The terrace was in a ruinous state, over-grown with grass and brambles and acacias. The girl was leaning on the Parapet, eating mulberries. She displayed her purple-stained hands and laughed. M. Hervart looked-up.
“You’ve got a moustache as well,” he said. “It looks very funny.”
“But I don’t want to look funny.”
She walked to the little stream flowing close at hand, wetted her handkerchief and began wiping her mouth.
M. Hervart’s eyes returned to his magnifying glass; he went on examining the daisy on which he had two scarlet bugs so closely joined together that they seemed a single insect. They had gone to sleep in the midst of their love-making, and but for the quivering of their long antennæ, you would have thought they were dead. M. Hervart would have liked to watch the ending of this little scene of passion; but it might go on for hours. He lost heart.
“What’s more,” he reflected, “I know that the male does not die on the spot; he goes running about in search of food as soon as he’s free. Still, I would have liked to see the mechanism of separation. That will come with luck. One must always count on luck, whether one is studying animals or men. To be sure, there is also patience, perseverance….”
He made a little movement with his head signifying, no doubt, that patience and perseverance were not in his line. Then, very gently he laid the flower with its sleeping burden on the parapet of the terrace. It was only then he noticed that Rose was no longer there.
“I must have annoyed her by what I said about the moustache. It wasn’t true, either. But there are moments when that child gets on my nerves with that look of hers, as though she wanted to be kissed. And yet, if I did so much as to lay my hand on her shoulder, I should get my face smacked. A curious creature. But then all women are curious creatures, girls above all.”
Carefully wiping his glass, M. Hervart stepped across the stream and entered the wood.
M. Hervart was about forty. He was tall and thin; sometimes, when his curiosity had kept him poring over something for too long at a stretch he stooped a little. His eyes were bright and penetrating, despite the fact that one of them had, it would seem, been narrowed and shrunk by the use of the microscope. His clear-complexioned face, with its light pointed beard, was pleasant, without being striking.
He was the keeper of the department of Greek sculpture at the Louvre, but the cold beauty of the marbles interested him little, and archæology even less. He was a lover of life, who divided his days between women and animals. Studying the habits of insects was his favourite hobby. He was often to be seen at the Zoological Gardens, or else, more often than at his office, in the animal-shop round the corner. His evenings he devoted to amusement, frequenting every kind of society. To sympathetic audiences he liked to give out that he was the descendant of the M. d’Hervart whose wife had La Fontaine for a lover. He used also to say that it was only his professional duties that had prevented his making himself a name as a naturalist. But the opinion of most people was that M. Hervart was, in all he did, nothing more than a clever amateur, ruined by a great deal of indolence.
Every two or three years he used to go and stay with his friend M. Desbois at his manor of Robinvast, near Cherbourg. M. Desbois was a retired commercial sculptor, who had recently ennobled himself by means of a Y and one or two other little changes. When M. Des Boys burst upon the world, Hervart appeared not to notice the metamorphosis. That earned him an increase in affection, and whenever he came to visit, Mme. Des Boys would take almost excessive pains about the cooking.
Mme. Des Boys, who had been sentimental and romantic in her youth and had remained all her life rather a silly woman, had insisted on calling her daughter Rose. It would have been a ridiculous name—Rose Des Boys—if Rose had been the sort of girl to tolerate the repetition of a foolish compliment. Ordinarily she was a gay and gentle creature, but she could be chilling, could ignore and disregard you in the cruellest fashion. Her parents adored her and were afraid of her: so they allowed her to do what she liked. She was twenty years old.
Meanwhile, M. Hervart was looking for Rose. He did not dare call her, because he did not know what name to use. In conversation he said: You; before strangers, Mademoiselle; in his own mind, Rose.
“She was much nicer two years ago. She listened to what I had to say. She obeyed me. She caught insects for me. This is the critical moment now. If we were bugs….”
He went on:
“Whether it’s women or beetles, love is their whole life. Bugs die as soon as their work is done, and women begin dying from the moment of their first kiss…. They also begin living. It’s pretty, the spectacle of these girls who want to live, want to fulfil their destiny, and don’t know how, and go sobbing through the darkness, looking for their way. I expect I shall find her crying.”
Rose, indeed, had just finished wiping her eyes. They were blue when she was sad and greenish when she laughed.
“You’ve been crying. Did you prick yourself coming through this holly? I did too.”
“I shouldn’t cry for a thing like that. But who told you I’d been crying? I got a fly in my eye. Look, only one of them’s red.”
But, instead of lifting her head, she bent down and began to pick the flowers at her feet.
“May I sit down beside you?”
“What a question!”
“You see, your skirt takes up all the room.”
“Well then, push it away.”
M. Hervart turned back the outspread skirt and sat down on the old bench—cautiously, for he knew that it was rather rickety. Now that he had money and an aristocratic name, M. Des Boys had become romantic. His whole domain, except for the kitchen garden and the rooms that were actually inhabited, was kept in a perennially wild, decrepit state. In the house and its surroundings you could see nothing but mouldering walls and rotten planks moss-grown benches, impenetrable bramble bushes. Near the stream stood an old tower from which the ivy fell in a cataract whose waves of greenery splashed up again to the summit of an old oak with dead forked branches—a pretty sight. The Des Boys never went out except to show their virgin forest to a visitor. M. Des Boys dabbled in painting.
It was morning, and the wood was cool, still damp with dew. Through the thickly woven beech branches the sunlight fell on the stiff holly leaves and lit them up like flowers. A little chestnut tree, that had sprouted all awry raised its twisted head towards the light! Near-by stood a wild cherry, into which the sparrows darted, twittering and alarmed. A jay passed like a flash of blue lightning. The wind crept in beneath the trees, stirring the bracken that darkened and lightened at its passage. A wounded bee fell on Rose’s skirt.
“Poor bee! One of his wings is unhooked. I’ll try and put it right.”
“Take care,” said Mr. Hervart. “It will sting. Animals never believe that you mean well by them. To them every one’s an enemy.”
“True,” said Rose, shaking off the bee. “Your bugs will eat him and that will be a happy ending. Every one’s an enemy.”
Rose had spoken so bitterly that M. Hervart was quite distressed. He brought his face close to hers as her big straw hat would permit, and whispered:
“Are you unhappy?”
How beautifully women manage these things! In a flash the hat had disappeared, tossed almost angrily aside, and at the same moment an exquisitely pale and fluffy head dropped on to M. Hervart’s shoulder.
It was a touching moment. Much moved, the man put his arm round the girl’s waist. His hand took possession of the little hand that she surrendered to him. He had only to turn and bend his head a little, and he was kissing, close below the hair, a white forehead, feverishly moist. He felt her abandonment to him becoming more deliberate; the hand he was holding squeezed his own.
Rose made an abrupt movement which parted them, and looking full at M. Hervart, her face radiant with tenderness, she said:
“I’m not unhappy now.”
She got up, and they moved away together through the wood, exchanging little insignificant phrases in voices full of tenderness. Each time their eyes met, they smiled. They kept on fingering leaves, flowers, mere pieces of wood, so as to have an excuse for touching each other’s hand. Coming to a clearing where they could walk abreast, they allowed their arms on the inner side to hang limply down, so that their hands touched and were soon joined.
There was a silence, prolonged and very delightful. Each, meanwhile, was absorbed in his own thoughts.
“Obviously,” M. Hervart was saying to himself, “if I have any sense left, I shall take the train home. First of all, I must go to Cherbourg and send a telegram to some one who can send a wire to recall me. What a nuisance! I was joying myself so much here. To whom shall I appeal? To Gratienne? I shall have to write a letter in that case, to concoct some story. Three or four days longer won’t make matters any worse; I know these young girls. Time doesn’t exist for them; they live in the absolute. So long as there’s no jealousy—and I don’t see how there can be—I shall be all right. She is really charming—Rose. Lord! what a state of excitement I’m in! But I must be reasonable. I shall tell Gratienne to meet me at Grandcamp. She has been longing to go to Grandcamp ever since she read that novel about the place. Besides, there are the rocks. I’m quite indifferent provided I get away from here….”
“What are you thinking about?”
“Can you ask, my dear child?”
A squeeze from the little hand showed that his answer had been understood. Silence settled down once more.
“Gratienne? At this very moment she’s probably with another lover. But then, think of leaving a woman alone in Paris, in July? ‘I am never bored. I dine at Mme. Fleury’s every day; she loves having me. We start for Honfleur on the 25th. You must come and see us.’ She imagines that Honfleur is close to Cherbourg. ‘I am never bored,’ Come, come; When women speak so clearly, it means they have nothing to hide…. On the contrary it’s one of their tricks….”
“Well, my child, how’s your wretchedness? Is it all over?”
“I am very happy,” Rose answered.
A look from her big limpid eyes confirmed these solemn words and M. Hervart was more moved than at the moment of her surrender. The idea that he was the cause of this child’s happiness filled him with pride.
“Better not disturb Gratienne. She’s so suspicious. Whom shall I write to, then? My colleagues? No, I’m not on intimate enough terms. Gauvain, the animal-shop man? That would be humiliating. What a bore it all is! Leave it; we’ll see later on. And after all, what’s the matter? A little sentimental friendship. Rose lives such a lonely life. Why should I rob her of the innocent pleasure of playing—at sentiment with me? Summer-holiday amusements….”
“Oh,” said Rose, “look at that beetle. Isn’t he handsome.”
But the animal, superb in its gold and sapphire armour, had disappeared under the dead leaves. They thought no more about it. Rose was occupied by very different thoughts. She felt herself filled with an exultant tenderness.
“I don’t belong to myself anymore. It’s very thrilling. What is going to happen? He’ll kiss me on the eyes. There’ll be no resisting, because I belong to him.”
She lifted her head and looked at M. Hervart She seemed to be offering her eyes. Without changing her position she closed them. A kiss settled lightly on her soft eyelids.
“He does everything I expect him to do. Does he read my thoughts or do I read his?”
Meanwhile M. Hervart was trying to find something gallant or sentimental to say, and could think of nothing.
“I might praise her chestnut hair, with its golden lights, tell her how fine and silky it is. But is it? And besides, it might be a little premature. What shall I praise? Her mouth? Its rather large. Her nose? It’s a little too hooked. Her complexion? Is it a compliment to say it’s pale and opaque? Her eyes? That would look like an allusion. They’re pretty, though—her eyes, the way they change colour.”
He had picked a blade of grass as he walked. It was covered with little black moving specks. “What a bore,” said M. Hervart, “I’ve forgotten to bring my microscope.”
“I’ve got one, only the reflector’s broken. It will have to be sent to Cherbourg.”
“Couldn’t you take it yourself?”
“If you like.”
“But wouldn’t you enjoy it, Rose?”
She was so pleased at being called Rose, that for a moment she did not answer. Then she said, blushing:
“You see, I scarcely ever go out of this place: the idea hardly occurs to me. But I should love to go with you.”
She added with a spoilt child’s tone of authority: “I’ll go and tell father. We’ll start after luncheon.”
M. Hervart looked once more at his indecipherable grass blade.
“I know a good shop,” he said. “Lepoultel the marine optician. Do you know him? He’s a friend of Gauvain’s….”
“The animal man?”
“What, do you mean to say you remember that?”
“I remember everything you tell me,” answered Rose, very seriously.
M. Hervart was flattered. It occurred to him also that this sentimental child might make a very good practical little wife. His rather curious life passed rapidly before him and he called to mind some of the mistresses of his fugitive amours. He saw Gratienne; it was six months since they had met; she would have left him, very likely, by the time he returned. At this thought M. Hervart frowned. At the same time the pressure of his fingers relaxed.
Rose looked at him:
“What are you thinking about?”
“Again!” said M. Hervart to himself. “Oh, that eternal feminine question! As if any one ever answered it! Here’s my answer….”
Looking at the clouds, he pronounced:
“I think it’s going to rain.”
“Oh, no!” said Rose, “I don’t think so. The wind is ‘suet’….”
Conscious of having uttered a provincialism, she made haste to add:
“As the country people say.”
“What does it mean?”
M. Hervart was little interested in dialectal forms; rather spitefully and with the true Parisian’s fatuous vanity, he replied:
“What an ugly word! You ought to say South-east. You’re a regular peasant woman.”
“Laugh away,” said Rose. “I don’t mind, now. We’re all country-people; my father comes from these parts, so does my mother. I wasn’t born here, but I belong to the place. I belong to it as the trees do, as the grass and all the animals. Yes, I am a peasant woman.”
She raised her head proudly.
“I come from here too,” said M. Hervart.
“Yes, and you don’t care for it any longer.”
“I do, because it produced you and because you love it.”
Delighted at the discovery of this insipidity, M. Hervart darted, hat in hand, in pursuit of a butterfly; he missed it.
“They’re not so easy to catch as kisses,” said Rose with a touch of irony.
M. Hervart was startled.
“Is she merely sensual?” he wondered.
But Rose was incapable of dividing her nature into categories. She felt her character as a perfect unity. Her remark had been just a conversational remark, for she was not lacking in wit.
Meanwhile, this mystery plunged M. Hervart into a prolonged meditation. He constructed the most perverse theories about the precocity of girls.
But he was soon ashamed of these mental wanderings.
“Women are complex; not more so, of course, than men, but in a different way which men can’t understand. They don’t understand themselves, and what’s more, they don’t care about understanding. They feel, and that suffices to steer them very satisfactorily through life, as well as to solve problems which leave men utterly helpless. One must act towards them as they do themselves. It’s only through the feelings that one can get into contact with them. There is but one way of understanding women, and that is to love them…. Why shouldn’t I say that aloud? It would amuse her, and perhaps she might find something pretty to say in reply.”
But, without being exactly shy, M. Hervart was nervous about hearing the sound of his own voice. That was why he generally gave vent only to the curtest phrases. Rose had taken his hand once more. This mute language seemed to appeal to her, and M. Hervart was content to put up with it, though he found this exchange of manual confidences a little childish.
“But nothing,” he went on to himself, “nothing is childish in love….”
This word, which he did not pronounce, even to himself, but which he seemed to see, as though his own hand had written it on a sheet of paper this word filled him with terror. He burst out into secret protestations:
“But there’s no question of love. She doesn’t love me. I don’t love her. It’s a mere game. This child has made me a child like herself….”
He wanted to stop thinking, but the process went on of its own accord.
“A dangerous game…. I oughtn’t to have kissed her eyes. Her forehead, that’s a different matter; it’s fatherly…. And then letting her lean on my shoulder, like that! What’s to be done?”
He had to admit that he had been the guilty party. Almost unconsciously, prompted by his mere male instinct, he had, since his arrival a fortnight before, and while still to all appearance, he continued to treat her as a child, been silently courting her. He was always looking at her, smiling to her, even though his words might be serious. Feeling herself the object of an unceasing attention, Rose had concluded that he wanted to capture her, and she had allowed herself to be caught. M. Hervart considered himself too expert in feminine psychology to admit the possibility of a young girl’s having deliberately taken the first step. He felt like an absent-minded sportsman who, forgetting that he has fired, wakes up to find a partridge in his game-bag.
“An agreeable surprise,” he reflected. “Almost too agreeable.”
Categories: The Book Lover