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Chapter 56

Chapter LVI
The Old Age of Athos
While all these affairs were separating forever the four musketeers, formerly bound together in a manner that seemed indissoluble, Athos, left alone after the departure of Raoul, began to pay his tribute to that death by anticipation which is called the absence of those we love. Returned to his house at Blois, no longer having even Grimaud to receive a poor smile when he passed through the parterre, Athos daily felt the decline of the vigor of a nature which for so long a time had appeared infallible. Age, which had been kept back by the presence of the beloved object, arrived with that cortege of pains and inconveniences which increases in proportion as its coming is delayed. Athos had no longer his son’s presence to incite him to walk firmly, with his head erect, as a good example; he had no longer in those brilliant eyes of the young man an ever-ardent focus at which to rekindle the fire of his looks. And then, it must be said, this nature, exquisite in its tenderness and its reserve, no longer finding anything that comprehended its feelings, gave itself up to grief with all the warmth with which vulgar natures give themselves up to joy. The Comte de la Fere, who had remained a young man up to his sixty-second year; the warrior who had preserved his strength in spite of fatigues, his freshness of mind in spite of misfortune, his mild serenity of soul and body in spite of Milady, in spite of Mazarin, in spite of La Valliere,- Athos had become an old man in a week from the moment at which he had lost the support of his latter youth. Still handsome though bent, noble but sad,- gently, and tottering under his gray hairs, he sought since his solitude the glades where the rays of the sun penetrated through the foliage of the walks. He discontinued all the vigorous exercises he had enjoyed through life, since Raoul was no longer with him. The servants, accustomed to see him stirring with the dawn at all seasons, were astonished to hear seven o’clock strike before their master had quitted his bed. Athos remained in bed with a book under his pillow; but he did not sleep, neither did he read. Remaining in bed that he might no longer have to carry his body, he allowed his soul and spirit to wander from their envelope, and return to his son or to God.

His people were sometimes terrified to see him for hours together absorbed in a silent revery, mute and insensible; he no longer heard the timid step of the servant who came to the door of his chamber to watch the sleeping or waking of his master. It sometimes happened that he forgot that the day had half passed away, that the hours for the first two meals were gone by. Then he was awakened. He rose, descended to his shady walk, then came out a little into the sun, as if to partake its warmth for a minute with his absent child; and then the dismal, monotonous walk was resumed, until, quite exhausted, he regained the chamber and the bed,- his domicil by choice. For several days the count did not speak a word; he refused to receive the visits that were paid him, and during the night he was seen to relight his lamp and pass long hours in writing letters or examining parchments.

Athos wrote one of these letters to Vannes, another to Fontainebleau; they remained without answers. We know why Aramis had quitted France, and d’Artagnan was travelling from Nantes to Paris, from Paris to Pierrefonds. Athos’s valet de chambre observed that he shortened his walk every day by several turns. The great alley of limes soon became too long for feet that used to traverse it a hundred times in a day. The count walked feebly as far as the middle trees, seated himself upon a mossy bank which sloped towards a side path, and there waited the return of his strength, or rather the return of night. Very shortly a hundred steps exhausted him. At length Athos refused to rise at all; he declined all nourishment, and his terrified people,- although he did not complain, although he had a smile on his lips, although he continued to speak with his sweet voice,- his people went to Blois in search of the old physician of the late Monsieur, and brought him to the Comte de la Fere in such a fashion that he could see the count without being himself seen. For this purpose they placed him in a closet adjoining the chamber of the patient, and implored him not to show himself, in the fear of displeasing their master, who had not asked for a physician. The doctor obeyed: Athos was a sort of model for the gentlemen of the country; the Blaisois boasted of possessing this sacred relic of the old French glories. Athos was a great seigneur, compared with such nobles as the King improvised by touching with his yellow and prolific sceptre the dry trunks of the heraldic trees of the province.

People respected Athos, we say, and they loved him. The physician could not bear to see his people weep, and to see flock round him the poor of the canton, to whom Athos gave life and consolation by his kind words and his charities. He examined, therefore, from the depths of his hiding-place, the nature of that mysterious malady which bent down and devoured more mortally every day a man but lately so full of life and of a desire to live. He remarked upon the cheeks of Athos the purple of fever, which fires itself and feeds itself,- slow fever, pitiless, born in a fold of the heart, sheltering itself behind that rampart, growing from the suffering it engenders, at once cause and effect of a perilous situation. The count spoke to nobody, we say; he did not even talk to himself. His thought feared noise; it approached to that degree of over-excitement which borders upon ecstasy. Man thus absorbed, though he does not yet belong to God, already belongs no longer to earth. The doctor remained for several hours studying this painful struggle of the will against a superior power; he was terrified at seeing those eyes always fixed, always directed towards an invisible object, at seeing beat with the same movement that heart from which never a sigh arose to vary the melancholy state. Sometimes the acuteness of pain awakens hope in the mind of a physician. Half a day passed away thus. The doctor formed his resolution like a brave man, like a man of firm mind; he issued suddenly from his place of retreat, and went straight up to Athos, who saw him without evincing more surprise than if he had not perceived the apparition.

“Monsieur the Count, I crave your pardon,” said the doctor, coming up to the patient with open arms; “but I have a reproach to make you. You shall hear me.” And he seated himself by the pillow of Athos, who with difficulty roused himself from his preoccupation.

“What is the matter, Doctor?” asked the count, after a silence.

“Why, the matter is, you are ill, Monsieur, and have had no advice.”

“I, ill!” said Athos, smiling.

“Fever, consumption, weakness, decay, Monsieur the Count.”

“Weakness!” replied Athos; “is that possible? I do not get up.”

“Come, come, Monsieur the Count, no subterfuges; you are a good Christian?”

“I hope so,” said Athos.

“Would you kill yourself?”

“Never, Doctor.”

“Well, Monsieur, you are in a fair way of doing so; to remain thus is suicide. Get well, Monsieur the Count! get well!”

“Of what? Find the disease first. For my part, I never knew myself better. Never did the sky appear more blue to me; never did I value more my flowers.”

“You have a concealed grief.”

“Concealed! not at all. I have the absence of my son, Doctor,- that is my malady, and I do not conceal it.”

“Monsieur the Count, your son lives, he is strong, he has all the future before him of men of his merit and of his race; live for him-”

“But I do live, Doctor; oh! be satisfied of that,” added he, with a melancholy smile. “As long as Raoul lives, it will be plainly known,- for as long as he lives, I shall live.”

“What do you say?”

“A very simple thing. At this moment, Doctor, I allow my life to be in a state of suspense. A forgetful, dissipated, indifferent life would be above my strength now that I have Raoul no longer with me. You do not ask the lamp to burn when the spark has not lighted the flame; do not ask me to live noisily and brilliantly. I vegetate, I prepare myself, I wait. Look, Doctor; you remember those soldiers we have so often seen together at the ports, where they were waiting to embark,- lying down, indifferent, half upon one element, half upon the other. They were neither at the place where the sea was going to carry them nor at the place where the earth was going to lose them; baggage prepared, minds upon the stretch, looks fixed,- they waited. I repeat that word; it is the one which describes my present life. Lying down, like the soldiers, my ear on the alert for the reports that may reach me, I wish to be ready to set out at the first summons. Who will make me that summons,- life or death, God or Raoul? My baggage is packed; my soul is prepared; I await the signal. I wait, Doctor, I wait!”

The doctor knew the temper of that mind; he appreciated the strength of that body. He reflected for a moment, told himself that words were useless, remedies absurd; and he left the château, exhorting Athos’s servants not to leave him for a moment.

The doctor being gone, Athos evinced neither anger nor vexation at having been disturbed. He did not even desire that all letters that came should be brought to him directly. He knew very well that every distraction which should arrive would be a joy, a hope, which his servants would have paid with their blood to procure him. Sleep had become rare. By force of thought, Athos forgot himself, for a few hours at most in a revery more profound, more obscure than other people would have called a revery. The momentary repose which this forgetfulness afforded the body, fatigued the soul,- for Athos lived a double life during these wanderings of his understanding. One night, he dreamed that Raoul was dressing himself in a tent to go upon an expedition commanded by M. de Beaufort in person. The young man was sad; he clasped his cuirass slowly, and slowly he girded on his sword.

“What is the matter?” asked his father, tenderly.

“What afflicts me is the death of Porthos, our so dear friend,” replied Raoul. “I suffer here for the grief you will feel at home.”

And the vision disappeared with the slumber of Athos. At daybreak one of his servants entered his master’s apartments, and gave him a letter which came from Spain.

“The writing of Aramis,” thought the count; and he read.

“Porthos is dead!” cried he, after the first lines. “Oh, Raoul, Raoul, thanks! thou keepest thy promise, thou warnest me!”

And Athos, seized with a mortal sweat, fainted in his bed, without any other cause than his weakness.

Alexandre Dumas pere