Une Vie



Rosalie had left the house. Jeanne felt no joy at the thought of being a mother, she had had so much sorrow. She awaited the advent of her child without curiosity, still filled with the apprehension of unknown misfortunes.

A big woman, big as a house, had taken Rosalie’s place and supported the baroness in her monotonous walks along her avenue. The baron gave his arm to Jeanne, who was now always ailing, while Aunt Lison, uneasy, and busied about the approaching event, held her other hand, bewildered at this mystery which she would never know.

They all walked along like this almost in silence for hours at a time, while Julien was riding about the country on horseback, having suddenly acquired this taste. Nothing ever came to disturb their dreary life. The baron, his wife, and the vicomte paid a visit to the Fourvilles, whom Julien seemed to be already well acquainted with, without one knowing just how. Another ceremonious visit was exchanged with the Brisevilles, who were still hidden in their manor house.

One afternoon, about four o’clock, two persons, a lady and gentleman on horseback, rode up into the courtyard of the château. Julien, greatly excited, ran up to Jeanne’s room. “Quick, quick, come downstairs; here are the Fourvilles. They have just come as neighbors, knowing your condition. Tell them that I have gone out, but that I will be back. I will just go and make myself presentable.”

Jeanne, much surprised, went downstairs. A pale, pretty young woman with a sad face, dreamy eyes, and lustreless, fair hair, looking as though the sunlight had never kissed it, quietly introduced her husband, a kind of giant, or ogre with a large red mustache. She added: “We have several times had the pleasure of meeting M. de Lamare. We heard from him how you were suffering, and we would not put off coming to see you as neighbors, without any ceremony. You see that we came on horseback. I also had the pleasure the other day of a visit from madame, your mother, and the baron.”

She spoke with perfect ease, familiar but refined. Jeanne was charmed, and fell in love with her at once. “This is a friend,” she thought.

The Comte de Fourville, on the contrary, seemed like a bear in the drawing-room. As soon as he was seated, he placed his hat on the chair next him, did not know what to do with his hands, placed them on his knees, then on the arms of the chair, and finally crossed his fingers as if in prayer.

Suddenly Julien entered the room. Jeanne was amazed and did not recognize him. He was shaved. He looked handsome, elegant, and attractive as on the day of their betrothal. He shook the comte’s hairy paw, kissed the hand of the comtesse, whose ivory cheeks colored up slightly while her eyelids quivered.

He began to speak; he was charming as in former days. His large eyes, the mirrors of love, had become tender again. And his hair, lately so dull and unkempt, had regained its soft, glossy wave, with the use of a hairbrush and perfumed oil.

At the moment that the Fourvilles were taking their leave the comtesse, turning toward him, said: “Would you like to take a ride on Thursday, dear vicomte?”

As he bowed and murmured, “Why, certainly, madame,” she took Jeanne’s hand and said in a sympathetic and affectionate tone, with a cordial smile: “Oh! when you are well, we will all three gallop about the country. It will be delightful. What do you say?”

With an easy gesture she held up her riding skirt and then jumped into the saddle with the lightness of a bird, while her husband, after bowing awkwardly, mounted his big Norman steed. As they disappeared outside the gate, Julien, who seemed charmed, exclaimed: “What delightful people! those are friends who may be useful to us.”

Jeanne, pleased also without knowing why, replied: “The little comtesse is charming, I feel that I shall love her, but the husband looks like a brute. Where did you meet them?”

He rubbed his hands together good humoredly. “I met them by chance at the Brisevilles’. The husband seems a little rough. He cares for nothing but hunting, but he is a real noble for all that.”

The dinner was almost cheerful, as though some secret happiness had come into the house.

Nothing new happened until the latter days of July, when Jeanne was taken ill. As she seemed to grow worse, the doctor was sent for and at the first glance recognized the symptoms of a premature confinement.

Her sufferings presently abated a little, but she was filled with a terrible anguish, a despairing sinking, something like a presentiment, the mysterious touch of death. It is in these moments when it comes so near to us that its breath chills our hearts.

The room was full of people. Little mother, buried in an armchair, was choking with grief. The baron, his hands trembling, ran hither and thither, carrying things, consulting the doctor and losing his head. Julien paced up and down, looking concerned, but perfectly calm, and Widow Dentu stood at the foot of the bed with an appropriate expression, the expression of a woman of experience whom nothing astonishes. The cook, Ludivine, and Aunt Lison remained discreetly concealed behind the door of the lobby.

Toward morning Jeanne became worse, and as her involuntary screams escaped from between her closed teeth, she thought incessantly of Rosalie, who had not suffered, who had hardly moaned, who had borne her child without suffering and without difficulty, and in her wretched and troubled mind she continually compared their conditions and cursed God, whom she had formerly thought to be just. She rebelled at the wicked partiality of fate and at the wicked lies of those who preach justice and goodness.

At times her sufferings were so great that her mind was a blank. She had neither strength, life nor knowledge for anything but suffering.

All at once her sufferings ceased. The nurse and the doctor leaned over her and gave her all attention. Presently she heard a little cry and, in spite of her weakness, she unconsciously held out her arms. She was suddenly filled with joy, with a glimpse of a new-found happiness which had just unfolded. Her child was born, she was soothed, happy, happy as she never yet had been. Her heart and her body revived; she was now a mother. She felt that she was saved, secure from all despair, for she had here something to love.

From now on she had but one thought—her child. She was a fanatical mother, all the more intense because she had been deceived in her love, deceived in her hopes. She would sit whole days beside the window, rocking the little cradle.

The baron and little mother smiled at this excess of tenderness, but Julien, whose habitual routine had been interfered with and his overweening importance diminished by the arrival of this noisy and all-powerful tyrant, unconsciously jealous of this mite of a man who had usurped his place in the house, kept on saying angrily and impatiently: “How wearisome she is with her brat!”

She became so obsessed by this affection that she would pass the entire night beside the cradle, watching the child asleep. As she was becoming exhausted by this morbid life, taking no rest, growing weaker and thinner and beginning to cough, the doctor ordered the child to be taken from her. She got angry, wept, implored, but they were deaf to her entreaties. His nurse took him every evening, and each night his mother would rise, and in her bare feet go to the door, listen at the keyhole to see if he was sleeping quietly, did not wake up and wanted nothing.

Julien found her here one night when he came home late, after dining with the Fourvilles. After that they locked her in her room to oblige her to stay in bed.

The baptism took place at the end of August. The baron was godfather and Aunt Lison godmother. The child was named Pierre-Simon-Paul and called Paul for short.

At the beginning of September Aunt Lison left without any commotion. Her absence was as little felt as her presence.

One evening after dinner the priest appeared. He seemed embarrassed as if he were burdened by some mystery, and after some idle remarks, he asked the baroness and her husband to grant him a short interview in private.

They all three walked slowly down the long avenue, talking with animation, while Julien, who was alone with Jeanne, was astonished, disturbed and annoyed at this secret.

He accompanied the priest when he took his leave, and they went off together toward the church where the Angelus was ringing.

As it was cool, almost cold, the others went into the drawing-room. They were all dozing when Julien came in abruptly, his face red, looking very indignant.

From the door he called out to his parents-in-law, without remembering that Jeanne was there: “Are you crazy, for God’s sake! to go and throw away twenty thousand francs on that girl?”

No one replied, they were so astonished. He continued, bellowing with rage: “How can one be so stupid as that? Do you wish to leave us without a sou?”

The baron, who had recovered his composure, attempted to stop him: “Keep still! Remember that you are speaking before your wife.”

But Julien was trembling with excitement: “As if I cared; she knows all about it, anyway. It is robbing her.”

Jeanne, bewildered, looked at him without understanding. She faltered: “What in the world is the matter?”

Julien then turned toward her, to try and get her on his side as a partner who has been cheated out of an unexpected fortune. He hurriedly told her about the conspiracy to marry off Rosalie and about the gift of the Barville property, which was worth at least twenty thousand francs. He said: “Your parents are crazy, my dear, crazy enough to be shut up! Twenty thousand francs! twenty thousand francs! Why, they have lost their heads! Twenty thousand francs for a bastard!”

Jeanne listened without emotion and without anger, astonished at her own calmness, indifferent now to everything but her own child.

The baron was raging, but could find nothing to say. He finally burst forth and, stamping his foot, exclaimed: “Think of what you are saying; it is disgusting. Whose fault was it if we had to give this girl-mother a dowry? Whose child is it? You would like to abandon it now!”

Julien, amazed at the baron’s violence, looked at him fixedly. He then resumed in a calmer tone: “But fifteen hundred francs would be quite enough. They all have children before they are legally married. It makes no difference whose child it is, in any case. Instead of giving one of your farms, to the value of twenty thousand francs, in addition to making the world aware of what has happened, you should, to say the least, have had some regard for our name and our position.”

He spoke in a severe tone like a man who stood on his rights and was convinced of the logic of his argument. The baron, disturbed at this unexpected discussion, stood there gaping at him. Julien then, seeing his advantage, concluded: “Happily, nothing has yet been settled. I know the young fellow who is going to marry her. He is an honest chap and we can make a satisfactory arrangement with him. I will take charge of the matter.”

And he went out immediately, fearing no doubt to continue the discussion, and pleased that he had had the last word, a proof, he thought, that they acquiesced in his views.

As soon as he had left the room, however, the baron exclaimed: “Oh, that is going too far, much too far!”

But Jeanne, happening to look up at her father’s bewildered face, began to laugh with her clear, ringing laugh of former days, when anything amused her. She said: “Father, father, did you hear the tone in which he said: ‘Twenty thousand francs?’”

Little mother, whose mirth was as ready as her tears, as she recalled her son-in-law’s angry expression, his indignant exclamations and his refusal to allow the girl whom he had led astray to be given money that did not belong to him, delighted also at Jeanne’s mirth, gave way to little bursts of laughter till the tears came to her eyes. The baron caught the contagion, and all three laughed to kill themselves as they used to do in the good old days.

As soon as they quieted down a little Jeanne said: “How strange it is that all this does not affect me. I look upon him now as a stranger. I cannot believe that I am his wife. You see how I can laugh at his—his—want of delicacy.”

And without knowing why they all three embraced each other, smiling and happy.

Two days later, after breakfast, just as Julien had started away from the house on horseback, a strapping young fellow from twenty-one to twenty-five years old, clad in a brand-new blue blouse with wide sleeves buttoning at the wrist, slyly jumped over the gate, as though he had been there awaiting his opportunity all the morning, crept along the Couillards’ ditch, came round the château, and cautiously approached the baron and his wife, who were still sitting under the plane-tree.

He took off his cap and advanced, bowing in an awkward manner. As soon as he was close to them he said: “Your servant, Monsieur le Baron, madame and the company.” Then, as no one replied, he said: “It is I, I am Desiré Lecocq.”

As the name conveyed nothing to them, the baron asked, “What do you want?”

Then, altogether upset at the necessity of explaining himself, the young fellow stuttered out as he gazed alternately at his cap, which he held in his hands, and at the roof of the château: “It was M’sieu le Curé who said something to me about this matter——” And then he stopped, fearing he might say too much and compromise his own interests.

The other, lowering his voice, blurted out: “That matter of your maid—Rosalie——”

Jeanne, who had guessed what was coming, had risen and moved away with her infant in her arms.

“Come nearer,” said the baron, pointing to the chair his daughter had just left. The peasant sat down, murmuring: “You are very good.” Then he waited as though he had no more to say. After a long silence, he screwed up courage, and looking up at the sky, remarked: “There’s fine weather for the time of year. But the earth will be none the better for it, as the seed is already sown.” And then he was silent again.

The baron was growing impatient. He plunged right into the subject and said drily: “Then it is you who are going to marry Rosalie?”

The man at once became uneasy, his Norman caution being on the alert. He replied with more animation, but with a tinge of defiance: “That depends; perhaps yes, perhaps no; it depends.”

The baron, annoyed at this hedging, exclaimed angrily: “Answer frankly, damn it! Was this what you came here for? Yes or no! Will you marry her? Yes or no!”

The bewildered man looked steadfastly at his feet: “If it is as M’sieu le Curé said, I will take her, but if it is as M’sieu Julien said, I will not take her.”

“What did M. Julien tell you?”

“M’sieu Julien told me fifteen hundred francs and M’sieu le Curé told me that I should have twenty thousand. I will do it for twenty thousand, but I will not do it for fifteen hundred.”

The baroness, who was buried in her easy chair, began to giggle at the anxious expression of the peasant, who, not understanding this frivolity, glanced at her angrily out of the corner of his eye and waited in silence.

The baron, who was embarrassed at this bargaining, cut it short by saying: “I told M. le Curé that you should have the Barville farm during your lifetime and that then it would revert to the child. It is worth twenty thousand francs. I do not go back on my word. Is it settled? Yes or no!”

The man smiled with a humble and satisfied expression, and suddenly becoming loquacious, said: “Oh, in that case, I will not say no. That was all that stood in my way. When M’sieu le Curé spoke to me, I was ready at once, by gosh! and I was very pleased to accommodate the baron who was giving me that. I said to myself, ‘Is it not true that when people are willing to do each other favors, they can always find a way and can make it worth while?’ But M’sieu Julien came to see me, and it was only fifteen hundred francs. I said to myself: ‘I must see about that,’ and so I came here. That is not to say that I did not trust you, but I wanted to know. Short accounts make long friends. Is not that true, M’sieu le Baron?”

The baron interrupted him by asking, “When do you wish to get married?”

The man became timid again, very much embarrassed, and finally said, hesitatingly: “I will not do it until I get a little paper.”

This time the baron got angry: “Doggone it! you will have the marriage contract. That is the best kind of paper.”

But the peasant was stubborn: “Meanwhile I might take a little turn; it will not be dark for a while.”

The baron rose to make an end of the matter: “Answer yes or no at once. If you do not wish her, say so; I have another suitor.”

The fear of a rival terrified the crafty Norman. He suddenly made up his mind and held out his hand, as after buying a cow, saying: “Put it there, M’sieu le Baron; it is a bargain. Whoever draws back is a skunk!”

The baron shook his hand, then called out: “Ludivine!” The cook appeared at the window. “Bring us a bottle of wine.” They clinked glasses to seal the matter and the young peasant went off with a light tread.

Nothing was said to Julien about this visit. The contract was drawn up with all secrecy and as soon as the banns were published the wedding took place one Monday morning.

A neighbor carried the child to church, walking behind the bride and groom, as a sure sign of good luck. And no one in all the district was surprised; they simply envied Desiré Lecocq. “He was born with a caul,” they said, with a sly smile into which there entered no resentment.

Julien was terribly angry and made such a scene that his parents-in-law cut short their visit to the “Poplars.” Jeanne was only moderately sad at their departure, for little Paul had become for her an inexhaustible source of happiness.

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