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   Chapter 21 THE LAST APPEAL.

The Son of Clemenceau, A Novel of Modern Love and Life By Alexandre Dumas Characters: 14005

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


In the large room where Césarine was to achieve her crowning act of treachery, she and her husband were closeted. On the latter's unruffled brow not even her feline gaze could read what a perfect acquaintance he possessed with all her past and her purposed moves.

"Your maid tells me that you wished to speak to me," he said.

"It is necessary, on the eve of a change in our mode of life, so extreme as a home broken up in favor of a stay at a hotel."

"I am listening to you," he said curtly.

"If I were to say to you that I love you, what would be your answer?" she said, changing the subject and her tone entirely.

"Nothing! I might wonder what new evil you intended to commit to my prejudice. Pure curiosity for you can do nothing more with me."

She was convinced of that, and she thrilled with all the irritation of a woman who has lost her power of fascination over even one man.

"Admitting that I cannot do you any harm," she said, "others may and, perhaps a great deal. Would you believe that I love you at least if my pledge of love consisted in my aiding you to repel the harm and to triumph over your enemies at the risk of the greatest danger to myself?"

He shook his head resolutely.

"What other proof do you want?"

He intimated that he could do without any aid from her.

"I am sincere, I swear it!" she exclaimed.

"On what can you swear?"

"It would appear that you, whom people rate as a saint, and so just, do not believe in repentance?"

"I do!"

"Then, I repent," said she, rolling her eyes like Magdalen in a Guido picture.

"No; those repenting do not say so before they prove it-they give the evidence and do not boast."

"But what if I have no time to wait?" she said piteously. "What if it is necessary for my soul's sake and perhaps for yours, that I should tell you at once what I intended to exhibit gradually when I arrived? make the effort to believe me without delay, for one single minute may redeem my blackened life and save all to come. Is it so hard for you to listen to me, and to believe me?" she wailed. "It would only be renewing an old habit of yours, for you used to love me, and ardently, too! The first kiss you ever gave to a woman, and the only ones you ever received from a woman, are mine! you see I do not doubt you, though appearances were against you when I returned to this house. All your chastity-enthusiasm-energy, love and faith-all were poured into this bosom. Can these things be forgotten? No, no, never! I am sure that when a man like you loves a woman like me, her memory never leaves him."

"You mistake!" he said dryly.

"And you, if you think that those fops at the marchioness' were not tricked and fooled by me! even the cheat who induced me to leave my home-you see, I am frank-he was my dupe, and I saw all the time his inferiority to the husband whom I quitted. In that case, it was a fortune that tempted me, for you know how pressed we were! But when alone, sobered-horrified by the warning conveyed in the sudden death of that man, I valued you correctly, and saw that I loved you above all men. I was subjected to the power of goodness and loving which is enthroned in you. All of a sudden, as you fell in love, I adored you, and if only you could have been kept in ignorance of what I did, there would have been no wife more faithful, devoted, submissive and loving than your own Césarine."

"Did I not forgive you when I learned of your faults?" he reproached her.

"True, you pardoned me," she answered, "but loftily, as one at a distance, shaking me off and regaining possession of yourself. In short, ceasing to be a man. You led me to see that you would no longer believe me, because I had once told a lie. Your behavior was grand, noble and lofty, for any other man would have whipped me out of his house like a cur; and yet I ought not to have been treated so."

"How? like a daughter of the Vieradlers-though you are probably not one?"

"You should have abused me, trampled me under foot, even-but then forgiven me like an erring man. I am earthly-worldly-and I do not understand grand sentiments and half-forgiveness."

There was some sense in her argument, but arguments would not have any effect on a character like his, which losing esteem once, was not to be deceived again. He had not required Hedwig's revelation about the web of treachery spun around him to be invulnerable to the pleading one. Her murder of her infant had ruined her irredeemably. Over it he had shed tears, though it was more in her image than his and, she had offered no one!

"Are we women more angelic than you men," she exclaimed the more feverishly, as she felt she was not gaining ground and that over the crumbling edge of which she vaguely hoped to climb, he would not stretch a hand in help. "Are faults, errors and failures your privilege, as force is? Did I really care for any of those men? Do I even recall one of them? It was only in rage and spite against your coldness that I went over to the marchioness. I ran to these flirtations to forget, as I would have taken morphine to sleep. But I have not forgotten you, and I have not slept off my love for you, and this is the truth!"

He made an impatient gesture.

"In short, nobody could wile away my heart. All those men together would not equal such a one as you, whom I loved and longed for. I do not wish to live-I was really ill in Paris, though you will not believe a word of it, and will not trouble to learn that I speak the truth-so ill that I sat at death's door and the peeping in terrified me. In that black cavern there was no love-light, and I crave for love! Then I discovered that I could not live without you, and that I was right to forgive you so much, though you will not forgive me heartily a little. See how abject I am! You are the master, but do not abuse your power. If I have no soul-inspire me with one-animate the statue of white clay-or share with me your own. We are bound to each other by sacred ties, and the marriage law must have been made by those who forsaw that the noblest and most generous of men might be wedded to the most guilty of women, but that he would save her. Rescue me!" she cried, sinking upon her knees.

"I am ready; what do you want?" he said in moved voice so that at last she began to hope.

"Forget my faults and the wrong they have caused you. I want you to forgive me everything up to the present minute-proudly hurl the past into dead eternity and make all that ought not to have been like what never was. Lastly, I crave for our departure for a change of sun and air and sky, so that the woman I mean to become henceforward should never be reminded for a single instant of the wretch that I was. Oh, let us live no more but for each other-you entirely mine as I entirely your own!"

Almost carried away by the eloquent outburst, Clemenceau had but one thought to cling to and hold him in the flood. His work of patriotism!

"Your work? well, there

should be no work where love presides! after all," she continued, rising and venturing to slide her arms upon his shoulders, "you only toiled because you believed I did not love you. You tried to become celebrated only because you were not happy. You were a student when I opened the book of love to you and the little I showed you to read gave you the yearning for more. Labor came after love. When I caused you pain, you looked for consolation and you owe your genius to me. Genius understands or divines everything, and knows what human weakness is. Ah, if you had been weak and I mighty, how gladly I would have pardoned you! Had you done any wrong-if you were wrung by remorse like most of us-what joy to make you forget it. But no, you are honor itself, and I lose all hope?"

"Poor creature!" sighed he, but still like marble though her arms enfolded him and palpitate warm unlike serpents whose coils their curves resembled.

"You pity me?" she murmured coaxingly, although he did not thaw under her tightening clasp; "then, you agree?"

He shook his head. As usual, when perversity defends, the pleading reached the judge too late. Her pressure became irksome, he thought of the devilfish tightening its rings till fatal, and, by an effort, irresistible while gentle, he disengaged himself from her arms. They dropped inert by her panting sides as if broken. But only for an instant her defeat overpowered her.

"I see," she exclaimed, with a great change in her tone, "there is no more room in the heart which I deserted! You have replaced me with that Rebecca!"

"It is true I love her," her rejoined, "but not as you suppose. Do not try to understand how, for you cannot understand. Heaven knows that I would have wished to associate you with me in the same love and the same glory, but it is impossible. Once we were ships in company, sailing side by side-I thought with the same sailing orders-but you stole away in the night and I have had to direct my course alone toward a sea eternally forbidden to you. Oh, if you only knew how far I am already from you! The being who speaks to me by your lips is not known to me-I see her not! I do not know who you are. The only bond between us is the chain the law imposes-let us carry it between us but each with the share apart."

"What is to become of me?" cried Césarine, forced to try her last weapon. "You picked up a starving boy on the road and was kind to him. I am an outcast at your feet, hungry for love-succor me, no less kindly! I am a living creature, and I may be taught many things. Utilize me by your intelligence. Can I not be your pupil, your helper, your assistant? Do for me what Daniels has done for his daughter-initiate me into science, explain your labels to me and, associate me in your work."

"Teach you what you would sell!" he burst forth at the end of his endurance.

"Can you believe that?" she faltered, receding a step, turning white and trembling in the fear that he knew all.

"Believe? I am certain that you are lying now as always!" he thundered. "It is impossible that your remorse should be sincere; it must mask some infamy. You have perpetrated faults which are unattended by remorse. Enough! If I am wrong, and you really do repent, it will not take a minute, but years for you to be believed, and it does not concern me. Apply to the Church, which alone can redeem and absolve such culprits as you."

Convinced that she had lost the battle and forgetting her cunning, Madame Clemenceau threw off the veil and showed herself the direct offspring of the infernal regions. Her voice sounded like the hiss of fiery serpents, and her frame quivered as if she stood in a current of consuming vapor. Her eyes, too, wore that painful expression of depth of agony as though her disappointment were excruciating. With his pardon, love, protection and fortune, she might have defied Von Sendlingen and his league, but, alone, she was a stormy petrel flapping its insignificant pinions in the face of the God of Storms. Felix refused to be cheated by her and she was lost. But the criminal hates to stand alone in the dock; she wished to be terribly avenged because he was so great and so implacable. She would show that she could be extreme, too; if she were not encouraged to love, she would hate.

"Oh, you pitiless one, because you have right on your side and your conscience," she screamed; "I will drag you down with me into curses and blasphemies, and others as well! whoever you hold dear shall perish with us!"

"My father was threatened in the same way," retorted Clemenceau. "He had not the patience I enjoy. Had he but waited a little, the viper would have died in her own venomous slime!"

"Then you will not kill me as your murderer did my aunt?"

"No! you have wrecked my happiness, my home, my private life, but I forgive you, and that is your punishment. You have cast your wicked, unholy lures about my adopted son, Antonino, but I overlook this because he will repulse you and, that will be an augmentation of your punishment. You threaten Rebecca Daniels, but such are protected by the great Giver of good and, that is again an augmentation of your punishment. No, I will not hurt you-I would not kill one to whom long life-as it was to your witch grandmother, embitters every fraction of time. Live! and, remember, if you are here when I return, that our paths diverge forever here and beyond the earth!"

She had sunk in a heap on the tiger-skin rug and her hair, loosened by accident or perhaps by design, streamed in a sheet of graven gold over her faultless shoulders. Through this shimmering net, her tears flowed, detached like strung diamonds scattered from the thread. But her weeping and her attitude were thrown away, for she heard his step as regular as a soldier's, leaving the room, crossing the vestibule and taking him out to where the carriage wheels ground the gravel. Von Sendlingen had gone; the Daniels were descending the stairs; even the servants gave no sign of life. Already the doomed house began to sound with those dull echoes when spectres promenade where human tenants have dwelt. Under ordinary conditions, her place was to speed the parting guests, but her farewell to Rebecca had expressed her sentiments, and she dared not risk another contest of wits with the Hebrew.

She heard the horse's hoofs and the wheels beat the sand, and the click of the gate closing after the vehicle. The silence of death fell on the deserted house.

"I am alone," she said, sitting up but not rising.

"Now it will be everyone for himself and myself upon the side of evil, where they forced me to rank."

Hardly had she risen to her feet, very tremulous, and prepared to go to the mirror over the sideboard to re-arrange her hair, than she heard footsteps in the hall.

"Hedwig!" but listening more coolly, "no, a man!" she added, "has Von Sendlingen the audacity to enter?"

A man opened the door, but stood petrified on the threshold.

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