Since the departure of his friend, the Count of Kehlmark had had no rest. He found it impossible to stay for five minutes in the same place. His agitation increased as the distant Fair approached its culminating point of frenzy. He was choking like one in expectation of a storm that is slow to burst.
"What a wild tempest of pleasure," said he to Blandine, who tried maternally to soothe him and to distract him from his depression. "Never before have they carried on such pandemonium! To hear their shouts we might think they were amusing themselves by cutting one another's throats."
For years the mad cacophony, the hullabaloo of the fair, the fire-works, whistlings, organs and trumpets, had not reached him in such violent and significant gusts. This day moreover, the electric atmosphere was surcharged with thick breaths of perspiration, drunkenness, guzzling, and violent heat of desire. Would this afternoon of abhorred Saturnalia draw never to a close!
It grew much worse when the sun set, and the erotic tumult of the trumpets resounded from one headland of Smaragdis to another, adding as it were, a leaden mist to the crimson terrors of the agonising sky. Human voices, still more strident and acute, took up the furious signal of the blaring trumpets, and aggravated it enough to inflame the pitch darkness.
Kehlmark could stand it no longer. Availing himself of a moment when Blandine was attending to the preparations for supper, he threw himself out into the park. All at once, a sharp, piercing note, a cry even more heart-rending than those bugle-calls of Guidon in the elm-grove on the evening of their first meeting, rose high above the metallic riot.
Kehlmark caught the voice of his friend.
"Good God! It's he they're murdering!"
Hurried forward by this frightful certainty he ran headlong into the night, in the direction of the clamorous noise and lamentations.
As he reached the boundary of the park, ready to turn into the very avenue where the outrage was being perpetrated, there was a revival of hootings and vociferations, and he heard the name of the beloved mingled with homicidal outcries.
The next instant, he rushed into the fray, his strength increased tenfold, as he pushed aside the sinister onlookers, scattering the cannibals with furious blows. With the cry of a tigress bending over her cub, he disengaged Guidon, who lay there unconscious, bruised, his clothes in rags and stained with stuprous filth; kissed him and raised him in his arms.
His stature seemed magnified.
Armed with a cane, he struck out right and left all around him, as, with his face to the scamps and furies, he slowly backed towards the park, the crowd opening out to let him pass. But Landrillon and Claudie rallied the others, who were, for the moment, cowed by this majestic intervention.
There was a redoubling of the insults; the attack was now turned with fury from young Govaertz to the Dykgrave. Nobody took his part. His most devoted partisans, the beggars of Klaarvatsch, when they heard the accusation which weighed upon him, held aloof, silent, ashamed, disheartened, and took no part in the contest.
Landrillon hurled the first stone, and the others, following his example, cast at the Dykgrave all that they found at hand. The marksmen, who had come to contend for the archery prize, aimed, without shame, at the too prodigal king of their brotherhood. One arrow hit him under the armpit, another pierced Guidon's throat, making his blood spurt out on to Henry's face. Kehlmark, unheeding his own wound, never for a moment ceased to drink in and, as it were, caress with his eyes the outraged body of his friend; but, pierced a second time near the heart, he fell to the ground with his precious burden.
As they bounded forward to finish him off, a woman in white placed herself before them and, with crossed arms, presented her breast to their blows. Her majesty and her grief were such, and especially the calm heroism and divine renunciation revealed in her visage, that all drew back; whilst Claudie pushing far away from her Landrillon, who was trying to drag her off and claiming the promised reward—threw herself, henceforth irredeemably and for ever mad, into the arms of her father, where she brake out into hysterical laughter in the very face of the sordid Bomberg.
Blandine neither spoke a word, nor shed a tear, nor uttered even a single cry. But her presence gave courage to the well-disposed; the five poor men, Kehlmark's favourites, repented of their base compliance with public feeling, and now carried on their shoulders Kehlmark and Guidon, whose bodies were entwined in one common agony. The rough men wept tears of repentance.
Blandine walked before them to the château. To avoid carrying the wounded men upstairs they prepared a bed for them on the billiard table. The friends recovered consciousness almost simultaneously. Opening their eyes, their gaze fell on Conradin and Frederick of Baden. Then they looked at one another, smiled to each other, remembered the slaughter, closely embraced, and with joined hands awaited the moment of their last breath.
"And me," murmured Blandine, "wilt thou not say a word of farewell to me, Henry! Think how much I have loved thee!"
Kehlmark turned towards her.
"Ah!" he muttered, "to be able to love thee in eternity as thou deserv'st to be loved on earth, thou sublime creature!"
"But, he added, taking again the hand of Guidon, "I would wish to love thee, my Blandine, whilst ever continuing also to cherish this one, this child of delight! Yes, to remain myself, Blandine, not to change! To remain faithful unto the end to my true and legitimate nature! Had I to live again it is thus that I would love, even were I to suffer as much, or even more, than I have suffered; yes, Blandine, my sister, my only woman friend, even if I were to cause thee suffering even as I have done! And blessed be our death to all three, Blandine, for we shall only precede thee a short time out of this world. Blessed be our martyrdom, which shall redeem, enfranchise, and exalt at last all loves!"
Then, his lips joining again the lips of the boy, which were eagerly presented to him, Guidon and Henry mingled their breath in a supreme kiss.
Blandine closed the eyes of both; then stoically, at once pagan and saint, she uttered precursory prayers for the New Revelation, having no longer consciousness of aught terrestrial or temporary, save an infinite void in her heart, a void that henceforth no human image could fill up.
Would her God call her at last into his heaven?