His eyes had been opened. He realised the perversity of the world, but he lacked the power to penetrate the darkness and discover the cause of this perversity; therefore he gave himself up to despair, a disillusioned man. Then he fell in love with a girl who married somebody else. He complained of her conduct to his friends, male and female, but they only laughed at him. For a little while longer he trod his solitary path alone and misunderstood. He belonged to “society,” and joined in its pursuits, because it distracted him; but at the bottom of his heart he had nothing but contempt for its amusements, which he took no pains to conceal.
One evening he was present at a ball. He danced with a young woman of unusual beauty and animation. When the band ceased playing, he remained standing by her side. He knew he ought to talk to her but he did not know what to say. After a while the girl broke the silence.
“You are fond of dancing, Baron?” she said with a cold, smile.
“Oh no! not at all,” he answered. “Are you?”
“I can’t imagine anything more foolish,” she replied.
He had met his man, or rather his woman.
“Why do you dance, then?” he asked.
“For the same reason that you do.”
“Can you read my mind?”
“Easily enough; if two people think alike, the other always knows.”
“H’m! You’re a strange woman! Do you believe in love?”
“Nor do I! You and I ought to get married.”
“I’m beginning to think so myself.”
“Would you marry me?”
“Why not? At any rate, we shouldn’t fight.”
“Horrible idea! But how can you be so sure?”
“Because we think alike.”
“Yes, but that might become monotonous. We should have nothing to talk about, because the one would always know what the other is thinking.”
“True; but wouldn’t it be even more monotonous if we remained unmarried and misunderstood?”
“You are right! Would you like to think it over?”
“Yes, until the cotillon.”
“Why any longer?”
He took her back to the drawing-room and left her there, drank several glasses of champagne and watched her during supper. She allowed two young members of the Diplomatic Corps to wait on her, but made fun of them all the time and treated them as if they were footmen.
As soon as the cotillon began, he went to her and offered her a bouquet.
“Do you accept me?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
And so they were engaged.
It’s a splendid match, said the world. They are made for one another. They are equals as far as social position and money are concerned. They hold the same blase views of life. By blase the world meant that they cared very little for dances, theatres, bazaars, and other noble sports without which life is not really worth living.
They were like carefully wiped twin slates, exactly alike; but utterly unable to surmise whether or not life would write the same legend on both. They never asked one another during the tender moments of their engagement: Do you love me? They knew quite well that it was impossible, because they did not believe in love. They talked little, but they understood one another perfectly.
And they married.
He was always attentive, always polite, and they were good friends.
When the baby was born, it had but one effect on their relationship; they had something to talk about now.
But by-and-by the husband began to reveal a certain energy. He had a sense of duty, and moreover, he was sick of being idle. He had a private income, but was in no way connected with politics or the Government. Now he looked round for some occupation which would fill the void in his life. He had heard the first morning call of the awakening spirits and felt it his duty to do his share of the great work of research into the causes of human misery. He read much, made a careful study of politics and eventually wrote an article and sent it to a paper. The consequence was that he was elected a member of the Board of Education. This necessitated hard reading in future, for all questions were to be threshed out thoroughly.
The Baroness lay on the sofa and read Chateaubriand and Musset. She had no faith in the improvement of humanity, and this stirring up of the dust and mould which the centuries had deposited on human institutions irritated her. Yet she noticed that she did not keep pace with her husband. They were like two horses at a race. They had been weighed before the start and been found to be of the same weight; they had promised to keep side by side during the run; everything was calculated to make them finish the race and leave the course at the same time. But already the husband had gained by the length of a neck. Unless she hurried up, she was bound to be left behind.
And the latter really happened. In the following year he was made controller of the budget. He was away for two months. His absence made the Baroness realise that she loved him; a fact which was brought home to her by her fear of losing him.
When he returned home, she was all eagerness; but his mind was filled with the things he had seen and heard abroad. He realised that they had come to the parting of the ways, but he would have liked to delay it, prevent it, if possible. He showed her in great living pictures the functioning of the colossal gigantic machinery of the State, he tried to explain to her the working of the wheels, the multifarious transmissions, regulators and detents, unreliable pendulums and untrustworthy safety valves.
She was interested at first, but after a while her interest waned. Conscious of her mental inferiority, her insignificance, she devoted herself entirely to her baby, anxious to demonstrate to her husband that she yet had a value as a model mother. But her husband did not appreciate this value. He had married her for the sake of companionship, and he found in her an excellent nurse for his child. But how could it be helped now? Who could have foreseen such a thing?
The house was always full of members of Parliament, and politics was the subject of conversation at dinner. The hostess merely took care that no fault could be found with the cooking. The Baron never omitted to have one or two men amongst his guests who could talk to his wife about music and the drama, but the Baroness wanted to discuss nothing but the nursery and the bringing up of children. After dessert, as soon as the health of the hostess was drunk, there was a general stampede to the smoking-room where the political discussions were continued. The Baroness left her guests and went to the nursery with a feeling of bitterness in her heart; she realised that her husband had so far outdistanced her that she could never again hope to come up with him.
He worked much at home in the evening; frequently he was busy at his writing-table until the small hours of the morning, but always behind locked doors. When he noticed afterwards, as he sometimes did, that his wife went about with red eyes, he felt a pain in his heart; but they had nothing to say to each other.
Occasionally however, at those times when his work palled, when he realised that his inner life was growing poorer and poorer, he felt a void within him, a longing for warmth, for something intimate, something he had dreamed of long ago, in the early days of his youth. But every feeling of that sort he suppressed at once as unfaithfulness to his wife, for he had a very high conception of the duty of a husband.
To bring a little more variety into her daily life, he suggested one day that she should invite a cousin of whom she had often spoken, but whom he had never seen, to spend the winter with them in town.
This had always been a great wish of the Baroness’s, but now that the realisation of it was within her power, she changed her mind. She did not want her in the least now. Her husband pressed her for reasons, but she could not give him any. It roused his curiosity and finally she confessed that she was afraid of her cousin; afraid that she might win his heart, that he might fall in love with her.
“She must be a queer girl, we really must have her here!”
The Baroness wept and warned, but the Baron laughed and the cousin arrived.
One afternoon the Baron came home, tired as usual; he had forgotten all about the cousin and his curiosity in regard to her. They sat down to dinner. The Baron asked the cousin if she was fond of the theatre. She replied that she was not. She preferred reality to make-believe. At home she had founded a school for black sheep and a society for the care of discharged prisoners. Indeed! The Baron was much interested in the administration of prisons. The cousin was able to give him a good deal of information, and during the rest of the dinner the conversation was exclusively about prisons. Eventually the cousin promised to treat the whole question in a paper which the Baron was going to read and work up.
What the Baroness had foreseen, happened. The Baron contracted a spiritual marriage with the cousin, and his wife was left out in the cold. But the cousin was also beautiful, and when she leaned over the Baron at his writing-desk, and he felt her soft arm on his shoulder and her warm breath against his cheek, he could not suppress a sensation of supreme well-being. Needless to say, their conversation was not always of prisons. They also discussed love. She believed in the love of the souls, and she stated as plainly as she could, that marriage without love was prostitution. The Baron had not taken much interest in the development of modern ideas on love, and found that her views on the subject were rather hard, but after all she was probably quite right.
But the cousin possessed other qualities, too, invaluable qualifications for a true spiritual marriage. She had no objection to tobacco smoke for instance, in fact, she was very fond of a cigarette herself. There was no reason, therefore, why she should not go into the smoking-room with the men after dinner and talk about politics. And then she was charming.
Tortured by little twinges of conscience, the Baron would every now and then disappear from the smoking-room, go into the nursery, kiss his wife and child, and ask her how she was getting on? The Baroness was grateful, but she was not happy. After these little journeys the Baron always returned to his friends in the best of tempers; one might have thought that he had faithfully performed a sacred duty. At other times it irritated and distressed him that his wife did not join the party in the smoking-room, too, as his wife; this thought was a burden which weighed quite heavily on him.
The cousin did not go home in the spring, but accompanied the couple to a watering-place. There she organised little performances for the benefit of the poor, in which she and the Baron played the parts of the lovers. This had the inevitable result that the fire burst into flames. But the flames were only spiritual flames; mutual interests, like views, and, perhaps, similar dispositions.
The Baroness had ample time to consider her position. The day arrived when she told her husband that since everything was over between them, the only decent thing to do was to part. But that was more than he had bargained for; he was miserable; the cousin had better return to her parents, and he would prove to his wife that he was a man of honour.
The cousin left. A correspondence between her and the Baron began. He made the Baroness read every letter, however much she hated doing it. After a while, however, he gave in and read the letters without showing them to his wife.
Finally the cousin returned. Then matters came to a crisis. The Baron discovered that he could not live without her.
What were they to do? Separate? It would be death. Go on as at present? Impossible! Annul the marriage which the Baron had come to look upon as legal prostitution and marry his beloved? However painful it might be, it was the only honest course to take.
But that was against the wishes of the cousin. She did not want it said of her that she had stolen another woman’s husband. And then the scandal! the scandal!
“But it was dishonest not to tell his wife everything; it was dishonest to allow things to go on; one could never tell how the matter would end.”
“What did he mean? How could it end?”
“Nobody could tell!”
“Oh! How dared he! What did he think of her?”
“That she was a woman!”
And he fell on his knees and worshipped her; he said that he did not care if the administration of prisons and the school for black sheep went to the devil; he did not know what manner of woman she was; he only knew that he loved her.
She replied that she had nothing but contempt for him, and went helter skelter to Paris. He followed at her heels. At Hamburg he wrote a letter to his wife in which he said that they had made a mistake and that it was immoral not to rectify it. He asked her to divorce him.
And she divorced him.
A year after these events the Baron and the cousin were married. They had a child. But that was a fact which did not interfere with their happiness. On the contrary! What a wealth of new ideas germinated in their minds in their voluntary exile! How strong were the winds which blew here!
He encouraged her to write a book on “young criminals.” The press tore it to pieces. She was furious and swore that she would never write another book. He asked her whether she wrote for praise, whether she was ambitious?–She replied by a question: Why did he write?–A little quarrel arose. He said it was refreshing to hear her express views which did not echo his own–always his own.–Always his own? What did he mean? Didn’t she have views of her own? She henceforth made it her business to prove to him on every occasion that she was capable of forming her own opinions; and to prevent any errors on his part she took good care that they always differed from his. He told her he did not care what views she held as long as she loved him.–Love? What about it? He was no better than other men and, moreover, he had betrayed her. He did not love her soul, but her body.–No, he loved both, he loved her, every bit of her!–Oh! How deceitful he had been!–No, he had not been deceitful, he had merely deceived himself when he believed that he loved her soul only.
They were tired of strolling up and down the boulevard, and sat down before a cafe. She lighted a cigarette. A waiter requested her rather uncivilly, not to smoke. The Baron demanded an explanation and the waiter said that the cafe was a first-class establishment and the management was anxious not to drive away respectable people by serving these ladies. They rose from their seats, paid and went away. The Baron was furious, the young Baroness had tears in her eyes.
“There they had a demonstration of the power of prejudice! Smoking was a foolish act as far as a man was concerned, but in a woman it was a crime! Let him who was able to do so, destroy this prejudice! Or, let us say, him who would care to do so! The Baron had no wish that his wife should be the first victim, even if it were to win for her the doubtful honour of having cast aside a prejudice. For it was nothing else. In Russia, ladies belonging to the best society smoked at the dinner-table during the courses. Customs changed with the latitudes. And yet those trifles were not without importance, for life consisted of trifles. If men and women shared bad habits, intercourse between them would be less stiff and formal: they would make friends more easily and keep pace with one another. If they had the same education, they would have the same interests, and cling together more closely during the whole of their lives.”
The Baron was silent as if he had said something foolish. But she had not been listening to him; her thoughts had been far away.
“She had been insulted by a waiter, told that she was not fit to associate with respectable people. There was more behind that, than appeared on the surface. She had been recognised. Yes, she was sure of it, it was not the first time that she had noticed it.”
“What had she noticed?”
“That she had been treated with little respect at the restaurants. The people evidently did not think that they were married; because they were affectionate and civil to one another. She had borne it in silence for a long time, but now she had come to the end of her tether. And yet this was nothing compared to what they were saying at home!”
“Well, what were they saying? And why had she never told him anything about it before?”
“Oh! horrible things! The letters she had received! Leaving the anonymous ones quite out of the question.
“Well, and what about him? Was he not being treated as if he were a criminal? And yet he had not committed a crime! He had acted according to all legal requirements, he had not broken his marriage vows. He had left the country in compliance with the dictates of the law; the Royal Consistory has granted his appeal for a divorce; the clergy, Holy Church, had given him his release from the bonds of his first marriage on stamped paper; therefore he had not broken them! When a country was conquered, a whole nation was absolved from its oath of loyalty to its monarch; why did society look askance at the release from a promise? Had it not conferred the right on the Consistory to dissolve a marriage? How could it dare to assume the character of a judge now and condemn its own laws? Society was at war with itself! He was being treated like a criminal! Hadn’t the secretary of the Embassy, his old friend, on whom he had left his and his wife’s cards, acknowledged them by simply returning one card only? And was he not overlooked at all public functions?”
“Oh! She had had to put up with worse things! One of her friends in Paris had closed her door to her, and several had cut her in the street.”
“Only the wearer of a boot knew where it pinched. The boots which they were wearing now were real Spanish boots, and they were at war with society. The upper classes had cut them. The upper classes! This community of semi-imbeciles, who secretly lived like dogs, but showed one another respect as long as there was no public scandal; that was to say as long as one did not honestly revoke an agreement and wait until it had lapsed before one made use of one’s newly-regained freedom! And these vicious upper classes were the awarders of social position and respect, according to a scale on which honesty ranked far below zero. Society was nothing but a tissue of lies! It was inexplicable that it hadn’t been found out long ago! It was high time to examine this fine structure and inquire into the condition of its foundations.”
They were on friendlier terms on arriving home than they had been for many years. The Baroness stayed at home with her baby, and was soon expecting a second one. This struggle against the tide was too hard for her, and she was already growing tired of it. She was tired of everything! To write in an elegantly furnished, well-heated room on the subject of discharged prisoners, offering them, at a proper distance, a well-gloved hand, was a proceeding society approved of; but to hold out the hand of friendship to a woman who had married a legally divorced man was quite another thing. Why should it be so? It was difficult to find an answer.
The Baron fought in the thick of the battle. He visited the Chamber of Deputies, was present at meetings, and everywhere he listened to passionate diatribes against society. He read papers and magazines, kept a keen eye on literature, studied the subject deeply. His wife was threatened by the same fate which had overtaken the first one; to be left behind! It was strange. She seemed unable to take in all the details of his investigations, she disapproved of much of the new doctrine, but she felt that he was right and fighting for a good cause. He knew that he could always count on her never-flagging sympathy; that he had a friend at home who would always stand by him. Their common fate drove them into each other’s arms like frightened birds at the approach of a storm. All the womanliness in her,–however little it may be appreciated now-a-days,–which is after all nothing but a memory of the great mother, the force of nature which is woman’s endowment, was roused. It fell on the children like the warm glow of a fire at eventide; it fell on the husband like a ray of sunshine; it brought peace to the home. He often wondered how it was that he did not miss his old comrade, with whom he was wont to discuss everything; he discovered that his thoughts had gained force and vigour since he stopped pouring them out as soon as he conceived them; it seemed to him that he was profiting more by the silent approval, the kindly nod, the unwavering sympathy. He felt that his strength had increased, that his views were less under outside control; he was a solitary man, now, and yet he was less solitary than he had been in the past, for he was no longer constantly met by contradictions which merely filled his heart with misgivings.
It was Christmas Eve in Paris. A large Christmas tree, grown in the wood of St. Germain, stood in their little chalet on the Cours de la Reine. They were going out after breakfast to buy Christmas presents for the children. The Baron was pre-occupied, for he had just published a little pamphlet, entitled: “Do the Upper Classes constitute Society?” They were sitting at breakfast in their cosy dining-room, and the doors which led to the nursery stood wide open. They listened to the nurse playing with the children, and the Baroness smiled with contentment and happiness. She had grown very gentle and her happiness was a quiet one. One of the children suddenly screamed and she rose from the table to see what was the matter. At the same moment the footman came into the dining-room with the morning post. The Baron opened two packets of printed matter. The first was a “big respectable” newspaper. He opened it and his eyes fell on a headline in fat type: “A Blasphemer!”
He began to read: “Christmas is upon us again! This festival dear to all pure hearts, this festival sacred to all Christian nations, which has brought a message of peace and good-will to all men, which makes even the murderer sheathe his knife, and the thief respect the sacred law of property; this festival, which is not only of very ancient origin, but which is also, especially in the countries of the North, surrounded by a host of historic associations, etc., etc. And then like foul fumes arising from a drain, an individual suddenly confronts us who does not scruple to tear asunder the most sacred bonds, who vomits malice on all respectable members of society; malice, dictated by the pettiest vengeance….” He refolded the paper and put it into the pocket of his dressing-gown. Then he opened the second parcel. It contained caricatures of himself and his wife. It went the same way as the first, but he had to be quick, for his wife was re-entering the dining-room. He finished his breakfast and went into his bed-room to get ready to go out. They left the house together.
The sunlight fell on the frosted plane-trees of the Champs Elysees, and in the heart of the stony desert the Place de la Concorde opened out like a large oasis. He felt her arm on his, and yet he had the feeling as if she were supporting him. She talked of the presents which they were going to buy for the children, and he tried to force himself to take an interest in the subject. But all at once he interrupted her conversation and asked her, a-propos of nothing:
“Do you know the difference between vengeance and punishment?”
“No, I’ve never thought about it.”
“I wonder whether it isn’t this: When an anonymous journalist revenges himself, it is punishment; but when a well-known writer, who is not a pressman, fights with an open visor, meting out punishment, then it is revenge! Let us join the new prophets!”
She begged him not to spoil Christmas by talking of the newspapers.
“This festival,” he muttered, “on which peace and good-will….”
They passed through the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli, turned into the boulevards and made their purchases. They dined at the Grand Hotel. She was in a sunny frame of mind and tried to cheer him up. But he remained preoccupied. Suddenly he asked,
“How is it possible that one can have a bad conscience when one has acted rightly?”
She did not know.
“Is it because the upper classes have so trained us, that our conscience troubles us whenever we rebel against them? Probably it is so. Why shouldn’t he who has been hurt unjustly, have the right to attack injustice? Because only he who has been hurt will attack, and the upper classes hate being attacked. Why did I not strike at the upper classes in the past, when I belonged to them? Because, of course, I didn’t know them then. One must look at a picture from a distance in order to find the correct visual point!”
“One shouldn’t talk about such things on Christmas Eve!”
“True, it is Christmas. This festival of….”
They returned home. They lit the candles on the Christmas tree; it radiated peace and happiness; but its dark branches smelt of a funeral and looked sinister, like the Baron’s face. The nurse came in with the little ones. His face lighted up, for, he thought, when they are grown up they will reap in joy what we have sown in tears; then their conscience will only trouble them when they have sinned against the laws of nature; they won’t have to suffer from whims which have been caned into us at school, drummed into us by the parsons, invented by the upper classes for their own benefit.
The Baroness sat down at the piano when the maids and the footmen entered. She played melancholy old dances, dear to the heart of the people of the North, while the servants danced gravely with the children. It was very much like the penitential part of divine service.
After that the presents were distributed among the children, and the servants received their gifts. And then the children were put to bed.
The Baroness went into the drawing-room and sat down in an arm-chair. The Baron threw himself on a footstool at her feet. He rested his head on her knees. It was so heavy–so heavy. She silently stroked his forehead. “What! was he weeping?”
She had never before seen a man weep. It was a terrible sight. His big strong frame shook, but he made no sound.
“Why was he weeping?”
“Because he was unhappy.”
“Unhappy with her?”
“No, no, not with her, but still, unhappy.”
“Had anybody treated him badly?”
“Couldn’t he tell her all about it?”
“No, he only wanted to sit at her knees, as he used to sit long ago, at his mother’s.”
She talked to him as if he had been a child. She kissed his eyes and wiped his face with her handkerchief. She felt so proud, so strong, there were no tears in her eyes. The sight of her inspired him with new courage.
“How weak he had been! That he should have found the machine-made attacks of his opponents so hard to bear! Did his enemies really believe what they said?”
“Terrible thought! Probably they did. One often found stones firmly grown into pine-trees, why should not opinions grow into the brain in the same way? But she believed in him, she knew that he was fighting for a good cause?”
“Yes, she believed it! But–he must not be angry with her for asking him such a question–but–did he not miss his child, the first one?”
“Yes, certainly, but it could not be helped. At least, not yet! But he and the others who were working for the future would have to find a remedy for that, too. He did not know, yet, what form that remedy would take, but stronger brains than his, and many together, would surely one day solve this problem which at present seemed insolvable.”
“Yes, she hoped it would be so.”
“But their marriage? Was it a marriage in the true sense of the word, seeing that he couldn’t tell her what troubled him? Wasn’t it, too, pro…?”
“No, it was a true marriage, for they loved one another. There had been no love between him and his first wife. But he and she did love one another, could she deny it?”
“She couldn’t, he was her dear love.” Then their marriage was a true marriage before God and before Nature.