Escal Vigor/Part I/Chapter VI


The season of their carnal love did not last long. When the bonds of their physical union were relaxed and then dissolved, Blandine was but little afflicted and hardly surprised. However, she loved him more passionately than ever, cherishing an idolatrous gratitude for the homage which he had paid her, and esteeming herself happy and proud in his attachment.

The Dowager had suspected their good understanding, but she was ignorant how far their love had gone. She smiled benignly on this affection, for she became more and more accustomed to look upon Blandine as her granddaughter, and as the sister, if not the wife of her Henry.

Madame de Kehlmark herself admired her grandson, but being clear-sighted and her very solicitude making her acute, she divined that he was exceptional even to the extent of anomaly; and something whispered to her also that the young Count would be unhappy, if he was not already so. She was alarmed at the readiness, or rather, at the restlessness of his genius. He would work by fits and starts, would shut himself up in his apartment and remain there for weeks without seeing the streets, reading, rhyming, composing scores, saturating himself with the spirit of Beethoven, Schumann and Wagner, daubing canvas, arranging his papers; then afterwards, to these times of excessive confinement, succeeded periods in which he experienced an imperious need to play the fool, when he would take pleasure in frequenting the suspicious quarters of the town, in exploring the low lodging-houses of sailors and boatmen, giving himself up to unbridled night-wanderings, disappearing for several days, passing entire carnivals without seeing his bed, and when at last he came to throw himself down on it like jetsam thrown on the beach, or like a wounded, hunted deer, which has succeeded in reaching its lair, spent and exhausted, it was to go out no more for several days, and to sleep, sleep, and sleep again!

The reader may imagine the nightmare through which the two women passed. Generally they had no idea what had become of him. In setting out on these excursions he took care not to say where he was going, just as on his return he kept silence as to how he had passed his time and what the things were that possessed him. How reconcile such out-breakings with the filial devotion which he entertained for his grandmother! On his return from these expeditions he would weep like a child and would beg the good lady's pardon, but would say, it was beyond his power to do otherwise; this change, this tumultuous diversion was necessary to him; he felt a need to play the fool, to intoxicate himself with movement and noise, in order to drive away God knows what preoccupation; for on that point he refused to explain himself. Or else, he would allege headaches or neuralgia, the remains of his serious illness of former days at the boarding-school.

It happened one day that, at the request of Madame de Kehlmark, he conducted Blandine to the gayest ball of the season. Towards dawn, he took her under cover of the domino into the public dancing-halls of a far lower class, presented her to any chance masks they encountered, and made her play her part in villainous pleasures, in an atmosphere which inebriated him like bad alcohol, but without procuring for him joy nor even the illusion of joy. It was remarked of him in the town that he no longer associated with people of his own class, but that on the contrary, he sought the society of needy artists and men of letters, or even of the lowest parasites. Disregarding etiquette and the worldly code, he did not show himself in any drawing-room.

His tastes and inclinations presented strange contradictions. Thus the same dilettante who collected rare stamps and cherished costly bound volumes, made a collection of the cast-off clothes and the tools of poor workingmen, of sailors' knives, and of soiled suburban-ball entry-tickets.

After having shown himself so very expansive, the young Count wrapped himself up in a sort of savage constraint. Even his joy was out of tune, a hoarse intonation of voice revealing gloomy, hidden thoughts, to such a degree that Blandine long doubted whether he had ever known a day of real serenity. If he tried to express pleasure he only grimaced; his smile looked more like a grinding of the teeth. He seemed to carry within him that bitter smoke whereof Dante speaks: Portando dentro accidioso fummo. He looked as though he wished to stifle a secret pain, to silence one knew not what remorse! In his large ultramarine eyes, there was often something provocative and offensive, but when he omitted to compose his face, the same eyes were full of that boundless agony that Blandine had once caught there, and which had produced upon her a lifelong impression, an agony like the terror of a beast at bay, of a condemned man ascending the scaffold, or better still, like the aspect, at once sublime and sinister, of a Prometheus, a stealer of forbidden fire.

Liberal even to prodigality, passionate for righteous causes, revolted by the rascalities of the multitude, sensitive to excess, he arrived at a point where he could not suffer contradiction and fell into a rage with anyone who attempted to thwart him. Thus, one day when Blandine wished to take from him a pretty child, the offspring of some poor people on a visit to Madame de Kehlmark, and for whom Henry had conceived a tenderness, he so far forgot himself as to pursue his friend with a dagger and even to wound her in the shoulder. A reaction immediately followed and, mad with despair and horrified at his own conduct, he threatened to turn against himself the weapon which he had directed against Blandine.

Justly alarmed at this terrifying episode, the Dowager contrived, unknown to her grandson so as to avoid exciting his wrath, to bring about an interview with a celebrated practitioner, who came to the villa on the pretext of requesting from Kehlmark information on some bibliophilistic point. The physician studied the young man for a long time, under cover of a conversation concerning scientific literature.

In his report to the Countess, the doctor diagnosed a nervous irritability, the cause of which he laboured in vain to discover. At all events, he prescribed a hydropathic treatment and physical exercises,—swimming, fencing, skating, riding,—and declared, for the rest, that he had discovered in the subject no organic lesion or any morbid defect. On the contrary, he asserted that he had never encountered a more active intelligence, so sane a judgment, or an equal elevation of views in so vivacious a nature; and he ended by congratulating the grandmother, saying, with rough professional bluntness:—

"Madame, either I am a perfect ass, or this high-spirited young fellow will do honour to your name. He has genius, your grandson; he is of the stamp of those from whom the Future recruits her artists, conquerors and apostles!"

"Ah! would that he were rather of the stamp of those elected to happiness!" sighed the Dowager, but little ambitious, although of course, flattered by these predictions of glory.