Monsieur de Chauvelin's Will/Chapter VIII

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CHAPTER VIII

'LIKE DICERS' OATHS'

IT was indeed the Marquis in person. Tenderly he embraced the two boys, who had given a shout of joy on seeing him, and kissed with heartfelt affection the hand of the astonished Marquise.

"You here, sir! you! " she cried, taking possession of his arm. "Yes, it is I . . . But these lads were at play or at work; I am loth to interupt their studies, and still more their games."

Ah! sir, for the brief time they have to see you, let them have full enjoyment of your dear presence."

"God be thanked! they will have plenty of time to enjoy the sight of me."

"Plenty of time,—what, till to-morrow night? You will not be leaving us till to-morrow night?"

"Better still, Madame."

"You will be sleeping two nights at Grosbois?"

"Two nights, four nights, always."

"Ah! sir, what has happened then?" cried the Marquise eagerly, without a thought that the expression of so much surprise might well imply some reproach to Monsieur de Chauvelin as to his behaviour in the past.

The Marquis frowned in momentary annoyance; then suddenly:

"Have you not sometimes asked God to restore me to my family?" he asked with a smile.

"Oh! yes, sir, constantly."

"Very well, Madame, your prayers have been answered. I seemed to hear a voice calling me; and I have obeyed the voice."

"And you are leaving Court?"

"I am going to settle down at Grosbois," struck in the Marquis, stifling a sigh.

"What bliss for us all,—for me, for the children, for the vassals. Is it true, sir, is it true? Can we credit such happiness? "

"Your satisfaction, Madame, is a balm that heals all my wounds. But now, tell me, are you willing to talk over household matters a little?"

"By all means, by all means," assented the Marquise, pressing her husband's hands.

"I caught a glimpse, I think, of some very sorry nags at the cross roads at the park gates; are they yours?"

"Yes, they are, sir."

"Beasts too old for a lady's use, ugh!"

"Sir, they are the horses you gave me when our boy was born."

"They were rising four and a half then; it is nine years ago, so they are fourteen now! . . Fie, Marquise, is such a team what you ought to have?"

"Ah! sir, when I go to mass, they can still continue to jog along so far."

"I saw three, I think."

"I gave the fourth, being the least broken-down, to my son for his riding lessons."

"Riding lessons on a coach-horse! Oh! Marquise, Marquise, what sort of a horseman do you expect to make of him?"

The Marquise dropped her eyes in some confusion.

"So, you never drive four in hand now? You have eight in all, have you not, and two saddle horses?"

"I had, sir; but as hunting parties and state rides have become things of the past since you went away, I thought if I put down four carriage horses, a couple of grooms and the saddle-horses, it would save at least six thousand livres a year."

"What is six thousand livres after all. Marquise? " growled Monsieur de Chauvelin.

"It is food and keep for a dozen families," she retorted. He took her hand in his. "Always good and kind! Surely God instructs you from on high what to do on earth. Only the Marquise de Chauvelin has no cause to save."

She raised her head and looked her husband in the eyes.

"You mean to say I spend extravagantly," he cried; " yes, I do spend a great deal of money, and you, you feel the want of it?"

"I never said that, sir."

"Marquise, it must needs be so. Noble and generous as you are, you would never have dismissed men in my service except under dire necessity. A groom out of place is a pauper the more. You have lacked money; I will speak to Bonbonne about it. But henceforth you shall have plenty. What I used to spend at Court I will spend at Grosbois; instead of feeding a dozen families, you shall feed two hundred."

"Sir ..."

"And, thank God! I hope there will be coin enough left for a dozen good horses of my own, which from to-morrow shall be lodged in your stables. Have you not been speaking of repairing the chateau?"

"The reception rooms would want refurnishing."

"All my furniture from Paris will arrive this week. I shall invite guests to dinner twice a week . . . there will be hunting ..."

"You know, sir, I am rather shy of society," said the Marquise, terrified at the idea of meeting all her husband's Versailles friends, whom she looked upon much as if they were the deadly sins incarnate.

"You shall write the invitations yourself, Marquise. Now Bonbonne will give you the books; you will have the kindness to amalgamate in one the Paris expenses and the Grosbois ones."

The Marquise, frantic with delight, tried to answer and could not. She seized Monsieur de Chauvelin's hands and kissed them, gazing tenderly in his eyes as if she would fathom the depths of his soul, feeling herself softly enfolded in that warm atmosphere of pure love which vivifies all it touches and carries life and happiness to the chilliest extremities.

"To come to the children," he resumed; "what is your system with them?"

"One that answers excellently; the Abbé is a man of wdt, intelligence and profound learning. Shall I present him to you?"

"Yes, I should like to know all members of the household."

The Marquise waived her hand, and there entered from the dark pathway to which he had withdrawn with his charges, the young tutor, a hand on either lad's shoulder. In walk and look, a young oak between two reeds, there was something tender and fatherly in the man and his attitude that quite took the Marquis's fancy.

"Monsieur l'Abbé," began the Marquise, "I have good news to tell you. Our lord the Marquis is for taking up his residence among us."

"God be praised!" returned the Abbé.

"But alas! sir, this does not mean that the King is dead?"

"No, thank Heaven! But I have said farewell to the Court and the great world. I shall stay here with my children. I am weary of living for amusement and self-advancement only, and would fain make some sacrifice for affection's sake. So I am come to dwell at home. Now to begin with, are you satisfied, Monsieur l'Abbé, with your pupils? "

"As well content, Monsieur le Marquis, as a man can be."

"So much the better. Make them good Christians, like their mother; honest and true, like their grandfather, and . . ."

"Clever, able and talented, like their father," put in the Abbé; "I hope to succeed in all this."

"You are one of a thousand, Abbé. And you, old friend," he went on, turning to Bonbonne, "are you the same grumbler you always were? When I was their age, you wanted even then to initiate me into business ways. If I had followed your advice, I should not want your help so badly as I do to-day."

The children had joined hands and were dancing on the grass with the lighthearted gaiety of their age. Their father's eyes filled with tears, and after a moment's silence, he murmured softly:

"Dear lads, I will never leave you any more."

"I pray you may be saying true. Monsieur le Marquis! " broke in a deep, grave voice behind him. Monsieur de Chauvelin turned and found himself face to face with a stern-faced, white-robed monk, who saluted him with the calm reserve of a man of religion.

"This holy father, who and what is he?" the Marquis asked his wife.

"This is Father Delar, my confessor."

"Ah! your confessor," he repeated the word turning a trifle pale. Then in a lower tone, "I have need of a confessor, that is very true; you are welcome, sir."

The Monk, a man of tact and well accustomed to associate with great people, took no immediate notice of the offer; but he registered the words in his memory. He had been taken into his confidence by the Intendant a day or two before, and was prepared to undertake the necessary negotiations with the newly-arrived Marquis. He was resolved not to neglect so favourable an opportunity as the present for acting in God's interest, in that of the Marquise, and perhaps, of his own too.

"Might I venture to ask you news of the King, Monsieur le Marquis?" inquired the Monk.

"Why so, my father?"

"A rumour has gone abroad that Louis XV. was soon about to render to God an account of his reign. Such reports are generally but the precursors of Providence. His Majesty has not long to live, believe me!"

"You think so, my father?" asked Monsieur de Chauvelin, feeling more and more discouraged.

"It were therefore much to be desired that he should repent his scandalous life and do penance and ..."

"Sir," broke in Monsieur de Chauvelin with some heat, "'tis a confessor's duty to wait in silence till he is called in by his penitent."

"Death will not wait, sir; I have been long wearying for a word from you, but it fails to come."

"From me! Oh! my confession will be a long one, but the time is not yet ripe."

"The virtue of confession lies all in repentance, in sorrow for having sinned; and the greatest of all sins, I have just told you is scandalous living."

"Oh! but all the world lives so. There is not one of us but affords matter for evil tongues. Surely heaven does not think right to punish us for the maliciousness of others."

"Heaven punishes disobedience to its laws, it punishes indifference. It sends us warnings; if we neglect them, nothing can save us any more."

Monsieur de Chauvelin made no answer, but began to reflect deeply. Meantime the Marquise, seeing the conversation well begun, discreetly withdrew, praying God from the bottom of her heart that it might bear good fruit. After a long silent pause, during which the Monk watched his face, Monsieur de Chauvelin turned suddenly to him:

"Look you, my father, you are right; I repent of having been over long young, and I would fain confess to you, for I feel, I do feel, that death is near."

"You think so; and yet you take no measures either for your soul's salvation or the preservation of your fortune. You fear you are going to die; yet you never give a thought to the will you are bound to make, considering the position you will leave your heirs in. Forgive me. Monsieur le Marquis, if perhaps my zeal and my devotion to your house carry me too far."

"No, you are right in this too, my father; however, rest assured the will you speak of is drawn up, and only lacks my signature."

"You fear you are going to die, and you are in no state to appear before God."

"May He have mercy upon me; I was born in the Christian faith, and I would fain die a Christian. Come to-morrow, I beg you ; we will resume this discourse of ours, which will give me back my peace of mind."

"To-morrow! why to-morrow? Death does not turn back nor stay his course."

"I need time for thought and self communion, I cannot so soon forget the life I have led, however much I may regret it. I thank you for your counsel, my father; it will not be unfruitful."

"God grant it! but you know the wise man's axiom,—never put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day."

"I already owe you my thanks; I was discouraged and you have comforted my spirits. One cannot do everything at once, my father."

"Oh! Monsieur le Marquis," replied the Monk, with a respectful bow, "it needs but a minute to turn a sinner into a penitent, a lost soul into one of the elect. If only you would ..."

"Well and good, my father, to-morrow. There I hear the dinner bell,"—and he dismissed him with a wave of the hand, and plunged down a side path.

The tutor came up to Père Delar. "What is wrong with the Marquis? He is quite changed; usually so light-hearted, he is grown anxious, gloomy, haggard."

"He feels a presentiment of his approaching end, and thinks of amending his life; 'tis a very fine conversion, that will do great honour to my Order. Ah! if only the King . . ."

"Ah ha!' appetite grows by what it feeds on,' as they say, father; yet I greatly fear your wishes will remain unfulfilled in this case. His Majesty is hard to persuade. Besides he has his official converters; the Bishop of Seez is spoken of as a very doughty champion."

"Oh! the King is not so great an unbeliever as people think; remember his illness at Metz and how he sent Madame de Chateauroux packing."

"Yes, but at that date Louis XV. was still young, and it was not a question of expelling Jeanne Vaubernier,—two circumstances which alter the case enormously. Well, you have time enough to see to it, my dear Monsieur Delar; mean- -time, as the dinner bell has rung, the point is not to keep Monsieur le Marquis waiting. He does not often afford us the happiness of dining with us."

The dinner, for which the Père Delar and the Abbe V . . . arrived in good time, was enlivened by the presence of father, mother and children, as had been expected. Never had the Marquise looked so gay and happy; never had she been more obliging in doing the honours of her table. The cook had surpassed himself. The best fish of the fish-ponds, the finest poultry of the poultry-yard, the juiciest fruit of the greenhouses and vineries reminded the Marquis how well-stocked was his house when it became a question of fêting a beloved lord and master. The servants, proud to be serving once more so distinguished a master, strutted in their freshest liveries, watching their master's eye to satisfy the smallest want and obviate the slightest inconvenience.

But the Marquis soon lost the healthy appetite he had boasted about on his first arrival. The table seemed a lonely desert, the silence of respect and pleasure to express only gloom and apprehension. Little by little melancholy filled his mind and darkened his face; he let his hand fall lifeless beside his scarcely touched plate, and forgot the goblet where flashed in diamonds the wine of Aï and glowed the ruby nectar of old Burgundy.

Mere sadness grew into black despondency, and all followed with affright the progressive darkening of his mood. Suddenly a tear fell from his eyes. The Marquise sighed deeply, but he did not so much as notice her distress.

"I have been thinking," he observed presently to his wife, without preface or warning, "and I wish to be buried, not at Boissy-Saint-Leger, like my father and mother, but at Paris, in the Carmelite Church in the Place Maubert, with my ancestors."

"Why think of these things now, sir?" asked the Marquise, her voice choked with grief. " Surely we have time enough before us."

"Who can tell? Tell them to summon Bonbonne and bid him wait for me in my study. I wish to do an hour's work with him. Father Delar has convinced me how necessary it is. You have an excellent confessor in him, Madame."

"I am happy to find he pleases you, sir! you may put full confidence in him."

"I mean to apply to him, and that tomorrow. Now with your permission, Madame, I am going upstairs to my own rooms."

The Marquise raised her eyes to heaven and thanked God silently in her heart. Gazing after her husband as he left the room with Bonbonne, then turning to her sons, she said: '* In your prayers to-night, my children, ask God to inspire your father with the wish to reside amongst us for always, to strengthen his present good dispositions and give him grace to put them in practice."

Meantime the Marquis, arrived in his private room, said feverishly, " Now, my good Bonbonne, now, to work, to work!"—and he shook the papers littering the desk with an eager, trembling hand, as if to classify and master them all on the spot.

"Come, come," interposed the old man; "we are on the right road, so do not let us hurry too fast; ' more haste, less speed,' you know."

"Time presses, Bonbonne; I tell you, time presses."

"You don't say so!"

"I say that the man to whom God grants the joy of arranging duly for the last voyage of all can never work too fast to complete those preparations. Quick, Bonbonne, to work."

"At this rate, with this heat, sir, you will get a pleurisy, or a congestion, or a bad fever, and so justify yourself as havmg made your will just in the nick of time."

"A truce to delay. Where are the accounts of income?"

"Here they are."

"And those of expenditure? "

"Here."

"Deficit, sixteen hundred thousand livres. The Deuce!"

"Two years' savings will fill the gap."

"I have not two years to save in."

"Oh! you will drive me mad; what nonsense, with health like yours!"

"I think you told me that the Notary had drawn out a draft will, very cleverly expressed so as to secure to my sons the whole of the assets on their majority?"

"Yes, sir, on condition of your renouncing for six years a quarter of the income from the landed estates alone."

"Let me see the draft."

"Here it is."

"I am a trifle near-sighted. Kindly read it out to me."

Bonbonne proceeded to read each of the several provisions in order, the Marquis testifying from time to time his lively sense of satisfaction.

"It is an excellent scheme," he pronounced eventually,—" the more so, as it leaves Madame de Chauvelin in possession of a yearly income of three hundred thousand livres, twice what she enjoys now."

"So you approve? "

"Yes, in every respect."

"And I may engross the document?

"Pray do so."

"That done, you will have to execute it by appending your signature."

"Quick, Bonbonne, get it done quick!"

"There you are again asking impossibilities. It has taken me half an hour to read the paper over to you, and I shall require at least an hour to make a fair copy."

"If you only know what a hurry I am in! Look here, you dictate to me, and I will write out the whole will in my own hand."

"No, no, no, sir! Your eyes look red and inflamed already; before you have been at it ten minutes, you will be in a high fever on top of the headache you have brought on already.

"What am I to do for the hour you say will be needed."

"Why, walk up and down the lawn in the fresh air with Madame la Marquise. Meantime I will butt and cut my pens; then woe to the paper! I shall blacken more all by myself than three lawyer's clerks put together."

The Marquis did as he was told, but reluctantly; he felt somehow oppressed and disturbed in mind.

"Calm yourself," Bonbonne told him soothingly; "are you afraid you won't have time to sign? I say an hour; deuce take it, Marquis, you are good to live another one and sixty minutes!"

"You are quite right," the Marquis agreed, and he went down into the garden, to find the Marquise waiting for him. Seeing him more composed and looking less unhappy.

"Well, sir!" she asked, "have you worked to good purpose?"

"Oh! yes. Marquise, yes, an excellent piece of work, for which you and your boys will be thankful, I hope and believe."

"Very good! Your arm; the conservatories are open, shall we pay them a visit?"

"Whatever you wish, Marquise, whatever you wish."

"You will sleep all the better for our little walk. If you could only see how delighted your valets were to make the great state bed."

"Marquise, I am going to sleep as I have not done this ten years; I tremble with joy at the mere thought of it."

"You don't think you will find life too tiresome with us here?"

"No, no. Marquise, no."

"And you will get used to our country neighbours?"

"Yes, very easily. And if the King (I fear I treated him rather unceremoniously perhaps), if the King forgets me, so much the better."

"The King? ah! Marquis," said Madame de Chauvelin softly, "you gave a sigh when you spoke of the King."

"I love His Majesty, Marquise; but rest assured . . ."

The sentence remained unfinished. The crack of a whip and the jingle of a horse's bells interrupted the Marquis.

"What is that? " he asked.

"A mounted messenger; they are opening the gates for him now," the Marquise replied. " Did you send him? "

"No. Very strange; a messenger to whom everybody bows low and who is admitted to the private gardens can only come from ..."

"From the King," faltered the Marquise, turning pale.

"In the King's name!" cried the horseman in a loud, clear voice.

"In the King's name!"—and Monsieur de Chauvelin ran forward to meet the horseman, who had already handed his letter to the major domo.

"A letter from the King! " cried the Marquis to Père Delar, whom the news of the despatch had brought to the spot with the rest of the household.

The Marquis offered to the courier wine in a silver cup,—a compliment justified by the respect paid by every man of birth to the King, even when represented by a servant. Then he opened the letter, which was written wholly in the Monarch's own hand, and ran as follows:

"My Friend,—It is scarce four and twenty hours since you left us; yet I feel as though I had not seen you for months. Old people who love each other should not part, as they may never have the time to come together again. I am fit to die of melancholy. I need you, so you must come. Never rob me of a friend under pretext of wishing to defend my crown. No, you are going the surest way to attack it; so long as you sustain it by your presence, I shall know it is firmer and stronger than ever. Let me see you to-morrow when I meet my Court on rising; it will be the signal for a happy day. Your friend,

Louis."

"The King recalls me to his side," exclaimed Chauvelin, deeply moved. "I must set off this very instant; he cannot do without me. Bid them put to the horses."

"Oh!" protested the Marquise, "so soon, after so many delightful promises."

"You shall soon hear from me, Madame."

"Monsieur le Marquis, my copy is finished!" Bonbonne called from afar as he came running up,

"Good, very good!"

"There is nothing now but to read it through again and sign."

"I have not the time now, I will another day."

"Another day! But do you forget what you were saying just now?"

"I remember, I remember."

"A truce to delay, you said."

"The King cannot wait."

"But you forget your children, and the future of your house."

"I forget nothing, Bonbonne; I only go because I am obliged to. My children, the future of my line,—everything, you must remember, Bonbonne, is now secured."

"Your signature, only your signature is wanted."

"Look you, old friend," declared the Marquis, radiant with delight, "so firmly am I resolved duly to complete this matter that if I were to die before signing, I swear I would come back here from the other world,—and 'tis a long journey,—on purpose to append my signature. Now have I satisfied you? Then farewell."

So saying he hurriedly embraced his wife and children, and oblivious of all but King and Court, leapt into his coach, a younger man by twenty years, and rolled away for Paris.

But the Marquise and all the household, so happy a moment before, were left standing by the gates, sad, forsaken, dumb and despairing.