M. Borrusset was dead and the etiquette of court mourning filled the whole house, imposed on the commons as well as at the office by Madame’s somewhat theatrical grief.
Mme Borrusset was twenty-nine years older than her husband: her widowhood was one of those who do not console themselves ( who do not console themselves any more ), thought in petto M. Ernest, the valet de chambre of the deceased; for Mme Borrusset was already the widow of a first husband when she fell in love with Hector-Armand-Jean Borrusset, whom she wept so desperately today.
It was a tragic, irreparable mourning, the agony and the setting in beer of a great passion[Pg 210] which had upset and animated a whole life, illuminated and rejuvenated the last twenty years of an unforeseen old age. So the widow’s great grief had made all the walls of the castle black. The large entrance hall had been converted into a fiery chapel; the chatelaine had requisitioned all the funeral accessories of the church in the country. A country priest cannot resist the authority of a flock as millionaire as Mme Borrusset was; and around the catafalque erected at the foot of the main staircase, that staircase which had so often climbed and descended by the alert and sonorous step of M. Borrusset, the order was to renew the candles from hour to hour and when ‘there were at least always ten people kneeling in front of the coffin. The livery observed orders;
The peasants themselves had been summoned to come and honor and greet the deceased.
Madame had known how to inspire such respect in all these poor people. Madame was born Russian[Pg 211] and she was a princess when she had distinguished Hector-Armand-Jean Borrusset. His nationality, his title and the twenty millions, by which his fortune was esteemed, weighed strangely on these vassal campaigns; these poor Breton Bretons, in their stammering imagination, confused her more or less with Notre-Dame d’Auray and the Grand Duchess Anne. A woman, who at sixty had known how to inspire a passion in a man of thirty, amazed them; for them there was witchcraft in it, and, in their opinion, the lord of Port-Baniou was a character of legend. So to please Madame they had all sacked the garden, the moor and the orchard; and the pink snow of the apple trees, the violent gold of the brooms and the purplish purple of the violiers marched from dawn through the countryside,
From the windows of her room, Madame Borrusset watched the country paths come alive and walk all in bloom towards the gates of Port-Baniou, and her widow’s vanity was satisfied.
It was in front of a catafalque, in the illuminated chiaroscuro of a fiery chapel, that M. Borrusset first appeared to him. Prince Atthianeff had just died, twenty years ago, and in the hotel in the rue de Varenne, covered with the silver teardrop hangings which today decorated Port-Baniou, Princess Atthianeff kept watch, in the middle servants, the prince she had never loved. In the shadows a young man dressed in black was bustling about, greedy for the ushers and regulating the funeral ceremony: Mr. Hector-Armand-Jean Borrusset, employee of the funeral directors.
Strong presence, very white skin, long mustache and cuddly eyes, M. Borrusset was then in all the prime of his twenty-nine years; the princess had nearly sixty.[Pg 213] The fragility of a heart that one might have thought hardened by life, and a dull ardor, of a temperament which, in certain women, never goes out: the employee at the funeral directors unleashed a madwoman, a madwoman in the widow’s house. unbridled passion. It was love at first sight; and when, three weeks later, M. Borrusset presented himself at the hotel for the payment of the funeral, it was the princess who received him and there, in the small salon still filled with photographs of the deceased, the welcome that gave him the hand that was extended to him, and his eyes, caress and prayer, which could no longer be detached from his own, taught M. Borrusset the extent of the devastation wrought by his physique on the widow’s heart. M. Borrusset was Angevin, that is to say, intuitive, clever and patient; he had no fortune, earned about five hundred francs a month, had great needs and looked to the future with a certain terror. He judged the situation, he respectfully kissed the hand held out to him and velvety glance at the already overwhelming sweetness of his gaze.
A month later, Princess Atthianeff attached M. Borrusset to her person as secretary. A year had not passed since she married him. She recognized in this young husband a contribution of five millions.
The Russian colony did not accept this marriage, the family even less; from St.Petersburg, Madame Borrusset was told that she no longer had to return to Russia, and then began for the young household the nomadic life and eternal wandering from spa towns to spa towns and beaches in beaches, which is the existence of all the declassified, cosmopolitan courtesans and Highnesses on the move. We saw them successively in Nice, Monte-Carlo, Florence, Palermo, Naples. Algiers possessed them in the spring; Venice in autumn; Saint-Moritz lodged them for two winters (the husband was a little tired, the mountain air had become necessary for his bronchi), and then we saw them again in Seville, Granada, Cadiz to find them another year in Tunis. Everywhere they dragged their[Pg 215] happiness, a happiness so eager for changes and departures that it looked like boredom; and everywhere the same stupor greeted them in stations as in hotels, and in all the languages of the world the same frightened reflections to see the old age of this mother-like wife escorting her, night and day, without letting her go for a minute. , the exhausted languor of this young husband.
Mme Borrusset, for her part, was swimming in an almost celestial joy, almost rejuvenated in contact with this young love, convinced in her unconscious selfishness that her happiness was shared, devoting herself to adornments, hairstyles and jewelry whose youthful lightness and the clarity of the nuances still aged her … And this servitude had lasted twenty years.
At first very jealous in the first years of her marriage, the ex-princess Atthianeff must have realized that M. Borrusset was not cheating on her. She was grateful to him and out of gratitude assured him by will the usufruct of[Pg 216] all her fortune, because she would end up dying one day. She was twenty-nine years older than him. So she would give him back his freedom, to dear Hector, but she intended to do so as late as possible … And now, despite all the forecasts, it was he who left first … she become, alone with the ghosts of the past, in this vast dwelling still full of him?
Farmers and peasants continued to crowd in front of the steps; an incessant procession marched through the alleys of the park. Madame Borrusset mechanically left the window, where she was standing, her forehead leaning against the glass; and from her room went into that of her husband. A smell of wax and faded roses lingered in the room, aggravated by a whiff of phenol and yet another odor; the three windows were, however, wide open behind their closed shutters. This acrid and insipid atmosphere took the princess by the throat; she[Pg 217] went to one of the shutters and pushed it. A flood of daylight entered the room, an Empire secretary in ruffled mahogany lit up in the shadows. It was there that Hector-Armand-Jean put away all his papers … The papers of a dead man are still a little of his life, and, unconsciously, for the pleasure of rediscovering contacts and breathing Thoughts and without any curiosity, the princess took a bunch of keys from the desk’s marble and, opening the shelf, she now searched the drawers.
” This is my will … ” Mme Borrusset curiously turned in her hands a large parchment envelope, weighed down with four red wax seals.
” This is my will … ” The deceased had therefore thought that he could die before her. He had had this thought, dear Hector, and he had thought of his widow. The moisture of a tear cooled her eyelids.
With a stroke of her fingernail she tore the envelope:[Pg 218] ” I, the undersigned, bequeath all my fortune to …And the old woman’s pallor turned green, the parchment trembled violently between her fingers, insults and blasphemies rose confusedly to her lips. She chewed them more than she stammered them between her soft gums. Princess Atthianeff couldn’t believe her poor eyes. The deceased disinherited her. This fortune which was hers, these five million which she had recognized as a contribution and which had become seven by skilful investments and by dint of savings, her dear Hector left them to a young lady Cécile Hérard, annuitant in Vannes. , and Mme Borrusset vainly sought to place a face on this name. He was not unknown to her, however. What was this young lady Cécile Hérard to the deceased? His mistress, no doubt; and suddenly Princess Atthianeff had a low roar: she remembered. This young lady Cécile Hérard was a young lady of the company, quite a skilful musician, whom she had taken into her service, five years after her[Pg 219] marriage, and who had traveled with them to Jerusalem, Cairo and Magna Graecia. She had attached her to her person because of her talents as a citharist; Mlle Cécile Hérard enlivened the solitude of evenings in hotels abroad; she had only stayed with them for six months. It was M. Borrusset himself who had demanded his dismissal. This tangy music annoyed him, the she-like profile of the damsel and the resignation of her victim’s eyes also had the gift of exceeding her, at least he said it. Mme Borrusset had often had to defend the young lady, and it was to her that he left his fortune.
Crossed by a dreadful light, the princess upset the secretary, violated the drawers, forced the locks and, sacking and devastating the poor old piece of furniture with police brutality, at last discovered there the packets of letters she suspected.
There they were carefully classified date by date, year by year. There were fifteen[Pg 220] packages, it had lasted fifteen years. For fifteen years M. Borrusset had deceived her, the letters were explicit. There was no mistaking it; the princess read them at random with a wandering and eager eye. All of them, since the first, moved and grateful, vibrating with shared passion and full of thanks for the income paid, cried out and proclaimed the fault; and then it was the birth of the first child, the details of the clandestine delivery, and then the birth of the second (because he had two children, the wretch, two children of this little girl! And these children lived, a son and a daughter, Hector and Jeanne), and then the correspondence became that of a married woman, of a good bourgeois inquiring about the progress and health of the children, the solicitude of a father and a husband; and in all her letters the lover pitied her accomplice for the horrible serfdom he suffered with his old woman. In all her letters, Miss Cécile Hérard accused death of slowness and ardently wished for death[Pg 221] by Mme Borrusset. Had she encumbered their existence enough, and with what savage ardor had they wished to see her die? Had they pushed her enough of their vows into the grave, for fifteen years she had bothered with her presence their bastards as adulterous husbands and kept girls … ” When the old woman is dead, when your crampon is no longer there? These were the phrases that always came up as a leitmotif in these letters.
There was therefore a God so that their ignominy and their duplicity had been thus punished. It was she who survived, and with a fierce sneer, the outraged wife grabbed the will and moved to tear it up. A note written at the bottom, below the signature, stopped his gesture: “ The duplicate of this will has been deposited with M e Auburtin, notary, rue de l’Homme-à-la-Tête-Coupée, in Vannes. M. Borrusset had foreseen the fury of his widow.
Disheveled, Princess Atthianeff let out a cry of rage, then, opening the bedroom door, she rushed into the hall and[Pg 222] descended like drunk, his waist stiffened and his eyes fixed, the twenty steps of the stairs.
The catafalque stood at the foot, in the splendor of draperies tinged with silver, amid the illumination of candles; heaps of flowers, leaves of petals and a whole scaffolding of wreaths lit snowy lights in the chiaroscuro, and all around were the responses of altar boys, the clicking of censers, a dripping of bottle brushes, and the muttering of servants in prayer.
The widow was writhing in the midst of all this mourning. She reversed the torches, extinguished the lights, jostled the wreaths, trampled the flowers and, with a gesture dispersing the assistants who suddenly stood up:
“Out of here, go away! Let him be left alone, alone with me, alone with him! Go, turn off everything, take the crucifix, take the holy water and manure the flowers! Go away, I tell you! let him remain alone like a leper and let him be buried like a dog!