‘The most desolating thing of all,’ he said, ‘is that every love always ends badly, all the more badly the more divine, the more winged was its beginning. There is no dream, however ideal, which one does not rediscover with a greedy brat fastened to its breasts; there is no retreat, no cottage however delightful and secluded which the pickaxe does not raze to the ground. And yet this destruction is quite material: but there is another, more pitiless and more secret, which attacks invisible things. Imagine at the moment when you lean upon the being of your choice and say: “Let us flee together and seek the depths of the sky!” an implacable and serious voice broods over your ear to tell you that our passions are liars, that it is our short-sightedness that creates the beautiful faces, and our ignorance the beautiful souls, and that necessarily there comes a day when the idol, for more clairvoyant eyes, is now a mere object, not of hatred, but of contempt and astonishment.’
‘For mercy’s sake sir!’ said Madame de Cosmelly.
At the same time she was moved; Samuel had noticed that he had thrust the steel into an old wound, and he persisted cruelly.
‘Madame,’ he said, ‘the salutary sufferings of the memory have their charms, and, in this intoxication of grief, one sometimes finds a solace. At this funereal warning, all loyal souls would cry: “Lord, take me hence with my dream intact and pure: I want to give back to nature my passion with all its virginity, and carry elsewhere my unwithered crown”. Besides, the results of disillusion are terrible. The sickly children of a dying love are sad debauch and hideous impotence; debauch of the mind, impotence of the heart, the result of which is that the one no longer lives save from curiosity, and the other pines away daily from lassitude. All of us resemble more or less some traveller who has traversed a great country, and each evening watches the sun, which once superbly gilded the beauties of the route, go down in a drab horizon. Resignedly, he sits down on dirty hills covered with unknown litter and says to the perfumes of the heather that it is no use their rising towards the empty heaven; to the sparse and wretched seeds that it is no use sprouting in a dried-up soil; to the birds which think their marriages blessed by someone, that they are wrong to build nests in a country swept by cold and violent winds. Sadly he goes on his way towards a desert which he knows is similar to that just traversed, escorted by a pale ghost called Reason, which, with pale lantern, lights the aridity of his road, and, to quench the ever rising thirst of passion that seizes him from time to time, pours into him the poison of ennui.’
Suddenly, hearing a deep sigh and a repressed sob, he turned again towards Madame de Cosmelly. She was weeping copiously and had no longer the strength to hide her tears.
For some time he considered her in silence, with the most sympathetic and the most unctuous air he could assume: the brutal and hypocritic actor was proud of those beautiful tears; he considered them as his work and his literary property. He was mistaken as to the inward meaning of this grief, just as Madame de Cosmelly, drowned in this candid desolation, was mistaken as to the purport of his look. It was a peculiar play of misunderstandings, as a result of which Samuel Cramer, with a decisive gesture, stretched out both his hands, which she took with tender confidence.
‘Madame,’ continued Samuel, after some moments of silence, the classic silence of emotion, ‘true wisdom consists less in malediction than in hope. Without the truly divine gift of hope, how could we cross the hideous desert of ennui which I have just described to you? The ghost which accompanies us is really a ghost of reason; one can drive him away by sprinkling him with the holy water of the first theological virtue. There is an amiable philosophy which contrives to find consolations in the apparently most unworthy objects. Just as virtue is better than innocence, and as there is more merit in sowing a desert than in carelessly rifling the sweets of a fruitful orchard, so it is really worthy of a choice soul to purify itself and to purify its neighbour by contact. As there is no treachery one does not forgive, there is no fault for which one cannot obtain absolution, no oversight which one cannot remedy; there is a science of loving one’s neighbour and finding him lovable, as there is a science of correct living.
‘The more delicate a mind is, the more original beauties it discovers; the more tender a soul, the more open to divine hope, the more reasons for love it finds in others, however sullied they may be; this is the work of charity, and more than one traveller, desolate and lost in the arid deserts of disillusionment, has been seen to reconquer faith and fall more deeply in love with what she had lost, and with all the more reason, since she then possesses the knowledge of how to direct her passion, and that of her beloved.’
Little by little Madame de Cosmelly’s face had lit up; her sadness shone with hope like a watery sun, and scarcely had Samuel finished his speech than she said to him quickly and with the naive candour of a child:
‘Is it really true that this is possible, and that there are branches so easy to seize for those in despair?’
‘But certainly, madame!’
‘Ah, what a happy woman you would make me if you would please teach me your recipes!’
‘Nothing easier,’ he replied brutally.
In the midst of this sentimental marivaudage, confidence had arrived and indeed had joined the hands of the two characters; so much so that after some hesitations and little prudish gestures which to Samuel appeared very promising, Madame de Cosmelly in her turn took him into her confidence, beginning thus:
‘I understand everything that a poetic soul can suffer from this isolation, and how quickly a spiritual ambition like yours must consume itself in its solitude; but your griefs, which belong to none but you, come, as far as I have been able to discern through the pomp of your language, from strange and unsatisfied needs which are almost impossible to satisfy. You suffer, it is true; but possibly your suffering constitutes your grandeur, and is as necessary to you as happiness is to others. Now will you deign to listen to and sympathize with sorrows more easy to understand, a provincial grief? M. Cramer, I expect from you, the scholar, the man of wit, the advice and perhaps the help of a friend.
‘You know that at the time you knew me, I was a good little girl, already a little dreamy like you, but timid and obedient, that I looked at myself in the mirror less often than you did, and that I always hesitated to eat or pocket the peaches and grapes you went boldly and stole for me in our neighbours’ orchards. To me a pleasure was never really agreeable and complete save in so far as it was permitted, and I much preferred kissing a nice boy like you in front of my old aunt than in the middle of the fields. The coquetry and the attention that every marriageable girl ought to pay to her person only came to me later. When I could almost sing a romance at the piano they dressed me with more care, they forced me to stand up straight; they made me do gymnastics and forbade me to spoil my hands planting flowers or bringing up birds. I was allowed to read other things than Berquin and taken in evening dress to the local theatre to hear bad operas.
‘When M. de Cosmelly came to the château, I at once took a great liking to him. Comparing his flourishing youth with my grandmother’s rather carping old age, I thought he looked noble and upright, and his attitude towards me was one of the most respectful gallantry. Then they talked of wonderful things he had done; his arm smashed in a duel for a rather cowardly friend who had entrusted him with his sister’s honour, enormous sums lent to old and penniless comrades, and I don’t know what else. He had with everybody a commanding air, both affable and irresistible, which won me over too. How had he lived before leading this château life with us? Had he known other pleasures then than those of hunting with me, or singing virtuous romances on my bad piano? Had he had mistresses? Of that I knew nothing, and I never even dreamed of inquiring. I began to love him with all the credulousness of a girl who has never had time to make comparisons, and I married him, which pleased my aunt very much indeed. When I was his wife in the eyes of the Church and of God, I loved him still more. I loved him far too much, of course. Was I wrong, was I right? Who can tell? I was happy in that love, and I was wrong not to realize that it might be disturbed. Did I know him well before marrying him? Of course not; but it seems to me that one can no more accuse a nice girl who wants to get married for making an unwise choice than an abandoned woman for taking a cad for a lover. Both of us—wretched creatures that we are—are equally ignorant. What these unfortunate victims called marriageable girls need is a shameful education—I mean the knowledge of men’s vices. I should like each one of those poor little things, before assuming the marriage tie, to hear in some secret place, without being seen, two men talking together about the things of life and especially about women. After that first and formidable test they could abandon themselves with less danger to the terrible hazard of marriage, knowing the strength and weakness of their future tyrants.’