Mauprat (Heinemann)/Chapter 8
We had travelled about a league through the woods. Wherever other paths had crossed our own, we had stopped to call aloud; for Edmée, convinced that her father would not return home without finding her, had implored her companions to help her to rejoin him. To this shouting the gendarmes had been very averse, as they were afraid of being discovered and attacked by bodies of the fugitives from Roche-Mauprat. On our way they informed us that this den had been captured at the third assault. Until then the assailants had husbanded their forces. The officer in command of the gendarmes was anxious to get possession of the keep without destroying it; and, above all, to take the defenders alive. This, however, was impossible on account of the desperate resistance they made. The besiegers suffered so severely in their second attempt that they found themselves compelled to adopt extreme measures or to retreat. They therefore set the outer buildings on fire, and in the ensuing assault put forth all their strength. Two Mauprats were killed while fighting on the ruins of their bastion; the other five disappeared. Six men were despatched in pursuit of them in one direction, six in another. Traces of the fugitives had been discovered immediately, and the men who gave us these details had followed Laurence and Leonard so closely that several of their shots had hit the former only a short distance from Gazeau Tower. They had heard him cry that he was done for; and, as far as they could see, Leonard had carried him to the sorcerer's door. This Leonard was the only one of my uncles who deserved any pity, for he was the only one who might, perhaps, have been encouraged to a better kind of life. At times there was a touch of chivalry in his brigandage, and his savage heart was capable of affection. I was deeply moved, therefore, by his tragic death, and let myself be carried along mechanically, plunged in gloomy thoughts, and determined to end my days in the same manner should I ever be condemned to the disgrace he had scorned to endure.
All at once the sound of horns and the baying of hounds announced the approach of a party of huntsmen. While we, on our side, were answering with shouts, Patience ran to meet them. Edmée, longing to see her father again, and forgetting all the horrors of this bloody night, whipped up her horse and reached the hunters first. As soon as we came up with them, I saw Edmée in the arms of a tall man with a venerable face. He was richly dressed; his hunting-coat, with gold lace over all the seams, and the magnificent Norman horse, which a groom was holding behind him, so struck me that I thought I was in the presence of a prince. The signs of love which he was showing his daughter were so new to me that I was inclined to deem them exaggerated and unworthy of the dignity of a man. At the same time they filled me with a sort of brute jealousy; for it did not occur to my mind that a man so splendidly dressed could be my uncle. Edmée was speaking to him in a low voice, but with great animation. Their conversation lasted a few moments. At the end of it the old man came and embraced me cordially. Everything about these manners seemed so new to me, that I responded neither by word nor gesture to the protestations and caresses of which I was the object. A tall young man, with a handsome face, as elegantly dressed as M. Hubert, also came and shook my hand and proffered thanks; why, I could not understand. He next entered into a discussion with the gendarmes, and I gathered that he was the lieutenant-general of the province, and that he was ordering them to set me at liberty for the present, that I might accompany my uncle to his château, where he undertook to be responsible for me. The gendarmes then left us, for the chevalier and the lieutenant-general were sufficiently well escorted by their own men not to fear attack from any one. A fresh cause of astonishment for me was to see the chevalier bestowing marks of warm friendship on Patience and Marcasse. As for the curé, he was upon a footing of equality with these seigneurs. For some months he had been chaplain at the château of Sainte-Sévère, having previously been compelled to give up his living by the persecutions of the diocesan clergy.
All this tenderness of which Edmée was the object, this family affection so completely new to me, the genuinely cordial relations existing between respectful plebeians and kindly patricians everything that I now saw and heard seemed like a dream. I looked on with a sensation that it was all unintelligible to me. However, soon after our caravan started my brain began to work; for I then saw the lieutenant-general (M. de la Marche) thrust his horse between Edmée's and my own, as if he had a right to be next to her. I remembered her telling me at Roche-Mauprat that he was her betrothed. Hatred and anger at once surged up within me, and I know not what absurdity I should have committed, had not Edmée, apparently divining the workings of my unruly soul, told him that she wanted to speak to me, and thus restored me to my place by her side.
"What have you to say to me?" I asked with more eagerness than politeness.
"Nothing," she answered in an undertone. "I shall have much to say later. Until then will you do everything I ask of you?"
"And why the devil should I do everything you ask of me, cousin?"
For a moment she hesitated to reply; then, making an effort, she said:
"Because it is thus that a man proves to a woman that he loves her."
"Do you believe that I don't love you?" I replied abruptly.
"How should I know?" she said.
This doubt astonished me very much, and I tried to combat it after my fashion.
"Are you not beautiful?" I said; "and am not I a young man? Perhaps you think I am too much of a boy to notice a woman's beauty; but now that my head is calm, and I am sad and quite serious, I can assure you that I am even more deeply in love with you than I thought. The more I look at you the more beautiful you seem. I did not think that a woman could be so lovely. I tell you I shall not sleep till . . ."
"Hold your tongue," she said sharply.
"Oh, I suppose you are afraid that man will hear me," I answered, pointing to M. de la Marche. "Have no fear; I know how to keep my word; and, as you are the daughter of a noble house, I hope you know how to keep yours."
She did not reply. We had reached a part of the road where it was only possible for two to walk abreast. The darkness was profound, and although the chevalier and the lieutenant-general were at our heels, I was going to make bold to put my arm round her waist, when she said to me, in a sad and weary voice:
"Cousin, forgive me for not talking to you. I'm afraid I did not quite understand what you said. I am so exhausted that I feel as if I were going to die. Luckily, we have reached home now. Promise me that you will love my father, that you will yield to all his wishes, that you will decide nothing without consulting me. Promise me this if you would have me believe in your friendship."
"Oh, my friendship? you are welcome not to believe in that," I answered; "but you must believe in my love. I promise everything you wish. And you, will you not promise me anything? Do, now, with a good grace."
"What can I promise that is not yours?" she said, in a serious tone. "You saved my honour; my life belongs to you."
The first glimmerings of dawn were now beginning to light the horizon. We had reached the village of Sainte-Sévère, and soon afterward we entered the courtyard of the château. On dismounting from her horse Edmée fell into her father's arms; she was as pale as death. M. de la Marche uttered a cry, and helped to carry her away. She had fainted. The curé took charge of me. I was very uneasy about my fate. The natural distrust of the brigand sprang up again as soon as I ceased to be under the spell of her who had managed to lure me from my den. I was like a wounded wolf; I cast sullen glances about me, ready to rush at the first being who should stir my suspicions by a doubtful word or deed. I was taken into a splendid room, and a meal, prepared with a luxury far beyond anything I could have conceived, was immediately served. The curé displayed the kindest interest in me; and, having succeeded in reassuring me a little, he went to attend to his friend Patience. The disturbed state of my mind and my remnant of uneasiness were not proof against the generous appetite of youth. Had it not been for the respectful assiduity of a valet much better dressed than myself, who stood behind my chair, and whose politeness I could not help returning whenever he hastened to anticipate my wants, I should have made a terrific breakfast; as it was, the green coat and silk breeches embarrassed me considerably. It was much worse when, going down on his knees, he set about taking off my boots preparatory to putting me to bed. For the moment I thought he was playing a trick upon me, and came very near giving him a good blow on the head; but his manner was so serious as he went through this task that I sat and stared at him in amazement.
At first, at finding myself in bed without arms, and with people entering and leaving my room always on tip-toe, I again began to feel suspicious. I took advantage of a moment when I was alone to get out of bed and take from the table, which was only half cleared, the longest knife I could find. Feeling easier in my mind, I returned to bed and fell into a sound sleep, with the knife firmly clasped in my hand.
When I awoke again the rays of the setting sun, softened by my red damask curtains, were falling on my beautifully fine sheets and lighting up the golden pomegranates that adorned the corners of the bed. This bed was so handsome and soft that I felt inclined to make it my apologies for having slept in it. As I was about to get up I saw a kindly, venerable face looking through the half-drawn curtains and smiling. It was the Chevalier Hubert de Mauprat. He inquired anxiously about the state of my health. I endeavoured to be polite and to express my gratitude; but the language I used seemed so different from his that I was disconcerted and pained at my awkwardness without being able to realize why. To crown my misery, a movement that I made caused the knife which I had taken as bedfellow to fall at M. de Mauprat's feet. He picked it up, looked at it, and then at myself with extreme surprise. I turned as red as fire and stammered out I know not what. I expected he would reprove me for this insult to his hospitality. However, he was too polite to insist upon a more complete explanation. He quietly placed the knife on the mantel-piece and, returning to me, spoke as follows:
"Bernard, I now know that I owe to you the life that I hold dearest in the world. All my own life shall be devoted to giving you proofs of my gratitude and esteem. My daughter also is sacredly indebted to you. You need, then, have no anxiety about your future. I know what persecution and vengeance you exposed yourself to in coming to us; but I know, too, from what a frightful existence my friendship and devotion will be able to deliver you. You are an orphan, and I have no son. Will you have me for your father?"
I stared at the chevalier with wild eyes. I could not believe my ears. All feeling within me seemed paralyzed by astonishment and timidity. I was unable to answer a word. The chevalier himself evidently felt some astonishment; he had not expected to find a nature so brutishly ill-conditioned.
"Come," he said; "I hope that you will grow accustomed to us. At all events, shake hands, to show that you trust me. I will send up your servant; give him your orders; he is at your disposal. I have only one promise to exact from you, and that is that you will not go beyond the walls of the park until I have taken steps to make you safe from the pursuit of justice. At present it is possible that the charges which have been hanging over your uncles' heads might be made to fall on your own."
"My uncles!" I exclaimed, putting my hand to my brow. "Is this all a hideous dream? Where are they? What has become of Roche-Mauprat?"
"Roche-Mauprat," he answered, "has been saved from the flames. Only a few of the outer buildings have been destroyed; but I undertake to repair the house and to redeem your fief from the creditors who claim it. As to your uncles . . . you are probably the sole heir of a name that it behoves you to rehabilitate."
"The sole heir?" I cried. "Four Mauprats fell last night; but the other three . . ."
"The fifth, Walter, perished in his attempt to escape. His body was discovered this morning in the pond of Les Froids. Neither John nor Antony has been caught, but the horse belonging to one and a cloak of the other's, found near the spot where Walter's body was lying, seem to hint darkly that their fate was as his. Even if one of them manages to escape, he will never dare make himself known again, for there would be no hope for him. And since they have drawn down upon their heads the inevitable storm, it is best, both for themselves and for us, who unfortunately bear the same name, that they should have come to this tragic end better to have fallen weapon in hand, than to have suffered an infamous death upon the gallows. Let us bow to what God has ordained for them. It is a stern judgment; seven men in the pride of youth and strength summoned in a single night to their terrible reckoning! . . . We must pray for them, Bernard, and by dint of good works try to make good the evil they have done, and remove the stains they have left on our escutcheon."
These concluding words summed up the chevalier's whole character. He was pious, just, and full of charity; but, with him, as with most nobles, the precepts of Christian humility were wont to fall before the pride of rank. He would gladly have had a poor man at his table, and on Good Friday, indeed, he used to wash the feet of twelve beggars; but he was none the less attached to all the prejudices of our caste. In trampling under foot the dignity of man, my cousins, he considered, had, as noblemen, been much more culpable than they would have been as plebeians. On the latter hypothesis, according to him, their crimes would not have been half so grave. For a long time I shared the conviction myself; it was in my blood, if I may use the expression. I lost it only in the stern lessons of my destiny.
He then confirmed what his daughter had told me. From my birth he had earnestly desired to undertake my education. But his brother Tristan had always stubbornly opposed this desire. There the chevalier's brow darkened.
"You do not know," he said, "how baneful have been the consequences of that simple wish of mine— baneful for me, and for you too. But that must remain wrapped in mystery a hideous mystery, the blood of the Atridæ . . ."
He took my hand, and added, in a broken voice:
"Bernard, we are both of us victims of a vicious family. This is not the moment to pile up charges against those who in this very hour are standing before the terrible tribunal of God; but they have done me an irreparable wrong—they have broken my heart. The wrong they have done you shall be repaired—I swear it by the memory of your mother. They have deprived you of education; they have made you a partner in their brigandage; yet your soul has remained great and pure as was the soul of the angel who gave you birth. You will correct the mistakes which others made in your childhood; you will receive an education suitable to your rank. And then, Bernard, you will restore the honour of your family. You will, won't you? Promise me this, Bernard. It is the one thing I long for. I will throw myself at your knees if so I may win your confidence; and I shall win it, for Providence has destined you to be my son. Ah, once it was my dream that you should be more completely mine. If, when I made my second petition, they had granted you to my loving care, you would have been brought up with my daughter, and you would certainly have become her husband. But God would not have it so. You have now to begin your education, whereas hers is almost finished. She is of an age to marry; and, besides, her choice is already made. She loves M. de la Marche; in fact, their marriage is soon to take place. Probably she has told you."
I stammered out a few confused words. The affection and generous ideas of this noble old man had moved me profoundly, and I was conscious of a new nature, as it were, awakening within me. But when he pronounced the name of his future son-in-law, all my savage instincts rose up again, and I felt that no principle of social loyalty would make me renounce my claim to her whom I regarded as my fairly won prize. I grew pale; I grew red; I gasped for breath. Luckily, we were interrupted by the Abbé Aubert (the Jansenist curé), who came to inquire how I was after my fall. Then for the first time the chevalier heard of my accident; an incident that had escaped him amid the press of so many more serious matters. He sent for his doctor at once, and I was overwhelmed with kind attentions, which seemed to me rather childish, but to which I submitted from a sense of gratitude.
I had not dared to ask the chevalier for any news of his daughter. With the abbé, however, I was bolder. He informed me that the length and uneasiness of her sleep were causing some anxiety; and the doctor, when he returned in the evening to dress my ankle, told me that she was very feverish, and that he was afraid she was going to have some serious illness.
For a few days, indeed, she was ill enough to cause anxiety. In the terrible experience she had gone through she had displayed great energy; but the reaction was correspondingly violent. For myself, I was also kept to my bed. I could not take a step without feeling considerable pain, and the doctor threatened that I should be laid up for several months if I did not submit to inaction for a few days. As I was otherwise in vigorous health, and had never been ill in my life, the change from any active habits to this sluggish captivity caused me indescribable ennui. Only those who have lived in the depths of woods, and experienced all the hardships of a rough life, can understand the kind of horror and despair I felt on finding myself shut up for more than a week between four silk curtains. The luxuriousness of my room, the gilding of my bed, the minute attentions of the lackeys, everything, even to the excellence of the food—trifles which I had somewhat appreciated the first day—became odious to me at the end of twenty-four hours. The chevalier paid me affectionate but short visits; for he was absorbed by the illness of his darling daughter. The abbé was all kindness. To neither did I dare confess how wretched I felt; but when I was alone I felt inclined to roar like a caged lion; and at night I had dreams in which the moss in the woods, the curtain of forest trees, and even the gloomy battlements of Roche-Mauprat, appeared to me like an earthly paradise. At other times, the tragic scenes that had accompanied and followed my escape were reproduced so vividly by my memory that, even when awake, I was a prey to a sort of delirium.
A visit from M. de la Marche stirred my ideas to still wilder disorder. He displayed the deepest interest in me, shook me by the hand again and again, and implored my friendship, vowed a dozen times that he would lay down his life for me, and made I don't know how many other protestations which I scarcely heard, for his voice was like a raging torrent in my ears, and if I had had my hunting-knife I believe I should have thrown myself upon him. My rough manners and sullen looks astonished him very much; but, the abbé having explained that my mind was disturbed by the terrible events which had happened in my family, he renewed his protestations, and took leave of me in the most affectionate and courteous manner.
This politeness which I found common to everybody, from the master of the house to the meanest of his servants, though it struck me with admiration, yet made me feel strangely ill at ease; for, even if it had not been inspired by good-will towards me, I could never have brought myself to understand that it might be something very different from real goodness. It bore so little resemblance to the facetious braggadocio of the Mauprats, that it seemed to me like an entirely new language, which I understood but could not speak.
However, I recovered the power of speech when the abbé announced that he was to have charge of my education, and began questioning me about my attainments. My ignorance was so far beyond anything he could have imagined that I was ashamed to lay it all bare; and, my savage pride getting the upper hand, I declared that I was a gentleman, and had no desire to become a clerk. His only answer was a burst of laughter, which offended me greatly. He tapped me quickly on the shoulder, with a good-natured smile, saying that I should change my mind in time, but that I was certainly a funny fellow. I was purple with rage when the chevalier entered. The abbé told him of our conversation and of my little speech. M. Hubert suppressed a smile.
"My boy," he said, in a kind tone, "I trust I may never do anything to annoy you, even from affection. Let us talk no more about work to-day. Before conceiving a taste for it you must first realize its necessity. Since you have a noble heart you can not but have a sound mind; the desire for knowledge will come to you of itself. And now to supper. I expect you are hungry. Do you like wine?"
"Much better than Latin," I replied.
"Come, abbé," he continued laughingly, "as a punishment for having played the pedant you must drink with us. Edmée is now quite out of danger. The doctor has said that Bernard can get up and walk a few steps. We will have supper served in this room."
The supper and wine were so good, indeed, that I was not long in getting tipsy, according to the Roche-Mauprat custom. I even saw they aided and abetted, in order to make me talk, and show at once what species of boor they had to deal with. My lack of education surpassed anything they had anticipated; but I suppose they augured well from my native powers; for, instead of giving me up, they laboured at the rough block with a zeal which showed at least that they were not without hope. As soon as I was able to leave my room I lost the feeling of ennui. The abbé was my inseparable companion through the whole first day. The length of the second was diminished by the hope they gave me of seeing Edmée on the morrow, and by the kindness I experienced from every one. I began to feel the charm of these gentle manners in proportion as I ceased to be astonished at them. The never-failing goodness of the chevalier could not but overcome my boorishness; nay, more, it rapidly won my heart. This was the first affection of my life. It took up its abode in me side by side with a violent love for his daughter, nor did I even dream of pitting one of these feelings against the other. I was all yearning, all instinct, all desire. I had the passions of a man in the soul of a child.