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"Where did you study medicine?" Raphael inquired.
"I took my bachelor's degree on Lepage's shooting-ground in Paris, and was made a doctor at Cerizier's, the king of foils."
"There is one last degree left for you to take," said Valentin; "study the ordinary rules of politeness, and you will be a perfect gentlemen."
The young men all came out of the billiard-room just then, some disposed to laugh, some silent. The attention of other players was drawn to the matter; they left their cards to watch a quarrel that rejoiced their instincts. Raphael, alone among this hostile crowd, did his best to keep cool, and not to put himself in any way in the wrong; but his adversary having ventured a sarcasm containing an insult couched in unusually keen language, he replied gravely:
"We cannot box men's ears, sir, in these days, but I am at a loss for any word by which to stigmatize such cowardly behavior as yours."
"That's enough, that's enough. You can come to an explanation tomorrow," several young men exclaimed, interposing between the two champions.
Raphael left the room in the character of aggressor, after he had accepted a proposal to meet near the Chateau de Bordeau, in a little sloping meadow, not very far from the newly made road, by which the man who came off victorious could reach Lyons. Raphael must now either take to his bed or leave the baths. The visitors had gained their point. At eight o'clock next morning his antagonist, followed by two seconds and a surgeon, arrived first on the ground.
"We shall do very nicely here; glorious weather for a duel!" he cried gaily, looking at the blue vault of sky above, at the waters of the lake, and the rocks, without a single melancholy presentiment or doubt of the issue. "If I wing him," he went on, "I shall send him to bed for a month; eh, doctor?"
"At the very least," the surgeon replied; "but let that willow twig alone, or you will weary your wrist, and then you will not fire steadily. You might kill your man instead of wounding him."
The noise of a carriage was heard approaching.
"Here he is," said the seconds, who soon descried a caleche coming along the road; it was drawn by four horses, and there were two postilions.
"What a queer proceeding!" said Valentin's antagonist; "here he comes post-haste to be shot."
The slightest incident about a duel, as about a stake at cards, makes an impression on the minds of those deeply concerned in the results of the affair; so the young man awaited the arrival of the carriage with a kind of uneasiness. It stopped in the road; old Jonathan laboriously descended from it, in the first place, to assist Raphael to alight; he supported him with his feeble arms, and showed him all the minute attentions that a lover lavishes upon his mistress. Both became lost to sight in the footpath that lay between the highroad and the field where the duel was to take place; they were walking slowly, and did not appear again for some time after. The four onlookers at this strange spectacle felt deeply moved by the sight of Valentin as he leaned on his servant's arm; he was wasted and pale; he limped as if he had the gout, went with his head bowed down, and said not a word. You might have taken them for a couple of old men, one broken with years, the other worn out with thought; the elder bore his age visibly written in his white hair, the younger was of no age.
"I have not slept all night, sir;" so Raphael greeted his antagonist.
The icy tone and terrible glance that went with the words made the real aggressor shudder; he know that he was in the wrong, and felt in secret ashamed of his behavior. There was something strange in Raphael's bearing, tone, and gesture; the Marquis stopped, and every one else was likewise silent. The uneasy and constrained feeling grew to a height.
"There is yet time," he went on, "to offer me some slight apology; and offer it you must, or you will die sir! You rely even now on your dexterity, and do not shrink from an encounter in which you believe all the advantage to be upon your side. Very good, sir; I am generous, I am letting you know my superiority beforehand. I possess a terrible power. I have only to wish to do so, and I can neutralize your skill, dim your eyesight, make your hand and pulse unsteady, and even kill you outright. I have no wish to be compelled to exercise my power; the use of it costs me too dear. You would not be the only one to die. So if you refuse to apologize to me, not matter what your experience in murder, your ball will go into the waterfall there, and mine will speed straight to your heart though I do not aim it at you."
Confused voices interrupted Raphael at this point. All the time that he was speaking, the Marquis had kept his intolerably keen gaze fixed upon his antagonist; now he drew himself up and showed an impassive face, like that of a dangerous madman.
"Make him hold his tongue," the young man had said to one of his seconds; "that voice of his is tearing the heart out of me."
"Say no more, sir; it is quite useless," cried the seconds and the surgeon, addressing Raphael.
"Gentlemen, I am fulfilling a duty. Has this young gentleman any final arrangements to make?"
"That is enough; that will do."
The Marquis remained standing steadily, never for a moment losing sight of his antagonist; and the latter seemed, like a bird before a snake, to be overwhelmed by a well-nigh magical power. He was compelled to endure that homicidal gaze; he met and shunned it incessantly.
"I am thirsty; give me some water----" he said again to the second.
"Are you nervous?"
"Yes," he answered. "There is a fascination about that man's glowing eyes."
"Will you apologize?"
"It is too late now."
The two antagonists were placed at fifteen paces' distance from each other. Each of them had a brace of pistols at hand, and, according to the programme prescribed for them, each was to fire twice when and how he pleased, but after the signal had been given by the seconds.
"What are you doing, Charles?" exclaimed the young man who acted as second to Raphael's antagonist; "you are putting in the ball before the powder!"
"I am a dead man," he muttered, by way of answer; "you have put me facing the sun----"
"The sun lies behind you," said Valentin sternly and solemnly, while he coolly loaded his pistol without heeding the fact that the signal had been given, or that his antagonist was carefully taking aim.
There was something so appalling in this supernatural unconcern, that it affected even the two postilions, brought thither by a cruel curiosity. Raphael was either trying his power or playing with it, for he talked to Jonathan, and looked towards him as he received his adversary's fire. Charles' bullet broke a branch of willow, and ricocheted over the surface of the water; Raphael fired at random, and shot his antagonist through the heart. He did not heed the young man as he dropped; he hurriedly sought the Magic Skin to see what another man's life had cost him. The talisman was no larger than a small oakleaf.
"What are you gaping at, you postilions over there? Let us be off," said the Marquis.
That same evening he crossed the French border, immediately set out for Auvergne, and reached the springs of Mont Dore. As he traveled, there surged up in his heart, all at once, one of those thoughts that come to us as a ray of sunlight pierces through the thick mists in some dark valley--a sad enlightenment, a pitiless sagacity that lights up the accomplished fact for us, that lays our errors bare, and leaves us without excuse in our own eyes. It suddenly struck him that the possession of power, no matter how enormous, did not bring with it the knowledge how to use it. The sceptre is a plaything for a child, an axe for a Richelieu, and for a Napoleon a lever by which to move the world. Power leaves us just as it finds us; only great natures grow greater by its means. Raphael had had everything in his power, and he had done nothing.
At the springs of Mont Dore he came again in contact with a little world of people, who invariably shunned him with the eager haste that animals display when they scent afar off one of their own species lying dead, and flee away. The dislike was mutual. His late adventure had given him a deep distaste for society; his first care, consequently, was to find a lodging at some distance from the neighborhood of the springs. Instinctively he felt within him the need of close contact with nature, of natural emotions, and of the vegetative life into which we sink so gladly among the fields.
The day after he arrived he climbed the Pic de Sancy, not without difficulty, and visited the higher valleys, the skyey nooks, undiscovered lakes, and peasants' huts about Mont Dore, a country whose stern and wild features are now beginning to tempt the brushes of our artists, for sometimes wonderfully fresh and charming views are to be found there, affording a strong contrast to the frowning brows of those lonely hills.
Barely a league from the village Raphael discovered a nook where nature seemed to have taken a pleasure in hiding away all her treasures like some glad and mischievous child. At the first sight of this unspoiled and picturesque retreat, he determined to take up his abode in it. There, life must needs be peaceful, natural, and fruitful, like the life of a plant.
Imagine for yourself an inverted cone of granite hollowed out on a large scale, a sort of basin with its sides divided up by queer winding paths. On one side lay level stretches with no growth upon them, a bluish uniform surface, over which the rays of the sun fell as upon a mirror; on the other lay cliffs split open by fissures and frowning ravines; great blocks of lava hung suspended from them, while the action of rain slowly prepared their impending fall; a few stunted trees tormented by the wind, often crowned their summits; and here and there in some sheltered angle of their ramparts a clump of chestnut-trees grew tall as cedars, or some cavern in the yellowish rocks showed the dark entrance into its depths, set about by flowers and brambles, decked by a little strip of green turf.
At the bottom of this cup, which perhaps had been the crater of an old-world volcano, lay a pool of water as pure and bright as a diamond. Granite boulders lay around the deep basin, and willows, mountain-ash trees, yellow-flag lilies, and numberless aromatic plants bloomed about it, in a realm of meadow as fresh as an English bowling-green. The fine soft grass was watered by the streams that trickled through the fissures in the cliffs; the soil was continually enriched by the deposits of loam which storms washed down from the heights above. The pool might be some three acres in extent; its shape was irregular, and the edges were scalloped like the hem of a dress; the meadow might be an acre or two acres in extent. The cliffs and the water approached and receded from each other; here and there, there was scarcely width enough for the cows to pass between them.
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The Magic Skin -by- Honore de Balzac