The days and nights were very lonely for Madame Delisle. Gustave, her husband, was away yonder in Virginia somewhere, with Beauregard, and she was here in the old house on Bayou St. John, alone with her slaves.
Madame was very beautiful. So beautiful, that she found much diversion in sitting for hours before the mirror, contemplating her own loveliness; admiring the brilliancy of her golden hair, the sweet languor of her blue eyes, the graceful contours of her figure, and the peach-like bloom of her flesh. She was very young. So young that she romped with the dogs, teased the parrot, and could not fall asleep at night unless old black Manna-Loulou sat beside her bed and told her stories.
In short, she was a child, not able to realize the significance of the tragedy whose unfolding kept the civilized world in suspense. It was only the immediate effect of the awful drama that moved her: the gloom that, spreading on all sides, penetrated her own existence and deprived it of joyousness.
Sépincourt found her looking very lonely and disconsolate one day when he stopped to talk with her. She was pale, and her blue eyes were dim with unwept tears. He was a Frenchman who lived near by. He shrugged his shoulders over this strife between brothers, this quarrel which was none of his; and he resented it chiefly upon the ground that it made life uncomfortable; yet he was young enough to have had quicker and hotter blood in his veins.
When he left Madame Delisle that day, her eyes were no longer dim, and a something of the dreariness that weighted her had been lifted away. That mysterious, that treacherous bond called sympathy, had revealed them to each other.
He came to her very often that summer, clad always in cool, white duck, with a flower in his buttonhole. His pleasant brown eyes sought hers with warm, friendly glances that comforted her as a caress might comfort a disconsolate child. She took to watching for his slim figure, a little bent, walking lazily up the avenue between the double line of magnolias.
They would sit sometimes during whole afternoons in the vine-sheltered corner of the gallery, sipping the black coffee that Manna-Loulou brought to them at intervals; and talking, talking incessantly during the first days when they were unconsciously unfolding themselves to each other. Then a time came – it came very quickly – when they seemed to have nothing more to say to one another.
He brought her news of the war; and they talked about it listlessly, between long intervals of silence, of which neither took account. An occasional letter came by roundabout wasy from Gustave – guarded and saddening in its tone. They would read it and sigh over it together.
Once they stood before his portrait that hung in the drawing-room and that looked out at them with kind, indulgent eyes. Madame wiped the picture with her gossamer handkerchief and impulsively pressed a tender kiss upon the painted canvas. For months past the living image of her husband had been receding further and further into a mist which she could penetrate with no faculty or power that she possessed.
One day at sunset, when she and Sépincourt stood silently side by side, looking across the marais, aflame with the western light, he said to her: “M’amie, let us go away from this country that is so triste. Let us go to Paris, you and me.”
She thought that he was jesting, and she laughed nervously. “Yes, Paris would surely by gayer than Bayou St. John,” she answered. But he was not jesting. She saw it at once in the glance that penetrated her own; in the quiver of his sensitive lip and the quick beating of a swollen vein in his brown throat.
“Paris, or anywhere – with you – ah, bon Dieu!” he whispered, seizing her hands. But she withdrew from him, frightened, and hurried away into the house, leaving him alone.
That night, for the first time, Madame did not want to hear Manna-Loulou’s stories, and she blew out the wax candle that till now had burned brightly in her sleeping-room, under its tall, crystal globe. She had suddenly become a woman capable of love or sacrifice. She would not hear Manna-Loulou’s stories. She wanted to be alone, to tremble and to weep.
In the morning her eyes were dry, but she would not see Sépincourt when he came. Then he wrote her a letter.
“I have offended you and I would rather die!” it ran. “Do not banish me from your presence that is life to me. Let me lie at your feet, if only for a moment, in which to hear you say that you forgive me.”
Men have written such letters before, but Madame did not know it. To her it was a voice form the unknown, like music, awaking in her a delicious tumult that seized and held possession of her whole being.
When they met, he had but to look into her face to know that he need not lie at her feet craving forgiveness. She was waiting for him beneath the spreading branches of a live-oak that guarded the gate of her home like a sentinel.
For a brief moment he held her hands, which trembled. Then he folded her in his arms and kissed her many times. “You will go with me, m’amie? I love you – oh, I love you! Will you not go with me, m’amie?”
“Anywhere, anywhere,” she told him in a fainting voice that he could scarcely hear.
But she did not go with him. Chance willed it otherwise. That night a courier brought her a message from Beauregard, telling her that Gustave, her husband, was dead.
When the new year was still young, Sépincourt decided that, all things considered, he might, without any appearance of indecent haste, speak again of his love to Madame Delisle. That love was quite as acute as ever; perhaps a little sharper, from the long period of silence and waiting to which he had subjected it. He found her, as he had expected, clad in deepest mourning. She greeted him precisely as she had welcomed the cure, when the kind old priest had brought to her the consolations of religion – clasping his two hands warmly, and calling him “cher ami”. Her whole attitude and bearing brought to Sépincourt the poignant, the bewildering conviction that he held no place in her thoughts.
They sat in the drawing-room before the portrait of Gustave, which was draped with his scarf. Above the picture hung his sword, and beneath it was an embankment of flowers. Sépincourt felt an almost irresistible impulse to bend his knee before this altar, upon which he saw foreshadowed the immolation of his hopes.
There was a soft air blowing gently over the marais. It came to them through the open window, laden with a hundred subtle sounds and scents of the springtime. It seemed to remind Madame of something far, far away, for she gazed dreamily out into the blue firmament. It fretted Sépincourt with impulses to speech and action which he found it impossible to control.
“You must know what has brought me,” he began impulsively, drawing his chair nearer to hers. “Through all these months I have never ceased to love you and to long for you. Night and day the sound of your dear voice has been with me; your eyes” –
She held out her hand deprecatingly. He took it and held it. She let it lie unresponsive in his.
“You cannot have forgotten that you loved me not long ago,” he went on eagerly, “that you were ready to follow me anywhere, - anywhere; do you remember? I have come now to ask you to fulfill that promise; to ask you to be my wife, my companion, the dear treasure of my life.”
She heard his warm and pleading tones as though listening to a strange language, imperfectly understood.
She withdrew her hand from his, and leaned her brow thoughtfully upon it.
“Can you not feel – can you not understand, mon ami,” she said calmly, “that now such a thing – such a thought, is impossible to me?”
“Yes, impossible. Can you not see that now my heart, my soul, my thought – my very life, must belong to another? It could not be different.”
“Would you have me believe that you can wed your young existence to the dead?” he exclaimed with something like horror. Her glance was sunk deep in the embankment of flowers before her.
“My husband has never been so living to me as he is now,” she replied with a faint smile of commiseration for Sépincourt’s fatuity. “Every object that surrounds me speaks to me of him. I look yonder across the marais, and I see him coming toward me, tired and toil-stained from the hunt. I see him again sitting in this chair or in that one. I hear his familiar voice, his footsteps upon the galleries. We walk once more together beneath the magnolias; and at night in dreams I feel that he is there, near me. How could it be different! Ah! I have memories, memories to crowd and fill my life, if I live a hundred years!”
Sépincourt was wondering why she did not take the sword down from her altar and thrust it through his body here and there. The effect would have been infinitely more agreeable than her words, penetrating his soul like fire. He arose confused, enraged with pain.
“Then, Madame,” he stammered, “there is nothing left for me but to take my leave. I bid you adieu.”
“Do not be offended, mon ami,” she said kindly, holding out her hand. “You are going to Paris, I suppose?”
“What does it matter,” he exclaimed desparately, “where I go?”
“Oh, I only wanted to wish you bon voyage,” she assured him amiably.
Many days after that Sépincourt spent in the fruitless mental effort of trying to comprehend that psychological enigma, a woman’s heart.
Madame still lives on Bayou St. John. She is rather an old lady now, a very pretty old lady, against whose long years of widowhood there has never been a breath of reproach. The memory of Gustave still fills and satisfies her days. She has never failed, once a year, to have a solemn high mess said for the repose of his soul.