NIGHT OF LOVE
THE WARREN PRESS
Copyright 1911, by
The Warren Press
FOR A NIGHT OF LOVE
The little town of P…. is built on a hill. At the foot of the old ramparts runs a deep brook, the Chanteclair, doubtless so named from the crystalline sound of its limpid waters. When one arrives by the Versailles road, one crosses the Chanteclair at the south gate of the city, over a stone bridge with a single arch, of which the broad parapets, low and rounded, serve as benches for all the old people of the suburbs. Opposite, rises Beau-Soleil Street, at the end of which is a silent square, Quatre-Femmes, paved with huge cobbles and invaded by a thickset weed which makes it green as a meadow. The houses sleep. Every half hour, the dragging step of a passer-by starts a dog barking behind a stable-door, and the one excitement in the square is the regular appearance, twice a day, of officers who go to their table d’hôte in Beau-Soleil Street.
In the house of a gardener, to the left, lived Julien Michon. The gardener had rented him a large room, on the first floor; and, as the landlord occupied the other side of the house, facing his garden, Julien was left to himself. Having his own private entrance and stairway, he already lived, although only twenty-five years of age, like a retired bourgeois of small means.
The young man had lost his father and his mother while very young. An uncle had sent the child to a boarding-school. Then, the uncle died, and Julien had been filling a position as clerk in the post-office for the past five years. His salary was fifteen hundred francs, without any hope of ever getting more. But he could economize on that, and he did not imagine a larger or a happier life than his.
Tall, strong, bony, Julien had large hands that seemed in his way.
He felt himself to be ugly, with his square head left in a sketchy state as if roughly modeled by an indifferent sculptor. And that made him timid, especially in the presence of young women. His awkwardness engendered a startled attitude of mind, and a morbid desire for mediocrity and seclusion. He seemed resigned to grow old thus, without a comrade, without a love affair, with his tastes of a cloistered monk.
And that life did not weigh heavily upon his broad shoulders. Julien was very happy. He had a calm, transparent soul. His daily existence, with its fixed rules, was serenity itself. In the morning, he went to his office, peacefully took up the work left off the preceding day; then lunched on a small loaf, and continued his work. Afterwards, he dined, he went to bed and slept. The next day, the sun brought with it the same routine.
On holidays, he would go off on a tramp all alone, happily reeling off the miles, and returning broken with fatigue.
He had never been seen in the company of a petticoat, in the evenings on the ramparts. The working girls of P…., sharp-tongued wantons, had ended by leaving him alone, after seeing him, on several occasions, stand before them almost suffocated from embarrassment, and taking their laughs of encouragement for mockery.
Julien’s paradise, the one place where he breathed freely, was his room. There only, he felt sheltered from the world. There, he straightened up; he laughed to himself; and, when he caught sight of himself in the mirror, he was surprised to find himself so young.
His room was vast. He had furnished it with a large canopy bed, a round table, two chairs and an armchair. But there still remained plenty of room for walking about. The bed was lost in the depths of an immense alcove; a small chest of drawers, between the two windows, looked like a child’s plaything. He walked about, stretched himself, and never seemed bored. He never wrote away from the bureau, and reading tired him. His only passion was music. He would spend entire evenings playing the flute. That was, above everything, his greatest recreation.
Julien had learned by himself to play the flute. For a long time, an old yellow flute at a bric-à-brac merchant’s on the market square had aroused his covetousness. He had the money, but he did not dare enter and buy it, for fear of exciting ridicule. At last, one evening, he grew bold enough to get the flute and carry it away on the run, hidden under his coat. Then, doors and windows closed, he had studied for two years out of an old method that he had picked up at a bookseller’s.
During the last six months only, he risked playing with the windows open. He knew nothing but ancient airs, slow and simple, romances of the last century, which acquired an infinite tenderness as he stumbled over them with the awkwardness of a pupil filled with emotion. In the warm evenings, when the quarter was asleep, and this light song floated from the large room lighted by a single candle it seemed like a voice of love confiding to the solitude of the night what it never would have uttered in broad daylight.
Julien feared that they might complain of him in the neighborhood, but they sleep soundly in the country towns. Besides, Quatre-Femmes Square was inhabited only by a notary, M. Savournin, and a retired gendarme, Captain Pidoux, very convenient neighbors who went to bed and to sleep at nine o’clock. Julien was more anxious in regard to the inmates of a noble mansion, the Marsanne residence, which reared itself on the other side of the square, directly in front of his windows. It had a sad, gray facade, of the severity of a monastery. A flight of five steps, invaded by weeds, led up to a round door that was studded with enormous nails. The only story had ten windows in a row, the shutters of which were opened and closed always at the same hours, without allowing a view of the rooms behind their heavy drawn curtains. To the left, the large chestnut trees of the garden made a green mass that spread in a widening wave to the ramparts.
Throughout the countryside, the mansion was celebrated, and it was said that strangers came long distances to visit it. There were also legends afloat concerning the wealth of the Marsannes. But Julien, during all the hours that he had sat at his windows seeking to penetrate the mysteries of that enormous fortune, had never seen anything but the gray facade and the dark mass of the chestnut trees. Never had anyone mounted the steps, never had the moss-grown door opened. The Marsannes had ceased to use that door; they went in and out through an iron gate on Saint-Anne Street. There was, besides, at the end of a lane near the ramparts, a little gate opening into the garden, that Julien could not see. For him, the house remained dead, like a palace in a fairy story peopled by invisible inhabitants.
One Sunday, in the square before the church, one of the post-office employees pointed out to Julien a tall old man and an old lady, telling him that they were the Marquis and Marquise de Marsanne. Then his companion informed him that they had a daughter still in the convent, Mademoiselle Therese de Marsanne; and that little Colombel, M. Savournin’s clerk, was her foster-brother. As the old couple were about to turn into Saint-Anne Street, little Colombel approached, and the marquis held out his hand,—an honor he had not accorded anyone else. Julien suffered from that handshake; for this Colombel, a youth of twenty years, with sharp eyes and a mean mouth, had long been his enemy. He made fun of Julien’s timidity; he had stirred up the laundry-girls of Beau-Soleil Street against him; and one evening, the two youths had come to blows on the ramparts, with the result that the notary’s clerk retired with two black eyes.
Julien had lived five years on Quatre-Femmes Square when, one July evening, an event upset his existence. The night was very warm. He was playing his flute without a light, but absent-mindedly, when, all of a sudden, opposite him, a window in the Marsanne mansion opened, showing a brilliant light in the somber facade. A young girl leaned upon the window-railing and she raised her head as if listening. Julien, trembling, had stopped playing. He could not distinguish the face of the young girl, he could only see the waving mass of her loosened hair. And a light voice reached him in the midst of the silence.
“Didst thou not hear, Françoise? It sounded like music.”
“A nightingale, miss,” answered a coarse voice from the room. “Close the blinds; look out for night-insects.”
When the facade had grown dark again, Julien could not leave his armchair. An hour later, he began to play again very softly. He smiled at the thought that the young girl probably imagined that there was a nightingale in the chestnut trees.
The next day, at the post-office, the great news was that Mademoiselle Therese de Marsanne had left the convent. Julien did not relate that he had seen her, with bare throat, and loosened hair. He entertained an indefinable sentiment toward that young lady who was to derange his habits. How could he henceforth play his flute? He played too badly to be heard by a young lady who evidently knew music.
Julien returned home furtively that evening. He did not light a candle. The window opposite did not open, but, towards ten o’clock a pale light shone through the blades of the blinds. Then, the light was extinguished, and he was left contemplating the dark window. Every evening, in spite of himself, he began that spying. Nothing seemed changed in the house; the old mansion slept on as before. It required trained eyes and ears to detect the new life. Sometimes, a light ran behind the windows, a corner of a curtain was lifted, there was a glimpse of an immense room. At other times, a light step crossed the garden, the sound of a piano was faintly heard accompanying a voice. Julien explained his curiosity by pretending to be annoyed at the noises. How he regretted the time when the empty house sent back a soft echo of his flute!
One of his most ardent wishes, though he would not admit it, was to see Therese again. He imagined her with pink cheeks, a mocking air, and shining eyes. But, as he did not dare approach his window in the daytime, he saw her only at night, enveloped by a gray shadow. One morning, as he was about to close one of his shutters to keep out the sun, he saw Therese standing in the middle of her room. She seemed to be reflecting. She was tall, very pale, with beautiful, regular features. He was almost afraid of her,—she was so different from the gay image he had formed of her. She had a rather large mouth, of a vivid red, and deep-set eyes, black and without a sparkle, giving her the air of a cruel queen. She came slowly toward the window; but she did not appear to see Julien. She went away again, and the rhythmic movement of her neck had so strong a grace that he felt as weak as a child beside her, in spite of his broad shoulders.
Then began a miserable existence for the young man. That beautiful young woman, so serious and noble, living so near him, made him despair. She never looked at him; she ignored his existence. After a month had passed, he suffered from the disdain of the young girl. She came to the window, looked out on the deserted pavement, and retired without divining his proximity, as he watched, anxious, on the other side of the square.
On warm evenings, he began playing again. He left his shutters open, and played, in the obscurity, those airs of bygone days, naive as the roundels of little girls. He chose moonless nights; the square was dark; no one knew whence came that song so sweet, brushing the sleeping houses with the soft wing of a nocturnal bird. And, the first evening, he had the emotion of seeing Therese approach the window, all in white negligee. She leaned on her elbows, surprised to hear again the music that greeted her the evening of her arrival.
“Listen, Françoise,” she said, in her serious voice, turning towards the room. “It is not a bird.”
“Oh!” answered the old woman, of whom Julien could see only the shadow, “it is some comedian amusing himself, a long distance from here.”
“Yes, a long distance,” repeated the young girl, after a silence.
From then on, Julien played louder every evening. His fever passed into the old flute of yellow wood. And Therese, who listened, was astonished at that music, the vibrant phrases of which, flitting from roof to roof, awaited the night to make their way to her. One night, the song burst forth so near that she surmised that it came from one of the old houses in the square. Julien breathed into the flute all his passion; the instrument vibrated like crystal. The darkness lent him such audacity that he hoped to draw her to him by the force of his song. And, effectually, Therese bent forward, as if attracted and conquered.
“Come in,” said the voice of the aged lady. “The night is stormy; you will have nightmare.”
That night, Julien could not sleep. He imagined that Therese had guessed him to be the musician, had seen him perhaps. Yet, he decided that he would not show himself. He was in front of his window, at six o’clock the next morning, putting his flute into its case, when the blinds of Therese’s window were suddenly thrown open.
The young girl, who never arose before eight o’clock, leaned upon the railing. Julien did not move; he looked her in the face, unable to turn away. Therese, in her turn, examined him with a steady and haughty regard. She seemed to study him in his large bones, in his enormous and badly formed body, in all the ugliness of this timid giant. When she had judged him, with the tranquil air with which she would have asked herself whether a dog in the street pleased her or not, she condemned him with a slight pout. Then turning her back, she closed the window with deliberation.
Julien, his legs giving way under him, fell into his armchair.
“Ah! mon Dieu!” he exclaimed, brokenly. “I am displeasing to her! And I love her, and I shall die!”
He bowed his head upon his hands and sobbed. Why had he shown himself? When one was so ugly, he should hide himself and not shock young girls. He cursed himself, furious with his looks. He should have remained for her a sweet music,—nothing but ancient airs descriptive of a mysterious love.
In effect, he vainly breathed forth the liquid tender melodies: Therese no longer listened. She came and went in her room, leaned out of the window, as if he had not been opposite, declaring his love in humble little notes. One day, even, she exclaimed: “Mon Dieu! How annoying that flute is, with its false notes!”
So, in despair, he threw the flute into a drawer, and played no more.
Little Colombel, too, scoffed at Julien. One day, on his way to the office, he had seen Julien at his window practising, and, each time that he passed, he laughed his mean little laugh. Julien knew that the notary’s clerk was received at the Marsanne’s, and it broke his heart,—not that he was jealous of that shrimp, but because he would have given his life to be for one hour in his place.
Françoise, the mother of the young man, had been for years one of the Marsanne household, and now she took care of Therese. Long ago, the aristocratic young lady and the little peasant had grown up together, and it seemed natural that they should preserve some of their former comradeship. Julien suffered none the less when he met Colombel in the streets with his lips puckered into a thin smile. His repulsion increased when he realized that the shrimp was not bad looking. He had a round cat-like head, but very delicate, pretty, and diabolical, with green eyes and a light curly beard on his soft chin.
Julien did not relinquish his dream of love without a great struggle. He remained hidden for several weeks, ashamed of his ugliness. Then, he was shaken by rage. He felt the need to display his large limbs, to force on her sight his rough face, burning with fever. So, he remained for weeks at his window, he wearied her with his regard. Even, on two occasions, he had sent her ardent kisses, with the brutality shown by timid people when they are prompted to audacity. Therese exhibited no anger. When he was concealed from her view he saw her going about with her royal air; and, when he thrust himself upon her, she preserved that air and was even colder and haughtier.
During that first year, the days followed each other without a break. When the summer came around again, he experienced a peculiar sensation: Therese seemed to have acquired a different manner. The same little events took place,—the shutters were opened in the morning and closed at night, there were the same appearances at the accustomed hours; but a new breath seemed to emanate from her room. Therese was paler and taller. On a very feverish day, he dared for the third time to send her a kiss. She looked at him intently, with her disquieting seriousness. It was he who retired from the window, his face crimson.
A single occurrence, toward the end of the summer, upset him, although it was very simple. Nearly every day, at twilight, the casement opposite was closed violently. The noise made him shudder, without his knowing why. For a long time, he could not distinguish whose hand closed the window; but, one evening, he recognized the pale hands of Therese. It was she who turned the fastening with that furious movement. And when, an hour later, she reopened the window,—but without haste, rather with a dignified slowness,—she seemed weary.
One autumn evening, gray and soft, there was a terrible grinding of the window fastening. Julien shuddered and tears sprang to his eyes. He waited for the window to open again. It was thrown wide as violently as it had been closed. Therese appeared. She was very white, with distended eyes and hair falling over her shoulders. She put her ten fingers upon her lips and sent a kiss to Julien.
Distracted, he pressed his fists against his chest and asked if that kiss was for him. Then, Therese, thinking that he had shrunk back, leaned forward and sent him a second kiss. She followed it with a third. He stood rooted, thunderstruck. When she considered that he was vanquished, she glanced over the little square. Then, in a muffled voice, she said simply,—
He went down and approached the mansion. As he raised his head, the door at the top of the steps opened slightly,—that rusty door that was almost sealed with moss. But he walked in a stupor,—nothing astonished him. As soon as he entered, the door closed, and a small icy hand led him upstairs. He went along a corridor, passed through a room, and, at last, found himself in a room that he knew. It was the dreamed-of paradise, the room with the rose silk curtains. He was tempted to sink to his knees. Therese stood before him very erect, her hands tightly clasped, and resolutely holding under control the tremor that had possession of her.
“You love me?” she asked in a low voice.
“Oh! yes, yes!” he stammered.
She made a gesture, as if to forestall any useless words. She continued, with a haughty manner that seemed to render her words natural and chaste.
“If I gave myself to you, you would do anything for me,—wouldn’t you?”
He could not answer,—he clasped his hands. For a kiss from her, he would sell himself.
“Well! I have a service to exact of you. We must swear to keep the bargain. I swear to carry out my part of it. Now, swear, swear!”
“Oh! I swear,—anything you wish!” he cried, in absolute abandonment.
The pure odor of her room intoxicated him. The curtains of the alcove were drawn, and the thought of that virgin bed in the softened shadow of the rose silk, filled him with a religious ecstasy.
Then, with a brutal movement, she tore the curtains apart, revealing the alcove, into which the faint evening light penetrated. The bed was in disorder. The coverings trailed over the sides, a pillow on the floor was ripped open as if by teeth. And, in the midst of the rumpled laces, lay the body of a man, thrown across the bed.
“There!” she explained in a strangled voice. “That man was my lover. I pushed him and he fell. I know no more. Well, he is dead; and you must carry him away! You understand? That is all,—yes, that is all! There!”
When very small, Therese de Marsanne made Colombel her fag and butt. He was her elder by about six months, and Françoise, his mother, had weaned him in order to nurse Therese.
Therese was a terrible child. Not that she was a noisy tomboy. On the contrary, she had a singular seriousness that made her appear as a well bred child before visitors, for whom she made graceful curtseys. But she had very strange ways; she would burst into inarticulate cries, stamping madly about, when she was alone.
No one ever knew her thoughts. Even as a child, instead of her eyes being clear mirrors revealing her soul, they were like dark cavities, of an inky blackness, in which it was impossible to read.
At six years of age, she began to torture Colombel. He was small and delicate. She would take him to the bottom of the garden, under the chestnut trees, and, jumping on his back would make him carry her. He was the horse, she was the lady. When, dizzy, he seemed ready to fall, she would bite his ear, clinging to him with such fury that she would sink her nails into his flesh.
Later, in the presence of her parents, she would pinch him and forbid his crying out under pain of being thrown out into the street. They thus had a sort of secret existence, their attitude when alone together changing in company. When they were alone, she treated him like a plaything, with a desire to break him. And as she wearied of reigning over him only when they were alone, she added the pleasure of giving him a kick or pricking him with a pin while in company at the same time fixing him with her somber eyes and daring him to so much as twitch.
Colombel bore that martyr’s existence with dumb revolts that left him trembling, his eyes lowered, with a desire to strangle his young mistress. But, he was of a sly and vindictive nature. It did not altogether displease him to be beaten; he immediately gloated in his rancor. He would avenge himself by falling on the stones, dragging Therese with him, so that he would escape injury and she would be scratched and bruised. If he did not cry out when she pinched or pricked him, it was because he wished no one to interfere between them. It was their own affair,—a quarrel from which he intended to issue the conqueror later on.
Meanwhile, the marquis was worried about the violent conduct of his daughter. He considered it his duty to submit her to a rigid education. So, he placed her in a convent, hoping that the discipline would soften her nature. She remained there until her eighteenth year.
When Therese returned home, she was very well-behaved and very tall. Her parents were pleased to note in her a profound piety. The marquis and the marquise, secluded for fifteen years in the big house, prepared to open the drawing-room again. They gave several dinners to the nobility of the neighborhood; they had dancing. Their design was to marry Therese. And, in spite of her coldness, she made herself very agreeable. She adorned herself and she waltzed, but always with a face so pale that the young men who thought of falling in love with her were uneasy.
Therese had never mentioned little Colombel. The marquis had taken an interest in him, and, after giving him a schooling, had placed him in M. Savournin’s office. One day, Françoise led her son up to Therese and presented to the young girl her comrade of former days. Colombel was smiling, very clean, and without a sign of embarrassment. Therese looked at him calmly, said she remembered him, and turned her back.
But, a week later, Colombel returned; and he had soon resumed his former habits. He came every evening to the house, bringing music and books. He was treated as of no consequence,—he was sent on errands like a servant or a poor relation. So they left him alone with the young girl, without thinking of harm. As in the old days, the two shut themselves up in the vast rooms, or remained for hours in the shade of the garden. In verity, they no longer played the same games. Therese walked slowly, with her skirt brushing the grass. Colombel, dressed like the rich young men of the town, accompanied her, whipping the path with a supple cane that he invariably carried.
Yet, she was again the queen and he the slave. She tortured him with her fantastic humors, affectionate one moment and hard the next. He, when she turned her head, swept her with a glittering glance, sharp as a sword, and his whole vicious figure stretched and watched, dreaming a treachery.
One summer evening, they had strolled in the heavy shadow of the chestnut trees for some time in silence, when Therese suddenly remarked:
“I am tired, Colombel. Suppose you carry me as you used to.”
He laughed lightly; then answered seriously:
“I am willing, Therese.”
Without another word, Therese sprang upon his back with her old agility.
“Now go!” she cried.
She had snatched his cane and she lashed his legs with it, forcing him into a gallop beneath the thick foliage. He had not said a word; he breathed hard and tried to stiffen his slender legs, as the warm weight of the big girl bore him down.
But, when she cried out “Enough!” he did not stop. He ran all the faster, as if carried on by the impetus of the start. In spite of lashings and the digging in of her nails, he made for a shed in which the gardener kept his tools. There, he threw her roughly upon a heap of straw, and, his vindictiveness lending strength to his puny body, he vanquished her. At last, it was his turn to be master!
Therese became even paler, while her eyes grew blacker than ever and her mouth a more vivid crimson. She continued her devotional life.
Several days after the first occurrence, Therese, still panting with the desire to subjugate little Colombel, again leaped upon his back and lashed him. But the scene had the same ending. Again, she was thrown upon the straw and wronged.
Before the world, she maintained a sisterly attitude toward him. He, also, was of a smiling tranquility. They were again, as at six years of age, a couple of unruly animals, amusing themselves in secret by biting each other. Only, to-day, the male was victorious.
Therese received Colombel in her room. She had given him a key to the little gate that opened on the lane at the ramparts. At night, he was obliged to pass through the first room, in which his mother slept. But the lovers showed such calm audacity that they were never surprised. They dared make appointments in the daytime. Colombel came before dinner, and Therese, expecting him, would close the window to escape the neighbors’ eyes.
They felt the constant need to see each other,—not to exchange tender expressions of love, but to continue the combat for supremacy. Often, they would quarrel fiercely, in low voices, all the more shaken by anger as they dared not scream or fight.
One evening, Colombel arrived before dinner. As he was walking across the room, still with bare feet and in his shirt-sleeves, he suddenly seized Therese and tried to lift her up, as he had seen strong men do at the fairs. Therese tried to break away, saying:
“Leave me alone. You know I am stronger than you. I will hurt you.”
Colombel laughed his little laugh.
“Well! Hurt me!” he murmured.
He shook her as a preliminary to throwing her down. She closed her arms about him. They often played this game. It was usually Colombel who went down on the carpet, breathless, with inert limbs. But, this day, Therese slipped to her knees, and Colombel, with a sudden thrust, threw her over backward. He triumphed.
“So, you see you are not the stronger,” he said with an insulting laugh.
She was livid. She raised herself slowly, and dumb, she grasped him again, her whole form so shaken by anger that he shivered. For a minute, they struggled in silence; then, with a last and terrible effort, she threw him backward. He struck his temple against a corner of a chest and felt heavily to the floor.
Therese drew a deep breath. She gathered up her hair before the mirror, she smoothed out her petticoat, affecting to pay no attention to the conquered Colombel. He could pick himself up. Then, she touched him with her foot. She saw that his face was of the color of wax, his eyes glassy, and his mouth twisted. On his right temple there was a hole. Colombel was dead.
She straightened up, chilled with horror. She spoke aloud in the silence.
“Dead! Here he is dead now!”
A terror held her rigid above the corpse. She heard his mother passing along the corridor! Other noises arose,—steps, voices, preparations for an evening’s entertainment. They might call her, come to look for her at any moment. And here was this dead body of her lover, whom she had killed and who had fallen back upon her shoulders, with the crushing weight of their sin.
Then, crazed by the clamor in her brain, she began walking back and forth. She sought a hole into which to cast this body that was threatening her future. She looked under all the furniture, in the corners, trembling with an enraged realization of her impotence. No, there was no hole, the alcove was not deep enough, the wardrobes were too narrow, the whole room refused its aid. And it was in this room that they had hidden their kisses. He used to enter with his light, cat-like step, and went away as softly. Never should she have imagined that he could become so heavy.
She still roved about the room like a trapped animal. Suddenly, she had an inspiration. Suppose she should throw the body out of the window? But it would be found, and it would be easy to guess where it had come from.
Meanwhile, she had raised the curtain to look out into the street; and there, opposite, was the imbecile who played the flute, leaning out of his window with his tame-dog expression. She well knew his sallow face, unceasingly turned toward her and wearying her with its avowal of timid tenderness. The sight of Julien, so humble and so loving, stopped her short. A smile flitted across her pale face. Here was her salvation! The imbecile opposite loved her with the devotion of a dog who would obey her even to the commission of a crime. Besides she would reward him with all her heart, with all her body. She had not loved him because he was too gentle; but she would love him, she would buy him with the gift of her body, if he would help her conceal her crime.
Then, quickly, she took up the body of Colombel as if it were a bundle of linen, and threw it on the bed. Immediately opening the window, she threw kisses to Julien.
Julien walked as in a nightmare. When he recognized Colombel on the bed, he was not astonished,—it seemed quite natural. Yes, no one but Colombel could be in that alcove, his temple indented, his limbs spread out in an attitude of revolting lewdness.
Meanwhile, Therese was speaking to him. He did not hear at first; the words flowed through his stupor with a confused sound. Then, he understood that she was giving him orders, and he listened. Now, he must not leave the room; he must remain until midnight,—until the house grew dark and quiet. The party that the marquis was giving would prevent their doing anything sooner. But, in a way, it acted in their favor, for it so occupied everybody’s attention that no one would think of coming up to the young girl’s room. At the proper time, Julien was to take the body on his back, carry it down and throw it into the Chanteclair, at the bottom of Beau-Soleil Street Therese explained the whole plan.
She ceased talking, and, placing her hands on the young man’s shoulders, she asked:—
“You understand,—is it agreed?”
“Yes, yes; everything you wish. I am yours.”
Then, very serious, she leaned forward. As he did not understand, she said:—
He kissed her on her icy brow. And then they became silent.
Therese had again drawn the curtains of the bed. She sank into an armchair, where she rested, lost in the darkness. Julien also sat down. Françoise was no longer in the next room; the house sent them only muffled sounds. The room seemed to be asleep, and gradually filling with shadows. For nearly an hour, neither moved. Julien felt within his head great throbs, like blows, which prevented his reasoning. He was with Therese, and that filled him with happiness. But when the thought flashed on him that there was the corpse of a man in that alcove, he felt as if he would swoon. Was it possible that she had loved that shrimp? He excused her for having killed him. What fired his blood was the bare feet of that man in the midst of the rumpled laces. With what joy he would throw him into the Chanteclair, at the end of the bridge, at a dark and deep spot that he knew well! They would both be well quit of him; they could then belong to each other. At the thought of that happiness that he had not dared dream of in the morning, he saw himself on the bed in the very place where the corpse now lay; and the place was cold and he felt a terrified repugnance.
The clock struck, in the midst of the great silence. Therese got up slowly and lighted the candles on her dressing-table. She appeared possessed of her accustomed calm, coming and going with the quiet step of a person who busies herself in the intimacy of her room. She seemed to have forgotten the sprawling body behind the rose silk hangings. As she uncoiled her hair, she said, without even turning her head:—
“I am going to dress for the party. If anyone comes, hide yourself in the end of the alcove.”
He remained seated; he watched her. She already treated him like a lover. With raised arms, she dressed her hair. He watched her with a thrill, so desirable she appeared with her back uncovered, lazily moving her delicate elbows and her tapering hands. Was she displaying her seductions, showing him the lover he was to possess, in order to make him brave?
She had just put on her slippers, when a step was heard in the corridor.
“Hide in the alcove,” she said, in a low voice.
And, with a quick movement, she threw upon the stiffened body of Colombel all the linen that she had taken off,—a linen still warm with the perfume of her body.
It was Françoise who entered, saying,—
“They are waiting for you, Mademoiselle.”
“I am coming, my good woman,” peacefully answered Therese. “You can help me put on my dress.”
Julien, through a slit in the curtain, could see them both, and he trembled at the audacity of the young girl. His teeth chattered so loudly that he grasped his jaw and held it in his hand. Beside him, under a chemise, he saw one of the icy feet of Colombel. If Françoise, the mother, should draw the curtain and strike against the bare foot of her child!
“Be careful,” said Therese. “You are pulling off the flowers.”
Her voice betrayed no emotion. She smiled like a girl pleased to go to a ball. The dress was of white silk, trimmed with sweet briar,—white flowers, with the hearts touched with red. And when she stood in the middle of the room, she was like a large bouquet of virginal whiteness. Her bare arms and her bare neck continued the whiteness of the silk.
“Oh! how beautiful you are! How beautiful you are!” repeated the old Françoise. “And your garland,—wait!”
She searched for it, and was about to put her hand on the curtains to look on the bed. Julien almost let out a cry of anguish. But Therese, without haste, always smiling before the mirror, said:—
“It is there, on the chest. Give it to me. And don’t touch my bed. I put some things on it, and you would mix them all up.”
Françoise helped her to arrange the branch of sweet briar like a crown, with its flexible end drooping to the back of her neck. Françoise stood admiring her. She was ready and putting on her gloves.
“Ah! well,” cried Françoise, “there are no holy Virgins in the church as white as you.”
This compliment caused the young girl to smile again. She gave a last glance into the mirror, and started for the door, saying,—
“Come along; let us go down. You can put out the candles.”
In the sudden darkness, Julien heard the door close and Therese’s gown rustle along the corridor. The deep night was a veil before his eyes, but he preserved the sensation of that bare foot near him. He remained there, unconscious of the lapse of time, weighed down by thoughts heavy as sleep, when the door opened. By the rustle of silk, he knew it was Therese. She did not come in; she simply put something on the chest of drawers, while she murmured:—
“Here; you have not dined. You must eat, you understand.”
The gown rustled away again. Julien shook himself and got up. He suffocated in the alcove; he could no longer remain near that bed, beside Colombel. The clock struck eight,—he had four hours to wait! He walked about muffling his footsteps. A feeble light, from the starlit night, made it possible to distinguish the dark masses of furniture.
Three times, he thought he heard a sigh issue from the alcove. He stopped, terrified. Then, when he listened intently, he found it was sounds from the festivities below,—dance music, the laughing murmur of a crowd. He closed his eyes; and, suddenly, instead of the blackness of the room, he saw brilliant lights, a flaming drawing-room, in which was Therese, in her white silk, waltzing to an amorous air. The whole house vibrated to joyous music. He was alone, in this horrible corner, shaking with fear!
Ten o’clock struck. He listened. It seemed as if he had been there years. Then, he waited bewildered. Having found bread and fruit under his hand, he ate avidly, with a gnawing of the stomach that he could not assuage. When he had eaten, he was overcome by lassitude. The night seemed never-ending. The distant music grew clearer; the dancing at times shook the floor. Carriages began to rumble.
He was looking fixedly at the door, when he saw a light through the keyhole. He did not hide. So much the worse, if anyone came in.
“No; thank you, Françoise,” said Therese, appearing with a candle, “I can undress quite well alone. Go to bed,—you must be tired.”
She closed the door and slipped the bolt. Then, she stood for a moment motionless, with her finger on her lip. The dance had not brought color to her cheeks. She did not speak. She set down the candle, and sat down opposite Julien. During a half hour, they waited, looking at each other.
The doors had banged; the mansion had gone to sleep. But what worried Therese was the proximity of Françoise. Françoise walked about a few minutes, then her bed creaked. For some time, she turned from side to side, as if unable to sleep. At last, her strong and regular breathing was heard through the wall.
Therese looked at Julien gravely. She said only one word,—”Come.”
They drew aside the curtains. They wished to clothe the corpse which already had the rigidity of a lugubrious puppet. When that task was finished, their brows were moist.
“Come,” she said a second time.
Without hesitation, Julien took up the body and threw it across his shoulders, as butchers carry calves.
“I will go before you,” murmured Therese rapidly, “I will hold your coat,—you have only to follow. And walk softly.”
They had first to pass through Françoise’s room. They had crossed it, when one of the feet of the corpse struck against a chair. At the sound, Françoise awoke. They heard her raise her head, mumbling to herself. They remained motionless,—she, pressed against the door; he, crushed under the weight of the body, with the horrible fear that the mother might surprise them carrying her son to the river. It was a moment of anguish. Then, Françoise went to sleep again, and they stealthily reached the corridor.
But, here, another fright awaited them. The marquise had not gone to bed,—a streak of light came through the partly opened door. So, they dared neither go forward, nor retreat. For a quarter of an hour, they did not move, and Therese had the astounding courage to support the body so that Julien should not get tired. At last, the streak of light was obliterated. They could go on to the ground floor. They were saved.
It was Therese who again opened the ancient door. And when Julien found himself in the middle of Quatre-Femmes Square with his burden, he saw her standing on the flight of steps, in her white ball gown. She was waiting for him.
Julien had the strength of a bull. When very young, in the forest near his native village, he amused himself helping the woodcutters, carrying tree trunks on his young shoulders. So, he carried little Colombel as easily as a feather. It was a bird on his back, that corpse of a shrimp. He hardly felt it,—he experienced an unholy joy in finding it so light, so thin, so absolutely nothing. Little Colombel would never sneer at himagain, passing under his windows while he played the flute. He would never again humiliate him with his witticisms in the town. With a movement of the shoulder, he hoisted the body higher up, and, with set teeth, hastened his steps.
The town was dark. Yet, there was light in Quatre-Femmes Square, in Captain Pidoux’s window. Doubtless, the captain was not feeling well; his large profile could be seen passing back and forth behind the curtains. Julien, anxious, slunk in the shadow of the houses. Suddenly, a slight cough froze him. He hid in a doorway. He recognized the wife of M. Savournin taking the air at her window. It seemed like fatality. Ordinarily, at that hour, Quatre-Femmes Square slept soundly. Fortunately, Madame Savournin soon returned to the side of M. Savournin, whose snores could be heard on the pavement.
Julien quickly crossed the square and breathed more freely in the narrowness of Beau-Soleil Street. There, the houses were so near together that the light of the stars did not penetrate the shadowy depths. As soon as he found himself thus sheltered, an irresistible desire to run sent him forward in a furious gallop. It was dangerous and stupid,—he knew it; but he still felt behind him the clear and empty space of Quatre-Femmes Square, with the windows of Madame Savournin and the captain lighted like two great eyes that watched him. His shoes made such a noise on the stones that he thought himself followed. Suddenly, he halted. He had heard, thirty yards away, the voices of the officers who patronized the table d’hôte of the blond widow. They must have been making merry over a punch, in honor of the exchange of one of their comrades. The young man told himself that if they came up the street, he was lost. There was no side street for him to turn into, and he would not have time to go back. He listened to the tread of their boots and the jingling of their swords with an anxiety that almost strangled him. For a moment, he could not have told whether they were approaching or going in the other direction. But the noises gradually grew fainter. He waited, then went on softly. At last, he reached the city gate. He passed through, but the sudden widening out of the country terrified him. There was a blue haze over the earth; a fresh breeze stirred; and it seemed to him that an immense crowd awaited him and breathed in his face.
Yet, there was the bridge. He could see the white roadway, the two parapets, low and gray like granite benches; he could hear the crystal music of the Chanteclair in the tall grasses. So, he risked it. He bent over, avoiding open space as much as possible, fearing to be seen by the thousand mute witnesses that he felt around him. The most terrible ordeal would be on the bridge itself, where he would be exposed to the view of the whole town, which was built like an amphitheatre. He had one last wavering of the will,—and then he crossed the bridge.
He leaned over; he saw the surface with its ripples like smiles. That was the spot. He unloaded his burden on the parapet. Before throwing the body in, he had an irresistible impulse to look at little Colombel again. He remained for several seconds face to face with the corpse. A cart in the distance rumbled and creaked. So Julien made haste; and, to avoid a noisy plunge, he let the body down slowly, leaning over as far as possible. He did not know how it happened, but the arms of the corpse caught around his neck and he was dragged over. He saved himself from going down, by a miracle. Little Colombel wanted to take him with him.
When he found himself seated on the stone, he was taken with a fit of weakness. He remained there, broken, his spine curved, his legs hanging, in the relaxed attitude of a tired pedestrian. And he contemplated the sleeping surface, where the laughing ripples had reappeared. One thing was certain,—little Colombel had tried to drag him down with him.
Then, he recalled Therese. She was waiting for him. He could see her standing at the head of the ruined steps, in her white silk dress with its sweet briar blossoms, all white and their hearts touched with red. But perhaps, she had felt cold and had gone to her room to wait for him.
No woman had ever waited for him before. Just one minute more, and then he would be at the rendezvous! But his legs were numb, and he feared that he would fall asleep. Was he a coward, then? And, to rouse himself, he pictured Therese as he had seen her at her toilet. He saw again her arms raised, moving her delicate elbows and her pale hands. He recalled that room of terrible voluptuousness, where he had known a mad intoxication. Was he to renounce that passion offered him, a foretaste of which was burning his lips? No; he would sooner drag himself upon his knees, if his legs refused to carry him!
But it was already a lost battle, in which his vanquished love had just expired. The image of Therese paled; a black wall arose, separating him from her. He had but one irresistible desire,—to sleep, to sleep forever! He would not go to the office to-morrow,—it would be useless. He would never again play the flute; he would never again sit by his window. So, why not sleep forever? His existence was ended,—he could go to bed. And he looked again at the river, trying to see if little Colombel was still there.
The surface spread, dimpled by the rapid smiles of its currents The Chanteclair sang musically, while the country softened under the shadow of a sovereign peace. Julien murmured the name of “Therese.” Then, he let himself go, and, rolling over, he fell like a bundle into the water, sending up great splashes of foam. And the Chanteclair continued its song among the grasses.
When the two bodies were found, it was thought there had been a combat, and a story was invented forthwith. Julien must have lain in wait for little Colombel to avenge his mocking; and he must have jumped into the river after killing his enemy with a blow on the temple.
Three months later, Mademoiselle Therese de Marsanne married the young Count de Veteuil. She wore a white dress, and her face was beautiful in its haughty purity.#ENGLISH