Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Naiad by George Sand trans. by Katherine Berry di Zerega


Franz von Stuck, Medusa, 1892
Charged by my father with a very delicate I. mission, I repaired, towards the end of May, 1788, to the chateau of Ionis, situated a dozen leagues distant, in the lands lying between Angers and Saumur. I was twenty-two, and already practising the profession of lawyer, for which I experienced but slight inclination, although neither the study of business nor of argument had presented serious difficulties to me.

Taking my youth into consideration, I was not esteemed without talent, and the standing of my father, a lawyer renowned in the locality, assured me a brilliant patronage in the future, in return for any paltry efforts I might make to be worthy of replacing him. But I would have preferred literature, a more dreamy life, a more independent and more individual use of my faculties ties, a responsibility less submissive to the passions and interests of others. As my family was well off, and I an only son, greatly spoiled and petted, I might have chosen my own career, but I would have thus afflicted my father, who took pride in his ability to direct me. In the road which he had cleared In advance, and I loved him too tenderly to permit my instinct to outweigh his wishes.

It was a delightful evening in which I was finishing my ride on horseback through the woods that surrounded the ancient and magnificent castle of Ionis. I was well mounted, dressed en cavalier, with a species of elegance, and accompanied by a servant of whom I had not the slightest need, but whom my mother had conceived the innocent idea of giving me for the occasion, desiring that her son should present a proper appearance at the house of one of the most brilliant personages of our patronage. The night was illuminated by the soft fire of its largest stars. A slight mist veiled the scintillations of those myriads of satellites that gleam like brilliant eyes on clear, cold evenings. This was a true summer sky, pure enough to be luminous and transparent, still sufficiently softened not to overwhelm one by its immeasurable wealth. It was, if I may so speak, one of those soft firmaments that permit one to think of earth, to admire the vaporous lines of narrow horizons, to breathe without disdain its atmosphere of flowers and herbage in fine, to consider oneself as something in this immensity, and to forget that one is but an atom in the infinite. In proportion as I approached the seigneurial park the wild perfumes of the forest were mingled with those of the lilacs and acacias, whose blooming heads leaned over the wall.

Soon through the shrubbery I saw the windows of the manor gleaming behind their curtains of purple moiré, divided by the dark cross bars of the frame work. It was a magnificent castle  of the renaissance, a chef d'oeuvre of taste mingled with caprice, one of those dwellings where one is impressed by something indescribably ingenious and bold, which from the imagination of the architect seems to pass into one's own, and take possession of it, raising it above the usages and preoccupations of a positive world. I confess that my heart beat fast in giving my name to the lackey commissioned to announce me.

I had never seen Madame d'Ionis; she passed for one of the prettiest women in the country, was twenty-two, and had a husband who was neither handsome nor amiable, and who neglected her in order to travel. Her writing was charming, and she found means to show not only a great deal of sense, but still more cleverness in her business letters. Altogether she was a very fine character. This was all that I knew of her, and it was sufficient for me to dread appearing awkward or provincial. I grew pale on entering the salon. My first impression then was one of relief and pleasure, when I found myself in the presence of two stout and very ugly old women, one of whom, Madame the Dowager d'Ionis informed me that her daughter-in-law was at the house of her friends in the neighborhood, and probably would not return before the next day.
"You are welcome, all the same, "added this matron. "We have a very friendly and grateful feeling for your father, and it appears that we stand in great need of his counsel, which you are without doubt charged to communicate to us."
" I came from him," I replied, " to talk over the affair with Madame d'Ionis."
" The Countess d'Ionis does in fact occupy herself  with business affairs," replied the dowager, rather coldly, as if to warn me that I had committed a blunder. "She understands it, she has a good head, and in the absence of my son, who is at Vienna, she is conducting this wearisome and interminable law-suit. You must not depend upon me to replace her, for I understand nothing about it, and all that I can do is to retain you until the countess' return, and offer you a supper, such as it may be, and a good bed." Hereupon the old lady, who in spite of the little lesson she had given me, appeared a good enough woman, rang and gave orders for making me at home. 

I refused to eat anything, having taken care to do so on the road, and knowing that nothing is more annoying than to eat alone, and under the eyes of people with whom one happens to be totally unacquainted. As my father had allowed me several days in which to execute my commission, I had nothing better to do, than to wait the return of my beautiful client; and I was, in the eyes of herself and family, a messenger of sufficient importance to be entitled to a very cordial hospitality. I did not then await a second invitation to remain in her house, although there was a very comfortable inn where persons of my condition went ordinarily to await the moment of consultation with "people of quality."

 Such was still the language of the provinces at this epoch, and it was necessary to appreciate these terms and their value, in order to maintain one's position without degradation and without impertinence in one's relations with the world. A bourgeois, and a philosopher (they did not yet say Democrat), I was not in the least convinced of the moral superiority of the nobility, and although they prided themselves upon being philosophical, I knew it was necessary to humor their susceptibilities of etiquette and respect them, in order to be respected oneself. I displayed then a slight timidity with an air of sufficiently good style, having already seen at my father's house some specimens of all classes of society. The dowager appeared to perceive this, before the lapse of many minutes and no longer assumed an air of condescension in order to welcome, if not as an equal, at least as a friend the son of the family lawyer. While she was conversing with me, as a woman with whom custom supplies the place of wit, I had the leisure to examine both her countenance and that of the other matron still stouter than she who, seated at some distance and filling in the background of a piece of tapestry, never opened her lips and scarcely raised her eyes in my direction. She was dressed somewhat in the style of the dowager, in a dark silk gown with tight sleeves, and a black lace scarf, surmounting a white cap, tied under her chin. But it was not so fresh or clean, her hands were less white, although equally plump, her type coarser, although coarseness was very evident in the heavy features of the stout dowager of Ionis. In short I was no longer in doubt as to her condition of companion, when the dowager remarked apropos of my refusal to sup. "No matter, Zephyrine, we must not forget that M. Nivires is young, and that he may be hungry yet before going to sleep. Order a light supper to be served in his apartment." The monumental Zephyrine arose; she was as tall as she was stout. " And above all," observed her mistress, " do not let them forget the bread."

"The bread," said Zephyrine, in a fine, husky little voice that offered a pleasing contrast to her statue. Then she repeated, "The bread ! " with an intonation strongly marked by doubt and surprise. "The loaves," replied the dowager with authority. Zephyrine seemed to hesitate an instant and went out, but her mistress recalled her immediately, and gave her this strange order " Three loaves ! " Zephyrine opened her mouth to answer, shrugged her shoulders slightly and disappeared. "Three loaves!" I exclaimed in my turn. "But what kind of an appetite do you suppose I have, Madame la Comtesse?"

" Oh, that is nothing," said she, "They are quite small." She was silent for a moment, I sought for some subject of conversation while awaiting the time when I might retire, when she appeared a prey to a certain perplexity, placed her hand on a bell, and stopped to say as if speaking to herself " Still three loaves ! "
" It is a great deal in fact," answered I, repressing a strong temptation to laugh. She looked at me in amazement, unconscious that she had spoken aloud. " You speak of the law suit," said she, as if to make me forget her distraction, " it is a great deal that they claim. Do you think we will gain it ? " But she paid very little attention to my evasive answers, and rang emphatically.

 A servant came, she asked for Zephyrine, who reappeared and in whose ear she whispered, after which she seemed relieved, and began to chat with me like a good-natured gossip, very ignorant, but benevolent and almost maternal, questioning me upon my tastes, my dispositions, my occupations and my pleasures. I made myself more of a child than I was in order to put her at her ease, for I soon remarked that she was one of those women of the great world who contrive to get along with the most mediocre intelligence, and who would prefer not to encounter a greater degree in others. On the whole she showed so much good nature that I was not greatly bored with her during the space of an hour, and that I did not await her permission to leave her with too much impatience. A groom of the chambers conducted me to my apartment, for it was almost a complete suite, three decidedly handsome rooms, quite large and furnished in the Louis XV style, with a great deal of luxury. My own servant to whom my good mother had given his lesson, was in my bedroom, awaiting the honor of undressing me, in order to appear as well versed in his duties as the valets of great houses. " This is all very well, my dear Baptiste,'' said I to him, when we were alone, " but thou canst go to sleep, I shall undress myself as I have been in the habit of doing all my life. "

 Baptiste bade me goodnight, and left me. It was only ten o'clock. I had no desire to sleep so soon, so I set myself to examine the furniture and pictures in my room, when my eyes fell upon the repast which had been served near the fireplace, and the three loaves appeared before me in all their mysterious symmetry. They were passably large and arranged in the centre of the Japanese waiter in a pretty basket of old Saxony, with a handsome silver saltcellar in the midst, and three damask napkins placed at intervals around it. " What the deuce does this mean ? " I asked myself, ' and why has this vulgar accessory of my supper, the bread, tormented my aged hostess to such an extent? "

"Why were three loaves so expressly ordered ? Why not four ! Why not ten ? Since they take me for an ogre ! Upon my word ! This is really a bounteous feast, and here are some bottles of wine whose etiquettes promise well. But why three carafes of water ? Here again it becomes mysterious and absurd. Does this good old countess imagine that I am triple, or that I carry two guests in my valise ? " I was musing upon this enigma when some one knocked at the door of the antechamber. " Come in," cried I, without moving, thinking that Baptiste had forgotten something. What was my surprise to behold the powerful Zephyrine in her night cap, holding a candle in one hand and, with a finger placed upon her lips, advancing towards me on tiptoe as if she entertained the absurd idea of not letting the floor creak under her elephantine tread. I certainly grew paler than I had done in preparing to meet the youthful Madame d'Ionis. The spectacle of this voluminous apparition was truly appalling ! " Fear nothing, sir," said the good old maid ingeniously, as if she had divined my terror. " I come to explain about the extraordinary the three carafes:  and the three loaves.
""Ah! willingly," answered I, offering her an arm chair, " I was really considerably perplexed."
"As housekeeper," said Zephyrine, refusing to be seated and still holding her candle, " I should be very much mortified if monsieur imagined that I wished to perpetrate a poor joke. I would not permit myself and still I come to ask monsieur to connive at it, so that my mistress may not be displeased."
"Go on, Mademoiselle Zephyrine, I am not of a disposition to be vexed at a joke, above all, when it is an amusing one."
" Oh ! mon Dieu, no, sir, there is nothing amusing about it, but neither is there anything disagreeable. It is only this, madame the dowager countess is very her head is very ." Zephyrine stopped short; she either loved or feared the dowager and could not make up her mind to criticise her. Her embarrassment was comical, for it showed itself in a childish smile curling around the corners of a decidedly small and toothless mouth which caused her round, chubby face, minus forehead and chin, to appear still larger. You might have mistaken it for the full moon grimacing as it is represented on almanacs. Her breathless little voice, and her peculiar lisp had the effect of causing her to appear so extraordinary that I did not dare to look her in the face for fear of losing my countenance. "Let me see," said I, endeavoring to encourage her in her revelations, "madame the dowager countess is something of a tease; she likes to amuse herself at the expense of others ! ""No, sir, no indeed. She does it in perfect good faith; she believes, she imagines" I sought in vain for what the countess might imagine, when Zephyrine added with an effort " In fact, sir, my poor mistress believes in spirits ! "
" Well, granted," I replied. " She is not the only person of her sex and age who entertains the same belief; and, it certainly does harm to no one."
" But it sometimes causes evil to those who fear them, and if monsieur should be afraid of anything in this apartment, I can assure him that nothing ever reappears here. '
" So much the worse, I would have been very pleased to see something supernatural. Ghosts are part of all old manors and this one is so handsome that I would only have imagined very agreeable phantoms. ""Really, monsieur has then heard something spoken of?"

" In regard to this castle and this apartment, never. I am waiting for you to tell me about it."
" Well, monsieur, this is the story : In the year I can't remember but it was in the reign of Henri II, monsieur must know better than I when that was, there lived here three young ladies of the d'Ionis family, beautiful as the day, and so amiable that they were adored by every body. A wicked court lady who was jealous of them, and of the youngest in particular, caused some poison to be placed in the water of a fountain from which they drank and which was used in making their bread. All three died the same night, and as they pretend to say, in the room where we now are. But this is not by any means certain and no one ever imagined such a thing until lately. To be sure they were in the habit of telling a story in the country of three white ladies who had shown themselves for a long time in the castle and in the gardens ; but it was so old that no one thought of it any more, and no one believed it, when one of the friends of the family, M. L'Abbe de Lamyre, who is an esprit gai and a good talker, having slept in this room, dreamed or pretended to have dreamed of three green ladies who had appeared and prophesied before him. And as he saw that his dream interested madame the dowager, and diverted the young countess, her daughter-in-law, he invented whatever he pleased and made his ghosts talk according to his fancy so well, that madame the dowager is persuaded that the future of the family and that of the law suit, which is tormenting M. le comte, might be revealed by causing these phantoms to reappear and speak. But, as all the persons who have lodged here have seen nothing at all, and have simply laughed at her, she has resolved to put only those here who not having been forewarned would not think of inventing apparitions or of concealing those that they might have seen. This is why she has ordered you to be put in this room without saying anything to you, but as madame is not very clever, perhaps, she has not been able to keep herself from speaking to me of the three loaves in your presence."
"To be sure, the three loaves and the three carafes have given me some subject of thought. Nevertheless, I confess that absolutely I can discover no connection whatever."
"Oh, yes, monsieur, the three ladies of the time of Henri II were poisoned by bread and water."
" There I see the connection very plainly, but I do not understand how this offering, if it is one, should be agreeable to them. What do you think of it your self? "
"I think wherever their souls may be they neither know nor care anything about it, " said Zephyrine with an air of superior modesty. " But you ought to learn how these ideas were suggested to my good old mistress. I bring you the manuscript that Madame d'Ionis, her daughter-in-law, Madame Caroline as we call her here, has herself unearthed by means of directions given in some old scribblings found in the archives of the family. This perusal will interest you more than my conversation, and I am going to wish you good evening after having preferred a little petition, how ever."
" With all my heart, my dear young lady, what can I do for you ? "
" Do not tell any one in the world, unless Madame Caroline, who will not mind, that I have forewarned you, for madame the dowager would scold me, and would trust me no longer."
" I promise, and what must I say tomorrow if I am questioned hi regard to my dreams ? "
" Ah ! that, monsieur, is a case in which you must have the kindness to hi vent something, a dream without sense or connection, whatever you please, provided it includes the three young ladies, otherwise madame the dowager will be like a soul in torment, and will accuse me of not putting the loaves, and carafes and saltcellar in their places, or rather that I have warned you, and that your incredulity has prevented the ghosts from making their appearance. She is convinced of these ladies' bad temper and of their refusal to show them selves to those who ridicule them beforehand, were it only in their thoughts." Left alone, after having promised Zephyrine to lend myself to the fancy of her mistress, I opened and read the manuscript of which I shall only relate the circumstances relative to my story. That of the d'Ionis, young ladies appeared to me purely legendary, re counted by Madame d'Ionis on the faith of documents of slender authenticity, which she herself criticised in that light and mocking strain which was the fashion of the day. I pass over then in silence the chronicle of the three dead ladies, thus coldly commented upon, and which had appeared more interesting to me in the sober words of Zephyrine and will only relate the following fragment, transcribed by madame d'Ionis from a manuscript dated 1650, and revised by an ancient chaplain of the castle.

 " It is a fact that I have heard in my youth that the castle of Ionis was haunted by three spirits, exhibiting the appearance of ladies richly dressed, who without menacing any one appeared to be seeking something in the rooms and closets of the house. Masses and prayers recited for their benefit proving ineffectual to prevent their return, some one conceived the idea of causing three white loaves to be blessed, and of putting them in the room where the demoiselles d'Ionis had expired. That night they came without making any noise or frightening any one by their appearance, and it was discovered on the following day that they had nibbled the loaves after the manner of mice but had taken nothing away, and on the following night they had recommenced complaining and making the doors creak and bolts groan.

For this reason some one conceived the idea of giving them three pitchers of clear water, which they did not drink, but a portion of which they spilled. At length the prior of Saint suggested that they might be entirely appeased by offering them a saltcellar with white salt, on account of their having been poisoned by a loaf without salt, and as soon as this was done they were heard singing a very beautiful song in which we are assured that they promised, in Latin, to bestow blessings and good fortune 1 upon the younger branch of the Ionis family to whom their property had reverted. This took place, I am told, in the time of King Henri IV, and since then nothing further has been heard of them ; but for a long time a belief existed in the d' Ionis family, that by making them this offering at midnight they could be drawn thither and the future revealed through them. It is even said that if the three loaves, three carafes and a saltcellar should by chance be discovered on a table in the aforesaid castle, astounding things would be seen and heard in this place."

To this fragment Madame d' Ionis had added the following reflection : " It is much to be regretted for the sake of the d' Ionis family that this fine miracle should have ceased; all its members would then have been virtuous and wise : but, though I have in my hands a formula of invocation arranged by some astrologer formerly attached to the house, I have no hopes that the green ladies will ever reappear here." I remained for some time absorbed, not from the effects of this perusal, but rather on account of Madame d' Ionis' pretty handwriting and her elegant revision of the other reflections that accompanied the legend. I did not then make, as I permit myself today, any criticism on the easy scepticism of this beautiful lady. I fully sympathized with her on this point. It was the fashion to regard fantastical things not from an artistic but from an ironical point of view. People prided themselves upon not crediting nurses' tales or the superstitions of former ages. I was, besides, strongly disposed to fall in love. They had spoken to me so much at home of this amiable person, and my mother had recommended me so strongly on my departure, not to allow my head to be turned that it was already partially accomplished. So far I had only been in love with two or three of my cousins, and these affections, rehearsed in verses as chaste as my flame, had not consumed my heart to such an extent that it was not ready to lend itself to burning much more seriously.

I had brought with me a bundle of law papers that my father had made me promise to look over. I opened it conscientiously ; but after having read several pages with my eyes, without taking in the sense of a single word, I soon found out that mode of study was perfectly useless and wisely determined to renounce it. I thought I could make up for my laziness by seriously thinking over the d'Ionis law suit, that I had at the end of my fingers, and I prepared the arguments with which I was to convince the countess of the steps she ought to take. Only, each of these wonderful arguments terminated, I know not how, with some amorous madrigal which had no direct connection with the procedure. In the midst of this important work I was seized with hunger, The muse is not so hard upon children of a family accustomed to live well as to forbid them to sup with a good appetite. I therefore set myself to do justice to the pâté which smilingly greeted me among my law papers and my alexandrines, and I unfolded the napkin placed at my plate where, to my great surprise, I found a fourth roll. This surprise yielded quickly to a very simple train of reasoning. If in the plans and previsions of the dowager, the three cabalistic loaves were to remain intact, it was but natural that one should have been consecrated to the demands of my appetite. I tasted the wines and found them of so good a quality that I generously made a sacrifice to the phantoms of the carafes of water, designed for their particular use.

 And while eating with great pleasure, I, at length, began to think of the chronicle and to ask myself how I should recount the wonders that I could not dispense with having seen. I regretted that Zephyrine had not furnished me with more details of the three dead women's presumed peculiarites. The extract from the magazine of 1650 was not sufficiently explicit : were these ladies to wait until I was asleep before coming, like mice, to nibble the loaves they were supposed to relish so greatly ? Or rather, were they likely to appear at any moment, and seat themselves, one at my left, the other at my right, and the third opposite me ? The bell of the castle announced midnight, it was the classic hour, the fatal hour !

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