Monsieur de Chauvelin's Will/Chapter XI
AT an early hour of the same day Père Delar had arrived at Grosbois, purposing to say mass in the Chapel and not to allow the Marquis's good and christianlike dispositions of the day before to cool. But Madame de Chauvelin informed him how their promising neophyte had slipped through their fingers at the first friendly word from the King, and with tears in her eyes expressed many fears for his eventual salvation.
She invited her Confessor to stay and dine with her, that she might have further opportunity of conversing with him and deriving from his wise advice the courage she needed so sorely after this fresh disappointment. After leaving the table, Madame de Chauvelin and the Monk walked in the park till it began to grow late, after which they had seats brought out and spent some time by the side of a fine sheet of water to enjoy the cooling evening breeze after the heat of the day.
"For all your comforting and consoling words. Reverend Father," declared the Marquise, "this sudden departure of Monsieur de Chauvehn makes me terribly anxious. I know what strong ties he has binding him to Court life; I know the King is all powerful to influence not his head only but his heart, and his Majesty's conduct is so very ill regulated.—It is not a sin, is it. Father, to say so? alas! the scandal of it is but too notorious!"
"I do assure you, Madame, that the Marquis has received a most salutary impression; 'tis the first battle won, Providence will complete the campaign. I spoke of the matter this morning to our Reverend Prior, and he ordered his Brethren of the House to pray for a happy consummation. You must pray likewise, my daughter, you who are most concerned of any in this blessed work; your children must pray; we must all pray. With the same intent I offered up this morning in the Chapel the holy sacrifice of the mass, and I mean to do the same every day."
"For twenty years,—ever since my marriage with Monsieur de Chauvelin," returned the Marquise, "I have never let an hour pass without asking God to touch his heart. Hitherto the Lord has not answered my prayers. I have lived alone, most often in grief and tears, as you know, Father. I have groaned in solitude over errors I could not prevent; God, it would seem, did not hold me firm enough to deserve the victory. I had to bear more suffering to purchase this gift of grace. Well, I will suffer gladly! The Almighty's will be done!"
Meantime, behind the Marquise and P^re Delar, the Tutor was walking with his two charges. Scarcely older than they—the Abbe was only eighteen—he took part in all their amusements.
"Brother," began the older, "do you know what is the fashionable game now at Court?"
"Of course I do, my father told me yesterday at supper; it is called ombre."
"Well then, let us play at ombre."
"Impossible; to begin with, we must have cards, and besides, we don't know how to play."
"One player is the ombre " (shade).
"And the other?"
"Faith! the other is afraid, I suppose, and so he loses."
"Now, brother," went on the elder, "let us say no more about cards; you know our mother does not like it, she thinks cards bring misfortune."
At that moment Madame de Chauvelin rose from her seat.
"My mother is going away into the park," replied the younger lad, following her with his eyes; " so she will never see us. Besides, the Abbé, who is with us, would warn us if it were wrong."
"It is always wrong," said the Tutor, " to grieve one's mother."
"Oh! but my father plays cards at Court," retorted the child with that pitiless logic that like all weak things clings to any and every support. " My father plays, so we can."
The Abbé could find nothing to say, and the child went on:
"Look, my mother is bidding good-bye to Father Delar; she is going with him as far as the gate . . . he is on the point of going. Only wait a bit; once Father Delar is gone, my mother will return to her oratory; we will go into the Chateau after her, ask for cards and have a game."
The children watched their mother's form growing fainter and fainter in the deepening shadow of the trees beneath which she finally disappeared.
It was one of those delightful evenings that come before the heats of May. The trees were still leafless, but the swelling buds showed they would soon assume their summer garb. Some, like the chestnuts and lindens, more precocious than the rest, were already clothed in the first tender green of springtide. The still air was filled with the first swarms of the myriad winged insects that are born with the Spring to perish in the Autumn. They could be seen dancing in millions in the last rays of the setting sun, which turned the river into a riband of gold and purple, while to the eastward, that is the direction in which Madame de Chauvelin had plunged into the depths of the park, all objects were beginning to merge into that lovely bluish haze that is seen only at certain specially favoured seasons of the year. Infinite peace and beauty reigned supreme over the twilight landscape.
Amidst this silence seven o'clock sounded from the castle clock, the strokes vibrating long on the evening breeze.
Suddenly the Marquise, who was saying farewell to her Monkish Confessor, uttered a loud cry.
"What is it?" asked the Reverend Father, returning to her side; "what ails you. Marquise?"
"Ails me? Oh! nothing, nothing. But, oh God . . .!" and the Marquise blanched visibly.
"But you cried out! . . . You felt some pang or pain! ... At this very moment you are growing paler and paler! What is the matter? in heaven's name, what is the matter?"
"Impossible! my eyes deceive me!"
"What do you see? speak, Madame, speak!"
"No, there is nothing," and on the ^Monk's still pressing her, " nothing, nothing," she repeated emphatically. But her voice died between her lips, and her eyes stared fixedly into the gloom, while her hand, white as ivory, was lifted slowly to point towards something her companion could not see.
"For pity's sake, Madame," urged Père Delar eagerly, "tell me what it is you see."
"Nothing, I see nothing! No, no, it is sheer folly," cried Madame de Chauvelin, " and yet ... oh! look, look 1 "
"Look where? "
"Yonder, yonder, do you see? "
"I see nothing."
"You see nothing . . . there, there!"
"Nothing, nothing whatsoever; but you, Madame, tell me what you see."
"Oh! I see, I see . . . but no, it cannot be."
"What do you see?"
"I see Monsieur de Chauvelin in Court dress, but pale and walking feebly; he passed yonder, yonder."
"Without seeing me,—mark that; or if he did see me, without speaking,—which is stranger still."
"And now, do you see him still?"
"Yes, I see him still,"—and with finger and eyes the Marquise indicated the direction taken by the Marquis, whose form was all the time invisible to Père Delar.
"And whither is he going, Madame? "
"Towards the Château; there, he is passing the great oak; there, he is close by the stone bench. Oh! look, look! he is going straight towards the children; he steps round yonder clump of trees; he disappears. If the children are still where they were, they cannot help but see him."
Even as she spoke, a cry rang out that made Madame de Chauvelin tremble. The sound came from the two boys, and had a singularly mournful and solemn effect echoing through the spacious gloom. The Marquise nearly fainted and would have fallen, had not Father Delar caught her in his arms.
"Do you hear?" she faltered, "do you hear?"
"Yes," replied the Monk, "I did indeed hear a cry."
Next moment the Marquise saw, or rather became intuitively aware of without seeing, her two children running towards her. The patter of their feet, as they dashed breathlessly forward, could be heard on the gravel of the path.
"Mother, mother! did you see? " cried the elder lad, and the younger re-echoed the words.
"Oh! Madame, do not listen to what they say," called the Abbé, hurrying up behind them, breathless with the efforts he had made to overtake them.
"Well, children, what is it?" Madame de Chauvelin asked them. But the two boys, instead of answering, only pressed closer to her side.
"Come, tell me what happened," she said fondling their curly heads, "speak, speak!"
The two children looked at each other.
"You tell her," said the elder to the younger.
"No, you; you tell her."
"But, mother," said the older at last, "did you not see him the same as we did?"
"Dou you hear what he says. Father, do you hear?" cried the Marquise, raising her arms to heaven, then pressing the Monk's trembling hand between her icy palms.
"See him! see whom?" the latter asked with a shudder.
"Why, my father, of course," answered the younger child; " did you not see him, mother? Yet he came from your direction; he must have passed quite near you."
"Oh! how delightful," cried the elder, clapping his hands, " here is my father come back again!"
Madame de Chauvelin turned to the Abbé.
"Madame," said the latter in reply to her questioning look, "I can assure you my pupils are mistaken in thinking they saw Monsieur le Marquis, I was close by them, and I declare that no one ..."
"And I, Monsieur," said the elder boy, " I tell you I have just seen my father as plainly as I see you."
"Fie, fie, Monsieur l'Abbé! how sinful it is to tell lies!" cried the younger of the two lads.
"It is very, very strange," observed Père Delar. The Marquise only shook her head.
"They have not seen anything," the Tutor reiterated, "not anything at all."
"Wait!" was the Marquise's sole answer. Then turning to her two boys with the ineffably tender smile of a mother:
"You say," she questioned, "you saw your father?"
"Yes, we did," both answered with one voice .
"How was he dressed?"
"He wore his red Court coat, his blue riband, a white waistcoat embroidered with gold, velvet breeches to match the coat, and silk stockings. He had buckled shoes and carried his sword at his side."
While the elder thus described his father's costume, the younger kept nodding his head in sign of acquiescence, and all the time poor Madame de Chauvelin was pressing the Monk's hand with her own, which grew more and more icy cold every moment. Just so dressed and accoutred she too had seen her husband pass by.
"And was there nothing out of the common noticeable about your father, tell me?"
"He was very pale," said the elder.
"Oh! yes, very, very pale," added the younger, "like a dead man."
All present shuddered, mother. Abbé, Confessor; so acute was the note of terror in the child's words.
"Which way was he going?" asked the Marquise at last in a voice that she strove in vain to steady.
"To the Château," replied the elder boy.
"I looked round,"' said the younger, " as I ran, and I saw him going up the great steps to the front door."
"Do you hear? do you hear?" faltered the distracted mother in the Monk's ear.
"Yes, Madame, I hear; but I confess I do not understand. How should Monsieur de Chauvelin have passed in at the gate on foot without stopping to greet you? How should he have walked by his sons without stopping a second time? Then how should he have entered the house without any of the domestics noticing him, without his asking for anyone."
"You are right," said the Abbé, "what you point out is obviously true."
"In any case," went on Père Delar, "it can easily be put to the test."
"We will go and find out," cried the two children, starting to run to the Chateau.
"And I will go too," declared the Abbé.
"And I, too," faltered the Marquise.
"Madame," protested the Monk, "you are agitated and white with terror; even if it should be Monsieur de Chauvelin, granting this to be possible, what is there to be afraid of?"
"Father," returned the Marquise, looking in the Monk's face, " his coming thus, supposing he has come, mysteriously and alone, does it not strike you as very extraordinary?"
"The more reason for thinking we have all made a mistake. Doubtless some stranger has slipped in, perhaps a burglar."
"But a burglar, let him be as expert as he may," objected the Abbe, " has a body, and this body you and I should have seen, Father. But this is just the unaccountable part of it, that Madame la Marquise and my two pupils saw him, while we, and only we, saw nothing,"
"No matter," returned the Monk; "whichever proves to be true, it would be best perhaps for Madame la Marquise and her children to withdraw to the Orangery, while we make our way to the Château. We will call the servants together and make sure of what has occurred. Now, Madame."
The Marquise was at the end of her strength, and obeyed mechanically. She retired to the Orangery along with her two sons, but without once losing sight of the Château windows. Arrived at the shelter indicated, she fell on her knees, saying:
"We can pray at any rate; there is a soul in pain at this moment urging me to pray."
Meantime the Monk and the Abbé had pursued their way to the Chateau. Arrived within sight of the main entrance, they had halted to debate the question whether they should not first go round to the offices and summon the domestics, at that hour assembled at supper, to join them in making an exploration of the house.
The suggestion had emanated from the prudent Monk, and the Abbé was on the point of agreeing to it, when they saw a small side-door open and Bonbonne appear at it. The old Intendant came running towards them as fast as his advanced age allowed. He was pale and trembling,—gesticulating violently and muttering to himself as he advanced.
"What is the matter?" asked the Abbé, stepping forward to meet him.
"Oh God! Oh God!" was all Bonbonne could articulate at first.
"What has happened to you?" questioned the Monk.
"What has happened to me? I have seen an awful apparition."
Monk and Tutor exchanged glances.
"An apparition!" echoed the former incredulously.
"Come, come, it is an impossibility," said the Abbé.
"It is a fact, I tell you," insisted Bonbonne.
"And what was the apparition? tell us that."
"Yes, what did you see?"
"I saw,—I cannot tell you yet exactly what, but I certainly saw . . . "
"Come, explain yourself."
"Well, I was sitting in my usual working-room, underneath the Marquis's great study, and communicating with it, as you know, by a private staircase. I was examining once more the clauses of the will to make sure we had forgotten nothing in drafting it, in view of its supreme importance for the future well-being of the house. Seven o'clock had just struck; suddenly I hear the sound of footsteps in the room above, which I had locked yesterday behind my master the Marquis, and the key of which I had in my pocket. I listen again. Yes, it is certainly footsteps,—some one walking about the room above. More than that, I can hear the drawers of Monsieur de Chauvelin's desk being opened. I can hear the armchair standing in front of the desk being moved,—and that without any attempt to deaden the sound, which strikes me as more than ever extraordinary. My first idea is that thieves have broken into the house; but if so, they are either very reckless or very confident of success. What to do for the best? shall I call the servants? they are in the offices at the other end of the vast building. While I am going to fetch them, the intruders will have ample time to escape. So I take my double-barrelled gun instead, and creep up the little staircase that leads from my room to the Marquis's study on tiptoe. The nearer I come to the top of the stairs, the more eagerly do I strain my ears. Not only can I catch the sound of more moving about, but I hear groans and sobs and inarticulate noises that moved me only too profoundly. For I must tell you frankly, the nearer I came, the more convinced was I that it was my master the Marquis I heard."
"Strange! " exclaimed the Abbé.
"Yes, most strange indeed! echoed the Monk.
"Go on, Bonbonne, go on!"
"Finally," resumed the Intendant, coming closer to his two hearers, as if to seek safety in their proximity, "at last I looked through the keyhole, Then I saw a bright light flooding the room, though it was night by this time and the shutters were closed. Indeed I had fastened them myself."
"The noises went on—groans that were like the rattle in the throat of a dying man. My blood seemed to stand still in my veins, but I was resolved to see the thing out. I made a supreme effort, and looked into the room again. I saw a circle of tall candles surrounding a coffin.'
"Oh I you are mad, mad, my dear Monsieur Bonbonne," cried the Monk, shuddering in spite of himself.
"I saw it, my Father, I saw it with my own eyes."
"But perhaps your eyes deceived you," put in the Abbé.
"I tell you, Abbé, I saw it all as plainly as I see you; I assure you I lost neither my judgment nor my presence of mind."
"And yet you ran away in a panic!"
"Not at all; I did exactly the contrary, I stayed where I was, praying God and my patron Saint to give me strength. Suddenly however, I heard a crash, and the candles went out, leaving all in darkness once more. It was only then I came downstairs, left the house and saw you. We are three together now. Here is the key of the Marquis's room. You are Churchmen, and therefore proof against superstitious terrors. Will you come with me? We will satisfy ourselves by personal inspection what has happened."
"Let us do so," assented Monk and Abbé with one voice.
All three entered the Château, not by the side door from which Bonbonne had issued, but by the main portal by which the Marquis had gone in. As they crossed the vestibule and passed in front of a great timepiece, a family heirloom, surmounted by the Chauvelin coat of arms, the Intendant held aloft the candle he had just lighted.
"Well, well! but that is curious! Some one must have meddled with this clock and put it out of order."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because it has been there ever since I was a child, and I have never known it vary a second."
"Well, don't you see it has stopped?"
"At seven o'clock!" observed the Monk.
"Yes, at seven o'clock!" echoed the Abbé.
The two men looked at each once more. The Abbé muttered a "Now for it! "while the Monk repeated some words that sounded like a prayer. Then they ascended the state staircase and passed through the Marquis's apartments. The vast rooms, all shut up and empty, lighted only by the trembling light of a single candle which the Intendant carried, had a solemn, almost terrifying, aspect. Coming to the door of the study they stopped and listened, their hearts beating wildly with excitement.
"Do you hear?" asked the Intendant.
"Perfectly well," said the Abbé.
"Hear what?" asked the Monk.
"What! you don't hear those groans, more like a man's death-rattle than anything else?"
"Quite true," the Intendant's two companions agreed with one voice.
"You see I was not mistaken?" resumed the latter.
"Give me the key," said Father Delar, making the sign of the cross, " we are men, of honourable and Christian life; we have no right to be afraid; let us go in."
He proceeded to open the door; but for all the trust the man of God reposed in his Divine Master, his hand trembled as he put the key in the lock.
The door opened, and all three halted in amazement on the threshold. The room was empty! Slowly they advanced into the great apartment, with its walls all covered with books and pictures. Everything was in its place,—except only the portrait of the Marquis, which had broken the nail from which it hung and fallen from the wall. There it lay on the ground, a hole through the canvas where the head was.
The Abbé pointed out the picture to the Intendant.
"There lies the cause of your terror," he said, with a sigh of relief.
"Yes, that accounts for the crash," returned the Intendant; "but the groans we heard, did the picture utter them?"
"We certainly did hear groans," the Monk assented.
"Look there, on this table! what do you make of that?" suddenly exclaimed Bonbonne.
"What? what is there on the table?" asked the Abbé.
"Look at that candle only just extinguished," cried Bonbonne; "why, the wick is still smoking; feel the wax, it is still warm."
"It is so indeed! " admitted the two other witnesses of these facts, which certainly seemed supernatural.
"And," went on the Intendant, " here is the Marquis's seal, which he wore on his watch-chain, and with which this envelope addressed to his Notary is sealed without being fastened down."
The Abbé fell back more dead than alive in a seat; he had not strength left to fly.
The Monk remained standing; and without any visible signs of fear, like a man detached from the things of this world, he endeavoured to fathom this mystery, the cause of which he did not know, though he saw the effect without comprehending the final object.
Meantime the Intendant, whom devotion to his master's house inspired with courage, was turning over one by one the pages of the will which he had examined the day before with his master.
He reached the last, and a cold sweat broke out upon his forehead.
"The will is signed! " he muttered low. The Abbé started violently where he sat, the Monk bent over the table, the Intendant gazed from one to the other of his companions.
A moment of tense, grim silence fell between the three men, and the bravest of them felt his hair bristle on his head.
Presently all three bent their eyes once more on the document. A codicil had been added—the ink was still wet—conceived in these words:
"My wish is for my body to be buried at the Carmelite Church in the Place Maubert, beside my ancestors."Executed at my Château of Grosbois, this 27th April, 1774, at seven o'clock in the evening.
The two signatures, that of the will and that of the codicil, together with the codicil itself, were written in a hand less firm than was the general text of the will, but still perfectly legible.
"Let us say a De profundis, gentlemen," said the Intendant gravely; "it is very evident the Marquis is dead."
The three men knelt down reverently, and repeated together the orison of the dead, and afterwards remained for minutes wrapt in meditation before finally rising to their feet.
"My poor master!" said Bonbonne, "he had given me his word of honour to come back and sign the will, and he has kept his promise; God have pity on his soul!"
So saying, the Intendant put back the will in the envelope, and taking up his candle, gestured to his companions to follow him out of the room.
"We have nothing more to do here," he added; "let us go back to the widow and orphans,"
"You are surely not going to give that paper to the Marquise," protested the Abbé. " In Heaven's name! in God's name! never do such a thing."
"Calm yourself," replied the Intendant; this packet shall not leave my hands till I pass it on to the Notary; my master has chosen me executor, inasmuch as he has suffered me to see what I have seen, and hear what I have heard. I shall not rest till his last wishes are carried out; that done, I shall go to join him in the other world. Eyes that have witnessed such things should be closed without delay."
With these solemn words on his lips Bonbonne left the Marquis's study, the other two preceding him, and locked the door. The three then descended the stairs, cast a trembling look in passing at the clock which had stopped at seven o'clock, and issuing by the main entrance, made for the Orangery, where the Marquise and her two children were waiting for them.
The three were still at prayer,—the mother kneeling, her two sons standing by her,
"Well?" she cried, rising hastily at sight of the three men, "well?"
"Continue your prayers, Madame," it was Père Delar who spoke; "you were not deceived. By special grace, accorded doubtless to your peculiar piety, God has permitted that Monsieur de Chauvelin's soul should come back to bid you farewell.
"Oh! my Father," cried the Marquise, raising her clasped hands to heaven, "you see now I was not mistaken,"—and falling to her knees once more, she resumed her interrupted prayers, signing the two boys to copy her example.
Two hours later the tinkling of a horse's bells in the Courtyard made Madame de Chauvelin lift her head, where she sat watching between the two beds of her sleeping children.
A voice rang out on the stairs, crying; "A King's messenger! a King's messenger!"
Next moment a footman entered and handed the Marquise a great letter sealed with black.
It contained the official intimation that the Marquis had died at seven o'clock in the evening of an apoplectic stroke while at cards with the King.