Jules Claretie.

Prince Zilah — Volume 2 online

. (page 1 of 6)
Online LibraryJules ClaretiePrince Zilah — Volume 2 → online text (page 1 of 6)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


PRINCE ZILAH

By JULES CLARETIE


BOOK 2.


CHAPTER XII

A DARK PAGE

As Marsa departed with Vogotzine in the carriage which had been waiting
for them on the bank, she waved her hand to Zilah with a passionate
gesture, implying an infinity of trouble, sadness, and love. The Prince
then returned to his guests, and the boat, which Marsa watched through
the window of the carriage, departed, bearing away the dream, as she had
said to Andras. During the drive home she did not say a word. By her
side the General grumbled sleepily of the sun, which, the Tokay aiding,
had affected his head. But, when Marsa was alone in her chamber, the cry
which was wrung from her breast was a cry of sorrow, of despairing anger:

"Ah, when I think - when I think that I am envied!"

She regretted having allowed Andras to depart without having told him on
the spot, the secret of her life. She would not see him again until the
next day, and she felt as if she could never live through the long, dull
hours. She stood at the window, wrapped in thought, gazing mechanically
before her, and still hearing the voice of Michel Menko hissing like a
snake in her ear. What was it this man had said? She did not dare to
believe it. "I demand it!" He had said: "I demand it!" Perhaps some
one standing near had heard it. "I demand it!"

Evening came. Below the window the great masses of the chestnut-trees
and the lofty crests of the poplars waved in the breeze like forest
plumes, their peaks touched by the sun setting in a sky of tender blue,
while the shadowy twilight crept over the park where, through the
branches, patches of yellow light, like golden and copper vapors, still
gave evidence of the god of day.

Marsa, her heart full of a melancholy which the twilight increased,
repeated over and over again, with shudders of rage and disgust, those
three words which Michel Menko had hurled at her like a threat: "I demand
it!" Suddenly she heard in the garden the baying of dogs, and she saw,
held in check by a domestic, Duna and Bundas, bounding through the masses
of flowers toward the gate, where a man appeared, whom Marsa, leaning
over the balcony, recognized at once.

"The wretch!" she exclaimed between her clenched teeth. It was Menko.

He must have debarked before reaching Paris, and have come to Maisons-
Lafitte in haste.

Marsa's only thought, in the first moment of anger, was to refuse to see
him. "I can not," she thought, "I will not!" Then suddenly her mind
changed. It was braver and more worthy of her to meet the danger face to
face. She rang, and said to the domestic who answered the bell: "Show
Count Menko into the little salon."

"We shall see what he will dare," muttered the Tzigana, glancing at the
mirror as if to see whether she appeared to tremble before danger and an
enemy.

The little salon into which the young Count was introduced was in the
left wing of the villa; and it was Marsa's favorite room, because it was
so quiet there. She had furnished it with rare taste, in half Byzantine
and half Hindoo fashion - a long divan running along the wall, covered
with gray silk striped with garnet; Persian rugs cast here and there at
random; paintings by Petenkofen - Hungarian farms and battle-scenes,
sentinels lost in the snow; two consoles loaded with books, reviews, and
bric-a-brac; and a round table with Egyptian incrustations, covered with
an India shawl, upon which were fine bronzes of Lanceray, and little
jewelled daggers.

This salon communicated with a much larger one, where General Vogotzine
usually took his siesta, and which Marsa abandoned to him, preferring the
little room, the windows of which, framed in ivy, looked out upon the
garden, with the forest in the distance.

Michel Menko was well acquainted with this little salon, where he had
more than once seen Marsa seated at the piano playing her favorite airs.
He remembered it all so well, and, nervously twisting his moustache, he
longed for her to make her appearance. He listened for the frou-frou of
Marsa's skirts on the other side of the lowered portiere which hung
between the two rooms; but he heard no sound.

The General had shaken hands with Michel, as he passed through the large
salon, saying, in his thick voice:

"Have you come to see Marsa? You have had enough of that water-party,
then? It was very pretty; but the sun was devilish hot. My head is
burning now; but it serves me right for not remaining quiet at home."

Then he raised his heavy person from the armchair he had been sitting in,
and went out into the garden, saying: "I prefer to smoke in the open air;
it is stifling in here." Marsa, who saw Vogotzine pass out, let him go,
only too willing to have him at a distance during her interview with
Michel Menko; and then she boldly entered the little salon, where the
Count, who had heard her approach, was standing erect as if expecting
some attack.

Marsa closed the door behind her; and, before speaking a word, the two
faced each other, as if measuring the degree of hardihood each possessed.
The Tzigana, opening fire first, said, bravely and without preamble:

"Well, you wished to see me. Here I am! What do you want of me?"

"To ask you frankly whether it is true, Marsa, that you are about to
marry Prince Zilah."

She tried to laugh; but her laugh broke nervously off. She said,
however, ironically:

"Oh! is it for that that you are here?"

"Yes."

"It was perfectly useless, then, for you to take the trouble: you ask me
a thing which you know well, which all the world knows, which all the
world must have told you, since you had the audacity to be present at
that fete to-day."

"That is true," said Michel, coldly; "but I only learned it by chance.
I wished to hear it from your own lips."

"Do I owe you any account of my conduct?" asked Marsa, with crushing
hauteur.

He was silent a moment, strode across the room, laid his hat down upon
the little table, and suddenly becoming humble, not in attitude, but in
voice, said:

"Listen, Marsa: you are a hundred times right to hate me. I have
deceived you, lied to you. I have conducted myself in a manner unworthy
of you, unworthy of myself. But to atone for my fault - my crime, if you
will - I am ready to do anything you order, to be your miserable slave,
in order to obtain the pardon which I have come to ask of you, and which
I will ask on my knees, if you command me to do so."

The Tzigana frowned.

"I have nothing to pardon you, nothing to command you," she said with an
air more wearied than stern, humiliating, and disdainful. "I only ask
you to leave me in peace, and never appear again in my life."

"So! I see that you do not understand me," said Michel, with sudden
brusqueness.

"No, I acknowledge it, not in the least."

"When I asked you whether you were to marry Prince Andras, didn't you
understand that I asked you also another thing: Will you marry me, me -
Michel Menko?"

"You!" cried the Tzigana.

And there was in this cry, in this "You!" ejaculated with a rapid
movement of recoil-amazement, fright, scorn, and anger.

"You!" she said again. And Michel Menko felt in this word a mass of
bitter rancor and stifled hatred which suddenly burst its bonds.

"Yes, me!" he said, braving the insult of Marsa's cry and look. "Me,
who love you, and whom you have loved!"

"Ah, don't dare to say that!" she cried, drawing close to the little
table where the daggers rested amid the objects of art. "Don't be vile
enough to speak to me of a past of which nothing remains to me but
disgust! Let not one word which recalls it to me mount to your lips,
not one, you understand, or I will kill you like the coward you are!"

"Do so, Marsa!" he cried with wild, mad passion. "I should die by your
hand, and you would not marry that man!"

Afraid of herself, wresting her eyes from the glittering daggers, she
threw herself upon the divan, her hands clasped tightly in her lap, and
watched, with the look of a tigress, Michel, who said to her now, in a
voice which trembled with the tension of his feelings: "You must know
well, Marsa, that death is not the thing that can frighten a man like me!
What does frighten me is that, having lost you once, I may lose you
forever; to know that another will be your husband, will love you, will
receive your kisses. The very idea that that is possible drives me
insane. I feel myself capable of any deed of madness to prevent it.
Marsa! Marsa! You did love me once!"

"I love honor, truth, justice," said Marsa, sternly and implacably.
"I thought I loved you; but I never did."

"You did not love me?" he said.

This cruel recalling of the past, which was the remorse of her life, was
like touching her flesh with a red-hot iron.

"No, no, no! I did not love you! I repeat, I thought I loved you.
What did I know of life when I met you? I was suffering, ill; I thought
myself dying, and I never heard a word of pity fall from any other lips
than yours. I thought you were a man of honor. You were only a wretch.
You deceived me; you represented yourself to me as free - and you were
married. Weakly - oh, I could kill myself at the very thought! -
I listened to you! I took for love the trite phrases you had used to
dozens of other women; half by violence, half by ruse, you became my
lover. I do not know when - I do not know how. I try to forget that
horrible dream; and when, deluded by you, thinking that what I felt for
you was love, for I did think so, I imagined that I had given myself for
life to a man worthy of the deepest devotion, ready for all sacrifices
for me, as I felt myself to be for him; when you had taken me, body and
soul, I learn by what? by a trifling conversation, by a chance, in a
crowded ballroom - that, this Michel Menko, whose name I was to bear, who
was to be my husband; this Count Menko, this man of honor, the one in
whom I believed blindly, was married! Married at Vienna, and had already
given away the name on which he traded! Oh, it is hideous!" And the
Tzigana, whose whole body was shuddering with horror, recoiled
instinctively to the edge of the divan as at the approach of some
detested contact.

Michel, his face pale and convulsed, had listened to her with bowed head.

"All that you say is the truth, Marsa; but I will give my life, my whole
life, to expiate that lie!"

"There are infamies which are never effaced. There is no pardon for him
who has no excuse."

"No excuse? Yes, Marsa; I have one! I have one: I loved you!"

"And because you loved me, was it necessary for you to betray me, lie to
me, ruin me?"

"What could I do? I did not love the woman I had married; you dawned on
me like a beautiful vision; I wished, hoping I know not what impossible
future, to be near you, to make you love me, and I did not dare to
confess that I was not free. If I lied to you, it was because I trembled
at not being able to surround you with my devotion; it was because I was
afraid to lose your love, knowing that the adoration I had for you would
never die till my heart was cold and dead! Upon all that is most sacred,
I swear this to you! I swear it!"

He then recalled to her, while she sat rigid and motionless with an
expression of contempt and disdain upon her beautiful, proud lips, their
first meetings; that evening at Lady Brolway's, in Pau, where he had met
her for the first time; their conversation; the ineffaceable impression
produced upon him by her beauty; that winter season; the walks they had
taken together beneath the trees, which not a breath of wind stirred;
their excursions in the purple and gold valleys, with the Pyrenees in the
distance crowned with eternal snow. Did she not remember their long
talks upon the terrace, the evenings which felt like spring, and that day
when she had been nearly killed by a runaway horse, and he had seized the
animal by the bridle and saved her life? Yes, he had loved her, loved
her well; and it was because, possessing her love, he feared, like a
second Adam, to see himself driven out of paradise, that he had hidden
from Marsa the truth. If she had questioned one of the Hungarians or
Viennese, who were living at Pau, she could doubtless have known that
Count Menko, the first secretary of the embassy of Austria-Hungary at
Paris, had married the heiress of one of the richest families of Prague;
a pretty but unintelligent girl, not understanding at all the character
of her husband; detesting Vienna and Paris, and gradually exacting from
Menko that he should live at Prague, near her family, whose ancient ideas
and prejudices and inordinate love of money displeased the young
Hungarian. He was left free to act as he pleased; his wife would
willingly give up a part of her dowry to regain her independence. It was
only just, she said insolently, that, having been mistaken as to the
tastes of the man she had married for reasons of convenience rather than
of inclination, she should pay for her stupidity. Pay! The word made
the blood mount to Menko's face. If he had not been rich, as he was, he
would have hewn stone to gain his daily bread rather than touch a penny
of her money. He shook off the yoke the obstinate daughter of the
Bohemian gentleman would have imposed upon him, and departed, brusquely
breaking a union in which both husband and wife so terribly perceived
their error.

Marsa might have known of all this if she had, for a moment, doubted
Menko's word. But how was she to suspect that the young Count was
capable of a lie or of concealing such a secret? Besides, she knew
hardly any one at Pau, as her physicians had forbidden her any
excitement; at the foot of the Pyrenees, she lived, as at Maisons-
Lafitte, an almost solitary life; and Michel Menko had been during that
winter, which he now recalled to Marsa, speaking of it as of a lost Eden,
her sole companion, the only guest of the house she inhabited with
Vogotzine in the neighborhood of the castle.

Poor Marsa, enthusiastic, inexperienced, her heart enamored with
chivalrous audacity, intrepid courage, all the many virtues which were
those of Hungary herself; Marsa, her mind imbued from her infancy with
the almost fantastic recitals of the war of independence, and later, with
her readings and reflections; Marsa, full of the stories of the heroic
past-must necessarily have been the dupe of the first being who, coming
into her life, was the personal representative of the bravery and charm
of her race. So, when she encountered one day Michel Menko, she was
invincibly attracted toward him by something proud, brave, and
chivalrous, which was characteristic of the manly beauty of the young
Hungarian. She was then twenty, very ignorant of life, her great
Oriental eyes seeing nothing of stern reality; but, with all her
gentleness, there was a species of Muscovite firmness which was betrayed
in the contour of her red lips. It was in vain that sorrow had early
made her a woman; Marsa remained ignorant of the world, without any other
guide than Vogotzine; suffering and languid, she was fatally at the mercy
of the first lie which should caress her ear and stir her heart. From
the first, therefore, she had loved Michel; she had, as she herself said,
believed that she loved him with a love which would never end, a very
ingenuous love, having neither the silliness of a girl who has just left
the convent, nor the knowledge of a Parisienne whom the theatre and the
newspapers have instructed in all things. Michel, then, could give to
this virgin and pliable mind whatever bent he chose; and Marsa, pure as
the snow and brave as her own favorite heroes, became his without
resistance, being incapable of divining a treachery or fearing a lie.
Michel Menko, moreover, loved her madly; and he thought only of winning
and keeping the love of this incomparable maiden, exquisite in her
combined gentleness and pride. The folly of love mounted to his brain
like intoxication, and communicated itself to the poor girl who believed
in him as if he were the living faith; and, in the madness of his
passion, Michel, without being a coward, committed a cowardly action.

No: a coward he certainly was not. He was one of those nervous natures,
as prompt to hope as to despair, going to all extremes, at times
foolishly gay, and at others as grave and melancholy as Hamlet. There
were days when Menko did not value his life at a penny, and when he asked
himself seriously if suicide were not the simplest means to reach the
end; and again, at the least ray of sunshine, he became sanguine and
hopeful to excess. Of undoubted courage, he would have faced the muzzle
of a loaded cannon out of mere bravado, at the same time wondering, with
a sarcastic smile upon his lips, 'Cui bono'?

He sometimes called heroism a trick; and yet, in everyday life, he had
not much regard for tricksters. Excessively fond of movement, activity,
and excitement, he yet counted among his happiest days those spent in
long meditations and inactive dreams. He was a strange combination of
faults and good qualities, without egregious vices, but all his virtues
capable of being annihilated by passion, anger, jealousy, or grief. With
such a nature, everything was possible: the sublimity of devotion, or a
fall into the lowest infamy. He often said, in self-analysis: "I am
afraid of myself." In short, his strength was like a house built upon
sand; all, in a day, might crumble.

"If I had to choose the man I should prefer to be," he said once, "I
would be Prince Andras Zilah, because he knows neither my useless
discouragements, apropos of everything and nothing, nor my childish
delights, nor my hesitations, nor my confidence, which at times
approaches folly as my misanthropy approaches injustice; and because,
in my opinion, the supreme virtue in a man is firmness."

The Zilahs were connected by blood with the Menkos, and Prince Andras was
very fond of this young man, who promised to Hungary one of those
diplomats capable of wielding at once the pen and the sword, and who in
case of war, before drawing up a protocol, would have dictated its terms,
sabre in hand. Michel indeed stood high with his chief in the embassy,
and he was very much sought after in society. Before the day he met
Marsa, he had, to tell the truth, only experienced the most trivial love-
affairs.

He did not speak of his wife at Pau any more than he did on the
boulevards. She lived far away, in the old city of Prague, and troubled
Michel no more than if she had never existed. Perhaps he had forgotten,
really forgotten, with that faculty of forgetfulness which belongs to the
imaginative, that he was married, when he encountered Marsa, the candid,
pure-hearted girl, who did not reflect nor calculate, but simply believed
that she had met a man of honor.

So, what sudden revolt, humiliation, and hatred did the poor child feel
when she learned that the man in whom she had believed as in a god had
deceived her, lied to her! He was married. He had treated her as the
lowest of women; perhaps he had never even loved her! The very thought
made her long to kill herself, or him, or both. She, unhappy, miserable
woman, was ruined, ruined forever!

She had certainly never stopped to think where the love she had for
Michel would lead her. She thought of nothing except that Michel was
hers, and she was his, and she believed that their love would last
forever. She did not think that she had long to live, and her existence
seemed to her only a breath which any moment might cease. Why had she
not died before she knew that Menko had lied?

All deception seemed hideous to Marsa Laszlo, and this hideousness she
had discovered in the man to whom she had given herself, believing in the
eternity as well as in the loyalty of his love.

It was at a ball, at the English embassy, after her return from Pau,
that, while smiling and happy, she overheard between two Viennese,
strangers to her, this short dialogue, every word of which was like a
knife in her heart: "What a charming fellow that Menko is!" "Yes; is his
wife ugly or a humpback? or is he jealous as Othello? She is never
seen." "His wife! Is he married?" "Yes: he married a Blavka, the
daughter of Angel Blavka, of Prague. Didn't you know it?"

Married!

Marsa felt her head reel, and the sudden glance she cast at the speakers
silenced, almost terrified them. Half insane, she reached home, she
never knew how. The next day Michel Menko presented himself at her
apartments in the hotel where she was living; she ordered him out of her
presence, not allowing him to offer any excuse or explanation.

"You are married, and you are a coward!"

He threw himself at her knees, and implored her to listen to him.

"Go! Go!"

"But our love, Marsa? For I love you, and you love me."

"I hate and scorn you. My love is dead. You have killed it. All is
over. Go! And let me never know that there exists a Michel Menko in the
world! Never! Never! Never!"

He felt his own cowardice and shame, and he disappeared, not daring again
to see the woman whose love haunted him, and who shut herself away from
the world more obstinately than ever. She left Paris, and in the
solitude of Maisons-Lafitte lived the life of a recluse, while Michel
tried in vain to forget the bitterness of his loss. The Tzigana hoped
that she was going to die, and bear away with her forever the secret of
her betrayal. But no; science had been mistaken; the poor girl was
destined to live. In spite of her sorrow and anguish, her beauty
blossomed in the shade, and she seemed each day to grow more lovely,
while her heart became more sad, and her despair more poignant.

Then death, which would not take Marsa, came to another, and gave Menko
an opportunity to repair and efface all. He learned that his wife had
died suddenly at Prague, of a malady of the heart. This death, which
freed him, produced a strange effect upon him, not unmingled with
remorse. Poor woman! She had worthily borne his name, after all.
Unintelligent, cold, and wrapped up in her money, she had never
understood him; but, perhaps, if he had been more patient, things might
have gone better between them.

But no; Marsa was his one, his never-to-be-forgotten love. As soon as he
heard of his freedom, he wrote her a letter, telling her that he was able
now to dispose of his future as he would, imploring her to pardon him,
offering her not his love, since she repelled it, but his name, which was
her right - a debt of honor which he wished her to acquit with the
devotion of his life. Marsa answered simply with these words: "I will
never bear the name of a man I despise."

The wound made in her heart by Menko's lie was incurable; the Tzigana
would never forgive. He tried to see her again, confident that, if he
should be face to face with her, he could find words to awaken the past
and make it live again; but she obstinately refused to see him, and, as
she did not go into society, he never met her. Then he cast himself,
with a sort of frenzy, into the dissipation of Paris, trying to forget,
to forget at any cost: failing in this, he resigned his position at the
embassy, and went away to seek adventure, going to fight in the Balkans
against the Russians, only to return weary and bored as he had departed,
always invincibly and eternally haunted by the image of Marsa, an image
sad as a lost love, and grave as remorse.


CHAPTER XIII

"MY LETTERS OR MYSELF"

It was that past, that terrible past, which Michel Menko had dared to
come and speak of to the Tzigana. At first, she had grown crimson with
anger, as if at an insult; now, by a sudden opposite sentiment, as she
listened to him recalling those days, she felt an impression of deadly
pain as if an old wound had been reopened. Was it true that all this had
ever existed? Was it possible, even?

The man who had been her lover was speaking to her; he was speaking to
her of his love; and, if the terrible agony of memory had not burned in
her heart, she would have wondered whether this man before her, this sort
of stranger, had ever even touched her hand.

She waited, with the idle curiosity of a spectator who had no share in
the drama, for the end of Menko's odious argument: "I lied because I
loved you!"

He returned again and again, in the belief that women easily forgive the
ill-doing of which they are the cause, to that specious plea, and Marsa
asked herself, in amazement, what aberration had possession of this man
that he should even pretend to excuse his infamy thus.

"And is that," she said at last, "all that you have to say to me?


1 3 4 5 6

Online LibraryJules ClaretiePrince Zilah — Volume 2 → online text (page 1 of 6)