"My poor niece became insane," continued the physician, after a few moment's silence. "Ah! monsieur," he said, seizing the marquis's hand, "life has been awful indeed for that poor little woman, so young, so delicate! After being, by dreadful fatality, separated from the grenadier, whose name was Fleuriot, she was dragged about for two years at the heels of the army, the plaything of a crowd of wretches. She was often, they tell me, barefooted, and scarcely clothed; for months together, she had no care, no food but what she could pick up; sometimes kept in hospitals, sometimes driven away like an animal, God alone knows the horrors that poor unfortunate creature has survived. She was locked up in a madhouse, in a little town in Germany, at the time her relatives, thinking her dead, divided her property. In 1816, the grenadier Fleuriot was at an inn in Strasburg, where she went after making her escape from the madhouse. Several peasants told the grenadier that she had lived for a whole month in the forest, where they had tracked her in vain, trying to catch her, but she had always escaped them. I was then staying a few miles from Strasburg. Hearing much talk of a wild woman caught in the woods, I felt a desire to ascertain the truth of the ridiculous stories which were current about her. What were my feelings on beholding my own niece! Fleuriot told me all he knew of her dreadful history. I took the poor man with my niece back to my home in Auvergne, where, unfortunately, I lost him some months later. He had some slight control over Madame de Vandieres; he alone could induce her to wear clothing. 'Adieu,' that word, which is her only language, she seldom uttered at that time. Fleuriot had endeavored to awaken in her a few ideas, a few memories of the past; but he failed; all that he gained was to make her say that melancholy word a little oftener. Still, the grenadier knew how to amuse her and play with her; my hope was in him, but--"
He was silent for a moment.
"Here," he continued, "she has found another creature, with whom she seems to have some strange understanding. It is a poor idiotic peasant-girl, who, in spite of her ugliness and stupidity, loved a man, a mason. The mason was willing to marry her, as she had some property. Poor Genevieve was happy for a year; she dressed in her best to dance with her lover on Sunday; she comprehended love; in her heart and soul there was room for that one sentiment. But the mason, Dallot, reflected. He found a girl with all her senses, and more land than Genevieve, and he deserted the poor creature. Since then she has lost the little intellect that love developed in her; she can do nothing but watch the cows, or help at harvesting. My niece and this poor girl are friends, apparently by some invisible chain of their common destiny, by the sentiment in each which has caused their madness. See!" added Stephanie's uncle, leading the marquis to a window.
The latter then saw the countess seated on the ground between Genevieve's legs. The peasant-girl, armed with a huge horn comb, was giving her whole attention to the work of disentangling the long black hair of the poor countess, who was uttering little stifled cries, expressive of some instinctive sense of pleasure. Monsieur d'Albon shuddered as he saw the utter abandonment of the body, the careless animal ease which revealed in the hapless woman a total absence of soul.
"Philippe, Philippe!" he muttered, "the past horrors are nothing!--Is there no hope?" he asked.
The old physician raised his eyes to heaven.
"Adieu, monsieur," said the marquis, pressing his hand. "My friend is expecting me. He will soon come to you."
"Then it was really she!" cried de Sucy at d'Albon's first words. "Ah! I still doubted it," he added, a few tears falling from his eyes, which were habitually stern.
"Yes, it is the Comtesse de Vandieres," replied the marquis.
The colonel rose abruptly from his bed and began to dress.
"Philippe!" cried his friend, "are you mad?"
"I am no longer ill," replied the colonel, simply. "This news has quieted my suffering. What pain can I feel when I think of Stephanie? I am going to the Bons-Hommes, to see her, speak to her, cure her. She is free. Well, happiness will smile upon us--or Providence is not in this world. Think you that that poor woman could hear my voice and not recover reason?"
"She has already seen you and not recognized you," said his friend, gently, for he felt the danger of Philippe's excited hopes, and tried to cast a salutary doubt upon them.
The colonel quivered; then he smiled, and made a motion of incredulity. No one dared to oppose his wish, and within a very short time he reached the old priory.
"Where is she?" he cried, on arriving.
"Hush!" said her uncle, "she is sleeping. See, here she is."
Philippe then saw the poor insane creature lying on a bench in the sun. Her head was protected from the heat by a forest of hair which fell in tangled locks over her face. Her arms hung gracefully to the ground; her body lay easily posed like that of a doe; her feet were folded under her without effort; her bosom rose and fell at regular intervals; her skin, her complexion, had that porcelain whiteness, which we admire so much in the clear transparent faces of children. Standing motionless beside her, Genevieve held in her hand a branch which Stephanie had doubtless climbed a tall poplar to obtain, and the poor idiot was gently waving it above her sleeping companion, to chase away the flies and cool the atmosphere.
The peasant-woman gazed at Monsieur Fanjat and the colonel; then, like an animal which recognizes its master, she turned her head slowly to the countess, and continued to watch her, without giving any sign of surprise or intelligence. The air was stifling; the stone bench glittered in the sunlight; the meadow exhaled to heaven those impish vapors which dance and dart above the herbage like silvery dust; but Genevieve seemed not to feel this all-consuming heat.
The colonel pressed the hand of the doctor violently in his own. Tears rolled from his eyes along his manly cheeks, and fell to the earth at the feet of his Stephanie.
"Monsieur," said the uncle, "for two years past, my heart is broken day by day. Soon you will be like me. You may not always weep, but you will always feel your sorrow."
The two men understood each other; and again, pressing each other's hands, they remained motionless, contemplating the exquisite calmness which sleep had cast upon that graceful creature. From time to time she gave a sigh, and that sigh, which had all the semblance of sensibilities, made the unhappy colonel tremble with hope.
"Alas!" said Monsieur Fanjat, "do not deceive yourself, monsieur; there is no meaning in her sigh."
Those who have ever watched for hours with delight the sleep of one who is tenderly beloved, whose eyes will smile to them at waking, can understand the sweet yet terrible emotion that shook the colonel's soul. To him, this sleep was an illusion; the waking might be death, death in its most awful form. Suddenly, a little goat jumped in three bounds to the bench, and smelt at Stephanie, who waked at the sound. She sprang to her feet, but so lightly that the movement did not frighten the freakish animal; then she caught sight of Philippe, and darted away, followed by her four-footed friend, to a hedge of elders; there she uttered the same little cry like a frightened bird, which the two men had heard near the other gate. Then she climbed an acacia, and nestling into its tufted top, she watched the stranger with the inquisitive attention of the forest birds.
"Adieu, adieu, adieu," she said, without the soul communicating one single intelligent inflexion to the word.
It was uttered impassively, as the bird sings his note.
"She does not recognize me!" cried the colonel, in despair. "Stephanie! it is Philippe, thy Philippe, PHILIPPE!"
And the poor soldier went to the acacia; but when he was a few steps from it, the countess looked at him, as if defying him, although a slight expression of fear seemed to flicker in her eye; then, with a single bound she sprang from the acacia to a laburnum, and thence to a Norway fir, where she darted from branch to branch with extraordinary agility.
"Do not pursue her," said Monsieur Fanjat to the colonel, "or you will arouse an aversion which might become insurmountable. I will help you to tame her and make her come to you. Let us sit on this bench. If you pay no attention to her, she will come of her own accord to examine you."
"SHE! not to know me! to flee me!" repeated the colonel, seating himself on a bench with his back to a tree that shaded it, and letting his head fall upon his breast.
The doctor said nothing. Presently, the countess came gently down the fir-tree, letting herself swing easily on the branches, as the wind swayed them. At each branch she stopped to examine the stranger; but seeing him motionless, she at last sprang to the ground and came slowly towards him across the grass. When she reached a tree about ten feet distant, against which she leaned, Monsieur Fanjat said to the colonel in a low voice,--
"Take out, adroitly, from my right hand pocket some lumps of sugar you will feel there. Show them to her, and she will come to us. I will renounce in your favor my sole means of giving her pleasure. With sugar, which she passionately loves, you will accustom her to approach you, and to know you again."
"When she was a woman," said Philippe, sadly, "she had no taste for sweet things."
When the colonel showed her the lump of sugar, holding it between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, she again uttered her little wild cry, and sprang toward him; then she stopped, struggling against the instinctive fear he caused her; she looked at the sugar and turned away her head alternately, precisely like a dog whose master forbids him to touch his food until he has said a letter of the alphabet which he slowly repeats. At last the animal desire triumphed over fear. Stephanie darted to Philippe, cautiously putting out her little brown hand to seize the prize, touched the fingers of her poor lover as she snatched the sugar, and fled away among the trees. This dreadful scene overcame the colonel; he burst into tears and rushed into the house.
"Has love less courage than friendship?" Monsieur Fanjat said to him. "I have some hope, Monsieur le baron. My poor niece was in a far worse state than that in which you now find her."
"How was that possible?" cried Philippe.
"She went naked," replied the doctor.
The colonel made a gesture of horror and turned pale. The doctor saw in that sudden pallor alarming symptoms; he felt the colonel's pulse, found him in a violent fever, and half persuaded, half compelled him to go to bed. Then he gave him a dose of opium to ensure a calm sleep.
Eight days elapsed, during which Colonel de Sucy struggled against mortal agony; tears no longer came to his eyes. His soul, often lacerated, could not harden itself to the sight of Stephanie's insanity; but he covenanted, so to speak, with his cruel situation, and found some assuaging of his sorrow. He had the courage to slowly tame the countess by bringing her sweetmeats; he took such pains in choosing them, and he learned so well how to keep the little conquests he sought to make upon her instincts--that last shred of her intellect --that he ended by making her much TAMER than she had ever been.
Every morning he went into the park, and if, after searching for her long, he could not discover on what tree she was swaying, nor the covert in which she crouched to play with a bird, nor the roof on which she might have clambered, he would whistle the well-known air of "Partant pour la Syrie," to which some tender memory of their love attached. Instantly, Stephanie would run to him with the lightness of a fawn. She was now so accustomed to see him, that he frightened her no longer. Soon she was willing to sit upon his knee, and clasp him closely with her thin and agile arm. In that attitude--so dear to lovers!--Philippe would feed her with sugarplums. Then, having eaten those that he gave her, she would often search his pockets with gestures that had all the mechanical velocity of a monkey's motions. When she was very sure there was nothing more, she looked at Philippe with clear eyes, without ideas, with recognition. Then she would play with him, trying at times to take off his boots to see his feet, tearing his gloves, putting on his hat; she would even let him pass his hands through her hair, and take her in his arms; she accepted, but without pleasure, his ardent kisses. She would look at him silently, without emotion, when his tears flowed; but she always understood his "Partant pour la Syrie," when he whistled it, though he never succeeded in teaching her to say her own name Stephanie.
Philippe was sustained in his agonizing enterprise by hope, which never abandoned him. When, on fine autumn mornings, he found the countess sitting peacefully on a bench, beneath a poplar now yellowing, the poor lover would sit at her feet, looking into her eyes as long as she would let him, hoping ever that the light that was in them would become intelligent. Sometimes the thought deluded him that he saw those hard immovable rays softening, vibrating, living, and he cried out,--
"Stephanie! Stephanie! thou hearest me, thou seest me!"
But she listened to that cry as to a noise, the soughing of the wind in the tree-tops, or the lowing of the cow on the back of which she climbed. Then the colonel would wring his hands in despair,--despair that was new each day.
One evening, under a calm sky, amid the silence and peace of that rural haven, the doctor saw, from a distance, that the colonel was loading his pistols. The old man felt then that the young man had ceased to hope; he felt the blood rushing to his heart, and if he conquered the vertigo that threatened him, it was because he would rather see his niece living and mad than dead. He hastened up.
"What are you doing?" he said.
"That is for me," replied the colonel, pointing to a pistol already loaded, which was lying on the bench; "and this is for her," he added, as he forced the wad into the weapon he held.
The countess was lying on the ground beside him, playing with the balls.
"Then you do not know," said the doctor, coldly, concealing his terror, "that in her sleep last night she called you: Philippe!"
"She called me!" cried the baron, dropping his pistol, which Stephanie picked up. He took it from her hastily, caught up the one that was on the bench, and rushed away.
"Poor darling!" said the doctor, happy in the success of his lie. He pressed the poor creature to his breast, and continued speaking to himself: "He would have killed thee, selfish man! because he suffers. He does not love thee for thyself, my child! But we forgive, do we not? He is mad, out of his senses, but thou art only senseless. No, God alone should call thee to Him. We think thee unhappy, we pity thee because thou canst not share our sorrows, fools that we are!--But," he said, sitting down and taking her on his knee, "nothing troubles thee; thy life is like that of a bird, of a fawn--"
As he spoke she darted upon a young blackbird which was hopping near them, caught it with a little note of satisfaction, strangled it, looked at it, dead in her hand, and flung it down at the foot of a tree without a thought.
The next day, as soon as it was light, the colonel came down into the gardens, and looked about for Stephanie,--he believed in the coming happiness. Not finding her he whistled. When his darling came to him, he took her on his arm; they walked together thus for the first time, and he led her within a group of trees, the autumn foliage of which was dropping to the breeze. The colonel sat down. Of her own accord Stephanie placed herself on his knee. Philippe trembled with joy.
"Love," he said, kissing her hands passionately, "I am Philippe."
She looked at him with curiosity.
"Come," he said, pressing her to him, "dost thou feel my heart? It has beaten for thee alone. I love thee ever. Philippe is not dead; he is not dead, thou art on him, in his arms. Thou art MY Stephanie; I am thy Philippe."
"Adieu," she said, "adieu."
The colonel quivered, for he fancied he saw his own excitement communicated to his mistress. His heart-rending cry, drawn from him by despair, that last effort of an eternal love, of a delirious passion, was successful, the mind of his darling was awaking.
"Ah! Stephanie! Stephanie! we shall yet be happy."
She gave a cry of satisfaction, and her eyes brightened with a flash of vague intelligence.
"She knows me!--Stephanie!"
His heart swelled; his eyelids were wet with tears. Then, suddenly, the countess showed him a bit of sugar she had found in his pocket while he was speaking to her. He had mistaken for human thought the amount of reason required for a monkey's trick. Philippe dropped to the ground unconscious. Monsieur Fanjat found the countess sitting on the colonel's body. She was biting her sugar, and testifying her pleasure by pretty gestures and affectations with which, had she her reason, she might have imitated her parrot or her cat.
"Ah! my friend," said Philippe, when he came to his senses, "I die every day, every moment! I love too well! I could still bear all, if, in her madness, she had kept her woman's nature. But to see her always a savage, devoid even of modesty, to see her--"
"You want opera madness, do you? something picturesque and pleasing," said the doctor, bitterly. "Your love and your devotion yield before a prejudice. Monsieur, I have deprived myself for your sake of the sad happiness of watching over my niece; I have left to you the pleasure of playing with her; I have kept for myself the heaviest cares. While you have slept, I have watched, I have-- Go, monsieur, go! abandon her! leave this sad refuge. I know how to live with that dear darling creature; I comprehend her madness, I watch her gestures, I know her secrets. Some day you will thank me for thus sending you away."
The colonel left the old monastery, never to return but once. The doctor was horrified when he saw the effect he had produced upon his guest, whom he now began to love when he saw him thus. Surely, if either of the two lovers were worthy of pity, it was Philippe; did he not bear alone the burden of their dreadful sorrow?
After the colonel's departure the doctor kept himself informed about him; he learned that the miserable man was living on an estate near Saint-Germain. In truth, the baron, on the faith of a dream, had formed a project which he believed would yet restore the mind of his darling. Unknown to the doctor, he spent the rest of the autumn in preparing for his enterprise. A little river flowed through his park and inundated during the winter the marshes on either side of it, giving it some resemblance to the Beresina. The village of Satout, on the heights above, closed in, like Studzianka, the scene of horror. The colonel collected workmen to deepen the banks, and by the help of his memory, he copied in his park the shore where General Eble destroyed the bridge. He planted piles, and made buttresses and burned them, leaving their charred and blackened ruins, standing in the water from shore to shore. Then he gathered fragments of all kinds, like those of which the raft was built. He ordered dilapidated uniforms and clothing of every grade, and hired hundreds of peasants to wear them; he erected huts and cabins for the purpose of burning them. In short, he forgot nothing that might recall that most awful of all scenes, and he succeeded.
Toward the last of December, when the snow had covered with its thick, white mantle all his imitative preparations, he recognized the Beresina. This false Russia was so terribly truthful, that several of his army comrades recognized the scene of their past misery at once. Monsieur de Sucy took care to keep secret the motive for this tragic imitation, which was talked of in several Parisian circles as a proof of insanity.
Early in January, 1820, the colonel drove in a carriage, the very counterpart of the one in which he had driven the Comte and Comtesse de Vandieres from Moscow to Studzianka. The horses, too, were like those he had gone, at the peril of his life, to fetch from the Russian outposts. He himself wore the soiled fantastic clothing, the same weapons, as on the 29th of November, 1812. He had let his beard grow, also his hair, which was tangled and matted, and his face was neglected, so that nothing might be wanting to represent the awful truth.
"I can guess your purpose," cried Monsieur Fanjat, when he saw the colonel getting out of the carriage. "If you want to succeed, do not let my niece see you in that equipage. To-night I will give her opium. During her sleep, we will dress her as she was at Studzianka, and place her in the carriage. I will follow you in another vehicle."
About two in the morning, the sleeping countess was placed in the carriage and wrapped in heavy coverings. A few peasants with torches lighted up this strange abduction. Suddenly, a piercing cry broke the silence of the night. Philippe and the doctor turned, and saw Genevieve coming half-naked from the ground-floor room in which she slept.
"Adieu, adieu! all is over, adieu!" she cried, weeping hot tears.
"Genevieve, what troubles you?" asked the doctor.
Genevieve shook her head with a motion of despair, raised her arm to heaven, looked at the carriage, uttering a long-drawn moan with every sign of the utmost terror; then she returned to her room silently.
"That is a good omen!" cried the colonel. "She feels she is to lose her companion. Perhaps she SEES that Stephanie will recover her reason."
"God grant it!" said Monsieur Fanjat, who himself was affected by the incident.
Ever since he had made a close study of insanity, the good man had met with many examples of the prophetic faculty and the gift of second sight, proofs of which are frequently given by alienated minds, and which may also be found, so travellers say, among certain tribes of savages.
As the colonel had calculated, Stephanie crossed the fictitious plain of the Beresina at nine o'clock in the morning, when she was awakened by a cannon shot not a hundred yards from the spot where the experiment was to be tried. This was a signal. Hundreds of peasants made a frightful clamor like that on the shore of the river that memorable night, when twenty thousand stragglers were doomed to death or slavery by their own folly.
At the cry, at the shot, the countess sprang from the carriage, and ran, with delirious emotion, over the snow to the banks of the river; she saw the burned bivouacs and the charred remains of the bridge, and the fatal raft, which the men were launching into the icy waters of the Beresina. The major, Philippe, was there, striking back the crowd with his sabre. Madame de Vandieres gave a cry, which went to all hearts, and threw herself before the colonel, whose heart beat wildly. She seemed to gather herself together, and, at first, looked vaguely at the singular scene. For an instant, as rapid as the lightning's flash, her eyes had that lucidity, devoid of mind, which we admire in the eye of birds; then passing her hand across her brow with the keen expression of one who meditates, she contemplated the living memory of a past scene spread before her, and, turning quickly to Philippe, she SAW HIM. An awful silence reigned in the crowd. The colonel gasped, but dared not speak; the doctor wept. Stephanie's sweet face colored faintly; then, from tint to tint, it returned to the brightness of youth, till it glowed with a beautiful crimson. Life and happiness, lighted by intelligence, came nearer and nearer like a conflagration. Convulsive trembling rose from her feet to her heart. Then these phenomena seemed to blend in one as Stephanie's eyes cast forth a celestial ray, the flame of a living soul. She lived, she thought! She shuddered, with fear perhaps, for God himself unloosed that silent tongue, and cast anew His fires into that long-extinguished soul. Human will came with its full electric torrent, and vivified the body from which it had been driven.
"Stephanie!" cried the colonel.
"Oh! it is Philippe," said the poor countess.
She threw herself into the trembling arms that the colonel held out to her, and the clasp of the lovers frightened the spectators. Stephanie burst into tears. Suddenly her tears stopped, she stiffened as though the lightning had touched her, and said in a feeble voice,--
"Adieu, Philippe; I love thee, adieu!"
"Oh! she is dead," cried the colonel, opening his arms.
The old doctor received the inanimate body of his niece, kissed it as though he were a young man, and carrying it aside, sat down with it still in his arms on a pile of wood. He looked at the countess and placed his feeble trembling hand upon her heart. That heart no longer beat.
"It is true," he said, looking up at the colonel, who stood motionless, and then at Stephanie, on whom death was placing that resplendent beauty, that fugitive halo, which is, perhaps, a pledge of the glorious future--"Yes, she is dead."
"Ah! that smile," cried Philippe, "do you see that smile? Can it be true?"
"She is turning cold," replied Monsieur Fanjat.
Monsieur de Sucy made a few steps to tear himself away from the sight; but he stopped, whistled the air that Stephanie had known, and when she did not come to him, went on with staggering steps like a drunken man, still whistling, but never turning back.
General Philippe de Sucy was thought in the social world to be a very agreeable man, and above all a very gay one. A few days ago, a lady complimented him on his good humor, and the charming equability of his nature.
"Ah! madame," he said, "I pay dear for my liveliness in my lonely evenings."
"Are you ever alone?" she said.
"No," he replied smiling.
If a judicious observer of human nature could have seen at that moment the expression on the Comte de Sucy's face, he would perhaps have shuddered.
"Why don't you marry?" said the lady, who had several daughters at school. "You are rich, titled, and of ancient lineage; you have talents, and a great future before you; all things smile upon you."
"Yes," he said, "but a smile kills me."
The next day the lady heard with great astonishment that Monsieur de Sucy had blown his brains out during the night. The upper ranks of society talked in various ways over this extraordinary event, and each person looked for the cause of it. According to the proclivities of each reasoner, play, love, ambition, hidden disorders, and vices, explained the catastrophe, the last scene of a drama begun in 1812. Two men alone, a marquis and former deputy, and an aged physician, knew that Philippe de Sucy was one of those strong men to whom God has given the unhappy power of issuing daily in triumph from awful combats which they fight with an unseen monster. If, for a moment, God withdraws from such men His all-powerful hand, they succumb.