He loved these things, however, and had loved them until now in an almost exclusive way; but to-day he was distracted by one of those slight but persistent preoccupations, one of those petty anxieties which are so small we ought not to allow ourselves to be troubled by them, but which, in spite of all we do or say, prick through our thoughts like an invisible thorn buried in the flesh.
He had even forgotten his anxiety over his little peasant bathers in the remembrance of the displeasing idea of the Marquis approaching Annette. What did it matter to him, after all? Had he any right? Why should he wish to prevent this precious marriage, already arranged, and suitable from every point of view? But no reasoning could efface that impression of uneasiness and discontent which had seized him when he had beheld Farandal talking and smiling like an accepted suitor, caressing with his glances the fair face of the young girl.
When he entered the Countess's drawing-room that evening, and found her alone with her daughter, continuing by the lamplight their knitting for the poor, he had great difficulty in preventing himself from saying sneering things about the Marquis, and from revealing to Annette his real banality, veiled by a mask of elegance and good form.
For a long time, during these after-dinner evening visits, he had often allowed himself to lapse into occasional silence that was slightly somnolent, and was accustomed to fall into the easy attitudes of an old friend who does not stand on ceremony. But now he seemed suddenly to rouse himself and to show the alertness of men who do their best to be agreeable, who take thought as to what they wish to say, and who, before certain persons, seek for the best phrases in which to express their ideas and render them attractive. No longer did he allow the conversation to lag, but did his best to keep it bright and interesting; and when he had made the Countess and her daughter laugh gaily, when he felt that he had touched their emotions, or when they ceased to work in order to listen to him, he felt a thrill of pleasure, an assurance of success, which rewarded him for his efforts.
He came now every time that he knew they were alone, and never, perhaps, had he passed such delightful evenings.
Madame de Guilleroy, whose continual fears were soothed by this assiduity, made fresh efforts to attract him and to keep him near her. She refused invitations to dinners in the city, she did not go to balls, nor to the theaters, in order to have the joy of throwing into the telegraph-box, on going out at three o'clock, a little blue despatch which said: "Come to-night." At first, wishing to give him earlier the tete-a-tete that he desired, she had sent her daughter to bed as soon as it was ten o'clock. Then after one occasion when he had appeared surprised at this and had begged laughingly that Annette should not be treated any longer like a naughty little girl, she had allowed her daughter a quarter of an hour's grace, then half an hour, and finally a whole hour. Bertin never remained long after the young girl had retired; it was as if half the charm that held him there had departed with her. He would soon take the little low seat that he preferred beside the Countess and lay his cheek against her knee with a caressing movement. She would give him one of her hands, which he clasped in his, and the fever of his spirit would suddenly be abated; he ceased to talk, and appeared to find repose in tender silence from the effort he had made.
Little by little the Countess, with the keenness of feminine instinct, comprehended that Annette attracted him almost as much as she herself. This did not anger her; she was glad that between them he could find something of that domestic happiness which he lacked; and she imprisoned him between them, as it were, playing the part of tender mother in such a way that he might almost believe himself the young girl's father; and a new bond of tenderness was added to that which had always held him to this household.
Her personal vanity, always alert, but disturbed since she had felt in several ways, like almost invisible pin-pricks, the innumerable attacks of advancing age, took on a new allurement. In order to become as slender as Annette, she continued to drink nothing, and the real slimness of her figure gave her the appearance of a young girl. When her back was turned one could hardly distinguish her from Annette; but her face showed the effect of this regime. The plump flesh began to be wrinkled and took on a yellowish tint which rendered more dazzling by contrast the superb freshness of the young girl's complexion. Then the Countess began to make up her face with theatrical art, and, though in broad daylight she produced an effect that was slightly artificial, in the evening her complexion had that charmingly soft tint obtained by women who know how to make up well.
The realization of her fading beauty, and the employment of artificial aid to restore it, somewhat changed her habits. As much as possible, she avoided comparison with her daughter in the full light of day, but rather sought it by lamplight, which, if anything, showed herself to greater advantage. When she was fatigued, pale, and felt that she looked older than usual, she had convenient headaches by reason of which she excused herself from going to balls and theaters; but on days when she knew she looked well she triumphed again and played the elder sister with the grave modesty of a little mother. In order always to wear gowns like those of her daughter, she made Annette wear toilettes suitable for a fully-grown young woman, a trifle too old for her; and Annette who showed more and more plainly her joyous and laughing disposition, wore them with sparkling vivacity that rendered her still more attractive. She lent herself with all her heart to the coquettish arts of her mother, acting with her, as if by instinct, graceful little domestic scenes; she knew when to embrace her at the effective moment, how to clasp her tenderly round the waist, and to show by a movement, a caress, or some ingenious pose, how pretty both were and how much they resembled each other.
From seeing the two so much together, and from continually comparing them, Olivier Bertin sometimes actually confused them in his own mind. Sometimes, when Annette spoke, and he happened to be looking elsewhere, he was compelled to ask: "Which of you said that?" He often amused himself by playing this game of confusion when all three were alone in the drawing-room with the Louis XV tapestries. He would close his eyes and beg them to ask him the same question, the one after the other, and then change the order of the interrogations, so that he might recognize their voices. They did this with so much cleverness in imitating each other's intonations, in saying the same phrases with the same accents, that often he could not tell which spoke. In fact, they had come to speak so much alike that the servants answered "Yes, Madame" to the daughter and "Yes, Mademoiselle" to the mother.
From imitating each other's voices and movements for amusement, they acquired such a similarity of gait and gesture that Monsieur de Guilleroy himself, when he saw one or the other pass through the shadowy end of the drawing-room, confounded them for an instant and asked: "Is that you, Annette, or is it your mamma?"
From this resemblance, natural and assumed, was engendered in the mind and heart of the painter a strange impression of a double entity, old and young, wise yet ignorant, two bodies made, the one after the other, with the same flesh; in fact, the same woman continued, but rejuvenated, having become once more what she was formerly. Thus he lived near them, shared between them, uneasy, troubled, feeling for the mother his old ardor awakened, and for the daughter an indefinable tenderness.
A WILLING ENVOY
"Paris, July 20, 11 P. M.
"MY FRIEND: My mother has just died at Roncieres. We shall leave here at midnight. Do not come, for we have told no one. But pity me and think of me. YOUR ANY."
"July 21, 12 M.
"MY POOR FRIEND: I should have gone, notwithstanding what you wrote, if I had not become used to regarding all your wishes as commands. I have thought of you with poignant grief ever since last night. I think of that silent journey you made, sitting opposite your daughter and your husband, in that dimly-lighted carriage, which bore you toward your dead. I could see all three of you under the oil lamp, you weeping and Annette sobbing. I saw your arrival at the station, the entrance of the castle in the midst of a group of servants, your rush up the stairs toward that room, toward that bed where she lies, your first look at her, and your kiss on her thin, motionless face. And I thought of your heart, your poor heart—that poor heart, of which half belongs to me and which is breaking, which suffers so much, which stifles you, making me suffer also at this moment.
"With profound pity, I kiss your eyes filled with tears.
"Roncieres, July 24.
"Your letter would have done me good, my friend, if anything could do me good in the horrible situation into which I have fallen. We buried her yesterday, and since her poor lifeless body has gone out of this house it seems to me that I am alone in the world. We love our mothers almost without knowing or feeling it, for such love is as natural as it is to live, and we do not realize how deep-rooted is that love until the moment of final separation. No other affection is comparable to that, for all others come by chance, while this begins at birth; all the others are brought to us later by the accidents of life, while this has lived in our very blood since our first day on earth. And then, and there, we have lost not only a mother but our childhood itself, which half disappears, for our little life of girlhood belonged to her as much as to ourselves. She alone knew it as we knew it; she knew about innumerable things, remote, insignificant and dear, which are and which were the first sweet emotions of our heart. To her alone I could still say: 'Do you remember, mother, the day when—? Do you remember, mother, the china doll that grandmother gave me?' Both of us murmured to each other a long, sweet chapter of trifling childish memories, which no one on earth now knows of but me. So it is a part of myself that is dead—the older, the better. I have lost the poor heart wherein the little girl I was once still lived. Now no one knows her any more; no one remembers the little Anne, her short skirts, her laughter and her faces.
"And a day will come—and perhaps it is not far away—when in my turn I too shall go, leaving my dear Annette alone in the world, as mamma has left me to-day. How sad all this is, how hard, and cruel! Yet one never thinks about it; we never look about us to see death take someone every instant, as it will soon take us. If we should look at it, if we should think of it, if we were not distracted, rejoiced, or blinded by all that passes before us, we could no longer live, for the sight of this endless massacre would drive us mad.
"I am so crushed, so despairing, that I have no longer strength to do anything. Day and night I think of my poor mamma, nailed in that box, buried beneath that earth, in that field, under the rain, whose old face, which I used to kiss with so much happiness, is now only a mass of frightful decay! Oh, what horror!
"When I lost papa, I was just married, and I did not feel all these things as I do to-day. Yes, pity me, think of me, write to me. I need you so much just now.
"Paris, July 25.
"MY POOR FRIEND: Your grief gives me horrible pain, and life no longer seems rosy to me. Since your departure I am lost, abandoned, without ties or refuge. Everything fatigues me, bores me and irritates me. I am ceaselessly thinking of you and Annette; I feel that you are both far, far away when I need you near me so much.
"It is extraordinary how far away from me you seem to be, and how I miss you. Never, even in my younger days, have you been my all, as you are at this moment. I have foreseen for some time that I should reach this crisis, which must be a sun-stroke in Indian summer. What I feel is so very strange that I wish to tell you about it. Just fancy that since your absence I cannot take walks any more! Formerly, and even during the last few months, I liked very much to set out alone and stroll along the street, amusing myself by looking at people and things, and enjoying the mere sight of everything and the exercise of walking. I used to walk along without knowing where I was going, simply to walk, to breathe, to dream. Now, I can no longer do this. As soon as I reach the street I am oppressed by anguish, like the fear of a blind man that has lost his dog. I become uneasy, exactly like a traveler that has lost his way in the wood, and I am compelled to return home. Paris seems empty, frightful, alarming. I ask myself: 'Where am I going?' I answer myself: 'Nowhere, since I am still walking.' Well, I cannot, for I can no longer walk without some aim. The bare thought of walking straight before me wearies and bores me inexpressibly. Then I drag my melancholy to the club.
"And do you know why? Only because you are no longer here. I am certain of this. When I know that you are in Paris, my walks are no longer useless, for it is possible that I may meet you in the first street I turn into. I can go anywhere because you may go anywhere. If I do not see you, I may at least find Annette, who is an emanation of yourself. You and she fill the streets full of hope for me—the hope of recognizing you, whether you approach me from a distance, or whether I divine your identity in following you. And then the city becomes charming to me, and the women whose figures resemble yours stir my heart with all the liveliness of the streets, hold my attention, occupy my eyes, and give me a sort of hunger to see you.
"You will consider me very selfish, my poor friend, to speak to you in this way of the solitude of an old cooing pigeon when you are shedding such bitter tears. Pardon me! I am so used to being spoiled by you that I cry 'Help! Help!' when I have you no longer.
"I kiss your feet so that you may have pity on me.
"Roncieres, July 30.
"MY FRIEND: Thanks for your letter. I need so much to know that you love me! I have just passed some frightful days. Indeed, I believed that grief would kill me in my turn.
"It was like a block of suffering in my breast, growing larger and larger, stifling me, strangling me. The physician that was called to treat me for the nervous crisis I was enduring, which recurred four or five times a day, injected morphine, which made me almost wild, and the great heat we have had aggravated my condition and threw me into a state of over-excitement that was almost delirium. I am a little more calm since the great storm of Friday. I must tell you that since the day of the funeral I could weep no more, but during the storm, the approach of which upset me, I suddenly felt the tears beginning to flow from my eyes, slow, small, burning. Oh, those first tears, how they hurt me! They seemed to tear me, as if they had claws, and my throat was so choked that I could hardly breathe. Then the tears came faster, larger, cooler. They ran from my eyes as from a spring, and came so fast that my handkerchief was saturated and I had to take another. The great block of grief seemed to soften and to flow away through my eyes.
"From that moment I have been weeping from morning till night, and that is saving me. One would really end by going mad or dying, if one could not weep. I am all alone, too. My husband is making some little trips around the country, and I insisted that he should take Annette with him, to distract and console her a little. They go in the carriage or on horseback as far as eight or ten leagues from Roncieres, and she returns to me rosy with youth, in spite of her sadness, her eyes shining with life, animated by the country air and the excursion she has had. How beautiful it is to be at that age! I think that we shall remain here a fortnight or three weeks longer; then, although it will be August, we shall return to Paris for the reason you know.
"I send to you all that remains to me of my heart.
"Paris, August 4th.
"I can bear this no longer, my dear friend; you must come back, for something is certainly going to happen to me. I ask myself whether I am not already ill, so great a dislike have I for everything I used to take pleasure in doing, or did with indifferent resignation. For one thing, it is so warm in Paris that every night means a Turkish bath of eight or nine hours. I get up overcome by the fatigue of this sleep in a hot bath, and for an hour or two I walk about before a white canvas, with the intention to draw something. But mind, eye, and hand are all empty. I am no longer a painter! This futile effort to work is exasperating. I summon my models; I place them, and they give me poses, movements, and expressions that I have painted to satiety. I make them dress again and let them go. Indeed, I can no longer see anything new, and I suffer from this as if I were blind. What is it? Is it fatigue of the eye or of the brain, exhaustion of the artistic faculty or of the optic nerve? Who knows? It seems to me that I have ceased to discover anything in the unexplored corner that I have been permitted to visit. I no longer perceive anything but that which all the world knows; I do the things that all poor painters have done; I have only one subject now, and only the observation of a vulgar pedant. Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, either, the number of new subjects seemed to me unlimited, and in order to express them I had such a variety of means the difficulty of making a choice made me hesitate. But now, alas! Suddenly the world of half-seen subjects has become depopulated, my study has become powerless and useless. The people that pass have no more sense for me. I no longer find in every human being the character and savor which once I liked so much to discern and reveal. I believe, however, that I could make a very pretty portrait of your daughter. Is it because she resembles you so much that I confound you both in my mind? Yes, perhaps.
"Well, then, after forcing myself to sketch a man or a woman who does not resemble any of the familiar models, I decide to go and breakfast somewhere, for I no longer have the courage to sit down alone in my own dining-room. The Boulevard Malesherbes seems like a forest path imprisoned in a dead city. All the houses smell empty. On the street the sprinklers throw showers of white rain, splashing the wooden pavement whence rises the vapor of damp tar and stable refuse; and from one end to the other of the long descent from the Parc Monceau to Saint Augustin, one sees five or six black forms, unimportant passers, tradesmen or domestics. The shade of the plane-trees spreads over the burning sidewalks, making a curious spot, looking almost like liquid, as if water spilled there were drying. The stillness of the leaves on the branches, and of their gray silhouettes on the asphalt, expresses the fatigue of the roasted city, slumbering and perspiring like a workman asleep on a bench in the sun. Yes, she perspires, the beggar, and she smells frightfully through her sewer mouths, the vent-holes of sinks and kitchens, the streams through which the filth of her streets is running. Then I think of those summer mornings in your orchard full of little wild-flowers that flavor the air with a suggestion of honey. Then I enter, sickened already, the restaurant where bald, fat, tired-looking men are eating, with half-opened waistcoats and moist, shining foreheads. The food shows the effect of heat—the melon growing soft under the ice, the soft bread, the flabby filet, the warmed-over vegetables, the purulent cheese, the fruits ripened on the premises. I go out, nauseated, and go home to try to sleep a little until the hour for dinner, which I take at the club.
"There I always find Adelmans, Maldant, Rocdiane, Landa, and many others, who bore and weary me as much as hand-organs. Each one has his own little tune, or tunes, which I have heard for fifteen years, and they play them all together every evening in that club, which is apparently a place where one goes to be entertained. Someone should change my own generation for my benefit, for my eyes, my ears, and my mind have had enough of it. They still make conquests, however, they boast of them and congratulate one another on them!
"After yawning as many times as there are minutes between eight o'clock and midnight, I go home and go to bed, and while I undress I think that the same thing will begin over again the next day.
"Yes, my dear friend, I am at the age when a bachelor's life becomes intolerable, because there is nothing new for me under the sun. An unmarried man should be young, curious, eager. When one is no longer all that, it becomes dangerous to remain free. Heavens! how I loved my liberty, long ago, before I loved you more! How burdensome it is to me to-day! For an old bachelor like me, liberty is an empty thing, empty everywhere; it is the path to death, with nothing in himself to prevent him from seeing the end; it is the ceaseless query: 'What shall I do? Whom can I go to see, so that I shall not be alone?' And I go from one friend to another, from one handshake to the next, begging for a little friendship. I gather up my crumbs, but they do not make a loaf. You, I have You, my friend, but you do not belong to me. Perhaps it is because of you that I suffer this anguish, for it is the desire for contact with you, for your presence, for the same roof over our heads, for the same walls inclosing our lives, the same interests binding our hearts together, the need of that community of hopes, griefs, pleasures, joys, sadness, and also of material things, that fills me with so much yearning. You do belong to me—that is to say, I steal a little of you from time to time. But I long to breathe forever the same air that you breathe, to share everything with you, to possess nothing that does not belong to both of us, to feel that all which makes up my own life belongs to you as much as to me—the glass from which I drink, the chair on which I sit, the bread I eat and the fire that warms me.
"Adieu! Return soon. I suffer too much when you are far away.
"Roncieres, August 8th.
"MY FRIEND: I am ill, and so fatigued that you would not recognize me at all. I believe that I have wept too much. I must rest a little before I return, for I do not wish you to see me as I am. My husband sets out for Paris the day after to-morrow, and will give you news of us. He expects to take you to dinner somewhere, and charges me to ask you to wait for him at your house about seven o'clock.
"As for me, as soon as I feel a little better, as soon as I have no more this corpse-like face which frightens me, I will return to be near you. In all the world, I have only Annette and you, and I wish to offer to each of you all that I can give without robbing the other.
"I hold out my eyes, which have wept so much, so that you may kiss them.
When he received this letter announcing the still delayed return, Olivier was seized with an immoderate desire to take a carriage for the railway station to catch a train for Roncieres; then, thinking that M. de Guilleroy must return the next day, he resigned himself, and even began to wish for the arrival of the husband with almost as much impatience as if it were that of the wife herself.
Never had he liked Guilleroy as during those twenty-four hours of waiting. When he saw him enter, he rushed toward him, with hands extended, exclaiming:
"Ah, dear friend! how happy I am to see you!"
The other also seemed very glad, delighted above all things to return to Paris, for life was not gay in Normandy during the three weeks he had passed there.
The two men sat down on a little two-seated sofa in a corner of the studio, under a canopy of Oriental stuffs, and again shook hands with mutual sympathy.
"And the Countess?" asked Bertin, "how is she?"
"Not very well. She has been very much affected, and is recovering too slowly. I must confess that I am a little anxious about her."
"But why does she not return?"
"I know nothing about it. It was impossible for me to induce her to return here."
"What does she do all day?"
"Oh, heavens! She weeps, and thinks of her mother. That is not good for her. I should like very much to have her decide to have a change of air, to leave the place where that happened, you understand?"
"Oh, she is a blooming flower."
Olivier smiled with joy.
"Was she very much grieved?" he asked again.
"Yes, very much, very much, but you know that the grief of eighteen years does not last long."
After a silence Guilleroy resumed:
"Where shall we dine, my dear fellow? I need to be cheered up, to hear some noise and see some movement."
"Well, at this season, it seems to me that the Cafe des Ambassadeurs is the right place."
So they set out, arm in arm, toward the Champs-Elysees. Guilleroy, filled with the gaiety of Parisians when they return, to whom the city, after every absence, seems rejuvenated and full of possible surprises, questioned the painter about a thousand details of what people had been doing and saying; and Olivier, after indifferent replies which betrayed all the boredom of his solitude, spoke of Roncieres, tried to capture from this man, in order to gather round him that almost tangible something left with us by persons with whom we have recently been associated, that subtle emanation of being one carries away when leaving them, which remains with us a few hours and evaporates amid new surroundings.
The heavy sky of a summer evening hung over the city and over the great avenue where, under the trees, the gay refrains of open-air concerts were beginning to sound. The two men, seated on the balcony of the Cafe des Ambassadeurs, looked down upon the still empty benches and chairs of the inclosure up to the little stage, where the singers, in the mingled light of electric globes and fading day, displayed their striking costumes and their rosy complexions. Odors of frying, of sauces, of hot food, floated in the slight breezes from the chestnut-trees, and when a woman passed, seeing her reserved chair, followed by a man in a black coat, she diffused on her way the fresh perfume of her dress and her person.
Guilleroy, who was radiant, murmured:
"Oh, I like to be here much better than in the country!"
"And I," Bertin replied, "should like it much better to be there than here."
"Heavens, yes! I find Paris tainted this summer."
"Oh, well, my dear fellow, it is always Paris, after all."
The Deputy seemed to be enjoying his day, one of those rare days of effervescence and gaiety in which grave men do foolish things. He looked at two cocottes dining at a neighboring table with three thin young men, superlatively correct, and he slyly questioned Olivier about all the well-known girls, whose names were heard every day. Then he murmured in a tone of deep regret:
"You were lucky to have remained a bachelor. You can do and see many things."
But the painter did not agree with him, and, as a man will do when haunted by a persistent idea, he took Guilleroy into his confidence on the subject of his sadness and isolation. When he had said everything, had recited to the end of his litany of melancholy, and, urged by the longing to relieve his heart, had confessed naively how much he would have enjoyed the love and companionship of a woman installed in his home, the Count, in his turn, admitted that marriage had its advantages. Recovering his parliamentary eloquence in order to sing the praises of his domestic happiness, he eulogized the Countess in the highest terms, to which Olivier listened gravely with frequent nods of approval.
Happy to hear her spoken of, but jealous of that intimate happiness which Guilleroy praised as a matter of duty, the painter finally murmured, with sincere conviction:
"Yes, indeed, you were the lucky one!"
The Deputy, flattered, assented to this; then he resumed:
"I should like very much to see her return; indeed, I am a little anxious about her just now. Wait—since you are bored in Paris, you might go to Roncieres and bring her back. She will listen to you, for you are her best friend; while a husband—you know——"
Delighted, Olivier replied: "I ask nothing better. But do you think it would not annoy her to see me arriving in that abrupt way?"
"No, not at all. Go, by all means, my dear fellow."
"Well, then, I will. I will leave to-morrow by the one o'clock train. Shall I send her a telegram?"
"No, I will attend to that. I will telegraph, so that you will find a carriage at the station."
As they had finished dinner, they strolled again up the Boulevard, but in half an hour the Count suddenly left the painter, under the pretext of an urgent affair that he had quite forgotten.
SPRINGTIME AND AUTUMN
The Countess and her daughter, dressed in black crape, had just seated themselves opposite each other, for breakfast, in the large dining-room at Roncieres. The portraits of many ancestors, crudely painted, one in a cuirass, another in a tight-fitting coat, this a powdered officer of the French Guards, that a colonel of the Restoration, hung in line on the walls, a collection of deceased Guilleroys, in old frames from which the gilding was peeling. Two servants, stepping softly, began to serve the two silent women, and the flies made a little cloud of black specks, dancing and buzzing around the crystal chandelier that hung over the center of the table.
"Open the windows," said the Countess, "It is a little cool here."
The three long windows, reaching from the floor to the ceiling, and large as bay-windows, were opened wide. A breath of soft air, bearing the odor of warm grass and the distant sounds of the country, swept in immediately through these openings, mingling with the slightly damp air of the room, inclosed by the thick walls of the castle.
"Ah, that is good!" said Annette, taking a full breath.
The eyes of the two women had turned toward the outside and now gazed, beneath the blue sky, lightly veiled by the midday haze which was reflected on the meadows impregnated with sunshine, at the long and verdant lawns of the park, with its groups of trees here and there, and its perspective opening to the yellow fields, illuminated as far as the eye could see by the golden gleam of ripe grain.
"We will take a long walk after breakfast," said the Countess. "We might walk as far as Berville, following the river, for it will be too warm on the plain."
"Yes, mamma, and let us take Julio to scare up some partridges."
"You know that your father forbids it."
"Oh, but since papa is in Paris!—it is so amusing to see Julio pointing after them. There he is now, worrying the cows! Oh, how funny he is, the dear fellow!"
Pushing back her chair, she jumped up and ran to the window, calling out: "Go on, Julio! After them!"
Upon the lawn three heavy cows, gorged with grass and overcome with heat, lay on their sides, their bellies protruding from the pressure of the earth. Rushing from one to another, barking and bounding wildly, in a sort of mad abandon, partly real, partly feigned, a hunting spaniel, slender, white and red, whose curly ears flapped at every bound, was trying to rouse the three big beasts, which did not wish to get up. It was evidently the dog's favorite sport, with which he amused himself whenever he saw the cows lying down. Irritated, but not frightened, they gazed at him with their large, moist eyes, turning their heads to watch him.
Annette, from her window, cried:
"Fetch them, Julio, fetch them!"
The excited spaniel, growing bolder, barked louder and ventured as far as their cruppers, feigning to be about to bite them. They began to grow uneasy, and the nervous twitching of their skin, to get rid of the flies, became more frequent and protracted.
Suddenly the dog, carried along by the impetus of a rush that he could not check in time, bounced so close to one cow that, in order not to fall against her, he was obliged to jump over her. Startled by the bound, the heavy animal took fright, and first raising her head she finally raised herself slowly on her four legs, sniffing loudly. Seeing her erect, the other two immediately got up also, and Julio began to prance around them in a dance of triumph, while Annette praised him.
"Bravo, Julio, bravo!"
"Come," said the Countess, "come to breakfast, my child."
But the young girl, shading her eyes with one hand, announced:
"There comes a telegraph messenger!"
Along the invisible path among the wheat and the oats a blue blouse appeared to be gliding along the top of the grain, and it came toward the castle with the firm step of a man.
"Oh, heavens!" murmured the Countess; "I hope he does not bring bad news!"
She was still shaken with that terror which remains with us a long time after the death of some loved one has been announced by a telegram. Now she could not remove the gummed band to open the little blue paper without feeling her fingers tremble and her soul agitated, believing that from those folds which it took so long to open would come a grief that would cause her tears to flow afresh.
Annette, on the contrary, full of girlish curiosity, was delighted to meet with the unknown mystery that comes to all of us at times. Her heart, which life had just saddened for the first time, could anticipate only something joyful from that black and ominous bag hanging from the side of the mail-carrier, who saw so many emotions through the city streets and the country lanes.
The Countess ceased to eat, concentrating her thoughts on the man who was approaching, bearer of a few written words that might wound her as if a knife had been thrust in her throat. The anguish of having known that experience made her breathless, and she tried to guess what this hurried message might be. About what? From whom? The thought of Olivier flashed through her mind. Was he ill? Dead, perhaps, too!
The ten minutes she had to wait seemed interminable to her; then, when she had torn open the despatch and recognized the name of her husband, she read: "I telegraph to tell you that our friend Bertin leaves for Roncieres on the one o'clock train. Send Phaeton station. Love."
"Well, mamma?" said Annette.
"Monsieur Olivier Bertin is coming to see us."
"Ah, how lucky! When?"
"At four o'clock?"
"Oh, how kind he is!"
But the Countess had turned pale, for a new anxiety had lately troubled her, and the sudden arrival of the painter seemed to her as painful a menace as anything she might have been able to foresee.
"You will go to meet him with the carriage," she said to her daughter.
"And will you not come, too, mamma?"
"No, I will wait for you here."
"Why? That will hurt him."
"I do not feel very well."
"You wished to walk as far as Berville just now."
"Yes, but my breakfast has made me feel ill."
"You will feel better between now and the time to go."
"No, I am going up to my room. Let me know as soon as you arrive."
After giving orders that the phaeton should be ready at the proper hour, and that a room be prepared, the Countess returned to her own room, and shut herself in.
Up to this time her life had passed almost without suffering, affected only by Olivier's love and concerned only by her anxiety to retain it. She had succeeded, always victorious in that struggle. Her heart, soothed by success and by flattery, had become the exacting heart of a beautiful worldly woman to whom are due all the good things of earth, and, after consenting to a brilliant marriage, with which affection had nothing to do, after accepting love later as the complement of a happy existence, after taking her part in a guilty intimacy, largely from inclination, a little from a leaning toward sentiment itself as a compensation for the prosaic hum-drum of daily life, had barricaded itself in the happiness that chance had offered her, with no other desire than to defend it against the surprises of each day. She had therefore accepted with the complacency of a pretty woman the agreeable events that occurred; and, though she ventured little, and was troubled little by new necessities and desires for the unknown; though she was tender, tenacious, and farseeing, content with the present, but naturally anxious about the morrow, she had known how to enjoy the elements that Destiny had furnished her with wise and economical prudence.
Now, little by little, without daring to acknowledge it even to herself, the vague preoccupation of passing time, of advancing age, had glided into her soul. In her consciousness it had the effect of a gnawing trouble that never ceased. But, knowing well that this descent of life was without an end, that once begun it never could be stopped, and yielding to the instinct of danger, she closed her eyes in letting herself glide along, that she might retain her dream, that she might not be seized with dizziness at sight of the abyss or be made desperate by her impotence.
She lived, then, smiling, with a sort of factitious pride in remaining beautiful so long, and when Annette appeared at her side with the freshness of her eighteen years, instead of suffering from this contrast, she was proud, on the contrary, of being able to command preference, in the ripe grace of her womanhood, over that blooming young girl in the radiant beauty of first youth.
She had even believed that she had entered upon the beginning of a happy, tranquil period when the death of her mother struck a blow at her heart. During the first few days she was filled with that profound despair that leaves no room for any other thought. She remained from morning until night buried in grief, trying to recall a thousand things of the dead, her familiar words, her face in earlier days, the gowns she used to wear, as if she had stored her memory with relics; and from the now buried past she gathered all the intimate and trivial recollections with which to feed her cruel reveries. Then, when she had arrived at such paroxysms of despair that she fell into hysterics and swooned, all her accumulated grief broke forth in tears, flowing from her eyes by day and by night.
One morning, when her maid entered, and opened the shutters after raising the shades, asking: "How does Madame feel to-day?" she answered, feeling exhausted from having wept so much: "Oh, not at all well! Indeed, I can bear no more."
The servant, who was holding a tea-tray, looked at her mistress, and, touched to see her lying so pale amide the whiteness of the bed, she stammered, in a tone of genuine sadness: "Madame really looks very ill. Madame would do well to take care of herself."
The tone in which this was said pierced the Countess's heart like a sharp needle, and as soon as the maid had gone she rose to go and look at her face in her large dressing-mirror.
She was stupefied at the sight of herself, frightened by her hollow cheeks, her red eyes, the ravages produced in her by these days of suffering. Her face, which she knew so well, which she had often looked at in so many different mirrors, of which she knew all the expressions, all the smiles, the pallor which she had already corrected so many times, smoothing away the marks of fatigue, and the tiny wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, visible in too strong a light—her face suddenly seemed to her that of another woman, a new face that was distorted and irreparably ill.
In order to see herself better, to be surer with regard to this unexpected misfortune, she approached near enough to the mirror to touch it with her forehead, so that her breath, spreading a light mist over the glass, almost obscured the pale image she was contemplating. She was compelled to take a handkerchief to wipe away this mist, and, trembling with a strange emotion, she made a long and patient examination of the alterations in her face. With a light finger she stretched the skin of her cheeks, smoothed her forehead, pushed back her hair, and turned the eyelids to look at the whites of her eyes. Then she opened her mouth and examined her teeth which were a little tarnished where the gold fillings shone, and she was disturbed to note the livid gums and the yellow tint of the flesh above the cheeks and at the temples.
She was so lost in this examination of her fading beauty that she did not hear the door open, and was startled when her maid, standing behind her, said:
"Madame has forgotten to take her tea."
The Countess turned, confused, surprised, ashamed, and the servant, guessing her thoughts continued:
"Madame has wept too much; there is nothing worse to spoil the skin. One's blood turns to water."
And as the Countess added sadly: "There is age also," the maid exclaimed: "Oh, but Madame has not reached that time yet! With a few days of rest not a trace will be left. But Madame must go to walk, and take great care not to weep."
As soon as she was dressed the Countess descended to the park, and for the first time since her mother's death she visited the little orchard where long ago she had liked to cultivate and gather flowers; then she went to the river and strolled beside the stream until the hour for breakfast.
She sat down at the table opposite her husband, and beside her daughter, and remarked, that she might know what they thought: "I feel better today. I must be less pale."
"Oh, you still look very ill," said the Count.
Her heart contracted and she felt like weeping, for she had fallen into the habit of it.
Until evening, and the next day, and all the following days, whether she thought of her mother or of herself, every moment she felt her throat swelling with sobs and her eyes filling with tears, but to prevent them from overflowing and furrowing her cheeks she repressed them, and by a superhuman effort of will turned her thoughts in other directions, mastered them, ruled them, separated them from her sorrow, forced herself to feel consoled, tried to amuse herself and to think of sad things no more, in order to regain the hue of health.
Above all, she did not wish to return to Paris and to receive Olivier Bertin until she had become more like her former self. Realizing that she had grown too thin, that the flesh of women of her age needs to be full in order to keep fresh, she sought to create appetite by walking in the woods and along the roads; and though she returned weary and not hungry she forced herself to eat a great deal.
The Count, who wished to go away, could not understand her obstinacy. Finally, as her resistance seemed invincible, he declared that he would go alone, leaving the Countess free to return when she might feel so disposed.
The next day she received the telegram announcing Olivier's arrival.
A desire to flee seized her, so much did she fear his first look. She would have preferred to wait another week or two. In a week, with care one may change the face completely, since women, even when young and in good health, under the least change of influence become unrecognizable from one day to another. But the idea of appearing in broad daylight before Olivier, in the open fields, in the heat of August, beside Annette, so fresh and blooming, disturbed her so much that she decided immediately not to go to the station, but to await him in the half-darkened drawing-room.
She went up to her room and fell into a dream. Breaths of warm air stirred the curtains from time to time; the song of the crickets filled the air. Never before had she felt so sad. It was no more the great grief that had shattered her heart, overwhelming her before the soulless body of her beloved old mother. That grief, which she had believed incurable, had in a few days become softened, and was now but a sorrow of the memory; but now she felt herself swept away on a deep wave of melancholy into which she had entered gradually, and from which she never would emerge.
She had an almost irresistible desire to weep—and would not. Every time she felt her eyelids grow moist she wiped them away quickly, rose, paced about the room, looked out into the park and gazed at the tall trees, watched the slow, black flight of the crows against the background of blue sky. Then she passed before her mirror, judged her appearance with one glance, effaced the trace of a tear by touching the corner of her eye with rice powder, and looked at the clock, trying to guess at what point of the route he must have reached.
Like all women who are carried away by a distress of soul, whether real or unreasonable, she clung to her lover with a sort of frenzy. Was he not her all—all, everything, more than life, all that anyone must be who has come to be the sole affection of one who feels the approach of age?
Suddenly she heard in the distance the crack of a whip; she ran to the window and saw the phaeton as it made the turn round the lawn, drawn by two horses. Seated beside Annette, in the back seat of the carriage, Olivier waved his handkerchief as he saw the Countess, to which she responded by waving him a salutation from the window. Then she went down stairs with a heart throbbing fast but happy now, thrilled with joy at knowing him so near, of speaking to him and seeing him.
They met in the antechamber, before the drawing-room door.
He opened his arms to her with an irresistible impulse, and in a voice warmed by real emotion, exclaimed: "Ah, my poor Countess, let me embrace you!"
She closed her eyes, leaned toward him and pressed against him, lifted her cheek to him, and as he pressed his lips upon it, she murmured in his ear: "I love thee!"
Then Olivier, without dropping the hands he clasped in his own, looked at her, saying: "Let us see that sad face."
She felt ready to faint.
"Yes, a little pale," said he, "but that is nothing."
To thank him for saying that, she said brokenly,
"Ah, dear friend, dear friend!" finding nothing else to say.
But he turned, looking behind her in search of Annette, who had disappeared.
"Is it not strange," he said abruptly, "to see your daughter in mourning?"
"Why?" inquired the Countess.
"What? You ask why?" he exclaimed, with extraordinary animation. "Why, it is your own portrait painted by me—it is my portrait. It is yourself, such as you were when I met you long ago when I entered the Duchess's house! Ah, do you remember that door where you passed under my gaze, as a frigate passes under a cannon of a fort? Good heavens! when I saw the little one, just now, at the railway station, standing on the platform, all in black, with the sun shining on her hair massed around her face, the blood rushed to my head. I thought I should weep. I tell you, it is enough to drive one mad, when one has known you as I have, who has studied you as no one else has, and reproduced you in painting, Madame. Ah, I thought that you had sent her alone to meet me at the station in order to give me that surprise. My God! but I was surprised, indeed! I tell you, it is enough to drive one mad."
He called: "Annette! Nane!"
The young girl's voice replied from outside, where she was giving sugar to the horses:
"Yes, yes, I am here!"
"Come in here!"
She entered quickly.
"Here, stand close beside your mother."
She obeyed, and he compared the two, but repeated mechanically, "Yes, it is astonishing, astonishing!" for they resembled each other less when side by side than they did before leaving Paris, the young girl having acquired a new expression of luminous youth in her black attire, while the mother had for a long time lost that radiance of hair and complexion that had dazzled and entranced the painter when they met for the first time.
Then the Countess and Olivier entered the drawing-room. He seemed in high spirits.
"Ah, what a good plan it was to come here!" he said. "But it was your husband's idea that I should come, you know. He charged me to take you back with me. And I—do you know what I propose? You have no idea, have you? Well, I propose, on the contrary, to remain here! Paris is odious in this heat, while the country is delicious. Heavens! how sweet it is here!"
The dews of evening impregnated the park with freshness, the soft breeze made the trees tremble, and the earth exhaled imperceptible vapors which threw a light, transparent veil over the horizon. The three cows, standing with drooping heads, cropped the grass with avidity, and four peacocks, with a loud rustling of wings, flew up into their accustomed perch in a cedar-tree under the windows of the castle. The barking of dogs in the distance came to the ear, and in the quiet air of the close of day the calls of human voices were heard, in phrases shouted across the fields, from one meadow to another, and in those short, guttural cries used in driving animals.
The painter, with bared head and shining eyes, breathed deeply, and, as he met the Countess's look, he said:
"This is happiness!"
"It never lasts," she answered, approaching nearer.
"Let us take it when it comes," said he.
"You never used to like the country until now," the Countess replied, smiling.
"I like it to-day because I find you here. I do not know how to live any more where you are not. When one is young, he may be in love though far away, through letters, thoughts, or dreams, perhaps because he feels that life is all before him, perhaps too because passion is stronger than pure affection; at my age, on the contrary, love has become like the habit of an invalid; it is a binding up of the soul, which flies now with only one wing, and mounts less frequently into the ideal. The heart knows no more ecstasy, only selfish wants. And then I know quite well that I have no time to lose to enjoy what remains for me."
"Oh, old!" she remonstrated, taking his hand tenderly.
"Yes, yes, I am old," he repeated. "Everything shows it, my hair, my changing character, the coming sadness. Alas! that is something I never have known till now—sadness. If someone had told me when I was thirty that a time would come when I should be sad without cause, uneasy, discontented with everything, I should not have believed it. That proves that my heart also has grown old."
The Countess replied with an air of profound certainty:
"Oh, as for me, my heart is still young. It never has changed. Yes, it has grown younger, perhaps. Once it was twenty; now it is only sixteen!"
They remained a long while thus, talking in the open window, mingled with the spirit of evening, very near each other, nearer than they ever had been, in this hour of tenderness, this twilight of love, like that of the day.
A servant entered, announcing:
"Madame la Comtesse is served."
"Have you called my daughter?" the Countess asked.
"Mademoiselle is in the dining-room."
All three sat down at the table. The shutters were closed, and two large candelabra with six candles each illumined Annette's face and seemed to powder her hair with gold dust. Bertin, smiling, looked at her continually.
"Heavens, now pretty she is in black!" he said.
And he turned toward the Countess while admiring the daughter, as if to thank the mother for having given him this pleasure.
When they returned to the drawing-room the moon had risen above the trees in the park. Their somber mass appeared like a great island, and the country round about like a sea hidden under the light mist that floated over the plains.
"Oh, mamma, let us take a walk," said Annette.
The Countess consented.
"I will take Julio."
"Very well, if you wish."
They set out. The young girl walked in front, amusing herself with the dog. When they crossed the lawn they heard the breathing of the cows, which, awake and scenting their enemy, raised their heads to look. Under the trees, farther away, the moon was pouring among the branches a shower of fine rays that fell to earth, seeming to wet the leaves that were spread out on the path in little patches of yellow light. Annette and Julio ran along, each seeming to have on this serene night, the same joyful and unburdened hearts, the gaiety of which expressed itself in graceful gambols.
In the little openings, where the wave of moonlight descended as into a well, the young girl looked like a spirit, and the painter called her back, marveling at this dark vision with its clear and brilliant face. Then when she darted away again, he took the Countess's hand and pressed it, often seeking her lips as they traversed the deeper shadows, as if the sight of Annette had revived the impatience of his heart.
At last they reached the edge of the plain, where they could just discern, afar, here and there, the groups of trees belonging to the farms. Through the milky mist that bathed the fields the horizon appeared illimitable, and the soft silence, the living silence of that vast space, so warm and luminous, was full of inexpressible hope, of that indefinable expectancy which makes summer nights so sweet. Far up in the heavens a few long slender clouds looked like silver shells. Standing still for a few seconds, one could hear in that nocturnal peace a confused, continuous murmur of life, a thousand slight sounds, the harmony of which seemed like silence.
A quail in a neighboring field uttered her double cry, and Julio, his ears erect, glided furtively toward the two flute-like notes of the bird, Annette following, as softly as he, holding her breath and crouching low.
"Ah," said the Countess, standing alone with the painter, "why do moments like this pass so quickly? We can hold nothing, keep nothing. We have not even time to taste what is good. It is over already."
Olivier kissed her hand, and replied, smiling:
"Oh, I cannot philosophize this evening! I belong to the present hour entirely."
"You do not love me as I love you," she murmured.
"Ah, do not—"
"No," she interrupted, "in me you love, as you said very truly before dinner, a woman who satisfies the needs of your heart, a woman who never has caused you a pain, and who has put a little happiness into your life. I know that; I feel it. Yes, I have the good consciousness, the ardent joy of having been good, useful, and helpful to you. You have loved, you still love all that you find agreeable in me, my attentions to you, my admiration, my wish to please you, my passion, the complete gift I made to you of my whole being. But it is not I you really love, do you know? Oh, I feel that as one feels a cold current of air. You love a thousand things about me—my beauty, which is fast leaving me, my devotion, the wit they say I possess, the opinion the world has of me, and that which I have of you in my heart; but it is not I—I, nothing but myself—do you understand?"
He laughed in a soft and friendly way.
"No, I do not understand you very well. You make a reproachful attack which is quite unexpected."
"Oh, my God! I wish I could make you understand how I love you! I am always seeking, but cannot find a means. When I think of you—and I am always thinking of you—I feel in the depths of my being an unspeakable intoxication of longing to be yours, an irresistible need of giving myself to you even more completely. I should like to sacrifice myself in some absolute way, for there is nothing better, when one loves, than to give, to give always, all, all, life, thought, body, all that one has, to feel that one is giving, to be ready to risk anything to give still more. I love you so much that I love to suffer for you, I love even my anxieties, my torments, my jealousies, the pain I feel when I realize that you are not longer tender toward me. I love in you a someone that only I have discovered, a you which is not the you of the world that is admired and known, a you which is mine, which cannot change nor grow old, which I cannot cease to love, for I have, to look at it, eyes that see it alone. But one cannot say these things. There are no words to express them."
He repeated softly, over and over:
"Dear, dear, dear Any!"
Julio came back, bounding toward them, without having found the quail, which had kept still at his approach; Annette followed him, breathless from running.
"I can't run any more," said she. "I will prop myself up with you, Monsieur painter!"
She leaned on Olivier's free arm, and they returned, walking thus, he between them, under the shadow of the trees. They spoke no more. He walked on, possessed by them, penetrated by a sort of feminine essence with which their contact filled him. He did not try to see them, since he had them near him; he even closed his eyes that he might feel their proximity the better. They guided him, conducted him, and he walked straight before him, fascinated by them, with the one on the left as well as the one on the right, without knowing, indeed, which was on the left or which on the right, which was mother, which was daughter. He abandoned himself willingly to the pleasure of unpremeditated and exquisite sensuous delight. He even tried to mingle them in his heart, not to distinguish them in his thought, and quieted desire with the charm of this confusion. Was it not only one woman beside him, composed of this mother and daughter, so much alike? And did not the daughter seem to have come to earth only for the purpose of reanimating his former love for the mother?
When he opened his eyes on entering the castle, it seemed to him that he had just passed through the most delicious moments of his life; that he had experienced the strangest, the most puzzling, yet complete emotion a man might feel, intoxicated with the same love by the seductiveness emanating from two women.
"Ah, what an exquisite evening!" said he, as soon as he found himself between them in the lamplight.
"I am not at all sleepy," said Annette; "I could pass the whole night walking when the weather is fine."
The Countess looked at the clock.
"Oh, it is half after eleven. You must go to bed, my child."
They separated, and went to their own apartments. The young girl who did not wish to go to bed was the only one that went to sleep at once.
The next morning, at the usual hour, when the maid, after opening the curtains and the shutters, brought the tea and looked at her mistress, who was still drowsy, she said:
"Madame looks better to-day, already."
"Do you think so?"
"Oh, yes. Madame's face looks more rested."
Though she had not yet looked at herself, the Countess knew that this was true. Her heart was light, she did not feel it throb, and she felt once more as if she lived. The blood flowing in her veins was no longer coursing so rapidly as on the day before, hot and feverish, sending nervousness and restlessness through all her body, but gave her a sense of well-being and happy confidence.
When the maid had gone she went to look at herself in the mirror. She was a little surprised, for she felt so much better that she expected to find herself rejuvenated by several years in a single night. Then she realized the childishness of such a hope, and, after another glance, resigned herself to the knowledge that her complexion was only clearer, her eyes less fatigued, her lips a little redder than on the day before. As her soul was content, she could not feel sad, and she smiled, thinking: "Yes, in a few days I shall be quite myself again. I have gone through too much to recover so quickly."
But she remained seated a very long time before her toilet-table, upon which were laid out in graceful order on a muslin scarf bordered with lace, before a beautiful mirror of cut crystal, all her little ivory-handled instruments of coquetry, bearing her arms surmounted by a coronet. There they were, innumerable, pretty, all different, destined for delicate and secret use, some of steel, fine and sharp, of strange shapes, like surgical instruments for operations on children, others round and soft, of feathers, of down, of the skins of unknown animals, made to lay upon the tender skin the caresses of fragrant powders or of powerful liquid perfumes.
She handled them a long time with practised fingers, carrying them from her lips to her temples with touches softer than a kiss, correcting imperfections, underlining the eyes, beautifying the eyelashes. At last, when she went down stairs, she felt almost sure that the first glance cast upon her would not be too unfavorable.
"Where is Monsieur Bertin?" she inquired of a servant she met in the vestibule.
"Monsieur Bertin is in the orchard, playing tennis with Mademoiselle," the man replied.
She heard them from a distance counting the points. One after the other, the deep voice of the painter and the light one of the young girl, called: "Fifteen, thirty, forty, vantage, deuce, vantage, game!"
The orchard, where a space had been leveled for a tennis-court, was a great, square grass-plot, planted with apple-trees, inclosed by the park, the vegetable-garden, and the farms belonging to the castle. Along the slope that formed a boundary on three sides, like the defenses of an intrenched camp, grew borders of various kinds of flowers, wild and cultivated, roses in masses, pinks, heliotrope, fuchsias, mignonnette, and many more, which as Bertin said gave the air a taste of honey. Besides this, the bees, whose hives, thatched with straw, lined the wall of the vegetable-garden, covered the flowery field in their yellow, buzzing flight.
In the exact center of this orchard a few apple-trees had been cut down, in order to make a good court for tennis, and a tarry net, stretched across this space, separated it into two camps.
Annette, on one side, with bare head, her black skirt caught up, showing her ankles and half way up to her knee when she ran to catch a ball, dashed to and fro, with sparkling eyes and flushed cheeks, tired, out of breath with the sure and practised play of her adversary.
He, in white flannels, fitting tightly over the hips, a white shirt, and a white tennis cap, his abdomen somewhat prominent in that costume, awaited the ball coolly, judged its fall with precision, received and returned it without haste, without running, with the elegant pose, the passionate attention, and professional skill which he displayed in all athletic sports.
It was Annette that spied her mother first.
"Good morning, mamma!" she cried, "wait till we have finished this play."
That second's distraction lost her the game. The ball passed against her, almost rolling, touched the ground and went out of the game.
Bertin shouted "Won!" and the young girl, surprised, accused him of having profited by her inattention. Julio, trained to seek and find the lost balls, as if they were partridges fallen among the bushes, sprang behind her to get the ball rolling in the grass, seized it in his jaws, and brought it back, wagging his tail.
The painter now saluted the Countess, but, urged to resume the game, animated by the contest, pleased to find himself so agile, he threw only a short, preoccupied glance at the face prepared so carefully for him, asking:
"Will you allow me, dear Countess? I am afraid of taking cold and having neuralgia."
"Oh, yes," the Countess replied.
She sat down on a hay-stack, mowed that morning in order to give a clear field to the players, and, her heart suddenly touched with sadness, looked on at the game.
Her daughter, irritated at losing continually, grew more animated, excited, uttered cries of vexation or of triumph, and flew impetuously from one end of the court to the other. Often, in her swift movements, little locks of hair were loosened, rolled down and fell upon her shoulders. She seized them with impatient movements, and, holding the racket between her knees, fastened them up in place, thrusting hairpins into the golden mass.
And Bertin, from his position, cried to the Countess:
"Isn't she pretty like that, and fresh as the day?"
Yes, she was young, she could run, grow warm, become red, let her hair fly, brave anything, dare everything, for all that only made her more beautiful.
Then, when they resumed their play with ardor, the Countess, more and more melancholy, felt that Olivier preferred that game, that childish sport, like the play of kittens jumping after paper balls, to the sweetness of sitting beside her that warm morning, and feeling her loving pressure against him.
When the bell, far away, rang the first signal for breakfast, it seemed to her that someone had freed her, that a weight had been lifted from her heart. But as she returned, leaning on his arm, he said to her:
"I have been amusing myself like a boy. It is a great thing to be, or to feel oneself, young. Ah, yes, there is nothing like that. When we do not like to run any more, it is all over with us."
When they left the table the Countess, who on the preceding day had for the first time omitted her daily visit to the cemetery, proposed that they should go there together; so all three set out for the village.
They were obliged to go through some woods, through which ran a stream called "La Rainette," no doubt because of the frogs that peopled it; then they had to cross the end of a plain before arriving at the church, situated in the midst of a group of houses that sheltered the grocer, the baker, the butcher, the wine-merchant, and several other modest tradesmen who supplied the needs of the peasants.
The walk was made in thoughtful silence, the recollection of the dead weighing on their spirits. Arrived at the grave, the women knelt and prayed a long time. The Countess, motionless, bent low, her handkerchief at her eyes, for she feared to weep lest her tears run down her cheeks. She prayed, but not as she had prayed before this day, in a sort of invocation to her mother, a despairing appeal penetrating under the marble of the tomb until she seemed to feel by the poignancy of her own anguish that the dead must hear her, listen to her, but a simple, hesitating, and earnest utterance of the consecrated words of the Pater Noster and the Ave Maria. She would not have had that day sufficient strength and steadiness of nerve necessary for that cruel communion that brought no response with what remained of that being who had disappeared in the tomb where all that was left of her was concealed. Other anxieties had penetrated her woman's heart, had agitated, wounded, and distracted her; and her fervent prayer rose to Heaven, full of vague supplications. She offered her adoration to God, the inexorable God who has made all poor creatures on the earth, and begged Him to take pity on her as well as on the one He had recalled to Himself.
She could not have told what she had asked of God, so vague and confused were her fears still; but she felt the need of Divine aid, of a superhuman support against approaching dangers and inevitable sorrows.
Annette, with closed eyes, having also murmured the formulas, sank into a reverie, for she did not wish to rise before her mother.
Olivier Bertin looked at them, thinking that he never had seen a more ravishing picture, and somewhat regretful that it was out of the question for him to be permitted to make a sketch of the scene.
On their way back they talked of human life, softly stirring those bitter and poetic ideas of a tender but pessimistic philosophy, which is a frequent subject of conversation between men and women whom life has wounded a little, and whose hearts mingle as they sympathize with each other's grief.
Annette, who was not ripe for such thoughts, left them frequently to gather wild flowers beside the road.
But Olivier, desiring to keep her near him, nervous at seeing her continually darting away, never removed his eyes from her. He was irritated that she should show more interest in the colors of the plants than in the words he spoke. He experienced an inexpressible dissatisfaction at not being able to charm her, to dominate her, as he had captivated her mother; and he felt a desire to hold out his hand and seize her, hold her, forbid her to go away. He felt that she was too alert, too young, too indifferent, too free—free as a bird, or like a little dog that will not come back, will not obey, which has independence in its veins, that sweet instinct of liberty which neither voice nor whip has yet vanquished.
In order to attract her he talked of gayer things, and at times he questioned her, trying to awaken her feminine curiosity so that she would listen; but one would think that the capricious wind of heaven was blowing through Annette's head that day, as it blew across the undulating grain, carrying away and dispersing her attention into space, for she hardly uttered even the commonplace replies expected of her, between her short digressions, and made them with an absent air, then returned to her flowers. Finally he became exasperated, filled with a childish impatience, and as she ran up to beg her mother to carry her first bouquet so that she could gather another, he caught her by the elbow and pressed her arm, so that she could not escape again. She struggled, laughing, pulling with all her strength to get away from him; then, moved by masculine instinct, he tried gentler means, and, not being able to win her attention he tried to purchase it by tempting her coquetry.
"Tell me," said he, "what flower you prefer, and I will have a brooch made of it for you."
She hesitated, surprised.
"What, a brooch?"
"In stones of the same color; in rubies if it is the poppy; in sapphires if it is the cornflower, with a little leaf in emeralds."
Annette's face lighted up with that affectionate joy with which promises and presents animate a woman's countenance.
"The cornflower," said she, "it is so pretty."
"The cornflower it shall be. We will go to order it as soon as we return to Paris."
She no longer tried to leave him, attracted by the thought of the jewel she already tried to see, to imagine.
"Does it take very long to make a thing like that?" she asked.
He laughed, feeling that he had caught her.
"I don't know; it depends upon the difficulties. We will make the jeweler do it quickly."
A dismal thought suddenly crossed her mind.
"But I cannot wear it since I am in deep mourning!"
He had passed his arm under that of the young girl, and pressed it against him.
"Well, you will keep the brooch until you cease to wear mourning," said he; "that will not prevent you from looking at it."
As on the preceding evening, he was walking between them, held captive between their shoulders, and in order to see their eyes, of a similar blue dotted with tiny black spots, raised to his, he spoke to them in turn, moving his head first toward the one, then toward the other. As the bright sunlight now shone on them, he did not so fully confound the Countess with Annette, but he did more and more associate the daughter with the new-born remembrances of what the mother had been. He had a strong desire to embrace both, the one to find again upon cheek and neck a little of that pink and white freshness which he had already tasted, and which he saw now reproduced as by a miracle; the other because he loved her as he always had, and felt that from her came the powerful appeal of long habit. He even realized at that moment that his desire and affection for her, which for some time had been waning, had revived at the sight of her resuscitated youth.
Annette went away again to gather more flowers. This time Olivier did not call her back; it was as if the contact of her arm and the satisfaction of knowing that he had given her pleasure had quieted him; but he followed all her movements with the pleasure one feels in seeing the persons or things that captivate and intoxicate our eyes. When she returned, with a large cluster of flowers, he drew a deep breath, seeking unconsciously to inhale something of her, a little of her breath or the warmth of her skin in the air stirred by her running. He looked at her, enraptured, as one watches the dawn, or listens to music, with thrills of delight when she bent, rose again, or raised her arms to arrange her hair. And then, more and more, hour by hour, she evoked in him the memory of the past! Her laughter, her pretty ways, her motions, brought back to his lips the savor of former kisses given and returned; she made of the far-off past, of which he had forgotten the precise sensation, something like a dream in the present; she confused epochs, dates, the ages of his heart, and rekindling the embers of cooled emotions, she mingled, without his realizing it, yesterday with to-morrow, recollection with hope.
He asked himself as he questioned his memory whether the Countess in her brightest bloom had had that fawn-like, supple grace, that bold, capricious, irresistible charm, like the grace of a running, leaping animal. No. She had had a riper bloom but was less untamed. First, a child of the city, then a woman, never having imbibed the air of the fields and lived in the grass, she had grown pretty under the shade of the walls and not in the sunlight of heaven.
When they reentered the castle the Countess began to write letters at her little low table in the bay-window; Annette went up to her own room, and the painter went out again to walk slowly, cigar in mouth, hands clasped behind him, through the winding paths of the park. But he did not go away so far that he lost sight of the white facade or the pointed roof of the castle. As soon as it disappeared behind groups of trees or clusters of shrubbery, a shadow seemed to fall over his heart, as when a cloud hides the sun; and when it reappeared through the apertures in the foliage he paused a few seconds to contemplate the two rows of tall windows. Then he resumed his walk. He felt agitated, but content. Content with what? With everything.
The air seemed pure to him, life was good that day. His body felt once more the liveliness of a small boy, a desire to run, to catch the yellow butterflies fluttering over the lawn, as if they were suspended at the end of elastic threads. He sang little airs from the opera. Several times he repeated the celebrated phrase by Gounod: "Laisse-moi contempler ton visage," discovering in it a profoundly tender expression which never before he had felt in the same way.
Suddenly he asked himself how it was that he had so soon become different from his usual self. Yesterday, in Paris, dissatisfied with everything, disgusted, irritated; to-day calm, satisfied with everything—one would say that some benevolent god had changed his soul. "That same kind god," he thought, "might well have changed my body at the same time, and rejuvenated me a little." Suddenly he saw Julio hunting among the bushes. He called him, and when the dog ran up to put his finely formed head, with its curly ears, under his hand, he sat down on the grass to pet him more comfortably, spoke gentle words to him, laid him on his knees, and growing tender as he caressed the animal, he kissed it, after the fashion of women whose hearts are easily moved to demonstration.
After dinner, instead of going out as on the evening before, they spent the hours in the drawing-room.
Suddenly the Countess said: "We must leave here soon."
"Oh, don't speak of that yet!" Olivier exclaimed. "You would not leave Roncieres when I was not here; now what I have come, you think only of going away."
"But, my dear friend," said she, "we three cannot remain here indefinitely."
"It does not necessarily follow that we need stay indefinitely, but just a few days. How many times have I stayed at your house for whole weeks?"
"Yes, but in different circumstances, when the house was open to everyone."
"Oh, mamma," said Annette, coaxingly, "let us stay a few days more, just two or three. He teaches me so well how to play tennis. It annoys me to lose, but afterward I am glad to have made such progress."
Only that morning the Countess had been planning to make this mysterious visit of her friend's last until Sunday, and now she wished to go away, without knowing why. That day which she had hoped would be such a happy one had left in her soul an inexpressible but poignant sadness, a causeless apprehension, as tenacious and confused as a presentiment.
When she was once more alone in her room she even sought to define this new access of melancholy.
Had she experienced one of those imperceptible emotions whose touch has been so slight that reason does not remember it, but whose vibrations still stir the most sensitive chords of the heart? Perhaps? Which? She recalled, certainly, some little annoyances, in the thousand degrees of sentiment through which she had passed, each minute having its own. But they were too petty to have thus disheartened her. "I am exacting," she thought. "I have no right to torment myself in this way."
She opened her window, to breathe the night air, and leaned on the window-sill, gazing at the moon.
A slight noise made her look down. Olivier was pacing before the castle. "Why did he say that he was going to his room?" she thought; "why did he not tell me he was going out again? Why did he not ask me to come with him? He knows very well that it would have made me so happy. What is he thinking of now?"
This idea that he had not wished to have her with him on his walk, that he had preferred to go out alone this beautiful night, alone, with a cigar in his mouth, for she could see its fiery-red point—alone, when he might have given her the joy of taking her with him; this idea that he had not continual need of her, that he did not desire her always, created within her soul a new fermentation of bitterness.
She was about to close the window, that she might not see him or be tempted to call to him, when he raised his eyes and saw her.
"Well, are you star-gazing, Countess?"
"Yes," she answered. "You also, as it appears."
"Oh, I am simply smoking."
She could not resist the desire to ask: "Why did you not tell me you were going out?"
"I only wanted to smoke a cigar. I am coming in now."
"Then good-night, my friend."
She retired as far as her low chair, sat down in it and wept; and her maid, who was called to assist her to bed, seeing her red eyes said with compassion:
"Ah, Madame is going to make a sad face for herself again to-morrow."
The Countess slept badly; she was feverish and had nightmare. As soon as she awoke she opened her window and her curtains to look at herself in the mirror. Her features were drawn, her eyelids swollen, her skin looked yellow; and she felt such violent grief because of this that she wished to say she was ill and to keep her bed, so that she need not appear until evening.
Then, suddenly, the necessity to go away entered her mind, to depart immediately, by the first train, to quit the country, where one could see too clearly by the broad light of the fields the ineffaceable marks of sorrow and of life itself. In Paris one lives in the half shadow of apartments, where heavy curtains, even at noontime, admit only a softened light. She would herself become beautiful again there, with the pallor one should have in that discreetly softened light. Then Annette's face rose before her eyes—so fresh and pink, with slightly disheveled hair, as when she was playing tennis. She understood then the unknown anxiety from which her soul had suffered. She was not jealous of her daughter's beauty! No, certainly not; but she felt, she acknowledged for the first time that she must never again show herself by Annette's side in the bright sunlight.
She rang, and before drinking her tea she gave orders for departure, wrote some telegrams, even ordering her dinner for that evening by telegraph, settled her bills in the country, gave her final instructions, arranged everything in less than an hour, a prey to feverish and increasing impatience.
When she went down stairs, Annette and Olivier, who had been told of her decision, questioned her with surprise. Then, seeing that she would not give any precise reason for this sudden departure, they grumbled a little and expressed their dissatisfaction until they separated at the station in Paris.
The Countess, holding out her hand to the painter, said: "Will you dine with us to-morrow?"
"Certainly, I will come," he replied, rather sulkily. "All the same, what you have done was not nice. We were so happy down there, all three of us."
A DANGEROUS WARNING
As soon as the Countess was alone with her daughter in her carriage, which was taking her back to her home, she suddenly felt tranquil and quieted, as if she had just passed through a serious crisis. She breathed easier, smiled at the houses, recognized with joy the look of the city, whose details all true Parisians seem to carry in their eyes and hearts. Each shop she passed suggested the ones beyond, on a line along the Boulevard, and the tradesman's face so often seen behind his show-case. She felt saved. From what? Reassured. Why? Confident. Of what?
When the carriage stopped under the arch of the porte-cochere, she alighted quickly and entered, as if flying, the shadow of the stairway; then passed to the shadow of her drawing-room, then to that of her bedroom. There she remained standing a few moments, glad to be at home, in security, in the dim and misty daylight of Paris, which, hardly brightening, compels one to guess as well as to see, where one may show what he pleases and hide what he will; and the unreasoning memory of the dazzling glare that bathed the country remained in her like an impression of past suffering.
When she went down to dinner, her husband, who had just arrived at home, embraced her affectionately, and said, smiling: "Ah, ha! I knew very well that our friend Bertin would bring you back. It was very clever of me to send him after you."
Annette responded gravely, in the peculiar tone she affected when she said something in jest without smiling:
"Oh, he had a great deal of trouble. Mamma could not decide for herself."
The Countess said nothing, but felt a little confused.
The doors being closed to visitors, no one called that evening. Madame de Guilleroy passed the whole of the following day in different shops, choosing or ordering what she needed. She had loved, from her youth, almost from her infancy, those long sittings before the mirrors of the great shops. From the moment of entering one, she took delight in thinking of all the details of that minute rehearsal in the green-room of Parisian life. She adored the rustle of the dresses worn by the salesgirls, who hastened forward to meet her, all smiles, with their offers, their queries; and Madame the dressmaker, the milliner, or corset-maker, was to her a person of consequence, whom she treated as an artist when she expressed an opinion in asking advice. She enjoyed even more to feel herself in the skilful hands of the young girls who undressed her and dressed her again, causing her to turn gently around before her own gracious reflection. The little shiver that the touch of their fingers produced on her skin, her neck, or in her hair, was one of the best and sweetest little pleasures that belonged to her life of an elegant woman.
This day, however, she passed before those candid mirrors, without her veil or hat, feeling a certain anxiety. Her first visit, at the milliner's, reassured her. The three hats which she chose were wonderfully becoming; she could not doubt it, and when the milliner said, with an air of conviction, "Oh, Madame la Comtesse, blondes should never leave off mourning" she went away much pleased, and entered other shops with a heart full of confidence.
Then she found at home a note from the Duchess, who had come to see her, saying that she would return in the evening; then she wrote some letters; then she fell into dreamy reverie for some time, surprised that this simple change of place had caused to recede into a past that already seemed far away the great misfortune that had overwhelmed her. She could not even convince herself that her return from Roncieres dated only from the day before, so much was the condition of her soul modified since her return to Paris, as if that little change had healed her wounds.
Bertin, arriving at dinner-time, exclaimed on seeing her:
"You are dazzling this evening!"
And this exclamation sent a warm wave of happiness through her being.
When they were leaving the table, the Count, who had a passion for billiards, offered to play a game with Bertin, and the two ladies accompanied them to the billiard-room, where the coffee was served.
The men were still playing when the Duchess was announced, and they all returned to the drawing-room. Madame de Corbelle and her husband presented themselves at the same time, their voices full of tears. For some minutes it seemed, from the doleful tones, that everyone was about to weep; but little by little, after a few tender words and inquiries, another current of thought set in; the voices took on a more cheerful tone, and everyone began to talk naturally, as if the shadow of the misfortune that had saddened them had suddenly been dissipated.
Then Bertin rose, took Annette by the hand, led her under the portrait of her mother, in the ray of light from the reflector, and said:
"Isn't this stupefying?"
The Duchess was so greatly surprised that she seemed dazed; she repeated many times: "Heavens! is it possible? Heavens! is it possible? It is like someone raised from the dead. To think that I did not see that when I came in! Oh, my little Any, I find you again, I, who knew you so well then in your first mourning as a woman—no, in your second, for you had already lost your father. Oh, that Annette, in black like that—why, it is her mother come back to earth! What a miracle! Without that portrait we never should have perceived it. Your daughter resembles you very much, but she resembles that portrait much more."
Musadieu now appeared, having heard of Madame de Guilleroy's return, as he wished to be one of the first to offer her the "homage of his sorrowful sympathy."
He interrupted his first speech on perceiving the young girl standing against the frame, illumined by the same ray of light, appearing like the living sister of the painting.
"Ah, that is certainly one of the most astonishing things I ever have seen," he exclaimed.
The Corbelles, whose convictions always followed established opinions, marveled in their turn with a little less exuberant ardor.
The Countess's heart seemed to contract, little by little, as if all these exclamations of astonishment had hurt it. Without speaking, she looked at her daughter standing by the image of herself, and a sudden feeling of weakness came over her. She longed to cry out: "Say no more! I know very well that she resembles me!"
Until the end of the evening she remained in a melancholy mood, having lost once more the confidence she had felt the day before.
Bertin was chatting with her when the Marquis de Farandal was announced. As soon as the painter saw him enter and approach the hostess he rose and glided behind her armchair, murmuring: "This is delightful! There comes that great animal now." Then, making a detour of the apartment, he reached the door and departed.
After receiving the salutations of the newcomer, the Countess looked around to find Olivier, to resume with him the talk in which she had been interested. Not seeing him, she asked:
"What, has the great man gone?"
"I believe so, my dear," her husband answered; "I just saw him going away in the English fashion."
She was surprised, reflected a few moments, and then began to talk to the Marquis.
Her intimate friends, however, discreetly took their leave early, for, so soon after her affliction, she had only half-opened her door, as it were.
When she found herself again lying on her bed, all the griefs that had assailed her in the country reappeared. They took a more distinct form; she felt them more keenly. She realized that she was growing old!
That evening, for the first time, she had understood that, in her own drawing-room, where until now she alone had been admired, complimented, flattered, loved, another, her daughter, was taking her place. She had comprehended this suddenly, when feeling that everyone's homage was paid to Annette. In that kingdom, the house of a pretty woman, where she will permit no one to overshadow her, where she eliminated with discreet and unceasing care all disadvantageous comparisons, where she allows the entrance of her equals only to attempt to make them her vassals, she saw plainly that her daughter was about to become the sovereign. How strange had been that contraction of her heart when all eyes were turned upon Annette as Bertin held her by the hand standing before the portrait! She herself felt as if she had suddenly disappeared, dispossessed, dethroned. Everyone looked at Annette; no one had a glance for her any more! She was so accustomed to hear compliments and flattery, whenever her portrait was admired, she was so sure of eulogistic phrases, which she had little regarded but which pleased her nevertheless, that this desertion of herself, this unexpected defection, this admiration intended wholly for her daughter, had moved, astonished, and hurt her more than if it had been a question of no matter what rivalry under any kind of conditions.
But, as she had one of those natures which, in all crises, after the first blow, react, struggle, and find arguments for consolation, she reasoned that, once her dear little daughter should be married, when they should no longer live under the same roof, she herself would no longer be compelled to endure that incessant comparison which was beginning to be too painful for her under the eyes of her friend Olivier.
But the shock had been too much for her that evening. She was feverish and hardly slept at all. In the morning she awoke weary and overcome by extreme lassitude, and then within her surged up an irresistible longing to be comforted again, to be succored, to ask help from someone who could cure all her ills, all her moral and physical ailments.
Indeed, she felt so ill at ease and weak that she had an idea of consulting her physician. Perhaps she was about to be seriously affected, for it was not natural that in a few hours she should pass through those successive phases of suffering and relief. So she sent him a telegram, and awaited his coming.
He arrived about eleven o'clock. He was one of those dignified, fashionable physicians whose decorations and titles guarantee their ability, whose tact at least equals mere skill, and who have, above all, when treating women, an adroitness that is surer than medicines.
He entered, bowed, looked at his patient, and said with a smile: "Come, this is not a very grave case. With eyes like yours one is never very ill."
She felt immediate gratitude to him for this beginning, and told him of her troubles, her weakness, her nervousness and melancholy; then she mentioned, without laying too much stress on the matter, her alarmingly ill appearance. After listening to her with an attentive air, though asking no questions except as to her appetite, as if he knew well the secret nature of this feminine ailment, he sounded her, examined her, felt of her shoulders with the tips of his fingers, lifted her arms, having undoubtedly met her thought and understood with the shrewdness of a practitioner who lifts all veils that she was consulting him more for her beauty than for her health. Then he said:
"Yes, we are a little anemic, and have some nervous troubles. That is not surprising, since you have experienced such a great affliction. I will write you a little prescription that will set you right again. But above all, you must eat strengthening food, take beef-tea, no water, but drink beer. I will indicate an excellent brand. Do not tire yourself by late hours, but walk as much as you can. Sleep a good deal and grow a little plumper. This is all that I can advise you, my fair patient."
She had listened to him with deep interest, trying to guess at what his words implied. She caught at the last word.
"Yes, I am too thin," said she. "I was a little too stout at one time, and perhaps I weakened myself by dieting."
"Without any doubt. There is no harm in remaining thin when one has always been so; but when one grows thin on principle it is always at the expense of something else. Happily, that can be soon remedied. Good-bye, Madame."
She felt better already, more alert; and she wished to send for the prescribed beer for her breakfast, at its headquarters, in order to obtain it quite fresh.
She was just leaving the table when Bertin was announced.
"It is I, again," said he, "always I. I have come to ask you something. Have you anything particular to do this afternoon?"
"No, nothing. Why?"
"Then, can you come to the studio about four o'clock?"
"Yes, but for what purpose?"
"I am sketching the face of my Reverie, of which I spoke to you when I asked you whether Annette might pose for me a few moments. It would render me a great service if I could have her for only an hour to-day. Will you?"
The Countess hesitated, annoyed, without knowing the reason why. But she replied:
"Very well, my friend; we shall be with you at four o'clock."
"Thank you! You are goodness itself!"
He went away to prepare his canvas and study his subject, so that he need not tire his model too much.
Then the Countess went out alone, on foot, to finish her shopping. She went down to the great central streets, then walked slowly up the Boulevard Malesherbes, for she felt as if her limbs were breaking. As she passed Saint Augustin's, she was seized with a desire to enter the church and rest. She pushed open the door, sighed with satisfaction in breathing the cool air of the vast nave, took a chair and sat down.
She was religious as very many Parisians are religious. She believed in God without a doubt, not being able to admit the existence of the universe without the existence of a creator. But associating, as does everyone, the attributes of divinity with the nature of the created matter that she beheld with her own eyes, she almost personified the Eternal God with what she knew of His work, without having a very clear idea as to what this mysterious Maker might really be.
She believed in Him firmly, adored Him theoretically, feared Him very vaguely, for she did not profess to understand His intentions or His will, having a very limited confidence in the priests, whom she regarded merely as the sons of peasants revolting from military service. Her father, a middle-class Parisian, never had imposed upon her any particular principles of devotion, and she had lived on thinking little about religious matters until her marriage. Then, her new station in life indicating more strictly her apparent duties toward the Church, she had conformed punctiliously to this light servitude, as do so many of her station.