The Project Gutenberg eBook of The kiss to the leper, by François Mauriac
Title: The kiss to the leper
Author: François Mauriac
Translator: James Whitall
Release Date: November 29, 2022 [eBook #69443]
Produced by: Laura Natal Rodrigues (Images generously made available by Hathi Trust Digital Library.)
FRANÇOIS MAURIAC published his first book in 1909. It is a collection of poems, and bears the title, Les Mains Jointes. Mauriac was then twenty-one years old, and the little volume drew forth enthusiastic praise from Maurice Barrès in L'Echo de Paris. The following year brought his second book of verse, L'Adieu à l'Adolescence; and in 1913 and 1914 his first two novels appeared, L'Enfant chargé de Chaînes and La Robe Prétexte. Soon after the war he had two more novels, La Chair et le Sang and Préséances, to his credit, and in 1922 M. Grasset published Le Baiser au Lépreux in his Cahiers Verts, that interesting series of little books which includes Hémon's Maria Chapdelaine and the French versions of Logan Pearsall Smith's Trivia and George Moore's Memoirs of My Dead Life.
Le Baiser au Lépreux achieved an immediate success, the French press being almost unanimous in its declaration that a masterpiece had been written; and Mauriac was at once accorded a place with Giraudoux, Larbaud, and Morand in the first rank of his generation.
In the wide sense, Le Baiser au Lépreux is not a masterpiece; its appeal is to a restricted public, for the theme of the story is a problem which the ordinary reader does not as a rule care to think about. The situations are often unpleasant, sometimes even repellent, but Mauriac's searching and relentless analysis of the minds of his characters has resulted in a fine piece of writing. Simplicity of language, depth of thought, and acuteness of observation are its distinguishing qualities; less skilful hands would have made little of a theme which required to be treated with the greatest reticence, but Mauriac's method is one of extreme economy and non-insistence; and, being himself a product of that bleak arid country of heather and pines, he has been able to give his tragic picture an authentic background.
Mauriac is an earnest Catholic, and he is convinced that Christianity presents extraordinary opportunities to novelists, because of the moral conflicts it creates. In this story, the flavour of which I have attempted to preserve in the version that follows, he has stated a problem and solved it in the only way possible for his characters, and the moral conflict arises out of the instinctive, unimaginative religion of his heroine. A less simple girl might have conquered physical repulsion, and, through vanity, have played the rôle of good fairy. The story exists because she is physically incapable of embracing the leper, and enough of a saint to renounce the fruits of his sacrifice.
JEAN PELOUEYRE was lying on his bed. He opened his eyes and listened for a moment to the buzzing of the grasshoppers outside. The sun was pouring in through the blinds like some bright, hot metal, and he stood up swallowing the bitterness in his mouth. He was so short that he could see his wretched face in the low mirror between the windows: hollow cheeks, a long red nose that looked as though it had been worn away to a point like a well-sucked stick of barley-sugar, a sharp angle of close-cut hair pointing down over a wrinkled forehead. He made a face at the reflection and saw two rows of decayed teeth. He had never so hated himself, but a few pitying words escaped his lips: "Out for a walk, you poor devil," and his hand went to his ill-shaven chin. But how was he to get out without waking his father? Between one and four, M. Jêrome Péloueyre imposed complete silence upon the house, and these hours of repose kept him from dying of nightly insomnia. The house was numbed; no door could be shut or opened, not a word or a sneeze could break the silence to which, by ten years of complaints and entreaties, he had trained Jean and the servants. Even the people in the street lowered their voices as they passed beneath his windows, and carriages drove a block out of their way to avoid rattling past his door.
In spite of this conspiracy surrounding him, M. Jêrome, half awake, was conscious of a clatter of plates, a bark and a cough. Did he think that complete silence would procure him a death-like repose, flowing smoothly and inevitably like a river to the ocean? His awakenings were always unpleasant and he would go down shivering, even in the middle of summer, to read in a chair by the kitchen fire. Its flames were reflected upon his bald head, and Cadette, busy over her sauces, paid no more attention to her master than to the hams hanging from the rafters. He, on the contrary, watched the old peasant, full of wonder that she could have been born in the reign of Louis Philippe, to live through wars and revolutions, so much history, and yet have nothing in her head but the pig she annually fattened, whose death at each Christmas moistened with sparse tears her old and bleary eyes.
In spite of his father's siesta, Jean Péloueyre was unable to resist the call of the intense heat outside; there would be nobody about, and he could follow the thin line of shade in front of the houses without fear of a burst of laughter from some woman sewing at an open door. Mirth always broke forth as he sneaked past, but at two o'clock all the women would be asleep, or at least lying on their beds perspiring and cursing the flies. He opened a well-oiled door silently and crossed the hall; a sweet damp smell came from the food cupboards, and the kitchen beyond added further burdens to the musty atmosphere. The soft patter of his slippers seemed to deepen the silence. From a rack, surmounted by a boar's head, he took down his 24-calibre; it was well known by all the magpies in the neighbourhood, for Jean was their sworn enemy. An umbrella stand bristled with the property of pail generations; his great uncle Ousilanne's gun-stick, his grandfather Lapeignine's fishing-rod and sword-stick, and other iron-shod implements that kept alive the memory of visits to Baguères de Bigorre. A stuffed heron stood upon a table near the outer door.
Jean slipped out into the street. The heat, like the sun-warmed water in a fishpond, opened and closed in again upon him, and he thought he would visit a grove of alders where the stream that flowed through the village loitered for a moment, breathing up the coolness of its source. Mosquitoes, however, had bothered him the last time he had gone there, and feeling in the mood for talking to someone, he set out for Doctor Pieuchon's house. The doctor's son Robert, a medical student, had come home for his holiday that morning.
The streets were empty and silent—not a sign of life, save when a ray of sunlight struck through half-opened shutters and shone upon an old woman's spectacles. Jean was walking now between high garden walls; he loved this little passage because there no hidden eyes could see him, and he could meditate to his heart's content. These meditations of his were accompanied by frowns, gestures, laughter, and recitations—a pantomime that never failed to amuse those who witnessed it. But here, the walls and the branches of the trees offered a pleasant protection. Still, he would certainly prefer the tangled confusion of the streets in a great city, where one could talk to oneself without fear of meeting again the people one passed. At all events, that was what Daniel Trasis wrote him from Paris. Daniel, against the will of his family, had launched into literature, and Jean imagined his thickset figure plunging into the Parisian whirlpool, and disappearing from view like a diver. But he had no doubt learned to swim now and was struggling breathlessly towards some definite aims: Fame, Fortune, Love; fruits of which Jean Péloueyre would never be able to partake.
With soft footsteps he entered the Pieuchons' house. The servant told him that the doctor and his son were lunching out, but he decided to wait and went into his friend's bedroom, which opened on to the hall. It was the sort of room that discouraged one from wanting to know its occupant: a pipe-rack and some posters of a students' ball on the walls; and on the table, a death's-head made ridiculous by a short pipe stuck between its teeth, and a pile of books for holiday reading: Aphrodite, l'Orgie Latine, Le Jardin des Supplices, Le Journal d'une Femme de Chambre. A book of selections from Nietzsche claimed Jean's attention, and he looked at a page here and there. The smell of a student's summer clothes came to his nostrils from an open trunk as his eyes fell upon this passage: "What is good? Everything that increases the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man. What is bad? All that proceeds from weakness. The weak must perish, and we shall help them to perish. What is more harmful than any vice? Pity for the weak and helpless—Christianity."
Jean put the book down; and the phrases he had just read ran burning through his mind like the burning afternoon sun that pours into a room when the shutters are opened. Instinctively he went to the window and allowed the scorching light to flow in; then he picked up the book and re-read the appalling passage. He closed his eyes, opened them, and looked at himself in the mirror: a poor, wretched, little, mouse-like face, a miserable body with which adolescence had been unable to work its customary miracle; a pitiable victim for the sacred well of Sparta. His thoughts went back to the time he had spent with the nuns when he was five years old; in spite of the prestige of the Péloueyres, the attractive children were always placed above him. He remembered a competition in reading in which he had read his composition far better than the others, but was placed all the same at the bottom of the class.
Sometimes Jean wondered whether his mother, who had died of consumption when he was very young, would have loved him. M. Jêrome was devoted to this suffering projection of himself; Jean seemed to him like his own tenuous shadow, following his slippered tread through life or waiting at his side when he lay upon his bed, enveloped by the smell of valerian and ether. M. Jêrome's eldest sister might have loathed her nephew were it not that her adoration for her son, Fernand Cazenave (with whom she lived at B——, and who was president of the Town Council) almost prevented her from noticing him. She was scarcely aware of the existence of anyone but her son. From time to time, however, she drew Jean into her consciousness with a word or a smile, for she calculated that this son of a delicate father, this poor wretch defined to celibacy and a premature death, would contribute in some part to Fernand's acquisition of the Péloueyre fortune. Jean looked back over the desert of his life; his three years at school had been a succession of carefully concealed friendships. Neither Daniel Trasis nor the priest who taught him rhetoric had ever understood the hopeless beseeching expression in his eyes.
Jean opened the Nietzsche book at another page and devoured Aphorism 260 from "Beyond Good and Evil" which refers to master-morality and slave-morality. He looked at his face in the mirror again; it would always be yellow in spite of his efforts to acquire a coat of sunburn. He repeated Nietzsche's words over and over again, saturated himself with their meaning until it rushed through his thoughts like an October gale. For a moment his faith seemed shattered, lying at his feet like an uprooted oak tree. But no, no; the tree was still upright; its countless roots had saved it, and, after the storm was spent, Jean felt within him the mysterious calm that he loved—the thick foliage once more hung motionless. He was suddenly conscious of the fact that religion was, for him, before all else, a refuge. It had saved him from his own wretched thoughts through many a sleepless night. Hovering above the altar was Someone who filled the gap left by the friends he had never had, and the Virgin received the devotion that would have gone to his mother. His confidences, never uttered to a fellow being, were poured into the confessional, or they went into silent prayers towards evening in the shadowy coolness of the church. At times like these his heart opened to the pale figures of his imagination that thronged about him. If he had had Daniel's curly hair—his friend had been from birth the object of feminine caresses—would he too have had a following of spinsters and maid-servants? He was one of the class denounced by Nietzsche; he knew that with his abject appearance he was inevitably sentenced to slavery; his personality was made for failure and defeat. His father was like that, after all; very devout too, but better versed in theology than Jean, and lately become a patient reader of Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas. Jean, who cared little for doctrine and professed a religion of ecstasy, approved of his father's for its rational quality. He remembered his father's pet phrase: "Without Faith what would have happened to me?" This Faith, however, did not permit him to hear mass at the risk of catching a cold, and at Festivals he was installed, muffled to the eyes, in the overheated sacristy, so that he could follow the ceremony.
Jean went out and passed again between the high walls under the protecting foliage of the trees; he gesticulated as he went, and for a moment he pretended that he had lost his belief, that its support had suddenly been withdrawn. Nothing remained, nothing! School-day memories came to his lips: Mon malheur passe mon espérance.... Oui, je te loue, O Ciel, de ta persévérance. A little farther on, he addressed himself to the trees, the walls, and the piles of pebbles, protesting that Masters could exist among Christians, and that the Saints, the great Orders, in fact, the whole Church, offered a splendid example of the Will to Power.
The sound of his own footsteps in the hall brought Jean back to earth and cleared his mind of agitating thoughts; on the first floor his arrival occasioned a groaning complaint, and a sleepy voice called out pitifully for Cadette. There followed rapidly a shuffling noise in the kitchen, the barking of a dog, and the sound of shutters being opened. The awakening of M. Jêrome lifted the bonds of silence; for him it was a period of puffy eyes and a bad-tasting mouth, and life seemed at its blackest. Jean took refuge in the drawing-room with its cellar-like atmosphere, its mouldy torn paper that revealed the powdery walls, and a clock that chimed the passing hours where no one could hear it. He sank into a soft armchair and gave way to the anguish of an unsettled faith. A fly buzzed for a moment and then settled. A cock crowed,—then a bird trilled its brief song, and another cock crowed. The clock struck the half hour,—another cock, then others.... He slept until the time when he usually set forth through a roundabout series of little alleys to the smallest door of the church, and glided in amongst the scented shadows. Would he continue to keep this rendezvous,—the only one that had ever been given him?
He went out into the garden to find the sun sinking towards the horizon; the heat would soon be bearable. White butterflies hovered low over the flowers, and Cadette's grandson was watering the lettuces in the kitchen garden,—a fine-looking lad with wooden shoes on his bare feet. He was adored by all the girls, and Jean always avoided him, ashamed of the fact that he was the master and this young god of a gardener the slave. Jean hadn't the courage to smile at him even from across the garden; he was frightened almost to the point of paralysis when in the company of peasants. He had tried many a time to help the priest with his work among them, but always failed miserably and returned to his solitude, overcome by shame at the peals of laughter he evoked.
In the meantime M. Jêrome was strolling up and down the little avenue of pyramid-shaped pear trees; heliotrope, mignonette, and geraniums bloomed under them, but their perfumes were lost in the overpowering breath of an enormous blossoming lime tree. M. Jêrome shuffled his feet. The ends of his trousers were tucked into his slippers and he wore a shapeless straw hat with a ribbon round it. Hanging from his shoulders was an old knitted cloak that had once belonged to his sister. Jean saw that he was carrying a volume of Montaigne. Doubtless The Essays, like his religion, provided subterfuges enabling him to dignify his evasion of the problems of life with the name of wisdom. Yes, thought Jean, it was quite true that his poor father believed the stupendous failure of his existence to be stoicism or Christian resignation. How clearly Jean felt he saw these things. At this moment he loved and pitied his father, but his usual feeling for him was one of scorn.
The sick man complained of twinges in his neck, suffocation, and a desire to vomit. One of his farmers, Duberne d'Hourtinat, had forced his way in and wanted M. Jêrome to enlarge his cottage so that it would house his married daughter's effects. Where could he suffer to his heart's content? Why couldn't he be allowed to die in peace? And, to cap the climax, to-morrow was Thursday; the market would be held in the square and the house would be invaded by his sister Félicité Cazenave and her son. He would be awakened at dawn by the cattle in the square, and the roaring of the Cazenave motor at his door would announce the advent of this weekly plague. Félicité would force her way into the kitchen to trouble her brother's clock-like arrangement with the needs of her son, and when evening at last came, the couple would take themselves off, leaving Cadette in tears and her master speechless.
M. Jêrome kept his malice alive secretly; in the presence of the enemy it was a weak and cringing thing. He had so often mumbled about having his revenge upon the Cazenaves that Jean paid no attention this time when his father said: "We'll get the best of them, Jean, if only you'll help. Will you?" Jean, a thousand miles away from the Cazenaves and their affairs, smiled vaguely. His father watched him and continued: "At your age you ought to be more of a flirt; 'pon my word, you are badly turned out." This was the first evidence of care on the part of his father for Jean's appearance, but the boy made no comment and was far from imagining what the next turning in his career might be. He took the Montaigne from his father's hands and read this phrase: "To my mind life should be dull, silent, and unruffled...." How exactly like this their life was!
Father and son stopped to look at the garden tank; a puff of wind ruffled its surface where a dead mole was being nibbled at by tadpoles. M. Jêrome imagined the damp evening air was bad for him, and he shuffled off towards the house, leaving his son to idle in the garden. At the bottom, a door leading into an alley stood half open. Jean poked his head out, and Cadette's grandson who was holding one of the village girls pressed tightly against him dropped her like a piece of fruit.
JEAN scarcely closed his eyes that night; his windows were open and the croaking of the frogs made the darkness far more clamorous than daylight. The cocks crowed incessantly, and their mistaken salutations of the milky light that came down from the stars caused their voices to grow fainter and fainter with fatigue as daybreak approached. The cocks in the village sent out the call, and the reply came back from the neighbouring farms one after another: A cry repeated by a thousand sentinels.... Jean lay awake, vaguely muttering this line. The windows framed squares of deep blue, choked with stars. He got up and stood with bare feet looking out at them; he called them by their names; but the problem that had arisen the day before still gently agitated his mind. Had he dealt with it metaphysically, or by a carefully worked out system of self-consolation? Certainly those of the Masters who believed were the rulers of their class. But did Chateaubriand ever hesitate to risk his chances of salvation for a caress? And how many times did Barbey d'Aurevilly betray the Son of Man for a kiss? Were not their triumphs measured by the extent to which they betrayed God?
After daybreak the outrageous squealing of some little pigs kept Jean awake; he closed the shutters in order that no one might look in upon him. On the pavement just outside, Madame Bourideys, who kept a haberdashery shop, stopped Noémi d'Artiailh to ask her whether she had breakfasted. From behind the shutters Jean gazed greedily at Noémi; she was seventeen; her head, with its brown ringlets like an angel by a Spanish painter, seemed unsuited to such a compact body. But Jean loved the contrast between her firm, rather badly proportioned figure and her seraphic features which made all the ladies call her "as pretty as a picture." A shade too thickset for a Raphael Madonna, she awakened both the best and the worst in Jean; she induced high thoughts and incited low gratifications. There was a sheen upon her throat and breast, and shadowy lashes intensified the modesty of long dark eyelids. A vague look of childish purity still hovered about her features. Then came her surprisingly strong boyish hands, and the calves of her legs that, had they not been pressed into laced boots, would have gone straight down to her heels.
Jean Péloueyre watched his angel slyly; Cadette's grandson could look at her openly whenever he liked; handsome boys, even of the peasant class, had the right to look at any girl that pleased them. Jean hardly dared to breathe in the puffs of air that blew across his face when her muslin dress brushed his chair in church; a delicious odour of soap and fresh linen. He sighed as he put on yesterday's shirt (it was also the day before yesterday's); his body wasn't worth wasting any time over. He used a minute jug of water and a tiny basin so that he could shut the lid of the stand without breaking them. He went into the garden to sit under the lime tree, and instead of saying his prayers he read a newspaper in order to hide his face from Cadette's grandson. The brute was whistling gaily, there was a red carnation behind his ear, and his blue trousers were belted in tightly at his waist. He had the radiance and robustness of a young cock, and Jean hated him and detested himself for his hatred. There was no consolation in the knowledge that this boy would soon turn into a gross peasant, for another just like him would then be watering the lettuces, just as there would be other white butterflies like those now fluttering in the sunlight. "Oh, God," Jean said to himself, "my thoughts this morning are even uglier than my face!"
From the house came the flute-like voice of the priest. What intrigue had brought him at this hour of the morning? It wasn't the time for his daily visit, and in any case how dared he risk an encounter with Fernand Cazenave who was always furious at the sight of a priest? From behind the lime tree Jean watched Fernand taking his customary five minutes' constitutional before meals. His mother followed, gasping for breath: a rotund bust supporting a majestic head; a stupendous machine of a body, awkward from long use, but obedient to the wishes of the adored son. It was as though he had set it in motion simply by pressing a button. The Councillor waited for its approach; he wiped his dripping forehead and the leather band in his straw hat. He was perspiring horribly under his alpaca coat, and a frown wrinkled his colourless face from which two steely eyes gazed ignorantly upon the world. It was his mother's custom to clear his way through life for him, and she treated people like branches obstructing his path. She was reputed to have said: "If Fernand marries, my daughter-in-law will die." But no daughter-in-law cared to take the chance; would any young woman have undertaken to look after a man of settled habits, over fifty, and still accustomed to the attentions of a nurse? The Angelus rang out and vibrated in the blazing atmosphere. Jean heard the councillor muttering: "Blast those bells!"
Jean's aunt and Fernand were already seated at table with their napkins about their necks when he slipped in silently and took his place. M. Jêrome was also late and sank into an attitude that suggested great timidity. But his eyes shone as he declared that the priest had detained him. Father and son sat, heads sunk between shoulders, waiting for the usual outburst; it came with the mutton. Fernand was helped first and, with fork in air, he interrogated the maternal countenance. Félicité tried a piece, put it back on her plate, and uttered a single word: "Overdone." The Cazenaves pushed away their plates simultaneously and Cadette emerged from the kitchen with a wailing defence of her handiwork—a useless uproar, for the Councillor proceeded to appease the clamourings of his stomach by devouring the overdone meat. More than satisfied, he asked to be forgiven for not having gone at once to greet his Uncle Péloueyre. He had seen an ecclesiastical hat in the vestibule and his uncle knew that the sight of a priest caused him physical horror. M. Jêrome addressed his son in a colourless voice, without raising his eyes from his plate: "He came to talk to me about you, Jean; does it surprise you that he wants you to get married?" Fernand remarked with a sneer that the priest must have been joking. "Why?" asked his uncle, "Jean is twenty-two!" Then Fernand broke out: What had this ecclesiastic got to do with it! By what right did he put his nose into their family affairs? But his whisper as to whether after all Jean could marry, drew a frantic signal of warning from his mother who felt that this was going too far. "It would be very nice for Jean to marry," she said, "this house needs a mistress. Oh, of course, young women have peculiar ideas, and no doubt Jêrome's mechanical existence would have to be somewhat changed." Fernand, cooled by his mother's reprimand, declared that Jean could of course found a family, but wouldn't he make himself miserable by so doing? The dear boy already had the habits and whims of an old bachelor. Aunt Félicité hinted that her brother would be well advised, in any such event, not to live with the young people. Naturally it would be a severe blow, and she spoke of the numerous occasions when Jean had been on the point of departing for school, his tickets taken, his box packed, and the cab at the door; at the last moment his father had always been unable to let him go.
Jean felt certain that this idea of marriage was all an invention of his father for the annoyance of the Cazenaves, but he experienced a vague uneasiness; he remembered those October evenings and the old-fashioned landau that should have carried him across the Bazadais to the pious establishment where the children of Les Landes dream of playtime over their dictionaries. His trunk, the former property of a great-uncle, still retained some of its flowered paper lining. M. Jêrome had wept on those occasions, pretending that a stroke was imminent; always a coward when it came to the distressful moment of separation. It was in all probability after the last of these frustrated departures that the poor man had laid down rules for his hours of silence, destined always to be troubled by the suffering presence of his little son. And so it was that Jean studied with the priest till he was fifteen, and only went to school in order to matriculate.
What could be the meaning of this sudden madness to marry him off? Jean remembered his father's strange talk the day before, in the garden; but there had been nothing in it to worry about. His cousin's question as to whether he was capable of marriage kept running through his head. It was stupid of the Cazenaves to take the joke seriously. And now he heard them demanding to know the name of the young woman who had been chosen for him. M. Jêrome's siesta, however, relieved him of the necessity of replying, and the Cazenaves wandered out into the garden in spite of the scorching heat; Jean watched them in conference.
M. Jêrome was awakened by the noise of their departure and as soon as Jean heard the shuffling of slippers he penetrated the drug-laden atmosphere of his father's room. In this place which smelt for all the world like a laboratory, Jean learned that he was, in absolute seriousness, to be given a wife, Noémi d'Artiailh. He saw his body in the mirror, as dry and shrivelled as a piece of scorched heather on the heath, and he stuttered out: "She won't have me!" The astonishing reply caused him to tremble: "She's been sounded and is quite willing." The d'Artiailhs were in the seventh heaven, and could scarcely believe their good fortune. But Jean shook his head, and with outstretched hands seemed to be warding off what surely was a delusion: a young girl in his arms, and of her own free will. Noémi, who walked past him at High Mass; Noémi, into whose dark, flower-like eyes he had never permitted himself to gaze! When the air stirred by her passage down the nave of the church caressed his cheek, it was the nearest thing to a kiss he had ever known. Meanwhile, his father declared himself to be of the same mind as the priest. The Péloueyres were to found a family, so that nothing might go to Aunt Félicité or Fernand Cazenave, and M. Jêrome added: "You know, Jean, when the priest wants something he is generally in dead earned about it." Jean smiled a wry smile, and his lips trembled as he said, "I would disgust her." His father did not think of protecting; he himself had never been loved, and it never occurred to him that his son could know such happiness, so he complacently enumerated the virtues of Noémi, upon whom the priest's choice had fallen—she was a splendid example to the parish. She belonged to a family who never looked for physical enjoyment in married life. She would be a dutiful wife, obedient to God and her husband, one of those mothers who are still to be found, whose ignorance in spite of innumerable confinements remains unenlightened. M. Jêrome gave a nervous little cough, and in a softer voice he said: "Once you are married, and thus protected from the Cazenaves, I can die in peace."
The priest wanted to avoid all delay, and Jean would be able to see Noémi the next day. She would be waiting for him after lunch at the presbytery, and Mme. d'Artiailh would find an excuse for leaving them alone together. M. Jêrome began to speak rapidly, in order to combat Jean's refusal. The prospect of a discussion unnerved him slightly, and made his fingers tremble. Jean was speechless with terror, and filled with shame at finding himself in such a state. Had not the moment come for him to shake off his slavery and become a Master? This was his chance to break the chains that held him back from manhood! A vague gesture of consent escaped him, and his father's nervous discourse came to an end. Afterwards, when thinking of this moment in which his fate had been settled, he admitted to himself that the deciding factor had been those ten half-understood pages of Nietzsche. He made his escape now, leaving M. Jêrome mystified at an easy victory, and burning to carry the good news to the priest.
By the time Jean reached the bottom of the stairs he was getting used to the extraordinary thing that had happened to him. He experienced ever so slightly the feeling that he was no longer quite chaste; it became clear that the days of his purity were numbered, and he looked steadfastly into the dark eyes of an image, boldly evoked. Ah! He could have fainted! Then a desire to bathe himself caused him to summon Cadette, for, as is generally the case in that Gironde country, the Péloueyre bath was full of potatoes.
After dinner Jean walked out into the village. He was careful not to wave his arms about or talk to himself. At several doorways he bowed stiffly to groups of people, silenced like frogs in a pool by his approach, and there were no bursts of laughter after he had passed by. Soon the last house was behind him, and the road stretched away between two black armies of pine trees, a faint grey ribbon in the fading light. The trees breathed softly upon him, and thousands of sprouting needles scented the woodland cathedral like censers. He could laugh now, shake his shoulders, snap his fingers and shout, "I'm a Master, a Master, a Master!" and repeat this distich, pausing at the cesuras: Par quels secrets ressorts—par quel enchaînement—le ciel a-t-il conduit—ce grand événement?
JEAN was afraid that the talk would lag, and the fear of silence caused the priest and Mme. d'Artiailh to squander thoughtlessly and rapidly all possible topics of conversation. Soon there would be no more to say. Noémi's dress overflowed her chair, as a magnolia flower its vase, and the perfume of her young body, like that of some heavy-scented flower that one removes from one's room at night, filled the little parlour whose walls were covered with religious pictures. Noémi had at last descended from her pedestal, and Jean darted furtive glances at her. It seemed to him that he had her under a magnifying glass, and he searched eagerly for faults, for "defects" in this humanly vibrating metal: at either side of her nose there were little black dots; at the base of her neck the skin must have been burnt by stale tincture of iodine. A fleeting smile at something the priest was saying gave Jean a glimpse of the white shining line of teeth, and he noticed one dull one that looked questionable. His scrutiny of her prevented the big dark eyes from being raised to meet his—perhaps this was his way of warding off her examination of himself. What a mercy that the priest could sermonize without assistance from anyone. In spite of his little round body, there was nothing jovial about him; his corpulence could not mask his austerity, and thus he was popular with the town people, but misunderstood by the farmers. Several of the former had, with his help, reached a high state of holiness. As often happens, he attained to power by meekness. He was always pleasant and apologetic, but his will could not be withstood. He kept the prettiest girls of the town from going to the Sunday dance, and he stood sanctimoniously in the way of the young men's love affairs. And no one knew that it was he who, at the eleventh hour, had kept the postmistress from adultery. He had now made up his mind that it was bad for Jean to remain single, and he was especially anxious that the house of Péloueyre should not become one day the house of Cazenave, that the wolf should not hide in the fold.
Jean had never noticed how deeply women breathed; Noémi's breast almost touched her chin when she drew in her breath. Without further efforts to make conversation, the priest got up, saying that these young people would perhaps like to be left to themselves, and he begged Madame d'Artiailh to accompany him into the garden; his greengages were doing wonderfully.
Now, as though in preparation for an experiment in entomology, there were in the shadowy room only this little black frightened male and the resplendent female. Jean neither moved nor raised his eyes; he couldn't now, for she was watching him. The girl looked at this larva that was her fate, while the youth she had dreamed of, that all girls dream of—he whose strong arms and firm flesh they conjure up through sleepless nights—faded into the obscurity of the priest's parlour, melted away until there was only Jean cringing in his dark corner like a frightened cricket. She saw her fate, and knew that she could not avoid it. The son of the Péloueyres could not be refused. Noémi's parents might have feared that Jean would slip through their fingers, but they dreamed less of their daughter objecting than she did herself. For a quarter of an hour the centre of her future existence had been sitting on the edge of a chair, squirming and biting his nails. He stood up, looking shorter standing than when sitting, and stammered out a phrase that had to be repeated before it was intelligible to Noémi: "I know I'm not worthy to..." She protested, "Oh, Monsieur!" But Jean plunged into an orgy of humility. He knew no one could love him, and only asked to be allowed to love. Words and phrases poured logically from his lips. For twenty-three years he had been waiting for the chance to open his heart to a woman. His eloquence and his gesticulating showed that he felt there was no one but himself who could set forth the beauty of his soul, and in this as a matter of fact he was right. Noémi looked at the door. She wasn't surprised, for she had heard a great deal about Jean Péloueyre. People had told her of his peculiarities; "a bit cracked" was the general opinion.
The door remained closed and Jean talked on and on; the room seemed full of him and his gestures, and Noémi became uncomfortably conscious of a desire to cry. At last he came to an end, and she was frightened as though imprisoned in a room that contained a hidden bat. When Madame d'Artiailh and the priest came back she flung her arms about her mother's neck without dreaming that such a gesture might be taken for acquiescence. The priest and Jean touched cheeks, and the two ladies walked out of the presbytery alone, so as not to awaken the curiosity of the neighbours. Through a crack in the shutters, perhaps Jean saw Noémi's slightly rumpled dress glide past after Madame d'Artiailh's slim mincing figure; the magnolia flower had wilted almost imperceptibly, seemed less alive. It had already been cut.
Most of Jean's time was spent in cringing concealment; his one great concern was to avoid being seen, and for several days now he was confused and stupefied by the unavoidable fluttering and commotion around him. Fate had drawn him out of obscurity, and Nietzsche's words, like some magical incantation, had turned his world upside down. He was like a little night-bird, stranded in daylight, its eyes blinking and its head sunk between its wings. The people about him had changed too: M. Jêrome's régime went to pieces—he often cut short his siesta now, in order to accompany the priest back to the presbytery. The Cazenaves' Thursday visits came to an end, but they made known their existence by circulating infamous stories about Jean's personality and certain of his peculiarities which, it was said, rendered him unfit for matrimony.
In his excessive humility, Jean wondered how it was that the d'Artiailhs could be envied on his account; everyone was saying that Noémi well deserved the happiness that was in store for her. The ancient house of d'Artiailh was on the rocks; M. d'Artiailh, having been fleeced in several financial enterprises, was now an industrious and unashamed employé at the Town Hall, and it was common knowledge that they had had to dispense with the services of their servant.
Jean looked at himself in his mirror, and concluded that he was not hideous. The priest was spreading his opinion abroad that, though young Péloueyre was not much to look at, he was at least very intelligent; and every evening Noémi's respectful silence before Jean's eloquence from the couch in the drawing-room inclined him to agree with the priest that serious young women appreciated the intellectual accomplishments of their fiancés. Speaking to her now, he dropped into his old habit of making faces and gestures and reciting verses without warning, and Noémi, though pushing herself farther and farther towards the other end of the couch, seemed to him as lenient to his outpourings as the trees along the empty road had been. He shared his inmost thoughts with her now, even to a discussion of this Nietzsche, who would perhaps cause a complete readjustment of his life. Noémi wiped the perspiration from her hands with a tiny handkerchief, and her eyes never left the door leading to the room where her parents were conversing in tones fortunately low enough to prevent her from understanding anything. M. d'Artiailh was uneasy at what people were saying about his future son-in-law. He had been robbed and cheated throughout his life, and was certain now that, behind what seemed to be a turn in his fortunes, a disaster was lurking. His wife assured him, however, that the only foundations for the slanderous gossip were the ill-will of the Cazenaves, and Jean's avoidance of women for religious reasons or out of shyness.
Eleven o'clock chimed in the moonlight, and Madame d'Artiailh entered without a cough, or a knock, or any hope of surprising the young people in a compromising attitude. She excused herself for disturbing the "turtledoves," and made a pointed reference to the curfew. Jean touched Noémi's hair with his lips, and took his leave. He strode down the silent street, followed by his shadow. His firm step stirred the watch-dogs from their sleep, and the moonlight kept them noisily awake. It was strange that he no longer felt agitated in Noémi's presence. Before, at High Mass, when she had glided past him in her carefully ironed frock, it had been otherwise. He shook his head to rid himself of the thought of that approaching night in September when she would be his. Of course, that night would never come; war would break out, someone would die, or an earthquake....
Noémi looked out at the stars while she said her prayers. She was in a long chemise, and the tiled floor felt pleasantly cool under her bare feet. The soothing breath of the night caressed her white throat, and a tear ran down over her face into her mouth. The leaves of the scented lime-tree trembled against the Milky Way, and Noémi bade farewell to the dreams in which she had wandered along this lane of silver in the sky. The crickets chirping in the grass reminded her of her master. One hot airless night as she lay uncovered upon her sheets, she sobbed quietly and then wept aloud as she gazed with pitying eyes at her unsullied body, full of ardent life, but cool with the coolness of forest leaves. What would the cricket do with her? She knew that she could forbid him nothing; not even that mysterious and terrible act after which a baby would be born—a wretched little black Péloueyre. The cricket would be with her for the rest of her life, even in her bed. Madame d'Artiailh—scalloped nightdress and scanty braid of hair—found her daughter in a flood of tears, and was told that the idea of marriage filled her with horror; she now wanted to be a Carmelite nun. Madame d'Artiailh held the girl in her arms until the sobbing was less violent; then she assured her that matters like this ought to be discussed with her spiritual director. Had not the priest himself chosen the path of matrimony for her?
Noémi was silent; how could she reply, pre-eminently fitted as she was to be a wife and a mother, and full of piety and tenderness? She never read novels; she waited upon her parents, obeyed them. She was told that a man did not have to be handsome, that marriage produced love just as surely as a peach tree bore peaches. But Noémi needed only to be reminded of the obvious truth of the phrase: The son of the Péloueyres is not to be refused, or the farms, or the flocks of sheep, or the family plate, or the linen of ten generations neatly piled in lofty scented cupboards, or a social standing unequalled in Les Landes. No, he could not be refused!
THERE was no earthquake, no omen in the sky, when that Tuesday dawned in September, and Jean had to be shaken out of a deep sleep. The flagstones in the hall were covered with box, laurel and magnolia, and the smell of the trampled leaves predominated. The bridesmaids stood about in whispering groups; they could not sit down for fear of rumpling their frocks. The reception room at the Cheval Rouge was festooned with paper chains, and the wedding breakfast was to come from B—— by the ten o'clock train. The streets were full of victorias bringing white-gloved guests to the feast; top hats gleamed in the sunlight, and swallow-tail coats filled the watching peasants with admiration.
M. Jêrome showed his true feelings by staying in bed; in this way he could face the weddings and funerals of his family, and when these momentous crises arrived, he swallowed a chloral cachet and drew his curtains. During his wife's last illness, he retired to a room at the top of the house, lay with his nose to the wall, and consented to open one eye only when he was certain that the last bit of earth had been shovelled on to the coffin, and the train had carried off the last guest. On the day of the wedding, when Jean, green and shrivelled in his dress coat, came to get his father's blessing, Cadette was not allowed to open the shutters.
It was a terrible day. All Jean's humiliation and shame came flooding back. In spite of the tumult of bells, his quick sportsman's ear missed none of the sympathetic undertones that were uttered in the crowded church, as the procession passed up the aisle. He heard a young man murmur: "What a pity!" Little girls, perched up on the backs of chairs, giggled when they saw him. When he faced the blazing altar, with the whispering crowd behind him, his legs weakened and he grasped the velvet praying-stool for support. He was conscious, without looking, of the trembling, mysterious body of a woman at his side,—the priest read on and on; if only he would never stop! But the sun that now sprinkled the old flagstones with golden confetti would set,—then, the night and its revelations.
The heat had spoiled the luncheon; one of the lobsters smelt horribly, and the bombe glacée had melted into a yellow cream. Instead of making their escape, flies allowed themselves to be crushed while feasting upon the cakes, and corpulent women suffered in their tight clothes, perspiring helplessly. Shouts of joy came from the children's table, but from no other. In his misery Jean watched the faces of Fernand Cazenave and one of Noémi's uncles; what were they whispering about? Like a deaf mute he guessed this phrase by the movement of their lips: "If they had only listened to us, this misfortune might have been avoided, but our position made it very difficult to interfere...."
THE bedroom in the Family Hotel at Arcachon was furnished in imitation bamboo; no curtain concealed the utensils under the wash-hand stand, and the wallpaper was soiled by crushed mosquitoes. Through the open window came a salt breeze from the harbour, smelling of fish and seaweed, and the purring of a motor-boat grew fainter and fainter as it neared the channel. Two guardian angels hid their ashamed faces in the folds of the cretonne curtains. When the numbed senses of the man at last awoke, he found beside him a woman still as lifeless as a corpse. At dawn a faint moan marked the end of the struggle. Jean lay motionless now, bathed in perspiration—the worm had finally abandoned the corpse.
She lay there like a sleeping martyr, her face thin and drawn like that of a beaten child, and her hair matted upon her brow as though she had been struggling with death. Her hands, crossed upon her breast, clutched a faded scapular and some blest medals. Someone should have kissed those white feet, lifted that young body without breaking the magic of sleep, borne it out to the open seas and surrendered it to the pure waves.
IN spite of a three weeks' excursion for which the couple had taken tickets, they returned unexpectedly to the Péloueyre house ten days after the wedding. Tongues began to wag, and the Cazenaves hastened, though it was not Thursday, to call and draw their own conclusions, but Noémi's face revealed nothing of her private thoughts. The d'Artiailhs and the priest did their best to stop the flow of gossip: the young people preferred the peaceful atmosphere of home to the hubbub of hotels and stations. After High Mass, Noémi, well dressed and smiling, greeted her friends. She laughed; therefore she was happy. Her attendance at daily mass, however, was strange. Some of the women noticed that she kept her face covered for a long time after Communion, and that it showed obvious signs of suffering when she removed her hands. From this they deduced that Noémi was pregnant. Aunt Félicité appeared one day to make a furtive estimate of the size of the young woman's waist, but Cadette was able to put her mind at rest and she refrained from further visits, being, as she said, unwilling to create the impression that she approved of this monstrous union contrived by priests. Her reappearance at her brother's house, however, occurred simultaneously with the first warnings of an unavoidable domestic drama.
To M. Jêrome's astonishment, his daughter-in-law cared for him with the devotion of a Sister of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul. At the appointed moments she administered his medicines, ordered meals in strict accordance with his diet, and with gentle firmness succeeded in producing absolute silence for his afternoon nap. Jean, following his former custom on such occasions, slipped out of the house and made his furtive way through little winding streets to the edge of a field of millet. From his hiding-place behind a pine tree he watched for magpies. If only he could have held back each passing minute; if only evening would never come again! But the shade thickened, and in the pines, twisted by equinoctial gales, there was a faint echo of the rolling surf upon the sands of Mimizan and Biscarosse. Little cabins of heather rose up out of a thick growth of ferns, from which the sportsmen of Les Landes shot ring-doves. The smell of rye-bread came from the farm, and as the sun sank from view, Jean brought down his last lark. He made his way back to the village with increasingly slower steps; only a few moments more and Noémi would be unpleasantly conscious of his presence in the house. He tip-toed across the hall, but she was waiting for him and came forward carrying a lamp and smiling a welcome. She bent her forehead for a kiss, and felt the weight of the game-bag: the gestures of a wife, happy at the return of her beloved. But the mask was discarded after a few moments, for it had not served its purpose, and during dinner, M. Jêrome took pity on the silent couple. Now that there was a young nurse under his roof to care for him, he no longer felt the need of elaborating his symptoms, but Noémi had also undertaken to interview his farmers, so the running of his estate formed a subject for conversation. M. Jêrome was amazed to find that she was the only person in the house who understood how to check the bailiff's figures and keep an eye on the sale of timber for pit-props, and he gave her the full credit for the four pounds' weight he had put on since his son's marriage.
When dinner was over, M. Jêrome dozed with his feet against the fire-dogs, leaving the two young people to face one another helplessly. Jean, sitting as far from the lamp as possible, tried to obscure himself—scarcely breathed. But he was unalterably there, and Cadette would certainly bring the candles at ten o'clock. Oh, that dreadful climbing of stairs!
A fine rain hissed upon the tiles, a shutter flapped, and a cart jolted down the street. Noémi knelt by the dreaded bed and prayed in a low voice: "Oh, God, I thank Thee for giving me the power to know and love Thee...." In the darkness, Jean was conscious that the adored body was drawing away from him, and he kept to his side of the bed. Sometimes Noémi, laying her hand upon his face—less hateful when she could not see it—felt hot tears upon his cheeks and, filled with remorseful sympathy, eyes closed and lips tight together, she clasped the wretched boy in her arms like a Christian Virgin in the arena who throws herself with sudden resignation into the jaws of death.
THE shooting of wood pigeons provided Jean with an excuse for spending his days away from her to whom his mere presence was a torture. He got up so quietly in the mornings that Noémi did not wake, and when she opened her eyes he had left the house and was driving in a little cart over the muddy roads. He unharnessed his horse at a farm, hid himself close to the hut, and whittled a signal, fearing lest some doves might already be in sight. Cadette's grandson replied that all was clear, and the waiting began. Long, mist-wrapped, dreaming hours: tinkling sheep-bells, shepherds calling faintly, rooks cawing in the tree-tops.
At four o'clock Jean started for home, but in order to arrive as late as possible he went for a moment into the church. His lips did not form any prayer, but his heart bled before a hidden presence. Tears came frequently, and it seemed to him that his head was resting upon invisible knees. Later, Jean threw his day's bag of slate-coloured birds upon the kitchen table, their crops still swollen with acorns. His boots smoked when he stretched them towards the fire, and the warm tongue of a dog touched his hand. Cadette was putting bread in the soup, and Jean followed her into the dining-room. Noémi spoke to him: "I didn't know you had come back...." Then—"Aren't you going to wash your hands?" The shutters of his room were still open, and in the rain-water in the ruts the reflection of a lantern glittered coldly. Jean washed his hands without cleaning his fingernails, and at first the edge of the dining table prevented Noémi from seeing them. He watched her furtively; how white her ears were!
Noémi's appetite had gone, and Jean insisted clumsily upon her taking a second helping of mutton: "But I tell you I'm not hungry!" A little smile of apology, or perhaps the pouting suggestion of a kiss calmed his brief impatience. Noémi looked at her husband with the eyes of a God-fearing person at the point of death, and the smile that played about her mouth was forced as though to cheer a dying friend. It was Jean, Jean Péloueyre, who had banished the gleam from her eyes, and the colour from her cheeks, her lips, and her ears. His mere presence was cutting at the roots of her life, and he loved her the better for the suffering he caused her. No victim had ever been so adored by its tormentor.
M. Jêrome alone flourished. Troubles other than his own were not apparent to him, and his announcement that he was conscious of a definite improvement in the state of his health abounded everyone. His asthma allowed him a certain freedom, and he could now sleep until dawn without the help of a narcotic. To have denied admittance to Dr. Pieuchon whose son was spitting blood and undergoing treatment from his father had, M. Jêrome said, brought him good luck. He had broken with his old friend through fear of contagion, and he declared that his daughter-in-law could minister to all his needs—she was more competent than a doctor. Nothing, not even the ceremonies of his toilet, dismayed her. Under her supervision his loathsome diet became quite delicious. The juice of an orange or a lemon and sometimes a spoonful of old Armagnac filled the gaps left by forbidden condiments, and produced a thing which M. Jêrome swore he had lacked for fifteen years—an appetite. And after a few shy attempts, Noémi was able to establish the habit of encouraging her father-in-law's digestion by reading aloud to him. She was indefatigable, and could carry it through to a finish without showing that she heard his short regular breathing, the overture to sleep. One o'clock would strike; an hour less of shuddering disgust in the darkness of the room above, of waiting for the loathsome body beside her to move from the sleep simulated out of pity for her. Often the touch of a leg waked her, and she would creep into the crevice between the bed and the wall where the slightest touch made her tremble with apprehension. Then Jean, believing her to be asleep, would risk a furtive caress, and it was Noémi's turn to pretend, left he should be tempted to go further.
THERE were no lovers' quarrels; they had already wounded each other too deeply for that, and the smallest transgression would have meant the end. Each one was careful not to hurt the other's feelings—their lives were planned carefully to this purpose. While Noémi was undressing, Jean looked away, and he was careful never to be present while she was washing. He was more particular about his toilet, ordered some eau de Lubin with which he drenched himself, and every morning went shivering to his tub. Jean believed himself to be entirely to blame for the catastrophe, and Noémi hated herself for not being a wife pleasing to God. They never exchanged reproachful glances, but there was always a mute yearning for pardon in the eyes of each. They decided to say their prayers together; though enemies in the flesh they could unite in their nightly prostrations before their Creator. Their two voices at least might mingle and rise together into the Infinite.
One morning they met quite by chance at the bedside of an old cripple, and this common interest was eagerly made use of. It was the first bond between them, and thenceforth every week they visited the sick together, each giving the other the credit for the idea. During the other six days, Noémi avoided Jean, or rather her body sought to escape his, and Jean sought to escape the disgust that Noémi tried in vain to conquer. One mournful November morning, though she hated walking, Noémi forced herself to follow Jean across the sandy heathland to the edge of the marshes where, in the silence that precedes a tempest, one could hear the dull thunder of the Atlantic on the shore. Noémi saw that there were no more blue-eyed gentians in the heather; she ran ahead as though trying to lose Jean, and left him to follow after her.
The shepherds of Béarn, from whom Jean was descended, had possessed the right of pasture over these waste lands, and, at the muddy opening of a well they had dug for their flocks centuries before, he came up with her and stood thinking of the old shepherds who were afflicted with pellagra, that mysterious disease of Les Landes, and were found at the bottom of a well or with their heads plunged in the mire at the edge of a pond. Ah, if only he too might embrace this greedy soil that had moulded him in its likeness, and breathe out his last breath in a long stifling kiss.
THE priest often came in while Noémi was reading aloud to her father-in-law. He called her "my child," and she offered him a glass of sloe gin, but for some reason he and M. Jêrome no longer indulged in their customary theological discussions, nor did the priest produce his usual diverting series of clerical anecdotes. The Péloueyres wore masks against his scrutiny, and three pairs of expressionless eyes met and baffled his prying gaze. He no longer felt at ease with these people who rarely spoke; everything he said seemed to lead up to a door mysteriously closed, and, stretching his short fat legs towards the fire, he shot rapid searching glances at the silent couple. He spoke with less than his habitual positiveness, seemed much less sure of himself, and it had been a long time since he had told the story, as he loved to do, of his latest argument with a certain Rationalist of his acquaintance in which this phrase was often to be heard: "And I replied crushingly...." M. Jêrome declared that he had never known the priest in such despair since the time when the former Mayor had proposed to have the bells rung for civil burials, and to use the hearse that belonged to the church. The priest wanted Jean to continue his research work in local history; it had been undertaken with avidity, but neglected during the past year. The young man made out that some important documents were inaccessible, but the truth was that he could never carry any work through to a finish. The early pages of his books were crowded with notes, but the rest were not even cut. The perpetual need to walk and think things out at his leisure took him away from his work. One evening after M. Jêrome had retired, the priest brought the subject up again and insisted upon a hearing. Jean declared himself incapable of proceeding without access to some special notes in the National Library; but how was he to go to Paris? "And why couldn't you go, my dear child?" The priest put this question in a low voice; his fingers played with the fringe of his belt, and his eyes never left the fire. A weak voice murmured: "I don't want Jean to leave me." But the priest was firm; it would be a sin not to develop Jean's talents. He was incapable of holding a class for study, or of organizing any charitable work, and it would not do for him to be idle any longer. The holy man went on developing his argument, and the low sad voice at his elbow murmured again with apparent effort: "If Jean goes to Paris, I will go with him." But the priest shook his head: Noémi was indispensable to the dear invalid, and in any case the separation need only be a short one: a few weeks, at most a month or two. Noémi was powerless to protest. No further word was spoken, and the priest put on his padded overcoat and his sabots. Jean threw his cloak about his shoulders and preceded his guest with a lantern.
The short days of a rainy December prevented the young people from escaping one another except when Jean went out after woodcock, and on these occasions he had no excuse to remain out after four. Indoors, their two bodies were drawn together in the sitting-room by the lamp and the fire. A gentle rain whispered about the house, and the acuteness of the pain in M. Jêrome's left shoulder was obvious from the continued complaints it occasioned. Noémi seemed in better spirits; she made daily efforts to dissuade Jean from his idea of a journey to Paris. She had vowed to heaven to do everything in her power to keep him with her. Her pleadings prevented the unfortunate Jean from falling into a permanent state of indecision and, by giving him the idea that she did not want him to go, forced him to make up his mind. He looked up at her with the eyes of a punished dog: "But I must go, Noémi." And she protected, but if he showed signs of giving in, she never pressed the point, and soon changed the subject. M. Jêrome, though the line from The Two Pigeons, "Absence causes the worst suffering of all," was seldom out of his mind, experienced a secret joy when he imagined himself living alone with his daughter-in-law. And at every meeting with Jean the priest continued to plague him. What chance had the poor boy against such a conspiracy? He was really pleased with the verdict of banishment; except for a pilgrimage to Lourdes and the honeymoon at Arcachon, he had never left his niche, and to submerge himself in the tumult of Paris would be like foundering in a human ocean more terrifying than the Atlantic. But there were too many minds set upon his plunging into the abyss, and his departure was fixed for the second week in February.
Long before that date Noémi began to occupy herself with his trunk and the clothes that were to be packed in it, and she had partially recovered her appetite before the day arrived. Her cheeks recaptured their colour, and one afternoon from the first floor window Jean watched her making snowballs to throw at Cadette's grandson. He completely understood this resurrection. The earth was freeing itself from the clutches of winter, and Noémi was freeing herself of him. He was leaving her to blossom again in the spring.
Jean lowered the dirty window of the railway carriage so that he might see the last wave of Noémi's handkerchief. How gaily it fluttered, this signal of farewell and joy! During the last week she so overwhelmed him with feigned affection that one night, when he thought she responded faintly to his touch, he murmured: "Noémi, suppose I don't go after all!" Though the room was dark, and though she almost stifled her answering exclamation, he knew that he had terrified her and could not help adding: "Don't worry. I'll go." This was all he said, Noémi knew that she had not deceived him. She turned her face to the wall, and he heard her crying.
Jean watched the familiar pines passing the window, and he recognized a thicket where he had once missed a woodcock. The railway followed the road over which he had so often driven in his cart, and a farm that he knew by name—the tenant was a friend of his—glided past in mist and smoke. It was at the edge of an empty field, and he caught a glimpse of the bread-oven, the stable and the well. Then he changed to another train which carried him across a barren stretch of land unknown to him, and at Langon he saw the last pines; they were like friends who had come with him as far as they could, and were finally obliged to stop and bellow a last blessing with their outspread arms.
HE took a room at the first hotel he encountered on the Quai Voltaire. In the mornings, he looked out through the rain at the river he had not yet dared to cross; at midday he ventured into the restaurant at the Gare d'Orléans where he could listen to the soothing roar of trains carrying happy travellers to the south-west. When his lunch was eaten and his bottle of white wine empty, he drank two liqueurs, not daring to remain at his table without reason, and his nimble mind skipped off into the Absolute. His peculiarities sometimes brought smiles to the faces of those about him, but for the most part he was unnoticed in his corner between the vestibule and a pillar. He read the newspapers, advertisements and all: murders, suicides, crimes of jealousy and madness—all these things helped to satisfy his appetite for the tragic facts of life. After dinner Jean bought a platform ticket and sought out the carriages that bore the name Irun. The next morning its windows would hold the reflection of monotonous heather-covered plains. He had calculated that this carriage would pass within fifty miles, as the crow flies, of his father's house, and he laid his hand upon it. When the train began to move out of the station he watched it with the eyes of a man who sees half of himself vanishing into space. Later at his table again, he abandoned himself despairingly to the influence of the restaurant orchestra. The ghost of Noémi took possession of him, and his thoughts thronged about her body which he had only seen while she slept. Through those long September nights when the moonlight fell upon the bed, Jean had probably come to know this body more intimately than if he had been her chosen lover and they had clasped each other in mutual ecstasy. She was always like a corpse in his arms, and his visual possession was therefore complete. Perhaps we know the woman who does not love us better than any other.
At that very moment, Noémi lay in the great cold bedroom, happy, and untroubled by a repulsive presence,—asleep in the bed he had deserted. Jean, still at his table, was acutely conscious of the joy and relief that his absence had brought her; anger flamed up within him, and he pressed his hands to his head. He would go back and compel her to submit to his desires, and insist upon enjoying himself at whatever the cost to her. He would make use of her. Then her face rose up in his mind; the same submissive expression, the same inanimate whiteness, the same passive surrender—a tree offering its fruit. He remembered her speechless horror; her wishes for death.... Paying for his drinks, he hurried along the quay to his hotel, and undressed in the dark in order not to see himself in the mirror.
Every three days he found an envelope on his breakfast tray which he sometimes did not open until evening. What did these hypocritical wishes for his return matter to him? The only pleasure these letters brought him was the fact that Noémi's hand had touched them, that her little finger-nail had scratched a faint line beneath each word. Towards the end of March he thought he could detect a trace of sincerity in the lines she wrote him: "If you don't believe I want to see you again, it is because you do not know your wife." And again: "I miss you." Jean crumpled her letter in his hand, and re-read one from his father that had come by the same post: "You will find Noémi changed for the better; she has put on weight and is in superb health. She is spoiling me to such an extent that I can hardly remember to thank her for her attentions. The Cazenaves never come here, but I know they think you two have quarrelled. Let them say what they please. I am very fit, unlike young Pieuchon who can only go out in a carriage and who is thought by everyone to be dying in spite of a doctor from B—— who pretends he is curing him with iodine and water. The old outlast the young."
With the first spring days Jean took courage and crossed one of the bridges. Just after the sun had set, he stood looking into the river, and his hands caressed the warm stone parapet as though it were a human being. Someone whispered at his shoulder; she called him "darling" and asked him to come with her. He turned and saw a young face close to his, pale under its paint. A swollen nailless hand sought his, but he turned and fled along the quay to the gate of the Louvre where he flopped, breathing hard. Could he have answered the summons of such a creature? For the first time he indulged himself with thoughts of a woman other than Noémi. He could not expect to thrill her, but she would at least be indifferent and not disgusted with him. Even as slight an enjoyment as that was inconceivable, he reflected bitterly, and anger again flamed within him. Why not give in to-night, and lose himself in the indulgent and willing embraces of one of these women? Were they in the world for everyone but a Péloueyre, these dispensers of love? At eight o'clock he watched the sky trembling in the pond in the Tuileries gardens; a laughing crowd of children gathered to watch his strange gesturings, and he hurried away. In the rue Royale he courageously crossed the threshold of a famous cabaret. He sat close to the door facing the bar to which a chattering throng attached itself as to a mahogany drinking-trough. He was delighted to find that his appearance caused no surprise to the women, or to the fat black-haired head waiters—the rats that infest expensive restaurants. In this glittering resort there were too many queer-looking savages from across the Atlantic, too many farmers and provincial notaries for anyone to laugh at Jean Péloueyre. Some Vouvray brought colour to his cheeks, and he smiled at the cattle round the mahogany trough. A big blonde woman left her stool and asked him for a light, drank from his glass, promised to make him happy for five louis, and then went back to her perch expectantly. An old man at the next table urged him to wait till the closing hour "because those who are left make you better prices then," but Jean paid his bill, and the woman joined him on the pavement outside. She called a taxi and drove her client to a house behind the Madeleine. The door opened directly on to the street as though to draw in all its odours. The tinkle of hairpins on marble awoke Jean from his lethargy; her arms were enormous at the point where they joined her shoulders, and bows of pink ribbon adorned a broad expanse of trembling flesh. She called him her wolf, and with infinite care began to remove her artificial silk stockings. Before this quick consent, this surrender without any trace of disgust, Jean experienced more acute agony of mind than when Noémi's body cried "No!" to him in the stillness.
The stupefied woman saw him throw a note upon the table, and before she could protest he was gone, speeding down the street like a robber. People were streaming along the boulevards, and Jean was filled with the happiness that comes after some great danger has been averted. Then the lure of gaunt leafless chestnut trees enticed him to the Champs Elysées, and he sat upon an empty bench, breathless and coughing a little. The arc-lights outshone the waning moon, but he knew that its quiet gleam fell upon the sombre uplands between the Pyrenees and the Atlantic. His agony had passed from him and his purity remained; he revelled in his wretched chastity. Sometime he and Noémi would love each other all through an endless summer's day, and he imagined what this exalted union of the flesh would be like. Ah, that bright shining light in which their immortal, their incorruptible bodies would come together! Jean spoke aloud: "There are no masters; we are all born slaves to be emancipated by Thee, Lord." A policeman approached the bench, looked at him for a moment, and passed on with a shrug of his shoulders.
Jean installed himself every afternoon at one of the little tables in front of the Café de la Paix, on the edge of a melancholy river of faces. Degrading diseases, alcohol and drugs had produced an unimaginably loathsome similarity in the features of the multitude that passed him, and these had once been children's faces. Jean counted the prostitutes eagerly hunting for employment, and tried to amuse himself by guessing what vice one particular man with an eyeglass and a sagging lower lip sought to satisfy. Anxiously he searched the crowd for a face bearing the mark of a Master. The sight of just one of these elect beings would have caused him to jump from his chair in eager pursuit. But he saw only shifting eyes, trembling hands and faces polluted by unnatural lust. If such a Master had existed, would he have been immortal? Jean, waving his arms and gesticulating at his table on the boulevard as wildly as in one of the back streets of his own town, took to himself Pascal's phrase about the end of the most brilliant career in the world: "One always loses the game!" One always loses the game; even your brain, Nietzsche!
The people about him began to nudge one another; a woman spoke to him and he leapt from his seat, threw some coins upon the table, and hurried away. But he could hear the woman's words: "You don't often see anything as soft as that!" He scampered like a rat along the inner edge of the flowing tumult, close to the shop windows, and all the time he was working out a plan for a decisive essay which he would call: The Will to Power and Holiness. Every now and then a mirror presented him with a reflection that he did not recognize; bad food was making him thinner than ever, and the dust of Paris irritated his throat. He should have given up cigarettes altogether, but he now smoked more than ever and was continually coughing and spitting. Attacks of dizziness often obliged him to cling to lamp posts, and he usually preferred starving himself to suffering a burning pain in his stomach. Would he be picked out of the gutter one day like a dead cat? Then Noémi would be free of him.... Such were his thoughts as he sat in a cinema where the uninterrupted music rather than the screen had drawn him. He often went into Turkish bath establishments, feverish and exhausted: the light behind calico curtains, the dripping of taps, and then the fading of consciousness. Jean's reason for seeking the protection of places like this was that the only church he knew in Paris was the Madeleine; there was no other on his way from the hotel to the Café de la Paix. But one day he took a less roundabout route and discovered Saint-Roch: its shadowy interior became his daily refuge. Even the smell of it was like his own church, and the Presence was there close to one of the great city's crowded thoroughfares, as definitely as in the obscure town from which he came. Not once did he cross the threshold of a library.
He might have existed in this way till the end of his life, had not a letter from the priest arrived one morning to call him home. The letter was a pressing one in spite of the fact that it contained the most satisfactory news of M. Jêrome and Noémi. Greatly distressed, Jean took his place in the carriage bearing the name Irun, a part of the train he had so often watched gliding slowly and then more rapidly out of the station, feeling that a part of himself went with it towards the South-West.
THIS summons was not occasioned by any special event; the priest had resolved to write one day after Noémi had confessed her weekly collection of venial sins, and had begged for her preceptor's spiritual assistance in withstanding certain temptations and disturbances whose exact nature she did not divulge.
Jean's departure had afforded her a certain delicious languor, a sort of convalescence. To her, solitude was an endless joy, and she allowed herself full enjoyment of it. Although incapable of self-analysis, she felt herself to be another person. She was living her old life again, but she knew perfectly well that she was no longer a girl. Her disgust with matrimony had kept her from realizing that it had made her a woman; this stranger within her was now beginning to make mysterious demands. She was so disconcerted at her inability to recover the peace of mind she had known before her marriage that she could not explain to herself the struggle between her dormant thoughts and her half-awakened flesh. Her mental horror had been intense, certainly, but the flesh never forgets the ordeals to which it has been submitted. Noémi's prayer book represented the extent of her reading, and her state of poverty and gentle birth deprived her of intimate friendships; there was nothing in her life that could explain this insistent craving. And then Chance enlightened her.
The March sunlight flashed in the pools of rain water that dappled the square. During M. Jêrome's siesta the house lay under a spell of silence; even the furniture refrained from cracking. Noémi, like all the other women in the town, sat sewing just inside one of the ground floor windows; the shutters were half closed. Her work-table was covered with mending, some of which had fallen to the floor. There was a noise of wheels outside, and she saw that a light gig had drawn up close to the window. A young man sat holding the reins, obviously in search of guidance, but the square was empty. Noémi pushed the shutters wide open and the young man turned towards her, took off his hat, and asked to be directed to Dr. Pieuchon's house. She told him the way, and he bowed, touched his horse with the whip, and disappeared. Noémi took up her mending again and spent the rest of the day plying her needle, her thoughts far from the face that had left its image in her mind. The next day, at the same time, the unknown young man drove by again. He did not stop, but, as he passed, drew in the reins slightly and looked in through the half-closed shutters. He bowed.
At the evening meal, M. Jêrome said he had it from the priest that Dr. Pieuchon's son was worse, and that a young doctor whose method was highly thought of had been called in from the sub-prefecture. He treated tuberculosis with tincture of iodine in heavy doses; the patient had to swallow hundreds of drops diluted with water. M. Jêrome expressed his doubts as to whether young Pieuchon's stomach could cope with such a mixture.
Every day the gig drove by, and every day it slowed down in front of the Péloueyre house, but the shutters always remained half-closed. The young doctor bowed to the strip of shadow where Noémi sat unseen. The town became interested in the iodine cure, and all the consumptives in the district adopted it; people said that young Pieuchon was improving. Spring came before its appointed time, and at the end of March the warmth broke the bonds of winter. One evening Noémi undressed with her window open; she rested her elbows on the sill and looked out into the darkness in a state of melancholy happiness that precluded sleep. At night, by some secret process, this man's face, hitherto little more than a vague impression, became almost a visual revelation. For the first time, she deliberately allowed her thoughts to dwell upon it: this stranger had bowed to her each day without even seeing her. Would it not be more suitable if, the next morning, she were to open the shutters and return his greeting? A decision to do this produced a pleasant emotion, and she stood awhile at the window before getting into bed. She evoked what she had seen during the few seconds of their only conversation: black curly hair beneath the raised hat; a short moustache and thick red lips; a rough tweed suit, and from its pocket the clasp of a fountain pen shining; no tie, but a soft tussore shirt, open at the neck.
Noémi, whose impulses were generally instinctive, was, however, accustomed to examining her conscience. She was on her guard now, and the first alarm came when she was kneeling by her bed; she had to begin her prayers over and over again, for a sunburnt smiling face intruded itself into her communion with God. She lay for some time, a prey to this apparition, and upon waking the first clear thought that rose out of her dream-troubled consciousness was that she would soon be seeing him again. All through mass that morning, Noémi kept her face hidden in her hands. During M. Jêrome's siesta the gig drove past, and slackened speed, but the shutters on the ground floor of the Péloueyre house were all closed.
It was then that the disquieting letter was sent to Jean in Paris; Noémi had written, "I miss you." Lately she had been sitting in the dark room until the gig drove past, and then had pushed open the shutters and taken up her mending. One afternoon, she came to the conclusion that over-scrupulousness was a sin like any other. "I'm getting worked up over nothing at all," she thought, and decided to lean out of the window and return the young doctor's greeting. She thought she heard the rattle of wheels and her hand went to the fastening, but for the first time for a fortnight the gig did not drive past.
When the time came to give M. Jêrome his valerian, Noémi could not help telling him that the new doctor had not visited the Pieuchons, and she learned that the invalid had had a relapse the day before, that he could no longer take the iodine. The priest had brought the news of a bad hemorrhage; the spring was a dangerous time of the year for consumptives. He also reported that Dr. Pieuchon had quarrelled with his young colleague, who no doubt would not dare to show himself in the neighbourhood again. Noémi interviewed one of the farmers, helped Cadette to fold up the washing, and at six o'clock went to her devotions. On her way home, she called in as usual at her parents' house. After dinner, she complained of a headache, and went to her room.
She began to lead a more active life, and occupied herself with the poultry; her broods were a great success. Then she remembered social obligations and, in her best clothes, made her annual round of visits, the solemn practice of all the ladies of the town. After that came the farmers. She enjoyed driving along the forest roads that had been opened up by heavy farm carts. Cadette's grandson sat beside her, acting as coachman on these occasions. There were splashes of yellow gorse in the dried bracken; a few dead leaves clung to the oaks in trembling resistance to the warm southerly breeze. A round pool held the untroubled reflection of tall reddish trunks, dark feathery green foliage, and the blue of the sky. Resin was oozing from innumerable freshly made incisions in the pines, and the heat of the sun filled the air with its pungent odour. The cuckoo's soft notes recalled other springs, and the two young people laughed lightheartedly as the jolting of the cart bumped them against each other. The next morning, Noémi was so tired that the bailiff had to be asked to finish the round of the farms. Except at mass, no one saw her again till the morning of Jean's return.
SHE went to the station and waited for him in the sunlight on the platform. She wore a low-necked muslin frock and cotton mittens, and round her neck hung a medallion upon which were painted two cupids struggling with a goat. Some children were trying to walk upon one of the rails; the whistle of the little train could be heard long before it appeared. Noémi was determined that her emotion at the approaching moment should be one of joy. In Jean's absence, her memory of his features had undergone certain modifications; she had as it were re-created him in a form that was no longer repulsive, and her mental image of him was insidiously redrawn. She was so intent upon loving him that she believed herself to be only waiting for the train's arrival that she might clasp this unreal Jean in her arms. It was true that the ghost of a longing glance might have fluttered against her will towards another face, but before God there had never once entered her mind even the suggestion of indiscretion. And in return for this, she felt sure she would be granted the relief of seeing a husband get out of the train quite different from the one whose departure had been a deliverance.
Jean made his appearance upon the step of a second-class carriage. He was indeed a different Jean now, and Cadette's grandson eagerly took the valise from his thin white hands. He walked unsteadily down the platform on Noémi's arm: "But Jean, dear, you're ill!" and he saw as much change in her as she did in him. How she had improved because of his absence! She was even more the resplendent female and he the wizened stunted male than in the priest's parlour not so many months ago. The couple caused a good deal of whispering at the station, and the presence of the newsagent, the station master, and the porter, filled Jean with shame. Noémi said: "I should have driven to meet you in the carriage. Why didn't you write me that you were ill?" And when they reached the house, she prepared his bed and washed his face and hands; she put a table at his elbow, covered it with a white napkin, and gave him the pile of reviews that had accumulated, unread, in his absence. Jean watched her with his sharp little eyes, as a child watches its nurse.
M. Jêrome was against calling in Doctor Pieuchon; he was exasperated at the idea of anyone in the house being ill but himself. His son was barely in bed when he too retired to his, declaring himself to be suffering agonies of pain in every part of his body and loudly refusing the proffered attentions of Cadette. Noémi went to him as soon as she could, not to see how he was, but to get his permission to call in the doctor. He refused point-blank. Pieuchon would not leave the bedside of his germ-ridden son. If she wanted to see a doctor, why not send for the young man with the iodine? Noémi looked away, saying that she had no confidence in him, and anyhow, speaking of germs, wasn't he attending all the consumptives in the district? M. Jêrome silenced her angrily: he had said all he had to say and would thank her to stop pestering him; whereupon he turned his nose to the wall, and at regular intervals came the sighing and the "Oh, God! Oh, God!" that used to waken Jean in the silence of the night.
Noémi found the housemaid unfolding an emergency bed. All that could be seen of Jean was a pair of bright feverish eyes, two flaming cheeks, and a nose that seemed more pointed than ever. He stuttered out his complaints: he was cold in the big bed; he had always preferred a narrow one and now, at least until after the doctor had examined him, it would be unwise for them to sleep together. She would have liked to protest, to pretend that his objections had deceived her; but the words would not come. She leaned over and kissed his moist forehead, but he turned away; the gratitude that had prompted the kiss was horrible to him.
The day drew peacefully and dismally to a close. Jean slept in the silent room, only waking when the spoon tinkled against the saucer. He was not very ill, but Noémi supported him while he drank, and he swallowed slowly in order to keep her cool arm behind his neck as long as possible. At dusk the church bells began to ring, and from the court came the voice of Cadette's grandson: "Hue! Dia!"; he was harnessing one of the horses. M. Jêrome half opened the door; his bare feet were slippered, and he wore an old dressing gown spotted with medicine. He was ashamed of his behaviour an hour or two since, and wanted to be forgiven for it, but the pretended reasons for his visit were anxiety and a desire to be reassured as to his son's condition. Cadette had been ordered to send her grandson to fetch the young doctor with the iodine. Jean objected that he was only a little tired—a few days' rest was all he needed—and when he came the doctor would find no justification for such an urgent call.
Noémi sat silently in her shadowy corner; she listened to the rattle of cart-wheels growing fainter and fainter and, without a sob or any movement of her body, she wept. A sudden shower pelted against the windows, hastening the fall of night, and neither she nor Jean thought of lighting the lamp until Cadette came to lay a table for supper near Jean's bed. While they ate, Noémi asked him whether he had finished the work for which he had gone to Paris. Jean shook his head, and she asked no further questions.
The cart clattered again in the court. "There's the doctor," Jean said, and Noémi stood up and edged away out of the lamplight. The sound of his voice and footsteps were to her ears like the rumbling of an imminent storm. Cadette opened the door and he entered the room looking stouter than Noémi had expected; people called him a "handsome devil." He had black hair and a high colour; his eyes boldly sought Noémi's and then slowly followed every contour of her body. He too had been thinking about her! Noémi trembled in her haven of obscurity while the doctor examined the invalid. "Please unbutton your shirt. A handkerchief will do, Madame. Now count thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three...." In the lamplight Jean's protruding bones were pitifully evident. No, there was nothing alarming in M. Péloueyre's condition, but they would have to keep an eye on his lungs. A tonic was prescribed, and some injections of cacodyl. From time to time during the examination the young doctor glanced at Noémi. How could he help thinking that it was she who had contrived to get him into the house? If not, it was absurd to have asked a doctor to drive four miles in the evening to examine a young man who was suffering from fatigue.
He sat for a while with them, ponderously denying that he had ever pretended he could cure such an advanced case as young Pieuchon with his iodine treatment. His rustic drawl made a deep masculine sound in the room. Noémi felt herself being watched, but the young man saw only a silent shadowy form. He spoke of forestalling the disease, and explained that M. Péloueyre was like soil specially prepared for the growth of bacilli: "I might call him 'tuberculisable' soil. Didn't the late Mme. Péloueyre die of consumption?" The technical jargon fell strangely from lips that were made for kissing.
M. Péloueyre would have to be watched, the doctor said, and he stood up expecting the usual request to call again to see his patient. But Noémi was silent, and he asked bluntly whether M. Péloueyre would like him to continue his visits, if only to give him the injections. "What do you think, Noémi?" No reply was forthcoming and Jean asked again, thinking she had not heard. "Say what you think, Noémi; shall the doctor come again?" This time she brought out a reply: "It will be quite unnecessary," and Jean was afraid that he would take offence at the tone of her voice. He put the burden of the decision upon the doctor, who replied without embarrassment that he would come the moment he was sent for. Noémi took the lamp and preceded him out of the room; then she felt his warm breath upon her neck as she rapidly descended the stairs. The cart was waiting at the door, and he took his seat beside Cadette's grandson without receiving a single glance from her. The boy clucked to the horse whose hind quarters were visible in the gleam of the carriage light. Then the wind blew out the lamp Noémi was holding, and she stood in the darkness upon the threshold of that lifeless house, listening while the noise of the wheels died away in the night. She could not sleep, for Jean was tossing feverishly and muttering unintelligible phrases in his iron bed. She got up to tuck in the bedclothes, and laid her hand upon his forehead as though he were the baby that would never be born to her.
TWO days later Jean was himself again and he dropped back into his old life. He stole out of the house during M. Jêrome's siesta to carry on his old warfare against the magpies, and when the light failed he entered the church and waited until there was nothing for it but to go home. Noémi's lately acquired radiance had already begun to fade, and Jean saw the dark rings appearing under those eyes that looked at him so sadly and with such submissive tenderness. He had hoped that his exile from the nuptial bed would enable Noémi to get used to having him at home again. She was desperately fighting down her disgust, and the mental struggle was telling on her. Sometimes she called him in the night to come to her, and when he pretended to be asleep she got up and kissed him as he lay in his narrow bed—a kiss like those given to lepers by the saints of long ago. No one can say whether the lepers were refreshed by the breath of saints upon their sores, but Jean Péloueyre had reached the point of wrenching himself free from these embraces, and it was he who cried in horror: "Let me alone!"
Tangled masses of lilac spread their disorder dark against the high garden walls; the evening air was heavy with the scent of syringas, and as the daylight faded, the may-beetles began their humming. It was the month of May and after the Litany the priest said: "Your prayers are requested for the success of the examinations of several young people; the marriages of several young women; the conversion of a father of a family; the health of a young man who is dangerously ill...." Everyone knew that he referred to Dr. Pieuchon's son who was now past recovery. The June lilies bloomed, and Noémi wondered why Jean no longer took his gun with him when he left the house after lunch. Replying to her question, he said that the magpies had got to know him too well; the cunning devils wouldn't let him come anywhere near them. She feared that his rambles were too much for him: he had usually come back with a trace of animation in his face, but now he was always white and dejected, pretending that the heat had taken away his colour. One night Noémi heard him cough several times and asked in a low voice: "Are you asleep, Jean?" He told her his throat was bothering him a little; it was nothing serious. But she knew that he was trying not to cough. Lighting a candle, she found him bathed in perspiration, and an agony of apprehension took possession of her. His eyes were closed, and he gave her the impression of being intent upon some mysterious process that was going on within him. Then he opened his eyes and smiled up at her tenderly, and into the confusion of her mind wrought by this unwonted show of affection came a whispered request for a drink of water.
The next morning his temperature was sub-normal and Noémi was reassured. She tried to persuade him not to go out after lunch, but her efforts were of no avail and only displeased him. He took out his watch as though afraid of being late for an appointment, and M. Jêrome remarked jokingly that Noémi would be justified in thinking he was hurrying off to some assignation. Jean said nothing, and his quick steps echoed in the hall. Storm clouds began to spread over the sky, and the leaves hung motionless as though fixed by the silence of the birds. All through the afternoon Noémi sat by the window looking on to the street, a prey to dark fears. At four o'clock a measured succession of subdued notes came from the church bell, and she crossed herself for she knew someone was at the point of death. She heard a voice in the square: "It's for young Pieuchon; he almost died this morning." Big raindrops fell into the hot dust, and the smell of the approaching storm came in through the window. M. Jêrome was still asleep, so she went to the kitchen to talk about Robert Pieuchon with Cadette. The old woman was deaf, and had not heard the bell tolling. She said that Monsieur Jean would tell them all about it, and, noticing Noémi's blank look, she sighed and the tears rolled down over her cheeks. She was quite sure that her mistress did not know it or she would have stopped poor Monsieur Jean, delicate as he was, from spending so much time with young Monsieur Pieuchon; every afternoon for the last month! He had forbidden his old Cadette to mention it to anyone. Noémi pretended not to be surprised; but she left the house at once. It had stopped raining, and a dust-laden wind was dispersing the heavy storm clouds. The shutters of the Pieuchon house had already been closed, and as Noémi drew near Jean appeared at the front door. He was blinking his eyes in spite of the half-light and, without seeing her, he turned instinctively towards the church. His face was the colour of clay and there was something unearthly in his expression. Noémi went down the steps into the church after him and shivered in an earthy dampness as of a newly dug grave. It was the chill that seizes the living when they go down into churches which have been gradually sinking into the ground for centuries beneath the heavy hand of time. And again Noémi heard the cough that had waked her the night before; but this time it reverberated under the grey arches endlessly.
JEAN'S bed had been moved down to one of the ground floor rooms that looked on to the garden; when he had difficulty in breathing they pushed it out upon the veranda, and he could watch the wind swaying green branches against a blue sky. An ice machine stood near by, for almost the only thing he could swallow except cold milk was a little faintly flavoured water-ice. M. Jêrome came to see him, but stood smiling at a safe distance. Jean would no doubt have preferred to hide his sufferings in the bedroom upstairs, but he had chosen to die in the garden so that Noémi might run the smallest possible risk of contagion. Injections of morphine made him drowsy. Rest! Rest after those hideous afternoons spent at the bedside of Robert Pieuchon, in agonies of despair at having to abandon his life: lurid evenings at Bordeaux; dancing to the music of barrel-organs in little suburban cafés; cycle rides in the country, with dusty legs and delicious fatigue afterwards; and best of all: amorous adventures with young women.
The Cazenaves were spreading the gossip that M. Jêrome's stinginess was depriving Jean of the benefit of a milder climate and a higher altitude. But Jean was the sort of person who preferred to die at home, and Doctor Pieuchon professed that there was no climate for consumptives like the forests of Les Landes. He hung the walls of the sick room with young pines as though for Corpus Christi day, and placed jars overflowing with resin by the bed. When he could think of nothing more to do, he called in his young colleague, certain that Jean was now incapable of taking iodine in heavy doses. Noémi's indifference when she received the handsome youth was not complete enough to prevent her from noticing that he paled slightly when their eyes met and their hands touched. After each visit the pleasant realization came to her that nothing in the world mattered but her husband lying there in the bed. Possibly, well hidden at the back of her mind, there was the feeling that she had this young male securely caught, and her calmness may have been due to the knowledge that she would one day land him, alive and quivering.
Jean had forbidden Noémi to kiss him, but he gratefully accepted the coolness of her hand upon his forehead. He must have thought that she loved him, for he murmured: "I bless Thee forever, O God, for giving me a woman's love before I die." And, as in the days of his solitary wanderings, he turned the same line over and over again in his mind. Noémi was counting his pulse, and, tired of his rosary, he repeated Pauline's cry in a low voice: Mon Polyeucte touche à son heure dernière. Then he smiled. He did not consider himself a martyr: people had always called him: "Poor fellow," and he had believed they were right. Backward glances over the grey waters of his life had always fed his self-contempt. What stagnation! But now, under the leaden surface, there was a secret welling up of vividly clear water, and for him who had known little more of life than a corpse the gates of death would open upon a new existence.
One evening Noémi found Doctor Pieuchon and the priest talking in the hall, and she asked bitterly of them the reasons for their silence: why hadn't they told her of Jean's daily visits at the bedside of the consumptive? The doctor bowed his head, pleading ignorance of Jean's condition. He was a man of unbounded kindness himself; why should he have been surprised at devotion like his own in another, and devotion to his own son? The priest defended himself more vigorously: Jean had insisted upon silence, and the rôle of spiritual director necessitated scrupulous discretion. "But it was you, Father, who were determined upon that fatal journey to Paris." "Was it I alone, Noémi?" She leaned against the wall, digging with one of her fingers at a little hole in the marbled plaster. Jean's coughing sounded through the bedroom door, and Cadette's dragging footsteps could be heard in the kitchen. The priest spoke again: "I prayed for guidance, Noémi; we must praise the ways of God." He put on his coat and departed, his mind full of conflicting emotions; in hours of sleeplessness he wept over Jean Péloueyre. To no purpose did he repeat to himself that Jean had made his will in favour of Noémi, and that it was M. Jêrome's intention, after his son's death, to give the house and as much as possible of his property to his daughter-in-law—providing she did not re-marry. The priest, though perhaps too apt to interfere in the lives of others, was a conscientious man, and he questioned himself searchingly. He had never thought that the marriage could be anything but happy—and, sub specie aeterni, could anyone help wondering at the success of it? What profit was there for him in the affair? He was a good shepherd whose one concern was the welfare of his flock. Whenever he indulged in self-judgement he invariably absolved himself, but his absolution was never final. The dread of losing the power to discriminate between justice and injustice was ever with him, and hesitation preceded all his actions. As his humility increased, he pontificated less; he no longer let fall the train of his cassock, and he gave up wearing the three-cornered hat that distinguished him from his brother priests. He gradually freed himself from all his pettiness, and was quite indifferent when the news came that, though he was not a senior priest, the bishop had granted him the right to wear a hooded cloak over his surplice. How could he have cared for these trifles, he, a keeper of souls? The only thing for him to do now was to extricate himself from this drama. Had he been the humble instrument of God, or had a poor country priest been trying to take his Creator's place?
Meanwhile, every evening, the young doctor drove away in his gig over the frozen roads. The moonlight flooded through the interlacing branches of the pines and their dark round tops hovered in the sky like an immovable flock of huge birds. On several occasions the shadowy form of a wild boar crossed the road a few hundred paces ahead of the house. The line of pines widened suddenly and skirted a meadow hidden by low-hanging mist; then the road sank between two high banks and one felt the icy breath of a stream. Wrapped in his goat-skin coat, and enveloped in a thick cloud of mist and tobacco smoke, the young man did not know that the stars were shining above the tree-tops. He was thinking of his kitchen fire at which he would soon be drying himself, and the soup that he would pour some wine into; and when his thoughts wandered from food and warmth they clung about the figure of Noémi, so close to his hand every day, but scarcely ever touched by him. "Still," the sportsman said to himself, "I haven't missed her; she's winged." He knew instinctively when the feminine quarry had been run down and was imploring mercy; it was as though Noémi had cried out. Many women had been his, and they were the wives of men, not of poor broken things like Jean Péloueyre. Caught and more defenceless than any of these, would Noémi prove after all the only one not to give in? Naturally, during her husband's illness, common decency was keeping her straight, but, before that, what had prevented him from entirely fascinating his prey? What stronger influence had kept her just out of his reach? Another love, perhaps? He did not believe she was very devout; he imagined he knew that sort when he saw it, for he had already measured his strength with the priest's over the conquest of a sheep from the fold. Pious women enjoyed the game, allowed themselves to be kissed, fluttered close to the flame, even singed their wings; but at the last moment they slipped through one's fingers, back to the confessional as though drawn by an invisible wire. He laid his plans for the day of Jean Péloueyre's death, saying to himself, "I'll get her," and he laughed, for he had the patience of the sportsmen of Les Landes who lie in wait for their prey.
About that time, the pious people of the town who went to church in the middle of the day, and believed themselves to be alone there, were startled by the sound of sighing that came from the choir. The priest spent almost all his spare moments there before his Judge. In no other place could he find peace; not the peace that is afforded by the stillness of country churches, thick with shadows, like caves under the sea, but the peace that the world cannot give. He understood that the wretched little Jean, who had scarcely been able to polish the crystals of the chandeliers before high festivals or to gather moss for the ladies to make into garlands, that poor hunter of magpies, was a vastly different person from the man who was now offering his life for the salvation of others. The priest was overwhelmed in the presence of Him who possessed the power to make slaves equal unto Himself.
FORTUNATELY for Jean, the summer was a mild one; in September frequent storms turned the leaves red. Cadette's grandson brought in the first mushrooms, smelling of forest loam, and diverted him with ortolans taken at dawn, which he would fatten in the dark and serve to Monsieur Jean soaked in old armagnac. Flights of wood-pigeons foretold an early winter, and soon the decoys would be prepared.
Jean had always loved the autumn; he felt a secret affinity with the fields of harvested millet, with the tawny heather-lands known only to solitary ring-doves, to sheep, and to the wind. The scent that came in through the window, opened at dawn to make his breathing easier, reminded him of those melancholy October afternoons when he used to come slowly back from his shooting. He was not allowed to wait peacefully for his release. Noémi did not understand that silence is due to the dying, and just as in the early days she had been unable to conceal her disgust, she could not now spare him the sight of her remorse. Her thirst for his forgiveness was insatiable, and as she bent over his hands, wet with her tears, he whispered: "I am the one who chose you, Noémi. I was the one who should have considered you ..."; but his words were in vain. She shook her head; Jean was dying for her sake; this thought banished everything else from her mind. Oh, the bigness, the nobility of him! How she would love him if he were to recover! She would pay back a hundredfold any affection that he might show her now. How was she to know that the moment when Jean became convalescent must mark the beginning of a fresh desire to be rid of him, and that he had to be at the point of death before she could love him? Young, ignorant and sensual, she could not possibly know her own mind, but her desires were sincere and she had communicated them to God. She kept clumsily insisting that Jean should set her free from remorse and he soon lost heart; his one idea now was to avoid being left alone with her. This would have been difficult to manage, a host of imagined ills having rivetted M. Jêrome to his bed, but for the frequent visits of the young doctor. Jean wondered at such extraordinary attention from a stranger, and, though unable to converse with him, enjoyed his presence.
One afternoon late in September he roused himself after a long period of inertia and saw that Noémi was sitting in a chair by the window asleep, with her head resting on her shoulder. He listened for a moment to her regular breathing, and then closed his eyes. The door-latch clicked, the doctor came in softly, but Jean, too weak to utter a single word of greeting, pretended to be asleep. There was a squeak of hunting boots, and then the room was still. The silence excited Jean's curiosity and he opened his eyes again; the doctor was standing near his sleeping wife, he was leaning ever so slightly towards her, and his big hand trembled.... Then Jean shut his eyes and heard Noémi's low voice: "Oh, do forgive me, doctor; I didn't hear you come in. I must have been asleep. Our patient is having a bad day to-day; the weather is so oppressive. Look at the leaves; they're not moving." He answered that there was a breath from the South-West; then Noémi went on: "It comes from Spain; there'll be a storm...." The man's pale face and his burning eyes were the portents of the storm that was imminent, and they were as clear to Noémi as any thunder-cloud. She got up and walked across the room in order to put Jean's bed between her body and those devouring eyes. The doctor stuttered: "You should take great care of yourself, if only for his sake." "Oh, I can withstand anything. I'm strong; I eat and sleep like an animal.... I envy people who can die of grief." They sat at opposite sides of the room, and Jean, apparently asleep, sang to himself without moving his lips, pausing at the cesura: Mon Péloueyre touche à son heure dernière....
Autumn with its veils of mist and its scent of tears folded him in her arms, and he was able to breathe more easily and eat a little. But during these days his mental agony was at its height. Lingering on the borderland between life and death, without distrusting Noémi he could not help wondering how, when he had gone, she would defend herself against this young man's irresistible beauty. Two persons predestined to love each other are not kept apart by the wretched ghost of a dead man. But there was no trace of these tormenting thoughts upon Jean's face and he smiled as he shook hands with the doctor. Ah, that he might live to conquer in the battle for Noémi's love! What obscure madness had produced his desire for death? Even without Noémi, even without any wife, he would have the caresses that were worth more to him than any others, those of the wind at dawn. Pouring with perspiration and sickened by the smell of the sick room, he looked with envious eyes at Cadette's grandson who had brought him the first woodcock of the season. What joy those mornings had been: dull grey pine-tops high in the blue sky, like the meek who will be exalted to glory; the strip of green grass and alders and mist in the heart of the forest that marked the wandering course of a stream whose clear waters flowed over a bed of brown sand. These pines beloved by Jean Péloueyre were the vanguard of a great army that stretched between the Pyrenees and the Atlantic, overlooking Sauternes and the hot valley where the sun warms every stem of every cluster of grapes.
With the passing of the years Jean would have become less and less a prey to emotions, and his ugliness, like all ugliness and all beauty, would have lost itself in old age. At least, he would have had the long days of hunting and gathering mushrooms. In bottles of Yquem are imprisoned the burning summers of long ago, and the sunsets of yesteryear redden the Gruau-Larose; one sits reading before the kitchen fire when the heather lands are bathed in rain and mist.... "It's not necessary for you to come to-morrow," Noémi said to the doctor, and he replied: "Oh, yes, I had better come." Was it possible that she did not understand? Had he never declared himself? Would death carry him off before he knew the result of this contest at his bedside? It was as though someone who thought the unhappy boy was leaving the world without enough suffering had hastened to bind him with the earthly ties that require the severest exertion to break. However, these fell from him one by one before his last day; peace settled upon him, and he had the same grateful smile for everyone. He no longer repeated lines of poetry, but words like these: "It is I. Fear not."
They had to keep the windows of Jean's dismal room closed on account of the late winter rains; but why did they trouble themselves about Jean's suffering, when suffering was a joy to him? The only signs of the life about him that penetrated his consciousness were the crowing of cocks, the jolting of farm carts, the church bells, and the endless patter of rain upon the tiles; and at night he heard the savage screams of birds of prey and the cries of their victims. The dim light of his last dawn came in at the windows. Cadette lit the fire, and the room was filled with resinous fumes. Through many hot summers this scent of burning pine had blown from the parched heather lands upon his face. The d'Artiailhs thought he could still hear, but no longer could see. M. Jêrome, in his soiled dressing gown, stood near the door weeping, and Cadette knelt with her grandson at the foot of the bed. The voice of the priest seemed with propitiatory phrases to be pushing open an invisible door: "Depart from this world, Christian soul, in the name of God the Father Almighty, Who created you in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, Who suffered for you; in the Name of the Holy Ghost Who came down upon you; in the name of Angels and of Archangels; in the name of Thrones and of Dominions; in the name of Principalities and of Powers...."
Noémi gazed at him earnestly and she said softly to herself: "He was beautiful."
The people in the town mistook the bell that tolled while he was dying for the morning Angelus.
M. JEROME went to bed. The mirrors in which Jean had so often seen his wretched face were covered with dustsheets. His body had been dressed as though for high mass, and Cadette had even put a soft felt hat upon his head and a prayer book in his hands. The kitchen was all bustle and confusion for there would be forty people in the dining-room, and a group of farmers standing round the hearse groaned uncontrollably, like the mourners of ancient days. It was the first time that the priest had officiated at a funeral of such magnificence. Each guest was given a pair of gloves and a sou wrapped in paper. It rained during the service, but afterwards the sun broke through the clouds and shone until the funeral procession had left the cemetery. Jean Péloueyre awaited the resurrection of the dead, his body lying uncorrupted in the dry embalming sand. Noémi Péloueyre shrouded herself in crêpe for three years and her deep mourning enabled her to be almost literally invisible. She only went out to go to mass, and always before crossing the square made certain that no one was in sight. Even through the heat of summer she wore a high black collar edged with white, and in order to protect herself against the comments of the severe she refused to wear dresses made of a too silky material.
About this time a report of the young doctor's conversion went the rounds. He went to mass, and was seen in the church on week-days as well. When the priest was approached on the subject of this event which must have been such a satisfactory one to him, a smile played about his thin-lipped mouth, but he said nothing.
He seemed to have lost his influence and his power of persuasion, for he was unable to find out from M. Jêrome whether he had taken out of his will the clause which obliged Noémi not to re-marry. He failed, too, when he expressed his disapproval of the mourning and insisted that they should relax the strictness with which it was being carried out. M. Jêrome was proud of belonging to a family whose widows never went out of mourning, and the d'Artiailhs were most anxious for Noémi to continue wearing it. And this was why, in the early winter mornings, the young doctor was no more able to see the widow in her shadowy retreat than she to see her husband through the flagstone that sealed his grave, upon which she knelt every day. At times, however, he caught glimpses of her face, youthfully radiant in spite of her secluded life and of her fasts before Communion. The day after the Anniversary Mass, when it became known in the town that Noémi would stay in mourning, the doctor's Christian resolutions broke down. He neglected his patients as well as his religious duties, and Doctor Pieuchon was told that his young colleague had taken to drink, that he even kept a bottle at his bedside for nocturnal consumption. M. Jêrome's health was excellent, so his daughter-in-law had a good deal of leisure; she occupied herself with the estate, but the timber cutting required little supervision. Her religion was a cut-and-dried, mechanical affair, took up a very small part of her time and was not strengthened by reading. She was scarcely capable of meditation, so her faith rested almost entirely upon formula. In a country flowing with resin there is scarcely any poverty; and only a few moments are necessary once a week to collect the bleating flock of the Children of the Virgin about a harmonium. The only thing left for Noémi to do was to interest herself mildly, as did most of the women of Les Landes, in cooking. After the third year of her mourning she began to put on flesh, and Doctor Pieuchon had to prescribe an hour's walk every day.
One warm afternoon in the early spring she went as far as the farm called Tartehume and sank down exhausted on the bank that ran along the side of the road. Bees hummed in the broom; horseflies stung her ankles. Noémi's heart was beating rapidly and she could think of nothing but the dusty road that led back to the house; there were two miles of blazing sun, for the trees that bordered the road had recently been cut down. She felt that she would be forever hemmed in by these endless pines with their sticky red gashes, and in these dreary stretches of sand and burnt heather. In her slow uncultivated mind there was a confused echo of the conflict that had tortured Jean Péloueyre in the days of his bachelorhood. The aridity of her country and the solitude of her life parched her soul with mortal thirst and forced the wretched girl to raise her eyes and stretch out her hands towards the Living Water which is perpetual refreshment.
Noémi dried the perspiration from her hands with a black-bordered handkerchief. She looked at her dusty shoes and at a tuft of young ferns whose fronds were opening out like fingers. Then she raised her eyes slowly and the smell of rye bread came drifting across to her like the very breath of the farm. Suddenly she stood up, trembling. A gig that she easily recognized was standing in front of the farmhouse. How often through half-opened shutters she had gazed at its polished axle-caps, more thrilling to her than the stars in the heavens! Noémi shook the sand from the folds of her dress; the wheels of a farm cart creaked; a jay cried. A swarm of horseflies enveloped her as she stood watching the farmhouse door. Her mouth was open, her breath came quickly, and she waited and waited—a meek submissive animal. Then the door swung half-way back, and she tried to see into the dim hall where he was standing. A familiar voice was prescribing in peasant dialect enormous doses of tincture of iodine. He appeared; and every button on his hunting jacket gleamed in the sunlight, as the farmer accompanied him to the gate and held his horse, remarking that this was the season for forest fires; everything was dry; there was no green undergrowth and no rain to ease the situation. The young man picked up the reins.
Noémi drew back; her impulsive movement towards him was checked by a hidden force. She plunged into a thicket of tall heather bushes, scratching her hands on the brambles, and listened for a moment as the gig rattled away down the road. No doubt she was thinking, as she hid from him, of the town's disapproval of all lapses from respectable widowhood; and then there was the clause in M. Jêrome's will, which would always prevent her parents from giving their consent to what Madame d'Artiailh called a crazy match. Noémi would have instinctively swept aside such obstacles as these, had not her instinct been stifled by something still more powerful. Her trifling personality was condemned to greatness; her slavery had become authority. This commonplace girl could not help transcending herself; no road was open to her save that of renunciation, and in this moment she knew that her fidelity to the dead was a humble glory from which her destiny forbade her to escape.
So Noémi ran on through the scorched heather, till at last breathless, exhausted, and her shoes full of sand, she faltered and grasped a stunted oak whose withered leaves rustled in the hot wind—a stunted blackened tree that reminded her of Jean Péloueyre.
La Motte, Vémars, July;
Johannet, Saint-Symphorien, September 1921.
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