Mlle. de Kercadiou walked with her aunt in the bright morning sunshine of a Sunday in March on the broad terrace of the Chateau de Sautron.
For one of her natural sweetness of disposition she had been oddly irritable of late, manifesting signs of a cynical worldliness, which convinced Mme. de Sautron more than ever that her brother Quintin had scandalously conducted the child's education. She appeared to be instructed in all the things of which a girl is better ignorant, and ignorant of all the things that a girl should know. That at least was the point of view of Mme. de Sautron.
"Tell me, madame," quoth Aline, "are all men beasts?" Unlike her brother, Madame la Comtesse was tall and majestically built. In the days before her marriage with M. de Sautron, ill-natured folk described her as the only man in the family. She looked down now from her noble height upon her little niece with startled eyes.
"Really, Aline, you have a trick of asking the most disconcerting and improper questions."
"Perhaps it is because I find life disconcerting and improper."
"Life? A young girl should not discuss life."
"Why not, since I am alive? You do not suggest that it is an impropriety to be alive?"
"It is an impropriety for a young unmarried girl to seek to know too much about life. As for your absurd question about men, when I remind you that man is the noblest work of God, perhaps you will consider yourself answered."
Mme. de Sautron did not invite a pursuance of the subject. But Mlle. de Kercadiou's outrageous rearing had made her headstrong.
"That being so," said she, "will you tell me why they find such an overwhelming attraction in the immodest of our sex?"
Madame stood still and raised shocked hands. Then she looked down her handsome, high-bridged nose.
"Sometimes—often, in fact, my dear Aline—you pass all understanding. I shall write to Quintin that the sooner you are married the better it will be for all."
"Uncle Quintin has left that matter to my own deciding," Aline reminded her.
"That," said madame with complete conviction, "is the last and most outrageous of his errors. Who ever heard of a girl being left to decide the matter of her own marriage? It is... indelicate almost to expose her to thoughts of such things." Mme. de Sautron shuddered. "Quintin is a boor. His conduct is unheard of. That M. de La Tour d'Azyr should parade himself before you so that you may make up your mind whether he is the proper man for you!" Again she shuddered. "It is of a grossness, of... of a prurience almost... Mon Dieu! When I married your uncle, all this was arranged between our parents. I first saw him when he came to sign the contract. I should have died of shame had it been otherwise. And that is how these affairs should be conducted."
"You are no doubt right, madame. But since that is not how my own case is being conducted, you will forgive me if I deal with it apart from others. M. de La Tour d'Azyr desires to marry me. He has been permitted to pay his court. I should be glad to have him informed that he may cease to do so."
Mme. de Sautron stood still, petrified by amazement. Her long face turned white; she seemed to breathe with difficulty.
"But... but... what are you saying?" she gasped.
Quietly Aline repeated her statement.
"But this is outrageous! You cannot be permitted to play fast-and-loose with a gentleman of M. le Marquis' quality! Why, it is little more than a week since you permitted him to be informed that you would become his wife!"
"I did so in a moment of... rashness. Since then M. le Marquis' own conduct has convinced me of my error."
"But—mon Dieu!" cried the Countess. "Are you blind to the great honour that is being paid you? M. le Marquis will make you the first lady in Brittany. Yet, little fool that you are, and greater fool that Quintin is, you trifle with this extraordinary good fortune! Let me warn you." She raised an admonitory forefinger. "If you continue in this stupid humour M. de La Tour d'Azyr may definitely withdraw his offer and depart in justified mortification."
"That, madame, as I am endeavouring to convey to you, is what I most desire."
"Oh, you are mad."
"It may be, madame, that I am sane in preferring to be guided by my instincts. It may be even that I am justified in resenting that the man who aspires to become my husband should at the same time be paying such assiduous homage to a wretched theatre girl at the Feydau."
"Is it not true? Or perhaps you do not find it strange that M. de La Tour d'Azyr should so conduct himself at such a time?"
"Aline, you are so extraordinary a mixture. At moments you shock me by the indecency of your expressions; at others you amaze me by the excess of your prudery. You have been brought up like a little bourgeoise, I think. Yes, that is it—a little bourgeoise. Quintin was always something of a shopkeeper at heart."
"I was asking your opinion on the conduct of M. de La Tour d'Azyr, madame. Not on my own."
"But it is an indelicacy in you to observe such things. You should be ignorant of them, and I can't think who is so... so unfeeling as to inform you. But since you are informed, at least you should be modestly blind to things that take place outside the... orbit of a properly conducted demoiselle."
"Will they still be outside my orbit when I am married?"
"If you are wise. You should remain without knowledge of them. It... it deflowers your innocence. I would not for the world that M. de La Tour d'Azyr should know you so extraordinarily instructed. Had you been properly reared in a convent this would never have happened to you."
"But you do not answer me, madame!" cried Aline in despair. "It is not my chastity that is in question; but that of M. de La Tour d'Azyr."
"Chastity!" Madame's lips trembled with horror. Horror overspread her face. "Wherever did you learn that dreadful, that so improper word?"
And then Mme. de Sautron did violence to her feelings. She realized that here great calm and prudence were required. "My child, since you know so much that you ought not to know, there can be no harm in my adding that a gentleman must have these little distractions."
"But why, madame? Why is it so?"
"Ah, mon Dieu, you are asking me riddles of nature. It is so because it is so. Because men are like that."
"Because men are beasts, you mean—which is what I began by asking you."
"You are incorrigibly stupid, Aline."
"You mean that I do not see things as you do, madame. I am not over-expectant as you appear to think; yet surely I have the right to expect that whilst M. de La Tour d'Azyr is wooing me, he shall not be wooing at the same time a drab of the theatre. I feel that in this there is a subtle association of myself with that unspeakable creature which soils and insults me. The Marquis is a dullard whose wooing takes the form at best of stilted compliments, stupid and unoriginal. They gain nothing when they fall from lips still warm from the contamination of that woman's kisses."
So utterly scandalized was madame that for a moment she remained speechless. Then—
"Mon Dieu!" she exclaimed. "I should never have suspected you of so indelicate an imagination."
"I cannot help it, madame. Each time his lips touch my fingers I find myself thinking of the last object that they touched. I at once retire to wash my hands. Next time, madame, unless you are good enough to convey my message to him, I shall call for water and wash them in his presence."
"But what am I to tell him? How... in what words can I convey such a message?" Madame was aghast.
"Be frank with him, madame. It is easiest in the end. Tell him that however impure may have been his life in the past, however impure he intend that it shall be in the future, he must at least study purity whilst approaching with a view to marriage a virgin who is herself pure and without stain."
Madame recoiled, and put her hands to her ears, horror stamped on her handsome face. Her massive bosom heaved.
"Oh, how can you?" she panted. "How can you make use of such terrible expressions? Wherever have you learnt them?"
"In church," said Aline.
"Ah, but in church many things are said that... that one would not dream of saying in the world. My dear child, how could I possibly say such a thing to M. le Marquis? How could I possibly?"
"Shall I say it?"
"Well, there it is," said Aline. "Something must be done to shelter me from insult. I am utterly disgusted with M. le Marquis—a disgusting man. And however fine a thing it may be to become Marquise de La Tour d'Azyr, why, frankly, I'd sooner marry a cobbler who practised decency."
Such was her vehemence and obvious determination that Mme. de Sautron fetched herself out of her despair to attempt persuasion. Aline was her niece, and such a marriage in the family would be to the credit of the whole of it. At all costs nothing must frustrate it.
"Listen, my dear," she said. "Let us reason. M. le Marquis is away and will not be back until to-morrow."
"True. And I know where he has gone—or at least whom he has gone with. Mon Dieu, and the drab has a father and a lout of a fellow who intends to make her his wife, and neither of them chooses to do anything. I suppose they agree with you, madame, that a great gentleman must have his little distractions." Her contempt was as scorching as a thing of fire. "However, madame, you were about to say?"
"That on the day after to-morrow you are returning to Gavrillac. M. de La Tour d'Azyr will most likely follow at his leisure."
"You mean when this dirty candle is burnt out?"
"Call it what you will." Madame, you see, despaired by now of controlling the impropriety of her niece's expressions. "At Gavrillac there will be no Mlle. Binet. This thing will be in the past. It is unfortunate that he should have met her at such a moment. The chit is very attractive, after all. You cannot deny that. And you must make allowances."
"M. le Marquis formally proposed to me a week ago. Partly to satisfy the wishes of the family, and partly..." She broke off, hesitating a moment, to resume on a note of dull pain, "Partly because it does not seem greatly to matter whom I marry, I gave him my consent. That consent, for the reasons I have given you, madame, I desire now definitely to withdraw."
Madame fell into agitation of the wildest. "Aline, I should never forgive you! Your uncle Quintin would be in despair. You do not know what you are saying, what a wonderful thing you are refusing. Have you no sense of your position, of the station into which you were born?"
"If I had not, madame, I should have made an end long since. If I have tolerated this suit for a single moment, it is because I realize the importance of a suitable marriage in the worldly sense. But I ask of marriage something more; and Uncle Quintin has placed the decision in my hands."
"God forgive him!" said madame. And then she hurried on: "Leave this to me now, Aline. Be guided by me—oh, be guided by me!" Her tone was beseeching. "I will take counsel with your uncle Charles. But do not definitely decide until this unfortunate affair has blown over. Charles will know how to arrange it. M. le Marquis shall do penance, child, since your tyranny demands it; but not in sackcloth and ashes. You'll not ask so much?"
Aline shrugged. "I ask nothing at all," she said, which was neither assent nor dissent.
So Mme. de Sautron interviewed her husband, a slight, middle-aged man, very aristocratic in appearance and gifted with a certain shrewd sense. She took with him precisely the tone that Aline had taken with herself and which in Aline she had found so disconcertingly indelicate. She even borrowed several of Aline's phrases.
The result was that on the Monday afternoon when at last M. de La Tour d'Azyr's returning berline drove up to the chateau, he was met by M. le Comte de Sautron who desired a word with him even before he changed.
"Gervais, you're a fool," was the excellent opening made by M. le Comte.
"Charles, you give me no news," answered M. le Marquis. "Of what particular folly do you take the trouble to complain?"
He flung himself wearily upon a sofa, and his long graceful body sprawling there he looked up at his friend with a tired smile on that nobly handsome pale face that seemed to defy the onslaught of age.
"Of your last. This Binet girl."
"That! Pooh! An incident; hardly a folly."
"A folly—at such a time," Sautron insisted. The Marquis looked a question. The Count answered it. "Aline," said he, pregnantly. "She knows. How she knows I can't tell you, but she knows, and she is deeply offended."
The smile perished on the Marquis' face. He gathered himself up.
"Offended?" said he, and his voice was anxious.
"But yes. You know what she is. You know the ideals she has formed. It wounds her that at such a time—whilst you are here for the purpose of wooing her—you should at the same time be pursuing this affair with that chit of a Binet girl."
"How do you know?" asked La Tour d'Azyr.
"She has confided in her aunt. And the poor child seems to have some reason. She says she will not tolerate that you should come to kiss her hand with lips that are still contaminated from... Oh, you understand. You appreciate the impression of such a thing upon a pure, sensitive girl such as Aline. She said—I had better tell you—that the next time you kiss her hand, she will call for water and wash it in your presence."
The Marquis' face flamed scarlet. He rose. Knowing his violent, intolerant spirit, M. de Sautron was prepared for an outburst. But no outburst came. The Marquis turned away from him, and paced slowly to the window, his head bowed, his hands behind his back. Halted there he spoke, without turning, his voice was at once scornful and wistful.
"You are right, Charles, I am a fool—a wicked fool! I have just enough sense left to perceive it. It is the way I have lived, I suppose. I have never known the need to deny myself anything I wanted." Then suddenly he swung round, and the outburst came. "But, my God, I want Aline as I have never wanted anything yet! I think I should kill myself in rage if through my folly I should have lost her." He struck his brow with his hand. "I am a beast!" he said. "I should have known that if that sweet saint got word of these petty devilries of mine she would despise me; and I tell you, Charles, I'd go through fire to regain her respect."
"I hope it is to be regained on easier terms," said Charles; and then to ease the situation which began to irk him by its solemnity, he made a feeble joke. "It is merely asked of you that you refrain from going through certain fires that are not accounted by mademoiselle of too purifying a nature."
"As to that Binet girl, it is finished—finished," said the Marquis.
"I congratulate you. When did you make that decision?"
"This moment. I would to God I had made it twenty-four hours ago. As it is—" he shrugged—"why, twenty-four hours of her have been enough for me as they would have been for any man—a mercenary, self-seeking little baggage with the soul of a trull. Bah!" He shuddered in disgust of himself and her.
"Ah! That makes it easier for you," said M. de Sautron, cynically.
"Don't say it, Charles. It is not so. Had you been less of a fool, you would have warned me sooner."
"I may prove to have warned you soon enough if you'll profit by the warning."
"There is no penance I will not do. I will prostrate myself at her feet. I will abase myself before her. I will make confession in the proper spirit of contrition, and Heaven helping me, I'll keep to my purpose of amendment for her sweet sake." He was tragically in earnest.
To M. de Sautron, who had never seen him other than self-contained, supercilious, and mocking, this was an amazing revelation. He shrank from it almost; it gave him the feeling of prying, of peeping through a keyhole. He slapped his friend's shoulder.
"My dear Gervais, here is a magnificently romantic mood. Enough said. Keep to it, and I promise you that all will presently be well. I will be your ambassador, and you shall have no cause to complain."
"But may I not go to her myself?"
"If you are wise you will at once efface yourself. Write to her if you will—make your act of contrition by letter. I will explain why you have gone without seeing her. I will tell her that you did so upon my advice, and I will do it tactfully. I am a good diplomat, Gervais. Trust me."
M. le Marquis raised his head, and showed a face that pain was searing. He held out his hand. "Very well, Charles. Serve me in this, and count me your friend in all things."