A WOODLAND QUEEN
('Reine des Bois')
By ANDRE THEURIET
With a Preface by MELCHIOR DE VOGUE, of the French academy
CLAUDE-ADHEMAR-ANDRE THEURIET was born at Marly-le-Roi (Seine et Oise), October 8,1833. His ancestors came from Lorraine. He was educated at Bar-le-Duc and went to Paris in 1854 to study jurisprudence. After finishing his courses he entered the Department of the Treasury, and after an honorable career there, resigned as chef-de-bureau. He is a poet, a dramatist, but, above all, a writer of great fiction.
As early as 1857 the poems of Theuriet were printed in the 'Revue de Paris' and the 'Revue des Deux Mondes'. His greatest novel, 'Reine des Bois' (Woodland Queen), was crowned by the Academie Francaise in 1890. To the public in general he became first known in 1870 by his 'Nouvelles Intimes'. Since that time he has published a great many volumes of poems, drama, and fiction. A great writer, he perhaps meets the wishes of that large class of readers who seek in literature agreeable rest and distraction, rather than excitement or aesthetic gratification. He is one of the greatest spirits that survived the bankruptcy of Romanticism. He excels in the description of country nooks and corners; of that polite rusticity which knows nothing of the delving laborers of 'La Terre', but only of graceful and learned leisure, of solitude nursed in revery, and of passion that seems the springtide of germinating nature. He possesses great originality and the passionate spirit of a 'paysagiste': pictures of provincial life and family-interiors seem to appeal to his most pronounced sympathies. His taste is delicate, his style healthy and frank, and at the same time limpid and animated.
After receiving, in 1890, the Prix Vitet for the ensemble of his literary productions, he was elected to the Academy in 1896. To the stage Theuriet has given 'Jean-Marie', drama in verses (Odeon, February 11, 1871). It is yet kept on the repertoire together with his 'Maison de deux Barbeaux (1865), Raymonde (1887), and Les Maugars (1901).'
His novels, tales, and poems comprise a long list. 'Le Bleu et le Noir' (1873) was also crowned by the Academy. Then followed, at short intervals: 'Mademoiselle Guignon (1874.); Le Mariage de Gerard (1875); La Fortune d'Angele (1876); Raymonde (1877),' a romance of modern life, vastly esteemed by the reading public; 'Le Don Juan de Vireloup (1877); Sous Bois, Impressions d'un Forestier (1878); Le Filleul d'un Marquis (1878); Les Nids (1879); Le fils Maugars (1879); La Maison de deux Barbeaux (1879); Toute seule (1880); Sauvageonne (1880), his most realistic work; Les Enchantements de la Foret (1881); Le Livre de la Payse (poetry, 1882); Madame Heurteloup (1882); Peche de Jeunesse (1883); Le Journal de Tristan, mostly autobiographical; Bigarreau (1885); Eusebe Lombard (1885); Les OEillets de Kerlatz (1885); Helene (1886); Nos Oiseaux (beautiful verses, 1886); La Vie Rustique (1887); Amour d'Automne (1888); Josette (1888); Deux Soeurs (1889); Contes pour les Soirs d'Hiver (1890); Charme Dangereux (1891); La Ronde des Saisons et des Mois (1889); La Charmeresse (1891); Fleur de Nice (1896); Bois Fleury (1897); Refuge (1898); Villa Tranquille (1899); Claudette (1900); La Petite Derniere (1901); Le Manuscrit du Chanoine (1902), etc.
Besides this abundant production Andre Theuriet has also contributed to various journals and magazines: 'Le Moniteur, Le Musee Universal, L'Illustration, Le Figaro, Le Gaulois, La Republique Francaise, etc.; he has lectured in Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland, and has even found leisure to fill the post as Mayor of Bourg-la-Reine (Seine et Oise), perhaps no onerous office (1882-1900). He has also been an 'Officier de la Legion d'Honneur' since 1895.
MELCHIOR DE VOGUE de l'Academie Francaise.
A WOODLAND QUEEN
CHAPTER I. THE UNFINISHED WILL
Toward the middle of October, about the time of the beechnut harvest, M. Eustache Destourbet, justice of the Peace of Auberive, accompanied by his clerk, Etienne Seurrot, left his home at Abbatiale, in order to repair to the Chateau of Vivey, where he was to take part in removing the seals on some property whose owner had deceased.
At that period, 1857, the canton of Auberive, which stretches its massive forests like a thick wall between the level plain of Langres and the ancient Chatillonais, had but one main road of communication: that from Langres to Bar-sur-Aube. The almost parallel adjacent route, from Auberive to Vivey, was not then in existence; and in order to reach this last commune, or hamlet, the traveller had to follow a narrow grass-bordered path, leading through the forest up the hill of Charboniere, from the summit of which was seen that intermingling of narrow gorges and wooded heights which is so characteristic of this mountainous region. On all sides were indented horizons of trees, among which a few, of more dominant height, projected their sharp outlines against the sky; in the distance were rocky steeps, with here and there a clump of brambles, down which trickled slender rivulets; still farther, like little islands, half submerged in a sea of foliage, were pastures of tender green dotted with juniper bushes, almost black in their density, and fields of rye struggling painfully through the stony soil—the entire scene presenting a picture of mingled wildness and cultivation, aridity and luxuriant freshness.
Justice Destourbet, having strong, wiry limbs, ascended cheerily the steep mountain-path. His tall, spare figure, always in advance of his companion, was visible through the tender green of the young oaks, clothed in a brown coat, a black cravat, and a very high hat, which the justice, who loved correctness in details, thought it his duty to don whenever called upon to perform his judicial functions. The clerk, Seurrot, more obese, and of maturer age, protuberant in front, and somewhat curved in the back, dragged heavily behind, perspiring and out of breath, trying to keep up with his patron, who, now and then seized with compassion, would come to a halt and wait for his subordinate.
"I trust," said Destourbet, after one of these intervals which enabled the clerk to walk by his side, "I trust we shall find Maitre Arbillot down there; we shall have need of his services in looking over and filing the papers of the deceased."
"Yes, Monsieur," answered Seurrot, "the notary will meet us at the chateau; he went to Praslay to find out from his associates whether Monsieur de Buxieres had not left a will in his keeping. In my humble opinion, that is hardly likely; for the deceased had great confidence in Maitre Arbillot, and it seems strange that he should choose to confide his testamentary intentions to a rival notary."
"Well," observed the justice, "perhaps when the seals are raised, we may discover an autograph will in some corner of a drawer."
"It is to be hoped so, Monsieur," replied Seurrot; "I wish it with all my heart, for the sake of Claudet Sejournant, for he is a good fellow, although on the sinister bar of the escutcheon, and a right jolly companion."
"Yes; and a marvellous good shot," interrupted the justice. "I recognize all that; but even if he had a hundred other good qualities, the grand chasserot, as they call him here, will be on the wrong side of the hedge if Monsieur de Buxieres has unfortunately died intestate. In the eye of the law, as you are doubtless aware, a natural child, who has not been acknowledged, is looked upon as a stranger."
"Monsieur de Buxieres always treated Claudet as his own son, and every one knew that he so considered him."
"Possibly, but if the law were to keep count of all such cases, there would be no end to their labors; especially in all questions of the 'cujus'. Odouart de Buxieres was a terribly wild fellow, and they say that these old beech-trees of Vivey forest could tell many a tale of his exploits."
"He, he!" assented the clerk, laughing slyly, and showing his toothless gums, "there is some truth in that. The deceased had the devil in his boots. He could see neither a deer nor a pretty girl without flying in pursuit. Ah, yes! Many a trick has he played them—talk of your miracles, forsooth!—well, Claudet was his favorite, and Monsieur de Buxieres has told me, over and over again, that he would make him his heir, and I shall be very much astonished if we do not find a will."
"Seurrot, my friend," replied the justice, calmly, "you are too experienced not to know that our country folks dread nothing so much as testifying to their last wishes—to make a will, to them, is to put one foot into the grave. They will not call in the priest or the notary until the very last moment, and very often they delay until it is too late. Now, as the deceased was at heart a rustic, I fear greatly that he did not carry his intentions into execution."
"That would be a pity—for the chateau, the lands, and the entire fortune would go to an heir of whom Monsieur Odouart never had taken account—to one of the younger branch of Buxieres, whom he had never seen, having quarrelled with the family."
"A cousin, I believe," said the justice.
"Yes, a Monsieur Julien de Buxieres, who is employed by the Government at Nancy."
"In fact, then, and until we receive more ample information, he is, for us, the sole legitimate heir. Has he been notified?"
"Yes, Monsieur. He has even sent his power of attorney to Monsieur Arbillot's clerk."
"So much the better," said M. Destourbet, "in that case, we can proceed regularly without delay."
While thus conversing, they had traversed the forest, and emerged on the hill overlooking Vivey. From the border line where they stood, they could discover, between the half-denuded branches of the line of aspens, the sinuous, deepset gorge, in which the Aubette wound its tortuous way, at the extremity of which the village lay embanked against an almost upright wall of thicket and pointed rocks. On the west this narrow defile was closed by a mill, standing like a sentinel on guard, in its uniform of solid gray; on each side of the river a verdant line of meadow led the eye gradually toward the clump of ancient and lofty ash-trees, behind which rose the Buxieres domicile. This magnificent grove of trees, and a monumental fence of cast-iron, were the only excuse for giving the title of chateau to a very commonplace structure, of which the main body presented bare, whitewashed walls, flanked by two small towers on turrets shaped like extinguishers, and otherwise resembling very ordinary pigeon-houses.
This chateau, or rather country squire's residence, had belonged to the Odouart de Buxieres for more than two centuries. Before the Revolution, Christophe de Buxieres, grandfather of the last proprietor, had owned a large portion of Vivey, besides several forges in operation on the Aube and Aubette rivers. He had had three children: one daughter, who had embraced religion as a vocation; Claude Antoine, the elder son, to whom he left his entire fortune, and Julien Abdon, the younger, officer in the regiment of Rohan Soubise, with whom he was not on good terms. After emigrating and serving in Conde's army, the younger Buxieres had returned to France during the Restoration, had married, and been appointed special receiver in a small town in southern France. But since his return, he had not resumed relations with his elder brother, whom he accused of having defrauded him of his rights. The older one had married also, one of the Rochetaillee family; he had had but one son, Claude Odouart de Buxieres, whose recent decease had brought about the visit of the Justice of Auberive and his clerk.
Claude de Buxieres had lived all his life at Vivey. Inheriting from his father and grandfather flourishing health and a robust constitution, he had also from them strong love for his native territory, a passion for the chase, and a horror of the constraint and decorum exacted by worldly obligations. He was a spoiled child, brought up by a weak-minded mother and a preceptor without authority, who had succeeded in imparting to him only the most elementary amount of instruction, and he had, from a very early age, taken his own pleasure as his sole rule of life. He lived side by side with peasants and poachers, and had himself become a regular country yeoman, wearing a blouse, dining at the wine-shop, and taking more pleasure in speaking the mountain patois than his own native French. The untimely death of his father, killed by an awkward huntsman while following the hounds, had emancipated him at the age of twenty years. From this period he lived his life freely, as he understood it; always in the open air, without hindrance of any sort, and entirely unrestrained.
Nothing was exaggerated in the stories told concerning him. He was a handsome fellow, jovial and dashing in his ways, and lavish with his money, so he met with few rebuffs. Married women, maids, widows, any peasant girl of attractive form or feature, all had had to resist his advances, and with more than one the resistance had been very slight. It was no false report which affirmed that he had peopled the district with his illegitimate progeny. He was not hard to please, either; strawberry-pickers, shepherd-girls, wood-pilers, day-workers, all were equally charming in his sight; he sought only youth, health, and a kindly disposition.
Marriage would have been the only safeguard for him; but aside from the fact that his reputation of reckless huntsman and general scapegrace naturally kept aloof the daughters of the nobles, and even the Langarian middle classes, he dreaded more than anything else in the world the monotonous regularity of conjugal life. He did not care to be restricted always to the same dishes—preferring, as he said, his meat sometimes roast, sometimes boiled, or even fried, according to his humor and his appetite.
Nevertheless, about the time that Claude de Buxieres attained his thirty-sixth year, it was noticed that he had a more settled air, and that his habits were becoming more sedentary. The chase was still his favorite pastime, but he frequented less places of questionable repute, seldom slept away from home, and seemed to take greater pleasure in remaining under his own roof. The cause of this change was ascribed by some to the advance of years creeping over him; others, more perspicacious, verified a curious coincidence between the entrance of a new servant in the chateau and the sudden good behavior of Claude.
This girl, a native of Aprey, named Manette Sejournant, was not, strictly speaking, a beauty, but she had magnificent blonde hair, gray, caressing eyes, and a silvery, musical voice. Well built, supple as an adder, modest and prudish in mien, she knew how to wait upon and cosset her master, accustoming him by imperceptible degrees to prefer the cuisine of the chateau to that of the wine-shops. After a while, by dint of making her merits appreciated, and her presence continually desired, she became the mistress of Odouart de Buxieres, whom she managed to retain by proving herself immeasurably superior, both in culinary skill and in sentiment, to the class of females from whom he had hitherto been seeking his creature comforts.
Matters went on in this fashion for a year or so, until Manette went on a three months' vacation. When she reappeared at the chateau, she brought with her an infant, six weeks old, which she declared was the child of a sister, lately deceased, but which bore a strange likeness to Claude. However, nobody made remarks, especially as M. de Buxieres, after he had been drinking a little, took no pains to hide his paternity. He himself held the little fellow at the baptismal font, and later, consigned him to the care of the Abbe Pernot, the curate of Vivey, who prepared the little Claudet for his first communion, at the same time that he instructed him in reading, writing, and the first four rules of arithmetic. As soon as the lad reached his fifteenth year, Claude put a gun into his hands, and took him hunting with him. Under the teaching of M. de Buxieres, Claudet did honor to his master, and soon became such an expert that he could give points to all the huntsmen of the canton. None could equal him in tracing a dog; he knew all the passes, by-paths, and enclosures of the forest; swooped down upon the game with the keen scent and the velocity of a bird of prey, and never was known to miss his mark. Thus it was that the country people surnamed him the 'grand chasserot', the term which we here apply to the sparrow-hawk. Besides all these advantages, he was handsome, alert, straight, and well made, dark-haired and olive-skinned, like all the Buxieres; he had his mother's caressing glance, but also the overhanging eyelids and somewhat stern expression of his father, from whom he inherited also a passionate temperament, and a spirit averse to all kinds of restraint. They were fond of him throughout the country, and M. de Buxieres, who felt his youth renewed in him, was very proud of his adroitness and his good looks. He would invite him to his pleasure parties, and make him sit at his own table, and confided unhesitatingly all his secrets to him. In short, Claudet, finding himself quite at home at the chateau, naturally considered himself as one of the family. There was but one formality wanting to that end: recognizance according to law. At certain favorable times, Manette Sejournant would gently urge M. de Buxieres to have the situation legally authorized, to which he would invariably reply, from a natural dislike to taking legal advisers into his confidence:
"Don't worry about anything; I have no direct heir, and Claudet will have all my fortune; my will and testament will be worth more to him than a legal acknowledgment."
He would refer so often and so decidedly to his settled intention of making Claudet his sole heir, that Manette, who knew very little about what was required in such cases, considered the matter already secure. She continued in unsuspecting serenity until Claude de Buxieres, in his sixty-second year, died suddenly from a stroke of apoplexy.
The will, which was to insure Claudet's future prospects, and to which the deceased had so often alluded, did it really exist? Neither Manette nor the grand chasserot had been able to obtain any certain knowledge in the matter, the hasty search for it after the decease having been suddenly interrupted by the arrival of the mayor of Vivey; and by the proceedings of the justice of the peace. The seals being once imposed, there was no means, in the absence of a verified will, of ascertaining on whom the inheritance devolved, until the opening of the inventory; and thus the Sejournants awaited with feverish anxiety the return of the justice of the peace and his bailiff.
M. Destourbet and Stephen Seurrot pushed open a small door to the right of the main gateway, passed rapidly under the arched canopy of beeches, the leaves of which, just touched by the first frost, were already falling from the branches, and, stamping their muddy feet on the outer steps, advanced into the vestibule. The wide corridor, flagged with black-and-white pavement, presented a cheerless aspect of bare walls discolored by damp, and adorned alternately by stags' heads and family portraits in a crumbling state of decay. The floor was thus divided: on the right, the dining-room and the kitchen; on the left, drawing-room and a billiard-hall. A stone staircase, built in one of the turrets, led to the upper floors. Only one of these rooms, the kitchen, which the justice and his bailiff entered, was occupied by the household. A cold light, equally diffused in all directions, and falling from a large window, facing north across the gardens, allowed every detail of the apartment to be seen clearly; opposite the door of entrance, the tall chimney-place, with its deep embrasure, gave ample shelter to the notary, who installed himself upon a stool and lighted his pipe at one of the embers, while his principal clerk sat at the long table, itemizing the objects contained in the inventory.
In the opposite angle of the chimney-place, a lad of twenty-four years, no other than Claudet, called by the friendly nickname of the grand chasserot, kept company with the notary, while he toyed, in an absent fashion, with the silky ears of a spaniel, whose fluffy little head lay in his lap. Behind him, Manette Sejournant stood putting away her shawl and prayerbook in a closet. A mass had been said in the morning at the church, for the repose of the soul of the late Claude de Buxieres, and mother and son had donned their Sunday garments to assist at the ceremony.
Claudet appeared ill at ease in his black, tightly buttoned suit, and kept his eyes with their heavy lids steadily bent upon the head of the animal. To all the notary's questions, he replied only by monosyllables, passing his fingers every now and then through his bushy brown locks, and twining them in his forked beard, a sure indication with him of preoccupation and bad humor.
Manette had acquired with years an amount of embonpoint which detracted materially from the supple and undulating beauty which had so captivated Claude de Buxieres. The imprisonment of a tight corset caused undue development of the bust at the expense of her neck and throat, which seemed disproportionately short and thick. Her cheeks had lost their gracious curves and her double chin was more pronounced. All that remained of her former attractions were the caressing glance of her eye, tresses still golden and abundant, especially as seen under the close cap of black net, white teeth, and a voice that had lost nothing of its insinuating sweetness.
As the justice and his bailiff entered, Maitre Arbillot, and a petulant little man with squirrel-like eyes and a small moustache, arose quickly.
"Good-morning, gentlemen," he cried. "I was anxiously expecting you—if you are willing, we will begin our work at once, for at this season night comes on quickly."
"At your orders, Maitre Arbillot," replied the justice, laying his hat down carefully on the window-sill; "we shall draw out the formula for raising the seals. By the way, has no will yet been found?"
"None to my knowledge. It is quite clear to me that the deceased made no testament, none at least before a notary."
"But," objected M. Destourbet, "he may have executed a holograph testament."
"It is certain, gentlemen," interrupted Manette, with her soft, plaintive voice, "that our dear gentleman did not go without putting his affairs in order. 'Manette,' said he, not more than two weeks ago; 'I do not intend you shall be worried, neither you nor Claudet, when I am no longer here. All shall be arranged to your satisfaction.' Oh! he certainly must have put down his last wishes on paper. Look well around, gentlemen; you will find a will in some drawer or other."
While she applied her handkerchief ostentatiously to her nose and wiped her eyes, the justice exchanged glances with the notary.
"Maitre Arbillot, you think doubtless with me, that we ought to begin operations by examining the furniture of the bedroom?"
The notary inclined his head, and notified his chief clerk to remove his papers to the first floor.
"Show us the way, Madame," said the justice to the housekeeper; and the quartet of men of the law followed Manette, carrying with them a huge bunch of keys.
Claudet had risen from his seat when the justice arrived. As the party moved onward, he followed hesitatingly, and then halted, uncertain how to decide between the desire to assist in the search and the fear of intruding. The notary, noticing his hesitation; called to him:
"Come, you also, Claudet, are not you one of the guardians of the seals?"
And they wended their silent way, up the winding staircase of the turret. The high, dark silhouette of Manette headed the procession; then followed the justice, carefully choosing his foothold on the well-worn stairs, the asthmatic old bailiff, breathing short and hard, the notary, beating his foot impatiently every time that Seurrot stopped to take breath, and finally the principal clerk and Claudet.
Manette, opening noiselessly the door of the deceased's room, entered, as if it were a church, the somewhat stifling apartment. Then she threw open the shutters, and the afternoon sun revealed an interior decorated and furnished in the style of the close of the eighteenth century. An inlaid secretary, with white marble top and copper fittings, stood near the bed, of which the coverings had been removed, showing the mattresses piled up under a down bed covered with blue-and-white check.
As soon as the door was closed, the clerk settled himself at the table with his packet of stamped paper, and began to run over, in a low, rapid voice, the preliminaries of the inventory. In this confused murmuring some fragments of phrases would occasionally strike the ear: "Chateau of Vivey—deceased the eighth of October last—at the requisition of Marie-Julien de Buxieres, comptroller of direct contributions at Nancy—styling himself heir to Claude Odouart de Buxieres, his cousin-german by blood—"
This last phrase elicited from Claudet a sudden movement of surprise.
"The inventory," explained Maitre Arbillot, "is drawn up at the requisition of the only heir named, to whom we must make application, if necessary, for the property left by the deceased."
There was a moment of silence, interrupted by a plaintive sigh from Manette Sejournant and afterward by the tearing sound of the sealed bands across the bureau, the drawers and pigeonholes of which were promptly ransacked by the justice and his assistant.
Odouart de Buxieres had not been much of a scribe. A double Liege almanac, a memorandum-book, in which he had entered the money received from the sale of his wood and the dates of the payments made by his farmers; a daybook, in which he had made careful note of the number of head of game killed each day—that was all the bureau contained.
"Let us examine another piece of furniture," murmured the justice.
Manette and Claudet remained unmoved. They apparently knew the reason why none but insignificant papers had been found in the drawers, for their features expressed neither surprise nor disappointment.
Another search through a high chest of drawers with large copper handles was equally unprofitable. Then they attacked the secretary, and after the key had been turned twice in the noisy lock, the lid went slowly down. The countenances of both mother and son, hitherto so unconcerned, underwent a slight but anxious change. The bailiff continued his scrupulous search of each drawer under the watchful eye of the justice, finding nothing but documents of mediocre importance; old titles to property, bundles of letters, tradesmen's bills, etc. Suddenly, at the opening of the last drawer, a significant "Ah!" from Stephen Seurrot drew round him the heads of the justice and the notary, and made Manette and Claudet, standing at the foot of the bed, start with expectation. On the dark ground of a rosewood box lay a sheet of white paper, on which was written:
"This is my testament."
With the compression of lip and significant shake of the head of a physician about to take in hand a hopeless case of illness, the justice made known to his two neighbors the text of the sheet of paper, on which Claude Odouart de Buxieres had written, in his coarse, ill-regulated hand, the following lines:
"Not knowing my collateral heirs, and caring nothing about them, I give and bequeath all my goods and chattels—"
The testator had stopped there, either because he thought it better, before going any further, to consult some legal authority more experienced than himself, or because he had been interrupted in his labor and had deferred completing this testifying of his last will until some future opportunity.
M. Destourbet, after once more reading aloud this unfinished sentence, exclaimed:
"Monsieur de Buxieres did not finish—it is much to be regretted!"
"My God! is it possible?" interrupted the housekeeper; "you think, then, Monsieur justice, that Claudet does not inherit anything?"
"According to my idea," replied he, "we have here only a scrap of unimportant paper; the name of the legatee is not indicated, and even were it indicated, the testament would still be without force, being neither dated nor signed."
"But perhaps Monsieur de Buxieres made another?"
"I think not; I am more inclined to suppose that he did not have time to complete the arrangements that he wished to make, and the proof lies in the very existence of this incomplete document in the only piece of furniture in which he kept his papers." Then, turning toward the notary and the bailiff: "You are doubtless, gentlemen, of the same opinion as myself; it will be wise, therefore, to defer raising the remainder of the seals until the arrival of the legal heir. Maitre Arbillot, Monsieur Julien de Buxieres must be notified, and asked to be here in Vivey as soon as possible."
"I will write this evening," said the notary; "in the meanwhile, the keeping of the seals will be continued by Claudet Sejournant."
The justice inclined his head to Manette, who was standing, pale and motionless, at the foot of the bed; stunned by the unexpected announcement; the bailiff and the chief clerk, after gathering up their papers, shook hands sympathizingly with Claudet.
"I am grieved to the heart, my dear fellow," said the notary, in his turn, "at what has happened! It is hard to swallow, but you will always keep a courageous heart, and be able to rise to the top; besides, even if, legally, you own nothing here, this unfinished testament of Monsieur de Buxieres will constitute a moral title in your favor, and I trust that the heir will have enough justice and right feeling to treat you properly."
"I want nothing from him!" muttered Claudet, between his teeth; then, leaving his mother to attend to the rest of the legal fraternity, he went hastily to his room, next that of the deceased, tore off his dress-coat, slipped on a hunting-coat, put on his gaiters, donned his old felt hat, and descended to the kitchen, where Manette was sitting, huddled up in front of the embers, weeping and bewailing her fate.
Since she had become housekeeper and mistress of the Buxieres household, she had adopted a more polished speech and a more purely French mode of expression, but in this moment of discouragement and despair the rude dialect of her native country rose to her lips, and in her own patois she inveighed against the deceased:
"Ah! the bad man, the mean man! Didn't I tell him, time and again, that he would leave us in trouble! Where can we seek our bread this late in the day? We shall have to beg in the streets!"
"Hush! hush! mother," interrupted Claudet, sternly, placing his hand on her shoulder, "it does not mend matters to give way like that. Calm thyself—so long as I have hands on the ends of my arms, we never shall be beggars. But I must go out—I need air."
And crossing the gardens rapidly, he soon reached the outskirts of the brambly thicket.
This landscape, both rugged and smiling in its wildness, hardly conveyed the idea of silence, but rather of profound meditation, absolute calm; the calmness of solitude, the religious meditation induced by spacious forest depths. The woods seemed asleep, and the low murmurings, which from time to time escaped from their recesses, seemed like the unconscious sighs exhaled by a dreamer. The very odor peculiar to trees in autumn, the penetrating and spicy odor of the dying leaves, had a delicate and subtle aroma harmonizing with this quietude of fairyland.
Now and then, through the vaporous golden atmosphere of the late autumn sunset, through the pensive stillness of the hushed woods, the distant sound of feminine voices, calling to one another, echoed from the hills, and beyond the hedges was heard the crackling of branches, snapped by invisible hands, and the rattle of nuts dropping on the earth. It was the noise made by the gatherers of beechnuts, for in the years when the beech produces abundantly, this harvest, under the sanction of the guardians of the forest, draws together the whole population of women and children, who collect these triangular nuts, from which an excellent species of oil is procured.
Wending his way along the copse, Claudet suddenly perceived, through an opening in the trees, several large white sheets spread under the beeches, and covered with brown heaps of the fallen fruit. One or two familiar voices hailed him as he passed, but he was not disposed to gossip, for the moment, and turned abruptly into the bushwood, so as to avoid any encounter. The unexpected event which had just taken place, and which was to change his present mode of life, as well as his plans for the future, was of too recent occurrence for him to view it with any degree of calmness.
He was like a man who has received a violent blow on the head, and is for the moment stunned by it. He suffered vaguely, without seeking to know from what cause; he had not been able as yet to realize the extent of his misfortune; and every now and then a vague hope came over him that all would come right.
So on he went, straight ahead, his eyes on the ground, and his hands in his pockets, until he emerged upon one of the old forest roads where the grass had begun to burst through the stony interstices; and there, in the distance, under the light tracery of weaving branches, a delicate female silhouette was outlined on the dark background. A young woman, dressed in a petticoat of gray woolen material, and a jacket of the same, close-fitting at the waist, her arms bare to the elbows and supporting on her head a bag of nuts enveloped in a white sheet, advanced toward him with a quick and rhythmical step. The manner in which she carried her burden showed the elegance of her form, the perfect grace of her chest and throat. She was not very tall, but finely proportioned. As she approached, the slanting rays of the setting sun shone on her heavy brown hair, twisted into a thick coil at the back of her head, and revealed the amber paleness of her clear skin, the long oval of her eyes, the firm outline of her chin and somewhat full lips; and Claudet, roused from his lethargic reverie by the sound of her rapid footsteps, raised his eyes, and recognized the daughter of Pere Vincart, the proprietor of La Thuiliere.
At the same moment, the young girl, doubtless fatigued with the weight of her bundle, had laid it down by the roadside while she recovered her breath. In a few seconds Claudet was by her side.
"Good-evening, Reine," said he, in a voice singularly softened in tone, "shall I give you a lift with that?"
"Good-evening, Claudet," replied she; "truly, now, that is not an offer to be refused. The weight is greater than I thought."
"Have you come far thus laden?"
"No; our people are nutting in the Bois des Ronces; I came on before, because I don't like to leave father alone for long at a time and, as I was coming, I wished to bring my share with me."
"No one can reproach you with shirking work, Reine, nor of being afraid to take hold of things. To see you all day trotting about the farm, no one would think you had been to school in the city, like a young lady."
And Claudet's countenance became irradiated with a glow of innocent and tender admiration. It was evident that his eyes looked with delight into the dark limpid orbs of Reine, on her pure and rosy lips, and on her partly uncovered neck, the whiteness of which two little brown moles only served to enhance.
"How can it be helped?" replied she, smiling, "it must be done; when there is no man in the house to give orders, the women must take a hand themselves. My father was not very strong when my mother died, and since he had that attack he has become quite helpless, and I have had to take his place."
While she spoke, Claudet took hold of the bundle, and, lifting it as if it had been a feather, threw it over his shoulder. They walked on, side by side, in the direction of La Thuliere; the sun had set, and a penetrating moisture, arising from the damp soil of the adjacent pasture lands, encircled them in a bluish fog.
"So he is worse, your father, is he?" said Claudet, after a moment's silence.
"He can not move from his armchair, his mental faculties are weakening, and I am obliged to amuse him like a child. But how is it with yourself, Claudet?" she asked, turning her frank, cordial gaze upon him. "You have had your share of trouble since we last met, and great events have happened. Poor Monsieur de Buxieres was taken away very suddenly!"
The close relationship that united Claudet with the deceased was a secret to no one; Reine, as well as all the country people, knew and admitted the fact, however irregular, as one sanctioned by time and continuity. Therefore, in speaking to the young man, her voice had that tone of affectionate interest usual in conversing with a bereaved friend on a death that concerns him.
The countenance of the 'grand chasserot', which had cleared for a time under her influence, became again clouded.
"Yes;" sighed he, "he was taken too soon!"
"And now, Claudet, you are sole master at the chateau?"
"Neither—master—nor even valet!" he returned, with such bitterness that the young girl stood still with surprise.
"What do you mean?" she exclaimed, "was it not agreed with Monsieur de Buxieres that you should inherit all his property?"
"Such was his intention, but he did not have time to put it in execution; he died without leaving any will, and, as I am nothing in the eye of the law, the patrimony will go to a distant relative, a de Buxieres whom Monsieur Odouart did not even know."
Reine's dark eyes filled with tears.
"What a misfortune!" she exclaimed, "and who could have expected such a thing? Oh! my poor Claudet!"
She was so moved, and spoke with such sincere compassion, that Claudet was perhaps misled, and thought he read in her glistening eyes a tenderer sentiment than pity; he trembled, took her hand, and held it long in his.
"Thank you, Reine! Yes," he added, after a pause, "it is a rude shock to wake up one morning without hearth or home, when one has been in the habit of living on one's income."
"What do you intend to do?" inquired Reine, gravely.
Claudet shrugged his shoulders.
"To work for my bread—or, if I can find no suitable trade, enlist in a regiment. I think I should not make a bad soldier. Everything is going round and round in my head like a millwheel. The first thing to do is to see about my mother, who is lamenting down there at the house—I must find her a comfortable place to live."
The young girl had become very thoughtful.
"Claudet," replied she, "I know you are very proud, very sensitive, and could not wish to hurt your feelings. Therefore, I pray you not to take in ill part that which I am going to say-in short, if you should get into any trouble, you will, I hope, remember that you have friends at La Thuiliere, and that you will come to seek us."
The 'grand chasserot' reddened.
"I shall never take amiss what you may say to me, Reine!" faltered he; "for I can not doubt your good heart—I have known it since the time when we played together in the cure's garden, while waiting for the time to repeat the catechism. But there is no hurry as yet; the heir will not arrive for several weeks, and by that time, I trust, we shall have had a chance to turn round."
They had reached the boundary of the forest where the fields of La Thuiliere begin.
By the last fading light of day they could distinguish the black outline of the ancient forge, now become a grange, and a light was twinkling in one of the low windows of the farm.
"Here you are at home," continued Claudet, laying the bundle of nuts on the flat stone wall which surrounded the farm buildings; "I wish you good-night."
"Will you not come in and get warm?"
"No; I must go back," replied he.
"Good-night, then, Claudet; au revoir and good courage!"
He gazed at her for a moment in the deepening twilight, then, abruptly pressing her hands:
"Thank you, Reine," murmured he in a choking voice, "you are a good girl, and I love you very much!"
He left the young mistress of the farm precipitately, and plunged again into the woods.
CHAPTER II. THE HEIR TO VIVEY
While these events were happening at Vivey, the person whose name excited the curiosity and the conversational powers of the villagers—Marie-Julien de Buxieres—ensconced in his unpretentious apartment in the Rue Stanislaus, Nancy, still pondered over the astonishing news contained in the Auberive notary's first letter. The announcement of his inheritance, dropping from the skies, as it were, had found him quite unprepared, and, at first, somewhat sceptical. He remembered, it is true, hearing his father once speak of a cousin who had remained a bachelor and who owned a fine piece of property in some corner of the Haute Marne; but, as all intercourse had long been broken off between the two families, M. de Buxieres the elder had mentioned the subject only in relation to barely possible hopes which had very little chance of being realized. Julien had never placed any reliance on this chimerical inheritance, and he received almost with indifference the official announcement of the death of Claude Odouart de Buxieres.
By direct line from his late father, he became in fact the only legitimate heir of the chateau and lands of Vivey; still, there was a strong probability that Claude de Buxieres had made a will in favor of some one more within his own circle. The second missive from Arbillot the notary, announcing that the deceased had died intestate, and requesting the legal heir to come to Vivey as soon as possible, put a sudden end to the young man's doubts, which merged into a complex feeling, less of joy than of stupefaction.
Up to the present time, Julien de Buxieres had not been spoiled by Fortune's gifts. His parents, who had died prematurely, had left him nothing. He lived in a very mediocre style on his slender salary as comptroller of direct contributions, and, although twenty-seven years old, was housed like a supernumerary in a small furnished room on the second floor above the ground. At this time his physique was that of a young man of medium height, slight, pale, and nervous, sensitive in disposition, reserved and introspective in habit. His delicate features, his intelligent forehead surmounted by soft chestnut hair, his pathetic blue eyes, his curved, dissatisfied mouth, shaded by a slight, dark moustache, indicated a melancholy, unquiet temperament and precocious moral fatigue.
There are some men who never have had any childhood, or rather, whose childhood never has had its happy time of laughter. Julien was one of these. That which imparts to childhood its charm and enjoyment is the warm and tender atmosphere of the home; the constant and continued caressing of a mother; the gentle and intimate creations of one's native country where, by degrees, the senses awaken to the marvellous sights of the outer world; where the alternating seasons in their course first arouse the student's ambition and cause the heart of the adolescent youth to thrill with emotion; where every street corner, every tree, every turn of the soil, has some history to relate. Julien had had no experiences of this peaceful family life, during which are stored up such treasures of childhood's recollections. He was the son of a government official, who had been trotted over all France at the caprice of the administration, and he had never known, so to speak, any associations of the land in which he was born, or the hearth on which he was raised. Chance had located his birth in a small town among the Pyrenees, and when he was two years old he had been transplanted to one of the industrial cities of Artois. At the end of two years more came another removal to one of the midland towns, and thus his tender childhood had been buffeted about, from east to west, from north to south, taking root nowhere. All he could remember of these early years was an unpleasant impression of hasty packing and removal, of long journeys by diligence, and of uncomfortable resettling. His mother had died just as he was entering upon his eighth year; his father, absorbed in official work, and not caring to leave the child to the management of servants, had placed him at that early age in a college directed by priests. Julien thus passed his second term of childhood, and his boyhood was spent behind these stern, gloomy walls, bending resignedly under a discipline which, though gentle, was narrow and suspicious, and allowed little scope for personal development. He obtained only occasional glimpses of nature during the monotonous daily walks across a flat, meaningless country. At very rare intervals, one of his father's colleagues would take him visiting; but these stiff and ceremonious calls only left a wearisome sensation of restraint and dull fatigue. During the long vacation he used to rejoin his father, whom he almost always found in a new residence. The poor man had alighted there for a time, like a bird on a tree; and among these continually shifting scenes, the lad had felt himself more than ever a stranger among strangers; so that he experienced always a secret though joyless satisfaction in returning to the cloisters of the St. Hilaire college and submitting himself to the yoke of the paternal but inflexible discipline of the Church.
He was naturally inclined, by the tenderness of his nature, toward a devotional life, and accepted with blind confidence the religious and moral teaching of the reverend fathers. A doctrine which preached separation from profane things; the attractions of a meditative and pious life, and mistrust of the world and its perilous pleasures, harmonized with the shy and melancholy timidity of his nature. Human beings, especially women, inspired him with secret aversion, which was increased by consciousness of his awkwardness and remissness whenever he found himself in the society of women or young girls.
The beauties of nature did not affect him; the flowers in the springtime, the glories of the summer sun, the rich coloring of autumn skies, having no connection in his mind with any joyous recollection, left him cold and unmoved; he even professed an almost hostile indifference to such purely material sights as disturbing and dangerous to the inner life. He lived within himself and could not see beyond.
His mind, imbued with a mystic idealism, delighted itself in solitary reading or in meditations in the house of prayer. The only emotion he ever betrayed was caused by the organ music accompanying the hymnal plain-song, and by the pomp of religious ceremony.
At the age of eighteen, he left the St. Hilaire college in order to prepare his baccalaureate, and his father, becoming alarmed at his increasing moodiness and mysticism, endeavored to infuse into him the tastes and habits of a man of the world by introducing him into the society of his equals in the town where he lived; but the twig was already bent, and the young man yielded with bad grace to the change of regime; the amusements they offered were either wearisome or repugnant to him. He would wander aimlessly through the salons where they were playing whist, where the ladies played show pieces at the piano, and where they spoke a language he did not understand. He was quite aware of his worldly inaptitude, and that he was considered awkward, dull, and ill-tempered, and the knowledge of this fact paralyzed and frightened him still more. He could not disguise his feeling of ennui sufficiently to prevent the provincial circles from being greatly offended; they declared unanimously that young de Buxieres was a bear, and decided to leave him alone. The death of his father, which happened just as the youth was beginning his official cares, put a sudden end to all this constraint. He took advantage of his season of mourning to resume his old ways; and returned with a sigh of relief to his solitude, his books, and his meditations. According to the promise of the Imitation, he found unspeakable joys in his retirement; he rose at break of day, assisted at early mass, fulfilled, conscientiously, his administrative duties, took his hurried meals in a boardinghouse, where he exchanged a few polite remarks with his fellow inmates, then shut himself up in his room to read Pascal or Bossuet until eleven o'clock.
He thus attained his twenty-seventh year, and it was into the calm of this serious, cloister-like life, that the news fell of the death of Claude de Buxieres and of the unexpected inheritance that had accrued to him.
After entering into correspondence with the notary, M. Arbillot, and becoming assured of the reality of his rights and of the necessity of his presence at Vivey, he had obtained leave of absence from his official duties, and set out for Haute Marne. On the way, he could not help marvelling at the providential interposition which would enable him to leave a career for which he felt he had no vocation, and to pursue his independent life, according to his own tastes, and secured from any fear of outside cares. According to the account given by the notary, Claude de Buxieres's fortune might be valued at two hundred thousand francs, in furniture and other movables, without reckoning the chateau and the adjacent woods. This was a much larger sum than had ever been dreamed of by Julien de Buxieres, whose belongings did not amount in all to three thousand francs. He made up his mind, therefore, that, as soon as he was installed at Vivey, he would change his leave of absence to an unlimited furlough of freedom. He contemplated with serene satisfaction this perspective view of calm and solitary retirement in a chateau lost to view in the depths of the forest, where he could in perfect security give himself up to the studious contemplative life which he loved so much, far from all worldly frivolities and restraint. He already imagined himself at Vivey, shut up in his carefully selected library; he delighted in the thought of having in future to deal only with the country people, whose uncivilized ways would be like his own, and among whom his timidity would not be remarked.
He arrived at Langres in the afternoon of a foggy October day, and inquired immediately at the hotel how he could procure a carriage to take him that evening to Vivey. They found him a driver, but, to his surprise, the man refused to take the journey until the following morning, on account of the dangerous state of the crossroads, where vehicles might stick fast in the mire if they ventured there after nightfall. Julien vainly endeavored to effect an arrangement with him, and the discussion was prolonged in the courtyard of the hotel. Just as the man was turning away, another, who had overheard the end of the colloquy, came up to young de Buxieres, and offered to undertake the journey for twenty francs.
"I have a good horse," said he to Julien; "I know the roads, and will guarantee that we reach Vivey before nightfall."
The bargain was quickly made; and in half an hour, Julien de Buxieres was rolling over the plain above Langres, in a shaky old cabriolet, the muddy hood of which bobbed over at every turn of the wheel, while the horse kept up a lively trot over the stones.
The clouds were low, and the road lay across bare and stony prairies, the gray expanse of which became lost in the distant mist. This depressing landscape would have made a disagreeable impression on a less unobserving traveller, but, as we have said, Julien looked only inward, and the phenomena of the exterior world influenced him only unconsciously. Half closing his eyes, and mechanically affected by the rhythmical tintinnabulation of the little bells, hanging around the horse's neck, he had resumed his meditations, and considered how he should arrange his life in this, to him, unknown country, which would probably be his own for some time to come. Nevertheless, when, at the end of the level plain, the road turned off into the wooded region, the unusual aspect of the forest aroused his curiosity. The tufted woods and lofty trees, in endless succession under the fading light, impressed him by their profound solitude and their religious silence. His loneliness was in sympathy with the forest, which seemed contemporary with the Sleeping Beauty of the wood, the verdant walls of which were to separate him forever from the world of cities. Henceforth, he could be himself, could move freely, dress as he wished, or give way to his dreaming, without fearing to encounter the ironical looks of idle and wondering neighbors. For the first time since his departure from his former home, he experienced a feeling of joy and serenity; the influence of the surroundings, so much in harmony with his wishes, unlocked his tongue, and made him communicative.
He made up his mind to speak to the guide, who was smoking at his side and whipping his horse.
"Are we far from Vivey now?"
"That depends, Monsieur—as the crow flies, the distance is not very great, and if we could go by the roads, we should be there in one short hour. Unfortunately, on turning by the Allofroy farm, we shall have to leave the highroad and take the cross path; and then—my gracious! we shall plunge into the ditch down there, and into perdition."
"You told me that you were well acquainted with the roads!"
"I know them, and I do not know them. When it comes to these crossroads, one is sure of nothing. They change every year, and each new superintendent cuts a way out through the woods according to his fancy. The devil himself could not find his way."
"Yet you have been to Vivey before?"
"Oh, yes; five or six years ago; I used often to take parties of hunters to the chateau. Ah! Monsieur, what a beautiful country it is for hunting; you can not take twenty steps along a trench without seeing a stag or a deer."
"You have doubtless had the opportunity of meeting Monsieur Odouart de Buxieres?"
"Yes, indeed, Monsieur, more than once-ah! he is a jolly fellow and a fine man—"
"He was," interrupted Julien, gravely, "for he is dead."
"Ah! excuse me—I did not know it. What! is he really dead? So fine a man! What we must all come to. Careful, now!" added he, pulling in the reins, "we are leaving the highroad, and must keep our eyes open."
The twilight was already deepening, the driver lighted his lantern, and the vehicle turned into a narrow lane, half mud, half stone, and hedged in on both sides with wet brushwood, which flapped noisily against the leathern hood. After fifteen minutes' riding, the paths opened upon a pasture, dotted here and there with juniper bushes, and thence divided into three lines, along which ran the deep track of wagons, cutting the pasturage into small hillocks. After long hesitation, the man cracked his whip and took the right-hand path.
Julien began to fear that the fellow had boasted too much when he declared that he knew the best way. The ruts became deeper and deeper; the road was descending into a hole; suddenly, the wheels became embedded up to the hub in thick, sticky mire, and the horse refused to move. The driver jumped to the ground, swearing furiously; then he called Julien to help him to lift out the wheel. But the young man, slender and frail as he was, and not accustomed to using his muscles, was not able to render much assistance.
"Thunder and lightning!" cried the driver, "it is impossible to get out of this—let go the wheel, Monsieur, you have no more strength than a chicken, and, besides, you don't know how to go about it. What a devil of a road! But we can't spend the night here!"
"If we were to call out," suggested Julien, somewhat mortified at the inefficiency of his assistance, "some one would perhaps come to our aid."
They accordingly shouted with desperation; and after five or six minutes, a voice hailed back. A woodcutter, from one of the neighboring clearings, had heard the call, and was running toward them.
"This way!" cried the guide, "we are stuck fast in the mud. Give us a lift."
The man came up and walked round the vehicle, shaking his head.
"You've got on to a blind road," said he, "and you'll have trouble in getting out of it, seeing as how there's not light to go by. You had better unharness the horse, and wait for daylight, if you want to get your carriage out."
"And where shall we go for a bed?" growled the driver; "there isn't even a house near in this accursed wild country of yours!"
"Excuse me-you are not far from La Thuiliere; the farm people will not refuse you a bed, and to-morrow morning they will help you to get your carriage out of the mud. Unharness, comrade; I will lead you as far as the Plancheau-Vacher; and from there you will see the windows of the farmhouse."
The driver, still grumbling, decided to take his advice. They unharnessed the horse; took one of the lanterns of the carriage as a beacon, and followed slowly the line of pasture-land, under the woodchopper's guidance. At the end of about ten minutes, the forester pointed out a light, twinkling at the extremity of a rustic path, bordered with moss.
"You have only to go straight ahead," said he, "besides, the barking of the dogs will guide you. Ask for Mamselle Vincart. Good-night, gentlemen."
He turned on his heel, while Julien, bewildered, began to reproach himself for not having thanked him enough. The conductor went along with his lantern; young de Buxieres followed him with eyes downcast. Thus they continued silently until they reached the termination of the mossy path, where a furious barking saluted their ears.
"Here we are," growled the driver, "fortunately the dogs are not yet let loose, or we should pass a bad quarter of an hour!"
They pushed open a side-wicket and, standing in the courtyard, could see the house. With the exception of the luminous spot that reddened one of the windows of the ground floor, the long, low facade was dark, and, as it were, asleep. On the right, standing alone, outlined against the sky, was the main building of the ancient forge, now used for granaries and stables; inside, the frantic barking of the watch-dogs mingled with the bleating of the frightened sheep, the neighing of horses, and the clanking of wooden shoes worn by the farm hands. At the same moment, the door of the house opened, and a servant, attracted by the uproar, appeared on the threshold, a lantern in her hand.
"Hallo! you people," she exclaimed sharply to the newcomers, who were advancing toward her, "what do you want?"
The driver related, in a few words, the affair of the cabriolet, and asked whether they would house him at the farm until the next day—himself and the gentleman he was conducting to Vivey.
The girl raised the lantern above her head in order to scrutinize the two strangers; doubtless their appearance and air of respectability reassured her, for she replied, in a milder voice:
"Well, that does not depend on me—I am not the mistress here, but come in, all the same—Mamselle Reine can not be long now, and she will answer for herself."
As soon as the driver had fastened his horse to one of the outside posts of the wicket-gate, the servant brought them into a large, square hall, in which a lamp, covered with a shade, gave a moderate light. She placed two chairs before the fire, which she drew together with the poker.
"Warm yourselves while you are waiting," continued she, "it will not be long, and you must excuse me—I must go and milk the cows—that is work which will not wait."
She reached the courtyard, and shut the gate after her, while Julien turned to examine the room into which they had been shown, and felt a certain serenity creep over him at the clean and cheerful aspect of this homely but comfortable interior. The room served as both kitchen and dining-room. On the right of the flaring chimney, one of the cast-iron arrangements called a cooking-stove was gently humming; the saucepans, resting on the bars, exhaled various appetizing odors. In the centre, the long, massive table of solid beech was already spread with its coarse linen cloth, and the service was laid. White muslin curtains fell in front of the large windows, on the sills of which potted chrysanthemums spread their white, brown, and red blossoms.
Round the walls a shining battery of boilers, kettles, basins, and copper plates were hung in symmetrical order. On the dresser, near the clock, was a complete service of old Aprey china, in bright and varied colors, and not far from the chimney, which was ornamented with a crucifix of yellow copper, was a set of shelves, attached to the wall, containing three rows of books, in gray linen binding. Julien, approaching, read, not without surprise, some of the titles: Paul and Virginia, La Fontaine's Fables, Gessner's Idylls, Don Quixote, and noticed several odd volumes of the Picturesque Magazine.
Hanging from the whitened ceiling were clusters of nuts, twisted hemp, strings of yellow maize, and chaplets of golden pippins tied with straw, all harmonizing in the dim light, and adding increased fulness to the picture of thrift and abundance.
"It's jolly here!" said the driver, smacking his lips, "and the smell which comes from that oven makes one hungry. I wish Mamselle Reine would arrive!"
Just as he said this, a mysterious falsetto voice, which seemed to come from behind the copper basins, repeated, in an acrid voice: "Reine! Reine!"
"What in the world is that?" exclaimed the driver, puzzled.
Both looked toward the beams; at the same moment there was a rustling of wings, a light hop, and a black-and-white object flitted by, resting, finally, on one of the shelves hanging from the joists.
"Ha, ha!" said the driver, laughing, "it is only a magpie!"
He had hardly said it, when, like a plaintive echo, another voice, a human voice this time, childish and wavering, proceeding from a dark corner, faltered: "Rei-eine—Rei-eine!"
"Hark!" murmured Julien, "some one answered."
His companion seized the lamp, and advanced toward the portion of the room left in shadow. Suddenly he stopped short, and stammered some vague excuse.
Julien, who followed him, then perceived, with alarm, in a sort of niche formed by two screens, entirely covered with illustrations from Epinal, a strange-looking being stretched in an easy-chair, which was covered with pillows and almost hidden under various woolen draperies. He was dressed in a long coat of coarse, pale-blue cloth. He was bareheaded, and his long, white hair formed a weird frame for a face of bloodless hue and meagre proportions, from which two vacant eyes stared fixedly. He sat immovable and his arms hung limply over his knees.
"Monsieur," said Julien, bowing ceremoniously, "we are quite ashamed at having disturbed you. Your servant forgot to inform us of your presence, and we were waiting for Mademoiselle Reine, without thinking that—"
The old man continued immovable, not seeming to understand; he kept repeating, in the same voice, like a frightened child:
The two bewildered travellers gazed at this sepulchral-looking personage, then at each other interrogatively, and began to feel very uncomfortable. The magpie, perched upon the hanging shelf, suddenly flapped his wings, and repeated, in his turn, in falsetto:
"Reine, queen of the woods!"
"Here I am, papa, don't get uneasy!" said a clear, musical voice behind them.
The door had been suddenly opened, and Reine Vincart had entered. She wore on her head a white cape or hood, and held in front of her an enormous bouquet of glistening leaves, which seemed to have been gathered as specimens of all the wild fruit-trees of the forest: the brown beam-berries, the laburnums, and wild cherry, with their red, transparent fruit, the bluish mulberry, the orange-clustered mountain-ash. All this forest vegetation, mingling its black or purple tints with the dark, moist leaves, brought out the whiteness of the young girl's complexion, her limpid eyes, and her brown curls escaping from her hood.
Julien de Buxieres and his companion had turned at the sound of Reine's voice. As soon as she perceived them, she went briskly toward them, exclaiming:
"What are you doing here? Don't you see that you are frightening him?"
Julien, humbled and mortified, murmured an excuse, and got confused in trying to relate the incident of the carriage. She interrupted him hurriedly:
"The carriage, oh, yes—La Guitiote spoke to me about it. Well, your carriage will be attended to! Go and sit down by the fire, gentlemen; we will talk about it presently."
She had taken the light from the driver, and placed it on an adjacent table with her plants. In the twinkling of an eye, she removed her hood, unfastened her shawl, and then knelt down in front of the sick man, after kissing him tenderly on the forehead. From the corner where Julien had seated himself, he could hear her soothing voice. Its caressing tones contrasted pleasantly with the harsh accent of a few minutes before.
"You were longing for me, papa," said she, "but you see, I could not leave before all the sacks of potatoes had been laid in the wagon. Now everything has been brought in, and we can sleep in peace. I thought of you on the way, and I have brought you a fine bouquet of wild fruits. We shall enjoy looking them over tomorrow, by daylight. Now, this is the time that you are to drink your bouillon like a good papa, and then as soon as we have had our supper Guite and I will put you to bed nice and warm, and I will sing you a song to send you to sleep."
She rose, took from the sideboard a bowl which she filled from a saucepan simmering on the stove, and then, without taking any notice of her visitors, she returned to the invalid. Slowly and with delicate care she made him swallow the soup by spoonfuls. Julien, notwithstanding the feeling of ill-humor caused by the untoward happenings of the evening, could not help admiring the almost maternal tenderness with which the young girl proceeded in this slow and difficult operation. When the bowl was empty she returned to the stove, and at last bethought herself of her guests.
"Excuse me, Monsieur, but I had to attend to my father first. If I understood quite aright, you were going to Vivey."
"Yes, Mademoiselle, I had hoped to sleep there tonight."
"You have probably come," continued she, "on business connected with the chateau. Is not the heir of Monsieur Odouart expected very shortly?"
"I am that heir," replied Julien, coloring.
"You are Monsieur de Buxieres?" exclaimed Reine, in astonishment. Then, embarrassed at having shown her surprise too openly, she checked herself, colored in her turn, and finally gave a rapid glance at her interlocutor. She never should have imagined this slender young man, so melancholy in aspect, to be the new proprietor—he was so unlike the late Odouart de Buxieres!
"Pardon me, Monsieur," continued she, "you must have thought my first welcome somewhat unceremonious, but my first thought was for my father. He is a great invalid, as you may have noticed, and for the first moment I feared that he had been startled by strange faces."
"It is I, Mademoiselle," replied Julien, with embarrassment, "it is I who ought to ask pardon for having caused all this disturbance. But I do not intend to trouble you any longer. If you will kindly furnish us with a guide who will direct us to the road to Vivey, we will depart to-night and sleep at the chateau."
"No, indeed," protested Reine, very cordially. "You are my guests, and I shall not allow you to leave us in that manner. Besides, you would probably find the gates closed down there, for I do not think they expected you so soon."
During this interview, the servant who had received the travellers had returned with her milk-pail; behind her, the other farm-hands, men and women, arranged themselves silently round the table.
"Guitiote," said Reine, "lay two more places at the table. The horse belonging to these gentlemen has been taken care of, has he not?"
"Yes, Mamselle, he is in the stable," replied one of the grooms.
"Good! Bernard, to-morrow you will take Fleuriot with you, and go in search of their carriage which has been swamped in the Planche-au-Vacher. That is settled. Now, Monsieur de Buxieres, will you proceed to table—and your coachman also? Upon my word, I do not know whether our supper will be to your liking. I can only offer you a plate of soup, a chine of pork, and cheese made in the country; but you must be hungry, and when one has a good appetite, one is not hard to please."
Every one had been seated at the table; the servants at the lower end, and Reine Vincart, near the fireplace, between M. de Buxieres and the driver. La Guite helped the cabbage-soup all around; soon nothing was heard but the clinking of spoons and smacking of lips. Julien, scarcely recovered from his bewilderment, watched furtively the pretty, robust young girl presiding at the supper, and keeping, at the same time, a watchful eye over all the details of service. He thought her strange; she upset all his ideas. His own imagination and his theories pictured a woman, and more especially a young girl, as a submissive, modest, shadowy creature, with downcast look, only raising her eyes to consult her husband or her mother as to what is allowable and what is forbidden. Now, Reine did not fulfil any of the requirements of this ideal. She seemed to be hardly twenty-two years old, and she acted with the initiative genius, the frankness and the decision of a man, retaining all the while the tenderness and easy grace of a woman. Although it was evident that she was accustomed to govern and command, there was nothing in her look, gesture, or voice which betrayed any assumption of masculinity. She remained a young girl while in the very act of playing the virile part of head of the house. But what astonished Julien quite as much was that she seemed to have received a degree of education superior to that of people of her condition, and he wondered at the amount of will-power by which a nature highly cultivated, relatively speaking, could conform to the unrefined, rough surroundings in which she was placed.
While Julien was immersed in these reflections, and continued eating with an abstracted air, Reine Vincart was rapidly examining the reserved, almost ungainly, young man, who did not dare address any conversation to her, and who was equally stiff and constrained with those sitting near him. She made a mental comparison of him with Claudet, the bold huntsman, alert, resolute, full of dash and spirit, and a feeling of charitable compassion arose in her heart at the thought of the reception which the Sejournant family would give to this new master, so timid and so little acquainted with the ways and dispositions of country folk. Julien did not impress her as being able to defend himself against the ill-will of persons who would consider him an intruder, and would certainly endeavor to make him pay dearly for the inheritance of which he had deprived them.
"You do not take your wine, Monsieur de Buxieres!" said she, noticing that her guest's glass was still full.
"I am not much of a wine-drinker," replied he, "and besides, I never take wine by itself—I should be obliged if you would have some water brought."
Reine smiled, and passed him the water-bottle.
"Indeed?" she said, "in that case, you have not fallen among congenial spirits, for in these mountains they like good dinners, and have a special weakness for Burgundy. You follow the chase, at any rate?"
"No, Mademoiselle, I do not know how to handle a gun!"
"I suppose it is not your intention to settle in Vivey?"
"Why not?" replied he; "on the contrary, I intend to inhabit the chateau, and establish myself there definitely."
"What!" exclaimed Reine, laughing, "you neither drink nor hunt, and you intend to live in our woods! Why, my poor Monsieur, you will die of ennui."
"I shall have my books for companions; besides, solitude never has had any terrors for me."
The young girl shook her head incredulously.
"I shouldn't wonder," she continued, "if you do not even play at cards."
"Never; games of chance are repugnant to me."
"Take notice that I do not blame you," she replied, gayly, "but I must give you one piece of advice: don't speak in these neighborhoods of your dislike of hunting, cards, or good wine; our country folk would feel pity for you, and that would destroy your prestige."
Julien gazed at her with astonishment. She turned away to give directions to La Guite about the beds for her guests—then the supper went on silently. As soon as they had swallowed their last mouthful, the menservants repaired to their dormitory, situated in the buildings of the ancient forge. Reine Vincart rose also.
"This is the time when I put my father to bed—I am obliged to take leave of you, Monsieur de Buxieres. Guitiote will conduct you to your room. For you, driver, I have had a bed made in a small room next to the furnace; you will be nice and warm. Good-night, gentlemen, sleep well!"
She turned away, and went to rejoin the paralytic sufferer, who, as she approached, manifested his joy by a succession of inarticulate sounds.
The room to which Guitiote conducted Julien was on the first floor, and had a cheerful, hospitable appearance. The walls were whitewashed; the chairs, table, and bed were of polished oak; a good fire of logs crackled in the fireplace, and between the opening of the white window-curtains could be seen a slender silver crescent of moon gliding among the flitting clouds. The young man went at once to his bed; but notwithstanding the fatigues of the day, sleep did not come to him. Through the partition he could hear the clear, sonorous voice of Reine singing her father to sleep with one of the popular ballads of the country, and while turning and twisting in the homespun linen sheets, scented with orrisroot, he could not help thinking of this young girl, so original in her ways, whose grace, energy, and frankness fascinated and shocked him at the same time. At last he dozed off; and when the morning stir awoke him, the sun was up and struggling through the foggy atmosphere.
The sky had cleared during the night; there had been a frost, and the meadows were powdered white. The leaves, just nipped with the frost, were dropping softly to the ground, and formed little green heaps at the base of the trees. Julien dressed himself hurriedly, and descended to the courtyard, where the first thing he saw was the cabriolet, which had been brought in the early morning and which one of the farm-boys was in the act of sousing with water in the hope of freeing the hood and wheels from the thick mud which covered them. When he entered the diningroom, brightened by the rosy rays of the morning sun, he found Reine Vincart there before him. She was dressed in a yellow striped woolen skirt, and a jacket of white flannel carelessly belted at the waist. Her dark chestnut hair, parted down the middle and twisted into a loose knot behind, lay in ripples round her smooth, open forehead.
"Good-morning, Monsieur de Buxieres," said she, in her cordial tone, "did you sleep well? Yes? I am glad. You find me busy attending to household matters. My father is still in bed, and I am taking advantage of the fact to arrange his little corner. The doctor said he must not be put near the fire, so I have made a place for him here; he enjoys it immensely, and I arranged this nook to protect him from draughts."
And she showed him how she had put the big easy chair, padded with cushions, in the bright sunlight which streamed through the window, and shielded by the screens, one on each side. She noticed that Julien was examining, with some curiosity, the uncouth pictures from Epinal, with which the screens were covered.
"This," she explained, "is my own invention. My father is a little weak in the head, but he understands a good many things, although he can not talk about them. He used to get weary of sitting still all day in his chair, so I lined the screens with these pictures in order that he might have something to amuse him. He is as pleased as a child with the bright colors, and I explain the subjects to him. I don't tell him much at a time, for fear of fatiguing him. We have got now to Pyramus and Thisbe, so that we shall have plenty to occupy us before we reach the end."
She caught a pitying look from her guest which seemed to say: "The poor man may not last long enough to reach the end." Doubtless she had the same fear, for her dark eyes suddenly glistened, she sighed, and remained for some moments without speaking.
In the mean time the magpie, which Julien had seen the day before, was hopping around its mistress, like a familiar spirit; it even had the audacity to peck at her hair and then fly away, repeating, in its cracked voice:
"Reine, queen of the woods!"
"Why 'queen of the woods?"' asked Julien, coloring.
"Ah!" replied the young girl, "it is a nickname which the people around here give me, because I am so fond of the trees. I spend all the time I can in our woods, as much as I can spare from the work of the farm.
"Margot has often heard my father call me by that name; she remembers it, and is always repeating it."
"Do you like living in this wild country?"
"Very much. I was born here, and I like it."
"But you have not always lived here?"
"No; my mother, who had lived in the city, placed me at school in her own country, in Dijon. I received there the education of a young lady, though there is not much to show for it now. I stayed there six years; then my mother died, my father fell ill, and I came home."
"And did you not suffer from so sudden a change?"
"Not at all. You see I am really by nature a country girl. I wish you might not have more trouble than I had, in getting accustomed to your new way of living, in the chateau at Vivey. But," she added, going toward the fire, "I think they are harnessing the horse, and you must be hungry. Your driver has already primed himself with some toast and white wine. I will not offer you the same kind of breakfast. I will get you some coffee and cream."
He bent his head in acquiescence, and she brought him the coffee herself, helping him to milk and toasted bread. He drank rapidly the contents of the cup, nibbled at a slice of toast, and then, turning to his hostess, said, with a certain degree of embarrassment:
"There is nothing left for me to do, Mademoiselle, but to express my most heartfelt thanks for your kind hospitality. It is a good omen for me to meet with such cordiality on my arrival in an unknown part of the country. May I ask you one more question?" he continued, looking anxiously at her; "why do you think it will be so difficult for me to get accustomed to the life they lead here?"
"Why?" replied she, shaking her head, "because, to speak frankly, Monsieur, you do not give me the idea of having much feeling for the country. You are not familiar with our ways; you will not be able to speak to the people in their language, and they will not understand yours—you will be, in their eyes, 'the city Monsieur,' whom they will mistrust and will try to circumvent. I should like to find that I am mistaken, but, at present, I have the idea that you will encounter difficulties down there of which you do not seem to have any anticipation—"
She was intercepted by the entrance of the driver, who was becoming impatient. The horse was in harness, and they were only waiting for M. de Buxieres. Julien rose, and after awkwardly placing a piece of silver in the hand of La Guite, took leave of Reine Vincart, who accompanied him to the threshold.
"Thanks, once more, Mademoiselle," murmured he, "and au revoir, since we shall be neighbors."
He held out his hand timidly and she took it with frank cordiality. Julien got into the cabriolet beside the driver, who began at once to belabor vigorously his mulish animal.
"Good journey and good luck, Monsieur," cried Reine after him, and the vehicle sped joltingly away.
CHAPTER III. CONSCIENCE HIGHER THAN THE LAW
On leaving La Thuiliere, the driver took the straight line toward the pasturelands of the Planche-au-Vacher.
According to the directions they had received from the people of the farm, they then followed a rocky road, which entailed considerable jolting for the travellers, but which led them without other difficulty to the bottom of a woody dell, where they were able to ford the stream. As soon as they had, with difficulty, ascended the opposite hill, the silvery fog that had surrounded them began to dissipate, and they distinguished a road close by, which led a winding course through the forest.
"Ah! now I see my way!" said the driver, "we have only to go straight on, and in twenty minutes we shall be at Vivey. This devil of a fog cuts into one's skin like a bunch of needles. With your permission, Monsieur de Buxieres, and if it will not annoy you, I will light my pipe to warm myself."
Now that he knew he was conducting the proprietor of the chateau, he repented having treated him so cavalierly the day before; he became obsequious, and endeavored to gain the good-will of his fare by showing himself as loquacious as he had before been cross and sulky. But Julien de Buxieres, too much occupied in observing the details of the country, or in ruminating over the impressions he had received during the morning, made but little response to his advances, and soon allowed the conversation to drop.
The sun's rays had by this time penetrated the misty atmosphere, and the white frost had changed to diamond drops, which hung tremblingly on the leafless branches. A gleam of sunshine showed the red tints of the beech-trees, and the bright golden hue of the poplars, and the forest burst upon Julien in all the splendor of its autumnal trappings. The pleasant remembrance of Reine Vincart's hospitality doubtless predisposed him to enjoy the charm of this sunshiny morning, for he became, perhaps for the first time in his life, suddenly alive to the beauty of this woodland scenery. By degrees, toward the left, the brushwood became less dense, and several gray buildings appeared scattered over the glistening prairie. Soon after appeared a park, surrounded by low, crumbling walls, then a group of smoky roofs, and finally, surmounting a massive clump of ash-trees, two round towers with tops shaped like extinguishers. The coachman pointed them out to the young man with the end of his whip.
"There is Vivey," said he, "and here is your property, Monsieur de Buxieres."
Julien started, and, notwithstanding his alienation from worldly things, he could not repress a feeling of satisfaction when he reflected that, by legal right, he was about to become master of the woods, the fields, and the old homestead of which the many-pointed slate roofs gleamed in the distance. This satisfaction was mingled with intense curiosity, but it was also somewhat shadowed by a dim perspective of the technical details incumbent on his taking possession. No doubt he should be obliged, in the beginning, to make himself personally recognized, to show the workmen and servants of the chateau that the new owner was equal to the situation. Now, Julien was not, by nature, a man of action, and the delicately expressed fears of Reine Vincart made him uneasy in his mind. When the carriage, suddenly turning a corner, stopped in front of the gate of entrance, and he beheld, through the cast-iron railing, the long avenue of ash-trees, the grass-grown courtyard, the silent facade, his heart began to beat more rapidly, and his natural timidity again took possession of him.
"The gate is closed, and they don't seem to be expecting you," remarked the driver.
They dismounted. Noticing that the side door was half open, the coachman gave a vigorous pull on the chain attached to the bell. At the sound of the rusty clamor, a furious barking was heard from an adjoining outhouse, but no one inside the house seemed to take notice of the ringing.
"Come, let us get in all the same," said the coachman, giving another pull, and stealing a furtive look at his companion's disconcerted countenance.
He fastened his horse to the iron fence, and both passed through the side gate to the avenue, the dogs all the while continuing their uproar. Just as they reached the courtyard, the door opened and Manette Sejournant appeared on the doorstep.
"Good-morning, gentlemen," said she, in a slow, drawling voice, "is it you who are making all this noise?"
The sight of this tall, burly woman, whose glance betokened both audacity and cunning, increased still more Julien's embarrassment. He advanced awkwardly, raised his hat and replied, almost as if to excuse himself:
"I beg pardon, Madame—I am the cousin and heir of the late Claude de Buxieres. I have come to install myself in the chateau, and I had sent word of my intention to Monsieur Arbillot, the notary—I am surprised he did not notify you."
"Ah! it is you, Monsieur Julien de Buxieres!" exclaimed Madame Sejournant, scrutinizing the newcomer with a mingling of curiosity and scornful surprise which completed the young man's discomfiture. "Monsieur Arbillot was here yesterday—he waited for you all day, and as you did not come, he went away at nightfall."
"I presume you were in my cousin's service?" said Julien, amiably, being desirous from the beginning to evince charitable consideration with regard to his relative's domestic affairs.
"Yes, Monsieur," replied Manette, with dignified sadness; "I attended poor Monsieur de Buxieres twenty-six years, and can truly say I served him with devotion! But now I am only staying here in charge of the seals—I and my son Claudet. We have decided to leave as soon as the notary does not want us any more."
"I regret to hear it, Madame," replied Julien, who was beginning to feel uncomfortable. "There must be other servants around—I should be obliged if you would have our carriage brought into the yard. And then, if you will kindly show us the way, we will go into the house, for I am desirous to feel myself at home—and my driver would not object to some refreshment."
"I will send the cowboy to open the gate," replied the housekeeper. "If you will walk this way, gentlemen, I will take you into the only room that can be used just now, on account of the seals on the property."
Passing in front of them, she directed her steps toward the kitchen, and made way for them to pass into the smoky room, where a small servant was making coffee over a clear charcoal fire. As the travellers entered, the manly form of Claudet Sejournant was outlined against the bright light of the window at his back.
"My son," said Manette, with a meaning side look, especially for his benefit, "here is Monsieur de Buxieres, come to take possession of his inheritance."
The grand chasserot attempted a silent salutation, and then the young men took a rapid survey of each other.
Julien de Buxieres was startled by the unexpected presence of so handsome a young fellow, robust, intelligent, and full of energy, whose large brown eyes gazed at him with a kind of surprised and pitying compassion which was very hard for Julien to bear. He turned uneasily away, making a lame excuse of ordering some wine for his coachman; and while Manette, with an air of martyrdom, brought a glass and a half-empty bottle, Claudet continued his surprised and inquiring examination of the legal heir of Claude de Buxieres.
The pale, slight youth, buttoned up in a close-fitting, long frock-coat, which gave him the look of a priest, looked so unlike any of the Buxieres of the elder branch that it seemed quite excusable to hesitate about the relationship. Claudet maliciously took advantage of the fact, and began to interrogate his would-be deposer by pretending to doubt his identity.
"Are you certainly Monsieur Julien de Buxieres?" asked he, surveying him suspiciously from head to foot.