"Poisoned!" I cried.
"By her lady in waiting, Eulalie, who mistook one flask for another and who, it was said, made her mistress swallow a bottle of double ink instead of a medicine that I had prescribed. It was possible, after all, that this was a mistake. But I knew – I knew – that Eulalie was Hauteclaire! I had seen both of them forming Canova’s statue of Amor and Psyche on the balcony! The world had not seen what I had seen. The world had the impression of merely a terrible accident. But when, two years after this disaster, it was learned that Count Serlo of Savigny publicly married the daughter of Stassin – because who she was, the false Eulalie, had to come out – and he was going to bed her in the still-warm sheets of his first wife, Miss Delphine of Cantor – oh, well then!
"Then was a roar of thunder of suspicion, all in a low voice, as if one were afraid of what was said and what one thought. The only thing was that, basically, no one knew. One only knew about this monstrous mésalliance, which pointed a finger at the Count of Savigny and isolated him as a pariah. And, what is more, that was enough. You know what a shame it is – or rather was, for things have since changed in that region – to say of a man: he married his servant! This disgrace spread and remained with Serlo like a smear. As for the awful buzz that had circulated about the suspected crime, it was soon swallowed up like a horsefly falling tired in a rut. But there was, however, someone who knew and who was certain –"
"And this could only be you, doctor?" I asked.
"Indeed, it was I," he said, resuming his narrative. "But I was not alone. If I had been the only one to know, I would have never had more than vague glimmers, worse than total ignorance. I would never have been sure." Here, leaning on his words with the aplomb of complete assurance, he said: "And I most certainly am!
"And listen to how much I am!" he added, taking my knee with his gnarled fingers, as if with a clamp. For his story would grab me even more than this system of crab-like articulations which formed his formidable hand.
"You must surely think," he continued, "that I was the first to know of the poisoning of the Countess. Guilty or not, they had to send for me since I was the doctor. They did not even bother to saddle a horse. A stable boy came bareback and at a fast gallop to find me in V., from where I followed him, at the same frantic pace, to Savigny.
"When I arrived – had all this been calculated? – it was no longer possible to stop the ravages of the poisoning. Serlo – devastated, to judge by his physiognomy – came out in front of me in the courtyard and said, as I disengaged myself from the stirrup, as if he were afraid of the words he was about to use:
"'A servant has made a mistake (he avoided saying Eulalie, whom everyone would name the following day). But, doctor, this is not possible! Could double ink truly be a poison?'
"'This depends on the substances with which it is made,' I rebutted. He led me into the chamber of the Countess who was exhausted in pain, and whose retracted face resembled a ball of white yarn fallen in green dye. In this state she was frightening. She smiled at me, a horrible, black-lipped smile of the kind that a silent person might make with the meaning: 'I know what you’re thinking.' My eyes circled the room to see whether Eulalie was there. I wanted to behold her countenance at such a moment; but she was not there. As valiant as she was, was she afraid of me? Oh, I still only had uncertain information.
"When seeing me, the Countess made an effort and raised herself on her elbow.
"'Ah, there you are, doctor,' she said. 'But you have come too late. I am dead. You shouldn't have sent for a doctor, Serlo, but a priest. Go on! Order him to come, and leave me two minutes alone with the doctor. This is what I want!'
"She said this – 'this is what I want' – as I had never heard her talk before, as the woman with the forehead and the chin of which I have already spoken to you.
"'Even I?' said Savigny weakly.
"'Even you,' she said. And she added, almost in a caress: 'My dear, you know that women are most prudish in front of those they love.'
"Hardly had he left the room than she underwent an atrocious change. Her caress became the claws of a wild beast.
"'Doctor,' she said in a voice filled with hate. 'It is no accident that my death is a crime. Serlo loves Eulalie and it was she who poisoned me! I did not believe you when you told me that this girl was too beautiful to be a lady in waiting. I was wrong. He loves this treacherous, this dreadful girl who has killed me. And he is even guiltier than she is, because he loves her and he has betrayed me for her. For several days now the looks exchanged from both sides of my bed have provided me with sufficient warning. And then the abominable taste of that ink with which they poisoned me! But I drank it all, despite its horrible taste, because I was quite ready to die. Do not even mention antidotes! I want none of your remedies. I want to die.'
"'So why then did you have me come, Madame?'
"'Well then!' she said, panting. 'Here's why: to tell you that they poisoned me, and to obtain your word of honor that you will conceal this fact. All of this will make a terrible scene. It must not occur. You are my doctor and people will believe you when you speak of a misunderstanding that others have made up, and when you say that I would not even be dead, that I could have been saved, if my health had not abandoned me so long ago. This is what you must swear to me, doctor.'
"And as I did not reply, she saw what was in me. I considered that perhaps she loved her husband to the point of wanting to save him. That was the idea that came to me, a natural and vulgar idea, one that pertained to those women so frozen by love and its abnegation that they do not return the blow that slays them. But the Countess of Savigny had never given me the impression of being one of those women!
"'Ah! It is not what you think that makes me ask you to swear this to me, doctor! Oh no! Despite his betrayal, I hate Serlo too much at this time not to love him still. But I am not so cowardly as to forgive him! I depart from this life, jealous of him and implacable. But it is not a matter of Serlo, doctor,' she went on with more energy, revealing to me a side of her character that I had already glimpsed but whose depths I had never penetrated. 'It concerns the Count of Savigny. When I am dead I do not want the Count to be known as his wife’s murderer. I do not want him to be dragged into the court of assizes to be accused of complicity with an adulterous servant girl poisoner! I do not want this blemish to remain on the name of Savigny, which I once bore. Oh, if it were only about him, him, so deserving of all the gallows! But I would eat his heart out! Yet it is a matter for all of us proper people in this region! If we were still what we should be, I would have had this Eulalie tossed into one of the dungeons of the castle of Savigny, and it would never again have been an issue! But now we are no longer the masters here. We no longer have our silent and expeditious justice, and I in no way want any scandals or publicity from your side, doctor. I would prefer to die enraged and leave them in each other’s arms, happy and delivered from me, than to think, as I die, that the nobility of V. would incur the ignominy of a poisoner in its ranks.'
"Despite the shaking of her jaw which was clacking so hard that her teeth could have been shattered, she spoke with unprecedented vibration. I recognized her and yet I was still learning about her! She was full well that noble girl who was nothing but that – noble and stronger, as she died, than the jealous woman within her. She died as a daughter of V., the last noble city in France. And touched more by this than I perhaps ought to have been, I promised and swore to her that if I didn’t save her, I would do as she had asked.
"And I did so, my dear fellow. I did not save her. I could not save her: she obstinately refused all remedies. I said what she had wanted me to say when she died and I was persuasive. Twenty-five years have now passed between that time and ours. Now everything about this horrible episode has been calmed, silenced, and forgotten. Many people who lived through it are now dead. Ignorant and indifferent generations have grown on their tombs, and the first word I have said of this sinister story was to you!
"And yet, it took what we have just seen for me to tell you. It took these two beings, unchangeably beautiful despite time’s march, unchangeably happy despite their crime, powerful, passionate, wholly self-absorbed, as they passed so magnificently through both life and this garden, similar to two altar angels who abscond united in the golden shadow of their four wings!"
I was appalled. "But, doctor," I said, "if what you say is true, then the happiness of these people is a terrifying disorder in creation."
"A disorder or an order, as you please," said Dr. Torty, that hidebound atheist, as calm, as it were, as the people of whom he spoke. "They are exceptionally happy and insolently happy. I am quite old and have seen in my life many joys that have not lasted. But I have seen only this one happiness that is so deep and that still lasts!
"And believe me when I say that I have studied, examined and reexamined the matter! Believe me when I say that I have picked at this happiness. Please pardon the expression, but I can well say that I have loused it! I have placed my two feet and two eyes as much as possible into the lives of these two beings to see whether there weren't any flaws in their surprising and revolting happiness, a crack, however small, in some hidden place. Yet I have never been able to find anything but enviable felicity, which would be an excellent and triumphant joke on the part of the Devil against God, if there were a God and a Devil!
"After the death of the Countess, I remained, as you may well imagine, on good terms with Savigny. Since I had lent my support to the affirmation of the fable they had concocted to explain the poisoning, they had no interest in chasing me away; and I had a very keen interest in finding out what would occur next, what they would do, what they would become. I was exasperated, but I braved my exasperations. What ensued was, first of all, Savigny’s period of mourning, which lasted the customary two years, and which Savigny bore with a manner that confirmed the publicly-held idea that he was the most excellent of husbands, past, present and future. During those two years he saw absolutely no one. He remained buried in his castle with such rigorous solitude that no one knew he had kept Eulalie there with him, the involuntary cause of the Countess’s death and whom he should have, for convenience’s sake alone, shown the door, even in the certitude of his innocence.
"The carelessness of keeping such a girl at home after such a catastrophe proved to me the phenomenal passion in Serlo that I had always suspected. I was also in no way surprised when one day, coming back from one of my rounds of house calls, I encountered a domestic servant on the way to Savigny from whom I asked for the latest news as to what was happening in the Castle, and he told me that Eulalie was still there. From the indifference with which he told me this I saw that no one among the Count’s people suspected that Eulalie was his mistress. 'They’re still playing it very close to the vest,' I said to myself. But why didn’t they leave the region? The Count was rich. He could live a luxurious life anywhere. Why didn’t he flee with this beautiful she-devil (and as to the fact that she was a devil, I have no doubt) who, so as to pin him down all the better, preferred to live in the house of her lover, in constant danger, than to be his mistress in V. in some reclusive abode where he could have gone to see her on the sly without much worry? There was something beneath all this that I did not understand. Were they, therefore, so deep in their delirium and their devouring of one another that they had become blind to all the prudence and precautions of life? Hauteclaire, whom I thought to be the stronger of the two in character, Hauteclaire, whom I thought of as the man in their love affair, did she wish to remain in the castle where one had seen her as a servant and where one should have seen her as a mistress? And if one were to discover her game and a scandal were to ensue, was she, in remaining, preparing for an even more appalling scandal, that of her marriage to the Count of Savigny?
"At this point of my story, I had not considered whether the idea had occurred to her. Hauteclaire Stassin – daughter of that old fencing hall stalwart, the Pointe-au-corps, whom we had all seen in V. giving lessons and cracking with every move in those tight-fitting pants – would now become the Countess of Savigny! Come on! Who would have believed such a reversal, such an end of the world? Oh heavens, for my part, I thought in petto that the concubinage would continue to take its course between these two proud animals that had recognized, at first blush, that they were of the same species and had dared into adultery under the Countess’s very nose. But the marriage, the marriage concluded as an effrontery to both God and man, this defiance of an entire outraged region in both sentiments and mores … I was, I admit, miles away from such a conclusion! And I was still farthest away from such thoughts when the thing suddenly happened, the lightning bolt of surprise fell upon my head as if I had been one of those imbeciles who never anticipated what could happen, and who would begin to bawl in the countryside like those dogs, whipped during the night, would bawl at the crossroads.
"Moreover, during Serlo’s two years of mourning which were so strictly observed and, once one saw how they culminated, accused of hypocrisy and baseness, I did not go much to the castle of Savigny. What would I do there? Things were well over there, and apart from the odd moment perhaps when I was sent for at night for a birth that one would still have had to hide, there was no need for my services. Nevertheless, from time to time, I risked it and paid a visit to the Count. Politeness coupled with eternal curiosity. Serlo would receive me here or there, depending on the event and where he was at the time I arrived. He evinced no embarrassment with me; he had regained his benevolence; he was serious. I had already noticed that happy human beings are serious. They bear their hearts attentively within themselves, like a full glass which the slightest movement could spill or shatter. Despite his gravity and black garb, Serlo had in his eyes the incoercible expression of immense felicity. It was no longer the expression of relief or deliverance that shone through, like on that day when, in his wife’s chambers, he had perceived that I had recognized Hauteclaire but decided to pretend that I had not. No, damn it all! This was well and truly happiness!
"Although in these quick, ceremonial visits we only discussed superficial and extraneous subjects, the voice of the Count of Savigny in pronouncing these words was not the same voice he had had at the time of his wife. In a plenitude now almost warm in its intonations, his voice revealed he was having trouble containing his innermost sentiments that sought to be expressed. As for Hauteclaire (still Eulalie and still at the castle, as the domestic servant had informed me), it took me a long time to run into her again. When I dropped in she was no longer in the corridor where, during the time of the Countess, she had sat working at her embrasure. True enough, she was not there; nevertheless, the pile of laundry was in the same place, as were the scissors, and the eyeglass case, and the thimble on the window sill – all of which told me that she should still be working there, perhaps on that warm, empty chair which she had left upon hearing me arrive. You will remember that I had the fatuity to believe that she feared the penetration of my glance; yet at present she no longer had any reason to fear it. She did not know the awful information which the Countess had confided to me. Owing to her audacious and haughty nature (something I have always noticed about her), she must have been happy to be able to face the wise soul who had guessed her game. And, as it were, what I presumed to be true was indeed the truth: the day that I finally ran into her she had happiness written all over her face in such a radiant manner that one couldn't have wiped it off even if one were to use the entire bottle of double ink with which she had poisoned the Countess!
"It was on the main staircase of the castle that we finally crossed paths once more. She was coming down and I was going up. She was going down, it should be said, a bit quickly; but when she saw me, she slowed her movements planning, doubtless, a sumptuous showing of her face to allow me to graze the depths of those eyes which could make a panther blink, and yet did not make me do so. As she descended the stairs, her skirts floated behind her beneath the breaths of a rapid movement, and she seemed to be descending straight from heaven. She was sublimely happy. Oh, her happy state was miles above that of Serlo! And I passed her by without the niceties that politeness necessitates, for if Louis XIV greeted his chambermaids on the stairs, at least they were not poisoners!
"On that day then, she was still a chambermaid in dress, in situation, in white apron. But her happy appearance, that of the most triumphant and despotic mistress, had replaced the impassiveness of the slave. That appearance has not left her. I have just seen her and you were able to judge for yourself. It is more striking than the beauty itself of the face on which that happiness is spread. This superhuman sensation of pride in happy love which she must have bestowed upon Serlo, who initially did not possess this feeling; she continues to have it, twenty years on, and I have never seen it wane nor hide itself on the faces of these two strange persons so privileged by life. It is with this sensation that they have always responded victoriously and with a certain amount of reckless abandon to everyone, to all the ill comments, to the contempt of the indignant public, and made those they encounter believe that the crime of which for a while they stood accused was nothing more than atrocious calumny."
"But you, doctor," I interrupted. "With all that you know can you not forsake this sensation? I take it you have not followed them everywhere? And, of course, you cannot see them at all hours."
"Except in their bedroom at night, and this is not where they lose it," said the strapping Doctor Torty, who retained his profound air. "I have seen them, I believe, at all the moments of their lives since their wedding, which they went to have who knows where so as to avoid the uproar that the inhabitants of V., as irate in their way as nobility is in its own, promised to inflict upon them. When they returned married, she, now authentically the Countess of Savigny, and he, absolutely dishonored by a marriage to a servant, were left alone in their castle of Savigny. Everyone simply turned his back on them. They were left to revel in one another as much as they wanted. The only thing was, they seem to have never reveled in one another, as far as one could tell; their hunger for each other has yet to be assuaged. As for me, who does not want to die, in my capacity as a doctor, without having written a treatise on teratology, they interested me like monsters, so I did not join the line of those who avoided them. When I saw the false Eulalie now perfectly a Countess, she received me as if she had been one all her life. She was concerned that I still remembered her tray and white apron!
"'I'm no longer Eulalie,' she told me. 'I am Hauteclaire – Hauteclaire, happy to have been his servant.'
"I thought she was something very different; but as I was the only one in the region that had visited Savigny after their return, I was immune to all shame and ended up going there quite often. I can say that I continued to burn with curiosity as I looked at the intimacy of these two beings, so completely happy in love. Well, then! You may believe me if you choose, my dear fellow, but of this happiness, sullied by a crime of which I was certain, I did not see the purity – I will not say fade, but darken for a single minute of a single day. In this morass of a crime which hadn’t had the courage to be bloody I never once saw a stain upon its azure happiness. Stunning, don’t you think? All the moralists of the world who invented the axiom of vice punished and virtue rewarded! Abandoned and solitary as they were, seeing only me, who did not annoy them and had become almost a friend owing to my frequent visits, they no longer were watchful. They forgot me and lived very well, even with me present, in the intoxication of a passion incomparable to anything I might find amidst all the memories of my life.
"You just witnessed it a moment ago: they passed by and did not even notice me an arm’s length away! One part of my life with them and they saw me no more. Polite, kind, but most often distracted, their manner with me was such that I would not have returned to Savigny if I hadn’t wished to examine microscopically their incredible happiness, and to catch – if only for my own personal edification – a grain of sand of lassitude, of suffering, and, let us utter the big word here, of remorse. But there was nothing! Nothing! Love took everything, filled everything, and blocked everything in them, moral sense and conscience, as you say, all of you. And it was in watching them, these happy people, that I understood the seriousness of the joke by my old chum Broussais when he said of conscience: 'That's thirty years that I’ve dissected this small animal and I have yet to find even an ear!'
"And you shouldn't think," continued this old devil as if he had read my thoughts. "That what I say to you is but a thesis, the proof of a doctrine that I believe to be true and which flatly denies conscience as Broussais denied it. There is no thesis here. I do not seek to make incursions upon your opinions. There are only facts, which have surprised me as much as you. There is the phenomenon of a continual happiness, of a soap bubble that is still growing and that will never die! When happiness goes on and on, this is already what we must call a surprise; but this happiness in their crime is simply so amazing, and now twenty years on I have returned to this amazing sensation. The old doctor, the old observer, the old moralist… or immoralist," he corrected himself, seeing my smile, "is confounded by this spectacle, which he has been obliged to watch for so many years. A spectacle, I may add, which cannot be seen in detail because if there is one adage that lingers everywhere – and it is so very true – it is that happiness has no history. Nor does it have any description. One can no more paint happiness, this infusion of a superior life within life, than one can paint the circulation of blood in the veins. That the blood circulates is attested by the beats of the arteries, and it is in this way that I attest to the happiness of these two beings whom you have just seen, this incomprehensible happiness whose pulse I have touched for so long.
"Every day the Count and Countess of Savigny recreate, without thinking, the magnificent chapter of love in the marriage of Madame de Staël, or even the most beautiful verse of Milton’s Paradise Lost. By my own reckoning, I have never been very sentimental or very poetic. Yet they, with the ideal that they have realized, made me – which I thought impossible – become disgusted with the best marriages that I had hitherto known, marriages which people like to call 'charming.' I have long since found these 'charming' marriages so inferior to theirs, so colorless, so cold! Destiny, their star, chance, whatever it was, was such that they were able to live for themselves. Rich, they had this gift of idleness without which there is no love, but which often kills the love necessary for its birth. As an exception, idleness has not killed this love of theirs. Love, which simplifies everything, has made their life into a sublime simplification. There are none of those vulgar things which one calls events in the life of those two spouses, who have lived, it would seem, like all other castle owners on earth, far from the world of which they have nothing to ask, caring as little about the world’s esteem as its contempt.
"They have never parted. Where one of them goes, the other goes along in accompaniment. The roads in the vicinity of V. again bear witness to Hauteclaire on horseback, like during the time of old Pointe-au-corps. But now it is the Count of Savigny who is with her; and the local women who, as they used to do, pass by in coaches, no longer stare at her as they once did when she was a grand, mysterious girl in a dark blue veil and they couldn’t see her. Now her veil is raised, and she boldly shows the face of the servant girl who knew how to marry herself off; and the local women return home indignant but swathed in daydreams. The Count and Countess of Savigny hardly travel; they sometimes come to Paris but stay only a few days. Thus their life is entirely concentrated in this castle of Savigny, which was the theater for a crime whose memory may now be lost to them both, lost perhaps in the bottomless abyss of their hearts."
"And they’ve never had children, doctor?" I said.
"Ah!" said Dr. Torty. "You believe that here lies the crack, the revenge of fate, and what you call the vengeance or justice of God? No, they’ve never had children. Remember that I once got the impression that they would not. They love each other too much. A fire which devours consumes and does not produce. One day, I said to Hauteclaire:
"'So you aren’t sad not to have had any children, Madame?'
"'I do not want any!' she said, imperiously. 'I would love Serlo less. Children,' she added with some contempt, 'are good for unhappy women!'"
And on this phrase, which he believed to be profound, Dr. Torty abruptly concluded his story.
He had interested me, so I said to him: "As criminal as she was, one cannot but take an interest in this Hauteclaire; without his crime I could understand Serlo's love."
"And perhaps even with his crime!" said the hardy fellow, "so could I!"