilliant and active officer in our port now found it almost a burden to fulfil simply his duty. As soon as he was off duty he would shut himself in his cabin without either books or papers, and the unhappy man passed whole hours lying in his cot, for he could not sleep.
One day, noticing his depression, I ventured to say to him—
"Good gracious, my boy, you grieve over nothing! Granted you filched twenty-five napoleons from a big Dutchman, you show as much remorse as though you had taken more than a million. Now, tell me, when you loved the wife of the Prefect of ... did you mind at all? Nevertheless, she was worth more than twenty-five napoleons."
He turned over on his mattress without a word.
"After all," I continued, "your crime, since you persist in calling it so, had an honourable motive and arose from a lofty mind."
He turned his head and looked at me furiously.
"Yes, for if you had lost what would have become of Gabrielle? She—poor girl!—-would have sold her last garment for you.... If you had lost she would have been reduced to misery.... It was for her, out of love to her, you cheated. There are people who die for love ... will kill themselves for it.... You, my dear Roger, did more. For a man of our order it takes more courage to ... steal, to put it baldly, than to commit suicide."
("Now, perhaps," the captain interrupted his story to say, "I appear ridiculous to you. I assure you that my friendship for Roger endowed me with a timely eloquence that I am not equal to nowadays; and, devil take it, in saying what I did I spoke in good earnest, and I believe all I said. Ah, I was young then!")
Roger did not make any answer for a long time; then he held out his hand to me.
"My friend," he said, making a great effort over himself, "you think too well of me. I am a cowardly wretch. When I cheated the Dutchman my only thought was to win the twenty-five napoleons, that was all. I never thought of Gabrielle, and that is why I despise myself.... I, to hold my honour in less esteem than twenty-five napoleons!... What baseness! Yes, I could be happy if I could tell myself I stole to keep Gabrielle from wretchedness.... No!... no! I did not think of her.... I was not in love at that moment.... I was a player.... I was a thief.... I stole money to possess it myself,... and the deed has so degraded me, and debased me, that I now have no more courage left nor love.... I can see it; I do not think any longer of Gabrielle.... I am a broken-down man."
He was so wretched, that if he had asked me to hand him his pistols to kill himself I believe I should have given them to him.
One Friday, that day of ill omen, he discovered that a big English frigate, the Alcestis, was chasing us. She carried fifty-eight guns, and we but thirty-eight. He put on all sail to escape from her, but her pace was faster than ours, and she gained on us every minute. It was very evident that before night we should be obliged to engage in an unequal battle. Our captain called Roger to his cabin, where they consulted together for more than a quarter of an hour. Roger came up on the deck again, took me by the arm, and drew me aside.
"In two hours' time," he said, "we shall be engaged. That rash man who struts the quarter-deck has lost his wits. He has two courses to choose from: the first, and the most honourable, would be to let the enemy come up to us, then to board the ship determinedly with a hundred or so of our best men; the other course, which is not bad, but rather cowardly, is to lighten ourselves by throwing some of our guns overboard. Then we could make for the near coast of Africa, which we shall soon find to larboard. The English captain would soon be obliged to give up the chase, for fear of grounding; but our ... captain is neither coward nor hero. He will let himself be destroyed by gunshots a good distance off, and after some hours' fight he will honourably lower his flag. So much the worse for you. The Portsmouth pontoons will be your fate. I have no desire to see them."
"Possibly," I said, "our first shots will damage the enemy suiliciently to compel her to abandon the chase."
"Listen, I do not mean to be taken prisoner; I shall kill myself. It is time I ended it all. If by ill luck I am only wounded, give me your word of honour that you will throw me overboard. It is the proper death-bed for a good sailor."
"What nonsense!" I exclaimed. "What a charge to make me undertake!"
"You will be fulfilling the duty of a true friend. You know I shall have to die. I have only consented not to take my own life in the hope of being killed; you must remember that. Come, promise me this; if you refuse, I shall go and ask this service from the boatswain's mate, who will not refuse me."
After reflecting for some time, I said to him—
"I give you my word to do what you wish, provided that you are mortally wounded, with no hope of recovery. In that case I consent to spare you further suffering."
"I shall be mortally wounded or I shall be killed outright."
He held out his hand to me, and I shook it firmly. After that he was calmer, and even a kind of martial cheerfulness shone in his face. Towards three o'clock in the afternoon the enemy's guns began to play in our rigging. We then clewed up some of our sails, crossed the bows of the Alcestis, and started a rattling fire, which the English returned vigorously. After about an hour's fight our captain, who did nothing methodically, wanted to try to board the enemy; but we had already many dead and wounded, and the remainder of our crew had lost heart. Our rigging, besides, had suffered severely, and our masts were badly damaged. Just as we were taking in sail, to approach the English vessel, our large mast, which had nothing to stay it, fell with a horrible noise. The Alcestis took advantage of the confusion into which this accident threw us. She came broadside up to our stern and opened fire upon us within half a pistol range of us; she riddled shot through our unfortunate frigate fore and aft, and we were only in a position to point two small guns at her. At that moment I was standing near Roger, who was busy trying to cut the shrouds which still held the fallen mast. I felt my arm pressed forcibly; I turned round and saw him laid flat on the deck covered with blood. He had received a charge of grape-shot in the stomach.
"What can we do, lieutenant?" cried the captain, running up.
"Nail our flag to this piece of mast and sink the ship."
The captain left him at that, for he did not in the least relish the advice.
"Come," said Roger, "remember your promise."
"It is nothing," I said; "you will get over it."
"Throw me overboard!" he cried, and he swore fearfully and seized me by my coat-tails; "you see well enough that I cannot recover. Throw me into the sea; I do not want to see our flag taken."
Two sailors came up to carry him below.
"To your guns, you knaves!" he cried with all his strength: "use grape-shot, and aim on the deck. And as for you, if you fail to keep your word I will curse you and think of you as the most cowardly and vile of men!"
His wound was certainly mortal. I saw the captain call a midshipman and give him the order to lower the flag.
"Give me a shake of the hand," I said to Roger.
And at that moment our flag was lowered....
"Captain, there is a whale to larboard!" interrupted an ensign, running to us.
"A whale?" cried the captain joyfully and leaving his story unfinished. "Quick! launch the longboat and the yawl, too! All longboats into the water! Bring the harpoons and ropes!" ...
I never knew how poor Lieutenant Roger died.
Auguste Saint-Clair was not at all a favourite in Society, the chief reason being that he only cared to please those who took his own fancy. He avoided the former and sought after the latter. In other respects he was absent-minded and indolent. One evening, on coming out of the Italian Opera, the Marquise A—— asked him his opinion on the singing of Mlle. Sontag. "Yes, Madam," Saint-Clair replied, smiling pleasantly, and thinking of something totally different. This ridiculous reply could not be set down to shyness, for he talked with great lords and noted men and women and even with Society women with as much ease as though he were their equal. The Marquise put down Saint-Clair as a stupid, impertinent boor.
One Monday he had an invitation to dine with Madam B——. She paid him a good deal of attention, and on leaving her house, he remarked that he had never met a more agreeable woman. Madam B—— spent a month collecting witticisms at other people's houses, which she dispensed in one evening at her own. Saint-Clair called upon her again on the Thursday of the same week. This time he grew a little tired of her. Another visit decided him never to enter her salon again. Madam B—— gave out that Saint-Clair was an ill-bred young man, and not good form.
He was naturally tender-hearted and affectionate, but at an age when lasting impressions are taken too easily. His too demonstrative nature had drawn upon him the sarcasm of his comrades. He was proud and ambitious, and stuck to his opinion like an obstinate child. Henceforth he made a point of hiding any outward sign of what might seem discreditable weakness. He attained his end, but the victory cost him dear. He learnt to hide his softer feelings from others, but the repression only increased their force a hundredfold. In Society he bore the sorry reputation of being heartless and indifferent; and, when alone, his restless imagination conjured up hideous torments—all the worse because unshared.
How difficult it is to find a friend! Difficult! Is it possible to find two men anywhere who have not a secret from each other? That Saint-Clair had little faith in friendship was easily seen. With young Society people his manner was cold and reserved. He asked no questions about their secrets; and most of his actions and all his thoughts were mysteries to them. A Frenchman loves to talk of himself; therefore Saint-Clair was the unwilling recipient of many confidences. His friends—that is to say, those whom he saw about twice a week—complained of his indifference to their confidences. They felt that indiscretion should be reciprocal; for, indeed, he who confides his secret to us unasked generally takes offence at not learning ours in return.
"He keeps his thoughts to himself," grumbled Alphonse de Thémines one day.
"I could never place the least confidence in that deuced Saint-Clair," added the smart colonel.
"I think he is half a Jesuit," replied Jules Lambert. "Someone swore to me that he had met him twice coming out of St. Sulpice. Nobody knows what he thinks about. I must say I never feel at ease with him."
They separated. Alphonse encountered Saint-Clair in the Boulevard Italien. He was walking with his eyes on the ground, not noticing anyone. Alphonse stopped him, took his arm, and, before they had reached the Rue de la Paix, he had related to him the whole history of his love affairs with Madam ——, whose husband was so jealous and so violent.
The same evening Jules Lambert lost his money at cards. After that he thought he had better go and dance. While dancing, he accidentally knocked against a man, who had also lost his money and was in a very bad temper. Sharp words followed, and a challenge was given and taken. Jules begged Saint-Clair to act as his second, and, at the same time, borrowed money from him, which he was never likely to return.
After all, Saint-Clair was easy enough to live with. He was no one's enemy but his own; he was obliging, often genial, rarely tiresome; he had travelled much and read much, but never obtruded his knowledge or his experiences unasked. In personal appearance he was tall and well made; he had a dignified and refined expression—almost always too grave, but his smile was pleasing and very attractive.
I am forgetting one important point. Saint-Clair paid attention to all women, and sought their society more than that of men. It was difficult to say whether he was in love; but if this reserved being felt love, the beautiful Countess Mathilde de Coursy was the woman of his choice. She was a young widow, at whose house he was often seen. To prove their friendship there was the evidence first of the almost exaggerated politeness of Saint-Clair towards the Countess, and vice versâ; then his habit of never pronouncing her name in public, or if obliged to speak of her, never with the slightest praise; also, before Saint-Clair was introduced to her, he had been passionately fond of music, and the Countess equally so of painting. Since they had become acquainted their tastes had changed. Lastly, when the Countess visited a health resort the previous year, Saint-Clair followed her in less than a week.
My duty as novelist obliges me to reveal that early one morning in the month of July, a few moments before sunrise, the garden gate of a country house opened, and a man crept out with the stealthiness of a burglar fearing discovery. This country house belonged to Madam de Coursy, and the man was Saint-Clair. A woman, muffled in a cape, came to the gate with him, stood with her head out and watched him as long as she could, until he was far along the path which led by the park wall. Saint-Clair stopped, looked round cautiously, and signed with his hand for the woman to go in. The clearness of a summer dawn enabled him to distinguish her pale face. She stood motionless where he had left her. He went back to her, and took her tenderly in his arms. He meant to compel her to go in; but he had still a hundred things to say to her. Their conversation lasted ten minutes, till at last they heard the voice of a peasant going to his work in the fields. One more kiss passed between them, the gate was shut, and Saint-Clair with a bound reached the end of the footpath. He followed a track evidently well known to him, and ran along, striking the bushes with his stick and almost jumping for joy. Sometimes he stopped, or sauntered slowly, looking at the sky, which was flushed in the east with purple. In fact, anyone meeting him would have taken him for an escaped lunatic. After half an hour's walk he reached the door of a lonely little house which he had rented for the season. He let himself in with a key, and then, throwing himself on the couch, he fell into a day-dream, with vacant eyes and a happy smile playing on his lips. His mind was filled with bright reflections. "How happy I am!" he kept repeating. "At last I have met a heart that understands mine.... Yes, I have found my ideal.... I have gained at the same time a friend and a lover.... What depth of soul!... What character!... No, she has never loved anyone before me." How soon vanity creeps into human affairs!" She is the loveliest woman in Paris," he thought, and his imagination conjured up all her charms. "She has chosen me before all the others. She had the flower of Society at her feet. That colonel of hussars, gallant, good-looking and not too stout; that young author, who paints in water-colours so well, and who is such a capital actor; that Russian Lovelace, who has been in the Balkan campaign and served under Diébitch; above all, Camille T——, who is brilliantly clever, has good manners and a fine sabre-cut across his forehead.... She has dismissed them all for me!..." Then came the refrain—"Oh, how happy I am! how happy I am!" and he got up and opened the window, for he could scarcely breathe. First he walked about; then he tossed on his couch.
A happy lover is almost as tedious as an unhappy one. One of my friends, who is generally in one or other of these conditions, found that the only way of getting any attention was to give me an excellent breakfast, over which he could unburden himself on the subject of his amours. When the coffee was finished he was obliged to choose a totally different topic of conversation.
As I cannot give breakfast to all my readers, I make them a present of Saint-Clair's ecstasies. Besides, it is impossible always to live in cloudland. Saint-Clair was tired; he yawned, stretched his arms, saw that it was broad day and at last slept. When he awoke he saw by his watch that he had hardly time to dress and rush off to Paris, to attend a luncheon-party of several of his young friends.
They had just uncorked another bottle of champagne. I leave my readers to guess how many had preceded it. It is sufficient to know that they had reached that stage which comes quickly enough at a young men's dinner-party, when everybody speaks at once, and when the steady heads get anxious for those who cannot carry so much.
"I wish," said Alphonse de Thémines, who had never missed a chance of talking about England—"I wish that it was the custom in Paris, as it is in London, for each one to propose a toast to his mistress. If it were we should find out for whom our friend Saint-Clair sighs." And, while uttering these words, he filled up his own glass and those of his neighbours.
Saint-Clair felt slightly embarrassed, but was about to reply when Jules Lambert prevented him.
"I heartily approve this custom," he said, raising his glass; "and I adopt it. To all the milliners of Paris, with the exception of those past thirty, the one-eyed and the lame."
"Hurrah! hurrah!" shouted the anglomaniacs.
Saint-Clair rose, glass in hand.
"Gentlemen," said he, "I have not such a large heart as has our friend Jules, but it is more constant—a constancy all the more faithful since I have been long separated from the lady of my thoughts. Nevertheless I am sure that you will approve of my choice, even if you are not already my rivals. To Judith Pasta, gentlemen! May we soon welcome back the first tragédienne of Europe."
Thémines was about to criticise the toast, but was interrupted by acclamation. Saint-Clair having parried this thrust, believed himself safe for the rest of the day.
The conversation turned first on theatres. From the criticism of the drama they wandered to political topics. From the Duke of Wellington they passed to English horses. From English horses to women, by a natural connection of ideas; for, to young men, a good horse first, and then a beautiful mistress, are the two most desirable objects.
Then they discussed the means of acquiring these coveted treasures. Horses are bought, women also are bought; only we do not so talk of them. Saint-Clair, after modestly pleading inexperience in this delicate subject, gave as his opinion that the chief way to please a woman is to be singular, to be different from others. But he did not think it possible to give a general prescription for singularity.
"According to your view," said Jules, "a lame or hump-backed man would have a better chance of pleasing than one of ordinary make."
"You push things too far," retorted Saint-Clair, "but I am willing to accept all the consequences of my proposition. For example, if I were hump-backed, instead of blowing out my brains I would make conquests. In the first place, I would try my wiles on those who are generally tender-hearted; then on those women—and there are many of them—who set up for being original—eccentric, as they say in England. To begin with, I should describe my pitiful condition, and point out that I was the victim of Nature's cruelty. I should try to move them to sympathy with my lot, I should let them suspect that I was capable of a passionate love. I should kill one of my rivals in a duel, and I should pretend to poison myself with a feeble dose of laudanum. After a few months they would not notice my deformity, and then I should be on the watch for the first signs of affection. With women who aspire to originality conquest is easy. Only persuade them that it is a hard-and-fast rule that a deformed person can never have a love affair, they will immediately then wish to prove the opposite."
"What a Don Juan!" cried Jules.
"As we have not had the misfortune of being born deformed," said Colonel Beaujeu, "we had better get our legs broken, gentlemen."
"I fully agree with Saint-Clair," said Hector Roquantin, who was only three and a half feet high. "We constantly see beautiful and fashionable women giving themselves to men whom you fine fellows would never dream of."
"Hector, just ring the bell for another bottle, will you?" said Thémines casually.
The dwarf got up and everyone smiled, recalling the fable of the fox without a tail.
"As for me," said Thémines, renewing the conversation, "the longer I live, the more clearly I see that the chief singularity which attracts even the most obdurate, is passable features"—and he threw a complaisant glance in a mirror opposite—"passable features and good taste in dress," and he filliped a crumb of bread off his coat.
"Bah!" cried the dwarf, "with good looks and a coat by Staub, there are plenty of women to be had for a week at a time, but we should be tired of them at the second meeting. More than that is needed to win what is called love.... You must...."
"Stop!" interrupted Thémines. "Do you want an apt illustration? You all know what kind of man Massigny was. Manners like an English groom, and no more conversation than his horse.... But he was as handsome as Adonis, and could tie his cravat like Brummel. Altogether he was the greatest bore I have ever met."
"He almost killed me with weariness," said Colonel Beaujeu. "Only think, I once had to travel two hundred leagues with him!"
"Did you know," asked Saint-Clair, "that he caused the death of poor Richard Thornton, whom you all knew?"
"But," objected Jules, "I thought he was assassinated by brigands near Fondi?"
"Granted; but Massigny was at all events an accomplice in the crime. A party of travellers, Thornton among them, had arranged to go to Naples together to avoid attacks from brigands. Massigny asked to be allowed to join them. As soon as Thornton heard this, he set out before the others, apparently to avoid being long with Massigny. He started alone, and you know the rest."
"Thornton took the only course," said Thémines; "he chose the easiest of two deaths. We should all have done the same in his place." Then, after a pause, "You grant me," he went on, "that Massigny was the greatest bore on earth?"
"Certainly," they all cried with one accord.
"Don't let us despair," said Jules; "let us make an exception in favour of ... especially when he divulges his political intrigues."
"You will next grant me," continued Thémines, "that Madam de Coursy is as clever a woman as can be found anywhere."
A moment's silence followed. Saint-Clair looked down and fancied that all eyes were fixed on himself.
"Who disputes it?" he said at length, still bending over his plate apparently to examine more closely the flowers painted in the china.
"I maintain," said Jules, raising his voice—"I maintain that she is one of the three most fascinating women in Paris."
"I knew her husband," said the Colonel, "he often showed me her charming letters."
"Auguste," interrupted Hector Roquantin, "do introduce me to the Countess. They say you can do anything with her."
"When she returns to Paris at the end of autumn,..." murmured Saint-Clair, "I—I believe she does not entertain visitors in the country."
"Will you listen to me?" exclaimed Thémines.
Silence was restored. Saint-Clair figetted upon his chair like a prisoner before his judges.
"You did not know the Countess three years ago because you were then in Germany, Saint-Clair," went on Alphonse de Thémines, with aggravating coolness. "You cannot form any idea, therefore, of her as she was then; lovely, with the freshness of a rose, and as light-hearted and gay as a butterfly. Perhaps you do not know that among all her many admirers Massigny was the one she honoured with her favours? The most stupid and ridiculous of men turned the head of the most fascinating amongst women. Do you suppose that a deformed person could have done as much? Nonsense; believe me, with a good figure and a first-rate tailor, only boldness in addition is needed."
Saint-Clair was in a most awkward position. He longed to fling back the lie direct in the speaker's face, but was restrained from fear of compromising the Countess. He would have liked to have said something to defend her, but he was tongue-tied. His lips trembled with rage, and he tried to find some indirect means of forcing a quarrel, but could not.
"What," exclaimed Jules, with astonishment, "Madam de Coursy gave herself to Massigny? Frailty, thy name is woman!"
"The reputation of a woman being of such small moment, it is, of course, allowable to pull it to pieces for the sake of a little sport," observed Saint-Clair in a dry and scornful tone, "and—"
But as he spoke he remembered with dismay a certain Etruscan vase that he had noticed a hundred times upon the mantelpiece in the Countess's house in Paris. He knew that it was a gift from Massigny, who had brought it back with him from Italy; and—overwhelming coincidence!—it had been taken by the Countess from Paris to her country house. Every evening when Mathilde took the flowers out of her dress she put them in this Etruscan vase.
Speech died upon his lips. He could neither see nor think of anything but of that Etruscan vase.
"How absurd," cries a critic, "to suspect his mistress from such a trifle!"
"Have you ever been in love, my dear critic?"
Thémines was in too good a humour to take offence at the tone Saint-Clair had used when speaking to him, and replied lightly and with great good nature—
"I can only repeat what I heard in Society. It passed as a true story while you were in Germany. However, I scarcely know Madam de Coursy. It is eighteen months since I was at her house. Very likely I am wrong, and the story was a fabrication of Massigny's. But let us return to our discussion, for whether my illustration be false or not does not affect my point. You all know that the cleverest woman in France, whose works—"
The door opened, and Théodore Néville came in. He had just returned from Egypt.
"Théodore, you have soon come back!" He was overwhelmed with questions.
"Have you brought back a real Turkish costume?" asked Thémines. "Have you got an Arabian horse and an Egyptian groom?"
"What sort of man is the Pasha?" said Jules. "When will he make himself independent? Have you seen a head cut off with a single stroke of the sabre?"
"And the aimées," said Roquantin. "Are the Cairo women beautiful?"
"Did you meet General L——?" asked Colonel Beaujeu. "Has he organised the army of the Pasha? Did Colonel C—— give you a sword for me?"
"And the Pyramids? The cataracts of the Nile? And the statue of Memnon? Ibrahim Pasha?" etc. They all talked at once; Saint-Clair only brooded on the Etruscan vase.
Théodore sat cross-legged. He had learnt that habit in Egypt, and did not wish to lose it in France. He waited till his questioners were tired, and then spoke as fast as he could to save himself from being easily interrupted.
"The Pyramids! upon my word they are a regular humbug. They are not so high as I expected. Strasburg Cathedral is only four yards lower. I passed by the antiquities. Do not talk to me about them. The very sight of hieroglyphics makes me faint. There are plenty of travellers who worry themselves over these things! My object was to study the nature and manners of all the strange people that jostle against each other in the streets of Alexandria and of Cairo. Turks, Bedouins, Copts, Fellahs, Môghrebins. I drew up a few hasty notes when I was in the quarantine hospital. What infamous places they are! I hope none of you fellows are nervous about infection! I smoked my pipe calmly in the midst of three hundred plague-stricken people. Ah! Colonel, you would admire the well-mounted cavalry out there. I must show you some superb weapons that I have brought back. I have a djerid which belonged to a famous Mourad Bey. I have a yataghan for you, Colonel, and a khandjar for Auguste. You must see my metchlà and bournous and khaick. Do you know I could have brought back any number of women with me? Ibrahim Pasha has such numbers imported from Greece that they can be had for nothing.... But I had to think of my mother's feelings.... I talked much with the Pasha. He is a thoroughly intelligent and unprejudiced man. You would hardly credit it, but he knows everything about our affairs. Upon my honour, he knows the smallest secrets of our Cabinet. I gleaned much valuable information from him on the state of parties in France.... Just now he is taken up with statistics. He subscribes to all our papers. Would you believe it?—he is a pronounced Bonapartist, and talks of nothing but Napoleon. 'Ah! what a great man Bounabardo was!' he said to me; 'Bounabardo,' that is how he pronounces Bonaparte."
"Giourdina, meaning Jourdain," murmured Thémines.
"At first," continued Théodore, "Mohamed Ali was extremely reserved with me. All the Turks are very suspicious, you know, and he took me for a spy or a Jesuit, the devil he did! He had a perfect horror of Jesuits. But, after several visits, he recognised that I was an unprejudiced traveller, anxious to inform myself at first hand of Eastern manners, customs and politics. Then he unbosomed himself and spoke freely to me. At the third and last audience he granted me I ventured to ask His Excellency why he did not make himself independent of the Porte. 'By Allah!' he replied, 'I wish it indeed, but I fear the Liberal papers which govern your country would not support me if I proclaimed the independence of Egypt.' He is a fine old man, with a long white beard. He never smiles. He gave us some first-rate confections; but the gift that pleased him most of all I offered him was a collection of costumes of the Imperial Guard by Charlet."
"Is the Pasha of a romantic turn of mind?" asked Thémines.
"He does not trouble himself much about literature; but you know, of course, that Arabian literature is entirely romantic. They have a poet called Melek Ayatalnefous-Ebn-Esraf, who has recently published a book of Meditations, compared with which Lamartine's read like classic prose. I took lessons in Arabic directly I got to Cairo, in order to read the Koran. I did not need to have many lessons before I was able to judge of the supreme beauty of the prophet's style, and of the baldness of all our translations. Look here, would you like to see Arabian handwriting? This word in gold letters is Allah, which means God."
As he spoke he showed them a very dirty letter, which he took out of a scented silk purse.
"How long were you in Egypt?" asked Thémines.
And the traveller proceeded to hold forth on everything from beginning to end. Saint-Clair left soon after his arrival, and went in the direction of his country house. The impetuous gallop of his horse prevented him from thinking consecutively, but he felt vaguely that his happiness in life had gone for ever, and that it had been shattered by a dead man and an Etruscan vase.
After reaching home he threw himself on the same couch upon which he had dreamed for so long and so deliciously, and analysed his happiness the evening before. His most cherished dream had been that his mistress was different from other women, that she had not loved nor ever would love anyone but himself. Now this exquisite dream must perish in the light of a sad and cruel reality. "I have had a beautiful mistress, but nothing more. She is clever; she is therefore all the more to be blamed for loving Massigny!... I know she does love me now ... with her whole soul ... as she can love. But to be loved in the same fashion as Massigny has been loved!... She has yielded herself up to my attentions, my importunities, my whims. But I have been deceived. There has been no sympathy between us. Whether her lover were Massigny or myself was equally the same to her. He is handsome, and she loves him for his good looks. She amuses herself with me for a time. 'I may as well love Saint-Clair,' she says to herself, 'since the other is dead! And if Saint-Clair dies, or I tire of him, who knows?'
"I firmly believe the devil listens invisible behind a tortured wretch like myself. The enemy of man-kind is tickled by the spectacle, and as soon as the victim's wounds begin to heal, the devil is waiting to reopen them."
Saint-Clair thought he heard a voice murmur in his ears—
"The peculiar honour
Of being the successor...."
Of being the successor...."
He sat up on the couch and threw a savage glance round him. How glad he would have been to find someone in his room! He would have torn him limb from limb without any hesitation.
The clock struck eight. At eight-thirty the Countess expected him. Should he disappoint her? Why, indeed, should he ever see Massigny's mistress again? He lay down again on the couch and shut his eyes. "I will try to sleep," he said. He lay still for half a minute, then he leapt to his feet and ran to the clock to see how the time was going. "How I wish it were half-past eight!" he thought. "It would be too late then for me to start." If only he were taken ill. He had not the courage to stop at home unless he had an excuse. He walked up and down his room, then he sat down and took a book, but he could not read a syllable. He sat down in front of his piano, but had not enough energy to open it. He whistled; then he looked out of his window at the clouds, and tried to count the poplars. At length he looked at the clock again, and saw that he had not succeeded in whiling away more than three minutes. "I cannot help loving her," he burst out, grinding his teeth and stamping his feet; "She rules me, and I am her slave, just as Massigny was before me. Well, since you have not sufficient courage to break the hated chain, poor wretch, you must obey."
He picked up his hat and rushed out.
When we are carried away by a great passion it is some consolation to our self-love to look clown from the height of pride upon our weakness. "I certainly am weak," he said to himself; "but what if I wish to be so?"
As he walked slowly up the footpath which led to the garden gate, he could see in the distance a white face standing out against the dark background of trees. She beckoned to him with her handkerchief. His heart beat violently, and his knees trembled under him; he could not speak, and he had become so nervous that he feared lest the Countess should read his ill-humour.
He took the hand she held out to him, and kissed her brow, because she threw herself into his arms. He followed her into her sitting-room in silence, though scarce able to suppress his bursting sighs.
A single candle lighted the Countess's room. They sat down, and Saint-Clair noticed his friend's coiffure; a single rose was in her hair. He had given her, the previous evening, a beautiful English engraving of Leslie's "Duchess of Portland" (whose hair was dressed in the same fashion), and Saint-Clair had merely remarked to the Countess, "I like that single rose better than all your elaborate coiffures." He did not like jewels, and inclined to the opinion of a noble lord who once remarked coarsely, "The devil has nothing left to teach women who overdress themselves and coil their hair fantastically." The night before, while playing with the Countess's pearl necklace (he always would have something between his hands when talking), Saint-Clair had said, "You are too pretty, Mathilde, to wear jewels; they are only meant to hide defects." To-night the Countess had stripped herself of rings, necklaces, earrings and bracelets, for she stored up his most trivial remarks. He noticed, above everything else in a woman's toilet, the shoes she wore; and, like many other men, he was quite mad on this point. A heavy shower had fallen at sunset, and the grass was still very wet; in spite of this the Countess walked on the damp lawn in silk stockings and black satin slippers.... Suppose she were to take cold?
"She loves me," said Saint-Clair to himself.
He sighed at his folly, but smiled at Mathilde in spite of himself, tossed between his sorry mood and the gratification of seeing a pretty woman, who had sought, by those trifles which have such priceless value in the eyes of lovers, to please him.
The Countess was radiant with love, playfully mischievous and bewitchingly charming. She took something from a Japanese lacquered box and held it out to him in her little firmly closed hand.
"I broke your watch the other night," she said; "here it is, mended."
She handed the watch to him and looked at him tenderly, and yet mischievously, biting her lower lip as though to prevent herself from laughing. Oh, what beautiful white teeth she had! and how they gleamed against the ruby red of her lips! (A man looks exceedingly foolish when he is being teased by a pretty woman, and replies coldly.)
Saint-Clair thanked her, took the watch and was about to put in his pocket.
"Look at it and open it," she continued. "See if it is mended all right. You, who are so learned, you, who have been to the Polytechnic School, ought to be able to tell that."
"Oh, I didn't learn much there," said Saint-Clair.
He opened the case in an absent-minded way, and what was his surprise to find a miniature portrait of Madam de Coursy painted on the interior of the case? How could he sulk any longer? His brow cleared; he thought no longer of Massigny; he only remembered that he was by the side of a beautiful woman, and that this woman loved him.
"The lark, that harbinger of dawn," began to sing, and long bands of pale light stretched across the eastern clouds. At such an hour did Romeo say farewell to Juliet, and it is the classic hour when all lovers should part.
Saint-Clair stood before a mantelpiece, the key of the garden gate in his hand, his eyes intently fixed on the Etruscan vase, of which we have already spoken. In the depths of his soul he still bore it a grudge, although he was in a much better humour. The simple explanation occurred to his mind that Thémines might have lied about it. While the Countess was wrapping a shawl round her head in order to go to the garden gate with him he began to tap the detested vase with the key, at first gently, then gradually increasing the force of his blows until it seemed as though he would soon smash it to atoms.
"Oh, do be careful!" Mathilde exclaimed. "You will break my beautiful Etruscan vase!"
She snatched the key out of his hands.
Saint-Clair was very angry, but he resigned himself and turned his back on the chimney-piece to avoid temptation. Opening his watch, he began to examine the portrait that had just been given him.
"Who painted it?" he asked.
"Monsieur R——, and it was Massigny who introduced him to my notice. (After Massigny had been in Rome he discovered that he had exquisite taste in art, and constituted himself the Macænas of all young painters.) I really think the portrait is like me, though it is a little too flattering."
Saint-Clair had a burning desire to fling the watch against the wall, to break it beyond all hope of mending. He controlled himself, however, and put the watch in his pocket. Then he noticed that it was daylight, and, entreating Mathilde not to come out with him, he left the house and crossed the garden with rapid strides, and was soon alone in the country.
"Massigny! Massigny!" he burst forth with concentrated rage. "Can I never escape him?... No doubt the artist who painted this portrait painted another for Massigny.... What a fool I am to imagine for a moment that I am loved with a love equal to my own!... just because she put aside her jewels and wore a rose in her hair!... Jewels! why, she has a chest full.... Massigny, who thought of little else save a woman's toilette, was a lover of jewellery!... Yes, she has a gracious nature, it must be granted; she knows how to gratify the tastes of her lovers. Damn it! I would rather a hundred times that she were a courtesan and gave herself for money. Just because she was my mistress and unpaid I thought she loved me indeed."
Soon another still more unhappy idea presented itself. In a few weeks' time the Countess would be out of mourning, and Saint-Clair had promised to marry her as soon as her year of widowhood was over. He had promised. Promised? No. He had never spoken of it, but such had been his intention and the Countess had understood it so. But for him this was as good as an oath. Last night he would have given a throne to hasten the time for acknowledging his love publicly; now the very thought of marrying the former mistress of Massigny filled him with loathing.
"Nevertheless, I owe it to her to marry her," he said to himself, "and it shall be done. No doubt she thinks, poor woman, I heard all about her former liaison; it seems to have been generally known. Besides, she did not then know me.... She cannot understand me; she thinks that I am only such another lover as Massigny."
Then he said to himself, and not without a certain pride—
"For three months she has made me the happiest man living; such happiness is worth the sacrifice of my life."
He did not go to bed, but rode about among the woods the whole of the morning. In one of the pathways of the woods of Verrières he saw a man mounted on a fine English horse, who called him immediately by his name while he was still far off. It was Alphonse de Thémines. To a man in Saint-Clair's state of mind solitude is particularly desirable, and this encounter with Thémines changed his bad humour into a furious temper. Thémines did not notice his mood, or perhaps took a wicked pleasure in thwarting it. He talked and laughed and joked without noticing that he did not receive any response. Saint-Clair soon tried to turn his horse aside into a narrow track, hoping the bore would not follow him; but it was of no use, bores do not leave their prey so easily. Thémines pulled the bridle in the same direction, increased his horse's pace to keep by Saint-Clair's side and complacently continued the conversation.
I have said that the path was a narrow one. The two horses could hardly walk abreast. It was not, therefore, to be wondered at that even so good a horseman as Thémines should graze against Saint-Clair's foot as he walked along with him. This put the finishing touch to his anger, and he could not contain himself any longer. He rose in his stirrups and struck Thémines' horse sharply across the nose with his whip.
"What the devil is the matter with you, Auguste?" cried Thémines. "Why do you strike my horse?"
"Why do you pursue me?" roared Saint-Clair.
"Have you lost your senses, Saint-Clair? You forget to whom you are talking."
"I know quite well that I am talking to a puppy."
"Saint-Clair!... you must be mad, I think.... Listen to me. To-morrow you will either apologise to me, or you will account for your insolent conduct."
"To-morrow, then, sir—"
Thémines stopped his horse; Saint-Clair pushed his on, and very soon disappeared among the trees.
He was calmer now. He was silly enough to believe in presentiments. He felt sure he would be killed on the morrow, and that would be a suitable ending to his condition. Only one more day of anxieties and torments to endure. He went home and sent a note by his servant to Colonel Beaujeu. He wrote several letters, after which he dined with a good appetite, and was promptly at the little garden gate by 8.30.
"What is the matter with you to-day, Auguste?" said the Countess. "You are unusually lively, and yet your gaiety does not move me to laugh. Last night you were just a trifle dull, and I was the gay one! We have changed parts to-day. I have a racking headache."
"Dear one, I admit it. Yes, I was very tedious yesterday, but to-day I have been out, I took exercise, and I feel quite excited."
"On the other hand, I overslept myself this morning, and rose late. I had bad dreams."
"Ah! dreams? Do you believe in dreams?"
"I believe in them. I am sure that you had a dream which foretold some tragic event."
"Good heavens! I never remember my dreams. Once I recollect ... that I saw Massigny in my dream; so, you see, it was not very entertaining."
"Massigny! But I should have thought you would have been pleased at seeing him again!"
"Why 'poor Massigny'?"
"Please tell me, Auguste, what is wrong with you to-night. Your smile is perfectly diabolic, and you seem to be making game of yourself."
"Ah! now you are treating me as badly as your old dowager friends treat me."
"Yes, Auguste, you wear the same expression to-day that you put on before people whom you do not like."
"That is unpardonable in me. Come, give me your hand."
He kissed her hand with ironical gallantry, and they gazed at each other studiously for a minute. Saint-Clair was the first to drop his eyes.
"How difficult it is," he exclaimed, "to live in this world without being thought ill of! One ought really never to talk of anything but the weather and hunting, or eagerly to discuss with your old friends the reports of their benevolent societies."
He picked up a paper from the table near him.
"Come, here is your lace-cleaner's bill. Let us discuss that, sweetheart; then you cannot say I am ill-tempered."
"Really, Auguste, you amaze me...."
"This handwriting puts me in mind of a letter I found this morning. I must explain that I have fits of untidiness occasionally, and I was arranging my papers. Well, then, I found a love-letter from a dressmaker with whom I fell in love at sixteen. She had a trick of writing each word most fantastically, and her style was equal to her writing. Well, I was foolish enough then to be vexed that my mistress could not write as well as Madame de Sévigné, and I left her abruptly. In reading over this letter to-day I see that this dressmaker really did love me."
"Really! a woman whom you kept?"
"In line style on fifty francs a month. But I could not afford more, as my guardian only allowed me a little money at a time, for he said that youths who had money ruined themselves and others."
"What became of this woman?"
"How should I know?... Probably she died in a hospital."
"Auguste,... if that were true you would not speak so flippantly."
"Well, then, to tell you the truth, she is married to a respectable man, and when I came of age I gave her a small dowry."
"How good of you!... But why do you try to make yourself out so evil?"
"Oh, I am good enough.... The more I think of it the more I persuade myself that this woman really did care for me.... But on the other hand, it is difficult to discern true feeling under such a ridiculous expression of it."
"You ought to have shown me your letter. I should not have been jealous.... We women have finer tact than you, and we can tell at a glance, from the style of a letter, whether the writer is sincere, or feigning a passion he does not really feel."
"But what a number of times you have allowed yourself to be taken in by fools and rogues!"
As he spoke he looked at the Etruscan vase with a threatening glance, to which his voice responded, but Mathilde went on without noticing anything.
"Come, now, all you men wish to pose as Don Juans. You fancy you are making dupes when often you have encountered only Doña Juana, who is much more cunning than yourselves."
"I perceive that with your superior wit you ladies scent out rakes in every place. I doubt not also that our friend Massigny, who was both a stupid and a coxcomb, became, when dead, spotless and a martyr."
"Massigny? He was not a fool; then too there are silly women to be found. I must tell you a story about Massigny. But surely have I not told it you already?"
"Never," replied Saint-Clair tremblingly.
"Massigny fell in love with me after his return from Italy. My husband knew him and introduced him to me as a man of taste and culture. Those two were just made for each other. Massigny was most attentive to me from the first; he gave me some water-colour sketches which he had bought from Schroth, as his own paintings, and talked of music and art in the most divertingly superior manner. One day he sent me an incredibly ridiculous letter. He said, among other things, that I was the best woman in Paris; therefore he wished to be my lover. I showed the letter to my cousin Julie. We were then both very silly, and we resolved to play him a trick. One evening we had several visitors, among them being Massigny. My cousin said to me, 'I am going to read you a declaration of love which I received this morning.' She took the letter and read it amidst peals of laughter.... Poor Massigny!..."
Saint-Clair fell on his knees uttering a cry of joy. He seized the Countess's hand and covered it with tears and kisses. Mathilde was surprised beyond measure, and thought at first he had gone mad. Saint-Clair could only murmur, "Forgive me! forgive me!" When he rose to his feet he was radiant; he was happier than on the day when Mathilde had said to him for the first time, "I love you."
"I am the guiltiest and most stupid of men," he cried; "for two days I have misjudged you ... and never given you a chance to clear yourself...."
"You suspected me?... And of what?"
"Oh! idiot that I was!... they told me you had loved Massigny, and—"
"Massigny!" and she began to laugh; then soon quickly growing more earnest, "Auguste," she said, "how could you be so foolish as to harbour such suspicions, and so hypocritical as to hide them from me?"
Her eyes filled with tears.
"I implore you to forgive me."
"Of course I forgive you, beloved ... but let me first swear...."
"Oh! I believe you, I believe you; do not say any more about it."
"But in Heaven's name what put such an improbable notion in your head?"
"Nothing, nothing in the world except my accursed temper ... and ... would you believe it? that Etruscan vase which I knew Massigny had given you."
The Countess clasped her hands together in amazement, and then she burst into shouts of laughter.
"My Etruscan vase! my Etruscan vase!"
Saint-Clair was obliged to join in the laughter himself, although great tears rolled down his cheeks. He seized Mathilde in his arms. "I will not let you go," he said, "until you pardon me."
"Yes, I forgive you, though you are so foolish," she replied, kissing him tenderly. "You make me very happy to-day; it is the first time I have seen you shed tears, and I thought that you could not weep."
Then she struggled from his embrace, and, snatching the Etruscan vase, broke it into a thousand pieces on the floor. It was a valuable and unique work, painted in three colours, and represented the fight between a Lapithe and a Centaur.
For several hours Saint-Clair was the happiest and the most ashamed of men.
"Well," said Roquantin to Colonel Beaujeu, when he met him in the evening at Tortoni's, "is this news true?"
"Too true, my friend," answered the Colonel sadly.
"Tell me, how did it come about?"
"Oh! just as it should. Saint-Clair began by telling me he was in the wrong, but that he wished to draw Thémines' fire before begging his pardon. I could do no other than accede. Thémines wished to draw lots who should fire first. Saint-Clair insisted that Thémines should. Thémines fired; and I saw Saint-Clair turn round once and then fall stone dead. I have often remarked, in the case of soldiers when they have been shot, this strange turning round which precedes death."
"How very extraordinary!" said Roquantin. "But Thémines, what did he do?"
"Oh, what is usual on these occasions: he threw his pistol on the ground remorsefully, with such force that he broke the hammer. It was an English pistol of Manton's. I don't believe there is a gun-maker in Paris who could make such another."
The Countess shut herself up in her country house for three whole years without seeing anyone; winter and summer, there she lived, hardly going out of her room. She was waited upon by a mulatto woman who knew of the attachment between Saint-Clair and herself. She scarcely spoke a word to her day after day. At the end of three years her cousin Julie returned from a long voyage. She forced her way into the house and found poor Mathilde thin and pale, the very ghost of the beautiful and fascinating woman she had left behind. By degrees she persuaded her to come out of her solitude, and took her to Hyères. The Countess languished there for three or four months, and then died of consumption brought on by her grief—so said Dr. M——, who attended her.
Ἰλεὼς ἣν δ᾽ἐγὼ, ᾽έστω ὁ ἀνδρίας
καὶ ἣπιος, ὀύτως ἀνδρεῑος ὥν.
καὶ ἣπιος, ὀύτως ἀνδρεῑος ὥν.
I descended the last hillside at Canigou, and, although the sun had already set, I could distinguish the houses of the little town of Ille, in the plain, towards which my steps were turned.
"You know," I said to the Catalanian who had been my guide since the previous day—"no doubt you know where M. de Peyrehorade lives?"
"Do I know it!" he exclaimed. "I know his house as well as I know my own; and if it wasn't so dark I would point it out to you. It is the prettiest in Ille. M. de Peyrehorade is a rich man; and he is marrying his son to a lady even richer than himself."
"Is the marriage to take place soon?" I asked.
"Very soon; probably the violinists are already ordered for the wedding. Perhaps it will be to-night, or to-morrow, or the day after, for all I know. It will be at Puygarrig; for the son is to marry Mademoiselle de Puygarrig. It will be a very grand affair!"
I had been introduced to M. de Peyrehorade by my friend M. de P., who told me he was a very learned antiquarian and of extreme good nature. It would give him pleasure to show me all the ruins for ten leagues round. So I was looking forward to visit with him the district surrounding Ille, which I knew to be rich in monuments belonging to ancient times and the Middle Ages. This marriage, of which I now heard for the first time, would upset all my plans. I said to myself, I should be a kill-joy; but I was expected, and as M. de P. had written to say I was coming, I should have to present myself.
"I will bet you, Monsieur," said my guide to me, when we were in the plain—"I will bet you a cigar that I can guess why you are going to M. de Peyrehorade's."
"But that is not a difficult thing to guess," I replied, holding out a cigar to him. "At this hour, after traversing six leagues amongst the Canigou hills, the grand question is supper."
"Yes, but to-morrow?... Wait, I will bet that you have come to Ille to see the statue. I guessed that when I saw you draw pictures of the Saints at Serrabona."
"The statue! What statue?" The word had excited my curiosity.
"What! did no one tell you at Perpignan that M. de Peyrehorade had found a statue in the earth?"
"Did you mean a statue in terra-cotta, or clay?"
"Nothing of the kind. It is actually in copper, and there is enough of it to make heaps of coins. It weighs as much as a church bell. It is deep in the ground, at the foot of an olive tree that we dug up."
"You were present, then, at the find?"
"Yes, sir. M. de Peyrehorade told Jean Coll and me, a fortnight ago, to uproot an old olive tree which had been killed by the frost last year, for there was a very severe frost, you will remember. Well, then, whilst working at it with all his might, Jean Coll gave a blow with his pickaxe, and I heard bimm!... as though he had struck on a bell. 'What is that?' I said. He picked and picked again, and a black hand appeared, which looked like the hand of a dead man coming out of the ground. I felt frightened; I went to the master and said to him: 'There are dead folk, master, under the olive tree; I wish you would send for the priest.' 'What dead folk?' he asked. He came, and had no sooner seen the hand than he cried out, 'An antique statue! an antique statue!' You might have thought he had discovered a treasure. And then he set to with pickaxe and hands, and worked hard; he did almost as much work as the two of us together."
"And what did you find in the end?"
"A huge black woman, more than half naked, saving your presence, sir, all in copper, and M. de Peyrehorade told us that it was an idol of pagan times ... perhaps as old as Charlemagne!"
"I see what it is ... some worthy Virgin in bronze which belonged to a convent that has been destroyed."
"The Blessed Virgin! Well, I never!... I should very soon have known if it had been the Blessed Virgin. I tell you it is an idol; you can see that plainly from its appearance. It stares at you with its great white eyes.... You might have said it was trying to put you out of countenance. It was enough to make one ashamed to look at her."
"White eyes were they? No doubt they are inlaid in the bronze; it might perhaps be a Roman statue."
"Roman! that's it. M. de Peyrehorade said that it was Roman. Ah! I can see you are as learned as he is."
"Is it whole and in good preservation?"
"Oh, it is all there, sir. It is much more beautiful and better finished than the painted plaster bust of Louis Philippe, which is at the town hall. But for all that the idol's face is not very nice to look at. She looks wicked ... and she is so, too."
"Wicked! What mischief has she done you?"
"No mischief to me exactly; but I will tell you. We were down on all fours to raise her up on end, and M. de Peyrehorade was also tugging at the rope, although he had no more strength than a chicken, good man! With much trouble he got her straight. I picked up a tile to prop her up, when, good Lord! she fell upside down all in a heap. 'Look out there below!' I said, but I was not quick enough, for Jean Coll had not time to draw his leg out...."
"And was it hurt?"
"His poor leg was broken as clean as a pole. Goodness! when I saw it I was furious. I wanted to break up the idol with my pickaxe, but M. de Peyrehorade would not let me. He gave some money to Jean Coll, who, all the same, has been in bed the whole fortnight since it happened, and the doctor says that he will never walk with that leg again so well as with the other. It is a sad pity; he was our best runner, and, after M. de Peyrehorade's son, he was the cleverest tennis player. M. Alphonse de Peyrehorade was dreadfully sorry, for it was Coll against whom he played. It was fine to see them send the balls flying. Whizz! whizz! they never touched the ground."
And so we chatted till we reached Ille, and I very soon found myself in the presence of M. de Peyrehorade. He was a little old man, still hale and active; he was powdered, had a red nose, and his manner was jovial and bantering. When he had opened M. de P.'s letter he installed me in front of a well-appointed table and presented me to his wife and son as an illustrious archaeologist, whose desire it was to raise the province of Roussillon from obscurity, in which it had been left by the neglect of the learned.
Whilst I was eating with a good appetite—for nothing makes one so hungry as mountain air—I examined my hosts. I have said a word or two about M. de Peyrehorade; I should add that he was vivacity itself. He talked and ate, got up, ran to his library to bring me books, showed me engravings, and poured out drinks for me; he was never still for two minutes. His wife was rather too stout, like most Catalanian women over forty, and she seemed to me a regular provincial, solely taken up with the cares of her household. Although the supper was ample for six people at least, she ran to the kitchen, had pigeons killed and dozens of them fried, besides opening I don't know how many pots of preserves. In a trice the table was loaded with dishes and bottles, and I should assuredly have died of indigestion if I had even tasted all that was offered me. However, at each dish that I refused there were fresh excuses. They were afraid I did not get what I liked at Ille—there are so few means of getting things in the provinces, and Parisians are so hard to please!
M. Alphonse de Peyrehorade stirred no more than a statue in the midst of his parents' comings and goings. He was a tall young man of twenty-six, with beautiful and regular features, but they were wanting in expression. His figure and athletic build quite justified the reputation he had gained in the country as an indefatigable tennis player. He was that evening exquisitely dressed, exactly like the latest fashion plate. But he seemed to me to be uneasy in his garments; he was as stiff as a post in his velvet collar, and could not turn round unless with his whole body. His fat and sunburnt hands, with their short nails, contrasted strangely with his costume. They were the hands of a labouring man appearing below the sleeves of a dandy. For the rest, he only addressed me once throughout the whole evening, and that was to ask me where I had bought my watch-chain, although he studied me from head to foot very inquisitively in uncapacity as a Parisian.
"Ah, now, my honoured guest," said M. de Peyrehorade to me when supper drew to its conclusion, "you belong to me. You are in my house, and I shall not give you any rest until you have seen all the curiosities among our mountains. You must learn to know our Roussillon and to do it justice. You have no idea what we can show you—Phœnician, Celtic, Roman, Arabesque and Byzantine monuments. You shall see them all—lock, stock and barrel. I will take you everywhere, and will not let you off a single stone."
A fit of coughing compelled him to stop. I took advantage of it to tell him I should be greatly distressed if I disturbed him during the interesting event about to take place in his family. If he would kindly give me the benefit of his valuable advice about the excursion I ought to take, I should be able to go without putting him to the inconvenience of accompanying me....
"Ah, you are referring to this boy's marriage!" he exclaimed, interrupting me. "That is all nonsense. It takes place the day after to-morrow. You shall celebrate the wedding with us; it will take place quietly, for the bride is in mourning for an aunt, whose heiress she is. Therefore there is to be neither fête nor ball.... It is a pity.... You would have seen our Catalanian women dance.... They are pretty, and you might perhaps have been tempted to follow Alphonse's example. One marriage, they say, leads to others.... On Saturday, after the young people are married, I shall be at liberty, and we will set out. I ask your forgiveness for the irksomeness of a provincial wedding. To a Parisian blasé with fêtes ... and a wedding without a ball too! However, you will see a bride ... such a bride ... you must tell me what you think of her.... But you are not a frivolous man, and you take no notice of women. I have better things than women to show you. I am going to show you something! I have a fine surprise for you to-morrow."
"Ah," I replied, "it is not easy to have a treasure in your house without the public knowing all about it. I think I can guess the surprise you have in store for me. You are thinking of your statue. I am quite prepared to admire it, for my guide's description if it has roused my curiosity."
"Ah! he told you about the idol, for that is what they call my beautiful Venus Tur—but I will not talk of it. To-morrow, as soon as it is daylight, you shall see her, and you shall tell me if I am not right in considering her a chef-d'œuvre. Upon my word, you could not have arrived at a better time! There are inscriptions which poor ignorant I explain after my own fashion ... but a savant from Paris!... You will probably laugh at my interpretation, for I have written a treatise on it.... I—an old provincial antiquarian—I am going to venture.... I mean to make the press groan. If you would be so good as to read and correct it, I should be hopeful.... For example, I am curious to know how you would translate this inscription on the pedestal: 'CAVE' ...—but I do not want to ask you anything yet! To-morrow, to-morrow! Not a single word about the Venus to-day."
"You are quite right, Peyrehorade," said his wife, "to stop talking about your idol; you ought to see that you are preventing the gentleman from eating. Why, he has seen far more beautiful statues in Paris than yours. There are dozens of them in the Tuileries, and in bronze too."
"Just look at her ignorance—the blessed ignorance of the provinces!" interrupted M. de Peyrehorade. "Fancy, comparing a splendid antique statue to the flat figures of Coustou!
"'How irreverently of my affairs
The gods are pleased to talk!'
The gods are pleased to talk!'
"Do you know my wife wanted to have my statue melted down to make a bell for our church? She would have been its godmother—one of Myro's chef-d'œuvres."
"Chef-d'œuvre! chef-d'œuvre! a fine chef-d'œuvre it is to break a man's leg!"
"Look here, wife," said M. de Peyrehorade in a determined voice, as he extended his right leg towards her, clad in a fine silk stocking, "if my Venus had broken this leg I should not have minded."
"Good gracious! Peyrehorade, how can you talk like that? Fortunately, the man is going on well.... And yet I cannot bring myself to look at the statue which did such an evil thing as that. Poor Jean Coll!"
"Wounded by Venus, sir," said M. de Peyrehorade, laughing loudly. "The rascal complains of being wounded by Venus!
"'Veneris nec praemia nôris.'
Who has not suffered from the wounds of Venus?"
M. Alphonse, who understood French better than Latin, winked with an understanding air, and looked at me as though to say, "Do you understand that, you Parisian?"
Supper ended at last. For an hour I had not been able to eat any more. I was tired, and could not hide my frequent yawns. Madam de Peyrehorade saw it first, and said that it was time to retire. Then began fresh apologies for the poor entertainment I should find. I should not be comfortable as in Paris; in the country things are so different! I must make allowances for the people of Roussillon. It was in vain I protested that after a journey among the mountains a bundle of straw would seem a delicious bed. They still begged me to pardon their poor rustic servants if they did not behave as well as they should. At last, accompanied by M. de Peyrehorade, I reached the room put apart for my use. The staircase, the top steps of which were of wood, led to the centre of a corridor, out of which opened several rooms.
"To the right," said my host, "is the set of rooms that I intend for the future Madam Alphonse. Your room is at the end of the passage opposite. You will understand," he added, with a look which he meant to be sly—"you will readily understand that newly married people wish to be by themselves. You are at one end of the house and they at the other."
We entered a very handsomely furnished room, where the first object that caught my eye was a bed seven feet long, six broad, and such a height that one needed a stool to get into it. My host pointed out the position of the bell, and satisfied himself that the sugar-bowl was full, and the smelling-bottles of eau de Cologne in their proper places on the toilette table; then he asked me repeatedly if I had all I wanted, wished me good-night and left me alone.
The windows were shut. Before undressing, I opened one to breathe the cool night air, which was delicious after such a lengthy supper. In front was Canigou Mountain, which is at all times beautiful, but to-night it seemed the fairest in the world, lighted up as it was by a splendid moon. I stood a few minutes to contemplate its marvellous outline, and was just going to close my window when, lowering my gaze, I saw the statue on a pedestal about forty yards from the house. It was placed in a corner of the quick-set hedge which separated a little garden from a large, perfectly level court, which, I learnt later, was the tennis ground for the town. This ground had been M. de Peyrehorade's property, but he had given it to the public at his son's urgent entreaties.
From my distance away it was difficult to make out the form of the statue; I could only judge of its height, which I guessed was about six feet. At that moment two town larrikins passed along the tennis court, close to the hedge, whistling the pretty Roussillon air, "Montagnes régalades." They stopped to look at the statue, and one of them even apostrophised her in a loud voice. He spoke the Catalanian dialect, but I had been long enough in the province of Roussillon to be able to understand almost all he said.
"Chi-ike, huzzy!" (the Catalanian expression was more forcible than that). "Look here," he said, "you broke Jean Coll's leg for him! If you belonged to me I would have broken your neck."
"Bah! what with?" asked the other. "She is made of copper, and so hard that Stephen broke his file over it, trying to cut into it. It is copper from before the Flood, and harder than anything I can think."
"If I had my cold chisel" (apparently he was a locksmith's apprentice) "I would jolly soon scoop out her big white eyes; it would be like cracking a couple of nutshells for the kernels. I would do it for a bob."
They moved a few paces further off.
"I must just wish the idol good night," said the tallest of the apprentices, stopping suddenly.
He stooped, and probably picked up a stone. I saw him stretch out his arm and throw something, and immediately after I heard a resounding blow from the bronze. At the same moment the apprentice raised his hand to his head and yelled out in pain.
"She has thrown it back at me!" he cried.
And then the two scamps took to flight as fast as they could. The stone had evidently rebounded from the metal, and had punished the rascal for the outrage done to the goddess.
I shut the window and laughed heartily.
Yet another vandal punished by Venus! Would that all destroyers of our ancient monuments could have their heads broken like that!
And with this charitable wish I fell asleep.
It was broad day when I awoke. Near my bed on one side stood M. de Peyrehorade in a dressing-gown; on the other a servant sent by his wife with a cup of chocolate in his hand.
"Come now, Parisian, get up! How lazy you people from the capital are!" said my host, while I hastily dressed myself. "It is eight o'clock, and you still in bed. I got up at six o'clock. I have been upstairs three times; I listened at your door on tiptoe, but there was no sign of life at all. It is bad for you to sleep too much at your age. And my Venus waiting to be seen! Come, take this cup of Barcelona chocolate as fast as you can ... it is quite contraband. You can't get such chocolate in Paris. Take in all the nourishment you can, for when you are before my Venus no one will be able to tear you away."
I was ready in five minutes; that is to say, I was only half shaved, wrongly buttoned and scalded by the chocolate which I had swallowed boiling hot. I went downstairs into the garden and was soon in front of a wonderfully fine statue. It was indeed a Venus of extraordinary beauty. The top part of her body was bare, just as the ancients usually depicted their great deities; her right hand, raised up to her breast, was bent, with the palm inwards, the thumb and two first fingers extended, whilst the other two were slightly curved. The other hand was near the hips, and held up the drapery which covered the lower part of the body. The attitude of this statue reminded me of that of the Morra player, which, for some reason or other, goes by the name of Germanicus. Perhaps they wished to depict the goddess playing at the game of Morra.
However that might be, it is impossible to conceive anything more perfect than the body of this Venus; nothing could be more harmonious or more voluptuous than its outlines, nothing more graceful or dignified than its drapery. I expected some work of the Lower Empire, and I beheld a masterpiece of the most perfect period of sculpture. I was specially struck with the exquisite truth of form, which gave the impression that it had been moulded by nature itself, if nature ever produces such perfect specimens.
The hair, which was raised off the forehead, looked as though it might have been gilded at some time. The head was small, like those of nearly all Greek statues, and bent slightly forward. As to the face, I should never be able to express its strange character; it was of quite a different type from that of any other antique statue I could recall to mind. It was not only the calm and austere beauty of the Greek sculptors, whose rule was to give a majestic immobility to every feature. Here, on the contrary, I noticed with astonishment that the artist had purposely expressed ill-nature to the point even of wickedness. Every feature was slightly contracted: the eyes were rather slanting, the mouth turned up at the corners, and the nostrils somewhat inflated. Disdain, irony, cruelty, could be traced on a face which was, notwithstanding, of incredible beauty. Indeed, the longer one looked at this wonderful statue, the more did the distressing thought obtrude itself that such marvellous beauty could be united with an utter absence of goodness.
"If the model ever existed," I said to M. de Peyrehorade, "and I doubt if Heaven ever produced such a woman, how I pity her lovers! She would delight to make them die of despair. There is something ferocious in her expression, and yet I never saw anything so beautiful."
"'It is Venus herself gloating over her prey,'"
cried M. de Peyrehorade, pleased with my enthusiasm.
That expression of fiendish scorn was perhaps enhanced by the contrast shown by her eyes, which were encrusted with silver, and shone brilliantly with the greenish-black colour that time had given to the whole statue. Those brilliant eyes produced a kind of illusion which recalled lifelike reality. I remembered what my guide had said, that she made those who looked at her lower their eyes. It was quite true, and I could hardly restrain an impulse of anger against myself for feeling rather ill at ease before that bronze face.
"Now that you have admired it minutely, my dear colleague in antiquarian research," said my host, "let us, by your leave, open a scientific conference. What say you to that inscription, which you have not yet noticed?"
He showed me the pedestal of the statue, and I read on it these words:—
"Quid dicis, doctissime?" he asked me, rubbing his hands together. "Let us see if we can hit on the meaning of this CAVE AMANTEM."
"But," I answered, "it has two meanings. It can be translated: 'Beware of him who loves thee; mistrust thy lovers.' But in that sense I do not know whether CAVE AMANTEM would be good Latin. Looking at the lady's diabolic expression, I would rather believe that the artist intended to put the spectator on his guard against her terrible beauty; I would therefore translate it: 'Beware if she loves thee.'"
"Humph!" said M. de Peyrehorade; "yes, that is an admissible interpretation; but, without wishing to displease you, I prefer the first translation, and I will tell you why. You know who Venus's lover was?"
"There were several."
"Yes, but the chief one was Vulcan. Should one not rather say, 'In spite of all thy beauty and thy scornful manner, thou shalt have for thy lover a blacksmith, a hideous cripple'? What a profound moral, Monsieur, for flirts!"
I could hardly help smiling at this far-fetched explanation.
"Latin is a difficult tongue, because of its concise expression," I remarked, to avoid contradicting my antiquarian friend outright; and I stepped further away to see the statue better.
"One moment, colleague," said M. de Peyrehorade, seizing me by the arm, "you have not seen everything. There is still another inscription. Climb up on the pedestal and look at the right arm." And saying this, he helped me up.
I held on to the neck of the Venus unceremoniously, and began to make myself better acquainted with her. I only looked at her for a moment, right in the face, and I found her still more wicked, and still more beautiful. Then I discovered that there were some written characters in an ancient, running hand, it seemed to me, engraved on the arm. With the help of spectacles I spelt out the following, whilst M. de Peyrehorade repeated every word as soon as pronounced, with approving gesture and voice. It read thus:—
VENERI TVRBVL ...
After the word TVRBVL in the first line, I thought some letters had been effaced; but TVRBVL was perfectly legible.
"What do you say to that?" asked my host, radiantly smiling with malice, for he knew very well that I could not easily extricate myself from this TVRBVL.
"I cannot explain that word yet," I said to him; "all the rest is easy. By his order Eutyches Myro made this great offering to Venus."
"Good. But what do you make of TVRBVL? What is TVRBVL?"
"TVRBVL puzzles me greatly; I cannot think of any epithet applied to Venus which might assist me. Stay, what do you say to TVRBVLENTA? Venus, who troubles and disturbs.... You notice I am all the time thinking of her malignant expression. TVRBVLENTA would not be at all a bad epithet for Venus," I added modestly, for I was not myself quite satisfied with my explanation.
"Venus the turbulent! Venus the broiler! Ah! you think, then, that my Venus is a Venus of the pot-house? Nothing of the kind, Monsieur. She is a Venus belonging to the great world. And now I will expound to you this TVRBVL.... You will at least promise not to divulge my discovery before my treatise is published. I shall become famous, you see, by this find.... You must leave us poor provincial devils a few ears to glean. You Parisian savants are rich enough."
From the top of the pedestal, where I still perched, I solemnly promised that I would never be so dishonourable as to steal his discovery.
"TVRBVL ... Monsieur," he said, coming nearer and lowering his voice for fear anyone else but myself should hear, "read TVRBVLNERÆ."
"I do not understand any better."
"Listen carefully. A league from here, at the base of the mountain, is a village called Boulternère. It is a corruption of the Latin word TVRBVLNERA. Nothing is commoner than such an inversion. Boulternère, Monsieur, was a Roman town. I have always been doubtful about this, for I have never had any proof of it. The proof lies here. This Venus was the local goddess of the city of Boulternère; and this word Boulternère, which I have just shown to be of ancient origin, proves a still more curious thing, namely that Boulternère, after being a Roman town, became a Phœnician one!"
He stopped a minute to take breath, and to enjoy my surprise. I had to repress a strong inclination to laugh.
"Indeed," he went on, "TVRBVLNERA is pure Phœnician. TVR pronounce TOUR.... TOUR and SOUR, are they not the same word? SOUR is the Phœnician name for Tyre. I need not remind you of its meaning. BVL is Baal, Bâl, Bel, Bul, slight differences in pronunciation. As to NERA, that gives me some trouble. I am tempted to think, for want of a Phœnician word, that it comes from the Greek νηρός—damp, marshy. That would make it a hybrid word. To justify νηρός I will show you at Boulternère how the mountain streams there form poisonous swamps. On the other hand, the ending NERA might have been added much later, in honour of Nera Pivesuvia, the wife of Tetricus, who may have done some benevolent act to the city of Turbul. But, on account of the marshes, I prefer the derivation from νηρός."
He took a pinch of snuff with a satisfied air.
"But let us leave the Phœnicians and return to the inscription. I translate, then: 'To the Venus of Boulternère Myro dedicates by his command this statue, the work of his hand.'"
I took good care not to criticise his etymology, but I wanted, on my own account, to put his penetrative faculties to the proof, so I said to him: "Wait a bit, Monsieur, Myro dedicated something, but I do not in the least see that it was this statue."
"What!" he exclaimed, "was not Myro a famous Greek sculptor? The talent would descend to his family; and one of his descendants made this statue. Nothing can be clearer."
"But," I replied, "I see a little hole in the arm. I fancy it has been used to hold something, perhaps a bracelet, which this Myro gave to Venus as an expiatory offering, for Myro was an unlucky lover. Venus was incensed against him, and he appeased her by consecrating a golden bracelet. You must remember that fecit is often used for consecravit. The terms are synonymous. I could show you more than one instance if I had access to Gruter or, better still, Orellius. It is natural that a lover should behold Venus in his dreams, and that he should imagine that she commanded him to give her statue a golden bracelet. Myro consecrated a bracelet to her.... Then the barbarians, or perhaps some sacrilegious thief—"
"Ah! it is easily seen that you are given to romancing," cried my host, lending his hand to help me down. "No, Monsieur, it is a work after the School of Myro. Only look at the work, and you will agree."
Having made it a rule never to contradict pig-headed antiquarians outright, I bowed my head as though convinced, and said—
"It is a splendid piece of work."
"Ah! my God!" exclaimed M. de Peyrehorade, "here is yet another mark of vandalism! Someone has thrown a stone at my statue!"
He had just seen a white mark a little below the breast of the Venus. I noticed a similar mark on the fingers of the right hand, which at first I supposed had been scraped by the stone in passing, or perhaps a fragment of it might have broken off by the shock and rebounded upon the hand. I told my host the insult that I had witnessed and the prompt punishment which had followed. He laughed heartily, and compared the apprentice to Diomede, wishing he might see all his comrades changed into white birds, as the Greek hero did.
The breakfast bell interrupted this famous interview; and, as on the previous evening, I was forced to eat as much as four people. Then M. de Peyrehorade's tenants came to see him, and, whilst he gave them audience, his son took me to see a carriage which he had bought for his fiancée at Toulouse, and, of course, I admired it properly. After that I went with him to the stables, where he kept me half an hour praising his horses and telling me their pedigrees and the prizes he had won at the country races. At last he spoke of his future bride, by a sudden transition from the grey mare that he intended for her.
"We shall see her to-day. I wonder if you will think her pretty. You are so difficult to please in Paris; but everybody here and at Perpignan thinks her lovely. The best of it is she is very wealthy. Her aunt, who lived at Prades, left her all her money. Oh, I am going to be ever so happy!"
I was deeply shocked to see a young man much more affected by the dowry than by the beautiful looks of his bride-to-be.
"Are you learned in jewellery?" continued M. Alphonse. "What do you think of this ring which I am going to give her to-morrow?"
So saying, he drew from the first joint of his little finger a large ring blazing with diamonds, formed by the clasping of two hands: a most poetic idea, I thought. It was of ancient workmanship, but I guessed that it had been retouched when the diamonds were set. Inside the ring was engraved in gothic letters: "Sempr' ab ti" ("Ever thine").
"It is a lovely ring," I said; but added, "the diamonds have taken from its original character somewhat."
"Oh, it is much prettier as it is now," he replied, smiling. "There are one thousand two hundred francs' worth of diamonds in it. My mother gave it me. It was an old family ring ... from the days of chivalry. It was worn by my grandmother, who had it from her grandmother. Goodness knows when it was made!"
"The custom in Paris," I said, "is to give a very plain ring, usually made of two different metals, say, gold and platinum. For instance, the other ring which you have on that finger would be most suitable. This one is so large, with its diamonds and hands in relief, that no glove would go over it."
"Oh, Madam Alphonse can arrange that as she likes. I think she will be pleased enough to have it. Twelve hundred francs on one's finger is very pleasing. That little ring," he added, looking with a satisfied expression at the plain ring which he held in his hand, "was given me one Shrove Tuesday by a woman in Paris, when I was staying there two years ago. Ah! that is the place to enjoy oneself in!..." And he sighed regretfully.
We were to dine at Puygarrig that day, at the house of the bride's parents; we drove in carriages, and were soon at the Castle, which was about a league and a half from Ille. I was introduced and received like one of the family. I will not talk of the dinner, nor of the conversation which took place, and in which I had but little part. M. Alphonse, who sat by the side of his future bride, whispered in her ear every quarter of an hour. She hardly raised her eyes, and blushed modestly every time her intended spoke to her, though she replied without embarrassment.
Mademoiselle de Puygarrig was eighteen years of age, and her lithe, delicate figure was a great contrast to the bony limbs of her sturdy lover. She was more than beautiful: she was enchanting. I admired the perfect naturalness of all her replies. Her expression was kindly, but nevertheless was not devoid of a light touch of maliciousness which reminded me, do what I would, of my host's Venus. While making this comparison to myself I wondered if the superior beauty which undoubtedly belonged to the statue was not largely owing to her tigerish expression, for strength, even when accompanied by evil passions, always induces wonder and a sort of involuntary admiration.
What a pity, I reflected, as we left Puygarrig, that such a charming person should be so rich, and that her dowry should be the cause of her being sought by a man so unworthy of her!
Whilst on the return to Ille I found it difficult to know what to talk of to Madam de Peyrehorade, with whom I thought I ought to converse.
"You are very strong-minded people here in Roussillon," I exclaimed, "to have a wedding on a Friday. In Paris we are more superstitious; no man dare take a wife on that day."
"Oh, please don't talk of it," she said; "if it had depended only on me, I would certainly have chosen another day. But Peyrehorade wanted it, and would not give way. It troubles me, however. Suppose some misfortune should happen? There must be something in it, else why should everybody be afraid of a Friday?"
"Friday," her husband cried, "is the day dedicated to Venus. An excellent day for a wedding. You will notice, my dear colleague, that I only think of my Venus. What an honour! It was on that account I chose Friday. To-morrow, if you are willing, we will offer her a small sacrifice before the ceremony—two ringdoves and incense, if I can find any."
"For shame, Peyrehorade!" interrupted his wife, who was scandalised in the highest degree. "Offer incense to an idol! It would be an abomination! What would be said about you through the countryside?"
"At all events," said M. de Peyrehorade, "you will let me put a wreath of roses and lilies on her head?
"'Manibus date lilia plenis.
You see, monsieur, the charter is but a vain thing. We have no religious freedom."
The arrangements for the morrow were regulated in the following manner. Everyone had to be ready and dressed for the wedding at ten o'clock prompt. After taking chocolate we were to be driven to Puygarrig. The civil marriage was to take place at the village registry, and the religious ceremony in the Castle chapel. After that there would be luncheon. Then we were to spend the time as we liked until seven o'clock, when we were all to return to M. de Peyrehorade's house, where the two families would sup together. The remainder of the time would naturally be spent in eating as much as possible, as there would be no dancing.
Ever since eight o'clock I had sat before the Venus, pencil in hand, beginning over again for the twentieth time the head of the statue, without being able to seize the expression. M. de Peyrehorade came and went, giving me advice and repeating his Phœnician derivations. Then he placed some Bengal roses on the pedestal of the statue, and addressed to it, in a tragi-comical air, vows for the couple about to live under his roof. He went in to see about his toilette towards nine o'clock, and at the same time M. Alphonse appeared, well groomed, in a new suit, white gloves, patent-leather shoes, chased buttons and a rose in his button-hole.
"You must take my wife's portrait," he said, leaning over my drawing; "she, too, is pretty."
Then began on the tennis ground, to which I have already referred, a game which at once attracted M. Alphonse's attention. I was tired, and in despair at being unable to reproduce that diabolical face, so I soon left my drawing to watch the players. There were among them several Spanish muleteers who had come the night before. They were men from Aragon and from Navarre, almost all clever players. Although the local players were encouraged by the presence and advice of M. Alphonse, they were very soon beaten by these new champions. The patriotic onlookers were filled with concern, and M. Alphonse looked at his watch. It was still only half-past nine. His mother was not ready yet. He hesitated no longer, threw off his coat, asked for a vest, and challenged the Spaniards. I looked at him with amusement and in some surprise.
"The honour of our country must be upheld," he said.
Then I saw how very handsome he was. He was roused to passion. The toilette, which had just now filled his thoughts to the exclusion of everything else, was completely forgotten. A few minutes before he hardly dared turn his head, for fear of spoiling his cravat. Now he thought nothing of his curled hair or of his beautifully got up frilled shirt. And his fiancée! I really believe that, if necessary, he would have adjourned the wedding. I saw him hastily put on a pair of sandals, turn up his sleeves, and with a self-satisfied manner range himself at the head of the vanquished party, like Cæsar when he rallied his soldiers at Dyrrachium. I leapt the hedge and took up a position comfortably under the shade of a nettle tree in such a way as to be able to see both camps.
Contrary to general expectation, M. Alphonse missed the first ball; true, it grazed the ground, and bound with surprising force near one of the players from Aragon, who seemed the head of the Spaniards.
He was a man of about forty, strong, yet spare in appearance; he stood six feet high, and his olive skin was of almost as deep a tint as the bronze of the Venus.
M. Alphonse threw his racquet on the ground in a furious rage.
"It is this cursed ring!" he cried, "which pressed into my finger and made me miss a sure thing."
With some difficulty he took off his diamond ring, and I went nearer to take it, but he forestalled me, ran to the Venus, slipped the ring on its fourth finger, and retook his position at the head of his townsmen.
He was pale, but cool and determined. From that time he made no more fouls, and the Spaniards were completely beaten. The enthusiasm of the spectators was a fine sight: some uttered shrieks of delight and threw their caps in the air: others shook hands with him and called him the pride of their countryside. If he had repulsed an invasion, I doubt if he would have received heartier or more sincere congratulations. The disappointment of the vanquished added still more to the brilliance of his victory.
"We must have another match, my fine fellow," he said to the muleteer from Aragon in a condescending tone; "but I must give you odds."
I would have preferred M. Alphonse to be more modest, and I was almost sorry for his rival's humiliation.
The Spanish giant felt the insult keenly; I saw him go pale under his tanned skin. He looked miserably at his racquet and ground his teeth; then, in a choking voice he said, "Me lo pagarás."
The voice of M. de Peyrehorade interrupted his son's triumph; my host was extremely astonished not to find him superintending the preparation of the new carriage, and was even more surprised to see him with racquet in hand, flushed from the game.
M. Alphonse ran to the house, bathed his face and hands, put on his new coat again and his patent-leather shoes, and five minutes after we were in full trot on the road to Puygarrig. All the tennis players of the town and a large crowd of spectators followed us with shouts of joy. The stout horses which drew us could hardly keep ahead of these dauntless Catalanians.
We were at Puygarrig, and the procession was forming into order to walk to the registry when M. Alphonse suddenly put his hand up to his head and whispered to me—
"What a blunder! I have forgotten the ring! It is on Venus's finger, devil take her! Do not tell my mother, whatever happens. Perhaps she will not notice the omission."
"You could send someone for it," I said.
"No! my servant has stayed behind at Ille. I dare hardly trust these fellows here with twelve hundred francs of diamonds. What a temptation that will be to someone! Besides, what would the people here think of my absent-mindedness? They would make fun of me. They would call me the husband of the statue.... If only no one steals it! Fortunately, the idol frightens the young rascals. They dare not go within arm's length of her. Well, it doesn't matter, I have another ring."
The two ceremonies, civil and religious, were accomplished with suitable state. Mademoiselle de Puygarrig received the ring which had belonged to a Paris milliner, little thinking that her fiancé had sacrificed another's love-token to her. Then we sat down and drank, ate and sang for long enough. I was sorry the bride had to bear the coarse jollity which went on all around her; however, she took it with a better face than I should have thought possible, and her embarrassment was neither awkward nor affected. Possibly courage springs up under occasions that need it.
The banquet broke up Lord knows when—somewhere about four o'clock. The men went for a walk in the park, which was a magnificent one, or watched the peasants of Puygarrig dance on the Castle lawn, decked in their gala dresses.
In this way we passed several hours. In the meantime the women thronged round the bride, who showed them her wedding presents. Then she changed her toilette, and I noticed that she covered up her beautiful hair with a cap and a hat with feathers in it, for wives are most particular to don as quickly as possible those adornments which custom has forbidden them to wear when they are still unmarried.
It was nearly eight o'clock when we were ready to go back to Ille. But there was a pathetic scene first between Mademoiselle de Puygarrig and her aunt, who had been a mother to her, and was of advanced age and very religious: she had not been able to go to the town with us. At her departure she gave her niece a touching sermon on her wifely duties, which resulted in a flood of tears and endless embracings. M. de Peyrehorade compared this parting to the Rape of the Sabines. However, we got off at last, and during the journey everyone exerted himself to cheer up the bride and make her laugh, but in vain.
At Ille supper awaited us; and what a supper! If the morning's coarse revel had shocked me, I was still more disgusted by the quips and jokes which circled round the bride and bridegroom. The bridegroom, who had disappeared for an instant before sitting down to supper, was pale and as chilly as an iceberg. He drank the old wine of Collioure constantly, which is almost as strong as brandy. I was on one side of him, and felt I must warn him—
"Do take care. They say this wine—"
I don't know what silly thing I said to him to show myself in harmony with the merry-makers.
"When they get up from the table I have something to say to you," he whispered, pushing my knee.
His solemn tone surprised me. I looked at him more attentively, and noticed a strange alteration in his features.
"Do you feel ill?" I asked.
And he began to drink again.
In the meantime, in the midst of cries and clapping hands, a child of eleven, who had slipped under the table, showed to the company a pretty white and rose-coloured ribbon which she had just taken from the bride's ankle. They called it her garter. It was soon cut into bits and distributed among the young people, who decorated their button-holes with it, according to a very old custom which is still preserved in a few patriarchal families. This made the bride blush to the whites of her eyes. But her confusion reached its height when M. de Peyrehorade, after calling for silence, sang some Catalanian verses to her, which he said were impromptus. I give the sense so far as I understood it.
"What is the matter with me, my friends? Has the wine I have taken made me see double? There are two Venuses here...."
The bridegroom turned round suddenly and looked scared, which set everybody laughing.
"Yes," continued M. de Peyrehorade, "there are two Venuses under my roof. One I found in the earth, like a truffle; the other came down to us from the heavens to share her girdle with us."
He meant, of course, her garter.
"My son, choose between the Roman and the Catalanian Venus which you prefer. The rascal took the Catalanian, the better part, for the Roman is black and the Catalanian is white. The Roman is cold, and the Catalanian sets on fire all who come near her."
This conclusion excited such an uproar of noisy applause and loud laughter that I thought the roof would fall on our heads. There were but three grave faces at the table—those of the wedded pair and mine. I had a splitting headache; for besides, I know not why, a marriage always makes me feel melancholy. This one disgusted me rather, too.
The last couplets were sung by the deputy-mayor, and, I may say, they were very broad; then we went into the salon to witness the departure of the bride, who would soon be conducted to her chamber, as it was nearly midnight.
M. Alphonse drew me aside into the recess of a window, and said, as he turned his eyes away from me—
"You will laugh at me ... but I do not know what is the matter with me.... I am bewitched, devil take it!"
My first thought was that he fancied he was threatened with some misfortune of the nature of those referred to by Montaigne and Madame de Sévigné: "The whole realm of love is filled with tragic stories."
I thought to myself that this kind of mishap only happens to men of genius.
"You have drunk too much Collioure wine, my dear M. Alphonse," I said. "I warned you."
"That may be. But this is something much more terrible."
His voice was broken, and I thought he was quite drunk.
"You know my ring?" he continued, after a pause.
"Yes. Has it been taken?"
"Therefore you have it?"
"No—I—I could not get it off the finger of that devil of a Venus."
"Nonsense! you did not pull hard enough."
"Yes, I did.... But the Venus ... has clenched her finger."
He looked at me fixedly with a haggard expression, and leant against the framework to keep himself from falling.
"What a ridiculous tale!" I said. "You pushed the ring on too far. To-morrow you must use pincers, only take care not to injure the statue.
"No, I tell you. The finger of Venus has contracted and bent up; she closed her hand, do you hear?... She is my wife apparently, because I gave her my ring.... She will not give it back."
I shivered suddenly, and for a moment my blood ran cold. Then the deep sigh he gave sent a breath of wine into my face and all my emotion disappeared.
"The wretched man is completely drunk," I thought.
"You are an antiquarian, Monsieur," the bridegroom added in dismal tones; "you know all about such statues.... There is perhaps some spring, some devilish catch, I do not know of. If you would go and see."
"Willingly," I said. "Come with me."
"No, I would rather you went by yourself."
So I left the salon.
The weather had changed during supper, and rain began to fall heavily. I was going to ask for an umbrella, when I stopped short and reflected. "I should be a great fool," I said to myself, "to go and verify the tale of a tipsy man! Perhaps, besides, he intended to play some stupid joke on me to amuse the country people; and at the least I should be wet through to the skin and catch a bad cold."
I cast a glance on the dripping statue from the door, and went up to my room without returning to the salon. I went to bed, but sleep was long in coming. All the scenes that had occurred during the day returned to my mind. I thought of that beautiful, innocent young girl given up to a drunken brute. "What a detestable thing," I said to myself, "is a marriage of convenience! A mayor puts on a tricoloured sash, and a priest a stole, and behold, the noblest of girls may be dedicated to the Minotaur. What can two beings who do not love each other say at such a moment, a moment that lovers would buy at the price of life itself? Can a wife ever love a man whom she has once discovered is coarse-minded? First impressions can never be obliterated, and I am certain M. Alphonse deserves to be hated."
During my monologue, which I abridge considerably, I had heard much coming and going about the house, doors open and shut, and carriages go away; then I thought I could hear the light steps of several women upon the staircase proceeding to the end of the passage opposite my room. It was probably the procession leading the bride to bed. Then they went downstairs again, and Madam de Peyrehorade's door shut. "How unhappy and strangely ill at ease that poor girl must feel!" I said to myself. I turned over on my bed in a bad temper. A bachelor cuts but a poor figure at a house where there is a wedding going on.
Silence had reigned for a long while, when it was interrupted by heavy steps coming up the stairs. The wooden stairs creaked loudly.
"What a clumsy lout!" I cried. "I bet he will fall down stairs."
Then all became quiet again. I took up a book to change the current of my thoughts. It was a treatise on the Statistics of the Department, embellished with a preface by M. de Peyrehorade on the "Druidical Monuments of the Arrondissement of Prades." I fell into a doze at the third page.
I slept badly and waked several times. It must have been five in the morning, and I had been awake more than twenty minutes when the cock began to crow. Day had dawned. Then I distinctly heard the same heavy steps and the same creaking of the stairs that I had heard before I went to sleep. It struck me as very strange. I tried amidst my yawning to guess why M. Alphonse should rise so early; I could not think of any reason at all likely. I was going to close my eyes again when my attention was afresh excited by strange trampings, which were soon intermingled with the ringing of bells and the banging of doors, and then I could distinguish confused cries.
The drunken bridegroom must have set fire to the house! And at this reflection I leapt out of bed.
I dressed rapidly and went into the corridor. From the opposite end proceeded cries and wailings, and one piercing cry sounded above all the others—"My son! my son!" Evidently some accident had happened to M. Alphonse. I ran to the bridal-chamber; it was full of people. The first sight which met my eyes was the young man, half-dressed, stretched across the bed, the wood of which was broken. He was livid and motionless, and his mother wept and cried by his side. M. de Peyrehorade was busy rubbing his son's temples with eau de Cologne and holding smelling salts under his nose. Alas! his son had been dead a long time. Upon a couch at the other end of the room was the bride in the grip of terrible convulsions. She uttered inarticulate cries, and two strapping servants had the greatest difficulty in holding her down.
"My God!" I exclaimed, "what has happened?"
I went to the bedside and raised the body of the unfortunate young man; he was already cold and stiff. His clenched teeth and black face denoted the most frightful agony. It could be easily seen that his death had been violent and his agony terrible. There was, however, no trace of blood on his clothes. I opened his shirt and found a livid mark on his breast, which extended down his sides and back. One would have thought he had been strangled by a band of iron. My foot stumbled on something hard which was under the rug; I stooped and saw the diamond ring.
I led M. de Peyrehorade and his wife away into their room; then I had the bride carried out.
"You have a daughter left," I said to them; "you must give all your care to her." I then left them to themselves.
There seemed to me no doubt that M. Alphonse had been the victim of an assassination, and the perpetrators must have found some means to get into the bride's room during the night. Those bruises, however, on the chest and the circular direction of them puzzled me much, for neither a stick nor a bar of iron could have produced them. Suddenly I recollected to have heard that in Valence the bravoes use long leather bags full of fine sand to smother people whom they want to kill. Soon, too, I remembered the muleteer from Aragon and his threat, though I could hardly think that he would take such a terrible vengeance on a light jest.
I went into the house and hunted all over for any traces of their having broken into the house, but I found none whatever. I went to the garden to see if the assassins had got in from there, but I could not find any sure indication. Last night's rain had, moreover, so soaked the ground that it would not have retained the clearest imprint. But I noticed, notwithstanding, several deep footmarks in the earth; they were in two contrary directions, but in the same line, beginning at the corner of the hedge next to the tennis ground and ending at the front door to the house. These might have been the footmarks made by M. Alphonse when he went to look for his ring on the statue's finger. On the other side the hedge at that spot was not so thick, and it must have been here that the murderers made their escape. Passing and repassing in front of the statue, I stopped short a second to look at it. I confess that this time I could not look at its expression of ironical wickedness without fear, and my head was so full of the ghastly scenes I had just witnessed that I seemed to be looking at an infernal divinity which gloated over the misfortunes that had fallen on the house.
I regained my room and remained there until noon. Then I went down and asked for news of my host and hostess. They were a little calmer. Mademoiselle de Puygarrig—or rather the widow of M. Alphonse—had regained consciousness; she had even spoken to the magistrate of Perpignan, then on a tour of inspection in Ille, and this magistrate had taken down her statement. He asked me for mine. I told him what I knew, and did not conceal my suspicions regarding the muleteer from Aragon. He gave orders for his instant arrest.
"Have you learnt anything from Madam Alphonse?" I asked the magistrate, when my deposition had been taken down and signed.
"That unhappy young lady has gone mad," he said, with a sad smile; "mad, completely mad. See what she told me:—
"'She had been in bed,' she said, 'for some moments with the curtains drawn, when the bedroom door opened and someone came in.' Now Madam Alphonse lay on the side of the bed, with her face turned to the wall. She did not stir, supposing it to be her husband. In a second the bed creaked as though it were burdened with an enormous weight. She was terribly frightened, but dared not turn round. Five minutes, or perhaps ten—she could not tell how long—passed. Then she made an involuntary movement, or else the other person who was in the bed made one, and she felt the touch of something as cold as ice—these are her very words. She sat up in the bed, trembling in every limb. Shortly after the door opened again, and someone entered, who said, 'Good night, my little wife,' and soon after the curtains were drawn. She heard a stifled cry. The person who was in bed by her side sat up, and seemed to stretch out its arms in front. Then she turned her head round ... and saw, so she says, her husband on his knees by the bed, with his head as high as the pillow, in the arms of a green-looking giant who was strangling him with all its might. She said—and she repeated it to me over and over twenty times, poor lady!—she said that she recognised ... Can you guess? The bronze statue of Venus belonging to M. de Peyrehorade.... Since it came into the country everybody dreams of it, but I will proceed with the story of the unhappy mad girl. She lost consciousness at this sight, and probably for some time her reason. She cannot in any way tell how long she remained in a faint. When she came to she saw the phantom again—or the statue, as she persists in calling it—motionless, its legs and the lower half of the body in the bed, the bust and arms stretched out before it, and between its arms her lifeless husband. A cock crew, and then the statue got out of the bed, dropped the dead body, and went out. Madam Alphonse hung on to the bell, and you know the rest."
They brought in the Spaniard; he was calm, and defended himself with much coolness and presence of mind. He did not attempt to deny the remark I heard; he explained it by pretending that he meant nothing by it, but that on the following day, when he was more rested, he would have won a tennis match against his victor. I remember that he had added—
"A native of Aragon does not wait for his revenge till to-morrow when he is insulted. Had I thought M. Alphonse meant to insult me, I should have immediately stabbed him with my knife to the heart."
His shoes were compared with the footmarks in the garden; but his shoes were much larger than the marks.
Finally, the innkeeper with whom the man had lodged averred that he had spent the whole of that night in rubbing and doctoring one of his sick mules.
Moreover, this man from Aragon was quite noted and well known in the countryside, to which he came annually to trade. He was therefore released with many apologies.
I had forgotten the deposition of a servant who had been the last to see M. Alphonse alive. He saw him go upstairs to his wife, and he had called the man and asked him in an anxious manner if he knew where I was. Then M. Alphonse heaved a sigh, and stood for a moment in silence, adding afterwards—
"Well, the devil must have carried him off too!"
I asked this man if M. Alphonse had his diamond ring on when he spoke to him. The servant hesitated before he replied; then he said that he thought not, that at all events it had not attracted his attention. "If he had worn that ring," he added, correcting himself, "I should certainly have noticed it, because I believed that he had given it to Madam Alphonse."
Whilst I interrogated this man I felt a little of the superstitious terror that Madam Alphonse's deposition had spread throughout the house. The magistrate looked at me and smiled, and I refrained from pressing my questions any further.
A few hours after the funeral of M. Alphonse I prepared to leave Ille. M. de Peyrehorade's carriage was to take me to Perpignan. In spite of his state of feebleness the poor old man would accompany me to the gate of his grounds. He walked to it in silence, hardly able to drag himself along even with the help of my arm. Just as we were parting I cast a last glance at the Venus. I could see plainly that my host, although he did not share the terrors and hatred that his family felt for it, would like to get rid of the object that would ever afterwards remind him of a frightful disaster. I resolved to try and persuade him to put it in a museum. I was hesitating to begin the subject when M. de Peyrehorade mechanically turned his head in the direction in which he saw me looking so attentively. He saw the statue, and immediately burst into tears. I embraced him, and, without venturing to say a single word, I stepped into the carriage.
Since my departure I have never learnt that anything was discovered to throw light on this mysterious catastrophe.
M. de Peyrehorade died some months after his son. He bequeathed me his manuscripts in his will, which some day I may publish. But I have not been able to find the treatise relating to the inscriptions on the Venus.
P.S.—My friend M. de P. has just written to me from Perpignan to tell me that the statue no longer exists. After her husband's death, the first thing Madam de Peyrehorade did was to have it melted down and made into a bell, and in this fresh form it is used in the church at Ille. But, adds M. de P., it would seem that an evil fate pursues those who possess that piece of bronze. Since that bell began to ring in Ille the vines have twice been frost-bitten.
 "But you will pay for it."