PART THE THIRD
THE FAIR OF ST. OLFGAR
As a result of this culminating explanation, the Dykgrave, to whom Blandine had revealed a part of Landrillon's manœuvres, namely, those of which she had not been directly the victim, dismissed the domestic.
The Count preferred to face the worst consequences of this step rather than continue to breathe the same air with the rascal, and Blandine, entirely won over to her master's views, now feared no longer the scandal that the fellow had constantly threatened.
Landrillon was stupefied at this unexpected execution. He believed he was about to attain his ends and that he held them both, Blandine and the Count, at his mere mercy. How dared they send him away? Truly he could not get over it.
But, although taken aback for the moment, when Kehlmark, having had him summoned, bluntly gave him his dismissal, his effrontery soon resumed its way:—
"Bless me, Count!" he exclaimed banteringly, "you think our relations will stop there! No, indeed! You will not so soon have done with me. A man knows plenty of things, who has not had his eyes and ears in his pocket."
"Low wretch!" exclaimed Kehlmark, staring steadily and imperiously at the rascal, who had thought to intimidate him, and making him to lower his eyes. "Get out! I don't care a jot for your plots. Know, however, that for the least defamation aimed at us, at myself or at the beings dear to me, I will make you responsible, and have you dragged up before the law-courts."
Then, as the varlet contracted his lips to vomit forth some unclean word, Kehlmark, with a sudden movement, thrust him outside head foremost, choking the insult down his throat.
Having packed his belongings, Landrillon, white with rage and breathing out vengeance, rejoined Blandine, flattering himself with the idea that he would be able to get back his own out of her and terrorise her for both.
"It's getting serious. They declare war against me now! Look out for yourself!" he came and said to her.
"You can do just as you please," replied Blandine, henceforth as calm and self-possessed as Kehlmark. "We shall be surprised at nothing from you!"
"We! We have then made it up with the … bugger. Let us be polite! Not weak stomached, the little 'un! We'll share him with his youngster, or, what shall we say to be always polite? An establishment of three! All my compliments!"
These insinuations failed to cause her the slightest emotion. She contented herself by regarding him with an air of contempt.
This impassibility completed the stupefaction of the groom.
The hussy was escaping him! Would he never have any more power over her? To make himself sure, he went on:
"But its no question of all that. Enough joking! Thou hast put thy name to a compact with me. I'm pitched out. Thou'st got to come with me!"
"How dost thee say that f Thou belong'st to me. Hast thou told thy miserable looking lord that thou had'st the shoving of a little pleasure with me? Or would'st like me to inform him?"
"He knows all," she said.
She lied purposely, so as to be able to parry any attack on Landrillon's part. If he spoke, the Count would not believe him. The noble creature desired Kehlmark always to remain ignorant to what a degree she had sacrificed herself for the sake of his tranquility; she wished to avoid humiliating him, or rather causing him everlasting remorse, by such a proof of how much she had loved him.
"What! and in spite of that he takes thee back again!" cried Landrillon. "Peuh! you are really worthy the one of the other. So thou still lov'st this broken-down swell?"
"Thou hast hit it exactly; and, if possible, more than ever."
"Thou belong'st to me. I want thee, and on the spot, were it only for the last time."
"No! Never again; I am free of you, and laugh henceforth at all your enterprises." Landrillon was so taken aback at this change of face and so daunted by the desperately resolute air of the owners of Escal-Vigor that once outside he dared not follow up his conspiracy and divulge what he had seen, or at least, speak of what he suspected.
In the village, he asserted that he had left Escal-Vigor of his own accord in order to establish himself, and, as his version was not contradicted from the château, this unexpected event did not occasion any great amount of gossip.
Not daring yet to break openly with his former master, he attempted to undermine his popularity. Accordingly, he paid assiduous court to Claudie, whom his free-handed joviality had always amused, and he flattered the vanity of the farmer of Les Pélérins. Rejected by Blandine, he pitched his choice on the rich heiress of the farm, but this new caprice he meant to employ in the service of the inextinguishable hatred which he bore henceforth to the Dykgrave's mistress,—one of those hates which represent the aberration of love. For he began madly to desire the woman, who had escaped and outwitted him.
Landrillon put in appearance also at the services and sermons of Dom Balthus. He insinuated himself into the good graces of the pastor's wife and of the two old maids, the sisters of the Les Pélérin's farmer.
The former valet did not dare yet to act openly, but he would yet let loose a terrible storm on Kehlmark, his concubine, and their favourite. Their pride, their audacity, astonished him; indeed had they "cheek and brass!" How could they reconcile such morals with dignity! Nothing more was wanting but that they should seek to derive glory from their disgrace!
The scamp was a better prophet than he knew. He thought he had the right to hold his old master in deep contempt. The thousand acts of blackguardism, to which he, a thoroughgoing rascally trooper, an absolute prostitute, had abandoned himself during his time served in a military prison, seemed to him mere trifles and of no consequence whatsoever. In all times vice has condemned true love, and the Kehlmarks have been the rehabilitation of the Landrillons. The crowd will always prefer Barabbas to Jesus.
As a beginning, Landrillon was going to apply himself to detaching Michael Govaertz from the lord of Escal-Vigor; to cool the fine enthusiasm of the father and daughter, to warm the rancour of the virago against Blandine, and then to incriminate vaguely the relations between Guidon and Kehlmark.
"In your place," he ventured to say one day to Michael and Claudie, "I would not leave the young Guidon at the château. The irregular household of the Count and this minx is a bad example for a young man."
He saw by their astonished smile that he was taking a wrong road and so did not press the point.
Landrillon would not have been able to furnish the proof of the scandalous imputations that he was burning to formulate against the master of Escal-Vigor. To think that for an instant the rascal had flattered himself to be able to produce Blandine against him?
Warned beforehand, the Count would hold himself on his guard, would have care not to take any compromising step, to fall into any traps, and would save appearances to perfection.
The presence of Guidon at the château was justified from every point of view. Far from parting with him, the Count had just taken him into his service as secretary.
For a moment, Thibaut thought of suborning witnesses, of corrupting the Klaarvatsch workmen, the five Hercules, whom the Count employed for the rough jobs in the château and who posed as models in his studio. But these rough simple fellows were devoted to their patron, and would have badly handled the enemy at the first word broached of his nefarious plan. It was necessary to use stratagem, to gain them in some other way, cautiously, without hurrying matters.
He confined himself, for the time, to canvassing those of Klaarvatsch,who did not work continuously at the château, the sculpturesque sailors, the supernumeraries of the athletic games and ornamental tourneys, the personages of the "masks" and living pictures arranged by the Dykgrave. Landrillon accordingly, instilled into them a feeling against the five privileged ones and especially against the little favourite, who took the principal parts in these masquerades, as they were called by the valet, who had himself been rigorously excluded from these aesthetic interludes on account of his vulgarity. The men ended by agreeing with Landrillon that the ascendency of that little, beardless brat, Guidon Govaertz, over the Dykgrave was far too great. Ill-disposed towards the page, it would not be long, calculated this Machiavel of the dunghill, before they regarded the master himself with a less favourable eye.
On the other hand, the quondam domestic, who had opened a sort of hostelry between the park of Escal-Vigor and the village of Zoudbertinge, drew the unfavourable notice of the notables upon the excessive interest manifested by Henry in the ragamuffins of Klaarvatsch, the refuse of the Isle of Smaragdis.
Landrillon now often saw Balthus Bomberg. But he confined himself to entertaining the latter with the equivocal relationship of Blandine and the Count, without giving him a glimpse of a still more shocking and enormous moral irregularity.
The minister, who had cudgelled his brains to find a means of overthrowing and ruining the Dykgrave, had never contemplated, even in imagination, a weapon so maleficent as that which Landrillon counted one day upon using. Ah, the terrible explosion! If that mine one day burst the worst scoundrels would be obliged to abandon the unworthy favourite! Not a decent man on the island would again hold out his hand to the reprobate!
"What are we to do, my dear Monsieur Landrillon," the vicar, meanwhile, asked of his new ally, "to exorcise and turn again these fanatics, so as to wean them from this sorcerer, this corruptor?"
"Yes, yes! Corruptor is not too harsh!" broke in Landrillon, with an inward laugh, which would have given much cause for suspicion to any other than this pastor, who, though a rigid moralist, was of limited ideas.
"Mind you," he protested, "I have no spite against this wicked nobleman; I am solely moved by zeal for my religion, proper morals, and the triumph of goodness."
"In order to succeed, my Reverend Sir," Landrillon resumed a cunning look, "we must discover in the Count of Kehlmark a transgression which would offend a terrible, and in some sort ineradicable, prejudice in our social and Christian order; you understand what I mean, an abomination which would cry not only for vengeance to heaven but even to the less hardened sinners."
"Yes, but who will furnish us the proof of a crime of this nature?" sighed Bomberg.
"Patience, my Reverend Sir, patience!" snuffled artfully the wicked domestic.
Bomberg kept his ecclesiastical superiors informed as to the more favourable turn which their affairs were taking.
Constantly besieged by Landrillon, Claudie began to get impatient at the delays and procrastination of the Count of Kehlmark. What contributed the more to irritate her was that the rejected suitors round about did not scruple to laugh at her, and even caricature her in tavern songs. Landrillon made her believe that Blandine still retained her hold on the Dykgrave. Consequently, the gawky booby still more detested the housekeeper, the affected minx! Equally reserved with her as with Bomberg, Landrillon took care not to set the hot-blooded peasant girl yet upon the right track. "Ah, we shall see some rare fun the day that Claudie gets to know the truth. There'll be some fine milk spilt," mused the crafty sneak, rubbing his hand and laughing to himself!
He rejoiced in advance, tasted and gloated over his vengeance, took voluptuous pleasure in sharpening the decisive weapon, unwilling to strike except with sure blow, and in perfect safety for himself.
Claudie for her part, however, did not abandon her great project. She would win Kehlmark from her white-faced rival.
Seeing her still so smitten with the Dykgrave, Landrillon, whose watchful hate served him like a gift of divination, began by revealing to her the Count's financial difficulties; then he predicted the downfall of the great lord and even his early departure. Contrary to the valet's expectation, Claudie, although surprised, showed herself none the less inclined for the ruined gentleman. She almost rejoiced at this disaster, for she flattered herself to capture the Count, if not by love at least by money. From that moment she cherished a little project, which, in her judgment, must infallibly succeed,and of which she did not breathe a word to anybody.
If Kehlmark was ruined or nearly so, Claudie considered herself rich enough for both. Then, there still remained the title of Countess and the prestige attached to EscalVigor. The Govaertzes felt themselves equal to regilding the blazon of the Kehlmarks. Meanwhile they entered in appearance into the movement of disapproval started and encouraged by Landrillon against the Dykgrave, and even seemed ostensibly to countenance the varlet's proceedings.
In the parish, the wags did not scruple to say that out of spite at not being able to lay hold on the Count's coronet she had fastened on to the servant's livery.
Claudie's private plan was completely to isolate the Dykgrave, to set all Smaragdis against him, and then, when he should be reduced to impotence, she would appear to him like a providence. She would even foment a quarrel between Kehlmark and the Burgomaster and take back from him the young Guidon.
Already Kehlmark had handed in his resignation as Dykgrave and abandoned also his presidentships of associations and of social clubs, ceasing to interest himself in the community's doings. No further largesses; no more fêtes. Nothing more was needed to make him lose two-thirds of his popularity.
Claudie had become reconciled to the two sisters of her father without the latter's knowledge. Authorised and spurred on by their niece, they forced their brother to buckle under. "Thou must break with the master of Escal-Vigor, or thou'lt cause us to disinherit thy dear Claudie!"
Govaertz would perhaps have put his back up, but he had no right to compromise the future of his children. Claudie came to the rescue, declaring she no longer wished to become Countess. Moreover, she attacked her father on his vain side. Since the Count had returned to the country Michael Govaertz had counted for nothing. He was only Burgomaster in name.
Govaertz ended by throwing himself into the arms of the minister.
It was quite an event when the father and daughter re-entered the church.
The pastor thundered with more virulence than ever against the master of Escal-Vigor and his concubine. During the service Claudie contemplated with eager curiosity the frescoes representing the martyrdom of St. Olfgar.
In returning to Bomberg's bosom the Burgomaster broke for good and all with Kehlmark. Govaertz, still by the advice of Claudie, accentuated this rupture by recalling Guidon; but the latter had meanwhile attained his majority, and he accorded his father's request the same sort of welcome he had formerly dealt out to the appeal of the minister.
The youngster's cheeky insubordination certainly surprised Claudie, but did not otherwise awaken her suspicions.
As for the people at Escal-Vigor, they lived solely to themselves. Since the dismissal of Landrillon Kehlmark had ceased his visits at Les Pèlerins. It was that indeed, which had determined Claudie to make war on him.
Kehlmark, again transfigured, had reconquered all his courage and philosophy. During the period of his heart-rending explanations with Blandine he had fallen again into his melancholy humours, but now he had overcome himself and broken with the last links that bound him to Christianity. He believed himself better than a rebel, he held himself an apostle; it was he now who would take the offensive and judge his judges.
While waiting for an opportunity to take the field he armed himself with reading, compiled documents, and collected in history and literature illustrious examples to be used as apologetics. The physician, once consulted by Madame de Kehlmark, certainly never suspected what kind of apostleship the young man would espouse, whose genius and exceptional destiny he had so clearly foreseen.
At what precise moment did Landrillon resolve to communicate secretly to Bomberg, and to him only, presumptive evidence against the Count's conduct? Probably, on the day on which Claudie gave him to understand that she was still deeply attached to Kehlmark.
At the first words, which the minister heard of the passional aberration on the part of his enemy, he feigned a sort of scandalised pain and professional commiseration. At bottom, he rejoiced! But how to make use of this lucky, well-timed scandal against the Count? There were no proofs, and even had there been, it would be necessary to publish the shame of the young Govaertz. The two allies agreed to wait for a suitable occasion. Who knows, perhaps they might succeed some day in turning the youth, who had been led astray, against his execrable undoer?
Meanwhile, the Dykgrave's popularity continued to diminish. Landrillon applied himself again, with some hope of success, to work upon those Klaarvatsch vagabonds, who had so long been the Count's chosen companions, the wildest of whom still remained in his service.
"How is it I never guessed all that sooner?" reflected Bomberg striking his head, after the departure of the informer. "Treble blockhead that I am! Everything should have warned me and given me intuition of these horrors! Did not the parents of this libertine love each other to an excess that cried to heaven for vengeance? Living only for themselves, limiting the purpose of the universe to their exclusive corporal and moral duality, in their monstrous egoism they had wished even not to have children, so much had they dreaded to lose touch one of the other!"
The minister had been informed as to this particularity by his predecessor; Henry was not born except by chance, after several years of this unnatural marriage.
Moreover, at the now distant period when Henry de Kehlmark was tormenting his conscience on account of his inversion, having learned from his grandmother how excessively his parents had adored each other, he attributed his anomaly to the impious regret which his parents must have experienced at the time of his conception. Doubtless they were vexed with themselves at having brought into the world a being who would introduce himself, like an interloper, into the midst of their mutual endearments. The young Count had long imagined that he had been begotten under the governance of this maternal displeasure. This sentiment of aversion had not proved of long duration in his mother, who was a loving woman whereof Henry had had abundant proof. Nevertheless, he remained convinced up to the day of his complete moral emancipation, that the child procreated under the influence of an antipathy would be fatally unbalanced in his relations and would render unto all womankind the deep repugnance which his mother had, at a certain moment, manifested towards him.
This conviction minister Bomberg himself still tenaciously held.
But now, Henry had returned to the sentiment of his dignity, his autonomy, and his conscience. With Guidon and Blandine he felt himself strong enough to create a religion of absolute love, as well homogenic as heterogenic. He lived in a state of exaltation, like a prophet on the point of setting out on an imperative and dangerous mission.