THE LAST ROUT
Time doled out to the marquis a lagging hour. There were moments when the sounds of merriment, coming from the dining-hall, awakened in his breast the slumbering canker of envy,—envy of youth, of health, of the joy of living. They were young in yonder room; the purse of life was filled with golden metal; Folly had not yet thrown aside her cunning mask, and she was still darling to the eye. Oh, to be young again; that light step of youth, that bold and sparkling glance, that steady hand,—if only these were once more his! Where was all the gold Time had given to him? Upon what had he expended it, to have become thus beggared? To find an apothecary having the elixir of eternal youth! How quickly he would gulp the draft to bring back that beauty which had so often compelled the admiration of women, a Duchesse de Montbazon, a Duchesse de Longueville, a Princesse de Savoie, among the great; a Margot Bourdaloue among the obscure!
Margot Bourdaloue. . . . The marquis closed his eyes; the revelry dissolved into silence. How distinctly he could see that face, sculptured with all the delicacy of a Florentine cameo; that yellow hair of hers, full of captive sunshine; those eyes, giving forth the velvet-bloom of heartsease; those slender brown hands which defied the lowliness of her birth, and those ankles the beauty of which not even the clumsy sabots could conceal! He knew a duchess whose line of blood was older than the Capets’ or the Bourbons’. Was not nature the great Satirist? To give nobility to that duchess and beauty to that peasant! Margot Bourdaloue, a girl of the people, of that race of animals he tolerated because they were necessary; of the people, who understood nothing of the poetry of passing loves; Margot Bourdaloue, the one softening influence his gay and careless life had known.
Sometimes in the heart of swamps, surrounded by chilling or fetid airs, a flower blossoms, tender and fragrant as any rose of sunny Tours: such a flower Margot had been. Thirty years; yet her face had lost to him not a single detail; for there are some faces which print themselves so indelibly upon the mind that they become not elusive like the memory of an enhancing melody or an exquisite poem, but lasting, like the sense of life itself. And Margot, daughter of his own miller—she had loved him with all the strength and fervor of her simple peasant heart. And he? Yes, yes; he could now see that he had loved her as deeply as it was possible for a noble to love a peasant. And in a moment of rage and jealousy and suspicion, he had struck her across the face with his riding-whip.
What a recompense for such a love! In all the thirty years only once had he heard from her: a letter, burning with love, stained and blurred with tears, lofty with forgiveness, between the lines of which he could read the quiet tragedy of an unimportant life. Whither had she gone, carrying that brutal, unjust blow? Was she living? . . . dead? Was there such a thing as a soul, and was the subtile force of hers compelling him to regret true happiness for the dross he had accepted as such? Soul? What! shall the atheist doubt in his old age?