When they were expecting no one, the reception rooms on the ground floor were kept carefully closed, as well as the large apartments of the first storey; for, of the whole large pile, the two women now occupied but one small room, which they used both as their dining-room and boudoir. When the window was partly open, the Countess could be seen mending her linen, like some needy little bourgeoise; while the young girl, between her piano and her box of water-colours, knit stockings and mittens for her mother. One very stormy day, both were seen to go down into the garden, and gather up the sand of the pathway, which the violence of the rain was sweeping away.
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Madame Caroline now knew their history. The Countess de Beauvilliers had suffered much from her husband, a rake of whom she had never complained. One evening they had brought him home to her at Vend?me, with the death-rattle in his throat and a bullet-hole through his body. There was talk of a hunting accident, some shot fired by a jealous gamekeeper whose wife or daughter he had probably seduced. And the worst of it was that with him vanished that formerly colossal fortune of the Beauvilliers, consisting of immense tracts of land, regal domains, which the Revolution had already found diminished, and which his father and himself had now exhausted. Of all the vast property, a single farm remained, the Aublets, situated at a few leagues from Vend?me and yielding a rental of about fifteen thousand francs, the sole resource left for the widow and her two children. The mansion in the Rue de Grenelle had long since been sold; and that in the Rue Saint-Lazare consumed the larger part of the fifteen thousand francs derived from the farm, for it was heavily mortgaged, and would in its turn be sold if they did not pay the interest. Thus scarcely six or seven thousand francs were left for the support of four persons, of the household of a noble family still unwilling to abdicate. It was now eight years since the Countess, on becoming a widow with a son of twenty and a daughter of seventeen, had, amid the crumbling of her fortune, and with her aristocratic pride waxing within her, sworn that she would live on bread and[pg 68] water rather than fall. From that time she had indeed had but one thought—to hold her rank, to marry her daughter to a man of equal nobility, and to make a soldier of her son. At first Ferdinand had caused her mortal anxieties in consequence of some youthful follies, debts which it became necessary to pay; but, warned of the situation in a solemn interview with his mother, he had not repeated the offence, for he had a tender heart at bottom, albeit he was simply an idle cypher in the world, unfitted for any employment, any possible place in contemporary society. And, now that he was a soldier of the pope, he was still a cause of secret anguish to the Countess, for he lacked health, delicate despite his proud bearing, with impoverished, feeble blood, which rendered the Roman climate dangerous for him. As for Alice’s marriage, it was so slow in coming that the sad mother’s eyes filled with tears when she looked at her daughter already growing old, withering whilst she waited. Despite her air of melancholy insignificance, the girl was not stupid; she had ardent aspirations for life, for a man who would love her, for happiness; but, not wishing to plunge the house into yet deeper grief, she pretended to have renounced everything; making a jest of marriage, and saying that it was her vocation to be an old maid; though at night she would weep on her pillow, almost dying of grief at the thought that she would never be mated. The Countess, however, by prodigies of avarice, had succeeded in laying aside twenty thousand francs, which constituted Alice’s entire dowry. She had likewise saved from the wreck a few jewels—a bracelet, some finger-rings and ear-rings, the whole possibly worth ten thousand francs—a very meagre dowry, a wedding-gift of which she did not dare to speak, since it was scarcely enough to meet the necessary expenditure, should the awaited husband ever appear. And yet she would not despair, but struggled on in spite of everything, unwilling to abandon a single one of the privileges of her birth, still as haughty, as observant of the proprieties as ever, incapable of going out on foot, or of cutting off a single entremets when she was receiving guests, but ever reducing the outlay of her hidden life, condemning[pg 69] herself for weeks to potatoes without butter, in order that she might add another fifty francs to her daughter’s ever-insufficient dowry. It was a painful, puerile daily heroism that she practised, whilst week by week the house was crumbling a little more about their heads.
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So far, however, Madame Caroline had not had an opportunity of speaking to the Countess and her daughter. Although she finally came to know the most private details of their life, those which they hid from the entire world, she had as yet only exchanged glances with them, those glances that suddenly turn into a feeling of secret sympathy. The princess d’Orviedo was destined to bring them together. She had the idea of appointing a sort of committee of superintendence for her Institute of Work—a committee composed of ten ladies, who would meet twice a month, visit the Institute in detail, and see that all the departments were properly managed. Having reserved the selection of these ladies for herself, she designated, among the very first, Madame de Beauvilliers, who had been a great friend of hers in former days, but had become simply her neighbour, now that she had retired from the world. And it had come about that the committee of superintendence, having suddenly lost its secretary, Saccard, who retained authority over the management of the establishment, had recommended Madame Caroline as a model secretary, such a one as could not be found elsewhere. The duties of the post were rather arduous; there was much clerical work, and even some material cares, that were somewhat repugnant to the ladies of the committee. From the start, however, Madame Caroline had shown herself an admirable hospitaller; for her unsatisfied longing for maternity, her hopeless love of children, kindled within her an active tenderness for all those poor creatures whom it was sought to save from the parisian gutter. In this wise, at the last meeting of the committee, she had met the Countess de Beauvilliers; but the latter had given her rather a cold salute, striving to conceal her secret embarrassment, for she undoubtedly realised that this Madame Caroline was an eye-witness of her poverty. However, they now both bowed[pg 70] whenever their eyes met, since it would have been gross impoliteness to pretend they did not recognise each other.
One day, in the large workroom, while Hamelin was correcting a plan in accordance with some new calculations he had made, and Saccard, standing by, was watching his work, Madame Caroline, at the window as usual, gazed at the Countess and her daughter as they made their tour of the garden. That morning she noticed that they were wearing shoes which a rag-picker would have scorned to touch.
‚Ah! the poor women!‘ she murmured; ‚how terrible and distressing it must be, that comedy of luxury which they think themselves obliged to play!‘
So saying, she drew back, hiding herself behind the window-curtain, for fear lest the mother should see her and suffer yet more intensely at being thus watched. She herself had grown calmer during the three weeks that she had been lingering every morning at that window; the great sorrow born of her abandonment was quieting down; it seemed as if the sight of the woes of others induced a more courageous acceptance of her own, that fall which she had deemed the fall of her entire life. Again, indeed, she occasionally caught herself laughing.
For a moment longer, and with an air of profound meditation, she watched the two women pace the garden, green with moss; then, quickly turning towards Saccard, she exclaimed: ‚Tell me why it is that I cannot be sad. No, it never lasts, has never lasted; I cannot be sad, whatever happens to me. Is it egotism? Really, I do not think so. Egotism would be wrong; and, besides, it is in vain that I am gay; my heart seems ready to break at sight of the least sorrow. Reconcile these things; I am gay, and yet I should weep over all the unfortunates who pass if I did not restrain myself—understanding as I do that the smallest scrap of bread would serve their purpose better than my vain tears.‘
So speaking, she laughed her beautiful brave laugh, like a courageous woman who prefers action to garrulous pity.
‚And yet,‘ she continued, ‚God knows that I have had occasion to despair of everything! Ah! fortune has not favoured me so far. After my marriage, falling as I did into[pg 71] a perfect hell, insulted, beaten, I really believed that there was nothing for me to do but to throw myself into the water. I did not throw myself into it, however, and a fortnight later, when I started with my brother for the East, I was quite lively again, full of immense hope. And at the time of our return to paris, when almost everything else failed us, I passed abominable nights, when I pictured ourselves dying of hunger amid all our fine projects. We did not die, however, and again I began to dream of wonderful things, happy things, that sometimes made me laugh as I sat alone. And lately, when I received that frightful blow, which I still don’t dare to speak of, my heart seemed torn away; yes, I positively felt it stop beating; I thought that it had ceased to be, I fancied that I myself no longer existed, annihilated as I was. But not at all! Here is existence returning; to-day I laugh, and to-morrow I shall hope; I shall be longing to live on, to live for ever. Is it not extraordinary that I cannot long be sad?‘
Saccard, who was laughing also, shrugged his shoulders. ‚Bah! you are like the rest of the world. Such is life,‘ he said.
‚Do you think so?‘ she cried, in astonishment. ‚It seems to me there are some people who are so sad that they never know a gay moment, people who render their own life intolerable, in such dark colours do they paint it. Oh! not that I entertain any illusion as to the pleasantness and beauty which it offers. In my case it has been too hard: I have seen it too closely, too freely, under all aspects. It is execrable when it is not ignoble. But what would you have? I love it all the same. Why? I do not know. In vain does everything crumble around me; on the morrow I find myself standing on the ruins, gay and confident. I have often thought that my case is, on a small scale, the case of humanity, which certainly lives in frightful wretchedness, cheered up, however, by the youth of each succeeding generation. After each crisis that throws me down, there comes something like a new youth, a spring time whose promise of sap warms me and inspirits my heart. So true is this that, after some severe affliction, if I go out into the street, into the sunshine, I straightway begin[pg 72] loving, hoping, feeling happy again. And age has no influence upon me; I am simple enough to grow old without noticing it. You see, I have read a great deal more than a woman should; I no longer know where I myself am going, any more than this vast world knows where it is going, for that matter. Only, in spite of myself, it seems to me that I am going, indeed that we are all going, towards something very good and thoroughly gay.‘
Although affected, she ended by turning the matter into jest, trying to hide the emotion born of her hope; whilst her brother, who had raised his head, looked at her with mingled adoration and gratitude.
‚Oh! you,‘ he declared, ‚you are made for catastrophes; you personify the love of life, whatever it may be.‘
These daily morning conversations gradually became instinct with a kind of fever. If Madame Caroline returned to that natural inherent gaiety of hers, it was due to the courage which Saccard, with his active zeal for great enterprises, imparted. It was, indeed, now almost decided: they were going to turn the famous portfolio to account; and when the financier’s shrill voice rang out everything seemed to acquire life, to assume colossal proportions. They would, in the first place, lay hands on the Mediterranean, conquer it by means of their steamship company. And, enumerating all the ports where they would establish stations, he mingled dim classical memories with his stock-exchange enthusiasm, chanting the praises of that sea, the only one which the old world had known, that blue sea around which civilisation had blossomed, and whose waves had bathed the ancient cities—Athens, Rome, Tyre, Alexandria, Carthage, Marseilles—all those seats of commerce and empire that have made Europe. Then, when they had ensured themselves possession of that vast waterway to the East, they would make a start in Syria with that little matter of the Carmel Silver Mining Company, just a few millions to gain en passant, but a capital thing to introduce, for the idea of a silver mine, of money found in the bowels of the earth and thrown up by the shovelful, was still attractive to the public, especially when ticketed with a prodigious,[pg 73] resounding name like that of Carmel. There were also coal mines there, coal just beneath the rock, which would be worth gold when the country should be covered with factories; to say nothing of other little ventures, which would serve as interludes—the establishment of banks and industrial syndicates, and the opening up and felling of the vast Lebanon forests, whose huge trees were rotting where they stood for want of roads. Finally, he came to the giant morsel, the Oriental Railway Company, and then he began to rave, for that system of railroads cast over Asia Minor from one end to the other, like a net, to him meant speculation, financial life, at one stroke seizing hold of a new prey—that old world still intact, with incalculable wealth concealed under the ignorance and grime of ages. He scented the treasure, and neighed like a war-horse at the smell of powder.
Madame Caroline, albeit possessed of sterling good sense, and not easily influenced by feverish imaginations, yielded at last to this enthusiasm, no longer detecting its extravagance. In truth, it fanned her affection for the East, her longing to again behold that wonderful country, where she had thought herself so happy; and, by a logical counter-effect, without calculation on her part, it was she who, by her glowing descriptions and wealth of information, stimulated the fever of Saccard. When she began talking of Beyrout, where she had lived for three years, she could never stop; Beyrout lying at the foot of the Lebanon range, on a tongue of land, between a stretch of red sand and piles of fallen rock; Beyrout with its houses reared in amphitheatral fashion amid vast gardens; a delightful paradise of orange, lemon, and palm trees. Then there were all the cities of the coast: on the north, Antioch, fallen from its whilom splendour; on the south, Saida, the Sidon of long ago, Saint Jean d’Acre, Jaffa, and Tyre, now Sur, which sums them all up: Tyre, whose merchants were kings, whose mariners made the circuit of Africa, and which to-day, with its sand-choked harbour, is nothing but a field of ruins, the dust of palaces, where stand only a few fishermen’s wretched and scattered huts.