Escal Vigor/Part II/Chapter III

III.

While lavishing his attentions on those around him and on the community in general, Kehlmark redoubled his marks of kindness to Landrillon. He treated him with more good humour than ever, affecting to take fresh pleasure in his barrack-room yarns.

But the rascal was not the dupe of this manifestation of good-will. Without showing aught thereof, he had not delayed to take umbrage at the influence of the little Guidon Govaertz on Henry de Kehlmark, and perhaps he surprised a slight glimpse—nothing renders us more perspicacious than envy—of the extent of the affection which these two beings bore to one another. Let the reader imagine the feeling of ignoble jealousy that might affect a circus clown who sees success and popularity abandon him for the sake of a comedian of graver and more serious cast, and he will understand the deep, long-contained ill-will that the coachman nourished for the little peasant. Kehlmark almost always took Govaertz with him in his drives, and it was Landrillon who drove them. On an excursion which they made to Upperzyde to visit the museum and have another look at the Franz Hals, the young Govaertz shared the apartment of his master, while Landrillon was relegated to the garret under the roof. Worse still, the servant was forced to serve this ragamuffin at table—this ne'er-do-well, formerly the laughing-stock and scapegoat of the Smaragdis labourers, and now swollen with importance, cherished, petted, and become the inseparable companion of Monsieur. To think that this great lord seemed unable to dispense with the company of this wretched young errand-runner, who spoiled his fine paper, expensive canvas, and costly paints!

Had not the varlet dreamed of becoming the husband of Blandine, he would, perhaps, have been even worse disposed towards the cursed shepherd lad. Up to a certain point, the servant was not displeased at the exclusive importance which the young Govaertz was assuming in the life of the Count. Landrillon looked forward to making a good use at the proper time of this intimacy between the two men, in order to detach Blandine from her master. Neglected and even abandoned by Kehlmark, the poor woman would naturally be more inclined to listen to a new gallant.

Availing himself of a moment when Blandine had gone into the kitchen to attend to some household matter, Landrillon ventured one day to make his declaration:—

"I have some small savings," he hasarded, "and if it is true that the old lady left you a portion of her stored-up "spoof" we shall make a nice couple, do you not think so, Mam'zelle Blandine? For while you are a pretty enough mouthful you must allow there are uglier fellows than me. Lots of fine wenches of your sex have, for the rest, found out ways to convince me of it," added the would-be seducer, twirling his mustache. Much disgusted with this declaration, Blandine declined coldly and with dignity the honour which he offered her, without taking the trouble to give the least reason for her refusal.

"Eh, what, Mam'zelle! that can't be your last word. You'll consider. Boasting apart, marriers of my stamp, gallants with none but good intentions, are not come across every day."

"Do not insist, Monsieur Landrillon; I have only one answer."

"Ah, then, you must have designs on someone else."

"No, I shall never marry."

"Well, then at least you love somebody else?"

"That must be my secret and a matter between my conscience and myself."

Rather elevated, for he had drunk several glasses of gin in order to give himself a little Dutch courage, he ventured to take her by the waist, squeeze her, and even steal a kiss. But she pushed him away, and as he began again, fetched him a box of the ears, threatening to complain to the Count. So, for the time, he considered he had said enough.

This scene took place in the early days of their settling down at Escal-Vigor.

But Landrillon did not consider himself beaten. He returned to the charge, taking advantage of moments when he found himself alone with her, to importune her with familiarities and liberties.

Whenever he had been drinking she ran serious danger. What times the Count retired to his studio with Guidon or they went out together, Landrillon seized the opportunity to harass the young woman. He pursued her from one apartment to another, and to escape from his enterprise, she had to shut herself up in her room, although he went so far as to threaten to break in the door.

Just as in the town, in the days of the Dowager, Henry had no one to serve him in the house except Blandine and Landrillon. The five Klaarvatsch lads attached to his person were not housed in the château. So that very often, the unfortunate housekeeper found herself almost abandoned to the mercy of this rascal.

Life became unbearable to the young woman. If she refrained from complaining to Kehlmark, it was because she thought this trifling joker, this low bred buffoon, was indispensable to Henry's amusement. Such was her devotion to the Dykgrave that the noble girl would have scrupled to deprive him of the least object capable of diverting him from his melancholy and depression. Thus she witnessed with a stoical self-denial the influence which the young Govaertz was obtaining over the mind of her master, and she even endeavoured to smile graciously on her lover's favourite.

She therefore endured the teasing and importunity of the satyr and contented herself with escaping as well as she could from his violence.

Blandine's resistance and contempt only exasperated the ruffian's desire. One day he was even on the point of forcing his odious passion on to her by brute strength, when she armed herself with a kitchen knife, left lying on the table, and threatened to plunge it into his belly.

Then, as he drew back, she fled in tears towards the staircase, determined to go up to the Count's room and denounce to him the rascal's disgraceful conduct.

"As thou wilt," sneered Landrillon, pale with rage and lust, and likewise resolved to go to extremities. "But in thy place, I'd do nothing of the sort. I don't fancy thou'lt be quite welcome up there. He's more likely to be cross with thee for disturbing him. For if thou hast still a fondness for him, he don't care a brass button for thee, thy quondam lover!"

"What do you mean?" protested the young woman, stopping on the first step.

"Oh, it's no use playing the innocent! We know what we know, hang it all! Thou hast been his mistress, don't deny it."

"Landrillon!"

"Ay, it is the gossip of Zoudbertinge and even of all Smaragdis. The Rev. Balthus Bomberg never ceases to thunder against 'the Dykgrave's street-walker'."

Giving up her intention of ascending the stairs, she retraced her steps, let herself sink into a chair, fainting, and almost lifeless with grief and shame.

A prelude on the piano broke the silence which they both kept.

Guidon was singing up there, with his rustic voice, (just broken and still a little defective, but of singularly magnetic power), a wrecker's ballad, which Kehlmark accompanied on the piano.

Her body shaken with sobs, that seemed to keep time, Blandine, grief-struck, listened to the measure of the song; the young fellow's voice seemed to put the crowning touch to her woe.

An equivocal smile curled the lips of the valet as he heard the song, and he regarded unhappy Blandine with a no less ironical look.

"See here," he said, in a wheedling tone, touching her on the shoulder, "don't let us fall out with each other my fine one. Listen to me rather. Its only your good that's wanted, confound it all! You'd be nice and wrong to keep on loving this neglectful and disdainful aristo. What a deceiver! Don't you see he has ceased to care for you?"

And as she raised her head he made her a sign, putting his finger to his mouth, to listen to the strangely passionate song which the disciple was singing to his master, and after another silence, during which they both lent their ears to the sounds from above, he said in a low voice:—

"You see, our master thinks much more of this peasant boy than of you or me. Therefore, in your place, I'd leave him in the lurch and let him give himself up to this blackguard and the other brutes of peasants. Here, Blandine, you will wear yourself out with sorrow, you'll fade away through vexation. Your beauty will vanish without being of advantage to the least creature on God's earth. If you'll take my advice, my dear, we will both return to the town. I have had enough of our holiday at Smaragdis. It is not to be believed, but since this sly young wretch entered the château there's nothing for anybody but him! You and I sink into the background. What a sudden infatuation! Two fingers of the same hand are not more inseparable."

"Well, what can you have to object to this attachment?" said Blandine, seeking once more to overcome her misgivings. "This Guidon Govaertz is a nice boy, unappreciated by his relatives, much superior, as everything shows, by his intelligence and sentiments, to the most part of these coarse islanders. The Count is right to make so much of the poor child, who for the rest, grows every day more and more deserving of his kindnesses."

"Yes, agreed; but Monsieur exaggerates his patronage. He does not sufficiently observe a proper distance, but shows, really, too much affection for the snotty nose. A Count of Kehlmark should not mix himself up too much, hang it! with a former cow and swine herdsman."

"Once more, what do you mean?"

For reply, Landrillon merely plunged his hands into his pockets and, staring in the air, began to whistle a sort of parody of the little shepherd boy's song. Then he went away, reckoning he had said enough for the moment.

Left to herself, Blandine commenced again to weep. Without thinking of evil, whatever she might do to reason herself out of it, she was troubled at the perpetual companionship of the Count and his favourite. In vain she argued with herself and endeavoured to rejoice at the change in Kehlmark, his activity, his joy in life: she regretted that this moral cure was not her own work, but a miracle wrought by this youthful intruder.

"What now!" said Landrillon a few days later to the young woman, "he's all right, our governor is, Mam'zelle Blandine! Ah! they get on better and better, our artist chaps! Yesterday, they pecked at each other with their little beaks, how lik'st that!"

"Thou talk'st nonsense, Landrillon," she replied, laughing with an effort. "Once more, I tell you, the Count is attached to this little peasant because he does credit to his lessons. Where is the harm? I have already told thee he loves this young Govaertz like a younger brother, as an intelligent pupil whose mind he has opened and cultivated."

Landrillon hummed a light air, making an ugly grimace that was chock-full of hidden meaning.

Vicious to the marrow, having passed through the worst promiscuities of the barracks, his character was a compound of police-spy, male-prostitute, and blackmailer. Incapable of understanding anything deep or noble in ordinary affections, still less could he recognize and admit the possibility of an absolutely noble and elevated love of man for man.

As Blandine kept silent, not understanding these insinuations, he pursued "I have my own notion, Mam'zelle. My opinion is that he no longer pays much attention to petticoats, our governor, even supposing that he ever troubled about them. But, you ought to know something about it, eh? Would he have already "unharnessed," and he a young man still?"

"Landrillon!" protested Blandine, "pray refrain from such reflections. It is not for you to judge the Count. What he does is well done, do you hear?"

"Beg pardon, Mademoiselle, I'll keep quiet, perfectly quiet! But all the same, he's very mysterious, our master! He leads a strange kind of life. Always with his peasants, and especially with this little wheedler. We count for no more in his eyes than his horses and dogs. Really, I admire your indulgence for his larkings. You know better than I that he has entirely thrown you over. If it's change he requires—bless me, I also like to taste different fruits! he'd only have to look around him and choose. The prettiest girls of Smaragdis, from Zoudbertinge to Klaarvatsch would be at his disposal. I know one of them," (and he said these words not without spite, for he had already tried the ground on his own account in that quarter) "who burns to her blood and marrow to see him—how shall I say?— in her private apartment. Why it's precisely big Claudie, the very sister of the young cockswain. Although he shows himself several times a week at Les Pèlerins, no one will get out of my head that the gallant is fonder of the brother's breeches than the petticoats of the sister!"

"Once more, I say, be quiet, " exclaimed Blandine, her heart tightening at the idea of the love which the virago felt for Kehlmark; and knowing herself detested by the gawky thing, to such an extent that the latter did not salute her when they met each other in the lanes. As for Kehlmark's affection for Guidon, if she suffered from it involuntarily, she persisted in suspecting in it nothing abnormal or improper.

"Well, qui vivra verra! Mam'zelle Blandine. An occasion will soon arise to enlighten you as to the colour of the liaison between these two painters!" sneered Thibaut, delighted at his witty sally.

"Enough. Not another word!" cried Blandine. "I hardly know what prevents me from letting the Count know on the spot, of your abominable imputations—or rather, I know too well; for I would die of shame before daring to repeat to him what you have just said to me!"