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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
A Leap in the Dark
By Octave Feuillet (1821–1890)
 
From the ‘Romance of a Poor Young Man’

YESTERDAY I set out on horseback early in the morning to oversee the felling of some timber in the neighborhood. I was returning toward four o’clock in the direction of the château, when at a sharp turn of the road I found myself face to face with Mademoiselle Marguerite. She was alone. I bowed, and was about to pass, but she stopped her horse.  1
  “A beautiful autumn day, monsieur,” said she.  2
  “Yes, mademoiselle. You are going to ride?”  3
  “As you see, I am using my last moments of independence, and even abusing them; for I feel a little troubled by my solitude. But Alain was wanted down there—my poor Mervyn is lame. You do not wish to replace him, by chance?”  4
  “With pleasure. Where are you going?”  5
  “Why—I had the idea of pushing my ride as far as the Tower of Elven.” She pointed with the end of her riding-whip to a dark summit which rose within sight of the road. “I think,” she added, “that you have never made such a pilgrimage.”  6
  “It is true. It has often tempted me, but I have put it off till now, I hardly know why.”  7
  “Well, the Tower is easily found; but it is already late; we must make a little haste, if you please.”  8
  I turned my horse’s head and we set out at a gallop.  9
  As we rode I sought to explain to myself this unexpected whim, which I could not but think premeditated. I concluded that time and reflection had weakened in Mademoiselle Marguerite’s mind the first impressions made by the calumnies which had been poured into her ear. She had apparently ended by doubting Mademoiselle Helouin’s veracity, and contrived to offer me, by chance, under a disguised form, a kind of reparation which might possibly be due me.  10
  In the midst of the thoughts that besieged me, I attached slight importance to the particular end we proposed to ourselves in this strange ride. I had often heard this Tower of Elven spoken of as one of the most interesting ruins of the country; and I had never traveled over either of the two roads which lead from Rennes, or from Jocelyn, toward the sea, without contemplating with an eager eye that uncertain mass which one sees towering upward in the middle of distant heaths like an enormous stone bank; but time and occasion had been wanting to me.  11
  The village of Elven that we traversed, slackening our pace a little, gave a striking representation of a town of the Middle Ages. The form of the low dark houses has not changed for five or six centuries. One thinks himself dreaming when he sees, through the large gaps, arched and without sashes, which take the place of windows in the houses, groups of women with wild eyes, spinning from distaffs in the shadow, and conversing in low voices in an unknown language. It seemed now as if all these gray spectres had quitted their monumental slabs to enact some scene of another age, of which we were to be the sole living witnesses. The little life that was visible in the single street of the village bore the same character of antiquity and faithful representation of a vanished world.  12
  A little distance beyond Elven we took a cross-road, which led us up a barren hill; we saw from its summit, although at some distance from us, the feudal ruin overlooking a wooded height in front of us. The heath where we were, descended sharply toward marshy meadows surrounded with thick young woods. We descended the slope and were soon in the woods. There we took a narrow road, the rough unbroken pavement of which resounded loudly under our horses’ feet. I had ceased for some time to see the Tower, the locality of which I could not even conjecture; when it rose out of the foliage a few steps before us, with the suddenness of an apparition. This Tower is not decayed; it has preserved its original height, which exceeds a hundred feet, and the regular layers of granite which compose its magnificent octagonal structure give it the aspect of a formidable block, cut yesterday by the keenest chisel. Nothing more imposing, more proud and sombre, can be imagined than this old donjon, impervious to the effects of time, and alone in these thick woods. The trees have grown close to its walls, and their tops reach to the openings for the lower windows. This growth of vegetation conceals the base of the edifice, and increases its appearance of fantastic mystery. In this solitude, surrounded by forests, with this mass of extraordinary architecture in front of us, it was impossible not to think of enchanted castles where beautiful princesses sleep a hundred years.  13
  “Up to this time,” said Mademoiselle Marguerite, to whom I tried to communicate this idea, “I have seen no more than what we now see; but if you wish to wake the fairy princess, we can enter. For all I know, there may be in the neighborhood a shepherd or shepherdess who is furnished with a key. Let us fasten our horses and seek for them—you for the shepherd and I for the shepherdess.”  14
  The horses were accordingly fastened in a little inclosure near the ruin, and we separated for a moment to search around the Tower. But we had the vexation to meet neither shepherd nor shepherdess. Our desire to see the interior naturally increased with all the force of attraction of forbidden fruit, and we crossed a bridge thrown over the moat, at a venture. To our great satisfaction, the massive door of the donjon was not shut; we needed only to push it open in order to enter a corner, dark and incumbered with rubbish, which was probably the place for the bodyguard in former times. From thence we passed into a vast circular hall, the chimney-piece of which still showed, on its coat of arms, the besants of the crusade; a large open window, traversed by the symbolic cross, plainly cut in the stone, lighted distinctly the lower part of this room, and the eye failed to pierce the uncertain shadows of the lofty broken roof. At the sound of our steps an invisible flock of birds flew out from the darkness, shaking down upon us the dust of centuries.  15
  On mounting up the granite steps ranged one above the other round the hall, into the embrasure of the window, we could overlook the deep moat and the ruined parts of the fortress; but we had noticed on our entrance a flight of steps cut in the thick wall, and we felt a childish impatience to push our discoveries further. We therefore undertook to ascend this rude staircase. I led the way, and Mademoiselle Marguerite followed bravely, holding up her long skirts as well as she could. From the top of the flat roof the view was vast and delicious. The soft tints of twilight were creeping over the ocean of half-golden autumn foliage, the dark marshes, and the green mossy ground near us, and the distant ranges of hills mingling with and crossing each other. As we gazed down upon this melancholy landscape, infinite in extent, we felt the peace of solitude, the silence of evening, the sadness of the past, descend into our hearts.  16
  This charm was increased, for me at least, by the presence of a beloved being: all who have loved will comprehend this. This hour even of mutual contemplation and emotion, of pure and profound enjoyment, was without doubt the last that would be given me to pass near her and with her, and I clung to it with a sad earnestness. For Marguerite, I know not what passed within her; she was seated on the ledge of the parapet, gazing silently at the distance. I heard only the sound of her quickened breath.  17
  I do not know how long we remained thus. When the mists spread over the low meadows and the far-off hills became indistinct in the increasing darkness, Marguerite rose. “Let us go,” said she, in a low voice, as if the curtain had fallen on some regretted pageant; “it is finished!” She began to descend the staircase and I followed her.  18
  We attempted to leave the Tower, but to our great surprise we found the door closed. Apparently the young keeper, ignorant of our presence, had turned the key while we were on the roof. Our first impression was that of gayety. It now actually was an enchanted castle! I made vigorous efforts to break the enchantment; but the enormous bolt of the old lock was solidly fastened in the granite, and I was compelled to give up the attempt to unfasten it. I then attacked the door itself; the massive hinges and the oak panels, banded with iron, resisted all my strength. Two or three pieces of rough stone which I found amongst the rubbish, and which I threw against this insuperable obstacle to our egress, had no other result than to shake the roof, fragments of which fell at my feet. Mademoiselle Marguerite would not allow me to pursue an enterprise so evidently hopeless, and not without danger. I ran to the window, and shouted for help, but nobody replied. During the next ten minutes I repeated these cries constantly, with the same lack of success. We then employed the remaining daylight in exploring minutely the interior of the castle, but we could discover no place of egress except the door, as solid as the wall to us, and the great window, thirty feet above the bottom of the moat.  19
  Night had fallen over the country, and darkness invaded the ruin. Rays of moonlight penetrated the window, and fell upon the stone steps beneath it. Mademoiselle Marguerite had gradually lost all appearance of sprightliness; she ceased to reply to the conjectures, reasonable or otherwise, with which I endeavored to dispel her anxiety. She sat in the shadow of the window, silent and immovable; I was in the full light of the moon on the step nearest the window, at intervals sending forth a cry of distress. But in truth, the more uncertain the success of my efforts became, the more an irresistible feeling of joyfulness seized upon me. I saw suddenly realized the endless and almost impossible dream of lovers; I was alone in a desert with the woman whom I loved! For long hours there were only she and I in the world, only her life and mine! I thought of all the marks of sweet protection, of tender respect, that I should have the right and the duty to lavish upon her; I pictured her fears calmed, her confidence, her sleep; I said to myself that this fortunate night, if it did not give me the love of this dear girl, would at least assure to me her most lasting esteem.  20
  And then, as I abandoned myself with all the egotism of passion to my secret ecstasy, some reflection of which was perhaps painted on my face, I was suddenly roused by these words, addressed to me in a tone of affected tranquillity:—“Monsieur le Marquis de Champcey, have there been many cowards in your family before you?”  21
  I rose, but fell back again upon my stone seat, turning a stupefied look in the direction where I saw the vague outline of the young girl. One idea alone occurred to me, a terrible idea that fear and anxiety had affected her brain—that she was becoming crazy.  22
  “Marguerite!” I cried, without knowing even that I spoke. This word completed her irritation, doubtless.  23
  “My God! How odious he is! Oh, what a coward! Yes, I repeat it, what a coward!”  24
  The truth began to dawn upon me. I descended one of the steps. “Pray, what is the matter?” said I, coldly.  25
  “It is you,” she cried with vehemence, “you who have bribed this man—or this child—to imprison us in this tower. To-morrow I shall be lost—dishonored in public opinion—and I can belong only to you: such is your calculation, is it not? But this plan, I assure you, will not succeed better than the others. You know me very imperfectly if you think I shall not prefer dishonor, a convent, death—all—to the disgrace of uniting my hand, my life, to yours. And when this infamous ruse had succeeded, when I had had the weakness—as certainly I shall not have—to give you my person, and what is of more importance to you, my fortune, in return for this beautiful stroke of policy—what kind of man are you, to wish for wealth and a wife, acquired at such a price as this? Ah, thank me still, monsieur, for not yielding to your wishes: they are imprudent, believe me, for if ever shame and public derision shall drive me into your arms, I should have so much contempt for you that I should break your heart! Yes, were it as hard, as cold as stone, I should draw tears of blood from it.”  26
  “Mademoiselle,” said I, with all the calmness I could assume, “I beg you to recover yourself, your reason. I assure you, upon my honor, that you insult me. Will you please to reflect? Your suspicions have no probable foundation. I could not possibly have arranged the base treachery of which you accuse me, and how have I given you the right to believe me capable of it?”  27
  “All that I know of you gives me this right,” cried she, cutting the air with her riding-whip. “I will tell you for once what has been in my soul for a long time. You came to our house under a borrowed name and character. We were happy, we were tranquil, my mother and I. You have brought us trouble, disorder, anxiety, to which we were before strangers. In order to attain your end, to repair the loss of your fortune, you have usurped our confidence—you have been reckless of our repose—you have played with our purest, truest, most sacred feelings. You have broken our hearts without pity. That is what you have done—or wished to do, it matters little which. I am very weary of it all, I assure you. And when, at this hour, you come and pledge me your honor as a gentleman, I have the right not to believe it—and I do not believe it!”  28
  I was beside myself; I seized both her hands in a transport of vehemence which controlled her. “Marguerite, my poor child, listen! I love you, it is true, and never did love more ardent, more disinterested, more holy, enter into the heart of a man. But you also, you love me; you love me, unfortunate, and you kill me! You speak of a bruised and broken heart. Ah, what have you done with mine? But it is yours; I leave it with you. As to my honor, I will keep it—it is untouched. I will force you to acknowledge it. And upon this honor, I swear to you that if I die, you will weep for me; that if I live, never,—adored as you are—were you on your knees before me—never will I marry you till you are as poor as I, or I as rich as you! And now pray; ask God for miracles—it is time!”  29
  I pushed her away from the embrasure of the window; I sprung upon the upper step. For I had conceived a desperate plan, and I executed it with the precipitation of actual madness. As I have before said, the tops of the beeches and oaks growing in the moat reached the level of the window. With the aid of my bent riding-whip, I drew toward me the extremity of the nearest branches; I seized them on a venture, and leaped into space; I heard above my head my name, “Maximilian!” uttered suddenly, with a distracted cry. The branches to which I was clinging bent with their whole length toward the abyss; then there was a crashing sound; the tree broke under my weight, and I fell heavily to the ground.  30
  The muddy nature of the earth lessened the violence of the shock, for though I was wounded, I was not killed. One of my arms had struck against the sloping masonry of the tower, and I suffered such sharp pain in it that I fainted. I was roused by Marguerite’s frightened voice:—“Maximilian! Maximilian! For pity’s sake! In the name of the good God, speak to me! Forgive me!”  31
  I rose, I saw her in the opening of the window in the full moonlight, with her head bare, her hair disheveled, her hand grasping the arm of the cross, and her eyes earnestly fixed upon the ground below.  32
  “Fear nothing,” said I to her. “I am not hurt. Only be patient for an hour or two. Give me time to go to the château; it is the surest. Be certain that I will keep your secret—that I will save your honor as I have saved mine.”  33
  I scrambled out of the moat with difficulty, and went to mount my horse. I suspended my left arm, which was wholly useless and very painful, with my handkerchief. Thanks to the light of the moon, I easily found my way back, and an hour later I reached the château. I was told Dr. Desmarests was in the saloon. I went in at once, and found there some dozen persons, whose countenances wore an expression of anxiety and alarm.  34
  “Doctor,” said I gayly, on entering, “my horse took fright at his own shadow and threw me on the road, and I am afraid my left arm is sprained. Will you see it?”  35
  “How, sprained!” said M. Desmarests, after unfastening the handkerchief. “Your arm is broken, my poor boy.”  36
  Madame Laroque gave a little cry, and approached me. “This is, then, a night of misfortune,” said she.  37
  I feigned surprise. “What else has happened?” I cried.  38
  “Mon Dieu! I fear some accident has happened to my daughter. She went out on horseback at three o’clock, and it is now eight, and she has not yet returned.”  39
  “Mademoiselle Marguerite? Why, I saw her—”  40
  “How? Where? At what time? Forgive me, monsieur; it is the egotism of a mother.”  41
  “I saw her about five o’clock, on the road. We met. She told me she thought of riding as far as the Tower of Elven.”  42
  “The Tower of Elven! She must be lost in the woods. We ought to go there promptly. Let orders be given.”  43
  M. de Bévallan at once ordered horses to be brought out. I affected a wish to join the cavalcade, but Madame Laroque and the doctor positively prohibited it, and I allowed myself to be easily persuaded to seek my bed, of which, in truth, I felt great need.  44
  Dr. Desmarests, after having applied a first dressing to my injured arm, took a seat in the carriage with Madame Laroque, who went to the village of Elven, to await there the result of the diligent search that M. de Bévallan would direct in the neighborhood of the Tower.  45
  It was nearly ten o’clock when Alain came to announce to me that Mademoiselle Marguerite was found. He recounted the history of her imprisonment, without omitting any details, save, be it understood, those which the young girl and I would alone know. The account of the adventure was soon confirmed by the doctor, then by Madame Laroque herself. I had the satisfaction to see that no suspicion of the exact truth entered the mind of any one.  46
  I have passed the night in repeating, with the most fatiguing perseverance, and with the oddest complications of fever and dreams, my dangerous leap from the old tower window. I cannot become accustomed to it. At each instant the sensation of falling through space rises to my throat, and I awake—breathless.  47
 
 
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