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   Chapter 2 THE SOUL IN AGONY. TO MONSIEUR CLAUDE DE L————

Monsieur, Madame, and Bebe -- C By Gustave Droz Characters: 17277

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:02


Seminary of P---sur-C----

(Haute-Saone).

It affords me unspeakable pleasure to sit down to address you, dear Claude. Must I tell you that I can not think without pious emotion of that life which but yesterday we were leading together at the Jesuits' College. How well I remember our long talks under the great trees, the pious pilgrimages we daily made to the Father Superior's Calvary, our charming readings, the darting forth of our two souls toward the eternal source of all greatness and all goodness. I can still see the little chapel which you fitted up one day in your desk, the pretty wax tapers we made for it, which we lighted one day during the cosmography class.

Oh, sweet recollections, how dear you are to me! Charming details of a calm and holy life, with what happiness do I recall you! Time in separating you from me seems only to have brought you nearer in recollection. I have seen life, alas! during these six long months, but, in acquiring a knowledge of the world, I have learned to love still more the innocent ignorance of my past existence. Wiser than myself, you have remained in the service of the Lord; you have understood the divine mission which had been reserved for you; you have been unwilling to step over the profane threshold and to enter the world, that cavern, I ought to say, in which I am now assailed, tossed about like a frail bark during a tempest. Nay, the anger of the waves of the sea compared to that of the passions is mere child's play. Happy friend, who art ignorant of what I have learned. Happy friend, whose eyes have not yet measured the abyss into which mine are already sunk.

But what was I to do? Was I not obliged-despite my vocation and the tender friendship which called me to your side-was I not obliged, I say, to submit to the exigencies imposed by the name I bear, and also to the will of my father, who destined me for a military career in order to defend a noble cause which you too would defend? In short, I obeyed and quitted the college of the Fathers never to return again.

I went into the world, my heart charged with the salutary fears which our pious education had caused to grow up there. I advanced cautiously, but very soon recoiled horror-stricken. I am eighteen; I am still young, I know, but I have already reflected much, while the experience of my pious instructors has imparted to my soul a precocious maturity which enables me to judge of many things; besides my faith is so firmly established and so deeply rooted in my being, that I can look about me without danger. I do not fear for my own salvation, but I am shocked when I think of the future of our modern society, and I pray the Lord fervently, from a heart untainted by sin, not to turn away His countenance in wrath from our unhappy country. Even here, at the seat of my cousin, the Marchioness K---de C---, where I am at the present moment, I can discover nothing but frivolity among the men, and dangerous coquetry among the women. The pernicious atmosphere of the period seems to pervade even the highest rank of the French aristocracy. Sometimes discussions occur on matters pertaining to science and morals, which aim a kind of indirect blow at religion itself, of which our Holy Father the Pope should alone be called on to decide. In this way God permits, at the present day, certain petty savants, flat-headed men of science, to explain in a novel fashion the origin of humanity, and, despite the excommunication which will certainly overtake them, to throw down a wild and impious challenge at the most venerable traditions.

I have not myself desired to be enlightened in regard to such base depravity, but I have heard with poignant grief men with great minds and illustrious names attach some importance to it.

As to manners and customs, they are, without being immoral, which would be out of the question in our society, distinguished by a frivolity and a faculty for being carried away with allurements which are shocking in the extreme. I will only give you a single example of this, although it is one that has struck me most forcibly.

Ten minutes' walk from the house there is a charming little stream overshadowed by spreading willows; the current is slight, the water pellucid, and the bed covered with sand so fine that one's feet sink into it like a carpet. Now, would you believe it, dear friend, that, in this hot weather, all those staying at the house go at the same time, together, and, without distinction of sex, bathe in it? A simple garment of thin stuff, and very tight, somewhat imperfectly screens the strangely daring modesty of the ladies. Forgive me, my pious friend, for entering into all these details, and for troubling the peacefulness of your soul by this picture of worldly scenes, but I promised to share with you my impressions, as well as my most secret thoughts. It is a sacred contract which I am fulfilling.

I will, therefore, acknowledge that these bathing scenes shocked me greatly, the first time I heard them spoken of. I resented it with a species of disgust easy to understand, while I positively refused to take part in them. To speak the truth, I was chafed a little; still, these worldly railleries could not touch me, and had no effect on my determination.

Yesterday, however, about five in the afternoon, the Marchioness sent for me, and managed the affair so neatly, that it was impossible for me not to act as her escort.

We started. The maid carried the bathing costumes both of the Marchioness and of my sister, who was to join us later.

"I know," said my cousin, "that you swim well; the fame of your abilities has reached us here from your college. You are going to teach me to float, eh, Robert?"

"I do not set much store by such paltry physical acquirements, cousin," I replied; "I swim fairly, nothing more."

And I turned my head to avoid an extremely penetrating aroma with which her hair was impregnated. You know very well that I am subject to nervous attacks.

"But, my dear child, physical advantages are not so much to be despised."

This "dear child" displeased me much. My cousin is twenty-six, it is true, but I am no longer, properly speaking, a "dear child," and besides, it denoted a familiarity which I did not care for. It was, on the part of the Marchioness, one of the consequences of that frivolity of mind, that carelessness of speech which I mentioned above, and nothing more; still, I was shocked at it. She went on:

"Exaggerated modesty is not good form in society," she said, turning toward me with a smile. "You will, in time, make a very handsome cavalier, my dear Robert, and that which you now lack is easy to acquire. For instance, you should have your hair dressed by the Marquis's valet. He will do it admirably, and then you will be charming."

You must understand, my dear Claude, that I met these advances with a frigidity of manner that left no doubt as to my intentions.

"I repeat, my cousin," said I to her, "I attach to all this very little importance," and I emphasized my words by a firm and icy look. Then only, for I had not before cast my eyes on her, did I notice the peculiar elegance of her toilette, an elegance for which, unhappily, the perishable beauty of her person served as a pretext and an encouragement.

Her arms were bare, and her wrists covered with bracelets; the upper part of her neck was insufficiently veiled by the too slight fabric of a transparent gauze; in short, the desire to please was displayed in her by all the details of her appearance. I was stirred at the aspect of so much frivolity, and I felt myself blush for pity, almost for shame.

We reached, at length, the verge of the stream. She loosed my arm and unceremoniously slid down, I can not say seated herself, upon the grass, throwing back the long curls depending from her chignon. The word chignon, in the language of society, denotes that prominence of the cranium which is to be seen at the back of ladies' heads. It is produced by making coils or plaits of their long hair. I have cause to believe, from certain allusions I have heard, that many of these chignons are not natural. There are women, most worthy daughters of Eve, who purchase for gold the hair-horyesco referens-of the wretched or the dead. It sickens one.

"It is excessively hot, my dear cousin," said she, fanning herself. "I tremble every moment in such weather lest Monsieur de Beaurenard's nose should explode or catch fire. Ha, ha, ha. Upon my word of honor I do."

She exploded with laughter at this joke, an unbecoming one, and without much point. Monsieur d

e Beaurenard is a friend of the Marquis, who happens to have a high color. Out of politeness, I forced a smile, which she, no doubt, took for approbation, for she then launched out into conversation-an indescribable flow of chatter, blending the most profane sentiments with the strangest religious ideas, the quiet of the country with the whirl of society, and all this with a freedom of gesture, a charm of expression, a subtlety of glance, and a species of earthly poesy, by which any other soul than mine would have been seduced.

"This is a pretty spot, this charming little nook, is it not?"

"Certainly, my dear cousin."

"And these old willows with their large tops overhanging the stream; see how the field-flowers cluster gayly about their battered trunks! How strange, too, that young foliage, so elegant, so silvery, those branches so slender and so supple! So much elegance, freshness and youth shooting up from that old trunk which seems as if accursed!"

"God does not curse a vegetable, my cousin."

"That is possible; but I can not help finding in willows something which is suggestive of humanity. Perpetual old age resembles punishment. That old reprobate of the bank there is expiating and suffering, that old Quasimodo of the fields. What would you that I should do about it, my cousin, for that is the impression that it gives me? What is there to tell me that the willow is not the final incarnation of an impenitent angler?" And she burst out laughing.

"Those are pagan ideas, and as such are so opposed to the dogmas of faith, that I am obliged, in order to explain their coming from your mouth, to suppose that you are trying to make a fool of me."

"Not the least in the world; I am not making fun of you, my dear Robert. You are not a baby, you know! Come, go and get ready for a swim; I will go into my dressing-tent and do the same."

She saluted me with her hand, as she lifted one of the sides of the tent, with unmistakable coquetry. What a strange mystery is the heart of woman!

I sought out a spot shaded by the bushes, thinking over these things; but it was not long before I had got into my bathing costume. I thought of you, my pious friend, as I was buttoning the neck and the wrists of this conventional garment. How many times have you not helped me to execute this little task about which I was so awkward. Briefly, I entered the water and was about to strike out when the sound of the marchioness's voice assailed my ears. She was talking with her maid inside the tent. I stopped and listened; not out of guilty curiosity, I can assure you, but out of a sincere wish to become better acquainted with that soul.

"No, no, Julie," the marchioness was saying. "No, no; I won't hear you say any more about that frightful waterproof cap. The water gets inside and does not come out. Twist up my hair in a net; nothing more is required."

"Your ladyship's hair will get wet."

"Then you can powder it. Nothing is better for drying than powder. And so, I shall wear my light blue dress this evening; blond powder will go with it exactly. My child, you are becoming foolish. I told you to shorten my bathing costume, by taking it up at the knees. Just see what it looks like!"

"I was fearful that your ladyship would find it too tight for swimming."

"Tight! Then why have you taken it in three good inches just here? See how it wrinkles up; it is ridiculous, don't you see it, my girl, don't you see it?"

The sides of the tent were moved; and I guessed that my cousin was somewhat impatiently assuming the costume in question, in order the better to point out its defects to her maid.

"I don't want to look as if I were wound up in a sheet, but yet I want to be left freedom of action. You can not get it into your head, Julie, that this material will not stretch. You see now that I stoop a little-Ah! you see it at last, that's well."

Weak minds! Is it not true, my pious friend, that there are those who can be absorbed by such small matters? I find these preoccupations to be so frivolous that I was pained at being even the involuntary recipient of them, and I splashed the water with my hands to announce my presence and put a stop to a conversation which shocked me.

"I am coming to you, Robert; get into the water. Has your sister arrived yet?" said my cousin, raising her voice; then softly, and addressing her maid, she added: "Yes, of course, lace it tightly. I want support."

One side of the tent was raised, and my relative appeared. I know not why I shuddered, as if at the approach of some danger. She advanced two or three steps on the fine sand, drawing from her fingers as she did so, the gold rings she was accustomed to wear; then she stopped, handed them to Julie, and, with a movement which I can see now, but which it is impossible for me to describe to you, kicked off into the grass the slippers, with red bows, which enveloped her feet.

She had only taken three paces, but it sufficed to enable me to remark the singularity of her gait. She walked with short, timid steps, her bare arms close to her sides.

She had divested herself of all the outward tokens of a woman, save the tresses of her hair, which were rolled up in a net. As for the rest, she was a comical-looking young man, at once slender yet afflicted by an unnatural plumpness, one of those beings who appear to us in dreams, and in the delirium of fever, one of those creatures toward whom an unknown power attracts us, and who resemble angels too nearly not to be demons.

"Well, Robert, of what are you thinking? Give me your hand and help me to get into the water."

She dipped the toes of her arched foot into the pellucid stream.

"This always gives one a little shock, but the water ought to be delightful to-day," said she. "But what is the matter with you?-your hand shakes. You are a chilly mortal, cousin."

The fact is, I was not trembling either through fear or cold; but on approaching the Marchioness, the sharp perfume which emanated from her hair went to my head, and with my delicate nerves you will readily understand that I was about to faint. I mastered this sensation, however. She took a firm grip of my hand, as one would clasp the knob of a cane or the banister of a stair, and we advanced into the stream side by side.

As we advanced the stream became deeper. The Marchioness, as the water rose higher, gave vent to low cries of fear resembling the hiss of a serpent; then she broke out into ringing bursts of laughter, and drew closer and closer to me. Finally, she stopped, and turning she looked straight into my eyes. I felt then that moment was a solemn one. I thought a hidden precipice was concealed at my feet, my heart throbbed as if it would burst, and my head seemed to be on fire.

"Come now, teach me to float on my back, Robert. Legs straight and extended, arms close to the body, that's the way, is it not?"

"Yes, my dear cousin, and move your hands gently under you."

"Very good; here goes, then. One, two, three-off! Oh, what a little goose I am, I'm afraid! Oh cousin, support me, just a little bit."

That was the moment when I ought to have said to her: "No, Madame, I am not the man to support coquettes, and I will not." But I did not dare say that; my tongue remained silent, and I passed my arm round the Marchioness's waist, in order to support her more easily.

Alas! I had made a mistake; perhaps an irreparable one.

In that supreme moment it was but too true that I adored her seductive charms. Let me cut it short. When I held her thus it seemed to me that all the blood in my body rushed back to my heart-a deadly thrill ran through every limb-from shame and indignation, no doubt; my vision became obscure; it seemed as if my soul was leaving my body, and I fell forward fainting, and dragged her down to the bottom of the water in a mortal clutch.

I heard a loud cry. I felt her arms interlace my neck, her clenched fingers sink deep into my flesh, and all was over. I had lost consciousness.

When I came to myself I was lying on the grass. Julie was chafing my hands, and the Marchioness, in her bathing-dress, which was streaming with water, was holding a vinaigrette to my nose. She looked at me severely, although in her glance there was a shade of pleased satisfaction, the import of which escaped me.

"Baby! you great baby!" said she.

Now that you know all the facts, my pious friend, bestow on me the favor of your counsel, and thank heaven that you live remote from scenes like these.

With heart and soul,

Your sincere friend,

ROBERT DE K---DEC---.

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