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Chapter 35

THE MARRIAGE IN EXTREMIS


The doctor rushed from the room as rapidly as his professional dignity would allow.

During his absence Helen slipped a spoonful of a cordial between Karl's lips while Benedict rang the bell. Hans appeared.

"Go and fetch a priest," said Helen.

"Is it for extreme unction?" Hans ventured to ask.

"For a marriage," answered Helen.

Five minutes later the doctor returned with his apparatus, and asked Benedict to ring for a servant.

A maid came.

"Some warm water in a deep vessel," said the doctor, "and a thermometer if there is one in the house."

She came back with the required articles.

The doctor took a bandage from his pocket and rolled it round the wounded man's left arm, the right arm being injured. After a few moments the vein swelled, proving thereby that the blood was not all exhausted, and that circulation still continued, although feebly. The doctor then turned to Helen.

"Are you ready?" he enquired.

"Yes," said Helen, "but make haste. Oh, God, if he should die!"

The doctor compressed her arm with a bandage, placed the apparatus upon the bed so as to bring it close to the patient, and put it into water heated to 35 degrees centigrade, so that the blood should not have time to cool in passing from one arm to the other. He placed one end of the syringe against Karl's arm and almost simultaneously pricked Helen's so that her blood spurted into the vessel. When he judged that there were some 120 to 130 grammes he signed to Benedict to staunch Helen's bleeding with his thumb, and making a longitudinal cut in the vein of Karl's arm he slipped in the point of the syringe, taking great care that no air-bubble should get in with the blood. While the operation, which lasted about ten minutes, was going on, a slight sound was heard at the door. It was the priest coming in, accompanied by Emma, Madame von Beling, and all the servants. Helen turned, saw them at the door, and signed to them to come in. At the same moment Benedict pressed her arm; Karl had just quivered, a sort of shudder ran through his whole body.

"Ah!" sighed Helen, folding her hands, "thank God! It is my blood reaching his heart!"

Benedict had ready a piece of court-plaster, which he pressed upon the open vein and held it closed.

The priest approached; he was a Roman Catholic who had been Helen's director from her childhood up.

"You sent for me, my child?" he asked.

"Yes," answered Helen; "I desire, if my grandmother and elder sister will allow, to marry this gentleman, who, with God's help, will soon open his eyes and recover his senses. Only, there is no time to lose, for the swoon may return."

And, as though Karl had but awaited this moment to revive, he opened his eyes, looked tenderly at Helen and said, in a weak, but intelligible voice:

"In the depth of my swoon, I heard everything; you are an angel, Helen, and I join with you in asking permission of your mother and sister that I may leave you my name."

Benedict and the doctor looked at each other amazed at the over-excitement which for the moment restored sight to the dying man's eyes and speech to his lips. The priest drew near to him.

"Louis Karl von Freyberg, do you declare, acknowledge, and swear, before God and in the face of the holy Church, that you now take as your wife and lawful spouse, Helen de Chandroz, here present?"

"Yes."

"You promise and vow to be true to her in all things as a faithful husband should to his wife according to the commandments of God?"

Karl smiled sadly at this admonition of the Church; meant for people who expect to live long and to have time for breaking their solemn vow.

"Yes," said he, "and in witness of it, here is my mother's wedding-ring, which, sacred already, will become the more sacred by passing through your hands."

"And you, Helen de Chandroz, do you consent, acknowledge, and swear, before God and the holy Church, that you take for your husband and lawful spouse, Louis Karl von Freyberg, here present?"

"Oh, yes, yes, father," exclaimed the girl.

In place of Karl, who was too weak to speak, the priest added:

"Take this token of the marriage vows exchanged between you."

As he spoke he placed upon Helen's finger the ring given him by Karl.

"I give you this ring as a sign of the marriage that you have contracted."

The priest made the sign of the cross upon the bride's hand, saying in a low voice:

"In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen!"

Stretching out his right hand towards the pair, he added, aloud:

"May the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob join you together and bestow His blessing upon you. I unite you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen!"

"Father," said Karl to the priest, "if you will now add to the prayers that you have just uttered for the husband the absolution for the dying, I shall have nothing more to ask of you."

The priest, raising his hand, pronounced the consecrated words, as if Karl's soul had delayed until this solemn moment to depart from the body. Helen, who had raised him in her arms, felt herself drawn to him by an irresistible power. Her lips clung to those of her lover, and between them escaped the words:

"Farewell, my darling wife; your blood is my blood. Farewell."

His body fell back upon the pillow. Karl had breathed his last breath upon Helen's mouth. One sob only was heard from the poor girl, and the complete prostration with which she fell back upon his body showed everybody that he was dead. The spectators rose from their knees. Emma threw herself into Helen's arms, exclaiming:

"Now we are doubly sisters, by birth and by affliction." Then, feeling that this sorrow required solitude, one after another slipped away, slowly, gently, and on tiptoe, leaving Helen alone with her husband's body.

At the end of a couple of hours, Benedict, growing uneasy, ventured to go to her and knocked slowly at the door, saying.

"It is I, sister."

Helen, who had locked herself in, came to open the door. With amazement he beheld her dressed completely in bridal attire. She had put on a wreath of white roses, diamond earrings hung from her ears, and the costliest of necklaces surrounded her neck. Her fingers were loaded with valuable rings. Her arm from which the blood had been drawn to perform the miracle of resurrection was covered with bracelets. A magnificent lace shawl was thrown over her shoulders and covered a satin gown fastened with knots of pearls.

"You see, my friend," she said to Benedict, "that I have tried to fulfil his wishes completely. I am dressed not as his betrothed but as his wife."

Benedict looked at her sadly—the rather that she did not weep—on the contrary, she smiled. It seemed as though she had given all her tears to the living Karl and had none left for the dead. Benedict saw with profound surprise that she went to and fro in the room, busied with a number of little matters relating to Karl's burial and every moment showed him some fresh article.

"Look!" she would say, "he liked this; he noticed that; we will put it beside him in his coffin. By the way," she added suddenly, "I was just forgetting my hair which he liked so much."

She unfastened her wreath, took hold of her hair, which hung below her knees, cut it off, and made a plait which she knotted round Karl's bare neck.

Evening came. She talked at length with Benedict of the hour at which the funeral should take place on the morrow. As it was now but six in the evening, she begged him to see to all the details that would be so painful to the family, and indeed, almost as painful to him who had loved Frederic and Karl like two brothers. He was to order a wide oak coffin, himself:

"Why a wide one?" Benedict asked.

Helen only answered:

"Do as I ask you, dear friend, and blessings will be upon you."

She gave orders herself for the body of her husband to be placed in its shroud at six the next morning.

Benedict obeyed her in everything. He spent his whole evening over these funeral preparations and did not return to the house until eleven o'clock. He found Helen's room transformed, a double row of candles burning around the bed. Helen was sitting on the bed and looking at Karl.

Even as she no longer wept she now no longer prayed. What had she left to ask of Heaven now that Karl was dead? Towards midnight her mother and sister, who had been praying, and who understood her calmness no more than Benedict did, went to their own rooms. Helen embraced them sadly but without tears and asked that the little child might be brought, so that she might kiss him too. She held him some time in her arms and then gave him back to his mother. When she was left alone with Benedict she said to him:

"Pray take some hours' rest, either here or at home; do not be uneasy about me. I will be down, dressed, and sleep beside him."

"Sleep!" said Benedict, more and more amazed.

"Yes," said Helen simply, "I feel tired. While he was alive, I could not sleep. Now—" She did not finish the sentence.

"When shall I come back?" asked Benedict.

"When you please," said Helen. "Let it be about eight in the morning."

Then, looking through the open casement towards the sky, she said:

"I think there will be a storm to-night."

Benedict pressed her hand and was going, but she called him back.

"Excuse me, dear friend," said she, "have you been told that they are coming at six in the morning to wrap him in his shroud?"

"Yes," said Benedict, his voice choked with tears.

Helen guessed at his feelings.

"You do not mean to kiss me then, my friend?" she observed.

Benedict pressed her to his heart and broke into sobs.

"How weak you are!" said she. "Look how calm he is; so calm that one would think he was happy." And as Benedict was about to answer, she added: "Go, go; to-morrow at eight."


As Helen had foretold, the night was stormy; with morning a terrible tempest broke out; rain fell in torrents, accompanied by such flashes of lightning as are only seen in storms that announce or cause great misfortunes.

At six o'clock the women who were to perform the last offices for Karl arrived. Helen had looked out the finest sheets she could find, and had spent a part of the night in embroidering them with Karl's monogram and her own. Then, when her pious task was completed she did as she had said, lay down beside Karl on his bed and encircled by the double row of lighted candles, slept with as sound a sleep as though she were already in her grave. The two women, knocking at the door, awoke her. Seeing them come in, the material aspect of death was forcibly presented to her, and she could not abstain from shedding tears. Stolid as these poor creatures who live by the services that they render to the dead generally are, when they saw the young girl so beautiful, so adorned, so pale, they could not help feeling an emotion unknown to them until then. They trembled as they took the sheets from Helen's hands and asked her to withdraw while they fulfilled their funeral office.

Helen uncovered Karl's face, over which the two Ministers of Fate had already thrown the shroud, kissed his lips, murmured into his ear some words that the women did not hear, then, addressing one of them, said:

"I am going to pray for my husband in the Church of Notre Dame de la Croix. If between now and eight o'clock a young man named Benedict comes here, please give him this note."

She drew from her bosom a paper already folded, sealed, and addressed to Benedict, and went away. The storm was roaring in all its violence. At the door she found Lenhart's carriage and Lenhart himself. He was astonished to see her coming out so early, dressed in so elegant a costume; but when she had directed him to the church of Notre Dame de la Croix, to which he had driven her two or three times before, he understood that she was going to pray at her usual shrine.

Helen entered the church. The day was so dark that it would have been impossible to find one's way if the flashes of lightning had not shot their snakes of fire through the coloured panes.

Helen went straight to her accustomed chapel. The statue of the Virgin stood in its place, silent, smiling, decked with gold lace and jewels, and crowned with diamonds. At her feet Helen recognized the wreath of white roses that she had hung there on the day when she had come with Karl and sworn to him to love him always and to die with him. The day to keep her vow had come, and she was here to tell the Virgin of her readiness to keep her promise, as though that promise were not an impiety. Then, as if that were all that she had to do, she made a short prayer, kissed the Holy Mother's feet, and went out again to the porch of the church.

The weather had cleared a little. For the moment rain had ceased to fall, and a gleam of blue shone between two clouds. The air was full of electricity. The thunder was roaring in noisy outbursts and the flashes threw their blue light almost uninterruptedly upon the pavement and the houses. Helen left the church. Lenhart hurried forward with his carriage for her to get in.

"I feel stifled," said she, "let me walk a little."

"I will follow you, madam," said Lenhart.

"As you please," she answered.

Eight o'clock was chiming from the cathedral.


At the same hour Benedict was just entering Helen's room where Karl lay in his shroud. The two women, who had been entrusted with that pious duty, were praying by the bed, but Helen was absent. Benedict began by looking in every direction, expecting to see her praying in some corner, but not perceiving her in any, he enquired where she could be.

One of the women replied:

"She went out an hour ago, saying that she would go to the Church of Notre Dame de la Croix."

"How was she dressed?" asked Benedict. "And," he added, with an uneasy presentiment, "did she not say anything or leave any message for me?"

"Are you the gentleman called M. Benedict?" returned the woman who had answered his previous questions.

"Yes," said he.

"Then here is a letter for you."

She handed him the note that Helen had left. He opened it hastily. It contained only these few lines:


"MY BELOVED BROTHER,

"I promised Karl, before Notre Dame de la Croix, not to outlive him; Karl is dead, and I am about to die.

"If my body is recovered, see, my dear Benedict, that it is placed in my husband's coffin; this was the reason why I asked you to have it made wide. I hope that God will permit me to sleep in it by Karl's side throughout eternity.

"I bequeath a thousand florins to the person who finds my body, if it should be some boatman or fisherman, or poor man with a family. If it should be some person who cannot or will not accept the money, I leave him my last blessing.

"The morrow of Karl's death is the day of mine.

"My farewells to all who love me."

"HELEN."


Benedict was finishing the reading of this letter when Lenhart appeared in the doorway, pale and dripping with water, and calling out:

"Oh, how shall I tell you, M. Benedict! Madame Helen has just thrown herself into the river. Come, come at once!"

Benedict looked round, seized a handkerchief that was lying on the bier, still perfumed and damp with the poor girl's tears, and rushed from the room. The carriage was at the door; he sprang into it.

"To your house," he called sharply to Lenhart. The latter, accustomed to obey Benedict without asking why, put his horses to the gallop; moreover, his house was on the way to the river. The house being reached, he leaped from the carriage, took the staircase in three strides, and opening the door, called:

"Here! Frisk!"

The dog rushed out after his master and was in the carriage as soon as he.

"To the river!" cried Benedict.

Lenhart began to understand; he whipped up his horses and they galloped on as quickly as before. As they drove, Benedict divested himself of his coat, waistcoat, and shirt, retaining only his trousers. When they arrived at the river bank, he saw some sailors with boathooks who were raking the water for Helen's body.

"Did you see her throw herself into the water?" he enquired of Lenhart.

"Yes, your honour," he answered.

"Where was it?"

Lenhart showed him the spot.

"Twenty florins for a boat!" shouted Benedict.

A boatman brought one. Benedict, followed by Frisk, sprang into it. Then, having steered it into the line along which Helen's body had disappeared, he followed the current, holding Frisk by the collar, and making him smell the handkerchief that he had taken up from Karl's bed.

They came to a place in the river where the dog gave a melancholy howl. Benedict let him loose, he sprang out and disappeared at once. An instant later he came to the surface and swam about above the same place howling dismally.

"Yes," said Benedict, "yes, she is there."

Then he, in his turn, dived, and soon reappeared bearing Helen's body on his shoulder.

As Helen had wished, her body was, by Benedict's care, laid in the same coffin as Karl's. Her bridal garments were allowed to dry upon her and she had no other shroud.

Alexandre Dumas pere