Truly those who stopped in front of the opening which I have indicated, and who managed to cast a glance inside the [Pg 18] shop, did not lose their time nor regret their pains.
What we mean by this has no sort of connection with the two proprietors of the establishment, who were both old maids, having long since passed their fortieth year, and, I presume, having lost all pretension to inspire any other sentiment than respect. No, what we have in view concerns two of the most adorable faces you can imagine, placed side by side as though to set one another off: one was a blonde, and the other a brunette.
If you do not know her, I will describe Albine to you. She was a young girl of seventeen, with a dead brown complexion, large brown velvety eyes, and eyebrows so black that they seemed as though they had been drawn with a pencil, the curve was so firm and so regular. She was a duchess, she was a queen; better still than either, if you will, she was after the fashion of a nymph of Diana's train: slight, slender, straight and finely built, a huntress whom it would have been a splendid sight to see with a plumed helmet on her head, an Amazon flying before the wind, leading a troop of clamorous pikemen, guiding a baying hound.
Upon the stage her appearance would have been magnificent, almost supernatural. In ordinary life, people were tempted to think her too beautiful, and for some time nobody dared to make love to her, it seemed so likely that their love would be wasted and that she would not make any response to it. I have never seen prettier golden hair, sweeter eyes, a more winning smile; she was more inclined to be gay than melancholy, short rather than tall, plump rather than thin: she was something like one of Murillo's cherubs who kiss the feet of his Virgins—half veiled in clouds; she was neither a Watteau shepherdess, nor one of Greuze's peasant girls, but something between the two.
One felt it would be a sweet and easy thing to love her, although it might not be so easy to be [Pg 19] loved by her.
Her father and her mother were worthy old farmer folk, thoroughly honest but vulgar, and it was all the more surprising that so fresh and sweet-scented a flower should have sprung from such a stock. But this is always the case when folks are young: it is youth that lends distinction, as it is spring which lends freshness to the rose. Round these young people whom I have just described, smiled and pouted a bevy of young girls, the smallest being mere infants, whom I have since seen succeed the youthful generation in which I lived. I have sought in vain to find in these later children the virtues I found in those who preceded them.
Until the arrival of the two strangers in Villers-Cotterets I had not even noticed the springtide crown of stars and flowers to which all ranks of society contribute. When the two strangers had left, the bandage that had sealed my eyes fell off, and I could say not merely "I see" but "I live.
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Instead of returning to the former, as my beautiful Parisian had advised me, I attached myself to the latter, and drew myself up to my full height to prove my sixteen years. And when anyone asked my age, I told them I was seventeen. He was a thoroughly well-bred, well-educated young fellow, son of a man very honourably known in foreign affairs; his father had lived in the East for many years and had been Consul at Salonica.
Perrot the lawyer; his father and grandfather were blacksmiths, and in the idle period of my early youth I spent a large portion of my time in their forge, [Pg 20] notching their files and making fireworks out of iron filings. Saunier divided his leisure-time between two passions—one, which I verily believe came before the other, was for the clarionette; the other was for Manette Thierry. The third of my intimate friends was called Chollet; he served as a link, in the matter of age, between Fourcade and Saunier.
He lived with one of my cousins, called Roussy, the father of the child of whom I had been godfather, when nine months old, along with Augustine Deviolaine. He was studying the cultivation of forest-land. I know nothing about his relations; they were probably wealthy, for whenever I called on him there were five-franc pieces scattered about on the mantelpiece and two or three gold pieces always shone out ostentatiously from the midst of them, dazzling my eyes and impressing me profoundly with his riches.
But my admiration was entirely devoid of envy—I have never envied either a man's money or his possessions. I know not whether this arose from pride or from simpleness of mind. I might have taken for my motto Video nec invideo. Chollet had had no education at all, but he was not wanting in a certain natural quick-wittedness, and he was a fine-looking young fellow, his magnificent eyes and splendid teeth redeeming an otherwise common-looking face, pitted with smallpox.
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These were my three most intimate friends. The upshot was, that when it became necessary for me in my turn to make a choice, although I had been brought up half with M. Deviolaine's family and half with M. Collard's, it was neither in aristocratic society nor in middle-class circles, which would have made fun of me, that I sought my initiation in the delightful mystery of life we call falling in love, but in that society to which my three friends almost exclusively addressed themselves. And I had no difficulty in understanding their preference.
I do not hesitate to state fully and freely that they were very wise in their choice. There was but one step to take to follow in their path. I needed only someone upon whom to fasten my affections: the wish to love was not wanting. They all enjoyed most delightful liberty, the result no doubt of the confidence their parents placed in their good sense; but for some reason or other we had quite an English custom in Villers-Cotterets—a free and easy association between young people of both sexes, which I have never seen in any other French town; a liberty all the more surprising, since all the parents of these maidens were perfectly respectable people and had a profound conviction in the depths of their hearts that all the barques launched upon the flood of the Tender Passion were decked with white sails and crowned with orange blossoms.
And what was more singular still, it was true in the case of the majority of the ten or twelve couples of lovers which formed our circle. I waited patiently for one of these knots to be untied or severed. While I waited, I went to every party and took part in all the walks and all the dances; it was an excellent apprenticeship, which familiarised me beforehand with that monster whom Psyche touched without seeing and whom I, on the contrary, had seen but not touched. Chance favoured me, after six weeks or two months of playing second fiddle. The parents of the young man, who were better off than those of the young girl, opposed these budding loves, and the fair one was released.
I had learnt much during those six weeks by watching others; besides, this time, I was not entangled with a sarcastic and exacting Parisian girl, who knew the world so much better than I did. No, my love affair was with a young girl more shy than myself, who mistook my pretended courage for genuine, and who, like the frog in the fable that jumped in the pond when a frightened hare passed by it, was good enough to fear me and to prove to me that it was possible to come across someone even more timid than myself.
It can be seen how such a change in the position of things gave me assurance. This time I was the attacking party and someone else was on the defensive, and this someone was making such an obstinate resistance that I soon realised my attack was useless and that I should only succeed in breaking down the serious resistance offered me after, maybe, a long and patient wooing: the citadel was not to be stormed. Then began for me those first days, the reflection of which has lasted throughout the whole of my life: that delicious struggle of love, which asks unceasingly and is not discouraged by an eternity of refusal; the obtaining of favour after favour, each of which, when gained, fills the soul with ecstasy; the early fleeting dawn of life which hovers above the earth, shaking down handfuls of flowers upon the heads of mortals, and then, under the influence of the rising sun, adds consciousness to its joy and is soon enveloped in the ardent heat of passion.
Indeed, it was a happy time for me. In the morning, when I awoke, my mother's smile greeted me and her lingering kisses hung on my lips; from nine to four o'clock came my work—work, it is true, which would have been tiresome if I had been obliged to understand what I wrote, but which was easy and welcome, for while my hands and eyes were copying, my mind was free to commune with my own happy thoughts; then, from four till eight o'clock, I was with my mother; and after eight, joy, love, life, hope, happiness!
At eight in summer evenings, at six in winter, our young friends, also free when I was, came to join us at some convenient meeting-place; held out their faces or their cheeks to be kissed, pressed our hands, without taking pains, out of mistaken coquetry or hypocritical make-belief, to conceal their delight at meeting us once more; then, if it were summertime, and fine weather, the park invited us with its mossy sward, its dusky avenues, the breeze trembling among the leaves, and on moonlight nights there were wide spaces of alternate light and darkness; at these times a solitary passer-by could have seen five or six couples walking, at duly specified distances, to ensure isolation without loneliness, heads inclined towards one another, hands clasped in hands, talking in low [Pg 23] tones, modulating their words to sweet intonations, or preserving a dangerous silence; for during such silences the eyes often spoke what the lips did not dare to utter.
Each boy took his particular girl home. When they reached the house door, she granted her cavalier another half-hour, sometimes an hour, as sweet to her as to him, as they sat together on the bench outside the door, or stood in the garden path which led to the maternal parlour, from the interior of which from time to time a grumbling voice might be heard calling—a voice that was answered ten times before being obeyed, "I am coming, mamma.
I must ask permission to speak of him fully, for he had an immense influence over my life. I had left my companions for an instant in the course of the dance, and I had gone to some distance to pay a visit to an old friend of my father, a farmer, whose farm was nearly a quarter of a league from the village. I took a pretty path at the foot of a hill to get there, hedged on both sides by hawthorn in full blossom, and studded with daisies, their golden centres fringed by pink-tipped petals.
Suddenly, at a bend in the path, I saw three people coming towards me, in a ray of sunlight which bathed them in light; two were well known to me, but the third was a complete stranger.
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The other was her daughter, Marie Capelle, then only three years old, who to her misfortune was to become Madame Lafarge. The third person, the stranger, looked at first sight like a German student; he was a youth of between sixteen and seventeen, and was dressed in a grey jacket, an oilskin cap, a waistcoat of chamois leather and bright blue trousers, almost as tight-fitting as mine, but with this difference, that while my topboots covered up my breeches, his, on the contrary, were covered up by his trousers.
This young man was tall, dark and gaunt, his black hair cut as short as bristles; he had good eyes and a strikingly defined [Pg 25] nose; his teeth were as white as pearls, and he had a carelessly aristocratic bearing; he was the Viscount Adolphe Ribbing de Leuven, future author of Vert-Vert and of Postilion de Long-jumeau son of Count Adolphe-Louis Ribbing de Leuven, one of the three Swedish noblemen who were inculpated in the murder of Gustavus III. These Counts Ribbing de Leuven were of an old and noble family, used to carrying on royal intrigues and to treat on equal terms with the powerful ones of earth.
It was a Ribbing who rose in against the tyrant Christiern who had caused his two children to be murdered. There was a sad and melancholy legend in the family, connected with the beheading of these two children, the one aged twelve and the other only three. The executioner had cut off the head of the eldest and had seized hold of the second to execute him too, when the poor mite said in childish accents, "Oh, please do not soil my collar as you have soiled my brother Axel's, for mamma would scold me.
Moved by the words, he flung down his sword and ran off, overwhelmed with remorse. Christiern sent soldiers after him and he was killed. Adolphe's father, with whom I have since become very friendly and who loves me like a father, was then a man of fifty; extremely distinguished in appearance, with a charming nature, although perhaps a little too sarcastic, and of indomitable courage. He had been presented to Marie-Antoinette by the Count de Fersen and, under the patronage of that illustrious favourite, the queen gave him a most favourable reception.
He remembered poor.
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Marie-Antoinette with most respectful veneration, and thirty years after her death I often heard him speak of her with a voice full of tears. He was recalled to Sweden towards the close of the year He was betrothed to one of his cousins, whom [Pg 26] he worshipped, and, intending to marry her on his return, he learnt on his arrival at Stockholm that, by the order of King Gustave III. In his first transport of despair, Count Ribbing provoked a quarrel with her husband. A duel ensued, and the Count d'Essen fell with a sword-wound through his chest which kept him chained for six months to his bed.
A tremendous strife had been waged for a long period between the regal power and the nobility. Though the king was married in to Sophie-Madeleine of Denmark, he had no heir to his crown even in As in the case of the last of the house of Valois, Gustavus had his favourites, and their familiarity with him led to their making the most extraordinary suggestions to their prince.
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After a time, the courtiers made up their minds to remonstrate with the king about the queen's barrenness and to tell him he ought to try to remedy this deficiency by every means in his power. Gustavus promised to see what could be done in the matter. Then, so folks said, a curious thing happened.
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The evening of the day on which he had pledged his word to the Swedish lords, he took his equerry Monck to the queen's chamber and, in the presence of the confused and blushing queen, he explained to the equerry the service he required of him; then he withdrew and shut the door of the royal chamber upon the pair.