Scaramouche/Book III/Chapter V
MADAME DE PLOUGASTEL
The postilion drew rein, and the footman opened the door, letting down the steps and proffering his arm to his mistress to assist her to alight, since that was the wish she had expressed. Then he opened one wing of the iron gates, and held it for her. She was a woman of something more than forty, who once must have been very lovely, who was very lovely still with the refining quality that age brings to some women. Her dress and carriage alike advertised great rank.
"I take my leave here, since you have a visitor," said André-Louis.
"But it is an old acquaintance of your own, André. You remember Mme. la Comtesse de Plougastel?"
He looked at the approaching lady, whom Aline was now hastening forward to meet, and because she was named to him he recognized her. He must, he thought, had he but looked, have recognized her without prompting anywhere at any time, and this although it was some sixteen years since last he had seen her. The sight of her now brought it all back to him—a treasured memory that had never permitted itself to be entirely overlaid by subsequent events.
When he was a boy of ten, on the eve of being sent to school at Rennes, she had come on a visit to his godfather, who was her cousin. It happened that at the time he was taken by Rabouillet to the Manor of Gavrillac, and there he had been presented to Mme. de Plougastel. The great lady, in all the glory then of her youthful beauty, with her gentle, cultured voice—so cultured that she had seemed to speak a language almost unknown to the little Breton lad—and her majestic air of the great world, had scared him a little at first. Very gently had she allayed those fears of his, and by some mysterious enchantment she had completely enslaved his regard. He recalled now the terror in which he had gone to the embrace to which he was bidden, and the subsequent reluctance with which he had left those soft round arms. He remembered, too, how sweetly she had smelled and the very perfume she had used, a perfume as of lilac—for memory is singularly tenacious in these matters.
For three days whilst she had been at Gavrillac, he had gone daily to the manor, and so had spent hours in her company. A childless woman with the maternal instinct strong within her, she had taken this precociously intelligent, wide-eyed lad to her heart.
"Give him to me, Cousin Quintin," he remembered her saying on the last of those days to his godfather. "Let me take him back with me to Versailles as my adopted child."
But the Seigneur had gravely shaken his head in silent refusal, and there had been no further question of such a thing. And then, when she said good-bye to him—the thing came flooding back to him now—there had been tears in her eyes.
"Think of me sometimes, André-Louis," had been her last words.
He remembered how flattered he had been to have won within so short a time the affection of this great lady. The thing had given him a sense of importance that had endured for months thereafter, finally to fade into oblivion.
But all was vividly remembered now upon beholding her again, after sixteen years, profoundly changed and matured, the girl—for she had been no more in those old days—sunk in this worldly woman with the air of calm dignity and complete self-possession. Yet, he insisted, he must have known her anywhere again.
Aline embraced her affectionately, and then answering the questioning glance with faintly raised eyebrows that madame was directing towards Aline's companion—
"This is André-Louis," she said. "You remember André-Louis, madame?"
Madame checked. André-Louis saw the surprise ripple over her face, taking with it some of her colour, leaving her for a moment breathless.
And then the voice—the well-remembered rich, musical voice—richer and deeper now than of yore, repeated his name:
Her manner of uttering it suggested that it awakened memories, memories perhaps of the departed youth with which it was associated. And she paused a long moment, considering him, a little wide-eyed, what time he bowed before her.
"But of course I remember him," she said at last, and came towards him, putting out her hand. He kissed it dutifully, submissively, instinctively. "And this is what you have grown into?" She appraised him, and he flushed with pride at the satisfaction in her tone. He seemed to have gone back sixteen years, and to be again the little Breton lad at Gavrillac. She turned to Aline. "How mistaken Quintin was in his assumptions. He was pleased to see him again, was he not?"
"So pleased, madame, that he has shown me the door," said André-Louis.
"Ah!" She frowned, conning him still with those dark, wistful eyes of hers. "We must change that, Aline. He is of course very angry with you. But it is not the way to make converts. I will plead for you, André-Louis. I am a good advocate."
He thanked her and took his leave.
"I leave my case in your hands with gratitude. My homage, madame."
And so it happened that in spite of his godfather's forbidding reception of him, the fragment of a song was on his lips as his yellow chaise whirled him back to Paris and the Rue du Hasard. That meeting with Mme. de Plougastel had enheartened him; her promise to plead his case in alliance with Aline gave him assurance that all would be well.
That he was justified of this was proved when on the following Thursday towards noon his academy was invaded by M. de Kercadiou. Gilles, the boy, brought him word of it, and breaking off at once the lesson upon which he was engaged, he pulled off his mask, and went as he was—in a chamois waistcoat buttoned to the chin and with his foil under his arm to the modest salon below, where his godfather awaited him.
The florid little Lord of Gavrillac stood almost defiantly to receive him.
"I have been over-persuaded to forgive you," he announced aggressively, seeming thereby to imply that he consented to this merely so as to put an end to tiresome importunities.
André-Louis was not misled. He detected a pretence adopted by the Seigneur so as to enable him to retreat in good order.
"My blessings on the persuaders, whoever they may have been. You restore me my happiness, monsieur my godfather."
He took the hand that was proffered and kissed it, yielding to the impulse of the unfailing habit of his boyish days. It was an act symbolical of his complete submission, reëstablishing between himself and his godfather the bond of protected and protector, with all the mutual claims and duties that it carries. No mere words could more completely have made his peace with this man who loved him.
M. de Kercadiou's face flushed a deeper pink, his lip trembled, and there was a huskiness in the voice that murmured "My dear boy!" Then he recollected himself, threw back his great head and frowned. His voice resumed its habitual shrillness. "You realize, I hope, that you have behaved damnably ... damnably, and with the utmost ingratitude?"
"Does not that depend upon the point of view?" quoth André-Louis, but his tone was studiously conciliatory.
"It depends upon a fact, and not upon any point of view. Since I have been persuaded to overlook it, I trust that at least you have some intention of reforming."
"I ... I will abstain from politics," said André-Louis, that being the utmost he could say with truth.
"That is something, at least." His godfather permitted himself to be mollified, now that a concession—or a seeming concession—had been made to his just resentment.
"A chair, monsieur."
"No, no. I have come to carry you off to pay a visit with me. You owe it entirely to Mme. de Plougastel that I consent to receive you again. I desire that you come with me to thank her."
"I have my engagements here..." began Andre-Louis, and then broke off. "No matter! I will arrange it. A moment." And he was turning away to reënter the academy.
"What are your engagements? You are not by chance a fencing-instructor?" M. de Kercadiou had observed the leather waistcoat and the foil tucked under André-Louis' arm.
"I am the master of this academy—the academy of the late Bertrand des Amis, the most flourishing school of arms in Paris to-day."
M. de Kercadiou's brows went up.
"And you are master of it?"
"Maître en fait d'Armes. I succeeded to the academy upon the death of des Amis."
He left M. Kercadiou to think it over, and went to make his arrangements and effect the necessary changes in his toilet.
"So that is why you have taken to wearing a sword," said M. de Kercadiou, as they climbed into his waiting carriage.
"That and the need to guard one's self in these times."
"And do you mean to tell me that a man who lives by what is after all an honourable profession, a profession mainly supported by the nobility, can at the same time associate himself with these peddling attorneys and low pamphleteers who are spreading dissension and insubordination?"
"You forget that I am a peddling attorney myself, made so by your own wishes, monsieur."
M. de Kercadiou grunted, and took snuff. "You say the academy flourishes?" he asked presently.
"It does. I have two assistant instructors. I could employ a third. It is hard work."
"That should mean that your circumstances are affluent."
"I have reason to be satisfied. I have far more than I need."
"Then you'll be able to do your share in paying off this national debt," growled the nobleman, well content that as he conceived it—some of the evil André-Louis had helped to sow should recoil upon him.
Then the talk veered to Mme. de Plougastel. M. de Kercadiou, André-Louis gathered, but not the reason for it, disapproved most strongly of this visit. But then Madame la Comtesse was a headstrong woman whom there was no denying, whom all the world obeyed. M. de Plougastel was at present absent in Germany, but would shortly be returning. It was an indiscreet admission from which it was easy to infer that M. de Plougastel was one of those intriguing emissaries who came and went between the Queen of France and her brother, the Emperor of Austria.
The carriage drew up before a handsome hotel in the Faubourg Saint-Denis, at the corner of the Rue Paradis, and they were ushered by a sleek servant into a little boudoir, all gilt and brocade, that opened upon a terrace above a garden that was a park in miniature. Here madame awaited them. She rose, dismissing the young person who had been reading to her, and came forward with both hands outheld to greet her cousin Kercadiou.
"I almost feared you would not keep your word," she said. "It was unjust. But then I hardly hoped that you would succeed in bringing him." And her glance, gentle, and smiling welcome upon him, indicated André-Louis.
The young man made answer with formal gallantry.
"The memory of you, madame, is too deeply imprinted on my heart for any persuasions to have been necessary."
"Ah, the courtier!" said madame, and abandoned him her hand. "We are to have a little talk, André-Louis," she informed him, with a gravity that left him vaguely ill at ease.
They sat down, and for a while the conversation was of general matters, chiefly concerned, however, with André-Louis, his occupations and his views. And all the while madame was studying him attentively with those gentle, wistful eyes, until again that sense of uneasiness began to pervade him. He realized instinctively that he had been brought here for some purpose deeper than that which had been avowed.
At last, as if the thing were concerted—and the clumsy Lord of Gavrillac was the last man in the world to cover his tracks—his godfather rose and, upon a pretext of desiring to survey the garden, sauntered through the windows on to the terrace, over whose white stone balustrade the geraniums trailed in a scarlet riot. Thence he vanished among the foliage below.
"Now we can talk more intimately," said madame. "Come here, and sit beside me." She indicated the empty half of the settee she occupied.
André-Louis went obediently, but a little uncomfortably. "You know," she said gently, placing a hand upon his arm, "that you have behaved very ill, that your godfather's resentment is very justly founded?"
"Madame, if I knew that, I should be the most unhappy, the most despairing of men." And he explained himself, as he had explained himself on Sunday to his godfather. "What I did, I did because it was the only means to my hand in a country in which justice was paralyzed by Privilege to make war upon an infamous scoundrel who had killed my best friend—a wanton, brutal act of murder, which there was no law to punish. And as if that were not enough—forgive me if I speak with the utmost frankness, madame—he afterwards debauched the woman I was to have married."
"Ah, mon Dieu!" she cried out.
"Forgive me. I know that it is horrible. You perceive, perhaps, what I suffered, how I came to be driven. That last affair of which I am guilty—the riot that began in the Feydau Theatre and afterwards enveloped the whole city of Nantes—was provoked by this."
"Who was she, this girl?"
It was like a woman, he thought, to fasten upon the unessential.
"Oh, a theatre girl, a poor fool of whom I have no regrets. La Binet was her name. I was a player at the time in her father's troupe. That was after the Rennes business, when it was necessary to hide from such justice as exists in France—the gallows' justice for unfortunates who are not 'born.' This added wrong led me to provoke a riot in the theatre."
"Poor boy," she said tenderly. "Only a woman's heart can realize what you must have suffered; and because of that I can so readily forgive you. But now..."
"Ah, but you don't understand, madame. If to-day I thought that I had none but personal grounds for having lent a hand in the holy work of abolishing Privilege, I think I should cut my throat. My true justification lies in the insincerity of those who intended that the convocation of the States General should be a sham, mere dust in the eyes of the nation."
"Was it not, perhaps, wise to have been insincere in such a matter?"
He looked at her blankly.
"Can it ever be wise, madame, to be insincere?"
"Oh, indeed it can; believe me, who am twice your age, and know my world."
"I should say, madame, that nothing is wise that complicates existence; and I know of nothing that so complicates it as insincerity. Consider a moment the complications that have arisen out of this."
"But surely, André-Louis, your views have not been so perverted that you do not see that a governing class is a necessity in any country?"
"Why, of course. But not necessarily a hereditary one."
He answered her with an epigram. "Man, madame, is the child of his own work. Let there be no inheriting of rights but from such a parent. Thus a nation's best will always predominate, and such a nation will achieve greatly."
"But do you account birth of no importance?"
"Of none, madame—or else my own might trouble me." From the deep flush that stained her face, he feared that he had offended by what was almost an indelicacy. But the reproof that he was expecting did not come. Instead—
"And does it not?" she asked. "Never, André?"
"Never, madame. I am content."
"You have never ... never regretted your lack of parents' care?"
He laughed, sweeping aside her sweet charitable concern that was so superfluous. "On the contrary, madame, I tremble to think what they might have made of me, and I am grateful to have had the fashioning of myself."
She looked at him for a moment very sadly, and then, smiling, gently shook her head.
"You do not want self-satisfaction. Yet I could wish that you saw things differently, André. It is a moment of great opportunities for a young man of talent and spirit. I could help you; I could help you, perhaps, to go very far if you would permit yourself to be helped after my fashion."
"Yes," he thought, "help me to a halter by sending me on treasonable missions to Austria on the Queen's behalf, like M. de Plougastel. That would certainly end in a high position for me."
Aloud he answered more as politeness prompted.
"I am grateful, madame. But you will see that, holding the ideals I have expressed, I could not serve any cause that is opposed to their realization."
"You are misled by prejudice, André-Louis, by personal grievances. Will you allow them to stand in the way of your advancement?"
"If what I call ideals were really prejudices, would it be honest of me to run counter to them whilst holding them?"
"If I could convince you that you are mistaken! I could help you so much to find a worthy employment for the talents you possess. In the service of the King you would prosper quickly. Will you think of it, André-Louis, and let us talk of this again?"
He answered her with formal, chill politeness.
"I fear that it would be idle, madame. Yet your interest in me is very flattering, and I thank you. It is unfortunate for me that I am so headstrong."
"And now who deals in insincerity?" she asked him.
"Ah, but you see, madame, it is an insincerity that does not mislead."
And then M. de Kercadiou came in through the window again, and announced fussily that he must be getting back to Meudon, and that he would take his godson with him and set him down at the Rue du Hasard.
"You must bring him again, Quintin," the Countess said, as they took their leave of her.
"Some day, perhaps," said M. de Kercadiou vaguely, and swept his godson out.
In the carriage he asked him bluntly of what madame had talked.
"She was very kind—a sweet woman," said André-Louis pensively.
"Devil take you, I didn't ask you the opinion that you presume to have formed of her. I asked you what she said to you."
"She strove to point out to me the error of my ways. She spoke of great things that I might do—to which she would very kindly help me—if I were to come to my senses. But as miracles do not happen, I gave her little encouragement to hope."
"I see. I see. Did she say anything else?"
He was so peremptory that André-Louis turned to look at him.
"What else did you expect her to say, monsieur my godfather?"
"Then she fulfilled your expectations."
"Eh? Oh, a thousand devils, why can't you express yourself in a sensible manner that a plain man can understand without having to think about it?"
He sulked after that most of the way to the Rue du Hasard, or so it seemed to André-Louis. At least he sat silent, gloomily thoughtful to judge by his expression.
"You may come and see us soon again at Meudon," he told André-Louis at parting. "But please remember—no revolutionary politics in future, if we are to remain friends."