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Le bonheur dans le crime (part 5)

Part five of a story ("The happiness in crime") by this French writer.  You can read the original here.

"And I came back, my finger on my mouth, fully resolved not to breathe a word to anyone about that which no one in the region could have suspected.  Ah, the pleasures of the observer!  I have always valued the impersonal and solitary pleasures of the observer above all others.  And I was about to give myself over to them completely, in a corner of the countryside, in this old, isolated castle where, as a doctor, I could come by whenever I pleased.  Happy to be delivered from his solicitude, Savigny said to me:

"'Until further notice, doctor, come every day.'

"I could therefore study, with as much interest and continuity as I might monitor a disease, the mystery of a situation which, if told to anyone, would have seemed impossible.  And since from the first day I had perceived it this mystery had aroused my faculty of reasoning – the walking cane of the learned and especially of the doctor – amidst the passionate curiosity of its investigations, I began immediately to reason out this situation in order to explain it.   For how long had this situation existed?  Did it date from Hauteclaire’s disappearance?  Had it been going on for more than one year?  Had Hauteclaire been the lady in waiting to the Countess of Savigny for that long as well?  How was it that, apart from me, whom it had been necessary to summon, no one had seen what I had seen so easily and so quickly?  All questions were mounted and came with me in pillion to V., accompanied by many others raised and amassed on my way thither.

"The Count and Countess of Savigny, who would pass by to be admired, lived, admittedly, quite removed from all types of people.  But, after all, a visit from time to time would have to be paid to the Castle.  It was also true that if the visitors were men, Hauteclaire could not appear.  And if they were women, these women of V. had for the most part never seen her well enough to be able to recognize her, that girl barricaded for years by lessons at the back of a fencing hall, and who, made out from far, either on horseback or at church, invariably wore a veil that rendered her, quite by design, even more mysterious.  For Hauteclaire (I have told you) always had this pride of those very proud beings whom too much curiosity offended, and who hid themselves even more when they felt themselves to be the target of looks and gazes. 

"As for the people of Mr. Savigny with whom she was forced to live, if they were from V. they did not recognize her, and perhaps they weren’t from there anyway.  And it was in this way that I replied, while trotting, to the first questions which, after a certain amount of time and a certain path, found their answers.  And before I had gotten down from the saddle, I had already constructed an entire edifice of more or less plausible suppositions to explain what – to someone other than a rationalist like me – would have been inexplicable.  The only thing that perhaps I did not explain well was that the startling beauty of Hauteclaire had somehow not been an obstacle to her entrance in the service of the Countess of Savigny, who loved her husband and who had to have been jealous.

"Moreover, the patrician women of V., no less proud than the wives of the paladins of Charlemagne, did not assume (a grave error; but they had not read The Marriage of Figaro!) that the most beautiful chambermaid could be for their husbands any more than the most beautiful lackey could be for them.  I finish by saying, quitting the stirrups, that the Countess of Savigny had her reasons for believing herself to be loved, and that, after all, this rascal Savigny was quite capable, if she were to be seized by doubt, to add to these reasons."

"Harrumph!" I said skeptically to the doctor, whom I could not help but interrupt.  "All this is good and well, my dear doctor, but the situation was still not lacking in carelessness."

"Certainly not!" he replied.  "But was it," added this great connoisseur of human nature, "even carelessness which led to such a situation?  It is of those passions which carelessness lights aflame, and which would not exist without the danger that they cause.  In the sixteenth century, which was a century as passionate as any epoch may possibly be, the most magnificent cause of love was the very danger of love.  Quitting the arms of a mistress one risked being stabbed; or the husband poisoned you in his wife's muff which you kissed and against which you had committed all the stupidities of advantage and use; and, far from making love scary and terrible, this constant danger perturbed it, lit it aflame and made it irresistible!  In our flat modern morals, where the law has replaced passion, it is clear that the section of the code that applies to the husband guilty of having – as the law states vulgarly – 'introduced the concubine into the marital home' is a rather ignoble danger.  But for noble souls, this danger, only because it is so ignoble, is all the greater.  And in exposing himself to such danger, Savigny found in it perhaps the only anxious pleasure that really intoxicates strong souls.

"The next day, you can well believe," continued Dr. Torty, "I was in the castle early.  But neither that day nor the following day did I see anything that would be out of the ordinary in all the houses where everything is normal and regular.  I noticed nothing either from the part of the patient or from that of the count, or even from the part of the false Eulalie – who, of course, performed her tasks as if she had been raised exclusively for that purpose – that could have informed me as to the secret into which I had stumbled.  What could be said with certainty, however, was that the Count of Savigny and Hauteclaire Stassin played the appallingly impudent comedy with the simplicity of consummate actors, and they had conspired to play their roles as such.  But what was not as certain, and what I wanted to know first of all, was whether the Countess was actually their dupe and, in the event that she was, whether it were possible that she had been one for so long.  Therefore it was upon the Countess that I concentrated my attention. 

"I had all the less trouble delving into her mind thanks to the fact that she was my patient, and, with her illness, the focal point of my observation.  She was, as I have told you, a true woman of V. who knew nothing and I mean nothing more than that.  It was simply that she was noble and that, outside of the nobility, people were not worthy of her glance.  The feeling of their nobility is the only passion in V. among the women of the upper class, and in all classes they are very passionate.  Raised in a school run by Benedictine nuns where, without any religious vocation, she was terribly bored, Miss Delphine Cantor ended up leaving the school to be bored with her family.  That is, bored until she married the Count of Savigny, whom she loved or thought she loved, with the ease of those bored girls to love the first suitor presented to them.

"She was quite fair, of soft skin and tissue but hard of bone, with a milky complexion floating in freckles, little blotches of red certainly darker than her hair, which was of a very soft red.  When she handed me her pale arm, veined like a bluish mother-of-Pearl, a fine wrist of high pedigree, her pulse, as was its normal condition, languished in its beat.  Yet as she did this, she imbued me with the impression of having been created for this world solely as a victim to be crushed under the feet of this proud Hauteclaire, who towered over her even in the role of servant.  This idea, which initially arose from looking at her, was contradicted, however, by a chin that at the end of her thin face became a chin like that of Fulvia on Roman medals, lost below a ruffled countenance, as well as by a stubbornly bulging forehead beneath hair bereft of any gleam.   All of this ultimately would make judgment and analysis all the more burdensome a task.

"It was perhaps from Hauteclaire’s feet that the obstacle came.  It was impossible for a situation such as the one I perceived in this house – at present, quite uneventful – not to end in some kind of horrible scene.  With this future scene in mind, I doubled my auscultations of this small woman who could not remain a closed book to her physician for too long.  He who hears the confessions of the body soon has those of the heart.  If there were moral or immoral causes behind the current suffering of the Countess, in vain would she curl up in a ball with me and fill that ball with her impressions and thoughts.  No, she would have to lay them out.  That's what I told myself; nevertheless, you can trust that I turned the matter over in my keen medical mind – but to no avail.  After a few days, it became obvious that she did not have the slightest suspicion of the complicity of her husband and Hauteclaire in a domestic crime for which her house was the silent and discreet theater.

"Was this owing, on her part, to a lack of acumen?  A muteness of jealous feelings?  What was it?  She had a somewhat haughty reserve with everyone, except with her husband.  With this false Eulalie who waited on her she was imperious but gentle.  This may seem contradictory – but it wasn’t at all.  This was nothing but the truth.  She issued brief orders but never raised her voice, for she was a woman made to be obeyed and confident of this unswerving obedience.  And she was so quite admirably.  Eulalie, this frightening Eulalie, insinuated herself with her, slipped into her home, I never knew how, and enveloped herself in her mistress’s cares which stopped just in time before they became a burden for the person who absorbed them.  What is more, she evinced in the details of her service a grace and an understanding of the character of her mistress which contained as much genius of willfulness as genius of intelligence.  I concluded by even speaking with the Countess about this Eulalie, whom I saw during my visits encircling her so naturally that it gave me chills down my spine.  It was like watching a serpent unfold and extend, without making any noise, in approaching the bed of a sleeping woman.

"One night, when the Countess asked her to go get I don't know what, I seized upon the occasion of Eulalie’s absence and her speed, on the most soundless of steps, with which she carried out her task, to risk a word or two which could shed some light:

"'What steps of velvet!' I said, watching her leave the chamber. 'You have there, Madam, a lady in waiting of good and pleasant service, as far as I can judge.  May I ask you where you found her?  Is she by any chance from V., this girl?'

"'Yes, she serves me very well,' replied the Countess indifferently.  At the time, she was looking into a small hand mirror framed in green velvet and surrounded by peacock feathers with that impertinent air one always has when one is busy with something other than what is being said to you.  'I could not be any more satisfied.  She is not from V.; and yet I could not tell you where she is from as I know nothing about it.  Ask Mr. Savigny if you really wish to know, doctor, for it was he who brought her here a short while after our marriage.  In introducing her he told me that she had worked for an old cousin of his who had just died, and she was left with no job.  I took her on this recommendation and I did well.   As a lady in waiting, she is sheer perfection!  I do not think she has a flaw.'

"'I happen to know one, Madam,' I said, feigning gravity.

"'Ah?  And what would that be?' she said languidly with a lack of interest in her own words, as she carefully studied her pale lips in the small mirror.

"'She is too beautiful,' I said.  'She really is too beautiful for a lady in waiting.  One of these days someone will take her away from you.'

"'You think so?' she said, still looking at herself and absent-minded about what I was saying.

"'And perhaps it will be, Madam, a proper gentleman from your world who will become infatuated with her!  She is beautiful enough to turn the head of a duke.'

"I measured my words as I spoke.  This was a test balloon, a probe; but if I met there with nothing, I could not try any more.

"'There is no duke in V.,' said the Countess, whose forehead remained as smooth as the mirror she was holding in her hand.  'And, anyway doctor,' she added, smoothing over one of her eyebrows, 'when all these girls want to leave, it is not the love that you may have for them that prevents them from doing so.  Eulalie is a charming servant; yet she, just like all the others, would abuse any affection I might develop for her.  So I would do well not to get too attached.'

"And on this day I realized it was no longer a question of Eulalie.  The Countess was absolutely fooled.  Who would not have been, as it were?  I, who before anyone else had recognized her, this Hauteclaire seen so many times, a simple sword’s length away, in the fencing hall of her father.  There were moments where I was tempted to believe Eulalie.  Savigny had much less than she; Savigny, who should have had more freedom and ease, and seemed more natural in the lie – ah, but it was she!  It was she who was moving and living as the most flexible of the fish might live and move in the water.

"It was necessary, of course, that she love him, and love him strangely, for her to do what she was doing, for her to have abandoned an exceptional existence.  She could have flattered her vanity by observing how the eyes of a small town – for her, the universe – were fixed upon her.  Later, amidst these young people, among her fans and worshippers, she could have found someone who would marry her for love and have her enter this high society, whose men were only known to her.  He, the lover, certainly played for lower stakes than did she.  He occupied, in devotion, the lower position.  His manly pride must have suffered in not being able to spare his mistress the indignity of a humiliating situation.  In all this there was an inconsistency with the impetuous character imputed to Savigny.  If he loved Hauteclaire to the point of sacrificing his young wife, he could abscond with her and go and live with her in Italy – this was already quite common in that epoch! – without enduring the abominations of a shameful and hidden concubinage.  Was it therefore he who loved less?  Or rather, did he let himself be loved by Hauteclaire more than he loved her?  Was it she who came, on her own, and forced her way into the staff of the matrimonial home?  Finding the move bold and saucy, did he then allow this new breed of Potiphar, who at all times filled him with temptation, to carry out her plan?

"What I saw did not inform me a great deal about Savigny and Hauteclaire.  Accomplices in adultery – for they were most certainly, for heaven’s sake! – was one thing.  But the feelings that he possessed as the foundation of this adultery, what were they?  What was the situation of these two people with regard to one another?  I was keen on releasing this unknown variable in my algebra.  Savigny was irreproachable in the presence of his wife; but when Hauteclaire-Eulalie was there he took, as far as I could see out of the corner of my eye, precautions which attested to a hardly peaceful mind.  When, in the day-to-day activities of life, he requested from his wife’s lady in waiting a book, a journal, or any object at all, he had a way of taking this object which would have revealed everything to any woman other than this small inmate, raised by Benedictine nuns, whom he had married.

"One noticed that his hand was afraid to meet that of Hauteclaire, as if, in touching it by chance, it would have been impossible not to do so.  Hauteclaire did not evince any of this burden or these horrible precautions.   A temptress as they all are who would tempt God in his heaven, if there were one, and the Devil in his hell, she seemed to wish to agitate, at once, both desire and danger.  I saw her once or twice – on the day when my visit coincided with dinner – as Savigny was devoutly at the bed of his wife.  It was she who served them, with the other servants never to enter the apartment of the Countess.  To put the dishes on the table, she needed to lean slightly over the shoulder of Savigny, and here I caught her: in placing the plates on the table she rubbed the tips of her blouse against the back of the neck and the ears of the Count, who became completely pale and looked to see whether his wife was looking.  My word!  I was still young at the time and the chaos of the molecules in the system, what one calls the violence of sensations, seemed to me to be the only thing for which it was worth living.  I also imagined that he must have taken incredible pleasure in this hidden concubinage with a false servant under the nose of a woman who could discover it all.  Yes, concubinage in the matrimonial home; as old Prudhomme said, it was at this point that I understood!

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