The long promenade of La Croisette winds in a curve along the edge of the blue water. Yonder, to the right, Esterel juts out into the sea in the distance, obstructing the view and shutting out the horizon with its pretty southern outline of pointed summits, numerous and fantastic.
To the left, the isles of Sainte Marguerite and Saint Honorat, almost level with the water, display their surface, covered with pine trees.
And all along the great gulf, all along the tall mountains that encircle Cannes, the white villa residences seem to be sleeping in the sunlight. You can see them from a distance, the white houses, scattered from the top to the bottom of the mountains, dotting the dark greenery with specks like snow.
Those near the water have gates opening on the wide promenade which is washed by the quiet waves. The air is soft and balmy. It is one of those warm winter days when there is scarcely a breath of cool air. Above the walls of the gardens may be seen orange trees and lemon trees full of golden fruit. Ladies are walking slowly across the sand of the avenue, followed by children rolling hoops, or chatting with gentlemen.
A young woman has just passed out through the door of her coquettish little house facing La Croisette. She stops for a moment to gaze at the promenaders, smiles, and with an exhausted air makes her way toward an empty bench facing the sea. Fatigued after having gone twenty paces, she sits down out of breath. Her pale face seems that of a dead woman. She coughs, and raises to her lips her transparent fingers as if to stop those paroxysms that exhaust her.
She gazes at the sky full of sunshine and swallows, at the zigzag summits of the Esterel over yonder, and at the sea, the blue, calm, beautiful sea, close beside her.
She smiles again, and murmurs:
“Oh! how happy I am!”
She knows, however, that she is going to die, that she will never see the springtime, that in a year, along the same promenade, these same people who pass before her now will come again to breathe the warm air of this charming spot, with their children a little bigger, with their hearts all filled with hopes, with tenderness, with happiness, while at the bottom of an oak coffin, the poor flesh which is still left to her to-day will have decomposed, leaving only her bones lying in the silk robe which she has selected for a shroud.
She will be no more. Everything in life will go on as before for others. For her, life will be over, over forever. She will be no more. She smiles, and inhales as well as she can, with her diseased lungs, the perfumed air of the gardens.
And she sinks into a reverie.
She recalls the past. She had been married, four years ago, to a Norman gentleman. He was a strong young man, bearded, healthy-looking, with wide shoulders, narrow mind, and joyous disposition.
They had been united through financial motives which she knew nothing about. She would willingly have said No. She said Yes, with a movement of the head, in order not to thwart her father and mother. She was a Parisian, gay, and full of the joy of living.
Her husband brought her home to his Norman chateau. It was a huge stone building surrounded by tall trees of great age. A high clump of pine trees shut out the view in front. On the right, an opening in the trees presented a view of the plain, which stretched out in an unbroken level as far as the distant, farmsteads. A cross-road passed before the gate and led to the high road three kilometres away.
Oh! she recalls everything, her arrival, her first day in her new abode, and her isolated life afterward.
When she stepped out of the carriage, she glanced at the old building, and laughingly exclaimed:
“It does not look cheerful!”
Her husband began to laugh in his turn, and replied:
“Pooh! we get used to it! You’ll see. I never feel bored in it, for my part.”
That day they passed their time in embracing each other, and she did not find it too long. This lasted fully a month. The days passed one after the other in insignificant yet absorbing occupations. She learned the value and the importance of the little things of life. She knew that people can interest themselves in the price of eggs, which cost a few centimes more or less according to the seasons.
It was summer. She went to the fields to see the men harvesting. The brightness of the sunshine found an echo in her heart.
The autumn came. Her husband went out shooting. He started in the morning with his two dogs Medor and Mirza. She remained alone, without grieving, moreover, at Henry’s absence. She was very fond of him, but she did not miss him. When he returned home, her affection was especially bestowed on the dogs. She took care of them every evening with a mother’s tenderness, caressed them incessantly, gave them a thousand charming little names which she had no idea of applying to her husband.
He invariably told her all about his sport. He described the places where he found partridges, expressed his astonishment at not having caught any hares in Joseph Ledentu’s clever, or else appeared indignant at the conduct of M. Lechapelier, of Havre, who always went along the edge of his property to shoot the game that he, Henry de Parville, had started.
She replied: “Yes, indeed! it is not right,” thinking of something else all the while.
The winter came, the Norman winter, cold and rainy. The endless floods of rain came down tin the slates of the great gabled roof, rising like a knife blade toward the sky. The roads seemed like rivers of mud, the country a plain of mud, and no sound could be heard save that of water falling; no movement could be seen save the whirling flight of crows that settled down like a cloud on a field and then hurried off again.
About four o’clock, the army of dark, flying creatures came and perched in the tall beeches at the left of the chateau, emitting deafening cries. During nearly an hour, they flew from tree top to tree top, seemed to be fighting, croaked, and made a black disturbance in the gray branches. She gazed at them each evening with a weight at her heart, so deeply was she impressed by the lugubrious melancholy of the darkness falling on the deserted country.
Then she rang for the lamp, and drew near the fire. She burned heaps of wood without succeeding in warming the spacious apartments reeking with humidity. She was cold all day long, everywhere, in the drawing-room, at meals, in her own apartment. It seemed to her she was cold to the marrow of her bones. Her husband only came in to dinner; he was always out shooting, or else he was superintending sowing the seed, tilling the soil, and all the work of the country.
He would come back jovial, and covered with mud, rubbing his hands as he exclaimed:
“What wretched weather!”
“A fire looks comfortable!”
“Well, how are you to-day? Are you in good spirits?”
He was happy, in good health, without desires, thinking of nothing save this simple, healthy, and quiet life.
About December, when the snow had come, she suffered so much from the icy-cold air of the chateau which seemed to have become chilled in passing through the centuries just as human beings become chilled with years, that she asked her husband one evening:
“Look here, Henry! You ought to have a furnace put into the house; it would dry the walls. I assure you that I cannot keep warm from morning till night.”
At first he was stunned at this extravagant idea of introducing a furnace into his manor-house. It would have seemed more natural to him to have his dogs fed out of silver dishes. He gave a tremendous laugh from the bottom of his chest as he exclaimed:
“A furnace here! A furnace here! Ha! ha! ha! what a good joke!”
“I assure you, dear, I feel frozen; you don’t feel it because you are always moving about; but all the same, I feel frozen.”
He replied, still laughing:
“Pooh! you’ll get used to it, and besides it is excellent for the health. You will only be all the better for it. We are not Parisians, damn it! to live in hot-houses. And, besides, the spring is quite near.”
About the beginning of January, a great misfortune befell her. Her father and mother died in a carriage accident. She came to Paris for the funeral. And her sorrow took entire possession of her mind for about six months.
The mildness of the beautiful summer days finally roused her, and she lived along in a state of sad languor until autumn.
When the cold weather returned, she was brought face to face, for the first time, with the gloomy future. What was she to do? Nothing. What was going to happen to her henceforth? Nothing. What expectation, what hope, could revive her heart? None. A doctor who was consulted declared that she would never have children.
Sharper, more penetrating still than the year before, the cold made her suffer continually.
She stretched out her shivering hands to the big flames. The glaring fire burned her face; but icy whiffs seemed to glide down her back and to penetrate between her skin and her underclothing. And she shivered from head to foot. Innumerable draughts of air appeared to have taken up their abode in the apartment, living, crafty currents of air as cruel as enemies. She encountered them at every moment; they blew on her incessantly their perfidious and frozen hatred, now on her face, now on her hands, and now on her back.
Once more she spoke of a furnace; but her husband listened to her request as if she were asking for the moon. The introduction of such an apparatus at Parville appeared to him as impossible as the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone.
Having been at Rouen on business one day, he brought back to his wife a dainty foot warmer made of copper, which he laughingly called a “portable furnace”; and he considered that this would prevent her henceforth from ever being cold.
Toward the end of December she understood that she could not always live like this, and she said timidly one evening at dinner:
“Listen, dear! Are we, not going to spend a week or two in Paris before spring:”
He was stupefied.
“In Paris? In Paris? But what are we to do there? Ah! no by Jove! We are better off here. What odd ideas come into your head sometimes.”
“It might distract us a little.”
He did not understand.
“What is it you want to distract you? Theatres, evening parties, dinners in town? You knew, however, when you came here, that you ought not to expect any distractions of this kind!”
She saw a reproach in these words, and in the tone in which they were uttered. She relapsed into silence. She was timid and gentle, without resisting power and without strength of will.
In January the cold weather returned with violence. Then the snow covered the earth.
One evening, as she watched the great black cloud of crows dispersing among the trees, she began to weep, in spite of herself.
Her husband came in. He asked in great surprise:
“What is the matter with you?”
He was happy, quite happy, never having dreamed of another life or other pleasures. He had been born and had grown up in this melancholy district. He felt contented in his own house, at ease in body and mind.
He did not understand that one might desire incidents, have a longing for changing pleasures; he did not understand that it does not seem natural to certain beings to remain in the same place during the four seasons; he seemed not to know that spring, summer, autumn, and winter have, for multitudes of persons, fresh amusements in new places.
She could say nothing in reply, and she quickly dried her eyes. At last she murmured in a despairing tone:
“I am—I—I am a little sad—I am a little bored.”
But she was terrified at having even said so much, and added very quickly:
“And, besides—I am—I am a little cold.”
This last plea made him angry.
“Ah! yes, still your idea of the furnace. But look here, deuce take it! you have not had one cold since you came here.”
Night came on. She went up to her room, for she had insisted on having a separate apartment. She went to bed. Even in bed she felt cold. She thought:
“It will be always like this, always, until I die.”
And she thought of her husband. How could he have said:
“You—have not had one cold since you came here”?
She would have to be ill, to cough before he could understand what she suffered!
And she was filled with indignation, the angry indignation of a weak, timid being.
She must cough. Then, perhaps, he would take pity on her. Well, she would cough; he should hear her coughing; the doctor should be called in; he should see, her husband, he should see.
She got out of bed, her legs and her feet bare, and a childish idea made her smile:
“I want a furnace, and I must have it. I shall cough so much that he’ll have to put one in the house.”
And she sat down in a chair in her nightdress. She waited an hour, two hours. She shivered, but she did not catch cold. Then she resolved on a bold expedient.
She noiselessly left her room, descended the stairs, and opened the gate into the garden.
The earth, covered with snows seemed dead. She abruptly thrust forward her bare foot, and plunged it into the icy, fleecy snow. A sensation of cold, painful as a wound, mounted to her heart. However, she stretched out the other leg, and began to descend the steps slowly.
Then she advanced through the grass saying to herself:
“I’ll go as far as the pine trees.”
She walked with quick steps, out of breath, gasping every time she plunged her foot into the snow.
She touched the first pine tree with her hand, as if to assure herself that she had carried out her plan to the end; then she went back into the house. She thought two or three times that she was going to fall, so numbed and weak did she feel. Before going in, however, she sat down in that icy fleece, and even took up several handfuls to rub on her chest.
Then she went in and got into bed. It seemed to her at the end of an hour that she had a swarm of ants in her throat, and that other ants were running all over her limbs. She slept, however.
Next day she was coughing and could not get up.
She had inflammation of the lungs. She became delirious, and in her delirium she asked for a furnace. The doctor insisted on having one put in. Henry yielded, but with visible annoyance.
She was incurable. Her lungs were seriously affected, and those about her feared for her life.
“If she remains here, she will not last until the winter,” said the doctor.
She was sent south. She came to Cannes, made the acquaintance of the sun, loved the sea, and breathed the perfume of orange blossoms.
Then, in the spring, she returned north.
But she now lived with the fear of being cured, with the fear of the long winters of Normandy; and as soon as she was better she opened her window by night and recalled the sweet shores of the Mediterranean.
And now she is going to die. She knows it and she is happy.
She unfolds a newspaper which she has not already opened, and reads this heading:
“The first snow in Paris.”
She shivers and then smiles. She looks across at the Esterel, which is becoming rosy in the rays of the setting sun. She looks at the vast blue sky, so blue, so very blue, and the vast blue sea, so very blue also, and she rises from her seat.
And then she returned to the house with slow steps, only stopping to cough, for she had remained out too long and she was cold, a little cold.
She finds a letter from her husband. She opens it, still smiling, and she reads:
“MY DEAR LOVE: I hope you are well, and that you do not regret too much our beautiful country. For some days last we have had a good frost, which presages snow. For my part, I adore this weather, and you my believe that I do not light your damned furnace.”
She ceases reading, quite happy at the thought that she had her furnace put in. Her right hand, which holds the letter, falls slowly on her lap, while she raises her left hand to her mouth, as if to calm the obstinate cough which is racking her chest.