ANGELOT A Story of the First Empire
By ELEANOR C. PRICE
Author of "The Heiress of the Forest"
NEW YORK Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. PUBLISHERS
Copyright, 1902, by THOMAS Y. CROWELL & CO.
I. In the Depths of Old France 1
II. How the Owls hooted in the Daytime 13
III. "Je suis le General Bim-Bam-Boum!" 26
IV. How the Breakfast cooked for Those was eaten by These 41
V. How Angelot made an Enemy 59
VI. How La Belle Helene took an Evening Walk 78
VII. The Sleep of Mademoiselle Moineau 95
VIII. How Monsieur Joseph met with Many Annoyances 112
IX. How Common Sense fought and triumphed 129
X. How Angelot refused what had not been offered 147
XI. How Monsieur Urbain smoked a Cigar 160
XII. How the Prefect's Dog snapped at the General 173
XIII. How Monsieur Simon showed himself a little too Clever 187
XIV. In which Three Words contain a Good Deal of Information 202
XV. How Henriette read History to Some Purpose 223
XVI. How Angelot played the Part of an Owl in an Ivy-bush 242
XVII. How Two Soldiers came Home from Spain 266
XVIII. How Captain Georges paid a Visit of Ceremony 285
XIX. The Treading of the Grapes 299
XX. How Angelot climbed a Tree 309
XXI. How Monsieur Joseph found himself Master of the Situation 324
XXII. The Lighted Windows of Lancilly 340
XXIII. A Dance with General Ratoneau 353
XXIV. How Monsieur de Sainfoy found a Way Out 369
XXV. How the Cure acted against his Conscience 385
XXVI. How Angelot kept his Tryst 398
XXVII. How Monsieur Joseph went out into the Dawn 416
XXVIII. How General Ratoneau met his Match 437
XXIX. The Disappointment of Monsieur Urbain 456
A Story of the First Empire
IN THE DEPTHS OF OLD FRANCE
"Drink, Monsieur Angelot," said the farmer.
His wife had brought a bottle of the sparkling white wine of the country, and two tall old treasures of cut glass. The wine slipped out in a merry foam. Angelot lifted his glass with a smile and bow to the mistress.
"The best wine in the country," he said as he set it down.
The hard lines of her face, so dark, so worn with perpetual grief and toil, softened suddenly as she looked at him, and the farmer from his solemn height broke into a laugh.
"Martin's wine," he said. "That was before they took him, the last boy. But it is still rather new, Monsieur Angelot, though you are so amiable. Ah, but it is the last good wine I shall ever have here at La Joubardiere. I am growing old—see my white hair—I cannot work or make other men work as the boys did. Our vintage used to be one of the sights of the country—I needn't tell you, for you know—but now the vines don't get half the care and labour they did ten years ago; and they feel it, like children, they feel it. Still, there they remain, and give us what fruit they can—but the real children, Monsieur Angelot, their life-blood runs to waste in far-away lands. It does not enrich France. Ah, the vines of Spain will grow the better for it, perhaps—"
"Hush, hush, master!" muttered the wife, for the old man was not laughing now; his last words were half a sob, and tears ran suddenly down. "I tell you always," she said, "Martin will come back. The good God cannot let our five boys die, one after the other. Madame your mother thinks so too," she said, nodding at Angelot. "I spoke to her very plainly. I said, 'They cannot be unjust—and surely, to take all the five children of a poor little farmer, and to leave not one, not even the youngest, to do the work of the farm—come, what sort of justice is that!' And she said: 'Listen, maitresse: the good God will bring your Martin back to you. He cannot be unjust, as you say. If my Angelot had to go to the war—and I always fear it—I should expect him back as surely as I expect my husband back from Lancilly at this moment.'"
Angelot smiled at her. "Yes, yes, Martin will come back," he said. But he shrugged his shoulders, for he could not himself see much comfort for these poor people in his mother's argument. If you have lost four, it is surely more logical to expect to lose a fifth. His father, a philosopher, would not have said so much as this to the Joubards, but would have gone on another tack altogether. He would have pointed out to them that the glory of France depended on their sons; that this conscription, which seemed to them so cruel, which now, in 1811, was becoming really oppressive, was the means of making France, under her brilliant leader, the most powerful and magnificent nation in the world. He would have waved the tricolour before those sad eyes, would have counted over lists of victories; and so catching was his enthusiasm that Joubard's back would have straightened under it, and he would have gone home—it happened more than once—feeling like a hero and the father of heroes. But the old fellow's sudden flame of faith in his landlord and Napoleon was not so lasting as his wife's faith in Madame and the justice of God.
Angelot wished the maitresse good-day, left a brace of birds on the table, and stepped out from the grimy darkness of the farm kitchen into the dazzling sunshine of that September morning. The old white farm, with crumbling walls about it, remnants of attempts at fortification long ago, looked fairly prosperous in its untidiness. The fresh stacks of corn were golden still; poultry made a great clatter, a flock of geese on their way out charging at the two men as they left the house. An old peasant was hammering at barrels, in preparation for the vintage; a wild girl with a stick and a savage-looking brindled dog was starting off to fetch the cows in from their morning graze.
All the place was bathed in crystal air and golden light, fresh and life-giving. It stood high on the edge of the moors, the ground falling away to the south and east into a wild yet fertile valley; vineyards, cornfields not long reaped, small woods, deep and narrow lanes, then tall hedges studded with trees, green rich meadows by the streams far below. On the slope, a mile or two away, there was a church spire with a few grey roofs near it, and the larger roofs, half-hidden by trees, of the old manor of La Mariniere, Angelot's home. On the opposite slope of the valley, rising from the stream, another spire, another and larger village; and above it, commanding the whole country side, with great towers and shining roofs, solid lengths of wall gleaming in newly restored whiteness, lines of windows still gold in the morning sun, stood the old chateau of Lancilly, backed by the dark screen of forest that came up close about it and in old days had surrounded it altogether. Twenty years of emptiness; twenty years, first of revolution and emigration, then of efforts to restore an old family, which the powerful aid of a faithful cousin and friend had made successful; and now the Comte de Sainfoy and his family were at last able to live again at Lancilly in their old position, though there was much yet to be done by way of restoration and buying back lost bits of property. But all this could not be in better hands than those of Urbain de la Mariniere, the cousin, the friend, somewhat despised among the old splendours of a former regime, and thought the less of because of the opinions which kept him safe and sound on French soil all through the Revolution, enabling him both to save Lancilly for its rightful owners, and to keep a place in the old and loved country for his own elder brother Joseph, a far more consistent Royalist than Herve de Sainfoy with all his grand traditions. For the favour of the Emperor had been made one great step to the restoration of these noble emigrants. Therefore in this small square of Angevin earth there were great divisions of opinion: but Monsieur Urbain, the unprejudiced, the lover of both liberty and of glory, and of poetry and philosophy beyond either, who had passed on with France herself from the Committee of Public Safety to the Directory, and then into the arms of First Consul and Emperor—Monsieur Urbain, the cousin, the brother, whose wife was an ardent Royalist and devout Catholic, whose young son was the favourite companion of his uncle Joseph, a more than suspected Chouan—Monsieur Urbain, Angelot's father, was everybody's friend, everybody's protector, everybody's adviser, and the one peacemaker among them all. And naturally, in such a case, Monsieur Urbain's hardest task was the management of his own wife—but of this more hereafter.
"Your father's work, Monsieur Angelot," said old Joubard, pointing across the valley to Lancilly, there in the blaze of the sun.
Angelot lifted his sleepy eyelids, his long lashes like a girl's, and the glance that shot from beneath them was half careless, half uneasy.
"We have done without them pretty well for twenty years," the farmer went on, "but I suppose we must be glad to see them back. Is it true that they are coming to-day?"
"I believe so."
"Your uncle Joseph won't be glad to see them. The Emperor's people: they may disturb certain quiet little games at Les Chouettes."
"That is my uncle's affair, Maitre Joubard."
"I know. Well, a still tongue is best for me. Monsieur Urbain is a good landlord—and I've paid for my place in the Empire, dame, yes, five times over. Yet, if I could choose my flag at this time of day, I should not care for a variety of colours. Mind you, your father is a wise man and knows best, I dare say. I am only a poor peasant. But taking men and their opinions all round, Monsieur Angelot, and though some who think themselves wise call him a fool,—with respect I say it,—your dear little uncle is the man for me. Yes—I would back Monsieur Joseph against all his brother's wisdom and his cousin's fine airs, and I am sorry these Sainfoy people are coming back to trouble him and to spoil his pretty little plots, which do no harm to any one."
Angelot laughed outright. "My uncle would not care to hear that," he said.
"Nevertheless, you may tell him old Joubard said it. And what's more, monsieur, your father thinks the same, or he would not let you live half your life at Les Chouettes."
"He has other things to think of."
"Ah, I know—and Madame your mother to reckon with."
"You are too clever," said Angelot, laughing again. "Well, I must go, for my uncle is expecting me to breakfast."
"Ah! and he has other guests. I saw them riding over from the south, half an hour ago."
"You have a watch-tower here. You command the country."
"And my sight is a hawk's sight," said the old man. "Good-day, dear boy. Give my duty to Monsieur Joseph."
Angelot started lightly on his way over the rough moorland road. The high ridge of tableland extended far to the north; the landes, purple and gold with the low heather and furze which covered them, unsheltered by any tree, except where crossed in even lines by pollard oaks of immense age, their great round heads so thick with leaves that a man might well hide in them. These truisses, cut every few years, were the peasants' store of firewood. Their long processions gave a curious look of human life to the lonely moor, only inhabited by game, of which Angelot saw plenty. But he did not shoot, his game-bag being already stuffed with birds, but marched along with gun on shoulder and dog at heel over the yellow sandy track, loudly whistling a country tune. There was not a lighter heart than Angelot's in all his native province, nor a handsomer face. He only wanted height to be a splendid fellow. His daring mouth and chin seemed to contradict the lazy softness of his dark eyes. With a clear, brown skin and straight figure, and dressed in brown linen and heavy shooting boots, he was the picture of a healthy sportsman.
A walk of a mile or two across the landes brought him into a green lane with tall wild hedges, full of enormous blackberries, behind which were the vineyards, rather weedy as to soil, but loaded with the small black and white grapes which made the good pure wine of the country.
Angelot turned in and looked at the grapes and ate a few; this was one of his father's vineyards. The yellow grapes tasted of sunshine and the south. Angelot went on eating them all the way down the lane; he was thirsty, in spite of Joubard's sparkling wine, after tramping with dog and gun since six o'clock in the morning. The green lane led to another, very steep, rough, and stony. Corners of red and white rock stood out in it; such a surface would have jolted a strong cart to pieces, but Les Chouettes had no better approach on this side.
"I want no fine ladies to visit me," Monsieur Joseph would say, with his sweet smile. "My friends will travel over any road."
Down plunged the lane, with a thick low wood on one side and a sloping stubble field edged by woods on the other; here again stood a row of old pollard oaks, like giant guards of the solitude. Then the deep barking of many dogs, Monsieur Joseph's real protectors, and a group of Spanish chestnuts sending their branches over the road, announced the strange hermitage that its master called by the fanciful name of Les Chouettes. There had indeed been a time, not long before, when owls had been its chief inhabitants. Now, if report was to be believed, night-birds of a different species were apt to congregate there.
The lane opened suddenly on Monsieur Joseph's out-buildings, with no gates or barriers, things unknown in Anjou. Tall oaks and birches, delicate and grey, leaned across the cream-coloured walls and the high grey stone roofs where orange moss grew thickly. Low arched doorways with a sandy court between them led into the kitchen on one side, the stables on the other. Beyond these again, in the broad still sunshine, standing squarely alone in a broad space of yellow sand, was Monsieur Joseph's house, not very old, for the kitchens and stables had belonged to a little chateau long since pulled down. It also was built of cream-coloured stone, with a little tower to the west of it, with playful ironwork and high mansard windows. An odd feature was that it had no actual door. All the lower windows opened down to the ground, with nothing but a stone step between them and the sandy soil, so that the house could be entered or left at any point, through any room.
Two rough roads or country tracks, continuing the lane, passed the house to the north and south, the northern road wandering away westward under a wild avenue of old oaks on the edge of a wood into high fields beyond, the southern crossing broad green slopes that descended gradually into the valley towards Lancilly, past low copses and brimming streams, leaving to the east the high moors and La Mariniere with its small village and spire.
Thus Les Chouettes had a view of its own to the west and south, but could be seen far off from the south only; woods covering the upper slope against the sunset. Woods and high land sheltered it again from the north and east, and the only roads near it were little better than cart-tracks.
There were long hours at Les Chouettes when no sound was to be heard but the hooting of owls or screaming of curlews or the odd little squeak of the squirrels as they darted up and down and about the oak trees.
"He mews like a cat, the little fouquet," Monsieur Joseph used to say; and passionate sportsman as he was, he would never shoot the squirrels or allow them to be shot by his man, who lamented loudly. Angelot had caught his uncle's liking for that swift red spirit of the woods, and so the squirrels had a fine time all over the lands of La Mariniere.
Evidently there was a good deal going on at Les Chouettes, when Angelot came down from the moors that morning. He was not surprised, after old Joubard's report, to see his uncle's outdoor factotum, a bullet-headed creature with scarcely anything on but his shirt, leading the last of several horses into the shadowy depths of the stable. Opposite, the cook looked out smiling from the kitchen, where she lived with her solemn husband, the valet-de-chambre. He, in apron and sabots, was now in the act of carrying the first dishes across to the dining-room window.
"Just in time, Monsieur Angelot!" cried the cook.
Four large black dogs came barking and leaping to meet the young man and his dog, an intimate friend of theirs. Then a small slender figure, with a cropped head and a clinging dark blue frock, flashed across from the wood, ordered the dogs back in a voice that they obeyed, and clinging to Angelot's arm, led him on towards the corner of the house.
"Ah, my Ange! I began to think you were not coming," she said. "There are four of them in the salon with papa, and I was afraid to go in till you came."
"What! Mademoiselle Riette afraid of anything on earth—and especially of four old gentlemen!"
"They are not very old, and they look so fierce and secret this morning. But come, come, you must put down your game-bag and wash your hands, and then we will go in together."
HOW THE OWLS HOOTED IN THE DAYTIME
The sun poured into the little salon, all polished wood and gay-coloured chintz, where Monsieur Joseph de la Mariniere and his four friends were talking at the top of their voices.
The four guests sat in more or less tired attitudes round the room; the host stood poised on the hearth-rug, a dark, dandy little gentleman with a brilliant smile. He had a way of balancing himself on one foot and slightly extending both arms, as if he were going to fly off into space. This, and his gentle, attractive manner, sometimes touched with melancholy, gave him a sort of angelic, spiritual air. It was difficult to imagine him either a soldier or a conspirator, yet he had been one and was still the other. More than once, only a politic indulgence not often extended by Napoleon's administrators, and the distinguished merits of his younger brother, had saved Monsieur Joseph from sharing the fate of some of his friends at Joux, Ham, or Vincennes.
These fortress prisons held even now many men of good family whom only the Restoration was to set free. They, as well as plenty of inferior prisoners, owed their captivity in most cases to a secret meeting betrayed, a store of arms discovered, a discontented letter opened, or even to an expression of opinion, such as that France had been better off under the Bourbons. Napoleon kept France down with an iron hand, while the young men and lads in hundreds of thousands shed their blood for him, the women wept, and the old men sometimes raged: but yet France as a whole submitted. The memory of the Terror made this milder tyranny bearable. And genius commands, as long as it is victorious, and till this year of the Spanish war, there had been no check to Napoleon. He had not yet set out to extinguish the flame of his glory in Russian snows.
The police all over France obeyed his orders only too well—"Surveillez tout le monde, excepte moi!" To a great degree it was necessary, for French society, high and low, was honeycombed with Royalist plots, some of them hardly worthy of a cause which called itself religious as well as royal. Leaders like Cadoudal and Frotte were long dead; some of their successors in conspiracy were heroes rather of scandal than of loyalty, and many a tragic legend lingers in French society concerning the men and women of those days.
To a great extent, the old families of La Vendee, the La Rochejacqueleins at their head, refrained from mixing themselves up in the smaller plots against the Empire in which hundreds of Chouans, noble and peasant, men and women, were constantly involved during these years with probable loss of life and liberty. It was not till later that the general feeling became intensified so that Napoleon had to weaken his army, in the Waterloo campaign, by sending some thousands of men against a new insurrection in the West, under Louis de la Rochejaquelein, a second La Vendee war, only stopped by the final return of the Bourbons.
Monsieur Joseph's gay little room looked like anything but a haunt of conspirators; but his friends were earnestly discussing with him the possibility of raising the country, arming the peasants, marching on the chief town of the department, capturing the Prefect, as well as the General in command of the division, and holding them as hostages while the insurrection went on spreading through Anjou and the neighbouring provinces.
The most eager, the most original of the plotters was the Baron d'Ombre, a dark, square young man with frowning brows. He turned quite fiercely on a milder-looking person, a Monsieur de Bourmont, a distant cousin of the well-known leader of that name, who doubted whether the peasants would rise as readily as Cesar d'Ombre expected.
"I tell you," he said, "they hate, they detest the Empire. Look at their desolate homes, their deserted fields! I tell you, the women of France alone, if they had a leader, would drive the usurper out of the country."
"There is your mission, then, dear Cesar," said the Vicomte des Barres, a delicate, sarcastic-looking man of middle age. "March on Paris with your phalanx of Amazons."
"Cesar is right, nevertheless, gentlemen," growled the Comte d'Ombre, the young man's father, the oldest of the party. "It is energy, it is courage, that our cause wants. And I go farther than my son goes. Take the Prefect and the General by all means—excellent idea—"
"If you can catch them—" murmured Monsieur des Barres, and was frowned upon furiously by Cesar d'Ombre.
The Comte was rather deaf. "What? What?" he asked sharply, being aware of the interruption.
"Nothing, monsieur, nothing!" cried their host, with one spring from the fireplace to the old man's chair—"and what would you do, monsieur, with the Prefect and the General? I am dying of curiosity."
Monsieur d'Ombre stared up into the sweet, birdlike face, which bent over him with flashing eyes and a delighted smile.
"Do? I should shoot them on the spot," he said. "They are traitors: I would treat all traitors the same. Yes, I know the Prefect is a friend of your brother's—of your own, possibly. I know my son and I are your guests, too. Never mind! Any other conduct would be cowardly and abominable. No member of my family would ever be guilty of opportunism, and remain in my family. Those two men have done more harm in this province than Napoleon Buonaparte and all his laws and police. They never tried to make his government popular. The Prefect, at least, has done this—I know nothing about the General."
"A wooden image of his master," said Monsieur des Barres.
Monsieur Joseph returned, rather sobered, to his hearth rug. "Shoot them, well, well!" he muttered. "A strong measure, but possibly politic. It is what one would like to do, of course, officially. Not personally—no—though Monsieur d'Ombre may be right. It is a crime, no doubt, to make the Empire popular. I am afraid my poor brother has tried to do the same, and succeeded—yes, succeeded a little."
"My father is quite wrong," Cesar d'Ombre muttered in the ear of Monsieur de Bourmont, who listened with a superior smile. "Such mad violence would ruin the cause altogether. Now as hostages, those two men would be invaluable."
"Time enough to discuss that when you have got them," said Monsieur de Bourmont. "To me, I must confess, this plan of a rising sounds premature and unpractical. What we want first is money—money from England, and stronger support, too—as well as a healthier public opinion all through this part of the country."
"Ah! but none of your waiting games for me," cried the young Baron. "'De l'audace'—you know—that is the motto for Frenchmen."
"Boldness and rashness need not be the same thing," said Monsieur de Bourmont, drily. "And remember whom you are quoting, my dear Cesar. A dangerous person, to say the least."
A grim smile lightened d'Ombre's hard face. "It was the right thing to say, if the devil said it," he answered.
The Vicomte des Barres rose from his chair and lounged into the middle of the room.
"To be practical, friends," he said, "the feeling among the peasants is the question. In this country side, Monsieur de la Mariniere ought to know pretty well what it is. And I fear he will tell us that a good deal of exertion will be necessary, before they will take up their guns and pikes, and march where they are led. It goes without saying that he, himself, is the one man to lead them. I believe, though he chooses to live like a hermit, he is the most popular man in Anjou."
"But no—no, dear Vicomte," said Monsieur Joseph, shaking his head violently. "It is true there are some of them who love me—but their interest, you see, is on the other side. My brother is more popular than I am, and he deserves it, in spite of his lamentable opinions."
"Ah, monsieur, forgive me, but do you understand your peasants?" cried Cesar d'Ombre. "Are you doing them justice? Would they set a good farm against their king, their religion, the salvation of their country? Bleeding from the loss of their sons—will they think more of money and corn-stacks and vintages than of that true peace and freedom which can only be won by driving out tyranny? Nobody wants to put them back as they were before 1789. The feudal ages are gone—we have given up our rights, and there is an end of it—but we want our own kings again, and we want peace for France, and time to breathe and to let her wounds heal. We want to be rid of this accursed usurper who is draining her life blood. That, I say, is what the peasants feel, most of them, as strongly as we do. But they are of course uneducated. They need stirring up, drilling, leading. And I can hardly believe, monsieur, that the weight of one man in the other scale—even of your learned and distinguished brother—would outweigh all the claims of faith and affection and loyalty. No—delay and hesitation are useless. Trust the peasants, I say."
"You may be right—I hope you are—" said Monsieur Joseph, more gravely than usual. "But my brother will not now be alone in the left-hand scale. Lancilly, under his care, has given the people work and wages for years, remember. And now, with Herve de Sainfoy's return—"
A howl from Cesar d'Ombre, a groan from his father, a grimace of disgust from Monsieur de Bourmont, who had reason, for his own cousin, once a Chouan, was now an Imperial officer—a laugh from Monsieur des Barres; all this greeted the name of the owner of Lancilly.
"Although that renegade is your cousin, monsieur," old d'Ombre growled, "I hope the country side may soon be made too hot to hold him."
Monsieur Joseph shrugged his shoulders, smiled, looked on the floor. He did not take up the old man's words; he could not very well have done so. But there was something about him which reminded his guests that the slender little boyish man was a dead shot and a perfect swordsman, and that once, long ago, in old La Vendee days, he had challenged a man who had said something insulting of his brother Urbain, and after one or two swift passes had laid him dead at his feet.
There was a moment of rather awkward silence. Then Monsieur des Barres took up the word again.
"To be practical, my friends," he repeated, "the first step to action, it seems to me, is to sound and encourage the peasants. Each of us must be responsible for his own neighbourhood."
"We will answer for ours," said Cesar d'Ombre.
Monsieur de Bourmont, the most cautious of the party, murmured something to the same effect, and Monsieur Joseph nodded gravely.
The Vicomte's eyes dwelt on him, a little anxiously. It seemed as if that word "renegade," applied to his cousin and neighbour, might have a tendency to stick in his throat. Des Barres, who admired and loved the little gentleman, was sorry. He wanted to remind him how the old Comte d'Ombre was universally known for bad manners, stupidity, and violence. He would have liked to reason with him, too, on the subject of that cousin, and to point out kindly, as a friend, how Monsieur de Sainfoy had had absolutely no real and good excuse for going over to the Emperor. Nothing but ambition and worldiness could have led him into the course he had taken. Urbain de la Mariniere, known even before 1789 as a philosophical Republican, held a very different place in the estimation of honest men.
"That farmer on the landes"—said the Vicomte, looking at his host—"a good example of a superior peasant, is he not? We passed near his farm this morning. What line does he take?"
"Joubard? He is a fine old fellow, that. His fifth son was taken by the conscription a year ago. Four are dead. I think his heart is in the right place. But he is my brother's best tenant. Yes—I don't know. Old Joubard is made of good stuff, and he loves me."
"And probably he loved his sons, and their mother loved them too," said Cesar d'Ombre.
"Here are my children," said Monsieur Joseph, looking out of the window. "Breakfast will be ready immediately. With your leave we will finish our discussion afterwards."
All the faces lightened, except that of the Baron d'Ombre, whose soul was too much in earnest to be glad of a bodily interruption. But the ride had been long, over difficult roads and under a hot sun, and breakfast was later than usual. The three elder conspirators were not sorry to lay aside their plotting for an hour, and they knew by experience that Monsieur Joseph's cook was an artist. On an occasion such as this, dishes of the rarest distinction crossed the sandy court from that quaint high-roofed kitchen.
The children, as Monsieur Joseph called them, came to the glass door and opened it gently. They were Angelot and Henriette, first cousins, and alike enough to be brother and sister, in spite of the ten years between them.
The girl, with her fearless eyes, walked first; it seemed natural to her. All the men rose and bowed as she came in. She made a formal curtsey to each one separately, and smiled when Monsieur des Barres, the man of the world, bent gracefully to kiss her hand as if she had been a grown-up woman.
"Good morning, my dear uncle," said Angelot, and kissed Monsieur Joseph on both cheeks; then bowed deeply to the company.
They looked upon him with not altogether friendly eyes; the Comte d'Ombre even muttered something between his teeth, and hardly returned the young fellow's salutation. The son of Urbain de la Mariniere, a notorious example of two odious things, republicanism and opportunism! the mutual affection of him and his uncle Joseph only made him more of a possible danger. To Monsieur d'Ombre Angelot seemed like a spy in the camp. His son, however, knew better, and so did the other two. Angelot's parentage was not in his favour, certainly, but they tried to take him at his uncle's valuation, and that was a high one. And Monsieur Joseph's judgment, though romantic, was seldom wrong.
Gigot, the dark-faced valet, having kicked off the sabots which covered his felt shoes, but still wearing his large apron, set open the door into the long narrow hall which ran through the back of the house, widening in the middle where the tower and staircase branched from it.
"Monsieur est servi!"
The hungry guests marched willingly to the dining-room, their heavy boots creaking, the noise of tread and voices echoing through the bare boarded house.
"You do not join us, mademoiselle?" said Monsieur des Barres, seeing that Henriette lingered behind in the drawing-room.
"No, monsieur," the child answered. "My father thinks I am too young to listen. Besides, I am the guetteuse. It is our business to watch—the dogs and I."
"Indeed! Is that how you spend your life? A curious employment for a young lady!"
"When there is danger abroad, I am more to be trusted than any one else."
"I quite believe it. You know, then, that our visit to-day is not entirely one of pleasure? Monsieur your father has taken you so far into his confidence, though you are too young to listen?"
"I know everything, monsieur," said Henriette.
"Then we may eat in peace. We are safe in your care. That is charming, mademoiselle."
"Yes, monsieur. I will let you know at once, if Monsieur le Prefet and his gendarmes are riding down the lane."
"Good heavens, what an idea! I have not the smallest wish to meet Monsieur le Prefet. I believe that gentleman keeps a black book, in which I am quite sure my name is written. Yes indeed, mademoiselle, if he should happen to pass, send him a little farther. Tell him he will find a nest of Chouans at Vaujour, or anywhere else your fancy suggests."
Henriette laughed and nodded. "Trust me, monsieur," she said.
"Your little cousin is charming," said Monsieur des Barres to Angelot, who was politely waiting for him in the hall.
The six men were soon sitting at Monsieur Joseph's hospitable round table. As they dispatched their plates of steaming soup they saw the slim blue figure of Henriette, with two dogs at her heels, flit past the window in the direction of the steep lane down which Angelot had come not very long before. This lane led not only to the landes, but by other lanes to one of the rare high roads of the country, and on to the chief town of the department. It was partly for this reason that Monsieur Joseph, who valued privacy and independence, left it in its present break-neck condition, more like the dry course of a torrent than a civilised road.
A large dish of eggs followed the soup. But only half the guests had been helped, when all the dogs about the place began to bark savagely. And then, out of the shadow of the wood, darting down past the back of the kitchen, Henriette came flying to the dining-room window, almost upsetting Gigot and his dish as she sprang over the step.
"Papa, papa, there is a party riding down the lane. I believe it is Monsieur le Prefet and an officer with him, and three servants. I ran up the wood. They had only just turned into the lane, and they are coming down very slowly; their horses don't like it."
Monsieur Joseph rapped out a tremendous oath, and looked round at his guests, whose faces were a study.
"The Prefect and the General!" he said. "Now is your moment, gentlemen!"
"JE SUIS LE GENERAL BIM-BAM-BOUM!"
All the men rose to their feet, except the elder d'Ombre, who had taken a very long draught of his host's good wine, and now stared stupidly at the others. Cesar d'Ombre's eyes flamed with excitement. He seized the arm of Angelot, who was next to him, in such a grip that the young fellow flinched and frowned.
"It is our moment!" he cried. "Six to two"—then savagely, and tightening his grasp—"unless we are betrayed—"
"What do you mean, sir?" cried Angelot, his uncle, and Monsieur de Bourmont, all in a breath.
Monsieur des Barres laughed as he looked at Henriette.
"The idea is absurd," he said—"and yet," in a lower tone—"mademoiselle has proved herself an amazingly true prophetess. However, it is absurd—"
There was a moment or two of uproar. Angelot, having impatiently shaken off the Baron's hand, was demanding that he should withdraw his words. He, having apparently at once forgotten them, was insisting that now indeed was the time to prove a man's loyalty, that they must stand all together and dare all things, that the Prefect and the General, once at Les Chouettes, must never leave it but as prisoners, that the Government would be instantly demoralised, and the insurrection would catch and flame like a fire in dry grass—
"And be put out as easily," shouted Monsieur de Bourmont. "Madness, madness! Mere midsummer foolery. Go and hide yourself, firebrand!"
"Shoot them on the spot! Where are my pistols?" stammered the old Comte, beginning to understand the situation.
Monsieur des Barres laughed till he held his sides. Henriette gave him one or two angry and scornful glances, while Gigot, under her orders, whisked glasses and plates and dishes into a cupboard, pushed back chairs against the wall, took away every sign of the good meal just begun. In the midst of all this clatter Monsieur Joseph said a few words with eager nods and signs to Monsieur de Bourmont, and they two, taking the old man by each arm, led him forcibly out towards the west side of the house.
"Bring the others!" said Monsieur Joseph to his nephew, who was listening as if fascinated to Cesar d'Ombre's ravings.
The little uncle was angry, Angelot perceived. He stamped his foot, as if he meant to be obeyed. Angelot had never seen him in such a state of anxiety and excitement, or heard such words as his sincerely pious mouth had let fall two minutes before—in Riette's presence, too! Old Joubard was wrong: these plots were not exactly to be laughed at. Angelot, realising that the Prefect and the General were really in danger of their lives from men like the Messieurs d'Ombre, thought rather seriously of his own father. At the same time, he longed to punish Cesar for what he had dared to say about betrayal. Yes, he was his father's son; and so the sight of him was enough to make these wild Chouans suspect far better Royalists than themselves. There was an account to settle with Monsieur des Barres, too. His polite manners were all very well, but his words to Henriette just now were insulting. Angelot was angry with his uncle's guests, and not particularly inclined to help them out of their present predicament. He stood gloomily, without attempting to obey his uncle, till Henriette came up to him suddenly.
"Ange—the horses into the hiding-place! Do you hear—quick, quick!"
It might be possible to hesitate in obeying Uncle Joseph, but Cousin Henriette was a far more autocratic person. And then her good sense never failed, and was always convincing; she was never in doubt as to her own right course or other people's: and Angelot, who had no sisters, loved her like a little sister, and accepted her tyrannous ways joyfully.
She had hardly spoken when he was out of the window, and with a few strides across the sunshine had disappeared into the dark and cavernous archway of the stables.
Henriette turned to the two remaining guests, Cesar d'Ombre still arguing in favour of instant action with Monsieur des Barres, who looked serious enough now, and stood shrugging his shoulders.
"Follow me, gentlemen," said the child. "I know where my papa is waiting for you."
"Mademoiselle, we are in your hands," said the Vicomte, bowing. "We have never for an instant lost confidence in you."
She bent her head, with the air and smile of a woman who rather scornfully accepts an apology. She went out of the dining-room and along the hall, the two men following her. Cesar d'Ombre lingered as far as he dared, and grumbled between his teeth.
At that very moment the Prefect of the department, with the newly appointed General in command of the troops stationed there, only escorted by three men in the dress of gendarmes, rode slowly and gently round the back of the kitchen into the sandy courtyard of Les Chouettes.
"Monsieur de la Mariniere's hermitage," said the Prefect to his companion.
"It looks like one, sapristi!" said the General.
Nothing could seem stiller, more fast asleep, than Les Chouettes in the approaching noon of that hot September day. The dogs barked and growled, it was true, but only one of them, the youngest, troubled himself to get up from where he lay in the warm sand. No human creature was to be seen about the house or buildings; the silence of the woods lay all around; the dry air smelt delicately of wood smoke and fir trees; the shadows were very deep, cutting across the broad belts of glowing sunshine.
"Every one is asleep," said the Prefect. "I am afraid breakfast is over; we ought to have arrived an hour ago."
"Caught them napping!" chuckled the General.
The voices, and the clinking of bridles, as the little cavalcade passed towards the house at a walking pace, brought the cook to the kitchen door. She stared in consternation. She was a pretty woman, Gigot's wife, with a pale complexion and black hair; her provincial cap was very becoming. But she now turned as red as a turkey-cock and her jaw dropped, as she stared after the horsemen. No one had warned her: there had not been time or opportunity. She was just dishing up the roast meat for the hungry appetites of Messieurs les Chouans, when behold, the gendarmes! Who the gentlemen were, she did not know; but imperial gendarmes were never a welcome sight to Monsieur Joseph's household.
"The place is like a city of the dead," said the Prefect, drawing rein in front of the salon windows. "See if you can find any one, Simon, and ask for Monsieur de la Mariniere."
One of the gendarmes dismounted. Wearing the ordinary dress of these civil soldiers, he yet differed in some indefinable way from his two companions. He had the keen and wary look of a clever dog; his eyes were everywhere.
"City of the dead, eh! Plenty of footprints of the living!" he muttered, as he turned back towards the outbuildings and noticed the trampled sand.
Marie Gigot saw him coming, and dived back into her kitchen.
"Ah! it is that demon!" she said to herself. "Holy Virgin, defend us! I thought that wretch was gone. All of them in the dining-room—the stable full of their horses, and no one there but that ignorant Tobie! We are done for at last, that's sure. Eh! there's Monsieur Angelot talking to him. But of course it is hopeless. That must be the Prefect. To be sure they say he is better than the last—and it may be only a friendly visit—and why should not my master have his friends to breakfast? But then, again, what brings that Simon, that Chouan-catcher, as they call him! Why, Gigot told me of half-a-dozen fellows who had sworn to shoot him, and not a hundred miles from here."
She ran to the door again and looked out. Angelot, cool and quiet, had come out of the stable and met the gendarme face to face, returning his salutation with indifference.
"It is Monsieur le Prefet? Certainly, my uncle is at home," he said. "I am not sure that he is in the house," and he walked on towards the group of horsemen.
"Not in the house!" breathed the cook. "They are hiding, then! They must have heard or seen them coming—ah, how stupid I am! I saw mademoiselle run past the window."
Angelot came bareheaded, smiling, to represent his uncle in welcoming the Prefect to Les Chouettes. He would not have been his father's son if the droll side of the situation had not struck him. He thought it exquisite, though he was sorry for his uncle's annoyance. The Chouan guests had irritated him, and that they should lose their breakfast seemed a happy retribution, though he would have done all he could to save them from further penalties. Angelot looked up at the Prefect, his handsome sleepy eyes alight with laughter.
"Do my uncle the pleasure of coming in, monsieur," he said. "He will be here immediately; he has been out shooting. It is exactly breakfast time."
"We shall be very grateful for your uncle's hospitality; we have had a long ride in the heat," said the Prefect.
His eyes as they met Angelot's were very keen, as well as very kind and gentle. He was a singularly good-looking man, and sat his horse gracefully. His manners were those of the great world; he was one of the noblest and most popular of the men of old family who had rallied to the Empire, believing that Napoleon's genius and the glory of France were one.
"Monsieur le General," he said, turning to his companion, "let me present Monsieur Ange de la Mariniere, the son of Monsieur Urbain de la Mariniere, one of my truest friends in the department."
The rough and mocking voice that answered—"Happy to make his acquaintance"—brought the colour into Angelot's face as he bowed.
The Prefect, who for reasons of his own watched the lad curiously, saw the change, the cloud that darkened those frank looks suddenly, and understood it pretty well. The new military commander, risen from the ranks in every sense, had nothing to justify his position except courage, a talent for commanding, and devotion to the Emperor. That he was not now fighting in Spain was due partly to quarrels with other generals, partly to wounds received in the last Austrian campaign, which unfitted him for the time for active service. In sending him to this Royalist province of the West, Napoleon might have aimed at providing the Prefect with an effective foil to his own character and connections. The great Emperor by no means despised the trick of setting his servants to watch one another.
One personal peculiarity this General possessed, which had both helped and hindered him in his career. As Monsieur des Barres said, he was exceedingly like his master. A taller, heavier man, his face and head were a coarse likeness of Napoleon's. There were the lines of beauty without the sweetness, the strength without the genius, the ingrained selfishness unveiled by any mask, even of policy. General Ratoneau was repulsive where Napoleon was attractive. He had fought under Napoleon from the beginning, and had risen by his own efforts, disliked by all his superiors, even by the Emperor, to whom the strange likeness did not recommend him. But it had a great effect on the men who fought under him. Though he was a brutal leader, they were ready to follow him anywhere, and had been known to call him le gros caporal, so strong and obvious was this likeness. He was a splendid soldier, though ill-tempered, cruel, and overbearing. He was a man to be reckoned with, and so the amiable Prefect found. Having himself plenty of scruples, plenty of humanity, and a horror of civil war, he found a colleague with none of these difficult to manage. Nothing, for instance, was further from the Prefect's wish than to spy upon his Royalist neighbours and to drive them to desperation. The very word Chouan represented to General Ratoneau a wild beast to be trapped or hunted.
Angelot looked at this man, and from the first glance hated him. There was something insolent in the stare of those bold dark eyes, which were bloodshot, too, matching the redness and coarseness of the face; something mocking, threatening, as much as to say: "Very fine, young fellow, but I don't believe a word of it. I believe you, baby as you are, and your father, and your uncle, and the whole boiling of you, are a set of traitors to the Emperor and ought to be hanged in a row on those trees of yours. So take care how you behave, young man!"
The Prefect read Angelot's looks, and saw what kind of instant impression the General had made. No girl, at the moment, could have shown her feelings more plainly. Angelot might have said aloud, "What odious wretch is this!" such proud disgust was written on his face. But he recovered himself instantly, and again laughter was very near the surface as he begged these new guests to dismount. For the outwitting and disappointing of such a horrible official was even a richer piece of fun than the disturbance of the poor Chouans at their breakfast table.
Nothing could have been more agreeable than the manner in which Monsieur Joseph received his unexpected visitors. They were hardly in the salon when he came lightly along the hall, step and air those of a much younger man. All smiles, he shook hands affectionately with the Prefect and bowed ceremoniously to the General. They had done him the greatest honour, caused him the keenest delight, by this friendly visit of surprise. Only he must beg them to pardon the deficiencies of his household. He really could not say what sort of breakfast they were likely to find. Plenty, he hoped—for his nephew had come in from a long morning's sport, half-an-hour ago, and the cook knew how to a measure a young man's appetite. But as to quality—he could only throw himself on the kind indulgence of his friends.
"As for me," said the General, "I am as hungry as a wolf, and I could eat a lump of brown bread, and wash it down with a quart of sour wine."
"Ah, ah! a true soldier, monsieur!" said Monsieur Joseph, and clapped his hands gently.
"My uncle's wine is not sour, as Monsieur le General will find," said Angelot.
The General replied, with a scowl and a shrug, "I don't suppose you mean to compare your wine from this poor soil with the wine of the South, for instance."
"Ah, pardon, but I do!" cried the boy. "This very morning, our farmer on the landes gave me a glass of wine, white sparkling wine, which you would hardly match in France, except, of course, in the real champagne country. And even as to that, our wine is purer. It tastes of sunshine and of the white grapes of the vineyard. There is nothing better."
"Nothing better for children, I dare say," said General Ratoneau, with a laugh. "Men like something stronger than sunshine and grapes. So will you, one of these days."
Angelot looked hard at the man for a moment. He sat squarely, twisting his whip in his hands, on one of Monsieur Joseph's old Louis Quinze chairs, which seemed hardly fit to bear his weight. The delicate atmosphere of old France was all about him. Angelot and his uncle were incarnations of it, even in their plain shooting clothes; and the Prefect, the Baron de Mauves, was worthy in looks and manners of the old regime from which he sprang. The other man was a son of the Revolution and of a butcher at Marseilles. With his glittering uniform, his look of a coarse Roman, he was the very type of military tyranny at its worst, without even the good manners of past days to soften the frank insolence of a soldier.
"Voila l'Empire! I wish my father could see him!" Angelot thought.
Monsieur Joseph looked at his nephew. His sweet smile had faded, a sudden shadow of anxiety taking its place. How would Angelot bear with this man? Would he remember that in spite of all provocation he must be treated civilly? The Prefect also glanced up a little nervously at Angelot as he stood. Had the handsome, attractive boy any share at all of his father's wisdom and faultless temper?
Angelot was conscious of both these warnings. He answered the little uncle's with a smile, and said easily—"It is possible—I cannot tell. As to the wine—I will ask your opinion after breakfast, monsieur."
The Prefect's face cleared up suddenly. Angelot was a worthy son of his father.
"It is quite unnecessary, my dear friend," he said to Monsieur Joseph, "for you to attempt to alarm us about our breakfast. Your cook can work miracles. This is not the first time, remember, that I have taken you by surprise."
"And you are always welcome, my dear Baron," Monsieur Joseph answered gently, but a little dreamily.
"I shall now have a fresh attraction in this country," the Prefect said. "With your cousin, De Sainfoy, at Lancilly, your neighbourhood will indeed leave nothing to be desired."
"Herve is an agreeable man," said Monsieur Joseph. "I have not seen him for many years; I do not know his wife and family. My brother is charmed to welcome them all."
"Of course, and they must feel that they owe everything to him. Monsieur your brother is a benefactor to his country and species," said the Prefect, with a smile at Angelot. "Madame de Sainfoy is an exceedingly pretty woman. She made quite a sensation at Court in the spring, and I should think there will not be much difficulty in her getting the appointment I understand she wishes—lady in waiting to the Empress. Only they say that the Emperor does not quite trust De Sainfoy—finds him a little half-hearted."
"That is possible," said Monsieur Joseph, gently.
"Well, it is a pity," said the Prefect. "If you accept the new regime at all, you should do it loyally."
"My cousin has a son fighting in Spain. That ought to be placed to his credit."
"And no doubt it is. His daughter, too, may do something. There is only one grown up, and she has not been brought much into society—her father's fault, they say; he has ideas of his own about marrying her. But I am telling you what you know already?"
"Not at all, monsieur. I have heard nothing of it. When my cousins live at Lancilly, the family councils may include me; so far they have not done so. I did not even realise that Mademoiselle Helene was old enough to be married. And what match is arranged for her?"
"None that I know of. Her father's action has been negative, not positive, I understand. He has simply refused to consider one or two suggested marriages, either of which would have been good politically."
"Reasons of birth, I suppose," said Monsieur Joseph. "He has my cordial sympathy."
The Prefect coughed; the General scraped his chair; Angelot nearly laughed aloud.
"You will find it very agreeable to have your cousins at Lancilly," the Prefect said, looking at him kindly.
"I don't know, monsieur," Angelot answered. "Young girls are hardly companions for me."
"Indeed! As to that—" began the Prefect, still smiling as he looked at the lad; but his remark was cut short and his attention pleasantly distracted.
Gigot, with unshaken solemnity, set open the doors for the second time that morning.
"Monsieur est servi!"
HOW THE BREAKFAST COOKED FOR THOSE WAS EATEN BY THESE
The Prefect and the General enjoyed their breakfast thoroughly. They sat over it long; so long that Angelot, his hunger satisfied, began to suffer in his young limbs from a terrible restlessness. It was as much as he could do to sit still, listening first to the Prefect's political and society talk, then to stories of the General's campaigns. Under the influence of the despised wine of Anjou, Monsieur de Mauves, whose temper needed no sweetening, became a little sleepy, prosy, and long-winded. General Ratoneau on his side was mightily cheered, and showed quite a new animation: long before the meal ended, he was talking more than the other three put together. It was he who had been the hero of Eylau, of Friedland, of Wagram; the Emperor and the Marshals were nowhere. All the great movements were in consequence of his advice. And then his personal courage! The men he had killed with his own hand! As to the adventures which had fallen to his lot in storming and plundering towns, burning villages, quartering his men on country houses, these often belonged so much to the very seamiest side of war that Monsieur Joseph, soldier as he was, listened with a frown, and the Prefect coughed and glanced more than once at Angelot. For some of these stories were hardly suited to young and innocent ears, and Angelot looked, and indeed was, younger than his age.
He was listening, not curiously, but with a kind of unwilling impatience. The man seemed to impress him in spite of himself, in spite of disgust at the stories and dislike of the teller. Once or twice he laughed, and then General Ratoneau gave him a stare, as if just reminded of his existence, and went on to some further piece of coarse bragging.
Monsieur Joseph became paler and graver, Angelot more restless, the Prefect sleepier, as the rough voice talked on. Angelot thought breakfast would never be over, and that this brute would never have done boasting of his fine deeds, such as hanging up six brothers in a row outside their own house, and threatening the mother and sisters with the same fate unless they showed him the way to the cellar, where he knew they had hidden plate and jewellery, as well as a quantity of good wine.
"You would not have done it, monsieur?" said Angelot, quickly.
The General assured him with oaths that he certainly would.
"And they knew it, and did as they were told," he said. "We did not hurt them, as it happened. We stripped the house, and left them to bury their men, if they chose. What had they to expect? Fortune of war, my boy!"
Angelot shrugged his shoulders.
"You should send that nephew of yours to learn a few things in the army," the General said to Monsieur Joseph, when they at last rose and left the dining-room. "He will grow up nothing but an ignorant, womanish baby, if you keep him down here among your woods much longer."
"I am not his father," Monsieur Joseph answered with some dryness. "He is a friend of the Prefect's; you can easily remonstrate with him, Monsieur le General. But you are mistaken about young Ange. He is neither a girl nor a baby, but a very gallant young fellow, still humane and innocent, of course—but your stories might pierce a thicker skin, I fancy."
The General laughed aloud, as they strolled out at the back of the house into the afternoon sunshine.
"Well, well, a soldier has the right to talk," he said. "I need not tell a man who knows the world, like you, that I should never have hanged those women—poor country rubbish though they were, and ugly too, I remember. But the men had tried to resist, and martial law must be obeyed."
Some reassurance of the same kind was given to Angelot by the Prefect, who lingered behind with him.
"And our conscripts go for this, monsieur!" Angelot said.
"My dear boy," said Monsieur de Mauves, lazily, "you must take these tales cum grano. For instance, if I know the Emperor, he would have shot the man who hanged those women. And our friend Ratoneau knew it."
Les Chouettes seemed stiller than ever, the sun hotter, the atmosphere more sleepy and peaceful. The dogs were lying in various directions at full length on the sand. The sleeping forms of the Prefect's gendarmes were also to be seen, stretched on the grass under the southern belt of fir trees. One moving figure came slowly into sight on the edge of the opposite wood, and strolled into the sunshine, stooping as she came to pick the pale purple crocuses of which the grass was full—little Henriette, a basket on her arm, her face shaded by a broad straw bonnet.
The General shaded his eyes with his hand, and stared at her.
"Who is that young girl, monsieur?" he asked.
The question itself seemed impertinent enough, but the insolence of the tone and the manner sent a quiver through Monsieur Joseph's nerves. His face twitched and his eyes flashed dangerously. At that moment he would have forgiven any rashness on the part of his Chouan friends; he would have liked to see Monsieur d'Ombre's pistol within a few inches of the General's head, and if it had gone off, so much the better. He wondered why he had not encouraged Cesar d'Ombre's idea of making these men prisoners. Perhaps he was right, after all; the boldest policy might have been the best. Perhaps it was a splendid opportunity lost. Anyhow, the imperial officials would have been none the worse for cooling their heels and starving a little, the fate of the Royalists now. As to the consequences, Monsieur Joseph in his present mood might have made short work of them, had it not been for that young girl in the meadow.
"It is my daughter, Monsieur le General."
A person with finer instincts could not have failed to notice the angry shortness of the reply. But the General was in high good humour, for him, and he coolly went on adding to his offences.
"Your daughter, is it! I did not know you were married. I understood from Monsieur le Prefet that you were a lonely hermit. Is there a Madame de la Mariniere hidden away somewhere? and possibly a few more children? This house is a kind of beehive, I dare say—" he walked on to the grass, and turned to stare at the windows. "Was madame afraid to entertain us? My stories would have been too strong for her, perhaps? but I assure you, monsieur, I know how to behave to women!" and he laughed.
"I hope so, monsieur, especially as you are not now in Germany," said Monsieur Joseph, thinking very earnestly of his own sword and pistols, ready for use in his own room.
He need only step in at that window, a few yards off. A fierce word, a blow, would be a suitable beginning—and then—if only Riette were out of sight, and the Prefect would not interfere—there could not be a better ground than the sand here by the house. Must one wait for all the formalities of a duel, with the Prefect and Angelot to see fair play? However, he tried hard to restrain himself, at least for the moment.
"My wife is dead, monsieur, and I have but that one child," he said, forcing the words out with difficulty: it was a triumph of the wise and gentle Joseph over the fiery and passionate Joseph.
He thought of Urbain, when he wanted to conquer that side of himself; Urbain, who by counsel and influence had made it safe for him to live under the Empire, and who now, hating vulgarity and insolence as much as he did himself, would have pointed out that General Ratoneau's military brutality was not worth resenting; that there were greater things at stake than a momentary annoyance; that the man's tongue had been loosened, his lumbering spirit quickened, by draughts of sparkling wine of Anjou, and that his horrible curiosity carried no intentional insult with it. Indeed, as Monsieur Joseph perceived immediately, with a kind of wonder, the man fancied that he was making himself agreeable to his host.
"Ah, sapristi, I am sorry for you, monsieur, and for the young lady too," he said. "I am not married myself—but the loss of wife and mother must be a dreadful thing. Excuse a soldier's tongue, monsieur."
Monsieur Joseph accepted the apology with a quick movement of head and hand, being as placable as he was passionate. The General continued to stare at Henriette, who moved slowly, seeming to think of nothing, to see nothing, but the wild flowers and the crowd of flitting butterflies in the meadow.
During this little interlude, one of the gendarmes, who had seemed asleep, got up and moved towards the Prefect, who turned to speak to him, and after the first word walked with him a few yards, so as to be out of hearing of the others. Angelot, who had been standing beside the Prefect, glanced after them with a touch of anxiety. He did not like the looks of that gendarme, though he had not, like Marie Gigot, recognised him as specially dangerous. He walked forward a few steps and stood beside his uncle. Suppose the meeting of that morning, risky if not unlawful, were to come to the Prefect's knowledge; suppose his uncle's dangerous friends were ferreted out of their hiding-place in the wood; what then was he, his father's son, to do? His mother's son, though far enough from sharing her enthusiasms, had an answer ready: whatever it might cost, he must stand by the little uncle and Riette.
"Your daughter is still young,"—it was the General's hoarse voice—"too young yet to be reported to the Emperor. Monsieur le Prefet must wait three or four years. Then, when she is tall and pretty—"
Angelot's brow darkened. What was the creature saying?
"You were pleased to mean—" Monsieur Joseph was asking, with extreme civility.
"Ah, bah, have you heard nothing of the new order? Well, as I say, it will not affect you at present. But ask Monsieur le Prefet. He will explain. It is rather a sore subject with him, I believe, he has the prejudices of his class—of your class, I mean."
"You are talking in riddles, indeed, monsieur," said Monsieur Joseph.
They looked round at the Prefect. He had now finished his short talk with the gendarme, and as he turned towards the other group, Angelot's young eyes perceived a shadow on his kind face, a grave look of awakened interest. Angelot was also aware that he beckoned to him. As soon as he came up with him, the Prefect said, "That is mademoiselle your cousin, is it not, gathering flowers in the meadow? I should like to pay her my compliments, if she is coming this way."
"I will go and tell her so, Monsieur le Prefet," said Angelot.
"Do, my friend."
His eyes, anxious and thoughtful, followed the young man as he walked across towards the distant edge of the wood, whose dark shadows opened behind Riette and the crocuses. She looked up, startled, as her cousin came near, and for a moment seemed to think of disappearing into the wood; but a sign from him reassured her, and she came with a dancing step to meet him.
"I have been rousing curiosity, Monsieur le Prefet," said the General, smiling grimly, as the Prefect rejoined the other men. "I have been telling Monsieur de la Mariniere that one of these days you will report his daughter to the Emperor."
The Prefect looked angry and annoyed. His handsome face flushed. With an involuntary movement he laid his hand on Monsieur Joseph's shoulder; their eyes met, and both men smiled.
"I sometimes think," said Monsieur de Mauves, "that His Majesty does not yet quite know France. His ideas have great spirit and originality, but they are not always very practical."
"They are generally put into practice," growled the General.
"Yes—but I do not think this one will go far. Certainly, it will have died out long before Mademoiselle de la Mariniere is grown up."
"But explain, my dear friend!" cried Monsieur Joseph. "Is the Emperor going to raise a regiment of Amazons, to fight Russia? I am dying with curiosity."
"Some people would find your idea less disagreeable than the fact," said the Prefect, smiling, while the General shook with laughter.
"Amazons! ha! ha! capital! I should like to lead them."
It seemed that the Prefect, for once, was ashamed of his great master. He went on to explain, in a hurried fashion, how he and his brother Prefects had received this very singular command from the Emperor—that they were to send him, not a mere list, but a catalogue raisonne, of all the well-born girls in their several departments; their personal appearance, their disposition, their dowries, their prospects in the future; in short, every particular regarding them. And with what object? to arrange marriages between these young women of the best blood in France and his most favoured officers. It was one way, an original way, of making society loyal to the Empire; but the plan savoured too much of the treatment of a conquered country to please men like the Baron de Mauves. He might speak of it with a certain outward respect, as coming from the Emperor; and the presence of General Ratoneau was also a check upon his real sentiments; but he was not surprised at Monsieur Joseph's evident disgust, and not out of sympathy with it.
The reign of the soldier! They were heroes, perhaps, many of these men whom Napoleon delighted to honour. It was not unnatural that he should heap dukedoms and pensions and orders upon them. But it seemed a dangerous step forward, to force such men as this Ratoneau, for instance, into the best families of France. No doubt he, in spite of his Napoleonic looks, was a bad specimen; but Monsieur Joseph might be excused if he looked at him as he said: "My dear Baron, it is tyranny. I speak frankly, gentlemen; it is a step on the road to ruin. Our old families will not bear it. What have you done?"
"Nothing," said Monsieur de Mauves. "I think most of the Prefects agree with me; it is an order which will have to be repeated."
On which the General turned round with a grin, and quoted to him his own words—"Monsieur le Prefet—if you accept the new regime, you should accept it loyally."
"Pardon—nothing of this before the children, I beg," exclaimed Monsieur Joseph in haste, for Angelot and Henriette were coming across the meadow.
The Prefect's delicate brows went up; he shrugged his shoulders, and moved off with a somewhat absent air to meet the young people.
The sunshine, the flowery meadow, the motionless woods all about in the still afternoon: no background could be more peaceful. Nor could any unwelcome visitor with official power be more gentle and courteous than the Prefect as he took off his hat and bowed low to the slim child in her old clinging frock, who curtseyed with her hands full of crocuses and a covered basket on her arm. But little Riette and her cousin Angelot watched the amiable Prefect with anxious, suspicious eyes, and she took his kind words and compliments with an ease of reply which was not quite natural. She was a responsible person in her father's house at all times; but the fates of men had never, perhaps, been hung round her neck before. Why, the very fact of their concealment would be enough to condemn the four in government eyes looking out for conspiracies. And Monsieur des Barres, always lively, had said to Riette ten minutes ago: "Now, mademoiselle, you have sheltered us, you have fed us; we depend on you to keep all inconvenient persons out of the wood."
"Stay where you are till they are gone, and have no fear," the child answered, and went back to meet the enemy.
And presently the Prefect said, "You have gathered some very pretty flowers, mademoiselle."
"Pray take some, monsieur," said Riette.
The Prefect took two crocuses in his fingers, and cleverly slipped them into a buttonhole, for which they were not very well suited. Then he went on talking about flowers for a minute or two, but the subject was soon exhausted, for his knowledge lay among garden flowers, and Riette knew none but those that grew among her own woods and fields. Then suddenly and without warning, those pointed fingers of his had lifted the cover of the basket. It was done with a smile, as one might do it, a little mischievously, to a child trying to hide something, and with the words—"More flowers, mademoiselle?" At the bottom of the basket lay two corks and a small roll of bread. St. Elizabeth's miracle was not repeated for Henriette.
Angelot smiled and bit his lip; then looked at the faces of his two companions. In the Prefect's there was plainly a question. Riette flushed crimson; for a moment her dark eyes were cast down; then there was something both roguish and pathetic in them, as she looked up at the man on whom so much depended.
"Monsieur," said the sweet, childish voice, "I often eat my breakfast out-of-doors—I did to-day."
The Prefect smiled, but gravely. Angelot hardly thought that he was deceived.
"It is an agreeable thing to do, when one is young," the Prefect said. "Young, and with a clear conscience. But most people, if they had the choice, would prefer your father's hospitable dining-room."
He turned with a wave of his hand and walked towards the house.
"What have you done, child?" said Angelot, half laughing, half solemn.
"I did not tell a lie," said Riette. "Marie gave me something for myself too: she and papa both said I must not have breakfast with you. Oh, they were hungry, Angelot! They devoured what I took, especially the Baron d'Ombre. I am sorry there was a bit of bread left, and I don't know how the corks got there. But, my dear, he knows nothing!"
"Hush. I am not so sure. Now keep out of the way till they are gone."
This was a counsel of perfection, which Henriette did her best to follow; but it was difficult, for the time was long. All the household at Les Chouettes became very restless and impatient as the afternoon wore on, but none of them dared show it. Poor Monsieur Joseph summoned up all his powers of general conversation, which were a little rusty, to entertain the Prefect, who went on talking politics and society as if life, for him, had no more immediate and present interest. Angelot marched about with an uneasy sense of keeping guard; knowing, too, that his father was expecting him to help to receive the distinguished cousins at Lancilly. He did not mind that much; the idea of the Sainfoy family was not very attractive to him: he thought they might interfere with the old freedom of the country-side; and even to please his father he could not desert his little uncle in a difficulty. He poured out some of his irritation on the Prefect's pet gendarme, whom he caught stealing round by the wood where, hidden behind a pile of logs in an old stone hovel, the four Royalist gentlemen were finding this official visit considerably more than a joke.
"What are you doing on my uncle's land?" Angelot said sharply to the man.
"Nothing, monsieur. Is it not allowed to take a little exercise?" said Simon, the Chouan-catcher.
There was such a keen look in the man's eyes, such a veiled insolence in his tone, that Angelot suddenly felt he must say no more. He muttered something about disturbing the game, and passed on. Simon grinned as he looked after him.
All this time the General was fast asleep, stretched on a sofa in the salon. Angelot looked in upon him as he lay snoring. With his eyes shut, he was more like the Emperor than ever; and as with Napoleon, there was a sort of fascination in the brow, the chin, the shape of the head, though here there was coarseness instead of refinement, the power of will without the genius.
"He is a handsome beast, but I hate him!" the young man thought as he looked through the window. "Now if our excellent Chouans were here, what would they do? Probably nothing. And what can anybody do? Nothing. Fate has brought the Empire, as my father says, and he does not agree with Uncle Joseph that it does much more harm than good. For my part, I would as soon live in peace—and it does not please me to be ruled by overbearing soldiers and police spies. However, as long as they leave me my dog and gun and the freedom of the woods, they may have their politics to themselves for me.—Here I am, dear uncle."
He turned from the window with a shrug. Monsieur Joseph and the Prefect had been strolling about the meadow, and the Prefect now expressed a wish to walk round the woods, and to see the view of Lancilly from the high ground beyond them.
Angelot went with the two men. They walked right through the wood. The Prefect stopped and talked within twenty yards of the hovel where the four conspirators lay hidden. It was a grand opportunity for old Monsieur d'Ombre's pistol-shot; but not a movement, not a sound broke the stillness of the wood. There was only the rustling of the leaves, the squeak of the squirrels as they raced and scampered in the high branches of the oaks.
The two La Marinieres stood on each side of Monsieur de Mauves: they were a guard to him, though he did not know it, as his eyes wandered curiously, searchingly, down the glade in which he chose to linger.
A rough whitewashed corner of the hovel, the mass of its dark roof, were actually visible beyond an undergrowth of briars.
"What have you there?" said the Prefect, so quietly that his companions did not even suspect him of a suspicion.
"A shelter—an old hovel where wood is stored for the winter," Monsieur Joseph answered truthfully; but his cheeks and eyes brightened a little, as if prepared for something more.
"Ah!" the Prefect only said, looking rather fixedly that way. "And where is this view of Lancilly?"
Both the uncle and nephew breathed more freely as they led him up the hill, through higher slopes of wood, then under some great branching oaks, here allowed to grow to their full size, and out into a rugged lane, winding on through wild hedges festooned with blackberries. Here, at the top, they looked straight across the valley to Lancilly, as it lay in the sunshine. Its high roofs flashing, it looked indeed the majestic centre of the country-side. Angelot gazed at it indifferently. Again the Prefect turned to him with his kind smile.
"It will be charming for you to have your cousins there. They will reconcile you to the powers that be."
Angelot answered: "I have no quarrel with the powers that be, monsieur, as long as you represent them. As to life, I want no change. Give me a gun and set me on a moor with my uncle. There we are!"
"If I thought your uncle was quite so easily satisfied!" the Prefect said, and his look, as he turned to Monsieur Joseph, was a little enigmatical.
HOW ANGELOT MADE AN ENEMY
The sun was near setting when the Prefect and his companions rode away from Les Chouettes, their visit having resulted, as it seemed, in nothing worse than annoyance and anxiety.
Joseph de la Mariniere drew a long breath as he saw them go. The Prefect looked back once or twice and saw him standing near his house, a small black figure in the full blaze of the west. He seemed to be alone with his dogs, though in fact Riette and the three servants were peeping round the corner of the house beyond him, waiting for the final disappearance of the visitors. He had asked Angelot to guide them through the labyrinth of woods and lanes to a road leading to a town which the Prefect wished to reach before nightfall. As Angelot was on foot, their progress was slow; and it seemed an age to Monsieur Joseph till they had crossed his broad meadow to the south, and instead of going on towards Lancilly, had struck into a wood on the left through which a narrow path ran.
When the last gendarme had passed from bright sunshine into shadows, when the tramp of the last horse had died away, Monsieur Joseph made a little joyful spring into the air and called, "Riette, my child, where are you?"
"Here I am, papa!" cried the girl, darting forward. "Ah, what a day we have had!"
"And what an evening we will have now!" said Monsieur Joseph.
He seized her two hands, and they danced round together. In the shadow behind the house Gigot and Marie followed their example, while Tobie, having no partner, jumped up and down with his arms akimbo. Mademoiselle Riette, catching sight of him, laughed so exhaustingly that she could dance no longer. Then the whole family laughed till the tears ran down their faces, while the dogs sat round and wagged their tails.
"The good God has protected us," said Gigot, coming forward to his master. "Does monsieur know that one of those gendarmes was Simon, the police agent, the Chouan-catcher, they call him? When I saw him, my heart died within me. But we were too clever for him. He went smelling about, but he found nothing."
"He smelt something, though," growled Tobie the groom. "He would have searched the stable and found the inner place if I had not stood in front of him: luckily I was the biggest man of the two. It is not so easy, do you see, to make a way past me."
"I gave them enough good food and wine to send them to sleep for the afternoon," said Marie the cook. "It was a sad waste, but the only way to keep such creatures quiet."
"What a terrible man, that General!" said Gigot. "How he slept and snored and kicked the sofa! you can see the marks of his boots now. And how he resembles the Emperor! I know, for I saw his Majesty once—"
"Stop your recollections, Gigot," said Monsieur Joseph; for Gigot, like many solemn and silent people, was difficult to check when once set talking. "We have something else to think of now. Make haste with dinner, Marie. We must console our poor friends for their captivity. Come, Riette, we will go and fetch them."
So that evening was a merry one at Les Chouettes, and the moon was high before the second batch of guests climbed slowly to the moor on their homeward way. The day's experience had not heightened their courage, somehow, or advanced their plans for a rising. Even the Comte d'Ombre agreed that the time was hardly ripe; that five or six men might throw away their own lives or liberties, but could not make a new revolution; that the peasants must be sounded, public opinion educated; and that the Prefect's courteous moderation was an odious quality which made everything more difficult.
And in the meanwhile, Monsieur de Mauves was justifying their conclusions in a way that would have startled them.
Beyond the wood, Angelot led the party across stubble-fields, where blue field flowers with grey dusty leaves clustered by the wayside, and distant poplars, pointing high into the evening air, showed where his home lay. Then they turned down into one of the hollow lanes of the country, its banks scooped out by winter rains and treading of cattle, so that it was almost like three sides of a cylinder, while the thick pollard oaks, leaning over it, made twilight even in the lingering sunshine.
The General was riding in front, the gendarmes some yards behind; Angelot, with his dog and gun, kept close beside the Prefect, who talked to him with his usual friendliness. Presently he said, "I love your uncle, Angelot, much better than he loves me, and I am sorry that he should run such useless risks."
"What risks, monsieur?" the young man said, glancing up quickly; and somehow it was difficult to meet the Prefect's eyes.
"Ah, you know very well. Believe me, your father is right, and your uncle is wrong. The old regime cannot be reestablished. The path of France is marked out for her; a star has arisen to guide her, and she is foolish, suicidal, not to follow where it leads. I do not defend or admire the Emperor in everything: but see what he has done for France. She lay ruined, distracted. She took the mountain path of liberty, made a few wrong turns, and was dashed over the precipice. See how the Emperor has built her up into a great nation again; look at the laws and the civilisation; look at the military glory which has cost much blood, it is true, but has raised her so high in Europe that the nations who were ready to devour her are mostly crouching at her feet. Would our Bourbons have done all this for us, Angelot? Are they, after all, worth the devotion of men like your uncle and—for instance—Monsieur des Barres? Does not true patriotism lead a man to think of his country's good and glory, not of the advantage of one special family? Your uncle can hardly believe in that mediaeval fiction of divine right, I suppose?"
Angelot smiled. "My uncle belongs to the days of Saint Louis," he said.
"But you do not," the Prefect replied. "I find it hard to forgive him. He is free, of course, to put his own neck in danger. One of these days he will drive me to extremities, and will find himself and his friends in a state prison—lucky if nothing worse happens. But he has no right to involve you in these treasonous tricks of his. It is selfish and immoral. Your father should see to it. You ought not to have been there to-day."
The Prefect spoke low and earnestly. It was impossible to misunderstand him. Angelot felt something like a cold shiver running over him. But he smiled and answered bravely.
"If my uncle has been foolish, so have I, and I will share the consequences with him. But as to to-day, monsieur?"
"I know all," the Prefect said. "Your uncle had visitors this morning, who were spirited away out of our sight. Their horses were hidden in an inner stable; they themselves in a hovel in the wood—and if they have waited there till we were gone, they must be tired of it. That famous breakfast we enjoyed was not prepared on such miraculously short notice. Your little cousin, poor child, was employed to carry food to the fugitives hidden in the wood. With all my heart I pity her; a life of political plots is not happiness. But if Monsieur de la Mariniere does not hesitate to sacrifice his daughter, it is no wonder that he lightly runs his nephew into danger! You acted well, you and he. But I almost think it might have been safer to carry on that first breakfast-party, and not show its character by absurd attempts at concealment. You cannot contradict a word I have been saying, Angelot. I do not ask you to tell me the names of your uncle's guests."
"If you did, monsieur," the young fellow answered, "I should consider that an uncomfortable day had punished them enough, and so I should respectfully decline to answer you. I don't know how you made all these wonderful discoveries."
The Prefect looked at him and laughed. "You take it lightly!"
"I am speaking to a friend," Angelot said.
"That is all very well. Yes—too good a friend, I fear, from the point of view of duty. But I shall not repent, if you will be warned into prudence yourself, and will warn your uncle."
"I am rather afraid, monsieur, that my father has all the prudence of the family."
The Prefect would have argued further, but suddenly a sound like low thunder, still distant, echoed down the lane.
"What is that?" he said, looking round.
"Cattle, monsieur. Pull right into the bank and give them room to pass," said Angelot.
The gendarmes, who knew the country, had already taken this precaution. They were drawing up in single file by the side of the road, close under the steep bank, pressing into it, in the dark shadow of the pollards. But General Ratoneau, in advance, was riding stolidly forward, clanking along at a quick foot's pace in the very middle of the narrow lane, with all that swaggering air of a conqueror, which was better suited to German fields than to the quiet woody ways of France. Angelot hurried forward.
"Monsieur le General!" he called out; but Ratoneau, though he must have heard, did not turn his head or take any notice.
"Insolent animal! I might as well leave him to fight it out with the cows," the young fellow muttered; but for the Prefect's sake he ran on, his dog scampering after him, caught up the General, and stretched out a hand to his bridle.
"What the devil do you want!" said the General, lifting his whip.
"There is a herd of cows coming," Angelot shouted, though the blood rushed into his face at the man's involuntary movement. "You must get out of their way, or they will knock you down and trample on you. This is their way home. Draw up under the bank at once."