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George Sand

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Beschreibung

Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (1 July 1804 – 8 June 1876), best known by her pen name George Sand, was a French novelist, memoirist, and journalist. One of the most popular writers in Europe in her lifetime, being more renowned than both Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac in England in the 1830s and 1840s, Sand is recognised as one of the most notable writers of the European Romantic era.

In this country whose law is to complete the French Revolution and begin that of the equality of the sexes, being a part of the equality of men, a great woman was needed. It was necessary to prove that a woman could have all the manly gifts without losing any of her angelic qualities, be strong without ceasing to be tender ... George Sand proved it.

—  Victor Hugo, Les funérailles de George Sand


Translator: George Burnham Yves

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Table of contents

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

VIII

To M. EDOUARD RODRIGUES

To you who adopt orphan children, and who do good modestly, with both hands and at sight, as you read Mozart and Beethoven.
GEORGE SAND

I

The time was the month of April, 1785, and the place Paris, where the spring that year was a genuine spring. The garden was in holiday attire, the greensward was studded with marguerites, the birds were singing, and the lilacs grew so straight and so close to Julien's window, that their fragrant clusters actually entered his room and strewed the white tiled floor of his studio with their little violet crosses.

Julien Thierry was a painter of flowers, like his father André Thierry, renowned under Louis XV. in the art of decorating spaces over doors, dining-room panels and boudoir ceilings. Those dainty ornaments became, under his skilful hands, objects of genuine, serious art, so that the artisan had became an artist, highly esteemed by people of taste, handsomely paid, and a person of much consideration in society. Julien, his pupil, had confined himself to painting on canvas. The fashion of his time frowned upon the fanciful and charming decorations of the Pompadour style. The Louis XVI. style was more severe; flowers were no longer strewn upon walls and ceilings, but were framed. Julien, then, painted flower and fruit pieces of the Mignon variety, mother-of-pearl shells, multi-colored butterflies, green lizards and drops of dew. He had much talent, he was handsome, he was twenty-four years old, and his father had left him nothing but debts.
André Thierry's widow was there in the studio where Julien was at work, and where the clusters of lilac shed their petals under the soft touch of a warm breeze. She was a woman of sixty, well-preserved, with eyes that were still beautiful, hair almost black, and slim, delicate hands. Short, slight, pale, dressed poorly, but with studied neatness, Madame Thierry was knitting mittens, and from time to time raised her eyes to glance at her son, who was absorbed in the study of a rose.
"Julien," she said, "why is it, I wonder, that you don't sing now when you are working? You might induce the nightingale to let us hear his voice."
"Listen, mother, there he is now," Julien replied. "He doesn't need anybody to give him the key."
And at that moment they did in fact hear the pure, sweet and resonant notes of the nightingale for the first time that year.
"Ah! so he has come!" exclaimed Madame Thierry. "To think that a whole year has passed!—Can you see him, Julien?" she asked, as the young man, putting aside his work, scrutinized the shrubs massed in front of the window.
"I thought I saw him," he replied with a sigh, "but I was mistaken."
And he returned to his easel. His mother watched him more closely, but she dared not question him.
"Never mind," she began after a few moments, "you have a beautiful voice too, and I used to love to hear you sing the pretty ballads your poor father sang so well—only last year at just this time!"
"Yes," Julien replied, "you insist on my singing them, and then you weep. No, I don't propose to sing any more!"
"I won't weep, I promise you! Sing me a lively one, and I will laugh—as if he were here!"
"No! don't ask me to sing. It makes me feel sad too! Later, later! it will come back gradually. Let us not force our sorrow!"
"Julien, we must not talk about sorrow any more," said the mother in a tone of gentle but indubitably strong determination. "I was a little weak at the beginning; you will forgive me, won't you? To lose thirty years of happiness in a day! But I ought to have reflected that you lost more than I did, because I still have you, while I am good for nothing except to love you."
"And what more can I want?" said Julien, kneeling in front of his mother. "You love me as no one else will ever love me, I know! and I do not say that you were weak. You concealed from me at least half of your suffering, I saw it and understood it. I gave you full credit for it, never fear, and I thank you for it, my dear mother! You sustained me when I needed it sadly; for I suffered on your account at least as much as on my own, and, when I saw how brave you were, I was always certain that God would perform a miracle to keep you alive and well for me, despite the most cruel of trials. He owed us that much, and He did it. Now, mother, you do not feel weak and disheartened any more, do you?"
"Now, my child, I am really happy. You are right in thinking that God sustains those who do not despair, and that He gives strength to those who pray to Him for it with all their hearts. Do not think that I am unhappy; I have wept bitterly; but how could I do otherwise? he was so lovely, so kind to us! and he always seemed to be so happy! He might have lived a long while—but that was not God's will. I have had such a beautiful life that I really had no right to ask for anything more. And see what the divine goodness has left me! the best and most dearly loved of sons! Should I complain? Should I pray for death? No, no! I will join your dear father when my time comes, and he will say to me: 'You did well to remain on earth as long as you could, and not leave our beloved son too soon.'"
"So you see," said Julien, putting his arms around his mother, "that we are no longer unhappy, and that there is no need for me to sing to divert our thoughts. We can think of him without bitterness and of each other without selfishness."
They remained in a close embrace for an instant, then returned to their respective occupations.
This took place in Rue de Babylone, in a sort of pavilion, already very old, for it dated from the reign of Louis XIII., and stood by itself at the end of the street, whose most modest structure—and at the same time the one nearest the said pavilion—was the house, to-day torn down, which was then called the hôtel d'Estrelle.
While Julien and his mother were engaged in the conversation we have just reported, two other persons were talking in a dainty little salon of the aforesaid hôtel d'Estrelle, a cool, homelike apartment, decorated in the style of the last years of Louis XVI., a pretty bastard Greek style, a little stiff in outline, but harmonious in tone and set off by much gilding against a pearl-white ground. The Comtesse d'Estrelle was simply dressed in a half-mourning gown of gray silk, and her friend the Baronne d'Ancourt in a morning visiting costume—that is to say, in an elaborate combination of muslins, ribbons and lace.
"Dear heart," she was saying to the countess, "I don't understand you at all. You are twenty years old; you are as beautiful as the Loves, and you persist in living in solitude like the wife of a petty bourgeois! You have put off your mourning, and everybody knows that you had no reason to regret your husband, the least regrettable of mankind. He left you a fortune; that is the only reasonable thing he ever did in his life."
"And as to that, my dear baroness, you are entirely mistaken. The fortune the count left me is overburdened with debts; I was told that, by making a few sacrifices and depriving myself of some luxuries, I might clear myself in a few years. So I accepted the succession without looking into it very carefully, and the result is that to-day, after two years of uncertainty and long explanations of which I did not understand a word, my new solicitor, who is a very honorable man, assures me that I have been deceived and that I am much nearer being poor than rich. The case is so serious, my dear, that I have been in consultation with him this morning to decide whether or not I could keep this house."
"What! sell your house! Why, that is impossible, my dear! It would be a stain on your husband's memory. His family will never consent to that."
"His family say that they will not consent, but they also say that they will not help me in any way. What do they want, and what do they expect me to do?"
"They are a detestable family!" cried the baroness, "but I ought not to be astonished at anything that the old marquis and his bigot of a wife may do!"
At that moment Monsieur Marcel Thierry was announced.
"Show him in," said the countess; and she added, addressing the baroness: "it is the very person of whom I was just speaking—my solicitor."
"In that case I will leave you."
"That is not necessary. He has but a word to say to me, and as you know my plight——"
"And am deeply interested in it. I will remain."
The solicitor entered.
He was a man of about forty, balder than was natural at his age, but with a pleasant face, good-humored and frank, although remarkably shrewd and even satirical. One could see that much experience of the conduct of men at odds with their selfish interests had made him thoroughly practical, perhaps sceptical, but that it had not destroyed his ideal of uprightness and sincerity, which he was all the better able to recognize and appreciate.
"Well, Monsieur Thierry," said the countess, motioning to a chair, "is there anything new since this morning that you have taken the trouble to return?"
"Yes, madame," the solicitor replied, "there is something new. Monsieur le Marquis d'Estrelle sent his man of business to me with an offer which I have accepted in your behalf, subject to your assent, which I have come to obtain. He suggests coming to your assistance by turning over a few unimportant pieces of property, the total value of which, to be sure, will not pay all the debts which are hanging over you, but which will allay your anxieties for a moment and delay the sale of your house by enabling you to give your creditors something on account."
"Something on account! Is that all?" cried the Baroness d'Ancourt indignantly. "That is all that the Estrelle family can do for the widow of a spendthrift? Why, it is a perfect outrage, monsieur le procureur!"
"It is at the best a pitifully mean performance," rejoined Marcel Thierry; "I wasted my eloquence, and this is where we stand. As madame la comtesse has no fortune of her own, she is forced, in order to retain even a paltry dower, to submit to the conditions imposed by a family devoid of consideration and generosity."
"Say of heart and honor!" exclaimed the baroness.
"Say nothing at all," added the countess, who had listened with a resigned expression. "The family is what it is; it is not for me to pass judgment on them, bearing their name as I do. In every other respect I am a stranger to them, and lamentations would come with a very bad grace from me, for I alone am to blame."
"You to blame!" repeated the solicitor, with an incredulous smile.
"Yes," continued Madame d'Estrelle. "I have committed one great sin in my life. I consented to that marriage, against which my heart and my instincts rebelled. I was a coward! I was a mere child, and they gave me my choice between a convent and a disagreeable husband; I was afraid of everlasting seclusion, so I accepted the everlasting humiliation of an ill-assorted marriage. I did as so many other women have done, I thought that wealth would take the place of happiness. Happiness! I did not know, I have never known what it is. I was told that it consisted, above all things, in riding in a carriage, wearing diamonds, and having a box at the opera. My head was turned, I was intoxicated, put to sleep with presents. I must not say that my hand was forced, for that would not be true. To be sure there were locks and bolts and bars, imprisonment for life in the cloister, before me in case of refusal; but there was neither axe nor executioner, and I might have said no if I had had any courage. But we have none, my dear baroness, we may as well admit it; we women cannot make up our minds to resign frankly, and conceal our spring-time under the veil of a nun, which, however, would be more dignified, more honest and perhaps pleasanter in the end than to throw ourselves into the arms of the first stranger who presents himself. That then was my cowardice, my blindness, my folly, my vanity, my neglect of myself—in a word, my sin! I hope never to commit another; but I cannot forget that my punishment has come through my sin. I allowed puerile ambition to dispose of my life, and to-day I see that I was deceived, that I am not rich, that I must sell diamonds and horses, and that there is great danger that before long I shall not have over my head the roof of a house that bears my crest. That is as it should be—I feel it and admit it; I am penitent, but I do not want to be pitied, and I shall accept without discussion such alms as my husband's relations choose to bestow upon me in order to save his honor."
A pause of amazement and emotion succeeded this declaration from Julie d'Estrelle. She had spoken with ill-concealed distress, like one weary of discussing pecuniary interests, who gives way to the craving to pass her mental life in review and to discover the philosophical formula for her situation. The proud Amélie d'Ancourt was more scandalized than moved by an avowal which condemned her own ideas and the customs of her caste; moreover, she considered this effusive outburst on her friend's part, in the presence of a petty attorney, a little dangerous.
As for the attorney, he was sincerely touched; but he did not allow it to appear, being accustomed to see such explosions of secret feeling override the proprieties, even among people of the highest rank.
"My fair client is a sincere and touching creature," he said to himself; "she is right to accuse herself; there is no human law which can force a yes from the mouth which is determined to say no. She sinned like other women, because she longed for glittering gewgaws; but she sadly admits it, and in that she shows herself superior to most of her sisters. It is not for me to console her; I will confine myself to saving her, if I can.—Madame," he said aloud, after turning over these reflections in his mind, "you can augur better for your interests in the future than in the past. The present shows that monsieur le marquis will not easily make up his mind to set you free, but that he will not make up his mind to abandon you in any event. The paltry assistance which he offers you is not to be the last, so I was given to understand, and I am certain of it. Wait a few months, allow his son's creditors to threaten you, and you will find that he will put his hand in his pocket again to prevent the sale of this house. Forget these worries, do not think of moving, trust to time and circumstances."
"Very good, monsieur," said the baroness, who was in haste to give her opinion and display her pride of rank. "That is very excellent advice of yours; but, if I were in madame la countesse's place, I would not follow it. I would flatly refuse these miserable little charities! Yes, indeed, I should blush to accept them! I would go from this house with head erect, and live in a convent; or, better still, I would go to some one of my friends, Baronne d'Ancourt for example, and I would say to the marquis and marchioness: 'Arrange matters to suit yourselves; I will let the house be sold. I have incurred no debts, and I do not worry about those left by monsieur your son. Pay them with the tattered remnants of a fortune that he left me, and we will see whether you will put up with the public spectacle of my destitution.'—Yes, my dear Julie, that is what I would do, and I promise you that the marquis, who is very rich by his second marriage, would retract these infamous propositions he makes to-day."
"Does Madame la Comtesse d'Estrelle coincide with that opinion," said the solicitor, "and am I to burn our bridges?"
"No," replied the countess. "Tell me in two words of what my father-in-law's contribution consists, and, whatever it may be, I accept it."
"It consists," replied Marcel Thierry, "of a small farm in the Beauvoisis, worth about twenty thousand francs, and a very old, but not badly dilapidated pavilion, situated on your street at the end of the garden of your hôtel."
"Ah! that old pavilion of Richelieu's day?" said the countess indifferently.
"A mere hovel!" said the baroness; "it is good for nothing but to pull down!"
"Possibly," replied Marcel; "but the land has some value, and as the street is being built up, you might find a purchaser for it."
"And allow a house to be built so near my own," said Julie, "overlooking my garden, and almost overlooking my apartments."
"No, you would require that the house should turn its back to you and take the air from the street or from my uncle's garden."
"Who might your uncle be?" queried the baroness, with an indescribable touch of contempt in her tone.
"Monsieur Marcel Thierry," said the countess, "is a near relative of my wealthy neighbor, Monsieur Antoine Thierry, of whom you must certainly have heard."
"Oh! yes, a former tradesman."
"An armorer," rejoined Marcel. "He made his fortune in the colonies without ever setting foot on a ship, and, thanks to shrewd planning and good luck, he made several millions in his chimney corner, you might say."
"I congratulate him," replied the baroness. "And he lives in this neighborhood?"
"His house faces the new court; but his garden is separated only by a wall from the Comtesse d'Estrelle's, and the pavilion forms a sort of elbow between the two estates. Now my uncle might purchase the pavilion, either to straighten his own lines by destroying it, or to repair it and turn it into a green-house or gardener's lodge."
"So the wealthy Monsieur Thierry has his eye on the pavilion," observed the baroness, "and perhaps he has commissioned you——"
"He has commissioned me to do nothing," Marcel interrupted in a firm tone. "He has no knowledge whatever of the affairs of my other clients."
"Then you are his solicitor also?"
"Naturally, madame la baronne; but that will not prevent me from making him pay the highest possible price for whatever it may please madame la comtesse to sell him, and he will not take it ill of me. He is too good a man of business not to know the value of a piece of real estate that he really wants."
"But I have not decided to sell the property we are talking about," said the countess, emerging from a sort of vague reverie. "It does not annoy me at all. It is occupied, I am told, by a most excellent person of quiet habits."
"True, madame," said Marcel; "but the rent is so small that it will increase your income very slightly. However, if you prefer to keep it, it will be of use to you, in that it represents a substantial security for the interest on your debts."
"We will talk about this again, Monsieur Thierry. I will think it over and you will advise me further. Tell me the total amount of the gift to be made to me."
"About thirty thousand francs."
"Should I express my thanks for it?"
"If I were in your place, I would do nothing of the kind!" cried the baroness.
"Do so by all means," said the solicitor in an undertone. "A word of amiable and modest resignation costs a heart like yours nothing at all."
The countess wrote two lines and handed them to Marcel.
"Let us hope," he said, as he rose to go, "that the Marquis d'Estrelle will be touched by your gentleness."
"He is not a bad man," replied Julie, "but he is very old and feeble, and his second wife governs him completely."
"She is a genuine plague spot, that ex-Madame d'Orlandes!" cried the baroness.
"Do not speak ill of her, madame la baronne," retorted Marcel; "she belongs to that society and entertains those opinions which you certainly look upon as the law and the prophets."
"What is that, monsieur le procureur?"
"She abhors the new ideas and considers the privileges of birth the blessed ark of tradition."
"Do not insult me by comparing me to that woman," said the baroness; "that her ideas are all right is very possible; but her actions are all wrong. She is miserly, and people say that she would even desert her opinions for money."
"Oh! in that case," said Marcel, with an equivocal smile which Madame d'Ancourt took for an act of homage, "I can understand that madame la baronne must regard her with profound aversion."
He bowed and retired.
"That man is not by any means ill-bred!" said the baroness, who had observed the dignified and respectful ease of his exit. "His name is Thierry, you say?"
"Like his uncle's the rich man, and like his other uncle, much more favorably known, Thierry the painter of flowers."
"Ah! the painter? I almost knew the excellent Thierry. My husband used to receive him in the morning."
"Everybody received him at all hours, my dear love, at least all people of taste and intelligence; for he was a charming old man, extremely well educated and most agreeable in conversation."
"Baron d'Ancourt apparently lacks taste and intelligence, for he did not choose to have him to dinner."
"I do not say that the baron lacks——"
"Say it, say it, I don't care; I know more about it than you do."
And, having delivered that double-edged retort, the baroness, who had a sovereign contempt for her husband's intellect, but forgave him in consideration of his eminent qualities in the matter of noble birth, indulged in a hearty and good-humored peal of laughter.
"Let us return to these Thierrys," she said. "Do I understand that you were well acquainted with the artist?"
"No, I did not know him. You know that Comte d'Estrelle fell sick immediately after our marriage, that I went with him to take the waters, and that as a matter of fact I have never received visitors at all, for he simply languished and languished until he died."
"That is why you have never seen society and know nothing about it. Poor dear, after sacrificing yourself for a brilliant life, you have known nothing except the duties due to a dying man, the crêpe of mourning, and the annoyances of business! Come, you must leave all this behind you, my dear Julie; you must marry again."
"Ah! God forbid!" cried the countess.
"You propose to live alone and bury yourself, at your age? Impossible!"
"I cannot say that is to my taste, for I have no idea. I have passed so entirely beside everything that goes to make up the life of young women—marriage, wealth and liberty—that I am hardly acquainted with myself. I know that I have consumed two years in ennui and melancholy, and thus far in my solitude, except for these money troubles, which are exceedingly distasteful to me, but which I do my best to endure without bitterness, I find myself in a more tolerable condition than in those through which I have previously passed. It may be that my character lacks energy just as my mind lacks variety. Being driven to some occupation to kill time, I have taken a liking to quiet amusements. I read a great deal, I draw a little, I play on the piano, I embroider, I write occasional letters to my old friends at the convent. I receive four or five people of a serious turn of mind, but good-tempered, and always the same, so that I am habitually placid and free from excitement. In a word, I do not suffer, and I am not bored; and that is a good deal to one who has always suffered or yawned with ennui hitherto. So leave me as I am, my friend. Come to see me as often as you can without interfering with your pleasures, and do not worry about my lot, which is not so bad as it might be."
"All this will do very well for a while, my dear, and you act like a woman of spirit by meeting misfortune with a stout heart; but all things have their day, and you must not sacrifice too much of the age of beauty and the advantages which it procures. You are not, be it said without offence, of very exalted birth, but your unfortunate marriage gave you a fine name and a title which placed you on a higher social level. You are a widow, which enables you to go about and be seen and known, and you have no children; so that you are still in all the bloom of your youth. You have no fortune; but, as your dower, overladen with debts as it is, will be no great loss, you can very well hold it cheap, and renounce it for a more eligible suitor than the first. If you choose to put yourself in my hands, I will undertake to arrange the sort of marriage for you to which you have a perfect right to aspire."
"The sort of marriage? You surprise me; explain yourself!"
"I mean to say that you are too fascinating not to be married for love."
"Very good; but will it be someone whom I shall be able to love?"
"If the man, instead of being a spendthrift and a fool, is really rich and well-born, for that is most important of all, and you cannot descend socially without blame; if he has breeding, tact, and the instincts of a man of quality; and, lastly, if he is an honorable man—what more can you ask? You must not expect that he will be in his first youth, and built like the hero of a novel.—We see but few of those magnificent creatures who are disposed to select a person of great merit for her lovely eyes; everybody is more or less hard up in these days!"
"I understand you," replied Madame d'Estrelle, with a sad smile. "You wish me to marry some excellent old man, some friend of yours, for I do not believe that you would propose a monster to me. Thanks, my dear baroness, I don't propose again to hire myself out to an invalid for large wages; for, to put things baldly, that is the sort of good-fortune which you have in mind for me. But, although I should be capable of waiting upon and nursing a father, if I had one, with the utmost tenderness, or even an old friend who needed me, I am firmly resolved never again to put my neck in the yoke of an infirm and morose stranger. I conscientiously fulfilled those depressing duties to Monsieur d'Estrelle, and everybody gave me credit for it. Now I am free, and I propose to remain free. I have no relatives left—only a few friends. I desire nothing more, and I ask you in all seriousness not to seek happiness for me according to your ideas, which I do not share. You, my friend, are still what I was at sixteen, when I was married. You have retained the illusions which were dinned into my ears; you believe that one cannot do without wealth and show, and, therefore, are younger than I. So much the better for you, since fate has bound you to a husband who denies you nothing. That is all that you need, is it not? But I should be more exacting; I should like to love. You laugh? Ah! yes, I know your theories. 'The honeymoon is short,' you have said to me a hundred times; 'but the golden moon is the light which never goes out.' For my part, I am foolish enough to say to myself that on the first day of my married life I propose to love and believe, even though it last but a day! Otherwise, I know by experience, marriage is a shame and a martyrdom."
"If that is so," said the baroness, rising, "I leave you to your reveries, my dear friend, and humbly beg pardon for interrupting them."
She took her leave somewhat piqued, for she was perspicacious, although foolish, and she realized that the gentle-mannered Julie, in that outbreak of rebellion, had told her a home-truth; but she was not evil-minded, and an hour later had forgotten her spleen. Indeed, she felt a little depressed, and at times was quite ready to say to herself:
"Perhaps Julie is right!"
Julie, on her part, felt that all her courage failed her as soon as she was left alone, and her pride melted away in tears. She was strong only as a result of nervous reactions, and perhaps of a more eager craving for love than she confessed to herself. Naturally she was timid, even shrinking. She knew the baroness's kind heart too well to fear a real rupture with her; but she too said to herself:
"Perhaps Amélie is right! I seek the impossible, the surroundings of rank and fortune in conjunction with love! Who ever obtains that? No one in my position. For lack of the best, I may be going to fall into the worst, which is solitude and sadness."
She took her parasol, one of those flat white parasols which produced a prettier effect among the shrubbery than our modern mushrooms, and placing the heels of her little slippers softly on the turf, her skirt turned gracefully back over the straight petticoat, she strolled pensively along under the lilac bushes in her garden, inhaling the air of spring in silent misery, starting at the voice of the nightingale, thinking of nobody, yet carried outside of herself by a boundless aspiration.
She went from lilac to lilac until she drew near the pavilion, where, an hour earlier, Julien Thierry, the painter's son, the rich man's nephew, the solicitor's cousin, was at work. The garden was large for a garden in Paris, and was beautiful, both as to its arrangement and its contents. Every day Madame d'Estrelle walked around it two or three times, casting a melancholy or loving glance at each of the flower-beds with which the turf was studded. When she came in sight of the windows of the Louis XIII. pavilion, she did not turn away nor worry about being seen, for the pavilion had been long unoccupied. Julien and his mother had been settled there only a month; Madame d'Estrelle had complained to Marcel Thierry because the marquis, her father-in-law, being unwilling to sacrifice the trifling revenue from so worthless a piece of property, had let it to strange tenants. Marcel had reassured her by informing her that the new tenant was the venerable and most respectable widow of his uncle the artist. He had not mentioned Julien. It may be that the countess did not know that the painter had left a son. At all events it had not occurred to her to make inquiries about him. She had never seen him at the windows, in the first place because she was very near-sighted and the young women in those days did not wear glasses; and secondly, because Julien, being informed of the proximity of a person of rigid morals, had taken great pains not to show himself. Sometimes Madame d'Estrelle had seen at the first floor window a pale, refined face surmounted by a white cap, which saluted her with deferential reserve. She had returned the sweet-faced widow's salutation pleasantly, even with respect; but they had not as yet exchanged a word.
On this day Julie, seeing that the ground-floor window was partly open, began to ask herself for the first time why she had not entered into neighborly relations with Madame Thierry. She examined the wall of the little building, and noticed that the door at the end of the garden was locked on the outside, as when the house was unoccupied. Madame Thierry could see nothing but the shrubbery, which concealed the countess's mansion and a part of the principal lawn. She had no right even to sit in the sunshine, along the wall of her house, under those flowering shrubs which actually entered her rooms, and which she had no right to prune. Moreover, she was forbidden, by the terms of her lease, to walk on the gravelled walk that ran inside the street wall. In a word, the door was condemned, and the tenant had made no vexatious demands on that subject.
It is true that the countess had anticipated such a demand with the determination to comply with it; but she had not noticed the feeling of timidity or pride which prevented Madame Thierry from making it. She thought of it on that day of self-condemnation, and reproached herself for not forestalling the poor widow's presumed desire.
"If it had been some ruined great lady," she thought, "I should have been careful not to forget the consideration due to age or misfortune. There is another proof of what I was just saying to the baroness: our minds are given a false direction and our hearts are withered by being brought up in the prejudices of rank. I feel that I have been selfish and discourteous in my treatment of this lady, who, as I have been told, is eminently respectable and in very straitened circumstances. How can I have forgotten a bounden duty? But here is an opportunity to make up for everything, and I will not throw it away; for I long to make peace with myself to-day."
The countess resolutely approached the window and coughed two or three times as if to give notice of her presence; and as no one stirred she ventured to tap on the glass.
Julien had gone out, but Madame Thierry was at home. Greatly surprised, she came to the window, and, when she saw that beautiful lady whom she knew perfectly well by sight, although she had never spoken to her, she threw it wide open.
"Excuse me, madame," said the countess, "for choosing this method of making your acquaintance; but I am not quite out of mourning yet, as you see; I do not pay visits, and I have something to say to you with your permission. Can you listen to me for a moment where you are?"
"Assuredly, madame, and with very great pleasure," replied Madame Thierry in a dignified and amiable tone, and with a perfect ease of manner in which there was nothing of the petty bourgeoise dazzled by an overture from one of more exalted station.
The countess was deeply impressed by the distinction of her face, by the excellent taste of her simple dress, by her sweet voice, and by an indefinable savor of refinement exhaled by her whole person.
"Be seated, I beg," she said, spying the arm-chair in the window recess; "I do not wish to keep you standing."
"But you, madame?" rejoined the widow with a smile. "Ah! I have an idea. With your permission I will pass you a chair."
"No, do not take that trouble!"
"Yes, indeed! Here is a very light straw chair; and between us——"
Between them they succeeded in passing the chair over the window-sill, one holding it, the other receiving it, and smiling both at that unceremonious performance, which created a sort of intimacy between them at once.
"This is what I had to say," said Madame d'Estrelle when she was seated. "Hitherto, you have been living in a house belonging to the Marquis d'Estrelle, my father-in-law; but to-day you are living in my house, monsieur le marquis having presented it to me. I do not know as yet the terms of your lease; but there is one which I presume you will consent to modify."
"Be kind enough to tell me which one you refer to, madame la comtesse," replied the widow, bowing slightly, and with a faint cloud upon her face in anticipation of some disagreement.
"I refer," said the countess, "to keeping this miserable door always locked and bolted between us; it is a perfect eyesore to me. If you consent, I propose to have it opened to-morrow. I will give you the keys, and I invite you to walk in my garden for exercise or diversion as much as you please. It will be a great pleasure to me to meet you here. I live very much alone, and if you are willing to stop and rest sometimes in the house I live in, I will do my utmost to prevent your being dissatisfied with me as a neighbor."
Madame Thierry's face had lighted up. The countess's offer gave her genuine pleasure. To have a beautiful garden under one's eyes every hour in the day and not be able to set foot inside it, is a sort of torture. Moreover, she was deeply touched by the graceful way in which the invitation was given, and she realized at once that she had to do with a lovable and noble-hearted woman. She thanked her with charming warmth, abating nothing of the gentle dignity of her manners, and they at once began to converse as if they had always known each other, the instinctive sympathy between them was so quick and so entirely reciprocal.
"You live alone, you say?" said Madame Thierry; "surely it is a merely temporary condition of affairs, and not a matter of inclination?"
"It is partly because I shrink from society and distrust myself. Do you like society, madame?"
"I do not hate it," said the widow. "I left it because I was in love; I forgot it, then returned to it without an effort and without losing my head. Then I left it again, from necessity and without regret. All this seems a little obscure to you, does it not?"
"I know that Monsieur Thierry was in very comfortable circumstances and had most desirable social connections; that he went into society and received at his own house the very elite of persons of intellect."
"But you do not know of our earlier life? It made some noise at the time; but that was a long while ago and you are so young!"
"Stay!" said the countess. "I beg your pardon for my forgetfulness. Now, I remember: you are of noble birth?"
"Yes; I was Mademoiselle de Meuil, of a good old noble family of Lorraine. Indeed I might have been quite wealthy if I had consented to marry at the bidding of my guardians. I loved Monsieur Thierry, who was then only a journeyman painter, without a name and without means. I left everything, broke with everything, threw everything to the winds to become his wife. Little by little he became famous, and just as he began to earn money rapidly, I received my inheritance. So we were repaid for our constancy, not only by thirty years of happiness, but by more or less prosperity in our old age."
"And now——?"
"Oh! now it's a different story! I am happy still, but in another way. I have lost my dearly loved companion, and with him all material comfort; but I still have such great consolation——"
She was about to mention her son, when a servant in livery came and informed the countess that her old friend Madame Desmorges was waiting for her in the house.
"To-morrow," said Julie as she rose to go, "we will talk at our ease, in your house or mine. I am anxious to know all about you, for I feel that I love you dearly. Forgive me for saying it so bluntly, but it is the truth! I must go to receive an elderly lady whom I cannot keep waiting; but I will give orders now for the workmen to come here to-morrow and open your prison door."
Madame Thierry was enchanted with Madame d'Estrelle. She was a woman of keen and spontaneous sympathies, still young in heart and full of enthusiasm, because she had lived in the enthusiastic atmosphere that surrounds a beloved artist, and she was more or less romantic, as a woman must be who has sacrificed everything to love. In the first flush of excitement, she would have told her son what had happened; but he was not there, and she exerted her ingenuity to arrange for him the same surprise she had enjoyed. Many times, as they were passing from comparative opulence to their present straitened and harassing condition, Julien had taken alarm at the privations with which his mother was threatened. They had had a pretty little cottage at Sèvres, with a fine garden, where Madame Thierry tended lovingly with her own hands the flowers which her husband and son used as models. They had had to sell everything. Julien's heart ached when he saw the poor old woman confined in Paris, in that pavilion, which they hired at a very modest rate. He hoped at first that they could enjoy the surrounding gardens; but the lease informed him that neither the Marquis d'Estrelle, their landlord, nor the wealthy Monsieur Thierry, their near neighbor and near kinsman, would allow them to walk elsewhere than in the street, which was always filled with workmen and with materials for buildings under construction.
"He complained bitterly of that condemned door," said Madame Thierry to herself, as she thought of her son. "A score of times he has had an idea of going and asking the countess to remove the prohibition for my benefit, promising on his honor that he himself would never cross the threshold of the pavilion. I have always dissuaded him from taking a step which might have subjected us to humiliation. How glad he will be to see me at liberty! But how shall I arrange matters to give him a little surprise? Suppose I should send him on an errand to-morrow morning, while the workmen are here?"
She was arranging her plan in her head, when Julien came home to dinner. The straw chair was still in the garden near the window. Madame d'Estrelle had placed her white parasol on the ground against the chair, and had forgotten to take it. Madame Thierry had gone into the kitchen to tell her only servant, a strapping Norman wench, to bring in the chair. So Julien saw those two objects, without any previous warning. He divined without comprehending; his head swam, his heart beat fast, and his mother found him so confused, so excited, so strange, that she was frightened, thinking that something had happened to him.
"What is it, in heaven's name?" she cried, running to him.
"Nothing, mother," said Julien, after a slight struggle with himself to overcome his emotion. "I hurried home and I was very warm, so that the cool air of the studio gave me a chill. I am hungry, let's have dinner; you can explain to me at the table the meaning of this visit you have received."
He took in the chair, unfolded and refolded the parasol, and kept it in his hands a long while, with an affectation of indifference; but his hands trembled, and he could not meet his mother's eyes.
"Mon Dieu!" she said to herself, "can it be that this increase of melancholy during the past fortnight, this refusal to sing, these stifled sighs, this peculiar behavior, this sleeplessness and loss of appetite are due to—But he doesn't know her, he has hardly seen her in the distance. Oh! my poor child, can it be possible?"
They took their places at the table. Julien questioned his mother calmly enough. She described the countess's visit with much discretion, restraining the impulse of her heart, which would have made her eloquent on the subject, had it not been for the discovery she had made, or the danger she began to foresee.
Julien felt that his mother was watching him, and he kept a close watch upon himself. He had never before had any secrets from her; but, during the last few days he had had one, and the fear of alarming her made him cunning.
"This step of Madame d'Estrelle," he said, "shows that she is a prudent and gracious woman. She has realized—a little tardily perhaps—that she owed you some consideration. Let us be grateful to her for her kindness of heart. You told her, I presume, that I had sufficient good sense not to consider myself included in the permission she has given you?"
"That goes without saying. I didn't mention you to her at all."
"Indeed, she probably is not aware of my existence, and perhaps it will be as well for you never to mention your son to her, so that she may not repent of her gracious behavior."
"Why shouldn't I mention you to her? I shall or shall not, according to the turn the conversation happens to take."
"You expect to see her often then? to go to her house perhaps?"
"To meet her in the garden unquestionably; whether I go to her house or not will depend on the duration of her kindly disposition."
"Was she agreeable?"
"Very agreeable and natural."
"Is she bright?"
"I don't know; she has plenty of good sense, I think."
"None of the arrogance of a grande dame?"
"She showed me none of it."
"Is she young?"
"Why, yes."
"And quite pretty, so they say?"
"Fie! do you mean to say you have never seen her?"
"I have, but at a distance. I have never happened to be near the window when she walked along our path."
"But you know that she walks there every day?"