A few days after this alarm in the gardens, Blandine presented herself to Kehlmark, engaged in writing, alone in his study.
Long had she hesitated before resolving on a step, which she considered indispensable, but the gravity of which she could not disguise from herself.
However, although she suffered a thousand deaths, her only thought was to put Kehlmark on his guard, forewarn him against the consequences of his too exclusive attachment to that wretched little vagabond. She refused to believe even her ears as to the extent of his passion; she persisted in seeing therein only an inconsiderate caprice, especially as she knew the Dykgrave's excitability, and the curious rage and violence which he applied to all his undertakings, even his least actions, for he was nothing if not impulsive.
When she entered, the pallor and discomposure of her countenance surprised the Count of Kehlmark.
As soon as he had invited her to sit down and was informed of the object of her visit she began resolutely, without oratorical preliminaries, but with a tight throat.
"I have thought it my duty, Count, to warn you that people outside begin to busy themselves over the continual presence of the son of Govaertz here at Escal-Vigor. Let us say nothing of his coming to the château, but I fear, Henry, that you really display too publicly an outrageous attachment to this little peasant before his equals outside."
"Blandine!" said Kehlmark, pushing away his papers, throwing aside his pen and standing up, confounded at the audacity of this introduction.
"Oh, pardon me, Monsieur Henry," she resumed, "I know well that your actions do not concern them. But all the same, people are so talkative! Always seeing this young peasant hanging at your heels sets their fancies and their evil tongues to work."
"That's a precious thing for me to trouble about!" cried the Count with a forced laugh. "What think you I care for that? Indeed, Blandine, you astonish me by thus concerning yourself with vulgar rumours. It is really showing too much condescension to the envious wretches."
"All the same, Monsieur Henry," she continued with a little less assurance, "I confess to you that I think the astonishment of the villagers well enough founded. Frankly, notwithstanding his qualities, this little Guidon is not the companion for you. Admit it! You now see no one but him, or else you run about here and there with the Klaarvatsch vagabonds at the other end of the island. Of your old friends not one is now invited to Escal-Vigor. All that is not natural and leads to plenty of gossip. Others, besides coarse, ill-disposed people, have reason to be astonished at it."
"Blandine!" interrupted the Dykgrave in an icy and haughty tone, "since when have you taken it into your head to control my actions and interfere with the company I keep?"
"Oh, do not be angry, Monsieur Henry," she said, quite crushed by his harsh tone and forbidding look, "I know I am only your humble servant but I always love you," she continued weeping, "I am quite devoted to you. I would not go against your will in anything, but your reputation and illustrious name are dearer to me and more sacred than my own conscience. It is my great love alone that inspires my words. Ah Henry, if you only knew!"
Sobs prevented her from continuing.
"Blandine," said the Dykgrave, with more gentleness, pitying her grief, "what is the matter with you? Once more, I don't understand you. Explain yourself, do."
"Well, Count, not only do the people of the village laugh at your strange affection for this little shepherd, but some go so far as to assert that you divert him from his duties to his family. And what do they not invent besides! In short, everybody sees it in an evil light that you thus cherish a wretched little cowboy."
"And you, yourself, have not you kept cows? How proud you've become!" said the Dykgrave, cruelly.
"I am proud of belonging to you, Count, and then the Countess—"
"My grandmother?" inquired the Count.
"Your sainted grandparent, my protectress, brought me up and taught me to love you," she went on with a touching inflection of the voice, which made Kehlmark's heart contract.
"Yes, I know that right enough, my poor Blandine. I also love thee and trust thee entirely. That is why I am surprised to see thee agree so well with the envious and malicious … I have nothing to reproach myself with, be sure of that. The same protection which my grandmother accorded thee I further bestow to-day on this young peasant. And is it thou who would'st make a crime of the good I wish to do to this despised and disinherited child? Ah Blandine, I no longer recognise thee in such a rôle. Guidon is an admirably gifted boy and of quite an exceptional nature. He interested me from the day I first saw him."
"That accursed night of the serenade!"
The Count pretended not to have heard these bitter words and went on:—
"It has pleased me to train him, to instruct him, to make him a son of my mind, to share all my knowledge with him. What is there blameworthy in that? I love him."
"You love him too much!"
"I love him as it pleases me to love him."
"Oh Henry! Twin brothers do not cling to one another as you seem to do to this obscure little shepherd. No, listen to me; do not be angry with what I am going to say; but I do not think you have ever loved a woman as much as this wretched boy. Wait, you shall know all … The other evening I slipped into the copse behind the bank on which you were both seated. I overheard the burning and terrible things which you uttered to him with such a voice—Ah! a voice that would have torn out my bowels!… I was still there when you gave him a long kiss on the mouth, and when after you had dragged yourself to his knees, he threw himself in an ecstasy on to your bosom."
"Ah," said Kehlmark in a rage, "you stooped so low, Blandine. Spying! All my congratulations!"
And fearing to give way to his anger, after crushing her with a condemnatory glance, he prepared to leave the apartment. But she flung herself at his knees and seized his hands:
"Forgive me, Henry; but I could not go on any longer. I wished to know. At first I refused to believe my eyes and ears. Have pity! Pity on yourself, Count. You have enemies. The minister Bomberg watches you and is eager to ruin you. Do not wait till an imprudence on your part gives him an opportunity. Cease compromising yourself. Others besides myself might have spied on you that evening. Abandon this unhappy child; send him back to his cow-dung and stalls. There is still time. Beware of a scandal. Get rid of this rascally fellow before people say aloud what doubtless many begin to think and to murmur low."
"Never!" cried Kehlmark, with an almost savage energy. "Never, do you hear? Once more, I have done no harm; on the contrary I desire only this child's good. Nothing, therefore, shall separate me from him."
"Very well, it is I who will go, then," said she, rising. "If this ill-fated little shepherd again sets foot in Escal-Vigor I leave you."
"As you will. I shall not detain you."
"Oh, Henry," she cried, "can it so be? You have then no longer the least kind feeling for me. He dismisses me, Oh God!"
"No, I do not dismiss you, but I permit no one to dictate terms to me. If those who profess to love me will not agree to live amicably together, but raise jealousies among themselves, I separate myself from her who has uttered threats and conspired enviously against another being who is dear to me. That is all. I have lived and will always live free as regards my sympathies and inclinations. For the rest," he continued, taking her by the hand, and looking at her with an ineffable expression of pride and defiance, "remember how I warned you before coming here into exile. I wished to separate from you. Have you forgotten your promise?—"I will be nothing but your faithful housekeeper and will not importune you in anything."—I yielded to your entreaties, but not without foreseeing that you would repent of not having abandoned me to my destiny. What has happened justifies me. This experiment is sufficient, I think. Come, Blandine, without rancour, this time the moment has come to part for ever."
What was it that she read so poignant, so critical in the Dykgrave's look.
"No, no, I will not," she cried. "I repeat my former promise. Thou wilt see, Henry, I will keep my word. Oh, do not tear me away all at once from thy presence and thy heart!"
"So be it," Kehlmark consented, "let us try again, but thou must agree with Guidon Govaertz. He is the being whom I cherish most in this world, he is as necessary to me as the air I breathe; only he has reconciled me to life. And, above all, never an allusion before him to what has passed between us. Beware of showing the least animosity, of making the least reproach, to this child. If aught of ill happ'd to him, if I lost him, if he were taken from me in any way whatever, it would be suicide for me. Dost understand?"
She bent her head in sign of submission, decided to endure the worst tortures, but from his hands, beneath his eyes.