A WEEK after this memorable visit to Fossy, in emulation of my good preceptor, I treated my friends, or myself at least, to a five minutes’ fright. Wandering beside the river one day when Coquelin had been detained within doors to overlook some accounts for my father, I amused myself, where the bank projected slightly over the stream, with kicking the earth away in fragments, and watching it borne down the current. The result may be anticipated: I came very near going the way of those same fragments. I lost my foothold and fell into the stream, which, however, was so shallow as to offer no great obstacle to self-preservation. I scrambled ashore, wet to the bone, and, feeling rather ashamed of my misadventure, skulked about in the fields for a couple of hours, in my dripping clothes. Finally, there being no sun and my garments remaining inexorably damp, my teeth began to chatter and my limbs to ache. I went home and surrendered myself. Here again the result may be foreseen : the next day I was laid up with a high fever.
Mlle. de Bergerac, as I afterwards learned, immediately appointed herself my nurse, removed me from my little sleeping-closet to her own room, and watched me with the most tender care. My illness lasted some ten days, my convalescence a week. When I began to mend, my bed was transferred to an unoccupied room adjoining my aunt’s. Here, late one afternoon, I lay languidly singing to myself and watching the western sunbeams shimmering on the opposite wall. If you were ever ill as a child, you will remember such moments. You look by the hour at your thin, white hands ; you listen to the sounds in the house, the opening of doors and the tread of feet; you murmur strange odds and ends of talk ; and you watch the fading of the day and the dark flowering of the night. Presently my aunt came in, introducing Coquelin, whom she left by my bedside. He sat with me a long time, talking in the old, kind way, and gradually lulled me to sleep with the gentle murmur of his voice. When I awoke again it was night. The sun was quenched on the opposite wall, but through a window on the same side came a broad ray of moonlight. In the window sat Coquelin, who had apparently not left the room. Near him was Mlle, de Bergerac.
Some time elapsed between my becoming conscious of their presence and my distinguishing the sense of the words that were passing between them. When I did so, if I had reached the age when one ponders and interprets what one hears, I should readily have perceived that since those last thrilling moments at Fossy their friendship had taken a very long step, and that the secret of each heart had changed place with its mate. But even now there was little that was careless and joyous in their young love ; the first words of Mlle, de Bergerac that I distinguished betrayed the sombre tinge of their passion.
“ I don’t care what happens now',” she said. “ It will always be something to have lived through these days.”
“You ’re stronger than I, then,” said Coquelin. “ I have n’t the courage to defy the future. I’m afraid to think of it. Ah, why can’t we make a future of our own ? ”
“It would be a greater happiness than we have a right to. Who are you, Pierre Coquelin, that you should claim the right to marry the girl you love, when she’s a demoiselle de Bergerac to begin with ? And who am I, that I should expect to have deserved a greater blessing than that one look of your eyes, which I shall never, never forget ? It is more than enough to watch you and pray for you and worship you in silence.”
“What am I ? what are you? We are two honest mortals, who have a perfect right to repudiate the blessings of God. If ever a passion deserved its reward, mademoiselle, it’s the absolute love I bear you. It’s not a spasm, a miracle, or a delusion; it’s the most natural emotion of my nature.”
“We don’t live in a natural world, Coquelin. If we did, there would be no need of concealing this divine affection. Great heaven! who’s natural? Is it my sister-in-law ? Is it M. de Treuil ? Is it my brother ? My brother is sometimes so natural that he’s brutal. Is it I myself ? There are moments when I’m afraid of my nature.”
It was too dark for me to distinguish my companions’ faces in the course of this singular dialogue ; but it’s not hard to imagine how, as my aunt uttered these words, with a burst of sombre naivete, her lover must have turned upon her face the puzzled brightness of his eyes.
“ What do you mean ? ” he asked.
“ Mon Dieu ! think how I have lived ! What a senseless, thoughtless, passionless life ! What solitude, ignorance, and languor ! What trivial duties and petty joys ! I have fancied myself happy at times, for it was God’s mercy that I did n’t know what I lacked. But now that my soul begins to stir and throb and live, it shakes me with its mighty pulsations. I feel as if in the mere wantonness of strength and joy it might drive me to some extravagance. I seem to feel myself making a great rush, with my eyes closed and my heart in my throat. And then the earth sinks away from under my feet, and in my ears is the sound of a dreadful tumult.”
“ Evidently we have very different ways of feeling. For you our love is action, passion ; for me it’s rest. For you it’s romance ; for me it’s reality. For me it’s a necessity ; for you (how shall I say it?) it’s a luxury. In point of fact, mademoiselle, how should it be otherwise ? When a demoiselle de Bergerac bestows her heart upon an obscure adventurer, a man born in poverty and servitude, it’s a matter of charity, of noble generosity.”
Mlle. de Bergerac received this speech in silence, and for some moments nothing was said. At last she resumed : “ After all that has passed between us, Coquelin, it seems to me a matter neither of generosity nor of charity to allude again to that miserable fact of my birth.”
“ I was only trying to carry out your own idea, and to get at the truth with regard to our situation. If our love is worth a straw, we need n’t be afraid of that. Is n’t it true — blessedly true, perhaps, for all I know — that you shrink a little from taking me as I am ? Except for my character, I’m so little ! It’s impossible to be less of a personage. You can’t quite reconcile it to your dignity to love a nobody, so you fling over your weakness a veil of mystery and romance and exaltation. You regard your passion, perhaps, as more of an escapade, an adventure, than it needs to be.”
“ My ‘ nobody,’ ” said Mlle. de Bergerac, gently, “ is a very wise man, and a great philosopher. I don’t understand a word you say.”
“ Ah, so much the better ! ” said Coquelin with a little laugh.
“ Will you promise me,” pursued the young girl, “ never again by word or deed to allude to the difference of our birth ? If you refuse, I shall consider you an excellent pedagogue, but no lover.”
“ Will you in return promise me — ”
“ Promise you what ? ”
Coquelin was standing before her, looking at her, with folded arms. “ Promise me likewise to forget it! ”
Mile, de Bergerac stared a moment, and also rose to her feet. “ Forget it ! Is this generous?” she cried. “Is it delicate ? I had pretty well forgot it, I think, on that dreadful day at Fossy ! ” Her voice trembled and swelled; she burst into tears. Coquelin attempted to remonstrate, but she motioned him aside, and swept out of the room.
It must have been a very genuine passion between these two, you ’ll observe, to allow this handling without gloves. Only a plant of hardy growth could have endured this chilling blast of discord and disputation. Ultimately, indeed, its effect seemed to have been to fortify and consecrate their love. This was apparent several days later ; but I know not what manner of communication they had had in the interval. I was much better, but I was still weak and languid. Mile, de Bergerac brought me my breakfast in bed, and then, having helped me to rise and dress, led me out into the garden, where she had caused a chair to be placed in the shade. While I sat watching the bees and butterflies, and pulling the flowers to pieces, she strolled up and down the alley close at hand, taking slow stitches in a piece of embroidery. We had been so occupied about ten minutes, when Coquelin came towards us from his lodge,—by appointment, evidently, for this was a roundabout way to the house. Mile, de Bergerac met him at the end of the path, where I could not hear what they said, but only see their gestures. As they came along together, she raised both hands to her ears, and shook her head with vehemence, as if to refuse to listen to what he was urging. When they drew near my restingplace, she had interrupted him.
“No, no, no!” she cried, “I will never forget it to my dying day. How should I ? How can I look at you without remembering it ? It’s in your face, your figure, your movements, the tones of your voice. It’s you,—it ’s what I love in you ! It was that which went through my heart that day at Fossy. It was the look, the tone, with which you called the place horrible ; it was your bitter plebeian hate. When you spoke of the misery and baseness of your race, I could have cried out in an anguish of love ! When I contradicted you, and pretended that I prized and honored all these tokens of your servitude, — just heaven! you know now what my words were worth! ” Coquelin walked beside her with his hands clasped behind him, and his eyes fixed on the ground with a look of repressed sensibility. He passed his poor little convalescent pupil without heeding him. When they came down the path again, the young girl was still talking with the same feverish volubility.
“ But most of all, the first day, the first hour, when you came up the avenue to my brother! I had never seen any one like you. I had seen others, but you had something that went to my soul. I devoured you with my eyes, — your dusty clothes, your uncombed hair, your pale face, the way you held yourself not to seem tired. I went down on my knees, then; I have n’t been up since.”
The poor girl, you see, was completely possessed by her passion, and yet she was in a very strait place. For her life she would n’t recede ; and yet how was she to advance ? There must have been an odd sort of simplicity in her way of bestowing her love ; or perhaps you ’ll think it an odd sort of subtlety. It seems plain to me now, as I tell the story, that Coquelin, with his perfect good sense, was right, and that there was, at this moment, a large element of romance in the composition of her feelings. She seemed to feel no desire to realize her passion. Her hand was already bestowed ; fate was inexorable. She wished simply to compress a world of bliss into her few remaining hours of freedom.
The day after this interview in the garden I came down to dinner ; on the next I sat up to supper, and for some time afterwards, thanks to my aunt’s preoccupation of mind. On rising from the table, my father left the chateau ; my mother, who was ailing, returned to her room. Coquelin disappeared, under pretence of going to his own apartments ; but, Mile, de Bergerac having taken me into the drawing-room and detained me there some minutes, he shortly rejoined us.
“ Great heaven, mademoiselle, this must end ! ” he cried, as he came into the room. “ I can stand it no longer.” “ Nor can I,” said my aunt. “ But I have given my word.”
“ Take back your word, then ! Write him a letter — go to him — send me to him — anything! I can’t stay here on the footing of a thief and an impostor. I ’ll do anything,” he continued, as she was silent. “ I 'll go to him in person ; I ’ll go to your brother ; I ’ll go to your sister even. I 'll proclaim it to the world. Or, if you don’t like that, I ’ll keep it a mortal secret. I ’ll leave the château with you without an hour’s delay. I ’ll defy pursuit and discovery. We’ll go to America, — anywhere you wish, if it’s only action. Only spare me the agony of seeing you drift along into that man’s arms.”
Mlle. de Bergerac made no reply for some moments. At last, “ I will never marry M. de Treuil,” she said.
To this declaration Coquelin made no response ; but after a pause, “Well, well, well ? ” he cried.
“ Ah, you ’re pitiless ! ” said the young girl.
“ No, mademoiselle, from the bottom of my heart I pity you.”
“Well, then, think of all you ask! Think of the inexpiable criminality of my love. Think of me standing here, — here before my mother’s portrait, — murmuring out my shame, scorched by my sister’s scorn, buffeted by my brother’s curses ! Gracious heaven, Coquelin, suppose after all I were a bad, hard girl ! ”
“ I ’ll suppose nothing; this is no time for hair-splitting.” And then, after a pause, as if with a violent effort, in a voice hoarse and yet soft: “ Gabrielle, passion is blind. Reason alone is worth a straw. I ’ll not counsel you in passion, let us wait till reason conies to us.” He put out his hand; she gave him her own ; he pressed it to his lips and departed.
On the following day, as I still professed myself too weak to resume my books, Coquelin left the château alone, after breakfast, for a long walk. He was going, I suppose, into the woods and meadows in quest of Reason. She was hard to find, apparently, for he failed to return to dinner. He reappeared, however, at supper, but now my father was absent. My mother, as she left the table, expressed the wish that Mlle. de Bergerac should attend her to her own room. Coquelin, meanwhile, went with me into the great saloon, and for half an hour talked to me gravely and kindly about my studies, and questioned me on what we had learned before my illness. At the end of this time Mlle. de Bergerac returned.
“ I got this letter to-day from M. de Treuil,” she said, and offered him a missive which had apparently been handed to her since dinner.
“ I don’t care to read it,” he said.
She tore it across and held the pieces to the flame of the candle. “ He is to be here to-morrow,” she added finally.
“Well ? ” asked Coquelin gravely.
“ You know my answer.”
“Your answer to him, perfectly. But what is your answer to me ? ”
She looked at him in silence. They stood for a minute, their eyes locked together. And then, in the same posture,— her arms loose at her sides, her head slightly thrown back, — “Toyou,” she said, “my answer is — farewell.”
The word was little more than whispered ; but, though he heard it, he neither started nor spoke. He stood unmoved, all his soul trembling under his brows and filling the space between his mistress and himself with a sort of sacred stillness. Then, gradually, his head sank on his breast, and his eyes dropped on the ground.
“ It ’s reason,” the young girl began. “ Reason has come to me. She tells me that if I marry in my brother’s despite, and in opposition to all the traditions that have been kept sacred in my family, I shall neither find happiness nor give it. I must choose the simplest course. The other is a gulf; I can’t leap it. It’s harder than you think. Something in the air forbids it, — something in the very look of these old walls, within which I was born and I ’ve lived. I shall never marry ; I shall go into religion. I tried to fling away my name ; it was sowing dragons’ teeth. I don’t ask you to forgive me. It’s small enough comfort that you should have the right to think of me as a poor, weak heart. Keep repeating that: it will console you. I shall not have the compensation of doubting the perfection of what I love.”
Coquelin turned away in silence. Mlle. de Bergerac sprang after him. “In Heaven’s name,” she cried, “say something ! Rave, storm, swear, but don’t let me think I’ve broken your heart.”
“ My heart’s sound,” said Coquelin, almost with a smile. “ I regret nothing that has happenedO, how I love you ! ”
The young girl buried her face in her hands.
“This end,” he went on, “is doubtless the only possible one. It’s thinking very lightly of life to expect any other. After all, what call had I to interrupt your life, — to burden you with a trouble, a choice, a decision ? As much as anything that I have ever known in you I admire your beautiful delicacy of conscience.” '
“Ah,” said the young girl, with a moan, “ don’t kill me with fine names ! ”
And then came the farewell. “ I feel,” said poor Coquelin, “ that I can’t see you again. We must not meet. I will leave Bergerac immediately, — tonight,— under pretext of having been summoned home by my mother’s illness. In a few days I will write to your brother that circumstances forbid me to return.”
My own part in this painful interview I shall not describe at length. When it began to dawn upon my mind that my friend was actually going to disappear, I was seized with a convulsion of rage and grief. “Ah,” cried Mlle. de Bergerac bitterly, “that was all that was wanting ! ” What means were taken to restore me to composure, what promises were made me, what pious deception was practised, I forget; but, when at last I came to my senses, Coquelin had made his exit.
My aunt took me by the hand and prepared to lead me up to bed, fearing naturally that my ruffled aspect and swollen visage would arouse suspicion. At this moment I heard the clatter of hoofs in the court, mingled with the sound of voices. From the window, I saw M. de Treuil and my father alighting from horseback. Mlle. de Bergerac, apparently, made the same observation ; she dropped my hand and sank down in a chair. She was not left long in suspense. Perceiving a light in the saloon, the two gentlemen immediately made their way to this apartment. They came in together, arm in arm, the Vicomte dressed in mourning. Just within the threshold they stopped ; my father disengaged his arm, took his companion by the hand and led him to Mlle. de Bergerac. She rose to her feet as you may imagine a sitting statue to rise. The Vicomte bent his knee.
“ At last, mademoiselle,” said he, — “ sooner than I had hoped, — my long probation is finished.”
The young girl spoke, but no one would have recognized her voice. “ I fear, M. le Vicomte,” she said, “ that it has only begun.”
The Vicomte broke into a harsh, nervous laugh.
“ Fol de rol, mademoiselle,” cried my father, “your pleasantry is in very bad taste.”
But the Vicomte had recovered himself. “ Mademoiselle is quite right,” he declared ; “ she means that I must now begin to deserve my happiness.” This little speech showed a very brave fancy. It was in flagrant discord with the expression of the poor girl’s figure, as she stood twisting her hands together and rolling her eyes, — an image of sombre desperation.
My father felt there was a storm in the air. “M. le Vicomte is in mourning for M. de Sorbi&res,” he said. “ M. le Vicomte is his sole legatee. He comes to exact the fulfilment of your promise.”
“ I made no promise,” said Mlle. de Bergerac.
“ Excuse me, mademoiselle ; you gave your word that you’d wait for me.”
“ Gracious heaven ! ” cried the young girl ; “ have n’t I waited for you ! ”
“ Ma toute belle,” said the Baron, trying to keep his angry voice within the compass of an undertone, and reducing it in the effort to a very ugly whisper, “ if I had supposed you were going to make us a scene, nom de Dieu ! I would have taken my precautions beforehand ! You know what you ’re to expect. Vicomte, keep her to her word. I ’ll give you half an hour. Come, Chevalier.” And he took me by the hand.
We had crossed the threshold and reached the hall, when I heard the Vicomte give a long moan, half plaintive, half indignant. My father turned, and answered with a fierce, inarticulate cry, which I can best describe as a roar. He straightway retraced his steps, I, of course, following. Exactly what, in the brief interval, had passed between our companions I am unable to say ; but it was plain that Mlle. de Bergerac, by some cruelly unerring word or act, had discharged the bolt of her refusal. Her gallant lover had sunk into a chair, burying his face in his hands, and stamping his feet on the floor in a frenzy of disappointment. She stood regarding him in a sort of helpless, distant pity. My father had been going to break out into a storm of imprecations ; but he suppressed them, and folded his arms.
“ And now, mademoiselle,” he said, “will you be so good as to inform me of your intentions.”
Beneath my father’s gaze the softness passed out of my aunt’s face and gave place to an angry defiance, which he must have recognized as cousin-german, at least, to the passion in his own breast. “My intentions had been,” she said, “ to let M. le Vicomte know that I couldn’t marry him, with as little offence as possible. But you seem determined, my brother, to thrust in a world of offence somewhere.”
You must not blame Mlle. de Bergerac for the sting of her retort. She foresaw a hard fight ; she had only sprung to her arms.
My father looked at the wretched Vicomte, as he sat sobbing and stamping like a child. His bosom was wrung with pity for his friend. “Look at that dear Gaston, that charming man, and blush for your audacity.”
“ I know a great deal more about my audacity than you, brother. I might tell you things that would surprise you.”
“ Gabrielle, you are mad ! ” the Baron broke out.
“ Perhaps I am,” said the young girl. And then, turning to M. de Treuil, in a tone of exquisite reproach, “ M. le Vicomte, you suffer less well than I had hoped.”
My father could endure no more. He seized his sister by her two wrists, so that beneath the pressure her eyes filled with tears. “Heartless fool!” he cried, “ do you know what I can do to you ? ”
“ I can imagine, from this specimen,” said the poor creature.
The Baron was beside himself with passion. “Down, down on your knees,” he went on, “and beg our pardon all round for your senseless, shameless perversity! ” As he spoke, he increased the pressure of his grasp to that degree that, after a vain struggle to free herself, she uttered a scream of pain. The Vicomte sprang to his feet. “ In heaven’s name, Gabrielle,” he cried, — and it was the only real naïveté that he had ever uttered, — “is n’t it all a horrible jest ? ”
Mlle. de Bergerac shook her head. “ It seems hard, Vicomte,” she said, “ that I should be answerable for your happiness.”
“ You hold it there in your hand. Think of what I suffer. To have lived for weeks in the hope of this hour, and to find it what you would fain make it ! To have dreamed of rapturous bliss, and to wake to find it hideous misery ! Think of it once again ! ”
“ She shall have a chance to think of it,” the Baron declared ; “ she shall think of it quite at her ease. Go to your room, mademoiselle, and remain there till further notice.”
Gabrielle prepared to go, but, as she moved away, “ I used to fear you, brother,” she said with homely scorn, “but I don’t fear you now. judge whether it’s because I love you more ! ”
“ Gabrielle,” the Vicomte cried out, “ I have n’t given you up.”
“ Your feelings are your own, M. le Vicomte. I would have given more than I can say rather than have caused you to suffer. Your asking my hand has been the great honor of my life ; my withholding it has been the great trial.” And she walked out of the room with the step of unacted tragedy. My father, with an oath, despatched me to bed in her train. Heavy-headed with the recent spectacle of so much half-apprehended emotion, I speedily fell asleep.
I was aroused by the sound of voices, and the grasp of a heavy hand on my shoulder. My father stood before me, holding a candle, with M. de Treuil beside him. “ Chevalier,” he said, "open your eyes like a man, and come to your senses.”
Thus exhorted, I sat up and stared. The Baron sat down on the edge of the bed. “ This evening,” he began, “ before the Vicomte and I came in, were you alone with your aunt ? ” — My dear friend, you see the scene from here. I answered with the cruel directness of my years. Even if I had had the wit to dissemble, I should have lacked the courage. Of course I had no story to tell. I had drawn no inferences ; I did n't say that my tutor was my aunt’s lover. I simply said that he bad been with us after supper, and that he wanted my aunt to go away with him. Such was my part in the play. I see the whole picture again, — my father brandishing the candlestick, and devouring my words with his great flaming eyes ; and the Vicomte behind, portentously silent, with his black clothes and his pale face.
They had not been three minutes out of the room when the door leading to my aunt’s chamber opened and Mlle. de Bergerac appeared. She had heard sounds in my apartment, and suspected the visit of the gentlemen and its motive. She immediately won from me the recital of what I had been forced to avow. “ Poor Chevalier,” she cried, for all commentary. And then, after a pause, “ What made them suspect that M. Coquelin had been with us ? ”
“They saw him, or some one, leave the chateau as they came in.”
“ And where have they gone now ? ” “ To supper. My father said to M. de Treuil that first of all they must sup.”
Mlle. de Bergerac stood a moment in meditation. Then suddenly, “ Get up, Chevalier,” she said, “ I want you to go with me.”
“ Where are you going ? ”
“ To M. Coquelin’s.”
I needed no second admonition. I hustled on my clothes ; Mlle. de Bergerac left the room and immediately returned, clad in a light mantle. We made our way undiscovered to one of the private entrances of the chateau, hurried across the park and found a light in the window of Coquelin’s lodge. It was about half past nine. Mlle. de Bergerac gave a loud knock at the door, and we entered her lover’s apartment.
Coquelin was seated at his table writing. He sprang to his feet with a cry of amazement. Mlle. de Bergerac stood panting, with one hand pressed to her heart, while rapidly moving the other as if to enjoin calmness.
“ They are come back,” she began, — “ M. de Treuil and my brother ! ”
“ I thought he was to come to-morrow. Was it a deception ? ”
“Ah, no! not from him,— an accident. Pierre Coquelin, I've had such a scene ! But it’s not your fault.”
“ What made the scene ? ”
“ My refusal, of course.”
“ You turned off the Vicomte ? ”
“ Holy Virgin ! You ask me ? ”
“ Unhappy girl ! ” cried Coquelin.
“ No, I was a happy girl to have had a chance to act as my heart bade me. I had faltered enough. But it was hard ! ”
“It’s all hard.”
“ The hardest is to come,” said my aunt. She put out her hand ; he sprang to her and seized it, and she pressed his own with vehemence. “ They have discovered our secret, — don’t ask how. It was Heaven’s will. From this moment, of course — ”
“ From this moment, of course,” cried Coquelin, “I stay where I am!”
With an impetuous movement she raised his hand to her lips and kissed it. “ You stay where you are. We have nothing to conceal, but we have nothing to avow. We have no confessions to make. Before God we have done our duty. You may expect them, I fancy, to-night; perhaps, too, they will honor me with a visit. They are supping between two battles. They will attack us with fury, I know but let them dash themselves against our silence as against a wall of stone. I have taken my stand. My love, my errors, my longings, are my own affair. My reputation is a sealed book. Woe to him who would force it open ! ”
The poor girl had said once, you know, that she was afraid of her nature. Assuredly it had now sprung erect in its strength ; it came hurrying into action on the wings of her indignation. “ Remember, Coquelin,” she went on, “you are still and always my friend. You are the guardian of my weakness, the support of my strength.”
“ Say it all, Gabrielle ! ” he cried. “ I ’m for ever and ever your lover ! ”
Suddenly, above the music of his voice, there came a great rattling knock at the door. Coquelin sprang forward ; it opened in his face and disclosed my father and M. de Treuil. I have no words in my dictionary, no images in my rhetoric, to represent the sudden horror that leaped into my father’s face as his eye fell upon his sister. He staggered back a step and then stood glaring, until his feelings found utterance in a single word: “ Conreuse ! ” I have never been able to look upon the word as trivial since that moment.
The Vicomte came striding past him into the room, like a bolt of lightning from a rumbling cloud, quivering with baffled desire, and looking taller by the head for his passion. “ And it was for this, mademoiselle,” he cried, “and for that!” and he flung out a scornful hand toward Coquelin. “ For a beggarly, boorish, ignorant pedagogue !”
Coquelin folded his arms. “ Address me directly, M. le Vicomte,” he said ; “ don’t fling mud at me over mademoiselle’s head.”
“ You ? Who are you ?” hissed the nobleman. “A man doesn’t address you ; he sends his lackeys to flog you ! ”
“ Well, M. le Vicomte, you 're complete,” said Coquelin, eying him from head to foot.
“ Complete ? ” and M. de Treuil broke into an almost hysterical laugh. “ I only lack having married your mistress ! ”
“ Ah ! ” cried Mile, de Bergerac.
“ O, you poor, insensate fool ! ” said Coquelin.
“ Heaven help me,” the young man went on, “ I ’m ready to marry her still.”
While these words were rapidly exchanged, my father stood choking with the confusion of amazement and rage. He was stupefied at his sister’s audacity, — at the dauntless spirit which ventured to flaunt its shameful passion in the very face of honor and authority. Yet that simple interjection which I have quoted from my aunt’s lips Stirred a secret tremor in his heart ; it was like the striking of some magic silver bell, portending monstrous things. His passion faltered, and, as his eyes glanced upon my innocent head (which, it must be confessed, was sadly-out of place in that pernicious scene), alighted on this smaller wrong. “ The next time you go on your adventures, mademoiselle,” he cried,I 'd thank you not to pollute my son by dragging him at your skirts.”
“ I’m not sorry to have my family present,” said the young girl, who had had time to collect her thoughts. “ I should be glad even if my sister were here. I wish simply to bid you farewell.”
Coquelin, at these words, made a step towards her. She passed her hand through his arm. “ Things have taken place — and chiefly within the last moment — which change the face of the future. You’ve done the business, brother,” and she fixed her glittering eyes on the Baron; “you’ve driven me back on myself. I spared you, but you never spared me. I cared for my name ; you loaded it with dishonor. I chose between happiness and duty,— duty as you would have laid it down : I preferred duty. But now that happiness has become one with simple safety from violence and insult, I go back to happiness. I give you back your name ; though I have kept it more jealously than you. I have another ready for me. O Messieurs ! ” she cried, with a burst of rapturous exaltation, “ for what you have done to me I thank you.”
My father began to groan and tremble. He had grasped my hand in his own, which was clammy with perspiration. “ For the love of God, Gabrielle,” he implored, “'or the fear of the Devil, speak so that a sickened, maddened Christian can understand you ! For what purpose did you come here tonight ? ”
“Mon Dicu, it’s a long story. You made short work with it. I might in justice do as much. I came here, brother, to guard my reputation, and not to lose it.”
All this while my father had neither looked at Coquelin nor spoken to him, either because he thought him not worth his words, or because he had kept some transcendent insult in reserve. Here my governor broke in. “ It seems to me time, M. le Baron, that I should inquire the purpose of your own visit.”
My father stared a moment. “ I came, M. Coquelin, to take you by the shoulders and eject you through that door, with the further impulsion, if necessary, of a vigorous kick.”
“Good ! And M. Ie Vicomte ? ”
“ M. le Vicomte came to see it done.”
“ Perfect! A little more and you had come too late. I was on the point of leaving Bergerac. I can put the story into three words. I have been so happy as to secure the affections of Mlle. de Bergerac. She asked herself, devoutly, what course of action was possible under the circumstances. She decided that the only course was that we should immediately separate. I had no hesitation in bringing my residence with M. le Chevalier to a sudden close. I was to have quitted the chateau early to-morrow morning, leaving mademoiselle at absolute liberty. With her refusal of M. de Treuil I have nothing to do. Her action in this matter seems to have been strangely precipitated, and my own departure anticipated in consequence. It was at her adjuration, that I was preparing to depart. She came here this evening to command me to stay. In our relations there was nothing that the world had a right to lay a finger upon. From the moment that they were suspected it was of the first importance to the security and sanctity of Mlle. de Bergerac’s position that there should be no appearance on my part of elusion or flight. The relations I speak of had ceased to exist; there was, therefore, every reason why for the present I should retain my place. Mlle. de Bergerac had been here some three minutes, and had just made known her wishes, when you arrived with the honorable intentions which you avow, and under that illusion the perfect stupidity of which is its least reproach. In my own turn, Messieurs, I thank you ! ”
“ Gabrielle,” said my father, as Coquelin ceased speaking, “ the long and short of it appears to be that after all you need n’t marry this man. Am I to understand that you intend to ? ”
“ Brother, I mean to marry M. Coquelin.”
My father stood looking from the young girl to her lover. The Vicomte walked to the window, as if he were in want of air. The night was cool and the window closed. He tried the sash, but for some reason it resisted. Whereupon he raised his sword-hilt and with a violent blow shivered a pane into fragments. The Baron went on : “ On what do you propose to live ? ”
“It’s for me to propose,” said Coquelin. “ My wife shall not suffer.”
“ Whither do you mean to go ? ”
“ Since you ’re so good as to ask,— to Paris.”
My father had got back his fire. “ Well, then,” he cried, “ my bitterest unforgiveness go with you, and turn your unholy pride to abject woe ! My sister may marry a base-born vagrant if she wants, but I shall not give her away. I hope you ’ll enjoy the mud in which you’ve planted yourself. I hope your marriage will be blessed in the good old fashion, and that you ’ll regard philosophically the sight of a halfdozen starving children. I hope you’ll enjoy the company of chandlers and cobblers and scribblers ! ” The Baron could go no further. ‘'Ah, my sister ! ” he half exclaimed. His voice broke ; he gave a great convulsive sob, and fell into a chair.
“ Coquelin,” said my aunt, “take me back to the château.”
As she walked to the door, her hand in the young man’s arm, the Vicomte turned short about from the window, and stood with his drawn sword, grimacing horribly.
“Not if I can help it!” he cried through his teeth, and with a sweep of his weapon he made a savage thrust at the young girl’s breast. Coquelin, with equal speed, sprang before her, threw out his arm, and took the blow just below the elbow.
“ Thank you, M. le Vicomte,” he said, “for the chance of calling you a coward! There was something I wanted.”
Mlle. de Bergerac spent the night at the château, but by early dawn she had disappeared. Whither Coquelin betook himself with his gratitude and his wound, I know not. He lay, I suppose, at some neighboring farmer’s. My father and the Vicomte kept for an hour a silent, sullen vigil in ray preceptor’s vacant apartment, — for an hour and perhaps longer, for at the end of this time I fell asleep, and when I came to my senses, the next morning, I was in my own bed.
M. de Bergerac had finished his tale.
“But the marriage,” I asked, after a pauge, — “ was it happy ? ”
“ Reasonably so, I fancy. There is no doubt that Coquelin was an excellent fellow. They had three children, and lost them all. They managed to live. He painted portraits and did literary work.
“ And his wife ? ”
“ Her history, I take it, is that of all good wives: she loved her husband. When the Revolution came, they went into politics ; but here, in spite of his base birth, Coquelin acted with that superior temperance which I always associate with his memory. He was no sans-culotte. They both went to the scaffold among the Girondists.”