Mauprat (Heinemann)/Chapter 17
An immense change had taken place in me during the course of six years. I had become a man very much like other men; my instincts had managed to bring themselves into harmony with my affections, my intuitions with my reason. This social education had been carried on quite naturally; all I had to do was to accept the lessons of experience and the counsels of friendship. I was far from being a learned man; but I had developed a power of acquiring solid learning very rapidly. My notions of things in general were as clear as could be obtained at that time. Since then I know that real progress has been made in human knowledge; I have watched it from afar and have never thought of denying it. And as I notice that not all men of my age show themselves as reasonable, it pleases me to think that I was put on a fairly right road early in life, since I have never stopped in the blind alley of errors and prejudices.
The progress I had made intellectually seemed to satisfy Edmée.
"I am not astonished at it," she said. "I could see it in your letters; but I rejoice at it with a mother's pride."
My good uncle was no longer strong enough to engage in the old stormy discussions; and I really think that if he had retained his strength he would have been somewhat grieved to find that I was no longer the indefatigable opponent who had formerly irritated him so persistently. He even made a few attempts at contradiction to test me; but at this time I should have considered it a crime to have gratified him. He showed a little temper at this, and seemed to think that I treated him too much as an old man. To console him I turned the conversation to the history of the past, to the years through which he himself had lived, and questioned him on many points wherein his experience served him better than my knowledge. In this way I obtained many healthy notions for the guidance of my own conduct, and at the same time I fully satisfied his legitimate amour propre. He now conceived a friendship for me from genuine sympathy, just as formerly he had adopted me from natural generosity and family pride. He did not disguise from me that his great desire, before falling into the sleep that knows no waking, was to see me married to Edmée; and when I told him that this was the one thought of my life, the one wish of my soul, he said:
"I know, I know. Everything depends on her, and I think she can no longer have any reasons for hesitation. . . . At all events," he added, after a moment's silence and with a touch of peevishness, "I cannot see any that she could allege at present."
From these words, the first he had ever uttered on the subject which most interested me, I concluded that he himself had long been favourable to my suit, and that the obstacle, if one still existed, lay with Edmée. My uncle's last remark implied a doubt which I dared not try to clear up, and which caused me great uneasiness. Edmée's sensitive pride inspired me with such awe, her unspeakable goodness filled me with such respect that I dared not ask her point-blank to decide my fate. I made up my mind to act as if I entertained no other hope than that she would always let me be her brother and friend.
An event which long remained inexplicable afforded some distraction to my thoughts for a few days. At first I had refused to go and take possession of Roche-Mauprat.
"You really must," my uncle had said, "go and see the improvements I have made in your property, the lands which have been brought under cultivation, the cattle that I have put on each of your metayer-farms. Now is the time for you to see how your affairs stand, and show your tenants that you take an interest in their work. Otherwise, on my death, everything will go from bad to worse and you will be obliged to let it, which may bring you in a larger income, perhaps, but will diminish the value of the property. I am too old now to go and manage your estate. For the last two years I have been unable to leave off this miserable dressing-gown; the abbé does not understand anything about it; Edmée has an excellent head; but she cannot bring herself to go to that place; she says she would be too much afraid, which is mere childishness."
"I know that I ought to display more courage," I replied; "and yet, uncle, what you are asking me to do is for me the most difficult thing in the world. I have not set foot on that accursed soil since the day I left it, bearing Edmée away from her captors. It is as if you were driving me out of heaven to send me on a visit to hell."
The chevalier shrugged his shoulders; the abbé implored me to bring myself to do as he wished, as the reluctance I showed was a veritable disappointment to my uncle. I consented, and with a determination to conquer myself, I took leave of Edmée for two days. The abbé wanted to accompany me, to drive away the gloomy thoughts which would no doubt besiege me; but I had scruples about taking him from Edmée even for this short time; I knew how necessary he was to her. Tied as she was to the chevalier's arm-chair, her life was so serious, so retired, that the least change was acutely felt. Each year had increased her isolation, and it had become almost complete since the chevalier's failing health had driven from his table those happy children of wine, songs, and witticisms. He had been a great sportsman; and Saint Hubert's Day, which fell on his birthday, had formerly brought all the nobility of the province to his house. Year after year the courtyards had resounded with the howls of the pack; year after year the stables had held their two long rows of spirited horses in their glistening stalls; year after year the sound of the horn had echoed through the great woods around, or sent out its blast under the windows of the big hall at each toast of the brilliant company. But those glorious days had long disappeared; the chevalier had given up hunting; and the hope of obtaining his daughter's hand no longer brought round his arm-chair young men, who were bored by his old age, his attacks of gout, and the stories which he would repeat in the evening without remembering that he had already told them in the morning. Edmée's obstinate refusals and the dismissal of M. de la Marche had caused great astonishment, and given rise to many conjectures among the curious. One young man who was in love with her, and had been rejected like the rest, was impelled by a stupid and cowardly conceit to avenge himself on the only woman of his own class who, according to him, had dared to repulse him. Having discovered that Edmée had been carried off by the Hamstringers, he spread a report that she had spent a night of wild debauch at Roche-Mauprat. At best, he only deigned to concede that she had yielded only to violence. Edmée commanded too much respect and esteem to be accused of having shown complaisance to the brigands; but she soon passed for having been a victim of their brutality. Marked with an indelible stain, she was no longer sought in marriage by any one. My absence only served to confirm this opinion. I had saved her from death, it was said, but not from shame, and it was impossible for me to make her my wife; I was in love with her, and had fled lest I should yield to the temptation to marry her. All this seemed so probable that it would have been difficult to make the public accept the true version. They were the less ready to accept it from the fact that Edmée had been unwilling to put an end to the evil reports by giving her hand to a man she could not love. Such, then, were the causes of her isolation; it was not until later that I fully understood them. But I could see the austerity of the chevalier's home and Edmée's melancholy calm, and I was afraid to drop even a dry leaf in the sleeping waters. Thus I begged the abbé to remain with them until my return. I took no one with me except my faithful sergeant Marcasse. Edmée had declared that he must not leave me, and had arranged that henceforth he was to share Patience's elegant hut and administrative life.
I arrived at Roche-Mauprat one foggy evening in the early days of autumn; the sun was hidden, and all Nature was wrapped in silence and mist. The plains were deserted; the air alone seemed alive with the noise of great flocks of birds of passage; cranes were drawing their gigantic triangles across the sky, and storks at an immeasurable height were filling the clouds with mournful cries, which fell upon the saddened country like the dirge of parting summer. For the first time in the year I felt a chilliness in the air. I think that all men are filled with an involuntary sadness at the approach of the inclement season. In the first hoar-frosts there is something which bids man remember the approaching dissolution of his own being.
My companion and I had traversed woods and heaths without saying a single word; we had made a long detour to avoid Gazeau Tower, which I felt I could not bear to look upon again. The sun was sinking in shrouds of gray when we passed the portcullis at Roche-Mauprat. This portcullis was broken; the drawbridge was never raised, and the only things that crossed it now were peaceful flocks and their careless shepherds. The fosses were half filled, and the bluish osiers were already spreading out their flexible branches over the shallow waters; nettles were growing at the foot of the crumbling towers, and the traces of the fire seemed still fresh upon the walls. The farm buildings had all been repaired; and the court, full of cattle and poultry and sheep-dogs and agricultural implements, contrasted strangely with the gloomy inclosure in which I still seemed to see the red flames of the besiegers shooting up, and the black blood of the Mauprats flowing.
I was received with the quiet and somewhat chilly hospitality of the peasants of Berry. They did not lay themselves out to please me, but they let me want for nothing. Quarters were found for me in the only one of the old wings which had not been damaged in the siege, or subsequently abandoned to the ravages of time. The massive architecture of the body of the building dated from the tenth century; the door was smaller than the windows, and the windows themselves gave so little light that we had to take candles to find our way, although the sun had hardly set. The building had been restored provisionally to serve as an occasional lodging for the new seigneur or his stewards. My Uncle Hubert had often been there to see to my interests so long as his strength had allowed him; and they showed me to the room which he had reserved for himself, and which had therefore been known as the master's room. The best things that had been saved from the old furniture had been placed there; and, as it was cold and damp, in spite of all the trouble they had taken to make it habitable, the tenant's servant preceded me with a firebrand in one hand and a fagot in the other.
Blinded by the smoke which she scattered round me in clouds, and deceived by the new entrance which they had made in another part of the courtyard, and by certain corridors which they had walled up to save the trouble of looking after them, I reached the room without recognising anything; indeed, I could not have said in what part of the old buildings I was, to such an extent had the new appearance of the courtyard upset my recollections, and so little had my mind in its gloom and agitation been impressed by surrounding objects.
While the servant was lighting the fire, I threw myself into a chair, and, burying my head in my hands, fell into a melancholy train of thought. My position, however, was not without a certain charm; for the past naturally appears in an embellished or softened form to the minds of young men, those presumptuous masters of the future. When, by dint of blowing the brand, the servant had filled the room with dense smoke, she went off to fetch some embers and left me alone. Marcasse had remained in the stable to attend to our horses. Blaireau had followed me; lying down by the hearth, he glanced at me from time to time with a dissatisfied air, as if to ask me the reason of such a wretched lodging and such a poor fire.
Suddenly, as I cast my eyes round the room, old memories seemed to awaken in me. The fire, after making the green wood hiss, sent a flame up the chimney, and the whole room was illumined with a bright though unsteady light, which gave all the objects a weird, ambiguous appearance. Blaireau rose, turned his back to the fire and sat down between my legs, as if he thought that something strange and unexpected was going to happen.
I then realized that this place was none other than my grandfather Tristan's bed-room, afterward occupied for several years by his eldest son, the detestable John, my cruelest oppressor, the most crafty and cowardly of the Hamstringers. I was filled with a sense of terror and disgust on recognising the furniture, even the very bed with twisted posts on which my grandfather had given up his blackened soul to God, amid all the torments of a lingering death agony. The arm-chair which I was sitting in was the one in which John the Crooked (as he was pleased to call himself in his facetious days) used to sit and think out his villainies or issue his odious orders. At this moment I thought I saw the ghosts of all the Mauprats passing before me, with their bloody hands and their eyes dulled with wine. I got up and was about to yield to the horror that I felt by taking to flight, when suddenly I saw a figure rise up in front of me, so distinct, so recognisable, so different in its vivid reality from the chimeras that had just besieged me, that I fell back in my chair, all bathed in a cold sweat. Standing by the bed was John Mauprat. He had just got out, for he was holding the half-opened curtain in his hand. He seemed to me the same as formerly, only he was still thinner, and paler and more hideous. His head was shaved, and his body wrapped in a dark winding-sheet. He gave me a hellish glance; a smile full of hate and contempt played on his thin, shrivelled lips. He stood motionless with his gleaming eyes fixed on me, and seemed as if about to speak. In that instant I was convinced that what I was looking on was a living being, a man of flesh and blood; it seems incredible, therefore, that I should have felt paralyzed by such childish fear. But it would be idle for me to deny it, nor have I ever yet been able to find an explanation; I was riveted to the ground with fear. The man's glance petrified me; I could not utter a sound. Blaireau rushed at him; then he waved the folds of his funeral garment, like a shroud all foul with the dampness of the tomb, and I fainted.
When I recovered consciousness Marcasse was by my side, anxiously endeavouring to lift me. I was lying on the ground as rigid as a corpse. It was with great difficulty that I collected my thoughts; but, as soon as I could stand upright, I seized Marcasse and hurriedly dragged him out of the accursed room. I had several narrow escapes of falling as I hastened down the winding stairs, and it was only on breathing the evening air in the courtyard, and smelling the healthy odour of the stables, that I recovered the use of my reason.
I did not hesitate to look upon what had just happened as an hallucination. I had given proof of my courage in war in the presence of my worthy sergeant; I did not blush, therefore, to confess the truth to him. I answered his questions frankly, and I described my horrible vision with such minute details that he, too, was impressed with the reality of it, and, as he walked about with me in the courtyard, kept repeating with a thoughtful air:
"Singular, singular! Astonishing!"
"No, it is not astonishing," I said, when I felt that I had quite recovered. "I experienced a most painful sensation on my way here; for several days I had struggled to overcome my aversion to seeing Roche-Mauprat again. Last night I had a nightmare, and I felt so exhausted and depressed this morning that, if I had not been afraid of offending my uncle, I should have postponed this disagreeable visit. As we entered the place, I felt a chill come over me; there seemed to be a weight on my chest, and I could not breathe. Probably, too, the pungent smoke that filled the room disturbed my brain. Again, after all the hardships and dangers of our terrible voyage, from which we have hardly recovered, either of us, is it astonishing that my nerves gave way at the first painful emotion?"
"Tell me," replied Marcasse, who was still pondering the matter, "did you notice Blaireau at the moment? What did Blaireau do?"
"I thought I saw Blaireau rush at the phantom at the moment when it disappeared; but I suppose I dreamt that like the rest."
"Hum!" said the sergeant. "When I entered, Blaireau was wildly excited. He kept coming to you, sniffing, whining in his way, running to the bed, scratching the wall, coming to me, running to you. Strange, that! Astonishing, captain, astonishing, that!"
After a silence of a few moments:
"Dead don't return!" he exclaimed, shaking his head. "Dead never return; besides, why dead, John? Not dead! Still two Mauprats! Who knows? Where the devil? Dead don't return; and my master mad? Never. Ill? No."
After this colloquy the sergeant went and fetched a light, drew his faithful sword from the scabbard, whistled Blaireau, and bravely seized the rope which served as a balustrade for the staircase, requesting me to remain below. Great as was my repugnance to entering the room again, I did not hesitate to follow Marcasse, in spite of his recommendation. Our first care was to examine the bed; but while we had been talking in the courtyard the servant had brought clean sheets, had made the bed, and was now smoothing the blankets.
"Who has been sleeping there?" asked Marcasse, with his usual caution.
"Nobody," she replied, "except M. le Chevalier or M. l'Abbé Aubert, in the days when they used to come."
"But yesterday, or to-day, I mean?" said Marcasse.
"Oh! yesterday and to-day, nobody, sir; for it is quite two years since M. le Chevalier came here; and as for M. l'Abbé, he never sleeps here, now that he comes alone. He arrives in the morning, has lunch with us, and goes back in the evening."
"But the bed was disarranged," said Marcasse, looking at her attentively.
"Oh, well! that may be, sir," she replied. "I do not know how they left it the last time some one slept here; I did not pay any attention to that as I put on the sheets; all I know is that M. Bernard's cloak was lying on the top."
"My cloak?" I exclaimed. "It was left in the stable."
"And mine, too," said Marcasse. "I have just folded both together and put them on the corn-bin."
"You must have had two, then," replied the servant; "for I am sure I took one off the bed. It was a black cloak, not new."
Mine, as a fact, was lined with red and trimmed with gold lace. Marcasse's was light gray. It could not, therefore, have been one of our cloaks brought up for a moment by the man and then taken back to the stable.
"But, what did you do with it?" said the sergeant.
"My word, sir," replied the fat girl, "Iit there, over the arm-chair. You must have taken it while I went to get a candle. I can't see it now."
We searched the room thoroughly; the cloak was not to be found. We pretended that we needed it, not denying that it was ours. The servant unmade the bed in our presence, and then went and asked the man what he had done with it. Nothing could be found either in the bed or in the room; the man had not been upstairs. All the farm-folk were in a state of excitement, fearing that some one might be accused of theft. We inquired if a stranger had not come to Roche-Mauprat, and if he was not still there. When we ascertained that these good people had neither housed nor seen any one, we reassured them about the lost cloak by saying that Marcasse had accidentally folded it with the two others. Then we shut ourselves in the room, in order to explore it at our ease; for it was now almost evident that what I had seen was by no means a ghost, but John Mauprat himself, or a man very like him, whom I had mistaken for John.
Marcasse having aroused Blaireau by voice and gesture, watched all his movements.
"Set your mind at rest," he said with pride; "the old dog has not forgotten his old trade. If there is a hole, a hole as big as your hand, have no fear. Now, old dog! Have no fear."
Blaireau, indeed, after sniffing everywhere, persisted in scratching the wall at the place where I had seen the apparition; he would start back every time his pointed nose came to a certain spot in the wainscotting; then, wagging his bushy tail with a satisfied air, he would return to his master as if to tell him to concentrate his attention on this spot. The sergeant then began to examine the wall and the woodwork; he tried to insinuate his sword into some crack; there was no sign of an opening. Still, a door might have been there, for the flowers carved on the woodwork would hide a skilfully constructed sliding panel. The essential thing was to find the spring that made this panel work; but that was impossible in spite of all the efforts we made for two long hours. In vain did we try to shake the panel; it gave forth the same sound as the others. They were all sonorous, showing that the wainscot was not in immediate contact with the masonry. Still, there might be a gap of only a few inches between them. At last Marcasse, perspiring profusely, stopped, and said to me:
"This is very stupid; if we searched all night we should not find a spring if there is none; and however hard we hammered, we could not break in the door if there happened to be big iron bars behind it, as I have sometimes seen in other old country-houses."
"The axe might help us to find a passage," I said, "if there is one; but why, simply because your dog scratches the wall, persist in believing that John Mauprat, or the man who resembles him, could not have come in and gone out by the door?"
"Come in, if you like," replied Marcasse, "but gone out—no, on my honour! For, as the servant came down I was on the staircase brushing my boots. As soon as I heard something fall here, I rushed up quickly three stairs at a time, and found that it was you—like a corpse, stretched out on the floor, very ill; no one inside nor outside, on my honour!"
"In that case, then, I must have dreamt of my fiend of an uncle, and the servant must have dreamt of the black cloak; for it is pretty certain that there is no secret door here; and even if there were one, and all the Mauprats, living and dead, knew the secret of it, what were that to us? Do we belong to the police that we should hunt out these wretched creatures? And if by chance we found them hidden somewhere, should we not help them to escape, rather than hand them over to justice? We are armed; we need not be afraid that they will assassinate us to-night; and if they amuse themselves by frightening us, my word, woe betide them! I have no eye for either relatives or friends when I am startled in my sleep. So come, let us attack the omelette that these good people my tenants are preparing for us; for if we continue knocking and scratching the walls they will think we are mad."
Marcasse yielded from a sense of duty rather than from conviction. He seemed to attach great importance to the discovery of this mystery, and to be far from easy in his mind. He was unwilling to let me remain alone in the haunted room, and pretended that I might fall ill again and have a fit.
"Oh, this time," I said, "I shall not play the coward. The cloak has cured me of my fear of ghosts; and I should not advise any one to meddle with me."
The hidalgo was obliged to leave me alone. I loaded my pistols and put them on the table within reach of my hand; but these precautions were a pure waste of time; nothing disturbed the silence of the room, and the heavy red silk curtains, with their coat of arms at the corners in tarnished silver, were not stirred by the slightest breath. Marcasse returned and, delighted at finding me as cheerful as he had left me, began preparing our supper with as much care as if we had come to Roche-Mauprat for the sole purpose of making a good meal. He made jokes about the capon which was still singing on the spit, and about the wine which was so like a brush in the throat. His good humour increased when the tenant appeared, bringing a few bottles of excellent Madeira, which had been left with him by the chevalier, who liked to drink a glass or two before setting foot in the stirrup. In return we invited the worthy man to sup with us, as the least tedious way of discussing business matters.
"Good," he said; "it will be like old times when the peasants used to eat at the table of the seigneurs of Roche-Mauprat. You are doing the same, Monsieur Bernard; you are quite right."
"Yes, sir," I replied very coldly; "only I behave thus with those who owe me money, not those to whom I owe it."
This reply, and the word "sir," frightened him so much that he was at great pains to excuse himself from sitting down to table. However, I insisted, as I wished to give him the measure of my character at once. I treated him as a man I was raising to my own level, not as one to whom I wished to descend. I forced him to be cleanly in his jokes, but allowed him to be free and facetious within the limits of decent mirth. He was a frank, jovial man. I questioned him minutely to discover if he was not in league with the phantom who was in the habit of leaving his cloak upon the bed. This, however, seemed far from probable; the man evidently had such an aversion for the Hamstringers, that, had not a regard for my relationship held him back, he would have been only too glad to have given them such a dressing in my presence as they deserved. But I could not allow him any license on this point; so I requested him to give me an account of my property, which he did with intelligence, accuracy, and honesty.
As he withdrew I noticed that the Madeira had had considerable effect on him; he seemed to have no control over his legs, which kept catching in the furniture; and yet he had been in sufficient possession of his faculties to reason correctly. I have always observed that wine acts much more powerfully on the muscles of peasants than on their nerves; that they rarely lose their heads, and that, on the contrary, stimulants produce in them a bliss unknown to us; the pleasure they derive from drunkenness is quite different from ours and very superior to our febrile exaltation.
When Marcasse and I found ourselves alone, though we were not drunk, we realized that the wine had filled us with a gaiety and light-heartedness which we should not have felt at Roche-Mauprat, even without the adventure with the ghost. Accustomed as we were to speak our thoughts freely, we confessed mutually, and agreed that we were much better prepared than before supper to receive all the bogies of Varenne.
This word "bogey" reminded me of the adventure which had brought me into far from friendly contact with Patience at the age of thirteen. Marcasse knew about it already, but he knew very little of my character at that time, and I amused myself by telling him of my wild rush across the fields after being thrashed by the sorcerer.
"This makes me think," I concluded by saying, "that I have an imagination which easily gets overexcited, and that I am not above fear of the supernatural. Thus the apparition just now . . ."
"No matter, no matter," said Marcasse, looking at the priming of my pistols, and putting them on the table by my bed. "Do not forget that all the Hamstringers are not dead; that, if John is in this world, he will do harm until he is under the ground, and trebly locked in hell."
The wine was loosening the hidalgo's tongue; on those rare occasions when he allowed himself to depart from his usual sobriety, he was not wanting in wit. He was unwilling to leave me, and made a bed for himself by the side of mine. My nerves were excited by the incidents of the day, and I allowed myself, therefore, to speak of Edmée, not in such a way as to deserve the shadow of a reproach from her if she had heard my words, but more freely than I might have spoken with a man who was as yet my inferior and not my friend, as he became later. I could not say exactly how much I confessed to him of my sorrows and hopes and anxieties; but those confidences had a disastrous effect, as you will soon see.
We fell asleep while we were talking, with Blaireau at his master's feet, the hidalgo's sword across his knees near the dog, the light between us, my pistols ready to hand, my hunting-knife under my pillow, and the bolts shot. Nothing disturbed our repose. When the sun awakened us the cocks were crowing merrily in the courtyard, and the labourers were cracking their rustic jokes as they yoked the oxen under our windows.
"All the same there is something at the bottom of it."
Such was Marcasse's first remark as he opened his eyes, and took up the conversation where he had dropped it the night before.
"Did you see or hear anything during the night?" I asked.
"Nothing at all," he replied. "All the same, Blaireau has been disturbed in his sleep; for my sword has fallen down; and then, we have found no explanation of what happened here."
"Let who will explain it," I answered. " I shall certainly not trouble myself."
"Wrong, wrong; you are wrong!"
"That may be, my good sergeant; but I do not like this room at all, and it seems to me so ugly by daylight, that I feel that I must get far away from it, and breathe some pure air."
"Well, I will go with you; but I shall return. I do not want to leave this to chance. I know what John Mauprat is capable of; you don't."
"I do not wish to know; and if there is any danger here for myself or my friends, I do not wish you to return."
Marcasse shook his head and said nothing. We went round the farm once more before departing. Marcasse was very much struck with a certain incident to which I should have paid but little attention. The farmer wished to introduce me to his wife, but she could not be persuaded to see me, and went and hid herself in the hemp-field. I attributed this to the shyness of youth.
"Fine youth, my word!" said Marcasse; "youth like mine, fifty years old and more! There is something beneath it, something beneath, I tell you."
"What the devil can there be?"
"Hum! She was very friendly with John Mauprat in her day. She found his crooked legs to her liking. I know about it; yes, I know many other things, too; many things—you may take my word!"
"You shall tell me them the next time we come; and that will not be so soon; for my affairs are going on much better than if I interfered with them; and I should not like to get into the habit of drinking Madeira to prevent myself from being frightened at my own shadow. And now, Marcasse, I must ask you as a favour not to tell any one what has happened. Everybody has not your respect for your captain."
"The man who does not respect my captain is an idiot," answered the hidalgo, in a tone of authority; "but, if you order me, I will say nothing."
He kept his word. I would not on any account have had Edmée's mind disturbed by this stupid tale. However, I could not prevent Marcasse from carrying out his design; early the following morning he disappeared, and I learnt from Patience that he had returned to Roche-Mauprat under the pretence of having forgotten something.