THE CHALET, August 7th.
My love,—Take the children away to Provence without me; I remain with Louise, who has only a few days yet to live. I cannot leave either her or her husband, for whose reason I fear.
You know the scrap of letter which sent me flying to Ville d'Avray, picking up the doctors on my way. Since then I have not left my darling friend, and it has been impossible to write to you, for I have sat up every night for a fortnight.
When I arrived, I found her with Gaston, in full dress, beautiful, laughing, happy. It was a heroic falsehood! They were like two lovely children together in their restored confidence. For a moment I was deceived, like Gaston, by the effontery; but Louise pressed my hand, whispering:
"He must not know; I am dying."
An icy chill fell over me as I felt her burning hand and saw the red spots on her cheeks. I congratulated myself on my prudence in leaving the doctors in the wood till they should be sent for.
"Leave us for a little," she said to Gaston. "Two women who have not met for five years have plenty of secrets to talk over, and Renee, I have no doubt, has things to confide in me."
Directly we were alone, she flung herself into my arms, unable longer to restrain her tears.
"Tell me about it," I said. "I have brought with me, in case of need, the best surgeon and the best physician from the hospital, and Bianchon as well; there are four altogether."
"Ah!" she cried, "have them in at once if they can save me, if there is still time. The passion which hurried me to death now cries for life!"
"But what have you done to yourself?"
"I have in a few days brought myself to the last stage of consumption."
"I got myself into a profuse perspiration in the night, and then ran out and lay down by the side of the lake in the dew. Gaston thinks I have a cold, and I am dying!"
"Send him to Paris; I will fetch the doctors myself," I said, as I rushed out wildly to the spot where I had left them.
Alas! my love, after the consultation was over, not one of the doctors gave me the least hope; they all believe that Louise will die with the fall of the leaves. The dear child's constitution has wonderfully helped the success of her plan. It seems she has a predisposition to this complaint; and though, in the ordinary course, she might have lived a long time, a few days' folly has made the case desperate.
I cannot tell you what I felt on hearing this sentence, based on such clear explanations. You know that I have lived in Louise as much as in my own life. I was simply crushed, and could not stir to escort to the door these harbingers of evil. I don't know how long I remained lost in bitter thoughts, the tears running down my cheeks, when I was roused from my stupor by the words:
"So there is no hope for me!" in a clear, angelic voice.
It was Louise, with her hand on my shoulder. She made me get up, and carried me off to her small drawing-room. With a beseeching glance, she went on:
"Stay with me to the end; I won't have doleful faces round me. Above all, I must keep the truth from him. I know that I have the strength to do it. I am full of youth and spirit, and can die standing! For myself, I have no regrets. I am dying as I wished to die, still young and beautiful, in the perfection of my womanhood.
"As for him, I can see very well now that I should have made his life miserable. Passion has me in its grips, like a struggling fawn, impatient of the toils. My groundless jealousy has already wounded him sorely. When the day came that my suspicions met only indifference —which in the long run is the rightful meed of all jealousy—well, that would have been my death. I have had my share of life. There are people whose names on the muster-roll of the world show sixty years of service, and yet in all that time they have not had two years of real life, whilst my record of thirty is doubled by the intensity of my love.
"Thus for him, as well as for me, the close is a happy one. But between us, dear Renee, it is different. You lose a loving sister, and that is a loss which nothing can repair. You alone here have the right to mourn my death."
After a long pause, during which I could only see her through a mist of tears, she continued:
"The moral of my death is a cruel one. My dear doctor in petticoats was right; marriage cannot rest upon passion as its foundation, nor even upon love. How fine and noble is your life! keeping always to the one safe road, you give your husband an ever-growing affection; while the passionate eagerness with which I threw myself into wedded life was bound in nature to diminish. Twice have I gone astray, and twice has Death stretched forth his bony hand to strike my happiness. The first time, he robbed me of the noblest and most devoted of men; now it is my turn, the grinning monster tears me from the arms of my poet husband, with all his beauty and his grace.
"Yet I would not complain. Have I not known in turn two men, each the very pattern of nobility—one in mind, the other in outward form? In Felipe, the soul dominated and transformed the body; in Gaston, one could not say which was supreme—heart, mind, or grace of form. I die adored—what more could I wish for? Time, perhaps, in which to draw near the God of whom I may have too little thought. My spirit will take its flight towards Him, full of love, and with the prayer that some day, in the world above, He will unite me once more to the two who made a heaven of my life below. Without them, paradise would be a desert to me.
"To others, my example would be fatal, for mine was no common lot. To meet a Felipe or a Gaston is more than mortals can expect, and therefore the doctrine of society in regard to marriage accords with the natural law. Woman is weak, and in marrying she ought to make an entire sacrifice of her will to the man who, in return, should lay his selfishness at her feet. The stir which women of late years have created by their whining and insubordination is ridiculous, and only shows how well we deserve the epithet of children, bestowed by philosophers on our sex."
She continued talking thus in the gentle voice you know so well, uttering the gravest truths in the prettiest manner, until Gaston entered, bringing with him his sister-in-law, the two children, and the English nurse, whom, at Louise's request, he had been to fetch from Paris.
"Here are the pretty instruments of my torture," she said, as her nephews approached. "Was not the mistake excusable? What a wonderful likeness to their uncle!"
She was most friendly to Mme. Gaston the elder and begged that she would look upon the chalet as her home; in short, she played the hostess to her in her best de Chaulieu manner, in which no one can rival her.
I wrote at once to the Duc and Duchesse de Chaulieu, the Duc de Rhetore, and the Duc de Lenoncourt-Givry, as well as to Madeleine. It was time. Next day, Louise, worn out with so much exertion, was unable to go out; indeed, she only got up for dinner. In the course of the evening, Madeleine de Lenoncourt, her two brothers, and her mother arrived. The coolness which Louise's second marriage had caused between herself and her family disappeared. Every day since that evening, Louise's father and both her brothers have ridden over in the morning, and the two duchesses spend all their evenings at the chalet. Death unites as well as separates; it silences all paltry feeling.
Louise is perfection in her charm, her grace, her good sense, her wit, and her tenderness. She has retained to the last that perfect tact for which she has been so famous, and she lavishes on us the treasures of her brilliant mind, which made her one of the queens of Paris.
"I should like to look well even in my coffin," she said with her matchless smile, as she lay down on the bed where she was to linger for a fortnight.
Her room has nothing of the sick-chamber in it; medicines, ointments, the whole apparatus of nursing, is carefully concealed.
"Is not my deathbed pretty!" she said to the Sevres priest who came to confess her.
We gloated over her like misers. All this anxiety, and the terrible truths which dawned on him, have prepared Gaston for the worst. He is full of courage, but the blow has gone home. It would not surprise me to see him follow his wife in the natural course. Yesterday, as we were walking round the lake, he said to me:
"I must be a father to those two children," and he pointed to his sister-in-law, who was taking the boys for a walk. "But though I shall do nothing to hasten my end, I want your promise that you will be a second mother to them, and will persuade your husband to accept the office of guardian, which I shall depute to him in conjunction with my sister-in-law."
He said this quite simply, like a man who knows he is not long for this world. He has smiles on his face to meet Louise's, and it is only I whom he does not deceive. He is a mate for her in courage.
Louise has expressed a wish to see her godson, but I am not sorry he should be in Provence; she might want to remember him generously, and I should be in a great difficulty.
Good-bye, my love.
August 25th (her birthday).
Yesterday evening Louise was delirious for a short time; but her delirium was the prettiest babbling, which shows that even the madness of gifted people is not that of fools or nobodies. In a mere thread of a voice she sang some Italian airs from I Puritani, La Sonnambula, Moise, while we stood round the bed in silence. Not one of us, not even the Duc de Rhetore, had dry eyes, so clear was it to us all that her soul was in this fashion passing from us. She could no longer see us! Yet she was there still in the charm of the faint melody, with its sweetness not of this earth.
During the night the death agony began. It is now seven in the morning, and I have just myself raised her from bed. Some flicker of strength revived; she wished to sit by her window, and asked for Gaston's hand. And then, my love, the sweetest spirit whom we shall ever see on this earth departed, leaving us the empty shell.
The last sacrament had been administered the evening before, unknown to Gaston, who was taking a snatch of sleep during this agonizing ceremony; and after she was moved to the window, she asked me to read her the De Profundis in French, while she was thus face to face with the lovely scene, which was her handiwork. She repeated the words after me to herself, and pressed the hands of her husband, who knelt on the other side of the chair.
My heart is broken. I have just seen her in her winding-sheet; her face is quite pale now with purple shadows. Oh! I want my children! my children! Bring me my children!