You see now into what a fatal entanglement two high-minded young ladies were led, step by step, through yielding to the natural foible of their sex—the desire to hide everything painful from those they love, even at the expense of truth.
A nice mess they made of it with their amiable dishonesty. And pray take notice that after the first White Lie or two, circumstances overpowered them, and drove them on against their will. It was no small part of all their misery that they longed to get back to truth and could not.
We shall see presently how far they succeeded in that pious object, for the sake of which they first entered on concealments. But first a word is due about one of the victims of their amiable, self-sacrificing lubricity. Edouard Riviere fell in one night, from happiness and confidence, such as till that night he had never enjoyed, to deep and hopeless misery.
He lost that which, to every heart capable of really loving, is the greatest earthly blessing, the woman he adored. But worse than that, he lost those prime treasures of the masculine soul, belief in human goodness, and in female purity. To him no more could there be in nature a candid eye, a virtuous ready-mantling cheek: for frailty and treachery had put on these signs of virtue and nobility. Henceforth, let him live a hundred years, whom could he trust or believe in?
Here was a creature whose virtues seemed to make frailty impossible: treachery, doubly impossible: a creature whose very faults—for faults she had—had seemed as opposite to treachery as her very virtues were. Yet she was all frailty and falsehood.
He passed in that one night of anguish from youth to age. He went about his business like a leaden thing. His food turned tasteless. His life seemed ended. Nothing appeared what it had been. The very landscape seemed cut in stone, and he a stone in the middle of it, and his heart a stone in him. At times, across that heavy heart came gushes of furious rage and bitter mortification; his heart was broken, and his faith was gone, for his vanity had been stabbed as fiercely as his love. "Georges Dandin!" he would cry, "curse her! curse her!" But love and misery overpowered these heats, and froze him to stone again.
The poor boy pined and pined. His clothes hung loose about him; his face was so drawn with suffering, you would not have known him. He hated company. The things he was expected to talk about!—he with his crushed heart. He could not. He would not. He shunned all the world; he went alone like a wounded deer. The good doctor, on his return from Paris, called on him to see if he was ill: since he had not come for days to the chateau. He saw the doctor coming and bade the servant say he was not in the village.
He drew down the blind, that he might never see the chateau again. He drew it up again: he could not exist without seeing it. "She will be miserable, too," he cried, gnashing his teeth. "She will see whether she has chosen well." At other times, all his courage, and his hatred, and his wounded vanity, were drowned in his love and its despair, and then he bowed his head, and sobbed and cried as if his heart would burst. One morning he was so sobbing with his head on the table, when his landlady tapped at his door. He started up and turned his head away from the door.
"A young woman from Beaurepaire, monsieur."
"From Beaurepaire?" his heart gave a furious leap. "Show her in."
He wiped his eyes and seated himself at a table, and, all in a flutter, pretended to be the state's.
It was not Jacintha, as he expected, but the other servant. She made a low reverence, cast a look of admiration on him, and gave him a letter. His eye darted on it: his hand trembled as he took it. He turned away again to open it. He forced himself to say, in a tolerably calm voice, "I will send an answer."
The letter was apparently from the baroness de Beaurepaire; a mere line inviting him to pay her a visit. It was written in a tremulous hand. Edouard examined the writing, and saw directly it was written by Rose.
Being now, naturally enough, full of suspicion, he set this down as an attempt to disguise her hand. "So," said he, to himself, "this is the game. The old woman is to be drawn into it, too. She is to help to make Georges Dandin of me. I will go. I will baffle them all. I will expose this nest of depravity, all ceremony on the surface, and voluptuousness and treachery below. O God! who could believe that creature never loved me! They shall none of them see my weakness. Their benefactor shall be still their superior. They shall see me cold as ice, and bitter as gall."
But to follow him farther just now, would be to run too far in advance of the main story. I must, therefore, return to Beaurepaire, and show, amongst other things, how this very letter came to be written.
When Josephine and Rose awoke from that startled slumber that followed the exhaustion of that troubled night, Rose was the more wretched of the two. She had not only dishonored herself, but stabbed the man she loved.
Josephine, on the other hand, was exhausted, but calm. The fearful escape she had had softened down by contrast her more distant terrors.
She began to shut her eyes again, and let herself drift. Above all, the doctor's promise comforted her: that she should go to Paris with him, and have her boy.
This deceitful calm of the heart lasted three days.
Carefully encouraged by Rose, it was destroyed by Jacintha.
Jacintha, conscious that she had betrayed her trust, was almost heart-broken. She was ashamed to appear before her young mistress, and, coward-like, wanted to avoid knowing even how much harm she had done.
She pretended toothache, bound up her face, and never stirred from the kitchen. But she was not to escape: the other servant came down with a message: "Madame Raynal wanted to see her directly."
She came quaking, and found Josephine all alone.
Josephine rose to meet her, and casting a furtive glance round the room first, threw her arms round Jacintha's neck, and embraced her with many tears.
"Was ever fidelity like yours? how COULD you do it, Jacintha? and how can I ever repay it? But, no; it is too base of me to accept such a sacrifice from any woman."
Jacintha was so confounded she did not know what to say. But it was a mystification that could not endure long between two women, who were both deceived by a third. Between them they soon discovered that it must have been Rose who had sacrificed herself.
"And Edouard has never been here since," said Josephine.
"And never will, madame."
"Yes, he shall! there must be some limit even to my feebleness, and my sister's devotion. You shall take a line to him from me. I will write it this moment."
The letter was written. But it was never sent. Rose found Josephine and Jacintha together; saw a letter was being written, asked to see it; on Josephine's hesitating, snatched it out of her hand, read it, tore it to pieces, and told Jacintha to leave the room. She hated the sight of poor Jacintha, who had slept at the very moment when all depended on her watchfulness.
"So you were going to send to HIM, unknown to me."
"Forgive me, Rose." Rose burst out crying.
"O Josephine! is it come to this? Would you deceive ME?"
"You have deceived ME! Yes! it has come to that. I know all. Twill not consent to destroy ALL I love."
She then begged hard for leave to send the letter.
Rose gave an impetuous refusal. "What could you say to him? foolish thing, don't you know him, and his vanity? When you had exposed yourself to him, and showed him I had insulted him for you, do you think he would forgive me? No! this is to make light of my love—to make me waste the sacrifice I have made. I feel that sacrifice as much as you do, more perhaps, and I would rather die in a convent than waste that night of shame and agony. Come, promise me, no more attempts of that kind, or we are sisters no more, friends no more, one heart and one blood no more."
The weaker nature, weakened still more by ill-health and grief, was terrified into submission, or rather temporized. "Kiss me then," said Josephine, "and love me to the end. Ah, if I was only in my grave!"
Rose kissed her with many sighs, but Josephine smiled. Rose eyed her with suspicion. That deep smile; what did it mean? She had formed some resolution. "She is going to deceive me somehow," thought Rose.
From that day she watched Josephine like a spy. Confidence was gone between them. Suspicion took its place.
Rose was right in her misgivings. The moment Josephine saw that Edouard's happiness and Rose's were to be sacrificed for her whom nothing could make happy, the poor thing said to herself, "I CAN DIE."
And that was the happy thought that made her smile.
The doctor gave her laudanum: he found she could not sleep: and he thought it all-important that she should sleep.
Josephine, instead of taking these small doses, saved them all up, secreted them in a phial, and so, from the sleep of a dozen nights, collected the sleep of death: and now she was tranquil. This young creature that could not bear to give pain to any one else, prepared her own death with a calm resolution the heroes of our sex have not often equalled. It was so little a thing to her to strike Josephine. Death would save her honor, would spare her the frightful alternative of deceiving her husband, or of telling him she was another's. "Poor Raynal," said she to herself, "it is so cruel to tie him to a woman who can never be to him what he deserves. Rose would then prove her innocence to Edouard. A few tears for a weak, loving soul, and they would all be happy and forget her."
One day the baroness, finding herself alone with Rose and Dr. Aubertin, asked the latter what he thought of Josephine's state.
"Oh, she was better: had slept last night without her usual narcotic."
The baroness laid down her knitting and said, with much meaning, "And I tell you, you will never cure her body till you can cure her mind. My poor child has some secret sorrow."
"Sorrow!" said Aubertin, stoutly concealing the uneasiness these words created, "what sorrow?"
"Oh, she has some deep sorrow. And so have you, Rose."
"Me, mamma! what DO you mean?"
The baroness's pale cheek flushed a little. "I mean," said she, "that my patience is worn out at last; I cannot live surrounded by secrets. Raynal's gloomy looks when he left us, after staying but one hour; Josephine ill from that day, and bursting into tears at every word; yourself pale and changed, hiding an unaccountable sadness under forced smiles—Now, don't interrupt me. Edouard, who was almost like a son, gone off, without a word, and never comes near us now."
"Really you are ingenious in tormenting yourself. Josephine is ill! Well, is it so very strange? Have you never been ill? Rose is pale! you ARE pale, my dear; but she has nursed her sister for a month; is it a wonder she has lost color? Edouard is gone a journey, to inherit his uncle's property: a million francs. But don't you go and fall ill, like Josephine; turn pale, like Rose; and make journeys in the region of fancy, after Edouard Riviere, who is tramping along on the vulgar high road."
This tirade came from Aubertin, and very clever he thought himself. But he had to do with a shrewd old lady, whose suspicions had long smouldered; and now burst out. She said quietly, "Oh, then Edouard is not in this part of the world. That alters the case: where IS he?"
"In Normandy, probably," said Rose, blushing.
The baroness looked inquiringly towards Aubertin. He put on an innocent face and said nothing.
"Very good," said the baroness. "It's plain I am to learn nothing from you two. But I know somebody who will be more communicative. Yes: this uncomfortable smiling, and unreasonable crying, and interminable whispering; these appearances of the absent, and disappearances of the present; I shall know this very day what they all mean."
"Really, I do not understand you."
"Oh, never mind; I am an old woman, and I am in my dotage. For all that, perhaps you will allow me two words alone with my daughter."
"I retire, madame," and he disappeared with a bow to her, and an anxious look at Rose. She did not need this; she clenched her teeth, and braced herself up to stand a severe interrogatory.
Mother and daughter looked at one another, as if to measure forces, and then, instead of questioning her as she had intended, the baroness sank back in her chair and wept aloud. Rose was all unprepared for this. She almost screamed in a voice of agony, "O mamma! mamma! O God! kill me where I stand for making my mother weep!"
"My girl," said the baroness in a broken voice, and with the most touching dignity, "may you never know what a mother feels who finds herself shut out from her daughters' hearts. Sometimes I think it is my fault; I was born in a severer age. A mother nowadays seems to be a sort of elder sister. In my day she was something more. Yet I loved my mother as well, or better than I did my sisters. But it is not so with those I have borne in my bosom, and nursed upon my knee."
At this Rose flung herself, sobbing and screaming, at her mother's knees. The baroness was alarmed. "Come, dearest, don't cry like that. It is not too late to take your poor old mother into your confidence. What is this mystery? and why this sorrow? How comes it I intercept at every instant glances that were not intended for me? Why is the very air loaded with signals and secrecy? (Rose replied only by sobs.) Is some deceit going on? (Rose sobbed.) Am I to have no reply but these sullen sobs? will you really tell me nothing?"
"I've nothing to tell," sobbed Rose.
"Well, then, will you do something for me?"
Such a proposal was not only a relief, but a delight to the deceiving but loving daughter. She started up crying, "Oh, yes, mamma; anything, everything. Oh, thank you!" In the ardor of her gratitude, she wanted to kiss her mother; but the baroness declined the embrace politely, and said, coldly and bitterly, "I shall not ask much; I should not venture now to draw largely on your affection; it's only to write a few lines for me."
Rose got paper and ink with great alacrity, and sat down all beaming, pen in hand.
The baroness dictated the letter slowly, with an eye gimleting her daughter all the time.
The pen fell from Rose's hand, and she turned red and then pale.
"What! write to him?"
"Not in your own name; in mine. But perhaps you prefer to give me the trouble."
"Cruel! cruel!" sighed Rose, and wrote the words as requested.
The baroness dictated again,—
"Oblige me by coming here at your very earliest convenience."
"But, mamma, if he is in Normandy," remonstrated Rose, fighting every inch of the ground.
"Never you mind where he is," said the baroness. "Write as I request."
"Yes, mamma," said Rose with sudden alacrity; for she had recovered her ready wit, and was prepared to write anything, being now fully resolved the letter should never go.
"Now sign my name." Rose complied. "There; now fold it, and address it to his lodgings." Rose did so; and, rising with a cheerful air, said she would send Jacintha with it directly.
She was half across the room when her mother called her quietly back.
"No, mademoiselle," said she sternly. "You will give me the letter. I can trust neither the friend of twenty years, nor the servant that stayed by me in adversity, nor the daughter I suffered for and nursed. And why don't I trust you? Because YOU HAVE TOLD ME A LIE."
At this word, which in its coarsest form she had never heard from those high-born lips till then, Rose cowered like a hare.
"Ay, A LIE," said the baroness. "I saw Edouard Riviere in the park but yesterday. I saw him. My old eyes are feeble, but they are not deceitful. I saw him. Send my breakfast to my own room. I come of an ancient race: I could not sit with liars; I should forget courtesy; you would see in my face how thoroughly I scorn you all." And she went haughtily out with the letter in her hand.
Rose for the first time, was prostrated. Vain had been all this deceit; her mother was not happy; was not blinded. Edouard might come and tell her his story. Then no power could keep Josephine silent. The plot was thickening; the fatal net was drawing closer and closer.
She sank with a groan into a chair, and body and spirit alike succumbed. But that was only for a little while. To this prostration succeeded a feverish excitement. She could not, would not, look Edouard in the face. She would implore Josephine to be silent; and she herself would fly from the chateau. But, if Josephine would not be silent? Why, then she would go herself to Edouard, and throw herself upon his honor, and tell him the truth. With this, she ran wildly up the stairs, and burst into Josephine's room so suddenly, that she caught her, pale as death, on her knees, with a letter in one hand and a phial of laudanum in the other.