C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the Worlds Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
The Divorced Mother and her Son
By Paul Bourget (18521935)
From A Divorce
ONE little fact, slight but full of significance, marked the difference between their last interview when tenderness mingled with their sorrow, and the meeting of to-day: neither of them rushed to meet the other as before. She hardly so much as rose from the chair in which she was working, to fold him in a long and silent embrace. She would not have had the strength to go to him, so apprehensive was she of this change of feeling in the young man described by her husband. At once, another little detail possessing still more significance, obtruded itself to increase her embarrassment, in the contrast between the full mourning worn by Lucien and her own costume. She had indeed chosen something almost dark, for her delicate feminine sensitiveness had foreseen the contrast. But fearing to offend her husband, she had not ventured to dress entirely in black. Lucien also started at this visible symbol of the divorce which continued to keep his father and mother apart by a severance more complete than death itself, and when she asked him affectionately: You have had a bad shock, my poor boy, a bad blow? it was in a tone of sadness that he replied:
Oh, but you can, she insisted; I can listen to it all. Death, you know, obliterates many things, and directly you have anything to cause you grief, and now more than ever, be certain I share it with you.
I know that, said he, but to talk of all that even to you would make me ill. He was my father, and, whatever wrongs he was guilty of to you and to me also, when I saw him dying, I felt that at the bottom of my heart I cherished a fondness for him of which I had no suspicion. He died very peacefully. There had been some very painful periods of delirium, but the delirium had passed away. He asked for a priest. I thought I must accede to his wish. After the priest had gone, he had still half an hour of consciousness, in which he spoke to me. Then he sank into a kind of torpor and he expired with no sign of suffering. Ether was injected, but he did not feel it. It was during this last conversation that he entrusted me with a message for you as my letter told you. He wished me, in his name, to ask your forgiveness for not having been all that he ought to you. He may have been guilty of many faults, mother. I swear to you, he was not a bad man. Do you pardon him? Tell me that you doI want you to tell me so.
Thank you, he returned, in his name and mine. He signed to his mother not to continue and put his hand for a minute over his eyes, making as if to stifle some overpowering emotion. When he recovered himself, he went on:
You have done me ever so much good, mother, and I wish we could rest here, and not spoil the sweetness of the impression. But there is one other question that must be opened. It would be childish to put it off. Besides it is only the continuation of our conversation the other day when we were not over self-possessed, you or I, or He did not name his stepfather, and ended almost roughly: In fact, you have guessed that it is the question of my marriage.
Is it absolutely necessary that we should speak of it now? said his mother. I have just seen you so affected. I have been so affected myself. We were at one in our thoughts on this tender subject. Do not let us introduce to-day the questions which sunder us.
But we must have this matter settled to-day, replied the young man conclusively. Besides, the words you have just employed are sufficient to enlighten me on your intentions. Allow me to prevail on you to state them distinctly. It will not take very long, and you can vouch that I am not now in a state of excitement. Answer me then frankly and without reserve. I know from my notary, M. Mounier, that you are acquainted with the step I took with regard to my father. I did it and I conceived I had the right to do it because the opposition to my marriage did not really come from you. Had it come from you, I mean from you alone, I should have hesitated before making use of the means the law gave me. It was not against you that I acted. I want to assure you of that. In any case, right or wrong, I did act. You have heard the result from M. Mounier: I obtained my fathers consent. Please notice that he gave it with a full knowledge of the facts of the case. I had not hidden from him any of the circumstances in which Mlle. Planat is placed, and I say it with emphasis. He was ill, it is true, and felt he was going, but he was in full possession of his faculties. He wished to show his love for me by placing no obstacle in the way of a union which he understood to be my most passionate desire, and likely to secure my permanent happiness. Had he lived two weeks longer, this marriage would have taken place. His decease renders his consent invalid under the Code. It depends now on you alone to authorize this marriage. Will you endorse or not the last wish my father expressed with respect to my interests?
I cannot allow the question between us to be put in such terms as these, said his mother quickly. Her heart was in her mouth as she spoke, for her sons last question had touched a smarting wound. When you spoke just now of pardon, I think I answered you as I ought and in all sincerity. Do not ask me to go further and take account of a wish which I have never recognized as legitimate. You see I was right when I begged you not to open this subject. You force me to say what I would rather have left unsaid. You do not know how unhappy that act you referred to made me, and what tears I shed! You maintain it was not aimed at me. Nor can I allow you to dissociate me from Albert, my husband, the best of men, whom you have called by the name of father so long. He deserved it for his devotion to you, yes, and he deserves it still. In our concern for you we are one. Only yesterday when your letter came what was his first thought, do you think? Only that there might be an end of this cruel misunderstanding between us. Only try to prevent Lucien from leaving this house never to return. Those were his own words. And if you knew too how he seized the opportunity to plead for you? I may be wrong, but I will tell you all. He saw this person whom you wish to marry: in what circumstances I need hardly remind you. He had gone to the Place François 1, because he thought at the time you were the victim of a designing woman. He wanted to speak, you can guess to whom, and you understand why. Ought not his mere presence in that room and with that object be sufficient to convince you how much you are to him? He never made a greater sacrifice for you. He was anxious to save you at all costs. Chance willed that this young lady and he had an explanation. She produced a very different impression on him from what he had expected. It would be untrue to say that he has entirely changed his opinion of her. He says, however, that we have perhaps judged her a little hastily. You must admit that we had very natural reasons for dreading her. As a matter of fact, if it were shown to us that she is really such as you conceive her, if we had the assurance that she would be a good wife to you, I too might be able, one day, to think more kindly towards her. But that can only be the work of time. So I ask you for time to give a definite reply, and it is only fair to grant me this.
As she spoke these words in which her passionate desire to defend her second husband against the dead mans son was so ingenuously displayed, she had been searching Luciens eyes for a glimmer of indecision, but she sought in vain. On the contrary, the young mans face had grown darker and even hard. He made no reply immediately. He had risen and began to walk up and down the room. Suddenly he stopped in front of her, and jerking out his words hurriedly, with a curl of the lip he said to her:
Time? What is the use? There are some things that time cannot change. Time will not alter the fact that M. Darras insulted my betrothed, and me with her, in this very room in a manner which he cannot now make amends for. Time will make no difference; it wall still be true that he claimed rights over you at my expense and that I had to go, and you let me, your son, go because this house is not your home but the home of the pair of you. Yes, I must speak out; that is the view I take. Where shall I spend this time you require? Where will my home be, where am I to spend my private life? With you? Now? Never, I could not.
Why too true? she repeated. No, oh no! Resentment is carrying you away and making you too hard, too ungrateful. Forget these two horrible weeks. Remember the past. You cannot live with us any longer? Oh! you are too ungrateful. Then you have not been happy here?
They are not monstrous, mother; once more they are the truth. There is no question of the past, it is the present and the future we have to deal with. The idea that I was in the way here began to grow on me quite a long time ago. At first it was only jealousy. How I endeavored to hide it from you! I did not think the better of myself for it. It was not your fault if I suffered because I had no longer the larger part of your affection. There were trifles. Take an instance. You never received a letter from me without showing it to him. When I was with the regiment I tore up ever so many letters, because this annoyed me. Then many little things followed to offend me. It was not his fault either. I called your husband my father. He treated me as a son, exerting an authority which extended to the smallest details of life. How I chafed against this! And then there came his glaring injustice to my betrothed, and I saw his character as it was. It was a bitter blow to me that you should side with him against me in a matter in which I thought he was wrong. Finally, and more than all besides, there came the few days spent with my real father, at the time when I went to see him although almost ashamed to go. The feelings I saw he bore me conquered my heart. I quite understood that he repented. Seated by his bed and chatting with him I listened to his rambling recollections of his wasted life. All went to show me that he had been worthy of better things. He was full of regretful recollections of you, the days of your engagement, of my birth. It was folly, no doubt, but as I listened I could not help dreaming. In thought I lived through the life I should have had with you two if things had been so arranged that you could have stayed with him. Who can tell? The good side of his nature might perhaps have developed. There was so much of it. I gathered this still more completely from what I was told of him by his companions in childhood and youth at Villefranche. I am not accusing you, mother. You had not the strength to put up with his shortcomings beyond a certain point, even for my sake. For you had to take account of me. I bear you no ill-will; but all that has been has become too painful to me in comparison with what might have been. It is not just, perhaps; but I repeat I do not judge you. In your presence I express my feelings aloud. I am going to leave you. I am going to live a life foreign to your ideas and your wishes. I wanted to put all the reasons before you. I am not a bad son. But come back here, and resume my place in your household, as things are, I should not have the strength for it. I should be too wretched.
While Lucien was speaking, Madame Darras had been looking at him without a tear or sob, her eyes fixed on him, in that state of sudden prostration which may be noticed in the presence of certain catastrophes when excessive grief paralyses all feeling of reaction. She had suffered much in these two weeks; with ever increasing remorse she had been constantly brought in contact with the ever recurring consequences of that second marriage of hers, to which she had only agreed originally after a great struggle with her conscience. But her sufferings had been nothing to this. She was no longer confronted by the consequences of the act. It was the act itself, and her sons smothered complaint made it a present and concrete fact.
With lightning-like rapidity her imagination busied itself with the past and she retraced all the stages which had led her to the climax. First had come the departure from Chambault House. She had thought herself justified at the time. Suppose, however, that she had been still more patient; suppose she had not listened to the lawyers advice and made that demand for a separation which had increased the resentment of Luciens father! While the action was going on he had asked her to come back, and yet once again she had refused. Later on, when he had wished to alter the separation to a divorce, she had, still on the same advice, affected to offer no opposition. It was true, though, that she had her share of the responsibility for this divorce: further it was true that in remarrying while her son lived, she had saddled herself with the inability to make any reply if he ever taxed her with sacrificing him, a terrible charge for a son to make and a mother to hear. To acquit her in her own eyes, her son must never protest against the intrusion of the stranger. He was doing worse than protest. He was leaving her. The family-tragedy which is involved in virtually every divorce was reaching its supreme and logical climax. The second marriage was showing its radical incompatibility with what survived of the first. Was that what the mother had desired? Alas! She had brought it about, and she groaned:
You repeat that you do not judge me, but to tell me in my own house that you are not at home, that you are wretched near me within these walls, what more cruel judgment can you imagine? But I will not have it. It is a horrible nightmare. I have not heard you, you my Lucien, speak in this way to me. No, I will not believe it. You are too sensitive, and so is Albert. You are both of you proud and shy. I know you so well! You have let a frightful misunderstanding come between you. You must have an explanation. He never knew what you were thinking, I swear it. You will tell him as you have told me, and there will be nothing of it left, nothing.
Poor mother, replied the young man. Why should we lie one to the other? Why draw back before the strong and indisputable evidence we have all three had in this very place? My stepfather does not know what I think? Oh yes, mother, he does, and you know yourself that he does. Why, at this minute and while we are talking, he is over there in his study behind that door and he does not come in here! For what reason, unless because there is not room now for both of us in your circle? And you are so fully conscious of this yourself that you will not go to look for him, you will not challenge this explanation between us and in your presence. You calculate too accurately that it is useless and would be too risky.
She walked with a decided step to the door which separated the little drawing-room from the library. Her hand raised the curtain to grope for the handle of the lock, and then she did not turn it. So she stood for a moment, shaking with such a fit of trembling that she had to lean against the frame of the door. Her hand dropped without effecting her purpose. She left the door, which in simple truth she had not dared to open, and came back to her son, saying: You are right. I am afraid. But do you not understand that I love you both, poor boy; you as much as him, him as much as you? That is why I could not bear to see you confronting one another. Perhaps I was very guilty towards you in my divorce and my remarriage. But I swear to you that at this moment I am more than punished.
You? cried the young man, guilty towards me? You, my dearest mother? Do not say such a thing, I entreat you, do not even think it. He had made her sit down in a chair and thrown himself on his knees before her, and was kissing her hands. The cry of a tortured soul that had escaped her had shaken him to his very soul.
I am the guilty person, I deserve the punishment for having gone so far as to give you the impression that I am reproaching you or complaining. I who only came to assure you over and again of my worship and my devotion! I wanted to make you fully understand that, even when gone from the house, I shall keep the best part of my affection for you always, always. You punished? For what? For having been too simple, too sincere, for having believed overmuch that all hearts were like your own. They are not. They are not all kindness, all love like yours, mine among the first. Look at me, dear. Smile at me. And he added sorrowfully: Remember it will perhaps be a long time before we see one another again.
Yes, he replied, you yourself made it clear just now that I am right. And he pointed to the door which she had not had the courage to open. And you have told me so. After what has passed and with the feelings which I have allowed you to see, I cannot live among you. It is no place for me now. I have met with a woman whom I love and who loves me. She has all my ideas and I have all her tastes. Our ways of thinking and our principles are identical. She is my wife, the woman with whom I shall be able to make a home such as I dream of. The poor deceased understood this. Will you not do likewise and give your consent to our marriage?
And I, he broke in, rising to his feet, I told you why I will not wait. My life is all before me, I want to live it. It is my wish and my duty. Mlle. Planat has been too unhappy and too undeservedly so. I have promised to make up to her in happiness all she has suffered from the cruelty and wickedness of the world. In coming here I foresaw your refusal. I have prepared her for it, and have brought her to consent to the course which I will now tell you. She and I have the same beliefs. We think that the moral worth of marriage depends solely on the tie between the consciences. It was in vain that M. Darras waxed wroth against this idea when I propounded it the other day; I hold to it because it is true, and because I feel it true in all honesty. The only true marriage, the only one which is absolutely unstained by hypocritical convention, is free union. If I have wished in the first instance to marry Mlle. Planat legally, it is only because legal marriage is a public proof of my affection. You object to my giving her that proof for the present. I bow to your will. But we have plighted our troth, she and I. We mean to live together in free union. We shall be misunderstood and slandered. We shall have the approval of our own consciences. We have made up our minds to leave Paris. Had I no other reasons for wishing to go away, I should consider myself bound to spare you the remarks which my life here under such conditions could not fail to occasion in your circle. We shall go to Germany. There my wife will continue her medical studies and I shall start on mine. I have taken a passion for the science of medicine. My betrothed shares it, and we shall work together. In two years I shall be free to legalize a situation which to-day is in my view as honorable as the fine marriages which my friends dream of are the reverse. Mlle. Planat has a child. I do not wish him to go through what I have gone through. We shall take him with us nowand he will never know that I am not his father. Mother, I appeal to your sense of justice, and I emphasize the word, for to my mind that is everything: can you think badly of me for living thus?
Before she could say a word in reply, he had left the little room. Her twice-repeated cry, Lucien! Lucien! did not induce him to turn back. As on the previous occasion, she heard the outer door open and shut. A carriage rolled away and completed her certainty; this farewell, so overpoweringly sudden that she remained lost in astonishment, was indeed a reality.