In one of the mountainous districts of the south of France, which in the last century were covered with forests, the highway ran up through the rocky valley by the side of a roaring torrent. On the right hand and on the left the massive foliage descended to the banks, and filled up the small and intervening ravines with a bosky shade. Here and there a lofty crag broke out from the sea of green leaves, and now and then the pointed roofs of a château or the spire of a village church witnessed to the existence of man, and gave an interest and a charm to the beautiful scene.
It was a day in the late autumn of the year 1760. The departing smile of nature, which in another hour would be lost in death, was upon every tree and leaf. The loveliest tints and shades, so delicate that at the moment of their perfection they trembled into nothingness, rested upon the woodlands on every side. A soft wind whispered through the rustling leaves laden with mellow odours and with the pleasing sadness that comes with the falling leaf. The latest flowers of the year with unconscious resignation wasted, as it might seem, tints which would not have disgraced the warmest hues of summer upon heaps of withered leaves, and dry moss, and rotting wood. The loveliest hour of the year was the last.
The highway crossed an ancient bridge of great height with a cunningly pointed arch. Just beyond the bridge a smaller path turned up on the left hand as you ascended the valley. It wound its way up the wooded valleys as though with no definite end, yet it was smooth and well kept, more so, indeed, than the highway itself, and doubtless led to some château, the orders of whose lord the peasantry kept the road in good repair. Let us follow this road on an evening at the end of October the year we have already mentioned, for we shall meet with a pretty sight.
Some distance up the road on the left was a small cottage, built to mark and protect the path to a natural terrace formed, as far as art had had a hand in the proceeding, by some former lord of the domain to command a view of the neighbouring mountains and country. Several of these terraces existed in the wood. At the point where the path entered the private road to the château the wood receded on every side, and left a wide glade or savannah across which the sunshine lay in broad and flickering rays. Down this path there came a boy and girl, for they were little more, though their dress and the rank of life they held gave an appearance of maturity greater than their years. The lady was of supreme beauty even for a heroine of romance, and was dressed with a magnificence which at any other period of the world would have been fantastic in a wood. She was clinging to the arm of a handsome boy of some two and twenty years of age, whose dress, by its scarf and some other slight peculiarities, marked the officer of those days. His face was very handsome, and the expression on the whole was good, but there was something about the eyes and the curve of the lips which spoke of violent passions as yet unsubdued.
The girl came down the path clinging to his arm, her lovely face upraised to him, and the dark and reckless expression of his face was soothed and chastened into a look of intense fondness as he looked down upon it. Rarely could a lovely autumn afternoon receive its finishing touch from the passing of so lovely a pair.
The valley was perfectly solitary; not a single sound was heard, nor living creature seemed astir. It was as if Nature understood, and held her breath to further the purposes of their lonely walk. Only for a moment however. At the instant they left the path and entered upon the grassy verge that bordered the way to the château, they both started, and the girl gazed before her with an expression of wild alarm, while the young man's face grew darker, and a fierce and cruel look came into his eyes. But what they saw would seem at first sight to give little cause for such emotion. A few yards before them, walking leisurely across the grass from the direction of the road, appeared a gentleman of some twenty-eight or thirty years of age, of whom at first sight there could be no question that he was one of the most distinguished and handsomest men of his day. He was carefully dressed in a style which only men of exceptional figure can wear without extravagance, but which in their case seems only fitting and right. He wore a small walking sword, so hung as not to interfere in the least with the contour of his form, with which his dress also evidently harmonised. His features were faultlessly cut, and the expression, though weary and perhaps almost insolent, bore slight marks of dissipation, and the glance of his eyes was serene and even kindly. He saw the pair before him and instantly stopped. It is probable that the incident was equally embarrassing on both sides, but the visible effect was very different. The two young people stood utterly silent and aghast. The lady was evidently frightened and distressed, while her companion seemed prepared to strike the intruder to the earth. On the other hand the Marquis, for such was his rank, showed no signs of embarrassment.
'Pardon, Mademoiselle,' he said; 'I perceive that I have committed a gaucherie. Growing tired of the hunt, I returned to the château, and hearing from the servants that Mademoiselle had gone down into the forest to visit her old nurse at the cottage by the terrace, I thought how pleasant it would be to go to meet her and accompany her home. I had even presumed to think,' he continued, smiling, and as he spoke he turned to the young man with a gesture of perfect courtesy--' I even presumed to think that my presence might be some small protection to Mademoiselle in the wilds of the forest. I was unaware, of course, that she was guarded with such loyal and efficient care.' He paused for a moment, and then continued with greater dignity and kindliness of expression, 'I need not add, Mademoiselle, as a gentleman whose name hitherto, I believe, has been free from taint--I need not add that Mademoiselle need fear no embarrassment in the future from this chance encounter.'
It was perhaps strange, but it seemed that the politeness and even friendliness of the Marquis, so far from soothing, irritated the young man. He remained silent, but kept his black and angry glance fixed upon the other.
But the girl seemed differently affected. She hesitated for a moment, and then took a step forward, speaking with her clasped hands before her, with a winning and beseeching gesture.
'You see before you, Monsieur le Marquis,' she said, 'two as miserable young creatures as, I hope, exist upon the earth. Let me present to you Monsieur le Chevalier de Grissolles, of the regiment of Flanders--'
The gentlemen bowed.
'--Who has known me all my life,' continued the girl, speaking rapidly; 'who has loved me--whom I love. We meet today for the last time. We should not have told you--I should not have mentioned this to you--because I know--we know--that it is useless to contend against what is fixed for us--what is decreed. We meet to-day for the last time; the fleeting moments are run-fling past--ah! how quickly--in another moment they will be gone.'
Here the emotion that overpowered her choked her utterance. She stopped, and to prevent herself from falling, she clung to the Chevalier's arm.
The Marquis looked at her in silence, and his face became perfectly beautiful with its expression of pity. A marble statue, indeed, might almost have been expected to show emotion at the sight of such beauty in such distress. There was a pause. Then the Marquis spoke.
'I am most honoured,' he said, 'to be permitted to make the acquaintance of Monsieur le Chevalier, whose name, if I mistake not, is already, though that of so young an officer, mentioned with distinction in the despatches of Monsieur de Brogue. For what you have said to me, Mademoiselle--and what you have condescended to confide to me has torn my spirit--I fear I can offer you but little consolation. Your good sense has already assured you that these things are settled for us. They are inevitable. And in the present case there are circumstances which make it absolutely essential to the interests of Monsieur le Comte, your father, that these espousals, at any rate, should take place at once. Even were I'--here he turned to the Chevalier with a smile--' even were I to pick a quarrel with your friend, and, a few seconds sooner than in the natural course of events it probably would, allow his sword to pass through my heart, I fear the result would be simply to substitute another in my place--another who, I, with perhaps a natural vanity, may fancy, would not place matters in a happier light. But let us not look at things too gloomily. You say that this is your last hour of happiness; that is not necessary. It is true that the espousals must take place at once. The interests of your father require this. But there is no need that Mademoiselle's feelings should not be consulted with regard to the final consummation of the nuptials. These need not be hurried. Monsieur le Chevalier may have other opportunities of making his adieux. And I hope that my influence, which, in after years, may be greater than it is at present, will enable me to further any views he may have with regard to higher commands in the service of his majesty.'
The words were those of ordinary compliment, yet the manner of the Marquis was so winning that, had it been possible, it would have affected even the Chevalier himself; but if a highwayman is threatening your life it is not much consolation that he offers to return you a franc piece.
The Chevalier remained cold and gloomy.
The Marquis looked at him for a moment; then he continued, addressing himself to the girl--'But I am intruding myself on Mademoiselle. I will continue my walk to the terrace; the afternoon is delightfully fine. As you are aware, Monsieur le Comte is hunting in the valleys to the west. All the piqueurs are withdrawn to that side of the forest. I should hope that Mademoiselle will not again be interrupted in her walk.'
Then without another word he courteously saluted the young people, and continued his walk up the path. He never turned his head, indeed he would have allowed himself to be broken on the wheel rather than have done anything of the kind, but the others were not so reticent; several times they stopped and looked back at the Marquis as he paused every now and then as if to admire the beauties of the scene. At last he reached the corner of the cottage and disappeared from their view.
The beauties of the scene, however, did not entirely occupy the mind of the Marquis. At the most enchanting point, where opening valley and stream and mountain and distant tower burst upon his view, he paused and murmured to himself, 'Some men, now, might have made mischief out of this. Let us wait and see.'
The Château de Frontênac was built upon a natural terrace half way up the slope of the forest, with the craggy ravines clothed with foliage surrounding it on every side. It consisted of two courts, the oldest of which had been built in the earliest days of French domestic architecture, when the detached buildings of the mediæval castle were first brought together into a compact block. In accordance with the singular notion of those days that the south and west were unhealthy aspects, the principal rooms of this portion of the château faced the north and east. They consisted of vast halls and saloons succeeding each other with apparently purposeless extension, and above them a suite of bed-chambers of solemn and funereal aspect. These saloons and bed-chambers had been left unaltered for centuries, and the furniture must have been antique in the reign of Henri Quatre. The other court had been built much more recently, and, in accordance with more modern notions, the chief apartments faced the south and west. From its windows terraced gardens descended into the ravine, and spread themselves along the side of the hill. The architecture had probably, when first the court had been added to the château, contrasted unpleasantly with the sombre pile beyond; but the lapse of centuries with their softening hand had blended the whole into a unity of form and colour, and adventurous plants creeping silently over the carved stonework of the straggling fronts wrought a soft veil of nature's handiwork over the artificial efforts of man.
The saloons in this part of the château were furnished more or less in the modern taste with cabinets of ebony and ivory of the days of Louis Quatorze, and buhl-work of the eighteenth century; but as the modern articles were added sparingly, the effect on the whole was quiet and pleasing. The De Frontênacs, while enjoying the more convenient portion of their abode, prided themselves upon the antique apartments, and kept them in scrupulous repair. In these vast and mysterious halls all the solemn meetings and ceremonies of the family had place. Here when death had touched his own, the De Frontênacs lay in state; here the infant heir was baptized; here the important compacts of marriage were signed; here the feast of Noel was held. It is true that for the last century or so these ideas had been growing weaker, and the usages of modern life and the fascinations of the capital had broken in upon these ancient habits, and weakened the attachments and associations from which they sprang; but the De Frontênacs were a fierce and haughty race, and never entirely lost the characteristics of their forefathers. Now and again, at some distaste of court life, or some fancied slight on the part of the monarch, they would retire to their forest home, and resume for a time at least the life and habits of a nobler and a prouder day.
In the largest of these old saloons, the day after the meeting in the forest, the whole household of the château was assembled. At a long table were seated several gentlemen well known in Paris as among the highest of the noblesse de robe, and rolls of parchment and masses of writing, with great seals hanging from their corners, covered the table. The walls of the saloon were hung with portraits of several epochs of art, including the works of artists then alive ; for it was a peculiarity of the De Frontênacs that, venerating as they did the antique portion of their château, they invariably hung the portraits of the family as they were painted in these old and faded rooms, reserving for the modern apartments the landscapes and fancy pictures which from time to time they purchased.
When the moment had arrived at which the contracts were to be signed, there was a movement in the room, and Mademoiselle de Frontênac, accompanied by her mother, entered and advanced towards the table. She was perfectly collected, and bowed to the Marquis with an unembarrassed grace. No one ignorant of the circumstances of the case would have supposed that anything approaching to a tragedy was being enacted in that room.
The Marquis signed more than one document, and as he stepped back from the table he ran his eyes carelessly over the room, with which he was unacquainted. Fronting him, above a massive sideboard with the full light of the opposite window upon it, was the portrait of a young man in the cuirass of an officer of cavalry of a previous century, whose eyes were fixed upon the Marquis with a stern and threatening glance. It seemed that, stepping from the canvas, there confronted him, as a few hours before he had met him in the forest, the Chevalier de Grissolles, whom he had found with Mademoiselle de Frontênac.
Nothing probably could have made the Marquis start, but he gazed upon the portrait with interest not unmixed with surprise, and as soon as Mademoiselle had retired, which she did when her signatures had been obtained, he turned to the Count with a courteous gesture.
'These apartments, Count,' he said, 'are certainly as fine as anything of the kind in Europe. I have seldom, indeed, seen anything that can be compared to them. And doubtless the portraits upon the walls are of exceptional interest. By your leave, I will glance round them;' and, accompanied by the Count, he passed through several of the rooms, listening attentively to the descriptions and anecdotes which the different portraits required and suggested. There was somewhat of sameness perhaps in the story, for the French nobility had little scope of action other than the battle-field, and the collection lacked the pleasing variety of an English portrait-gallery, where the variety of costumes, here a soldier, there a divine, now a lawyer or judge, and then a courtier, charms the eye and excites the fancy. The Marquis came back perhaps all the sooner to the great saloon.
The saloon was empty, and the lawyers and rolls of parchment were gone. The Marquis went straight to the portrait which had attracted his attention, and stood facing it without saying a word; the Count, after glancing carelessly round the room, followed his guest's example.
The vast hall was perfectly empty. The tables had been pushed aside into the windows, and the superb figure of the Marquis, standing upon the polished floor, would have been of itself sufficient to furnish the scene, but in proportion as the interest which the portrait had excited was manifested in the attitude of the Marquis, so much the more the figure on the wall seemed to gather life and intensity, and to answer look for look with its living opposite.
'That painting,' said the Count, after a moment's pause, 'is the portrait of a cadet of my family, or rather, I should say, of a female branch of it, a Chevalier de Grissolles. He was a youth of great promise, a favourite and aide-de-camp of the Prince de Condé; and he fell at Jarnac by his master's side. Enough of him,' and the Count's manner changed as he glanced round the chamber, and advanced confidentially to the Marquis. 'Enough of him; but I am not sorry your attention has been directed towards his portrait, because it enables me to introduce, with somewhat less embarrassment, a subject to which I have hitherto shrunk from alluding. I am sorry to say,' continued the Count, with an uneasy smile, 'that the chevalier whose portrait you see before you was not the last of his race. There have been others who have borne the name, and there is one now. He is a lad in the regiment of Flanders, and was brought up in my family. Unfortunately he was allowed to attend Mademoiselle de Fronténac in her recreations, and a boy and girl attachment was formed between them, from which harmless child's play no one foreboded any evil. The young fool is constantly breaking away from his regiment, in which he is a great favourite, and is hanging about my daughter; and from what Madame la Comtesse tells me--I--I hardly like to say it, it is so absurd!--she is positively attached to him, seriously and devotedly attached. Positively I cannot sleep sometimes; this stupid affair has given me so much annoyance.'
It did not increase the good humour of the Count, who was already in a sufficiently bad temper, to notice, as he could not help doing, that the Marquis did not seem in the least surprised at the information he had received, and what was still more irritating, that he seemed to regard it with perfect indifference. He appeared, in fact, to be much more interested in studying the portrait before him, probably admiring it as a work of art.
'My dear Count,' he said at length, 'I am really sorry that you should allow yourself to be so much annoyed over what seems to me to be a mere trifle. This marriage-contract, so honourable to me, is now signed; at the present moment les messieurs de robe are engaged, I doubt not, in arranging those pecuniary matters which you explained to me were of so much importance : why, then, should we trouble ourselves? As to this little pastorale which it seems is being enacted as a sort of interlude to the more serious business of the stage, it is what I imagine invariably takes place. What would become of the poets and romancists otherwise? We must think of our own youth, Count, and not be too hard upon the young people. Positively I feel quite old when I think of those delightful days--that spring-time of existence, those first loves,' and the Marquis closed his eyes and sighed deeply, apparently from his heart.
The Count took a turn or two in the saloon, but it did not seem to soothe his temper.
'This is all very well,' he said sharply, 'and very witty; in delicate badinage we all know no one can equal Monsieur de St. Palaye, but I assure you this is no laughing matter. This affair has grown beyond a joke. When my daughter has the honour--an honour, I am well aware, far higher than any she had a right to expect--of signing herself Madeleine, Marquise de St. Palaye, it will not be my place, of course, to say a word. Then her honour will be in her husband's keeping--her honour and his. But while she remains in my house she is my daughter, and in my care, and I tell you plainly that this matter is past a joke.'
A fleeting expression of extreme ennui passed over the Marquis's face, and he evidently suppressed an inclination to yawn. Then with more bonhomie than he had previously shown he put his hand on his companion's arm.
'Well, my dear Count,' he said smilingly, 'I will do anything you wish--anything, that is, short of unpleasantly hurrying the nuptials--that I cannot do. It would be--in fact, it would be such wretched taste--tears!--a scene!--a--an esclandre in general, my dear Count!'
Then linking his arm in that of the Count, he led him, still sulky and grumbling, out of the saloon, and into the modern court of the château; and the long lines of ancestors on the walls followed them as they passed with angry and vindictive looks, as though enraged that they could not descend from their places and join again in the turmoil of life.
The second morning after the contract had been signed, the Marquis was seated in his dressing-room, about an hour before déjeuner, reading, apparently with great entertainment, though not for the first time, Le Taureau Blanc of Monsieur de Voltaire. While he was thus agreeably occupied the door was violently thrown open, and the Count, heated and excited, burst into the room.
'Marquis,' he said, utterly regardless of any who might hear, 'let me beg of you to get to horse at once and come with me. I have positive information that my daughter is at this moment giving an interview to that young scoundrel on one of the terraces in the wood. While we speak they may be planning an elopement--nay, even carrying it into effect. Let me beg of you to come at once.
The Marquis laid down his book, crossed one knee over the other, and leaning back on his chair looked the Count in the face steadily for a second or two, as who should say, 'This man will be too much for me; I shall have to press forward the nuptials, I see, in self-defence.' Then he sighed deeply and rose from his seat.
'Very well, my dear Count,' he said, 'I will be as quick as possible. Pierre, see that they bring some horses round; come into my closet yourself, and send Charles and Alphonse and all the men here at once. I will make haste, my dear Count, indeed I will.'
Whether the Marquis did make haste as he said, or whether the number of valets impeded each other, it is certain that it was a long time before he descended to the court of the château, where he found the Count pacing up and down, fuming and cursing his delay. They got to horse as soon as possible, and rode down the forest road, but the Marquis reined his horse in so often, and made such inappropriate remarks upon the beauty of the morning and of the view, that the Count could bear it no longer.
'Monsieur le Marquis,' he said, 'I am sorry I have disturbed you so much; I am very anxious to press forward, but I will not hurry you, I will ride forward at once.'
'Pray do not delay a moment on my account,' said the other; 'I shall rejoin you anon.'
The Count put spurs to his horse, and, followed by his servants, was lost to sight behind the windings of the path.
The moment he disappeared the Marquis drew his rein, and turning to his valet, said in a tone perfectly different from that which he had hitherto used--
'On the north terrace, do you say?'
'Yes, Monsieur le Marquis,' replied the man, with a smile; 'on the north terrace to the left: not on the old terrace, as the Count is wrongly advised. They have been there a long time; I should think they must be about parting.'
The Marquis turned his horse, and, followed by his men, retraced his steps until they reached a scarcely perceptible path which, now on their right hand, found its way down into the road. Here he dismounted, and taking his riding-whip with him in place of a cane, began leisurely to ascend the path. When he had gone a yard or two, however, he turned to the valet and said--'Wait here with the horses, and should Monsieur le Comte return, say to him that I have taken the opportunity of the fine morning to enjoy one of the numerous views on his delightful estate. Say that to him, neither more nor less.'
When the Marquis reached the head of the path he found himself at the end of a long and grassy terrace, from which the path was screened by thick bushes. Standing for a moment so concealed, he became conscious of the presence of the two young lovers whom he had met some few days ago in the forest. Again he could see the face of the young girl, and again he was moved by the sight. He waited till they had reached the other end of the terrace, and then came forward, so as not to startle them by his sudden appearance. They met half way.
'I am sorry once again,' said the Marquis, speaking simply and without affectation, 'to intercept Mademoiselle, especially as this time I have no excuse, but have acted with prepense. Monsieur le Comte, your father, is ridden out in hot haste and temper upon some mischievous information he has received concerning Mademoiselle and Monsieur le Chevalier. I did what I could to delay him, and finally left him, having better information, it appears, than he had. But he will be here anon. I was compelled to leave my horses in the road below, and when he returns from his fruitless quest he will doubtless follow me here. Monsieur le Chevalier will doubtless see the propriety of avoiding an unpleasant meeting.'
'I have to thank you, Monsieur le Marquis,' said the young man, whose manner seemed compounded of an intense dislike and a sense that politeness was due to one who, under singular circumstances, had behaved in a more friendly manner than could have been looked for; 'I have to thank you for previous courtesy, and for, I have no doubt, much consideration to-day. I will not linger any more.'
He took the girl in his arms and imprinted a kiss upon her lips, which, under the circumstances, was perhaps scarcely courteous; then, gloomily bowing to the Marquis, he plunged into the thickest of the wood and disappeared.
The Marquis took no notice of the warmth of his leave-taking, but having his riding-whip and hat in one hand, he offered the other arm to the girl, saying--
'If Mademoiselle will honour me by taking a turn upon the terrace before her father's arrival I shall esteem it a favour, as it will give me the opportunity of saying a single word.'
The girl took his arm willingly, and as she did so she said, with a winning and confiding gesture--'Monsieur le Marquis, I think you are the best and kindest of men.'
'I wish to put before Mademoiselle,' said the Marquis, speaking gently, but very gravely, 'one or two considerations; and I could wish that it were possible for her to regard it as the advice of an absolutely impartial friend. The first is one of which I hesitate to speak, because it seems to cast a slur, in some manner, upon the character of Monsieur le Chevalier. But man is very weak, especially when exposed to such temptation as, fortunately for him, rarely in this world crosses his path. These shady groves and grassy banks are the places where the deceitful god delights to work his mischief--a mischief which is never repaired. I know, of course, that there are many who speak of these things lightly, and who even view these flowery but dangerous paths with approbation; but I cannot think that Mademoiselle would tread them without violating the bienséance which alone makes life tolerable, or tainting the purity of those lustrous ranks of which she will be the brightest star. I pass at once to another thought which it is not impossible Monsieur le Chevalier has already suggested.' He paused, as the tremor of the girl's hand upon his arm showed that he was not speaking in vain. 'I mean,' he continued, 'the project of seeking in another land that happiness which I fear appears to Mademoiselle to be denied her in this. Could I see any permanent prospect of happiness in such a course I would not shrink, Quixotic as it might seem, from advising you to adopt it. But there appear to me insuperable objections to such a course. I do not see how it is possible for Mademoiselle so to elude the affectionate solicitude of her family as to obtain more than a couple of hours' start.
Couriers on swift horses would be sent to the Intendants of the provinces, to the postmasters on the great roads, and to the officers on the frontiers. After experiencing toil and hardships, which it is pitiful to think of, Mademoiselle would probably be overtaken before she reached the frontier. But supposing that such was not the case; supposing that she succeeded, by the skill of Monsieur le Chevalier and the swiftness of his horses, in reaching a foreign land, the Chevalier is a sworn servant of the King of France. He would be arrested in any court and city of Europe; he would be brought back to France, and the Bastile, or some inferior prison, would be his home for life. When I add to this the hardships of life in a foreign land, of the rupture of family ties, of hatred and animosity where there should be nothing but serenity, of the failure of family schemes and hopes, and of the tie which binds persons of our rank all over the world to discountenance actions which are regarded as subversive of family order, and even life--I cannot, I say, when I think of such certain hardship, of such possible disgrace and misery--I cannot advise Mademoiselle to adopt such a course. The certainty that she would soon be separated from her friend seems to me to decide the matter.'
The Marquis paused; but as the girl made no reply, he continued--
'For myself, I say nothing; it is my misfortune that I have been introduced to Mademoiselle under circumstances which render it impossible that I should make that impression which it would have been the ambition of my life to achieve; but this, perhaps, I may say, that should Mademoiselle decide to let matters take their course, and as far as circumstances will permit, to repose in me her confidence, it would indeed seem a fatality no less strange than sad should she prove the first who, in the long course of centuries, had reason to regret that they placed confidence in the word of a St. Palaye.'
It seemed that something in the words of the Marquis, strange as they may appear to some people, or something in his manner as he spoke them, did not affect the girl unpleasantly, for she was in the act of saying, what indeed she had said before, but now with one slight but important modification--'Marquis, you are the best and kindest of men,'--when her father, heated with riding and with anger, burst through the trees at the end of the terrace, and overlooking in his fury what was before his eyes, exclaimed--'Well, Marquis, I told you how it would be: I cannot find them! This wretched girl 'he stopped suddenly, open-mouthed, as straight before him, apparently on the most friendly terms, the girl hanging confidingly upon her companion's arm, stood the Marquis, and she of whom he was in such desperate chase. It was impossible for either to conceal a smile.
'My dear Count,' said the Marquis, 'I am sorry you have had so much unnecessary trouble. The truth is that after you left me it occurred to me that, in the little domestic scene you were anticipating, I should play an insignificant, not to say a somewhat ridiculous figure. Warm as is the interest which I must naturally feel in everything that concerns Mademoiselle, I think that these family matters are always best managed by the family itself. I therefore turned aside to enjoy perhaps the most beautiful of the many beautiful views to be found on this estate, and to my delight I found Mademoiselle engaged in a precisely similar occupation. It augurs well.
I am sure, for our future happiness, that at this early period our tastes are found to be so similar.'
The Count saw that he was being laughed at, and indeed it may as well be confessed at once that the Marquis erred in the manner in which he treated the Count. This, however, should be remembered in extenuation, that nothing could be more intolerable to him than the part of jealous husband and lover which the Count appeared determined to force him to play. It was not in human nature but that he should take a little quiet revenge.
'But did you see nothing of the Chevalier?' blundered out the Count.
'Really, my dear Count, I have not had time, had I possessed the power, to challenge my adversary to mortal combat, to run him through the heart, to cut him up into small bits, and to bury him beneath the sod. Besides, you will observe that the grass all around is perfectly undisturbed. I assure you solemnly,' continued the Marquis, apparently with the greatest earnestness, 'that the Chevalier does not lie murdered beneath my feet'
The words were spoken in Jest, but they were recalled to memory afterwards by more than one.
The Count turned sulkily away, and his daughter and the Marquis followed him back to the château.
A few days after these events the Count removed his family to Paris, travelling in several large carriages, and accompanied by numerous servants on horseback. The Marquis accompanied them, and, by what might appear a curious coincidence, on the very morning upon which they set out on their journey the Chevalier received, at the little auberge on the farther side of the forest, where he lodged, an imperative order to join his regiment without delay. Furious at the success of what he conceived to be the interference of the Marquis and the Count, he obeyed the order, resolved to return to Paris at the earliest opportunity.
The winter passed in Paris as winters in great cities usually do. The Chevalier stole up from the frontier more than once, and at court balls, at the theatre, and at the private assemblies he succeeded in seeing Mademoiselle de Frontênac more often than he perhaps had expected, but though his opportunities exceeded his hopes, the result was not proportionally favourable. Whether Mademoiselle had succumbed to the paternal influence, or whether the Marquis had succeeded in substituting his own attractions for those of the Chevalier, it was evident that her manner became colder and more reserved at each interview.
The winter at last was over, and one evening in summer, after a royal concert at Versailles, when the king's violins had performed such delicate and yet pathetic music of Monsieur Rousseau's that the court was ravished by it, the Chevalier met his mistress by appointment in one of the pavilions of the orangery. He had secret means of obtaining admission to the precincts of the palaces which were well understood by the courtiers of those days.
Mademoiselle de Fronténac was perfectly pale as she came into the pavilion, and she seemed to walk with difficulty; she stopped immediately when within the door, and spoke at once, as though she were repeating a lesson.
'Do not come any nearer, Monsieur le Chevalier,' she said; ' I am the wife of another.'
He stopped, therefore, where he was, on the other side of the small pavilion, and across the summer evening light that mingled with the shimmer of the candelabras, he saw her for the last time.
Neither spoke for a moment or two, and then she said, still as though conning a part--
'I have promised, Monsieur le Chevalier de Grissolles, to be the wife of the Marquis de St. Palaye, and I will keep my word.'
'You are not speaking your own words, Madeleine,' he said eagerly; 'let your own heart speak !' and coming forward across the pavilion, he was on the point of taking her hand.
Then the door by which she had entered opened again, and the Count de Frontênac, with a quiet and firm step, glided in, and stood by his daughter's side.
At this sight, which revealed to him, as it seemed, the faithlessness of his mistress, and the plot which was woven around him on every side, the Chevalier lost his self-control.
'I was aware, Monsieur le Comte,' he burst forth, 'that in this pays du diable the privileges of parents were numerous and inalienable, but till this moment I did not know that eavesdropping was one of them.'
The Count made no reply, except by raising his hat; and his daughter, bowing with a mechanical grace that was pitiful to see, said--'I wish you farewell, Monsieur le Chevalier.'
'Madeleine,' said the young man, 'I wish you farewell for ever; and I pray God, with what sincerity will be known when we stand, each of us, before His judgment bar, that you may not bitterly regret your words this night.'
Then, perfectly pale, but more composed than before he had spoken, he too raised his hat courteously, and left the room.
That evening there were enacted within a stone's throw of each other two very different scenes.
When the Marquis de St. Palaye returned to his hotel he was told that the family lawyer, Monsieur Cacotte, was waiting to see him, having at the first possible moment brought him some deeds which Monsieur le Marquis was very anxious should be completed.
The Marquis would see him at once, and after a few minutes' delay, he entered the room, in which the lawyer was seated at a table which was covered with parchments. The room was one in which the Marquis usually sat when the festivities of the day, whether at home or abroad, were over; it was richly furnished as a library, and upon the wide hearth there burned a fire of wood, though it was summer. Greeting the lawyer with great friendliness of manner, St. Palaye threw himself somewhat wearily into a chair, and gazed at the blazing wood-ashes.
A servant entered the room with wine.
'I am sorry, Monsieur le Marquis,' said the lawyer, 'to come to you at so unseasonable an hour; but your instructions were so precise that the moment this first will was ready it should be brought to you to sign, that I did not dare to wait till the morrow.'
'You did quite right, Monsieur Cacotte,' said the Marquis. 'No one can tell what may happen before the morrow.'
'I have indeed,' continued the lawyer, 'prepared both wills, so that Monsieur can satisfy himself that they are both exactly alike. The one will be signed immediately after the marriage; the other at once. They both contain the same clauses, and especially the one upon which Monsieur le Marquis so much insisted: "That the sum of fifty thousand louis d'or, charged upon the unsettled estates in Poitou and Auvergne, should be paid within three months of the death of the testator to Monsieur le Chevalier de Grissolles, for a purpose which he will appreciate and understand." Those, I think, were the words Monsieur wished to have used.'
'They seem quite correct,' said the Marquis.
'I am sorry,' continued the lawyer, 'that this extra expense, which seems to me unnecessary, should be entailed.'
'In that,' said the Marquis politely, 'you only show, Monsieur Cacotte, that care and interest in the good of the family which you have always manifested both in the time of my father and of myself. My father, the late Marquis de St. Palaye, always expressed to me the obligation under which he conceived himself to be in this respect, and this obligation is, of course, much increased in my case.'
"The obligation, Monsieur le Marquis,' said the lawyer, 'if such there be, has been too liberally repaid both by your father and yourself.'
'To tell the truth, Monsieur Cacotte,' said the Marquis, leaning back in his chair, with his feet stretched out towards the fire, and speaking with an appearance of being perfectly at home with his companion, and desirous of confiding in him--'to tell the truth, I am, even in this age of science and encyclopaedias, somewhat superstitious, and I have a presentiment--the St. Palayes often had it--that I have not long to live. Do not suppose that I shrink from this prospect, though it is a singular statement for a man to make who is about to marry, and to marry such a bride as mine! Yet I do not mind confiding to you, Monsieur Cacotte, that I am somewhat wearied of life. The world grows very old, and it does not seem to mend.'
'Monsieur le Marquis has been too long unmarried,' said the lawyer. 'I am not surprised that he should be wearied of the enjoyments which he has had the opportunity of tasting to such repletion. He will speak differently when he has a lovely woman by his side, and knows the felicity of wife and child.'
'Ah, Monsieur Cacotte!' said the Marquis, smiling, 'you speak, as they all do, of felicity. There is such a thing, believe me, as the intolerable weariness of a too constant felicity. When I hear even of the joy of the future, and of the bliss of heaven, it seems to me sometimes that the most blissful heaven is to cease to exist.--Let me sign the deed.'
A servant was called in as a witness, and the Marquis signed the first will. Then he said to Monsieur Cacotte--
'The marriage will take place in six weeks in Auvergne; I hope that Monsieur Cacotte will honour the ceremony with his presence. I can assure you from my own experience that you will have nothing to complain of in the hospitality of Monsieur le Comte.'
The Chevalier returned to his lodging about the same time that the Marquis entered his hotel. His valet awaited him that he might change his dress as usual before going into the town to spend the remainder of the evening. The man perceived at once that his master was excited and unhappy. He was an Italian by birth, and had accompanied the Chevalier in his campaigns, and in his secret visits to the Chateau de Frontênac. He saw that the crisis had arrived.
'Does Monsieur go down into Auvergne this autumn?' he said.
'We go down once more,' said the Chevalier gloomily. He had divested himself of his court dress, and was taking from his valet a suit of dark clothes somewhat resembling a hunting suit. 'Yes, we go down once more: this cursed marriage will take place a month hence.'
'Monsieur takes this marriage too much to heart,' said the Italian,--and as he spoke he handed the coat, which his master put on, 'it may never take place. A month hence in the country they will begin to hunt--to hunt the boar. No doubt the party at the château will divert themselves in this way while the nuptial ceremonies are arranged. It is a dangerous sport. Many accidents take place, many unfortunate shots--quite unintentional. Monsieur le Chevalier is a finished sportsman. He has a steady hand and a sure eye. C'est un fait accompli.'
The Chevalier started: in the large glass before him he saw a terrible figure dressed as for the chase, but pale as a corpse, and trembling in every limb as with the palsy. He shuddered and turned away.
The piqueurs sent up word to the château that a magnificent boar had been lodged in a copse at the foot of the forest road. An answer was sent down accordingly that the Marquis would drive him early in the morning, and that he should be turned if possible towards the château.
In the morning, therefore, very early, the whole household was astir. The ladies were mounted, and, divided into parties, cantered down the road and along the forest paths to those points where, according to the advice of their several attendant cavaliers, the hunt would most likely be seen to advantage. The Marquis, it was said, had been down at a still earlier hour to rouse the boar. Every now and then a distant horn sounding over the waving autumn forest told that the sport had commenced.
The ladies were gay and delighted, and those of the gentlemen who, like Monsieur Cacotte, were not much accustomed to country life and scenes, shared their enjoyment to the full. And indeed it seemed a morning out of fairyland. From every branch and spray upon which the leaves, tinted with a thousand colours, were trembling already to their fall, hung sparkling festoons of fairy lace, the mysterious gossamer web which in a single night wreathes a whole forest with a magic covering which the first hour of sunlight as soon destroys. Yellows, browns, and purples formed the background of this dazzling network of fairy silver which crossed in all directions the forest rides.
But though the morning was so lovely the ladies grew tired of riding up and down waiting for the hunt. The horns became fainter and more distant, and it became evident that the chase had drifted to the eastward.
'Why do you stay here, Monsieur de Circassonne?' said Mademoiselle de Frontênac, smiling, to a young man, almost a boy, who had with the utmost devotion remained by the side of herself and a very pretty girl, her companion. 'Why do you stay here? You are not wont to desert the chase. What can have happened to the Marquis and the rest?'
The boy looked somewhat sheepish, and replied to the latter part of the question only.
'I fancy that the boar has broken out, in spite of the piqueurs, and that the Marquis has failed to turn him. They have probably lost him in the forest.'
'But is not that very dangerous?' said the pretty girl. 'If they do not know where the boar is, he may burst out upon us at any moment.'
The boy looked at her as though much pleased.
'That is quite true,' he said. 'It was one reason why I stayed.'
Monsieur de Circassonne was not far wrong in his opinion. This is what had happened.
When the Marquis arrived at the cover, very soon after sunrise, he found that the boar, ungraciously refusing to wait his opponent's convenience, had broken cover, and wounding one of the piqueurs, who attempted to turn him, had gone down the valley. He was described as an unusually fine animal, and the dogs were upon his track.
The course which the boar had taken lay through the thick of the forest. it was rugged and uneven, and he could only be pursued on foot. After some distance had been traversed, the scent was suddenly crossed by a large sow, who, as frequently happened, apparently with the express purpose of diverting the pursuit from her companion, crossed immediately in front 0f the dogs and went crashing down through the coppice to the right. Most of the hounds followed her, and the piqueurs, with few exceptions, followed the dogs. The Marquis, however, succeeded in calling off some of the oldest hounds, and, accompanied by two or three piqueurs, followed the original chase. Some distance farther on, however, the boar had taken to the water, and the scent was lost. At the same time the horns sounding in the valley to the right showed that the deserters had come up with their quarry, and distracted the attention of both piqueurs and dogs. The former were of opinion that the boar had simply crossed the river, and taking the dogs across they made a cast on the opposite bank, where the dogs ran backwards and forwards baying disconsolately. The Marquis, however, believing that the boar had followed the course of the stream for at least some distance, kept on the left bank, and forcing his way round one or two craggy points, found at last the spot where the boar, apparently but a few moments before, had scrambled up the bank. He sounded his horn, but either from the baying of the dogs, or the noise and excitement in the valley below, he was disregarded, and pushing aside the branches before him, the Marquis found himself at the foot of a ravine down which a mountain torrent was rushing to join the river below. The bed of the ravine was composed of turf overstrewn with craggy rock, and on either side rugged cliffs, out of the fissures of which lofty oaks and chestnuts had grown for centuries, towered up towards the sky.
The Marquis waited for a moment, but hearing no reply to his horn, he entered the ravine alone.
As he did so, the strange shapes which the hanging roots and branches of the trees assumed might seem to beckon and warn him back; but, on the other land, a thousand happy and pleasing objects spoke of life and joy. The sun shone brilliantly through the trembling leaves, birds of many colours flitted from spray to spray, butterflies and bright insects crossed the fretted work of light and shade. The chase was evidently before him--why should he turn back?
Some fifty yards up the valley the rocks retreated on either side, leaving a wide and open grassy space, down which the torrent was rushing, and over which fragments of basaltic rock, split from the wooded cliffs above, were strewn. At the summit of this grassy slope, standing beneath a bare escarpment of basalt, the Marquis saw the boar.
Its sides and legs were stained with mud and soil, but the chase had been very short, and the animal seemed to have turned to bay more out of curiosity and interest than from terror or exhaustion. It stood sniffing the air and panting with excitement, its hair bristling with anger, its white and polished tusks shining in the sun.
When the Marquis saw this superb creature standing above him on the turf, a glow of healthy and genuine pleasure passed over his face. He swung his horn round far out of reach behind his back, and drew his long and jewelled knife. The boar and he would try this issue alone.
For some seconds they stood facing each other. Then the posture of the Marquis changed inexplicably. He rose to his full height, his gaze was fixed as if by fascination upon a long range of low rocks above him to the left, and an expression of surprise, which did not amount to anxiety even, came into his face. Then he dropped his knife, threw his arms up suddenly over his head, and falling backwards, rolled once over and lay motionless upon the uneven turf in an uneasy posture, his head lower than the limbs. A puff of white smoke rose from the rocks above, and the reverberating echo of a hunting piece struck the rocks and went on sounding alternately from side to side down the valley.
The boar, startled at the shot, and still more, probably, by the sudden fall of his adversary, crept into the thicket, and, while a man might count sixty, an awful silence fell upon hill, and rock, and wood. The myriad happy creatures that filled the air with murmur and with life became invisible and silent, and even the rushing torrent ceased to sound.
Then a terrible figure, habited in the costume of the chase, but trembling in every limb as with a palsy, rose from behind the rocks upon the left. With tottering and uneven steps, it staggered down the grassy slope, and stood beside the fallen man. The Marquis opened his eyes, and when he saw this figure he tried to raise himself from the uneasy posture in which he had fallen. When he found it was impossible, a smile of indescribably serene courtesy formed itself gradually upon his face.
'Ah, Chevalier,' he said, speaking slowly and at intervals, 'that was scarcely fair! Make my regrets to the Marquise. Monsieur Cacotte--will speak to you--about--my--will.'
Then, the smile fading from the lips, his head fell back into the uneasy posture in which it had lain, and the Marquis Jeanne Hyacinthe de St. Palaye rested in peace upon the bloodstained grass.