Monsieur de Chauvelin's Will/Chapter III

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CHAPTER III

THE LETTER

NOW how had Monsieur de Villenave got this fine library of books? How had he formed this collection of autographs, unique in the world of collectors?

The answer is by the labour of his whole life.

To begin with, Monsieur de Villenave had never burnt a paper or torn up a letter. Invitations to the meetings of learned societies, to weddings and funerals, he had kept them all, and had classified them and assigned a place to each. He had a collection of every conceivable thing,—even including volumes which on the 14th July had been rescued half consumed from the bonfire that was devouring them in the great Court of the Bastille.

Two autograph hunters were kept continually employed by Monsieur de Villenave. One was a certain M. Fontaine, whom I knew personally, and who was himself author of a book entitled the Mannel des Aiitographcs; the other was a clerk in the War Office. All the grocers in Paris knew these two indefatigable searchers, and put on one side for their examination all the odds and ends of paper they bought. Amongst these they used to make a selection for which they paid at the rate of fifteen sous the pound, and which Monsieur de Villenave purchased from them for thirty sous.

Sometimes, too, Monsieur de Villenave went his rounds in person. There was not a grocer in Paris but knew him, who did not, when he saw him, bring together for his learned investigation the materials for his future paper bags.

Needless to add that the days Monsieur de Villenave devoted to autograph hunting, were given likewise to book hunting. He would follow the line of the quays, the most indefatigable of bibliophiles, and then, his two hands in his breeches pockets, his tall body bent, his fine, intelligent face lit up with desire, he would plunge his ardent gaze to the deepest depths of the show-cases. There he would search for the hidden treasure, and after fingering it a while, if the book were indeed what he had been coveting, if the edition were really the one he was in search of, would carry it off in triumph. So it went to swell Monsieur de Villenave's library, the reader opines? Not at all. In Monsieur de Villenave's library there was no room left, and had not been for years,—unless exchanges against autographs or prints made such room for the time being. No, the book found its home in the garret, which was divided into three compartments,—that of the octavos, that of the quartos, that of the folios between the other two.

This was the chaos out of which one day Monsieur de Villenave was to construct a new world,—a new continent like Australia or New Zealand. Meantime there they lay pell-mell, one atop of another, almost indistinguishable in the semi-darkness. This garret was the limbo where were imprisoned the souls God sends neither to heaven nor hell, because He has His designs to work out upon them.

One day this fine house, without apparent cause, trembled to its foundations, groaned and cracked ominously; the terrified occupants thought it was an earthquake and dashed out into the garden. But everything was peaceful above and below; the fountain went on playing at the street corner, a bird continued its song in the highest branches of the tallest tree.

The accident was plainly local, coming from some secret, unsuspected, unknown cause. They sent for the architect, who proceeded to examine and sound and question and cross-question the poor house, and finally announced that the subsidence could only come from an overload.

Consequently he asked leave to visit the garrets; but in this point he encountered a stubborn resistance on the part of Monsieur de Villenave.

Whence this reluctance, which however had to give way before the architect's persistency. The fact is, Monsieur de Villenave felt that his buried treasure, only the more precious to his heart because he hardly knew himself what it contained, ran no small risk from this visitation.

Yes, in the centre compartment alone there were found to be twelve hundred folios weighing nearly eight thousand pounds. Alas! these twelve hundred folios, which had made the building yield and threatened to bring it to the ground, had to be sold. The painful operation took place in 1822, and in 1826, the year when I came to know Monsieur de Villenave, he had not yet entirely got over the agony of it, and many a sigh, whereof his family could divine no sufficient reason, went after his dear folios, collected so carefully and laboriously, and now, like children driven from the paternal roof, orphaned, vagabond, scattered over the face of the earth.

I have said already how good and kind and hospitable the household in the Rue de Vaugirard was to me,—on the part of Madame de Villenave, because she was naturally affectionate, on the part of Madame de Waldor, because a poetess herself, she had a kindly feeling towards poets, on the part of Théodore de Villenave, because we were both of the same age, and an age when there is an instinctive desire to give a share of one's heart in return for a share of someone else's.

Last but not least on the part of Monsieur de Villenave, because, without being a collector of autographs, I yet owned, thanks to my father's portfolio of despatches and other military documents, a collection of autographs of no little interest. Indeed my father, having held from 1791 to 1800 high posts in the army, having been three times General Commanding-in-Chief, had been in correspondence with all the great personages who had played a part in history during those years.

The most interesting autographs belonging to this correspondence were those of General Buonaparte. Napoleon did not long retain this Italianized form of the name. Within three months of the 13th Vendémiaire he adopts the more French spelling Bonaparte, and so signs himself. Now, in this short interval my father had received five or six letters from the young General of the Interior,—such was the title he assumed after the 13th Vendémiaire.

One of these signatures I presented to Monsieur de Villenave, supplemented by an autograph of Saint-George and one of the Maréchal de Richeheu. Thanks to this sacrifice, which was no sacrifice to me, but rather a pleasure, I secured my entreé to the second floor.

Little by little I reached such a footing in the household that Françoise no longer troubled to announce me to Monsieur de Villenave, and I marched upstairs unattended. I would knock at the door, open it at the word "Come in!" and was nearly always well received.

I say nearly always, because great passions have of course their hours of storm and stress. Take the case of a collector of autographs who has marked down a precious signature, such a one as Robespierre's, who has left only three or four, or Molière's, who has left only one or two, or Shakespeare's, who I believe has left none at all; now, just as he is on the point of putting his hand on this unique or all but unique signature, the said signature escapes him by some accident and falls to a rival collector,— well, is it to be wondered at if he is distraught with rage and despair.

Call upon him at such a crisis, and, were you his father, his brother, an angel, an archangel, you will soon see what sort of a reception you may expect,—unless, of course, the archangel by his archangelic power duplicates the signature that was unique or creates one that never existed at all.

Under such circumstances I should have been as ill received by Monsieur de Villenave as another. Otherwise I was sure to find a kind face, a complacent disposition and an obliging memory, even on week-days.

I say " week-days " because the Sunday was reserved by Monsieur de Villenave for scientific visitors. No foreign bibliophile, no cosmopolitan collector, ever came to Paris without paying a visit to Monsieur de Villenave, as vassals come to pay homage to their Suzerain. Sunday therefore was the day of exchanges, — exchanges thanks to which Monsieur de Villenave used to complete his foreign collections, for which the grocers' supplies were not adequate, by graciously sacrificing to the German, English or American amateurs some fragments from his wealth of French treasures.

Thus I had penetrated into the house; I had been received, to begin with on the first floor, in course of time on the second; I had got my entreé on any Sunday; last of all I had been admitted when and as often as I pleased,—a privilege I shared with two or three others at the most.

Well, one week-day—it was a Tuesday I think—I came to the house to ask Monsieur de Villenave to let me examine an autograph of Queen Christina (the reader will know my crotchet for judging of people's character by their handwriting), one day, I say, I came to the house with this object,—it was about five o'clock on a March afternoon—and rang the bell. I asked the concierge if Monsieur de Villenave were at home, and passsd in. Just as I was going to enter the house itself, Françoise called me to stop.

"What is it, Françoise?" I asked her.

"Are you going to see the ladies, sir, or to the master's rooms?"

"I am going to visit the master, Françoise."

"Well, if you would be so good and save my poor legs two flights of stairs, you might give this letter which has just come for him to Monsieur de Villenave."

"With pleasure I will, Françoise."

The servant gave me the letter, which I took and made my way upstairs. On reaching the door I knocked as usual, but received no answer. I knocked again, louder, only to be met with the same silence. Finally I knocked a third time, this time with some little fear and anxiety, for the key was in the lock, and its being so invariably implied that Monsieur de Villenave was within.

Accordingly I took it upon myself to open the door, and then I saw Monsieur de Villenave asleep in his armchair.

Roused by the noise I made, or perhaps by the inrush of air which accompanied my entrance and broke some magnetic influence, Monsieur de Villenave gave a smothered cry.

"A thousand pardons," I cried; "I have been indiscreet, I have disturbed you."

"Who are you? what do you want?"

"I am Alexandre Dumas."

"Ah!" Monsieur de Villenave drew a breath of relief.

"Really, I am desperately sorry," I went on, "I will leave you in peace."

"No, no," returned Monsieur de Villenave, giving a sigh and passing his hand across his brow, "come in!"

This I did, and he told me to sit down. By a rare chance a chair was vacant, which I took.

"You see," he murmured, " I had dropped asleep. It is very strange. The twilight crept in, and my fire went out. Then you woke me; I found myself in the dark, not knowing what noise it was broke my repose. Doubtless it was the wind from the door that blew across my face; but I seemed to see a great white sheet, a shroud it looked like. Strange, very strange, don't you think so?" Monsieur de Villenave went on, with that shiver of the whole body that means a man is chilled to the bone. "However, it's all over, thank goodness."

"You say that to make me forget my awkwardness in intruding."

"No, indeed no. I am very glad to see you. What have you there?"

"Ah, I beg pardon, I was forgetting; a letter for you."

"Ah ha, an autograph, and whose?"

"No, it is not an autograph, and it is, I imagine so at least, just simply and solely a letter."

" Ah yes, a letter! "

" A letter the postman left, and which Françoise asked me to bring up to you; here it is."

"Thank you. Now, do you mind just reaching out your hand and giving me a match? Really I feel quite dull and dazed still. If I were superstitious, I should think it a premonition."

He took the match I offered him and kindled it at the still faintly glowing embers in the hearth. As it burnt brighter, it became possible to distinguish objects in the room by the increasing light.

"Oh, good God!" I suddenly exclaimed.

"What is wrong with you? "Monsieur de Villenave asked me, proceeding to light the candle.

"Why, good God! your beautiful pastel, what has happened to it?"

"Ah, yes," returned Monsieur de Villenave sadly, " I have put it down there by the chimney-piece, as you see; I am expecting the glazier and the frame-maker.

"Yes, I see the frame is broken and the glass in a thousand pieces."

"Yes," said Monsieur de Villenave, looking disconsolately at the portrait, and forgetting all about his letter; "yes, the whole thing is incomprehensible."

"I suppose it met with an accident?"

"Just think; the day before yesterday I had been at work all the evening; it was a quarter before midnight, and I got into bed. Putting my candle on my night table, I am settling down to revise the proofs of a little pocket edition of my Ovid, when by chance my eyes fall upon my poor friend's portrait. I nod a goodnight to her, according to custom; there was a little wind blowing in at the window, which had no doubt been left partly open, and this wind sets the flame of my candle flickering so that the portrait -seems to answer my goodnight by a little nod of its own. You may suppose I regarded the idea as foolishness; still I do not know how it is, but I find my mind filled with the thought and my eyes unable to leave the picture. You know of course that this pastel goes back to the early days of my youth, and calls up many, many associations. So 1 am launched on a very sea of memories of five and twenty. I speak to my portrait. My memory answers for it, and though I knew this to be so, yet I seem to see the picture move its lips, the features blanch and the white face assume an expression of grief and sadness. At this moment midnight begins to strike from the tower of the Carmelites, and at the gloomy sound my poor friend's countenance grows even more and more grief-stricken. The wind was blowing outside. At the last stroke of midnight the window burst violently open, I hear a wailing cry, and the eyes of the pictured face appear to close. The nail sustaining the portrait breaks; the picture falls, and my candle goes out.

"I get up to relight it, not at all afraid, but yet deeply impressed. As ill luck will have it, I cannot find a match; it was too late to call anybody, and I did not know where to go for a light, so I shut the window of the closet and get to bed again in the dark.

"All these incidents had moved me; I felt sad and an extraordinary desire to weep possessed me. Then I thought I heard something like the rustling of a silk dress in the room. Several times over I asked: ' Is there anyone there? ' At last I went to sleep, but at a very late hour; when I woke, I found my poor pastel in the state you see."

"Strange, very strange," I said; " tell me, have you received your weekly letter, — the one the original of the portrait always writes you? "

"No, and that is just what troubles me, and the reason I told Fran9oise to bring up or send up without delay any letters that should come for me."

"Well, there is the one I brought. . ."

"It is not her way of folding hers."

"Ah!"

"But still, it is from Angers."

"The lady lives at Angers."

"Yes; oh, great God; it is sealed with black! Poor lady, can some evil have befallen her?"—and Monsieur de Villenave turned pale as he broke open the missive.

At the first words he read his eyes filled with tears.

He took up a second letter, that broke off at the fourth line and was enclosed in the first.

He lifted this broken letter to his lips and handed me the other.

"Read it," he said,—and I read as follows:

"Sir,—It is with grief on my own part, further increased by that which I know you will feel, that I write to tell you that Madame———— died last Sunday, as the last stroke of midnight sounded.

"She had been seized, two days before, just as she was writing to you, with an attack of indisposition which we thought little of at first, but which grew worse and worse till it terminated fatally.

"I have the honour to send you, unfinished as it is, the letter she had begun to write to you. This letter will show you that to the day of her death the sentiments she entertained for you remained unaltered.

"I am, sir, in great sorrow, as you may suppose, always your humble servant,

"Thérèse Miraud."

Monsieur de Villenave had kept his eyes on mine as I read.

"At midnight!" he exclaimed when I had finished; "it was at midnight, look you, that the portrait fell and was broken. Not only does the day tally, but the very minute."

"Yes," I answered, "that is so."

"You believe in the supernatural then?" cried Monsieur de Villenave.

"Why, of course I do."

"Oh! very well then, come one day, will you, one day when I am something less agitated, and I will tell you of something far more strange than this."

"Something that happened to you? "

"No, but of which I was an eye-witness."

"When was it? "

"Oh! a long time ago. It occurred in 1774, at the time I was tutor to the children of Monsieur de Chauvelin."

"And you say you will ..."

"Yes, I will tell you the story; in the meantime you understand. . . ."

"I understand you need to be alone,"—and with the word I got up and prepared to go.

"By the way," added Monsieur de Villenave, "tell the ladies as you pass not to be anxious about me; I shall not come down to night."

I nodded in sign of acquiescence.

Then Monsieur de Villenave wheeled round his armchair, so as to bring himself exactly face to face with the portrait, and as I was closing the door,

"Poor Sophie!" I heard him murmur softly to himself.

The story I am now going to reproduce is the same which later on Monsieur de Villenave told me.