The Strand Magazine/Volume 1/Issue 3/Camille
From the French of Alfred de Musset.
[Alfred de Musset was born in the middle of old Paris, in the year 1810. Musset is the Byron of the French; but at the age when Byron was playing cricket in the grounds of Harrow, Alfred and his brother Paul were poring day and night over old romances, and dressing themselves up as knights and robbers, to represent the characters of whom they read. At nineteen he began to write, and, unlike Byron, his first book of poems was a complete success. At twenty-three he went to Italy, in the capacity of George Sand's private secretary, fell passionately in love with her, was jilted, and returned home broken-hearted. This, however, did not prevent him from falling in love, and out again, like Byron, at constant intervals throughout his life, and celebrating the event in verses infinitely sweet and bitter. From Louis Philippe, who had been his school-fellow, he received the post of Librarian to the Minister of the Interior, which, however, he lost at the Revolution of 1848. In 1852 he was elected to the French Academy; but, though only forty-two, his health was already breaking. Like Byron, who loved to write at midnight with a glass of gin-and-water at his elbow, Musset used to prime himself with draughts of the still deadlier absinthe. He sank, and died in May, 1857, leaving the greatest name of all French poets except Victor Hugo, and a reputation as a writer of prose stories which may be very fairly estimated by the specimen which follows—the charming little story of "Camille."]
HE Chevalier des Arcis was a cavalry officer who, having quitted the service in 1760, while still young, retired to a country house near Mans. Shortly after, he married the daughter of a retired merchant who lived in the neighbourhood, and this marriage appeared for a time to be an exceedingly happy one. Cécile's relatives were worthy folk who, enriched by means of hard work, were now, in their latter years, enjoying a continual Sunday. The Chevalier, weary of the artificial manners of Versailles, entered gladly into their simple pleasures. Cécile had an excellent uncle, named Giraud, who had been a master-bricklayer, but had risen by degrees to the position of architect, and now owned considerable property. The Chevalier's house (which was named Chardonneux) was much to Giraud's taste, and he was there a frequent and ever welcome visitor.
By and by a lovely little girl was born to the Chevalier and Cécile, and great at first was the jubilation of the parents. But a painful shock was in store for them. They soon made the terrible discovery that their little Camille was deaf, and, consequently, also dumb!
The mother's first thought was of cure, but this hope was reluctantly abandoned no cure could be found. At the time of which we are writing, there existed a pitiless prejudice against those poor creatures whom we style deaf mutes. A few noble spirits, it is true, had protested against this barbarity. A Spanish monk of the sixteenth century was the first to devise means of teaching the dumb to speak without words—a thing until then deemed impossible. His example had been followed at different times in Italy, England, and France, by Bonnet, Wallis, Bulwer, and Van Helmont, and a little good had been done here and there. Still, however, even at Paris, deaf mutes were generally regarded as beings set apart, marked with the brand of Divine displeasure. Deprived of speech, the power of thought was denied them, and they inspired more horror than pity.
A dark shadow crept over the happiness of Camille's parents. A sudden, silent estrangement—worse than divorce, crueller than death—grew up between them. For the mother passionately loved her afflicted child, while the Chevalier, despite all the efforts prompted by his kind heart, could not overcome the repugnance with which her affliction affected him.
The mother spoke to her child by signs, and she alone could make herself understood. Every other inmate of the house, even her father, was a stranger to Camille. The mother of Madame des Arcis—a woman of no tact—never ceased to deplore loudly the misfortune that had befallen her daughter and son-in-law. "Better that she had never been born!" she exclaimed one day.
"What would you have done, then, had I been thus?" asked Cécile indignantly.
To Uncle Giraud his great-niece's dumbness seemed no such tremendous misfortune.
"I have had," said he, "such a talkative wife that I regard everything else as a less evil. This little woman will never speak or hear bad words, never aggravate the whole household by humming opera airs, will never quarrel, never awake when her husband coughs, or rises early to look after his workmen. She will see clearly, for the deaf have good eyes. She will be pretty and intelligent, and make no noise. Were I young, I would like to marry her; being old, I will adopt her as my daughter whenever you are tired of her."
For a moment the sad parents were cheered by Uncle Giraud's bright talk. But the cloud soon re-descended upon them.
In course of time the little girl grew into a big one. Nature completed successfully, but faithfully, her task. The Chevalier's feelings towards Camille had, unfortunately, undergone no change. Her mother still watched over her tenderly, and never left her, observing anxiously her slightest actions, her every sign of interest in life.
When Camille's young friends were of an age to receive the first instructions of a governess, the poor child began to realise the difference between herself and others. The child of a neighbour had a severe governess. Camille, who was present one day at a spelling-lesson, regarded her little comrade with surprise, following her efforts with her eyes, seeking, as it were, to aid her, and crying when she was scolded. Especially were the music-lessons puzzling to Camille.
The evening prayers, which the neighbour used regularly with her children, were another enigma for the girl. She knelt with her friends, and joined her hands without knowing wherefore. The Chevalier considered this a profanation; not so his wife. As Camille advanced in age, she became possessed of a passion—as it were by a holy instinct—for the churches which she beheld. "When I was a child I saw not God, I saw only the sky," is the saying of a deaf mute. A religious procession, a coarse, gaudily bedizened image of the Virgin, a choir boy in a shabby surplice, whose voice was all unheard by Camille—who knows what simple means will serve to raise the eyes of a child? And what matters it, so long as the eyes are raised?
Camiolle was petite, with a white skin, and long black hair, and graceful movements. She was swift to understand her mother's wishes, prompt to obey them. So much grace and beauty, joined to so much misfortune, were most disturbing to the Chevalier. He would frequently embrace the girl in an excited manner, exclaiming aloud: "I am not yet a wicked man!"
At the end of the garden there was a wooded walk, to which the Chevalier was in the habit of betaking himself after breakfast. From her chamber window Madame des Arcis often watched him wistfully as he walked to and fro beneath the trees. One morning, with palpitating heart, she ventured to join him. She wished to take Camille to a juvenile ball which was to be held that evening at a neighbouring mansion. She longed to observe the effect which her daughter's beauty would produce upon the outside world and upon her husband. She had passed a sleepless night in devising Camille's toilette, and she cherished the sweetest hopes. "It must be," she told herself, "that he will be proud, and the rest jealous of the poor little one! She will say nothing, but she will be the most beautiful!"
The Chevalier welcomed his wife graciously—quite in the manner of Versailles! Their conversation commenced with the exchange of a few insignificant sentences as they walked side by side. Then a silence fell between them, while Madame des Arcis sought fitting words in which to approach her husband on the subject of Camille, and induce him to break his resolution that the child should never see the world. Meanwhile, the Chevalier was also in cogitation. He was the first to speak. He informed his wife that urgent family affairs called him to Holland, and that he ought to start not later than the following morning.
Madame understood his true motive only too easily. The Chevalier was far from contemplating the desertion of his wife, yet felt an irresistible desire, a compelling need of temporary isolation. In almost all true sorrow, man has this craving for solitude—suffering animals have it also.
His wife raised no objection to his project, but fresh grief wrung her heart. Complaining of weariness, she sank upon a seat. There she remained for a long time, lost in sad reverie. She rose at length, put her arm into that of her husband, and they returned together to the house.
The poor lady spent the afternoon quietly and prayerfully in her own room. In the evening, towards eight o'clock, she rang her bell, and ordered the horse to be put into the carriage. At the same time she sent word to the Chevalier that she intended going to the ball, and hoped that he would accompany her.
An embroidered robe of white muslin, small shoes of white satin, a necklace of American beads, a coronet of violets—such was the simple costume of Camille, who, when her mother had dressed her, jumped for joy. As Madame was embracing her child with the words, "You are beautiful! you are beautiful!" the Chevalier joined them. He gave his hand to his wife, and the three went to the ball.
As it was Camille's first appearance in public, she naturally excited a great deal of curiosity. The Chevalier suffered visibly. When his friends praised to him the beauty of his daughter, he felt that they intended to console him, and such consolation was not to his taste. Yet he could not wholly suppress some emotion of pride and joy. His feelings were strangely mixed. After having saluted by gestures almost everybody in the room, Camille was now resting by her mother's side. The general admiration grew more enthusiastic. Nothing, in fact, could have been more lovely than the envelope which held this poor dumb soul. Her figure, her face, her long, curling hair, above all, her eyes of incomparable lustre, surprised everyone. Her wistful looks and graceful gestures, too, were so pathetic. People crowded around Madame des Arcis, asking a thousand questions about Camille; to surprise and a slight coldness succeeded sincere kindliness and sympathy. They had never seen such a charming child; nothing resembled her, for there existed nothing else so charming as she! Camille was a complete success.
"It was Camille's first appearance."
Always outwardly calm, Madame des Arcis tasted to-night the most pure and intense pleasure of her life. A smile that was exchanged between her and her husband was well worth many tears.
Presently, as the Chevalier was still gazing at his daughter, a country-dance began, which Camille watched with an earnest attention that had in it something sad. A boy invited her to join. For answer, she shook her head, causing some of the violets to fall out of her coronet. Her mother picked them up, and soon put to rights the coiffure, which was her own handiwork. Then she looked round for her husband, but he was no longer in the room. She inquired if he had left, and whether he had taken the carriage. She was told that he had gone home on foot.
The Chevalier had resolved to leave home without taking leave of his wife. He shrank from all discussion and explanation, and, as he intended to return in a short time, he believed that he should act more wisely in leaving a letter than by making a verbal farewell. There was some truth in his statement of that business affair calling him away, although business was not his first consideration. And now one of his friends had written to hasten his departure. Here was a good excuse. On returning alone to his house (by a much shorter route than that taken by the carriage), he announced his intention to the servants, packed in great haste, sent his light luggage on to the town, mounted his horse, and was gone.
Yet a certain misgiving troubled him, for he knew that his Cécile would be pained by his abrupt departure, although he endeavoured to persuade himself that he did this for her sake no less than for his own. However, he continued on his way.
Meanwhile, Madame des Arcis was returning in the carriage, with her daughter asleep upon her knee. She felt hurt at the Chevalier's rudeness in leaving them to return alone. It seemed such a public slight upon his wife and child! Sad forebodings filled the mother's heart as the carriage jolted slowly over the stones of a newly-made road. "God watches over all," she reflected; over us as over others. But what shall we do? What will become of my poor child?"
At some distance from Chardonneux there was a ford to be crossed. There had been much rain for nearly a month past, causing the river to overflow its banks. The ferryman refused at first to take the carriage into his boat; he would undertake, he said, to convey the passengers and the horse safely across, but not the vehicle. The lady, anxious to rejoin her husband, would not descend. She ordered the coachman to enter the boat; it was only a transit of a few minutes, which she had made a hundred times.
In mid-stream the boat was forced by the current from its straight course. The boatman asked the coachman's aid in keeping it away from the weir. For there was not far off a mill with a weir, where the violence of the water had formed a sort of cascade. It was clear that if the boat drifted to this spot there would be a terrible accident.
The coachman descended from his seat, and worked with a will. But he had only a pole to work with, the night was dark, a fine rain blinded the men, and soon the noise of the weir announced the most imminent danger. Madame des Arcis, who had remained in the carriage, opened the window in alarm. "Are we then lost?" cried she. At that moment the pole broke. The two men fell into the boat exhausted, and with bruised hands.
The ferryman could swim, but not the coachman. There was no time to lose. "Père Georgeot," said Madame to the ferryman, calling him by his name, can you save my daughter and myself?"
"Certainly!" he replied, as if almost insulted by the question.
"What must we do?" inquired Madame des Arcis.
"Place yourself upon my shoulders," replied the ferryman, "and put your arms about my neck. As for the little one, I will hold her in one hand, and swim with the other, and she shall not get drowned. It is but a short distance from here to the potatoes which grow in yonder field."
"And Jean?" asked Madame, meaning the coachman.
"Jean will be all right, I hope. If he holds on at the weir, I will return for him."
Père Georgeot struck out with his double burden, but he had over-estimated his powers. He was no longer young. The shore was farther off, the current stronger than he had thought. He struggled manfully, but was nearly swept away. Then the trunk of a willow, hidden by the water and the darkness, stopped him suddenly with a violent blow upon the forehead. Blood flowed from the wound and obscured his vision.
"Could you save my child if you had only her to convey?" asked the mother.
"I cannot tell, but I think so," said the ferryman.
The mother removed her arms from the man's neck, and let herself slip gently into the water.
When the ferryman had deposited Camille safely on terra firma, the coachman, who had been rescued by a peasant, helped him to search for the body of Madame des Arcis. It was found on the following morning, near the bank.
The discovery of the body of Madame des Arcis.
Camille's grief at her mother's loss was terrible to witness. She ran hither and thither, uttering wild, inarticulate cries, tearing her hair, and beating the walls. An unnatural calm succeeded these violent emotions; reason itself seemed well-nigh gone.
It was then that Uncle Giraud came to his niece's rescue. "Poor child!" said he, "she has at present neither father nor mother. With me she has always been a favourite, and I intend now to take charge of her for a time. Change of scene," said Uncle Giraud, "would do her a world of good." With the Chevalier's permission (obtained by letter), he carried off Camille to Paris. The Chevalier returned to Chardonneux, where he lived in deepest retirement, shunning every living being, a prey to grief and keen remorse.
A year passed heavily away. Uncle Giraud had as yet failed utterly to rouse Camille. She steadily refused to be interested in anything. At last, one day he determined to take her, nolens volens, to the opera. A new and beautiful dress was purchased for the occasion. When, attired in this, Camille saw herself in the glass, so pleased was she with the pretty picture that, to her good uncle's intense satisfaction, she actually smiled!
Camille soon wearied of the opera. All—actors, musicians, audience—seemed to say to her "We speak, and you cannot; we hear, laugh, sing, rejoice. You rejoice in nothing, hear nothing. You are only a statue, the simulacrum of a being, a mere looker-on at life."
When, to exclude the mocking spectacle, she closed her eyes, the scenes of her early life rose before the eyes of her mind. She returned in thought to her country home, saw again her mother's dear face. It was too much! Uncle Giraud observed, with much concern, tears rolling down her cheeks. When he would have inquired the cause of her grief, she made signs that she wished to leave. She rose, and opened the door of the box.
"She leaned over the edge of the box."
Just at this moment, something attracted her attention. She caught sight of a good-looking, richly-dressed young man, who was tracing letters and figures with a white pencil upon a small slate. He exhibited this slate now and then to his neighbour, a man older than himself, who evidently understood him at once, and promptly replied in the same manner. At the same time the two exchanged signs.
Camille's curiosity and interest were deeply stirred. She had already observed that this young man's lips did not move. She now saw that he spoke a language which was not the language of others, that he had found some means of expressing himself without the aid of speech—that art for her so incomprehensible and impossible. An irresistible longing to see more seized her. She leaned over the edge of the box, and watched the stranger's movements attentively. When he again wrote something upon his slate, and passed it to his companion, she made an involuntary gesture as if to take it. Whereupon the young man, in his turn, looked at Camille. Their eyes met, and said the same thing, "We two are in like case; we are both dumb."
Uncle Giraud brought his niece's wrap, but she no longer wished to go. She had reseated herself, and was leaning eagerly forward.
The Abbé de l'Epée was then just becoming known. Touched with pity for the deaf and dumb, this good man had invented a language that he deemed superior to that of Leibnitz. He restored deaf mutes to the ranks of their fellows by teaching them to read and write. Alone and unaided he laboured for his afflicted fellow-creatures, prepared to sacrifice to their welfare his life and fortune.
The young man observed by Camille was one of the Abbé's first pupils. He was the son of the Marquis de Maubray.
It goes without saying that neither Camille nor her uncle knew anything either of the Abbé de l'Epée, or of his new method. Camille's mother would assuredly have discovered it, had she lived long enough. But Chardonneux was far from Paris; the Chevalier did not take The Gazette, nor, if he had taken it, would he have read it. Thus a few leagues of distance, a little indolence, or death, may produce the same result.
"She began to copy with great care."
Upon Camille's return from the opera, she was possessed with but one idea. She made her uncle understand that she wished for writing materials. Although the good man wanted his supper, he ran to his chamber, and returned with a piece of board and a morsel of chalk, relics of his old love for building and carpentry.
Camille placed the board upon her knee, then made signs to her uncle that he should sit by her and write something upon it. Laying his hand gently upon the girl's breast, he wrote, in large letters, her name, Camille, after which, well satisfied with the evening's work, he seated himself at the supper-table.
Camille retired as soon as possible to her own room, clasping her board in her arms. Having laid aside some of her finery, and let down her hair, she began to copy with great pains and care the word which her uncle had written. After writing it many times, she succeeded in forming the letters very fairly. What that word represented to her, who shall say?
It was a glorious night of July. Camille had opened her window, and from time to time paused in her self-imposed task to gaze out, although the "view" was but a dreary one. The window overlooked a yard in which coaches were kept. Four or five huge carriages stood side by side beneath a shed. Two or three others stood in the centre of the yard, as if awaiting the horses which could be heard kicking in the stable. The court was shut in by a closed door and high walls.
Suddenly Camille perceived, beneath the shadow of a heavy diligence, a human form pacing to and fro. A feeling of fear seized her. The man was gazing intently at her window. In a few moments Camille had regained her courage. She took her lamp in her hand, and, leaning from the casement, held it so that its light illumined the court. The Marquis de Maubray (for it was he), perceiving that he was discovered, sank on his knees and clasped his hands, gazing at Camille meanwhile with an expression of respectful admiration. Then he sprang up, and nimbly clambering over two or three intercepting vehicles, was in a few minutes within Camille's room, where his first act was to make her a profound bow. He longed for some means of speaking to her, and, observing upon the table the board bearing the written word Camille, he took the piece of chalk, and proceeded to write beside that name his own—Pierre.
"He was in a few minutes within Camille's room."
"Who are you? and what are you doing here?" thundered a wrathful voice. It was that of Uncle Giraud, who at that moment entered the room, and bestowed upon the intruder a torrent of abuse. The Marquis calmly wrote something upon the board, and handed it to Uncle Giraud, who read with amazement the following words: "I love Mademoiselle Camille, and wish to marry her. I am the Marquis de Maubray; will you give her to me?"
The uncle's wrath abated.
"Well!" remarked he to himself, as he recognised the youth he had seen at the opera—"for going straight to the point, and getting through their business quickly, I never saw the like of these dumb folk!"
The course of true love, for once, ran smooth. The Chevalier's consent to this highly desirable match for his daughter was easily obtained. Much more difficult was it to convince him that it was possible to teach deaf mutes to read and write. Seeing, however, is believing. One day, two or three years after the marriage, the Chevalier received a letter from Camille, which began thus:—"Oh, father! I can speak, not with my mouth, but with my hand."
She told him how she had learned to do this, and to whom she owed her new-born speech—the good Abbé de l'Epée. She described to him the beauty of her baby, and affectionately besought him to pay a visit to his daughter and grand-child.
After receiving this letter, the Chevalier hesitated for a long time.
"Go, by all means," advised Uncle Giraud, when he was consulted. "Do you not reproach yourself continually for having deserted your wife at the ball? Will you also forsake your child, who longs to see you? Let us go together. I consider it most ungrateful of her not to have included me in the invitation."
"He is right," reflected the Chevalier. "I brought cruel and needless suffering upon the best of women. I left her to die a frightful death, when I ought to have been her preserver. If this visit to Camille involves some pain to myself, that is but a merited chastisement. I will taste this bitter pleasure; I will go and see my child."
In the pretty boudoir of a house in the Faubourg St. Germain, Camille's father and uncle found Camille and Pierre. Upon the table lay books and sketches. The husband was reading, the wife embroidering, the child playing on the carpet. At sight of the welcome visitors the Marquis rose, while Camille ran to her father, who, as he embraced her tenderly, could not restrain his tears. Then the Chevalier's earnest look was bent upon the child. In spite of himself, some shadow of the repugnance he had formerly felt for the infirmity of Camille stirred afresh at sight of this small being who had doubtless inherited that infirmity.
"Another mute!" cried he.
Camille raised her son to her arms; without hearing she had understood. Gently holding out the child towards the Chevalier, she placed her fingers upon the tiny lips, stroking them a little, as if coaxing them to speak. In a few moments he pronounced distinctly the words which his mother had caused him to be taught:—
"Good morning, papa!"
"Now you see clearly," said Uncle Giraud, "that God pardons everything and for ever!"