Escal Vigor/Part I/Chapter II


Henry, whose nature was passionate and philosophy audacious, told himself, not without reason, that through his affinities, he would feel himself at home amid these beautifully barbarous surroundings, where natural instincts reigned.

He even inaugurated his accession as "Dykgrave," with an innovation, against which the minister Balthus Bomberg was infallibly bound to fulminate from the full height of his pastoral desk. To flatter the native sentiment, Henry had invited to his table not only a few squires and landed proprietors, and a few artists from among his town friends, but he had also summoned around him a crowd of simple farmers, small ship-owners, masters of sailing-vessels and barges of the lowest class, the lighthouse-keeper, the lock-keeper, the heads of the dikemen's gang, and even simple labourers. These natives he had further invited to bring to his house-warming their wives and daughters.

All the guests, both men and women, had dressed themselves at his particular request, either in the national costume, or in their personal uniform. The men arrayed themselves in velvet vests of a reddish-brown colour, or of a blinding red, worn over embroidered flannels on which were represented the instruments of their profession, anchors, ploughing implements, bulls' heads, navigators' instruments, sunflowers, sea-gulls, the almost oriental medley of colours standing out with peculiar effect on the sea-blue ground, like armorial bearings on a shield. On their broad, red belts shone old silver buckles of a workmanship at once barbarous and touching; others exhibited the sculptured oaken handles of their broad clasp-knives; the sea folk paraded in great tarred boots; delicate metal rings adorned the lobe of their ears, which were as red as shellfish: the farm labourers wore trousers of the same velvet as their vests, and these trousers, tight above, enlarged from the calf to the instep after the style known as "bell-bottoms." Their small hat recalled that of the lawyers' clerks of the time of Louis XI. The women displayed head-dresses of lace topped by conical hats with broad strings; their bodices being more variegated, and ornamented with interlacings even more capricious than the men's waistcoats; they wore bulging petticoats of the same velvet and the same reddish-brown shade as the vests and the breeches; thin gold chains were three times wound around their throats and in their ears were ear-drops of an ancient, quasi-byzantine pattern, whilst on their fingers they sported rings with bezels as thick as those of a bishop.

These folk were, for the most part, robust specimens of the dark-complexioned type of that ardent and full-blooded race of swarthy, sinewy Celts, with rebellious, woolly locks. Bronzed peasants and sailors, a little embarrassed at the beginning of the repast, they had soon recovered their assurance. With clumsy gestures, but by no means artificial, and often even, after a manner newly discovered by themselves, deftly they plied knife and fork. As the meal progressed, tongues loosened, and bursts of laughter sometimes interspersed with an oath, seasoned their guttural speech, which, although highly coloured revealed smooth unexpected notes of caressing tenderness.

Logical in his disregard of etiquette and in violation of all rules of precedence, the host had had the happy thought, in each case, to seat a farmer's wife, the mistress of a boat, or a fish-wife, by the side of one of his peers of the oligarchy; and similarly, beside some proud lady from a neighbouring château was wedged in a young dairyman of swaggering manner, or a boatman boasting knotty biceps.

Kehlmark's friends remarked that almost all the guests were in the flower of their youth, or in the first flush of their maturity. One might have called the gathering a selection of prepossessing women and of malleable, impressionable youths.

Among the guests was to be found one of the principal agriculturists of the country, Michel Govaertz, of the farm "Les Pèlerins". He was a widower and the father of two children, Guidon and Claudie.

After the lord of Escal-Vigor, the farmer of Les Pèlerins was the most important man of Zoudbertinge village, on the territory of which was situated the country-seat of the Keklmarks.

During the minority and in the absence of the young Count, Govaertz had replaced him at the head of the Wateringue, or committee for the maintenance and preservation of the alluvial lands, called "polders," of which committee the Dykgrave was the leading member. And it was not without some certain mortification to his self-esteem, that, on the return of Kehlmark, the farmer of Les Pèlerins had seen himself reduced to the rank of a simple member of the assemblies in question. But the young Count's affability had soon made Govaertz forget this slight decrease of his authority. Then, he sat before in the Wateringue only as representative of the Dykgrave, while as juryman he had the right of initiative and of voting in the chapter. Moreover, had he not been recently elected burgomaster of the parish?

A stout peasant, a man of forty and of goodly presence, not ill-natured, but very conceited, and without character, he had felt extremely flattered at being invited to the château to occupy with his daughter the head of the table. Supported by his cronies, above all egged on and put up to it by his daughter, the not less ambitious but more intelligent Claudie, he incarnated the privileges and civil liberties of the community, setting rebelliously pastor Bomberg at defiance. For a moment, he feared lest the Count of Kehlmark should use his influence to get himself appointed magistrate of the village. But Henry detested politics, with the jealousies they engender, the acts of baseness, the intrigues, the compromises they impose upon public men. On this side therefore, Govaertz had nothing to fear. He accordingly, resolved to make a friend and ally of the great lord, in order to reduce the minister to impotence. This policy, as soon as the arrival of the owner of EscalVigor was known, had been recommended to him by Claudie.

For the greater honouring of the Burgomaster, the Count had seated Claudie Govaertz on his right.

Claudie, the strong mind of the family, was a tall, full-bodied girl, with the temperament of an amazon, voluminous breasts, muscular arms, robust but elastic figure, hips like a young cow's; and a commanding voice, a type of the virago and the valkyrie. An abundant chignon of golden-brown hair helmeted her wilful head, and spread its locks over a low forehead, reaching well-nigh down as far as her bold, impudent eyes, that were brown and liquid as molten bronze, the coarse challenge in them being emphasised by a wide straight nose, a greedy mouth, and carnivorous teeth. A thing compact of flesh and instincts was she, craving for power, a fierce ambition alone being able to keep her appetites in check, and preserving her up to the present chaste and inviolate, in spite of her nature's passionate warmth. Not a shadow of feeling or of delicacy. A will of iron and no scruple in reaching her ends. Since the death of her mother, that is to say, since her seventeenth year—she was now twenty-two—she had ruled the farm, the household, and up to a certain point, the parish. It was with her that the pastor had to reckon. Her brother Guidon, a youth of eighteen years, and even her father the burgomaster, trembled when she raised her voice. Being one of the best matches of the island, she had not been a little sought after, but had refused even the wealthiest suitors, for did she not dream of a marriage which should raise her above all the other women of the country? This was the reason even of her virtue. A splendid and vibrating piece of flesh, attracted herself as much as she allured, she discouraged the serious attentions of males on matrimony bent, although, God wot, willingly would she have abandoned herself to them, swooned away in their arms and returned readily enough embrace for embrace; or, who can tell, perhaps, provoked caresses, and had needs been, have taken them by force.

The better to deaden and stifle her desires, Claudie spent her strength during the week in drudgery, in fatiguing labours, and at the periodical fairs gave herself up to furious dancing, teased men to horseplay, exciting amongst her gallants riots and quarrels; and then, deceiving the victor's hopes, overpowering him if necessary, affecting a roughness greater even than his, going indeed so far as to strike him and to treat him as he had treated his rivals, she would slip off untouched. Or, if it happened that she did slyly return a caress or tolerated some anodyne familiarity, she kept cool enough to recollect herself at the critical moment, recalled to modesty by her dream of a glorious establishment.

As soon as she had set eyes upon Henry de Kehlmark, she vowed in her heart to become mistress of Escal-Vigor.

Henry was a handsome cavalier, a bachelor, fabulously rich the report went, and as well-born as the King. Cost what it might he should marry this haughty female. Nothing easier than to make herself beloved by him. Had she not turned the heads of all the young villagers? The proudest would have yielded to any terms in order to win her. She would like, forsooth, to see if a man would refuse her, when once she was only willing to surrender herself to him!

Claudie already knew, through having caught sight of her in the park or on the shore, that the Count was accompanied by a young woman, his housekeeper, or rather his mistress. This illicit connection indeed had put the finishing touch to minister. Bomberg's holy wrath. But Claudie was not overmuch disturbed by the presence of this person. Kehlmark did not seem to make much of her. As a proof, the young lady had not even appeared at table. Claudie flattered herself she could get her dismissed and, if necessary, replace her until the marriage should take place; for she was confident enough of her power, to give herself up to Kehlmark and compel him afterwards to marry her. Besides, our Jordaenesque[1] female looked upon as only very insignificant that pale, weak, little, woman, whose person, lean and suggestive of anaemia, was devoid of all those robust corporal attractions that rustics prize so highly.

No, the Count of the Dike would not long hesitate between that mincing-mannered young lady and the superb Claudie, the most dazzling female in Smaragdis, aye, the most dazzling in all Kerlingalande.

During the dinner, she took the measure of the man, with the wanton looks and perspicacity of a Bacchante, while she estimated the furniture and the plate at the same time with the eye of an auctioneer, or of a village notary. The value of the estate had long been known to her, as to everybody else in the village. This large triangular vale, bounded on two sides by dikes, and on the third by an iron gate and wide ditches, represented, with the dependent farms and woods, almost a tenth of the entire island. And further, public rumour ascribed to Kehlmark possessions in Germany, in the Netherlands, and in Italy.

It was also reported that his grandmother, the dowager, had left him nearly three millions of florins invested in the funds. No more was necessary for Claudie to consider Kehlmark highly eligible as a husband. Perhaps, if he had not been rich and titled, she would have preferred him somewhat more stout-limbed and full-blooded. But she never tired of admiring his elegance, his aristocratic features, his ladylike hands, his fine ultramarine eyes, his silken moustache, and his carefully trimmed beard. Even what the Dykgrave sometimes showed of reserve or timidity in his character, of languor or melancholy, was by no means displeasing to the gross-minded woman. Not that she was subject to sentimentalism: nothing, on the contrary, was further from her extremely coarse character; but because Kehlmark's moments of reverie seemed to her to betray a weak nature, a passive disposition, she would rule all the more easily over his person and his property.

Yes, this noble personage should prove malleable and ductile to the last degree. How, otherwise, would he have submitted so long to the yoke of that makeshift of a "miss," whom the over-expeditious Claudie was already not far from regarding as an intruder? The reasoning which the sturdy wench indulged in was not entirely devoid of logic: "If he has allowed himself to be ensnared and dominated by that impertinent minx, how much more quickly would he be subjugated by a proper sort of woman?"

Henry's manners were not adapted to undeceive her. He displayed a feverish gaiety the whole of the time, the gaiety almost of a man too deeply preoccupied with his thoughts and seeking distraction; he tormented and excited his fair neighbour at the table with such persistence that she believed she had already attained her ends. This recklessness on Kehlmark's part went so far as to scandalise the few squires invited to these eccentric "love-feasts," but they concealed their feelings, and although laughing inwardly at this ridiculous gathering, which they had consented to attend only out of regard for the rank and fortune of the Dykgrave, they affected, in his presence, to consider the idea of this house-warming as supremely aesthetic, and loudly expressed their admiration. We leave it to be guessed in what terms they told the story of this unseemly masquerade to the minister and his wife, whose flock was made up of these over-grave and ultra-pedantic noblings together with a few bigoted ladies. One after the other they had their carriages called and slipped quietly away with their prudish wives and daughters. The company but enjoyed themselves all the better for their departure.

The Count, who drew and painted like a professional artist, amused himself over the coffee by making a rather smart and pretty sketch of Claudie, which he offered to her, after it had been passed round for the astonishment of the natives, who were more and more delighted with the frank manners of their young Dykgrave. Michel Govaertz, was particularly raised to the seventh heaven flattered by the Count's attentions to his favourite child. Each time Henry had raised his glass to hers, when drinking, nor did he cease to compliment her on her costume: "It becomes you admirably!" said he. "How much more natural you appear in such garments than that lady down there, who gets herself decked out at Paris!"

And, with a look, he pointed out a baroness dolly-vardened up and lavishly dressed out to the nines, seated at the other end of the table, and who, flanked by a couple of free-and-easy going sailors, had maintained, ever since the soup had been served, a disgusted pout and a haughty silence.

"Fie!" Claudie had replied, "you're not in earnest, Monsieur le Comte. It is well that you prescribed to us the costume of the country, otherwise I should have dressed myself up as much as our ladies of Upperzyde."

"I implore you," replied the Count, "beware of such tasteless finery; it would be committing an act of treason!"

And thereupon, he launched out into a panegyric of the national costumes, naively adapted to the particular circumstances of the country, according to differences of nationality and race.

"Dress," he declared, "completes the human type. Let us have our special style of clothing just as we have our special flora and fauna!" his picturesque words seeming to paint and pourtray beautiful human forms harmoniously draped.

At the height of his ethological lecture he perceived that the young peasant girl was indeed listening, but without at all understanding the meaning of his enthusiasm.

In order to divert her, he took upon himself to show her the various apartments of the newly restored château, chock-full of souvenirs and relics. Claudie took the Count's arm, and leading the way, he invited the other villagers to follow, file after file. Claudie's eyes, like two burning coals, devoured the gold of the frames, of the panellings, and of the candelabra, the feudal tapestries, the panoplies of rare arms, but remained unmoved by the art, the taste, the fine ordonnance of these luxurious accessories. Nude nobles, painted or sculptured, among others copies of the young men of Buonarotti surrounding, as with a frame the celebrated compositions on the ceiling of the Sixtine chapel,[2] only struck her on account of their absolute nakedness. Throwing her head backwards she would burst out into a bold, vulgar laugh, or else, covering her face, she pretended to be shocked, whilst her bosom meanwhile rose and swelled; and Kehlmark could feel her trembling and panting against his hips. Michael Govaertz followed in their steps with the lively but bewildered band of villagers. Some of the ignorant clowns made comments on the canvasses of masters, smacking their jaws at one another and, in front of the mythological nudities, indicated their choice with a wink of the eye and even other significant gestures.

Several times the Burgomaster turned round and recommended them to adopt more seemly behaviour.

As he returned from his vain endeavour to recall them to decency, he said: "Someone who is not pleased to see you among us, Count, is our minister, Dom Balthus Bomberg."

"Oh really now!" replied the Dykgrave. "How can I possibly offend him? I do not attend church, it is true, but I believe I know as much about the question of religion as he does, and as for real genuine virtue, I get along well with good men of all creeds. That reminds me, Dom Balthus declined my invitation to-day, giving me to understand that such promiscuous meetings were repugnant to his character. There's evangelicalism for you! He's a nice man to his parishioners! Isn't he?"

"Do you know he has already preached against you?" said Claudie.

"Indeed? he does me too much honour."

"He did not attack you directly and took care not to name you," the Burgomaster continued, "but all those present understood that he referred to your lordship, when he denounced "those fine gentlemen come from the capital, who proclaim infidel opinions, and who, wanting in all their duties, set a bad example to poor parishioners, in making light, with their dissolute manners, of the holy sacrament of marriage!" And so on and so forth! It appears he gave them a good quarter of an hour of it, at least, according to what my devotees of sisters tell us, for neither I nor mine set foot in his church!"

On hearing this allusion to his irregular establishment, the Count had slightly changed colour, and his nostrils even showed a nervous contraction of anger, which did not escape Claudie.

"Shall we not have the honour of paying our respects to Madame—or, shall I rather say, Mademoiselle …?" inquired the peasant girl, with affected hesitation.

A further expression of suppressed discontent passed over Kehlmark's countenance. Nor did the passing cloud escape the notice of the crafty village wench. "So much the better," she mused, "the pretentious hussy seems to pall upon him already."

"You mean Mademoiselle Blandine, my housekeeper," said Kehlmark with a gay air!

"Excuse her. She is very busy, and besides, extremely timid. Her great pleasure consists in preparing and managing behind the scenes my little receptions. She is in a way my master of the ceremonies, the general steward of Escal-Vigor."

He laughed, but Claudie seemed to detect in his laugh something pinched and throttled. On the other hand, it was with a truly softened intonation that he added: "She is almost a sister. She was present with me when my grandmother 'closed her eyes for the last time'."

After a short silence: "And you will come to see us at 'Les Pèlerins', Count," asked Claudie, a little disturbed in her matrimonial speculations by the almost fervent tone of Kehlmark's last words.

"Yes, Count, you would do us great honour by such a visit," added the Burgomaster: "Without boasting, "Les Pèlerins" has not its equal in the whole kingdom. We have none but cattle of the choicest kind, prize specimens, the cows and horses no less than the pigs and sheep."

"Rely on me," said the young man.

"Doubtless Monsieur le Comte knows the whole country?" inquired Claudie.

"Well, yes, nearly so. The aspect is very varied. Upperzyde has left in my mind the recollection of a pretty little town, with monuments and even a curious museum. I discovered there once a very agreeable Frans Hals: [3] Ah, a chubby-faced boy, a player on the pipe; the most wonderful symphony of flesh, decoration, and atmosphere, with which this productive and virile artist has ever enchanted the canvas. For this charming little rascal I would give all the Venuses, even those of Rubens,—I must return to Upperzyde."

He stopped short, remembering that to these good people he was only talking Greek.

"I have been informed," he resumed, "of the dunes and heaths at Klaarvatsch. Wait now! Are there not there some very bizarre parishioners?"

"Ah, the savages!" exclaimed the Burgomaster, with an air of protection and contempt. "A population of noisy braggarts! The only vagabonds and mendicants of the country! Our Guidon, my ne'er-do-well of a son, has'gone amongst them! Sad to say, he might be one of them!"

"I will ask your son to guide me there one day, Burgomaster," said Kehlmark, leading his guests into another apartment. His eyes had brightened at the recollection of the little pipe-player. Now they were veiled, and his voice had in it a trembling, an accent of indescribable melancholy, followed by a sort of sob disguised as a cough. Claudie kept looking right and left, casting up the market value of the various knick-knacks and curiosities that fell under her notice.

In the billiard room, which they had just entered, an entire wall was covered, as is well known, by Conradin and Frederick of Baden, a painting done by Kehlmark himself from an engraving very popular in Germany. The last kiss of the two young princes, victims of Charles of Anjou, gave their faces an expression of deep, almost sacramental, love, which had been rendered with great intensity by Henry.

— "That?… Two young princes. The masters of one of my distant ancestors. They are about to be beheaded," he explained in a strange tone of raillery, to Claudie, who yawned before this painting almost like a lounger used to public executions.

"Poor children!" remarked the robustious girl. "They embrace each other like lovers."

"They loved each other well!" murmured Kehlmark, as though he were saying Amen! whilst he drew his companion away. As she naively called attention to the abundance of statues and of nude male figures among the pictures and marbles, he said, "Why yes, they are really the sort of things such as are to be found at Upperzyde and in other museums, you know! They serve after all to fill up the place! For lack of models I use them as copies." Kehlmark spoke these words with an indifferent tone, mimicking, one might well have suspected, the ignorant chatter of the uneducated folk he was piloting.

Was he laughing in his sleeve at his guests or, rather keeping watch and ward over himself?

In accordance with the custom of the village they had sat down to table at noon.

It was now nine o'clock and the hour of nightfall.

All at once there was heard a banging and snorting of musical instruments.

Torches drew nigh out of the darkness keeping step with the cadenced measure of open-air serenades, and their curious gleam shed into the half-shadow of the large apartments a strange reddishness like the uncertain light of an aurora borealis.

  1. A full-bodied woman, such at appear on the canvasses of Jordaens, celebrated Flemish painter of the XVIIth cent.
  2. A chapel in the Vatican at Rome, built by order of Sixtus IV, and decorated with frescoes by Michael Angelo Buonarotti. These famous frescoes represent various scenes from the Bible.
  3. A celebrated Dutch painter (1580-1666) who excelled in portraiture, Rembrandt alone surpassing him.