This story was told during the hunting season at the Chateau Baneville. The autumn had been rainy and sad. The red leaves, instead of rustling under the feet, were rotting under the heavy downfalls.
The forest was as damp as it could be. From it came an odor of must, of rain, of soaked grass and wet earth; and the sportsmen, their backs hunched under the downpour, mournful dogs, with tails between their legs and hairs sticking to their sides, and the young women, with their clothes drenched, returned every evening, tired in body and in mind.
After dinner, in the large drawing-room, everybody played lotto, without enjoyment, while the wind whistled madly around the house. Then they tried telling stories like those they read in books, but no one was able to invent anything amusing. The hunters told tales of wonderful shots and of the butchery of rabbits; and the women racked their brains for ideas without revealing the imagination of Scheherezade. They were about to give up this diversion when a young woman, who was idly caressing the hand of an old maiden aunt, noticed a little ring made of blond hair, which she had often seen, without paying any attention to it.
She fingered it gently and asked, “Auntie, what is this ring? It looks as if it were made from the hair of a child.”
The old lady blushed, grew pale, then answered in a trembling voice: “It is sad, so sad that I never wish to speak of it. All the unhappiness of my life comes from that. I was very young then, and the memory has remained so painful that I weep every time I think of it.”
Immediately everybody wished to know the story, but the old lady refused to tell it. Finally, after they had coaxed her for a long time, she yielded. Here is the story:
“You have often heard me speak of the Santeze family, now extinct. I knew the last three male members of this family. They all died in the same manner; this hair belongs to the last one. He was thirteen when he killed himself for me. That seems strange to you, doesn’t it?
“Oh! it was a strange family—mad, if you will, but a charming madness, the madness of love. From father to son, all had violent passions which filled their whole being, which impelled them to do wild things, drove them to frantic enthusiasm, even to crime. This was born in them, just as burning devotion is in certain souls. Trappers have not the same nature as minions of the drawing-room. There was a saying: ‘As passionate as a Santeze.’ This could be noticed by looking at them. They all had wavy hair, falling over their brows, curly beards and large eyes whose glance pierced and moved one, though one could not say why.
“The grandfather of the owner of this hair, of whom it is the last souvenir, after many adventures, duels and elopements, at about sixty-five fell madly in love with his farmer’s daughter. I knew them both. She was blond, pale, distinguished-looking, with a slow manner of talking, a quiet voice and a look so gentle that one might have taken her for a Madonna. The old nobleman took her to his home and was soon so captivated with her that he could not live without her for a minute. His daughter and daughter-in-law, who lived in the chateau, found this perfectly natural, love was such a tradition in the family. Nothing in regard to a passion surprised them, and if one spoke before them of parted lovers, even of vengeance after treachery, both said in the same sad tone: ‘Oh, how he must have suffered to come to that point!’ That was all. They grew sad over tragedies of love, but never indignant, even when they were criminal.
“Now, one day a young man named Monsieur de Gradelle, who had been invited for the shooting, eloped with the young girl.
“Monsieur de Santeze remained calm as if nothing had happened, but one morning he was found hanging in the kennels, among his dogs.
“His son died in the same manner in a hotel in Paris during a journey which he made there in 1841, after being deceived by a singer from the opera.
“He left a twelve-year-old child and a widow, my mother’s sister. She came to my father’s house with the boy, while we were living at Bertillon. I was then seventeen.
“You have no idea how wonderful and precocious this Santeze child was. One might have thought that all the tenderness and exaltation of the whole race had been stored up in this last one. He was always dreaming and walking about alone in a great alley of elms leading from the chateau to the forest. I watched from my window this sentimental boy, who walked with thoughtful steps, his hands behind his back, his head bent, and at times stopping to raise his eyes as if he could see and understand things that were not comprehensible at his age.
“Often, after dinner on clear evenings, he would say to me: ‘Let us go outside and dream, cousin.’ And we would go outside together in the park. He would stop quickly before a clearing where the white vapor of the moon lights the woods, and he would press my hand, saying: ‘Look! look! but you don’t understand me; I feel it. If you understood me, we should be happy. One must love to know! I would laugh and then kiss this child, who loved me madly.
“Often, after dinner, he would sit on my mother’s knees. ‘Come, auntie,’ he would say, ‘tell me some love-stories.’ And my mother, as a joke, would tell him all the old legends of the family, all the passionate adventures of his forefathers, for thousands of them were current, some true and some false. It was their reputation for love and gallantry which was the ruin of every one of these-men; they gloried in it and then thought that they had to live up to the renown of their house.
“The little fellow became exalted by these tender or terrible stories, and at times he would clap his hands, crying: ‘I, too, I, too, know how to love, better than all of them!’
“Then, he began to court me in a timid and tender manner, at which every one laughed, it was, so amusing. Every morning I had some flowers picked by him, and every evening before going to his room he would kiss my hand and murmur: ‘I love you!’
“I was guilty, very guilty, and I grieved continually about it, and I have been doing penance all my life; I have remained an old maid—or, rather, I have lived as a widowed fiancee, his widow.
“I was amused at this childish tenderness, and I even encouraged him. I was coquettish, as charming as with a man, alternately caressing and severe. I maddened this child. It was a game for me and a joyous diversion for his mother and mine. He was twelve! think of it! Who would have taken this atom’s passion seriously? I kissed him as often as he wished; I even wrote him little notes, which were read by our respective mothers; and he answered me by passionate letters, which I have kept. Judging himself as a man, he thought that our loving intimacy was secret. We had forgotten that he was a Santeze.
“This lasted for about a year. One evening in the park he fell at my feet and, as he madly kissed the hem of my dress, he kept repeating: ‘I love you! I love you! I love you! If ever you deceive me, if ever you leave me for another, I’ll do as my father did.’ And he added in a hoarse voice, which gave me a shiver: ‘You know what he did!’
“I stood there astonished. He arose, and standing on the tips of his toes in order to reach my ear, for I was taller than he, he pronounced my first name: ‘Genevieve!’ in such a gentle, sweet, tender tone that I trembled all over. I stammered: ‘Let us return! let us return!’ He said no more and followed me; but as we were going up the steps of the porch, he stopped me, saying: ‘You know, if ever you leave me, I’ll kill myself.’
“This time I understood that I had gone too far, and I became quite reserved. One day, as he was reproaching me for this, I answered: ‘You are now too old for jesting and too young for serious love. I’ll wait.’
“I thought that this would end the matter. In the autumn he was sent to a boarding-school. When he returned the following summer I was engaged to be married. He understood immediately, and for a week he became so pensive that I was quite anxious.
“On the morning of the ninth day I saw a little paper under my door as I got up. I seized it, opened it and read: ‘You have deserted me and you know what I said. It is death to which you have condemned me. As I do not wish to be found by another than you, come to the park just where I told you last year that I loved you and look in the air.’
“I thought that I should go mad. I dressed as quickly as I could and ran wildly to the place that he had mentioned. His little cap was on the ground in the mud. It had been raining all night. I raised my eyes and saw something swinging among the leaves, for the wind was blowing a gale.
“I don’t know what I did after that. I must have screamed at first, then fainted and fallen, and finally have run to the chateau. The next thing that I remember I was in bed, with my mother sitting beside me.
“I thought that I had dreamed all this in a frightful nightmare. I stammered: ‘And what of him, what of him, Gontran?’ There was no answer. It was true!
“I did not dare see him again, but I asked for a lock of his blond hair. Here—here it is!”
And the old maid stretched out her trembling hand in a despairing gesture. Then she blew her nose several times, wiped her eyes and continued:
“I broke off my marriage—without saying why. And I—I always have remained the—the widow of this thirteen-year-old boy.” Then her head fell on her breast and she wept for a long time.
As the guests were retiring for the night a large man, whose quiet she had disturbed, whispered in his neighbor’s ear: “Isn’t it unfortunate to, be so sentimental?”