M. E. Braddon
Book the First.
I. LENOBLE OF BEAUBOCAGE
II. IN THIS WIDE WORLD I STAND ALONE
III. PAST HOPE, AND IN DESPAIR
IV. A DECREE OF BANISHMENT
Book the Second.
I. THE FATE OF SUSAN LENOBLE
II. FORGIVEN TOO LATE
III. GUSTAVE THE SECOND
Book the Third.
I. CHIEFLY RETROSPECTIVE
III. TOO CLEVER FOR A CATSPAW
IV. CAPTAIN PAGET IS PATERNAL
V. THE CAPTAIN'S COADJUTOR
Book the Fourth.
GUSTAVE IN ENGLAND.
I. HALCYON DAYS
II. CAPTAIN PAGET AWAKENS TO A SENSE OF HIS DUTY
III. WHAT DO WE HERE, MY HEART AND I?
IV. SHARPER THAN A SERPENT'S TOOTH
Book the Fifth.
THE FIRST ACT OF MR. SHELDON'S DRAMA.
I. TAKEN BY STORM
II. FIRM AS A ROCK
III. AGAINST WIND AND TIDE
IV. DIANA ASKS FOR A HOLIDAY
V. ASSURANCE DOUBLY SURE
Book the Sixth.
DIANA IN NORMANDY.
I. AT COTENOIR
Book the Seventh.
A CLOUD OF FEAR.
I. THE BEGINNING OF SORROW
III. MRS. WOOLPER IS ANXIOUS
IV. VALENTINE'S SKELETON
V. AT HAROLD'S HILL
VI. DESPERATE MEASURES
Book the Eighth.
A FIGHT AGAINST TIME.
I. A DREAD REVELATION
II. PHOENICIANS ARE RISING
III. THE SORTES VIRGILIANAE
Book the Ninth.
THROUGH THE FURNACE.
I. SOMETHING TOO MUCH
II. DR. JEDD'S OPINION
III. NON DORMIT JUDAS
IV. COUNTING THE COST
V. THE BEGINNING OF THE END
VI. CONFUSION WORSE CONFOUNDED
VII. THERE IS A WORD WILL PRIAM TURN TO STONE
Book the Tenth.
HARBOUR, AFTER MANY SHIPWRECKS.
I. OUT OF THE DARK VALLEY
II. AFTER THE WEDDING
III. GREEK AGAINST GREEK
IV. ONLY A DREAM
V. BOHEMIAN INDEPENDENCE
VI. BEYOND THE VEIL
VII. BETTER THAN GOLD
VIII. LOST SIGHT OF
IX. ETEOCLES AND POLYNICES
X. "ACCORDING TO THEIR DEEDS."
Book the first.
LENOBLE OF BEAUBOCAGE.
In the days when the Bourbon reigned over Gaul, before the "simple, sensuous, passionate" verse of Alfred de Musset had succeeded the debonnaire Muse of Beranger in the affections of young France,—in days when the site of the Trocadero was a remote and undiscovered country, and the word "exposition" unknown in the Academic dictionary, and the Gallic Augustus destined to rebuild the city yet an exile,—a young law-student boarded, in common with other students, in a big dreary-looking house at the corner of the Rue Grande-Mademoiselle, abutting on the Place Lauzun, and within some ten minutes walk of the Luxembourg. It was a very dingy quarter, though noble gentlemen and lovely ladies had once occupied the great ghastly mansions, and disported themselves in the gruesome gardens. But the young students were in nowise oppressed by the ghastliness of their abode. They sang their Beranger, and they pledged each other in cheap Bordeaux, and clinked their glasses noisily in their boisterous good-fellowship, and ate the messes compounded for them in a darksome cupboard, known as the kitchen, by old Nanon the cook, purblind, stone-deaf, and all but imbecile, and popularly supposed to be the venerable mother of Madame Magnotte. The youngsters grumbled to each other about the messes when they were unusually mysterious; and it must be owned that there were vol-au-vents and fricandeaux consumed in that establishment which were awful and wonderful in their nature; but they ventured on no complaint to the mistress of the mansion. She was a grim and terrible personage. Her terms were low, and she treated her boarders de haute en bas. If they were not content with her viands, they might go and find more agreeable viands elsewhere.
Madame Magnotte was altogether mysterious and inscrutable. Some people said that she was a countess, and that the wealth and lands of her family had been confiscated by the committee of public unsafety in '93. Others declared that she had been a popular actress in a small theatre in the days of Napoleon. She was tall and thin—nay, of an exceptional leanness—and her complexion was of a more agreeable yellow than the butter that appeared on her hospitable board; but she had flashing black eyes, and a certain stateliness of gait and grandeur of manner that impressed those young Bohemians, her boarders, with a kind of awe. They talked of her as the "countess," and by that name she was known to all inmates of the mansion; but in all their dealings with her they treated her with unfailing respect.
One of the quietest among the young men who enjoyed the privileges of Madame Magnotte's abode was a certain Gustave Lenoble, a law-student, the only son of a very excellent couple who lived on their own estate, near an obscure village in Normandy. The estate was of the smallest; a dilapidated old house, known in the immediate neighbourhood as "the Chateau," and very dear to those who resided therein; a garden, in which everything seemed to have run to seed; and about forty acres of the poorest land in Normandy. These possessions constituted the patrimonial estate of Francois Lenoble, proprietaire, of Beaubocage, near Vevinordin, the department of Eure.
The people amongst whom the good man lived his simple life called him M. Lenoble de Beaubocage, but he did not insist upon this distinction; and on sending out his only son to begin the battle of life in the great world of Paris, he recommended the young man to call himself Lenoble, tout court.
The young man had never cherished any other design. He was of all creatures the least presuming or pretentious. The father was Legitimist to the very marrow; the son half Buonapartist, half republican. The father and son had quarrelled about these differences of opinion sometimes in a pleasantly disputatious manner; but no political disagreement could lesser the love between these two. Gustave loved his parents as only a Frenchman can venture to love his father and mother—with a devotion for the gentleman that bordered on enthusiasm, with a fond reverence for the lady that was the very essence of chivalry. There was a sister, who regarded her brother Gustave as the embodiment of all that is perfect in youthful mankind; and there were a couple of old house-servants, a very stupid clumsy lad in the stables, and half a dozen old mongrel dogs, born and bred on the premises, who seemed to share the young lady's opinions. There was not a little discussion upon the subject of Gustave Lenoble's future career; and it was not without difficulty that the father could be persuaded to approve the choice of a profession which the young man had made. The seigneur of Beaubocage cherished an exaggerated pride of race little suspected by those who saw his simple life, and were pleased by his kindly unaffected manners. The house of Lenoble, at some remote and almost mythical period of history, had distinguished itself in divers ways; and those bygone grandeurs, vague and shadowy in the minds of all others, seemed very real to Monsieur Lenoble. He assured his son that no Lenoble had ever been a lawyer. They had been always lords of the soil, living on their own lands, which had once stretched wide and far in that Norman province; a fact proved by certain maps in M. Lenoble's possession, the paper whereof was worn and yellow with age. They had stooped to no profession save that of arms. One seigneur of Beaubocage had fought under Bayard himself; another had fallen at Pavia, on that great day when all was lost hormis l'honneur; another had followed the white plume of the Bernais; another—but was there any need to tell of the glories of that house upon which Gustave was so eager to inflict the disgrace of a learned profession?
Thus argued the father; but the mother had spent her girlhood amidst the clamour of the Buonapartist campaigns, and the thought of war was very terrible to her. The memory of the retreat from Russia was not yet twenty years old. There were men alive to tell the story, to depict those days and nights of horror, that mighty march of death. It was she and her daughter Cydalise who had helped to persuade Gustave that he was born to distinguish himself in the law. They wanted him to study in Paris—the young man himself had a wild desire to enjoy the delights of that wondrous capital—and to return in a few years to set up for himself as avocat at the town of Vevinord, some half-dozen leagues from the patrimonial estate. He was created to plead for the innocent, to denounce the guilty, to be grand and brave and fiery-hot with enthusiasm in defence of virtuous peasants charged unjustly with the stealing of sheep, or firing of corn-ricks. It never struck these simple souls that he might sometimes be called upon to defend the guilty, or to denounce the innocent.
It was all settled at last. Gustave was to go to Paris, and enter himself as a student of law. There were plenty of boarding-houses in the neighbourhood of the Ecole de Droit where a young man might find a home; and to one of these Gustave was recommended by a friend of his family. It was the Pension Magnotte to which they had sent him, the big dreary house, entre cour et jardin, which had once been so grand and noble. A printer now occupied the lower chambers, and a hand painted on the wall pointed to the Pension Magnotte, au premier. Tirez le cordon, s.v.p.
Gustave was twenty-one years of age when he came to Paris; tall, stalwart, broad of shoulders and deep of chest, with a fair frank face, an auburn moustache, candid, kind blue eyes—a physiognomy rather Saxon than Celtic. He was a man who made friends quickly, and was soon at home among the students, roaring their favourite songs, and dancing their favourite dances at the dancing-places of that day, joining with a pleasant heartiness in all their innocent dissipations. For guilty dissipation the young provincial had no taste. Did he not carry the images of two kind and pure women about with him wherever he went, like two attendant angels ever protecting his steps; and could he leave them sorrowing on thresholds they could not pass? Ah, no! He was loud and boisterous and wild of spirits in those early days, but incapable of meanness or vice.
"It is a brave heart," Madame Magnotte said of him, "though for the breaking of glasses a scourge—un fleau."
The ladies of the Pension Magnotte were for the most part of mature age and unattractive appearance—two or three lonely spinsters, eking out their pitiful little incomes as best they might, by the surreptitious sale of delicate embroideries, confectioned in their dismal leisure; and a fat elderly widow, popularly supposed to be enormously rich, but of miserly propensities. "It is the widow of Harpagon himself," Madame Magnotte told her gossips—an old woman with two furiously ugly daughters, who for the last fifteen years had lived a nomadic life in divers boarding-houses, fondly clinging to the hope that, amongst so many strange bachelors, husbands for these two solitary ones must at last be found.
These, with a pale young lady who gave music lessons in the quarter, were all the feminine inmates of the mansion; and amongst these Gustave Lenoble was chief favourite. His tender courtesy for these lonely women seemed in some manner an evidence of that good old blood whereof the young man's father boasted. Francis the First, who listened with bent knee and bare head to his mother's discourse, was not more reverential to that noble Savoyarde than was Gustave to the shabby-genteel maiden ladies of the Pension Magnotte. In truth, this young man had a heart pitiful and tender as the heart of woman. To be unfortunate was to possess a sure claim upon his pity and regard; to be poor and friendless was the best appeal to his kindness. He spent his evenings sometimes in the great dreary desert of a salon, and listened respectfully while Mademoiselle Servin, the young music-teacher, played dismal sonatas of Gluck or Gretry on a cracked old piano that had been one of the earliest made of those instruments, and was now attenuated and feeble as the very ghost of music. He listened to Madame Magnotte's stories of departed splendour. To him she opened her heart as she never had opened it to those other young men.
"They mock themselves of everything—even the religion!" she exclaimed, with horror. "They are Diderots and Holbachs in the bud, less the talent. But you do not come of that gutter in which they were born. You are of the old blood of France, M. Lenoble, and I can trust myself to you as I cannot to them. I, who speak to you—I, too, come of a good old race, and there is sympathy between we others."
And then, after babbling to him of her lost station, the lady would entertain him with some dainty little supper with which she was wont to indulge herself and her lady boarders, when the students—who were treated something after the manner of school-boys—were out of doors.
For four years the law-student had enjoyed his Parisian life—not altogether idle, but not altogether industrious—amusing himself a great deal, and learning very little; moderate in his expenditure, when compared with his fellow-students, but no small drain upon the funds of the little family at home. In sooth, this good old Norman family had in a pecuniary sense sunk very low. There was real poverty in the tumble-down house at Beaubocage, though it was poverty that wore a cheerful face, and took things pleasantly. A very humble English farmer would have despised the income which supported M. Lenoble's household; and it was only the economy and skill of the matron and her daughter which sustained the dignity of the small establishment.
There was one great hope cherished alike by the proud simple-minded old father, the fond mother, the devoted sister, and that was the hope in the grand things to be done, in the dim future, by Gustave, the son, the heir, the pole-star of the household.
Out of poverty, out of obscurity, into the broad light of honour and riches, was the house of Lenoble to be lifted by this young law-student. On the broad shoulders of this modern Atlas the Lenoble world was to be sustained. To him they looked, of him they thought, in the long dreary winter evenings during which the mother nodded over her knitting, the father slept in his capacious easy-chair, the sister toiled at her needle-work by her little table of palissandre.
He had paid them more than one visit during his two years of study, bringing with him life and light and gladness, as it seemed to the two women who adored him; and now, in the winter of 1828, they expected another visit. He was to be with them on the first day of the new year. He was to stay with them till his Mother's fete—the 17th of January.
The father looked to this special visit with an unusual anxiety. The mother too was more than ever anxious. The sister, if she who loved her brother with a somewhat morbid intensity could be more anxious than usual, was more so now. A dreadful plot, a dire conspiracy, of which Gustave was to be the subject and victim, had been concocted beneath that innocent-seeming roof. Father, mother, and sister, seated round the family hearth, fatal as some domestic Parcae, had hatched their horrid scheme, while the helpless lad amused himself yonder in the great city, happily unconscious of the web that was being woven to enmesh him.
The cord which monsieur unwound, the mesh which madame held, the needle which dexterous mademoiselle wielded, were employed in the fabrication of a matrimonial net. These unsophisticated conspirators were bent upon bringing about the marriage of their victim, a marriage which should at once elevate and enrich the Lenobles of Beaubocage, in the person of Gustave.
Francois Lenoble's best friend and nearest neighbour was a certain Baron Frehlter, of Germanic origin, but for some generations past naturalised to the Gallic soil. The Baron was proprietor of an estate which could show ten acres for one of the lands of Beaubocage. The Baron boasted a family tree which derived its root from a ramification of the Hohenzollern pedigree; but, less proud and more prudent than the Lenobles, the Frehlters had not scorned to intermingle their Prussian blue blood with less pure streams of commercial France. The epicier element had prevailed in the fair brides of the house of Frehlter for the last three or four generations, and the house of Frehlter had considerably enriched itself by this sacrifice of its family pride.
The present Baron had married a lady ten years his senior, the widow of a Rouen merchant, alike wealthy and pious, but famous rather for these attributes than for any personal charm. One only child, a girl, had blessed this union. She was now a young person of something under twenty years of age, newly emerged from her convent, and pining for some share in the gaieties and delights of a worldly paradise, which had already been open to many of her schoolfellows.
Mademoiselle Frehlter's companions had, for the most part, left school to be married. She had heard of the corbeille, the wedding dress, the wedding festivities, and occasionally a word or two about that secondary consideration the bridegroom. The young lady was therefore somewhat inclined to take it ill of her father that he had not secured for her the eclat of an early marriage. Her departure from the convent of the Sacre Coeur, at Vevinord, was flat and tame to an extreme degree. The future lay before her, a dreary desert of home life, to be spent with a father who gorged himself daily at a greasy and savoury banquet, and who slept away the greater part of his existence; and with a mother who divided her affections between a disagreeable poodle and a still more disagreeable priest—a priest who took upon himself to lecture the demoiselle Frehlter on the smallest provocation.
The chateau of the Frehlters was a very grand abode as compared to the tumble-down house of Beaubocage; but it was cold and stony to a depressing degree, and the furniture must have been shabby in the days of the Fronde. Faithful old servants kept the mansion in a state of spotless purity, and ruled the Baron and his wife with a rod of iron. Mademoiselle execrated these devoted retainers, and would have welcomed the sauciest of modern domestics who would have released her from the bondage of these servants of the old school.
Mademoiselle had been at home a year—a year of discontent and ill-humour. She had quarrelled with her father, because he would not take her to Paris; with her mother, because she would not give her more new gowns and bonnets and feathers and fur-belows; with the priest, the poodle, with the autocracy below-stairs, with everybody and everything. So at last the Baron decided that mademoiselle should marry, whereby he might be rid of her, and of her complaints, vagaries, ill-tempers, and general dissatisfaction.
Having once made up his mind as to the wisdom of a matrimonial arrangement, Baron Frehlter was not slow to fix upon a bridegroom. He was a very rich man, and Madelon was his only child, and he was furthermore a very lazy man; so, instead of looking far afield for a wealthy or distinguished suitor for his daughter, he was inclined to take the first that came to hand. It is possible that the Baron, who was of a somewhat cynical turn of mind, may have cherished no very exalted idea of his daughter's attractions, either personal or mental. However this might be, it is certain that when the demoiselle had ill-treated the poodle, and insulted the priest, and quarrelled with the cook—that high-priestess of the kitchen who alone, in all Normandy, could concoct those messes which the Baron loved—the master of Cotenoir decided on marrying his heiress out of hand.
He communicated this design to his old crony, Francois Lenoble, one day when the Beaubocage family dined at Chateau Cotenoir.
"I think of marrying my daughter," he said to his friend, when the ladies were safely out of hearing at the other end of the long dreary saloon. "Now thy son Gustave is a fine fellow—brave, handsome, and of a good race. It is true he is not as rich as Madelon will be by-and-by; but I am no huckster, to sell my daughter to the best bidder" ("and I doubt if there would be many bidders for her, if I were so inclined," thought the Baron, in parenthesis); "and if thy son should take a fancy to her, and she to him, it would please me well enough, friend Francois."
Friend Francois pricked up his ears, and in his old eyes flickered a feeble light. Cotenoir and Beaubocage united in the person of his son Gustave! Lenoble of Beaubocage and Cotenoir—Lenoble of Cotenoir and Beaubocage! So splendid a vision had never shone before his eyes in all the dreams that he had dreamed about the only son of whom he was so proud. He could not have shaped to himself so bold a project as the union of those two estates. And here was the Baron offering it to him, with his snuff-box, en passant.
"It would be a great marriage," he said, "a very great marriage. For Gustave I can answer without hesitation. He could not but be charmed by such a union—so amiable a bride would enchant him."
He looked down the room to the spot where Madelon and Cydalise were standing, side by side, admiring Madame Frehlter's poodle. Madelon could afford to be civil to the poodle before company. The contrast between the two girls was sufficiently striking. Cydalise was fair and bright-looking—Mademoiselle Frehlter was square and ungainly of figure, swarthy of complexion, dark of brow.
"He could not but be charmed," repeated the old man, with feeble gallantry.
He was thinking of the joining together of Beaubocage and Cotenoir; and it seemed a very small thing to him that such a union of estates would involve the joining of a man and woman, who were to hold to each other and love each other until death should part them.
"It shall be no marriage of convenience," said the Baron, in a generous spirit; "my daughter is somewhat ill-tem—that is to say, my daughter finds her life somewhat dull with her old father and mother, and I think she might be happier in the society of a husband. I like your son; and my wife, too, likes him better than any other young man of our acquaintance. Madelon has seen a good deal of him when she has been home from the convent in her holidays, and I have reason to think she does not dislike him. If he likes her and she likes him, and the idea is pleasing to you and madame, we will make a match of it. If not, let it pass; we will say no more."
Again the seigneur of Beaubocage assured his friend that Gustave would be enchanted with the proposal; and again it was of Cotenoir that he thought, and not of the heart or the inclinations of his son.
This conversation took place late in autumn, and at the new year Gustave was to come. Nothing was to be said to him about his intended wife until he arrived; that was a point upon which the Baron insisted.
"The young man may have fallen in love with some fine young person in Paris," he said; "and in that case we will say nothing to him of Madelon. But if we find him with the heart free, and inclined to take to my daughter, we may give him encouragement."
This was solemnly agreed between the two fathers. Nor was Mademoiselle Frehlter to be told of the matrimonial scheme until it ripened. But after this dinner at Cotenoir the household at Beaubocage talked of little else than of the union of the two families. What grandeur, what wealth, what happiness! Gustave the lord of Cotenoir! Poor Cydalise had never seen a finer mansion than the old chateau, with its sugar-loaf towers and stone terraces, and winding stairs, and tiny inconvenient turret chambers, and long dreary salon and salle-a-manger. She could picture to herself nothing more splendid. For Gustave to be offered the future possession of Cotenoir was as if he were suddenly to be offered the succession to a kingdom. She could not bring herself to consider that Madelon was neither agreeable nor attractive, and that, after all, the wife must count for something in every marriage contract. She could see nothing, she could think of nothing, but Cotenoir. The glory and grandeur of that estate absorbed every other consideration.
No one of those three conspirators feared any opposition on the part of their victim. It was just possible that Gustave might have fallen in love with some Parisian damsel, though his letters gave no hint of any such calamity. But if such a misfortune had happened, he would, of course, fall out of love again, return the damsel her troth and obtain the return of his own, and straightway offer the second-hand commodity to Mademoiselle Frehlter.
The object of all these cares and hopes and dreams arrived at last, full of life and spirits, with plenty to tell about Paris in general, and very little to tell about himself in particular. The women questioned him unmercifully. They insisted on a graphic description of every female inmate of the boarding-house, and would scarcely believe that all except the little music-mistress were elderly and unattractive. Of the music-mistress herself they were inclined to be very suspicious, and were not altogether reassured by Gustave's assertion that she was neither pretty nor fascinating.
"She is a dear, good, industrious little thing," he said, "and works harder than I do. But she is no miracle of beauty; and her life is so dreary that I often wonder she does not go into a convent. It would be gayer and pleasanter for her than to live with those old women at the Pension Magnotte."
"I suppose there are many beautiful women in Paris?" said Cydalise, bent upon knowing the worst.
"Well, I dare say there are," Gustave answered frankly; "but we students don't see much of them in our quarter. One sees a pretty little milliner's girl now and then, or a washerwoman. In short, there are a good many grisettes in our part of the world," added the young man, blushing, but for no sin of his own. "We get a glimpse of a handsome woman sometimes, rattling past in her carriage; but in Paris handsome women do not go on foot. I have seen prettier girls at Vevinord than in Paris."
Cydalise was enchanted with this confession.
"Yes," she exclaimed, "our Normandy is the place for pretty girls. Madelon Frehlter. for example, is not she a very—amiable girl?"
"I dare say she's amiable enough," answered Gustave; "but if there were no prettier girls than Mademoiselle Frehlter in this part of the world, we should have no cause to boast. But there are prettier girls, Cydalise, and thou art thyself one of them."
After this speech the young man bestowed upon his sister a resounding kiss. Yes; it was clear that he was heart-whole. These noisy, boisterous good spirits were not characteristic of a lover. Even innocent Cydalise knew that to be in love was to be miserable.
From this time mother and sister tormented their victim with the merits and charms of his predestined bride. Madelon on the piano was miraculous; Madelon's little songs were enchanting; Madelon's worsted-work was a thing to worship; Madelon's devotion to her mother and her mother's poodle was unequalled; Madelon's respectful bearing to the good Abbe St. Velours—her mother's director—was positively beyond all praise. It was virtue seraphic, supernal. Such a girl was too good for earth—too good for anything except Gustave.
The young man heard and wondered.
"How you rave about Madelon Frehlter!" he exclaimed. "She seems to me the most commonplace young person I ever encountered. She has nothing to say for herself; she never appears to know where to put her elbows. I never saw such elbows; they are everywhere at once. And her shoulders!—O heaven, then, her shoulders!—it ought to be forbidden to wear low dresses when one has such shoulders."
This was discouraging, but the schemers bore up even against this. The mother dwelt on the intellectual virtues of Madelon; and what were shoulders compared to mind, piety, amiability—all the Christian graces? Cydalise owned that dear Madelon was somewhat gauche; Gustave called her bete. The father remonstrated with his son. Was it not frightful to use a word of the barracks in connection with this charming young lady?
At last the plot revealed itself. After a dinner at Cotenoir and a dinner at Beaubocage, on both which occasions Gustave had made himself very agreeable to the ladies of the Baron's household—since, indeed, it was not in his nature to be otherwise than kind and courteous to the weaker sex—the mother told her son of the splendid destiny that had been shaped for him. It was a matter of surprise and grief to her to find that the revelation gave Gustave no pleasure.
"Marriage was the last thing in my thoughts, dear mother," he said, gravely; "and Madelon Frehlter is the very last woman I should think of for a wife. Nevertheless, I am gratified by the honour Monsieur le Baron has done me. That goes without saying."
"But the two estates!—together they would make you a great proprietor. You would not surely refuse such fortune?"
Cydalise gave a little scream of horror.
"Cotenoir! to refuse Cotenoir! Ah, surely that would be impossible! But figure to yourself, then, Gustave—"
"Nay, Cydalise, you forget the young lady goes with the chateau; a fixture that we cannot dispense with."
"But she, so amiable, so pious—"
"So plain, so stupid—"
"So modest, so charitable—"
"In short, so admirably adapted for a Sister of Charity," replied Gustave. "But no, dear Cydalise. Cotenoir is a grand old place; but I would as soon spend my life at Toulon, dragging a cannon-ball at my heels, as in that dreary salon where Madame Frehlter nurses her maladies and her poodle, and where the good-humoured, easy-going old Baron snores away existence. 'Tis very well for those elderly folks, you see, my sister, and for Madelon—for hers is an elderly mind in a youthful body; but for a young man full of hope and gaiety and activity—bah! It would be of all living deaths the worst. From the galleys there is always the hope of escaping—an underground passage, burrowed out with one's finger-nails in the dead of the night—a work lasting twenty years or so, but with a feeble star of hope always glimmering at the end of the passage. But from the salon, and mamma, and the poodle, and the good, unctuous, lazy old director, and papa's apoplectic snoring, and the plaintive little songs and monotonous embroideries of one's wife, there would be no escape. Ah, bah!"
Gustave shuddered, and the two women shuddered as they heard him. The prospect was by no means promising; but Madame Lenoble and her daughter did not utterly despair. Gustave's heart was disengaged. That was a great point; and for the rest, surely persuasion might do much.
Then came that phenomenon seen very often in this life—a generous-minded, right-thinking young man talked into a position which of all others is averse from his own inclinations. The mother persuaded, the sister pleaded, the father dwelt dismally upon the poverty of Beaubocage, the wealth of Cotenoir. It was the story of auld Robin Gray reversed. Gustave perceived that his refusal to avail himself of this splendid destiny would be a bitter and lasting grief to these people who loved him so fondly—whom he loved as fondly in return. Must he not be a churl to disappoint hopes so unselfish, to balk an ambition so innocent? And only because Madelon was not the most attractive or the prettiest of women!
The young man stood firm against all their arguments, he was unmoved by all their pleading. It was only when his anxious kindred had given up the battle for lost that Gustave wavered. Their mute despair moved him more than the most persuasive eloquence; and the end was submission. He left Beaubocage the plighted lover of that woman who, of all others, he would have been the last to choose for his wife. It had all been settled very pleasantly—the dowry, the union of the two estates, the two names. For six months Gustave was to enjoy his freedom to finish his studies; and then he was to return to Normandy for his marriage.
"I have heard very good accounts of you from Paris," said the Baron. "You are not like some young men, wild, mad-brained. One can confide in your honour, your steadiness."
The good folks of Beaubocage were in ecstacies. They congratulated Gustave—they congratulated each other. A match so brilliant would be the redemption of the family. The young man at last began to fancy himself the favoured of the gods. What if Madelon seemed a little dull—a little wanting in that vivacity which is so pleasing to frivolous minds? she was doubtless so much the more profound, so much the more virtuous. If she was not bright and varied and beautiful as some limpid fountain dancing in summer sunlight, she was perhaps changeless and steady as a rock; and who would not rather have the security of a rock than the summer-day beauty of a fountain?
Before Gustave departed from his paternal home he had persuaded himself that he was a very lucky fellow; and he had paid Mademoiselle Frehlter some pretty little stereotyped compliments, and had listened with sublime patience to her pretty little stereotyped songs. He left the young lady profoundly impressed by his merits; he left his own household supremely happy; and he carried away with him a heart in which Madelon Frehlter's image had no place.
IN THIS WIDE WORLD I STAND ALONE.
Gustave went back to his old life, and was not much disturbed by the grandeur of his destiny as future seigneur of Cotenoir and Beaubocage. It sometimes occurred to him that he had a weight upon his mind; and, on consideration, he found that the weight was Madelon Frehlter. But he continued to carry that burden very lightly, and his easy-going student life went on, unbroken by thoughts of the future. He sent polite messages to the demoiselle Frehlter in his letters to Cydalise; and he received from Cydalise much information, more graphic than interesting, upon the subject of the family at Cotenoir; and so his days went on with pleasant monotony. This was the brief summer of his youth; but, alas, how near at hand was the dark and dismal winter that was to freeze this honest joyous heart! That heart, so compassionate for all suffering, so especially tender for all womankind, was to be attacked upon its weaker side.
It was Gustave Lenoble's habit to cross the gardens of the Luxembourg every morning, on his way from the Rue Grande-Mademoiselle to the Ecole de Droit. Sometimes, when he was earlier than usual, he carried a book with him, and paced one of the more obscure alleys, reading for an odd half-hour before he went to the daily mill-grinding in the big building beyond those quiet gardens.
Walking with his book one morning—it was a volume of Boileau, which the student knew by heart, and the pages whereof did not altogether absorb his attention—he passed and repassed a bench on which a lady sat, pensive and solitary, tracing shapeless figures on the ground with the point of her parasol. He glanced at her somewhat carelessly the first time of passing, more curiously on the second occasion, and the third time with considerable attention. Something in her attitude—helplessness, hopelessness, nay indeed, despair itself, all expressed in the drooping head, the listless hand tracing those idle characters on the gravel—enlisted the sympathies of Gustave Lenoble. He had pitied her even before his gaze had penetrated the cavernous depths of the capacious bonnet of those days; but one glimpse of the pale plaintive face inspired him with compassion unspeakable. Never had he seen despair more painfully depicted on the human countenance—a despair that sought no sympathy, a sorrow that separated the sufferer from the outer world. Never had he seen a face so beautiful, even in despair. He could have fancied it the face of Andromache, when all that made her world had been reft from her; or of Antigone, when the dread fiat had gone forth—that funeral rites or sepulture for the last accursed scion of an accursed race there were to be none.
He put Boileau into his pocket. That glimpse of a suffering human mind, which had been unconsciously revealed to him, possessed an interest more absorbing than the grandest flight of poet and satirist. As he passed for the fifth time, he looked at the mournful lady still more searchingly, and this time the sad eyes were lifted, and met his pitying looks. The beautiful lips moved, and murmured something in tones so tremulous as to be quite unintelligible.
The student took off his hat, and approached the lady, deferential as knight-errant of old awaiting the behest of his liege mistress.
"In what can I have the happiness to be agreeable to you, madame?"
"You are very good, monsieur," murmured the lady in very decent French, but with an accent unmistakably foreign—English, as Gustave opined. "I—I—am quite a stranger in Paris, and—and—I have heard there are numerous lodging-houses in this quarter—where one may obtain a lodging—cheaply. I have asked several nursemaids, and other women, in the gardens this morning; but they seem very stupid, and can tell me nothing; and I do not care to ask at the hotel where I am staying."
Gustave pondered. Yes, there were many lodgings, he informed the lady. And then he thought of Madame Magnotte. Was it not his duty to secure this stray lodger for that worthy woman, if possible?
"If madame has no objection to a boarding-house—" he began.
Madame shook her head. "A boarding-house would suit me just as well," she said; "but it must not be expensive. I cannot afford to pay much."
"I know of a boarding-house very near this place, where madame might find a comfortable home on very reasonable terms. It is, in point of fact, the house in which I myself reside," added Gustave, with some timidity.
"If you will kindly direct me to the house—" said the lady, looking straight before her with sad unseeing eyes, and evidently supremely indifferent as to the residence or non-residence of M. Lenoble in the habitation referred to.
"Nay, madame, if you will permit me to conduct you there. It is but a walk of five minutes."
The stranger accepted the courtesy with a gentle indifference that was not ingratitude, but rather incapacity for any feeling except that one great sorrow which seemed to absorb her mind.
Gustave wondered what calamity could thus overwhelm one so young and beautiful.
The lady was quite silent during the little walk from the gardens to the Rue Grande-Mademoiselle, and Gustave observed her attentively as he walked by her side. She was evidently not more than four-and-twenty years of age, and she was certainly the prettiest woman he had ever seen. It was a fair delicate English beauty, a little worn and faded, as if by care, but idealized and sublimated in the process. At her brightest this stranger must have been strikingly beautiful; in her sorrow she was touchingly lovely. It was what Gustave's countrymen call a beaute navrante.
Gustave watched her, and wondered about her. The dress she wore was sufficiently elegant, but had lost the gloss of newness. Her shawl, which she carried as gracefully as a Frenchwoman, was darned. Gustave perceived the neat careful stitches, and divined the poverty of the wearer. That she should be poor was no subject for surprise; but that she, so sorrowful, so lonely, should seek a home in a strange city, was an enigma not easy to solve.
To Madame Magnotte Gustave introduced the stranger. She gave just one look round the dreary saloon; but to Gustave's fancy that one look seemed eloquent. "Ah me!" it said; "is this the fairest home I am to find upon this inhospitable earth?"
"She does not seem to belong to this world," the young man thought, as he went back to the garden where he had found his fair stranger, having been very coolly dismissed by Madame Magnotte after his introduction had been made.
And then M. Lenoble, being of a romantic turn of mind, remembered how a lady had been found by a student sitting on the lowest steps of the guillotine, desolate and helpless, at night; and how the student had taken her home and sheltered her, and had straightway fallen desperately in love with her, to discover, with unutterable horror, that her head had been severed from her fair shoulders by the cruel knife twelve hours before, and that her melancholy loveliness was altogether phantasmal and delusive.
Was this English stranger whom Gustave had found in the gardens of the Luxembourg twin sister to that ghostly lady of the familiar legend? Her despair and her beauty seemed to him greater than earthly sorrow or earthly beauty; and he was half inclined to wonder whether she could be of the same race as Madelon Frehlter. And from this hour the sense of a weight upon his mind, before so vague and intermittent, became an enduring oppression, not to be shaken off by any effort of his will.
All through that day he found himself thinking more of the unknown Englishwoman than was consistent with a strict performance of his duties. He was vexed with himself on account of this foolish distraction of mind.
"What a frivolous fellow I must be," he said to himself, "to dwell upon such a trifle! This comes of leading such a monotonous life."
At dinner he looked for the lady; but she did not appear at the long table, where the shrill old ladies, the epicurean old bachelors, the noisy students, daily devoured and grumbled at the four or five courses which old Nanon developed out of her inner consciousness and a rather scantily furnished larder. He questioned Madame Magnotte after dinner, and was told that the lady was in the house, but was too tired to dine with the other inmates.
"I have to thank thee for a new boarder, my friend," she said. "Madame Meynell will not pay largely; but she seems a quiet and respectable person, and we shall doubtless be well pleased with each other."
"Madame Meynell!" repeated Gustave, congratulating himself on finding that the Englishwoman was an inhabitant of the house he lived in. "She is a widow, I suppose?"
"Yes, she is a widow. I asked that question, and she answered, yes. But she told me nothing of her late husband. She is not at all communicative."
This was all Gustave could obtain from Madame Magnotte. She was not communicative. No; she was, indeed, scarcely less silent than that ghostly lady who had been found sitting at the foot of the guillotine. There was some kind of mystery involved in her sorrowful face, her silent apathy. It was possibly the fact of this mystery which interested M. Lenoble. Certain it is that the young man's interest had been aroused by this unknown Englishwoman, and that his mind was more occupied by the image of her whom he had seen but once than by that of his plighted wife.
He waited anxiously for the next day; but on the next day Madame Meynell still pleaded fatigue and illness. It was only on the third day that she appeared at the noisy banquet, pale, silent, absent-minded, sheltering herself under the wing of Madame Magnotte, who was disposed to be kind to this helpless stranger. To Gustave the young English widow seemed like a ghost at that crowded board. He looked at her every now and then from his distant seat, and saw her always with the same hopeless far-away look in her sad eyes. He himself was silent and distrait.
"Of what dost thou dream, my droll one?" said his nearest neighbour. "Thou art positively insupportable."
M. Lenoble could not become vivacious or entertaining at the behest of his fellow-student. The consciousness of that strange pale face haunted and oppressed him. He hoped to have a few minutes' talk with the English lady after dinner, but she disappeared before the removal of those recondite preparations which in the Pension Magnotte went by the generic name of "dessert."
For more than a week she appeared thus at the dinner-table, eating very little, speaking not at all, except such monosyllabic replies as the hostess now and then extorted from her pale lips. A creature at once so beautiful and so profoundly sad became an object of interest to others besides Gustave; but in no breast was the sympathy which her sadness and beauty excited so poignant as in his. Her face haunted him. The familiar pleasures and amusements became distasteful to him. He spent his evenings at home in the dismal salon, and was content to listen to the chatter of the old women, the little music-mistress's dreary sonatas, the monotonous roll of wheels on the distant quay—anything rather than the hackneyed round of student-life that had once been agreeable to him. He did not fail to write his weekly letter to Cydalise; but, for some reason or other, he refrained from any allusion to the English stranger, although it was his custom to relate all his adventures for the amusement of the family at Beaubocage.
An evening came at last on which Madame Meynell was persuaded to remain with the other ladies after dinner.
"It must be very cold and cheerless for you in your bedroom," said Madame Magnotte; "why not spend your evening with us, in a pleasant and social manner?"
"You are very good, madame," murmured the Englishwoman, in the slow timid accents that had so plaintive a sound to Gustave's ear; "if you wish it, I will stay."
She seemed to submit rather from utter weakness and inability to refuse anything asked of her than from any hope of finding pleasure in the society of the Magnotte salon.
It was an evening in March—cold, blustrous, dreary. The east wind blew clouds of dust athwart the Rue Grande-Mademoiselle, and the few foot-passengers in that dull thoroughfare looked pinched and wretched. The old ladies gathered round the great black stove, and gossipped in the twilight; the music-mistress went to her feeble piano, and played, unasked, unheeded; for Gustave, who was wont to turn the leaves, or sit attentive by the piano, seemed this evening unconscious of the music. Madame Meynell sat in one of the windows, alone, half-hidden by the faded yellow damask curtains, looking out into the street.
Something—some impulse which he tried to resist, but could not—drew Gustave towards that lonely figure by the window. He went close up to the strange lady. This evening, as in the gardens of the Luxembourg, she seemed to him a living statue of despair. Now, as then, he felt an interest in her sorrow which he was powerless to combat. He had a vague idea that even this compassionate sympathy was in some manner an offence against Madelon Frehlter, the woman to whom he belonged, and yet he yielded to the fatal weakness.
"Yes, I belong to her," he said to himself; "I belong to Madelon Frehlter. She is neither pretty nor fascinating; but I have every reason to believe her very good, very amiable; and she is the only woman, except those of my own kindred, in whom I have any right to be interested."
He did not say this in so many words; but this was the shape which his thoughts assumed as he yielded to the tempter, and walked straight to the distant window by which Madame Meynell had seated herself.
She started slightly as he approached her, and then looked up and recognized him as her acquaintance of the Luxembourg.
"Good evening, monsieur," she said; "I have to thank you for having helped me to find a comfortable home."
Having said this in a low gentle voice, she looked out into the street once more with her mournful unseeing eyes. It was evident that she had no more to say to M. Lenoble.
The student, however, had no idea of leaving the window just yet, although he knew—yes, knew—that his presence there was a wrong done to Madelon Frehlter; but a wrong so small, so infinitesimal, that it was really not worth consideration.
"I am enchanted to think that I was of some slight service to you, madame," he said; "but I fear you will find this quarter of Paris very dull."
She did not take any notice of this remark until Gustave had repeated it, and then she spoke as if suddenly awakened from a trance.
"Dull?" she said. "No, I have not found it dull. I do not care for gaiety."
After this M. Lenoble felt that he could say no more. The lady relapsed into her waking trance. The dust-clouds in the silent street seemed more interesting to her than M. Lenoble of Beaubocage. He lingered a few minutes in the neighbourhood of her chair, thoughtfully observant of the delicate profile, the pale clear tints of a complexion that had lost its bloom but not its purity, the settled sadness of the perfect mouth, the dreamy pensiveness of the dark-grey eye, and then was fain to retire.
After this, the English widow lady spent many evenings in Madame Magnotte's salon. The old Frenchwoman gossipped and wondered about her; but the most speculative could fashion no story from a page so blank as this joyless existence. Even slander could scarcely assail a creature so unobtrusive as the English boarder. The elderly ladies shrugged their shoulders and pursed up their lips with solemn significance. There must needs be something—a secret, a mystery, sorrow, or wrong-doing—somewhere; but of Madame Meynell herself no one could suspect any harm.
Gustave Lenoble heard little of this gossip about the stranger, but she filled his thoughts nevertheless. The vision of her face came between him and his work; and when he thought of the future, and of the damsel who had been allotted to him for a wife, his thoughts were very bitter.
"Fate is like Laban," he said to himself; "a man works and does his duty for seven years, and then Fate gives him Leah instead of Rachel. No doubt Leah is a very good young woman; one has no complaint to make against her, except that she is not Rachel."
This was not a hopeful manner of looking at things for the destined master of Cotenoir. M. Lenoble's letters to the anxious folks at Beaubocage became, about this time, somewhat brief and unsatisfactory. He no longer gave ample details of his student-life—he no longer wrote in his accustomed good spirits. His letters seemed stiff and constrained.
"I am afraid he is studying too much," said the mother.
"I daresay the rascal is wasting his time in dissipation," suggested the father.
"PAST HOPE, AND IN DESPAIR."
Two months had elapsed since the bleak spring morning on which Gustave Lenoble found the solitary lady under the leafless trees of the Luxembourg gardens. The inmates of the Pension Magnotte had grown accustomed to her presence, to her silence, her settled sadness, and troubled themselves no further respecting herself or her antecedents. The lapse of time had brought no improvement to her spirits; indeed, Gustave, who watched her closely, perceived that she had grown paler and thinner since that March morning when he met her in the public garden. Her life must have been painfully monotonous. She very rarely went out of doors, and on no occasion ventured beyond the gardens of the Luxembourg. No one visited her. She neither wrote nor received any letters. She was wont to make a pretence of reading as she sat in her retired corner of the salon; but Gustave had discovered that she gave little attention to her book. The open volume in her hand seemed no more than an excuse for brooding upon her sorrows.
If people, prompted by curiosity or by compassion, endeavoured to get into conversation with this lonely lady, the result was always the same. She would answer their questions in a low gentle voice, with a quiet politeness; but she never assisted them in the smallest degree to interchange thoughts with her. It seemed as if she sought neither friend nor sympathizer, or as if her case was so entirely hopeless as to admit of neither. She paid for her board and lodging weekly with a punctilious exactness, though weekly payments were not the rule of the house.
"My movements are uncertain," she said to Madame Magnotte. "I cannot tell how long I may be with you. It will therefore be better for me to pay you weekly."
She had been in the house two months, dining every day at the public table, spending all her evenings in the public saloon; and during that time her settled gloom had never been broken by any outburst of grief or passion. She might have been a creature of ice, a statue of despair modelled in snow by a Michael Angelo. But one night the ice melted, the statue of snow became in a moment a passionate, grief-stricken woman.
It was one bright evening late in May. Ah, how near at hand was the appointed date of those nuptials to which the household of Beaubocage looked forward with supreme happiness! The old ladies of the Pension Magnotte were for the most part out of doors. The long saloon was almost empty. There were only Gustave, Madame Magnotte, and the little music-mistress, who sat at her piano, with the western sunlight shining full upon her, rosy-hued and glorious, surrounding her with its soft radiance until she looked like a humble St. Cecilia.
Madame Meynell had seated herself close to the piano, and was listening to the music. Gustave hovered near, pretending to be occupied with a limp little sheet of news published that evening.
Mademoiselle Servin, the teacher of music, upon this occasion deserted her favourite masters. She seemed in a somewhat dreamy and sentimental humour, and played tender little melodies and simple plaintive airs, that were more agreeable to Gustave than those grand examples of the mathematics of counter-point which she so loved to interpret.
"You like this melody of Gretry's," said the music-mistress, as M. Lenoble seated himself close to the piano. "I do not think you care for classic sonatas—the great works of Gluck, or Bach, or Beethoven?"
"No," replied the young man frankly; "I do not care about anything I can't understand. I like music that goes to one's heart."
"And you, too, Madame Meynell, like simple melodies?" mademoiselle asked of that lady, who was not wont to come so near the little piano, or to pay so much attention to Mademoiselle Servin's performance.
"O yes," murmured the Englishwoman, "I like such music as that."
"And you, too, think that Beethoven never composed simple plaintive airs—for example," exclaimed the pianist, playing softly while she spoke. "You think he wrote only sonatas, quartettes, fugues, grand, operas, like Fidelio. Have you never heard this by your scientific Beethoven?"
Hereupon she played "Hope told a flattering tale," with much tenderness and delicacy. Her two hearers listened, mute and deeply moved. And then from that familiar melody she glided softly into another, most musical, most melancholy, which has been set to some of the sweetest verses that Thomas Moore ever composed:
"Those evening bells, those evening bells! How many a tale their music tells Of youth and home, and that sweet time When last I heard their soothing chime!"
All the world sang the verses of Ireland's divine bard in those days. The song was one which the Englishwoman had sung years ago in a happy home. What recollections, what associations, were evoked by that plaintive melody, who shall say? The words came back with the music to which they have been eternally wedded. The words, their mournful meaning, the faces of the friends amongst whom she had last sung them, the picture of the peaceful home whose walls had echoed the music,—all these things arose before her in a vision too painfully vivid; and the lonely boarder at the Pension Magnotte covered her face with her hands, and sobbed aloud.
The passion of tears lasted but a minute. Madame Meynell dried her eyes, and rose to leave the room.
"Do not question me," she said, perceiving that her two companions were about to offer her their sympathy. "I cannot tell you the memories that were conjured up by that music. It brought back a home I shall never see again, and the faces of the dead—worse than dead to me—and the happiness I have lost, and the hopes and dreams that once were mine. Oh, I pray God I may never hear that melody again."
There was a passion, a depth of feeling, in her tone quite new to Gustave Lenoble. He opened the door for her without a word, and she passed out of the salon quietly, like a ghost—the ghost of that bright young creature who had once borne her shape, and been called by her name, in a pleasant farmhouse among the Yorkshire wolds.
"Ah, but how that poor soul must have suffered!" cried the sympathetic Mademoiselle Servin, as the door closed on the Englishwoman. "I did not think it was in her to feel so deeply. I thought she was stone, and now I begin to think it must be of such stone as Niobe—the petrification of despair."
Upon Gustave Lenoble this scene made a profound impression. He lay awake during the greater part of that night, thinking of the lonely lady's tears and anguish. The music of "Those evening bells" pervaded his dreams. He rose unrefreshed, feverish, forgetful of Cotenoir and Madelon Frehlter, as if that place and that person had never emerged from the shapeless substances of chaos. He wanted to see her again, to console her, if that were possible. Oh, that it might be his privilege to console her! He pitied her with a compassion so intense, that thus to compassionate her woes, was himself to suffer a poignant anguish. He pitied her. Yes, he told himself again and again that this sentiment which so absorbed his heart and mind was no more than pity. But oh, if this were pity, what were love? That was a question which also presented itself to the mind of M. Gustave Lenoble, of Beaubocage in esse, and Cotenoir in posse.
Madame Meynell rarely appeared at the common breakfast in the grim dining-room of the Pension Magnotte. Gustave was therefore in nowise surprised to miss her on this particular morning. He took a cup of coffee, and hurried off to his daily duties. There was a fever on him which he could neither understand nor shake off, and he hastened to the gardens of the Luxembourg, as if there were some special necessity for speed. So do men often hasten unconsciously to their predestined doom, defiant of augury. Soothsayers may menace, and wives may dream dreams; but when his hour comes, Caesar will go to the appointed spot where the daggers of his assassins await him.
In the alley where he had first looked upon her sad face, beneath the umbrage of young limes and chestnuts just bursting into bloom, he saw the Englishwoman to-day, seated on the same bench, almost in the same attitude.
He went up to her, and bade her good morning; and then, intensely conscious of his own temerity, seated himself by her side.
"I did not expect to find you here so early."
"No, I seldom come out so soon; but this morning I have to make some inquiries upon a matter of business, and I am only resting here before going to make them."
She gave a little weary sigh at the end of this speech. It seemed a strange manner of transacting business to rest in the Luxembourg gardens, which were distant but a few hundred yards from her home. Gustave divined that it was for very forlornness she lingered there, shrinking from some difficult encounter that lay before her.
"Can I not make the inquiries for you?" he asked. "Pray command me. It will be my happiness to be useful to you."
"You are very good. I cannot trouble you so much."
"Pray do not talk of trouble. It can be no trouble to me to aid you in any manner. Ah, madame, you do not know how much I would sacrifice to be useful to you!"
She must have been dull indeed had she failed to perceive the earnestness of his tone. She did perceive it, and was vaguely conscious that in this student of law she had a friend.
"I want to know when the diligence for Calais leaves Paris, and from what office," she said. "I am going back to England."
She was surprised to see the young man's face blanch as she announced this simple fact. The young man himself was surprised by the sudden anguish inflicted by her announcement. It was in this moment that he first discovered how completely he had given his heart into this strange woman's keeping.
"You are really going to leave Paris?—for ever?" he exclaimed.
"Yes. I have been here too long already. I have no business here. I ought to have gone back to England that day when I first met you here, but I put off the day of my return. I can put it off no longer."
"And you are going back to your friends?" Gustave asked, in a very mournful tone.
"I am going back to my friends? Yes!" Her lips quivered a little, and the unbidden tears came to her eyes.
Ah, what was the sorrow that oppressed this beauteous lonely creature? What agony of grief or self-reproach was this pain which consumed her? Gustave remembered her passion of tears on the previous night; her talk of friends that were dead, and happiness lost; and now to-day she talked of going home to her friends: but O the bitterness of expression with which she had spoken that word "friends!"
"Are you going alone, Madame Meynell?" he inquired, after a pause. He could not tear himself from that seat by her side. He could not be manly or rational where she was concerned. The image of Madelon Frehlter rose before his mental vision, reproachful, menacing; but a thick fog intervened to obscure that unwelcome image. His whole life resolved itself into those thrilling moments in which he sat here, on this common garden bench, by this stranger's side; the entire universe was contracted into this leafy walk where they two sat.
"Yes, I am going alone," madame replied, with a little laugh. "Who should I have to go with me? I am quite alone in the world. I think I had better make these inquiries myself, M. Lenoble. There is no reason why I should give you so much trouble."
"There is no such thing as trouble. I will bring you all necessary information to-day at dinner, if that will be soon enough."
"Quite soon enough, I thank you, monsieur," she answered, with a sigh. "I must ask you kindly to ascertain for me also the expense of the journey."
"Most certainly, madame."
This request set him wondering whether she were poor, and how poor. But she had evidently no more to say to him; she had again become impenetrable. He would fain have stayed, though honour and conscience were clamorous in their demands for his departure. Happily for honour and conscience, the lady was silent as death, impervious as marble; so M. Lenoble presently bowed and departed.
He thought of her all day long. The farce of pity was ended. He knew now that he loved this Englishwoman with an affection at once foolish and sinful,—foolish, since he knew not who or what this woman was; sinful, since the indulgence of this passion involved the forfeiture of his plighted word, the disappointment of those who loved him.
"No, no, no," he said to himself; "I cannot do this base and wicked thing. I must marry Madelon. All the hopes of my mother and father rest on that marriage; and to disappoint them because this stranger's face has bewitched me? Ah, no, it cannot be. And even if I were willing to trample my honour in the dust, how do I know that she would value or accept the sacrifice?"
M. Lenoble made all necessary inquiries at the office of the Messageries, and carried the intelligence to Madame Meynell. He could see that she winced a little when he told her the cost of the journey, which in those days was heavy.
"She must certainly be poor," he said to himself; and it rent his heart to think that even in this paltry matter he could be of no use to her. The destined master of Beaubocage and Cotenoir was entirely without ready money. He had his watch. He put his hand upon that clumsy timekeeper as he talked to madame.
"Je te porterai chez ma tante, mon gars," he said to himself. But he doubted whether the high priests of the pious mountain—the Dordona of Pauperism—would advance much upon this antique specimen of the watchmaker's art.
After this evening he looked forward daily, hourly, to the anguish of her departure. She would vanish out of his life, intangible as a melted snow-flake, and only memory would stay behind to tell him he had known and loved her. Why should this be so hard to bear? If she stayed, he dared not tell her she was dear to him; he dared not stretch forth his hand to help her. In all the world there was no creature more utterly apart from him than she, whether she lived in the same house with him or was distant as the Antipodes. What did it matter, then, since she was destined to disappear from his life, whether she vanished to-day or a year hence? He argued with himself that it could be a question of no moment to him. There was a death-blow that must descend upon him, cruel, inevitable. Let it come when it would.
Every day when he came home to dinner, M. Lenoble expected to behold a vacant place by the side of his hostess; every day he was pleasantly disappointed. The pale hopeless face was still to be seen, ghost-like, at that noisy board. The face was more pale, more hopeless, as it seemed to Gustave, every day he looked upon it.
He asked Madame Magnotte when the English lady was going to leave, but she could not tell.
"She talks of leaving from day to day," said madame; "it will no doubt be soon. I am sorry to lose her. She is very gentle, and gives no trouble to any one. But she is sad—ah, how sad she is! She has suffered, monsieur."
Gustave agreed to this. Yes, she had suffered; but what, and how?
He watched her closely, but she was always the same. She no longer spent her evenings in the salon, but in her own apartment. He saw her only at dinner-time, and had no opportunity of speaking to her.
At last the day came upon which he missed her at the usual hour. He sat through the tedious meal without speaking; eating a little, drinking a little, mechanically, but with no consciousness of what he ate or drank. There was a mist before his eyes, a confusion of voices in his ears; but the faculties of sight and hearing seemed suspended. The agony he suffered during that miserable hour was bitter as death.
"O, my God, how I love her!" he said to himself, while Raoul's bass roar brayed in his ear on one side, and Leon's shrill squeal tortured him on the other.
He made his way to Madame Magnotte directly after dinner.
"She is gone?" he exclaimed.
"But who, my friend? Ah, yes; it is of that poor Madame Meynell you speak. How you are interested in her! No, she is not gone, poor woman. She remains always. She has the air of a person who knows not her own mind. Yet I am sure she thinks of going. To-day, for the first time, she has been writing letters. Reine came to tell me she had seen her occupied in her own room for the first time. It is not her habit to occupy herself."
Gustave's heart gave a great jump. She was not gone; he might see her again—if it were but a glimpse of her pale face looking out of the diligence as it drove out of the Cour de Messageries. One look, one glance; it would be something to carry in his heart all his life. All his life! He looked forward and shuddered. What a dreary life it must needs be! Cotenoir, Beaubocage, Madelon, the law; to plead, to read papers, to study dry as dust books. He shrank appalled from the contemplation of that dreary desert of existence—a life without her.
She had been writing letters—doubtless letters to her friends to announce her return. Her departure must be very near at hand.
Gustave refused to go out that evening. His fellow-students were bent on a night's pleasure at a dancing-garden then in vogue, where there would be twinkling lamps and merry music under the May moon. The lamp-lit parterres, the joyous waltzes, had no attractions for Gustave Lenoble. He haunted the dull salon, dim and dreary in the twilight; for Madame Magnotte was chary of lamps and candles, and prolonged to its utmost limits the pensive interval between day and night. He walked softly up and down the room, unheeded by the ladies clustered in a group by one of the windows. Restless and unhappy, he could neither go nor stay. She was not coming down to the salon this evening. He had clung to the faint hope that she might appear; but the faint hope died away in his breast as the night deepened. What purpose could be served by his remaining in that dismal room? He was no nearer her than he would have been in the remotest wilds of Central America. He would go out—not to the odious dancing-garden, but to the cool dark streets, where the night wind might blow this fever from his brain.
He left the room suddenly, and hurried downstairs. At the bottom of the staircase he almost stumbled against a woman, who turned and looked at him in the light of a little oil-lamp that hung over the door of the portress's lodge.
It was the Englishwoman, deadly pale, and with a wild look in her face that Gustave had never seen there before. She gave him no sign of recognition, but passed out of the courtyard, and walked rapidly away. That unusual look in her face, the strangeness of the fact that she should be leaving the house at this hour, inspired him with a vague terror, and he followed her, not stealthily, without a thought that he was doing any wrong by such an act—rather, indeed, with the conviction that he had a right so to follow her.
She walked very quickly—at a more rapid pace than Gustave would have supposed possible for so fragile a creature. She chose the lonelier streets, and Gustave had no difficulty in following her; she never looked back, but went straight on her course, without pause or slackening of her pace, as if with a settled purpose.
"Where can she be going?" Gustave asked himself; and an answer, vague, hideous, terrible, suggested itself to his mind. The idea that occurred to him was one that would scarcely have occurred to an Englishman under the same circumstances, but to a Frenchman it was a very familiar idea.
It was dark now—the darkness that reigns between early sunset and late moonrise. As the lonely woman went farther along the dreary streets parallel with the quay, the dreadful suspicion grew stronger in Gustave's mind. From that instant he had but one thought; in that moment he put away from him for ever all sense of obligation to Madelon Frehlter; he shook off father, mother, sister, old associations, home ties, ambition, fortune—he lived alone for this woman, and the purpose of his life was to save her from despair and death.
They emerged upon the quay at last. The long stretch of pavement was deserted. Ah, now she looked back—she looked on every side with wild unseeing eyes—and now there could be little doubt as to the purpose that brought her here. She crossed the road, and went upon the bridge, Gustave following close; in the next minute she was standing on the stone bench, a tremulous, fluttering figure, with arms stretched towards the water; in a breath she was clasped to Gustave's breast, clasped by arms that meant to hold her for ever.
The shock of that surprise utterly unnerved the wretched creature. She shivered violently, and struggled to free herself from those strong arms.
"Let me go!" she cried in English. "Let me go!" And then, finding herself powerless, she turned and looked at her captor. "M. Lenoble! O, why do you persecute me? Why do you follow me?"
"Because I want to save you."
"To save me! To snatch me back when I was going to find rest—an end for my weary life! O yes, I know that it is a sinful end; but my life has been all sin."
"Your life all sin! Foolish one, I will never believe that."
"It is true," she cried, with passionate self-reproach. "The sin of selfishness, and pride, and disobedience. There is no fate too hard for me—but, O, my fate is very hard! Why did you keep me from that river? You do not know how miserable my life is—you do not know. I paid my last penny to Madame Magnotte this morning. I have no money to take me back to England, even if I dared go there—and I dare not. I have prayed for courage, for strength to go back, but my prayers have not been heard; and there is nothing for me but to die. What would be the sin of my throwing myself into that river! I must die; I shall die of starvation in the streets."
"No, no," cried Gustave passionately; "do you think I have dragged you back from death to give you to loneliness and despair? My dear one, you are mine—mine by right of this night. These arms that have kept you from death shall shelter you,—ah, let them shelter you! These hands shall work for you. My love, my love! you cannot tell how dear you are to me. If there must be want or trouble for either of us, it shall come to me first."
He had placed her on the stone bench, bewildered and unresisting, and had seated himself by her side. The fragile figure, shivering still, even in the mild atmosphere of the spring night, was sustained by his encircling arm. He felt that she was his, irrevocably and entirely—given to him by the Providence which would have seemed to have abandoned her, but for the love it had implanted for her in this one faithful heart. His tone had all the pleading tenderness of a lover's, but it had something more—an authority, a sense of possession.
"Providence sent me here to save you," he said, with that gentle yet authoritative tone; "I am your providence, am I not, dearest? Fate made me love you—fondly, hopelessly, as I thought. Yesterday you seemed as far away from me as those pale stars, shining up yonder—as incomprehensible as that faint silvery mist above the rising moon—and to-night you are my own."
He knew not what ties might be broken by this act. He had indeed a vague consciousness that the step which he was now taking would cause a lifelong breach between himself and his father. But the time had gone by in which he could count the cost.
"Let me go back, M. Lenoble," the Englishwoman said presently. The faintness of terror was passing away, and she spoke almost calmly. "Let me go back to the house. It is you that have saved me from a dreadful sin. I promise you that I will not again think of committing that deadly sin. I will wait for the end to come. Let me go, my kind friend. Ah, no, no; do not detain me! Forget that you have ever known me."
"That is not in my power. I will take you back to the Pension Magnotte directly; but you must first promise to be my wife."
"Your wife! O, no, no, no! That is impossible."
"Because you do not love me," said Gustave, with mournful gravity.
"Because I am not worthy of you."
Humiliation and self-reproach unspeakable were conveyed in those few words.
"You are worth all the stars to me. If I had them in my hands, those lamps shining up there, I would throw them away, to hold you," said the student passionately. "You cannot understand my love, perhaps. I seem a stranger to you, and all I say sounds wild and foolish. My love, it is true as the heaven above us—true as life or death—death that was so near you just now. I have loved you ever since that bleak March morning on which I saw you sitting under the leafless trees yonder. You held me from that moment. I was subjugated—possessed—yours at once and for ever. I would not confess even to myself that my heart had resigned itself to you; but I know now that it was so from the first. Is there any hope that you will ever pay me back one tithe of my love?"
"You love me," the Englishwoman repeated slowly, as if the words were almost beyond her comprehension,—"you love me, a creature so lost, so friendless! Ah, but you do not know my wretched story!"
"I do not ask to know it. I only ask one question—will you be my wife?"
"You must be mad to offer your name, your honour to me."
"Yes, I am mad—madly in love. And I am waiting for your answer. You will be my wife? My angel, you will say yes! It is not much that I offer you—a life of uncertainty, perhaps even of poverty; but a fond and constant heart, and a head and hands that will work for you while God gives them strength. It is better than the river."
All that was thoughtless and hopeful in his disposition was expressed in these words. The woman to whom he pleaded was weakened by sorrow, and the devotion of this brave true heart brought her strength, comfort, almost hope.
"Will you be my friend?" she said gently. "Your words seem to bring me back to life. I wanted to die because I was so wretched, so lonely. I have friends in England—friends who were once all that is dear and kind; but I dare not go to them. I think a cruel look from one of those friends would kill me with a pain more bitter than any other death could give. And I have no right to hope for kind looks from them. Yours are the only words of friendship I have heard for a long time."
"And you will give me the right to work for you—to protect you? You will be my wife?"
"I would rather be your servant," she answered, with sad humility. "What right have I to accept so great a sacrifice? What folly can be so foolish as your love for me—if it is indeed love, and not a wild fancy of to-night!"
"It is a fancy that will last my life."
"Ah, you do not know how such fancies change."
"I know nothing except that mine is changeless. Come, my love, it is growing late and cold. Let me take you home. The portress will wonder. You must slip past her quietly with your veil down. Did you give old Margot your key when you came down stairs to-night?"
"No, it is in my pocket. I was not thinking—I—"
She stopped with a sudden shudder. Gustave understood that shudder; he also shuddered. She had left her room that night possessed by the suicide's madness; she had left it to come straight to death. Happily his strong arm had come between her and that cruel grave by which they were still lingering.
They walked slowly back to the Rue Grande-Mademoiselle under the light of the newly-risen moon. The Englishwoman's wasted hand rested for the first time on M. Lenoble's arm. She was his—his by the intervention and by the decree of Providence! That became a conviction in the young man's mind. He covered her late return to the house with diplomatic art, engaging the portress in conversation while the dark figure glided past in the dim lamplight. On the staircase he paused to bid her good night.
"You will walk with me in the Luxembourg garden to-morrow morning, dearest," he said. "I have so much to say—so much. Until then, adieu!"
He kissed her hand, and left her on the threshold of her apartment, and then went to his own humble bachelor's chamber, singing a little drinking song in his deep manly voice, happy beyond all measure.
They walked together next day in the gardens of the Luxembourg. The poor lonely creature whom Gustave had rescued seemed already to look up to him as a friend and protector, if not in the character of a future husband. It was no longer this fair stranger who held possession of Gustave; it was Gustave who had taken possession of her. The stronger nature had subjugated the weaker. So friendless, so utterly destitute—penniless, helpless, in a strange land, it is little matter for wonder that Susan Meynell accepted the love that was at once a refuge and a shelter.
"Let me tell you my wretched story," she pleaded, as she walked under the chestnut-trees by her lover's side. "Let me tell you everything. And if, when you have heard what an unhappy creature I am, you still wish to give me your heart, your name, I will be obedient to your wish. I will not speak to you of gratitude. If you could understand how debased an outcast I seemed to myself last night when I went to the river, you would know how I must feel your goodness. But you can never understand—you can never know what you seem to me."
And then in a low voice, and with infinite shame and hesitation, she told him her story.
"My father was a tradesman in the city of London," she said. "We were very well off, and my home ought to have been a happy one. Ah, how happy such a home would seem to me now! But I was idle and frivolous and discontented in those days, and was dissatisfied with our life in the city because it seemed dull and monotonous to me. When I look back now and remember how poor a return I gave for the love that was given to me—my mother's anxiety, my father's steady, unpretending kindness—I feel how well I have deserved the sorrows that have come to me since then."
She paused here, but Gustave did not interrupt her. His interest was too profound for any conventional expression. He was listening to the story of his future wife's youth. That there could be any passage in that history which would hinder him from claiming this woman as his wife was a possibility he did not for a moment contemplate. If there were shame involved in the story, as Madame Meynell's manner led him to suppose there must be, so much the worse was it for him, since the shame must be his, as she was his.
"When my father and mother died, I went into Yorkshire to live with my married sister. I cannot find words to tell you how kind they were to me—my sister and her husband. I had a little money left me by my father, and I spent the greater part of it on fine dress, and on foolish presents to my sister and her children. I was happier in Yorkshire than I had been in London; for I saw more people, and my life seemed gayer and brighter than in the city. One day I saw a gentleman, the brother of a nobleman who lived in the neighbourhood of my sister's house. We met by accident in a field on my brother-in-law's farm, where the gentleman was shooting; and after that he came to the house. He had seen my sister before, and made some excuse for renewing his acquaintance. He came very often, and before long he asked me to marry him; and I promised to be his wife, with my sister's knowledge and consent. She loved me so dearly, and was so proud of me out of her dear love, that she saw nothing wonderful in this engagement, especially as Mr. Kingdon, the gentleman I am speaking of, was a younger son, and by no means a rich man."
Again she stopped, and waited a little before continuing her story. Only by a gentle pressure of the tremulous hand resting on his arm did Gustave express his sympathy.
"I cannot tell you, how happy I was in those days—so bright, so brief. I cannot tell you how I loved Montague Kingdon. When I look back to that time of my life, it seems like a picture standing out against a background of darkness, with some strange vivid light shining upon it. It was arranged between Montague and my sister that we should be married as soon as his brother, Lord Durnsville, had paid his debts. The payment of the debts was an old promise of Lord Durnsville's, and an imprudent marriage on his brother's part might have prevented the performance of it. This is what Montague told my sister Charlotte. She begged him to confide in her husband, my kind brother-in-law, but this he refused to do. There came a day very soon after this when James Halliday, my brother-in-law, was told about Montague Kingdon's visits to the farm. He came home and found Mr. Kingdon with us; and then there was a dreadful scene between them. James forbade Mr. Kingdon ever again to set foot in his house. He scolded my sister, he warned me. It was all no use. I loved Montague Kingdon as you say you love me—foolishly, recklessly. I could not disbelieve or doubt him. When he told me of his plans for our marriage, which was to be kept secret until Lord Durnsville had paid his debts, I consented to leave Newhall with him to be married in London. If he had asked me for my life, I must have given it to him. And how should I disbelieve his promises when I had lived only amongst people who were truth itself? He knew that I had friends in London, and it was arranged between us that I was to be married from the house of one of them, who had been my girlish companion, and who was now well married. I was to write, telling her of my intended journey to town; and on the following night I was to leave Newhall secretly with Montague Kingdon. I was to make my peace with my sister and her husband after my marriage. How shall I tell you the rest? From the first to last he deceived me. The carriage that was, as I believed, to have taken us to London, carried us to Hull. From Hull we crossed to Hamburg. From that time my story is all shame and misery. I think my heart broke in the hour in which I discovered that I had been cheated. I loved him, and clung to him long after I knew him to be selfish and false and cruel. It seemed to be a part of my nature to love him. My life was not the kind of life one reads of in novels. It was no existence of splendour and luxury and riot, but one long struggle with debt and difficulty. We lived abroad—not for our pleasure, but because Mr. Kingdon could not venture to appear in England. His brother, Lord Durnsville, had never promised to pay his debts. That was a falsehood invented to deceive my sister. For seven long weary years I was his slave, a true and faithful slave; his nurse in illness, his patient drudge at all times. We had been wandering about France for two years, when he brought me to Paris; and it was here he first began to neglect me. O, if you could know the dreary days and nights I have spent at the hotel on the other side of the river, where we lived, you would pity me."
"My dear love, my heart is all pity for you," said Gustave. "Do not tell me any more. I can guess the end of the story. There came a day in which neglect gave place to desertion."
"Yes; Mr. Kingdon left me one day without a warning word to break the blow. I had been waiting and watching for him through two weary days and nights, when there came a letter to tell me he was on his way to Vienna with a West Indian gentleman and his daughter. He was to be married to the daughter. It was his poverty, he told me, which compelled this step. He advised me to go back to my friends in Yorkshire. To go back!—as if he did not know that death would be easier to me. There was a small sum of money in the letter, on which I have lived since that time. When you first met me here, I had not long received that letter."