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originally from Etudes philosophiques (year?)
this version from The unknown masterpiece (and other stories)
Vol. 22 of Honoré de Balzac in twenty-five volumes
P.F. Collier & Son: Philadephia (year?)
translated by Clara Bell (1834-1927)
To Monsieur le Marquis de Custine
ONCE UPON A TIME (I forget the exact year) a Parisian banker, who had very extensive business relations with Germany, gave a dinner party in honor of one of the friends that merchants make in this place and that by correspondence, a sort of friendship that subsists for a long while between men who have never met. The friend, the senior partner of some considerable firm in Nuremberg, was a stout, good-natured German, a man of learning and of taste, more particularly in the matter of tobacco pipes. He was a typical Nuremberger, with a pleasant, broad countenance and a massive, square forehead, with a few stray fair hairs here and there; a typical German, a son of the stainless and noble Fatherland, so fertile in honorable characters, preserving its manners uncorrupted even after seven invasions. The stranger laughed simply, listened attentively, and drank with marked enjoyment, seeming to like champagne perhaps as well as the pale red wines of the Johannisberg. Like nearly every German in nearly every book, he was named Hermann; and in the quality of a man who does nothing with levity, he was comfortably seated at the banker's table, eating his way through the dinner with the Teutonic appetite renowned all over Europe, and thorough indeed was his manner of bidding adieu to all the works of the great Carême.
The master of the house had invited several intimate friends to do honor to his guest. These were for the most part capitalists or merchants, interspersed with a few pretty and agreeable women, whose light, graceful talk and frank manner harmonized with German open-heartedness. And, indeed, if you could have seen, as I had the pleasure of seeing, this blithe gathering of folk who had sheathed the active claws employed in raking in wealth, that they might make the best of an opportunity of enjoying the pleasures of life, you would scarcely have found it in your heart to grudge high rates of interest or to revile defaulters. A man cannot always be in mischief. Even in the society of pirates, for instance, there must surely be a pleasant hour now and then when you may feel at your ease beneath the black flag.
"Oh, I do hope that before M. Hermann goes he will tell us another dreadful, thrilling German story!"
The words were uttered over the dessert by a pale, fair-haired young lady, who had doubtless been reading Hoffmann's tales and Sir Walter Scott's novels. She was the banker's only daughter, an irresistibly charming girl, whose education was being finished at the Gymnase; she was wild about the plays given there. The dinner party had just reached the period of lazy content and serene disinclination to talk that succeeds an excellent dinner in the course of which somewhat heavy demands have been made upon the digestion; when the guests lean back in their chairs and play idly with the gilded knife-blades, while their wrists repose lightly on the table edge; the period of decline when some torment apple pips, or knead a crumb of bread between thumb and finger, when the sentimental write illegible initials among the débris of the dessert, and the penuryous count the stones on their plates, and arrange them round the edge, as a playwright marshals the supernumeraries at the back of the stage. These are minor gastronomical pleasures which Brillat-Savarin has passed over unnoticed, exhaustively as he has treated his subject in other respects.
The servants had disappeared. The dessert, like a squadron after an action, was quite disorganized, disarrayed, forlorn. In spite of persistent efforts on the part of the mistress of the house, the various dishes strayed about the table. People fixed their eyes on the Swiss views that adorned the gray walls of the dining-room. No one felt it tedious. The man has yet to be found who can mope while he digests a good dinner. At that time we like to sit steeped in an indescribable calm, a sort of golden mean between the two extremes of the thinker's musings and the sleek content of the ruminating brute, which should be termed the physical melancholy of gastronomy.
So the party turned spontaneously toward the worthy German, all of them delighted to listen to a tale, even if it should be a dull one. During this beatific pause, the mere sound of the voice of the one who tells the story is soothing to our languid senses; it is one more aid to passive enjoyment. As an amateur of pictures, I watched the faces, bright with smiles, lighted up by the light of the tapers and flushed with good cheer; the different expressions produced piquant effects among the sconces, the porcelain baskets of fruit, and the crystal glasses.
One face, exactly opposite, particularly struck my imagination. It belonged to a middle-sized man, tolerably stout and jovial-looking; who from his manner and appearance seemed to be a stockbroker, and, so far as one could see, gifted with no extraordinary amount of brains. Hitherto I had not noticed him, but at that moment his face, obscured, to be sure, by a bad light, seemed to me to undergo a total change; it took a cadaverous hue, veined with purple streaks. You might have taken it for the ghastly countenance of a man in the death agony. Impassive as a painted figure in a diorama, he was staring stupidly at the facets of a crystal decanter-stopper, but he certainly took no heed of them; he seemed to be deep in some visionary contemplation of the future or of the past. A long scrutiny of this dubious-looking face made me think.
"Is he ill?" I asked myself. "Has he taken too much wine? Is he ruined by the fall of the Funds? Is he thinking how to cheat his creditors? Look!" I said to the lady who sat next to me, calling her attention to the stranger's face, "that is a budding bankruptcy, is it not?"
"Oh!" she answered, "if it were he would be in better spirits." Then, with a graceful toss of her head, she added: "If that individual ever ruins himself, I will take the news to Pekin myself. He is a rather eccentric old gentleman worth a million in real estate; he used to be a contractor to the Imperial armies. He married again, as a business speculation, but he makes his wife very happy for all that. He has a pretty daughter, whom for a very long time he would not recognize; but when his son died by a sad accident in a duel he was obliged to take her home, for he was not likely to have any more children. So all at once the poor girl became one of the richest heiresses in Paris. The loss of his only son threw the poor dear man into great grief, and he still shows signs of it at times."
As she spoke, the army contractor looked up, and our eyes met; his expression made me shudder, it was so gloomy and so sad. Assuredly a whole life was summed up in that glance. Then in a moment he looked cheerful. He took up the glass stopper, put it unthinkingly into the mouth of the water decanter that stood on the table in front of him, and turned smilingly toward M. Hermann. The man was positively beaming with full-fed content, and had, no doubt, not two ideas in his head; he had been thinking of nothing! I was in some sort ashamed to have thrown away my powers of divination in animâ vili, to have taken this thick-skulled capitalist as a subject. But while I was making my phrenological observations in pure waste, the good-natured German had flicked a few grains of snuff off his face and begun his story.
It would be a passably difficult matter to give it in the same words, with his not infrequent interruptions and wordy digressions; so I have written it after my own fashion, omitting these defects of the Nuremberger's narrative, and helping myself to such elements of poetry and interest as it may possess, emulating the modesty of other writers who omit the formula translated from the German from their title-pages.
"TOWARD the end of Vendémiaire, in the year VII. of the Republican era (a date that corresponds to the 20th of October, present style), two young men were making their way toward Andernach, a little town on the left bank of the Rhine, a few leagues from Coblentz. The travelers had set out from Bonn that morning, and now the day was drawing to a close. At that particular time a French army under command of General Augereau was keeping in check the Austrians on the right bank of the river. The headquarters of the Republican division were at Coblentz, and one of the demi-brigades belonging to Augereau's corps was quartered in Andernach.
"The two wayfarers were Frenchmen. At first sight of their blue and white uniforms, with red velvet facings, their sabres, and, above all, their caps covered with green oilcloth and adorned with a tricolor cockade, the German peasants themselves might have known them for a pair of army surgeons, men of science and of sterling worth, popular for the most part not only in the army, but also in the countries occupied by French troops. At that time many young men of good family, torn from their medical studies by General Jourdan's conscription law, not unnaturally preferred to continue their studies on the battlefield to compulsory service in the ranks, a life ill suited to their antecedents and unwarlike ambitions. Men of this stamp, studious, serviceable, peaceably inclined, did some good among so many evils, and found congenial spirits among the learned of the various countries invaded by the ruthless affranchisement of the Republic.
"These two, provided with a route of the road, and with assistant-surgeons' commissions signed by La Coste and Bernadotte, were on their way to join the demi-brigade to which they were attached. Both belonged to well-to-do middle families in Beauvais, and traditions of gentle breeding and of provincial integrity had been a part of their inheritance. A curiosity quite natural in youth had brought them to the seat of war before the time fixed for entrance on active service, and they had come by the diligence as far as Strasburg. Maternal prudence had suffered them to leave home with a very scanty supply of money, but they felt rich in the possession of a few louis; and, indeed, at a time when assignats had reached the lowest point of depreciation, those few louis meant wealth, for gold was at a high premium.
"The two assistant-surgeons, aged twenty years at most, gave themselves up to the romance of their situation with all the enthusiasm of youth. They had traversed the Palatinate from Strasburg to Bonn in the quality of artists, philosophers, and observers. When we have a scientific career before us, there are, in truth, at that age many natures within us; and even while making love or travelling about, an assistant-surgeon should be laying the foundations of his future fame and fortune. Accordingly, the pair had been carried away by the profound admiration that every well-read man must feel at the sight of the scenery of Swabia and the banks of the Rhine between Mayence and Cologne. They saw a vigorous and fertile country, an undulating green landscape full of strong contrasts and of memories of feudal times, and everywhere scarred by fire and sword. Louis XIV. and Turenne once before laid that fair land in ashes; heaps of ruins bear witness to the pride, or, it may be, to the prudence of the monarch of Versailles, who razed the wonderful castles which once were the glory of this part of Germany. You arrive at some conception of the German mind; you understand its dreaminess and its mysticism from this wonderful forest-land of theirs, full of remains of the Middle Ages, picturesque, albeit in ruins.
"The two friends bad made some stay in Bonn with two objects in view scientific knowledge and pleasure. The grand hospital of the Gallo-Batavian army and of Augereau's division had been established in the Electoral palace itself, and thither the two novices had gone to see their comrades, to deliver letters of recommendation to their chiefs, and to make their first acquaintance with the life of army surgeons. But with the new impressions, there as elsewhere, they parted with some of their national prejudices, and discovered that France had no monopoly of beautiful public buildings and landscapes. The marble columns that adorn the Electoral palace took them by surprise; they admired the magnificence of German architecture and found fresh treasures of ancient and modern art at every step.
"Now and again in the course of their wanderings toward Andernach their way led them over some higher peak among the granite hills. Through a clear apace in the forest, or a chasm in the rocks, they caught a glimpse of the Rhine, a picture framed in the gray stone, or in some setting of luxuriant trails of green leaves. Every valley, field-path, and forest was filled with autumn scents that conduce to musings and with signs of the aging of the year; the treetops were turning golden, taking warmer hues and shades of brown; the leaves were falling, but the sky was blue and cloudless overhead; the roads were dry, and shone like threads of gold across the country in the late afternoon sunlight.
"Half a league from Andernach the country through which the two friends were travelling lay in a silence as deep as if there were no war laying waste the beautiful land. They were following a goat track among the steep crags of bluish granite that rise like walls above the eddying Rhine, and before very long were descending the sloping aides of the ravine above the little town, nestling coyly at its foot on the river bank, with its picturesque quay for the Rhine boatmen.
"'Germany is a very beautiful country!' cried one of the two, Prosper Magnan by name, as he caught sight of the painted houses of Andernach lying close together like eggs in a basket, among the trees and flower-gardens.
"For a few minutes they looked at the high-pitched roofs with their projecting beams, at the balconies and wooden staircases of all those peaceful dwellings, and at the boats swaying in the current by the quay."
When M. Hermann mentioned the name of Prosper Magnan, my opposite neighbor, the army contractor, snatched up the decanter, poured himself out a glass of water, and drank it down at a gulp. This proceeding recalled my attention to him; I thought I saw a slight quiver in his hands and a trace of perspiration on his forehead.
"What is the army contractor's name?" I inquired of my gracious neighbor.
"His name is Taillefer," said she.
"Are you feeling unwell?" I exclaimed, as this unaccountable being turned pale.
"Not at all, not at all," he said, with a courteous gesture of acknowledgment. "I am listening," he said, with a nod to the rest of the party, for all eyes were turned at once upon him.
"I forget the other young man's name," said M. Hermann. "But at any rate, from Prosper Magnan's confidences I learned that his friend was dark, lively, and rather thin. If you have no objection, I will call him Wilhelm for the sake of clearness in the story." And the good German took up his tale again, after baptizing a French assistant surgeon with a German name, totally regardless of local color and of the demands of Romanticism.
"So by the time these two young fellows reached An for a prince, fish from the Rhine! That tells you everything.'
"When they had given over their tired beasts into the host's care, they left him to shout in vain for the stable folk and went into the public room of the inn. It was so full of dense white clouds blown from the pipes of a room full of smokers that at first they could not make out what kind of company they had fallen among; but after they had sat for a while at a table, and put in practice the patience of travelled philosophers who know when it is useless to make a fuss, they gradually made out the inevitable accessories of a German inn. The stove, the clock, the tables, pots of beer and long pipes, loomed out through the tobacco smoke; so did the faces of the motley crew, Jews, Germans, and what not, with one or two rough boatmen thrown in.
"The epaulets of a few French officers shone through the thick mist, and spurs and sabres clanked incessantly upon the flagstones. Some were playing at cards, the rest quarrelled among themselves, or were silent, ate, or drank, and came or went. A stout little woman, who wore the black velvet cap, blue stomacher embroidered with silver, the pincushion, bunch of keys, silver clasps, and plaited hair of the typical German landlady (a costume made so familiar in all its details by a host of prints that it is too well known to need description), came to the two friends and soothed their impatience, while she stimulated their interest in their supper with very, remarkable skill.
"Gradually the noise diminished, the travellers went off one by one, the clouds of tobacco awoke cleared away. By the time that the table was set for the assistant surgeons, and the classic carp from the Rhine appeared, it was eleven o'clock, and the room was empty. Through the stillness of the night it was possible to hear faint noises of horses stamping or crunching their provender, the ripple of the Rhine, the vague indefinable sounds in an inn full of people when every one has retired to rest. Doors and windows opened or shut; there was an inarticulate murmur of voices, or a name was called out in some room overhead. During this time of silence and of commotion, while the two Frenchmen were eating their supper and the landlord engaged in extolling Andernach, the meal, his Rhine wine, his wife, and the Republican army, for the benefit of his guests, the three heard, with a certain degree of interest, the hoarse shouts of boatmen and the rattling sound of a boat being moored alongside the quay. The innkeeper, doubtless accustomed to be hailed by the guttural cries of the boatmen, hurried out, and soon came in again with a short, stout man, a couple of the boat's crew following them with a heavy valise and several packages. As soon as the baggage was deposited in the room, the short man pinked up his, valise and seated himself without ceremony at the table opposite the two surgeons.
"'You can sleep on board,' said he to the boatmen, 'as the inn is full. All thing considered, that will be the best way.'
"'All the provisions I have in the house are here before you, sir,' said the landlord, and he indicated the Frenchmen's supper. 'I have not a cruet of bread, and not so much as a bone '
"'And no sauerkraut?'
"'Not so much as would fill my wife's thimble! As I had the honor of telling you just now, you can have no bed but the chair yon are sitting on, and this is the only unoccupied room.'
"At these words the short personage glanced at the landlord, at the room, and at the two Frenchmen, caution and alarm equally visible in the expression of his countenance.
"At this point," said M. Hermann, interrupting himself, "I should tell you, that we never knew this stranger's real name, nor his history; we found out from his papers that he came from Aix-la-Chapelle, that he had assumed the name of Walhenfer, and owned a rather large pin factory somewhere near Neuwied that was all.
"He wore, like other manufacturers in that part of the world, an ordinary cloth overcoat, waistcoat and breeches of dark-green velvet, high boots, and a broad leather belt. His face was perfectly round, his manners frank and hearty, and during the evening he found it very difficult to disguise some inward apprehensions, or, it may be, cruel anxieties. The innkeeper always said that the German merchant was flying the country, and I learned later on that his factory had been burned down through one of the unlucky accidents so frequent in time of war. But in spite of the uneasy look that his face generally wore, its natural expression denoted good-humor and good-nature. He had good features, and a particularly noticeable personal trait was a thick neck, so white in contrast with a black cravat, that Wilhelm jokingly pointed it out to Prosper "
Here M. Taillefer drank another glass of water.
"Prosper courteously invited the merchant to share their supper, and Walhenfer fell to without more ado, like a man who is conscious that he can repay a piece of civility. He set down his valise on the floor, put his feet upon it, took off his hat, drew his chair to the table, and laid down his gloves beside him, together with a pair of pistols, which he carried in his belt. The landlord quickly laid a cover for him, and the three began to satisfy their hunger silently enough.
"The room was so close and the flies so troublesome that Prosper besought the landlord to open the window that looked out upon the quay to let in fresh air. This window was fastened by an iron bar that dropped into a socket on either side of the window frame, and for greater security a nut fastened to each of the shutters received a bolt. It so happened that Prosper watched the landlord unfasten the window.
"But since I am going into these particulars," M. Hermann remarked, "I ought to describe the internal arrangements of the house; for the whole interest of the story depends on an accurate knowledge of the place.
"There were two entrance doors in the room where these three personages were sitting. One opened on to the road that followed the river bank to Andernach, and, as might be expected, just opposite the inn there was a little jetty where the boat which the merchant had hired for his voyage was moored at that moment. The other door gave admittance to the inn-yard, a court shut in by very high walls, and at the moment full of horses and cattle, for human beings occupied the stables.
"The house door had been so carefully bolted and barred that, to save time, the landlord had opened the street door of the sitting-room to admit the merchant and the boatmen, and now, when he had opened the window at Prosper Magnan's instance, he set to work to shut this door, slipping the bolts and screwing the nuts.
"The landlord's bedroom, where the friends were to sleep, was next to the public room of the inn, and only separated from the kitchen, where the host and hostess were probably to pass the night, by a sufficiently thin partition wall. The maidservant had just gone out to find a nook in some manger, or in the corner of a hay loft somewhere or other. It will be readily understood that the public room, the landlord's bedroom, and the kitchen were in a manner apart from the rest of the inn. The deep barking of two great dogs in the yard indicated that the house had vigilant and wakeful guardians.
"'How quiet it is, and what a glorious night!' said Wilhelm, looking out at the sky when the landlord had bolted the door. There was not a sound to be heard at the moment gave the rippling of the water.
"'Gentlemen,' said the merchant, addressing the Frenchmen, 'allow me to offer you a bottle or two of wine to wash down your carp. A glass will refresh us after a tiring day. By the look of you and the condition of your clothes, I can see that, like myself, you have come a good way.'
"The two friends accepted the proposal, and the landlord went out through the kitchen to the cellar, doubtless situated beneath that part of the establishment. About the time that five venerable bottles appeared upon the table, the landlord's wife had finished serving the supper. She gave a housewife's glance over the dishes and round the room, assured herself that the travellers had everything they were likely to want, and went back to the kitchen. The four boon companions, for the host was asked to join the party, did not hear her go off to bed; but before long, in the pauses of the chat over the wine, there came an occasional very distinct sound of snoring from the loft above the kitchen where she was sleeping, a sound rendered still more resonant by reason of the thin plank floor. This made the guests smile, and the landlord smiled still more.
"Toward midnight, when there was nothing left on the table but cheese and biscuits, dried fruit, and good wine, the whole party, and the young Frenchmen more particularly, grew communicative. They talked about their country, their studies, and the war. After a while the conversation grew lively. Prosper Magnan drew tears to the merchant's eyes when, with a Picard's frankness and the simplicity of a kindly and affectionate nature, he began to imagine what his mother would be doing while he, her son, was here on the bank of the Rhine.
"'It is just as if I can see her,' he said; 'she is reading the evening prayer, the last thing at night! She will not forget me I know; she is sure to say, "Where is my poor Prosper, I wonder?" Then if she has won a few sous at cards of your mother perhaps,' he added, jogging Wilhelm's elbow 'she will be putting them in the big red jar, where she keeps the money she is saving up to buy those thirty acres that lie within her own little bit of land at Lescheville. The thirty acres will be worth something like sixty thousand francs. Good meadow land it is! Ah! if I were to have it some day, I would live all the rest of my life at Lescheville, and want nothing better! How often my father wanted those thirty acres and the nice little stream that winds along through the fields! And, after all, he died and could not buy the land. . . . I have played there many and many a time!'
"'M. Walhenfer, haven't you also your hoc erat in votes?' asked Wilhelm.
"'Yes, sir, yes! But it all came to me as it was, and now . . .' the good man stopped short and said no more.
"'For my own part,' said the landlord, whose countenance was slightly flushed, 'I bought a bit of meadow last year that I had set my mind on these ten years past.'
"So they chatted on, as folk will talk when wine has unloosed their tongues, and struck up one of those travellers' friendships that we are little chary of making on a journey, in such a sort that when they rose to go to their room Wilhelm offered his bed to the merchant.
"'You can take the offer without hesitation,' he said, 'for Prosper and I can sleep together. It will not be the first time nor the last either, I expect. You are the oldest among us, and we ought to honor old age.'
"'Pooh!' said the landlord, 'there are several mattresses on our bed, one can be laid on the floor for you,' and he went to shut the window with the usual clatter caused by this precaution.
"'I accept your offer,' said the merchant, addressing Wilhelm. 'I confess,' he added, lowering his voice, and looking at the friends, 'that I wanted you to make it. I feel that I cannot trust my boatmen; and I am not sorry to find myself in the company of two decent young fellows, two French military men, moreover, for the night. I have a hundred thousand francs in gold and diamonds in that valise.'
"The two younger men received this incautious communication with a discreet friendliness that reassured the worthy German. The landlord helped his guests to shift one of the mattresses, and, when things had been arranged as comfortably as possible, wished them a good-night and went off to bed. The merchant and the surgeons joked each other about their pillows. Prosper put Wilhelm's case of surgical instruments, as well as his own, under the mattress, to raise the end and supply the place of a bolster, just as Walhenfer, in an access of extreme caution, bestowed his valise under his bolster.
"'We are both going to sleep on our fortunes you on your money, and I on my case of instruments! It remains to be seen whether my case will bring me in as much money as you have made.'
"'You may hope so,' said the merchant. 'Honest work will accomplish most things, but you must have patience.'
"Before very long Walhenfer and Wilhelm fell asleep. But whether it was because his bed was too hard, or he himself was overtired and wakeful, or through some unlucky, mood of mind, Prosper Magnan lay broad awake. Imperceptibly his thoughts took an ill turn. He could think of nothing but that hundred thousand francs beneath the merchant's pillow. For him a hundred thousand francs was a vast fortune ready made. He began by laying out the money in endless ways, building castles in the air, as we are all apt to do with so much enjoyment just before we drop off to sleep, when indistinct and hazy ideas arise in our minds, and not seldom night and silence give a magical vividness to our thoughts.
"In these visions Prosper Magnan overtopped his mother's ambitions; he bought the thirty acres of meadow, and married a young lady in Beauvais, to whose hand he could not aspire at present owing to inequality of fortune. With this wealth he panned out a whole pleasant lifetime, saw himself the prosperous father of a family, rich, looked up to in the neighborhood, possibly even Mayor of Beauvais. The Picard head was on fire; he cast about for the means of realizing these dreams of his. With extraordinary warmth of imagination he set himself to plan out a crime, and gold and diamonds were the most vivid and distinct portion of a vision of the merchant's death; the glitter dazzled him. His heart beat fast. He had committed a crime, no doubt, by harboring such thoughts as these. The spell of the gold was upon him; his moral nature was intoxicated by insidious seasonings. He asked himself whether there was any reason why the poor German should live, and imagined how it would have been if he had never existed. To put it briefly, be plotted out a way to do the deed with complete impunity.
"The Austrians held the other bank of the Rhine; a boat lay there under the windows; there were boatmen there; he could out the man's throat, fling him into the Rhine, escape with the valise through a casement, bribe the boatmen, and go over to the Austrian side. He even went so far as to count upon his surgeon's dexterity with the knife; he knew of a way of decapitating his victim before the sleeper could utter a single shriek . . ."
M. Taillefer wiped his forehead at this point, and again he drank a little water.
"Then Prosper Magnan rose slowly and noiselessly. He assured himself that he had awakened nobody, dressed and went into the public room. Then, with the fatal lucidity of mind that suddenly comes at certain crises, with the heightened power of intuition and strength of will that is never lacking to criminals or to prisoners in the execution of their designs, he unscrewed the iron bars, and drew them from their sockets, and set them against the wall without the slightest sound, hanging with all his weight on to the shutters lest they should creak as they turned on their hinges. In the pale moonlight he could dimly see the objects in the room where Wilhelm and Walhenfer were sleeping.
"Then, he told me, he stopped short for a moment. His heart beat so hard and so heavily that the sound seemed to ring through the room, and he stood like one dismayed as he heard it. He began to fear for his coolness; his hands shook, he felt as if he were standing on burning coals. But so fair a prospect depended upon the execution of his design that he saw something like a providence in this dispensation of fate that had brought the merchant thither. He opened the window, went back to his room, took up his case, and looked through it for an instrument best adapted to his purpose.
"'And when I stood by the bed' (he told me this), 'I asked God for His protection, unthinkingly.'
"He had just raised his arm, and was summoning all his strength for the blow, when something like a voice cried within him, and he thought he saw a light. He flung down the surgical instrument on his bed, fled into the next room, and stood at the window. A profound horror of himself came over him, and, feeling how little he could trust himself, fearing to yield to the fascination that held him, he sprang quickly out of the window and walked along by the Rhine, acting as sentinel, as it were, before the inn. Again and again he walked restlessly to and from Andernach, often also his wanderings led him to the slope of the ravine which they had descended that afternoon to reach the inn; but so deep was the silence of the night, and so strong his dread of arousing the watch-dogs, that he kept away from the Red House, and lost sight altogether more than once of the window that he had left open. He tried to weary him. self out, and so to induce sleep. Yet, as he walked to and fro under the cloudless sky, watching the brilliant stars, it may be that the pure night air and the melancholy lapping of the water wrought upon him, and restored him by degrees to moral sanity. Sober reason completed the work and dispelled that short-lived madness. His education, the precepts of religion, and, above all things (so he told me), visions of the homely life that he had led beneath his father's roof, got the better of his evil thoughts. He thought and pondered for long, his elbow resting on a bowlder by the side of the Rhine; and when he turned to go in again, he could not only have slept, so he said, but have watched over millions of gold.
"When his honesty emerged strengthened and triumphant from that ordeal, he knelt in joy and ecstasy to thank God; he felt as happy, light-hearted, and content as on the day when he took the sacrament for the first time, and felt not unworthy of the angels because he had spent the day without sin in word, or thought, or deed.
"He went back again to the inn, shut the window without care to move noiselessly, and went to bed at once. Mind and body were utterly exhausted, and sleep overcame him. He had scarcely laid his head on the mattress before the dreamy drowsiness that precedes sound slumber crept over him; when the senses grow torpid, conscious life ebbs away, thought grows fragmentary, and the last communications of sense to the brain are like the impressions of a dream.
"'How close the air is!' said Prosper to himself. 'It is just as if I were breathing a damp mist . . .'
"Dimly he sought to account for this state of things by attributing it to the difference between the outside temperature in the pure country air and the cloned room; but before long he heard a constantly recurring sound, very much like the slow drip of water from a leaking tap. On an impulse of panic terror, he thought of rising and calling the landlord, or the merchant, or Wilhelm; but, for his misfortune, he bethought himself of the wooden clock in the neat room, fancied that the sound was the beat of the pendulum, and dropped off to sleep with this dim and confused idea in his head."
"Do you want come water, M. Taillefer?" asked the master of the house, seeing the banker take up the empty decanter mechanically.
M. Hermann went on with his story after the slight interruption of the banker's reply.
"The next morning," he went on, "Prosper Magnan was awakened by a great noise. It seemed to him that he had heard shrill cries, and he felt that violent nervous tremor which we experience when we wake to a painful sensation that began during slumber. The thing that takes place in us when we 'wake with a start,' to use the common expression, has been insufficiently investigated, though it presents interesting problems to physiological science. The terrible shock, caused it may be by the too sudden reunion of the two natures in us that are almost always apart while we sleep, is usually momentary, but it was not so for the unlucky young surgeon. The horror grew, and his hair bristled hideously all at once, when he saw a pool of blood between his own mattress and Walhenfer's bedstead. The unfortunate German's head was lying on the floor, the body was still on the bed, all this blood had drained from the neck. Prosper Magnan saw Walhenfer's eyes unclosed and staring, saw red on the sheets that he had slept in, and even on his own hands, saw his own surgeon's knife on the bed, and fainted away on the bloodstained floor.
"'I was punished already for my thoughts,' he said to me afterward.
"When he came to himself again, he was sitting in a chair in the public room of the inn, a group of French soldiers round about him, and an inquisitive and interested crowd. He stared in dull bewilderment at a Republican officer who was busy taking down the depositions of several witnesses and drawing up an official report; he recognized the landlord and his wife, the two boatmen, and the maid-servant. The surgical instrument used by the murderer "
Here M. Taillefer coughed, drew out his pocket-handkerchief, and wiped his forehead. His movements were so natural that I alone noticed them; indeed, all eyes were fixed on M. Hermann with a kind of greedy interest. The army-contractor leaned his elbow on the table, propped his head on his right hand, and looked fixedly at Hermann. From that time forward I saw no involuntary signs of agitation nor of interest in the tale, but his face was grave and corpse-like; he looked just as he had done while he was playing with the decanter-stopper.
"The surgical instrument used by the murderer, lay on the table, beside the case with Prosper's pocketbook and papers. The crowd looked by turns at the young surgeon and at these convincing proofs of his guilt; he himself appeared to be dying; his dull eyes seemed to have no power of sight in them. A confused murmur outside made it evident that a crowd had gathered about the inn, attracted by the news of the murder, and perhaps by a wish to catch a sight of the criminal. The tramp of the sentries posted under the windows and the clanking of their weapons rose over the whispered talk of the populace. The inn itself was shut up, the courtyard was silent and deserted.
"The gaze of the officer who was drawing up the report was intolerable; Prosper Magnan felt some one grasp his hand; looked up to see who it was that stood by him among that unfriendly crowd, and recognized, by the uniform that he wore, the senior surgeon of the demi-brigade quartered in Andernach. So keen and merciless were those eyes that the poor young fellow shuddered, and his head dropped on to the back of the chair. One of the men held vinegar for him to inhale, and Prosper regained consciousness at once; but his haggard eyes were so destitute of life and intelligence that the senior surgeon felt his pulse and spoke to the officer.
"'Captain,' he said, 'it is impossible to examine the man just now '
"'Very well. Take him away,' returned the captain, cutting the surgeon short, and speaking to a corporal who stood behind the junior's chair.
"'Confounded scoundrel!' the man muttered; 'try at least to hold up your head before these German beggars, to save the honor of the Republic.'
"Thus adjured, Prosper Magnan came to his senses, rose, and went forward a few paces; but when the door opened, when he felt the outer air, and saw the people crowding up, all his strength failed him, his knees bent under him, he tottered.
"'The confounded sawbones deserves to be put an end to twice over! March, can't you!' said the two men on either side of him, on whom he leaned.
"'Oh, the coward! the coward! Here he comes! here he comes! . . . There he is!'
"The words were uttered as by one voice, the clamorous voice of the mob who hemmed him in, insulting and reviling him at every step. During the time that it took to go from the inn to the prison, the trampling feet of the crowd and the soldiers who guarded him, the muttered talk of those about him, the sky above, the morning air, the streets of Andernach, the rippling murmur of the current of the Rhine, all reached him as dull, vague impressions, confused and dim, like all his experiences since his awakening. At time's he thought that he had ceased to exist, so he told me afterward.
"I myself was in prison just then," said M. Hermann, interrupting himself. "We are all enthusiasts at twenty. I was on fire to defend my country, and commanded a volunteer troop raised in and about Andernach. A short time previously, I managed to fall in one night with a French detachment of eight hundred men. There were two hundred of us at the most; my scouts had betrayed me. I was thrown into the prison at Andernach while they debated whether or no to have me shot by way of a warning to the country. The French, moreover, talked of reprisals, but the murder for which they had a mind to avenge themselves on me turned out to have been committed outside the Electorate. My father had obtained a reprieve of three days, to make application for my pardon to General Augereau, who granted it.
"So I saw Prosper Magnan as soon as he came into the prison at Andernach, and the first sight of him filled me with the deepest pity for him. Haggard, exhausted and blood-stained though he was, there was a certain frankness in his face that convinced me of his innocence, and made a deep impression upon me. It was as if Germany stood there visibly before me the prisoner with the long, fair hair and blue eyes was for my imagination the very personification of the prostrate Fatherland this was no murderer, but a victim. As he went past my window, a sad, bitter smile lighted up his face for a moment, as if a transitory gleam of sanity crossed a disordered brain. Such a smile would surely not be seen on a murderer's lips. When I next saw the turnkey, I asked him about his new prisoner.
"'He hasn't said a word since he went into his cell. He sits there with his head on his hands, and sleeps or thinks about his trouble. From what I hear the Frenchmen saying, they will settle his case to-morrow, and he will be shot within twenty-four hours.'
"That evening I lingered a little under his windows during the short time allowed for exercise in the prison yard. We talked together, and he told me very simply the story of his ill-luck, giving sufficiently straightforward answers to my different questions. After that conversation I no longer doubted his innocence. I asked and obtained the favor of spending a few hours in his company, and saw him in this way several times. The poor boy let me into the secret of his thoughts without reserve. In his own opinion, he was at once innocent and guilty. He remembered the hideous temptation which he had found strength to resist, and was afraid that he had committed the murder planned while he was awake in an access of somnambulism.
"'But how about your companion?' said I.
"'Oh, Wilhelm is incapable! " he cried vehemently. He did, not even finish the sentence. I grasped his hand at the warm-hearted outburst, so fraught with youth and virtue.
"'I expect he was frightened when he woke,' he said; 'he must have lost his presence of mind and fled '
"'Without waking you?' I asked. 'Why, in that case your defence is soon made, for Walhenfer's valise will not have been stolen.'
"All at once he burst into tears.
"'Oh, yes, yes!' he cried; 'I am not guilty. I cannot have killed him. I remember the dreams I had. I was at school, playing at prisoners'-base. I could not have cut his throat while I was dreaming of running about.'
"But in spite of the gleams of hope that quieted his mind somewhat at times, he still felt crushed by the weight of remorse. There was no blinking the fact he had raised his arm to strike the blow. He condemned himself, and considered that he was morally guilty after committing the crime in imagination.
"'And yet, I am not a bad fellow,' he cried. 'Oh, poor mother! Perhaps just now she is happily playing at cards with her friends in the little tapestried room at home. If she knew that I had so much as raised my hand to take another man's life Oh! it would kill her! And I am in prison, and accused of murder! If I did not kill the man, I shall certainly be the death of my mother!'
"He shed no tears as he spoke. In a wild fit of frenzy, not uncommon among Picards, he sprang up, and if I had not forcibly restrained him, would have dashed his head against the wall.
"'Wait until you have been tried,' I said. 'You will be acquitted; you are innocent. And your mother '
"'My mother,' he cried wildly; 'my mother will hear that I have been accused of murder, that is the main point. You always hear things like that in little places, and my poor mother will die of grief. Besides, I am not innocent. Do you care to know the whole truth? I feel that I have lost the virginity of my conscience.'
"With those terrible words, he sat down, folded his arms across his chest, bowed his head, and fixed his eyes gloomily on the floor. Just then the turnkey came to bid me return to my cell; but loth to leave my companion when his discouragement seemed at its blackest, I clasped him in a friendly embrace. 'Be patient,' I said, 'perhaps it will all come right. If an honest man's opinion can silence your doubts, I tell you this that I esteem you and love you. Accept my friendship, and repose on my heart, if you cannot feel at peace with your own.'
"On the following day, about nine o'clock, a corporal and four fusiliers came for the assistant surgeon. I heard the sound of the soldiers' footsteps, and went to the window; our eyes met as he crossed the court. Never shall I forget the glance fraught with so many thoughts and forebodings, nor the resignation and indescribably sad and melancholy sweetness in his expression. In that dumb swift transference of thought, my friend conveyed his testament to me; he left his lost life to the one friend who was beside him at the last.
"That night must have been very hard to live through, a very lonely night for him; but perhaps the pallor that overspread his face was a sign of a newly acquired stoicism, based on a new view of himself. Perhaps he felt purified by remorse, and thought to expiate his sin in this anguish and shame. He walked with a firm step; and I noticed that he had removed the accidental stains of blood that soiled his clothing the night before.
"'Unluckily I stained my hands while I was asleep; I always was an uneasy sleeper,' he had said, a dreadful despair in the tones of his voice.
"I was told that he was about to be tried by a court-martial. The division was to go forward in two days' time, and the commandant of the demi-brigade meant to try the criminal on the spot before leaving Andernach.
"While that court-martial was sitting, I was in an agony of suspense. It was noon before they brought Prosper Magnan back to prison. I was taking my prescribed exercise when he came; he saw me, and rushed into my arms.
"'I am lost!' he said. 'Lost beyond hope! Every one here must look on me as a murderer '
"Then he raised his head proudly. 'This injustice has completely given me back my innocence,' he said. 'If I had lived, my life must always have been troubled, but my death shall be without reproach. But is there anything beyond?'
"The whole eighteenth century spoke in that sudden questioning. He was absorbed in thought.
"'But what did you tell them? What did they ask you?' I cried. 'Did you not tell them the simple truth as you told it to me?'
"He gazed at me for a minute, then after the brief, dreadful pause he answered with a feverish readiness of speech
"'First of all they asked me "Did you go out of the inn during the night?" "Yes," I told them. "How did you get out?" I turned red, and answered, "Through the window." "Then you must have opened it?" "Yes," I said. "You set about it very cautiously; the landlord heard nothing!" I was like one stupefied all the time. The boatmen swore that they had seen me walking, sometimes toward Andernach, sometimes toward the forest. I went to and fro many times, they said. I had buried the gold and diamonds. As a matter of fact the valise has not been found. Then, the whole time, I myself was struggling against remorse. Whenever I opened my mouth to speak, a merciless voice seemed to cry, "You meant to do it!" Everything was against me, even myself! . . . They wanted to know about my comrade, and I completely exonerated him. Then they said, "One of you four must be guilty you or your comrade, the innkeeper or his wife. All the doors and windows were shut fast this morning!" When they said that,' he went on, 'I had no voice, no strength, no spirit left in me. I was more sure of my friend than of myself; I saw very well that they thought us both equally guilty of the murder, and I was the clumsier one of the two. I tried to explain the thing by somnambulism; I tried to clear my friend; then I got muddled, and it was all over with me. I read my sentence in the judges' eyes. Incredulous smiles stole across their faces. That is all. The suspense is over. I am to be shot to-morrow I do not think of myself now,' he said, 'but of my poor mother.'
"He stopped short and looked up to heaven. He shed no tears; his eyes were dry and contracted with pain.
"Frédéric! . . .
"Ah! I remember now! The other one was called Frédéric . . . Frédéric! Yes, I am sure that was the name," M. Hermann exclaimed triumphantly.
I felt the pressure of my fair neighbor's foot; she made a sign to me, and looked across at M. Taillefer. The sometime army-contractor's hand drooped carelessly over his eyes, but through the fingers we thought we saw a smouldering blaze in them.
"Eh?" she said in my ear, "and now suppose that his name is Frédéric?"
I gave the lady a side glance of entreaty to be silent. Hermann went on with his tale.
"'It is cowardly of Frédéric to leave me to my fate. He must have been afraid. Perhaps he is hiding in the inn, for both our horses were there in the yard that morning. What an inexplicable mystery it is!' he added; then after a pause: 'Somnambulism, somnambulism! I never walked in my sleep but once in my life, and then I was not six years old. And I am to go out of this,' he went on, striking his foot against the earth, 'and take with me all the friendship that there is in the world! Must I die twice over, doubting the friendship that began when we were five years old, and lasted through our school life and our student days! Where is Frédéric?'
"The tears filled his eyes. We cling more closely to a sentiment than to our life, it seems!
"'Let us go in again,' he said; 'I would rather be in my cell. I don't mean them to see me crying. I shall go bravely to my death, but I cannot play the hero in season and out of season, and I confess that I am sorry to leave my life, my fair life, and my youth. I did not sleep last night; I remembered places about my home when I was a child; I saw myself running about in the meadows, perhaps it was the memories of those fields that led to my ruin. I had a future before me' (he interrupted himself). 'A dozen men, a sub-lieutenant who will cry, "Ready! present! fire!" a roll of drums, and disgrace! that is my future now! Ah! there is a God, there is a God, or all this would be too nonsensical.'
"Then he grasped my arm, put his arms about me, and held me tightly to him.
"'Ah! you are the last human soul to whom I can pour out my soul. You will be free again! You will see your mother! I do not know whether you are rich or poor, but no matter for that, you are all the world for me. . . They cannot keep the fighting up forever. Well and good then, when they make peace, go to Beauvais. If my mother survives the disastrous news of my death, you will find her out and tell her "He was innocent," to comfort her. She will believe you,' he went on. 'I shall write to her as well, but you will carry my last look to her; you shall tell her how that you were the last friend whom I embraced before I died. Ah! how she will love you, my poor mother, you who have stood my friend at the last!' He was silent for a moment or two, the burden of his memories seemed too heavy, for him to bear. 'Here they are all strangers to me,' he said, 'the other surgeons and the men, and they all shrink from me in horror. But for you, my innocence must remain a secret between me and Heaven.'
"I vowed to fulfil his last wishes as a sacred charge. He felt that my heart went out to him, and was touched by my words. A little later the soldiers came back to take him before the court-martial again. He was doomed.
"I know nothing of the formalities or circumstances that attend a sentence of this kind; I do not know whether there is any appeal, nor whether the young surgeon's defence was made according to rule and precedent, but he prepared to go to his death early on the morrow, and spent that night in writing to his mother.
"'We shall both be set free to-day,' he said, smiling, when I went the next day to see him. 'The general has signed your pardon, I hear.'
"I said nothing, and gazed at him to engrave his features on my memory.
"A look of loathing crossed his face, and he said, 'I have been a miserable coward! All night long I have been praying the very walls for mercy,' and he looked round his cell. 'Yes, yes,' he went on, 'I howled with despair, I rebelled against this, I have been through the most fearful inward conflict . . . . I was alone! . . . Now I am thinking of what others will say of me Courage is like a garment that we put on. I must go decently to my death . . . . And so . . .'"
"OH! DO NOT tell us any more!" cried the girl who had asked for the story, cutting short the Nuremberger. "I want to live in suspense, and to believe that he was saved. If I were to know to-night that they shot him, I should not sleep. You must tell me the rest to-morrow."
We rose. M. Hermann offered his arm to my fair neighbor, who asked as she took it, "They shot him, did they not?"
"Yes. I was there."
"What, Monsieur, you could "
"He wished it, Madame. It is something very ghastly to attend the funeral of a living man, your own friend who is not guilty of the crime laid to his charge. The poor young fellow never took his eyes off me. He seemed to have no life but mine left. 'He wished,' he said, 'that I should bear his last sigh to his mother.'"
"Well, and did you see her?"
"After the Peace of Amiens I went to France to take the glad tidings 'He was innocent!' That pilgrimage was like a sacred duty laid upon me. But Mme. Magnan was dead, I found; she had died of consumption. I burned the letter I had brought for her, not without deep emotion. Perhaps you will laugh at my German high-flown sentimentality; but for me there was a tragedy most sublimely sad in the eternal silence which was about to swallow up those farewells uttered in vain from one grave to another grave, and heard by none, like the cry of some traveller in the desert surprised by a beast of prey."
Here I broke in with a "How if some one were to bring you face to face with one of the men in this drawing-room, and say, 'There is the murderer!' would not that be another tragedy? And what would you do?"
M. Hermann took up his hat and went.
"You are acting like a young man, and very thoughtlessly," said the lady. "Just look at Taillefer; there he sits in a low chair by the fire, Mademoiselle Fanny is handing him a cup of coffee; he is smiling. How could a murderer display such quiet self-possession as that, after a story that must have been torture to him. He looks quite patriarchal, does he not?"
"Yes; but just ask him if he has been with the army in Germany!" I exclaimed.
"Why not?" and with the audacity rarely lacking in womankind when occasion tempts, or curiosity gets the better of her, my fair neighbor went across to the army contractor.
"Have you been in Germany, M. Taillefer?" quoth she.
Taillefer all but dropped his saucer.
"I, madame? No, never."
"Why, what is that you are saying, Taillefer?" protested the banker, chiming in. "You were in the Wagram campaign, were you not on the victualing establishment?"
"Oh yes!" answered Taillefer; "I was there, that once."
"You are wrong about him; he is a good sort of man," decided the lady when she came back to me.
"Very well," said I to myself, "before this evening is over I will drive the murderer out of the mire in which he is hiding."
There is a phenomenon of consciousness that takes place daily beneath our eyes, so commonplace that no one notices it, and yet there are astounding depths beneath it. Two men meet in a drawing-room who have some cause to disdain or to hate each other; perhaps one of them knows something which is not to the credit of the other; perhaps it is a condition of things that is kept a secret; perhaps one of them is meditating a revenge; but both of them are conscious of the gulf that divides them, or that ought to divide them. Before they know it, they are watching each other and absorbed in each other; some subtle emanation of their thought seems to distil from every look and gesture; they have a magnetic influence. Nor can I tell which has the more power of attraction revenge or crime, hatred or contempt. Like some priest who cannot consecrate the house where an evil spirit abides, the two are ill at ease and suspicious; one of them, it is hard to say which, is polite, and the other sullen; one of them turns pale or red, and the other trebles; and it often happens that the avenger is quite as cowardly as the victim. For very few of us have the nerve to cause pain, even if it is necessary pain, and many a man, passes over a matter or forgives from sheer hatred of fuss or dread of making a tragical scene.
With this inter-susceptibility of minds, and apprehensiveness of thought and feeling, there began a mysterious struggle between the army contractor and me. Ever since my interruption of M. Hermann's story he had shunned my eyes. Perhaps in like manner he looked none of the party in the face. He was chatting now with the inexperienced Fanny, the banker's daughter; probably, like all criminals, he felt a longing to take shelter with innocence, as if the mere proximity of innocence might bring him peace for a little. But though I stood on the other side of the room, I still listened to all that he said; my direct gaze fascinated him. When he thought he could glance at me in turn, unnoticed, our eyes met, and his eyelids fell directly. Taillefer found this torture intolerable, and hastened to put a stop to it by betaking himself to a card-table. I backed his opponent, hoping to lose my money. It fell out as I had wished. The other player left the table, I cut in, and the guilty man and I were now face to face.
"Monsieur," I said, as he dealt the cards, "will you be so good as to begin afresh score?" He swept his counters from right to left somewhat hastily. The lady, my neighbor at dinner, passed by; I gave her a significant glance.
"M. Frédéric Taillefer," I asked, addressing my opponent, "are you related to a family in Beauvais with whom I am well acquainted?"
"Yes, sir." He let the cards fall, turned pale, hid his face in his hands, begged one of his backers to finish the game for him, and rose.
"It is too warm here," he gasped; "I am afraid . . ."
He did not finish his sentence. An expression of horrible anguish suddenly crossed his face and he hurried out of the room; the master of the house following him with what appeared to be keen anxiety. My neighbor and I looked at each other, but her face was overcast by indescribable sadness; there was a tinge of bitterness in it.
"Is your behavior very merciful?" she asked, as I rose from the card-table, where I had been playing and losing.
She drew me into the embrasure of the window as she spoke. "Would you be willing to accept the power of reading all hearts if you could have it? Why interfere with man's justice or God's? We may escape the one; we shall never escape the other. Is the prerogative of a President of a Court of Assize so enviable? And you have all but done the executioner's office as well "
"After sharing and stimulating my curiosity," I said, "you are lecturing me!"
"You have made me think," she answered.
"So it is to be peace to scoundrels, and woe to the unfortunate, is it? Let us down on our knees and worship gold! But shall we change the subject?" I said with a laugh. "Please look at the young lady who is just coming into the room."
"I met her three days ago at a ball at the Neapolitan embassy, and fell desperately in love. For pity's sake, tell me who she is. No one could tell me "
"That is Mlle. Victorine Taillefer!"
Everything swam before my eyes; I could scarcely hear the tones of the speaker's voice.
"Her stepmother brought her home only a while ago from the convent where she has been finishing her education somewhat late . . . . For a long a time her father would not recognize her. She comes here to-day for the first time. She is very handsome and very rich!"
A sardonic smile went with the words. Just as she spoke, we heard loud cries that seemed to come from an adjoining room; stifled though they were they echoed faintly through the garden.
"Is not that M. Taillefer's voice?" I asked. We both listened intently to the sounds, and fearful groans reached our ears. Just then our hostess hurried toward us and closed the window.
"Let us avoid scenes," she said to us. "If Mlle. Taillefer were to hear her father, it would be quite enough to send her into a fit of hysterics."
The banker came back to the drawing-room, looked for Victorine, and spoke a few low words in her ear. The girl sprang at once toward the door with an exclamation, and vanished. This produced a great sensation. The card-parties broke up; every one asked his neighbor what had happened. The buzz of talk grew louder, and groups were formed.
"Has M. Taillefer ?" I began.
"Killed himself?" put in my sarcastic friend. "You would wear mourning for him with a light heart, I can see."
"But what can have happened to him?"
"Poor man!" (it was the lady of the house who spoke) "he suffers from a complaint I cannot recollect the name of it, though M. Brousaon has told me about it often enough and he has just had a seizure."
"What kind of complaint is it?" asked an examining magistrate suddenly.
"Oh, it is something dreadful," she answered; "and the doctors can do nothing for him. The agony must be terrible. Taillefer had a seizure, I remember, once, poor man, when he was staying with us in the country; I was obliged to go to a neighbor's house so as not to hear him; his shrieks are fearful; he tries to kill himself; his daughter had to have him put into a strait waistcoat and tied down to his bed. Poor man! he says there are live creatures in his head gnawing his brain; it is a horrible, sawing, shooting pain that throbs through every nerve. He suffers so fearfully with his head that he did not feel the blisters that they used to apply at one time to draw the inflammation; but M. Brousson, his present doctor, forbade this; be says that it is nervous inflammation, and puts leeches on the throat, and applies laudanum to the head; and, indeed, since they began this treatment the attacks have been less frequent; he seldom has them oftener than once a year, in the late autumn. When he gets over one of these seizures, Taillefer always says that he would rather be broken on the wheel than endure such agony again."
"That looks as if he suffered considerably!" said a stockbroker, the wit of the party.
"Oh! last year he very nearly died," the lady went on. "He went alone to his country-house on some urgent business; there was no one at hand perhaps, for he lay stiff and stark, like one dead, for twenty-two hours. They only saved his life by a scalding-hot bath."
"Then is it some kind of tetanus?" asked the stockbroker.
"I do not know," returned she. "He has had the complaint nearly thirty years; it began while he was with the army. He says that he had a fall on a boat, and a splinter got into his head, but Brousson hopes to cure him. People say that in England they have found out a way of treating it with prussic acid, and that you run no risks " _
A shrill cry, louder than any of the preceding ones, rang through the house. The blood ran cold in our veins.
"There!" the banker's wife went on, "that is just what I was expecting every moment. It makes me start on my chair and creep through every nerve. But it is an extraordinary thing! poor Taillefer, suffering such unspeakable pain as he does, never runs any risk of his life! He eats and drinks as usual whenever he has a little respite from that ghastly torture . . . . Nature has such strange freaks. Some German doctor once told him that it was a kind of gout in the head; and Brousson's opinion was pretty much the same."
I left the little group about our hostess and went out with Mile. Taillefer. A servant had come for her. She was crying.
"Oh, mon Dieu, mon Dieu!" she sobbed; "how can my father have offended heaven to deserve such suffering as this? . . . So kind as he is."
I went downstairs with her, and saw her into the carriage; her father was lying doubled up inside it. Mlle. Taillefer tried to smother the sound of her father's moaning by covering his mouth with a handkerchief. Unluckily, he saw me, and his drawn face seemed further distorted, a scream of agony rent the air, he gave me a dreadful look, and the carriage started.
That dinner party and the evening that followed it was to exercise a painful influence on my life and on my views. Honor and my own scruples forbade me to connect myself with a murderer, no matter how good a husband and father he might be, and so I must needs fall in love with Mlle. Taillefer. It was wellnigh incredible how often chance drew me to visit at houses where I knew I might meet Victorine. Again and again, when I had pledged myself to renounce her society, the evening would find me hovering about her. The pleasures of this life were immense. It gave the color of an illicit passion to this unforbidden love, and a chimerical remorse filled up the measure of my bliss. I scorned myself when I greeted Taillefer, if by accident he was with his daughter; but, after all, I bowed to him.
Unluckily, in fact, Victorine, being something more than a pretty girl, was well read, charming, and gifted in no small degree, without being in the least a blue stocking, without the slightest taint of affectation. There is a certain reserve in her light talk, and a pensive graciousness about her that no one could resist. She liked me, or, at any rate, she allowed me to think so; there was a certain smile that she kept for me; for me the tones of her voice grew sweeter still. Oh! she cared about me, but she worshipped her father; she would praise his kindness to me, his gentleness, his various perfections, and all her praises were like so many daggers thrust into my heart.
At length I all but became an accessory after the fact, an accomplice in the crime which had laid the foundation of the wealth of the Taillefers. I was fain to ask for Victorine's hand. I fled. I travelled abroad. I went to Germany and to Andernach. But I came back again, and Victorine was looking thinner and paler than her wont. If she had been well and in good spirits, I should have been safe; but now the old feeling for her was rekindled with extraordinary violence.
Fearing lest my scruples were degenerating into monomania, I resolved to convene a Sanhedrim of consciences that should not have been tampered with, and so to obtain some light on this problem of the higher morality and philosophy. The question had only become more complex since my return.
So the day before yesterday I assembled those among my friends whom I looked upon as notably honest, scrupulous, and honorable. I asked two Englishmen, a secretary to the Embassy and a Puritan; a retired Minister, in the character of matured worldly wisdom; a few young men still under the illusions of inexperiences; a priest, an elderly man; my old guardian, a simple-hearted being, who gave me the best account of his management of my property that ever trustee has been known to give in the annals of the Palais; an advocate, a notary, and a judge in short, all social opinions were represented, and all practical wisdom. We had begun by a good dinner, good talk, and a deal of mirth; and over the dessert I told my story plainly and simply (suppressing the name of my lady-love), and asked for sound counsel.
"Give me your advice," I said to my friends as I came to an end. "Go thoroughly into the, question as if it were a point of law. I will have an urn and billiard-balls brought round, and you shall vote for or against my marriage; the secrecy of the ballot shall be scrupulously observed."
Deep silence prevailed all at once. Then the notary declined to act.
"There is a contract to draw up," he alleged.
Wine had had a quieting effect on my guardian; indeed, it clearly behooved me to find a guardian for him if he was to reach his home in safety.
"I see how it is!" I said to myself. "A man who does not give me an opinion is telling me pretty forcibly what I ought to do."
There was a general movement round the table. A landowner, who had subscribed to a fund for putting a headstone to General Foy's grave and providing for his family, exclaimed
"'Even, as virtue, crime hath its degrees.'"
"The babbler," said the Minister in a low voice, as he nudged my elbow.
"Where is the difficulty?" asked a duke, whose property consisted of lands confiscated from Protestants after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
The advocate rose to his feet.
"In law," opined the mouthpiece of Justice, "the case before us presents no difficulty whatever. Monsieur le Duc is right! Is there not a statute of limitations? Begin to inquire into the origins of a fortune, and where should we all of us be? This is a matter of conscience, and not of law. If you must drag the case before some tribunal, the confessional is the proper place in which to hear it."
And the Code incarnate, having said his say, sat down and drank a glass of champagne. The man intrusted with the interpretation of the Gospel, the good priest, spoke next.
"God has made us weak," he said with decision. "If you love the criminal's heiress, marry her; but content yourself with her mother's property, and give her father's money to the poor."
"Why, in all likelihood the father only made a great match because he had made money first," cried one of the pitiless quibblers that you meet with everywhere. "And it is just the same with every little bit of good fortune it all came of his crime!"
"The fact that the matter can be discussed is enough to decide it! There are some things which a man cannot weigh and ponder," cried my guardian, thinking to enlighten the assembly by this piece of drunken gravity.
"True!" said the secretary to the Embassy.
"True!" exclaimed the priest, each meaning quite differently.
A doctrinaire, who escaped being elected by a bare hundred and fifty votes out of a hundred and fifty-five, rose next.
"Gentlemen," said he, "this phenomenal manifestation of the intellectual nature is one of the most strongly marked instances of an exception to the normal condition of things, the rules which society obeys. The decision, therefore, on an abnormal case should be an extemporaneous effort of the conscience, a sudden conception, a delicate discrimination of the inner consciousness, not unlike the flashes of insight that constitute perception in matters of taste. . . . Let us put it to the vote."
"Yes, let us put it to the vote," cried the rest of the party
Each was provided with two billiard-balls one white, the other red. White, the color of virginity, was to proscribe marriage; red to count in favor of it. My scruples prevented me from voting. My friends being seventeen in number, nine made a decisive majority. We grew excited and curious as each dropped his ball into the narrow mouthed wicker basket, which holds the numbered balls when players draw for their places at pool, for there was a certain novelty in this process of voting by ballot on a nice point of conduct. When the basket was turned out there were nine white balls. To me this did not come as a surprise; but it occurred to me to count up the young men of my own age among this Court of Appeal. There were exactly nine of these casuists; one thought had been in all their minds.
"Aha!" I said to myself, "there was a unanimous feeling against the marriage in their minds, and a no less unanimous verdict in favor of it among the rest! Here is a fix, and how am I to get out of it?"
"Where does the father-in-law live?" one of my school fellows, less crafty than the rest, asked carelessly.
"There is no longer a father-in-law in the case!" I exclaimed. "A while ago my conscience spoke sufficiently plainly to make your verdict superfluous. And if it speaks more uncertainly to-day, here are the inducements that led me to waver. Here is the tempter this letter that I received two months ago; and I drew a card from my pocketbook and held it up.
"On behalf of," and so forth.
"What am I to do now?" I continued. "I will just put the question roughly before you. There is unquestionably a pool of blood on Mlle. Taillefer's estates. Her father's property is one vast Aceldama . . . . Granted! But, then, Prosper Magnan has no representatives, and I could not find any traces of the family of the pin-maker who was murdered that night at Andernach. To whom should the fortune be returned? And ought it all to be returned? Have I any right to betray a secret discovered by accident, to add a severed human head to an innocent girl's marriage portion, to give her ugly dreams, to destroy her pleasant illusions, to kill the father she loved a second time, by telling her that there is a dark stain on all her wealth?
"I have borrowed a 'Dictionary of Cases of Conscience' from an old ecclesiastic, and found therein no solution whatever of my doubts. Can you make a religious foundation for the souls of Prosper Magnan and Walhenfer and Taillefer now midway through this nineteenth century of ours? And as for endowing a charitable institution or awarding periodic prizes to virtue most of our charitable institutions appear to me to be harboring scoundrels, and the prize of virtue would fall to the greatest rogues.
"And not only so. Would these investments, more or less gratifying to vanity, be any reparation? And is it my place to make any? Then I am in love, passionately in love. My love has come to be my life. If, without any apparent reason, I propose that a young girl, accustomed to splendor and elegance, and a life abundant in all the luxuries art can devise, a girl who indolently enjoys Rossini's music at the Bouffons if to her I should propose that she should rob herself of fifteen hundred thousand francs for the benefit of aged imbeciles and problematical scrofula patients, she would laugh and turn her back upon me, or her confidante would take me for a wag who makes jokes in poor taste. If in an ecstasy of love I extol the charms of humble life in a cottage by the Loire, if I ask her to give up, for my sake, her life in Paris, it would be a virtuous lie to begin with, and probably would end in a sad experience for me, for I should lose the girl's heart; she is passionately fond of dancing and of pretty dresses, and, for the time being, of me. Enter some smart stripling of an officer with a nicely curled mustache, who shall play the piano, rave about Byron, and mount a horse gracefully, and I shall be supplanted. What is to be done? Gentlemen, advise me, for pity's sake?"
Then one of the party, who hitherto had not breathed a word, the Englishman with a Puritanical cast of face, not unlike the father of Jeanie Deans, shrugged his shoulders.
"Idiot that you were," he said. "What made you ask him if he came from Beauvais?"
PARIS, May, 1831.