* * * * *
BY THE AUTHOR OF THIS VOLUME,
THE MUTE SINGER; A Novel.
* * * * *
ANNA CORA RITCHIE,
AUTHOR OF "THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN ACTRESS," "MIMIC LIFE," "TWIN ROSES," "ARMAND," "FASHION," ETC.
* * * * *
"Labor is Worship."
* * * * *
CARLETON, PUBLISHER, 413 BROADWAY.
* * * * *
Entered, according to Act of Congress, in the year 1865, by GEO. W. CARLETON.
In the Clerk's Office of the District Court for the Southern District of New York.
* * * * *
I. Noblesse, 7
II. The Cousins, 17
III. Madeleine, 24
IV. Proposals, 38
V. Heart-beats, 43
VI. Unmasking, 55
VII. A Crisis, 68
VIII. Flight, 79
IX. The Empty Place, 94
X. The Humble Companion, 109
XI. Pursuit, 116
XII. The Sister of Charity, 121
XIII. Weary Days, 131
XIV. Diamonds and Emeralds, 139
XV. The Embroidered Handkerchief, 148
XVI. A Voice from the Lost One, 155
XVII. "Chiffons," 166
XVIII. Maurice, 173
XIX. The Aristocrats in America, 179
XX. The Incognita, 186
XXI. The Cytherea of Fashion, 195
XXII. Meeting, 200
XXIII. Noble Hands made Nobler, 213
XXIV. Feminine Belligerents, 226
XXV. The Message, 237
XXVI. Meeting of Lovers, 241
XXVII. Count Tristan's Policy, 249
XXVIII. Lord Linden's Discovery, 254
XXIX. A Contest, 260
XXX. Bertha, 268
XXXI. A Surprise, 278
XXXII. The Nobleman and Mantua-maker, 283
XXXIII. Madame De Gramont, 294
XXXIV. Half the Wooer, 298
XXXV. A Revelation, 305
XXXVI. The Suitor, 311
XXXVII. A Shock, 314
XXXVIII. The Mantua-maker's Guests, 323
XXXIX. Ministration, 330
XL. Recognition, 340
XLI. Unbowed, 345
XLII. Double Convalescence, 352
XLIII. Outgeneralled, 357
XLIV. A Change, 364
XLV. Reparation, 375
XLVI. A Mishap, 380
XLVII. Inflexibility, 387
XLVIII. The New England Nurse, 392
XLIX. Ronald, 405
L. A Secret Divined, 409
LI. Seed Sown, 415
LII. A Lover's Snare, 420
LIII. Resistance, 426
LIV. An Unexpected Visit, 431
LV. Amen, 435
LVI. The Hand of God, 442
LVII. Conclusion, 453
* * * * *
They were seated in the drawing-room of an ancient chateau in Brittany,—the Countess Dowager de Gramont and Count Tristan, her only son,—a mansion lacking none of the ponderous quaintness that usually characterizes ancestral dwellings in that locality. The edifice could still boast of imposing grandeur, especially if classed among "fine ruins." Within and without were harmoniously dilapidated, and a large portion of the interior was uninhabitable. The limited resources of the count precluded even an apologetic semblance of repairs.
The house was surrounded by spacious parks and pleasure-grounds, in a similarly neglected condition. Their natural beauty was striking, and the rich soil yielded fruits and flowers in abundance, though its only culture was received from the hands of old Baptiste, who made his appearance as gardener in the morning, but, with a total change of costume, was metamorphosed into butler after the sun passed the meridian. In his button-hole a flower, which he could never be induced to forego, betrayed his preference for the former vocation.
The discussion between mother and son was unmistakably tempestuous. A thunder-cloud lowered on the noble lady's brow; her eyes shot forth electric flashes, and her voice, usually subdued to aristocratic softness, was raised to storm-pitch.
"Count Tristan de Gramont, you have taken leave of your senses!"
A favorite declaration of persons thoroughly convinced of their own unassailable mental equilibrium, when their convictions encounter the sudden check of opposition.
As the assertion, unfortunately, is one that cannot be disproved by denial, the count sank resignedly behind the shield of silence. His mother returned to the attack.
"Do you mean me to understand that, in your right mind, you would condescend to mingle with men of business?—that you would actually degrade yourself into becoming a shareholder, or manager, or director, or whatever you please to term it, in a railway company?—you, Count Tristan de Gramont! The very proposal is a humiliation; to entertain it would be an absurdity—to consent, an impossibility. I repeat it, you have taken leave of your senses!"
"But, my dear mother," answered the count, with marked deference, "you are forgetting that this railway company chances to be an American association; my connection with it, or, rather, its very existence, is not likely to be known here in Brittany,—therefore, my dignity will not be compromised. The only valuable property left us is the transatlantic estate which my roving brother purchased during his wanderings in the New World, and bequeathed to my son, Maurice, for whom it is held in trust by an American gentleman. The members of the association, who desire to interest me in their speculation, assert that the proposed railroad may pass directly through this very tract of land. Should that be the case, its value will be greatly increased. At the present moment the estate yields us nothing; but the advent of this railroad must insure an immense profit. We estimate that, by judicious management, the land may be made to bring in"—
His mother interrupted him with a haughty gesture. "'Speculation!' 'yield!' 'profit!' 'bring in!' What language to grow familiar to the lips of a son of mine! You talk like a tradesman already! My son, give up all idea of this plebeian enterprise!"
The count did not answer immediately. He seemed puzzled to determine what degree of confidence it was necessary to repose in his stately mother. After a brief pause, he renewed the conversation with evident embarrassment.
"It is very difficult to make a lady, especially a lady of your rank, education, and mode of life, understand these matters, and the necessity"—
"It ought to be equally difficult to make the nobleman, my son, comprehend them," answered the countess, freezingly.
The count rejoined, as though driven to extremity, "It is the very fact of my being a nobleman, that has made these people, Americans as they are, and despisers of titles as they profess to be, seek me with eagerness. The prestige of my title, and the promise of obtaining some privileges respecting Maurice's Maryland estate, are all that I can contribute toward the success of their undertaking. It is true I am a nobleman; but even rank, my dear mother, must have the means of sustaining its existence, to say nothing of preserving its dignity. Even rank is subject to the common, vulgar need of food and raiment and shelter, not to mention the necessity of keeping horses, carriages, domestics, and securing other indispensable but money-consuming luxuries. Our narrow income is no longer sufficient to meet even our limited expenditures. The education of Maurice at the University of Paris, and your own charities, have not merely drained our purse, but involved us in debt. I hail the offer made me by this American company, because it may extricate us from some very serious difficulties. I am much mortified at your resolute disapproval of the step I contemplate."
Count Tristan de Gramont was a widower, the father of but one child. It must not be supposed that, although he seriously purposed embarking in a business enterprise, he had failed to appropriate a goodly share of that pride which had both descended by inheritance, and been liberally instilled into his mind by education. His character was strongly stamped with the Breton traits of obstinacy and perseverance, and he was gifted with an unaristocratic amount of energy. When an idea once took possession of his brain, he patiently and diligently brought the embryo thought to fruition, in spite of all disheartening obstacles. He was narrow-minded and selfish when any interests save his own and those of his mother and son were at stake. These were the only two beings whom he loved, and he only loved them because they were his—a portion of himself; and it was merely himself that he loved through them. In a certain sense, he was a devoted son. His education had rendered him punctilious, to the highest degree, in the observance of all those forms that betoken filial veneration. He always treated his august mother with the most profound reverence. He paid her the most courteous attentions,—opened the doors when she desired to pass, placed footstools for her feet, knelt promptly to pick up the handkerchief or glove she dropped, was ever ready to offer her his arm for her support, and seldom combated her opinions.
The first time he had openly ventured to oppose her views was in the conversation we have just related.
She looked so regal, as she sat before him in a richly carved antique chair, which she occupied as though it had been a throne, that, in spite of the blind obstinacy with which she refused to see her own interests and his, Count Tristan could not help regarding her with admiration.
She was still strikingly handsome, notwithstanding the sixty winters which had bleached her raven locks to the most uncompromising white. Those snowy tresses fell in soft and glossy curls about her scarcely furrowed countenance. Her forehead was somewhat low and narrow; the face, a decided oval; the nose, almost straight; the eyes almond-shaped, and of a jetty blackness, flashing out from beneath brows that were remarkable for the fine, dark line that designated their arch. The mouth was the least pleasing feature,—it was too small, and unsuggestive of varied expression; the lips not only lacked fulness, but wore a supercilious curl that had become habitual.
Her form was considerably above the medium height, and added to the sense of grandeur conveyed by her presence. Her carriage was erect to the verge of stiffness, and her step too firm to be quite soundless. Advancing years had not produced any unseemly embonpoint, nor had her figure fallen into the opposite extreme, and sharpened into meagre angularity; its outline retained sufficient roundness not to lose the curves or grace.
She had made no reply to her son's last remark, which forced him to begin anew. He thought it politic, however, to change the subject.
"You remember, my mother, that some seven of our friends are engaged to dine with us to-morrow. I trust you will not disapprove of my having invited two American gentlemen to join the party. After the letters of introduction they brought me, I was forced to show them some attention and"—
He paused abruptly, without venturing to add that those gentlemen were directors of the railway company of which he had before spoken.
"My son, you are aware that I never interfere with your hospitalities, but you seem to have forgotten that my Sevres china is only a set for twelve, and I can use no other on ceremonious occasions. With Bertha and Madeleine we have one guest too many."
"That is a matter readily arranged," replied the count. "Madeleine need not appear at table. She is always so obliging and manageable that she can easily be requested to dine in her own room. In fact, to speak frankly, I would rather not have her present."
"But, should she be absent, Bertha will be annoyed," rejoined Madame de Gramont.
"Bertha is a simpleton! How strange that she does not see, or suspect, that Madeleine always throws her into the background! I said a while ago, my mother, that your charities had helped to drain our purse, and this is one which I might cite, and the one that galls me most. Here, for three years, you have sheltered and supported this young girl, without once reflecting upon the additional expense we are incurring by your playing the benefactress thus grandly. It is very noble, very munificent on your part; still, for a number of reasons, I regret that Madeleine has become a permanent inmate of this chateau."
"Madeleine was an orphan," replied the countess, "the sole remaining child of the Duke de Gramont, your father's nephew. When she was left homeless and destitute, did not the honor of the family force me to offer her an asylum, and to treat her with the courtesy due to a relative? Have we not always found her very grateful and very agreeable?"
"I grant you—very agreeable—too agreeable by half," returned the count; "so agreeable that, as I said, she invariably throws your favorite Bertha into the shade. I confess that the necessity of always reserving for this young person, thrust upon us by the force of circumstances, a place at table, a seat in the carriage, room upon every party of pleasure, makes her presence an inconvenience, if not a positive burden. And will you allow me to speak with great candor? May I venture to say that I have seen you, my dear mother, chafed by the infliction, and irritated by beholding Bertha lose through contrast with Madeleine?"
His mother replied with animation: "Bertha is my grandniece,—the granddaughter of my only sister; the ties of blood, if nothing more, would bind me more closely to her than to Madeleine. Possibly there may have been times when I have not been well pleased to see one so dear, invariably, though most inexplicably, eclipsed. Bertha may shine forth in her most resplendent jewels,—her most costly and exquisite Parisian toilet; Madeleine has only to enter, in a simple muslin dress, a flower, or a knot of ribbons in her hair, and she draws all eyes magnetically upon her."
"That is precisely the observation I have made," answered Count Tristan; "and, my mother, have you never reflected how seriously your protegee may interfere with our prospects respecting Maurice?"
The countess started. "Impossible! He could not think of Madeleine when a union with Bertha would be so much more advantageous."
"Youth does not think—it chooses by the attraction it experiences towards this or that object," answered the count. "Before Maurice last returned to the university, nine months ago, his admiration for Madeleine was unmistakable. Now that he is shortly to come home, and for an indefinite period,—now that our plans must ripen, I have come to the conclusion that Madeleine must be removed, or they will never attain fruition; she must not be allowed to cast the spell of her dangerous fascination over him; something must be done, and that before Maurice returns; in a fortnight he will be here."
Before the countess could reply, a young girl bounded into the room, with a letter in one hand, and a roll of music in the other.
It would be difficult to find a more perfect type of the pure blonde than was manifested in the person of this fair young maiden. The word "dazzling" might be applied without exaggeration to the lustrous whiteness of a complexion tinged in the cheeks as though by the reflection of a sea-shell. Her full, dewy lips disclosed milky rows of childlike teeth within. Her eyes were of the clearest azure; but, in spite of their expression of mingled tenderness and gayety, one who could pause to lay the finger upon an imperfection, would note that something was wanting to complete their beauty;—the eyebrows were too faintly traced, and the lashes too light, though long. The low brow, straight, slender nose, the soft curve of the chin, the fine oval of the face, were obviously an inheritance. At a single glance it was impossible not to be struck with the resemblance which these classic features bore to those of the countess. But the sportive dimples, pressed as though by a caressing touch, upon the cheeks and chin of the young girl, destroyed, even more than the totally opposite coloring, the likeness in the two countenances. The hair of the countess had been remarkable for its shining blackness, while the yellow acacia was not more brightly golden than the silken tresses of Bertha,—tresses that ran in ripples, and lost themselves in a sunny stream of natural curls, which seemed audaciously bent on breaking their bounds, and looked as though they were always in a frolic. In vain they were smoothed back by the skilful fingers of an expert femme de chambre, and confined in an elaborate knot at the back of Bertha's small head; the rebellious locks would wave and break into fine rings upon the white brow, and lovingly steal in stray ringlets adown the alabaster throat, ignoring conventional restraint as sportively as their owner.
Bertha de Merrivale, like Madeleine, was an orphan, but, unlike Madeleine, an heiress. The Marquis de Merrivale, Bertha's uncle, was also her guardian. He allowed her every year to spend a few months with her mother's relatives, who warmly pleaded for these annual visits. Her sojourn at the chateau de Gramont was always a season of delight to Bertha herself, for she dearly loved her great-aunt, liked Count Tristan, enjoyed the society of Maurice, and was enthusiastically attached to Madeleine.
"A letter! a letter from Maurice!" exclaimed Bertha, dancing around her aunt as she held out the epistle.
The countess broke the seal eagerly, and after glancing over the first lines, exclaimed, "Here is news indeed! We did not expect Maurice for a fortnight; but he writes that he will be here to-morrow. How little time we shall have for preparation! And I intended to order so many improvements made in his chamber, and to quite remodel"—
"Oh, of course, everything will have to be remodelled for the Viscount Maurice de Gramont! Nothing will be good enough for him! Every one will sink into insignificance at his coming! We, poor, forlorn damsels, will henceforth be of no account,—no one will waste a thought on us!" said Bertha.
"On the contrary," replied her aunt, "I never had your happiness more in my thoughts than at this moment. Be sure you wear your blue brocade to-morrow, and the blue net interwoven with pearls in your hair, and that turquoise set which Maurice always admired."
"Be sure that I play the coquette, you mean, as my dear aunt did before me," answered Bertha, merrily. "No, indeed, aunt, that may have done in your day, but it does not suit ours. We, of the present time, do not wear nets for the express purpose of ensnaring the admiration of young men; or don our most becoming dresses to lay up their hearts in their folds. I am going to seek Madeleine to tell her this news, and I have another surprise for her."
"What is it?" inquired the countess, in an altered tone.
"This great parcel of music, which I sent to Paris to obtain expressly for her. But I have something else which she must not see to day,—this bracelet, the exact pattern of the one my uncle presented to me upon my last birthday, and Madeleine shall receive this upon her birthday; that will be to-morrow."
As she spoke, she clasped upon her small wrist a band of gold, fastened by a knot formed of pearls, and gayly held up her round, white arm before the eyes of the count and countess.
The latter caught her uplifted hand and said gravely, "Bertha, music and bracelets are very appropriate for you, but they do not suit Madeleine. Madeleine is poor, worse than poor, wholly dependent upon"—
"There you are mistaken, aunt," returned Bertha, warmly. "As I am rich, she is not poor;—that is, she will not always be poor, and she shall not be dependent upon any one—not even upon you. I mean to settle upon her a marriage portion if she choose to marry, and a handsome income if she remain single."
"Very generous and romantic on your part," replied the countess, ironically; "but, unfortunately for her, you have no power at present over your own property; you cannot play the benefactress without the consent of your guardian, and that you will never obtain."
"But if I marry, I will have the right," answered Bertha, naively.
"You will have the consent of your husband to obtain, and that will be equally difficult."
"That is true, but I am not discouraged. I suppose when I am of age I shall have the power, and I need not marry before then. I am sixteen, nearly seventeen; it will not be so very long to wait, and I am determined to serve Madeleine."
"Many events may occur to make you change you mind before you attain your majority. Meanwhile you are fostering tastes in Madeleine which are unsuited to her condition. I know you think me very severe, but"—
"No, no, aunt, you are never severe toward me; you are only too kind, too indulgent; you spoil me with too much love and consideration; and it is because you have spoiled me so completely that I mean to be saucy enough to speak out just what I think."
Bertha seated herself on the footstool at her aunt's feet, took her hand caressingly, and with an earnest air prattled on.
"It is with Madeleine that you are severe, and you grow more and more severe every day. You speak to her so harshly, so disdainfully at times, that I hardly recognize you. One would not imagine that she is your grandniece as much as I am,—that is, almost as much, for she was the grandniece of the Count de Gramont, my uncle. You find incessant fault with her, and she seems to irritate you by her very presence. Oh! I have seen it for a long time, and during this last visit I see it more than ever."
"Bertha!" commenced her aunt, in a tone which might have awed any less volatile and determined speaker.
"Do not interrupt me, aunt; I have not done yet, and I must speak. Why do you put on this manner towards Madeleine? You do put it on,—it is not natural to you,—for you are kind to every one else. And have you not been most kind to her also? Were you not the only one of her proud relatives who held out a hand to her when she stood unsheltered and alone in the world? Have you not since then done everything for her? Done everything—but—but—but love her?"
"Bertha, you are the only one who would venture to"—
"I know it, aunt,—I am the only one who would venture, so grant me one moment more; I have not done yet. Madeleine cannot be an incumbrance, for who is so useful in your household as she? Who could replace her? When you are suffering, she is the tenderest of nurses. She daily relieves you of a thousand cares. When you have company, is it not Madeleine who sees that everything is in order? If you give a dinner, is it not Madeleine who not only superintends all the preparations, but invents the most beautiful decorations for the table,—and out of nothing—out of leaves and flowers so common that no one would have thought of culling them, yet so wonderfully arranged that every one exclaims at their picturesque effect? When you have dull guests,—guests that put me to sleep, or out of patience,—is it not Madeleine who amuses them? How many evenings, that would have been insufferably stupid, have flown delightfully, chased by her delicious voice!"
"You make a great virtue of what was simply an enjoyment to herself. She delights as much, or more, in singing than any one can delight in hearing her."
"That is because she delights in everything she does; she always accomplishes her work with delight. She delighted in making you that becoming cap, with its coquettishly-disposed knots of violet ribbons; she delighted in turning and freshening and remaking the silk dress you wear at this moment, which fits you to perfection, and looks quite new. She delighted in embroidering my cousin Tristan that pretty velvet smoking-cap he has on his head. She delighted in making me the wreath which I wore at the Count de Caradare's concert the other evening, and which every one complimented me upon. It was her own invention;—and did not you yourself remark that there was not a head-dress in the room half as beautiful? Everything she touches she beautifies. The commonest objects assume a graceful form beneath her fingers. The "fingers of a fairy" my cousin Maurice used to call them, and, there certainly is magic in those dainty, rapidly-moving hands of hers. They have an art, a skill, a facility that partakes of the supernatural. Madeleine is a dependent upon your bounty, but her magic fingers make her a very valuable one; and, if you would not think it very impertinent, I would say that we are all her debtors, rather than she ours. There, I have done! Now, forgive me for my temerity,—confess that you have been too severe to Madeleine, and promise not to find fault with her any more."
"I will confess that she has the most charming advocate in the world," answered the countess with affection.
"Madeleine must not see this bracelet until to-morrow; so I must hasten to lock it up," resumed the young girl; "after that I will let her know that our cousin will be here to honor her birthday. How enchanted she will be! But she makes entirely too much of him,—just as you all do. The instant she hears the news, away she will fly to make preparations for his comfort. I shall only have to say, 'Maurice is coming,' and what a commotion there will be!"
Bertha tripped away, leaving the countess alone with her son.
"Is she not enchanting?" exclaimed the former, as Bertha disappeared. "Maurice will have a charming bride."
"Yes, if the marriage we so earnestly desire ever take place."
"IF? IF? I intend that it shall take place. It is my one dream, my dearest hope!" said the countess.
"It is mine also," replied the count; "and yet I have my doubts—my fears; in a word, I do not believe this union ever will take place if Madeleine remain here."
The countess drew herself up with indignant amazement. "What do you mean? Do you think Madeleine capable of"—
"I do not think Madeleine capable of anything wrong; but she has such versatility of talent, she is so fascinating, her character is so lovable, that I think those talents and attractions capable of upsetting all our plans and of making Maurice fall deeply in love with her."
"But is not Bertha fascinating, and lovely as a painter's ideal?" asked the countess.
"Yes, but it is not such a striking, such an impressive, such a bewitching, bewildering style of beauty," replied her son. "Mark my words: I understand young men. I know what dazzles their eyes and turns their heads. If Maurice is thrown into daily communication with Bertha and Madeleine, it is Madeleine to whom he will become attached."
"It must not be!" said the countess, emphatically, and rising as she spoke. "It shall not!"
"I echo, it shall not, my mother. But we must take means of prevention. It is most unfortunate that Maurice returns a fortnight before we expected him. I had my plans laid and ready to carry into execution before he could arrive. Now we must hasten them."
"What is your scheme?" asked his mother.
"Madeleine has other relations, all richer than ourselves. I purpose writing to each of them, and proposing that they shall receive her, not for three years, as we have done, but that they shall each, in turn, invite her to spend three months with them. They surely cannot refuse, and her life will be very varied and pleasant, visiting from house to house every three months, enjoying new pleasures, seeing new faces, making new friendships. And her relatives will, in reality, be our debtors, for Madeleine is the most charming of inmates. She is always so lively, and creates so much gayety around her; she has so many resources in herself, and she is so useful! In fact, we are bestowing a valuable gift upon these good relatives of hers, and they ought to thank us, as I have no doubt they will."
The countess approved of her son's plan to rid them of their dangerously agreeable inmate, and the count, without further delay, sat down to pen the projected epistles.
Bertha's prediction was verified, and the whole chateau was thrown into confusion by preparations for the coming of the young viscount. Old Baptiste forsook his garden-tools for the whole day, to play in-door domestic. Gustave, who daily doubled his role of coachman with that of valet, slighted his beloved horses (horses whose mothers and grandmothers had supplied the de Gramont stables from time immemorial) to cleanse windows, brighten mirrors, and polish dingy furniture. Bettina, the antiquated femme de chambre of the countess, who also discharged the combined duties of housekeeper and housemaid, flew about with a bustling activity that could hardly have been expected from her years and infirmities. Elize, the cook, made far more elaborate preparations for the coming of the young viscount than she would have deemed necessary for the dinner to be given to her master's guests. This band of venerable domestics had all been servants of the family before the viscount's birth, and he was not only an idol among them, but seemed, in a manner, to appertain to them all.
The countess, alone, did not find the movement of gladness around her contagious. The coming of Maurice before the departure of Madeleine, distressed her deeply; but small troubles and great were incongruously mingled in her mind, for, while she was tormented by the frustration of her plans, she fretted almost as heartily over that set of Sevres porcelain which, with the addition of her grandson, would not be sufficient for the expected guests, even if Madeleine dined in her own chamber. Besides, the arrival of Maurice made that arrangement out of the question. He would certainly oppose her banishment, just as Bertha had done; and the day, unfortunately, was Madeleine's birthday. This circumstance would give her cousins additional ground for insisting upon her presence at the festive board. The countess saw no escape from her domestic difficulties, and was thoroughly out of humor.
Before Madeleine had awoke that morning, Bertha had stolen to her bedside and clasped the bracelet upon her arm. Light as was Bertha's touch, it aroused the sleeper, and she greeted her birthday token with unfeigned gratitude and delight. But Madeleine had few moments to spend in contemplation of the precious gift. She dressed rapidly, then hastened away to make the chateau bright with flowers, to complete various preparations for the toilet of her aunt, to perform numerous offices which might be termed menial; but she entered upon her work with so much zest, she executed each task with such consummate skill, she took so much interest in the employment of the moment, that no labor seemed either tedious or debasing.
Maurice de Gramont had just completed his twenty-first year when he graduated with high honor at the University of France. After passing a fatiguing examination, he had gladly consented to act upon his father's suggestion, and devote a few weeks to enjoyment in the gay metropolis. The count had no clew to the cause of his sudden return to Brittany.
"Aunt, aunt! There is the carriage,—he is coming!—Baptiste, run and open the gate!" cried Bertha, whose quick eyes had caught sight of a coach which stopped at the farther end of a long avenue of noble trees, leading to the chateau.
Baptiste made all the speed which his aged limbs allowed; Gustave hastened to throw open the front door; Bertha was on the porch before the carriage drew up; the count and countess appeared at the entrance just as Maurice sprang down the steps of the lumbering vehicle.
His blue eyes sparkled with genuine joy, and his countenance glowed with animation, as he embraced his grandmother warmly, kissed his father, according to French custom, then turning to Bertha, clasped her extended hands and touched either cheek lightly with his lips. She received the cousinly salutation without any evidence of displeasure or any token of confusion.
As the maiden and youth stood side by side, they might easily have been mistaken for brother and sister. The same florid coloring was remarkable in the countenances of both, save that the tints were a few shades deeper on the visage of Maurice. His eyes were of a darker blue; his glossy hair was tinged with chestnut, while Bertha's shone with unmingled gold; but, like Bertha's, his recreant locks had a strong tendency to curl, and lay in rich clusters upon his brow, distressing him by a propensity which he deemed effeminate. His mouth was as ripely red as hers, but somewhat larger, firmer, and less bland in its character. His eyebrows, too, were more darkly traced, supplying a want only too obvious in her countenance. The resemblance, however, disappeared in the forehead and classic nose, for the brow of Maurice was broad and high, and the nose prominent, though finely shaped.
His form was manly without being strikingly tall. It was what might be designated as a noble figure; but the term owed its appropriateness partly to his refined and graceful bearing.
"My dear father, I am so glad to see you!—grandmother, it is refreshing to find you looking as though you bade defiance to time;—and you, my little cousin, how much you have improved! How lovely you have grown! A year does a great deal for one's appearance."
"Yours, for instance," replied Bertha, saucily. "Well, there was abundant room for improvement."
Maurice replied to her vivacious remark with a laugh of assent, and, looking eagerly around, asked, "Where is Madeleine?"
"Madeleine is busy as usual," answered Bertha. "I warrant she is in some remote corner of the chateau, mysteriously employed. She does not know that you have arrived."
"And is she well? My father never once mentioned her in his letters. And has she kept you company in growing so much handsomer during the last year?"
"Her beauty needed no heightening!" exclaimed Bertha, affectionately. "But she develops new talents every day; she sings more delightfully than ever; and lately she has commenced drawing from nature with the most wonderful ease. You should see the flowers she first creates with her pencil and then copies with her needle! I really think her needle can paint almost as dexterously as the brush of any other artist."
The count exchanged a look with his mother, and whispered, "Do stop her!"
The latter turned quickly to her grandson, and said, "Are you and Bertha determined to spend the morning out of doors? Come, let us go in."
As they entered the drawing-room, the countess pointed to a seat beside her.
"Maurice, leave your chattering little cousin, and sit down and give us some account of yourself. What have you been doing? How have you been passing your time?"
Maurice obeyed; Bertha placed herself on the other side of her aunt; the count took a chair opposite.
"Behold a most attentive and appreciating audience!" cried Bertha. "Now, Mr. Collegian and Traveller,—hero of the hour!—most noble representative of the house of de Gramont! hold forth! Let us hear how you have been occupying your valuable time."
"In the first place, I have been studying tolerably hard, little cousin. It seems very improbable, does it not? The midnight oil has not yet paled my cheeks to the sickly and interesting hue that belongs to a student. Still the proof is that I have passed my examination triumphantly. I will show you my prizes by and by, and they will speak for themselves. Next, I have joined a debating society of young students who are preparing to become lawyers. Our meetings have afforded me infinite pleasure. At our last reunion, I undertook to plead a cause, and achieved a wonderful success. I had no idea that language would flow so readily from my lips. I was astonished at my own thoughts, and the facility with which I formed them into words, and they say I made a capital argument. I received the most enthusiastic congratulations, and my associates, in pressing my hand, addressed me, not as the Viscount de Gramont, but as the able orator. I really think that I could make an orator, and that I have sufficient talent to become a lawyer."
"A lawyer!" exclaimed the countess with supreme disdain. "What could introduce such a vulgar idea into your head? A lawyer! There is really something startling, something positively appalling in the vagaries of the rising generation! A lawyer! what an idea!"
"It is something more than an idea, my dear grandmother: it is a project which I have formed, and which I cherish very seriously," replied Maurice.
"A project,—a project! I like projects. Let us hear your sublime project, Mr. Advocate," cried Bertha.
"The project is simply to test the abilities which I am presumptuous enough to believe I have discovered in myself, and to study for the bar. My father wrote me that he intended to become a director in a railway company, and descanted upon the advantage of embarking in the enterprise. He also confided to me, for the first time, the real state of our affairs,—in a word, the empty condition of our treasury. Why should my father occupy himself with business matters and I live in idleness? Once more, I repeat, I am convinced I have sufficient ability to make a position at the bar, and with my father's consent, and yours, grandmother, I propose to commence my law studies at once."
"A pettifogger! impossible! I, for one, will never countenance a step so humiliating! It is not to be thought of!" replied his grandmother, in a tone of decision.
"No, Maurice, your project is futile," responded his father. "My joining this railroad association is quite a different matter. I shall in reality have nothing to do. It is only my name that is required; besides, America is so far off that nobody in Brittany will be aware of my connection with the company. Your becoming a lawyer would be a public matter. I cannot recall the name of a single nobleman in the whole list of barristers"—
"So much the better for me! My title may, in this solitary instance, prove of service to me. It may help to bring me clients. People will be enchanted to be defended by a viscount."
"You conjure up a picture that is absolutely revolting!" cried the countess, warmly. "My grandson pleading to defend the rabble!"
"Why not, if the rabble should happen to stand in need of defence?"
"Why not?—because you should ignore their very existence! What have you and they in common?"
Maurice was about to reply somewhat emphatically, but noticing his grandmother's knitted brow, and his father's troubled expression, he checked himself.
The countess added, with an air of determination that forbade discussion, "Maurice, you will never obtain my consent, never!"
"But if I may not study for the bar, what am I to do?" asked the young man with spirit.
"Do?" questioned the countess, proudly. "What have the de Gramonts done for centuries past? Do nothing!"
"Nothing? Thank you, grandmother, for your estimate of my capacities and of the sluggish manner in which my blood courses through my veins. Doing nothing was all very well in dead-alive, by-gone days, but it does not suit the present age of activity and progress. In our time everything that has heart and spirit feels that labor is a law of life. Some men till the earth, some cultivate the minds of their fellow-men, some guard their country's soil by fighting our battles; that is, some vocations enable us to live, some teach us how to live, and some render it glorious to die. Now, instead of adopting any of these pursuits, I only wish to"—
"To become a manufacturer of fine phrases, a vender of words!" replied the countess, disdainfully.
"An advantageous merchandise," answered Maurice,—"one which it costs nothing, to manufacture but which may be sold dear."
"Sold? You shock me more and more! Never has one who bore the name of de Gramont earned money!" replied the countess, with increased hauteur.
"Very true, and very unfortunate! We are now feeling the ill effects of the idleness of our ancestors. It is time that the new generation should reform their bad system," replied Maurice.
"Maurice"—began his father.
"My dear father, let me speak upon this subject, for I have it greatly at heart. I have an iron constitution, buoyant spirits, a tolerably good head, a tolerably large heart, an ample stock of imagination, an unstinted amount of energy, and an admiration for genius; now, all these gifts—mind, heart, imagination, spirit, energy—cry out for action,—ask to vindicate their right to existence,—need to find vent! That is one ground upon which I plant my intention to become a lawyer. Another is that a man of my temperament, liberal views, and tendencies to extravagance, also needs to have the command of means"—
"Have we ever restricted you, Maurice?" asked his father, reproachfully.
"No, it is only yourselves you have restricted. But do you suppose I am willing to expend what has been saved through your economy? Until lately I never knew the actual state of our finances. Now I see the necessity for exertion, that I may be enabled to live as my tastes and habits prompt."
"That you may obtain by making an advantageous marriage," remarked the countess, forgetting at the moment that Bertha was present.
"What! owe my privileges, my luxuries, my very position, to my wife? Never! Every manly and independent impulse within me rises in arms against such a suggestion; while the emotion I experienced when I felt I could become something of myself,—that I had talents which I could employ,—that I had a future before me,—renown to win,—great deeds to achieve,—filled me with a strange joy hitherto unknown. I tell you, my father, there is a force and fire in my spirit that must have some outlet,—must leap into action,—must and will!"
"It shall find an outlet," replied the countess, "without making you a hired declaimer of fine words,—a paid champion of the low mob. Let us hear no more of this absurd lawyer project. The matter is settled: you will never have your father's consent, nor mine."
"Then I warn you," exclaimed Maurice, starting up, and speaking almost fiercely. "You will drive me into evil courses. I shall fall into all manner of vices for the sake of excitement. If I cannot have occupation, I must have amusement, I shall run in debt, I may gamble, I may become dissipated, I may commit offences against good taste and good morals, which will degrade me in reality; and all because you have nipped a pure intention in the bud. The root that bore it is too vigorous not to blossom out anew, and the chances are that it will bring forth some less creditable fruit. You will see! I do not jest; I know what is in me!"
"Content! we will run the risk!" replied the countess, trying to speak cheerfully.
The grave manner of Maurice and his impressive tone, as he stood before her with an air half-threatening, half-prophetic, made her experience a sensation of vague discomfort.
"We will trust you, for you are a de Gramont, and cannot commit a dishonorable action. Now, pray, go to your room and make your toilet. We are expecting guests to dinner."
Maurice turned away without uttering another word, without even heeding the hand which Bertha stretched in sympathy towards him; and, with a clouded brow and slow steps, ascended to his own apartment.
"Fourteen at table, and the Sevres set only sufficient for twelve! Truly it is untoward, but I wish, my dear aunt, you would not let it trouble you so much. If you will allow the two extra plates to be placed before Bertha and myself, we will endeavor to render them invisible by our witchcraft. Do compliment us by permitting the experiment to be tried."
"Bertha is entitled to the best of everything in my mansion," answered the countess, unsoothed by this proposition.
"That I admit," was Madeleine's cordial reply; "but to meet this unlooked-for emergency, I thought you might possibly consent to let her exert her witchery in making an intrusive plate disappear from general view."
"And you, it seems, are quite confident of possessing witchcraft potent enough to accomplish the same feat!"
Madeleine, without appearing to be hurt by the taunting intonation which pointed this remark, replied frankly, "I suppose I must have been guilty of imagining that I had; but, indeed, it was unpremeditated vanity. I really did not reflect upon the subject. I was only anxious to get over the dilemma in which we are placed by these troublesome plates."
"Not premeditated vanity, I dare say," remarked the countess, dryly; "only vanity so spontaneous, natural, and characteristic that premeditation is out of the question."
Madeleine remained silent, and went on with her task, dexterously rolling around her slender fingers her aunt's soft, white curls, and letting them lightly drop in the most becoming positions.
The toilet of the countess for her son's dinner-party was in process of completion.
She wore a black velvet dress, which, after being on duty for a fabulous number of years, and finally pronounced past all further active service, had been resuscitated and remodelled, to suit the style of the day, by Madeleine. We will not enter into a description of the adroit method by which a portion of its primitive lustre had been restored to the worn and pressed velvet, nor particularize the skilful manner in which the corsage of the robe had been refashioned, and every trace of age concealed by an embroidery of jet beads, which was so strikingly tasteful that its double office was unsuspected. Enough that the countess appeared to be superbly attired when she once more donned the venerable but rejuvenated dress.
The snow-white curls being arranged to the best advantage, Madeleine placed upon the head of her aunt a dainty cap, of the Charlotte Corday form, composed of bits of very old and costly lace,—an heir-loom in the de Gramont family,—such lace as could no longer be purchased for gold, even if its members had been in a condition to exchange bullion for thread. This cap was another of the young girl's achievements, and she could not help smiling with pleasure when she saw its picturesque effect. The countess, in spite of the anxious contraction of her dark brows, looked imposingly handsome. Hers was an old age of positive beauty,—a decadence which had all the lustre of
"The setting moon upon the western wave."
It was only when her features were accidentally contrasted with those of such a mild, eloquent, and soul-revealing face as the one bending over her that defects struck the eye,—defects which the ravages of time had done less to produce than the workings of a stern and haughty character.
But Madeleine's countenance how shall we portray? The lineaments were of that order which no painter could faithfully present by tracing their outline correctly, and no writer conjure up before the mind by descriptive language, however minutely the color of eyes, complexion, and hair might be chronicled. Therefore our task must necessarily be an imperfect one, and convey but a vague idea of the living presence.
It was a somewhat pale face, but pure and unsallow in its pallor. The vivid blood rushed, with any sudden emotion, to cheek and brow, but died away as quickly; for late hours, too little sunlight, fresh air, and exercise, forbade the flitting roses to be captured and a permanent bloom insured. The hue of the large, dreamy eyes might be called a light hazel; but that description fails to convey an impression of their rare, clear, topaz tint,—a topaz with the changing lustre of an opal: a combination difficult to imagine until it has once been seen. The darkly-fringed lids were peculiarly drooping, and gave the eyes a look of exceeding softness, now and then displaced by startling flashes of brilliancy. The finely-chiselled mouth was full of grave sweetness, decision, and energy, and yet suggestive of a mirthful temperament. The forehead was not too high, but ample and thoughtful. The finely-shaped head showed the intellectual and emotional nature nicely balanced. Through the long, abundant chestnut hair bright threads gleamed in and out until all the locks looked burnished. They were gathered into one rich braid and simply wound around the head. At the side, where the massive tress was fastened, a single cape jasmine seemed to form a clasp of union. A more striking or becoming arrangement could hardly have been devised.
Madeleine was somewhat above the ordinary stature, and her height, combined with the native dignity of her bearing, would have given her an air of stateliness, but for the exceeding grace which dispelled the faintest shadow of stiffness,—a stiffness very noticeable in the formal carriage of the countess.
The wardrobe of the young girl was necessarily of the most limited and uncostly character; and, though she was dressed for a ceremonious dinner, her attire consisted merely of a sombre-hued barege, made with the severest simplicity, and gaining its only pretension to full dress by disclosing her white, finely-moulded neck and arms. Her sole ornament was the bracelet which had been Bertha's birthday gift.
While giving the last, finishing touches to her aunt's toilet, Madeleine talked gayly. Hers was not one of those bright, silvery voices which make you feel that, could the sounds become visible, they must shine; but there was a rich depth in her tones, which imparted to her lightest words an intonation of feeling, and told the hearer that her vocal chords were in close communication with her heart. Though her countenance did not lack the radiance of youthful gladness, there was so much thought mingled with its brightness that even her mirth conveyed the impression that she had suffered and sorrowed.
The only daughter of the Duke de Gramont, at eighteen she suddenly found herself an orphan and wholly destitute. Her father was one of that large class of impoverished noblemen who keep up appearances by means of constant shifts and desperate struggles, of which the world knows nothing. But he was a man of unquestionable intellect, and had given Madeleine a much more liberal education than custom accords to young French maidens of her rank.
The accident of his birth the Duke de Gramont regarded as a positive misfortune, and daily lamented the burden of his own nobility, for it was a shackle that enfeebled and enslaved his large capacities.
He once said to his young daughter, "You would have been far happier as a peasant's child; I should have had a wider field of action and enjoyment as an humble laborer; we should both have been more truly noble. I envy the peasants who have the glorious privilege of doing just that which they are best fitted to do; who are not forced to vegetate and call vegetation existence,—not compelled to waste and deaden their energies because it is an aristocratic penalty,—not doomed to glide into and out of their lives without ever living enough to know life's worth."
Such words sank into Madeleine's spirit, took deep root there, and, growing in the bleak atmosphere of adversity, bore vigorous fruit in good season.
She had known only the intangible shadow of pomp and luxury, while the substance was actual penury. But her inborn fertility of invention, her abundant resources, her tact in accommodating herself to circumstances, and her inexhaustible energy, had endowed her with the faculty of making the best of her contradictory position, and the most of the humblest materials at her command.
Though she had several wealthy relatives, the Countess de Gramont was the only one who offered her unsheltered youth an asylum. Perhaps we ought not to analyze too minutely the motives of the noble lady, for fear that we might find her actuated less by a charitable impulse than by pride which would not allow it to be said that her grandniece ever lacked, or had to solicit, a home. Be that as it may, the orphan Madeleine became a permanent inmate of the Chateau de Gramont.
Her gratitude was deep, and found expression in actions more eloquent than words. She was thankful for the slightest evidence of kindness from her self-constituted protectors. She even exaggerated the amount of consideration which she received. She was not free from the hereditary taint of pride; but in her it took a new form and unprecedented expression. The sense of indebtedness spurred her on to discover ways by which she could avoid being a burden upon the generosity of her benefactors,—ways by which her obligations might be lightened, though she felt they could never be cancelled. She became the active, presiding spirit over the whole household; her skilful fingers were ever at work here, there, and everywhere; and her quick-witted brain was always planning measures to promote the interest, comfort, or pleasure of all within her sphere. The thought that an employment was menial, and therefore she must not stoop to perform it, never intruded, for she had an internal consciousness that she dignified her occupation. What she accomplished seemed wonderful; but, independent of the rapidity with which she habitually executed, she comprehended in an eminent degree the exact value of time,—the worth of every minute; and the use made of her spare moments was one great secret of the large amount she achieved.
The toilet of the countess for the dinner was completed, but she kept Madeleine by her side until they descended to the drawing-room.
Madeleine had not yet welcomed Maurice, who had retired to his chamber to dress before she was aware of his arrival. When she entered the salon with the countess, he was sitting beside Bertha, but sprang up, and, advancing joyfully, exclaimed, "Ah! at last! I thought I was never to be permitted to see the busy fairy of the family, who renders herself invisible while she is working her wonders!"
He would have approached his lips to Madeleine's cheek, but the countess interfered.
"And why," asked Maurice, in surprise which was not free from a touch of vexation,—"why may I not kiss my cousin Madeleine? You found no fault when I kissed my cousin Bertha just now!"
"That is very different!" replied the countess, hastily.
"Different! What is the difference?" persisted Maurice.
"There is none that I can discover. Both are equally near of kin,—both my cousins,—both second cousins, or third cousins, some people would call them; the one is kin through my grandmother, the other through my grandfather. What can be the difference?"
"My will makes the difference!" answered the countess, in a severe tone. "Is not that sufficient?"
"It ought to be so, Maurice," Madeleine interposed, without appearing to be either wounded or surprised at her aunt's manner. "If not, I must add my will to my aunt's." Then, as though in haste to change the subject, she said, extending her hand, "I am very, very glad to see you, Maurice."
"You have not changed as much as my pretty Bertha here," remarked Maurice. "She has gained a great deal in the last year. But you, Madeleine, look a little paler than ever, and a little thinner than you were. I fear it is because you still keep that candle burning which last year I used to notice at your window when I returned from balls long after midnight. You will destroy your health."
"There is no danger of that," answered Madeleine, gayly. "I am in most unpoetically robust health. I am never ailing for an hour."
"Never ailing and never weary," joined in Bertha. "That is, she never complains, and never admits she is tired. She would make us believe that her constitution is a compound of iron and India-rubber."
Maurice took a small jewel-case from his pocket, and, preparing to open it, said, "Nobody has yet asked why I am here one fortnight before I was expected. Has curiosity suddenly died out of the venerable Chateau de Gramont, that none of the ladies who honor its ancient walls by their presence care to know?"
"We all care!" exclaimed Bertha.
"That we do!" responded Madeleine. "Why was it, Maurice?"
"The reason chiefly concerns you, Madeleine."
"Me! You are jesting."
"Not at all; I came home because I remembered that to-day was your twenty-first birthday. I would not be absent upon your birthday, though I did not know that your reaching your majority was to be celebrated by a grand dinner."
"Madeleine's birthday was not thought of when your father invited his friends to dinner," remarked the countess, curtly.
Maurice went on without heeding this explanation.
"I have brought you a little birthday token. Will you wear it for my sake?"
As he spoke, he opened the case and took out a Roman brooch.
Madeleine's eyes sparkled with a dewy lustre that threatened to shape itself into a tear. Before she could speak, Bertha cried out,—
"A dove with a green olive-branch in its mouth,—what a beautiful device! And the word 'Pax' written beneath! That must be in remembrance that Madeleine not only bears peace in her own bosom, but carries it wherever she goes. Was not that what you intended to suggest, Cousin Maurice?"
"You are a delightful interpreter," replied the young man.
"Yet she left me to read the sweet meaning of her own gift," said Madeleine, recovering her composure. "See, a band of gold with a knot of pearls,—a 'manacle of love,' as the great English poet calls it, secured by purity of purpose."
As she fastened the brooch in her bosom, she added, "I am so rich in birthday gifts that I am bankrupt in thanks; pray believe that is the reason I thank you so poorly."
The countess impatiently interrupted this conversation by summoning Maurice to her side.
As he took the seat she pointed out, he said, in an animated tone, "I have not told you all my good news yet. Listen, young ladies, for some of it especially concerns you. On my way here, I encountered the equipage of the Marchioness de Fleury. She recognized me, ordered her carriage to stop, and sent her footman to apprise me that she was on her way to the Chateau de Tremazan, and to beg that I would pause there before going home, as she had a few words to say to me. I gladly complied. At the chateau I found quite a large and agreeable company. I need not tell you that the amiable host and hostess received me with open arms."
The countess remarked, approvingly, "Our neighbors the Baron and Baroness de Tremazan are among the most valued of my friends. I have no objection to their making much of you."
"Nor have I," answered Maurice, vivaciously. "But, to continue"—
Bertha interrupted him: "I have so often heard the Marchioness de Fleury quoted as a precedent, and her taste cited as the most perfect in Paris, that I suppose she is a very charming person;—is she not?"
A comical expression, approaching to a grimace, passed over the bright countenance of Maurice, as he answered, "Charming? I suppose the term is applicable to her. At all events, her toilets are the most charming in the world: she dresses to perfection! In her presence one never thinks of anything but the wonderful combination of colors, and the graceful flowing of drapery, that have produced certain artistic effects in her outward adorning. She is style, fashion, elegance, taste personified; consequently she is very charming as an exhibition of the newest and most captivating costumes,—as an inventor and leader of modes that become the rage when they have received her stamp."
"But her face and figure,—are they not remarkably handsome?" asked Bertha.
"Her figure is the fac-simile of one of those waxen statues which are to be seen in the windows of some of the shops in Paris, and would be styled faultless by a mantua-maker, though it might drive a sculptor distracted if set before him as a model. As for her face, the novel arrangement of her hair and the coquettish disposition of her head-ornaments have always so completely drawn my attention away from her countenance, that I could not tell you the color of her eyes, or the character of any single lineament."
"Perhaps, too," suggested Madeleine, "she is so agreeable in conversation, that you never thought of scanning her features."
"Of course she is agreeable,—that is, in her own peculiar way; for she has an archly graceful manner of discussing the only subjects that interest her, and always as though they must be of the deepest interest to you. If you speak to her of her projects for the winter or the summer, she will dwell upon the style of dress appropriate in the execution of such and such schemes. If you express your regret at her recent indisposition, she will describe the exquisite robes de chambre which rendered her sufferings endurable. If you mention her brother, who has lately received an appointment near the person of the emperor, she will give you a minute account of the most approved court-dresses. If you allude to the possibility that her husband (for such is the rumor) may be sent as ambassador to the United States, she will burst forth in bitter lamentations over the likelihood that American taste may not be sufficiently cultivated to appreciate a Parisian toilet, or to comprehend the great importance of the difficult art of dressing well. If you give the tribute of a sigh to the memory of the lovely sister she lost a year ago, she will run through a list of the garments of woe that gave expression to her sorrow,—passing on to the shades of second, third, and fourth mourning through which she gradually laid aside her grief. You laugh, young ladies. Oh, very well; but I declare to you she went through the catalogue of those mourning dresses, rehearsing the periods at which she adopted such and such a one, while we were dancing a quadrille. In short, the Marchioness de Fleury is an animated fashion-plate!—a lay-figure dressed in gauze, silk, lace, ribbon, feathers, flowers, that breathes, talks, dances, waltzes!—a mantua-maker's, milliner's, hair-dresser's puppet, set in motion,—not a woman."
"Has she really no heart, then?" questioned Bertha.
"I suppose that, anatomically speaking, a bundle of fibres, which she courteously designates by that name, may rise and fall somewhere beneath her jewel-studded bodice; but I doubt whether the pulsations are not entirely regulated by her attire."
"You are too severe, Maurice," remarked his grandmother, rebukingly. "The Marchioness de Fleury is a lady of the highest standing and of great importance."
"Especially to the Parisian modistes who worship her!" replied Maurice. "But, while we are discussing the lady herself, I am forgetting to tell you her reasons for delaying me half an hour. It was to inquire whether you would be disengaged to-morrow morning, as she purposes paying you a visit to make a proposition which she thinks may prove agreeable to the Countess de Gramont and Count Tristan."
"We are ever proud to receive the Marchioness de Fleury," responded the countess, graciously.
"I dare say you think I have emptied my budget of news," Maurice went on; "but you are mistaken: several bits of agreeable intelligence remain behind. At the Chateau de Tremazan, I saw three of our relatives on the de Gramont side, Madame de Nervac, the Count Damoreau, and M. de Bonneville. They inquired kindly after you, Madeleine, and I told them you were the most"—
The countess interrupted him with the inquiry, "Are they upon a visit of several days?"
"I believe so. Now for the last, most pleasant item. As there are so many lively young persons gathered together at the chateau, some one proposed an impromptu ball. Madame de Tremazan seized upon the idea, and commissioned me to carry invitations to the Countess dowager de Gramont, Mademoiselles Madeleine and Bertha, and Count Tristan, for the evening after to-morrow. I assured her in advance that the invitations would be accepted;—was I not right?"
"Oh, yes," replied Bertha; "I am so glad!"
"We will enjoy a ball greatly!" exclaimed Madeleine.
"And so will I!" said Maurice. "I engage Madeleine for the first quadrille, and Bertha for the first waltz."
"And we both accept!" answered his cousins, with girlish delight.
"Not so fast, young ladies," interrupted the countess. "It is quite out of the question for you to attend a ball of such magnificence as may be expected at the Chateau de Tremazan."
"And why not, aunt?" asked Bertha, in a disappointed tone. "You surely will not refuse your consent?"
"I deny you a pleasure very unwillingly, dear child, but I am forced to do so. You did not expect to appear at any large assemblies while you were in Brittany, and you have brought no ball-dress with you. You have nothing ready which it would be proper for you to wear at such a brilliant reunion; for the de Tremazans are so rich that everything will be upon the most splendid and costly scale. Mademoiselle Bertha de Merrivale cannot be present upon such an occasion, unless she is attired in a manner that befits her rank and fortune. I, also, have no dress prepared."
"What a pity, what a pity!" half sighed, half pouted Bertha.
"It is too bad, too provoking!" ejaculated Maurice.
"If there be no obstacle but the lack of a ball-dress for yourself and for Bertha, aunt," remarked Madeleine, "we may console ourselves; for we will go to the ball."
"Oh, you dear, good, ingenious Madeleine!" exclaimed Bertha, throwing her arms around her cousin. "I wonder if the time ever will arrive when you have not some resource to extricate us from a difficulty?"
"Madeleine forever! Long live Madeleine!" shouted Maurice, with enthusiasm.
"And now, good, fairy godmother, where is the robe of gold and silver to deck your Cinderella?" asked Bertha.
"I did not promise gold and silver apparel; you must be content with a toilet simple, airy, fresh, and spring-like as yourself. And for you, aunt, I will arrange an autumn arraying,—a costume soft, yet bright, like the autumn days which the Americans call 'Indian summer,'—something which will almost make one wish to fall into the sere and yellow leaf of life in the hope of resembling you."
"But how is it possible to make two ball-dresses between this time and night after next?" inquired the countess, evidently not at all averse to the project, if it could be carried into execution.
"I answer for the possibility!" replied Madeleine.
"Yes, Madeleine answers for it!" repeated Maurice.
"Madeleine answers for it!" echoed Bertha; "and you know Madeleine has the fingers of a fairy; she can achieve whatever she undertakes. But your own dress, Madeleine?"
"Do not be uneasy about that; we will think of that when the others are ready."
"But if you do not wear a dress that becomes you?" persisted Bertha.
"Why, then I shall have to look at yours, and, remembering that it is my handiwork, be satisfied."
"There is no one like you, Madeleine!" burst forth Maurice, uncontrollably,—"no one! You never think of yourself; you"—
"But, as some one is always good enough to think of me, I deserve little credit on that account," rejoined Madeleine.
"Who could help thinking of you?" murmured Maurice, tenderly.
The countess had not heard the enthusiastic encomium of Maurice, nor his last, involuntary remark. The young man had risen and joined his cousins. His father had taken the vacant seat beside the countess, and was talking to her in a low tone. From the moment he learned that Madeleine's relatives were accidentally assembled at the Chateau de Tremazan, he had determined to seize that favorable opportunity, and send them the letters requesting that they would by turns offer a home to their poor and orphan relative. These letters, though written upon the day previous, fortunately had not yet been posted. Count Tristan whisperingly communicated his intention to his mother, and received her approval.
Their conversation was interrupted by the entrance of M. Gaston de Bois, who invariably arrived before other guests made their appearance. M. de Bois was such a martyr to nervous timidity, that he could not summon courage to enter a room full of company, even with some great stimulating compensation in view. On the present occasion, though only the family had assembled, his olive complexion crimsoned as he advanced towards the countess, and his expressive, though irregular and not strictly handsome features became almost distorted; he unconsciously thrust his fingers through his hair, throwing it into startling disorder, and twisted his dark moustache until it stood out with sufficient ferocity to suit the face of a brigand in a melodrama.
But the most painful effect of this bewildering embarrassment evinced itself when he attempted to speak. His utterance became suddenly impeded, and, the more violent his efforts to articulate, the more difficult it seemed for him to utter a distinct sentence. He was painfully near-sighted; yet he always detected the faintest smile upon the countenance of any one present, and interpreted it into an expression of derision.
These personal defects, however, were liberally counterbalanced by mental attributes of a high order. His constitutional diffidence caused him to shun society; but he devoted his leisure to books, and was an erudite scholar, without ever mounting the pompous stilts of the pedant. All his impulses were noble and generous, though his best intentions were often frustrated by that fearful self-consciousness which made him dread the possibility of attracting attention. There was a slight shade of melancholy in his character. Life had been a disappointment to him, and he was haunted by a sense of the incompleteness of his own existence.
His estate joined that of the Count de Gramont, and was even more impoverished. Gaston de Bois led a sort of hermit-like life in the gloomy and empty chateau of his ancestors. He chafed in his confinement, like a caged lion ready to break loose from bondage. But the lion freed might take refuge in his native woods, while Gaston, if he rushed forth into the world, knew that his bashfulness, his stammering, his near-sightedness, would render society a more intolerable prison than his solitary home.
At the Chateau de Gramont he was a frequent guest, for the countess and her son held him in the highest esteem.
After saluting his host and hostess, he warmly grasped the hand of Maurice, and then addressed Madeleine, with but little hesitation apparent in his speech; but when he turned to Bertha, and essayed to make some pleasant remark, he was suddenly seized with a fit of hopeless stammering.
The beaming smile with which Bertha greeted him was displaced by an expression almost amounting to compassion. Madeleine, with her wonted presence of mind, came to his aid; finished his sentence, as though he had spoken it himself; and went on talking to him and for him, while he regarded her with an air of undisguised thankfulness and relief.
Between Madeleine and Gaston de Bois there existed that sort of friendship which many persons are sceptical that a young and attractive woman and an agreeable man can entertain for each other without the sentiment heightening into a warmer emotion. But love and friendship are totally distinct affections. A woman may cherish the truest, kindliest friendship for a man whom it would be impossible for her to love; nay, in whom she would totally lose her interest if he once presented himself in the aspect of a lover; and we believe a certain class of men are capable of experiencing the same pure and kin-like devotion for certain women.
M. de Bois felt that he was comprehended by Madeleine,—that she sympathized with his misfortunes, appreciated the difficulties of his position, and, without pretending to be blind to his defects, always viewed them leniently: thus, in her presence he was sufficiently at ease to be entirely himself; his amour propre received fewer wounds, and he was conscious that he appeared to better advantage than in the society of other ladies.
Madeleine, on her side, had more than once reflected that there was no one to whom she could more easily turn to impart a sorrow, intrust a secret, solicit a favor, or receive consolation and advice,—no one in whom she could so thoroughly confide, as M. de Bois.
Gaston had only commenced to regain his self-possession when the two American gentlemen, Mr. Hilson and Mr. Meredith, were announced.
The countess received them with a freezing formality which would have awed any visitors less unsuspicious of the cause of this augmented stateliness.
They were both gentlemen who held high positions in their own country; they had brought letters to Count Tristan de Gramont, with a view of enlisting his interest in the railway company of which we have before spoken; they had been cordially received by him, and invited to partake of his hospitality; it therefore never occurred to either of them that the haughty demeanor of the countess was designed to impress them with a sense of their inferiority.
Mr. Hilson was what is termed a "self-made" man,—that is, he owed nothing to the chances of birth; he had received little early cultivation, but he had educated himself, and therefore all the knowledge he had acquired was positive mental gain, and brought into active use. He had inherited no patrimony, and started life with no advantages of position; but he had made his own fortune, and earned his own place in the social sphere. He had been one of the most successful and scientific engineers which the United States ever produced, and was now the president of an important railroad, and a highly influential member of society.
Mr. Meredith was born in the State of Maryland,—a "man of family," as it is styled. He had not encountered the difficulties and experienced the struggles of his associates; his was therefore a less strong, less highly developed, character. He had travelled over the larger portion of Europe, yet preferred to make his home in America; he had once retired from business, but, finding that he was bored to death without the necessity for occupation, connected himself with the railroad company of which Mr. Hilson was president.
The other guests were gentlemen residing or visiting in the neighborhood. They were the Marquis de Lasalles, the Count Caradore, Messieurs Villiers, Laroche, and Litelle. The two former, being the most important personages, occupied seats at table on the right and left of the countess. Gaston de Bois was well pleased to find himself beside Madeleine; for he was opposite to Bertha, and could feast his eyes upon her fair, unclouded face, and now and then he spoke to her in glances which were far more eloquent than his tongue.
Mr. Hilson sat on the other side of Madeleine. A few naturally suggested questions about his native land unloosed his tongue, and she soon became deeply interested in the information he gave her concerning America,—the habits, views, and aspirations of its people.
After listening for some time, she almost involuntarily murmured, with a half-sigh, "I should like to visit America."
There was something in her own nature which responded to the spirit of self-reliance, energy, and industry, which are so essentially American characteristics.
Bertha sat between the Marquis de Lasalles and Maurice. She was in the highest spirits, and looked superlatively lovely. The brow of the countess gradually smoothed as she noticed how gayly the heiress chatted with her cousin.
The two plates which intruded into the Sevres set had been a terrible eyesore to Madame de Gramont at first; but Madeleine's suggestion had been acted upon,—they were placed before the young ladies, and, as the countess rose from the table, she comforted herself with the reflection that they had escaped observation.
The gentlemen accompanied the ladies to the drawing-room, and then Maurice lured Madeleine to the piano, and was soon in raptures over the wild, sweet melodies which she sung with untutored pathos. His grandmother could scarcely conceal her vexation. Approaching the singer, she took an opportunity, while Bertha and Maurice were searching for a piece of music, whisperingly to suggest that Baptiste was old and clumsy, and the Sevres set in danger until it was safely locked up again.
Madeleine murmured, in return, "I will steal away unnoticed and attend to it."
She stole away, but not unperceived, for one pair of eyes was ever upon her. She found so much besides the valuable china that demanded attention, and her aid was so heartily welcomed by the old domestics, who had become confused by the multiplicity of their duties, that it was late in the evening before she reappeared in the drawing-room. The guests were taking their leave.
"I am highly flattered by the interest you have expressed in my country," said Mr. Hilson, in bidding her adieu. "If you should ever visit America, as you have expressed the desire to do, and if you should pass through Washington, as you certainly will if you visit America, will you not promise to apprise me? Here is my address?" and he placed his card in her hands.
Madeleine looked not a little surprised and embarrassed at this unexpected and informal proceeding, which she knew would greatly shock the countess; but, taking the card, answered, courteously, "I fear nothing is more unlikely than that I should cross the ocean; but, if such an unlooked-for event should ever occur, I promise certainly to apprise you."
On the morrow, at the usual hour for visitors, the count and his mother sat in the drawing-room awaiting the promised guest. Maurice, at Count Tristan's solicitation, had very unwillingly consented to postpone his customary equestrian exercise, and was sauntering in the garden, wondering over the caprice that prompted his father to desire his presence at the expected interview. The tramp of hoofs broke his revery; and a superb equipage, drawn by four noble horses, postilion-mounted, dashed up the long avenue that led to the chateau. He hastened to the carriage-door, and aided the Marchioness de Fleury to alight.
The living embodiment of graceful affability, she greeted him with a volley of slaying smiles; then, with an air which betrayed her triumphant certainty of the execution done, glided past him into the drawing-room, almost disappearing in a cloud of lace, as she made a profound obeisance to the countess, and partially rising out of her misty entourage in saluting Count Tristan.
Her voice had a low, studied sweetness as she softly syllabled some pleasant commonplaces, making affectionate inquiries concerning the health of the countess, and simulating the deepest interest as she apparently listened to answers which were in reality unheard. Ere long, she winningly unfolded the object of her visit. Her brother, the young Duke de Montauban, had prayed her to become his ambassador. He recently had the felicity of meeting the niece of the Countess de Gramont, Mademoiselle Bertha de Merrivale. He had been struck and captivated by her grace and surpassing beauty; he now charged his sister to apprise the family of Mademoiselle Bertha that he sought the honor of her hand in marriage, and hoped to obtain a favorable response to his suit.
The consternation created by those words did not escape the quick eyes of the marchioness. The count half rose from his seat, white with vexation, then sat down again, and, making an attempt to hide his displeasure, answered, in a tone of forced courtesy,—
"Though Mademoiselle Bertha de Merrivale is my mother's grandniece, we have no control over her actions or inclinations. Her uncle, the Marquis de Merrivale, who is her guardian, is morbidly jealous of any influence exerted over his niece, even by relatives equally near."
The Countess de Gramont, though she also had been greatly disconcerted, recovered herself more quickly than her son, and answered, with such an excess of suavity that it had the air of exaggeration,—
"We feel deeply indebted for the proposed honor. An alliance with a nobleman of the high position and unblemished name of the Duke de Montauban is all that could be desired for my niece; but, as my son has remarked, her guardian is very punctilious respecting his rights, and would not tolerate an interference with her future prospects. I beg you will believe that we are highly flattered by the proposal of the Duke de Montauban, though we have no power to promote his suit."
Maurice could not help wondering why his father looked so thoroughly vexed, and why his grandmother made such an effort to conceal her displeasure by an assumption of overacted gratification.
The Marchioness de Fleury betrayed neither surprise, disappointment, nor emotion of any kind, except by gently tapping the ground with the exquisitely gaitered little foot that peeped from the mazes of her ample drapery.
She answered, in the most honeyed voice, "Oh! I was misinformed, and I knew that your charming niece was at this moment visiting you."
Then, spreading her bespangled fan, and moving it gently backward and forward, though the day was far from sultry, she dismissed the subject by asking Maurice if he had delivered Madame de Tremazan's invitations to the ball.
Almost before he had concluded his reply, she rose, and, with the most enchanting of smiles, courtesied, as though she were making a reverence in a quadrille of the Lancers, and the lace cloud softly floated out of the room, the human being it encircled being nearly lost to sight when it was in motion.
Maurice could not resist the impulse to turn to his father, and express his amazement that the complimentary proposals made for Bertha by the Marchioness de Fleury had been so definitely declined, adding, "If my little cousin had been already engaged, you could not more decidedly have shut the door upon the duke."
The count bit his lips, and strode up and down the room.
The countess replied, "We have other views for Bertha,—views which we trust would be more acceptable to herself; but here she comes, and I have a few words to say to her in private. Take a turn with your father in the park, Maurice, while I talk to your cousin."
She gave the count a significant glance as she spoke.
Father and son left the room as Bertha entered.
For some minutes the two gentlemen walked side by side in silence. Finding that his father did not seem inclined to converse, Maurice remarked, abruptly,—
"Now that the visit of the marchioness is over, I shall take my postponed ride, if you have no further need of me."
"I have need; let your horse wait a few moments longer," replied the count. "Can you conceive no reason why we did not for one instant entertain the proposition of the Marchioness de Fleury?"
"None: it was made entirely according to rule; and, if you will allow me to say so, common courtesy seemed to demand that it should have been treated with more consideration."
"Suppose Bertha's affections are already engaged?" suggested the father.
"Ah, that alters the aspect of affairs; but it is hardly possible,—she is so young, and appears to be so heart-free."
"Still, I think she has a preference; and, if I am not mistaken, her choice is one that would give us the highest satisfaction."
"Really!" ejaculated Maurice, unsuspiciously. "Whom, then, does she honor by her election?"
"A very unworthy person!" rejoined the count, in a tone of irritation, "since he is too dull to suspect the compliment."
"You cannot mean"—began Maurice, in confused amazement, but paused, unwilling to finish his sentence with the words that rose to his lips.
"I mean a most obtuse and insensible young man, walking by my side, who has learned to interpret Greek and Latin at college, but not a woman's heart."
"Impossible! You are surely mistaken. Bertha has only bestowed upon me a cousinly regard," answered Maurice, evidently more surprised and embarrassed than pleased by the unexpected communication.
"I presume you do not expect the young lady herself to make known the esteem in which she holds you, undeserving as you are? You must take our word for her sentiments. What this alliance would be to our falling house, I need not represent; it is not even necessary that you should enter into the merits of this side of the question. You must see that Bertha is beautiful and lovable, and would make the most delightful companion for life. Is this not so?"
"Yes, she is beautiful, lovable, and would make a delightful companion," answered Maurice, as though he echoed his father's words without knowing what he said.
"Is she not all you could desire?"
"All,—all I could desire as—as—as a sister!" replied Maurice.
"But the question is now of a wife!" rejoined the count, angrily. "Are you dreaming, that you pore upon the ground and answer in that strange, abstracted manner?"