"I was awaiting drama and catastrophe, which I considered to be inevitable. And yet apart from Savigny’s paleness and repressed trances, I saw nothing of the love affair they were having with one another. How far into it were the two of them? This was the secret of their romance that I wanted to unmask. It seized control of my thoughts like the sphinx’s claw upon a problem, and became so strong that from observation I fell into espionage, which is simply observation at any price. Ha, ha! By a sharp flavor are we soon debauched. To find out what I didn’t know, I allowed myself more than a few little despicable acts that were very unworthy of me. Even at the time I had judged them to be so, and yet allowed myself to do them nonetheless. Oh, the habit of testing and probing, my dear fellow! I made use of it everywhere.
"When stabling my horse in my visits to the Castle, I would get the servants to gossip about their masters without giving them the impression of being at all interested in their blather. I spied (oh, I do not spare myself the word) upon them on behalf of my own curiosity. But the servants were all as mistaken as the Countess. They took Hauteclaire in very good faith for one of their own. And I too would have made the same assumption, even with all that my curiosity cost me, had it not been for an accident which, as always, brought at once more to light than all my attempts at synthesis, and taught me more than all my efforts at espionage.
"It had been more than two months since I had gone to see the Countess, whose health was not improving. She exhibited more symptoms of this debilitation so common now, but which the doctors of that excitable age called anemia. Savigny and Hauteclaire continued to play, with the same perfection, the very difficult comedy which my arrival and my presence in this castle had not derailed. Nevertheless, one would have said that there was a little fatigue in the actors. Serlo had lost weight, and I had heard in V.: 'What a good husband that Mr. Savigny is! He has already completely changed because of the illness of his wife. What a beautiful thing it is to love!' Hauteclaire, that immobile beauty, had lowered eyes, but not the lowered eyes as one might find when someone has wept, because these eyes had perhaps never cried once in their life. No, they were as if they had been sleepless for a long time and, in their shine, only burned more ardently from the bottom of their purplish circle. What is more, the emaciated Savigny and Hauteclaire’s rings around her eyes could have come from something other than the compressive life imposed upon them. They could have come from so many things in this hellish subterranean environment!
"I was observing these treacherous signs in their faces that questioned me quietly, not knowing how to answer me, when, one day, having made my house calls in the vicinity, I came by Savigny in the evening. My intention was to enter the castle, as usual; but a country woman’s very laborious birth had delayed me significantly, and, when I passed by the Castle, the hour was much too late for me to enter the house. I didn't even know what time it was; my hunting watch had stopped. But the moon had begun to descend from the other side of its curve in the sky, and indicated against this vast watch face of blue that it was a little after midnight. And with the lower tip of its crescent it almost grazed the tops of the high firs of Savigny, behind which it would have disappeared –
"Have you ever visited Savigny?" said the doctor, interrupting himself suddenly and turning to me. "Yes, you have," he said at my nod. "Well then, you know that one is obliged to enter through the woods of fir trees and pass along the walls of the castle, from which one should double back like rounding a cape in order to take the road that leads directly to V. Suddenly in the thickness of these black woods, where I saw neither a drop of light nor heard the faintest noise, to my ear came a sound that I took to be a beating, the beating of some poor woman. Having toiled all day in the fields, she now made use of the moonlight to wash her linen in a pond or a ditch. It was only in advancing towards the castle that this regular slamming became intermeshed with a second noise that informed me as to the nature of the first. It was a clash of swords that crossed, and rubbed, and scraped. You know how one hears everything in the silence and thin air of the dead of night and how the slightest sounds assume a precision of singular distinguishability! I heard – and could not have been mistaken – the animated rustling of iron. An idea crossed my mind; but when I exited the castle’s woods of fir, it stood there, a window open, pale beneath the moon:
"'Will you look at that,' I said, admiring the strength of tastes and habits. 'This is still their way of making love!'
"It was obvious that it was Serlo and Hauteclaire who were fencing at this hour. One could hear their swords as if one had seen them. What I had taken for the sound of the beatings were the fencers stepping hard with their feet, signaling covertly to one another. The open window was in the most distant of the four pavilions – the same pavilion in which the Countess had her bedroom. The castle was asleep, dreary and white beneath the moon, like something dead. Everywhere apart from in this pavilion, chosen by design, whose patio door was outfitted with a balcony and which gave out onto half-closed shutters, all was silence and darkness. But it was from these blinds, half-closed and striped with light on the balcony, that this doubled noise of steps and clashing foils emanated.
"It was so lucid and so crisply defined to the ear that I presumed – with good reason, as you will see – that since it was very hot (we were in July), they had opened the door to the balcony under the blinds. Having stopped my horse on the edge of the woods, I was listening to their skirmish (which seemed very distinct and sharp), fascinated by this assault of weapons between lovers loving each other, their weapons in hand. They continued to love each other in this way, when, after a period of time, the clanking of the foils and the slamming of the feet stopped. The shutters of the glass door to the balcony were advanced and opened and, on this clear night, I only had time to conceal myself and back my horse up in the shadow of the fir woods. Serlo and Hauteclaire came out to lean upon the balcony rail.
"I could make them out with wonderful clarity. The moon had fallen behind the little woods; but in the apartment the light from a candelabrum behind them highlighted their double silhouette. Hauteclaire was dressed, if this is to be called dressed, as I had seen her so many times giving lessons in V.: she was laced up in her fencing vest of chamois leather that served her as a sort of breastplate, her legs molded by those silk shoes which so correctly outlined her muscular contours. Savigny was wearing almost the same outfit. Streamlined and robust both, they appeared against the luminous background which framed them like two beautiful statues of youth and strength. You have just had the chance to admire in this garden the proud beauty of one and the other, beauty still undestroyed through all these years. Well then! Let these images help you forge an idea of the magnificence of the couple I saw then, on that balcony, in clothes so tight they seemed at moments to be nude. They were talking as they leaned upon the ramp, alas, too softly for me to hear their words; yet the positions of their bodies spoke the words for them. At one point Savigny passionately threw his arm around the waist of this horsewoman made, it seemed, for all sorts of resistance and yet who exerted none at all; almost at the same time, the proud Hauteclaire had her arms draped around Serlo’s neck. In this way the two formed for themselves Canova’s famous and voluptuous pair which has remained in all memories. And upon my word, they remained so sculpted, without interruption or recommencement, mouth to mouth for the time needed to consume at least a bottle of kisses! This all lasted more than sixty heartbeats, as measured by a pulse that was throbbing more quickly than at present, and the spectacle made it beat faster still.
"'Oh, Oh!' I said when I had exited my woods and they had gone back inside, still intertwined, and lowered the curtains, large dark curtains. 'One of these mornings they will have to confide in me. It is not only themselves that they will have to hide.' Seeing these caresses and this intimacy revealed to me everything and I attempted, in my role as physician, to derive the consequences. But their ardor was to deceive my predictions. You know like I do that beings who love each other too much (the cynical doctor used another word) do not have children. The next morning, I went to Savigny. I found Hauteclaire once again as Eulalie, sitting in the embrasure of one of the windows of the long corridor that led to the bedroom of her mistress, a mass of laundry and rags on a chair before her, and busy sewing and cutting, she, the master foil of the night before!
"Did one have any suspicions, I thought, seeing her with her white apron and these forms that I had seen, as if they were naked, in the framed luminescence of the balcony, now drowning in the folds of a skirt that could not swallow them? I passed by but did not address her because I spoke to her as little as possible, not wanting to give her the impression of knowing what I knew, which could easily have been betrayed by my voice or my glance. I felt I was much less of an actor than she was, and I was afraid. Usually, when I would walk along the corridor where she always worked when she was not waiting upon the Countess, she heard me come so acutely, she was so certain that it was I, that she never even raised her head.
"She remained bent forward beneath her starched cambric headgear, or beneath that Norman cap she would also wear some days and which resembled the hennin of Isabeau of Bavaria, her eyes on her work and her cheeks veiled by long curls of blue-black hanging before their pale oval, offering nothing to my view but the curve of a neck blurred by thick ringlets twisted like the desires which they provoked. In Hauteclaire, it was mainly the animal element which was magnificent. No woman could have been a greater example of this type of beauty than she was! Men who amongst themselves said everything had quite often noticed this. In V. whenever she gave fencing lessons, the men called her 'Miss Esau.' The Devil teaches women what they are; or, rather, they would teach the Devil if he didn’t happen to know. But at present, since she had become the chambermaid, I had never seen her once permit herself that gesture of power, of playing with fire, even when she looked at Savigny.
"My dear fellow, my parenthesis is long; but everything that might help you to know properly the Hauteclaire Stassin of those times is important to my story. That same day, she was forced to inconvenience herself and come show me her face. The Countess rang for her and commanded her to give me pen and paper which I needed to write out a prescription, and she came. She came without having taken the time to remove the steel thimble from her finger, and having stuck the threaded needle in the fabric that cloaked her provocative bosom where she had stuck a mass of others that now embellished her with their steel. Even steel needles suited this she-devil, made as she was for steel, and who, had she been in the Middle Ages, would surely have worn armor. She stood in front of me as I wrote, offering me the desk with that noble and gentle movement in her forearms which her fencing years had given to no one as much as to her. When I had finished, I lifted my eyes and looked at her so as not to seem affected. And I found her face tired from her night. Savigny, who was not there when I had come, suddenly entered the room. He was much more tired than she was. He told me about the Countess’s condition, which was not improving. He spoke as a frustrated man might about this lack of a cure, the curt, bitter and violent tone of a man whose patience had long abandoned him. He paced the floor, still talking. I looked at him coldly, finding the matter really overdone and his Napoleonic tone with me a little inappropriate. 'But if I healed your wife,' I thought to myself rudely, 'you could not fence and make love all night with your mistress.' I could have reminded him of the sense of reality and politeness that he had forgotten, to shove up his nose, if I had so wished, the smelling salts of a good response. But I contented myself with just watching him. He was becoming more interesting than ever, because it was clear to me that he was acting more than he ever had before."
And the doctor stopped again. He plunged his large thumb and index into his silver guilloche box and breathed in a pinch of Macouba snuff, which he had the habit of pompously calling his tobacco. He was so interesting to me in his way that I made no comment and he recommenced his story, having absorbed his pinch and passed his crooked finger along the curve of his greedy nose shaped like a chough’s beak.
"Oh, he was truly frustrated, but not because his wife was not convalescing, this woman to whom he was so decidedly unfaithful. What a devil! He who has taken as a concubine a servant in her own home, can hardly be enraged because his wife was not healing! Thus, if she were to heal, wouldn’t adultery become more difficult? And yet it was true that the dragging out of this suffering without end was getting to him and affecting his nerves. Had he thought that it wouldn’t take this long? Afterwards when I thought about it, I wondered whether the idea to put an end to it first came to him or to her, or to both of them at once, as her illness and her doctor were showing no signs of leaving, it is possible that from that moment on …"
"What, doctor, therefore they ...?"
I did not finish, as the idea he gave me left me speechless.
He lowered his head in looking at me, as tragic as the statue of the Commendatore when it agrees to dinner.
"Yes!" he whistled slowly in a low voice, responding to my thought. "A few days later at least, the whole region learned with horror that the Countess had been poisoned."