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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAndre Cornelis - Chapter 5
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Andre Cornelis - Chapter 5 Post by :ow24160 Category :Long Stories Author :Paul Bourget Date :May 2012 Read :3435

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Andre Cornelis - Chapter 5

Chapter V

My good old Julie was waiting for me at the station. Her eyes had failed her of late, for she was seventy years old, nevertheless she recognized me as I stepped out of the train, and began to talk to me in her usual interminable fashion so soon as we were seated in the hired coupe, which my aunt had sent to meet me whenever I came to Compiegne, from the days of my earliest childhood. How well I knew the heavy old vehicle, with its worn cushions of yellow leather, and the driver, who had been in the service of the livery stable keeper as long as I could remember. He was a little man with a merry, roguish face, and eyes twinkling with fun; but he tried to give a melancholy tone to his salutation that morning.

"It took her yesterday," said Julie, while the vehicle rumbled heavily through the streets, "but you see it had to happen. Our poor demoiselle had been changing for weeks past. She was so trustful, so gentle, so just; she scolded, she ferreted about, she suspected--there, then, her head was all astray. She talked of nothing but thieves and assassins; she thought everybody wanted to do her some harm, the tradespeople, Jean Mariette, myself--yes, I too. She went into the cellar every day to count the bottles of wine, and wrote the number down on a paper. The next day she found the same number, and she would maintain the paper was not the same, she disowned her own handwriting. I wanted to tell you this the last time you came here, but I did not venture to say anything; I was afraid it would worry you, and then I thought these were only freaks, that she was a little crazy, and it would pass off. Well, then, I came down yesterday to keep her company at her dinner, as she always liked me to do, because, you know, she was fond of me in reality, whether she was ill or well. I could not find her. Mariette, Jean, and I searched everywhere, and at last Jean bethought him of letting the dog loose; the animal brought us straight to the wood-stock, and there we found her lying at full length upon the ground. No doubt she had gone to the stack to count the logs. We lifted her up, our poor dear demoiselle! Her mouth was crooked, and one side of her could not move. She began to talk. Then we thought she was mad, for she said senseless words which we could not understand; but the doctor assures us that she is perfectly clear in her head, only that she utters one word when she means another. She gets angry if we do not obey her on the instant. Last night when I was sitting up with her she asked for some pins. I brought them and she was angry. Would you believe that it was the time of night she wanted to know? At length, by dint of questioning her, and by her yesses and noes, which she expresses with her sound hand, I have come to make out her meaning. If you only knew how troubled she was all night about you; I saw it, and when I uttered your name her eyes brightened. She repeats words, you would think she raves: she calls for you. Now look here, M. Andre, it was the ideas she had about your poor father that brought on her illness. All these last weeks she talked of nothing else. She would say: 'If only they do not kill Andre also. As for me, I am old, but he so young, so good, so gentle.' And she cried--yes, she cried incessantly. 'Who is it that you think wants to harm M. Andre?' I asked her. Then she turned away from me with a look of distrust that cut me to the heart, although I knew that her head was astray. The doctor says that she believes herself persecuted, and that it is a mania; he also says that she may recover, but will never have her speech again."

I listened to Julie's talk in silence; I made no answer. I was not surprised that my Aunt Louise had begun to be attacked by a mental malady; the trials of her life sufficiently explained this, and I could also account for several singularities that I had observed in her attitude towards me of late. She had surprised me much by asking me to bring back a book of my father's which I had never thought of taking away. "Return it to me," she said, insisting upon it so strongly, that I instituted a search for the book, and at last unearthed it from the bottom of a cupboard where it had been placed, as if on purpose, under a heap of other books. Julie's prolix narrative only enlightened me as to the sad cause of what I had taken for the oddity of a fidgety and lonely old maid.

On the other hand, I could not take the ideas of my father's death so philosophically as Julie accepted them. What were those ideas? Many a time, in the course of conversation with her, I had vaguely felt that she was not opening her heart quite freely to me. Her determined opposition to my plans of a personal inquiry might proceed from her piety, which would naturally cause her to disapprove of any thought or project of vengeance, but was there nothing else, nothing besides that piety in question? Her strange solicitude for my personal safety, which even led her to entreat me not to go out unarmed in the evening, or get into an empty compartment in a train, with other counsels of the same kind, was no doubt caused by morbid excitement; still her constant and distressing dread might possibly rest upon a less vague foundation than I imagined.

I also recalled, with a certain apprehension, that so soon as she ceased to be able completely to control her mind these strange fears took stronger possession of her than before. "What!" said I to myself, "am I becoming like her, that I let such things occur to me? Are not these fixed ideas quite natural in a person whose brain is racked by the mania of persecution, and who has lost a beloved brother under circumstances equally mysterious and tragical?"

"She is awake," said Julie, who had taken the maid's place at the foot of the bed. I approached my aunt and called her by her name. I then clearly saw her poor face distorted by paralysis.

She recognized me, and as I bent down to kiss her, she stroked my cheek with her sound hand. This caress, which was habitual with her, she repeated slowly several times. I placed her, with Julie's assistance, on her back, so that she could see me distinctly; she looked at me for a long time, and two heavy tears fell from the eyes in which I read boundless tenderness, supreme anguish, and inexpressible pity. I answered them by my own tears, which she dried with the back of her hand; then she strove to speak to me, but could only pronounce an incoherent sentence that struck me to the heart. She saw, by the expression of my face, that I had not understood her, and she made a desperate effort to find words in which to render the thought evidently precise and lucid in her mind. Once more she uttered an unintelligible phrase, and began again to make the feeble gesture of despairing helplessness which had so shocked me at her waking. She appeared, however, to take courage when I put the question to her: "What do you want of me, dear aunt?" She made a sign that Julie was to leave the room, and no sooner were we alone than her face changed. With my help she was able to slip her hand under her pillow, and withdraw her bunch of keys; then separating one key from the others she imitated the opening of a lock. I immediately remembered her groundless fears of being robbed and I asked her whether she wanted the box to which that key belonged. It was a small key of a kind that is specially made for safety locks. I saw that I had guessed aright; she was able to get out the word "yes," and her eyes brightened.

"But where is this box?" I asked. Once more she replied by a sentence of which I could make nothing; and, seeing that she was relapsing into a state of agitation, with the former heart-rending movement, I begged her to allow me to question her and to answer by gestures only. After some minutes, I succeeded in discovering that the box in question was locked up in one of the two large cupboards below stairs, and that the key of the cupboard was on the ring with the others. I went downstairs, leaving her alone, as she had desired me by signs to do. I had no difficulty in finding the casket to which the little key adapted itself; although it was carefully placed behind a bonnet-box and a case of silver forks. The casket was of sweet-scented wood, and the initials J. C. were inlaid upon the lid in gold and platinum. J. C., Justin Cornelies-- so, it had belonged to my father. I tried the key in the lock, to make quite sure that I was not mistaken.

I then raised the lid, and glanced at the contents almost mechanically, supposing that I was about to find a roll of business papers, probably shares, a few trinket-cases, and rouleaux of napoleons, a small treasure in fact, hidden away from motives of fear. Instead of this, I beheld several small packets carefully wrapped in paper, each being endorsed with the words, "Justin's Letters," and the year in which they were written. My aunt had preserved these letters with the same pious care that had kept her from allowing anything whatever belonging to him in whom the deepest affection of her life had centered, to be lost, parted with, or injured.

But why had she never spoken to me of this treasure, which was more precious to me than to anyone else in the world? I asked myself that question as I closed the box; then I reflected that no doubt she desired to retain the letters to the last hour of her life; and, satisfied with this explanation, I went upstairs again.

From the doorway my eyes met hers, and I could not mistake their look of impatience and intense anxiety. I placed the little coffer on her bed and she instantly opened it, took out a packet of letters, then another, finally kept only one out, replaced those she had removed at first, locked the box, and signed to me to place it on the chest of drawers. While I was clearing away the things on the top of the drawers, to make a clear space for the box, I caught sight, in the glass opposite to me, of the sick woman. By a great effort she had turned herself partly on her side, and she was trying to throw the packet of letters which she had retained into the fireplace; it was on the right of her bed, and only about a yard away from the foot. But she could hardly raise herself at all, the movement of her hand was too weak, and the little parcel fell on the floor. I hastened to her, to replace her head on the pillows and her body in the middle of the bed, and then, with her powerless arm she again began to make that terrible gesture of despair, clutching the sheet with her thin fingers, while tears streamed from her poor eyes.

Ah! how bitterly ashamed I am of what I am going to write in this place! I will write it, however, for I have sworn to myself that I will be true, even to the avowal of that fault, even to the avowal of a worse still. I had no difficulty in understanding what was passing in my aunt's mind; the little packet--it had fallen on the carpet close to the fender--evidently contained letters which she wished to destroy, so that I should not read them. She might have burned them, dreading as she did their fatal influence upon me, long since; yet I understood why she had shrunk from doing this, year after year, I, who knew with what idolatry she worshipped the smallest objects that had belonged to my father. Had I not seen her put away the blotting-book which he used when he came to Compiegne, with the paper and envelopes that were in it at his last visit?

Yes, she had gone on waiting, still waiting, before she could bring herself to part forever with those dear and dangerous letters, and then her sudden illness came, and with it the terrible thought that these papers would come into my possession. I could also take into account that the unreasonable distrust which she had yielded to of late had prevented her from asking Jean or Julie for the little coffer. This was the secret--I understood it on the instant--of the poor thing's impatience for my arrival, the secret also of the trouble I had witnessed. And now her strength had betrayed her. She had vainly endeavored to throw the letters into the fire, that fire which she could hear crackling, without being able to raise her head so as to see the flame. All these notions which presented themselves suddenly to my thoughts took form afterwards; at the moment they melted into pity for the suffering of the helpless creature before me.

"Do not disturb yourself, dear aunt," said I, as I drew the coverlet up to her shoulders, "I am going to burn those letters."

She raised her eyes, full of eager supplication. I closed the lids with my lips and stooped to pick up the little packet. On the paper in which it was folded, I distinctly read this date: "1864-- Justin's letters." 1864! that was the last year of my father's life. I know it, I feel it, that which I did was infamous; the last wishes of the dying are sacred. I ought not, no, I ought not to have deceived her who was on the point of leaving me forever. I heard her breathing quicken at that very moment. Then came a whirlwind of thought too strong for me. If my Aunt Louise was so wildly, passionately eager that those letters should be burned, it was because they could put me on the right track of vengeance. Letters written in the last year of my father's life, and she had never spoken of them to me! I did not reason, I did not hesitate, in a lightning-flash I perceived the possibility of learning--what? I know not; but--of learning. Instead of throwing the packet of letters into the fire, I flung it to one side, under a chair, returned to the bedside and told her in a voice which I endeavored to keep steady and calm, that her directions had been obeyed, that the letters were burning. She took my hand and kissed it. Oh, what a stab that gentle caress inflicted upon me! I knelt down by her bedside, and hid my head in the sheets, so that her eyes should not meet mine. Alas! it was not for long that I had to dread her glance. At ten she fell asleep, but at noon her restlessness recurred. At two the priest came, and administered the last sacraments to her. She had a second stroke towards evening, never recovered consciousness, and died in the night.

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