After these scenes Kehlmark often reproached himself. "Never will anybody love me whole-heartedly like this woman," he said arguing with himself. And he recalled their first intimacy in the grandmother's house. He had always been her oracle, her god. She was his advocate with the Dowager, palliated his follies, and obtained for him money which he needed. Where would he meet with such devotion and faithfulness again? Did she not now even go the length of tolerating his passion for young Govaertz?
Then, at the height of his good dispositions, a complete reaction would take place. For a word, a look, an intonation of voice, for anything he thought he noticed of severity, or disapproval in her face, he began again to suspect and even to detest her, seeing only in her devotion a diseased, inquisitorial curiosity, a refinement of vengeance and contempt. She exercised her wits, he imagined, to confound and overwhelm him by her self-abnegation. This angel was to him but a skilful torturer.
And, on the first occasion, the unhappy man broke out into invectives against her, of an increasingly atrocious character.
At this period, Blandine's beauty reflected the superhuman exaltation of her sentiments; her beauty had something in it even of the majesty of death. But a repose and peace even more absolute than that of the tomb was about to reign in her heart.
Harassed by Landrillon, she had ended by giving herself up to him. She had offered her poor body as a holocaust to save the soul of him whom she regarded as sacreligious and criminal. As a Christian woman she doubtless prayed for him to snatch his soul from perdition, and all her heart rose towards the ungrateful man at the very moment when she immolated herself in the arms of the odious blackmailer.
The sacrifice was renewed at each fresh exigency of the rascal. Blandine breathed again. Landrillon would not attempt anything against the Count's reputation. She hoped also for a miracle. Kehlmark would recover from his error. Heaven would hear the saint's prayer.
Weeks went by. "Look here! We have been taking our fill of pleasure together for some time now, my girl, but it's not simply a question of frivolity," said Landrillon one day. "We must think of serious matters; and to begin with, we are going to get married."
"Bah! Is that really necessary," said the woman, with a forced laugh.
"What a question! Whether it is necessary? Thou'rt my mistress; and thou'dst refuse to be my wife!"
"What's the good, seeing thou hast had me—"
"What's the good'? Why, I want to become thy husband. For the rest, what dost thou hope for still in staying here?"
"Very well, then let's be off. Enough of pickings and scrapings! It's time to combine our little savings by going before the notary, and then, before the vicar. After that, good evening, Monsieur le Comte de Kehlmark."
"Never!" said she, with savage energy, thinking of the two others, and with a fixed stare, far away from her interlocutor.
"Why, what's the matter with'ee? And our agreement, what dost with that? I want thee for my lawful splice. Thou hast some ha'pence. I must have'em. Or dost thou prefer that I reveal the chaste mysteries of Escal-Vigor to Balthus Bomberg and Claudie Govaertz?"
"Thou'lt not do that, Landrillon!"
"Ah, we'll see if I won't!"
"I make a proposal," she said. "I'll give thee the money; I will give thee all I have; but let me live here, and you look for another wife."
"Can it be that thou lov'st him still, then, thy buggaboo?" exclaimed the rascal. "So much the worse. Thou'st got to make up thy mind to leave him and become Madame Landrillon. No nonsense! Thou hast two months to think it over, and then chuck it all!"
Abandon Escal-Vigor! Never see Kehlmark again!
As fate willed it, at the height of her anguish, the unhappy woman encountered Henry de Kehlmark, who, provoked by her scared, dolorous look, took her again to task.
"That's a face like a funeral once more! Of course, it's settled. I am the most monstrous of men! But then, Blandine, art not thou thyself a monster to attach thyself to such a being as I?"
"And who knows," jeered the unhappy man, with the sardonic sneer of a wretch exposed to torture, "if it is not my exceptional nature, my alleged anomaly, which flatters thy imaginings? Who will prove to me that in thy devotion there is not an element of sexual perversion, as the sciolists say; something of that pleasure in suffering, which they call by the pretty name of Masochism? In that case thy beautiful self-sacrifice would only stand for madness and disease for some, and crime and disgrace in the eyes of others. Oh, virtue! Oh, sanity! Where are you?"
Never before had he gone at her with such bitter onslaught.
"Alas!" she mused, "to think that it is I who cause him so much misery. I who no longer know what to give up for him; I who, for the sake of his peace, have agreed to live such a life, O Lord!"
"Henry, my dear Henry, " she implored him, be silent, O my God! be silent. Only say what thou wishest me to do? I am nothing but thy servant, thy slave. What hast thou still to reproach me with?"
"Thy contempt, thy grimaces, thy saintly airs! Go, leave me; abandon this plague-stricken man. I want no more of thy insulting compassion. Ah, thou art my remorse, my living reproach. Whatever thou dost thou art a mirror in which I see myself constantly fastened to the pillory, under the red-hot iron of the executioner."
And, seizing her by the wrists at the risk of bruising them, he shouted in her face:
"O normal, irreproachable woman, I hate thee, dost hear, I hate thee!
"Go, I have had enough. Any extremity rather than this hell. Betray me, Madame Judas. Rouse our virtuous neighbours and the whole island. Run to the minister. Tell them what I am. Ah! It's all the same to me.
"This perpetual lying, this constant deception stifles me and weighs upon my spirits. Anything rather than this torture. If thou dost not speak, I'll speak myself; I will tell them all. Ah! I seem infamous to thee; but then, Blandine, thou art more infamous than I, for having lived at the expense of him whom thou despisest, for allowing thyself to he fed and kept by such a reprobate, for having so long tolerated his vices, because he paid thee liberally!"
"Henry, my beloved! Dost thou really believe that? Oh! How thou would'st blame thyself, how horrified thou would'st be if thou knew'st the truth."
Ah, yes, how unjust he was. The injustice of which he believed himself the victim, made him frenzied, blind, and cruel as fate.
He confounded with the crowd,—the malevolent, conforming mass,—this admirable woman, this magnanimous mistress, at times awkward or lacking in strength, presuming too much on her powers, however heroic, and driven to extremity she also, but drawing from her love fresh means of exalting more and more this god, who banished her from his heaven.
"Yes, I do believe it, truly!" persisted the deluded man; "Thou sparest me, thou'rt careful of me, because thou lead'st here a lady's life, and because thou think'st thyself indispensable to such a prodigal, this spendthrift, who never learned to count. Thou fanciest I cannot do without thee. Thou'rt mistaken. Go away. Leave me to ruin myself in health, goods, and honour. Thou'rt rich enough. Rid me of thy presence!… I'll give thee money even. But for the love of heaven, get gone as quickly as possible. Things that can never be undone have passed between us. Henceforth we must have a mutual horror of one another."
"Oh! my Henry!" sobbed out the poor woman.
She was going to speak, but her words would have confounded and humiliated him, and she retired so as not to be tempted to tell him the truth.