by J.-H. Rosny
published and translated by Santa Fe daily New Mexican. September 22, 1894.
[M]y first marriage, said Jacques Ferveuse, was of but a few hours’ duration and did not break my betrothal to her who afterward became my true wife. It was nevertheless a legal wedding and without doubt the best action of my life. I have pardoned myself for many faults on account of the happiness I gave to her who was my bride for a day.
At the time of which I speak I used sometimes to dictate notes on a philosophical work to an old copyist who lived in Rue de l’Estrapade. He was one of the best men in the world, but had been brought to poverty by an unusual series of misfortunes which he had a weakness for recounting to all comers. I used to listen to him willingly, for his voice was charming and his words well chosen. While he spoke his daughter, a timid blonde, would sit near us copying papers. I found her alone two or three times and could not help remarking that she semmed greatly agitated in my presence. As she was quite pretty and I saw a look of infinite tenderness in her beautiful eyes when they met mine, I felt some vague inclination toward her, but I quickly stifled it. Yes, I often spoke kindly to her that she might see I did not think her displeasing. My gentle words impressed a soul so profound that I would have shrunk back afrightened could I have guessed its depth.
We had known each other for some time when I was suddenly called away from the city, and during my absence I fell in love and became betrothed. The very morning of my return to Paris some one knocked at my door, and my old copyist entered. His thin figure was yet more meager, his face pale, his temples hollow and his eyes red with weeping. “Sir,” said he, “I trust you will excuse my coming thus, but you have always been so good – my daughter – she – I fear she is about to die.”
“Indeed!” I responded with more politeness than emotion.
“She is at the hospital, sir. I have come to ask you – to say to you” –
He interrupted himself, stammering, incoherent, his eyes full of entreaty, and said abruptly, without further prelude:
“My daughter loves you! Before her approaching death I believed you might be able” –
And without giving me tim eto recover from this strange declaration he commenced a story of love which, though prolix, was so strange and pathetic that, when he ended, my eyes were wet with tears.
“Will you see her? It would make her so happy! She has but a few weeks to live.”
Three-quarters of an hour I was at the young girl’s bedside. Her face shone with that ineffable beauty with which coming death sometimes transfigures the features of the young. At seeing me there her great dark eyes lighted up with a joy that touched me to the heart.
Almost at once she guessed that her father had revealed her girlish secret, and she commenced to tell me the sad, sweet story of her love; the pathetic romance of a poor little maiden resigned to death – a tale of infinite tenderness; how first she had known she loved me, then her fear that her love was not returned, then her illness and her wish to die.
For an hour she talked thus., her blond head lying upon the snow white pillow, her beautiful eyes gazing into mine. Finally she asked in a trembling voice:
“And you – Did you ever – ever?”
What should I say? Should I play the cruel executioner by telling her the truth or mercifully console her with a lie? Pity moved me:
“I? I have loved you long!”
“Is it true?”
“It is true indeed.”
A look of joy such as I will never see again in this world – the joy of the despairing – overspread her face, and in that moment, if I loved her not, there was something very sweet in my soul- an atom of that boundless compassion which is the closest kin to love.
I know not what led her during the following days to doubt me, but one afternoon she asked:
“But will you ever marry me?”
I swore to her that I would. She smiled up at me with adoration. She prayed aloud, thanking God for his great goodness. One day I was so moved by the depth of her love for me that I wished to give yet more happpiness, it would cost me so little. Alas! Was she not irredeemably condemned?
“I am going to publish the banns,” I cried.
Her joy was almost terrible in its intensity. Her face shone with a marvelous splendour, and while she drew down my face to hers, while she laughed and cied in reciting to me in broken words the prayer of her love while she spoke to me as fervent devotees to God, I felt that I had given to one human being the equivalent of a lifetime of happiness.
I will not tell you how I arranged to obtain the consent of my guardian. I did not ask that of my fiancee I knew she would pardon me afterward. The banns were published, and I made all the preparations for a regular marriage.
During the weeks which followed she lived in ecstasy. Her malady seemed relenting. A miraculous beauty seemed to shine about her like an aureole. She dazzled me; she filled my heart with a sad love, like that of mothers for frail, beautiful children who cannot live. I had her placed in a special room at the hospital, where she received the care of the best physicians and had a sister of charity to watch over her night and day. I passed the greater part of my time with her. I could not satiate myself with that adoring gaze, with that beatitude with each word, each gesture of mine bestowed.
How well I remember the twilight hours when I would sit beside her, watching her pale face blend harmoniously with the shadows, while she murmured to me her words of love like the verses of a song:
“Better than God! Better than the Virgin! Better than my life and the life of the universe!”
Thus time flowed by, and the wedding day came. After the civil marriage they set up an alter in her chamber and dressed her in rich bridal robes. She seemed to live in an atmosphere of perfect bliss. She was as beautiful as a day in springtime when it draws toward sunset and a misty glory rises over the hills and lakes and the drowsy flowers droop their heads in sleep. She lived 20 years in that hour. I have but to close my eyes, and I see her again. Her eyes were so large and bright that they seemed to efface her pale visage. A saintly smile played upon her lips. Her little hands were clasped as she listened to the voice of the priest. Our fingers joined, and she trembled when, at last, she prnounced the great “Yes,” for she put in it all her religion, all the force of her being; then sank back, her strength exhausted. But what delicious fatigue, what blissful weariness! Tenderly she whispered as she dreamed and drew me near her lips. The murderous shadow of death crept rappidly onward. Her spirit wandered in the faroff land of twilight. I saw her cheek grow leaden hued and her temples hollow. She felt not the approach of death, but continued to love, to be happy, to forget herself in her dream divine. Her head was pillowed on my arm, and I watched her dark eyes grow wider, wider yet. Her hair shone upon her pillow like a mesh of gold. The silken bridal robe envoloped her like a cloud.
The sun had set, and the daylight was fading, when she murmured:
“Thou lovst me, Jacques? Thou lovest the poor girl? Mon Dieu! We will live long. I feel that I cannot die. I cannot die now.”
Her voice sounds as if she had turned back at the entrance of that mysterious land to call to me once more – it is like bells heard far off upon the sea. Her body grows cold in its rich winding sheet, but she no longer suffers. She repeats:
“I cannot die!”
A vague smile hovers over her face, which always wears that look of infinite love, of happiness without a shadow. My heart is still. At that moment I am all that loves in the world – I am a mother, a father , a lover. She murmurs again:
“I love thee. We will live in the country – the violets” –
Her lips part with a smile of ineffable joy, and she is at rest forever.
It is evening, and I gaze through the gathering shadows at the outline of the slender figure in its bridal robe. My sorrow is as profound as it is sweet, for I feel that much will be pardoned me because I have soothed one poor, loving little heart and sweetened with happiness the bitter cup of death.