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Raphael could not repress an angry exclamation, nor yet a wish to silence the fiddles, annihilate the stir and bustle, stop the clamor, and disperse the ill-timed festival; like a dying man, he felt unable to endure the slightest sound, and he entered his carriage much annoyed. When he looked out upon the square from the window, he saw that all the happiness was scared away; the peasant women were in flight, and the benches were deserted. Only a blind musician, on the scaffolding of the orchestra, went on playing a shrill tune on his clarionet. That piping of his, without dancers to it, and the solitary old man himself, in the shadow of the lime-tree, with his curmudgeon's face, scanty hair, and ragged clothing, was like a fantastic picture of Raphael's wish. The heavy rain was pouring in torrents; it was one of those thunderstorms that June brings about so rapidly, to cease as suddenly. The thing was so natural, that, when Raphael had looked out and seen some pale clouds driven over by a gust of wind, he did not think of looking at the piece of skin. He lay back again in the corner of his carriage, which was very soon rolling upon its way.
The next day found him back in his home again, in his own room, beside his own fireside. He had had a large fire lighted; he felt cold. Jonathan brought him some letters; they were all from Pauline. He opened the first one without any eagerness, and unfolded it as if it had been the gray-paper form of application for taxes made by the revenue collector. He read the first sentence:
"Gone! This really is a flight, my Raphael. How is it? No one can tell me where you are. And who should know if not I?"
He did not wish to learn any more. He calmly took up the letters and threw them in the fire, watching with dull and lifeless eyes the perfumed paper as it was twisted, shriveled, bent, and devoured by the capricious flames. Fragments that fell among the ashes allowed him to see the beginning of a sentence, or a half-burnt thought or word; he took a pleasure in deciphering them--a sort of mechanical amusement.
"Sitting at your door--expected--Caprice--I obey--Rivals--I, never!-thy Pauline--love--no more of Pauline?--If you had wished to leave me for ever, you would not have deserted me--Love eternal--To die----"
The words caused him a sort of remorse; he seized the tongs, and rescued a last fragment of the letter from the flames.
"I have murmured," so Pauline wrote, "but I have never complained, my Raphael! If you have left me so far behind you, it was doubtless because you wished to hide some heavy grief from me. Perhaps you will kill me one of these days, but you are too good to torture me. So do not go away from me like this. There! I can bear the worst of torment, if only I am at your side. Any grief that you could cause me would not be grief. There is far more love in my heart for you than I have ever yet shown you. I can endure anything, except this weeping far away from you, this ignorance of your----"
Raphael laid the scorched scrap on the mantelpiece, then all at once he flung it into the fire. The bit of paper was too clearly a symbol of his own love and luckless existence.
"Go and find M. Bianchon," he told Jonathan.
Horace came and found Raphael in bed.
"Can you prescribe a draught for me--some mild opiate which will always keep me in a somnolent condition, a draught that will not be injurious although taken constantly."
"Nothing is easier," the young doctor replied; "but you will have to keep on your feet for a few hours daily, at any rate, so as to take your food."
"A few hours!" Raphael broke in; "no, no! I only wish to be out of bed for an hour at most."
"What is your object?" inquired Bianchon.
"To sleep; for so one keeps alive, at any rate," the patient answered. "Let no one come in, not even Mlle. Pauline de Wistchnau!" he added to Jonathan, as the doctor was writing out his prescription.
"Well, M. Horace, is there any hope?" the old servant asked, going as far as the flight of steps before the door, with the young doctor.
"He may live for some time yet, or he may die to-night. The chances of life and death are evenly balanced in his case. I can't understand it at all," said the doctor, with a doubtful gesture. "His mind ought to be diverted."
"Diverted! Ah, sir, you don't know him! He killed a man the other day without a word!--Nothing can divert him!"
For some days Raphael lay plunged in the torpor of this artificial sleep. Thanks to the material power that opium exerts over the immaterial part of us, this man with the powerful and active imagination reduced himself to the level of those sluggish forms of animal life that lurk in the depths of forests, and take the form of vegetable refuse, never stirring from their place to catch their easy prey. He had darkened the very sun in heaven; the daylight never entered his room. About eight o'clock in the evening he would leave his bed, with no very clear consciousness of his own existence; he would satisfy the claims of hunger and return to bed immediately. One dull blighted hour after another only brought confused pictures and appearances before him, and lights and shadows against a background of darkness. He lay buried in deep silence; movement and intelligence were completely annihilated for him. He woke later than usual one evening, and found that his dinner was not ready. He rang for Jonathan.
"You can go," he said. "I have made you rich; you shall be happy in your old age; but I will not let you muddle away my life any longer. Miserable wretch! I am hungry--where is my dinner? How is it?--Answer me!"
A satisfied smile stole over Jonathan's face. He took a candle that lit up the great dark rooms of the mansion with its flickering light; brought his master, who had again become an automaton, into a great gallery, and flung a door suddenly open. Raphael was all at once dazzled by a flood of light and amazed by an unheard-of scene.
His chandeliers had been filled with wax-lights; the rarest flowers from his conservatory were carefully arranged about the room; the table sparkled with silver, gold, crystal, and porcelain; a royal banquet was spread--the odors of the tempting dishes tickled the nervous fibres of the palate. There sat his friends; he saw them among beautiful women in full evening dress, with bare necks and shoulders, with flowers in their hair; fair women of every type, with sparkling eyes, attractively and fancifully arrayed. One had adopted an Irish jacket, which displayed the alluring outlines of her form; one wore the "basquina" of Andalusia, with its wanton grace; here was a half-clad Dian the huntress, there the costume of Mlle. de la Valliere, amorous and coy; and all of them alike were given up to the intoxication of the moment.
As Raphael's death-pale face showed itself in the doorway, a sudden outcry broke out, as vehement as the blaze of this improvised banquet. The voices, perfumes, and lights, the exquisite beauty of the women, produced their effect upon his senses, and awakened his desires. Delightful music, from unseen players in the next room, drowned the excited tumult in a torrent of harmony--the whole strange vision was complete.
Raphael felt a caressing pressure on is own hand, a woman's white, youthful arms were stretched out to grasp him, and the hand was Aquilina's. He knew now that this scene was not a fantastic illusion like the fleeting pictures of his disordered dreams; he uttered a dreadful cry, slammed the door, and dealt his heartbroken old servant a blow in the face.
"Monster!" he cried, "so you have sworn to kill me!" and trembling at the risks he had just now run, he summoned all his energies, reached his room, took a powerful sleeping draught, and went to bed.
"The devil!" cried Jonathan, recovering himself. "And M. Bianchon most certainly told me to divert his mind."
It was close upon midnight. By that time, owing to one of those physical caprices that are the marvel and the despair of science, Raphael, in his slumber, became radiant with beauty. A bright color glowed on his pale cheeks. There was an almost girlish grace about the forehead in which his genius was revealed. Life seemed to bloom on the quiet face that lay there at rest. His sleep was sound; a light, even breath was drawn in between red lips; he was smiling--he had passed no doubt through the gate of dreams into a noble life. Was he a centenarian now? Did his grandchildren come to wish him length of days? Or, on a rustic bench set in the sun and under the trees, was he scanning, like the prophet on the mountain heights, a promised land, a far-off time of blessing.
"Here you are!"
The words, uttered in silver tones, dispelled the shadowy faces of his dreams. He saw Pauline, in the lamplight, sitting upon the bed; Pauline grown fairer yet through sorrow and separation. Raphael remained bewildered by the sight of her face, white as the petals of some water flower, and the shadow of her long, dark hair about it seemed to make it whiter still. Her tears had left a gleaming trace upon her cheeks, and hung there yet, ready to fall at the least movement. She looked like an angel fallen from the skies, or a spirit that a breath might waft away, as she sat there all in white, with her head bowed, scarcely creasing the quilt beneath her weight.
"Ah, I have forgotten everything!" she cried, as Raphael opened his eyes. "I have no voice left except to tell you, 'I am yours.' There is nothing in my heart but love. Angel of my life, you have never been so beautiful before! Your eyes are blazing---- But come, I can guess it all. You have been in search of health without me; you were afraid of me----well----"
"Go! go! leave me," Raphael muttered at last. "Why do you not go? If you stay, I shall die. Do you want to see me die?"
"Die?" she echoed. "Can you die without me? Die? But you are young; and I love you! Die?" she asked, in a deep, hollow voice. She seized his hands with a frenzied movement. "Cold!" she wailed. "Is it all an illusion?"
Raphael drew the little bit of skin from under his pillow; it was as tiny and as fragile as a periwinkle petal. He showed it to her.
"Pauline!" he said, "fair image of my fair life, let us say good-bye?"
"Good-bye?" she echoed, looking surprised.
"Yes. This is a talisman that grants me all my wishes, and that represents my span of life. See here, this is all that remains of it. If you look at me any longer, I shall die----"
The young girl thought that Valentin had grown lightheaded; she took the talisman and went to fetch the lamp. By its tremulous light which she shed over Raphael and the talisman, she scanned her lover's face and the last morsel of the magic skin. As Pauline stood there, in all the beauty of love and terror, Raphael was no longer able to control his thoughts; memories of tender scenes, and of passionate and fevered joys, overwhelmed the soul that had so long lain dormant within him, and kindled a fire not quite extinct.
"Pauline! Pauline! Come to me----"
A dreadful cry came from the girl's throat, her eyes dilated with horror, her eyebrows were distorted and drawn apart by an unspeakable anguish; she read in Raphael's eyes the vehement desire in which she had once exulted, but as it grew she felt a light movement in her hand, and the skin contracted. She did not stop to think; she fled into the next room, and locked the door.
"Pauline! Pauline!" cried the dying man, as he rushed after her; "I love you, I adore you, I want you, Pauline! I wish to die in your arms!"
With unnatural strength, the last effort of ebbing life, he broke down the door, and saw his mistress writhing upon a sofa. Pauline had vainly tried to pierce her heart, and now thought to find a rapid death by strangling herself with her shawl.
"If I die, he will live," she said, trying to tighten the knot that she had made.
In her struggle with death her hair hung loose, her shoulders were bare, her clothing was disordered, her eyes were bathed in tears, her face was flushed and drawn with the horror of despair; yet as her exceeding beauty met Raphael's intoxicated eyes, his delirium grew. He sprang towards her like a bird of prey, tore away the shawl, and tried to take her in his arms.
The dying man sought for words to express the wish that was consuming his strength; but no sounds would come except the choking death-rattle in his chest. Each breath he drew sounded hollower than the last, and seemed to come from his very entrails. At the last moment, no longer able to utter a sound, he set his teeth in Pauline's breast. Jonathan appeared, terrified by the cries he had heard, and tried to tear away the dead body from the grasp of the girl who was crouching with it in a corner.
"What do you want?" she asked. "He is mine, I have killed him. Did I not foresee how it would be?"
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The Magic Skin -by- Honore de Balzac