Part 5 out of 5
"And then," said she in a low voice, as if ashamed of herself. "You must
never write to her, you must never try to find out what has become of
"I give you my word," replied Boleslas, taking her hand, and adding: "And
"There is no then," said she, withdrawing her hand, but gently. And she
began to realize herself her promise of pardon, for she rearranged the
pillows under the wounded man's head, while he resumed:
"Yes, my noble Maud, there is a then. It is that I shall prove to you
how much truth there was in my words of yesterday, in my assurance that
I love you in spite of my faults. It is the mother who returns to me
today. But I want my wife, my dear wife, and I shall win her back."
She made no reply. She experienced, on hearing him pronounce those last
words with a transfigured face, an emotion which did not vanish. She had
acquired, beneath the shock of her great sorrow, an intuition too deep of
her husband's nature, and that facility, which formerly charmed her by
rendering her anxious, now inspired her with horror. That man with the
mobile and complaisant conscience had already forgiven himself. It
sufficed him to conceive the plan of a reparation of years, and to
respect himself for it--as if that was really sufficient--for the
difficult task. At least during the eight days which lapsed between that
conversation and their departure he strictly observed the promise he had
given his wife. In vain did Cibo, Pietrapertosa, Hafner, Ardea try to
see him. When the train which bore them away steamed out he asked his
wife, with a pride that time justified by deeds:
"Are you satisfied with me?"
"I am satisfied that we have left Rome," said she, evasively, and it was
true in two senses of the word:
First of all, because she did not delude herself with regard to the
return of the moral energy of which Boleslas was so proud. She knew that
his variable will was at the mercy of the first sensation. Then, what
she had not confessed to her husband, the sorrow of a broken friendship
was joined in her to the sorrows of a betrayed wife. The sudden
discovery of the infamy of Alba's mother had not destroyed her strong
affection for the young girl, and during the entire week, busy with her
preparations for a final departure, she had not ceased to wonder
anxiously: "What will she think of my silence?.... What has her mother
told her?.... What has she divined?"
She had loved the "poor little soul," as she called the Contessina in her
pretty English term. She had devoted to her the friendship peculiar to
young women for young girls--a sentiment--very strong and yet very
delicate, which resembles, in its tenderness, the devotion of an elder
sister for a younger. There is in it a little naive protection and also
a little romantic and gracious melancholy. The elder friend is severe
and critical. She tries to assuage, while envying them, the excessive
enthusiasms of the younger. She receives, she provokes her confidence
with the touching gravity of a counsellor. The younger friend is curious
and admiring. She shows herself in all the truth of that graceful
awakening of thoughts and emotions which precede her own period before
marriage. And when there is, as was the case with Alba Steno, a certain
discord of soul between that younger friend and her mother, the affection
for the sister chosen becomes so deep that it can not be broken without
wounds on both sides. It was for that reason that, on leaving Rome,
faithful and noble Maud experienced at once a sense of relief and of
pain--of relief, because she was no longer exposed to the danger of an
explanation with Alba; of pain, because it was so bitter a thought for
her that she could never justify her heart to her friend, could never aid
her in emerging from the difficulties of her life, could, finally, never
love her openly as she had loved her secretly. She said to herself as
she saw the city disappear in the night with its curves and its lights:
"If she thinks badly of me, may she divine nothing! Who will now prevent
her from yielding herself up to her sentiment for that dangerous and
perfidious Dorsenne? Who will console her when she is sad? Who will
defend her against her mother? I was perhaps wrong in writing to the
woman, as I did, the letter, which might have been delivered to her in
her daughter's presence.... Ah, poor little soul!.... May God watch
She turned, then, toward her son, whose hair she stroked, as if to
exorcise, by the evidence of present duty, the nostalgia which possessed
her at the thought of an affection sacrificed forever. Hers was a nature
too active, too habituated to the British virtue of self-control to
submit to the languor of vain emotions.
The two persons of whom her friendship, now impotent, had thought, were,
for various reasons, the two fatal instruments of the fate of the "poor
little soul," and the vague remorse which Maud herself felt with regard
to the terrible note sent to Madame Steno in the presence of the young
girl, was only too true. When the servant had given that letter to the
Countess, saying that Madame Gorka excused herself on account of
indisposition, Alba Steno's first impulse had been to enter her friend's
"I will go to embrace her and to see if she has need of anything," she
"Madame has forbidden any one to enter her room," replied the footman,
with embarrassment, and, at the same moment, Madame Steno, who had just
opened the note, said, in a voice which struck the young girl by its
"Let us go; I do not feel well, either."
The woman, so haughty, so accustomed to bend all to her will, was indeed
trembling in a very pitiful manner beneath the insult of those phrases
which drove her, Caterina Steno, away with such ignominy. She paled to
the roots of her fair hair, her face was distorted, and for the first and
last time Alba saw her form tremble. It was only for a few moments.
At the foot of the staircase energy gained the mastery in that courageous
character, created for the shock of strong emotions and for instantaneous
action. But rapid as had been that passage, it had sufficed to
disconcert the young girl. For not a moment did she doubt that the note
was the cause of that extraordinary metamorphosis in the Countess's
aspect and attitude. The fact that Maud would not receive her, her
friend, in her room was not less strange. What was happening? What did
the letter contain? What were they hiding from her? If she had, the day
before, felt the "needle in the heart" only on divining a scene of
violent explanation between her mother and Boleslas Gorka, how would she
have been agonized to ascertain the state into which the few lines of
Boleslas's wife had cast that mother! The anonymous denunciation
recurred to her, and with it all the suspicion she had in vain rejected.
The mother was unaware that for months there was taking place in her
daughter a moral drama of which that scene formed a decisive episode,
she was too shrewd not to understand that her emotion had been very
imprudent, and that she must explain it. Moreover, the rupture with Maud
was irreparable, and it was necessary that Alba should be included in it.
The mother, at once so guilty and so loving, so blind and so considerate,
had no sooner foreseen the necessity than her decision was made, and a
false explanation invented:
"Guess what Maud has just written me?" said she, brusquely, to her
daughter, when they were seated side by side in their carriage. God,
what balm the simple phrase introduced into Alba's heart! Her mother was
about to show her the note! Her joy was short-lived! The note remained
where the Countess had slipped it, after having nervously folded it, in
the opening in her glove. And she continued: "She accuses me of being
the cause of a duel between her husband and Florent Chapron, and she
quarrels with me by letter, without seeing me, without speaking to me!"
"Boleslas Gorka has fought a duel with Florent Chapron?" repeated the
"Yes," replied her mother. "I knew that through Hafner. I did not speak
of it to you in order not to worry you with regard to Maud, and I have
only awaited her so long to cheer her up in case I should have found her
uneasy, and this is how she rewards me for my friendship! It seems that
Gorka took offence at some remark of Chapron's about Poles, one of those
innocent remarks made daily on any nation--the Italians, the French, the
English, the Germans, the Jews--and which mean nothing.... I repeated
the remark in jest to Gorka!.... I leave you to judge.... Is it my
fault if, instead of laughing at it, he insulted poor Florent, and if the
absurd encounter resulted from it? And Maud, who writes me that she will
never pardon me, that I am a false friend, that I did it expressly to
exasperate her husband.... Ah, let her watch her husband, let her lock
him up, if he is mad! And I, who have received them as I have, I, who
have made their position for them in Rome, I, who had no other thought
than for her just now!.... You hear," she added, pressing her daughter's
hand with a fervor which was at least sincere, if her words were
untruthful, "I forbid you seeing her again or writing to her. If she
does not offer me an apology for her insulting note, I no longer wish to
know her. One is foolish to be so kind!"
For the first time, while listening to that speech, Alba was convinced
that her mother was deceiving her. Since suspicion had entered her heart
with regard to her mother, the object until then of such admiration and
affection, she had passed through many stages of mistrust. To talk with
the Countess was always to dissipate them. That was because Madame
Steno, apart from her amorous immorality, was of a frank and truthful
It was indeed a customary and known weakness of Florent's to repeat those
witticisms which abound in national epigrams, as mediocre as they are
iniquitous. Alba could recall at least twenty circumstances when the
excellent man had uttered such jests at which a sensitive person might
take offence. She would not have thought it utterly impossible that a
duel between Gorka and Chapron might have been provoked by an incident of
that order. But Chapron was the brother-in-law of Maitland, of the new
friend with whom Madame Steno had become infatuated during the absence of
the Polish Count, and what a brother-in-law! He of whom Dorsenne said:
"He would set Rome on fire to cook an egg for his sister's husband."
When Madame Steno announced that duel to her daughter, an invincible and
immediate deduction possessed the poor child--Florent was fighting for
his brother-in-law. And on account of whom, if not of Madame Steno? The
thought would not, however, have possessed her a second in the face of
the very plausible explanation made by the Countess, if Alba had not had
in her heart a certain proof that her mother was not telling the truth.
The young girl loved Maud as much as she was loved by her. She knew the
sensibility of her faithful and, delicate friend, as that friend knew
hers. For Maud to write her mother a letter which produced an immediate
rupture, there must have been some grave reason.
Another material proof was soon joined to that moral proof. Granted the
character and the habits of the Countess, since she had not shown Maud's
letter to her daughter there and then, it was because the letter was not
fit to be shown. But she heard on the following day only the description
of the duel, related by Maitland to Madame Steno, the savage aggression
of Gorka against Dorsenne, the composure of the latter and the issue,
relatively harmless, of the two duels.
"You see," said her mother to her, "I was right in saying that Gorka is
mad!.... It seems he has had a fit of insanity since the duel, and that
they prevent him from seeing any one.... Can you now comprehend how Maud
could blame me for what is hereditary in the Gorka family?"
Such was indeed the story which the Venetian and her friends, Hafner,
Ardea, and others, circulated throughout Rome in order to diminish the
scandal. The accusation of madness is very common to women who have
goaded to excess man's passion, and who then wish to avoid all blame for
the deeds or words of that man. In this case, Boleslas's fury and his
two incomprehensible duels, fifteen minutes apart, justified the story.
When it became known in the city that the Palazzetto Doria was strictly
closed, that Maud Gorka received no one, and finally that she was taking
away her husband in the manner which resembled a flight, no doubt
remained of the young man's wrecked reason.
Two persons profited very handsomely by the gossiping, the origin of
which was a mystery. One was the innkeeper of the 'Tempo Perso', whose
simple 'bettola' became, during those few days, a veritable place of
pilgrimage, and who sold a quantity of wine and numbers of fresh eggs.
The other was Dorsenne's publisher, of whom the Roman booksellers ordered
several hundred volumes.
"If I had had that duel in Paris," said the novelist to Mademoiselle
Steno, relating to her the unforeseen result, "I should perhaps have at
length known the intoxication of the thirtieth edition."
It was a few days after the departure of the Gorkas that he jested thus,
at a large dinner of twenty-four covers, given at Villa Steno in honor of
Peppino Ardea and Fanny Hafner. Reestablished in the Countess's favor
since his duel, he had again become a frequenter of her house, so much
the more assiduous as the increasing melancholy of Alba interested him
greatly. The enigma of the young girl's character redoubled that
interest at each visit in such a degree that, notwithstanding the heat,
already beginning, of the dangerous Roman summer, he constantly deferred
his return to Paris until the morrow. What had she guessed in
consequence of the encounter, the details of which she had asked of him
with an emotion scarcely hidden in her eyes of a blue as clear, as
transparent, as impenetrable at the same time, as the water of certain
Alpine lakes at the foot of the glaciers. He thought he was doing right
in corroborating the story of Boleslas Gorka's madness, which he knew
better than any one else to be false. But was it not the surest means of
exempting Madame Steno from connection with the affair? Why had he seen
Alba's beautiful eyes veiled with a sadness inexplicable, as if he had
just given her another blow? He did not know that since the day on which
the word insanity had been uttered before her relative to Maud's husband,
the Contessina was the victim of a reasoning as simple as irrefutable.
"If Boleslas be mad, as they say," said Alba, "why does Maud, whom I know
to be so just and who loves me so dearly, attribute to my mother the
responsibility of this duel, to the point of breaking with me thus, and
of leaving without a line of explanation?.... No.... There is something
else.".... The nature of the "something else" the young girl
comprehended, on recalling her mother's face during the perusal of Maud's
letter. During the ten days following that scene, she saw constantly
before her that face, and the fear imprinted upon those features
ordinarily so calm, so haughty! Ah, poor little soul, indeed, who could
not succeed in banishing this fixed idea "My mother is not a good woman."
Idea! So much the more terrible, as Alba had no longer the ignorance of
a young girl, if she had the innocence. Accustomed to the conversations,
at times very bold, of the Countess's salon, enlightened by the reading
of novels chanced upon, the words lover and mistress had for her a
signification of physical intimacy such that it was an almost intolerable
torture for her to associate them with the relations of her mother, first
toward Gorka, then toward Maitland. That torture she had undergone
during the entire dinner, at the conclusion of which Dorsenne essayed to
chat gayly with her. She sat beside the painter, and the man's very
breath, his gestures, the sound of his voice, his manner of eating and of
drinking, the knowledge of his very proximity, had caused her such keen
suffering that it was impossible for her to take anything but large
glasses of iced water. Several times during that dinner, prolonged amid
the sparkle of magnificent silver and Venetian crystal, amid the perfume
of flowers and the gleam of jewels, she had seen Maitland's eyes fixed
upon the Countess with an expression which almost caused her to cry out,
so clearly did her instinct divine its impassioned sensuality, and once
she thought she saw her mother respond to it.
She felt with appalling clearness that which before she had uncertainly
experienced, the immodest character of that mother's beauty. With the
pearls in her fair hair, with neck and arms bare in a corsage the
delicate green tint of which showed to advantage the incomparable
splendor of her skin, with her dewy lips, with her voluptuous eyes shaded
by their long lashes, the dogaresse looked in the centre of that table
like an empress and like a courtesan. She resembled the Caterina
Cornaro, the gallant queen of the island of Cypress, painted by Titian,
and whose name she worthily bore. For years Alba had been so proud of
the ray of seduction cast forth by the Countess, so proud of those
statuesque arms, of the superb carriage, of the face which defied the
passage of time, of the bloom of opulent life the glorious creature
displayed. During that dinner she was almost ashamed of it.
She had been pained to see Madame Maitland seated a few paces farther on,
with brow and lips contracted as if by thoughts of bitterness. She
wondered: Does Lydia suspect them, too? But was it possible that her
mother, whom she knew to be so generous, so magnanimous, so kind, could
have that smile of sovereign tranquillity with such secrets in her heart?
Was it possible that she could have betrayed Maud for months and months
with the same light of joy in her eyes?
"Come," said Julien, stopping himself suddenly in the midst of a speech,
in which he had related two or three literary anecdotes. "Instead of
listening to your friend Dorsenne, little Countess, you are following
several blue devils flying through the room."
"They would fly, in any case," replied Alba, who, pointing to Fanny
Hafner and Prince d'Ardea seated on a couch, continued: "Has what I told
you a few weeks since been realized? You do not know all the irony of
it. You have not assisted, as I did the day before yesterday, at the
poor girl's baptism."
"It is true," replied Julien, "you were godmother. I dreamed of Leo
Thirteenth as godfather, with a princess of the house of Bourbon as
godmother. Hafner's triumph would have been complete!"
"He had to content himself with his ambassador and your servant," replied
Alba with a faint smile, which was speedily converted into an expression
of bitterness. "Are you satisfied with your pupil?" she added. "I am
progressing.... I laugh--when I wish to weep.... But you yourself would
not have laughed had you seen the fervor of charming Fanny. She was the
picture of blissful faith. Do not scoff at her."
"And where did the ceremony take place?" asked Dorsenne, obeying the
almost suppliant injunction.
"In the chapel of the Dames du Cenacle."
"I know the place," replied the novelist, "one of the most beautiful
corners of Rome! It is in the old Palais Piancini, a large mansion
almost opposite the 'Calcographie Royale', where they sell those
fantastic etchings of the great Piranese, those dungeons and those ruins
of so intense a poesy! It is the Gaya of stone. There is a garden on
the terrace. And to ascend to the chapel one follows a winding
staircase, an incline without steps, and one meets nuns in violet gowns,
with faces so delicate in the white framework of their bonnets. In
short, an ideal retreat for one of my heroines. My old friend Montfanon
took me there. As we ascended to that tower, six weeks ago, we heard the
shrill voices of ten little girls, singing: 'Questo cuor tu la vedrai'.
It was a procession of catechists, going in the opposite direction, with
tapers which flickered dimly in the remnant of daylight.... It was
exquisite.... But, now permit me to laugh at the thought of Montfanon's
choler when I relate to him this baptism. If I knew where to find the
old leaguer! But he has been hiding since our duel. He is in some
retreat doing penance. As I have already told you, the world for him has
not stirred since Francois de Guise. He only admits the alms of the
Protestants and the Jews. When Monseigneur Guerillot tells him of
Fanny's religious aspirations, he raves immoderately. Were she to cast
herself to the lions, like Saint Blandine, he would still cry out
"He did not see her the day before yesterday," said Alba, "nor the
expression upon her face when she recited the Credo. I do not believe in
mysticism, you know, and I have moments of doubt. There are times when
I can no longer believe in anything, life seems to me so wretched and
sad.... But I shall never forget that expression. She saw God!....
Several women were present with very touching faces, and there were many
devotees.... The Cardinal is very venerable.... All were by Fanny's
side, like saints around the Madonna in the early paintings which you
have taught me to like, and when the baptism had been gone through, guess
what she said to me: 'Come, let us pray for my dear father, and for his
conversion.' Is not such blindness melancholy."
"The fact is," said Dorsenne again, jocosely, "that in the father's
dictionary the word has another meaning: Conversion, feminine
substantive, means to him income.... But let us reason a little,
Countess. Why do you think it sad that the daughter should see her
father's character in her own light?.... You should, on the contrary,
rejoice at it.... And why do you find it melancholy that this adorable
saint should be the daughter of a thief?.... How I wish that you were
really my pupil, and that it would not be too absurd to give you here,
in this corner of the hall, a lesson in intellectuality!.... I would say
to you, when you see one of those anomalies which renders you indignant,
think of the causes. It is so easy. Although Protestant, Fanny is of
Jewish origin--that is to say, the descendant of a persecuted race--which
in consequence has developed by the side of the inherent defects of a
proscribed people the corresponding virtues, the devotion, the abnegation
of the woman who feels that she is the grace of a threatened hearth, the
sweet flower which perfumes the sombre prison."
"It is all beautiful and true," replied Alba, very seriously. She had
hung upon Dorsenne's lips while he spoke, with the instinctive taste for
ideas of that order which proved her veritable origin. "But you do not
mention the sorrow. This is what one can not do--look upon as a
tapestry, as a picture, as an object; the creature who has not asked to
live and who suffers. You, who have feeling, what is your theory when
"I can very clearly foresee the day on which Fanny will feel her
misfortune," continued the young girl. "I do not know when she will
begin to judge her father, but that she already begins to judge Ardea,
alas, I am only too sure.... Watch her at this moment, I pray you."
Dorsenne indeed looked at the couple. Fanny was listening to the Prince,
but with a trace of suffering upon her beautiful face, so pure in outline
that the nobleness in it was ideal.
He was laughing at some anecdote which he thought excellent, and which
clashed with the sense of delicacy of the person to whom he was
addressing himself. They were no longer the couple who, in the early
days of their betrothal, had given to Julien the sentiment of a complete
illusion on the part of the young girl for her future husband.
"You are right, Contessina," said he, "the decrystallization has
commenced. It is a little too soon."
"Yes, it is too soon," replied Alba. "And yet it is too late. Would you
believe that there are times when I ask myself if it would not be my duty
to tell her the truth about her marriage, such as I know it, with the
story of the weak man, the forced sale, and of the bargaining of Ardea?"
"You will not do it," said Dorsenne. "Moreover, why? This one or
another, the man who marries her will only want her money, rest assured.
It is necessary that the millions be paid for here below, it is one of
their ransoms.... But I shall cause you to be scolded by your mother,
for I am monopolizing you, and I have still two calls to pay this
"Well, postpone them," said Alba. "I beseech you, do not go."
"I must," replied Julien. "It is the last Wednesday of old Duchess
Pietrapertosa, and after her grandson's recent kindness--"
"She is so ugly," said Alba, "will you sacrifice me to her?"
"Then there is my compatriot, who goes away tomorrow and of whom I must
take leave this evening, Madame de Sauve, with whom you met me at the
museum .... You will not say she is ugly, will you?"
"No," responded Alba, dreamily, "she is very pretty.".... She had another
prayer upon her lips, which she did not formulate. Then, with a
beseeching glance: "Return, at least. Promise me that you will return
after your two visits. They will be over in an hour and a half. It will
not be midnight. You know some do not ever come before one and sometimes
two o'clock. You will return?"
"If possible, yes. But at any rate, we shall meet to-morrow, at the
studio, to see the portrait."
"Then, adieu," said the young girl, in a low voice.
The Contessina's disposition was too different from her mother's for the
mother to comprehend that heart, the more contracted in proportion as it
was touched, while emotion was synonymous with expansion in the opulent
and impulsive Venetian. That evening she had not even observed Alba's
dreaminess, Dorsenne once gone, and it required that Hafner should call
her attention to it. To the scheming Baron, if the novelist was
attentive to the young girl it was certainly with the object of capturing
a considerable dowry. Julien's income of twenty-five thousand francs
meant independence. The two hundred and fifty thousand francs which Alba
would have at her mother's death was a very large fortune. So Hafner
thought he would deserve the name of "old friend," by taking Madame Steno
aside and saying to her:
"Do you not think Alba has been a little strange for several days!"
"She has always been so," replied the Countess. "Young people are like
that nowadays; there is no more youth."
"Do you not think," continued the Baron, "that perhaps there is another
cause for that sadness--some interest in some one, for example?"
"Alba?" exclaimed the mother. "For whom?"
"For Dorsenne," returned Hafner, lowering his voice; "he just left five
minutes ago, and you see she is no longer interested in anything nor in
"Ah, I should be very much pleased," said Madame Steno, laughing. "He is
a handsome fellow; he has talent, fortune. He is the grand-nephew of a
hero, which is equivalent to nobility, in my opinion. But Alba has no
thought of it, I assure you. She would have told me; she tells me
everything. We are two friends, almost two comrades, and she knows I
shall leave her perfectly free to choose.... No, my old friend,
I understand my daughter. Neither Dorsenne nor any one else interests
her, unfortunately. I sometimes fear she will go into a decline, like
her cousin Andryana Navagero, whom she resembles.... But I must cheer
her up. It will not take long."
"A Dorsenne for a son-in-law!" said Hafner to himself, as he watched the
Countess walk toward Alba through the scattered groups of her guests, and
he shook his head, turning his eyes with satisfaction upon his future
son-in-law. "That is what comes of not watching one's children closely.
One fancies one understands them until some folly opens one's eyes!....
And, it is too late!.... Well, I have warned her, and it is no affair of
In spite of Fanny's observed and increasing vexation Ardea amused himself
by relating to her anecdotes, more or less true, of the goings-on in the
Vatican. He thus attempted to abate a Catholic enthusiasm at which he
was already offended. His sense of the ridiculous and that of his social
interest made him perceive how absurd it would be to go into clerical
society after having taken for a wife a millionaire converted the day
before. To be just, it must be added that the Countess's dry champagne
was not altogether irresponsible for the persistency with which he teased
his betrothed. It was not the first time he had indulged in the semi-
intoxication which had been one of the sins of his youth, a sin less rare
in the southern climates than the modesty of the North imagines.
"You come opportunely, Contessina," said he, when Mademoiselle Steno had
seated herself upon the couch beside them. "Your friend is scandalized
by a little story I have just told her.... The one of the noble guard
who used the telephone of the Vatican this winter to appoint rendezvous
with Guilia Rezzonico without awakening the jealousy of Ugolino.... But
it is nothing. I have almost quarrelled with Fanny for having revealed
to her that the Holy Father repeated his benediction in Chapel Sixtine,
with a singing master, like a prima donna...."
"I have already told you that I do not like those jests," said Fanny,
with visible irritation, which her patience, however, governed. "If you
desire to continue them, I will leave you to converse with Alba."
"Since you see that you annoy her," said the latter to the Prince,
"change the subject."
"Ah, Contessina," replied Peppino, shaking his head, "you support her
already. What will it be later? Well, I apologize for my innocent
epigrams on His Holiness in his dressing-gown. And," he continued,
laughing, "it is a pity, for I have still two or three entertaining
stories, notably one about a coffer filled with gold pieces, which a
faithful bequeathed to the Pope. And that poor, dear man was about to
count them when the coffer slipped from his hand, and there was the
entire treasure on the floor, and the Pope and a cardinal on all fours
were scrambling for the napoleons, when a servant entered.... Tableau!
....I assure you that good Pius IX would be the first to laugh with us at
all the Vatican jokes. He is not so much 'alla mano'. But he is a holy
man just the same. Do not think I do not render him justice. Only, the
holy man is a man, and a good old man. That is what you do not wish to
"Where are you going?" said Alba to Fanny, who had risen as she had
threatened to do.
"To talk with my father, to whom I have several words to say."
"I warned you to change the subject," said Alba, when she and the Prince
were alone. Ardea, somewhat abashed, shrugged his shoulders and laughed:
"You will confess that the situation is quite piquant, little
Countess.... You will see she will forbid me to go to the Quirinal....
Only one thing will be lacking, and it is that Papa Hafner should
discover religious scruples which would prevent him from greeting the
King.... But Fanny must be appeased!"
"My God!" said Alba to herself, seeing the young man rise in his turn.
"I believe he is intoxicated. What a pity!"
As have almost all revolutions of that order, the work of Christianity,
accomplished for years, in Fanny had for its principle an example.
The death of a friend, the sublime death of a true believer, ended by
determining her faith. She saw the dying woman receive the sacrament,
and the ineffable joy of the benediction upon the face of the sufferer of
twenty lighted up by ecstasy. She heard her say, with a smile of
"I go to ask you of Our Lord, Jesus Christ."
How could she have resisted such a cry and such a sight?
The very day after that death she asked of her father permission to be
baptized, which request drew from the Baron a reply too significant not
to be repeated here:
"Undoubtedly," had replied the surprising man, who instead of a heart,
had a Bourse list on which all was tariffed, even God, "undoubtedly I am
touched, very deeply touched, and very happy to see that religious
matters preoccupy you to such a degree. To the people it is a necessary
curb, and to us it accords with a certain rank, a certain society, a
certain deportment. I think that a person called like you to live in
Austria and in Italy should be a Catholic. However, it is necessary to
remember that you might marry some one of another faith. Do not object.
I am your father. I can foresee all. I know you will marry only
according to the dictates of your heart. Wait then until it has spoken,
to settle the question.... If you love a Catholic, you will then have
occasion to pay a compliment to your betrothed by adopting his faith, of
which he will be very sensible.... From now until then, I shall not
prevent you from following ceremonies which please you. Those of the
Roman liturgy are, assuredly, among the best; I myself attended Saint
Peter's at the time of the pontifical government.... The taste, the
magnificence, the music, all moved me.... But to take a definite,
irreparable step, I repeat, you must wait. Your actual condition of a
Protestant has the grand sentiment of being more neutral, less defined."
What words to listen to by a heart already touched by the attraction of
'grace and by the nostalgia of eternal life! But the heart was that of a
young girl very pure and very tender. To judge her father was to her
impossible, and the Baron's firmness had convinced her that she must obey
his wishes and pray that he be enlightened. She therefore waited,
hoping, sustained and directed meanwhile by Cardinal Guerillot, who later
on was to baptize her and to obtain for her the favor of approaching the
holy table for the first time at the Pope's mass. That prelate, one of
the noblest figures of which the French bishopric has had cause to be
proud, since Monseigneur Pie, was one of those grand Christians for whom
the hand of God is as visible in the direction of human beings as it is
invisible to doubtful souls. When Fanny, already devoted to her
charities, confided in him the serious troubles of her mind and the
discord which had arisen between her and her father on the so essential
point of her baptism, the Cardinal replied:
"Have faith in God. He will give you a sign when your time has come."
And he uttered those words with an accent whose conviction had filled the
young girl with a certainty which had never left her.
In spite of his seventy years, and of the experiences of the confession,
in spite of the disenchanting struggle with the freemasonry of his French
diocese, which had caused his exile to Rome, the venerable man looked at
Fanny's marriage from a supernatural standpoint. Many priests are thus
capable of a naivete which, on careful analysis, is often in the right.
But at the moment the antithesis between the authentic reality and that
which they believe, constitutes an irony almost absurd. When he had
baptized Fanny, the old Bishop of Clermont was possessed by a joy so deep
that he said to her, to express to her the more delicately the tender
respect of his friendship:
"I can now say as did Saint Monica after the baptism of Saint Augustine:
'Cur hic sim, nescio; jam consumpta spe hujus saeculi'. I do not know
why I remain here below. All my hope of the age is consummated. And
like her I can add--the only thing which made me desire to remain awhile
was to see you a Catholic before dying. The traveller, who has tarried,
has now nothing to do but to go. He has gathered the last and the
Noble and faithful apostle, who was indeed to go so shortly after,
meriting what they said of him, that which the African bishop said of his
mother: "That religious soul was at length absolved from her body."....
He did not anticipate that he would pay dearly for that realization of
his last wish! He did not foresee that she whom he ingenuously termed
his most beautiful flower was to become to him the principal cause of
bitter sorrow. Poor, grand Cardinal! It was the final trial of his
life, the supremely bitter drop in his chalice, to assist at the
disenchantment which followed so closely upon the blissful intoxication
of his gentle neophyte's first initiation. To whom, if not to him,
should she have gone to ask counsel, in all the tormenting doubts which
she at once began to have in her feelings with regard to her fiance?
It was, therefore, that on the day following the evening on which
imprudent Ardea had jested so persistently upon a subject sacred to her
that she rang at the door of the apartment which Monseigneur Guerillot
occupied in the large mansion on Rue des Quatre-Fontaines. There was no
question of incriminating the spirit of those pleasantries, nor of
relating her humiliating observations on the Prince's intoxication. No.
She wished to ease her mind, on which rested a shade of sorrow. At the
time of her betrothal, she had fancied she loved Ardea, for the emotion
of her religious life at length freed had inspired her with gratitude for
him who was, however, only the pretext of that exemption. She trembled
to-day, not only at not loving him any more, but at hating him, and above
all she felt herself a prey to that repugnance for the useless cares of
the world, to that lassitude of transitory hopes, to that nostalgia of
repose in God, undeniable signs of true vocations.
At the thought that she might, if she survived her father and she
remained free, retire to the 'Dames du Cenacle,' she felt at her
approaching marriage an inward repugnance, which augmented still more the
proof of her future husband's deplorable character. Had she the right to
form such bonds with such feelings? Would it be honorable to break,
without further developments, the betrothal which had been between her
and her father the condition of her baptism? She was already there,
after so few days! And her wound was deeper after the night on which the
Prince had, uttered his careless jests.
"It is permitted you to withdraw," replied Monsieur Guerillot, "but you
are not permitted to lack charity in your judgment."
There was within Fanny too much sincerity, her faith was too simple and
too deep for her not to follow out that advice to the letter, and she
conformed to it in deeds as well as in intentions. For, before taking a
walk in the afternoon with Alba, she took the greatest care to remove all
traces which the little scene of the day before could have left in her
friend's mind. Her efforts went very far. She would ask pardon of her
fiance.... Pardon! For what? For having been wounded by him, wounded
to the depths of her sensibility? She felt that the charity of judgment
recommended by the pious Cardinal was a difficult virtue. It exercises a
discipline of the entire heart, sometimes irreconcilable with the
clearness of the intelligence. Alba looked at her friend with a glance
full of an astonishment, almost sorrowful, and she embraced her, saying:
"Peppino is not worthy even to kiss the ground on which you tread, that
is my opinion, and if he does not spend his entire life in trying to be
worthy of you, it will be a crime."
As for the Prince himself, the impulses which dictated to his fiancee
words of apology when he was in the wrong, were not unintelligible to
him, as they would have been to Hafner. He thought that the latter had
lectured his daughter, and he congratulated himself on having cut short
at once that little comedy of exaggerated religious feeling.
"Never mind that," said he, with condescension, "it is I who have failed
in form. For at heart you have always found me respectful of that which
my fathers respected. But times have changed, and certain fanaticisms
are no longer admissible. That is what I have wished to say to you in
such a manner that you could take no offence."
And he gallantly kissed Fanny's tiny hand, not divining that he had
redoubled the melancholy of that too-generous child. The discord
continued to be excessive between the world of ideas in which she moved
and that in which the ruined Prince existed. As the mystics say with so
much depth, they were not of the same heaven.
Of all the chimeras which had lasted hours, God alone remained. It
sufficed the noble creature to say: "My father is so happy, I will not
mar his joy."
"I will do my duty toward my husband. I will be so good a wife that I
will transform him. He has religion. He has heart. It will be my role
to make of him a true Christian. And then I shall have my children and
the poor." Such were the thoughts which filled the mind of the envied
betrothed. For her the journals began to describe the dresses already
prepared, for her a staff of tailors, dressmakers, needlewomen and
jewellers were working; she would have on her contract the same signature
as a princess of the blood, who would be a princess herself and related
to one of the most glorious aristocracies in the world. Such were the
thoughts she would no doubt have through life, as she walked in the
garden of the Palais Castagna, that historical garden in which is still
to be seen a row of pear-trees, in the place where Sixte-Quint, near
death, gathered some fruit. He tasted it, and he said to Cardinal
Castagna--playing on their two names, his being Peretti--"The pears are
spoiled. The Romans have had enough. They will soon eat chestnuts."
That family anecdote enchanted Justus Hafner. It seemed to him full of
the most delightful humor. He repeated it to his colleagues at the club,
to his tradesmen, to it mattered not whom. He did not even mistrust
"I met Hafner this morning on the Corso," said the latter to Alba at one
of the soirees at the end of the month, "and I had my third edition of
the pleasantry on the pears and chestnuts. And then, as we took a few
steps in the same direction, he pointed out to me the Palais Bonaparte,
saying, 'We are also related to them.'.... Which means that a grand-
nephew of the Emperor married a cousin of Peppino.... I swear he thinks
he is related to Napoleon!.... He is not even proud of it. The
Bonapartes are nowhere when it is a question of nobility!.... I await
the time when he will blush."
"And I the time when he will be punished as he deserves," interrupted
Alba Steno, in a mournful voice. "He is insolently triumphant. But no.
....He will succeed.... If it be true that his fortune is one immense
theft, think of those he has ruined. In what can they believe in the
face of his infamous happiness?"
"If they are philosophers," replied Dorsenne, laughing still more gayly,
"this spectacle will cause them to meditate on the words uttered by one
of my friends: 'One can not doubt the hand of God, for it created the
world.' Do you remember a certain prayer-book of Montluc's?"
"The one which your friend Montfanon bought to vex the poor little
"Precisely. The old-leaguer has returned it to Ribalta; the latter told
me so yesterday; no doubt in a spirit of mortification. I say no doubt
for I have not seen the poor, dear man since the duel, which his
impatience toward Ardea and Hafner rendered in evitable. He retired,
I know not for how many days, to the convent of Mount Olivet, near
Sienna, where he has a friend, one Abbe de Negro, of whom he always
speaks as of a saint. I learned, through Rebalta, that he has returned,
but is invisible. I tried to force an entrance. In short, the volume
is again in the shop of the curiosity-seeker in the Rue Borgognona, if
Mademoiselle Hafner still wants it!"
"What good fortune!" exclaimed Fanny, with a sparkle of delight in her
eyes. "I did not know what present to offer my dear Cardinal. Shall we
make the purchase at once?"
"Montluc's prayer-book?" repeated old Ribalta, when the two young ladies
had alighted from the carriage before his small book-shop, more dusty,
more littered than ever with pamphlets, in which he still was, with his
face more wrinkled, more wan and more proud, peering from beneath his
broad-brimmed hat, which he did not raise. "How do you know it is here?
Who has told you? Are there spies everywhere?"
"It was Monsieur Dorsenne, one of Monsieur de Montfanon's friends," said
Fanny, in her gentle voice.
"Sara sara," replied the merchant with his habitual insolence, and,
opening the drawer of the chest in which he kept the most incongruous
treasures, he drew from it the precious volume, which he held toward
them, without giving it up. Then he began a speech, which reproduced the
details given by Montfanon himself. "Ah, it is very authentic. There is
an indistinct but undeniable signature. I have compared it with that
which is preserved in the archives of Sienna. It is Montluc's writing,
and there is his escutcheon with the turtles.... Here, too, are the
half-moons of the Piccolomini.... This book has a history...."
"The Marshal gave it, after the famous siege, to one of the members of
that illustrious family. And it was for one of the descendants that I
was commissioned to buy it.... They will not give it up for less than
two thousand francs."
"What a cheat!" said Alba to her companion, in English. "Dorsenne told
me that Monsieur de Monfanon bought it for four hundred."
"Are you sure?" asked Fanny, who, on receiving a reply in the
affirmative, addressed the bookseller, with the same gentleness, but with
reproach in her accent: "Two thousand francs, Monsieur Ribalta? But it
is not a just price, since you sold it to Monsieur de Montfanon for one-
fifth of that sum."
"Then I am a liar and a thief," roughly replied the old man; "a thief and
a liar," he repeated. "Four hundred francs! You wish to have this book
for four hundred francs? I wish Monsieur de Montfanon was here to tell
you how much I asked him for it."
The old bookseller smiled cruelly as he replaced the prayerbook in the
drawer, the key of which he turned, and turning toward the two young
girls, whose delicate beauty, heightened by their fine toilettes,
contrasted so delightfully with the sordid surroundings, he enveloped
them with a glance so malicious that they shuddered and instinctively
drew nearer one another. Then the bookseller resumed, in a voice hoarser
and deeper than ever: "If you wish to spend four hundred francs I have a
volume which is worth it, and which I propose to take to the Palais
Savorelli one of these days.... Ha, ha! It must be one of the very
last, for the Baron has bought them all." In uttering, those enigmatical
words, he opened the cup board which formed the lower part of the chest,
and took from one of the shelves a book wrapped in a newspaper. He then
unfolded the journal, and, holding the volume in his enormous hand with
his dirty nails, he disclosed the title to the two young girls: 'Hafner
and His Band; Some Reflections on the Scandalous Acquittal. By a
Shareholder.' It was a pamphlet, at that date forgotten, but which
created much excitement at one time in the financial circles of Paris,
of London and of Berlin, having been printed at once in three languages
--in French, in German and in English--on the day after the suit of the
'Credit Austro Dalmate.' The dealer's chestnut-colored eyes twinkled
with a truly ferocious joy as he held out the volume and repeated:
"It is worth four hundred francs."
"Do not read that book, Fanny," said Alba quickly, after having read the
title of the work, and again speaking in English; "it is one of those
books with which one should not even pollute one's thoughts."
"You may keep the book, sir," she continued, "since you have made
yourself the accomplice of those who have written it, by speculating on
the fear you hoped it would inspire. Mademoiselle Hafner has known of it
long, and neither she nor her father will give a centime."
"Very well! So much the better, so much the better," said Ribalta,
wrapping up his volume again; "tell your father I will keep it at his
"Ah, the miserable man!" said Alba, when Fanny and she had left the shop
and reentered the carriage. "To dare to show you that!"
"You saw," replied Fanny, "I was so surprised I could not utter a word.
That the man should offer me that infamous work is very impertinent. My
father?.... You do not know his scrupulousness in business. It is the
honor of his profession. There is not a sovereign in Europe who has not
given him a testimonial."
That impassioned protestation was so touching, the generous child's
illusion was so sincere, that Alba pressed her hand with a deeper
tenderness. When Alba found herself that evening with her friend
Dorsenne, who again dined at Madame Steno's, she took him aside to relate
to him the tragical scene, and to ask him: "Have you seen that pamphlet?"
"To-day," said the writer. "Montfanon, whom I have found at length, has
just bought one of the two copies which Ribalta received lately. The old
leaguer believes everything, you know, when a Hafner is in the
question.... I am more skeptical in the bad as well as in the good. It
was only the account given by the trial which produced any impression on
me, for that is truth."
"But he was acquitted."
"Yes," replied Dorsenne, "though it is none the less true that he ruined
hundreds and hundreds of persons."
"Then, by the account given you of the case, it is clear to you that he
is dishonest," interrupted Alba,
"As clear as that you are here, Contessina," replied Dorsenne, "if to
steal means to plunder one's neighbors and to escape justice. But that
would be nothing. The sinister corner in this affair is the suicide of
one Schroeder, a brave citizen of Vienna, who knew our Baron intimately,
and who invested, on the advice of his excellent friend, his entire
fortune, three hundred thousand florins, in the scheme. He lost them,
and, in despair, killed himself, his wife, and their three children."
"My God!" cried Alba, clasping her hands. "And Fanny might have read
that letter in the book."
"Yes," continued Julien, "and all the rest with proof in support of it.
But rest assured, she shall not have the volume. I will go to that
anarchist of a Ribalta to-morrow and I will buy the last copy, if Hafner
has not already bought it."
Notwithstanding his constant affectation of irony, and, notwithstanding,
his assumption of intellectual egotism, Julien was obliging. He never
hesitated to render any one a service. He had not told his little friend
an untruth when he promised her to buy the dangerous work, and the
following morning he turned toward the Rue Borgognona, furnished with the
twenty louis demanded by the bookseller. Imagine his feelings when the
latter said to him:
"It is too late, Monsieur Dorsenne. The young lady was here last night.
She pretended not to prefer one volume to the other. It was to bargain,
no doubt. Ha, ha! But she had to pay the price. I would have asked the
father more. One owes some consideration to a young girl."
"Wretch!" exclaimed the novelist. "And you can jest after having
committed that Judas-like act! To inform a child of her father's
misdeeds, when she is ignorant of them!.... Never, do you hear, never
any more will Monsieur de Montfanon and I set foot in your shop, nor
Monseigneur Guerillot, nor any of the persons of my acquaintance. I will
tell the whole world of your infamy. I will write it, and it shall
appear in all the journals of Rome. I will ruin you, I will force you to
close this dusty old shop."
During the entire day, Dorsenne vainly tried to shake off the weight of
melancholy which that visit to the brigand of the Rue Borgognona had left
upon his heart.
On crossing, at nine o'clock, the threshold of the Villa Steno to give an
account of his mission to the Contessina, he was singularly moved. There
was no one there but the Maitlands, two tourists and two English
diplomatists, on their way to posts in the East.
"I was awaiting you," said Alba to her friend, as soon as she could speak
with him in a corner of the salon. "I need your advice. Last night a
tragical incident took place at the Hafner's."
"Probably," replied Dorsenne. "Fanny has bought Ribalta's book."
"She has bought the book!" said Alba, changing color and trembling.
"Ah, the unhappy girl; the other thing was not sufficient!"
"What other thing?" questioned Julien.
"You remember," said the young girl, "that I told you of that Noe Ancona,
the agent who served Hafner as a tool in selling up Ardea, and in thus
forcing the marriage. Well, it seems this personage did not think
himself sufficiently well-paid for his complicity. He demanded of the
Baron a large sum, with which to found some large swindling scheme, which
the latter refused point-blank. The other threatened to relate their
little dealing to Ardea, and he did so."
"And Peppino was angry?" asked Dorsenne, shaking his head. "That is not
"Indignant or not," continued Alba, "last night he went to the Palais
Savorelli to make a terrible scene with his future father-in-law."
"And to obtain an increase of dowry," said Julian.
"He was not by any means tactful, then," replied Alba, "for even in the
presence of Fanny, who entered in the midst of their conversation, he did
not pause. Perhaps he had drunk a little more than he could stand, which
has of late become common with him. But, you see, the poor child was
initiated into the abominable bargain with regard to her future, to her
happiness, and if she has read the book, too! It is too dreadful!"
"What a violent scene!" exclaimed Dorsenne. "So the engagement has been
"Not officially. Fanny is ill in bed from the excitement. Ardea came
this morning to see my mother, who has also seen Hafner. She has
reconciled them by proving to them, which she thinks true, that they have
a common interest in avoiding all scandal, and arranging matters. But it
rests with the poor little one. Mamma wished me to go, this afternoon,
to beseech her to reconsider her resolution. For she has told her father
she never wishes to hear the Prince's voice again. I have refused.
Mamma insists. Am I not right?"
"Who knows?" replied Julien. "What would be her life alone with her
father, now that her illusions with regard to him have been swept away?"
The touching scene had indeed taken place, and less than twenty-four
hours after the novelist had thus expressed to himself the regret of not
assisting at it. Only he was mistaken as to the tenor of the dialogue,
in a manner which proved that the subtlety of intelligence will never
divine the simplicity of the heart. The most dolorous of all moral
tragedies knit and unknit the most often in silence. It was in the
afternoon, toward six o'clock, that a servant came to announce
Mademoiselle Hafner's visit to the Contessina, busy at that moment
reading for the tenth time the 'Eglogue Mondaine,' that delicate story by
Dorsenne. When Fanny entered the room, Alba could see what a trial her
charming god-daughter of the past week had sustained, by the surprising
and rapid alteration in that expressive and noble visage. She took her
hand at first without speaking to her, as if she was entirely ignorant of
the cause of her friend's real indisposition. She then said:
"How pleased I am to see you! Are you better?"
"I have never been ill," replied Fanny, who did not know how to tell an
untruth. "I have had pain, that is all." Looking at Alba, as if to beg
her to ask no question, she added:
"I have come to bid you adieu."
"You are going away?" asked the Contessina. "Yes," said Fanny, "I am
going to spend the summer at one of our estates in Styria. "And, in a
low voice: "Has your mother told you that my engagement is broken?"
"Yes," replied Alba, and both were again silent. After several moments
Fanny was the first to ask: "And how shall you spend your summer?"--"We
shall go to Piove, as usual," was Alba's answer. "Perhaps Dorsenne will
be there, and the Maitlands will surely be." A third pause ensued. They
gazed at one another, and, without uttering another word, they distinctly
read one another's hearts. The martyrdom they suffered was so similar,
they both knew it to be so like, that they felt the same pity possess
them at the same moment. Forced to condemn with the most irrevocable
condemnation, the one her father, the other, her mother, each felt
attracted toward the friend, like her, unhappy, and, falling into one
another's arms, they both sobbed.
THE LAKE DI PORTO
Her friend's tears had relieved sad Alba's heart while she held that
friend in her arms, quivering with sorrow and pity; but when she was
gone, and Madame Steno's daughter was alone, face to face with her
thoughts, a greater distress seized her. The pity which her companion in
misery had shown for her--was it not one more proof that she was right in
mistrusting her mother? Alas! The miserable child did not know that
while she was plunged in despair, there was in Rome and in her immediate
vicinity a creature bent upon realizing a mad vow. And that creature was
the same who had not recoiled before the infamy of an anonymous letter,
pretty and sinister Lydia Maitland--that delicate, that silent young
woman with the large brown eyes, always smiling, always impenetrable in
the midst of that dull complexion which no emotion, it seemed, had ever
tinged. The failure of her first attempt had exasperated her hatred
against her husband and against the Countess to the verge of fury, but a
concentrated fury, which was waiting for another occasion to strike, for
weeks, patiently, obscurely. She had thought to wreak her vengeance by
the return of Gorka, and in what had it ended? In freeing Lincoln from a
dangerous rival and in imperilling the life of the only being for whom
The sojourn at the country-seat of her husband's mistress exasperated
Lydia's hidden anger. She suffered so that she cried aloud, like an
imprisoned animal beating against the bars, when she pictured to herself
the happiness which the two lovers would enjoy in the intimacy of the
villa, with the beauties of the Venetian scenery surrounding them. No
doubt the wife could provoke a scandal and obtain a divorce, thanks to
proofs as indisputable as those with which she had overwhelmed Maud. It
would be sufficient to carry to a lawyer the correspondence in the
Spanish escritoire. But of what use? She would not be avenged on her
husband, to whom a divorce would be a matter of indifference now that he
earned as much money as he required, and she would lose her brother. In
vain Lydia told herself that, warned as Alba had been by her letter, her
doubt of Madame Steno's misconduct would no longer be impossible. She
was convinced by innumerable trifling signs that the Contessina still
doubted, and then she concluded:
"It is there that the blow must be struck. But how?"
Yes. How? There was at the service of hatred in that delicate woman, in
appearance oblivious of worldliness, that masculine energy in decision
which is to be found in all families of truly military origin. The blood
of Colonel Chapron stirred within her and gave her the desire to act.
By dint of pondering upon those reasonings, Lydia ended by elaborating
one of those plans of a simplicity really infernal, in which she revealed
what must be called the genius of evil, for there was so much clearness
in the conception and of villainy in the execution. She assured herself
that it was unnecessary to seek any other stage than the studio for the
scene she meditated. She knew too well the fury of passion by which
Madame Steno was possessed to doubt that, as soon as she was alone with
Lincoln, she did not refuse him those kisses of which their
correspondence spoke. The snare to be laid was very simple. It required
that Alba and Lydia should be in some post of observation while the
lovers believed themselves alone, were it only for a moment. The
position of the places furnished the formidable woman with the means of
obtaining the place of espionage in all security. Situated on the second
floor, the studio occupied most of the depth of the house. The wall,
which separated it from the side of the apartments, ended in a partition
formed of colored glass, through which it was impossible to see. That
glass lighted a dark corridor adjoining the linen-room. Lydia employed
several hours of several nights in cutting with a diamond a hole, the
size of a fifty centime-piece, in one of those unpolished squares.
Her preparations had been completed several days when, notwithstanding
her absence of scruple in the satiating of her hatred, she still
hesitated to employ that mode of vengeance, so much atrocious cruelty was
there in causing a daughter to spy upon her mother. It was Alba herself
who kindled the last spark of humanity with which that dark conscience
was lighted up, and that by the most innocent of conversations. It was
the very evening of the afternoon on which she had exchanged that sad
adieu with Fanny Hafner. She was more unnerved than usual, and she was
conversing with Dorsenne in that corner of the long hall. They did not
heed the fact that Lydia drew near them, by a simple change of seat which
permitted her, while herself conversing with some guest, to lend an ear
to the words uttered by the Contessina.
It was Florent who was the subject of their conversation, and she said to
Dorsenne, who was praising him:
"What would you have? It is true I almost feel repulsion toward him.
He is to me like a being of another species. His friendship for his
brother-in-law? Yes. It is very beautiful, very touching; but it does
not touch me. It is a devotion which is not human. It is too
instinctive and too blind. Indeed, I know that I am wrong. There is
that prejudice of race which I can never entirely overcome."
Dorsenne touched her fingers at that moment, under the pretext of taking
from her her fan, in reality to warn her, and he said, in a very low
voice that time:
"Let us go a little farther on. Lydia Maitland is too near."
He fancied he surprised a start on the part of Florent's sister, at whom
he accidentally glanced, while his too-sensible interlocutor no longer
watched her! But as the pretty, clear laugh of Lydia rang out at the
same moment, imprudent Alba replied:
"Fortunately, she has heard nothing. And see how one can speak of
trouble without mistrusting it.... I have just been wicked," she
continued, "for it is not their fault, neither Florent's nor hers, if
there is a little negro blood in their veins, so much the more so as it
is connected by the blood of a hero, and they are both perfectly
educated, and what is better, perfectly good, and then I know very well
that if there is a grand thought in this age it is to have proclaimed
that truly all men are brothers."
She had spoken in a lower voice, but too late. Moreover, even if
Florent's sister could have heard those words, they would not have
sufficed to heal the wound which the first ones had made in the most
sensitive part of her 'amour propre'!
"And I hesitated," said she to herself, "I thought of sparing her!"
The following morning, toward noon, she found herself at the atelier,
seated beside Madame Steno, while Lincoln gave to the portrait the last
touches, and while Alba posed in the large armchair, absent and pale as
usual. Florent Chapron, after having assisted at part of the sitting,
left the room, leaning upon the crutch, which he still used. His
withdrawal seemed so propitious to Lydia that she resolved immediately
not to allow such an opportunity to escape, and as if fatality interfered
to render her work of infamy more easy, Madame Steno aided her by
suddenly interrupting the work of the painter who, after hard working
without speaking for half an hour, paused to wipe his forehead, on which
were large drops of perspiration, so great was his excitement.
"Come, my little Linco," said she, with the affectionate solicitude of an
old mistress, "you must rest. For two hours you have not ceased
painting, and such minute details.... It tires me merely to watch you."
"I am not at all tired," replied Maitland, who, however, laid down his
palette and brush, and rolling a cigarette, lighted it, continuing, with
a proud smile: "We have only that one superiority, we Americans, but we
have it--it is a power to apply ourselves which the Old World no longer
knows.... It is for that reason that there are professions in which we
have no rivals."
"But see!" replied Lydia, "you have taken Alba for a Bostonian or a New
Yorker, and you have made her pose so long that she is pale. She must
have a change. Come with me, dear, I will show you the costume they have
sent me from Paris, and which I shall wear this afternoon to the garden
party at the English embassy."
She forced Alba Steno to rise from the armchair as she uttered those
words, then she entwined her arms about her waist to draw her away and
kissed her. Ah, if ever a caress merited being compared to the hideous
flattery of Iscariot, it was that, and the young girl might have replied
with the sublime words: "Friend, why hast thou betrayed me by a kiss?"
Alas! She believed in it, in the sincerity of that proof of affection,
and she returned her false friend's kiss with a gratitude which did not
soften that heart saturated with hatred, for five minutes had not passed
ere Lydia had put into execution her hideous project. Under the pretext
of reaching the liner-room more quickly, she took a servant's staircase,
which led to that lobby with the glass partition, in which was the
opening through which to look into the atelier.
"This is very strange," said she, pausing suddenly. And, pointing out to
her innocent companion the round spot, she said: "Probably some servant
who has wished to eavesdrop.--But what for? You, who are tall, look and
see how it has been done and what it looks on. If it is a hole cut
purposely, I shall discover the culprit and he shall go."
Alba obeyed the perfidious request absently, and applied her eye to the
aperture. The author of the anonymous letters had chosen her moment only
too well. As soon as the door of the studio was closed, the Countess
rose to approach Lincoln. She entwined around the young man's neck her
arms, which gleamed through the transparent sleeves of her summer gown,
and she kissed with greedy lips his eyes and mouth. Lydia, who had
retained one of the girl's hands in hers, felt that hand tremble
convulsively. A hunter who hears rustle the foliage of the thicket
through which should pass the game he is awaiting, does not experience a
joy more complete. Her snare was successful. She said to her unhappy
"What ails you? How you tremble!"
And she essayed to push her away in order to put herself in her place.
Alba, whom the sight of her mother embracing Lincoln with those
passionate kisses inspired at that moment with an inexplicable horror,
had, however, enough presence of mind in the midst of her suffering to
understand the danger of that mother whom she had surprised thus,
clasping in the arms of a guilty mistress--whom?--the husband of the very
woman speaking to her, who asked her why she trembled with fear, who
would look through that same hole to see that same tableau!.... In order
to prevent what she believed would be to Lydia a terrible revelation, the
courageous child had one of those desperate thoughts such as immediate
peril inspires. With her free hand she struck the glass so violently
that it was shivered into atoms, cutting her fingers and her wrist.
Lydia exclaimed, angrily:
"Miserable girl, you did that purposely!"
The fierce creature as she uttered these words, rushed toward the large
hole now made in the panel--too late!
She only saw Lincoln erect in the centre of the studio, looking toward
the broken window, while the Countess, standing a few paces from him,
"My daughter! What has happened to my daughter? I recognized her
"Do not alarm yourself," replied Lydia, with atrocious sarcasm. "Alba
broke the pane to give you a warning."
"But, is she hurt?" asked the mother.
"Very slightly," replied the implacable woman with the same accent of
irony, and she turned again toward the Contessina with a glance of such
rancor that, even in the state of confusion in which the latter was
plunged by that which she had surprised, that glance paralyzed her with
fear. She felt the same shudder which had possessed her dear friend
Maud, in that same studio, in the face of the sinister depths of that
dark soul, suddenly exposed. She had not time to precisely define her
feelings, for already her mother was beside her, pressing her in her
arms--in those very arms which Alba had just seen twined around the neck
of a lover--while that same mouth showered kisses upon him. The moral
shock was so great that the young girl fainted. She regained
consciousness and almost at once. She saw her mother as mad with anxiety
as she had just seen her trembling with joy and love. She again saw
Lydia Maitland's eyes fixed upon them both with an expression too
significant now. And, as she had had the presence of mind to save that
guilty mother, she found in her tenderness the strength to smile at her,
to lie to her, to blind her forever as to the truth of that hideous scene
which had just been enacted in that lobby.
"I was frightened at the sight of my own blood," said she, "and I believe
it is only a small cut.... See! I can move my hand without pain."
When the doctor, hastily summoned, had confirmed that no particles of
glass had remained in the cuts, the Countess felt so reassured that her
gayety returned. Never had she been in a mood more charming than in the
carriage which took them to the Villa Steno.
To a person obliged by proof to condemn another without ceasing to love
her, there is no greater sorrow than to perceive the absolute
unconsciousness of that other person and her serenity in her fault. Poor
Alba, felt overwhelmed by a sadness greater, more depressing still, and
which became materially insupportable, when, toward half-past two, her
mother bade her farewell, although the fete at the English embassy did
not begin until five o'clock.
"I promised poor Hafner to go to see him to-day. I know he is bowed down
with grief. I would like to try to arrange all.... I will send back the
carriage if you wish to go out awhile. I have telephoned Lydia to expect
me at four o'clock.... She will take me."
She had, on detailing the employment so natural of her afternoon, eyes
too brilliant, a smile too happy. She looked too youthful in her light
toilette. Her feet trembled with too nervous an impatience. How could
Alba not have felt that she was telling her an untruth? The undeceived
child had the intuition that the visit to Fanny's father was only a
pretext. It was not the first time that the Countess employed it to
free herself from inconvenient surveillance, the act of sending back the
carriage, which, in Rome as in Paris, is always the probable sign of
clandestine meetings with women of their rank. It was not the first time
that Alba was possessed by suspicion on certain mysterious disappearances
of her mother. That mother did not mistrust that poor Alba--her Alba,
the child so tenderly loved in spite of all--was suffering at that very
moment and on her account the most terrible of temptations.... When the
carriage had disappeared the fixed gaze of the young girl was turned upon
the pavement, and then she felt arise in her a sudden, instinctive,
almost irresistible idea to end the moral suffering by which she was
devoured. It was so simple!.... It was sufficient to end life. One
movement which she could make, one single movement--she could lean over
the balustrade, against which her arm rested, in a certain manner--so,
a little more forward, a little more--and that suffering would be
terminated. Yes, it would be so very simple. She saw herself lying upon
the pavement, her limbs broken, her head crushed, dead--dead--freed! She
leaned forward and was about to leap, when her eyes fell upon a person
who was walking below, the sight of whom suddenly aroused her from the
folly, the strange charm of which had just laid hold so powerfully upon
her. She drew back. She rubbed her eyes with her hands, and she, who
was accustomed to mystical enthusiasm, said aloud:
"My God! You send him to me! I am saved." And she summoned the footman
to tell him that if M. Dorsenne asked for her, he should be shown into
Madame Steno's small salon. "I am not at home to any one else," she
It was indeed Julien, whom she had seen approach the house at the very
instant when she was only separated from the abyss by that last tremor of
animal repugnance, which is found even in suicide of the most ardent
kind. Do not madmen themselves choose to die in one manner rather than
in another? She paused several moments in order to collect herself.
"Yes," said she at length, to herself, "it is the only solution. I will
find out if he loves me truly. And if he does not?"
She again looked toward the window, in order to assure herself that, in
case that conversation did not end as she desired, the tragical and
simple means remained at her service by which to free herself from that
infamous life which she surely could not bear.
Julien began the conversation in his tone of sentimental raillery, so
speedily to be transformed into one of drama! He knew very well, on
arriving at Villa Steno, that he was to have his last tete-a-tete with
his pretty and interesting little friend. For he had at length decided
to go away, and, to be more sure of not failing, he had engaged his
sleeping-berth for that night. He had jested so much with love that he
entered upon that conversation with a jest; when, having tried to take
Alba's hand to press a kiss upon it, he saw that it was bandaged.
"What has happened to you, little Countess? Have my laurels or those of
Florent Chapron prevented you from sleeping, that you are here with the
classical wrist of a duellist?.... Seriously, how have you hurt
"I leaned against a window, which broke and the pieces of glass cut my
fingers somewhat," replied the young girl with a faint smile, adding: "It
"What an imprudent child you are!" said Dorsenne in his tone of friendly
scolding. "Do you know that you might have severed an artery and have
caused a very serious, perhaps a fatal, hemorrhage?"
"That would not have been such a great misfortune," replied Alba, shaking
her pretty head with an expression so bitter about her mouth that the
young man, too, ceased smiling.
"Do not speak in that tone," said he, "or I shall think you did it
"Purposely?" repeated the young girl. "Purposely? Why should I have
done it purposely?"
And she blushed and laughed in the same nervous way she had laughed
fifteen minutes before, when she looked down into the street. Dorsenne
felt that she was suffering, and his heart contracted. The trouble
against which he had struggled for several days with all the energy of an
independent artist, and which for some time systematized his celibacy,
again oppressed him. He thought it time to put between "folly" and him
the irreparability of his categorical resolution. So he replied to his
little friend with his habitual gentleness, but in a tone of firmness,
which already announced his determination:
"I have again vexed you, Contessina, and you are looking at me with the
glance of our hours of dispute. You will later regret having been unkind
As he pronounced those enigmatical words, she saw that he had in his eyes
and in his smile something different and indefinable. It must have been
that she loved him still more than she herself believed as for a second
she forgot both her pain and her resolution, and she asked him, quickly:
"You have some trouble? You are suffering? What is it?"
"Nothing," replied Dorsenne. "But time is flying, the minutes are going
by, and not only the minutes. There is an old and charming. French ode,
which you do not know and which begins:
'Le temps s'en va, le temps s'en va, Madame.
Las, le temps? Non. Mais nous nous en allons.'"
"Which means, little Countess, in simple prose, that this is no doubt the
last conversation we shall have together this season, and that it would
be cruel to mar for me this last visit."
"Do I understand you aright?" said Alba. She, too, knew too well
Julien's way of speaking not to know that that mannerism, half-mocking,
half-sentimental, always served him to prepare phrases more grave, and
against the emotion of which her fear of appearing a dupe rose in
advance. She crossed her arms upon her breast, and after a pause she
continued, in a grave voice: "You are going away?"
"Yes," he replied, and from his coat-pocket he partly drew his ticket.
"You see I have acted like the poltroons who cast themselves into the
water. My ticket is bought, and I shall no longer hold that little
discourse which I have held for months, that, 'Sir executioner, one
moment.... Du Barry'."
"You are going away?" repeated the young girl, who did not seem to have
heeded the jest by which Julien had concealed his own confusion at the
effect of his so abruptly announced departure. "I shall not see you any
more!.... And if I ask you not to go yet? You have spoken to me of our
friendship.... If I pray you, if I beseech you, in the name of that
friendship, not to deprive me of it at this instant, when I have no one,
when I am so alone, so horribly alone, will you answer no? You have
often told me that you were my friend, my true friend? If it be true,
you will not go. I repeat, I am alone, and I am afraid."
"Come, little Countess," replied Dorsenne, who began to be terrified by
the young girl's sudden excitement, "it is not reasonable to agitate
yourself thus, because yesterday you had a very sad conversation with
Fanny Hafner! First, it is altogether impossible for me to defer my
departure. You force me to give you coarse, almost commercial reasons.
But my book is about to appear, and I must be there for the launching of
the sale, of which I have already told you. And then you are going away,
too. You will have all the diversions of the country, of your Venetian
friends and charming Lydia Maitland!"
"Do not mention that name," interrupted Alba, whose face became
discomposed at the allusion to the sojourn at Piove. "You do not know
how you pain me, nor what that woman is, what a monster of cruelty and of
perfidy! Ask me no more. I shall tell you nothing. But," the
Contessina that time clasping her hands, her poor, thin hands, which
trembled with the anguish of the words she dared to utter, "do you not
comprehend that if I speak to you as I do, it is because I have need of
you in order to live?" Then in a low voice, choked by emotion: "It is
because I love you!" All the modesty natural to a child of twenty
mounted to her pale face in a flood of purple, when she had uttered that
avowal. "Yes, I love you!" she repeated, in an accent as deep, but more
firm. "It is not, however, so common a thing to find real devotion, a
being who only asks to serve you, to be useful to you, to live in your
shadow. And you will understand that to have the right of giving you my
life, to bear your name, to be your wife, to follow you, I felt very
vividly in your presence at the moment I was about to lose you. You will
pardon my lack of modesty for the first, for the last time. I have
suffered too much."
She ceased. Never had the absolute purity of the charming creature, born
and bred in an atmosphere of corruption, and remaining in the same so
intact, so noble, so frank, flashed out as at that moment. All that
virgin and unhappy soul was in her eyes which implored Julien, on her
lips which trembled at having spoken thus, on her brow around which
floated, like an aureole, the fair hair stirred by the breeze which
entered the open window. She had found the means of daring that
prodigious step, the boldest a woman can permit herself, still more so a
young girl, with so chaste a simplicity that at that moment Dorsenne
would not have dared to touch even the hand of that child who confided
herself to him so madly, so loyally.
Dorsenne was undoubtedly greatly interested in her, with a curiosity,
without enthusiasm, and against which a reaction had already set in.
That touching speech, in which trembled a distress so tender and each
word of which later on made him weep with regret, produced upon him at
that moment an impression of fear rather than love or pity. When at
length he broke the cruel silence, the sound of his voice revealed to the
unhappy girl the uselessness of that supreme appeal addressed by her to
She had only kept, to exorcise the demon of suicide, her hope in the
heart of that man, and that heart, toward which she turned in so
immoderate a transport, drew back instead of responding.
"Calm yourself, I beseech you," said he to her. "You can understand that
I am very much moved, very much surprised, at what I have heard! I did
not suspect it. My God! How troubled you are. And yet," he continued
with more firmness, "I should despise myself were I to lie to you. You
have been so loyal toward me.... To marry you? Ah, it would be the most
delightful dream of happiness if that dream were not prevented by
honesty. Poor child," and his voice sounded almost bitter, "you do not
know me. You do not know what a writer of my order is, and that to unite
your destiny to mine would be for you martyrdom more severe than your
moral solitude of to-day. You see, I came to your home with so much joy,
because I was free, because each time I could say to myself that I need
not return again. Such a confession is not romantic. But it is thus.
If that relation became a bond, an obligation, a fixed framework in which
to move, a circle of habits in which to imprison me, I should only have
one thought--flight. An engagement for my entire life? No, no, I could
not bear it. There are souls of passage as well as birds of passage, and
I am one. You will understand it tomorrow, now, and you will remember
that I have spoken to you as a man of honor, who would be miserable if he
thought he had augmented, involuntarily, the sorrows of your life when
his only desire was to assuage them. My God! What is to be done?" he
cried, on seeing, as he spoke, tears gush from the young girl's eyes,
which she did not wipe away.
"Go away," she replied, "leave me. I do not want you. I am grateful to
you for not having deceived me."
"But your presence is too cruel. I am ashamed of having spoken to you,
now that I know you do not love me. I have been mad, do not punish me by
remaining longer. After the conversation we have just had, my honor will
not permit us to talk longer."
"You are right," said Julien, after another pause. He took his hat,
which he had placed upon a table at the beginning of that visit, so
rapidly and abruptly terminated by a confession of sentiments so strange.
"Then, farewell." She inclined her fair head without replying.
The door was closed. Alba Steno was again alone. Half an hour later,
when the footman entered to ask for orders relative to the carriage sent
back by the Countess, he found her standing motionless at the window from
which she had watched Dorsenne depart. There she had once more been
seized by the temptation of suicide. She had again felt with an
irresistible force the magnetic attraction of death. Life appeared to
her once more as something too vile, too useless, too insupportable to be
borne. The carriage was at her disposal. By way of the Portese gate and
along the Tiber, with the Countess's horses, it would take an hour and a
half to reach the Lake di Porto. She had, too, this pretext, to avoid
the curiosity of the servants: one of the Roman noblewomen of her
acquaintance, Princess Torlonia, owned an isolated villa on the border of
that lake.... She ascended hastily to don her hat. And without writing
a word of farewell to any one, without even casting a glance at the
objects among which she had lived and suffered, she descended the
staircase and gave the coachman the name of the villa, adding "Drive
quickly; I am late now."
The Lake di Porto is only, as its name indicates, the port of the ancient
Tiber. The road which leads from Transtevere runs along the river, which
rolls through a plain strewn with ruins and indented with barren hills,
its brackish water discolored from the sand and mud of the Apennines.
Here groups of eucalyptus, there groups of pine parasols above some
ruined walls, were all the vegetation which met Alba Steno's eye. But
the scene accorded so well with the moral devastation she bore within her
that the barrenness around her in her last walk was pleasant to her.
The feeling that she was nearing eternal peace, final sleep in which she
should suffer no more, augmented when she alighted from the carriage,
and, having passed the garden of Villa Torlonia, she found herself facing
the small lake, so grandiose in its smallness by the wildness of its
surroundings, and motionless, surprised in even that supreme moment by
the magic of that hidden sight, she paused amid the reeds with their red
tufts to look at that pond which was to become her tomb, and she
"How beautiful it is!"
There was in the humid atmosphere which gradually penetrated her a charm
of mortal rest, to which she abandoned herself dreamily, almost with
physical voluptuousness, drinking into her being the feverish fumes of
that place--one of the most fatal at that season and at that hour of all
that dangerous coast--until she shuddered in her light summer gown. Her
shoulders contracted, her teeth chattered, and that feeling of discomfort
was to her as a signal for action. She took another allee of rose-bushes
in flower to reach a point on the bank barren of vegetation, where was
outlined the form of a boat. She soon detached it, and, managing the
heavy oars with her delicate hands, she advanced toward the middle of the
When she was in the spot which she thought the deepest and the most
suitable for her design, she ceased rowing. Then, by a delicate care,
which made her smile herself, so much did it betray instinctive and
childish order at such a solemn moment, she put her hat, her umbrella and
her gloves on one of the transversal boards of the boat. She had made
effort to move the heavy oars, so that she was perspiring. A second
shudder seized her as she was arranging the trifling objects, so keen,
so chilly, so that time that she paused. She lay there motionless, her
eyes fixed upon the water, whose undulations lapped the boat. At the
last moment she felt reenter her heart, not love of life, but love for
her mother. All the details of the events which would follow her suicide
were presented to her mind.
She saw herself plunging into the deep water which would close over her
head. Her suffering would be ended, but Madame Steno? She saw the
coachman growing uneasy over her absence, ringing at the door of Villa
Torlonia, the servants in search. The loosened boat would relate enough.
Would the Countess know that she had killed herself? Would she know the
cause of that desperate end? The terrible face of Lydia Maitland
appeared to the young girl. She comprehended that the woman hated her
enemy too much not to enlighten her with regard to the circumstances
which had preceded that suicide. The cry so simple and of a significance
so terrible: "You did it purposely!" returned to Alba's memory. She saw
her mother learning that her daughter had seen all. She had loved her so
much, that mother, she loved her so dearly still!
Then, as a third violent chill shook her from head to foot, Alba began to
think of another mode, and one as sure, of death without any one in the
world being able to suspect that it was voluntary. She recalled the fact
that she was in one of the most dreaded corners of the Roman Campagna;
that she had known persons carried off in a few days by the pernicious
fevers contracted in similar places, at that hour and in that season,
notably one of her friends, one of the Bonapartes living in Rome, who
came thither to hunt when overheated. If she were to try to catch that
same disease?.... And she took up the oars. When she felt her brow
moist with the second effort, she opened her bodice and her chemise, she
exposed her neck, her breast, her throat, and she lay down in the boat,
allowing the damp air to envelop, to caress, to chill her, inviting the
entrance into her blood of the fatal germs. How long did she remain
thus, half-unconscious, in the atmosphere more and more laden with miasma
in proportion as the sun sank? A cry made her rise and again take up the
oars. It was the coachman, who, not seeing her return, had descended
from the box and was hailing the boat at all hazards. When she stepped
upon the bank and when he saw her so pale, the man, who had been in the
Countess's service for years, could not help saying to her, with the
familiarity of an Italian servant:
"You have taken cold, Mademoiselle, and this place is so dangerous."
"Indeed," she replied, "I have had a chill. It will be nothing. Let us
return quickly. Above all, do not say that I was in the boat. You will
cause me to be scolded."
"And it was directly after that conversation that the poor child left for
the lake, where she caught the pernicious fever?" asked Montfanon.
"Directly," replied Dorsenne, "and what troubles me the most is that I
can not doubt but that she went there purposely. I was so troubled by
our conversation that I had not the strength to leave Rome the same
evening, as I told her I should. After much hesitation--you understand
why, now that I have told you all--I returned to the Villa Steno at six
o'clock. To speak to her, but of what? Did I know? It was madness.
For her avowal only allowed of two replies, either that which I made her
or an offer of marriage. Ah, I did not reason so much. I was afraid....
Of what?.... I do not know. I reached the villa, where I found the
Countess, gay and radiant, as was her custom, and tete-a-tete with her
American. 'Only think, there is my child,' said she to me, 'who has
refused to go to the English embassy, where she would enjoy herself, and
who has gone out for a drive alone.... Will you await her?'"
"At length she began to grow uneasy, and I, seeing that no one returned,
took my leave, my heart oppressed by presentiments.... Alba's carriage
stopped at the door just as I was going out. She was pale, of a greenish
pallor, which caused me to say on approaching her: 'Whence have you
come?' as if I had the right. Her lips, already discolored, trembled as
they replied. When I learned where she had spent that hour of sunset,
and near what lake, the most deadly in the neighborhood, I said to her:
'What imprudence!' I shall all my life see the glance she gave me at the
moment, as she replied: 'Say, rather, how wise, and pray that I may have
taken the fever and that I die of it.' You know the rest, and how her
wish has been realized. She indeed contracted the fever, and so severely
that she died in less than six days. I have no doubt, since her last
words, that it was a suicide."
"And the mother," asked Montfanon, "did she not comprehend finally?"
"Absolutely nothing," replied Dorsenne. "It is inconceivable, but it is
thus. Ah! she is truly the worthy friend of that knave Hafner, whom his
daughter's broken engagement has not grieved, in spite of his
discomfiture. I forgot to tell you that he had just sold Palais Castagna
to a joint-stock company to convert it into a hotel. I laugh," he
continued with singular acrimony, "in order not to weep, for I am
arriving at the most heartrending part. Do you know where I saw poor
Alba Steno's face for the last time? It was three days ago, the day
after her death, at this hour. I called to inquire for the Countess!
She was receiving! 'Do you wish to bid her adieu?' she asked me. 'Good
Lincoln is just molding her face for me.' And I entered the chamber of
death. Her eyes were closed, her cheeks were sunken, her pretty nose was
pinched, and upon her brow and in the corners of her mouth was a mixture
of bitterness and of repose which I can not describe to you. I thought:
'If you had liked, she would be alive, she would smile, she would love
you!' The American was beside the bed, while Florent Chapron, always
faithful, was preparing the oil to put upon the face of the corpse, and
sinister Lydia Maitland was watching the scene with eyes which made me
shudder, reminding me of what I had divined at the time of my last
conversation with Alba. If she does not undertake to play the part of a
Nemesis and to tell all to the Countess, I am mistaken in faces! For the
moment she was silent, and guess the only words the mother uttered when
her lover, he on whose account her daughter had suffered so much,
approached their common victim: 'Above all, do not injure her lovely
lashes!' What horrible irony, was it not? Horrible!"
The young man sank upon a bench as he uttered that cry of distress and of
remorse, which Montfanon mechanically repeated, as if startled by the
tragical confidence he had just received.
Montfanon shook his gray head several times as if deliberating; then
forced Dorsenne to rise, chiding him thus:
"Come, Julien, we can not remain here all the afternoon dreaming and
sighing like young women! The child is dead. We can not restore her to
life, you in despairing, I in deploring. We should do better to look in
the face our responsibility in that sinister adventure, to repent of it
and to expiate it."
"Our responsibility?" interrogated Julien. "I see mine, although I can
truly not see yours."
"Yours and mine," replied Montfanon. "I am no sophist, and I am not in
the habit of shifting my conscience. Yes or no," he insisted, with a
return of his usual excitement, "did I leave the catacombs to arrange
that unfortunate duel? Yes or no, did I yield to the paroxysm of choler
which possessed me on hearing of the engagement of Ardea and on finding
that I was in the presence of that equivocal Hafner? Yes or no, did that
duel help to enlighten Madame Gorka as to her husband's doings, and, in
consequence, Mademoiselle Steno as to her mother's? Did you not relate
to me the progress of her anguish since that scandal, there just now?....
And if I have been startled, as I have been, by the news of that suicide,
know it has been for this reason especially, because a voice has said to
me: 'A few of the tears of that dead girl are laid to your account."'
"But, my poor friend," interrupted Dorsenne, "whence such reasoning?
According to that, we could not live any more. There enters into our
lives, by indirect means, a collection of actions which in no way
concerns us, and in admitting that we have a debt of responsibility to
pay, that debt commences and ends in that which we have wished directly,
"It would be very convenient," replied the Marquis, with still more
vivacity, "but the proof that it is not true is that you yourself are
filled with remorse at not having saved the soul so weak of that
defenseless child. Ah, I do not mince the truth to myself, and I shall
not do so to you. You remember the morning when you were so gay, and
when you gave me the theory of your cosmopolitanism? It amused you, as a
perfect dilettante, so you said, to assist in one of those dramas of race
which bring into play the personages from all points of the earth and of
history, and you then traced to me a programme very true, my faith, and
which events have almost brought about. Madame Steno has indeed
conducted herself toward her two lovers as a Venetian of the time of
Aretin; Chapron, with all the blind devotion of a descendant of an
oppressed race; his sister with the villainous ferocity of a rebel who at
length shakes off the yoke, since you think she wrote those anonymous
letters. Hafner and Ardea have laid bare two detestable souls, the one
of an infamous usurer, half German, half Dutch; the other of a degraded
nobleman, in whom is revived some ancient 'condottiere'. Gorka has been
brave and mad, like entire Poland; his wife implacable and loyal, like
all of England. Maitland continues to be positive, insensible, and
wilful in the midst of it all, as all America. And poor Alba ended as
did her father. I do not speak to you of Baron Hafner's daughter," and
he raised his hat. Then, in an altered voice:
"She is a saint, in whom I was deceived. But she has Jewish blood in her
veins, blood which was that of the people of God. I should have
remembered it and the beautiful saying of the Middle Ages: 'The Jewish
women shall be saved because they have wept for our Lord in secret.'....
You outlined for me in advance the scene of the drama in which we have
been mixed up.... And do you remember what I said: 'Is there not among
them a soul which you might aid in doing better?' You laughed in my face
at that moment. You would have treated me, had you been less polite, as
a Philistine and a cabotin. You wished to be only a spectator, the
gentleman in the balcony who wipes the glasses of his lorgnette in order
to lose none of the comedy. Well, you could not do so. That role is not
permitted a man. He must act, and he acts always, even when he thinks he
is looking on, even when he washes his hands as Pontius Pilate, that
dilettante, too, who uttered the words of your masters and of yourself.
What is truth? Truth is that there is always and everywhere a duty to
fulfil. Mine was to prevent that criminal encounter. Yours was not to
pay attention to that young girl if you did not love her, and if you
loved her, to marry her and to take her from her abominable surroundings.
We have both failed, and at what a price!"
"You are very severe," said the young man; "but if you were right would
not Alba be dead? Of what use is it for me to know what I should have
done when it is too late?"
"First, never to do so again," said the Marquis; "then to judge yourself
and your life."
"There is truth in what you say," replied Dorsenne, "but you are mistaken
if you think that the most intellectual men of our age have not suffered,
too, from that abuse of thought. What is to be done? Ah, it is the
disease of a century too cultivated, and there is no cure."
"There is one," interrupted Montfanon, "which you do not wish to see....
You will not deny that Balzac was the boldest of our modern writers. Is
it necessary for me, an ignorant man, to recite to you the phrase which
governs his work: 'Thought, principle of evil and of good can only be
prepared, subdued, directed by religion.' See?" he continued, suddenly
taking his companion by the arm and forcing him to look into a
transversal allee through the copse, "there he is, the doctor who holds
the remedy for that malady of the soul as for all the others. Do not
show yourself. They will have forgotten our presence. But, look, look!
....Ah, what a meeting!"
The personage who appeared suddenly in that melancholy, deserted garden,
and in a manner almost supernatural, so much did his presence form a
living commentary to the discourse of the impassioned nobleman, was no
other than the Holy Father himself, on the point of entering his carriage
for his usual drive. Dorsenne, who only knew Leo XIII from his
portraits, saw an old man, bent, bowed, whose white cassock gleamed
beneath the red mantle, and who leaned on one side upon a prelate of his
court, on the other upon one of his officers. In drawing back, as
Montfanon had advised, in order not to bring a reprimand upon the
keepers, he could study at his leisure the delicate face of the Sovereign
Pontiff, who paused at a bed of roses to converse familiarly with a
kneeling gardener. He saw the infinitely indulgent smile of that
spirituelle mouth. He saw the light of those eyes which seemed to
justify by their brightness the 'lumen in coelo' applied to the successor
of Pie IX by a celebrated prophecy. He saw the venerable hand, that
white, transparent hand, which was raised to give the solemn benediction
with so much majesty, turn toward a fine yellow rose, and the fingers
bend the flower without plucking it, as if not to harm the frail creation
of God. The old Pope for a second inhaled its perfume and then resumed
his walk toward the carriage, vaguely to be seen between the trunks of
the green oaks. The black horses set off at a trot, and Dorsenne,
turning again toward Montfanon, perceived large tears upon the lashes of
the former zouave, who, forgetting the rest of their conversation, said,
with a sigh: "And that is the only pleasure allowed him, who is, however,
the successor of the first apostle, to inhale his flowers and drive in a
carriage as rapidly as his horses can go! They have procured four
paltry kilometers of road at the foot of the terrace where we were half
an hour since. And he goes on, he goes on, thus deluding himself with
regard to the vast space which is forbidden him. I have seen many
tragical sights in my life. I have been to the war, and I have spent one
entire night wounded on a battlefield covered with snow, among the dead,
grazed by the wheels of the artillery of the conquerors, who defiled
singing. Nothing has moved me like that drive of the old man, who has
never uttered a complaint and who has for himself only that acre of land
in which to move freely. But these are grand words which the holy man
wrote one day at the foot of his portrait for a missionary. The words
explain his life: 'Debitricem martyrii fidem'--Faith is bound to
"'Debitricem martyrii fidem'," repeated Dorsenne, "that is beautiful,
indeed. And," he added, in a low voice, "you just now abused very rudely
the dilettantes and the sceptic. But do you think there would be one of
them who would refuse martyrdom if he could have at the same time faith?"
Never had Montfanon heard the young man utter a similar phrase and in
such an accent. The image returned to him, by way of contrast, of
Dorsenne, alert and foppish, the dandy of literature, so gayly a scoffer
and a sophist, to whom antique and venerable Rome was only a city of
pleasure, a cosmopolis more paradoxical than Florence, Nice, Biarritz,
St. Moritz, than such and such other cities of international winter and
summer. He felt that for the first time that soul was strained to its
depths, the tragical death of poor Alba had become in the mind of the
writer the point of remorse around which revolved the moral life of the
superior and incomplete being, exiled from simple humanity by the most
invincible pride of mind. Montfanon comprehended that every additional
word would pain the wounded heart. He was afraid of having already
lectured Dorsenne too severely. He took within his arm the arm of the
young man, and he pressed it silently, putting into that manly caress all
the warm and discreet pity of an elder brother.
ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:
Mobile and complaisant conscience had already forgiven himself
Not an excuse, but an explanation of your conduct
Sufficed him to conceive the plan of a reparation
There is always and everywhere a duty to fulfil