MoboReader> Romance > A Woodland Queen ('Reine des Bois') — Complete

   Chapter 8 LOVE’S SAD ENDING

A Woodland Queen ('Reine des Bois') — Complete By André Theuriet Characters: 42250

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The kitchen was bright with sunshine, and the industrious bees were buzzing around the flowers on the window-sills, while Reine was listlessly attending to culinary duties, and preparing her father's meal. The humiliating disclosures made by the Abbe Pernot weighed heavily upon her mind. She foresaw that Claudet would shortly be at La Thuiliere in order to hear the result of the cure's visit; but she did not feel sufficiently mistress of herself to have a decisive interview with him at such short notice, and resolved to gain at least one day by absenting herself from the farm. It seemed to her necessary that she should have that length of time to arrange her ideas, and evolve some way of separating Claudet and herself without his suspecting the real motive of rupture. So, telling La Guite to say that unexpected business had called her away, she set out for the woods of Maigrefontaine.

Whenever she had felt the need of taking counsel with herself before deciding on any important matter, the forest had been her refuge and her inspiration. The refreshing solitude of the valleys, watered by living streams, acted as a strengthening balm to her irresolute will; her soul inhaled the profound peace of these leafy retreats. By the time she had reached the inmost shade of the forest her mind had become calmer, and better able to unravel the confusion of thoughts that surged like troubled waters through her brain. The dominant idea was, that her self-respect had been wounded; the shock to her maidenly modesty, and the shame attendant upon the fact, affected her physically, as if she had been belittled and degraded by a personal stain; and this downfall caused her deep humiliation. By slow degrees, however, and notwithstanding this state of abject despair, she felt, cropping up somewhere in her heart, a faint germ of gladness, and, by close examination, discovered its origin: she was now loosed from her obligations toward Claudet, and the prospect of being once more free afforded her immediate consolation.

She had so much regretted, during the last few weeks, the feeling of outraged pride which had incited her to consent to this marriage; her loyal, sincere nature had revolted at the constraint she had imposed upon herself; her nerves had been so severely taxed by having to receive her fiance with sufficient warmth to satisfy his expectations, and yet not afford any encouragement to his demonstrative tendencies, that the certainty of her newly acquired freedom created a sensation of relief and well-being. But, hardly had she analyzed and acknowledged this sensation when she reproached herself for harboring it when she was about to cause Claudet such affliction.

Poor Claudet! what a cruel blow was in store for him! He was so guilelessly in love, and had such unbounded confidence in the success of his projects! Reine was overcome by tender reminiscences. She had always experienced, as if divining by instinct the natural bonds which united them, a sisterly affection for Claudet. Since their earliest infancy, at the age when they learned their catechism under the church porch, they had been united in a bond of friendly fellowship. With Reine, this tender feeling had always remained one of friendship, but, with Claudet, it had ripened into love; and now, after allowing the poor young fellow to believe that his love was reciprocated, she was forced to disabuse him. It was useless for her to try to find some way of softening the blow; there was none. Claudet was too much in love to remain satisfied with empty words; he would require solid reasons; and the only conclusive one which would convince him, without wounding his self-love, was exactly the one which the young girl could not give him. She was, therefore, doomed to send Claudet away with the impression that he had been jilted by a heartless and unprincipled coquette. And yet something must be done. The grand chasserot had been too long already in the toils; there was something barbarously cruel in not freeing him from his illusions.

In this troubled state of mind, Reine gazed appealingly at the silent witnesses of her distress. She heard a voice within her saying to the tall, vaulted ash, "Inspire me!" to the little rose-colored centaurea of the wayside, "Teach me a charm to cure the harm I have done!" But the woods, which in former days had been her advisers and instructors, remained deaf to her invocation. For the first time, she felt herself isolated and abandoned to her own resources, even in the midst of her beloved forest.

It is when we experience these violent mental crises, that we become suddenly conscious of Nature's cold indifference to our sufferings. She really is nothing more than the reflex of our own sensations, and can only give us back what we lend her. Beautiful but selfish, she allows herself to be courted by novices, but presents a freezing, emotionless aspect to those who have outlived their illusions.

Reine did not reach home until the day had begun to wane. La Guite informed her that Claudet had waited for her during part of the afternoon, and that he would come again the next day at nine o'clock. Notwithstanding her bodily fatigue, she slept uneasily, and her sleep was troubled by feverish dreams. Every time she closed her eyes, she fancied herself conversing with Claudet, and woke with a start at the sound of his angry voice.

She arose at dawn, descended at once to the lower floor, to get through her morning tasks, and as soon as the big kitchen clock struck nine, she left the house and took the path by which Claudet would come. A feeling of delicate consideration toward her lover had impelled her to choose for her explanation any other place than the one where she had first received his declaration of love, and consented to the marriage. Very soon he came in sight, his stalwart figure outlined against the gray landscape. He was walking rapidly; her heart smote her, her hands became like ice, but she summoned all her fortitude, and went bravely forward to meet him.

When he came within forty or fifty feet, he recognized Reine, and took a short cut across the stubble studded with cobwebs glistening with dew.

"Aha! my Reine, my queen, good-morning!" cried he, joyously, "it is sweet of you to come to meet me!"

"Good-morning, Claudet. I came to meet you because I wish to speak with you on matters of importance, and I preferred not to have the conversation take place in our house. Shall we walk as far as the Planche-au-Vacher?"

He stopped short, astonished at the proposal and also at the sad and resolute attitude of his betrothed. He examined her more closely, noticed her deep-set eyes, her cheeks, whiter than usual.

"Why, what is the matter, Reine?" he inquired; "you are not yourself; do you not feel well?"

"Yes, and no. I have passed a bad night, thinking over matters that are troubling me, and I think that has produced some fever."

"What matters? Any that concern us?"

"Yes;" replied she, laconically.

Claudet opened his eyes. The young girl's continued gravity began to alarm him; but, seeing that she walked quickly forward, with an absent air, her face lowered, her brows bent, her mouth compressed, he lost courage and refrained from asking her any questions. They walked on thus in silence, until they came to the open level covered with juniper-bushes, from which solitary place, surrounded by hawthorn hedges, they could trace the narrow defile leading to Vivey, and the faint mist beyond.

"Let us stop here," said Reine, seating herself on a flat, mossy stone, "we can talk here without fear of being disturbed."

"No fear of that," remarked Claudet, with a forced smile, "with the exception of the shepherd of Vivey, who comes here sometimes with his cattle, we shall not see many passers-by. It must be a secret that you have to tell me, Reine?" he added.

"No;" she returned, "but I foresee that my words will give you pain, my poor Claudet, and I prefer you should hear them without being annoyed by the farm-people passing to and fro."

"Explain yourself!" he exclaimed, impetuously. "For heaven's sake, don't keep me in suspense!"

"Listen, Claudet. When you asked my hand in marriage, I answered yes, without taking time to reflect. But, since I have been thinking over our plans, I have had scruples. My father is becoming every day more of an invalid, and in his present state I really have no right to live for any one but him. One would think he was aware of our intentions, for since you have been visiting at the farm, he is more agitated and suffers more. I think that any change in his way of living would bring on a stroke, and I never should forgive myself if I thought I had shortened his life. That is the reason why, as long as I have him with me, I do not see that it will be possible for me to dispose of myself. On the other hand, I do not wish to abuse your patience. I therefore ask you to take back your liberty and give me back my promise."

"That is to say, you won't have me!" he exclaimed.

"No; my poor friend, it means only that I shall not marry so long as my father is living, and that I can not ask you to wait until I am perfectly free. Forgive me for having entered into the engagement too carelessly, and do not on that account take your friendship from me."

"Reine," interrupted Claudet, angrily, "don't turn your brain inside out to make me believe that night is broad day. I am not a child, and I see very well that your father's health is only a pretext. You don't want me, that's all, and, with all due respect, you have changed your mind very quickly! Only the day before yesterday you authorized me to arrange about the day for the ceremony with the Abbe Pernot. Now that you have had a visit from the cure, you want to put the affair off until the week when two Sundays come together! I am a little curious to know what that confounded old abbe has been babbling about me, to turn you inside out like a glove in such a short time."

Claudet's conscience reminded him of several rare frolics, chance love-affairs, meetings in the woods, and so on, and he feared the priest might have told Reine some unfavorable stories about him. "Ah!" he continued, clenching his fists, "if this old poacher in a cassock has done me an ill turn with you, he will not have much of a chance for paradise!"

"Undeceive yourself," said Reine, quickly, "Monsieur le Cure is your friend, like myself; he esteems you highly, and never has said anything but good of you."

"Oh, indeed!" sneered the young man, "as you are both so fond of me, how does it happen that you have given me my dismissal the very day after your interview with the cure?"

Reine, knowing Claudet's violent disposition, and wishing to avoid trouble for the cure, thought it advisable to have recourse to evasion.

"Monsieur le Cure," said she, "has had no part in my decision. He has not spoken against you, and deserves no reproaches from you."

"In that case, why do you send me away?"

"I repeat again, the comfort and peace of my father are paramount with me, and I do not intend to marry so long as he may have need of me."

"Well," said Claudet, persistently, "I love you, and I will wait."

"It can not be."

"Why?"

"Because," replied she, sharply, "because it would be kind neither to you, nor to my father, nor to me. Because marriages that drag along in that way are never good for anything!"

"Those are bad reasons!" he muttered, gloomily.

"Good or bad," replied the young girl, "they appear valid to me, and I hold to them."

"Reine," said he, drawing near to her and looking straight into her eyes, "can you swear, by the head of your father, that you have given me the true reason for your rejecting me?"

She became embarrassed, and remained silent.

"See!" he exclaimed, "you dare not take the oath!"

"My word should suffice," she faltered.

"No; it does not suffice. But your silence says a great deal, I tell you! You are too frank, Reine, and you don't know how to lie. I read it in your eyes, I do. The true reason is that you do not love me."

She shrugged her shoulders and turned away her head.

"No, you do not love me. If you had any love for me, instead of discouraging me, you would hold out some hope to me, and advise me to have patience. You never have loved me, confess now!"

By dint of this persistence, Reine by degrees lost her self-confidence. She could realize how much Claudet was suffering, and she reproached herself for the torture she was inflicting upon him. Driven into a corner, and recognizing that the avowal he was asking for was the only one that would drive him away, she hesitated no longer.

"Alas!" she murmured, lowering her eyes, "since you force me to tell you some truths that I would rather have kept from you, I confess you have guessed. I have a sincere friendship for you, but that is all. I have concluded that to marry a person one ought to love him differently, more than everything else in the world, and I feel that my heart is not turned altogether toward you."

"No," said Claudet, bitterly, "it is turned elsewhere."

"What do you mean? I do not understand you."

"I mean that you love some one else."

"That is not true," she protested.

"You are blushing-a proof that I have hit the nail!"

"Enough of this!" cried she, imperiously.

"You are right. Now that you have said you don't want me any longer, I have no right to ask anything further. Adieu!"

He turned quickly on his heel. Reine was conscious of having been too hard with him, and not wishing him to go away with such a grief in his heart, she sought to retain him by placing her hand upon his arm.

"Come, Claudet," said she, entreatingly, "do not let us part in anger. It pains me to see you suffer, and I am sorry if I have said anything unkind to you. Give me your hand in good fellowship, will you?"

But Claudet drew back with a fierce gesture, and glancing angrily at Reine, he replied, rudely:

"Thanks for your regrets and your pity; I have no use for them." She understood that he was deeply hurt; gave up entreating, and turned away with eyes full of tears.

He remained motionless, his arms crossed, in the middle of the road. After some minutes, he turned his head. Reine was already nothing more than a dark speck against the gray of the increasing fog. Then he went off, haphazard, across the pasture-lands. The fog was rising slowly, and the sun, shorn of its beams, showed its pale face faintly through it. To the right and the left, the woods were half hidden by moving white billows, and Claudet walked between fluid walls of vapor. This hidden sky, these veiled surroundings, harmonized with his mental condition. It was easier for him to hide his chagrin. "Some one else! Yes; that's it. She loves some other fellow! how was it I did not find that out the very first day?" Then he recalled how Reine shrank from him when he solicited a caress; how she insisted on their betrothal being kept secret, and how many times she had postponed the date of the wedding. It was evident that she had received him only in self-defence, and on the pleading of Julien de Buxieres. Julien! the name threw a gleam of light across his brain, hitherto as foggy as the country around him. Might not Julien be the fortunate rival on whom Reine's affections were so obstinately set? Still, if she had always loved Monsieur de Buxieres, in what spirit of perversity or thoughtlessness had she suffered the advances of another suitor?

Reine was no coquette, and such a course of action would be repugnant to her frank, open nature. It was a profound enigma, which Claudet, who had plenty of good common sense, but not much insight, was unable to solve. But grief has, among its other advantages, the power of rendering our perceptions more acute; and by dint of revolving the question in his mind, Claudet at last became enlightened. Had not Reine simply followed the impulse of her wounded feelings? She was very proud, and when the man whom she secretly loved had come coolly forward to plead the cause of one who was indifferent to her, would not her self-respect be lowered, and would she not, in a spirit of bravado, accept the proposition, in order that he might never guess the sufferings of her spurned affections? There was no doubt, that, later, recognizing that the task was beyond her strength, she had felt ashamed of deceiving Claudet any longer, and, acting on the advice of the Abbe Pernot, had made up her mind to break off a union that was repugnant to her.

"Yes;" he repeated, mournfully to himself, "that must have been the way it happened." And with this kind of explanation of Reine's actions, his irritation seemed to lessen. Not that his grief was less poignant, but the first burst of rage had spent itself like a great wind-storm, which becomes lulled after a heavy fall of rain; the bitterness was toned down, and he was enabled to reason more clearly.

Julien-well, what was the part of Julien in all this disturbance? "If what I imagine is true," thought he, "Monsieur de Buxieres knows that Reine loves him, but has he any reciprocal feeling for her? With a man as mysterious as my cousin, it is not easy to find out what is going on in his heart. Anyhow, I have no right to complain of him; as soon as he discovered my love for Reine, did he not, besides ignoring his own claim, offer spontaneously to take my message? Still, there is something queer at the bottom of it all, and whatever it costs me, I am going to find it out."

At this moment, through the misty air, he heard faintly the village clock strike eleven. "Already so late! how the time flies, even when one is suffering!" He bent his course toward the chateau, and, breathless and excited, without replying to Manette's inquiries, he burst into the hall where his cousin was pacing up and down, waiting for breakfast. At this sudden intrusion Julien started, and noted Claudet's quick breathing and disordered state.

"Ho, ho!" exclaimed he, in his usual, sarcastic tone, "what a hurry you are in! I suppose you have come to say the wedding-day is fixed at last?"

"No!" replied Claudet, briefly, "there will be no wedding."

Julien tottered, and turned to face his cousin.

"What's that? Are you joking?"

"I am in no mood for joking. Reine will not have me; she has taken back her promise."

While pronouncing these words, he scrutinized attentively his cousin's countenance, full in the light from the opposite window. He saw his features relax, and his eyes glow with the same expression which he had noticed a few days previous, when he had referred to the fact that Reine had again postponed the marriage.

"Whence comes this singular change?" stammered de Buxieres, visibly agitated; "what reasons does Mademoiselle Vincart give in explanation?"

"Idle words: her father's health, disinclination to leave him. You may suppose I take such excuses for what they are worth. The real cause of her refusal is more serious and more mortifying."

"You know it, then?" exclaimed Julien, eagerly.

"I know it, because I forced Reine to confess it."

"And the reason is?"

"That she does not love me."

"Reine-does not love you!"

Again a gleam of light irradiated the young man's large, blue eyes. Claudet was leaning against the table, in front of his cousin; he continued slowly, looking him steadily in the face:

"That is not all. Not only does Reine not love me, but she loves some one else."

Julien changed color; the blood coursed over his cheeks, his forehead, his ears; he drooped his head.

"Did she tell you so?" he murmured, at last, feebly.

"She did not, but I guessed it. Her heart is won, and I think I know by whom."

Claudet had uttered these last words slowly and with a painful effort, at the same time studying Julien's countenance with renewed inquiry. The latter became more and more troubled, and his physiognomy expressed both anxiety and embarrassment.

"Whom do you suspect?" he stammered.

"Oh!" replied Claudet, employing a simple artifice to sound the obscure depth of his cousin's heart, "it is useless to name the person; you do not know him."

"A stranger?"

Julien's countenance had again changed. His hands were twitching nervously, his lips compressed, and his dilated pupils were blazing with anger, instead of triumph, as before.

"Yes; a stranger, a clerk in the iron-works at Grancey, I think."

"You think!-you think!" cried Julien, fiercely, "why don't you have more definite information before you accuse Mademoiselle Vincart of such treachery?"

He resumed pacing the hall, while his interlocutor, motionless, remained silent, and kept his eyes steadily upon him.

"It is not possible," resumed Julien, "Reine can not have played us such a trick! When I spoke to her for you, it was so easy to say she was already betrothed!"

"Perhaps," objected Claudet, shaking his head, "she had reasons for not letting you know all that was in her mind."

"What reaso

ns?"

"She doubtless believed at that time that the man she preferred did not care for her. There are some people who, when they are vexed, act in direct contradiction to their own wishes. I have the idea that Reine accepted me only for want of some one better, and afterward, being too openhearted to dissimulate for any length of time, she thought better of it, and sent me about my business."

"And you," interrupted Julien, sarcastically, "you, who had been accepted as her betrothed, did not know better how to defend your rights than to suffer yourself to be ejected by a rival, whose intentions, even, you have not clearly ascertained!"

"By Jove! how could I help it? A fellow that takes an unwilling bride is playing for too high stakes. The moment I found there was another she preferred, I had but one course before me-to take myself off."

"And you call that loving!" shouted de Buxieres, "you call that losing your heart! God in heaven! if I had been in your place, how differently I should have acted! Instead of leaving, with piteous protestations, I should have stayed near Reine, I should have surrounded her with tenderness. I should have expressed my passion with so much force that its flame should pass from my burning soul to hers, and she would have been forced to love me! Ah! If I had only thought! if I had dared! how different it would have been!"

He jerked out his sentences with unrestrained frenzy. He seemed hardly to know what he was saying, or that he had a listener. Claudet stood contemplating him in sullen silence: "Aha!" thought he, with bitter resignation; "I have sounded you at last. I know what is in the bottom of your heart."

Manette, bringing in the breakfast, interrupted their colloquy, and both assumed an air of indifference, according to a tacit understanding that a prudent amount of caution should be observed in her presence. They ate hurriedly, and as soon as the cloth was removed, and they were again alone, Julien, glancing with an indefinable expression at Claudet, muttered savagely:

"Well! what do you decide?"

"I will tell you later," responded the other, briefly.

He quitted the room abruptly, told Manette that he would not be home until late, and strode out across the fields, his dog following. He had taken his gun as a blind, but it was useless for Montagnard to raise his bark; Claudet allowed the hares to scamper away with out sending a single shot after them. He was busy inwardly recalling the details of the conversation he had had with his cousin. The situation now was simplified Julien was in love with Reine, and was vainly combating his overpowering passion. What reason had he for concealing his love? What motive or reasoning had induced him, when he was already secretly enamored of the girl, to push Claudet in front and interfere to procure her acceptance of him as a fiance? This point alone remained obscure. Was Julien carrying out certain theories of the respect due his position in society, and did he fear to contract a misalliance by marrying a mere farmer's daughter? Or did he, with his usual timidity and distrust of himself, dread being refused by Reine, and, half through pride, half through backward ness, keep away for fear of a humiliating rejection? With de Buxieres's proud and suspicious nature, each of these suppositions was equally likely. The conclusion most undeniable was, that notwithstanding his set ideas and his moral cowardice, Julien had an ardent and over powering love for Mademoiselle Vincart. As to Reine herself, Claudet was more than ever convinced that she had a secret inclination toward somebody, although she had denied the charge. But for whom was her preference? Claudet knew the neighborhood too well to believe the existence of any rival worth talking about, other than his cousin de Buxieres. None of the boys of the village or the surrounding towns had ever come courting old Father Vincart's daughter, and de Buxieres himself possessed sufficient qualities to attract Reine. Certainly, if he were a girl, he never should fix upon Julien for a lover; but women often have tastes that men can not comprehend, and Julien's refinement of nature, his bashfulness, and even his reserve, might easily have fascinated a girl of such strong will and somewhat peculiar notions. It was probable, therefore, that she liked him, and perhaps had done so for a long time; but, being clear-sighted and impartial, she could see that he never would marry her, because her condition in life was not equal to his own. Afterward, when the man she loved had flaunted his indifference so far as to plead the cause of another, her pride had revolted, and in the blind agony of her wounded feelings, she had thrown herself into the arms of the first comer, as if to punish herself for entertaining loving thoughts of a man who could so disdain her affection.

So, by means of that lucid intuition which the heart alone can furnish, Claudet at last succeeded in evolving the naked truth. But the fatiguing labor of so much thinking, to which his brain was little accustomed, and the sadness which continued to oppress him, overcame him to such an extent that he was obliged to sit down and rest on a clump of brushwood. He gazed over the woods and the clearings, which he had so often traversed light of heart and of foot, and felt mortally unhappy. These sheltering lanes and growing thickets, where he had so frequently encountered Reine, the beautiful hunting-grounds in which he had taken such delight, only awakened painful sensations, and he felt as if he should grow to hate them all if he were obliged to pass the rest of his days in their midst. As the day waned, the sinuosities of the forest became more blended; the depth of the valleys was lost in thick vapors. The wind had risen. The first falling leaves of the season rose and fell like wounded birds; heavy clouds gathered in the sky, and the night was coming on apace. Claudet was grateful for the sudden darkness, which would blot out a view now so distasteful to him. Shortly, on the Auberive side, along the winding Aubette, feeble lights became visible, as if inviting the young man to profit by their guidance. He arose, took the path indicated, and went to supper, or rather, to a pretence of supper, in the same inn where he had breakfasted with Julien, whence the latter had gone on his mission to Reine. This remembrance alone would have sufficed to destroy his appetite.

He did not remain long at table; he could not, in fact, stay many minutes in one place, and so, notwithstanding the urgent insistence of the hostess, he started on the way back to Vivey, feeling his way through the profound darkness. When he reached the chateau, every one was in bed. Noiselessly, his dog creeping after him, he slipped into his room, and, overcome with fatigue, fell into a heavy slumber.

The next morning his first visit was to Julien. He found him in a nervous and feverish condition, having passed a sleepless night. Claudet's revelations had entirely upset his intentions, and planted fresh thorns of jealousy in his heart. On first hearing that the marriage was broken off, his heart had leaped for joy, and hope had revived within him; but the subsequent information that Mademoiselle Vincart was probably interested in some lover, as yet unknown, had grievously sobered him. He was indignant at Reine's duplicity, and Claudet's cowardly resignation. The agony caused by Claudet's betrothal was a matter of course, but this love-for-a-stranger episode was an unexpected and mortal wound. He was seized with violent fits of rage; he was sometimes tempted to go and reproach the young girl with what he called her breach of faith, and then go and throw himself at her feet and avow his own passion.

But the mistrust he had of himself, and his incurable bashfulness, invariably prevented these heroic resolutions from being carried out. He had so long cultivated a habit of minute, fatiguing criticism upon every inward emotion that he had almost incapacitated himself for vigorous action.

He was in this condition when Claudet came in upon him. At the noise of the opening door, Julien raised his head, and looked dolefully at his cousin.

"Well?" said he, languidly.

"Well!" retorted Claudet, bravely, "on thinking over what has been happening during the last month, I have made sure of one thing of which I was doubtful."

"Of what were you doubtful?" returned de Buxieres, quite ready to take offence at the answer.

"I am about to tell you. Do you remember the first conversation we had together concerning Reine? You spoke of her with so much earnestness that I then suspected you of being in love with her."

"I-I-hardly remember," faltered Julien, coloring.

"In that case, my memory is better than yours, Monsieur de Buxieres. To-day, my suspicions have become certainties. You are in love with Reine Vincart!"

"I?" faintly protested his cousin.

"Don't deny it, but rather, give me your confidence; you will not be sorry for it. You love Reine, and have loved her for a long while. You have succeeded in hiding it from me because it is hard for you to unbosom yourself; but, yesterday, I saw it quite plainly. You dare not affirm the contrary!"

Julien, greatly agitated, had hidden his face in his hands. After a moment's silence, he replied, defiantly: "Well, and supposing it is so? What is the use of talking about it, since Reine's affections are placed elsewhere?"

"Oh! that's another matter. Reine has declined to have me, and I really think she has some other affair in her head. Yet, to confess the truth, the clerk at the iron-works was a lover of my own imagining; she never thought of him."

"Then why did you tell such a lie?" cried Julien, impetuously.

"Because I thought I would plead the lie to get at the truth. Forgive me for having made use of this old trick to put you on the right track. It wasn't such a bad idea, for I succeeded in finding out what you took so much pains to hide from me."

"To hide from you? Yes, I did wish to hide it from you. Wasn't that right, since I was convinced that Reine loved you?" exclaimed Julien, in an almost stifled voice, as if the avowal were choking him. "I have always thought it idle to parade one's feelings before those who do not care about them."

"You were wrong," returned poor Claudet, sighing deeply, "if you had spoken for yourself, I have an idea you would have been better received, and you would have spared me a terrible heart-breaking."

He said it with such profound sadness that Julien, notwithstanding the absorbing nature of his own thoughts, was quite overcome, and almost on the point of confessing, openly, the intensity of his feeling toward Reine Vincart. But, accustomed as he was, by long habit, to concentrate every emotion within himself, he found it impossible to become, all at once, communicative; he felt an invincible and almost maidenly bashfulness at the idea of revealing the secret sentiments of his soul, and contented himself with saying, in a low voice:

"Do you not love her any more, then?"

"I? oh, yes, indeed! But to be refused by the only girl I ever wished to marry takes all the spirit out of me. I am so discouraged, I feel like leaving the country. If I were to go, it would perhaps be doing you a service, and that would comfort me a little. You have treated me as a friend, and that is a thing one doesn't forget. I have not the means to pay you back for your kindness, but I think I should be less sorry to go if my departure would leave the way more free for you to return to La Thuiliere."

"You surely would not leave on my account?" exclaimed Julien, in alarm.

"Not solely on your account, rest assured. If Reine had loved me, it never would have entered my head to make such a sacrifice for you, but she will not have me. I am good for nothing here. I am only in your way."

"But that is a wild idea! Where would you go?"

"Oh! there would be no difficulty about that. One plan would be to go as a soldier. Why not? I am hardy, a good walker, a good shot, can stand fatigue; I have everything needed for military life. It is an occupation that I should like, and I could earn my epaulets as well as my neighbor. So that perhaps, Monsieur de Buxieres, matters might in that way be arranged to suit everybody."

"Claudet!" stammered Julien, his voice thick with sobs, "you are a better man than I! Yes; you are a better man than I!"

And, for the first time, yielding to an imperious longing for expansion, he sprang toward the grand chasserot, clasped him in his arms, and embraced him fraternally.

"I will not let you expatriate yourself on my account," he continued; "do not act rashly, I entreat!"

"Don't worry," replied Claudet, laconically, "if I so decide, it will not be without deliberation."

In fact, during the whole of the ensuing week, he debated in his mind this question of going away. Each day his position at Vivey seemed more unbearable. Without informing any one, he had been to Langres and consulted an officer of his acquaintance on the subject of the formalities required previous to enrolment.

At last, one morning he resolved to go over to the military division and sign his engagement. But he was not willing to consummate this sacrifice without seeing Reine Vincart for the last time. He was nursing, down in the bottom of his heart, a vague hope, which, frail and slender as the filament of a plant, was yet strong enough to keep him on his native soil. Instead of taking the path to Vivey, he made a turn in the direction of La Thuiliere, and soon reached the open elevation whence the roofs of the farm-buildings and the turrets of the chateau could both alike be seen. There he faltered, with a piteous sinking of the heart. Only a few steps between himself and the house, yet he hesitated about entering; not that he feared a want of welcome, but because he dreaded lest the reawakening of his tenderness should cause him to lose a portion of the courage he should need to enable him to leave. He leaned against the trunk of an old pear-tree and surveyed the forest site on which the farm was built.

The landscape retained its usual placidity. In the distance, over the waste lands, the shepherd Tringuesse was following his flock of sheep, which occasionally scattered over the fields, and then, under the dog's harassing watchfulness, reformed in a compact group, previous to descending the narrow hill-slope. One thing struck Claudet: the pastures and the woods bore exactly the same aspect, presented the same play of light and shade as on that afternoon of the preceding year, when he had met Reine in the Ronces woods, a few days before the arrival of Julien. The same bright yet tender tint reddened the crab-apple and the wild-cherry; the tomtits and the robins chirped as before, among the bushes, and, as in the previous year, one heard the sound of the beechnuts and acorns dropping on the rocky paths. Autumn went through her tranquil rites and familiar operations, always with the same punctual regularity; and all this would go on just the same when Claudet was no longer there. There would only be one lad the less in the village streets, one hunter failing to answer the call when they were surrounding the woods of Charbonniere. This dim perception of how small a space man occupies on the earth, and of the ease with which he is forgotten, aided Claudet unconsciously in his effort to be resigned, and he determined to enter the house. As he opened the gate of the courtyard, he found himself face to face with Reine, who was coming out.

The young girl immediately supposed he had come to make a last assault, in the hope of inducing her to yield to his wishes. She feared a renewal of the painful scene which had closed their last interview, and her first impulse was to put herself on her guard. Her countenance darkened, and she fixed a cold, questioning gaze upon Claudet, as if to keep him at a distance. But, when she noted the sadness of her young relative's expression, she was seized with pity. Making an effort, however, to disguise her emotion, she pretended to accost him with the calm and cordial friendship of former times.

"Why, good-morning, Claudet," said she, "you come just in time. A quarter of an hour later you would not have found me. Will you come in and rest a moment?"

"Thanks, Reine," said he, "I will not hinder you in your work. But I wanted to say, I am sorry I got angry the other day; you were right, we must not leave each other with ill-feeling, and, as I am going away for a long time, I desire first to take your hand in friendship."

"You are going away?"

"Yes; I am going now to Langres to enroll myself as a soldier. And true it is, one knows when one goes away, but it is hard to know when one will come back. That is why I wanted to say good-by to you, and make peace, so as not to go away with too great a load on my heart."

All Reine's coldness melted away. This young fellow, who was leaving his country on her account, was the companion of her infancy, more than that, her nearest relative. Her throat swelled, her eyes filled with tears. She turned away her head, that he might not perceive her emotion, and opened the kitchen-door.

"Come in, Claudet," said she, "we shall be more comfortable in the dining-room. We can talk there, and you will have some refreshment before you go, will you not?"

He obeyed, and followed her into the house. She went herself into the cellar, to seek a bottle of old wine, brought two glasses, and filled them with a trembling hand.

"Shall you remain long in the service?" asked she.

"I shall engage for seven years."

"It is a hard life that you are choosing."

"What am I to do?" replied he, "I could not stay here doing nothing."

Reine went in and out of the room in a bewildered fashion. Claudet, too much excited to perceive that the young girl's impassiveness was only on the surface, said to himself: "It is all over; she accepts my departure as an event perfectly natural; she treats me as she would Theotime, the coal-dealer, or the tax-collector Boucheseiche. A glass of wine, two or three unimportant questions, and then, good-by-a pleasant journey, and take care of yourself!"

Then he made a show of taking an airy, insouciant tone.

"Oh, well!" he exclaimed, "I've always been drawn toward that kind of life. A musket will be a little heavier than a gun, that's all; then I shall see different countries, and that will change my ideas." He tried to appear facetious, poking around the kitchen, and teasing the magpie, which was following his footsteps with inquisitive anxiety. Finally, he went up to the old man Vincart, who was lying stretched out in his picture-lined niche. He took the flabby hand of the paralytic old man, pressed it gently and endeavored to get up a little conversation with him, but he had it all to himself, the invalid staring at him all the time with uneasy, wide-open eyes. Returning to Reine, he lifted his glass.

"To your health, Reine!" said he, with forced gayety, "next time we clink glasses together, I shall be an experienced soldier-you'll see!"

But, when he put the glass to his lips, several big tears fell in, and he had to swallow them with his wine.

"Well!" he sighed, turning away while he passed the back of his hand across his eyes, "it must be time to go."

She accompanied him to the threshold.

"Adieu, Reine!"

"Adieu!" she murmured, faintly.

She stretched out both hands, overcome with pity and remorse. He perceived her emotion, and thinking that she perhaps still loved him a little, and repented having rejected him, threw his arms impetuously around her. He pressed her against his bosom, and imprinted kisses, wet with tears, upon her cheek. He could not leave her, and redoubled his caresses with passionate ardor, with the ecstasy of a lover who suddenly meets with a burst of tenderness on the part of the woman he has tenderly loved, and whom he expects never to fold again in his arms. He completely lost his self-control. His embrace became so ardent that Reine, alarmed at the sudden outburst, was overcome with shame and terror, notwithstanding the thought that the man, who was clasping her in his arms with such passion, was her own brother.

She tore herself away from him and pushed him violently back.

"Adieu!" she cried, retreating to the kitchen, of which she hastily shut the door.

Claudet stood one moment, dumfounded, before the door so pitilessly shut in his face, then, falling suddenly from his happy state of illusion to the dead level of reality, departed precipitately down the road.

When he turned to give a parting glance, the farm buildings were no longer visible, and the waste lands of the forest border, gray, stony, and barren, stretched their mute expanse before him.

"No!" exclaimed he, between his set teeth, "she never loved me. She thinks only of the other man! I have nothing more to do but go away and never return!"

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