Through calico curtains, carefully drawn across the two large windows, a pale white light like that of breaking day filtered into the room. It was a lofty and spacious room, fitted up with old Louis XV. furniture, the woodwork painted white, the upholstery showing a pattern of red flowers on a leafy ground. On the piers above the doors on either side of the alcove were faded paintings still displaying the rosy flesh of flying Cupids, whose games it was now impossible to follow. The wainscoting with oval panels, the folding doors, the rounded ceiling (once sky-blue and framed with scrolls, medallions, and bows of flesh-coloured ribbons), had all faded to the softest grey. Opposite the windows the large alcove opened beneath banks of clouds which plaster Cupids drew aside, leaning over, and peeping saucily towards the bed. And like the windows, the alcove was curtained with coarsely hemmed calico, whose simplicity seemed strange in this room where lingered a perfume of whilom luxury and voluptuousness.
Seated near a pier table, on which a little kettle bubbled over a spirit-lamp, Albine intently watched the alcove curtains. She was gowned in white, her hair gathered up in an old lace kerchief, her hands drooping wearily, as she kept watch with the serious mien of youthful womanhood. A faint breathing, like that of a slumbering child, could be heard in the deep silence. But she grew restless after a few minutes, and could not restrain herself from stepping lightly towards the alcove and raising one of the curtains. On the edge of the big bed lay Serge, apparently asleep, with his head resting on his bent arm. During his illness his hair had lengthened, and his beard had grown. He looked very white, with sunken eyes and pallid lips.
Moved by the sight Albine was about to let the curtain fall again. But Serge faintly murmured, 'I am not asleep.'
He lay perfectly still with his head on his arm, without stirring even a finger, as if overwhelmed by delightful weariness. His eyes had slowly opened, and his breath blew lightly on one of his hands, raising the golden down on his fair skin.
'I heard you,' he murmured again. 'You were walking very gently.'*
* From this point in the original Serge and Albine thee and thou
one another; but although this tutoiement has some bearing on
the development of the story, it was impossible to preserve it
in an English translation.—ED.
His voice enchanted her. She went up to his bed and crouched beside it to bring her face on a level with his own. 'How are you?' she asked, and then continued: 'Oh! you are well now. Do you know, I used to cry the whole way home when I came back from over yonder with bad news of you. They told me you were delirious, and that if your dreadful fever did spare your life, it would destroy your reason. Oh, didn't I kiss your uncle Pascal when he brought you here to recruit your health!'
Then she tucked in his bed-clothes like a young mother.
'Those burnt-up rocks over yonder, you see, were no good to you. You need trees, and coolness, and quiet. The doctor hasn't even told a soul that he was hiding you away here. That's a secret between himself and those who love you. He thought you were lost. Nobody will ever disturb you, you may be sure of that! Uncle Jeanbernat is smoking his pipe by his lettuce bed. The others will get news of you on the sly. Even the doctor isn't coming back any more. I am to be your doctor now. You don't want any more physic, it seems. What you now want is to be loved; do you see?'
He did not seem to hear her, his brain as yet was void. His eyes, although his head remained motionless, wandered inquiringly round the room, and it struck her that he was wondering where he might be.
'This is my room,' she said. 'I have given it to you. Isn't it a pretty one? I took the finest pieces of furniture out of the lumber attic, and then I made those calico curtains to prevent the daylight from dazzling me. And you're not putting me out a bit. I shall sleep on the second floor. There are three or four empty rooms there.'
Still he looked anxious.
'You're alone?' he asked.
'Yes; why do you ask that?'
He made no answer, but muttered wearily: 'I have been dreaming, I am always dreaming. I hear bells ringing, and they tire me.'
And after a pause he went on: 'Go and shut the door, bolt it; I want you to be alone, quite alone.'
When she came back, bringing a chair with her, and sat down by his pillow, he looked as gleeful as a child, and kept on saying: 'Nobody can come in now. I shall not hear those bells any more. When you are talking to me, it rests me.'
'Would you like something to drink?' she asked.
He made a sign that he was not thirsty. He looked at Albine's hands as if so astonished, so delighted to see them, that with a smile she laid one on the edge of his pillow. Then he let his head glide down, and rested his cheek against that small, cool hand, saying, with a light laugh: 'Ah! it's as soft as silk. It is just as if it were sending a cool breeze through my hair. Don't take it away, please.'
Then came another long spell of silence. They gazed on one another with loving kindliness—Albine calmly scanning herself in the convalescent's eyes, Serge apparently listening to some faint whisper from the small, cool hand.
'Your hand is so nice,' he said once more. 'You can't fancy what good it does me. It seems to steal inside me, and take away all the pain in my limbs. It's as if I were being soothed all over, relieved, cured.'
He gently rubbed his cheek against it, with growing animation, as if he were at last coming back to life.
'You won't give me anything nasty to drink, will you? You won't worry me with all sorts of physic? Your hand is quite enough for me. I have come here for you to put it there under my head.'
'Dear Serge,' said Albine softly, 'how you must have suffered.'
'Suffered! yes, yes; but it's a long time ago. I slept badly, I had such frightful dreams. If I could, I would tell you all about it.'
He closed his eyes for a moment and strove hard to remember.
'I can see nothing but darkness,' he stammered. 'It is very odd, I have just come back from a long journey. I don't even know now where I started from. I had fever, I know, a fever that raced through my veins like a wild beast. That was it—now I remember. The whole time I had a nightmare, in which I seemed to be crawling along an endless underground passage; and every now and then I had an attack of intolerable pain, and then the passage would be suddenly walled up. A shower of stones fell from overhead, the side walls closed in, and there I stuck, panting, mad to get on; and then I bored into the obstacle and battered away with feet and fists, and skull, despairing of ever being able to get through the ever increasing mound of rubbish. At other times, I only had to touch it with my finger and it vanished: I could then walk freely along the widened gallery, weary only from the pangs of my attack.'
Albine tried to lay a hand upon his lips.
'No,' said he, 'it doesn't tire me to talk. I can whisper to you here, you see. I feel as if I were thinking and you could hear me. The queerest point about that underground journey of mine was that I hadn't the faintest idea of turning back again; I got obstinate, although I had the thought before me that it would take me thousands of years to clear away a single heap of wreckage. It seemed a fated task, which I had to fulfil under pain of the greatest misfortunes. So, with my knees all bruised, and my forehead bumping against the hard rock, I set myself to work with all my might, so that I might get to the end as quickly as possible. The end? What was it?... Ah! I do not know, I do not know.'
He closed his eyes and pondered dreamily. Then, with a careless pout, he again sank upon Albine's hand and said laughing: 'How silly of me! I am a child.'
But the girl, to ascertain if he were wholly hers, questioned him and led him back to the confused recollections he had tried to summon up. He could remember nothing, however; he was truly in a happy state of childhood. He fancied that he had been born the day before.
'Oh! I am not strong enough yet,' he said. 'My furthest recollection is of a bed which burned me all over, my head rolled about on a pillow like a pan of live coals, and my feet wore away with perpetual rubbing against each other. I was very bad, I know. It seemed as if I were having my body changed, as if I were being taken all to pieces, and put together again like some broken machine.'
He laughed at this simile, and continued: 'I shall be all new again. My illness has given me a fine cleaning. But what was it you were asking me? No, nobody was there. I was suffering all by myself at the bottom of a black hole. Nobody, nobody. And beyond that, nothing—I can see nothing.... Let me be your child, will you? You shall teach me to walk. I can see nothing else but you now. I care for nothing but you.... I can't remember, I tell you. I came, you took me, and that is all.'
And restfully, pettingly, he said once more: 'How warm your hand is now! it is as nice as the sun. Don't let us talk any more. It makes me hot.'
A quivering silence fell from the blue ceiling of the large room. The spirit lamp had just gone out, and from the kettle came a finer and finer thread of steam. Albine and Serge, their heads side by side upon the pillow, gazed at the large calico curtains drawn across the windows. Serge's eyes, especially, were attracted to them as to the very source of light, in which he sought to steep himself, as in diluted sunshine fitted to his weakness. He could tell that the sun lay behind that yellower gleam upon one corner of the curtain, and that sufficed to make him feel himself again. Meanwhile a far-off rustle of leaves came upon his listening ear, and against the right-hand window the clean-cut greenish shadow of a lofty bough brought him disturbing thoughts of the forest which he could feel to be near him.
'Would you like me to open the curtains?' asked Albine, misunderstanding his steady gaze.
'No, no,' he hastily replied.
'It's a fine day; you would see the sunlight and the trees.'
'No, please don't.... I don't want to see anything outside. That bough there tires me with its waving and its rising, as if it was alive. Leave your hand here, I will go to sleep. All is white now. It's so nice.'
And then he calmly fell asleep, while Albine watched beside him and breathed upon his face to make his slumber cool.
The fine weather broke up on the morrow, and it rained heavily. Serge's fever returned, and he spent a day of suffering, with his eyes despairingly fixed upon the curtains through which the light now fell dim and ashy grey as in a cellar. He could no longer see a trace of sunshine, and he looked in vain for the shadow that had scared him, the shadow of that lofty bough which had disappeared amid the mist and the pouring rain, and seemed to have carried away with it the whole forest. Towards evening he became slightly delirious and cried out to Albine that the sun was dead, that he could hear all the sky, all the country bewailing the death of the sun. She had to soothe him like a child, promising him the sun, telling him that it would come back again, that she would give it to him. But he also grieved for the plants. The seeds, he said, must be suffering underground, waiting for the return of light; they had nightmares, they also dreamed that they were crawling along an underground passage, hindered by mounds of ruins, struggling madly to reach the sunshine. And he began to weep and sob out in low tones that winter was a disease of the earth, and that he should die with the earth, unless the springtide healed them both.
For three days more the weather was truly frightful. The downpour burst over the trees with the awful clamour of an overflowing river. Gusts of wind rolled by and beat against the windows with the violence of enormous waves. Serge had insisted on Albine closing the shutters. By lamplight he was no longer troubled by the gloom of the pallid curtains, he no longer felt the greyness of the sky glide in through the smallest chinks, and flow up to him like a cloud of dust intent on burying him. However, increasing apathy crept upon him as he lay there with shrunken arms and pallid features; his weakness augmented as the earth grew more ailing. At times, when the clouds were inky black, when the bending trees cracked, and the grass lay limp beneath the downpour like the hair of a drowned woman, he all but ceased to breathe, and seemed to be passing away, shattered by the hurricane. But at the first gleam of light, at the tiniest speck of blue between two clouds, he breathed once more and drank in the soothing calm of the drying leaves, the whitening paths, the fields quaffing their last draught of water. Albine now also longed for the sun; twenty times a day would she go to the window on the landing to scan the sky, delighted at the smallest scrap of white that she espied, but perturbed when she perceived any dusky, copper-tinted, hail-laden masses, and ever dreading lest some sable cloud should kill her dear patient. She talked of sending for Doctor Pascal, but Serge would not have it.
'To-morrow there will be sunlight on the curtains,' he said, 'and then I shall be well again.'
One evening when his condition was most alarming, Albine again gave him her hand to rest his cheek upon. But when she saw that it brought him no relief she wept to find herself powerless. Since he had fallen into the lethargy of winter she had felt too weak to drag him unaided from the nightmare in which he was struggling. She needed the assistance of spring. She herself was fading away, her arms grew cold, her breath scant; she no longer knew how to breathe life into him. For hours together she would roam about the spacious dismal room, and as she passed before the mirror and saw herself darkening in it, she thought she had become hideous.
One morning, however, as she raised his pillows, not daring to try again the broken spell of her hands, she fancied that she once more caught the first day's smile on Serge's lips.
'Open the shutters,' he said faintly.
She thought him still delirious, for only an hour previously she had seen but a gloomy sky on looking out from the landing.
'Hush, go to sleep,' she answered sadly; 'I have promised to wake you at the very first ray—— Sleep on, there's no sun out yet.'
'Yes, I can feel it, its light is there.... Open the shutters.'
And there, indeed, the sunlight was. When Albine had opened the shutters, behind the large curtains, the genial yellow glow once more warmed a patch of the white calico. But that which impelled Serge to sit up in bed was the sight of the shadowy bough, the branch that for him heralded the return of life. All the resuscitated earth, with its wealth of greenery, its waters, and its belts of hills, was in that greenish blur that quivered with the faintest breath of air. It no longer disturbed him; he greedily watched it rocking, and hungered for the fortified powers of the vivifying sap which to him it symbolised. Albine, happy once more, exclaimed, as she supported him in her arms: 'Ah! my dear Serge, the winter is over. Now we are saved.'
He lay down again, his eyes already brighter, and his voice clearer. 'To-morrow I shall be very strong,' he said. 'You shall draw back the curtains. I want to see everything.'
But on the morrow he was seized with childish fear. He would not hear of the windows being opened wide. 'By-and-by,' he muttered, 'later on.' He was fearful, he dreaded the first beam of light that would flash upon his eyes. Evening came on, and still he had been unable to make up his mind to look upon the sun. He remained thus all day long, his face turned towards the curtains, watching on their transparent tissue the pallor of morn, the glow of noon, the violet tint of twilight, all the hues, all the emotions of the sky. There were pictured even the quiverings of the warm air at the light stroke of a bird's wing, even the delight of earth's odours throbbing in a sunbeam. Behind that veil, behind that softened phantasm of the mighty life without, he could hear the rise of spring. He even felt stifled at times when in spite of the curtains' barrier the rush of the earth's new blood came upon him too strongly.
The following morning he was still asleep when Albine, to hasten his recovery, cried out to him:
'Serge! Serge! here's the sun!'
She swiftly drew back the curtains and threw the windows wide open. He raised himself and knelt upon his bed, oppressed, swooning, his hands tightly pressed against his breast to keep his heart from breaking. Before him stretched the broad sky, all blue, a boundless blue; and in it he washed away his sufferings, surrendering himself to it, and drinking from it sweetness and purity and youth. The bough whose shadow he had noted jutted across the window and alone set against the azure sea its vigorous growth of green; but even this was too much for his sickly fastidiousness; it seemed to him that the very swallows flying past besmeared the purity of the azure. He was being born anew. He raised little involuntary cries, as he felt himself flooded with light, assailed by waves of warm air, while a whirling, whelming torrent of life flowed within him. As last with outstretched hands he sank back upon his pillow in a swoon of joy.
What a happy, delicious day that was! The sun came in from the right, far away from the alcove. Throughout the morning Serge watched it creeping onward. He could see it coming towards him, yellow as gold, perching here and there on the old furniture, frolicking in corners, at times gliding along the ground like a strip of ribbon. It was a slow deliberate march, the approach of a fond mistress stretching her golden limbs, drawing nigh to the alcove with rhythmic motion, with voluptuous lingering, which roused intense desire. At length, towards two o'clock, the sheet of sunlight left the last armchair, climbed along the coverlet, and spread over the bed like loosened locks of hair. To its glowing fondling Serge surrendered his wasted hands: with his eyes half-closed, he could feel fiery kisses thrilling each of his fingers; he lay in a bath of light, in the embrace of a glowing orb. And when Albine leaned over smiling, 'Let me be,' he stammered, his eyes now shut; 'don't hold me so tightly. How do you manage to hold me like this in your arms?'
But the sun crept down the bed again and slowly retreated to the left; and as Serge watched it bend once more and settle on chair after chair, he bitterly regretted that he had not kept it to his breast. Albine still sat upon the side of the bed, and the pair of them, an arm round each other's neck, watched the slow paling of the sky. At times a mighty thrill seemed to make it blanch. Serge's languid eyes now wandered over it more freely and detected in it exquisite tints of which he had never dreamed. It was not all blue, but rosy blue, lilac blue, tawny blue, living flesh, vast and spotless nudity heaving like a woman's bosom in the breeze. At every glance into space he found a fresh surprise—unknown nooks, coy smiles, bewitching rounded outlines, gauzy veils which were cast over the mighty, glorious forms of goddesses in the depths of peeping paradises. And with his limbs lightened by suffering he winged his way amid that shimmering silk, that stainless down of azure. The sun sank lower and lower, the blue melted into purest gold, the sky's living flesh gleamed fairer still, and then was slowly steeped in all the hues of gloom. Not a cloud—nought but gradual disappearance, a disrobing which left behind it but a gleam of modesty on the horizon. And at last the broad sky slumbered.
'Oh, the dear baby!' exclaimed Albine, as she looked at Serge, who had fallen asleep upon her neck at the same time as the heavens.
She laid him down in bed and shut the windows. Next morning, however, they were opened at break of day. Serge could no longer live without the sunlight. His strength was growing, he was becoming accustomed to the gusts of air which sent the alcove curtains flying. Even the azure, the everlasting azure, began to pall upon him. He grew weary of being white and swanlike, of ever swimming on heaven's limpid lake. He came to wish for a pack of black clouds, some crumbling of the skies, that would break upon the monotony of all that purity. And as his health returned, he hungered for keener sensations. He now spent hours in gazing at the verdant bough: he would have liked to see it grow, expand, and throw out its branches to his very bed. It no longer satisfied him, but only roused desires, speaking to him as it did of all the trees whose deep-sounding call he could hear although their crests were hidden from his sight. An endless whispering of leaves, a chattering as of running water, a fluttering as of wings, all blended in one mighty, long-drawn, quivering voice, resounded in his ears.
'When you are able to get up,' said Albine, 'you shall sit at the window. You will see the lovely garden!'
He closed his eyes and murmured gently:
'Oh! I can see it, I hear it; I know where the trees are, where the water runs, where the violets grow.'
And then he added: 'But I can't see it clearly, I see it without any light. I must be very strong before I shall be able to get as far as the window.'
At times when Albine thought him asleep, she would vanish for hours. And on coming in again, she would find him burning with impatience, his eyes gleaming with curiosity.
'Where have you been?' he would call to her, taking hold of her arms, and feeling her skirts, her bodice, and her cheeks. 'You smell of all sorts of nice things. Ah! you have been walking on the grass?'
At this she would laugh and show him her shoes wet with dew.
'You have been in the garden! you have been in the garden!' he then exclaimed delightedly. 'I knew it. When you came in you seemed like a large flower. You have brought the whole garden in your skirt.'
He would keep her by him, inhaling her like a nosegay. Sometimes she came back with briars, leaves, or bits of wood entangled in her clothes. These he would remove and hide under his pillow like relics. One day she brought him a bunch of roses. At the sight of them he was so affected that he wept. He kissed them and went to sleep with them in his arms. But when they faded, he felt so keenly grieved that he forbade Albine to gather any more. He preferred her, said he, for she was as fresh and as balmy; and she never faded, her hands, her hair, her cheeks were always fragrant. At last he himself would send her into the garden, telling her not to come back before an hour.
'In that way,' he said, 'I shall get sunlight, fresh air, and roses till to-morrow.'
Often, when he saw her coming in out of breath, he would cross-examine her. Which path had she taken? Had she wandered among the trees, or had she gone round the meadow side? Had she seen any nests? Had she sat down behind a bush of sweetbriar, or under an oak, or in the shade of a clump of poplars? But when she answered him and tried to describe the garden to him, he would put his hand to her lips.
'No, no,' he said gently. 'It is wrong of me. I don't want to know. I would rather see it myself.'
Then he would relapse into his favourite dream of all the greenery which he could feel only a step away. For several days he lived on that dream alone. At first, he said, he had perceived the garden much more distinctly. As he gained strength, the surging blood that warmed his veins seemed to blur his dreamy imaginings. His uncertainties multiplied. He could no longer tell whether the trees were on the right, whether the water flowed at the bottom of the garden, or whether some great rocks were not piled below his windows. He talked softly of all this to himself. On the slightest indication he would rear wondrous plans, which the song of a bird, the creaking of a bough, the scent of a flower, would suddenly make him modify, impelling him to plant a thicket of lilac in one spot, and in another to place flower-beds where formerly there had been a lawn. Every hour he designed some new garden, much to the amusement of Albine, who, whenever she surprised him at it, would exclaim with a burst of laughter: 'That's not it, I assure you. You can't have any idea of it. It's more beautiful than all the beautiful things you ever saw. So don't go racking your head about it. The garden's mine, and I will give it to you. Be easy, it won't run away.'
Serge, who had already been so afraid of the light, felt considerable trepidation when he found himself strong enough to go and rest his elbows on the window-sill. Every evening he once more repeated, 'To-morrow,' and 'To-morrow.' He would turn away in his bed with a shudder when Albine came in, and would cry out that she smelt of hawthorn, that she had scratched her hands in burrowing a hole through a hedge to bring him all its odour. One morning, however, she suddenly took him up in her arms, and almost carrying him to the window, held him there and forced him to look out and see.
'What a coward you are!' she exclaimed with her fine ringing laugh.
And waving one hand all round the landscape, she repeated with an air of triumph, full of tender promise: 'The Paradou! The Paradou!'
Serge looked out upon it, speechless.
A sea of verdure, in front, to right, to left, everywhere. A sea rolling its surging billows of leaves as far as the horizon, unhindered by house, or screen of wall, or dusty road. A desert, virgin, hallowed sea, displaying its wild sweetness in the innocence of solitude. The sun alone came thither, weltering in the meadows in a sheet of gold, threading the paths with the frolicsome scamper of its beams, letting its fine-spun, flaming locks droop through the trees, sipping from the springs with amber lips that thrilled the water. Beneath that flaming dust the vast garden ran riot like some delighted beast let loose at the world's very end, far from everything and free from everything. So prodigal was the luxuriance of foliage, so overflowing the tide of herbage, that from end to end it all seemed hidden, flooded, submerged. Nought could be seen but slopes of green, stems springing up like fountains, billowy masses, woodland curtains closely drawn, mantles of creepers trailing over the ground, and flights of giant boughs swooping down upon every side.
Amidst that tremendous luxuriance of vegetation even lengthy scrutiny could barely make out the bygone plan of the Paradou. In the foreground, in a sort of immense amphitheatre, must have lain the flower garden, whose fountains were now sunken and dry, its stone balustrades shattered, its flight of steps all warped, and its statues overthrown, patches of their whiteness gleaming amidst the dusky stretches of turf. Farther back, behind the blue line of a sheet of water, stretched a maze of fruit-trees; farther still rose towering woodland, its dusky, violet depths streaked with bands of light. It was a forest which had regained virginity, an endless stretch of tree-tops rising one above the other, tinged with yellowish green and pale green and vivid green, according to the variety of the species.
On the right, the forest scaled some hills, dotting them with little clumps of pine-trees, and dying away in straggling brushwood, while a huge barrier of barren rock, heaped together like the fallen wreckage of a mountain, shut out all view beyond. Flaming growths there cleaved the rugged soil, monstrous plants lay motionless in the heat, like drowsing reptiles; a silvery streak, a foamy splash that glistened in the distance like a cloud of pearls, revealed the presence of a waterfall, the source of those tranquil streams that lazily skirted the flower-garden. Lastly, on the left the river flowed through a vast stretch of meadowland, where it parted into four streamlets which winded fitfully beneath the rushes, between the willows, behind the taller trees. And far away into the distance grassy patches prolonged the lowland freshness, forming a landscape steeped in bluish haze, where a gleam of daylight slowly melted into the verdant blue of sunset. The Paradou—its flower-garden, forest, rocks, streams, and meadows—filled the whole breadth of sky.
'The Paradou!' stammered Serge, stretching out his arms as if to clasp the entire garden to his breast.
He tottered, and Albine had to seat him in an armchair. There he sat for two whole hours intently gazing, without opening his lips, his chin resting on his hands. At times his eyelids fluttered and a flush rose to his cheeks. Slowly he looked, profoundly amazed. It was all too vast, too complex, too overpowering.
'I cannot see, I cannot understand,' he cried, stretching out his hands to Albine with a gesture of uttermost weariness.
The girl came and leant over the back of his armchair. Taking his head between her hands, she compelled him to look again, and softly said:
'It's all our own. Nobody will ever come in. When you are well again, we will go for walks there. We shall have room enough for walking all our lives. We'll go wherever you like. Where would you like to go?'
'Oh! not far,' he murmured. 'The first day only two steps or so beyond the door. I should surely fall—— See, I'll go over there, under that tree close to the window.'
But she resumed: 'Would you like to go into the flower-garden, the parterre? You shall see the roses—they have over-run everything, even the old paths are all covered with them. Or would you like the orchard better? I can only crawl into it on my hands and knees, the boughs are so bowed down with fruit. But we'll go even farther if you feel strong enough. We'll go as far as the forest, right into the depths of shade, far, far away; so far that we'll sleep out there when night steals over us. Or else, some morning, we can climb up yonder to the summit of those rocks. You'll see the plants which make me quake; you'll see the springs, such a shower of water! What fun it will be to feel the spray all over our faces!... But if you prefer to walk along the hedges, beside a brook, we must go round by the meadows. It is so nice under the willows in the evening, at sunset. One can lie down on the grass and watch the little green frogs hopping about on the rushes.'
'No, no,' said Serge, 'you weary me, I don't want to go so far.... I will only go a couple of steps, that will be more than enough.'
'Even I,' she still continued, 'even I have not yet been able to go everywhere. There are many nooks I don't know. I have walked and walked in it for years, and still I feel sure there are unknown spots around, places where the shade must be cooler and the turf softer. Listen, I have always fancied there must be one especially in which I should like to live for ever. I know it's somewhere; I must have passed it by, or perhaps it's hidden so far away that I have never even got as far, with all my rambles. But we'll look for it together, Serge, won't we? and live there.'
'No, no, be quiet,' stammered the young man. 'I don't understand what you are saying. You're killing me.'
For a moment she let him sob in her arms. It troubled and grieved her that she could find no words to soothe him.
'Isn't the Paradou as beautiful, then, as you fancied it?' she asked at last.
He raised his face and answered:
'I don't know. It was quite little, and now it is ever growing bigger and bigger—— Take me away, hide me.'
She led him back to bed, soothing him like a child, lulling him with a fib.
'There, there! it's not true, there is no garden. It was only a story that I told you. Go, sleep in peace.'
Every day in this wise she made him sit at the window during the cool hours of morning. He would now attempt to take a few steps, leaning the while on the furniture. A rosy tint appeared upon his cheeks, and his hands began to lose their waxy transparency. But, while he thus regained health, his senses remained in a state of stupor which reduced him to the vegetative life of some poor creature born only the day before. Indeed, he was nothing but a plant; his sole perception was that of the air which floated round him. He lacked the blood necessary for the efforts of life, and remained, as it were, clinging to the soil, imbibing all the sap he could. It was like a slow hatching in the warm egg of springtide. Albine, remembering certain remarks of Doctor Pascal, felt terrified at seeing him remain in this state, 'innocent,' dull-witted like a little boy. She had heard it said that certain maladies left insanity behind them. And she spent hours in gazing at him and trying her utmost, as mothers do, to make him smile. But as yet he had not laughed. When she passed her hand across his eyes, he never saw, he never followed the shadow. Even when she spoke to him, he barely turned his head in the direction whence the sound came. She had but one consolation: he thrived splendidly, he was quite a handsome child.
For another whole week she lavished the tenderest care on him. She patiently waited for him to grow. And as she marked various symptoms of awakening perception, her fears subsided and she began to think that time might make a man of him. When she touched him now he started slightly. Another time, one night, he broke into a feeble laugh. On the morrow, when she had seated him at the window, she went down into the garden, and ran about in it, calling to him the while. She vanished under the trees, flitted across the sunny patches, and came back breathless and clapping her hands. At first his wavering eyes failed to perceive her. But as she started off again, perpetually playing at hide-and-seek, reappearing behind every other bush, he was at last able to follow the white gleam of her skirt; and when she suddenly came forward and stood with upraised face below his window, he stretched out his arms and seemed anxious to go down to her. But she came upstairs again, and embraced him proudly: 'Ah! you saw me, you saw me!' she cried. 'You would like to come into the garden with me, would you not?—— If you only knew how wretched you have made me these last few days, with your stupid ways, never seeing me or hearing me!'
He listened to her, but apparently with some slight sensation of pain that made him bend his neck in a shrinking way.
'You are better now, however,' she went on. 'Well enough to come down whenever you like—— Why don't you say anything? Have you lost your tongue? Oh, what a baby! Why, I shall have to teach him how to talk!'
And thereupon she really did amuse herself by telling him the names of the things he touched. He could only stammer, reiterating the syllables, and failing to utter a single word plainly. However, she began to walk him about the room, holding him up and leading him from the bed to the window—quite a long journey. Two or three times he almost fell on the way, at which she laughed. One day he fairly sat down on the floor, and she had all the trouble in the world to get him up on his feet again. Then she made him undertake the round of the room, letting him rest by the way on the sofa and the chairs—a tour round a little world which took up a good hour. At last he was able to venture on a few steps alone. She would stand before him with outstretched hands, and move backwards, calling him, so that he should cross the room in search of her supporting arms. If he sulked and refused to walk, she would take the comb from her hair and hold it out to him like a toy. Then he would come to her and sit still in a corner for hours, playing with her comb, and gently scratching his hands with its teeth.
At last one morning she found him up. He had already succeeded in opening one of the shutters, and was attempting to walk about without leaning on the furniture.
'Good gracious, we are active this morning!' she exclaimed gleefully. 'Why, he will be jumping out of the window to-morrow if he has his own way—— So you are quite strong now, eh?'
Serge's answer was a childish laugh. His limbs were regaining the strength of adolescence, but more perceptive sensations remained unroused. He spent whole afternoons in gazing out on the Paradou, pouting like a child that sees nought but whiteness and hears but the vibration of sounds. He still retained the ignorance of urchinhood—his sense of touch as yet so innocent that he failed to tell Albine's gown from the covers of the old armchairs. His eyes still stared wonderingly; his movements still displayed the wavering hesitation of limbs which scarce knew how to reach their goal; his state was one of incipient, purely instinctive existence into which entered no knowledge of surroundings. The man was not yet born within him.
'That's right, you'll act the silly, will you?' muttered Albine. 'We'll see.'
She took off her comb, and held it out to him.
'Will you have my comb?' she said. 'Come and fetch it.'
When she had got him out of the room, by retreating before him all the way, she put her arm round his waist and helped him down each stair, amusing him while she put her comb back, even tickling his neck with a lock of her hair, so that he remained unaware that he was going downstairs. But when he was in the hall, he became frightened at the darkness of the passage.
'Just look!' she cried, throwing the door wide open.
It was like a sudden dawn, a curtain of shadow snatched aside, revealing the joyousness of early day. The park spread out before them verdantly limpid, freshly cool and deep as a spring. Serge, entranced, lingered upon the threshold, with a hesitating desire to feel that luminous lake with his foot.
'One would think you were afraid of wetting yourself,' said Albine. 'Don't be frightened, the ground is safe enough.'
He had ventured to take one step, and was astonished at encountering the soft resistance of the gravel. The first touch of the soil gave him a shock; life seemed to rebound within him and to set him for a moment erect, with expanding frame, while he drew long breaths.
'Come now, be brave,' insisted Albine. 'You know you promised me to take five steps. We'll go as far as the mulberry tree there under the window—— There you can rest.'
It took him a quarter of an hour to make those five steps. After each effort he stopped as if he had been obliged to tear up roots that held him to the ground.
The girl, pushing him along, said with a laugh: 'You look just like a walking tree.'
Having placed him with his back leaning against the mulberry tree, in the rain of sunlight falling from its boughs, she bounded off and left him, calling out to him that he must not stir. Serge, standing there with drooping hands, slowly turned his head towards the park. Terrestrial childhood met his gaze. The pale greenery was steeped in the very milk of youth, flooded with golden brightness. The trees were still in infancy, the flowers were as tender-fleshed as babes, the streams were blue with the artless blue of lovely infantile eyes. Beneath every leaf was some token of a delightful awakening.
Serge had fixed his eyes upon a yellow breach which a wide path made in front of him amidst a dense mass of foliage. At the very end, eastward, some meadows, steeped in gold, looked like the luminous field upon which the sun would descend, and he waited for the morn to take that path and flow towards him. He could feel it coming in a warm breeze, so faint at first that it barely brushed across his skin, but rising little by little, and growing ever brisker till he was thrilled all over. He could also taste it coming with a more and more pronounced savour, bringing the healthful acridity of the open air, holding to his lips a feast of sugary aromatics, sour fruits, and milky shoots. Further, he could smell it coming with the perfumes which it culled upon its way—the scent of earth, the scent of the shady woods, the scent of the warm plants, the scent of living animals, a whole posy of scents, powerful enough to bring on dizziness. He could likewise hear it coming with the rapid flight of a bird skimming over the grass, waking the whole garden from silence, giving voice to all it touched, and filling his ears with the music of things and beings. Finally, he could see it coming from the end of the path, from the meadows steeped in gold—yes, he could see that rosy air, so bright that it lighted the way it took with a gleaming smile, no bigger in the distance than a spot of daylight, but in a few swift bounds transformed into the very splendour of the sun. And the morn flowed up and beat against the mulberry tree against which Serge was leaning. And he himself resuscitated amidst the childhood of the morn.
'Serge! Serge!' cried Albine, lost to sight behind the high shrubs of the flower garden. 'Don't be afraid, I am here.'
But Serge no longer felt frightened. He was being born anew in the sunshine, in that pure bath of light which streamed upon him. He was being born anew at five-and-twenty, his senses hurriedly unclosing, enraptured with the mighty sky, the joyful earth, the prodigy of loveliness spread out around him. This garden, which he knew not only the day before, now afforded him boundless delight. Everything filled him with ecstasy, even the blades of grass, the pebbles in the paths, the invisible puffs of air that flitted over his cheeks. His whole body entered into possession of this stretch of nature; he embraced it with his limbs, he drank it in with his lips, he inhaled it with his nostrils, he carried it in his ears and hid it in the depths of his eyes. It was his own. The roses of the flower garden, the lofty boughs of the forest, the resounding rocks of the waterfall, the meadows which the sun planted with blades of light, were his. Then he closed his eyes and slowly reopened them that he might enjoy the dazzle of a second wakening.
'The birds have eaten all the strawberries,' said Albine disconsolately, as she ran up to him. 'See, I have only been able to find these two!'
But she stopped short a few steps away, heart-struck and gazing at Serge with rapturous astonishment. 'How handsome you are!' she cried.
She drew a little nearer; then stood there, absorbed in her contemplation, and murmuring: 'I had never, never seen you before.'
He had certainly grown taller. Clothed in a loose garment, he stood erect, still somewhat slender, with finely moulded limbs, square chest, and rounded shoulders. His head, slightly thrown back, was poised upon a flexible and snowy neck, rimmed with brown behind. Health and strength and power were on his face. He did not smile, his expression was that of repose, with grave and tender mouth, firm cheeks, large nose, and grey, clear, commanding eyes. The long locks that thickly covered his head fell upon his shoulders in jetty curls; while a slender growth of hair, through which gleamed his white skin, curled upon his upper lip and chin.
'Oh! how handsome, how handsome you are!' lingeringly repeated Albine, crouching at his feet and gazing up at him with loving eyes. 'But why are you sulking with me? Why don't you speak to me?'
Still he stood there and made no answer. His eyes were far away; he never even saw that child at his feet. He spoke to himself in the sunlight, and said: 'How good the light is!'
That utterance sounded like a vibration of the sunlight itself. It fell amid the silence in the faintest of whispers like a musical sigh, a quiver of warmth and of life. For several days Albine had never heard his voice, and now, like himself, it had altered. It seemed to her to course through the park more sweetly than the melody of birds, more imperiously than the wind that bends the boughs. It reigned, it ruled. The whole garden heard it, though it had been but a faint and passing breath, and the whole garden was thrilled with the joyousness it brought.
'Speak to me,' implored Albine. 'You have never spoken to me like that. When you were upstairs in your room, when you were not dumb, you talked the silly prattle of a child. How is it I no longer know your voice? Just now I thought it had come down from the trees, that it reached me from every part of the garden, that it was one of those deep sighs that used to worry me at night before you came. Listen, everything is keeping silence to hear you speak again.'
But still he failed to recognise her presence. Tenderer grew her tones. 'No, don't speak if it tires you. Sit down beside me, and we will remain here on the grass till the sun wanes. And look, I have found two strawberries. Such trouble I had too! The birds eat up everything. One's for you, both if you like; or we can halve them, and taste each of them. You'll thank me, and then I shall hear you.'
But he would not sit down, he refused the strawberries, which Albine pettishly threw away. She did not open her lips again. She would rather have seen him ill, as in those earlier days when she had given him her hand for a pillow, and had felt him coming back to life beneath the cooling breath she blew upon his face. She cursed the returning health which now made him stand in the light like a young unheeding god. Would he be ever thus then, with never a glance for her? Would he never be further healed, and at last see her and love her? And she dreamed of once again being his healer, of accomplishing by the sole power of her little hands the cure of the second childhood in which he remained. She could clearly see that there was no spark in the depths of his grey eyes, that his was but a pallid beauty like that of the statues which had fallen among the nettles of the flower-garden. She rose and clasped him, breathing on his neck to rouse him. But that morning Serge never even felt the breath that lifted his silky beard. The sun got low, it was time to go indoors. On reaching his room, Albine burst into tears.
From that morning forward the invalid took a short walk in the garden every day. He went past the mulberry tree, as far as the edge of the terrace, where a wide flight of broken steps descended to the flowery parterre. He grew accustomed to the open air, each bath of sunlight brought him fresh vigour. A young chestnut tree, which had sprung from some fallen nut between two stones of the balustrade, burst the resin of its buds, and unfolded its leafy fans with far less vigour than he progressed. One day, indeed, he even attempted to descend the steps, but in this his strength failed him, and he sat down among the dane-wort which had grown up between the cracks in the stone flags. Below, to the left, he could see a small wood of roses. It was thither that he dreamt of going.
'Wait a little longer,' said Albine. 'The scent of the roses is too strong for you yet. I have never been able to sit long under the rose-trees without feeling exhausted, light-headed, with a longing to cry. Don't be afraid, I will some day lead you to the rose-trees, and I shall surely weep among them, for you make me very sad.'
One morning she at last succeeded in helping him to the foot of the steps, trampling down the grass before him with her feet, and clearing a way for him through the briars, whose supple arms barred the last few yards. Then they slowly entered the wood of roses. It was indeed a very wood, with thickets of tall standard roses throwing out leafy clumps as big as trees, and enormous rose bushes impenetrable as copses of young oaks. Here, formerly, there had been a most marvellous collection of plants. But since the flower garden had been left in abandonment, everything had run wild, and a virgin forest had arisen, a forest of roses over-running the paths, crowded with wild offshoots, so mingled, so blended, that roses of every scent and hue seemed to blossom on the same stem. Creeping roses formed mossy carpets on the ground, while climbing roses clung to others like greedy ivy plants, and ascended in spindles of verdure, letting a shower of their loosened petals fall at the lightest breeze. Natural paths coursed through the wood—narrow footways, broad avenues, enchanting covered walks in which one strolled in the shade and scent. These led to glades and clearings, under bowers of small red roses, and between walls hung with tiny yellow ones. Some sunny nooks gleamed like green silken stuff embroidered with bright patterns; other shadier corners offered the seclusion of alcoves and an aroma of love, the balmy warmth, as it were, of a posy languishing on a woman's bosom. The rose bushes had whispering voices too. And the rose bushes were full of songbirds' nests.
'We must take care not to lose ourselves,' said Albine, as she entered the wood. 'I did lose myself once, and the sun had set before I was able to free myself from the rose bushes which caught me by the skirt at every step.'
They had barely walked a few minutes, however, before Serge, worn out with fatigue, wished to sit down. He stretched himself upon the ground, and fell into deep slumber. Albine sat musing by his side. They were on the edge of a glade, near a narrow path which stretched away through the wood, streaked with flashes of sunlight, and, through a small round blue gap at its far end, revealed the sky. Other little paths led from the clearing into leafy recesses. The glade was formed of tall rose bushes rising one above the other with such a wealth of branches, such a tangle of thorny shoots, that big patches of foliage were caught aloft, and hung there tent-like, stretching out from bush to bush. Through the tiny apertures in the patches of leaves, which were suggestive of fine lace, the light filtered like impalpable sunny dust. And from the vaulted roof hung stray branches, chandeliers, as it were, thick clusters suspended from green thread-like stems, armfuls of flowers that reached to the ground, athwart some rent in the leafy ceiling, which trailed around like a tattered curtain.
Albine meanwhile was gazing at Serge asleep. She had never seen him so utterly prostrated in body as now, his hands lying open on the turf, his face deathly. So dead indeed he was to her that she thought she could kiss his face without his even feeling it. And sadly, absently, she busied her hands with shredding all the roses within her reach. Above her head drooped an enormous cluster which brushed against her hair, set roses on her twisted locks, her ears, her neck, and even threw a mantle of the fragrant flowers across her shoulders. Higher up, under her fingers, other roses rained down with large and tender petals exquisitely formed, which in hue suggested the faintly flushing purity of a maiden's bosom. Like a living snowfall these roses already hid her feet in the grass. And they climbed her knees, covered her skirt, and smothered her to her waist; while three stray petals, which had fluttered on to her bodice, just above her bosom, there looked like three glimpses of her bewitching skin.
'Oh! the lazy fellow!' she murmured, feeling bored and picking up two handfuls of roses, which she flung in Serge's face to wake him.
He did not stir, however, but still lay there with the roses on his eyes and mouth. This made Albine laugh. She stooped down, and with her whole heart kissed both his eyes and his mouth, blowing as she kissed to drive the rose petals away; but they remained upon his lips, and she broke into still louder laughter, intensely amused at this flowery caressing.
Serge slowly raised himself. He gazed at her with amazement, as if startled at finding her there.
'Who are you? where do you come from? what are you doing here beside me?' he asked her. And still she smiled, transported with delight at marking this awakening of his senses. Then he seemed to remember something, and continued with a gesture of happy confidence:
'I know, you are my love, flesh of my flesh, you are waiting for me that we may be one for ever. I was dreaming of you. You were in my breast, and I gave you my blood, my muscles, my bones. I felt no pain. You took half my heart so tenderly that I experienced keen inward delight at thus dividing myself. I sought all that was best and most beautiful within me to give it to you. You might have carried off everything, and still I should have thanked you. And I woke when you went out of me. You left through my eyes and mouth; ay, I felt it. You were all warm, all fragrant, so sweet that it was the thrill from you that has made me awake.'
Albine listened to his words with ecstasy. At last he saw her; at last his birth was accomplished, his cure begun. With outstretched hands she begged him to go on.
'How have I managed to live without you?' he murmured. 'No, I did not live, I was like a slumbering animal. And now you are mine! and you are no one but myself! Listen, you must never leave me; for you are my very breath, and in leaving me you would rob me of my life. We will remain within ourselves. You will be mine even as I shall be yours. Should I ever forsake you, may I be accursed, may my body wither like a useless and noxious weed!'
He caught hold of her hands, and exclaimed in a voice quivering with admiration: 'How beautiful you are!'
In the falling dust of sunshine Albine's skin looked milky white, scarce gilded here and there by the sunny sheen. The shower of roses around and on her steeped her in pinkness.
Her fair hair, loosely held together by her comb, decked her head as with a setting planet whose last bright sparks shone upon the nape of her neck. She wore a white gown; her arms, her throat, her stainless skin bloomed unabashed as a flower, musky with a goodly fragrance. Her figure was slender, not too tall, but supple as a snake's, with softly rounded, voluptuously expanding outlines, in which the freshness of childhood mingled with womanhood's nascent charms. Her oval face, with its narrow brow and rather full mouth, beamed with the tender living light of her blue eyes. And yet she was grave, too, her cheeks unruffled, her chin plump—as naturally lovely as are the trees.
'And how I love you!' said Serge, drawing her to himself.
They were wholly one another's now, clasped in each other's arms! They did not kiss, but held each other round the waist, cheek to cheek, united, dumb, delighted with their oneness. Around them bloomed the roses with a mad, amorous blossoming, full of crimson and rosy and white laughter. The living, opening flowers seemed to bare their very bosoms. Yellow roses were there showing the golden skin of barbarian maidens: straw-coloured roses, lemon-coloured roses, sun-coloured roses—every shade of the necks which are ambered by glowing skies. Then there was skin of softer hue: among the tea roses, bewitchingly moist and cool, one caught glimpses of modest, bashful charms, with skin as fine as silk tinged faintly with a blue network of veins. Farther on all the smiling life of the rose expanded: there was the blush white rose, barely tinged with a dash of carmine, snowy as the foot of a maid dabbling in a spring; there was the silvery pink, more subdued than even the glow with which a youthful arm irradiates a wide sleeve; there was the clear, fresh rose, in which blood seemed to gleam under satin as in the bare shoulders of a woman bathed in light; and there was the bright pink rose with its buds like the nipples of virgin bosoms, and its opening flowers that suggested parted lips, exhaling warm and perfumed breath. And the climbing roses, the tall cluster roses with their showers of white flowers, clothed all these others with the lacework of their bunches, the innocence of their flimsy muslin; while, here and there, roses dark as the lees of wine, sanguineous, almost black, showed amidst the bridal purity like passion's wounds. Verily, it was like a bridal—the bridal of the fragrant wood, the virginity of May led to the fertility of July and August; the first unknowing kiss culled like a nosegay on the wedding morn. Even in the grass, moss roses, clad in close-fitting garments of green wool, seemed to be awaiting the advent of love. Flowers rambled all along the sun-streaked path, faces peeped out everywhere to court the passing breezes. Bright were the smiles under the spreading tent of the glade. Not a flower that bloomed the same: the roses differed in the fashion of their wooing. Some, shy and blushing, would show but a glimpse of bud, while others, panting and wide open, seemed consumed with infatuation for their persons. There were pert, gay little things that filed off, cockade in cap; there were huge ones, bursting with sensuous charms, like portly, fattened-up sultanas; there were impudent hussies, too, in coquettish disarray, on whose petals the white traces of the powder-puff could be espied; there were virtuous maids who had donned low-necked garb like demure bourgeoises; and aristocratic ladies, graceful and original, who contrived attractive deshabilles. And the cup-like roses offered their perfume as in precious crystal; the drooping, urn-shaped roses let it drip drop by drop; the round, cabbage-like roses exhaled it with the even breath of slumbering flowers; while the budding roses tightly locked their petals and only sent forth as yet the faint sigh of maidenhood.
'I love you, I love you,' softly repeated Serge.
Albine, too, was a large rose, a pallid rose that had opened since the morning. Her feet were white, her arms were rosy pink, her neck was fair of skin, her throat bewitchingly veined, pale and exquisite. She was fragrant, she proffered lips which offered as in a coral cup a perfume that was yet faint and cool. Serge inhaled that perfume, and pressed her to his breast. Albine laughed.
The ring of that laugh, which sounded like a bird's rhythmic notes, enraptured Serge.
'What, that lovely song is yours?' he said. 'It is the sweetest I ever heard. You are indeed my joy.'
Then she laughed yet more sonorously, pouring forth rippling scales of high-pitched, flute-like notes that melted into deeper ones. It was an endless laugh, a long-drawn cooing, then a burst of triumphant music celebrating the delight of awakening love. And everything—the roses, the fragrant wood, the whole of the Paradou—laughed in that laugh of woman just born to beauty and to love. Till now the vast garden had lacked one charm—a winning voice which should prove the living mirth of the trees, the streams, and the sunlight. Now the vast garden was endowed with that charm of laughter.
'How old are you?' asked Albine, when her song had ended in a faint expiring note.
'Nearly twenty-six,' Serge answered.
She was amazed. What! he was twenty-six! He, too, was astonished at having made that answer so glibly, for it seemed to him that he had not yet lived a day—an hour.
'And how old are you?' he asked in his turn.
'Oh, I am sixteen.'
Then she broke into laughter again, quivering from head to foot, repeating and singing her age. She laughed at her sixteen years with a fine-drawn laugh that flowed on with rhythmic trilling like a streamlet. Serge scanned her closely, amazed at the laughing life that transfigured her face. He scarcely knew her now with those dimples in her cheeks, those bow-shaped lips between which peeped the rosy moistness of her mouth, and those eyes blue like bits of sky kindling with the rising of the sun. As she threw back her head, she sent a glow of warmth through him.
He put out his hand, and fumbled mechanically behind her neck.
'What do you want?' she asked. And suddenly remembering, she exclaimed: 'My comb! my comb! that's it.'
She gave him her comb, and let fall her heavy tresses. A cloth of gold suddenly unrolled and clothed her to her hips. Some locks which flowed down upon her breast gave, as it were a finishing touch to her regal raiment. At the sight of that sudden blaze, Serge uttered an exclamation; he kissed each lock, and burned his lips amidst that sunset-like refulgence.
But Albine now relieved herself of her long silence, and chatted and questioned unceasingly.
'Oh, how wretched you made me! You no longer took any notice of me, and day after day I found myself useless and powerless, worried out of my wits like a good-for-nothing.... And yet the first few days I had done you good. You saw me and spoke to me.... Do you remember when you were lying down, and went to sleep on my shoulder, and murmured that I did you good?'
'No!' said Serge, 'no, I don't remember it. I had never seen you before. I have only just seen you for the first time—lovely, radiant, never to be forgotten.'
She clapped her hands impatiently, exclaiming: 'And my comb? You must remember how I used to give you my comb to keep you quiet when you were a little child? Why, you were looking for it just now.'
'No, I don't remember. Your hair is like fine silk. I have never kissed your hair before.'
At this, with some vexation, she recounted certain particulars of his convalescence in the room with the blue ceiling. But he only laughed at her, and at last closed her lips with his hand, saying with anxious weariness: 'No, be quiet, I don't know; I don't want to know any more.... I have only just woke up, and found you there, covered with roses. That is enough.'
And he drew her once more towards him and held her there, dreaming aloud, and murmuring: 'Perhaps I have lived before. It must have been a long, long time ago.... I loved you in a painful dream. You had the same blue eyes, the same rather long face, the same youthful mien. But your hair was carefully hidden under a linen cloth, and I never dared to remove that cloth, because your locks seemed to me fearsome and would have made me die. But to-day your hair is the very sweetness of yourself. It preserves your scent, and when I kiss it, when I bury my face in it like this, I drink in your very life.'
He kept on passing the long curls through his hands, and pressing them to his lips, as if to squeeze from them all Albine's blood. And after an interval of silence, he continued: 'It's strange, before one's birth, one dreams of being born.... I was buried somewhere. I was very cold. I could hear all the life of the world outside buzzing above me. But I shut my ears despairingly, for I was used to my gloomy den, and enjoyed some fearful delights in it, so that I never sought to free myself from all the earth weighing upon my chest. Where could I have been then? Who was it gave me light?'
He struggled to remember, while Albine now waited in fear and trembling lest he should really do so. Smiling, she took a handful of her hair and wound it round the young man's neck, thus fastening him to herself. This playful act roused him from his musings.
'You're right,' he said, 'I am yours, what does the rest matter? It was you, was it not, who drew me out of the earth? I must have been under this garden. What I heard were your steps rattling the little pebbles in the path. You were looking for me, you brought down upon my head the songs of the birds, the scent of the pinks, the warmth of the sun. I fancied that you would find me at last. I waited a long time for you. But I never expected that you would give yourself to me without your veil, with your hair undone—the terrible hair which has become so soft.'
He sat her on his lap, placing his face beside hers.
'Do not let us talk any more. We are alone for ever. We love each other.'
And thus in all innocence they lingered in each other's arms; for a long, long time did they remain there forgetfully. The sun rose higher; and the dust of light fell hotter from the lofty boughs. The yellow and white and crimson roses were now only a ray of their delight, a sign of their smiles to one another. They had certainly caused buds to open around them. The roses crowned their heads and threw garlands about their waists. And the scent of the roses became so penetrating, so strong with amorous emotion, that it seemed to be the scent of their own breath.
At last Serge put up Albine's hair. He raised it in handfuls with delightful awkwardness, and stuck her comb askew in the enormous knot that he had heaped upon her head. And as it happened she looked bewitching thus. Then, rising from the ground, he held out his hands to her, and supported her waist as she got up. They still smiled without speaking a word, and slowly they went down the path.
Albine and Serge entered the flower garden. She was watching him with tender anxiety, fearing lest he should overtire himself; but he reassured her with a light laugh. He felt strong enough indeed to carry her whithersoever she listed. When he found himself once more in the full sunlight, he drew a sigh of content. At last he lived; he was no longer a plant subject to the terrible sufferings of winter. And how he was moved with loving gratitude! Had it been within his power, he would have spared Albine's tiny feet even the roughness of the paths; he dreamed of carrying her, clinging round his neck, like a child lulled to sleep by her mother. He already watched over her with a guardian's watchful care, thrusting aside the stones and brambles, jealous lest the breeze should waft a fleeting kiss upon those darling locks which were his alone. She on her side nestled against his shoulder and serenely yielded to his guidance.
Thus Albine and Serge strolled on together in the sunlight for the first time. A balmy fragrance floated in their wake, the very path on which the sun had unrolled a golden carpet thrilled with delight under their feet. Between the tall flowering shrubs they passed like a vision of such wondrous charm that the distant paths seemed to entreat their presence and hail them with a murmur of admiration, even as crowds hail long-expected sovereigns. They formed one sole, supremely lovely being. Albine's snowy skin was but the whiteness of Serge's browner skin. And slowly they passed along clothed with sunlight—nay, they were themselves the sun—worshipped by the low bending flowers.
A tide of emotion now stirred the Paradou to its depths. The old flower garden escorted them—that vast field bearing a century's untrammelled growth, that nook of Paradise sown by the breeze with the choicest flowers. The blissful peace of the Paradou, slumbering in the broad sunlight, prevented the degeneration of species. It could boast of a temperature ever equable, and a soil which every plant had long enriched to thrive therein in the silence of its vigour. Its vegetation was mighty, magnificent, luxuriantly untended, full of erratic growths decked with monstrous blossoming, unknown to the spade and watering-pot of gardeners. Nature left to herself, free to grow as she listed, in the depths of that solitude protected by natural shelters, threw restraint aside more heartily at each return of spring, indulged in mighty gambols, delighted in offering herself at all seasons strange nosegays not meant for any hand to pluck. A rabid fury seemed to impel her to overthrow whatever the effort of man had created; she rebelliously cast a straggling multitude of flowers over the paths, attacked the rockeries with an ever-rising tide of moss, and knotted round the necks of marble statues the flexible cords of creepers with which she threw them down; she shattered the stonework of the fountains, steps, and terraces with shrubs which burst through them; she slowly, creepingly, spread over the smallest cultivated plots, moulding them to her fancy, and planting on them, as ensign of rebellion, some wayside spore, some lowly weed which she transformed into a gigantic growth of verdure. In days gone by the parterre, tended by a master passionately fond of flowers, had displayed in its trim beds and borders a wondrous wealth of choice blossoms. And the same plants could still be found; but perpetuated, grown into such numberless families, and scampering in such mad fashion throughout the whole garden, that the place was now all helter-skelter riot to its very walls, a very den of debauchery, where intoxicated nature had hiccups of verbena and pinks.
Though to outward seeming Albine had yielded her weaker self to the guidance of Serge, to whose shoulder she clung, it was she who really led him. She took him first to the grotto. Deep within a clump of poplars and willows gaped a cavern, formed by rugged bits of rocks which had fallen over a basin where tiny rills of water trickled between the stones. The grotto was completely lost to sight beneath the onslaught of vegetation. Below, row upon row of hollyhocks seemed to bar all entrance with a trellis-work of red, yellow, mauve, and white-hued flowers, whose stems were hidden among colossal bronze-green nettles, which calmly exuded blistering poison. Above them was a mighty swarm of creepers which leaped aloft in a few bounds; jasmines starred with balmy flowers; wistarias with delicate lacelike leaves; dense ivy, dentated and resembling varnished metal; lithe honeysuckle, laden with pale coral sprays; amorous clematideae, reaching out arms all tufted with white aigrettes. And among them twined yet slenderer plants, binding them more and more closely together, weaving them into a fragrant woof. Nasturtium, bare and green of skin, showed open mouths of ruddy gold; scarlet runners, tough as whipcord, kindled here and there a fire of gleaming sparks; convolvuli opened their heart-shaped leaves, and with thousands of little bells rang a silent peal of exquisite colours; sweetpeas, like swarms of settling butterflies, folded tawny or rosy wings, ready to be borne yet farther away by the first breeze. It was all a wealth of leafy locks, sprinkled with a shower of flowers, straying away in wild dishevelment, and suggesting the head of some giantess thrown back in a spasm of passion, with a streaming of magnificent hair, which spread into a pool of perfume.
'I have never dared to venture into all that darkness,' Albine whispered to Serge.
He urged her on, carried her over the nettles; and as a great boulder barred the way into the grotto, he held her up for a moment in his arms so that she might be able to peer through the opening that yawned at a few feet from the ground.
'A marble woman,' she whispered, 'has fallen full length into the stream. The water has eaten her face away.'
Then he, too, in his turn wanted to look, and pulled himself up. A cold breeze played upon his cheeks. In the pale light that glided through the hole, he saw the marble woman lying amidst the reeds and the duckweed. She was naked to the waist. She must have been drowning there for the last hundred years. Some grief had probably flung her into that spring where she was slowly committing suicide. The clear water which flowed over her had worn her face into a smooth expanse of marble, a mere white surface without a feature; but her breasts, raised out of the water by what appeared an effort of her neck, were still perfect and lifelike, throbbing even yet with the joys of some old delight.
'She isn't dead yet,' said Serge, getting down again. 'One day we will come and get her out of there.'
But Albine shuddered and led him away. They passed out again into the sunlight and the rank luxuriance of beds and borders. They wandered through a field of flowers capriciously, at random. Their feet trod a carpet of lovely dwarf plants, which had once neatly fringed the walks, and now spread about in wild profusion. In succession they passed ankle-deep through the spotted silk of soft rose catchflies, through the tufted satin of feathered pinks, and the blue velvet of forget-me-nots, studded with melancholy little eyes. Further on they forced their way through giant mignonette, which rose to their knees like a bath of perfume; then they turned through a patch of lilies of the valley in order that they might spare an expanse of violets, so delicate-looking that they feared to hurt them. But soon they found themselves surrounded on all sides by violets, and so with wary, gentle steps they passed over their fresh fragrance inhaling the very breath of springtide. Beyond the violets, a mass of lobelias spread out like green wool gemmed with pale mauve. The softly shaded stars of globularia, the blue cups of nemophila, the yellow crosses of saponaria, the white and purple ones of sweet rocket, wove patches of rich tapestry, stretching onward and onward, a fabric of royal luxury, so that the young couple might enjoy the delights of that first walk together without fatigue. But the violets ever reappeared; real seas of violets that rolled all round them, shedding the sweetest perfumes beneath their feet and wafting in their wake the breath of their leaf-hidden flowerets.
Albine and Serge quite lost themselves. Thousands of loftier plants towered up in hedges around them, enclosing narrow paths which they found it delightful to thread. These paths twisted and turned, wandered maze-like through dense thickets. There were ageratums with sky-blue tufts of bloom; woodruffs with soft musky perfume; brazen-throated mimuluses, blotched with bright vermilion; lofty phloxes, crimson and violet, throwing up distaffs of flowers for the breezes to spin; red flax with sprays as fine as hair; chrysanthemums like full golden moons, casting short faint rays, white and violet and rose, around them. The young couple surmounted all the obstacles that lay in their path and continued their way betwixt the walls of verdure. To the right of them sprang up the slim fraxinella, the centranthus draped with snowy blossoms, and the greyish hounds-tongue, in each of whose tiny flowercups gleamed a dewdrop. To their left was a long row of columbines of every variety; white ones, pale rose ones, and some of deep violet hues, almost black, that seemed to be in mourning, the blossoms that drooped from their lofty, branching stems being plaited and goffered like crape. Then, as they advanced further on, the character of the hedges changed. Giant larkspurs thrust up their flower-rods, between the dentated foliage of which gaped the mouths of tawny snapdragons, while the schizanthus reared its scanty leaves and fluttering blooms, that looked like butterflies' wings of sulphur hue splashed with soft lake. The blue bells of campanulae swayed aloft, some of them even over the tall asphodels, whose golden stems served as their steeples. In one corner was a giant fennel that reminded one of a lace-dressed lady spreading out a sunshade of sea-green satin. Then the pair suddenly found their way blocked. It was impossible to advance any further; a mass of flowers, a huge sheaf of plants stopped all progress. Down below, a mass of brank-ursine formed as it were a pedestal, from the midst of which sprang scarlet geum, rhodanthe with stiff petals, and clarkia with great white carved crosses, that looked like the insignia of some barbarous order. Higher up still, bloomed the rosy viscaria, the yellow leptosiphon, the white colinsia, and the lagurus, whose dusty green bloom contrasted with the glowing colours around it. Towering over all these growths scarlet foxgloves and blue lupins, rising in slender columns, formed a sort of oriental rotunda gleaming vividly with crimson and azure; while at the very summit, like a surmounting dome of dusky copper, were the ruddy leaves of a colossal castor-bean.
As Serge reached out his hands to try to force a passage, Albine stopped him and begged him not to injure the flowers. 'You will break the stems and crush the leaves,' she said. 'Ever since I have been here, I have always taken care to hurt none of them. Come, and I will show you the pansies.'
She made him turn and led him from the narrow paths to the centre of the parterre, where, once upon a time, great basins had been hollowed out. But these had now fallen into ruin, and were nothing but gigantic jardinieres, fringed with stained and cracked marble. In one of the largest of them, the wind had sown a wonderful basketful of pansies. The velvety blooms seemed almost like living faces, with bands of violet hair, yellow eyes, paler tinted mouths, and chins of a delicate flesh colour.
When I was younger they used to make me quite afraid,' murmured Albine. 'Look at them. Wouldn't you think that they were thousands of little faces looking up at you from the ground? And they turn, too, all in the same direction. They might be a lot of buried dolls thrusting their heads out of the ground.'
She led him still further on. They went the round of all the other basins. In the next one a number of amaranthuses had sprung up, raising monstrous crests which Albine had always shrunk from touching, such was their resemblance to big bleeding caterpillars. Balsams of all colours, now straw-coloured, now the hue of peach-blossom, now blush-white, now grey like flax, filled another basin where their seed pods split with little snaps. Then in the midst of a ruined fountain, there flourished a colony of splendid carnations. White ones hung over the moss-covered rims, and flaked ones thrust a bright medley of blossom between the chinks of the marble; while from the mouth of the lion, whence formerly the water-jets had spurted, a huge crimson clove now shot out so vigorously that the decrepit beast seemed to be spouting blood. Near by, the principal piece of ornamental water, a lake, on whose surface swans had glided, had now become a thicket of lilacs, beneath whose shade stocks and verbenas and day-lilies screened their delicate tints, and dozed away, all redolent of perfume.
'But we haven't seen half the flowers yet,' said Albine, proudly. 'Over yonder there are such huge ones that I can quite bury myself amongst them like a partridge in a corn-field.'
They went thither. They tripped down some broad steps, from whose fallen urns still flickered the violet fires of the iris. All down the steps streamed gilliflowers, like liquid gold. The sides were flanked with thistles, that shot up like candelabra, of green bronze, twisted and curved into the semblance of birds' heads, with all the fantastic elegance of Chinese incense-burners. Between the broken balustrades drooped tresses of stonecrop, light greenish locks, spotted as with mouldiness. Then at the foot of the steps another parterre spread out, dotted over with box-trees that were vigorous as oaks; box-trees which had once been carefully pruned and clipped into balls and pyramids and octagonal columns, but which were now revelling in unrestrained freedom of untidiness, breaking out into ragged masses of greenery, through which blue patches of sky were visible.
And Albine led Serge straight on to a spot that seemed to be the graveyard of the flower-garden. There the scabious mourned, and processions of poppies stretched out in line, with deathly odour, unfolding heavy blooms of feverish brilliance. Sad anemones clustered in weary throngs, pallid as if infected by some epidemic. Thick-set daturas spread out purplish horns, from which insects, weary of life, sucked fatal poison. Marigolds buried with choking foliage their writhing starry flowers, that already reeked of putrefaction. And there were other melancholy flowers also: fleshy ranunculi with rusty tints, hyacinths and tuberoses that exhaled asphyxia and died from their own perfume. But the cinerarias were most conspicuous, crowding thickly in half-mourning robes of violet and white. In the middle of this gloomy spot a mutilated marble Cupid still remained standing, smiling beneath the lichens which overspread his youthful nakedness, while the arm with which he had once held his bow lay low amongst the nettles.
Then Albine and Serge passed on through a rank growth of peonies, reaching to their waists. The white flowers fell to pieces as they passed, with a rain of snowy petals which was as refreshing to their hands as the heavy drops of a thunder shower. And the red ones grinned with apoplectical faces which perturbed them. Next they passed through a field of fuchsias, forming dense, vigorous shrubs that delighted them with their countless bells. Then they went on through fields of purple veronicas and others of geraniums, blazing with all the fiery tints of a brasier, which the wind seemed to be ever fanning into fresh heat. And they forced their way through a jungle of gladioli, tall as reeds, which threw up spikes of flowers that gleamed in the full daylight with all the brilliance of burning torches. They lost themselves too in a forest of sunflowers, with stalks as thick as Albine's wrist, a forest darkened by rough leaves large enough to form an infant's bed, and peopled with giant starry faces that shone like so many suns. And thence they passed into another forest, a forest of rhododendrons so teeming with blossom that the branches and leaves were completely hidden, and nothing but huge nosegays, masses of soft calyces, could be seen as far as the eye could reach.
'Come along; we have not got to the end yet,' cried Albine. 'Let us push on.'
But Serge stopped. They were now in the midst of an old ruined colonnade. Some of the columns offered inviting seats as they lay prostrate amongst primroses and periwinkles. Further away, among the columns that still remained upright, other flowers were growing in profusion. There were expanses of tulips showing brilliant streaks like painted china; expanses of calceolarias dotted with crimson and gold; expanses of zinnias like great daisies; expanses of petunias with petals like soft cambric through which rosy flesh tints gleamed; and other fields, with flowers they could not recognise spreading in carpets beneath the sun, in a motley brilliance that was softened by the green of their leaves.
'We shall never be able to see it all,' said Serge, smiling and waving his hand. 'It would be very nice to sit down here, amongst all this perfume.'
Near them there was a large patch of heliotropes, whose vanilla-like breath permeated the air with velvety softness. They sat down upon one of the fallen columns, in the midst of a cluster of magnificent lilies which had shot up there. They had been walking for more than an hour. They had wandered on through the flowers from the roses to the lilies. These offered them a calm, quiet haven after their lovers' ramble amid the perfumed solicitations of luscious honeysuckle, musky violets, verbenas that breathed out the warm scent of kisses, and tuberoses that panted with voluptuous passion. The lilies, with their tall slim stems, shot up round them like a white pavilion and sheltered them with snowy cups, gleaming only with the gold of their slender pistils. And there they rested, like betrothed children in a tower of purity; an impregnable ivory tower, where all their love was yet perfect innocence.
Albine and Serge lingered amongst the lilies till evening. They felt so happy there, and seemed to break out into a new life. Serge felt the last trace of fever leave his hands, while Albine grew quite white, with a milky whiteness untinted by any rosy hue. They were unconscious that their arms and necks and shoulders were bare, and their straying unconfined hair in nowise troubled them. They laughed merrily one at the other, with frank open laughter. The expression of their eyes retained the limpid calmness of clear spring water. When they quitted the lilies, their feelings were but those of children ten years old; it seemed to them that they had just met each other in that garden so that they might be friends for ever and amuse themselves with perpetual play. And as they returned through the parterre, the very flowers bore themselves discreetly, as though they were glad to see their childishness, and would do nothing that might corrupt them. The forests of peonies, the masses of carnations, the carpets of forget-me-nots, the curtains of clematis now steeped in the atmosphere of evening, slumbering in childlike purity akin to their own, no longer spread suggestions of voluptuousness around them. The pansies looked up at them with their little candid faces, like playfellows; and the languid mignonette, as Albine's white skirt brushed by it, seemed full of compassion, and held its breath lest it should fan their love prematurely into life.
At dawn the next day it was Serge who called Albine. She slept in a room on the upper floor. He looked up at her window and saw her throw open the shutters just as she had sprung out of bed. They laughed merrily as their eyes met.
'You must not go out to-day,' said Albine, when she came down. 'We must stay indoors and rest. To-morrow I will take you a long, long way off, to a spot where we can have a very jolly time.'
'But sha'n't we grow tired of stopping here?' muttered Serge.
'Oh, dear no! I will tell you stories.'
They passed a delightful day. The windows were thrown wide open, and all the beauty of the Paradou came in and rejoiced with them in the room. Serge now really took possession of that delightful room, where he imagined he had been born. He insisted upon seeing everything, and upon having everything explained to him. The plaster Cupids who sported round the alcove amused him so much that he mounted upon a chair to tie Albine's sash round the neck of the smallest of them, a little bit of a man who was turning somersaults with his head downward. Albine clapped her hands, and said that he looked like a cockchafer fastened by a string. Then, as though seized by an access of pity, she said, 'No, no, unfasten him. It prevents him from flying.'
But it was the Cupids painted over the doors that more particularly attracted Serge's attention. He fidgeted at not being able to make out what they were playing at, for the paintings had grown very dim. Helped by Albine, he dragged a table to the wall, and when they both had climbed upon it, Albine began to explain things to him.
'Look, now, those are throwing flowers. Under the flowers you can only see some bare legs. It seems to me that when first I came here I could make out a lady reposing there. But she has been gone for a long time now.'
They examined all the panels in turn; but they had faded to such a degree that little more could be distinguished than the knees and elbows of infants. The details which had doubtless delighted the eyes of those whose old-time passion seemed to linger round the alcove, had so completely disappeared under the influence of the fresh air, that the room, like the park, seemed restored to pristine virginity beneath the serene glory of the sun.
'Oh! they are only some little boys playing,' said Serge, as he descended from the table. 'Do you know how to play at "hot cockles"?'
There was no game that Albine did not know how to play at. But, for 'hot cockles,' at least three players are necessary, and that made them laugh. Serge protested, however, that they got on too well together ever to desire a third there, and they vowed that they would always remain by themselves.
'We are quite alone here; one cannot hear a sound,' said the young man, lolling on the couch. 'And all the furniture has such a pleasant old-time smell. The place is as snug as a nest. We ought to be very happy in this room.'
The girl shook her head gravely.
'If I had been at all timid,' she murmured, 'I should have been very much frightened at first.... That is one of the stories I want to tell you. The people in the neighbourhood told it to me. Perhaps it isn't true, but it will amuse us, at any rate.'
Then she came and sat down by Serge's side.
'It is years and years since it all happened. The Paradou belonged to a rich lord, who came and shut himself up in it with a very beautiful lady. The gates of the mansion were kept so tightly closed, and the garden walls were built so very high, that no one ever caught sight even of the lady's skirts.'
'Ah! I know,' Serge interrupted; 'the lady was never seen again.'
Then, as Albine looked at him in surprise, somewhat annoyed to find that he knew her story already, he added in a low voice, apparently a little astonished himself: 'You told me the story before, you know.'
She declared that she had never done so; but all at once she seemed to change her mind, and allowed herself to be convinced. However, that did not prevent her from finishing her tale in these words: 'When the lord went away his hair was quite white. He had all the gates barricaded up, so that no one might get inside and disturb the lady. It was in this room that she died.'
'In this room!' cried Serge. 'You never told me that! Are you quite sure that it was really in this room she died?'
Albine seemed put out. She repeated to him what every one in the neighbourhood knew. The lord had built the pavilion for the reception of this unknown lady, who looked like a princess. The servants employed at the mansion afterwards declared that he spent all his days and nights there. Often, too, they saw him in one of the walks, guiding the tiny feet of the mysterious lady towards the densest coppices. But for all the world they would never have ventured to spy upon the pair, who sometimes scoured the park for weeks together.
'And it was here she died?' repeated Serge, who felt touched with sorrow. 'And you have taken her room; you use her furniture, and you sleep in her bed.'
'Ah! well, you know, I am not timid. Besides, it is so long since it all happened. You said what a delightful room it was.'
Then they both dropped into silence, and glanced, for a moment, towards the alcove, the lofty ceiling, and the corners, steeped in grey gloom. The faded furniture seemed to speak of long past love. A gentle sigh, as of resignation, passed through the room.
'No, indeed,' murmured Serge, 'one could not feel afraid here. It is too peaceful.'
But Albine came closer to him and said: 'There is something else that only a few people know, and that is that the lord and the lady discovered in the garden a certain spot where perfect happiness was to be found, and where they afterwards spent all their time. I have been told that by a very good authority. It is a cool, shady spot, hidden away in the midst of an impenetrable jungle, and it is so marvellously beautiful that anyone who reaches it forgets all else in the world. The poor lady must have been buried there.'
'Is it anywhere about the parterre?' asked Serge curiously.
'Ah! I cannot tell, I cannot tell,' said the young girl with an expression of discouragement. 'I know nothing about it. I have searched everywhere, but I have never been able to find the least sign of that lovely clearing. It is not amongst the roses, nor the lilies, nor the violets.'
'Perhaps it is hidden somewhere away amongst those mournful-looking flowers, where you showed me the figure of a boy standing with his arm broken off.'
'No, no, indeed.'
'Perhaps, then, it is in that grotto, near that clear stream, where the great marble woman, without a face, is lying.'
Albine seemed to reflect for a moment. Then, as though speaking to herself, she went on: 'As soon as ever I came here, I began to hunt for it. I spent whole days in the Paradou, and ferreted about in all the out-of-the-way green corners, to have the pleasure of sitting for an hour in that happy spot. What mornings have I not wasted in groping under the brambles and peeping into the most distant nooks of the park! Oh! I should have known it at once, that enchanting retreat, with the mighty tree that must shelter it with a canopy of foliage, with its carpet of soft silky turf, and its walls of tangled greenery, which the very birds themselves cannot penetrate.
She raised her voice, and threw one of her arms round Serge's neck, as she continued: 'Tell me, now; shall we search for it together? We shall surely find it. You, who are strong, will push aside the heavy branches, while I crawl underneath and search the brakes. When I grow weary, you can carry me; you can help me to cross the streams; and if we happen to lose ourselves, you can climb the trees and try to discover our way again. Ah! and how delightful it will be for us to sit, side by side, beneath the green canopy in the centre of the clearing! I have been told that in one minute one may there live the whole of life. Tell me, my dear Serge, shall we set off to-morrow and scour the park, from bush to bush, until we have found what we want?'
Serge shrugged his shoulders, and smiled. 'What would be the use?' he said. 'Is it not pleasant in the parterre? Don't you think we ought to remain among the flowers, instead of seeking a greater happiness that lies so far away?'
'It is there that the dead lady lies buried,' murmured Albine, falling back into her reverie. 'It was the joy of being there that killed her. The tree casts a shade, whose charm is deathly.... I would willingly die so. We would clasp one another there, and we would die, and none would ever find us again.'
'Don't talk like that,' interrupted Serge. 'You make me feel so unhappy. I would rather that we should live in the bright sunlight, far away from that fatal shade. Your words distress me, as though they urged us to some irreparable misfortune. It must be forbidden to sit beneath a tree whose shade can thus affect one.'
'Yes,' Albine gravely declared, 'it is forbidden. All the folks of the countryside have told me that it is forbidden.'
Then silence fell. Serge rose from the couch where he had been lolling, and laughed, and pretended that he did not care about stories. The sun was setting, however, before Albine would consent to go into the garden for even a few minutes. She led Serge to the left, along the enclosing wall, to a spot strewn with fragments of stone, and woodwork, and ironwork, bristling too with briars and brambles. It was the site of the old mansion, still black with traces of the fire which had destroyed the building. Underneath the briars lay rotting timbers and fire-split masonry. The spot was like a little ravined, hillocky wilderness of sterile rocks, draped with rude vegetation, clinging creepers that twined and twisted through every crevice like green serpents. The young folks amused themselves by wandering across this chaos, groping about in the holes, turning over the debris, trying to reconstruct something of the past out of the ruins before them. They did not confess their curiosity as they chased one another through the midst of fallen floorings and overturned partitions; but they were indeed, all the time, secretly pondering over the legend of those ruins, and of that lady, lovelier than day, whose silken skirt had rustled down those steps, where now lizards alone were idly crawling.
Serge ended by climbing the highest of the ruinous masses; and, looking round at the park which unfolded its vast expanse of greenery, he sought the grey form of the pavilion through the trees. Albine was standing silent by his side, serious once more.
'The pavilion is yonder, to the right,' she said at last, without waiting for Serge to ask her. 'It is the only one of the buildings that is left. You can see it quite plainly at the end of that grove of lime-trees.'
They fell into silence again; and then Albine, as though pursuing aloud the reflections which were passing through their minds, exclaimed: 'When he went to see her, he must have gone down yonder path, then past those big chestnut trees, and then under the limes. It wouldn't take him a quarter of an hour.'
Serge made no reply. But as they went home, they took the path which Albine had pointed out, past the chestnuts and under the limes. It was a path that love had consecrated. And as they walked over the grass, they seemed to be seeking footmarks, or a fallen knot of ribbon, or a whiff of ancient perfume—something that would clearly satisfy them that they were really travelling along the path that led to the joy of union.
'Wait out here,' said Albine, when they once more stood before the pavilion; 'don't come up for three minutes.'
Then she ran off merrily, and shut herself up in the room with the blue ceiling. And when she had let Serge knock at the door twice, she softly set it ajar, and received him with an old-fashioned courtesy.
'Good morrow, my dear lord,' she said as she embraced him.
This amused them extremely. They played at being lovers with childish glee. In stammering accents they would have revived the passion which had once throbbed and died there. But it was like a first effort at learning a lesson. They knew not how to kiss each other's lips, but sought each other's cheeks, and ended by dancing around each other, with shrieks of laughter, from ignorance of any other way of showing the pleasure they experienced from their mutual love.
The next morning Albine was anxious to start at sunrise upon the grand expedition which she had planned the night before. She tapped her feet gleefully on the ground, and declared that they would not come back before nightfall.
'Where are you going to take me?' asked Serge.
'You will see, you will see.'
But he caught her by the hands and looked her very earnestly in the face. 'You must not be foolish, you know. I won't have you hunting for that glade of yours, or for the tree, or for the grassy couch where one droops and dies. You know that it is forbidden.'
She blushed slightly, protesting that she had no such idea in her head. Then she added: 'But if we should come across them, just by chance, you know, and without really seeking them, you wouldn't mind sitting down, would you? Else you must love me very little.'
They set off, going straight through the parterre without stopping to watch the awakening of the flowers which were all dripping after their dewy bath. The morning had a rosy hue, the smile of a beautiful child, just opening its eyes on its snowy pillow.
'Where are you taking me?' repeated Serge.
But Albine only laughed and would not answer. Then, on reaching the stream which ran through the garden at the end of the flower-beds, she halted in great distress. The water was swollen with the late rains.
'We shall never be able to get across,' she murmured. 'I can generally manage it by taking off my shoes and stockings, but, to-day, the water would reach to our waists.'
They walked for a moment or two along the bank to find some fordable point; but the girl said it was hopeless; she knew the stream quite well. Once there had been a bridge across, but it had fallen in, and had strewn the river bed with great blocks of stone, between which the water rushed along in foaming eddies.
'Get on to my back, then,' said Serge.
'No, no; I'd rather not. If you were to slip, we should both of us get a famous wetting. You don't know how treacherous those stones are.'
'Get on to my back,' repeated Serge.
She was tempted to do so. She stepped back for a spring, and then jumped up, like a boy; but she felt that Serge was tottering; and crying out that she was not safely seated, she got down again. However, after two more attempts, she managed to settle herself securely on Serge's back.
'When you are quite ready,' said the young man, laughing, 'we will start. Now, hold on tightly. We are off.'
And, with three light strides, he crossed the stream, scarcely wetting even his toes. Midway, however, Albine thought that he was slipping. She broke out into a little scream, and hugged him tightly round his neck. But he sprang forward, and carried her at a gallop over the fine sand on the other side.
'Gee up!' she cried, quite calm again, and delighted with this novel game.
He ran along with her for some distance, she clucking her tongue, and guiding him to right or left by some locks of his hair.
'Here—here we are,' she said at last, tapping him gently on the cheeks.
Then she jumped to the ground; while he, hot and perspiring, leaned against a tree to draw breath. Albine thereupon began to scold him, and threatened that she would not nurse him if he made himself ill again.
'Stuff!' he cried, 'it's done me good. When I have grown quite strong again, I will carry you about all day. But where are you taking me?'
'Here,' she said, as she seated herself beneath a huge pear-tree.
They were in the old orchard of the park. A hawthorn hedge, a real wall of greenery with here and there a gap, separated it from everything else. There was quite a forest of fruit trees, which no pruning knife had touched for a century past. Some of the trees had been strangely warped and twisted by the storms which had raged over them; while others, bossed all over with huge knots and full of deep holes, seemed only to hold on to the soil with their bark. The high branches, bent each year by weight of fruit, stretched out like big rackets; and each tree helped to keep its fellows erect. The trunks were like twisted pillars supporting a roof of greenery; and sometimes narrow cloisters, sometimes light halls were formed, while now and again the verdure swept almost to the ground and left scarcely room to pass. Round each colossus a crowd of wild and self-sown saplings had grown up, thicket-like with the entanglement of their young shoots. In the greenish light which filtered like tinted water through the foliage, in the deep silence of the mossy soil, one only heard the dull thud of the fruit as it was culled by the wind.
And there were patriarchal apricot trees that bore their great age quite bravely. Though decayed on one side, where they showed a perfect scaffolding of dead wood, they were so youthful, so full of life, that, on the other, young shoots were ever bursting through their rough bark. There were cherry trees, that formed complete towns with houses of several stories, that threw out staircases and floors of branches, big enough for half a score of families. Then there were the apple trees, with their limbs twisted like old cripples, with bark gnarled and knotted, and all stained with lichen-growth. There were also smooth pear trees, that shot up mast-like with long slender spars. And there were rosy-blossomed peach-trees that won a place amid this teeming growth as pretty maids do amidst a human crowd by dint of bright smiles and gentle persistence. Some had been formerly trained as espaliers, but they had broken down the low walls which had once supported them, and now spread abroad in wild confusion, freed from the trammels of trellis work, broken fragments of which still adhered to some of their branches. They grew just as they listed, and resembled well-bred trees, once neat and prim, which, having gone astray, now flaunted but vestiges of whilom respectability. And from tree to tree, and from bough to bough, vine branches hung in confusion. They rose like wild laughter, twined for an instant round some lofty knot, then started off again with yet more sonorous mirth, splotching all the foliage with the merry ebriety of their tendrils. Their pale sun-gilt green set a glow of bacchanalianism about the weather-worn heads of the old orchard giants.
Then towards the left were trees less thickly planted. Thin-foliaged almonds allowed the sun's rays to pass and ripen the pumpkins, which looked like moons that had fallen to the earth. Near the edge of a stream which flowed through the orchard there also grew various kinds of melons, some rough with knotty warts, some smooth and shining, as oval as the eggs of ostriches. At every step, too, progress was barred by currant bushes, showing limpid bunches of fruit, rubies in one and all of which there sparkled liquid sunlight. And hedges of raspberry canes shot up like wild brambles, while the ground was but a carpet of strawberry plants, teeming with ripe berries which exhaled a slight odour of vanilla.
But the enchanted corner of the orchard was still further to the left, near a tier of rocks which there began to soar upwards. There you found yourself in a veritable land of fire, in a natural hot-house, on which the sun fell freely. At first, you had to make your way through huge, ungainly fig trees, which stretched out grey branches like arms weary of lying still, and whose villose leather-like foliage was so dense that in order to pass one constantly had to snap off twigs that had sprouted from the old wood. Next you passed on through groves of strawberry trees with verdure like that of giant box-plants, and with scarlet berries which suggested maize plants decked out with crimson ribbon. Then there came a jungle of nettle-trees, medlars and jujube trees, which pomegranates skirted with never-fading verdure. The fruit of the latter, big as a child's fist, was scarcely set as yet; and the purple blossoms, fluttering at the ends of the branches, looked like the palpitating wings of the humming birds, which do not even bend the shoots on which they perch. Lastly, there was a forest of orange and lemon trees growing vigorously in the open air. Their straight trunks stood like rows of brown columns, while their shiny leaves showed brightly against the blue of the sky, and cast upon the ground a network of light and shadow, figuring the palms of some Indian fabric. Here there was shade beside which that of the European orchard seemed colourless, insipid; the warm joy of sunlight, softened into flying gold-dust; the glad certainty of evergreen foliage; the penetrating perfume of blossom, and the more subdued fragrance of fruit; all helping to fill the body with the soft languor of tropical lands.
'And now let us breakfast,' cried Albine, clapping her hands. 'It must be at least nine o'clock, and I am very hungry.'
She had risen from the ground. Serge confessed that he, too, would find some food acceptable.
'You goose!' she said, 'you didn't understand, then, that I brought you here to breakfast. We sha'n't die of hunger here. We can help ourselves to all there is.'
They went along under the trees, pushing aside the branches and making their way to the thickest of the fruit. Albine, who went first, turned, and in her flute-like voice asked her companion: 'What do you like best? Pears, apricots, cherries, or currants? I warn you that the pears are still green; but they are very nice all the same.'
Serge decided upon having cherries, and Albine agreed it would be as well to start with them; but when she saw him foolishly beginning to scramble up the first cherry tree he found, she made him go on for another ten minutes through a frightful entanglement of branches. The cherries on this tree, she said, were small and good for nothing; those on that were sour; those on another would not be ripe for at least a week. She knew all the trees.
'Stop, climb this one,' she said at last, as she stopped at the foot of a tree, so heavily laden with fruit that clusters of it hung down to the ground, like strings of coral beads.
Serge settled himself comfortably between two branches and began his breakfast. He no longer paid attention to Albine. He imagined she was in another tree, a few yards away, when, happening to cast his eyes towards the ground, he saw her calmly lying on her back beneath him. She had thrown herself there, and, without troubling herself to use her hands, was plucking with her teeth the cherries which dangled over her mouth.
When she saw she was discovered, she broke out into a peal of laughter, and twisted about on the grass like a fish taken from the water. And finally, crawling along on her elbows, she gradually made the circuit of the tree, snapping up the plumpest cherries as she went along.
'They tickle me so,' she cried. 'See, there's a beauty just fallen on my neck. They are so deliciously fresh and juicy. They get into my ears, my eyes, my nose, everywhere. They are much sweeter down here than up there.'
'Ah!' said Serge, laughing, 'you say that because you daren't climb up.'
She remained for a moment silent with indignation. 'Daren't!—I!—' she stammered.
Then, having gathered up her skirts, she tightly grasped the tree and pulled herself up the trunk with a single effort of her strong wrists. And afterwards she stepped lightly along the branches, scarcely using her hands to steady herself. She had all the agile nimbleness of a squirrel, and made her way onward, maintaining her equilibrium only by the swaying poise of her body. When she was quite aloft at the end of a frail branch, which shook dangerously beneath her weight, she cried; 'Now you see whether I daren't climb.'
'Come down at once,' implored Serge, full of alarm for her. 'I beg of you to come down. You will be injuring yourself.'
But she, enjoying her triumph, began to mount still higher. She crawled along to the extreme end of a branch, grasping its leaves in her hands to maintain her hold.
'The branch will break!' cried Serge, thoroughly frightened.
'Let it break,' she answered, with a laugh; 'it will save me the trouble of getting down.'
And the branch did break, but only slowly, with such deliberation that, as it gradually settled towards the ground, it let Albine slip down in very gentle fashion. She did not appear in the least degree frightened; but gave herself a shake, and said: 'That was really nice. It was quite like being in a carriage.'
Serge had jumped down from the tree to catch her in his arms. As he stood there, quite pale from fright, she laughed at him. 'One tumbles down from trees every day,' she exclaimed, 'but there is never any harm done. Look more cheerful, you great stupid! Stay, just wet your finger and rub it upon my neck. I have scratched it.'
Serge wetted his finger and touched her neck with it.
'There, I am all right again now,' she cried, as she bounded off. 'Let us play at hide and seek, shall we?'
She was the first to hide. She disappeared, and presently from the depths of the greenery, which she alone knew, and where Serge could not possibly find her, she called, 'Cuckoo, cuckoo.' But this game of hide and seek did not put a stop to the onslaught upon the fruit trees. Breakfasting went on in all the nooks and corners where the two big children sought each other. Albine, while gliding beneath the branches, would stretch out her hand to pluck a green pear or fill her skirt with apricots. Then in some of her lurking-places she would come upon such rich discoveries as would make her careless of the game, content to sit upon the ground and remain eating. Once, however, she lost sound of Serge's movements. So, in her turn, she set about seeking him; and she was surprised, almost vexed, when she discovered him under a plum-tree, of whose existence she herself had been ignorant, and whose ripe fruit had a delicious musky perfume. She soundly rated him. Did he want to eat everything himself, that he hadn't called to her to come? He pretended to know nothing about the trees, but he evidently had a very keen scent to be able to find all the good things. She was especially indignant with the poor tree itself—a stupid tree which no one had known of, and which must have sprung up in the night on purpose to put people out. As she stood there pouting, refusing to pluck a single plum, it occurred to Serge to shake the tree violently. And then a shower, a regular hail, of plums came down. Albine, standing in the midst of the downfall, received plums on her arms, plums on her neck, plums on the very tip of her nose. At this she could no longer restrain her laughter; she stood in the midst of the deluge, crying 'More! more!' amused as she was by the round bullet-like fruit which fell around her as she squatted there, with hands and mouth open, and eyes closed.
It was a morning of childish play, of wild gambols in the Paradou. Albine and Serge spent hours, scampering up and down, shouting and sporting with each other, their thoughts still all innocence. And in what a delicious spot they found themselves! Depths of greenery, with undiscoverable hiding-places; paths, along whose windings it was never possible to be serious, such greedy laughter fell from the very hedges. In this happy orchard, there was such a playful straggling of bushes, such fresh and appetising shade, such a wealth of old trees laden like kindly grandfathers with sweet dainties. Even in the depths of the recesses green with moss, beneath the broken trunks which compelled them to creep the one behind the other, in the narrow leafy alleys, the young folks never succumbed to the perilous reveries of silence. No trouble touched them in that happy wood.
And when they had grown weary of the apricot-trees and the plum-trees and the cherry-trees, they ran beneath the slender almond-trees; eating green almonds, scarcely yet as big as peas, hunting for strawberries in the grassy carpet, and regretting that the melons were not already ripe. Albine finished by running as fast as she could go, pursued by Serge, who was unable to overtake her. She rushed amongst the fig-trees, leaping over their heavy branches, and pulling off the leaves to throw them behind her in her companion's face. In a few strides she had cleared the clumps of arbutus, whose red berries she tasted on her way; and it was in the jungle of nettle-trees, medlars, and jujube-trees that Serge lost her. At first he thought she was hiding behind a pomegranate; but found that he had mistaken two clustering blossoms for the rosy roundness of her wrists. Then he scoured the plantation of orange-trees, rejoicing in their beauty and perfume, and thinking that he must have reached the abode of the fairies of the sun. In the midst of them he caught sight of Albine, who, not believing him so near her, was peering inquisitively into the green depths.
'What are you looking for?' he cried. 'You know very well that is forbidden.'
She sprang up hastily, and slightly blushed for the first time that day. Then sitting down by the side of Serge, she told him of the fine times there would be when the oranges should be ripe. The wood would then be all golden, all bright with those round stars, dotting with yellow sparks the arching green.
When at last they really set off homeward she halted at every wild-growing fruit tree, and filled her pockets with sour pears and bitter plums, saying that they world be good to eat on their way. They would prove a hundred times more enjoyable than anything they had tasted before. Serge was obliged to swallow some of them, in spite of the grimaces he made at each bite. And eventually they found themselves indoors again, tired out but feeling very happy.
A week later there was another expedition to the park. They had planned to extend their rambles beyond the orchard, striking out to the left through the meadows watered by the four streams. They would travel several miles over the thick grass, and they might live on fish, if they happened to lose themselves.
'I will take my knife,' said Albine, holding up a broad-bladed peasant's knife.
She crammed all kinds of things into her pockets, string, bread, matches, a small bottle of wine, some rags, a comb, and some needles. Serge took a rug, but by the time they had passed the lime-trees and reached the ruins of the chateau, he found it such an encumbrance that he hid it beneath a piece of fallen wall.
The sun was hotter than before, Albine had delayed their departure by her extensive preparations. Thus in the heat of the morning they stepped along side by side, almost quietly. They actually managed to take twenty paces at a time without pushing one another or laughing. They began to talk.
'I never can wake up,' began Albine. 'I slept so soundly last night. Did you?'
'Yes, indeed, very soundly,' replied Serge.
'What does it mean when you dream of a bird that talks to you?' the girl resumed.
'I don't know. What did your bird say to you?'
'Oh, I have forgotten. But it said all kinds of things, and many of them sounded very comical. Stop, look at that big poppy over there. You sha'n't get it, you sha'n't get it!'
And then she sprang forward; but Serge, thanks to his long legs, outstripped her and plucked the poppy, which he waved about victoriously. She stood there with lips compressed, saying nothing, but feeling a strong inclination to cry. Serge threw down the flower. Nothing else occurred to him. Then, to make his peace with her, he asked: 'Would you like me to carry you as I did the other day?'
She pouted a little, but she had not gone another thirty steps, when she turned round smiling. A bramble had caught hold of her dress.
'I thought it was you who were treading on my dress purposely. It won't let me go. Come and unfasten me.'
When she was released, they walked on again, side by side, very quietly. Albine pretended that it was much more amusing to stroll along in this fashion, like steady grown-up folks. They had just reached the meadows. Far away, in front of them, stretched grassy expanses scarce broken here and there by the tender foliage of willows. The grass looked soft and downy, like velvet. It was a deep green, subsiding in the distance into lighter tints, and on the horizon assuming a bright yellow glow beneath the flaring sun. The clumps of willows right over yonder seemed like pure gold, bathed in the tremulous brilliance of the sunshine. Dancing dust tipped the blades of grass with quivering light, and as the gentle breezes swept over the free expanse, moire-like reflections appeared on the caressed and quivering herbage. In the nearer fields a multitude of little white daisies, now in swarms, now straggling, and now in groups, like holiday makers at some public rejoicing, brightly peopled the dark grass. Buttercups showed themselves, gay like little brass bells which the touch of a fly's wing would set tinkling. Here and there big lonely poppies raised fiery cups, and others, gathered together further away, spread out like vats purple with lees of wine. Big cornflowers balanced aloft their light blue caps which looked as if they would fly away at every breath of air. Then under foot there were patches of woolly feather-grass and fragrant meadow-sweet, sheets of fescue, dog's-tail, creeping-bent, and meadow grass. Sainfoin reared its long fine filaments; clover unfurled its clear green leaves, plantains brandished forests of spears, lucerne spread out in soft beds of green satin broidered with purple flowers. And all these were seen, to right, to left, in front, everywhere, rolling over the level soil, showing like the mossy surface of a stagnant sea, asleep beneath the sky which ever seemed to expand. Here and there, in the vast expanse, the vegetation was of a limpid blue, as though it reflected the colour of the heavens.
Albine and Serge stepped along over the meadow-lands, with the grass reaching to their knees. It was like wading through a pool. Now and then, indeed, they found themselves caught by a current in which a stream of bending stalks seemed to flow away between their legs. Then there were placid-looking, slumbering lakes, basins of short grass, which scarcely reached their ankles. As they walked along together, their joy found expression not in wild gambols, as in the orchard a week before, but rather in loitering, with their feet caught among the supple arms of the herbage, tasting as it were the caresses of a pure stream which calmed the exuberance of their youth. Albine turned aside and slipped into a lofty patch of vegetation which reached to her chin. Only her head appeared. For a moment or two she stood there in silence. Then she called to Serge: 'Come here, it is just like a bath. It is as if one had green water all over one.'
Then she gave a jump and scampered off without waiting for him, and they both walked along the margin of the first stream which barred their onward course. It was a shallow tranquil brook between banks of wild cress. It flowed on so placidly and gently that its surface reflected like a mirror the smallest reed that grew beside it. Albine and Serge followed this stream, whose onward motion was slower than their own, for a long time before they came across a tree that flung a long shadow upon the idle waters. As far as their eyes could reach they saw the bare brook stretch out and slumber in the sunlight like a blue serpent half uncoiled. At last they reached a clump of three willows. Two had their roots in the stream; the third was set a little backward. Their trunks, rotten and crumbling with age, were crowned with the bright foliage of youth. The shadow they cast was so slight as scarcely to be perceptible upon the sunlit bank. Yet here the water, which, both above and below, was so unruffled, showed a transient quiver, a rippling of its surface, as though it were surprised to find even this light veil cast over it. Between the three willows the meadow-land sloped down to the stream, and some crimson poppies had sprung up in the crevices of the decaying old trunks. The foliage of the willows looked like a tent of greenery fixed upon three stakes by the water's edge, beside a rolling prairie.
'This is the place,' cried Albine, 'this is the place;' and she glided beneath the willows.
Serge sat down by her side, his feet almost in the water. He glanced round him, and murmured: 'You know everything, you know all the best spots. One might almost think this was an island, ten feet square, right in the middle of the sea.'
'Yes, indeed, we are quite at home,' she replied, as she gleefully drummed the grass with her fists. 'It is altogether our own, and we are going to do everything ourselves.' Then, as if struck by a brilliant idea, she sprang towards him, and, with her face close to his, asked him joyously: 'Will you be my husband? I will be your wife.'
He was delighted at the notion, and replied that he would gladly be her husband, laughing even more loudly than she had done herself. Then Albine suddenly became grave, and assumed the anxious air of a housewife.
'You know,' she said, 'that it is I who will have to give the orders. We will have breakfast as soon as you have laid the table.'
She gave him her orders in an imperious fashion. He had to stow all the various articles which she extracted from her pockets into a hole in one of the willows, which bole she called the cupboard. The rags supplied the household linen, while the comb represented the toilette necessaries. The needles and string were to be used for mending the explorers' clothes. Provision for the inner man consisted of the little bottle of wine and a few crusts which she had saved from yesterday. She had, to be sure, some matches, by the aid of which she intended to cook the fish they were going to catch.
When Serge had finished laying the table, the bottle of wine in the centre, and three crusts grouped round it, he hazarded the observation that the fare seemed to be scanty. But Albine shrugged her shoulders with feminine superiority. And wading into the water, she said in a severe tone, 'I will catch the fish; you can watch me.'
For half an hour she strenuously exerted herself in trying to catch some of the little fishes with her hands. She had gathered up her petticoats and fastened them together with a piece of string. And she advanced quietly into the water, taking the greatest care not to disturb it. When she was quite close to some tiny fish, that lay lurking between a couple of pebbles, she thrust down her bare arm, made a wild grasp, and brought her hand up again with nothing in it but sand and gravel. Serge then broke out into noisy laughter which brought her back to the bank, indignant. She told him that he had no business to laugh at her.
'But,' he ended by asking, 'how are we going to cook your fish when you have caught it? There is no wood about.'
That put the finishing touch to her discouragement. However, the fish in that stream didn't seem to be good for much; so she came out of the water and ran through the long grass to get her feet dry.
'See,' she suddenly exclaimed, 'here is some pimpernel. It is very nice. Now we shall have a feast.'
Serge was ordered to gather a quantity of the pimpernel and place it on the table. They ate it with their crusts. Albine declared that it was much better than nuts. She assumed the position of mistress of the establishment, and cut Serge's bread for him, for she would not trust him with the knife. At last she made him store away in the 'cupboard' the few drops of wine that remained at the bottom of the bottle. He was also ordered to sweep the grass. Then Albine lay down at full length.
'We are going to sleep now, you know. You must lie down by my side.'
He did as he was ordered. They lay there stiffly staring into the air, and saying that they were asleep, and that it was very nice. After a while, however, they drew slightly away from one another, averting their heads as if they felt some discomfort. And at last breaking the silence which had fallen between them, Serge exclaimed: 'I love you very much.'
It was love such as it is without any sensual feeling; that instinctive love which wakens in the bosom of a little man ten years old at the sight of some white-robed baby-girl. The meadow-lands, spreading around them all open and free, dissipated the slight fear each felt of the other. They knew that they lay there, seen of all the herbage, that the blue sky looked down upon them through the light foliage of the willows, and the thought was pleasant to them. The willow canopy over their heads was a mere open screen. The shade it cast was so imperceptible that it wafted to them none of the languor that some dim coppice might have done. From the far-off horizon came a healthy breeze fraught with all the freshness of the grassy sea, swelling here and there into waves of flowers; while, at their feet, the stream, childlike as they were, flowed idly along with a gentle babbling that sounded to them like the laughter of a companion. Ah! happy solitude, so tranquil and placid, immensity wherein the little patch of grass serving as their couch took the semblance of an infant's cradle.
'There, that's enough; said Albine, getting up; 'we've rested long enough.'
Serge seemed a little surprised at this speedy termination of their sleep. He stretched out his arm and caught hold of Albine, as though to draw her near him again; and when she, laughing, dropped upon her knees he grasped her elbows and gazed up at her. He knew not to what impulse he was yielding. But when she had freed herself, and again had risen to her feet, he buried his face amongst the grass where she had lain, and which still retained the warmth of her body.
'Yes,' he said at last, 'it is time to get up,' and then he rose from the ground.
They scoured the meadow-lands until evening began to fall. They went on and on, inspecting their garden. Albine walked in front, sniffing like a young dog, and saying nothing, but she was ever in search of the happy glade, although where they found themselves there were none of the big trees of which her thoughts were full. Serge meanwhile indulged in all kinds of clumsy gallantry. He rushed forward so hastily to thrust the tall herbage aside, that he nearly tripped her up; and he almost tore her arm from her body as he tried to assist her over the brooks. Their joy was great when they came to the three other streams. The first flowed over a bed of pebbles, between two rows of willows, so closely planted that they had to grope between the branches with the risk of falling into some deep part of the water. It only rose to Serge's knees, however, and having caught Albine in his arms he carried her to the opposite bank, to save her from a wetting. The next stream flowed black with shade beneath a lofty canopy of foliage, passing languidly onward with the gentle rustling and rippling of the satin train of some lady, dreamily sauntering through the woodland depths. It was a deep, cold, and rather dangerous-looking stream, but a fallen tree that stretched from bank to bank served them as a bridge. They crossed over, bestriding the tree with dangling feet, at first amusing themselves by stirring the water which looked like a mirror of burnished steel, but then suddenly hastening, frightened by the strange eyes which opened in the depths of the sleepy current at the slightest splash. But it was the last stream which delayed them the most. It was sportive like themselves, it flowed more slowly at certain bends, whence it started off again with merry ripples, past piles of big stones, into the shelter of some clump of trees, and grew calmer once more. It exhibited every humour as it sped along over soft sand or rocky boulders, over sparkling pebbles or greasy clay, where leaping frogs made yellow puddles. Albine and Serge dabbled about in delight, and even walked homewards through the stream in preference to remaining on the bank. At every little island that divided the current they landed. They conquered the savage spot or rested beneath the lofty canes and reeds, which seemed to grow there expressly as shelter for shipwrecked adventurers. Thus they made a delightful progress, amused by the changing scenery of the banks, enlivened by the merry humour of the living current.
But when they were about to leave the river, Serge realised that Albine was still seeking something along the banks, on the island, even among the plants that slept on the surface of the water. He was obliged to go and pull her from the midst of a patch of water-lilies whose broad leaves set collerettes around her limbs. He said nothing, but shook his finger at her. And at last they went home, walking along, arm in arm, like young people after a day's outing. They looked at each other, and thought one another handsomer and stronger than before, and of a certainty their laughter had a different ring from that with which it had sounded in the morning.
'Are we never going out again?' asked Serge some days later.
And when he saw Albine shrug her shoulders with a weary air, he added, in a teasing kind of way, 'You have got tired of looking for your tree, then?'
They joked about the tree all day and made fun of it. It didn't exist. It was only a nursery-story. Yet they both spoke of it with a slight feeling of awe. And on the morrow they settled that they would go to the far end of the park and pay a visit to the great forest-trees which Serge had not yet seen. Albine refused to take anything along with them. They breakfasted before starting and did not set off till late. The heat of the sun, which was then great, brought them a feeling of languor, and they sauntered along gently, side by side, seeking every patch of sheltering shade. They lingered neither in the garden nor the orchard, through which they had to pass. When they gained the shady coolness beneath the big trees, they dropped into a still slower pace; and, without a word, but with a deep sigh, as though it were welcome relief to escape from the glare of day, they pushed on into the forest's depths. And when they had nothing but cool green leaves about them, when no glimpse of the sunlit expanse was afforded by any gap in the foliage, they looked at each other and smiled, with a feeling of vague uneasiness.
'How nice it is here!' murmured Serge.
Albine simply nodded her head. A choking sensation in her throat prevented her from speaking. Their arms were not passed as usual round each other's waist, but swung loosely by their sides. They walked along without touching each other, and with their heads inclined towards the ground.
But Serge suddenly stopped short on seeing tears trickle down Albine's cheeks and mingle with the smile that played around her lips.
'What is the matter with you?' he exclaimed; 'are you in pain? Have you hurt yourself?'
'No, don't you see I'm smiling? I don't know how it is, but the scent of all these trees forces tears into my eyes.' She glanced at him, and then resumed: 'Why, you're crying too! You see you can't help it.'
'Yes,' he murmured, 'all this deep shade affects one. It seems so peaceful, so mournful here that one feels a little sad. But you must tell me, you know, if anything makes you really unhappy. I have not done anything to annoy you, have I? you are not vexed with me?'
She assured him that she was not. She was quite happy, she said.
'Then why are you not enjoying yourself more? Shall we have a race?'
'Oh! no, we can't race,' she said, disdainfully, with a pout. And when he went on to suggest other amusements, such as bird-nesting or gathering strawberries or violets, she replied a little impatiently: 'We are too big for that sort of thing. It is childish to be always playing. Doesn't it please you better to walk on quietly by my side?'
She stepped along so prettily, that it was, indeed, a pleasure to hear the pit-pat of her little boots on the hard soil of the path. Never before had he paid attention to the rhythmic motion of her figure, the sweep of her skirts that followed her with serpentine motion. It was happiness never to be exhausted, to see her thus walking sedately by his side, for he was ever discovering some new charm in the lissom suppleness of her limbs.
'You are right,' he said, 'this is really the best. I would walk by your side to the end of the world, if you wished it.'
A little further on, however, he asked her if she were not tired, and hinted that he would not be sorry to have a rest himself.
'We might sit down for a few minutes,' he suggested in a stammering voice.
'No,' she replied, 'I don't want to.'
'But we might lie down, you know, as we did in the meadows the other day. We should be quite comfortable.'
'No, no; I don't want to.'
And she suddenly sprang aside, as if scared by the masculine arms outstretched towards her. Serge called her a big stupid, and tried to catch her. But at the light touch of his fingers she cried out with such an expression of pain that he drew back, trembling.
'I have hurt you?' he said.
She did not reply for a moment, surprised, herself, at her cry of fear, and already smiling at her own alarm.
'No; leave me, don't worry me;' and she added in a grave tone, though she tried to feign jocularity: 'you know that I have my tree to look for.'
Then Serge began to laugh, and offered to help her in her search. He conducted himself very gently in order that he might not again alarm her, for he saw that she was even yet trembling, though she had resumed her slow walk beside him. What they were contemplating was forbidden, and could bring them no luck; and he, like her, felt a delightful awe, which thrilled him at each repeated sigh of the forest trees. The perfume of the foliage, the soft green light which filtered through the leaves, the soughing silence of the undergrowth, filled them with tremulous excitement, as though the next turn of the path might lead them to some perilous happiness.
And for hours they walked on under the cool trees. They retained their reserved attitude towards each other, and scarcely exchanged a word, though they never left each other's side, but went together through the darkest greenery of the forest. At first their way lay through a jungle of saplings with trunks no thicker than a child's wrist. They had to push them aside, and open a path for themselves through the tender shoots which threw a wavy lacework of foliage before their eyes. The saplings closed up again behind them, leaving no trace of their passage, and they struggled on and on at random, ignorant of where they might be, and leaving nothing behind them to mark their progress, save a momentary waving of shaken boughs. Albine, weary of being unable to see more than three steps in front of her, was delighted when they at last found themselves free of this jungle, whose end they had long tried to discover. They had now reached a little clearing, whence several narrow paths, fringed with green hedges, struck out in various directions, twisting hither and thither, intersecting one another, bending and stretching in the most capricious fashion. Albine and Serge rose on tip-toes to peep over the hedges; but they were in no haste, and would willingly have stayed where they were, lost in the mazy windings, without ever getting anywhere, if they had not seen before them the proud lines of the lofty forest trees. They passed at last beneath their shade, solemnly and with a touch of sacred awe, as when one enters some vaulted cathedral. The straight lichen-stained trunks of the mighty trees, of a dingy grey, like discoloured stone, towered loftily, line by line, like a far-reaching infinity of columns. Naves opened far away, with lower, narrower aisles; naves strangely bold in their proportions, whose supporting pillars were very slender, richly caned, so finely chiselled that everywhere they allowed a glimpse of the blue heavens. A religious silence reigned beneath the giant arches, the ground below lay hard as stone in its austere nakedness; not a blade of green was there, nought but a ruddy dust of dead leaves. And Serge and Albine listened to their ringing footsteps as they went on, thrilled by the majestic solitude of this temple.
Here, indeed, if anywhere, must be the much-sought tree, beneath whose shade perfect happiness had made its home. They felt that it was nigh, such was the delight which stole through them amidst the dimness of those mighty arches. The trees seemed to be creatures of kindliness, full of strength and silence and happy restfulness. They looked at them one by one, and they loved them all; and they awaited from their majestic tranquillity some revelation whereby they themselves might grow, expand into the bliss of strong and perfect life. The maples, the ashes, the hornbeams, the cornels, formed a nation of giants, a multitude full of proud gentleness, who lived in peace, knowing that the fall of any one of them would have sufficed to wreck a whole corner of the forest. The elms displayed colossal bodies and limbs full of sap, scarce veiled by light clusters of little leaves. The birches and the alders, delicate as sylphs, swayed their slim figures in the breeze to which they surrendered the foliage that streamed around them like the locks of goddesses already half metamorphosed into trees. The planes shot up regularly with glossy tattooed bark, whence scaly fragments fell. Down a gentle slope descended the larches, resembling a band of barbarians, draped in sayons of woven greenery. But the oaks were the monarchs of all—the mighty oaks, whose sturdy trunks thrust out conquering arms that barred the sun's approach from all around them; Titan-like trees, oft lightning-struck, thrown back in postures like those of unconquered wrestlers, with scattered limbs that alone gave birth to a whole forest.
Could the tree which Serge and Albine sought be one of those colossal oaks? or was it one of those lovely planes, or one of those pale, maidenly birches, or one of those creaking elms? Albine and Serge still plodded on, unable to tell, completely lost amongst the crowding trees. For a moment they thought they had found the object of their quest in the midst of a group of walnut trees from whose thick foliage fell so cold a shadow that they shivered beneath it. Further on they felt another thrill of emotion as they came upon a little wood of chestnut trees, green with moss and thrusting out big strange-shaped branches, on which one might have built an aerial village. But further still Albine caught sight of a clearing, whither they both ran hastily. Here, in the midst of a carpet of fine turf, a locust tree had set a very toppling of greenery, a foliaged Babel, whose ruins were covered with the strangest vegetation. Stones, sucked up from the ground by the mounting sap, still remained adhering to the trunk. High branches bent down to earth again, and, taking root, surrounded the parent tree with lofty arches, a nation of new trunks which ever increased and multiplied. Upon the bark, seared with bleeding wounds, were ripening fruit-pods; the mere effort of bearing fruit strained the old monster's skin until it split. The young folks walked slowly round it, passing under the arched branches which formed as it were the streets of a city, and stared at the gaping cracks of the naked roots. Then they went off, for they had not felt there the supernatural happiness they sought.
'Where are we?' asked Serge.
Albine did not know. She had never before come to this part of the park. They were now in a grove of cytisus and acacias, from whose clustering blossoms fell a soft, almost sugary perfume. 'We are quite lost,' she laughed. 'I don't know these trees at all.'
'But the garden must come to an end somewhere,' said Serge. 'When we get to the end, you will know where you are, won't you?'
'No,' she answered, waving her hands afar.
They fell into silence; never yet had the vastness of the park filled them with such pleasure. They joyed at knowing that they were alone in so far-spreading a domain that even they themselves could not reach its limits.
'Well, we are lost,' said Serge, gaily; then humbly drawing near her he inquired: 'You are not afraid, are you?'
'Oh! no. There's no one except you and me in the garden. What could I be afraid of? The walls are very high. We can't see them, but they guard us, you know.'
Serge was now quite close to her, and he murmured, 'But a little time ago you were afraid of me.'
She looked him straight in the face, perfectly calm, without the least faltering in her glance. 'You hurt me,' she replied, 'but you are different now. Why should I be afraid of you?'
'Then you will let me hold you like this. We will go back under the trees.'
'Yes, you may put your arm around me, it makes me feel happy. And we'll walk slowly, eh? so that we may not find our way again too soon.'
He had passed his arm round her waist, and it was thus that they sauntered back to the shade of the great forest trees, under whose arching vaults they slowly went, with love awakening within them. Albine said that she felt a little tired, and rested her head on Serge's shoulder. The fabulous tree was now forgotten. They only sought to draw their faces nearer together that they might smile in one another's eyes. And it was the trees, the maples, the elms, the oaks, with their soft green shade, that whisperingly suggested to them the first words of love.
'I love you!' said Serge, while his breath stirred the golden hair that clustered round Albine's temples. He tried to think of other words, but he could only repeat, 'I love you! I love you!'
Albine listened with a delightful smile upon her face. The music of her heart was in accord with his.
'I love you! I love you!' she sighed, with all the sweetness of her soft young voice.
Then, lifting up her blue eyes, in which the light of love was dawning, she asked, 'How do you love me?'
Serge reflected for a moment. The forest was wrapped in solemn quietude, the lofty naves quivered only with the soft footsteps of the young pair.
'I love you beyond everything,' he answered. 'You are more beautiful than all else that I see when I open my window in the morning. When I look at you, I want nothing more. If I could have you only, I should be perfectly happy.'
She lowered her eyes, and swayed her head as if accompanying a strain of music. 'I love you,' he went on. 'I know nothing about you. I know not who you are, nor whence you came. You are neither my mother nor my sister; and yet I love you to a point that I have given you my whole heart and kept nought of it for others. Listen, I love those cheeks of yours, so soft and satiny; I love your mouth with its rose-sweet breath; I love your eyes, in which I see my own love reflected; I love even your eyelashes, even those little veins which blue the whiteness of your temples. Ah! yes, I love you, I love you, Albine.'
'And I love you, too,' she answered. 'You are strong, and tall, and handsome. I love you, Serge.'
For a moment or two they remained silent, enraptured. It seemed to them that soft, flute-like music went before them, that their own words came from some dulcet orchestra which they could not see. Shorter and shorter became their steps as they leaned one towards the other, ever threading their way amidst the mighty trees. Afar off through the long vista of the colonnades were glimpses of waning sunlight, showing like a procession of white-robed maidens entering church for a betrothal ceremony amid the low strains of an organ.
'And why do you love me?' asked Albine again.
He only smiled, and did not answer her immediately; then he said, 'I love you because you came to me. That expresses all.... Now we are together and we love one another. It seems to me that I could not go on living if I did not love you. You are the very breath of my life.'
He bent his head, speaking almost as though he were in a dream.
'One does not know all that at first. It grows up in one as one's heart grows. One has to grow, one has to get strong.... Do you remember how we loved one another though we didn't speak of it? One is childish and silly at first. Then, one fine day, it all becomes clear, and bursts out. You see, we have nothing to trouble about; we love one another because our love and our life are one.'
Albine's head was cast back, her eyes were tightly closed, and she scarce drew her breath. Serge's caressing words enraptured her: 'Do you really, really love me?' she murmured, without opening her eyes.
Serge remained silent, sorely troubled that he could find nothing further to say to prove to her the force of his love. His eyes wandered over her rosy face, which lay upon his shoulder with the restfulness of sleep. Her eyelids were soft as silk. Her moist lips were curved into a bewitching smile, her brow was pure white, with just a rim of gold below her hair. He would have liked to give his whole being with the word which seemed to be upon his tongue but which he could not utter. Again he bent over her, and seemed to consider on what sweet spot of that fair face he should whisper the supreme syllables. But he said nothing, he only breathed a little sigh. Then he kissed Albine's lips.
'Albine, I love you!'
'I love you, Serge!'
Then they stopped short, thrilled, quivering with that first love kiss. She had opened her eyes quite widely. He was standing with his lips protruding slightly towards hers. They looked at each other without a blush. They felt they were under the influence of some sovereign power. It was like the realisation of a long dreamt-of meeting, in which they beheld themselves grown, made one for the other, for ever joined. For a moment they remained wondering, raising their eyes to the solemn vault of greenery above them, questioning the tranquil nation of trees as if seeking an echo of their kiss. But, beneath the serene complacence of the forest, they yielded to prolonged, ringing lovers' gaiety, full of all the tenderness now born.
'Tell me how long you have loved me. Tell me everything. Did you love me that day when you lay sleeping upon my hand? Did you love me when I fell out of the cherry tree, and you stood beneath it, stretching out your arms to catch me, and looking so pale? Did you love me when you took hold of me round the waist in the meadows to help me over the streams?'
'Hush, let me speak. I have always loved you. And you, did you love me; did you?'
Until the evening closed round them they lived upon that one word 'love,' in which they ever seemed to find some new sweetness. They brought it into every sentence, ejaculated it inconsequentially, merely for the pleasure they found in pronouncing it. Serge, however, did not think of pressing a second kiss to Albine's lips. The perfume of the first sufficed them in their purity. They had found their way again, or rather had stumbled upon it, for they had paid no attention to the paths they took. As they left the forest, twilight had fallen, and the moon was rising, round and yellow, between the black foliage. It was a delightful walk home through the park, with that discreet luminary peering at them through the gaps in the big trees. Albine said that the moon was surely following them. The night was balmy, warm too with stars. Far away a long murmur rose from the forest trees, and Serge listened, thinking: 'They are talking of us.'
When they reached the parterre, they passed through an atmosphere of sweetest perfumes; the perfume of flowers at night, which is richer, more caressing than by day, and seems like the very breath of slumber.
'Good night, Serge.'
'Good night, Albine.'
They clasped each other by the hand on the landing of the first floor, without entering the room where they usually wished each other good night. They did not kiss. But Serge, when he was alone, remained seated on the edge of his bed, listening to Albine's every movement in the room above. He was weary with happiness, a happiness that benumbed his limbs.
For the next few days Albine and Serge experienced a feeling of embarrassment. They avoided all allusion to their walk beneath the trees. They had not again kissed each other, or repeated their confession of love. It was not any feeling of shame which had sealed their lips, but rather a fear of in any way spoiling their happiness. When they were apart, they lived upon the dear recollection of love's awakening, plunged into it, passed once more through the happy hours which they had spent, with their arms around each other's waist, and their faces close together. It all ended by throwing them both into a feverish state. They looked at each other with heavy eyes, and talked, in a melancholy mood, of things that did not interest them in the least. Then, after a long interval of silence, Serge would say to Albine in a tone full of anxiety: 'You are ill?'
But she shook her head as she answered, 'No, no. It is you who are not well; your hands are burning.'
The thought of the park filled them with vague uneasiness which they could not understand. They felt that danger lurked for them in some by-path, and would seize them and do them hurt. They never spoke about these disquieting thoughts, but certain timid glances revealed to them the mutual anguish which held them apart as though they were foes. One morning, however, Albine ventured, after much hesitation, to say to Serge: 'It is wrong of you to keep always indoors. You will fall ill again.'
Serge laughed in rather an embarrassed way. 'Bah!' he muttered, 'we have been everywhere, we know all the garden by heart.'
But Albine shook her head, and in a whisper replied, 'No, no, we don't know the rocks, we have never been to the springs. It was there that I warmed myself last winter. There are some nooks where the stones seem to be actually alive.'
The next morning, without having said another word on the subject, they set out together. They climbed up to the left behind the grotto where the marble woman lay slumbering; and as they set foot on the lowest stones, Serge remarked: 'We must see everything. Perhaps we shall feel quieter afterwards.'
The day was very hot, there was thunder in the air. They had not ventured to clasp each other's waist; but stepped along, one behind the other, glowing beneath the sunlight. Albine took advantage of a widening of the path to let Serge go on in front; for the warmth of his breath upon her neck troubled her. All around them the rocks arose in broad tiers, storeys of huge flags, bristling with coarse vegetation. They first came upon golden gorse, clumps of sage, thyme, lavender, and other balsamic plants, with sour-berried juniper trees and bitter rosemary, whose strong scent made them dizzy. Here and there the path was hemmed in by holly, that grew in quaint forms like cunningly wrought metal work, gratings of blackened bronze, wrought iron, and polished copper, elaborately ornamented, covered with prickly rosaces. And before reaching the springs, they had to pass through a pine-wood. Its shadow seemed to weigh upon their shoulders like lead. The dry needles crackled beneath their feet, throwing up a light resinous dust which burned their lips.
'Your garden doesn't make itself very agreeable just here,' said Serge, turning towards Albine.
They smiled at each other. They were now near the edge of the springs. The sight of the clear waters brought them relief. Yet these springs did not hide beneath a covering of verdure, like those that bubble up on the plains and set thick foliage growing around them that they may slumber idly in the shade. They shot up in the full light of day from a cavity in the rock, without a blade of grass near by to tinge the clear water with green. Steeped in the sunshine they looked silvery. In their depths the sun beat against the sand in a breathing living dust of light. And they darted out of their basin like arms of purest white, they rebounded like nude infants at play, and then suddenly leapt down in a waterfall whose curve suggested a woman's breast.
'Dip your hands in,' cried Albine; 'the water is icy cold at the bottom.'
They were indeed able to refresh their hot hands. They threw water over their faces too, and lingered there amidst the spray which rose up from the streaming springs.
'Look,' cried Albine; 'look, there is the garden, and there are the meadows and the forest.'
For a moment they looked at the Paradou spread out beneath their feet.
'And you see,' she added, 'there isn't the least sign of any wall. The whole country belongs to us, right up to the sky.'
By this time, almost unawares, they had slipped their arms round each other's waist. The coolness of the springs had soothed their feverish disquietude. But just as they were going away, Albine seemed to recall something and led Serge back again, saying:
'Down there, below the rocks, a long time ago, I once saw the wall.'
'But there is nothing to be seen,' replied Serge, turning a little pale.
'Yes, yes; it must be behind that avenue of chestnut trees on the other side of those bushes.'
Then, on feeling Serge's arm tremble, she added: 'But perhaps I am mistaken.... Yet I seem to remember that I suddenly came upon it as I left the avenue. It stopped my way, and was so high that I felt a little afraid. And a few steps farther on, I came upon another surprise. There was a huge hole in it, through which I could see the whole country outside.'
Serge looked at her with entreaty in his eyes. She gave a little shrug of her shoulders to reassure him, and went on: 'But I stopped the hole up; I have told you that we are quite alone, and we are. I stopped it up at once. I had my knife with me, and I cut down some brambles and rolled up some big stones. I would defy even a sparrow to force its way through. If you like, we will go and look at it one of these days, and then you will be satisfied.'
But he shook his head. Then they went away together, still holding each other by the waist; but they had grown anxious once more. Serge gazed down askance at Albine's face, and she felt perturbed beneath his glance. They would have liked to go down again at once, and thus escape the uneasiness of a longer walk. But, in spite of themselves, as though impelled by some stronger power, they skirted a rocky cliff and reached a table-land, where once more they found the intoxication of the full sunlight. They no longer inhaled the soft languid perfumes of aromatic plants, the musky scent of thyme, and the incense of lavender. Now they were treading a foul-smelling growth under foot; wormwood with bitter, penetrating smell; rue that reeked like putrid flesh; and hot valerian, clammy with aphrodisiacal exudations. Mandragoras, hemlocks, hellebores, dwales, poured forth their odours, and made their heads swim till they reeled and tottered one against the other.
'Shall I hold you up?' Serge asked Albine, as he felt her leaning heavily upon him.
He was already pressing her in his arms, but she struggled out of his grasp, and drew a long breath.
'No; you stifle me,' she said. 'Leave me alone. I don't know what is the matter with me. The ground seems to give way under my feet. It is there I feel the pain.'
She took hold of his hand and laid it upon her breast. Then Serge turned quite pale. He was even more overcome than she. And both had tears in their eyes as they saw each other thus ill and troubled, unable to think of a remedy for the evil which had fallen upon them. Were they going to die here of that mysterious, suffocating faintness?
'Come and sit down in the shade,' said Serge. 'It is these plants which are poisoning us with their noxious odours.'
He led her gently along by her finger-tips, for she shivered and trembled when he but touched her wrist. It was beneath a fine cedar, whose level roof-like branches spread nearly a dozen yards around, that she seated herself. Behind grew various quaint conifers; cypresses, with soft flat foliage that looked like heavy lace; spruce firs, erect and solemn, like ancient druidical pillars, still black with the blood of sacrificed victims; yews, whose dark robes were fringed with silver; evergreen trees of all kinds, with thick-set foliage, dark leathery verdure, splashed here and there with yellow and red. There was a weird-looking araucaria that stood out strangely with large regular arms resembling reptiles grafted one on the other, and bristling with imbricated leaves that suggested the scales of an excited serpent. In this heavy shade, the warm air lulled one to voluptuous drowsiness. The atmosphere slept, breathless; and a perfume of Eastern love, the perfume that came from the painted lips of the Shunamite, was exhaled by the odorous trees.
'Are you not going to sit down?' said Albine.
And she slipped a little aside to make room for him; but Serge stepped back and remained standing. Then, as she renewed her request, he dropped upon his knees, a little distance away, and said, softly: 'No, I am more feverish even than you are; I should make you hot. If I wasn't afraid of hurting you, I would take you in my arms, and clasp you so tightly that we should no longer feel any pain.'
He dragged himself nearer to her on his knees.
'Oh! to have you in my arms! In the night I awake from dreams in which I see you near me; but, alas! you are ever far away. There seems to be some wall built up between us which I can never beat down. And yet I am now quite strong again; I could catch you up in my arms and swing you over my shoulder, and carry you off as though you belonged to me.'
He had let himself sink upon his elbows, in an attitude of deep adoration. And he breathed a kiss upon the hem of Albine's skirt. But at this the girl sprang up, as though it was she herself that had received the kiss. She hid her brow with her hands, perturbed, quivering, and stammering forth: 'Don't! don't! I beg of you. Let us go on.'
She did not hurry away, but let Serge follow her as she walked slowly on, stumbling against the roots of the plants, and with her hands still clasped round her head, as though to check the excitement that thrilled her. When they came out of the little wood, they took a few steps over ledges of rocks, on which a whole nation of ardent fleshy plants was squatting. It was like a crawling, writhing assemblage of hideous nameless monsters such as people a nightmare; monsters akin to spiders, caterpillars, and wood-lice, grown to gigantic proportions, some with bare glaucous skins, others tufted with filthy matted hairs, whilst many had sickly limbs—dwarf legs, and shrivelled, palsied arms—sprawling around them. And some displayed horrid dropsical bellies; some had spines bossy with hideous humps, and others looked like dislocated skeletons. Mamillaria threw up living pustules, a crawling swarm of greenish tortoises, bristling hideously with long hairs that were stiffer than iron. The echinocacti, which showed more flesh, suggested nests of young writhing, knotted vipers. The echinopses were mere excrescent red-haired growths that made one think of huge insects rolled into balls. The prickly-pears spread out fleshy leaves spotted with ruddy spikes that resembled swarms of microscopic bees. The gasterias sprawled about like big shepherd-spiders turned over on their backs, with long-speckled and striated legs. The cacti of the cereus family showed a horrid vegetation, huge polyps, the diseases of an overheated soil, the maladies of poisoned sap. But the aloes, languidly unfolding their hearts, were particularly numerous and conspicuous. Among them one found every possible tint of green, pale green and vivid, yellowish green and greyish, browny green, dashed with a ruddy tone, and deep green, fringed with pale gold. And the shapes of their leaves were as varied as their tints. Some were broad and heart-shaped, others were long and narrow like sword-blades; some bristled with spikey thorns, while yet others looked as though they had been cunningly hemmed at the edges. There were giant ones, in lonely majesty, with flower stalks that towered up aloft like poles wreathed with rosy coral; and there were tiny ones clustering thickly together on one and the same stem, and throwing forth on all sides leaves that gleamed and quivered like adders' tongues.
'Let us go back to the shade,' begged Serge. 'You can sit down there as you did just now, and I will lie at your feet and talk to you.'
Where they stood the sun rays fell like torrential rain. It was as if the triumphant orb seized upon the shadowless ground, and strained it to his blazing breast. Albine grew faint, staggered, and turned to Serge for support.
But the moment they felt each other's touch, they fell together without even a word. It was as though the very rock beneath them had opened, as though they were ever going down and down. Their hands sought each other caressingly, embracingly, but such keen anguish did they experience that they suddenly tore themselves apart, and fled, each in a different direction. Serge did not cease running till he had reached the pavilion, and had thrown himself upon his bed, his brain on fire, and despair in his heart. Albine did not return till nightfall, after hours of weeping in a corner of the garden. It was the first time that they had not returned home together, tired after their long wanderings. For three days they kept apart, feeling terribly unhappy.
Yet now the park was entirely their own. They had taken sovereign possession of it. There was not a corner of it that was not theirs to use as they willed. For them alone the thickets of roses put forth their blossoms, and the parterre exhaled its soft perfume, which lulled them to sleep as they lay at night with their windows open. The orchard provided them with food, filling Albine's skirts with fruits, and spread over them the shade of its perfumed boughs, under which it was so pleasant to breakfast in the early morning. Away in the meadows the grass and the streams were all theirs; the grass, which extended their kingdom to such boundless distance, spreading an endless silky carpet before them; and the streams, which were the best of their joys, emblematic of their own purity and innocence, ever offering them coolness and freshness in which they delighted to bathe their youth. The forest, too, was entirely theirs, from the mighty oaks, which ten men could not have spanned, to the slim birches which a child might have snapped; the forest, with all its trees, all its shade, all its avenues and clearings, its cavities of greenery, of which the very birds themselves were ignorant; the forest which they used as they listed, as if it were a giant canopy, beneath which they might shelter from the noontide heat their new-born love. They reigned everywhere, even among the rocks and the springs, even over that gruesome stretch of ground that teemed with such hideous growth, and which had seemed to sink and give way beneath their feet, but which they loved yet even more than the soft grassy couches of the garden, for the strange thrill of passion they had felt there.
Thus, now, in front of them, behind them, to the right of them and to the left, all was theirs. They had gained possession of the whole domain, and they walked through a friendly expanse which knew them, and smiled kindly greetings to them as they passed, devoting itself to their pleasure, like a faithful and submissive servitor. The sky, with its vast canopy of blue overhead, was also theirs to enjoy. The park walls could not enclose it, their eyes could ever revel in its beauty, and it entered into the joy of their life, at daytime with its triumphal sun, at night with its golden rain of stars. At every moment of the day it delighted them afresh, its expression ever varying. In the early morning it was pale as a maiden just risen from her slumber; at noon, it was flushed, radiant as with a longing for fruitfulness, and in the evening it became languid and breathless, as after keen enjoyment. Its countenance was constantly changing. Particularly in the evenings, at the hour of parting, did it delight them. The sun, hastening towards the horizon, ever found a fresh smile. Sometimes he disappeared in the midst of serene calmness, unflecked by a single cloud, sinking gradually beneath a golden sea. At other times he threw out crimson glories, tore his vaporous robe to shreds, and set amidst wavy flames that streaked the skies like the tails of gigantic comets, whose radiant heads lit up the crests of the forest trees. Then, again, extinguishing his rays one by one, he would softly sink to rest on shores of ruddy sand, far-reaching banks of blushing coral; and then, some other night, he would glide away demurely behind a heavy cloud that figured the grey hangings of some alcove, through which the eye could only detect a spark like that of a night-light. Or else he would rush to his couch in a tumult of passion, rolled round with white forms which gradually crimsoned beneath his fiery embraces, and finally disappeared with him below the horizon in a confused chaos of gleaming, struggling limbs.
It was only the plants which had not made their submission. Albine and Serge passed like monarchs through the kingdom of animals, who rendered them humble and loyal obeisance. When they crossed the parterre, flights of butterflies arose to delight their eyes, to fan them with quivering wings, and to follow in their train like living sunbeams or flying blossoms. In the orchard, they were greeted by the birds that banqueted in the fruit-trees. The sparrows, the chaffinches, the golden orioles, the bullfinches, showed them the ripest fruit scarred by their hungry beaks; and while they sat astride the branches and breakfasted, birds twittered and sported round them like children at play, and even purloined the fruit beneath their very feet. Albine found even more amusement in the meadows, where she caught the little green frogs with eyes of gold, that lay squatting amongst the reeds, absorbed in contemplation; while Serge, with a piece of straw, poked the crickets out of their hiding-places, or tickled the grasshoppers to make them sing. He picked up insects of all colours, blue ones, red ones, yellow ones, and set them creeping upon his sleeve, where they gleamed and glittered like buttons of sapphire and ruby and topaz.
Then there was all the mysterious life of the streams; the grey-backed fishes that threaded the dim waters, the eels whose presence was betrayed by a slight quivering of the water-plants, the young fry, which dispersed like blackish sand at the slightest sound, the long-legged flies and the water-beetles that ruffled into circling silvery ripples the stagnant surface of the pools; all that silent teeming life which drew them to the water and impelled them to dabble and stand in it, so that they might feel those millions of existences ever and ever gliding past their limbs. At other times, when the day was hot and languid, they would betake themselves beneath the voiceful shade of the forest and listen to the serenades of their musicians, the clear fluting of the nightingales, the silvery bugle-notes of the tomtits, and the far-off accompaniment of the cuckoos. They gazed with delight upon the swift flight of the pheasants, whose plumes gleamed like sudden sun rays amidst the branches, and with a smile they stayed their steps to let a troop of young roebucks bound past, or else a couple of grave stags that slackened their pace to look at them. Again, on other days they would climb up amongst the rocks, when the sun was blazing in the heavens, and find a pleasure in watching the swarms of grasshoppers which at the sound of their footsteps arose with a great crepitation of wings from the beds of thyme. The snakes that lay uncoiled beneath the parched bushes, or the lizards that sprawled over the red-hot stones, watched them with friendly eyes.
Of all the life that thus teemed round them in the park, Albine and Serge had only become really conscious since the day when a kiss had awakened them to life themselves. Now it deafened them at times, and spoke to them in a language which they did not understand. It was that life—all the voices of the animal creation, all the perfumes and soft shadows of the flowers and trees—which perturbed them to such a point as to make them angry with one another. And yet throughout the whole park they found nothing but loving familiarity. Every plant and every creature was their friend. All the Paradou was one great caress.
Before they had come thither, the sun had for a whole century reigned over it in lonely majesty. The garden, then, had known no other master; it had beheld him, every morning, scaling the boundary wall with his slanting rays, at noontide it had seen him pour his vertical heat upon the panting soil; and at evening it had seen him go off, on the other side, with a kiss of farewell upon its foliage. And so the garden had no shyness; it welcomed Albine and Serge, as it had so long welcomed the sun, as pleasant companions, with whom one puts on no ceremony. The animals, the trees, the streams, the rocks, all continued in an unrestrained state of nature, speaking aloud, living openly, without a secret, displaying the innocent shamelessness, the hearty tenderness of the world's first days. Serge and Albine, however, suffered from these voluptuous surroundings, and at times felt minded to curse the garden. On the afternoon when Albine had wept so bitterly after their saunter amongst the rocks, she had called out to the Paradou, whose intensity of life and passion filled her with distress:
'If you really be our friend, why, why do you make us so wretched?'
The next morning Serge barricaded himself in his room. The perfume from the garden irritated him. He drew the calico curtains closely across the window to shut out the sight of the park. Perhaps he thought he might recover all his old serenity and calm if he shut himself off from that greenery, whose shade sent such passionate thrills quivering through him.
During the long hours they spent together, Albine and he never now spoke of the rocks or the streams, the trees or the sky. The Paradou might no longer have been in existence. They strove to forget it. And yet they were all the time conscious of its presence on the other side of those slight curtains. Scented breezes forced their way in through the interstices of the window frame, the many voices of nature made the panes resound. All the life of the park laughed, chattered, and whispered in ambush beneath their window. As it reached them their cheeks would pale and they would raise their voices, seeking some occupation which might prevent them from hearing it.
'Have you noticed,' said Serge one morning during these uneasy intervals, 'there is a painting of a woman over the door there? She is like you.'
He laughed noisily as he finished speaking. They both turned to the paintings and dragged the table once more alongside the wall, with a nervous desire to occupy themselves.
'Oh! no,' murmured Albine. 'She is much fatter than I am. But one can't see her very well; her position is so queer.'
They relapsed into silence. From the decayed, faded painting a scene, which they had never before noticed, now showed forth. It was as if the picture had taken shape and substance again beneath the influence of the summer heat. You could sea a nymph with arms thrown back and pliant figure on a bed of flowers which had been strewn for her by young cupids, who, sickle in hand, ever added fresh blossoms to her rosy couch. And nearer, you could also see a cloven-hoofed faun who had surprised her thus. But Albine repeated, 'No, she is not like me, she is very plain.'
Serge said nothing. He looked at the girl and then at Albine, as though he were comparing them one with the other. Albine pulled up one of her sleeves, as if to show that her arm was whiter than that of the pictured girl. Then they subsided into silence again, and gazed at the painting; and for a moment Albine's large blue eyes turned to Serge's grey ones, which were glowing.
'You have got all the room painted again, then?' she cried, as she sprang from the table. 'These people look as though they were all coming to life again.'
They began to laugh, but there was a nervous ring about their merriment as they glanced at the nude and frisking cupids which started to life again on all the panels. They no longer took those survivals of voluptuous eighteenth century art to represent mere children at play. They were disturbed by the sight of them, and as Albine felt Serge's hot breath on her neck she started and left his side to seat herself on the sofa. 'They frighten me,' she murmured. 'The men are like robbers, and the women, with their dying eyes, look like people who are being murdered.'
Serge sat down in a chair, a little distance away, and began to talk of other matters. But they remained uneasy. They seemed to think that all those painted figures were gazing at them. It was as if the trooping cupids were springing out of the panelling, casting the flowers they held around them, and threatening to bind them together with the blue ribbons which already enchained two lovers in one corner of the ceiling. And the whole story of the nymph and her faun lover, from his first peep at her to his triumph among the flowers, seemed to burst into warm life. Were all those lovers, all those impudent shameless cupids about to step down from their panels and crowd around them? They already seemed to hear their panting sighs, and to feel their breath filling the spacious room with the perfume of voluptuousness.
'It's quite suffocating, isn't it?' sighed Albine. 'In spite of every airing I have given it, the room has always seemed close to me!
'The other night,' said Serge, 'I was awakened by such a penetrating perfume, that I called out to you, thinking you had come into the room. It was just like the soft warmth of your hair when you have decked it with heliotropes.... In the earlier times it seemed to be wafted to me from a distance, it was like the lingering memory of a perfume; but now I can't sleep for it, and it is so strong and penetrating that it quite stupefies me. The alcove grows so hot, too, at night that I shall be obliged to lie on the couch.'
Albine laid her fingers on her lips, and whispered, 'It is the dead girl—she who once lived here.'
They sniffed the odorous air with forced gaiety, but in reality feeling very troubled. Certainly never before had the room exhaled such a disquieting aroma. The very walls seemed to be still echoing the faint rustling of perfumed skirts; and the floor had retained the fragrance of satin slippers dropped by the bedside, and near the head of the bed itself Serge thought he could trace the imprint of a little hand, which had left behind it a clinging scent of violets. Over all the furniture the phantom presence of the dead girl still lingered fragrantly.
'See, this is the armchair where she used to sit,' cried Albine; 'there is the scent of her shoulders at the back of it yet.'
She sat down in it herself, and bade Serge drop upon his knees and kiss her hand.
'You remember the day when I first let you in and said, "Good morrow, my dear lord!" But that wasn't all, was it? He kissed her hands when the door was closed. There they are, my hands. They are yours.'
Then they tried to resume their old frolics in order that they might forget the Paradou, whose joyous murmur they heard ever rising outside, and that they might no longer think of the pictures nor yield to the languor-breathing influence of the room. Albine put on an affected manner, leant back in her chair, and finally laughed at the foolish figure which Serge made at her feet.
'You stupid!' she said, 'take me round the waist, and say pretty things to me, since you are supposed to be in love with me. Don't you know how to make love then?'
But as soon as she felt him clasp her with eager impetuosity, she began to struggle, and freed herself from his embrace.
'No, no; leave me alone. I can't bear it. I feel as though I were choking in this room.'
From that day forward they felt the same kind of fear for the room as they already felt for the garden. Their one remaining harbour of refuge was now a place to be shunned and dreaded, a spot where they could no longer find themselves together without watching each other furtively. Albine now scarcely ventured to enter it, but remained near the threshold, with the door wide open behind her so as to afford her an immediate retreat. Serge lived there in solitude, a prey to sickening restlessness, half-stifling, lying on the couch and vainly trying to close his ears to the sighs of the soughing park and his nostrils to the haunting fragrance of the old furniture. At night he dreamt wild passionate dreams, which left him in the morning nervous and disquieted. He believed that he was falling ill again, that he would never recover plenitude of health. For days and days he remained there in silence, with dark rings round his sleepy eyes, only starting into wakefulness when Albine came to visit him. They would remain face to face, gazing at one another sadly, and uttering but a few soft words, which seemed to choke them. Albine's eyes were even darker than Serge's, and were filled with an imploring gaze.
Then, after a week had gone by, Albine's visit never lasted more than a few minutes. She seemed to shun him. When she came to the room, she appeared thoughtful, remained standing, and hurried off as soon as possible. When he questioned her about this change in her demeanour towards him, and reproached her for no longer being friendly, she turned her head away and avoided replying. He never could get her to tell him how she spent the mornings that she passed alone. She would only shake her head, and talk about being very idle. If he pressed her more closely, she bounded out of the room, just wishing him a hasty good-night as she disappeared through the doorway. He often noticed, however, that she had been crying. He observed, too, in her expression the phases of a hope that was never fulfilled, the perpetual struggling of a desire eager to be satisfied. Sometimes she seemed quite overwhelmed with melancholy, dragging herself about with an air of utter discouragement, like one who no longer had any pleasure in living. At other times she laughed lightly, her face shone with an expression of triumphant hope, of which, however, she would not yet speak, and her feet could not remain still, so eager was she to dart away to what seemed to her some last certainty. But on the following day, she would sink again into desperation, to soar afresh on the morrow on the pinions of renewed hope. One thing which she could not conceal from Serge was that she suffered from extreme lassitude. Even during the few moments they spent together she could not prevent her head from nodding, or keep herself from dozing off.
Serge, recognising that she was unwilling to reply, had ceased to question her; and, when she now entered his room, he contented himself with casting an anxious glance at her, fearful lest some evening she should no longer have strength enough to come to him. Where could she thus reduce herself to such exhaustion? What perpetual struggle was it that brought about those alternations of joy and despair? One morning he started at the sound of a light footfall beneath his window. It could not be a roe venturing abroad in that manner. Moreover he could recognise that light footfall. Albine was wandering about the Paradou without him. It was from the Paradou that she returned to him with all those hopes and fears and inward wrestlings, all that lassitude which was killing her. And he could well guess what she was seeking out there, alone in the woody depths, with all the silent obstinacy of a woman who has vowed to effect her purpose. After that he used to listen for her steps. He dared not draw aside the curtain and watch her as she hurried along through the trees; but he experienced strange, almost painful emotion, in listening to ascertain what direction she took, whether she turned to right or to left, whether she went straight on through the flower-beds, and how far her ramble extended. Amidst all the noisy life of the Paradou, amidst the soughing chorus of the trees, the rustling of the streams, and the ceaseless songs of the birds, he could distinguish the gentle pit-pat of her shoes so plainly that he could have told whether she was stepping over the gravel near the rivers, the crumbling mould of the forest, or the bare ledges of the rocks. In time he even learned to tell, from the sound of her nervous footfall, whether she came back hopeful or depressed. As soon as he heard her step on the staircase, he hurried from the window, and he never let her know that he had thus followed her from afar in her wanderings. But she must have guessed it, for with a glance she always afterwards told him where she had been.
'Stay indoors, and don't go out,' he begged her, with clasped hands, one morning when he saw her still unrecovered from the fatigue of the previous day. 'You drive me to despair.'
But she hastened away in irritation. The garden, now that it rang with Albine's footfalls, seemed to have a more depressing influence than ever upon Serge. The pit-pat of her feet was yet another voice that called him; an imperious voice that echoed ever more and more loudly within him. He closed his ears and tried to shut out the sound, but the distant footsteps still echoed to him in the throbbings of his heart. And when she came back, in the evening, it was the whole park that came back with her, with the memories of their walks together, and of the slow dawn of their love, in the midst of conniving nature. She seemed to have grown taller and graver, mellowed, matured by her solitary rambles. There was nothing left in her of the frolicsome child, and his teeth would suddenly set at times when he looked at her and beheld her so desirable.
One day, about noon, Serge heard Albine returning in hot haste. He had restrained himself from listening for her steps when she went away. Usually, she did not return till late, and he was amazed at her impetuosity as she sped along, forcing her way through the branches that barred her path. As she passed beneath his window, he heard her laugh; and as she mounted the stairway, she panted so heavily that he almost thought he could feel her hot breath streaming against his face. She threw the door wide open, and cried out: 'I have found it!'
Then she sat down and repeated softly, breathlessly: 'I have found it! I have found it!'
Serge, distracted, laid his fingers on her lips, and stammered: 'Don't tell me anything, I beg you. I want to know nothing of it. It will kill me, if you speak.'
Then she sank into silence with gleaming eyes and lips tightly pressed lest the words she kept back should spring out in spite of her. And she stayed in the room till evening, trying to meet Serge's glance, and imparting to him, each time that their eyes met, something of that which she had discovered. Her whole face beamed with radiance, she exhaled a delicious odour, she was full of life; and Serge felt that she permeated him through all his senses. Despairingly did he struggle against this gradual invasion of his being.
On the morrow she returned to his room as soon as she was up.
'Aren't you going out?' he asked, conscious that he would be vanquished should she remain there.
'No,' she said; she wasn't going out any more. As by degrees she recovered from her fatigue he felt her becoming stronger, more triumphant. She would soon be able to take him by the hand and drag him to that spot, whose charm her silence proclaimed so loudly. That day, however, she did not speak; she contented herself with keeping him seated on a cushion at her feet. It was not till the next morning that she ventured to say: 'Why do you shut yourself up here? It is so pleasant under the trees.'
He rose from her feet, and stretched out his arms entreatingly. But she laughed at him.
'Well, well, then, we won't go out, since you would rather not.... But this room has such a strange scent, and we should be much more comfortable in the garden. It is very wrong of you to have taken such a dislike to it.'
He had again settled himself at her feet in silence, his eyelids lowered, his features quivering with passionate emotion.
'We won't go out,' she repeated, 'so don't worry. But do you really prefer these pictures to the grass and flowers in the park? Do you remember all we saw together? It is these paintings which make us feel so unhappy. They are a nuisance, always looking and watching us as they do.'
As Serge gradually leant more closely against her, she passed her arm round his neck and laid his head upon her lap, while murmuring in yet a lower tone: 'There is a little corner there I know, where we might be so very happy. Nothing would trouble us there; the fresh air would cool your feverishness.'
Then she stopped, as she felt him quivering. She was afraid lest she might again revive his old fears. But she gradually conquered him merely by the caressing gaze of her blue eyes. His eyelids were now raised, and he rested there quietly, wholly hers, his tremor past.
'Ah! if you only knew!' she softly breathed; and seeing that he continued to smile, she went on boldly: 'It is all a lie; it is not forbidden. You are a man now and ought not to be afraid. If we went there, and any danger threatened me, you would protect me, you would defend me, would you not? You could carry me off on your back, couldn't you? I am never the least afraid when I have you with me. Look how strong your arms have grown. What is there for any one with such strong arms as yours to be afraid of?'
She caressed him beguilingly as she spoke, stroking his hair and neck and shoulders with her hand.
'No, it is not forbidden,' she resumed. 'That is only a story for stupids, and was invented, long ago, by some one who didn't want to be disturbed in the most charming spot in the whole garden. As soon as you sat down on that grassy carpet, you would be happy and well again. Listen, then, come with me.'
He shook his head but without any sign of vexation, as though indeed he liked thus being teased. Then after a short silence, grieved to see her pouting, and longing for a renewal of her caresses, he opened his lips and asked: 'Where is it?'
She did not answer him immediately. Her eyes seemed to be wandering far away: 'It is over yonder,' she murmured at last. 'I cannot explain to you clearly. One has to go down the long avenue, and then to turn to the left, and then again to the left. We must have passed it at least a score of times. You might look for it for ever without finding it, if I didn't go with you to show you. I could find my way to it quite straight, though I could never explain it to you.'
'And who took you there?'
'I don't know. That morning the trees and plants seemed to drive me there. The long branches pushed me on, the grass bent down before me invitingly, the paths seemed to open expressly for me to take them. And I believe the animals themselves helped to lead me there, for I saw a stag trotting on before me as though he wanted me to follow; while a company of bullfinches flitted on from tree to tree, and warned me with their cries whenever I was about to take a wrong direction.'
'And is it very beautiful?'
Again she did not reply. Deep ecstasy filled her eyes; at last, when she was able to speak again, she said: 'Ah! so beautiful, that I could never tell you of it. I was so charmed that I was conscious only of some supreme joy, which I could not name, falling from the leaves and slumbering amid the grass. And I ran back here to take you along with me that I might not be without you.'
Then she clasped her arms round his neck again, and entreated him passionately, her lips almost pressed to his own.
'Oh! you will come!' she stammered; 'you must come; you will make me so miserable if you don't. You can't want me to be miserable.... And even if you knew that you would die there, even if that shade should be fatal to both of us, would you hesitate or cast a regretful look behind? We should remain there, at the foot of the tree, and sleep on quietly for ever, in one anther's arms. Ah! would it not be bliss indeed?'
'Yes, yes!' he stammered, transported by her passionate entreaties.
'But we shall not die,' she continued, raising her voice, and laughing with the laugh which proclaims woman's victory; 'we shall live to love each other. It is a tree of life, a tree whose shadow will make us stronger, more perfect, more complete. You will see that all will now go happily. Some blessed joy will assuredly descend on us from heaven! Will you come?'
His face paled, and his eyelids quivered, as though too powerful a light were suddenly beating against them.
'Will you come? will you come?' she cried again, yet more passionately, and already half rising to her feet.
He sprang up and followed her, at first with tottering steps and then with his arm thrown round her waist, as if he could endure no separation from her. He went where she went, carried along in the warm fragrance that streamed from her hair. And as he thus remained slightly in the rear, she turned upon him a face so radiant with love, such tempting lips and eyes, which so imperiously bade him follow, that he would have gone with her anywhere, trusting and unquestioning, like a dog.
They went down and out into the garden without the smile fading from Serge's face. All that he saw of the greenery around him was such as was reflected in the clear depths of Albine's eyes. As they approached, the garden smiled and smiled again, a murmur of content sped from leaf to leaf and from bough to bough to the furthest depths of the avenues. For days and days the garden must have been hoping and expecting to see them thus, clinging to one another, making their peace again with the trees and searching for their lost love on the grassy banks. A solemn warning breath sighed through the branches; the afternoon sky was drowsy with heat; the plants raised their bowing heads to watch them pass.
'Listen,' whispered Albine. 'They drop into silence as we come near them; but over yonder they are expecting us, they are telling each other the way they must lead us.... I told you we should have no trouble about the paths, the trees themselves will direct us with their spreading arms.'
The whole park did, indeed, appear to be impelling them gently onward. In their rear it seemed as if a barrier of brush-wood had bristled up to prevent them from retracing their steps; while, in front of them, the grassy lawns spread out so invitingly, that they glided along the soft slopes, without thought of choosing their way.
'And the birds are coming with us, too,' said Albine. 'It is the tomtits this time. Don't you see them? They are skimming over the hedges, and they stop at each turning to see that we don't lose our way.' Then she added: 'All the living things of the park are with us. Can't you hear them? There is a deep rustling close behind us. It is the birds in the trees, the insects in the grass, the roebucks and the stags in the coppices, and even the little fishes splashing the quiet water with their beating fins. Don't turn round, or you will frighten them. Ah! I am sure we have a rare train behind us.'
They still walked on, unfatigued. Albine spoke only to charm Serge with the music of her voice, while Serge obeyed the slightest pressure of her hand. They knew not what they passed, but they were certain that they were going straight towards their goal. And as they went along, the garden became gradually graver, more discreet; the soughing of the branches died away, the streams hushed their plashing waters, the birds, the beasts, and the insects fell into silence. All around them reigned solemn stillness.
Then Albine and Serge instinctively raised their heads. In front of them they beheld a colossal mass of foliage; and, as they hesitated for a moment, a roe, after gazing at them with its sweet soft eyes, bounded into the thickets.
'It is there,' said Albine.
She led the way, her face again turned towards Serge, whom she drew with her, and they disappeared amid the quivering leaves, and all grew quiet again. They were entering into delicious peace.
In the centre there stood a tree covered with so dense a foliage that one could not recognise its species. It was of giant girth, with a trunk that seemed to breathe like a living breast, and far-reaching boughs that stretched like protecting arms around it. It towered up there beautiful, strong, virile, and fruitful. It was the king of the garden, the father of the forest, the pride of the plants, the beloved of the sun, whose earliest and latest beams smiled daily on its crest. From its green vault poured all the joys of creation: fragrance of flowers, music of birds, gleams of golden light, wakeful freshness of dawn, slumbrous warmth of evening twilight. So strong was the sap that it burst through the very bark, bathing the tree with the powers of fruitfulness, making it the symbol of earth's virility. Its presence sufficed to give the clearing an enchanting charm. The other trees built up around it an impenetrable wall, which isolated it as in a sanctuary of silence and twilight. There was but greenery there, not a scrap of sky, not a glimpse of horizon; nothing but a swelling rotunda, draped with green silkiness of leaves, adorned below with mossy velvet. And one entered, as into the liquid crystal of a source, a greenish limpidity, a sheet of silver reposing beneath reflected reeds. Colours, perfumes, sounds, quivers, all were vague, indeterminate, transparent, steeped in a felicity amidst which everything seemed to faint away. Languorous warmth, the glimmer of a summer's night, as it fades on the bare shoulder of some fair girl, a scarce perceptible murmur of love sinking into silence, lingered beneath the motionless branches, unstirred by the slightest zephyr. It was hymeneal solitude, a chamber where Nature lay hidden in the embraces of the sun.
Albine and Serge stood there in an ecstasy of joy. As soon as the tree had received them beneath its shade, they felt eased of all the anxious disquiet which had so long distressed them. The fears which had made them avoid each other, the fierce wrestling of spirit which had torn and wounded them, without consciousness on their part of what they were really contending against, vanished, and left them in perfect peace. Absolute confidence, supreme serenity, now pervaded them, they yielded unhesitatingly to the joy of being together in that lonely nook, so completely hidden from the outside world. They had surrendered themselves to the garden, they awaited in all calmness the behests of that tree of life. It enveloped them in such ecstasy of love that the whole clearing seemed to disappear from before their eyes, and to leave them wrapped in an atmosphere of perfume.
'The air is like ripe fruit,' murmured Albine.
And Serge whispered in his turn: 'The grass seems so full of life and motion, that I could almost think I was treading on your dress.'
It was a kind of religious feeling which made them lower their voices. No sentiment of curiosity impelled them to raise their heads and scan the tree. The consciousness of its majesty weighed heavily upon them. With a glance Albine asked whether she had overrated the enchantment of the greenery, and Serge answered her with two tears that trickled down his cheeks. The joy that filled them at being there could not be expressed in words.
'Come,' she whispered in his ear, in a voice that was softer than a sigh.
And she glided on in front of him, and seated herself at the very foot of the tree. Then, with a fond smile, she stretched out her hands to him; while he, standing before her, grasped them in his own with a responsive smile. Then she drew him slowly towards her and he sank down by her side.
'Ah! do you remember,' he said, 'that wall which seemed to have grown up between us? Now there is nothing to keep us apart—you are not unhappy now?'
'No, no,' she answered; 'very happy.'
For a moment they relapsed into silence whilst soft emotion stole over them. Then Serge, caressing Albine, exclaimed: 'Your face is mine; your eyes, your mouth, your cheeks are mine. Your arms are mine, from your shoulders to the tips of your nails. You are wholly mine.' And as he spoke he kissed her lips, her eyes, her cheeks. He kissed her arms, with quick short kisses, from her fingers to her shoulders. He poured upon her a rain of kisses hot as a summer shower, deluging her cheeks, her forehead, her lips, and her neck.
'But if you are mine, I am yours,' said he; 'yours for ever; for I now well know that you are my queen, my sovereign, whom I must worship on bended knee. I am here only to obey you, to lie at your feet, to anticipate your wishes, to shelter you with my arms, to drive away whatever might trouble your tranquillity. And you are my life's goal. Since I first awoke in this garden, you have ever been before me; I have grown up that I might be yours. Ever, as my end, my reward, have I gazed upon your grace. You passed in the sunshine with the sheen of your golden hair; you were a promise that I should some day know all the mysteries and necessities of creation, of this earth, of these trees, these waters, these skies, whose last secret is yet unrevealed. I belong to you; I am your slave; I will listen to you and obey you, with my lips upon your feet.'
He said this, bowed to the ground, adoring Woman. And Albine, full of pride, allowed herself to be adored. She yielded her hands, her cheeks, her lips, to Serge's rapturous kisses. She felt herself indeed a queen as she saw him, who was so strong, bending so humbly before her. She had conquered him, and held him there at her mercy. With a single word she could dispose of him. And that which helped her to recognise her omnipotence was that she heard the whole garden rejoicing at her triumph, with gradually swelling paeans of approval.
'Ah! if we could fly off together, if we could but die even, in one another's arms,' faltered Serge, scarce able to articulate. But Albine had strength enough to raise her finger as though to bid him listen.
It was the garden that had planned and willed it all. For weeks and weeks it had been favouring and encouraging their passion, and at last, on that supreme day, it had lured them to that spot, and now it became the Tempter whose every voice spoke of love. From the flower-beds, amid the fragrance of the languid blossoms, was wafted a soft sighing, which told of the weddings of the roses, the love-joys of the violets; and never before had the heliotropes sent forth so voluptuous a perfume. Mingled with the soft air which arose from the orchard were all the exhalations of ripe fruit, the vanilla of apricots, the musk of oranges, all the luscious aroma of fruitfulness. From the meadows came fuller notes, the million sighs of the sun-kissed grass, the multitudinous love-plaints of legions of living things, here and there softened by the refreshing caresses of the rivulets, on whose banks the very willows palpitated with desire. And the forest proclaimed the mighty passion of the oaks. Through the high branches sounded solemn music, organ strains like the nuptial marches of the ashes and the birches, the hornbeams and the planes, while from the bushes and the young coppices arose noisy mirth like that of youthful lovers chasing one another over banks and into hollows amid much crackling and snapping of branches. From afar, too, the faint breeze wafted the sounds of the rocks splitting in their passion beneath the burning heat, while near them the spiky plants loved in a tragic fashion of their own, unrefreshed by the neighbouring springs, which themselves glowed with the love of the passionate sun.
'What do they say?' asked Serge, half swooning, as Albine pressed him to her bosom. The voices of the Paradou were growing yet more distinct. The animals, in their turn, joined in the universal song of nature. The grasshoppers grew faint with the passion of their chants; the butterflies scattered kisses with their beating wings. The amorous sparrows flew to their mates; the rivers rippled over the loves of the fishes; whilst in the depths of the forest the nightingales sent forth pearly, voluptuous notes, and the stags bellowed their love aloud. Reptiles and insects, every species of invisible life, every atom of matter, the earth itself joined in the great chorus. It was the chorus of love and of nature—the chorus of the whole wide world; and in the very sky the clouds were radiant with rapture, as to those two children Love revealed the Eternity of Life.
Albine and Serge smiled at one another.
'I love you, Albine,' said Serge.
'Serge, I love you,' Albine answered.
And never before had those syllables 'I love you' had for them so supreme a meaning. They expressed everything. Joy pervaded those young lovers, who had attained to the fulness of life. They felt that they were now on a footing of equality with the forces of the world; and with their happiness mingled the placid conviction that they had obeyed the universal law. And Serge seemed to have awakened to life, lion-like, to rule the whole far expanse under the free heavens. His feet planted themselves more firmly on the ground, his chest expanded, there was pride and confidence in his gait and demeanour. He took Albine by the hands, she was trembling, and he was obliged to support her.
'Don't be afraid,' he said; 'you are she whom I love.'
It was Albine now who had become the submissive one. She drooped her head upon his shoulder, glancing up at him with anxious scrutiny. Would he never bear her spite for that hour of adoration in which he had called himself her slave? But he smiled, and stroked her hair, while she said to him: 'Let me stay like this, in your arms, for I cannot walk without you. I will make myself so small and light, that you will scarcely know I am there.' Then becoming very serious she added, 'You must always love me; and I will be very obedient and do whatever you wish. I will yield to you in all things if you but love me.'
Serge felt more powerful and virile on seeing her so humble. 'Why are you trembling so?' he asked her; 'I can have no cause to reproach you.'
But she did not answer him, she gazed almost sadly upon the tree and the foliage and the grass around them.
'Foolish child!' he said, laughing; 'are you afraid that I shall be angry with you for your love? We have loved as we were meant to love. Let me kiss you.'
But, dropping her eyelids so that she might not see the tree, she said, in a low whisper, 'Take me away!'
Serge led her thence, pacing slowly and giving one last glance at the spot which love had hallowed. The shadows in the clearing were growing darker, and a gentle quiver coursed through the foliage. When they emerged from the wood and caught sight of the sun, still shining brightly in the horizon, they felt easier. Everything around Serge now seemed to bend down before him and pay homage to his love. The garden was now nothing but an appanage of Albine's beauty, and seemed to have grown larger and fairer amid the love-kisses of its rulers.
But Albine's joy was still tinged with disquietude. She would suddenly pause amid her laughter and listen anxiously.
'What is the matter?' asked Serge.
'Nothing,' she replied, casting furtive glances behind her.
They did not know in what out-of-the-way corner of the park they were. To lose themselves in their capricious wanderings only served to amuse them as a rule; but that day they experienced anxious embarrassment. By degrees they quickened their pace, plunging more and more deeply into a labyrinth of bushes.
'Don't you hear?' asked Albine, nervously, as she suddenly stopped short, almost breathless.
Serge listened, a prey, in his turn, to the anxiety which the girl could no longer conceal.
'All the coppice seems full of voices,' she continued. 'It sounds as though there were people deriding us. Listen! Wasn't that a laugh that sounded from that tree? And over yonder did not the grass murmur something as my dress brushed against it?'
'No, no,' he said, anxious to reassure her, 'the garden loves us; and, if it said anything, it would not be to vex or annoy us. Don't you remember all the sweet words which sounded through the leaves? You are nervous and fancy things.'
But she shook her head and faltered: 'I know very well that the garden is our friend.... So it must be some one who has broken into it. I am certain I hear some one. I am trembling all over. Oh! take me away and hide me somewhere, I beseech you.'
Then they went on again, scanning every tree and bush, and imagining that they could see faces peering at them from behind every trunk. Albine was certain, she said, that there were steps pursuing them in the distance. 'Let us hide ourselves,' she begged.
She had turned quite scarlet. It was new-born modesty, a sense of shame which had laid hold of her like a fever, mantling over the snowy whiteness of her skin, which never previously had known that flush. Serge was alarmed at seeing her thus crimson, her face full of distress, her eyes brimming with tears. He tried to clasp her in his arms again and to soothe her with a caress; but she slipped away from him, and, with a despairing gesture, made sign that they were not alone. And her blushes grew deeper as her eyes fell upon her bare arms. She shuddered when her loose hanging hair stirred against her neck and shoulders. The slightest touch of a waving bough or a passing insect, the softest breath of air, now made her tremble as if some invisible hand were grasping at her.
'Calm yourself,' begged Serge, 'there is no one. You are as crimson as though you had a fever. Let us rest here for a moment. Do; I beg you.'
She had no fever at all, she said, but she wanted to get back as quickly as possible, so that no one might laugh at her. And, ever increasing her pace, she plucked handfuls of leaves and tendrils from the hedges, which she entwined about her. She fastened a branch of mulberry over her hair, twisted bindweed round her arms, and tied it to her wrists, and circled her neck with such long sprays of laurustinus, that her bosom was hidden as by a veil of leaves.
And that shame of hers proved contagious. Serge, who first had jested, asking her if she were going to a ball, glanced at himself, and likewise felt alarmed and ashamed, to a point that he also wound foliage about his person.
Meantime, they could discover no way out of the labyrinth of bushes, but all at once, at the end of the path, they found themselves face to face with an obstacle, a tall, grey, grave mass of stone. It was the wall of the Paradou.
'Come away! come away!' cried Albine.
And she sought to drag him thence; but they had not taken another twenty steps before they again came upon the wall. They then skirted it at a ran, panic-stricken. It stretched along, gloomy and stern, without a break in its surface. But suddenly, at a point where it fringed a meadow, it seemed to fall away. A great breach gaped in it, like a huge window of light opening on to the neighbouring valley. It must have been the very hole that Albine had one day spoken of, which she said she had blocked up with brambles and stones. But the brambles now lay scattered around like severed bits of rope, the stones had been thrown some distance away, and the breach itself seemed to have been enlarged by some furious hand.
'Ah! I felt sure of it,' cried Albine, in accents of supreme despair. 'I begged you to take me away—Serge, I beseech you, don't look through it.'
But Serge, in spite of himself, stood rooted to the ground, on the threshold of the breach through which he gazed. Down below, in the depths of the valley, the setting sun cast a sheet of gold upon the village of Les Artaud, which showed vision-like amidst the twilight in which the neighbouring fields were already steeped. One could plainly distinguish the houses that straggled along the high road; the little yards with their dunghills, and the narrow gardens planted with vegetables. Higher up, the tall cypress in the graveyard reared its dusky silhouette, and the red tiles on the church glowed brazier-like, the dark bell looking down on them like a human face, while the old parsonage at the side threw its doors and windows open to the evening air.
'For pity's sake,' sobbed Albine, 'don't look out, Serge. Remember that you promised you would always love me. Ah! will you ever love me enough, now? Stay, let me cover your eyes with my hands. You know it was my hands that cured you. You won't push me away.'
But he put her from him gently. Then, while she fell down and clung to his legs, he passed his hands across his face, as though he were wiping from his brow and eyes some last lingering traces of sleep. It was yonder, then, that lay the unknown world, the strange land of which he had never dreamed without vague fear. Where had he seen that country? From what dream was he awakening, that he felt such keen anguish swelling up in his breast till it almost choked him? The village was breaking out into life at the close of the day's work. The men were coming home from the fields with weary gait, their jackets thrown over their shoulders; the women, standing by their doors, were beckoning to them to hasten on; while the children, in noisy bands, chased the fowls about and pelted them with stones. In the churchyard a couple of scapegraces, a lad and a girl, were creeping along under the shelter of the wall in order to escape notice. Swarms of sparrows were retiring to roost beneath the eaves of the church; and, on the steps of the parsonage, a blue calico skirt had just appeared, of such spreading dimensions as to quite block the doorway.
'Oh! he is looking out! he is looking out!' sobbed Albine. 'Listen to me. It was only just now that you promised to obey me. I beg of you to turn round and to look upon the garden. Haven't you been very happy in the garden? It was the garden which gave me to you. Think of the happy days it has in store for us, what lasting bliss and enjoyment. Instead of which it will be death that will force its way through that hole, if you don't quickly flee and take me with you. See, all those people yonder will come and thrust themselves between us. We were so quite alone, so secluded, so well guarded by the trees! Oh! the garden is our love! Look on the garden, I beg it of you on my knees!'
But Serge was quivering. He had began to recollect. The past was re-awakening. He could distinctly hear the stir of the village life. Those peasants, those women and children, he knew them. There was the mayor, Bambousse, returning from Les Olivettes, calculating how much the approaching vintage would yield him; there were the Brichets, the husband crawling along, and the wife moaning with misery. There was Rosalie flirting with big Fortune behind a wall. He recognised also the pair in the churchyard, that mischievous Vincent and that bold hussy Catherine, who were catching big grasshoppers amongst the tombstones. Yes, and they had Voriau, the black dog, with them, helping them and ferreting about in the dry grass, and sniffing at every crack in the old stones. Under the eaves of the church the sparrows were twittering and bickering before going to roost. The boldest of them flew down and entered the church through the broken windows, and, as Serge followed them with his eyes, he recollected all the noise they had formerly made below the pulpit and on the step by the altar rails, where crumbs were always put for them. And that was La Teuse yonder, on the parsonage doorstep, looking fatter than ever in her blue calico dress. She was turning her head to smile at Desiree, who was coming up from the yard, laughing noisily. Then they both vanished indoors, and Serge, distracted with all these revived memories, stretched out his arms.
'It is all over now,' faltered Albine, as she sank down amongst the broken brambles. 'You will never love me enough again.'
She wept, while Serge stood rooted by the breach, straining his ears to catch the slightest sound that might be wafted from the village, waiting, as it were, for some voice that might fully awaken him. The bell in the church-tower had begun to sway, and slowly through the quiet evening air the three chimes of the Angelus floated up to the Paradou. It was a soft and silvery summons. The bell now seemed to be alive.
'O God!' cried Serge, falling on his knees, quite overcome by the emotion which the soft notes of the bell had excited in him.
He bent down towards the ground, and he felt the three peals of the Angelus pass over his neck and echo through his heart. The voice of the bell seemed to grow louder. It was raised again sternly, pitilessly, for a few moments which seemed to him to be years. It summoned up before him all his old life, his pious childhood, his happy days at the seminary, and his first Masses in that burning valley of Les Artaud, where he had dreamt of a solitary, saintly life. He had always heard it speaking to him as it was doing now. He recognised every inflection of that sacred voice, which had so constantly fallen upon his ears, like the grave and gentle voice of a mother. Why had he so long ceased to hear it? In former times it had promised him the coming of Mary. Had Mary come then and taken him and carried him off into those happy green fastnesses, which the sound of the bell could not reach? He would never have lapsed into forgetfulness if the bell had not ceased to ring. And as he bent his head still lower towards the earth, the contact of his beard with his hands made him start. He could not recognise his own self with that long silky beard. He twisted it and fumbled about in his hair seeking for the bare circle of the tonsure, but a heavy growth of curls now covered his whole head from his brow to the nape of his neck.
'Ah! you were right,' he said, casting a look of despair at Albine. 'It was forbidden. We have sinned, and we have merited some terrible punishment.... But I, indeed, I tried to reassure you, I did not hear the threats which sounded in your ears through the branches.'
Albine tried to clasp him in her arms again as she sobbed out, 'Get up, and let us escape together. Perhaps even yet there is time for us to love each other.'
'No, no; I haven't the strength. I should stumble and fall over the smallest pebble in the path. Listen to me. I am afraid of myself. I know not what man dwells in me. I have murdered myself, and my hands are red with blood. If you took me away, you would never see aught in my eyes save tears.'
She kissed his wet eyes, as she answered passionately, 'No matter! Do you love me?'
He was too terrified to answer her. A heavy step set the pebbles rolling on the other side of the wall. A growl of anger seemed to draw nigh. Albine had not been mistaken. Some one was, indeed, there, disturbing the woodland quiet with jealous inquisition. Then both Albine and Serge, as if overwhelmed with shame, sought to bide themselves behind a bush. But Brother Archangias, standing in front of the breach, could already see them.
The Brother remained for a moment silent, clenching his fists and looking at Albine clinging round Serge's neck, with the disgust of a man who has espied some filth by the roadside.
'I suspected it,' he mumbled between his teeth. 'It was virtually certain that they had hidden him here.'
Then he took a few steps, and cried out: 'I see you. It is an abomination. Are you a brute beast to go coursing through the woods with that female? She has led you far astray, has she not? She has besmeared you with filth, and now you are hairy like a goat.... Pluck a branch from the trees wherewith to smite her on the back.'
Again Albine whispered in an ardent, prayerful voice: 'Do you love me? Do you love me?'
But Serge, with bowed head, kept silence, though he did not yet drive her from him.
'Fortunately, I have found you,' continued Brother Archangias. 'I discovered this hole.... You have disobeyed God, and have slain your own peace. Henceforward, for ever, temptation will gnaw you with its fiery tooth, and you will no longer have ignorance of evil to help you to fight it. It was that creature who tempted you to your fall, was it not? Do you not see the serpent's tail writhing amongst her hair? The mere sight of her shoulders is sufficient to make one vomit with disgust.... Leave her. Touch her not, for she is the beginning of hell. In the name of God, come forth from that garden.'
'Do you love me? Oh! do you love me?' reiterated Albine.
But Serge hastily drew away from her as though her bare arms and shoulders really scorched him.
'In the name of God! In the name of God!' cried the Brother, in a voice of thunder.
Serge unresistingly stepped towards the breach. As soon as Brother Archangias, with rough violence, had dragged him out of the Paradou, Albine, who had fallen half fainting to the ground, with hands wildly stretched towards the love which was deserting her, rose up again, choking with sobs. And she fled, vanished into the midst of the trees, whose trunks she lashed with her streaming hair.