BY B. Delvrancea
WHEN my parents died, both in the same year, I was quite small ; I think I must have been about seven years old.
I wanted to cry over them both, for I loved them both, but when I approached their coffin I was not alone.
You must know that my father left a considerable fortune.
There were many people about him who could not endure him.
There was talk of a will.
There was one member of the family about whom my father said: "It is so long since he crossed our threshold that I do not understand why he is so offended with us."
It is unkind to tell you: it was his brother and my uncle, a very good roan, with only one fault -he had lost his entire fortune at cards. I found among my father's papers a quantity of his I.O.U.'s, beautifully signed with flourishes, but unpaid.
I approached the coffin; I was sure that I should weep as no one had ever wept before.
My home without my parents !
Some one took me by the hand, and said to me as he kissed me on both cheeks:
" Iorgu, Iorgu, cry, Iorgu, for those who will never return ! "
It was he! The uncle of the promissory notes I Just when my eyes ought to have been full of tears, I caught sight of him, and when I looked round me and saw the other people, when I met so many pairs of eyes, then--I was ashamed and could not cry. Oh, it is a terrible thing to feel ashamed to cry when one is sorrowing ! Do you see how shy I am ? Have you grasped it?
It is difficult to understand. It is difficult, because you, readers, are different. Not one of you are the same as I am.
I was so good and timid that, when I completed my twenty-first year, I did not want to leave the guardianship of my eldest uncle, my mother's brother, a very gentle man like myself, and very shy like my mother.
It makes me laugh. Is it likely I shall tell you an untruth? Why should I? I don't ask you anything, you don't ask me anything. Why should I lie?
But it is true that I have not told you quite Openly- why 1 did not ask for an account of my minority, and why I stayed in that house, which was as white as milk-especially on moonlight nights- with its balcony, its oak staircase, its pillars with flowered capitals and wreaths round their centres.
Did I like the house ? Yes.
Did I love my uncle who had managed my affairs? Yes. Was I ashamed, directly I came of age, to demand an account as though 1 doubted his honesty? Yes. Anything besides? Was there anything else that kept me in bondage ?
If you had looked at me a little askance, I should have blushed and replied, "Yes." And if you were to look at me even now when I have already grown many white hairs, I should tell you like a guilty child: "No, it is not true that I loved so much the house in which I grew up, or the uncle with whom I lived. There was something else."
There was some one there besides a cousin of the same age as myself, besides my uncle-my aunt was dead-besides the house, and a long-haired dog. There was somebody else!
Ah ! This sort of somebody has reformed many a ne'er-do-weel, has dazzled many a shy man, has turned many business men into poets, has shaken many a professor to the depths of his being, blowing away his system like the threads of a spider's web.
No doubt it was a very fascinating. "somebody" who made you stay in tutelage twenty-Four hours after you had reached your twenty-first year and come into 15,ooo lei.
I think you have guessed the secret which I have hidden till now.
Oh, women, women! What do they care for the timid or the philosopher ?
Neither innocence nor philosophy can resist a light step and a pair of eyes which sparkle and glow and pierce through the coldest, most selfish, most impenetrable heart.
Was it not the same Irinel, with whom I once played childish games? Was she not the same wild tomboy with her frocks down to her knees only, and her white stockings that became green by the evening? Was she not the same little demon who threw her books into the veranda on her return from school, and put both arms round my neck to make me give her a ride on my back?
The child turned into the woman, and instead of the gentle eyes with their extreme innocence in which I lost myself as in a boundless expanse, there shone two devilish fires in whose light I saw an explanation of life with all its sea of pleasures and emotions.
And now Irinel used to take me by the hand. She was fifteen years old; for some time her hand had felt different--warmer, softer, more I don't know what, when I took it in mine. Her gaiety was no longer even and continual as of old ; she no longer talked quickly and incessantly.
And if I said to her : "Irinel, do you think it will rain to-day?" or "Irinel, there are only two weeks before the long vacation begins, shall you be pleased, as you used to be, when we go to Slanic?" Irinel remained silent, looking straight in front of her, and I am sure that at that moment she saw nothing- trees, houses, and sky disappeared as though in a thick mist.
This silence surprised and disquieted me, and I said to her in a low voice, almost as though I were guilty of something wrong
"Irinel, you are scarcely back from school and you are bored already ? "
An exaggerated gaiety was her immediate reply; she laughed, and talked, and told little anecdotes which she began and left unfinished, especially about life at school.
"You don't know," she said to me in a quick, loud voice, "what a letter one of my friends showed me. Only I read it, and another girl and her sister, and it seems to me she showed it to some others. I nearly died of laughter."
And Irinel began to laugh, and laughed and laughed until the tears ran down her rosy cheeks. Then sighing and laughing she began:
" He wrote to her, trembling, of stars, two only, which burnt and spoke to him. How can the stars he talks about burn? Are they bits of coal? How can stars speak? I don't understand. After that came ice, thawing, marble, a bed of fire, a monastery, suicide-Ah ! pauvre Marie! Indeed, I was sorry for her, poor girl! Many a time we put our arms round each other's necks and kissed each other. We kissed each other and began to cry. You must know, Iorgu, that we kept nothing from each other. Every Monday she read me a letter on which could be seen traces of big tears, and I, after I had controlled myself sufficiently not to burst out laughing over those 'two twin stars which burn and speak'; had to prepare to cry, and, believe me, I cried with all my heart. Pauvre cherie!"
Irinel was ready to cry after laughing with such enjoyment, but, when she noticed that I kept my eyes cast down and listened in silence as though I were offended, she asked me with malicious irony:
"lorgu, do you think it will rain to-day ? "
Such scenes took place early in the morning: Sunday was a day of torture for me. All day Irinel said "If you please" to me. She embroidered or played the piano instead of our walking about the yard and garden. All day I felt the terrible anger of a very shy person with "those two stars which speak:"
For three years I lived this life of daring dreams during the week, of fear and misery on Sunday, of wonderful plans put off from day to day, and con- cealed with an hypocrisy possessed only by the timid and innocent.
During the last year, after a vacation passed at Slavic, I made up my mind..
The day she went back to school we hardly dared kiss each other. What cold kisses! We neither of us looked at the other. I remember 1 looked at the sofa, and it seemed to me as though my lips had touched the hard yellow material instead of those firm, rosy cheeks which were to me a fearful joy.
I made up my mind, and I am sure that no one could have come to a more heroic decision.
To give myself courage, during the first night I thought out the scene which should take place the following Sunday without fail. I did not sleep all night ; in the intense darkness I saw the garden, I saw Irinel, I heard myself, I heard her.
The cocks crew. I was lying at full length, my face uppermost, my eyes shut. I was perspiring. from the boldness which I had shown during the scene which was running in my mind.
" Irinel, will you come and walk in the garden ?'" "No, merci!"
"That will not do, we must go for a walk."
She understood that I had decided to say something important to her. Such courage impressed and compelled.
The cocks crew. It was midnight. It was pouring; flashes of lightning, like serpents of light, shone for a second through my curtains.
"Irinel, you must come with me. Don't you see what a beautiful day it is ? I have discovered a bunch of ripe grapes which I have kept for you all the week."
"No, merci ! "
"It is impossible for you not to come. I have made up my mind to tell you something--
"What?" replied lrinel, and turned her eyes upon me."
Who could bear such a bright light ? I looked down, but revolted by such cowardice I felt the courage of a hero, and lifting my head I replied to her " You must come!"
In all my life I had never commanded anyone. I was ordering her! It was pitch dark; it was raining outside. I turned towards the wall. I closed my eyes. It was light. It was a beautiful Sunday. And still full of that courage I said to her once more:
"You must come!"
And I took her by the hand. From now on my heart almost ceased to beat. I told her all I had wanted to say to her for two years. " Irinel, Irinel, I love you! Do you love me? Why are you silent? Why do you look down ? Tell me, shall I leave the house where I have watched you growing up under my eyes, or--
We embraced each other ; we kissed each other. It was over.
Lord! How brave men are when they are in love! I grew cold all over when I reflected that this scene had not yet taken place, but was still to come. I sank down under my quilt afraid of such courage.
It began to grow light. I went off to sleep gradually, rehearsing this heroic scene
"Irinel, will you come for a walk ?'"
" No, merci ! "
"This cannot be, you must--"
The next day I woke up about ten o'clock. My uncle asked me in his kind, calm voice:
"Iorgu, are you not well that you got up so late to-day ? "
I, feeling myself in fault, replied, embarrassed "No-a book-I went to sleep late."
My ears were burning as though I had hold them against a hot stove. The veranda seemed to be giving way under me. Do you know, at that moment a thought crossed my mind that overwhelmed me? Irinel was only Irinel, but, with my uncle, what courage 1 should need ! How would he, an old man of pious habits, regard in his old age a marriage within the prohibited degree among members of his own family ?
Why did he stand in front of me? Why did he look at me like that ? He understood me and was appraising me ! His look spoke, though his lips most certainly did not move. I heard the words passing through his mind as distinctly as though some one had whispered in my ear
"I never could have believed, nephew, that you would have turned my child's head ! What would your mother say were she alive to see this ? "
Why did not my uncle turn away from me? Was he looking at me or elsewhere? What else was there to see ? I do not know if the fault was great, but the judge was cruel. And my judge grew bigger, like a Titan, like a wall between me and Irinel. In my ears there rang what I am convinced was the sentence he had secretly passed on me :
" What a depraved youth ! The old are passing away, and with them disappear the old moral ideas !"
I was ready to sink under my chair. My uncle said to me " Iorgu, you have not had any coffee. It seems to me you are not well, are you ? "
What irony! Were his words more gentle than before ? Useless thought ! I understood him. God defend you from a good man who disapproves of you. It's bad enough to feel oneself guilty before a good and upright man. Why was punishment for mankind invented? Punishment is the reward of sin. I could have wished that my uncle would pronounce his sentence of punishment. But no, he has taken me prisoner, he has judged me and, instead of punishing me, he stoops to give me coffee and two rolls. In all my life I had never experienced a greater agony.
No doubt he had seen us walking silently together, not gaily as we used to do. He understood why Irinel stayed in the house on one or two Sundays. Of course he knew why I did not go to sleep till early dawn, and who knows, he might have heard me calling in my dreams:
"Irinel, Irinel, I love you ! Do you love me ?"
What would my uncle think of his daughter married to his sister's son ? It would mean asking for a dispensation. Would it not be turning such a religious man into an object of derision in his old age? And for what reason ? Just through the caprice of a boy whom he had brought up and cared for.
Irinel and I had grown up together more like brother and sister than cousins! If there had only been a question of the civil right ! But the laws of the Church ! How could one trample them underfoot ?
Throughout the week, early in the morning, at night and through the day, at meals and during school hours, this thought occupied my mind!
" It is impossible ! It is impossible! I wonder that I did not see that sooner."
About six o'clock on Saturday our old carriage turned into the courtyard; inside was my uncle and by him sat Irinel. From the oak steps of the veranda I watched the white hair and the golden curls and, scarcely able to control my tears, I said to myself: "It is impossible."
Irinel sprang from the carriage and came up to me. She was happy. We kissed each other, but, believe me, she seemed to kiss in the air.
" What's the matter, Iorgu ? You are very pale. You are thinner, or does it only seem so to me?"
Before I could answer her my uncle hastened, hastened to say "I don't know what's the matter with Iorgu. It seems to me he is ill, but he will not say so."
Oh ! Oh ! You don't know what is the matter with me, uncle? You don't know what is the matter ? It seems to you I am ill? I do not want to tell you ? Do you say what is the matter with you ? You are a good man, but what a hypocrite--He thinks I do not understand him. To Irinel I say gently:
" There is nothing the matter, Irinel. But you, are you well ? "
And so it went on-nearly a whole year of depression. Why should I tell you that I grew thinner and paler, that I often shivered, and with secret pleasure, exaggerated a little cough when I walked in the garden with Irinel? You have seen so many thin and pale men, and you have read so many novels in which consumptive lovers either shoot themselves or throw themselves into the sea, so that if I told you that I grew thinner, that I took to playing billiards, that I began to drink, and that once I drank three half bottles in succession, you would only yawn.
There is nothing remarkable in the love and depression of a nervous person. Who would remain, even for an instant, with a man who suffers in silence? And I kept silence from St. Mary's day to St. Peter's.
" What is the matter with you ?"
"Are you ill?"
"No, uncle ; no, dear Irinel."
At last the momentous day arrived! Irinel finished the last year of her education. On the 20th of June she left school for good.
That very day she asked my uncle abruptly to what watering-place we were going, and on hearing came into my room.
Stretched upon my bed, I was reading the wonderful discourse of Cogalniceanu's, printed in front of the "Chronicles." I made up my mind to read law and study literature and history.
When I saw her I jumped up. She whirled round on one foot, and her gown seemed like a big convolvulus; and after this revolution she stopped in front of me, laughing and clapping her hands.
She made me a curtsy as she daintily lifted up her skirt on either side between two fingers, and asked me coyly
" Mon cher cousin, can you guess where we are going to this summer?"
" No, Irinel," I replied, exaggerating the cough which was becoming more and more of a silly habit.
" What will you give me if I tell you ? "
And after once more whirling round while her gown swept across my feet, and laughing and clap- ping, she asked me most sedately:
"Will you kiss my hand with respect, like a grown-up person's, if I tell you ? "
"Yes, Irinel." And the cough again played its part.
" No, you must kiss my hand first." She held out her hand to me, which I kissed sadly, but with pleasure.
" And now this one I."
" And that one, Irinel."
"To Mehadia! To Mehadia! Won't it be beautiful ? I am bored with Slanic."
She ran about the house so quickly that her petticoats worked up above her knees. I blushed ; she blushed ; then breaking into a silvery laugh she threw herself upon me and said:
" We will dance a polka. I will sing. I will be gentleman ; I will steer you."
Then I heard my uncle calling her : " Irinel! Irinel! Where are you ? "
She disappeared in a second. I threw myself on my bed. I took up the "Chronicles;" but instead of reading I began to think. "Irinel! Irinel" The first Irinel was quick, severe, malicious, the second one was lingering, much softer, almost caressing. Of course he had meant to reassure her, he had wanted to deceive me. He thought to make me believe he had meant nothing. But what did that "Where are you ? " signify ?
I understood from the way in which he had said "where" that there lay the real drift of the question. He had not anything to say to her, but he very much wanted to know "where" she was. In other words, was she perchance with me in my room ? Such espionage was humiliating for an orphan whose whole life he had directed, and whose fortune he had controlled, because he had the right to say to him with a single word, by a single look.
"This is how I reward an ungrateful person, a youth who has no regard for the old men who are soon to pass away, burying with them the moral customs of this country." That "Where are you?" was as clear as noonday. Do you suppose he did not know where she was ?
" Ah ! An orphan must not fall in love ! "
I don't know what other thoughts I had. The door of the room opened; Irinel stood in the doorway.
How great an unhappiness it is to see happiness standing on the threshold, and to know it will not cross ; that it will remain yonder, so near and yet so far !
Irinel crossed the threshold; she came up to me. I realized that she had crossed the threshold, but still my happiness remained outside. I understood the old man had sent her back in order to deceive me, and that she had guessed nothing.
"Do you know what Father has just told me? A guest is coming to us at the festival of St. Peter. A big merchant." What did that mean " And did he say anything else ? "
"Nothing; but yes, he did. We are to kill our fattest chicken and the house is to be put into the most spick and span order, for our guest is an important merchant, a deputy, elderly, and I don't know what all and what else."
After teasing me and laughing at me because I coughed just as the girls at school did to make the doctor prescribe iron and old wine, but more particularly old wine than iron, Irinel left me.
"Ugh! It's lucky he is old. Supposing he had been a young man ? "
On St. Peter's day I rose in such a state of anxiety that I started at every sound. Has it not been known for old men to lose their heads and marry girls of eighteen? For three hours I wandered about the grounds.
I waited for this rival with the same impatience with which I once waited for lrinel to come quickly from school. Am I deceiving myself or not ? The same sensations, identically the same, were present with me, waiting thus for the object of my hatred as when I waited for her I loved. I wanted to see him as soon as possible ; for a second ; just to know him ; to find out who he was.
At ten o'clock a carriage drew up in front of the door. Same one got out. When I saw him 1 began to laugh. He was very feeble, he was very old. No doubt he was smart with his black coat and red tie. I greeted him with respect, I might almost say with affection, and then, sorry at having felt hatred for such an old man, with such snow-white hair, I went quietly into the garden. I turned down one of the paths. How sad and drear do the most beautiful natural surroundings become when they are reflected by a sad and lonely heart ? What indifference everywhere !
The garden gate was opened rather hastily as though the wind had forced it. Irinel appeared. She looked all round, then, seeing me, she flew towards me. The breeze which she made by her flight fluttered her thin gown of white batiste with black spots. She was pale. She took my hand. Her own trembled. She tried to speak, and said several times. "Wait, wait, wait while I get my breath-"
Then she became silent and looked at me. Oh, what a look! Her eyes flashed sparks. Their blue depths seemed to me like an incomprehensible ocean, tempest driven, without bottom, without boundaries. I looked down, overwhelmed by an inexplicable fear, by a powerful emotion. I noticed my boots, and I thought to myself: " Have they cleaned my boots to-day or not ? Of course, they must have. Don't they clean them every day?"
"Iorgu, do you know why that old man has come?"
"No," I answered her, with a stupid calm.
Had they cleaned my boots ? Perhaps the dew was still on the grass.
" Iorgu, do you know what Father said to me ?"
"`Put on your foulard gown."'
"Your foulard gown? The one I like so much ? "
" But do you know why he wanted me to ? "
"Of course I do." She trembled.
I continued, as I took out my handkerchief and flicked the dust from one of my boots
"Of course I know. Isn't today a great festival?"'
"Ah," she replied as she withdrew the hand I was holding, "you understand nothing! What an indifferent and non-understanding man you are!"
Indifferent? I understood everything from her look and her emotion, and with a calmness which l was certainly far from feeling I bent down and dusted the other boot,
"The old man has come, Irinel-" I said, glancing at her for a moment.
She was white, her lower lip quivered, the light in her eyes had darkened.
"The old man has come, Irinel. What then? He will dine with us ? All the better. We shall be a bigger party at table."
Was it I speaking ? There were only she and ! in the garden.
"The old man has come, has come. Alas ! " she replied, covering her eyes with both her hands. "The old man has come and some one is going to leave this house! He has--"
" What has he ? "
"A son who is an engineer."
"Engineer? Has he learnt engineering?"
"Yes, he has learnt engineering !" Irinel replied angrily, and uncovered her crimson cheeks. " Yes, he has learnt en-gi-neer-ing, and some one is going to leave this house ! "
I watched how she stood in the doorway, and then crossed it lightly as she wiped away her tears on a clean corner of her gown. I looked long after her, than I threw myself face upwards under one of the fruit- trees.
Nature was full of life! The apple-trees bent their great boughs ; the sparrows chattered, some of them were fluttering their wings, others were collecting into groups preparing for a fierce fight. Little patches of sunlight played upon my face. When I felt two rows of tears trickling into my ears, I jumped to my feet, I gazed towards the door, and said gently, full of a profound melancholy
" Some one is going to leave this house ! "
The next day I showed my uncle a faked recom- mendation, in writing, from a doctor ordering me to Bourboule under pretext of a serious affection of the left lung.
I pass rapidly over this episode. I kissed my uncle's hand and Irinel. Irinel !
Only when I was crossing the frontier and looking from the open window of the train at the Hungarian landscape lying stretched out before me, did I begin to wonder. Supposing she had not looked at me so intently ! A searching look paralysed me. Supposing she had asked me what it was I wanted to say to her? Such shyness is a form of madness. But what courage I should have wanted ! How could I have convinced my uncle ? Was not Irinel like my sister ? Ah, no ! It was impossible! It was impossible !
The train, which was puffing along, gave a whistle that echoed through the country. A Few tears fell through the window, and seeking with my eyes the country from which I had come, and the direction where lay the house and garden in which I had grown up so happily, I gave a wave with my hand, and said sighing
"Good-bye, Irinel ! "
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