Madame Berthe d’Avancelles had rejected the advances of her admirer Baron Joseph de Croissard to such an extent that he was now in despair. He had pursued her relentlessly throughout the winter in Paris, and now at his château at Carville in Normandy he was holding a series of hunting parties in her honour.
The husband, Monsieur d’Avancelles, turned a blind eye to all this. It was rumoured that they lived separate lives on account of a physical shortcoming of his which Madame could not overlook. He was a fat little man with short arms, short legs, a short neck, short nose, short everything in fact. Madame d’Avancelles, in contrast, was a tall, chestnut-haired, determined-looking young woman. She laughed openly at old Pipe and Slippers as she called him to his face but looked with tender indulgence on her admirer, the titled Baron Joseph de Croissard, with his broad shoulders, his sturdy neck and his fair, drooping moustache.
Until now, however, she had granted him no favours despite the fact that he was spending a fortune on her, throwing a constant round of receptions, hunting parties, and all kinds of celebrations to which he invited the local aristocracy.
All day long the woods rang to the sound of hounds in full cry after a fox or a wild boar and every night a dazzling display of fireworks spiralled upwards to join the sparkling stars. A tracery of light from the drawing-room windows shone on the huge lawns where shadowy figures occasionally passed.
It was the russet season of autumn when leaves swirled over the gardens like flocks of birds. Wafting on the air came the tang of damp, bare earth, caught as the smell of a woman’s naked flesh as her gown slips down to the floor after the ball.
On an evening during a reception held the previous spring, Madame d’Avancelles had replied to an imploring Monsieur de Croissard with the words: ‘If I am to fall at all, my friend, it will certainly not be before the leaves do likewise. I’ve far too many things to do this summer to give it a thought.’ He had remembered those daring words of hers spoken so provocatively and was now pressing his advantage. Each day he crept closer, gaining more and more of the bold beauty’s heart until by this point her resistance seemed hardly more than symbolic.
Soon there was to be a great hunting party. The night before, Madame Berthe had said laughingly to the Baron: ‘Tomorrow, Baron, if you manage to kill the beast I shall have something to give you.’
He was up at dawn reconnoitring where the wild boar was wallowing. He accompanied his whips, setting out the order of the hunt in such a way that he should return from the field in triumph. When the horns sounded for the meet, he appeared in a well-cut hunting costume of scarlet and gold. With his upright, broad-chested figure and flashing eyes he glowed with good health and manly vigour. The hunt moved off. The boar was raised and ran, followed by the baying hounds rushing through the undergrowth. The horses broke into a gallop, hurtling with their riders along the narrow forest paths while far behind the following carriages drove noiselessly over the softer verges.
Teasingly, Madame d’Avancelles kept the Baron at her side, slowing down to walking pace in an interminably long, straight avenue along which four rows of oaks arched vault-like towards each other. Trembling with both desire and frustration he listened with one ear to the young woman’s light badinage, the other pricked for the hunting horns and the sound of the hounds growing fainter by the minute.
‘So you love me no longer,’ she was saying.
'How can you say such a thing?’ he replied.
‘You do seem to be more interested in the hunt than in me,’ she went on. He groaned. ‘You do remember your own orders don’t you? To kill the beast myself.’
'Indeed I do,’ she added with great seriousness. ‘Before my very eyes.’ At this he quivered impatiently in the saddle, spurred on his eager horse and finally lost his patience.
‘For God’s sake, Madame, not if we stay here a minute longer.’
‘That is how it has to be nevertheless,’ she cried laughingly. ‘Otherwise, you’re out of luck.’
Then she spoke to him gently, leaning her hand on his arm and, as if absentmindedly, stroking his horse’s mane. They had turned right on to a narrow path overhung with trees when, suddenly swerving to avoid one of their low branches, she leaned against him so closely that he felt her hair tickling his neck. He threw his arms around her and pressing his thick moustache to her forehead planted upon it a passionate kiss. At first she was motionless, stunned by his ardour, then with a start she turned her head and, either by chance or design, her own delicate lips met his beneath their blond cascade. Then, out of either embarrassment or regret for the incident she spurred her horse on the flank and galloped swiftly away. For a long while they rode straight on together, without so much as exchanging a glance.
The hunt in full cry was close and the thickets seemed to shake, when suddenly, covered in blood and shaking off the hounds that clung to him, the boar went rushing past through the bushes. The Baron gave a triumphant laugh, cried ‘Let him who loves me follow me!’ and disappeared, swallowed up by the forest. When Madame d’Avancelles reached an open glade a few minutes later he was just getting up, covered with mud, his jacket torn and his hands bloody, while the animal lay full length on the ground with the Baron’s knife plunged up to the hilt in its shoulder.
The quarry was cut by torchlight on that mild and melancholy night. The moon gilded the red flames of the torches which filled the air with pine smoke. The dogs, yelping and snapping, devoured the stinking innards of the boar while the beaters and the gentlemen, standing in a circle around the spoil, blew their horns with all their might. The flourish of the hunting horns rose into the night air above the woods. Its echoes fell and were lost in the distant valleys beyond, alarming nervous stags, a barking fox and small grey rabbits at play on the edge of the glades. Terrified night birds fluttered above the crazed pack while the women, excited a little by the violence and vulnerability surrounding these events, leaned a little heavily on the men’s arms and, without waiting for the hounds to finish, drifted off with their partners down the many forest paths. Feeling languid after all the exhausting emotion of the day Madame d’Avancelles said to the Baron: ‘Would you care for a turn in the park, my friend?’
He gave no answer, but trembling and unsteady with desire pulled her to him. Instantly they kissed and as they walked very slowly under the almost leafless trees through which moonlight filtered, their love, their desire and their need for each other was so intense that they almost sank down at the foot of a tree.
The horns had fallen silent and the exhausted hounds were sleeping by now in their kennels.
‘Let us go back,’ the young woman said. They returned. Just as they reached the château and were about to enter, she murmured in a faint voice: ‘I’m so tired, my friend, I’m going straight to bed.’ As he opened his arms for one last kiss she fled, with the parting words: ‘No . . . to sleep . . . but . . . let him who loves me follow me!’
An hour later when the whole sleeping château seemed dead to the world the Baron crept on tiptoe out of his room and scratched at the door of his friend. Receiving no reply he made to open it and found it unbolted.
She was leaning dreamily with her elbows on the window ledge. He threw himself at her knees which he showered with mad kisses through her nightdress. She said nothing, but ran her dainty fingers caressingly through the Baron’s hair. Suddenly, as if coming to a momentous decision, she disengaged herself and whispered provocatively: ‘Wait for me. I shall be back.’ Her finger raised in shadow pointed to the far end of the room where loomed the vague white shape of her bed.
With wildly trembling hands he undressed quickly by feel and slipped between the cool sheets. He stretched out in bliss and almost forgot his friend as his weary body yielded to the linen’s caress. Doubtless enjoying the strain on his patience, still she did not return. He closed his eyes in exquisitely pleasurable anticipation. His most cherished dream was about to come true. Little by little his limbs relaxed, as did his mind, where thoughts drifted, vague and indistinct.
He succumbed at last to the power of great fatigue and finally fell asleep.
He slept the heavy, impenetrable sleep of the exhausted huntsman. He slept indeed till dawn. Then from a nearby tree through the still half-open window came the ringing cry of a cock. Startled awake, the Baron’s eyes flew open. Finding himself, to his great surprise, in a strange bed and with a woman’s body lying against his he remembered nothing and stammered as he struggled into consciousness: ‘What? Where am I? What is it?’
At this, she, who had not slept a wink, looked at the puffy, red-eyed and dishevelled man at her side. She answered in the same dismissive tone she took with her husband. ‘Nothing,’ she said, ‘it’s a cock. Go back to sleep, Monsieur. It’s nothing to do with you.’