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"Chemistry," he began, "has shown us that man's breathing is a real process of combustion, and the intensity of its action varies according to the abundance or scarcity of the phlogistic element stored up by the organism of each individual. In your case, the phlogistic, or inflammatory element is abundant; if you will permit me to put it so, you generate superfluous oxygen, possessing as you do the inflammatory temperament of a man destined to experience strong emotions. While you breath the keen, pure air that stimulates life in men of lymphatic constitution, you are accelerating an expenditure of vitality already too rapid. One of the conditions for existence for you is the heavier atmosphere of the plains and valleys. Yes, the vital air for a man consumed by his genius lies in the fertile pasture-lands of Germany, at Toplitz or Baden-Baden. If England is not obnoxious to you, its misty climate would reduce your fever; but the situation of our baths, a thousand feet above the level of the Mediterranean, is dangerous for you. That is my opinion at least," he said, with a deprecatory gesture, "and I give it in opposition to our interests, for, if you act upon it, we shall unfortunately lose you."
But for these closing words of his, the affable doctor's seeming good-nature would have completely won Raphael over; but he was too profoundly observant not to understand the meaning of the tone, the look and gesture that accompanied that mild sarcasm, not to see that the little man had been sent on this errand, no doubt, by a flock of his rejoicing patients. The florid-looking idlers, tedious old women, nomad English people, and fine ladies who had given their husbands the slip, and were escorted hither by their lovers--one and all were in a plot to drive away a wretched, feeble creature to die, who seemed unable to hold out against a daily renewed persecution! Raphael accepted the challenge, he foresaw some amusement to be derived from their manoeuvres.
"As you would be grieved at losing me," said he to the doctor, "I will endeavor to avail myself of your good advice without leaving the place. I will set about having a house built to-morrow, and the atmosphere within it shall be regulated by your instructions."
The doctor understood the sarcastic smile that lurked about Raphael's mouth, and took his leave without finding another word to say.
The Lake of Bourget lies seven hundred feet above the Mediterranean, in a great hollow among the jagged peaks of the hills; it sparkles there, the bluest drop of water in the world. From the summit of the Cat's Tooth the lake below looks like a stray turquoise. This lovely sheet of water is about twenty-seven miles round, and in some places is nearly five hundred feet deep.
Under the cloudless sky, in your boat in the midst of the great expanse of water, with only the sound of the oars in your ears, only the vague outline of the hills on the horizon before you; you admire the glittering snows of the French Maurienne; you pass, now by masses of granite clad in the velvet of green turf or in low-growing shrubs, now by pleasant sloping meadows; there is always a wilderness on the one hand and fertile lands on the other, and both harmonies and dissonances compose a scene for you where everything is at once small and vast, and you feel yourself to be a poor onlooker at a great banquet. The configuration of the mountains brings about misleading optical conditions and illusions of perspective; a pine-tree a hundred feet in height looks to be a mere weed; wide valleys look as narrow as meadow paths. The lake is the only one where the confidences of heart and heart can be exchanged. There one can live; there one can meditate. Nowhere on earth will you find a closer understanding between the water, the sky, the mountains, and the fields. There is a balm there for all the agitations of life. The place keeps the secrets of sorrow to itself, the sorrow that grows less beneath its soothing influence; and to love, it gives a grave and meditative cast, deepening passion and purifying it. A kiss there becomes something great. But beyond all other things it is the lake for memories; it aids them by lending to them the hues of its own waves; it is a mirror in which everything is reflected. Only here, with this lovely landscape all around him, could Raphael endure the burden laid upon him; here he could remain as a languid dreamer, without a wish of his own.
He went out upon the lake after the doctor's visit, and was landed at a lonely point on the pleasant slope where the village of Saint-Innocent is situated. The view from this promontory, as one may call it, comprises the heights of Bugey with the Rhone flowing at their foot, and the end of the lake; but Raphael liked to look at the opposite shore from thence, at the melancholy looking Abbey of Haute-Combe, the burying-place of the Sardinian kings, who lie prostrate there before the hills, like pilgrims come at last to their journey's end. The silence of the landscape was broken by the even rhythm of the strokes of the oar; it seemed to find a voice for the place, in monotonous cadences like the chanting of monks. The Marquis was surprised to find visitors to this usually lonely part of the lake; and as he mused, he watched the people seated in the boat, and recognized in the stern the elderly lady who had spoken so harshly to him the evening before.
No one took any notice of Raphael as the boat passed, except the elderly lady's companion, a poor old maid of noble family, who bowed to him, and whom it seemed to him that he saw for the first time. A few seconds later he had already forgotten the visitors, who had rapidly disappeared behind the promontory, when he heard the fluttering of a dress and the sound of light footsteps not far from him. He turned about and saw the companion; and, guessing from her embarrassed manner that she wished to speak with him, he walked towards her.
She was somewhere about thirty-six years of age, thin and tall, reserved and prim, and, like all old maids, seemed puzzled to know which way to look, an expression no longer in keeping with her measured, springless, and hesitating steps. She was both young and old at the same time, and, by a certain dignity in her carriage, showed the high value which she set upon her charms and perfections. In addition, her movements were all demure and discreet, like those of women who are accustomed to take great care of themselves, no doubt because they desire not to be cheated of love, their destined end.
"Your life is in danger, sir; do not come to the Club again!" she said, stepping back a pace or two from Raphael, as if her reputation had already been compromised.
"But, mademoiselle," said Raphael, smiling, "please explain yourself more clearly, since you have condescended so far----"
"Ah," she answered, "unless I had had a very strong motive, I should never have run the risk of offending the countess, for if she ever came to know that I had warned you----"
"And who would tell her, mademoiselle?" cried Raphael.
"True," the old maid answered. She looked at him, quaking like an owl out in the sunlight. "But think of yourself," she went on; "several young men, who want to drive you away from the baths, have agreed to pick a quarrel with you, and to force you into a duel."
The elderly lady's voice sounded in the distance.
"Mademoiselle," began the Marquis, "my gratitude----" But his protectress had fled already; she had heard the voice of her mistress squeaking afresh among the rocks.
"Poor girl! unhappiness always understands and helps the unhappy," Raphael thought, and sat himself down at the foot of a tree.
The key of every science is, beyond cavil, the mark of interrogation; we owe most of our greatest discoveries to a WHY? and all the wisdom in the world, perhaps, consists in asking WHEREFORE? in every connection. But, on the other hand, this acquired prescience is the ruin of our illusions.
So Valentin, having taken the old maid's kindly action for the text of his wandering thoughts, without the deliberate promptings of philosophy, must find it full of gall and wormwood.
"It is not at all extraordinary that a gentlewoman's gentlewoman should take a fancy to me," said he to himself. "I am twenty-seven years old, and I have a title and an income of two hundred thousand a year. But that her mistress, who hates water like a rabid cat--for it would be hard to give the palm to either in that matter--that her mistress should have brought her here in a boat! Is not that very strange and wonderful? Those two women came into Savoy to sleep like marmots; they ask if day has dawned at noon; and to think that they could get up this morning before eight o'clock, to take their chances in running after me!"
Very soon the old maid and her elderly innocence became, in his eyes, a fresh manifestation of that artificial, malicious little world. It was a paltry device, a clumsy artifice, a piece of priest's or woman's craft. Was the duel a myth, or did they merely want to frighten him? But these petty creatures, impudent and teasing as flies, had succeeded in wounding his vanity, in rousing his pride, and exciting his curiosity. Unwilling to become their dupe, or to be taken for a coward, and even diverted perhaps by the little drama, he went to the Club that very evening.
He stood leaning against the marble chimney-piece, and stayed there quietly in the middle of the principal saloon, doing his best to give no one any advantage over him; but he scrutinized the faces about him, and gave a certain vague offence to those assembled, by his inspection. Like a dog aware of his strength, he awaited the contest on his own ground, without necessary barking. Towards the end of the evening he strolled into the cardroom, walking between the door and another that opened into the billiard-room, throwing a glance from time to time over a group of young men that had gathered there. He heard his name mentioned after a turn or two. Although they lowered their voices, Raphael easily guessed that he had become the topic of their debate, and he ended by catching a phrase or two spoken aloud.
"I dare you to do it!"
"Let us make a bet on it!"
"Oh, he will do it."
Just as Valentin, curious to learn the matter of the wager, came up to pay closer attention to what they were saying, a tall, strong, good-looking young fellow, who, however, possessed the impertinent stare peculiar to people who have material force at their back, came out of the billiard-room.
"I am deputed, sir," he said coolly addressing the Marquis, "to make you aware of something which you do not seem to know; your face and person generally are a source of annoyance to every one here, and to me in particular. You have too much politeness not to sacrifice yourself to the public good, and I beg that you will not show yourself in the Club again."
"This sort of joke has been perpetrated before, sir, in garrison towns at the time of the Empire; but nowadays it is exceedingly bad form," said Raphael drily.
"I am not joking," the young man answered; "and I repeat it: your health will be considerably the worse for a stay here; the heat and light, the air of the saloon, and the company are all bad for your complaint."
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The Magic Skin -by- Honore de Balzac