THE fever confined me to my bed a week. When I was able to write I assured Madame Pierson that she would be obeyed, and that I would go away. I wrote in good faith, without any intention to deceive, but I was very far from keeping my promise. Before I had gone ten leagues I ordered the driver to stop, and I stepped out of the carriage. I began to walk along the road. I could not resist the temptation to look back at the village which was still visible in the distance. Finally, after a period of frightful irresolution, I felt that it was impossible for me to continue on my route, and rather than get into the carriage again, I would have died on the spot. I told the driver to turn around, and, instead of going to Paris as I had intended, I made straight for N-----, whither Madame Pierson had gone.
I arrived at ten in the night. As soon as I reached the inn I had a boy direct me to the house of her relatives, and, without reflecting what I was doing, at once made my way to the spot. A servant opened the door. I asked if Madame Pierson was there and directed him to tell her that some one wished to speak to her on the part of M. Desprez. That was the name of our village cure.
While the servant was executing my order I remained alone in a somber little court; as it was raining, I entered the hall and stood at the foot of the stairway which was not lighted. Madame Pierson soon arrived, preceding the servant; she descended rapidly, and did not see me in the darkness; I stepped up to her and touched her arm. She recoiled with terror and cried out:
"What do you wish of me?"
Her voice trembled so painfully, and when the servant appeared with a light, her face was so pale that I did not know what to think. Was it possible that my unexpected appearance could disturb her in such a manner? That reflection occurred to me, but I decided that it was merely a feeling of fright natural to a woman who is suddenly approached.
Nevertheless, she repeated her question in a firmer tone.
"You must permit me to see you once more," I replied. "I will go away, I will leave the country. You shall be obeyed, I swear it, and that beyond your real desire, for I will sell my father's house and go abroad; but that is only on condition that I am permitted to see you once more; otherwise I remain; you need fear nothing from me, but I am resolved on that."
She frowned and cast her eyes about her in a strange manner; then she replied, almost graciously:
"Come to-morrow during the day and I will see you." Then she left me.
The next day at noon I presented myself. I was introduced into a room with old hangings and antique furniture. I found her alone, seated on a sofa. I sat down before her.
"Madame," I began, "I come neither to speak of what I suffer, nor to deny that I love you. You have written me that what has passed between us can not be forgotten, and that is true; but you say that on that account we can not meet on the same footing as heretofore, and you are mistaken. I love you, but I have not offended you; nothing is changed in our relations since you do not love me. If I am permitted to see you, responsibility rests with me, and as far as your responsibility is concerned, my love for you should be sufficient guarantee."
She tried to interrupt me.
"Kindly allow me to finish what I have to say. No one knows better than I, that in spite of the respect I feel for you, and in spite of all the protestations by which I might bind myself, love is the stronger. I repeat I do not intend to deny what is in my heart; but you do not learn of that love to-day for the first time, and I ask you what has prevented me from declaring it up to the present time? The fear of losing you; I was afraid I would not be permitted to see you, and that is what has happened. Make a condition that the first word I shall speak, the first thought or gesture that shall seem to be inconsistent with the most profound respect, shall be the signal for the closing of your door; as I have been silent in the past, I will be silent in the future. You think that I have loved you for a month, when in fact I have loved you from the first day I met you. When you discovered it, you did not refuse to see me on that account. If you had at that time enough esteem for me to believe me incapable of offending you, why have you lost that esteem?
That is what I have come to ask you. What have I done? I have bent my knee, but I have not said a word. What have I told you? What you already knew. I have been weak because I have suffered. It is true, madame, that I am twenty years of age and what I have seen of life has only disgusted me, I could use a stronger word; it is true that there is not at this hour on earth, either in the society of men or in solitude, a place, however small and insignificant, that I care to occupy.
The space enclosed between the four walls of your garden is the only spot in the world where I live; you are the only human being who has made me love God. I had renounced everything before I knew you; why deprive me of the only ray of light that Providence has spared me? If it is on account of fear, what have I done to inspire it? If it is on account of pity, in what respect am I culpable? If it is on account of pity and because I suffer, you are mistaken in supposing that I can cure myself; it might have been done, perhaps, two months ago; but I preferred to see you and to suffer, and I do not repent, whatever may come of it. The only misfortune that can reach me, is losing you. Put me to the proof. If I ever feel that there is too much suffering for me in our bargain, I will go away; and you may be sure of it, since you send me away to-day, and I am ready to go. What risk do you run in giving me a month or two of the only happiness I will ever know?"
I waited her reply. She suddenly rose from her seat, then sat down again. Then a moment of silence ensued. "Rest assured," she said, "it is not so." I thought she was searching for words that would not appear too severe, and that she was anxious to avoid hurting me. "One word," I said, rising, "one word, nothing more. I know who you are, and, if there is any compassion for me in your heart, I thank you; speak but one word, this moment decides my life."
She shook her head; I saw that she was hesitating.
"You think I can be cured?" I cried. "May God grant you that solace if you send me away--"
I looked out of the window at the horizon and felt in my soul such a frightful sensation of loneliness at the idea that I was going away, that my blood froze in my veins. She saw me standing before her, my eyes fixed on her, awaiting her reply; all of my life was hanging in suspense upon her lips.
"Very well," she said, "listen to me. This move of yours in coming to see me was an act of great imprudence; however, it is not necessary to assume that you have come here to see me; accept a commission that I will give you for a friend of my family. If you find that it is a little far, let it be the occasion of an absence which shall last as long as you choose, but which must not be too short. Although you said a moment ago," she added with a smile, "that a short trip would calm you. You will stop in the Vosges and you will go as far as Strasburg. Then in a month, or better, in two months you will return and report to me; I will see you again and give you further instructions."
The Confessions of a Child of the Century