In a few days Kehlmark, Blandine, and Guidon were to leave Escal-Vigor, without expectation of return. Blandine, warned by presentiment, hurried on the preparations for departure. She longed to find herself back again in the great town, and once more beneath the roof of that villa where the revered Dowager of Kehlmark had breathed her last.
Landrillon saw his prey escaping him. Whilst he was quite hopeful of winning Claudie, he was still more anxious to take his fill of revenge on the people of the château. He determined therefore, to hurry events forwards on the one side and the other.
It was the eve of the Bacchanalian fair at Smaragdis, the sacramental season for marriage engagements. Landrillon betook himself to Les Pèlerins and pressed Claudie to make her choice between the Count and him. The rustic beauty asked for a few hours of respite. She intended on the following morning to make one further and final endeavour to secure the Count.
"Damn it, how is it that all the women get inflamed for this fellow?" cried Landrillon. "No, no, Claudie, you'll get no further by being obstinate on the subject. Give me a chance, now that he's ruined. I'm worth more than he is from every point of view. Come, only say the word!"
"Not before I have spoken to him for the last time."
"Bother for nothing! As well hope to warm up a frozen dead body, or to make a man of a—"
Landrillon reined himself in and did not let out the abominable word which was on his lips.
"It's only a question of knowing how to go about it, " observed Claudie.
"More attractive girls than thou would lose their pains. Go on now, art really so anxious to become a Countess?"
"Yes, if you'll have it so."
"But when I tell thee there's not a farthing left; it's Blandine who keeps him now. In a few days they'll have left the country and the château will be sold off. If thou wilt, Claudie, we could marry and buy up Escal-Vigor …"
"No; Kehlmark shall be my husband. There must be a Countess in a chateau. Besides, he now loves no longer this Blandine."
"But he doesn't love thee anymore for that either."
"But he will love me."
"Why do you say never?"
"Listen," she said to him, "thou know'st the usage that prevails in this island; to-morrow is the great day of the Annual Fair, St. Olfgar's day. Now, notwithstanding the Catholic or Protestant bishops, since the time when the women of Smaragdis tore to pieces the apostle who refused himself to their folly, at each Anniversary of the Martyrdom the young girls have the custom of declaring themselves to the timid or backward youth whom they've set eyes upon for husband. I'm going to use this right. To-morrow morning I shall go to Escal-Vigor, and I'm pretty confident of returning from the chateau with the promise of its master."
"Stuff and nonsense!"
"Thou doesn't believe it? Well I'm so sure of it for my part that if he refuses me I'll give myself to thee, Landrillon. I will be thy wife, and even to-morrow night, after the dance is over, I'll pay thee down cash on the spot."
By this brutal promise, the proud-minded hussy did not for a minute imagine she engaged herself to anything.
"In that case, I'm going to run and get our banns published," cried Landrillon exultingly, knowing as he did, better than the vulgar, slow-witted woman, where he stood as regards the weak matrimonial inclinations of his former master.
"May St. Olfgar aid thee!" he added jeeringly, as she retired, already convinced of her approaching conquest.
The Dykgrave received Claudie with much dignity and deference. His air of serene melancholy awed his visitor at first. But all the same, she presently told him without any oratorical preliminaries, the object of her visit.
Kehlmark did not treat her with disdain; he merely interrupted her with a distant gesture and thanked her with a smile, which appeared however, to the coarse peasant girl more like defiance, a sort of mockery, incapable as she was of detecting in it an inexpressible and tragic renunciation.
"You laugh," she protested in a rage, "but consider this, Monsieur, that Count as you are, I am well worth you. The Govaertzes, established as long in Smaragdis as the Kehlmarks, are almost as noble as their lords."
Then, becoming suddenly wheedling and supplicating and ready to abandon herself to him if he had but encouraged her by the least sign of love, she resumed. "Listen, Monsieur, I love you, Yes, I love you … I have even fancied for a long time that you loved me," she added, raising her voice, exasperated by that serene attitude, in which she was unable to surmise a withered grief, the scar of a long incurable wound. "Once you showed me some kindness; I did not seem to be displeasing to you three years ago, when you first established yourself here. Why that playing? I, on my side, believed you, and I dreamed of becoming your wife. Strong in this affection I have refused some of the richest suitors of the country, even certain well-known men in town."
As he did not breathe a word, she decided after a silence, to strike the decisive blow.
"Listen," she went on, "it is said your affairs are no longer in a flourishing condition. With all respect, if you were willing, there would perhaps be a means …"
This time he turned pale, but replied in a kindly, gentle voice:
"My good girl, the Kehlmarks do not sell themselves. You will find more than one suitable husband among your own class. Still, believe me it is not at all through pride that I refuse your offer. I cannot love you, you understand? I cannot. Follow my advice; accept a good, honest fellow for husband. There is no want of them in this prosperous island. I am not at all the sort of companion that would suit you."
The more he spoke with compunction, modestly and persuasively, the more Claudie's passions began to boil. She was inclined to see nothing in him but a haughty mystifier, or a conceited coxcomb who had made fun of her.
"You said just now that a Kehlmark was not for sale!" she exclaimed, panting with spite. "Perhaps I have not bid high enough!
Mam'zelle Blandine, according to what people say, has succeeded in getting you to accept something, anyhow."
"Ah, Claudie," he said, in a heartbroken tone, which, however, did not disarm her.
"That is enough! Let's break off this conversation, my child. You are becoming bad-natured. But I am not angry with you! Adieu!"
His cold, fixed look, strangely chaste, in which was concentrated one knows not what faith, what resolution, dismissed her better than any gesture.
She went out, slamming the doors in a storm of indignation.
"Well," said Landrillon, who was on the look out for her at the entrance of the park. "What did I tell you. He does not love thee, and never will he love thee."
"But what kind of man is this? Am I not beautiful, the most beautiful of all of them? Whence comes so much coldness?"
"My goodness, that's easy enough to explain. No need to search far … He is—how shall I put it?—a kiddie after the style of St. Olfgar … No, I'm slandering the great saint."
"What dost thou mean?"
"To speak more clearly, this fine gentleman has had the bad taste to prefer thy brother to thee."
She burst out laughing in his face, in spite of her rage. What a joker he was, this Landrillon?
"There's nothing to laugh at; it's just as I tell thee."
"Thou'rt lying! Thou'rt going dotty! How can anyone utter such lying stuff!"
"Better than that! Guidon pays him back in his own coin."
"Put the youngster to the proof then; it's easy enough. He has passed twentyone years, I presume, although he hardly looks it. Thou hast just had recourse to one of the customs of the country. There is another one which may apply to thy brother. To night, is not every youth of his age obliged to go to the dance and make choice of a companion, either temporary or permanent? We may wager that the young swell will show himself as frigid in the presence of no matter what petticoat as his protector did just now before yourself."
"All right!" Claudie said, with a voice at once heavy and hissing, "Ah, the hypocrites, the infamous fellows! But woe to them!"
"Ah, my word, now thou beginn'st to see clear at last. That's lucky! Whilst pretending to be smitten on thee, the noble sir prided himself on deceiving folk as to his real amorous propensities."
Thereupon he set to and related all that he had discovered, inventing and amplifying where he could not invoke the evidence of his senses.
She choked with spite, but manifested especially much virtuous disgust.
"Listen," she said to Thibaut, "I will surrender myself to thee this very evening. It's a sworn thing. But, on condition only that thou tak'st revenge for me on all, beginning with my brother, that underhanded, rotten wretch, whom I throw over for ever."
With a clever intelligence, born of hatred, she was resolved to strike Guidon in order the better to attain Kehlmark.
"Above all, no slander!" said Landrillon.
"Be easy about that! The season is favourable to us. This fair will excuse every extravagance!" she murmured, with a frightful smile.
For the honour of the name of Govaertz, she would refrain from all revelation of what she knew of the situation of her brother with the Dykgrave. She would content herself with placing Guidon in a disagreeable and humiliating position. She would expose him to the contact of some strapping wenches, who should be heated up beforehand for the attack, by liberal potations of beer and spirits; but, as the sequel will show, she had counted too much on her cool-bloodedness and reckoned without the ardour, the dizzy madness of her vengeance.