By Charles Reade
Towards the close of the last century the Baron de Beaurepaire lived in the chateau of that name in Brittany. His family was of prodigious antiquity; seven successive barons had already flourished on this spot when a younger son of the house accompanied his neighbor the Duke of Normandy in his descent on England, and was rewarded by a grant of English land, on which he dug a mote and built a chateau, and called it Beaurepaire (the worthy Saxons turned this into Borreper without delay). Since that day more than twenty gentlemen of the same lineage had held in turn the original chateau and lands, and handed them down to their present lord.
Thus rooted in his native Brittany, Henri Lionel Marie St. Quentin de Beaurepaire was as fortunate as any man can be pronounced before he dies. He had health, rank, a good income, a fair domain, a goodly house, a loving wife, and two lovely young daughters, all veneration and affection. Two months every year he visited the Faubourg St. Germain and the Court. At both every gentleman and every lacquey knew his name, and his face: his return to Brittany after this short absence was celebrated by a rustic fete.
Above all, Monsieur de Beaurepaire possessed that treasure of treasures, content. He hunted no heart-burns. Ambition did not tempt him; why should he listen to long speeches, and court the unworthy, and descend to intrigue, for so precarious and equivocal a prize as a place in the Government, when he could be De Beaurepaire without trouble or loss of self-respect? Social ambition could get little hold of him; let parvenus give balls half in doors, half out, and light two thousand lamps, and waste their substance battling and manoeuvring for fashionable distinction; he had nothing to gain by such foolery, nothing to lose by modest living; he was the twenty-ninth Baron of Beaurepaire. So wise, so proud, so little vain, so strong in health and wealth and honor, one would have said nothing less than an earthquake could shake this gentleman and his house. Yet both were shaken, though rooted by centuries to the soil; and by no vulgar earthquake.
For years France had bowed in silence beneath two galling burdens—a selfish and corrupt monarchy, and a multitudinous, privileged, lazy, and oppressive aristocracy, by whom the peasant was handled like a Russian serf. [Said peasant is now the principal proprietor of the soil.]
The lower orders rose upon their oppressors, and soon showed themselves far blacker specimens of the same breed. Law, religion, humanity, and common sense, hid their faces; innocent blood flowed in a stream, and terror reigned. To Monsieur de Beaurepaire these republicans—murderers of women, children, and kings—seemed the most horrible monsters nature had ever produced; he put on black, and retired from society; he felled timber, and raised large sums of money upon his estate. And one day he mounted his charger, and disappeared from the chateau.
Three months after this, a cavalier, dusty and pale, rode into the courtyard of Beaurepaire, and asked to see the baroness. She came to him; he hung his head and held her out a letter.
It contained a few sad words from Monsieur de Laroche-jaquelin. The baron had just fallen in La Vendee, fighting for the Crown.
From that hour till her death the baroness wore black.
The mourner would have been arrested, and perhaps beheaded, but for a friend, the last in the world on whom the family reckoned for any solid aid. Dr. Aubertin had lived in the chateau twenty years. He was a man of science, and did not care a button for money; so he had retired from the practice of medicine, and pursued his researches at ease under the baron's roof. They all loved him, and laughed at his occasional reveries, in the days of prosperity; and now, in one great crisis, the protege became the protector, to their astonishment and his own. But it was an age of ups and downs. This amiable theorist was one of the oldest verbal republicans in Europe. And why not? In theory a republic is the perfect form of government: it is merely in practice that it is impossible; it is only upon going off paper into reality, and trying actually to self-govern limited nations, after heating them white hot with the fire of politics and the bellows of bombast—that the thing resolves itself into bloodshed silvered with moonshine.
Dr. Aubertin had for years talked and written speculative republicanism. So they applied to him whether the baroness shared her husband's opinions, and he boldly assured them she did not; he added, "She is a pupil of mine." On this audacious statement they contented themselves with laying a heavy fine on the lands of Beaurepaire.
Assignats were abundant, but good mercantile paper, a notorious coward, had made itself wings and fled, and specie was creeping into strong boxes like a startled rabbit into its hole. The fine was paid; but Beaurepaire had to be heavily mortgaged, and the loan bore a high rate of interest. This, with the baron's previous mortgages, swamped the estate.
The baroness sold her carriage and horses, and she and her daughters prepared to deny themselves all but the bare necessaries of life, and pay off their debts if possible. On this their dependants fell away from them; their fair-weather friends came no longer near them; and many a flush of indignation crossed their brows, and many an aching pang their hearts, as adversity revealed the baseness and inconstancy of common people high or low.
When the other servants had retired with their wages, one Jacintha remained behind, and begged permission to speak to the baroness.
"What would you with me, my child?" asked that lady, with an accent in which a shade of surprise mingled with great politeness.
"Forgive me, madame," began Jacintha, with a formal courtesy; "but how can I leave you, and Mademoiselle Josephine, and Mademoiselle Rose? I was born at Beaurepaire; my mother died in the chateau: my father died in the village; but he had meat every day from the baron's own table, and fuel from the baron's wood, and died blessing the house of Beaurepaire. I CANNOT go. The others are gone because prosperity is here no longer. Let it be so; I will stay till the sun shines again upon the chateau, and then you shall send me away if you are bent on it; but not now, my ladies—oh, not now! Oh! oh! oh!" And the warm-hearted girl burst out sobbing ungracefully.
"My child," said the baroness, "these sentiments touch me, and honor you. But retire, if you please, while I consult my daughters."
Jacintha cut her sobs dead short, and retreated with a formal reverence.
The consultation consisted of the baroness opening her arms, and both her daughters embracing her at once. Proud as they were, they wept with joy at having made one friend amongst all their servants. Jacintha stayed.
As months rolled on, Rose de Beaurepaire recovered her natural gayety in spite of bereavement and poverty; so strong are youth, and health, and temperament. But her elder sister had a grief all her own: Captain Dujardin, a gallant young officer, well-born, and his own master, had courted her with her parents' consent; and, even when the baron began to look coldly on the soldier of the Republic, young Dujardin, though too proud to encounter the baron's irony and looks of scorn, would not yield love to pique. He came no more to the chateau, but he would wait hours and hours on the path to the little oratory in the park, on the bare chance of a passing word or even a kind look from Josephine. So much devotion gradually won a heart which in happier times she had been half encouraged to give him; and, when he left her on a military service of uncommon danger, the woman's reserve melted, and, in that moment of mutual grief and passion, she vowed she loved him better than all the world.
Letters from the camp breathing a devotion little short of worship fed her attachment; and more than one public mention of his name and services made her proud as well as fond of the fiery young soldier.
Still she did not open her heart to her parents. The baron, alive at that time, was exasperated against the Republic, and all who served it; and, as for the baroness, she was of the old school: a passionate love in a lady's heart before marriage was contrary to her notions of etiquette. Josephine loved Rose very tenderly; but shrank with modest delicacy from making her a confidante of feelings, the bare relation of which leaves the female hearer a child no longer.
So she hid her heart, and delicious first love nestled deep in her nature, and thrilled in every secret vein and fibre.
They had parted two years, and he had joined the army of the Pyrenees about one month, when suddenly all correspondence ceased on his part.
Restless anxiety rose into terror as this silence continued; and starting and trembling at every sound, and edging to the window at every footstep, Josephine expected hourly the tidings of her lover's death.
Months rolled on in silence.
Then a new torture came. He must not be dead but unfaithful. At this all the pride of her race was fired in her.
The struggle between love and ire was almost too much for nature: violently gay and moody by turns she alarmed both her mother and the good Dr. Aubertin. The latter was not, I think, quite without suspicion of the truth; however, he simply prescribed change of air and place; she must go to Frejus, a watering-place distant about five leagues. Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire yielded a languid assent. To her all places were alike.
But when they returned from Frejus a change had taken place. Rose had extracted her sister's secret, and was a changed girl. Pity, and the keen sense of Josephine's wrong, had raised her sisterly love to a passion. The great-hearted girl hovered about her lovely, suffering sister like an angel, and paid her the tender attentions of a devoted lover, and hated Camille Dujardin with all her heart: hated him all the more that she saw Josephine shrink even from her whenever she inveighed against him.
At last Rose heard some news of the truant lover. The fact is, this young lady was as intelligent as she was inexperienced; and she had asked Jacintha to tell Dard to talk to every soldier that passed through the village, and ask him if he knew anything about Captain Dujardin of the 17th regiment. Dard cross-examined about a hundred invalided warriors, who did not even recognize the captain's name; but at last, by extraordinary luck, he actually did fall in with two, who told him strange news about Captain Dujardin. And so then Dard told Jacintha; and Jacintha soon had the men into the kitchen and told Rose. Rose ran to tell Josephine; but stopped in the passage, and turned suddenly very cold. Her courage failed her; she feared Josephine would not take the news as she ought; and perhaps would not love her so well if SHE told her; so she thought to herself she would let the soldiers tell their own tale. She went into the room where Josephine was reading to the baroness and Dr. Aubertin; she sat quietly down; but at the first opportunity made Josephine one of those imperceptible signals which women, and above all, sisters, have reduced to so subtle a system. This done, she went carelessly out: and Josephine in due course followed her, and found her at the door.
"What is it?" said Josephine, earnestly.
"Have you courage?" was Rose's reply.
"He is dead?" said Josephine, turning pale as ashes.
"No, no;" said Rose hastily; "he is alive. But you will need all your courage."
"Since he lives I fear nothing," said Josephine; and stood there and quivered from head to foot. Rose, with pitying looks, took her by the hand and drew her in silence towards the kitchen.
Josephine yielded a mute submission at first; but at the very door hung back and faltered, "He loves another; he is married: let me go." Rose made no reply, but left her there and went into the kitchen and found two dragoons seated round a bottle of wine. They rose and saluted her.
"Be seated, my brave men," said she; "only please tell me what you told Jacintha about Captain Dujardin."
"Don't stain your mouth with the captain, my little lady. He is a traitor."
"How do you know?"
"Marcellus! mademoiselle asks us how we know Captain Dujardin to be a traitor. Speak."
Marcellus, thus appealed to, told Rose after his own fashion that he knew the captain well: that one day the captain rode out of the camp and never returned: that at first great anxiety was felt on his behalf, for the captain was a great favorite, and passed for the smartest soldier in the division: that after awhile anxiety gave place to some very awkward suspicions, and these suspicions it was his lot and his comrade's here to confirm. About a month later he and the said comrade and two more were sent, well mounted, to reconnoitre a Spanish village. At the door of a little inn they caught sight of a French uniform. This so excited their curiosity that he went forward nearer than prudent, and distinctly recognized Captain Dujardin seated at a table drinking between two guerillas; then he rode back and told the others, who then came up and satisfied themselves it was so: that if any of the party had entertained a doubt, it was removed in an unpleasant way; he, Marcellus, disgusted at the sight of a French uniform drinking among Spaniards, took down his carabine and fired at the group as carefully as a somewhat restive horse permitted: at this, as if by magic, a score or so of guerillas poured out from Heaven knows where, musket in hand, and delivered a volley; the officer in command of the party fell dead, Jean Jacques here got a broken arm, and his own horse was wounded in two places, and fell from loss of blood a few furlongs from the French camp, to the neighborhood of which the vagabonds pursued them, hallooing and shouting and firing like barbarous banditti as they were.
"However, here I am," concluded Marcellus, "invalided for awhile, my lady, but not expended yet: we will soon dash in among them again for death or glory. Meantime," concluded he, filling both glasses, "let us drink to the eyes of beauty (military salute); and to the renown of France; and double damnation to all her traitors, like that Captain Dujardin; whose neck may the devil twist."
Ere they could drink to this energetic toast, a low wail at the door, like a dying hare's, arrested the glasses on their road, and the rough soldiers stood transfixed, and looked at one another in some dismay. Rose flew to the door with a face full of concern.
Josephine was gone.
Then Rose had the tact and resolution to say a few kind, encouraging words to the soldiers, and bid Jacintha be hospitable to them. This done she darted up-stairs after Josephine; she reached the main corridor just in time to see her creep along it with the air and carriage of a woman of fifty, and enter her own room.
Rose followed softly with wet eyes, and turned the handle gently. But the door was locked.
"I want to speak to you. I am frightened. Oh, do not be alone."
A choking voice answered, "Give me a little while to draw my breath." Rose sank down at the door, and sat close to it, with her head against it, sobbing bitterly. She was hurt at not being let in; such a friend as she had proved herself. But this personal feeling was only a fraction of her grief and anxiety.
A good half hour elapsed ere Josephine, pale and stern as no one had ever seen her till that hour, suddenly opened the door. She started at sight of Rose couched sorrowful on the threshold; her stern look relaxed into tender love and pity; she sank, blushing, on her knees, and took her sister's head quickly to her bosom. "Oh, my little love, have you been here all this time?"—"Oh! oh! oh!" was all the little love could reply. Then the deserted one, still kneeling, took Rose in her lap, and caressed and comforted her, and poured words of gratitude and affection over her like a warm shower.
They rose hand in hand.
Then Rose suddenly seized Josephine, and looked long and anxiously down into her eyes. They flashed fire under the scrutiny. "Yes, it is all over; I could not despise and love. I am dead to him, as he is dead to France."
This was joyful news to Rose. "I hoped it would be so," said she; "but you frightened me. My noble sister, were I ever to lose your esteem, I should die. Oh, how awful yet how beautiful is your scorn. For worlds I would not be that Cam"—Josephine laid her hand imperiously on Rose's mouth. "To mention his name to me will be to insult me; De Beaurepaire I am, and a Frenchwoman. Come, dear, let us go down and comfort our mother."
They went down; and this patient sufferer, and high minded conqueror, of her own accord took up a commonplace book, and read aloud for two mortal hours to her mother and Aubertin. Her voice only wavered twice.
To feel that life is ended; to wish existence, too, had ceased; and so to sit down, an aching hollow, and take a part and sham an interest in twaddle to please others; such are woman's feats. How like nothing at all they look!
A man would rather sit on the buffer of a steam-engine and ride at the Great Redan.
Rose sat at her elbow, a little behind her, and turned the leaves, and on one pretence or other held Josephine's hand nearly all the rest of the day. Its delicate fibres remained tense, like a greyhound's sinews after a race, and the blue veins rose to sight in it, though her voice and eyes were mastered.
So keen was the strife, so matched the antagonists, so hard the victory.
For ire and scorn are mighty. And noble blood in a noble heart is heroic. And Love is a giant.
The French provinces were now organized upon a half military plan, by which all the local authorities radiated towards a centre of government. By-the-by, this feature has survived subsequent revolutions and political changes.
In days of change, youth is at a premium; because, though experience is valuable, the experience of one order of things unfits ordinary men for another order of things. So a good many old fogies in office were shown the door, and a good deal of youth and energy infused into the veins of provincial government. For instance, Edouard Riviere, who had but just completed his education with singular eclat at a military school, was one fine day ordered into Brittany to fill a responsible post under Commandant Raynal, a blunt, rough soldier, that had risen from the ranks, and bore a much higher character for zeal and moral integrity than for affability.
This officer was the son of a widow that kept a grocer's shop in Paris. She intended him for spice, but he thirsted for glory, and vexed her. So she yielded, as mothers will.
In the armies of the republic a good soldier rose with unparalleled certainty, and rapidity, too; for when soldiers are being mowed down like oats, it is a glorious time for such of them as keep their feet. Raynal mounted fast, and used to write to his mother, and joke her about the army being such a bad profession; and, as he was all for glory, not money, he lived with Spartan frugality, and saved half his pay and all his prize money for the old lady in Paris.
But this prosperous man had to endure a deep disappointment; on the very day he was made commandant and one of the general's aides-de-camp, came a letter into the camp. His mother was dead after a short illness. This was a terrible blow to the simple, rugged soldier, who had never had much time nor inclination to flirt with a lot of girls, and toughen his heart. He came back to Paris honored and rich, but downcast. The old home, empty of his mother, seemed to him not to have the old look. It made him sadder. To cheer him up they brought him much money. The widow's trade had taken a wonderful start the last few years, and she had been playing the same game as he had, living on ten-pence a day, and saving all for him. This made him sadder, if anything.
"What," said he, "have we both been scraping all this dross together for? I would give it all to sit one hour by the fire, with her hand in mine, and hear her say, 'Scamp, you made me unhappy when you were young, but I have lived to be proud of you.'"
He applied for active service, no matter what: obtained at once this post in Brittany, and threw himself into it with that honest zeal and activity, which are the best earthly medicine for all our griefs. He was busy writing, when young Riviere first presented himself. He looked up for a moment, and eyed him, to take his measure; then put into his hand a report by young Nicole, a subordinate filling a post of the same nature as Riviere's; and bade him analyze that report on the spot: with this he instantly resumed his own work.
Edouard Riviere was an adept at this sort of task, and soon handed him a neat analysis. Raynal ran his eye over it, nodded cold approval, and told him to take this for the present as a guide as to his own duties. He then pointed to a map on which Riviere's district was marked in blue ink, and bade him find the centre of it. Edouard took a pair of compasses off the table, and soon discovered that the village of Beaurepaire was his centre. "Then quarter yourself at Beaurepaire; and good-day," said Raynal.
The chateau was in sight from Riviere's quarters, and he soon learned that it belonged to a royalist widow and her daughters, who all three held themselves quite aloof from the rest of the world. "Ah," said the young citizen, "I see. If these rococo citizens play that game with me, I shall have to take them down." Thus a fresh peril menaced this family, on whose hearts and fortunes such heavy blows had fallen.
One evening our young official, after a day spent in the service of the country, deigned to take a little stroll to relieve the cares of administration. He imprinted on his beardless face the expression of a wearied statesman, and strolled through an admiring village. The men pretended veneration from policy; the women, whose views of this great man were shallower but more sincere, smiled approval of his airs; and the young puppy affected to take no notice of either sex.
Outside the village, Publicola suddenly encountered two young ladies, who resembled nothing he had hitherto met with in his district; they were dressed in black, and with extreme simplicity; but their easy grace and composure, and the refined sentiment of their gentle faces, told at a glance they belonged to the high nobility. Publicola divined them at once, and involuntarily raised his hat to so much beauty and dignity, instead of poking it with a finger as usual. On this the ladies instantly courtesied to him after the manner of their party, with a sweep and a majesty, and a precision of politeness, that the pup would have laughed at if he had heard of it; but seeing it done, and well done, and by lovely women of rank, he was taken aback by it, and lifted his hat again, and bowed again after he had gone by, and was generally flustered. In short, instead of a member of the Consular Government saluting private individuals of a decayed party that existed only by sufferance, a handsome, vain, good-natured boy had met two self-possessed young ladies of distinction and breeding, and had cut the usual figure.
For the next hundred yards his cheeks burned and his vanity cooled. But bumptiousness is elastic in France, as in England, and doubtless among the Esquimaux. "Well, they are pretty girls," says he to himself. "I never saw two such pretty girls together; they will do for me to flirt with while I am banished to this Arcadia." Banished from school, I beg to observe.
And "awful beauty" being no longer in sight, Mr. Edouard resolved he would flirt with them to their hearts' content. But there are ladies with whom a certain preliminary is required before you can flirt with them. You must be on speaking terms. How was this to be managed?
He used to watch at his window with a telescope, and whenever the sisters came out of their own grounds, which unfortunately was not above twice a week, he would throw himself in their way by the merest accident, and pay them a dignified and courteous salute, which he had carefully got up before a mirror in the privacy of his own chamber.
One day, as he took off his hat to the young ladies, there broke from one of them a smile, so sudden, sweet, and vivid, that he seemed to feel it smite him first on the eyes then in the heart. He could not sleep for this smile.
Yet he had seen many smilers; but to be sure most of them smiled without effect, because they smiled eternally; they seemed cast with their mouths open, and their pretty teeth forever in sight; and this has a saddening influence on a man of sense—when it has any. But here a fair, pensive face had brightened at sight of him; a lovely countenance, on which circumstances, not nature, had impressed gravity, had sprung back to its natural gayety for a moment, and had thrilled and bewitched the beholder.
The next Sunday he went to church—and there worshipped—whom? Cupid. He smarted for his heathenism; for the young ladies went with higher motives, and took no notice of him. They lowered their long silken lashes over one breviary, and scarcely observed the handsome citizen. Meantime he, contemplating their pious beauty with earthly eyes, was drinking long draughts of intoxicating passion. And when after the service they each took an arm of Dr. Aubertin, and he with the air of an admiral convoying two ships choke-full of specie, conducted his precious charge away home, our young citizen felt jealous, and all but hated the worthy doctor.
This went on till he became listless and dejected on the days he did not see them. Then he asked himself whether he was not a cowardly fool to keep at such a distance. After all he was a man in authority. His friendship was not to be despised, least of all by a family suspected of disaffection to the state.
He put on his glossy beaver with enormous brim, high curved; his blue coat with brass buttons; his white waistcoat, gray breeches, and top-boots; and marched up to the chateau of Beaurepaire, and sent in his card with his name and office inscribed.
Jacintha took it, bestowed a glance of undisguised admiration on the young Adonis, and carried it to the baroness. That lady sent her promptly down again with a black-edged note to this effect.
Highly flattered by Monsieur de Riviere's visit, the baroness must inform him that she receives none but old acquaintances, in the present grief of the family, and of the KINGDOM.
Young Riviere was cruelly mortified by this rebuff. He went off hurriedly, grinding his teeth with rage.
"Cursed aristocrats! We have done well to pull you down, and we will have you lower still. How I despise myself for giving any one the chance to affront me thus. The haughty old fool; if she had known her interest, she would have been too glad to make a powerful friend. These royalists are in a ticklish position; I can tell her that. She calls me De Riviere; that implies nobody without a 'De' to their name would have the presumption to visit her old tumble-down house. Well, it is a lesson; I am a republican, and the Commonwealth trusts and honors me; yet I am so ungrateful as to go out of the way to be civil to her enemies, to royalists; as if those worn-out creatures had hearts, as if they could comprehend the struggle that took place in my mind between duty, and generosity to the fallen, before I could make the first overture to their acquaintance; as if they could understand the politeness of the heart, or anything nobler than curving and ducking and heartless etiquette. This is the last notice I will ever take of that old woman, unless it is to denounce her."
He walked home to the town very fast, his heart boiling, and his lips compressed, and his brow knitted.
To this mood succeeded a sullen and bitter one. He was generous, but vain, and his love had humiliated him so bitterly, he resolved to tear it out of his heart. He absented himself from church; he met the young ladies no more. He struggled fiercely with his passion; he went about dogged, silent, and sighing. Presently he devoted his leisure hours to shooting partridges instead of ladies. And he was right; partridges cannot shoot back; whereas beautiful women, like Cupid, are all archers more or less, and often with one arrow from eye or lip do more execution than they have suffered from several discharges of our small shot.
In these excursions, Edouard was generally accompanied by a thick-set rustic called Dard, who, I believe, purposes to reveal his own character to you, and so save me that trouble.
One fine afternoon, about four o'clock, this pair burst remorselessly through a fence, and landed in the road opposite Bigot's Auberge; a long low house, with "ICI ON LOGE A PIED ET A CHEVAL," written all across it in gigantic letters. Riviere was for moving homeward, but Dard halted and complained dismally of "the soldier's gripes." The statesman had never heard of that complaint, so Dard explained that the VULGAR name for it was hunger. "And only smell," said he, "the soup is just fit to come off the fire."
Riviere smiled sadly, but consented to deign to eat a morsel in the porch. Thereat Dard dashed wildly into the kitchen.
They dined at one little round table, each after his fashion. When Dard could eat no more, he proceeded to drink; and to talk in proportion. Riviere, lost in his own thoughts, attended to him as men of business do to a babbling brook; until suddenly from the mass of twaddle broke forth a magic word—Beaurepaire; then the languid lover pricked up his ears and found Mr. Dard was abusing that noble family right and left. Young Riviere inquired what ground of offence they had given HIM. "I'll tell you," said Dard; "they impose on Jacintha; and so she imposes on me." Then observing he had at last gained his employer's ear, he became prodigiously loquacious, as such people generally are when once they get upon their own griefs.
"These Beaurepaire aristocrats," said he, with his hard peasant good-sense, "are neither the one thing nor the other; they cannot keep up nobility, they have not the means; they will not come down off their perch, they have not the sense. No, for as small as they are, they must look and talk as big as ever. They can only afford one servant, and I don't believe they pay her; but they must be attended on just as obsequious as when they had a dozen. And this is fatal to all us little people that have the misfortune to be connected with them."
"Why, how are you connected with them?"
"By the tie of affection."
"I thought you hated them."
"Of course I do; but I have the ill-luck to love Jacintha, and she loves these aristocrats, and makes me do little odd jobs for them." And at this Dard's eyes suddenly glared with horror.
"Well, what of that?" asked Riviere.
"What of it, citizen, what? you do not know the fatal meaning of those accursed words?"
"Why, I never heard of a man's back being broken by little odd jobs."
"Perhaps not his back, citizen, but his heart? if little odd jobs will not break that, why nothing will. Torn from place to place, and from trouble to trouble; as soon as one tiresome thing begins to go a bit smooth, off to a fresh plague, in-doors work when it is dry, out-a-doors when it snows; and then all bustle; no taking one's work quietly, the only way it agrees with a fellow. 'Milk the cow, Dard, but look sharp; the baroness's chair wants mending. Take these slops to the pig, but you must not wait to see him enjoy them: you are wanted to chop billets.' Beat the mats, take down the curtains, walk to church (best part of a league), and heat the pew cushions; come back and cut the cabbages, paint the door, and wheel the old lady about the terrace, rub quicksilver on the little dog's back,—mind he don't bite you to make hisself sick,—repair the ottoman, roll the gravel, scour the kettles, carry half a ton of water up two purostairs, trim the turf, prune the vine, drag the fish-pond; and when you ARE there, go in and gather water lilies for Mademoiselle Josephine while you are drowning the puppies; that is little odd jobs: may Satan twist her neck who invented them!"
"Very sad all this," said young Riviere.
Dard took the little sneer for sympathy, and proceeded to "the cruellest wrong of all."
"When I go into their kitchen to court Jacintha a bit, instead of finding a good supper there, which a man has a right to, courting a cook, if I don't take one in my pocket, there is no supper, not to say supper, for either her or me. I don't call a salad and a bit of cheese-rind—SUPPER. Beggars in silk and satin! Every sou they have goes on to their backs, instead of into their bellies."
"I have heard their income is much reduced," said Edouard gently.
"Income! I would not change with them if they'd throw me in half a pancake a day. I tell you they are the poorest family for leagues round; not that they need be quite so starved, if they could swallow a little of their pride. But no, they must have china and plate and fine linen at dinner; so their fine plates are always bare, and their silver trays empty. Ask the butcher, if you don't believe ME. Just you ask him whether he does not go three times to the smallest shopkeeper, for once he goes to Beaurepaire. Their tenants send them a little meal and eggs, and now and then a hen; and their great garden is chock full of fruit and vegetables, and Jacintha makes me dig in it gratis; and so they muddle on. But, bless your heart, coffee! they can't afford it; so they roast a lot of horse-beans that cost nothing, and grind them, and serve up the liquor in a silver coffee-pot, on a silver salver. Haw, haw, haw!"
"Is it possible? reduced to this?" said Edouard gravely.
"Don't you be so weak as to pity them," cried the remorseless plebeian. "Why don't they melt their silver into soup, and cut down their plate into rashers of bacon? why not sell the superfluous, and buy the needful, which it is grub? And, above all, why don't they let their old tumble-down palace to some rich grocer, and that accursed garden along with it, where I sweat gratis, and live small and comfortable, and pay honest men for their little odd jobs, and"—
Here Riviere interrupted him, and asked if it was really true about the beans.
"True?" said Dard, "why, I have seen Rose doing it for the old woman's breakfast: it was Rose invented the move. A girl of nineteen beginning already to deceive the world! But they are all tarred with the same stick. Down with the aristocrats!"
"Dard," said Riviere, "you are a brute."
"Me, citizen?" inquired Dard with every appearance of genuine surprise.
Edouard Riviere rose from his seat in great excitement. Dard's abuse of the family he was lately so bitter against had turned him right round. He pitied the very baroness herself, and forgave her declining his visit.
"Be silent," said he, "for shame! There is such a thing as noble poverty; and you have described it. I might have disdained these people in their prosperity, but I revere them in their affliction. And I'll tell you what, don't you ever dare to speak slightly of them again in my presence, or"—
He did not conclude his threat, for just then he observed that a strapping girl, with a basket at her feet, was standing against the corner of the Auberge, in a mighty careless attitude, but doing nothing, so most likely listening with all her ears and soul. Dard, however, did not see her, his back being turned to her as he sat; so he replied at his ease,—
"I consent," said he very coolly: "that is your affair; but permit me," and here he clenched his teeth at remembrance of his wrongs, "to say that I will no more be a scullery man without wages to these high-minded starvelings, these illustrious beggars." Then he heated himself red-hot. "I will not even be their galley slave. Next, I have done my last little odd job in this world," yelled the now infuriated factotum, bouncing up to his feet in brief fury. "Of two things one: either Jacintha quits those aristos, or I leave Jacin—eh?—ah!—oh!—ahem! How—'ow d'ye do, Jacintha?" And his roar ended in a whine, as when a dog runs barking out, and receives in full career a cut from his master's whip, his generous rage turns to whimper with ludicrous abruptness. "I was just talking of you, Jacintha," quavered Dard in conclusion.
"I heard you, Dard," replied Jacintha slowly, softly, grimly.
It was a lusty young woman, with a comely peasant face somewhat freckled, and a pair of large black eyes surmounted by coal-black brows. She stood in a bold attitude, her massive but well-formed arms folded so that the pressure of each against the other made them seem gigantic, and her cheek red with anger, and her eyes glistening like basilisks upon citizen Dard. She looked so grand, with her lowering black brows, that even Riviere felt a little uneasy. As for Jacintha, she was evidently brooding with more ire than she chose to utter before a stranger. She just slowly unclasped her arms, and, keeping her eye fixed on Dard, pointed with a domineering gesture towards Beaurepaire. Then the doughty Dard seemed no longer master of his limbs: he rose slowly, with his eyes fastened to hers, and was moving off like an ill-oiled automaton in the direction indicated; but at that a suppressed snigger began to shake Riviere's whole body till it bobbed up and down on the seat. Dard turned to him for sympathy.
"There, citizen," he cried, "do you see that imperious gesture? That means you promised to dig in the aristocrat's garden this afternoon, so march! Here, then, is one that has gained nothing by kings being put down, for I am ruled with a mopstick of iron. Thank your stars, citizen, that you are not in may place."
"Dard," retorted Jacintha, "if you don't like your place, I'd quit it. There are two or three young men down in the village will be glad to take it."
"I won't give them the chance, the vile egotists!" cried Dard. And he returned to the chateau and little odd jobs.
Jacintha hung behind, lowered her eyes, put on a very deferential manner, and thanked Edouard for the kind sentiments he had uttered; but at the same time she took the liberty to warn him against believing the extravagant stories Dard had been telling about her mistress's poverty. She said the simple fact was that the baron had contracted debts, and the baroness, being the soul of honor, was living in great economy to pay them off. Then, as to Dard getting no supper up at Beaurepaire, a complaint that appeared to sting her particularly, she assured him she was alone to blame: the baroness would be very angry if she knew it. "But," said she, "Dard is an egotist. Perhaps you may have noticed that trait in him."
"Glimpses of it," replied Riviere, laughing.
"Monsieur, he is so egotistic that he has not a friend in the world but me. I forgive him, because I know the reason; he has never had a headache or a heartache in his life."
Edouard, aged twenty, and a male, did not comprehend this piece of feminine logic one bit: and, while he puzzled over it in silence, Jacintha went on to say that if she were to fill her egotist's paunch, she should never know whether he came to Beaurepaire for her, or himself. "Now, Dard," she added, "is no beauty, monsieur; why, he is three inches shorter than I am."
"You are joking! he looks a foot," said Edouard.
"He is no scholar neither, and I have had to wipe up many a sneer and many a sarcasm on his account; but up to now I have always been able to reply that this five feet one of egotism loves me sincerely; and the moment I doubt this, I give him the sack,—poor little fellow!"
"In a word," said Riviere, a little impatiently, "the family at Beaurepaire are not in such straits as he pretends?"
"Monsieur, do I look like one starved?"
"By Jove, no! by Ceres, I mean."
"Are my young mistresses wan, and thin?"
"Treason! blasphemy! ah, no! By Venus and Hebe, no!"
Jacintha smiled at this enthusiastic denial, and also because her sex is apt to smile when words are used they do not understand.
"Dard is a fool," suggested Riviere, by way of general solution. He added, "And yet, do you know I wish every word he said had been true." (Jacintha's eyes expressed some astonishment.) "Because then you and I would have concerted means to do them kindnesses, secretly; for I see you are no ordinary servant; you love your young mistresses. Do you not?"
These simple words seemed to touch a grander chord in Jacintha's nature.
"Love them?" said she, clasping her hands; "ah, sir, do not be offended; but, believe me, it is no small thing to serve an old, old family. My grandfather lived and died with them; my father was their gamekeeper, and fed to his last from off the poor baron's plate (and now they have killed him, poor man); my mother died in the house and was buried in the sacred ground near the family chapel. They put an inscription on her tomb praising her fidelity and probity. Do you think these things do not sink into the heart of the poor?—praise on her tomb, and not a word on their own, but just the name, and when each was born and died, you know. Ah! the pride of the mean is dirt; but the pride of the noble is gold."
"For, look you, among parvenues I should be a servant, and nothing more; in this proud family I am a humble friend; of course they are not always gossiping with me like vulgar masters and mistresses; if they did, I should neither respect nor love them; but they all smile on me whenever I come into the room, even the baroness herself. I belong to them, and they belong to me, by ties without number, by the many kind words in many troubles, by the one roof that sheltered us a hundred years, and the grave where our bones lie together till the day of judgment."*
* The French peasant often thinks half a sentence, and utters the other half aloud, and so breaks air in the middle of a thought. Probably Jacintha's whole thought, if we had the means of knowing it, would have run like this—"Besides, I have another reason: I could not be so comfortable myself elsewhere—for, look you"—
Jacintha clasped her hands, and her black eyes shone out warm through the dew. Riviere's glistened too.
"That is well said," he cried; "it is nobly said: yet, after all, these are ties that owe their force to the souls they bind. How often have such bonds round human hearts proved ropes of sand! They grapple YOU like hooks of steel; because you are steel yourself to the backbone. I admire you, Jacintha. Such women as you have a great mission in France just now."
Jacintha shook her head incredulously. "What can we poor women do?"
"Bring forth heroes," cried Publicola with fervor. "Be the mothers of great men, the Catos and the Gracchi of the future!"
Jacintha smiled. She did not know the Gracchi nor their politics; but the name rang well. "Gracchi!" Aristocrats, no doubt. "That would be too much honor," replied she modestly. "At present, I must say adieu!" and she moved off an inch at a time, in an uncertain hesitating manner, not very difficult to read; but Riviere, you must know, had more than once during this interview begged her to sit down, and in vain; she had always thanked him, but said she had not a moment to stay. So he made no effort to detain her now. The consequence was—she came slowly back of her own accord, and sat down in a corner of the porch, where nobody could see her, and then she sighed deeply.
"What is the matter now?" said Edouard, opening his eyes.
She looked at him point-blank for one moment; and her scale turned.
"Monsieur," said she timidly, "you have a good face, and a good heart. All I told you was—give me your honor not to betray us."
"I swear it," said Edouard, a little pompously.
"Then—Dard was not so far from the truth; it was but a guess of his, for I never trusted my own sweetheart as I now trust a stranger. But to see what I see every day, and have no one I dare breathe a word to, oh, it is very hard! But on what a thread things turn! If any one had told me an hour ago it was you I should open my heart to! It's not economy: it's not stinginess; they are not paying off their debts. They never can. The baroness and the Demoiselles de Beaurepaire—are paupers."
"Ay, paupers! their debts are greater than their means. They live here by sufferance. They have only their old clothes to wear. They have hardly enough to eat. Just now our cow is in full milk, you know; so that is a great help: but, when she goes dry, Heaven knows what we shall do; for I don't. But that is not the worst; better a light meal than a broken heart. Your precious government offers the chateau for sale. They might as well send for the guillotine at once, and cut off all our heads. You don't know my mistress as I do. Ah, butchers, you will drag nothing out of that but her corpse. And is it come to this? the great old family to be turned adrift like beggars. My poor mistress! my pretty demoiselles that I played with and nursed ever since I was a child! (I was just six when Josephine was born) and that I shall love with my last breath"—
She could say no more, but choked by the strong feeling so long pent up in her own bosom, fell to sobbing hysterically, and trembling like one in an ague.
The statesman, who had passed all his short life at school and college, was frightened, and took hold of her and pulled her, and cried, "Oh! don't, Jacintha; you will kill yourself, you will die; this is frightful: help here! help!" Jacintha put her hand to his mouth, and, without leaving off her hysterics, gasped out, "Ah! don't expose me." So then he didn't know what to do; but he seized a tumbler and filled it with wine, and forced it between her lips. All she did was to bite a piece out of the glass as clean as if a diamond had cut it. This did her a world of good: destruction of sacred household property gave her another turn. "There, I've broke your glass now," she cried, with a marvellous change of tone; and she came-to and cried quietly like a reasonable person, with her apron to her eyes.
When Edouard saw she was better, he took her hand and said proudly, "Secret for secret. I choose this moment to confide to you that I love Mademoiselle Rose de Beaurepaire. Love her? I did love her; but now you tell me she is poor and in distress, I adore her." The effect of this declaration on Jacintha was magical, comical. Her apron came down from one eye, and that eye dried itself and sparkled with curiosity: the whole countenance speedily followed suit and beamed with sacred joy. What! an interesting love affair confided to her all in a moment! She lowered her voice to a whisper directly. "Why, how did you manage? She never goes into company."
"No; but she goes to church. Besides, I have met her eleven times out walking with her sister, and twice out of the eleven she smiled on me. O Jacintha! a smile such as angels smile; a smile to warm the heart and purify the soul and last forever in the mind."
"Well, they say 'man is fire and woman tow:' but this beats all. Ha! ha!"
"Oh! do not jest. I did not laugh at you. Jacintha, it is no laughing matter; I revere her as mortals revere the saints; I love her so that were I ever to lose all hope of her I would not live a day. And now that you have told me she is poor and in sorrow, and I think of her walking so calm and gentle—always in black, Jacintha,—and her low courtesy to me whenever we met, and her sweet smile to me though her heart must be sad, oh! my heart yearns for her. What can I do for her? How shall I surround her with myself unseen—make her feel that a man's love waits upon her feet every step she takes—that a man's love floats in the air round that lovely head?" Then descending to earth for a moment, "but I say, you promise not to betray me; come, secret for secret."
"I will not tell a soul; on the honor of a woman," said Jacintha.
The form of protestation was quite new to Edouard, and not exactly the one his study of the ancient writers would have led him to select. But the tone was convincing: he trusted her. They parted sworn allies; and, at the very moment of parting, Jacintha, who had cast many a furtive glance at the dead game, told Edouard demurely, Mademoiselle Rose was very fond of roast partridge. On this he made her take the whole bag; and went home on wings. Jacintha's revelation roused all that was noble and forgiving in him. His understanding and his heart expanded from that hour, and his fancy spread its pinions to the sun of love. Ah! generous Youth, let who will betray thee; let who will sneer at thee; let me, though young no longer, smile on thee and joy in thee! She he loved was sad, was poor, was menaced by many ills; then she needed a champion. He would be her unseen friend, her guardian angel. A hundred wild schemes whirled in his beating heart and brain. He could not go in-doors, indeed, no room could contain him: he made for a green lane he knew at the back of the village, and there he walked up and down for hours. The sun set, and the night came, and the stars glittered; but still he walked alone, inspired, exalted, full of generous and loving schemes: of sweet and tender fancies: a heart on fire; and youth the fuel, and the flame vestal.
This very day was the anniversary of the baron's death.
The baroness kept her room all the morning, and took no nourishment but one cup of spurious coffee Rose brought her. Towards evening she came down-stairs. In the hall she found two chaplets of flowers; they were always placed there for her on this sad day. She took them in her hand, and went into the little oratory that was in the park; there she found two wax candles burning, and two fresh chaplets hung up. Her daughters had been there before her.
She knelt and prayed many hours for her husband's soul; then she rose and hung up one chaplet and came slowly away with the other in her hand. At the gate of the park, Josephine met her with tender anxiety in her sapphire eyes, and wreathed her arms round her, and whispered, "But you have your children still."
The baroness kissed her and they came towards the house together, the baroness leaning gently on her daughter's elbow.
Between the park and the angle of the chateau was a small plot of turf called at Beaurepaire the Pleasance, a name that had descended along with other traditions; and in the centre of this Pleasance, or Pleasaunce, stood a wonderful oak-tree. Its circumference was thirty-four feet. The baroness came to this ancient tree, and hung her chaplet on a mutilated limb called the "knights' bough."
The sun was setting tranquil and red; a broad ruby streak lingered on the deep green leaves of the prodigious oak. The baroness looked at it awhile in silence.
Then she spoke slowly to it and said, "You were here before us: you will be here when we are gone."
A spasm crossed Josephine's face, but she said nothing at the time. And so they went in together.
Now as this tree was a feat of nature, and, above all, played a curious part in our story, I will ask you to stay a few minutes and look at it, while I say what was known about it; not the thousandth part of what it could have told, if trees could speak as well as breathe.
The baroness did not exaggerate; the tree was far older than even this ancient family. They possessed among other archives a manuscript written by a monk, a son of the house, about four hundred years before our story, and containing many of the oral traditions about this tree that had come down to him from remote antiquity. According to this authority, the first Baron of Beaurepaire had pitched his tent under a fair oak-tree that stood prope rivum, near a brook. His grandson built a square tower hard by, and dug a moat that enclosed both tree and tower, and received the waters of the brook aforesaid.
At this time the tree seems only to have been remarked for its height. But, a century and a half before the monk wrote, it had become famous in all the district for its girth, and in the monk's own day had ceased to grow; but not begun to decay. The mutilated arm I have mentioned was once a long sturdy bough, worn smooth as velvet in one part from a curious cause: it ran about as high above the ground as a full-sized horse, and the knights and squires used to be forever vaulting upon it, the former in armor; the monk, when a boy, had seen them do it a thousand times. This bough broke in two, A.D. 1617: but the mutilated limb was still called the knights' bough, nobody knew why. So do names survive their ideas.
What had not this tree seen since first it came green and tender as a cabbage above the soil, and stood at the mercy of the first hare or rabbit that should choose to cut short its frail existence!
Since then eagles had perched on its crown, and wild boars fed without fear of man upon its acorns. Troubadours had sung beneath it to lords and ladies seated round, or walking on the grass and commenting the minstrel's tales of love by exchange of amorous glances. Mediaeval sculptors had taken its leaves, and wisely trusting to nature, had adorned churches with those leaves cut in stone.
It had seen a Norman duke conquer England, and English kings invade France and be crowned at Paris. It had seen a girl put knights to the rout, and seen the warrior virgin burned by envious priests with common consent both of the curs she had defended and the curs she had defeated.
Why, in its old age it had seen the rise of printing, and the first dawn of national civilization in Europe. It flourished and decayed in France; but it sprung in Gaul. And more remarkable still, though by all accounts it may see the world to an end, it was a tree in ancient history: its old age awaits the millennium; its first youth belonged to that great tract of time which includes the birth of Christ, the building of Rome, and the siege of Troy.
The tree had, ere this, mingled in the fortunes of the family. It had saved their lives and taken their lives. One lord of Beaurepaire, hotly pursued by his feudal enemies, made for the tree, and hid himself partly by a great bough, partly by the thick screen of leaves. The foe darted in, made sure he had taken to the house, ransacked it, and got into the cellar, where by good-luck was a store of Malvoisie: and so the oak and the vine saved the quaking baron. Another lord of Beaurepaire, besieged in his castle, was shot dead on the ramparts by a cross-bowman who had secreted himself unobserved in this tree a little before the dawn.
A young heir of Beaurepaire, climbing for a raven's nest to the top of this tree, lost his footing and fell, and died at its foot: and his mother in her anguish bade them cut down the tree that had killed her boy. But the baron her husband refused, and spake in this wise: "ytte ys eneugh that I lose mine sonne, I will nat alsoe lose mine Tre." In the male you see the sober sentiment of the proprietor outweighed the temporary irritation of the parent. Then the mother bought fifteen ells of black velvet, and stretched a pall from the knights' bough across the west side to another branch, and cursed the hand that should remove it, and she herself "wolde never passe the Tre neither going nor coming, but went still about." And when she died and should have been carried past the tree to the park, her dochter did cry from a window to the bearers, "Goe about! goe about!" and they went about, and all the company. And in time the velvet pall rotted, and was torn and driven away by the winds: and when the hand of Nature, and no human hand, had thus flouted and dispersed the trappings of the mother's grief, two pieces were picked up and preserved among the family relics: but the black velvet had turned a rusty red.
So the baroness did nothing new in this family when she hung her chaplet on the knights' bough; and, in fact, on the west side, about eighteen feet from the ground, there still mouldered one corner of an Atchievement an heir of Beaurepaire had nailed there two centuries before, when his predecessor died: "For," said he, "the chateau is of yesterday, but the tree has seen us all come and go." The inside of the oak was hollow as a drum; and on its east side yawned a fissure as high as a man and as broad as a street-door. Dard used to wheel his wheelbarrow into the tree at a trot, and there leave it.
Yet in spite of excavation and mutilation not life only but vigor dwelt in this wooden shell. The extreme ends of the longer boughs were firewood, touchwood, and the crown was gone this many a year: but narrow the circle a very little to where the indomitable trunk could still shoot sap from its cruse deep in earth, and there on every side burst the green foliage in its season countless as the sand. The leaves carved centuries ago from these very models, though cut in stone, were most of them mouldered, blunted, notched, deformed: but the delicate types came back with every summer, perfect and lovely as when the tree was but their elder brother: and greener than ever: for, from what cause nature only knows, the leaves were many shades richer than any other tree could show for a hundred miles round; a deep green, fiery, yet soft; and then their multitude—the staircases of foliage as you looked up the tree, and could scarce catch a glimpse of the sky. An inverted abyss of color, a mound, a dome, of flake emeralds that quivered in the golden air.
And now the sun sets; the green leaves are black; the moon rises: her cold light shoots across one half that giant stem.
How solemn and calm stands the great round tower of living wood, half ebony, half silver, with its mighty cloud above of flake jet leaves tipped with frosty fire!
Now is the still hour to repeat in a whisper the words of the dame of Beaurepaire, "You were here before us: you will be here when we are gone."
We leave the hoary king of trees standing in the moonlight, calmly defying time, and follow the creatures of a day; for, what they were, we are.
A spacious saloon panelled; dead but showy white picked out sparingly with gold. Festoons of fruits and flowers finely carved in wood on some of the panels. These also not smothered in gilding, but as it were gold speckled here and there, like tongues of flame winding among insoluble snow. Ranged against the walls were sofas and chairs covered with rich stuffs well worn. And in one little distant corner of the long room a gray-haired gentleman and two young ladies sat round a small plain table, on which burned a solitary candle; and a little way apart in this candle's twilight an old lady sat in an easy-chair, thinking of the past, scarce daring to inquire the future. Josephine and Rose were working: not fancy-work but needle-work; Dr. Aubertin writing. Every now and then he put the one candle nearer the girls. They raised no objection: only a few minutes after a white hand would glide from one or other of them like a serpent, and smoothly convey the light nearer to the doctor's manuscript.
"Is it not supper-time?" he inquired. "I have an inward monitor; and I think our dinner was more ethereal than usual."
"Hush!" said Josephine, and looked uneasily towards her mother. "Wax is so dear."
"Wax?—ah!—pardon me:" and the doctor returned hastily to his work. But Rose looked up and said, "I wonder Jacintha does not come; it is certainly past the hour;" and she pried into the room as if she expected to see Jacintha on the road. But she saw in fact very little of anything, for the spacious room was impenetrable to her eye; midway from the candle to the distant door its twilight deepened, and all became shapeless and sombre. The prospect ended sharp and black, as in those out-o'-door closets imagined and painted by a certain great painter, whose Nature comes to a full stop as soon as he has no further commercial need of her, instead of melting by fine expanse and exquisite gradation into genuine distance, as nature does in Claude and in nature. To reverse the picture, if you stood at the door you looked across forty feet of black, and the little corner seemed on fire, and the fair heads about the candle shone like the St. Cecilias and Madonnas in an antique stained-glass window.
At last the door opened, and another candle fired Jacintha's comely peasant face in the doorway. She put down her candle outside the door, and started as crow flies for the other light. After glowing a moment in the doorway she dived into the shadow and emerged into light again close to the table with napkins on her arm. She removed the work-box reverentially, the doctor's manuscript unceremoniously, and proceeded to lay a cloth: in which operation she looked at Rose a point-blank glance of admiration: then she placed the napkins; and in this process she again cast a strange look of interest upon Rose. The young lady noticed it this time, and looked inquiringly at her in return, half expecting some communication; but Jacintha lowered her eyes and bustled about the table. Then Rose spoke to her with a sort of instinct of curiosity, on the chance of drawing her out.
"Supper is late to-night, is it not, Jacintha?"
"Yes, mademoiselle; I have had more cooking than usual," and with this she delivered another point-blank look as before, and dived into the palpable obscure, and came to light in the doorway.
Her return was anxiously expected; for, if the truth must be told, they were very hungry. So rigorous was the economy in this decayed but honorable house that the wax candles burned to-day in the oratory had scrimped their dinner, unsubstantial as it was wont to be. Think of that, you in fustian jackets who grumble after meat. The door opened, Jacintha reappeared in the light of her candle a moment with a tray in both hands, and, approaching, was lost to view; but a strange and fragrant smell heralded her. All their eyes turned with curiosity towards the unwonted odor, and Jacintha dawned with three roast partridges on a dish.
They were wonder-struck, and looked from the birds to her in mute surprise, that was not diminished by a certain cynical indifference she put on. She avoided their eyes, and forcibly excluded from her face everything that could imply she did not serve up partridges to this family every night of her life.
"The supper is served, madame," said she, with a respectful courtesy and a mechanical tone, and, plunging into the night, swam out at her own candle, shut the door, and, unlocking her face that moment, burst out radiant, and so to the kitchen, and, with a tear in her eye, set-to and polished all the copper stewpans with a vigor and expedition unknown to the new-fangled domestic.
"Partridges, mamma! What next?"
"Pheasants, I hope," cried the doctor, gayly. "And after them hares; to conclude with royal venison. Permit me, ladies." And he set himself to carve with zeal.
Now nature is nature, and two pair of violet eyes brightened and dwelt on the fragrant and delicate food with demure desire; for all that, when Aubertin offered Josephine a wing, she declined it. "No partridge?" cried the savant, in utter amazement.
"Not to-day, dear friend; it is not a feast day to-day."
"Ah! no; what was I thinking of?"
"But you are not to be deprived," put in Josephine, anxiously. "We will not deny ourselves the pleasure of seeing you eat some."
"What!" remonstrated Aubertin, "am I not one of you?"
The baroness had attended to every word of this. She rose from her chair, and said quietly, "Both you and he and Rose will be so good as to let me see you eat."
"But, mamma," remonstrated Josephine and Rose in one breath.
"Je le veux," was the cold reply.
These were words the baroness uttered so seldom that they were little likely to be disputed.
The doctor carved and helped the young ladies and himself.
When they had all eaten a little, a discussion was observed to be going on between Rose and her sister. At last Aubertin caught these words, "It will be in vain; even you have not influence enough for that, Rose."
"We shall see," was the reply, and Rose put the wing of a partridge on a plate and rose calmly from her chair. She took the plate and put it on a little work-table by her mother's side. The others pretended to be all mouths, but they were all ears. The baroness looked in Rose's face with an air of wonder that was not very encouraging. Then, as Rose said nothing, she raised her aristocratic hand with a courteous but decided gesture of refusal.
Undaunted Rose laid her palm softly on the baroness's shoulder, and said to her as firmly as the baroness herself had just spoken,—
"Il le veut."
The baroness was staggered. Then she looked with moist eyes at the fair young face, then she reflected. At last she said, with an exquisite mixture of politeness and affection, "It is his daughter who has told me 'Il le veut.' I obey."
Rose returning like a victorious knight from the lists, saucily exultant, and with only one wet eyelash, was solemnly kissed and petted by Josephine and the doctor.
Thus they loved one another in this great, old, falling house. Their familiarity had no coarse side; a form, not of custom but affection, it went hand-in-hand with courtesy by day and night.
The love of the daughters for their mother had all the tenderness, subtlety, and unselfishness of womanly natures, together with a certain characteristic of the female character. And whither that one defect led them, and by what gradations, it may be worth the reader's while to observe.
The baroness retired to rest early; and she was no sooner gone than Josephine leaned over to Rose, and told her what their mother had said to the oak-tree. Rose heard this with anxiety; hitherto they had carefully concealed from their mother that the government claimed the right of selling the chateau to pay the creditors, etc.; and now both sisters feared the old lady had discovered it somehow, or why that strange thing she had said to the oak-tree? But Dr. Aubertin caught their remarks, and laid down his immortal MS. on French insects, to express his hope that they were putting a forced interpretation on the baroness's words.
"I think," said he, "she merely meant how short-lived are we all compared with this ancient oak. I should be very sorry to adopt the other interpretation; for if she knows she can at any moment be expelled from Beaurepaire, it will be almost as bad for her as the calamity itself; THAT, I think, would kill her."
"Why so?" said Rose, eagerly. "What is this house or that? Mamma will still have her daughters' love, go where she will."
Aubertin replied, "It is idle to deceive ourselves; at her age men and women hang to life by their habits; take her away from her chateau, from the little oratory where she prays every day for the departed, from her place in the sun on the south terrace, and from all the memories that surround her here; she would soon pine, and die."
Here the savant seeing a hobby-horse near, caught him and jumped on. He launched into a treatise upon the vitality of human beings, and proved that it is the mind which keeps the body of a man alive for so great a length of time as fourscore years; for that he had in the earlier part of his studies carefully dissected a multitude of animals,—frogs, rabbits, dogs, men, horses, sheep, squirrels, foxes, cats, etc.,—and discovered no peculiarity in man's organs to account for his singular longevity, except in the brain or organ of mind. Thence he went to the longevity of men with contented minds, and the rapid decay of the careworn. Finally he succeeded in convincing them the baroness was so constituted, physically and mentally, that she would never move from Beaurepaire except into her grave. However, having thus terrified them, he proceeded to console them. "You have a friend," said he, "a powerful friend; and here in my pocket—somewhere—is a letter that proves it."
The letter was from Mr. Perrin the notary. It appeared by it that Dr. Aubertin had reminded the said Perrin of his obligations to the late baron, and entreated him to use all his influence to keep the estate in this ancient family.
Perrin had replied at first in a few civil lines; but his present letter was a long and friendly one. It made both the daughters of Beaurepaire shudder at the peril they had so narrowly escaped. For by it they now learned for the first time that one Jaques Bonard, a small farmer, to whom they owed but five thousand francs, had gone to the mayor and insisted, as he had a perfect right, on the estate being put up to public auction. This had come to Perrin's ears just in time, and he had instantly bought Bonard's debt, and stopped the auction; not, however, before the very bills were printed; for which he, Perrin, had paid, and now forwarded the receipt. He concluded by saying that the government agent was personally inert, and would never move a step in the matter unless driven by a creditor.
"But we have so many," said Rose in dismay. "We are not safe a day."
Aubertin assured her the danger was only in appearance. "Your large creditors are men of property, and such men let their funds lie unless compelled to move them. The small mortgagee, the petty miser, who has, perhaps, no investment to watch but one small loan, about which he is as anxious and as noisy as a hen with one chicken, he is the clamorous creditor, the harsh little egoist, who for fear of risking a crown piece would bring the Garden of Eden to the hammer. Now we are rid of that little wretch, Bonard, and have Perrin on our side; so there is literally nothing to fear."
The sisters thanked him warmly, and Rose shared his hopes; and said so; but Josephine was silent and thoughtful. Nothing more worth recording passed that night. But the next day was the first of May, Josephine's birthday.
Now they always celebrated this day as well as they could; and used to plant a tree, for one thing. Dard, well spurred by Jacintha, had got a little acacia; and they were all out in the Pleasaunce to plant it. Unhappily, they were a preposterous time making up their feminine minds where to have it set; so Dard turned rusty and said the park was the best place for it. There it could do no harm, stick it where you would.
"And who told you to put in your word?" inquired Jacintha. "You're here to dig the hole where mademoiselle chooses; not to argufy."
Josephine whispered Rose, "I admire the energy of her character. Could she be induced to order once for all where the poor thing is to be planted?"
"Then where WILL you have it, mademoiselle?" asked Dard, sulkily.
"Here, I think, Dard," said Josephine sweetly.
Dard grinned malignantly, and drove in his spade. "It will never be much bigger than a stinging nettle," thought he, "for the roots of the oak have sucked every atom of heart out of this." His black soul exulted secretly.
Jacintha stood by Dard, inspecting his work; the sisters intertwined, a few feet from him. The baroness turned aside, and went to look for a moment at the chaplet she had placed yesterday on the oak-tree bough. Presently she uttered a slight ejaculation; and her daughters looked up directly.
"Come here, children," said she. They glided to her in a moment; and found her eyes fixed upon an object that lay on the knights' bough.
It was a sparkling purse.
I dare say you have noticed that the bark on the boughs of these very ancient trees is as deeply furrowed as the very stem of an oak tree that boasts but a few centuries; and in one of these deep furrows lay a green silk purse with gold coins glittering through the glossy meshes.
Josephine and Rose eyed it a moment like startled deer; then Rose pounced on it. "Oh, how heavy!" she cried. This brought up Dard and Jacintha, in time to see Rose pour ten shining gold pieces out of the purse into her pink-white palm, while her face flushed and her eyes glittered with excitement. Jacintha gave a scream of joy; "Our luck is turned," she cried, superstitiously. Meanwhile, Josephine had found a slip of paper close to the purse. She opened it with nimble fingers; it contained one line in a hand like that of a copying clerk: FROM A FRIEND: IN PART PAYMENT OF A GREAT DEBT.
Keen, piquant curiosity now took the place of surprise. Who could it be? The baroness's suspicion fell at once on Dr. Aubertin. But Rose maintained he had not ten gold pieces in the world. The baroness appealed to Josephine. She only blushed in an extraordinary way, and said nothing. They puzzled, and puzzled, and were as much in the dark as ever, when lo! one of the suspected parties delivered himself into the hands of justice with ludicrous simplicity. It happened to be Dr. Aubertin's hour of out-a-door study; and he came mooning along, buried in a book, and walked slowly into the group—started, made a slight apology, and was mooning off, lost in his book again. Then the baroness, who had eyed him with grim suspicion all the time, said with well-affected nonchalance, "Doctor, you dropped your purse; we have just picked it up." And she handed it to him. "Thank you, madame," said he, and took it quietly without looking at it, put it in his pocket, and retired, with his soul in his book. They stared comically at one another, and at this cool hand. "It's no more his than it's mine," said Jacintha, bluntly. Rose darted after the absorbed student, and took him captive. "Now, doctor," she cried, "be pleased to come out of the clouds." And with the word she whipped the purse out of his coat pocket, and holding it right up before his eye, insisted on his telling her whether that was his purse or not, money and all. Thus adjured, he disowned the property mighty coolly, for a retired physician, who had just pocketed it.
"No, my dear," said he; "and, now I think of it, I have not carried a purse this twenty years."
The baroness, as a last resource, appealed to his honor whether he had not left a purse and paper on the knights' bough. The question had to be explained by Josephine, and then the doctor surprised them all by being rather affronted—for once in his life.
"Baroness," said he, "I have been your friend and pensioner nearly twenty years; if by some strange chance money were to come into my hands, I should not play you a childish trick like this. What! have I not the right to come to you, and say, 'My old friend, here I bring you back a very small part of all I owe you?'"
"What geese we are," remarked Rose. "Dear doctor, YOU tell us who it is."
Dr. Aubertin reflected a single moment; then said he could make a shrewd guess.
"Who? who? who?" cried the whole party.
"Perrin the notary."
It was the baroness's turn to be surprised; for there was nothing romantic about Perrin the notary. Aubertin, however, let her know that he was in private communication with the said Perrin, and this was not the first friendly act the good notary had done her in secret.
While he was converting the baroness to his view, Josephine and Rose exchanged a signal, and slipped away round an angle of the chateau.
"Who is it?" said Rose.
"It is some one who has a delicate mind."
"Clearly, and therefore not a notary."
"Rose, dear, might it not be some person who has done us some wrong, and is perhaps penitent?"
"Certainly; one of our tenants, or creditors, you mean; but then, the paper says 'a friend.' Stay, it says a debtor. Why a debtor? Down with enigmas!"
"Rose, love," said Josephine, coaxingly, "think of some one that might—since it is not the doctor, nor Monsieur Perrin, might it not be—for after all, he would naturally be ashamed to appear before me."
"Before you? Who do you mean?" asked Rose nervously, catching a glimpse now.
"He who once pretended to love me."
"Josephine, you love that man still."
"No, no. Spare me!"
"You love him just the same as ever. Oh, it is wonderful; it is terrible; the power he has over you; over your judgment as well as your heart."
"No! for I believe he has forgotten my very name; don't you think so?"
"Dear Josephine, can you doubt it? Come, you do doubt it."
"But why? for what reason?"
"Because of what he said to me as we parted at that gate; the words and the voice seem still to ring like truth across the weary years. He said, 'I am to join the army of the Pyrenees, so fatal to our troops; but say to me what you never yet have said, Camille, I love you: and I swear I will come back alive.' So then I said to him, 'I love you,'—and he never came back."
"How could he come here? a deserter, a traitor!"
"It is not true; it is not in his nature; inconstancy may be. Tell me that he never really loved me, and I will believe you; but not that he is a traitor. Let me weep over my past love, not blush for it."
"Past? You love him to-day as you did three years ago."
"No," said Josephine, "no; I love no one. I never shall love any one again."
"But him. It is that love which turns your heart against others. Oh, yes, you love him, dearest, or why should you fancy our secret benefactor COULD be that Camille?"
"Why? Because I was mad: because it is impossible; but I see my folly. I am going in."
"What! don't you care to know who I think it was, perhaps?"
"No," said Josephine sadly and doggedly; she added with cold nonchalance, "I dare say time will show." And she went slowly in, her hand to her head.
"Her birthday!" sighed Rose.
The donor, whoever he was, little knew the pain he was inflicting on this distressed but proud family, or the hard battle that ensued between their necessities and their delicacy. The ten gold pieces were a perpetual temptation: a daily conflict. The words that accompanied the donation offered a bait. Their pride and dignity declined it; but these bright bits of gold cost them many a sharp pang. You must know that Josephine and Rose had worn out their mourning by this time; and were obliged to have recourse to gayer materials that lay in their great wardrobes, and were older, but less worn. A few of these gold pieces would have enabled the poor girls to be neat, and yet to mourn their father openly. And it went through and through those tender, simple hearts, to think that they must be disunited, even in so small a thing as dress; that while their mother remained in her weeds, they must seem no longer to share her woe.
The baroness knew their feeling, and felt its piety, and yet could not bow her dignity to say, "Take five of these bits of gold, and let us all look what we are—one." Yet in this, as in everything else, they supported each other. They resisted, they struggled, and with a wrench they conquered day by day. At last, by general consent, Josephine locked up the tempter, and they looked at it no more. But the little bit of paper met a kinder fate. Rose made a little frame for it, and it was kept in a drawer, in the salon: and often looked at and blessed. Just when they despaired of human friendship, this paper with the sacred word "friend" written on it, had fallen all in a moment on their aching hearts.
They could not tell whence it came, this blessed word.
But men dispute whence comes the dew?
Then let us go with the poets, who say it comes from heaven.
And even so that sweet word, friend, dropped like the dew from heaven on these afflicted ones.
So they locked the potent gold away from themselves, and took the kind slip of paper to their hearts.
The others left off guessing: Aubertin had it all his own way: he upheld Perrin as their silent benefactor, and bade them all observe that the worthy notary had never visited the chateau openly since the day the purse was left there. "Guilty conscience," said Aubertin dryly.
One day in his walks he met a gaunt figure ambling on a fat pony: he stopped him, and, holding up his finger, said abruptly, "We have found you out, Maitre Perrin."
The notary changed color.
"Oh, never be ashamed," said Aubertin; "a good action done slyly is none the less a good action."
The notary wore a puzzled air.
Aubertin admired his histrionic powers in calling up this look.
"Come, come, don't overdo it," said he. "Well, well; they cannot profit by your liberality; but you will be rewarded in a better world, take my word for that."
The notary muttered indistinctly. He was a man of moderate desires; would have been quite content if there had been no other world in perspective. He had studied this one, and made it pay: did not desire a better; sometimes feared a worse.
"Ah!" said Aubertin, "I see how it is; we do not like to hear ourselves praised, do we? When shall we see you at the chateau?"
"I propose to call on the baroness the moment I have good news to bring," replied Perrin; and to avoid any more compliments spurred the dun pony suddenly; and he waddled away.
Now this Perrin was at that moment on the way to dine with a character who plays a considerable part in the tale—Commandant Raynal. Perrin had made himself useful to the commandant, and had become his legal adviser. And, this very day after dinner, the commandant having done a good day's work permitted himself a little sentiment over the bottle, and to a man he thought his friend. He let out that he had a heap of money he did not know what to do with, and almost hated it now his mother was gone and could not share it.
The man of law consoled him with oleaginous phrases: told him he very much underrated the power of money. His hoard, directed by a judicious adviser, would make him a landed proprietor, and the husband of some young lady, all beauty, virtue, and accomplishment, whose soothing influence would soon heal the sorrow caused by an excess of filial sentiment.
"Halt!" shouted Raynal: "say that again in half the words."
Perrin was nettled, for he prided himself on his colloquial style.
"You can buy a fine estate and a chaste wife with the money," snapped this smooth personage, substituting curt brutality for honeyed prolixity.
The soldier was struck by the propositions the moment they flew at him small and solid, like bullets.
"I've no time," said he, "to be running after women. But the estate I'll certainly have, because you can get that for me without my troubling my head."
"Is it a commission, then?" asked the other sharply.
"Of course. Do you think I speak for the sake of talking?"
And so Perrin received formal instructions to look out for a landed estate; and he was to receive a handsome commission as agent.
Now to settle this affair, and pocket a handsome percentage for himself, he had only to say "Beaurepaire."
Well, he didn't. Never mentioned the place; nor the fact that it was for sale.
Such are all our agents, when rival speculators. Mind that. Still it is a terrible thing to be so completely in the power of any man of the world, as from this hour Beaurepaire was in the power of Perrin the notary.
Edouard Riviere was unhappy. She never came out now. This alone made the days dark to him. And then he began to fear it was him she shunned. She must have seen him lie in wait for her; and so she would come out no more. He prowled about and contrived to fall in with Jacintha; he told her his grief. She assured him the simple fact was their mourning was worn out, and they were ashamed to go abroad in colors. This revelation made his heart yearn still more.
"O Jacintha," said he, "if I could only make a beginning; but here we might live a century in the same parish, and not one chance for a poor wretch to make acquaintance."
Jacintha admitted this, and said gentlefolks were to be pitied. "Why, if it was the likes of me, you and I should have made friends long before now."
Jacintha herself was puzzled what to do; she would have told Rose if she had felt sure it would be well received; but she could not find out that the young lady had even noticed the existence of Edouard. But her brain worked, and lay in wait for an opportunity.
One came sooner than she expected. One morning at about six o'clock, as she came home from milking the cow, she caught sight of young Riviere trying to open the iron gate. "What is up now?" thought she; suddenly the truth flashed upon her, clear as day. She put her pail down and stole upon him. "You want to leave us another purse," said she. He colored all over and panted.
"How did you know? how could you know? you won't betray me? you won't be so cruel? you promised."
"Me betray you," said Jacintha; "why, I'll help you; and then they will be able to buy mourning, you know, and then they will come out, and give you a chance. You can't open that gate, for it's locked. But you come round to the lane, and I'll get you the key; it is hanging up in the kitchen."
The key was in her pocket. But the sly jade wanted him away from that gate; it commanded a view of the Pleasaunce. He was no sooner safe in the lane, than she tore up-stairs to her young ladies, and asked them with affected calm whether they would like to know who left the purse.
"Oh, yes, yes!" screamed Rose.
"Then come with me. You ARE dressed; never mind your bonnets, or you will be too late."
Questions poured on her; but she waived all explanation, and did not give them time to think, or Josephine, for one, she knew would raise objections. She led the way to the Pleasaunce, and, when she got to the ancestral oak, she said hurriedly, "Now, mesdemoiselles, hide in there, and as still as mice. You'll soon know who leaves the purses."
With this she scudded to the lane, and gave Edouard the key. "Look sharp," said she, "before they get up; it's almost their dressing time."
"YOU'LL SOON KNOW WHO LEAVES THE PURSES!"
Curiosity, delicious curiosity, thrilled our two daughters of Eve.
This soon began to alternate with chill misgivings at the novelty of the situation.
"She is not coming back," said Josephine ruefully.
"No," said Rose, "and suppose when we pounce out on him, it should be a stranger."
"Pounce on him? surely we are not to do that?"
"Oh, y-yes; that is the p-p-programme," quavered Rose.
A key grated, and the iron gate creaked on its hinges. They ran together and pinched one another for mutual support, but did not dare to speak.
Presently a man's shadow came slap into the tree. They crouched and quivered, and expected to be caught instead of catching, and wished themselves safe back in bed, and all this a nightmare, and no worse.
At last they recovered themselves enough to observe that this shadow, one half of which lay on the ground, while the head and shoulders went a little way up the wall of the tree, represented a man's profile, not his front face. The figure, in short, was standing between them and the sun, and was contemplating the chateau, not the tree.
The shadow took off its hat to Josephine, in the tree. Then would she have screamed if she had not bitten her white hand instead, and made a red mark thereon.
It wiped its brow with a handkerchief; it had walked fast, poor thing! The next moment it was away.
They looked at one another and panted. They scarcely dared do it before. Then Rose, with one hand on her heaving bosom, shook her little white fist viciously at where the figure must be, and perhaps a comical desire of vengeance stimulated her curiosity. She now glided through the fissure like a cautious panther from her den; and noiseless and supple as a serpent began to wind slowly round the tree. She soon came to a great protuberance in the tree, and twining and peering round it with diamond eye, she saw a very young, very handsome gentleman, stealing on tiptoe to the nearest flower-bed. Then she saw him take a purse out of his bosom, and drop it on the bed. This done, he came slowly past the tree again, and was even heard to vent a little innocent chuckle of intense satisfaction: but of brief duration; for, when Rose saw the purse leave his hand, she made a rapid signal to Josephine to wheel round the other side of the tree, and, starting together with admirable concert, both the daughters of Beaurepaire glided into sight with a vast appearance of composure.
Two women together are really braver than fifteen separate; but still, most of this tranquillity was merely put on, but so admirably that Edouard Riviere had no chance with them. He knew nothing about their tremors; all he saw or heard was, a rustle, then a flap on each side of him as of great wings, and two lovely women were upon him with angelic swiftness. "Ah!" he cried out with a start, and glanced from the first-comer, Rose, to the gate. But Josephine was on that side by this time, and put up her hand, as much as to say, "You can't pass here." In such situations, the mind works quicker than lightning. He took off his hat, and stammered an excuse—"Come to look at the oak." At this moment Rose pounced on the purse, and held it up to Josephine. He was caught. His only chance now was to bolt for the mark and run; but it was not the notary, it was a novice who lost his presence of mind, or perhaps thought it rude to run when a lady told him to stand still. All he did was to crush his face into his two hands, round which his cheeks and neck now blushed red as blood. Blush? they could both see the color rush like a wave to the very roots of his hair and the tips of his fingers.
The moment our heroines, who, in that desperation which is one of the forms of cowardice, had hurled themselves on the foe, saw this, flash—the quick-witted poltroons exchanged purple lightning over Edouard's drooping head, and enacted lionesses in a moment.
It was with the quiet composure of lofty and powerful natures that Josephine opened on him. "Compose yourself, sir; and be so good as to tell us who you are." Edouard must answer. Now he could not speak through his hands; and he could not face a brace of tranquil lionesses: so he took a middle course, removed one hand, and shading himself from Josephine with the other, he gasped out, "I am—my name is Riviere; and I—I—ladies!"