A Case of Conscience
by Ernest Dowson
IT was in Brittany, and the apples
were already acquiring a ruddier, autumnal tint, amid their
greens and yellows, though Autumn was not yet; and the
country lay very still and fair in the sunset which had
befallen, softly and suddenly as is the fashion there. A man
and a girl stood looking down in silence at the village,
Ploumariel, from their post of vantage, half way up the
hill: at its lichened church spire, dotted with little
gables, like dove-cotes; at the slated roof of its market;
at its quiet white houses. The man's eyes rested on it
complacently, with the enjoyment of the painter, finding it
charming: the girl's, a little absently, as one who had seen
it very often before. She was pretty and very young, but her
gray serious eyes, the poise of her head, with its
rebellious brown hair braided plainly, gave her a little air
of dignity, of reserve which sat piquantly upon her youth.
In one ungloved hand, that was brown from the sun, but very
beautiful, she held an old parasol, the other played
occasionally with a bit of purple heather. Presently she
began to speak, using English just coloured by a foreign
accent, that made her speech prettier.
"You make me afraid," she said,
turning her large, troubled eyes on her companion, "you
make me afraid, of myself chiefly, but a little of you. You
suggest so much to me that is new, strange, terrible. When
you speak, I am troubled; all my old landmarks appear to
vanish; I even hardly know right from wrong. I love you, my
God, how I love you! but I want to go away from you and pray
in the little quiet church, where I made my first Communion.
I will come to the world's end with you; but oh, Sebastian,
do not ask me, let me go. You will forget me, I am a little
girl to you, Sebastian. You cannot care very much for
The man looked down at her, smiling
masterfully, but very kindly. He took the mutinous hand,
with its little sprig of heather, and held it between his
own. He seemed to find her insistence adorable; mentally, he
was contrasting her with all other women whom he had known,
frowning at the memory of so many years in which she had no
part. He was a man of more than forty, built large to an
uniform English pattern; there was a touch of military
erectness in his carriage which often deceived people as to
his vocation. Actually, he had never been anything but
artist, though he came of a family of soldiers, and had once
been war correspondent of an illustrated paper. A certain
distinction had always adhered to him, never more than now
when he was no longer young, was growing bald, had streaks
of gray in his moustache. His face, without being handsome,
possessed a certain charm; it was worn and rather pale, the
lines about the firm mouth were full of lassitude, the eyes
rather tired. He had the air of having tasted widely,
curiously, of life in his day, prosperous as he seemed now,
that had left its mark upon him. His voice, which usually
took an intonation that his friends found supercilious, grew
very tender in addressing this little French girl, with her
quaint air of childish dignity.
"Marie-Yvonne, foolish child, I will not
hear one word more. You are a little heretic; and I am
sorely tempted to seal your lips from uttering heresy. You
tell me that you love me, and you ask me to let you go, in
one breath. The impossible conjuncture! Marie-Yvonne,"
he added, more seriously, "trust yourself to me, my
child! You know, I will never give you up. You know that
these months that I have been at Ploumariel, are worth all
the rest of my life to me. It has been a difficult life,
hitherto, little one: change it for me; make it worth while.
You would let morbid fancies come between us. You have lived
overmuch in that little church, with its worm-eaten benches,
and its mildewed odour of dead people, and dead ideas. Take
care, Marie-Yvonne: it has made you serious-eyed, before you
have learnt to laugh; by and by, it will steal away your
youth, before you have ever been young. I come to claim you,
Marie-Yvonne, in the name of Life." His words were
half-jesting; his eyes were profoundly in earnest. He drew
her to him gently; and when he bent down and kissed her
forehead, and then her shy lips, she made no resistance:
only, a little tremor ran through her. Presently, with equal
gentleness, he put her away from him. "You have already
given me your answer, Marie-Yvonne. Believe me, you will
never regret it. Let us go down."
They took their way in silence towards the
village; presently a bend of the road hid them from it, and
he drew closer to her, helping her with his arm over the
rough stones. Emerging, they had gone thirty yards so,
before the scent of English tobacco drew their attention to
a figure seated by the road-side, under a hedge; they
recognised it, and started apart, a little consciously.
"It is M. Tregellan," said the
young girl, flushing: "and he must have seen us."
Her companion, frowning, hardly suppressed a
little quick objurgation.
"It makes no matter," he observed,
after a moment: "I shall see your uncle to-morrow and
we know, good man, how he wishes this; and, in any case, I
would have told Tregellan."
The figure rose, as they drew near: he shook
the ashes out of his briar, and removed it to his pocket. He
was a slight man, with an ugly, clever face; his voice as he
greeted them, was very low and pleasant.
"You must have had a charming walk,
Mademoiselle. I have seldom seen Ploumariel look
"Yes," she said, gravely, "it
has been very pleasant. But I must not linger now," she
added breaking a little silence in which none of them seemed
quite at ease. "My uncle will be expecting me to supper." She
held out her hand, in the English fashion, to Tregellan, and
then to Sebastian Murch; who gave the little fingers a
They had come into the market-place round
which most of the houses in Ploumariel were grouped. They
watched the young girl cross it briskly; saw her blue gown
pass out of sight down a bye street: then they turned to
their own hotel. It was a low, white house, belted half way
down the front with black stone; a pictorial object, as most
Breton hostels. The ground floor was a café,
and, outside it, a bench and long stained table enticed them
to rest. They sat down, and ordered absinthes, as the
hour suggested: these were brought to them presently by an
old servant of the house; an admirable figure, with the
white sleeves and apron relieving her linsey dress: with her
good Breton face, and its effective wrinkles. For some time
they sat in silence, drinking and smoking. The artist
appeared to be absorbed in contemplation of his drink;
considering its clouded green in various lights. After a
while the other looked up, and remarked, abruptly.
""I may as well tell you that I
happened to overlook you, just now, unintentionally."
Sebastian Murch held up his glass, with
"Don't mention it, my dear fellow,"
he remarked, at last, urbanely.
"I beg your pardon; but I am afraid I
He spoke with an extreme deliberation which
suggested nervousness; with the air of a person reciting a
little set speech, learnt imperfectly: and he looked very
straight in front of him, out into the street, at two dogs
quarrelling oversome offal.
"I daresay you will be angry: I can't
avoid that; at least, I have known you long enough to hazard
it. I have had it on my mind to say something. If I have
been silent, it hasn't been because I have been blind, or
approved. I have seen how it was all along. I gathered it
from your letters when I was in England. Only until this
afternoon I did not know how far it had gone, and now I am
sorry I did not speak before."
He stopped short, as though he expected his
friend's subtilty to come to his assistance; with admissions
or recriminations. But the other was still silent, absent:
his face wore a look of annoyed indifference. After a while,
as Tregellan still halted, he observed quietly:
"You must be a little more explicit. I
confess I miss your meaning."
"Ah, don't be paltry," cried the
other, quickly. "You know my meaning. To be very plain,
Sebastian, are you quite justified in playing with that
charming girl, in compromising her?"
The artist looked up at last, smiling; his
expressive mouth was set, not angrily, but with singular
"With Mademoiselle Mitouard?"
"Exactly; with the niece of a man whose
guest you have recently been."
"My dear fellow!" he stopped a
little, considering his words: "You are hasty and
uncharitable for such a very moral person! you jump at
conclusions, Tregellan. I don't, you know, admit your right
to question me: still, as you have introduced the subject, I
may as well satisfy you. I have asked Mademoiselle Mitouard
to marry me, and she has consented, subject to her uncle's
approval. And that her uncle, who happens to prefer the
English method of courtship, is not likely to refuse."
The other held his cigar between two fingers,
a little away; his curiously anxious face suggested that the
question had become to him one of increased nicety.
"I am sorry," he said, after a
moment; "this is worse than I imagined; it's
"It is you that are impossible,
Tregellan," said Sebastian Murch. He looked at him now,
quite frankly, absolutely: his eyes had a defiant light in
them, as though he hoped to be criticised; wished nothing
better than to stand on his defence, to argue the thing out.
And Tregellan sat for a long time without speaking,
appreciating his purpose. It seemed more monstrous the
closer he considered it: natural enough withal, and so,
harder to defeat; and yet, he was sure, that defeated it
must be. He reflected how accidental it had all been: their
presence there, in Ploumariel, and the rest! Touring in
Brittany, as they had often done before, in their habit of
old friends, they had fallen upon it by chance, a place
unknown of Murray; and the merest chance had held them
there. They had slept at the Lion d'Or, voted it
magnificently picturesque, and would have gone away and
forgotten it; but the chance of travel had for once defeated
them. Hard by they heard of the little votive chapel of
Saint Bernard; at the suggestion of their hostess they set
off to visit it. It was built steeply on an edge of rock,
amongst odorous pines overhanging a ravine, at the bottom of
which they could discern a brown torrent purling tumidly
along. For the convenience of devotees, iron rings, at short
intervals, were driven into the wall; holding desperately to
these, the pious pilgrim, at some peril, might compass the
circuit; saying an oraison to Saint Bernard, and some ten
Aves. Sebastian, who was charmed with the wild beauty
of the scene, in a country ordinarily so placid, had been
seized with a fit of emulation: not in any mood of devotion,
but for the sake of a wider prospect. Tregellan had
protested: and the Saint, resenting the purely
æesthetic motive of the feat, had seemed to intervene.
For, half-way round, growing giddy may be, the artist had
made a false step, lost his hold. Tregellan, with a little
cry of horror, saw him disappear amidst crumbling mortar and
uprooted ferns. It was with a sensible relief, for the fall
had the illusion of great depth, that, making his way
rapidly down a winding path, he found him lying on a grass
terrace, amidst débris twenty feet lower,
cursing his folly, and holding a lamentably sprained ankle,
but for the rest uninjured! Tregellan had made off in haste
to Ploumariel in search of assistance; and within the hour
he had returned with two stalwart Bretons and M. le Docteur
Their tour had been, naturally, drawing to
its close. Tregellan indeed had an imperative need to be in
London within the week. It seemed, therefore, a clear
dispensation of Providence, that the amiable doctor should
prove an hospitable person, and one inspiring confidence no
less. Caring greatly for things foreign, and with an
especial passion for England, a country whence his brother
had brought back a wife; M. le Docteur Mitouard insisted
that the invalid could be cared for properly at his house
alone. And there, in spite of protestations, earnest from
Sebastian, from Tregellan half-hearted, he was installed.
And there, two days later, Tregellan left him with an easy
mind; bearing away with him, half enviously, the
recollection of the young, charming face of a girl, the
Doctor's niece, as he had seen her standing by his friend's
sofa when he paid his adieux; in the beginnings of an
intimacy, in which, as he foresaw, the petulance of the
invalid, his impatience at an enforced detention, might be
considerably forgot. And all that had been two months ago.
"I am sorry you don't see it,"
continued Tregellan, after a pause, "to me it seems
impossible; considering your history it takes me by
The other frowned slightly; finding this
persistence perhaps a trifle crude, he remarked
"Will you be good enough to explain your
opposition? Do you object to the girl? You have been back a
week now, during which you have seen almost as much of her
"She is a child, to begin with; there is
five-and-twenty years' disparity between you. But it's
the relation I object to, not the girl. Do you intend to
live in Ploumariel?"
Sebastian smiled, with a suggestion of irony.
"Not precisely; I think it would
interfere a little with my career; why do you ask?"
I imagined not; you will go back to London
with your little Breton wife, who is as charming here as the
apple-blossom in her own garden. You will introduce her to
your circle, who will receive her with open arms; all the
clever bores, who write, and talk, and paint, and are talked
about between Bloomsbury and Kensington. Everybody who is
emancipated will know her, and everybody who has a 'fad';
and they will come in a body and emancipate her, and teach
her their 'fads.'"
"That is a caricature of my circle, as
you call it, Tregellan! though I may remind you it is also
yours. I think she is being starved in this corner,
spiritually. She has a beautiful soul, and it has had no
chance. I propose to give it one, and I am not afraid of the
Tregellan threw away the stump of his cigar
into the darkling street, with a little gesture of
discouragement, of lassitude.
"She has had the chance to become what
she is, a perfect thing."
"My dear fellow," exclaimed his
friend, "I could not have said more myself."
The other continued, ignoring his
"She has had great luck. She has been
brought up by an old eccentric, on the English system of
growing up as she liked. And no harm has come of it, at
least until it gave you the occasion of making love to
"You are candid, Tregellan!"
"Let her go, Sebastian, let her
go," he continued, with increasing gravity.
"Consider what a transplantation; from this world of
Plotmariel where everything is fixed for her by that
venerable old Curé, where life is so easy, so
ordered, to yours, ours; a world without definitions, where
everything is an open question."
"Exactly," said the artist,
"why should she be so limited? I would give her scope,
ideas. I can't see that I am wrong."
"She will not accept them, your ideas.
They will trouble her, terrify her; in the end, divide you.
It is not an elastic nature. I have watched it."
"At least, allow me to know her,"
put in the artist, a little grimly.
Tregellan shook his head.
"The Breton blood; her English mother:
passionate Catholicism! a touch of Puritan! Have you quite
made up your mind, Sebastian?"
"I made it up long ago, Tregellan!"
The other looked at him, curiously,
compassionately; with a touch of resentment at what he found
his lack of subtilty. Then he said at last:
"I called it impossible: you force me to
be very explicit, even cruel. I must remind you, that you
are, of all my friends, the one I value most, could least
afford to lose."
"You must be going to say something,
extremely disagreeable! something horrible," said the
"I am," said Tregellan, "but I
must say it. Have you explained to Mademoiselle, or her
uncle, your--your peculiar position?"
Sebastian was silent for a moment, frowning:
the lines about his mouth grew a little sterner; at last he
"If I were to answer, Yes?"
"Then I should understand that there was
no further question of your marriage."
Presently the other commenced in a hard,
"No, I have not told Marie-Yvonne that.
I shall not tell her. I have suffered enough for a youthful
folly; an act of mad generosity. I refuse to allow an
infamous woman to wreck my future life as she has disgraced
my past. Legally, she has passed out of it; morally,
legally, she is not my wife. For all I know she may be
The other was watching his face, very gray
and old now, with an anxious compassion.
"You know she is not dead,
Sebastian," he said simply. Then he added very quietly
as one breaks supreme bad tidings, "I must tell you
something which I fear you have not realised. The Catholic
Church does not recognise divorce. If she marry you and find
out, rightly or wrongly she will believe that she has been
living in sin; some day she will find it out. No damnable
secret like that keeps itself for ever: an old newspaper, a
chance remark from one of your dear friends, and, the
deluge. Do you see the tragedy, the misery of it? By God,
Sebastian, to save you both somebody shall tell her; and if
it be not you, it must be I."
There was extremest peace in the quiet
square; the houses seemed sleepy at last, after a day of
exhausting tranquillity, and the chestnuts, under which a
few children, with tangled hair and fair dirty faces, still
played. The last glow of the sun fell on the gray roofs
opposite; dying hard it seemed over the street in which the
Mitouards lived; and they heard suddenly the tinkle of an
Angelus bell. Very placid! the place and the few
peasants in their pictorial hats and caps who lingered. Only
the two Englishmen sitting, their glasses empty, and their
smoking over, looking out on it all with their anxious
faces, brought in a contrasting note of modern life; of the
complex aching life of cities, with its troubles and Its
"Is that your final word,
Tregellan?" asked the artist at last, a little wearily.
"It must be, Sebastian! Believe me, I am
"Yes, of course," he answered
quickly, acidly; "well, I will sleep on it."
They made their first breakfast in an almost
total silence; both wore the bruised harassed air which
tells of a night passed without benefit of sleep.
Immediately afterwards Murch went out alone: Tregellan could
guess the direction of his visit, but not its object; he
wondered if the artist was making his difficult confession.
Presently they brought him in a pencilled note; he
recognised, with some surprise, his friend's tortuous hand.
"I have considered our conversation, and
your unjustifiable interference. I am entirely in your
hands: at the mercy of your extraordinary notions of duty.
Tell her what you will, if you must; and pave the way to
your own success. I shall say nothing; but I swear you love
the girl yourself; and are no right arbiter here. Sebastian
He read the note through twice before he
grasped its purport; then sat holding it in lax fingers, his
face grown singularly gray.
"It's not true, it's not true," he
cried aloud, but a moment later knew himself for a
self-deceiver all along. Never had self-consciousness been
more sudden, unexpected, or complete. There was no more to
do or say; this knowledge tied his hands. Ite! missa
est! . . .
He spent an hour painfully invoking
casuistry, tossed to and fro irresolutely, but never for a
moment disputing that plain fact which Sebastian had so
brutally illuminated. Yes! he loved her, had loved her all
along. Marie-Yvonne! how the name expressed her! at once
sweet and serious, arch and sad as her nature. The little
Breton wild flower! how cruel it seemed to gather her! And
he could do no more; Sebastian had tied his hands. Things
must be! He was a man nicely conscientious, and now all the
elaborate devices of his honour, which had persuaded him to
a disagreeable interference, were contraposed against him.
This suspicion of an ulterior motive had altered it, and so
at last he was left to decide with a sigh, that because he
loved these two so well, he must let them go their own way
Coming in later in the day, Sebastian Murch
found his friend packing.
"I have come to get your answer,"
he said; "I have been walking about the hills like a
madman for hours. I have not been near her; I am afraid.
Tell me what you mean to do?"
Tregellan rose, shrugged his shoulders,
pointed to his valise.
"God help you both! I would have saved
you if you had let me. The Quimperlé Courrier
passes in half-an-hour. I am going by it. I shall catch a
night train to Paris."
As Sebastian said nothing; continued to
regard him with the same dull, anxious gaze, he went on
after a moment:
"You did me a grave injustice; you
should have known me better than that. God knows I meant
nothing shameful, only the best; the least misery for you
"It was true then?" said Sebastian,
curiously. His voice was very cold; Tregellan found him
altered. He regarded the thing as it had been very remote,
and outside them both.
"I did not know it then," said
He knelt down again and resumed his packing.
Sebastian, leaning against the bed, watched him trivial
things, and he handed him from time to time a book, a brush,
which the other packed mechanically with elaborate care.
There was no more to say, and presently, when the chamber-
maid entered for his luggage, they went down and out into
the splendid sunshine, silently. They had to cross the
Square to reach the carriage, a dusty ancient vehicle,
hooded, with places for four, which waited outside the
post-office. A man in a blue blouse preceded them, carrying
Tregellan's things. From the corner they could look down the
road to Quimperlé, and their eyes both sought the
white house of Doctor Mitouard, standing back a little in
its trim garden, with its one incongruous apple tree; but
there was no one visible.
Presently, Sebastian asked, suddenly:
"Is it true, that you said last night:
divorce to a Catholic--?"
Tregellan interrupted him.
"It is absolutely true, my poor
He had climbed into his place at the back,
settled himself on the shiny leather cushion: he appeared to
be the only passenger. Sebastian stood looking drearily in
at the window, the glass of which had long perished.
"I wish I had never known, Tregellan!
How could I ever tell her!"
Inside, Tregellan shrugged his shoulders: not
impatiently, or angrily, but in sheer impotence; as one who
gave it up.
"I can't help you," he said,
"you must arrange it with your own conscience."
"Ah, it's too difficult!" cried the
other: "I can't find my way."
The driver cracked his whip, suggestively;
Sebastian drew back a little further from the off wheel.
"Well," said the other, "if
you find it, write and tell me. I am very sorry,
"Good-bye," he replied. "Yes!
I will write."
The carriage lumbered off, with a lurch to
the right, as it turned the corner; it rattled down the
hill, raising a cloud of white dust. As it passed the
Mitouards' house, a young girl, in a large straw hat, came
down the garden; too late to discover whom it contained. She
watched it out of sight, indifferently, leaning on the
little iron gate; then she turned, to recognise the long
stooping figure of Sebastian Murch, who advanced to meet