Uncle Bernac/Chapter VII
My host was as good as his word, for, when a noise in my room awoke me in the morning, it was to find him standing by the side of my bed, so composed in his features and so drab in his attire, that it was hard to associate him with the stirring scenes of yesterday and with the repulsive part which he had played in them. Now in the fresh morning sunlight he presented rather the appearance of a pedantic schoolmaster, an impression which was increased by the masterful, and yet benevolent, smile with which he regarded me. In spite of his smile, I was more conscious than ever that my whole soul shrank from him, and that I should not be at my ease until I had broken this companionship which had been so involuntarily formed. He carried a heap of clothes over one arm, which he threw upon a chair at the bottom of my bed.
'I gather from the little that you told me last night,' said he, 'that your wardrobe is at present somewhat scanty. I fear that your inches are greater than those of anyone in my household, but I have brought a few things here amongst which you may find something to fit you. Here, too, are the razors, the soap, and the powder-box. I will return in half an hour, when your toilet will doubtless be completed.'
I found that my own clothes, with a little brushing, were as good as ever, but I availed myself of his offer to the extent of a ruffled shirt and a black satin cravat. I had finished dressing and was looking out of the window of my room, which opened on to a blank wall, when my host returned. He looked me all over with a keenly scrutinising eye, and appeared to be satisfied with what he saw.
'That will do! That will do very well indeed!' said he, nodding a critical head. 'In these times a slight indication of travel or hard work upon a costume is more fashionable than the foppishness of the Incroyable. I have heard ladies remark that it was in better taste. Now, sir, if you will kindly follow me.
His solicitude about my dress filled me with surprise, but this was soon forgotten in the shock which was awaiting me. For as we passed down the passage and into a large hall which seemed strangely familiar to me, there was a full-length portrait of my father standing right in front of me. I stood staring with a gasp of astonishment, and turned to see the cold grey eyes of my companion fixed upon me with a humorous glitter.
'You seem surprised, Monsieur de Laval,' said he.
'For God's sake,' said I, 'do not trifle with me any further! Who are you, and what is this place to which you have taken me?'
For answer he broke into one of his dry chuckles, and, laying his skinny brown hand upon my wrist, he led me into a large apartment. In the centre was a table, tastefully laid, and beyond it in a low chair a young lady was seated, with a book in her hand. She rose as we entered, and I saw that she was tall and slender, with a dark face, pronounced features, and black eyes of extraordinary brilliancy. Even in that one glance it struck me that the expression with which she regarded me was by no means a friendly one.
'Sibylle,' said my host, and his words took the breath from my lips, 'this is your cousin from England, Louis de Laval. This, my dear nephew, is my only daughter, Sibylle Bernac.'
'I am your mother's brother, Charles Bernac.'
'You are my Uncle Bernac!' I stammered at him like an idiot. 'But why did you not tell me so?' I cried.
'I was not sorry to have a chance of quietly observing what his English education had done for my nephew. It might also have been harder for me to stand your friend if my comrades had any reason to think that I was personally interested in you. But you will permit me now to welcome you heartily to France, and to express my regret if your reception has been a rough one. I am sure that Sibylle will help me to atone for it. He smiled archly at his daughter, who continued to regard me with a stony face.
I looked round me, and gradually the spacious room, with the weapons upon the wall, and the deer's heads, came dimly back to my memory. That view through the oriel window, too, with the clump of oaks in the sloping park, and the sea in the distance beyond, I had certainly seen it before. It was true then, and I was in our own castle of Grosbois, and this dreadful man in the snuff-coloured coat, this sinister plotter with the death's-head face, was the man whom I had heard my poor father curse so often, the man who had ousted him from his own property and installed himself in his place. And yet I could not forget that it was he also who, at some risk to himself, had saved me the night before, and my soul was again torn between my gratitude and my repulsion.
We had seated ourselves at the table, and as we ate, this newly-found uncle of mine continued to explain all those points which I had failed to understand.
'I suspected that it was you the instant that I set eyes upon you,' said he. 'I am old enough to remember your father when he was a young gallant, and you are his very double—though I may say, without flattery, that where there is a difference it is in your favour. And yet he had the name of being one of the handsomest men betwixt Rouen and the sea. You must bear in mind that I was expecting you, and that there are not so many young aristocrats of your age wandering about along the coast. I was surprised when you did not recognise where you were last night. Had you never heard of the secret passage of Grosbois?'
It came vaguely back to me that in my childhood I had heard of this underground tunnel, but that the roof had fallen in and rendered it useless.
'Precisely,' said my uncle. 'When the castle passed into my hands, one of the very first things which I did was to cut a new opening at the end of it, for I foresaw that in these troublesome times it might be of use to me; indeed, had it been in repair it might have made the escape of your mother and father a very much easier affair.'
His words recalled all that I had heard and all that I could remember of those dreadful days when we, the Lords of the country side, had been chased across it as if we had been wolves, with the howling mob still clustering at the pier-head to shake their fists and hurl their stones at us. I remembered, too, that it was this very man who was speaking to me who had thrown oil upon the flames in those days, and whose fortunes had been founded upon our ruin. As I looked across at him I found that his keen grey eyes were fixed upon me, and I could see that he had read the thoughts in my mind.
'We must let bygones be bygones,' said he. 'Those are quarrels of the last generation, and Sibylle and you represent a new one.'
My cousin had not said one word or taken any notice of my presence, but at this joining of our names she glanced at me with the same hostile expression which I had already remarked.
'Come, Sibylle,' said her father, 'you can assure your cousin Louis that, so far as you are concerned, any family misunderstanding is at an end.'
'It is very well for us to talk in that way, father,' she answered. 'It is not your picture that hangs in the hall, or your coat-of-arms that I see upon the wall. We hold the castle and the land, but it is for the heir of the de Lavals to tell us if he is satisfied with this.' Her dark scornful eyes were fixed upon me as she waited for my reply, but her father hastened to intervene.
'This is not a very hospitable tone in which to greet your cousin,' said he harshly. 'It has so chanced that Louis' heritage has fallen to us, but it is not for us to remind him of the fact.'
'He needs no reminding,' said she.
'You do me an injustice,' I cried, for the evident and malignant scorn of this girl galled me to the quick. 'It is true that I cannot forget that this castle and these grounds belonged to my ancestors—I should be a clod indeed if I could forget it—but if you think that I harbour any bitterness, you are mistaken. For my own part, I ask nothing better than to open up a career for myself with my own sword.'
'And never was there a time when it could be more easily and more brilliantly done,' cried my uncle. 'There are great things about to happen in the world, and if you are at the Emperor's court you will be in the middle of them. I understand that you are content to serve him?
'I wish to serve my country.'
'By serving the Emperor you do so, for without him the country becomes chaos.'
'From all we hear it is not a very easy service,' said my cousin. 'I should have thought that you would have been very much more comfortable in England—and then you would have been so much safer also.'
Everything which the girl said seemed to be meant as an insult to me, and yet I could not imagine how I had ever offended her. Never had I met a woman for whom I conceived so hearty and rapid a dislike. I could see that her remarks were as offensive to her father as they were to me, for he looked at her with eyes which were as angry as her own.
'Your cousin is a brave man, and that is more than can be said for someone else that I could mention,' said he.
'For whom?' she asked.
'Never mind!' he snapped, and, jumping up with the air of a man who is afraid that his rage may master him, and that he may say more than he wished, he ran from the room.
She seemed startled by this retort of his, and rose as if she would follow him. Then she tossed her head and laughed incredulously.
'I suppose that you have never met your uncle before?' said she, after a few minutes of embarrassed silence.
'Never,' answered I.
'Well, what do you think of him now you have met him?'
Such a question from a daughter about her father filled me with a certain vague horror. I felt that he must be even a worse man than I had taken him for if he had so completely forfeited the loyalty of his own nearest and dearest.
'Your silence is a sufficient answer,' said she, as I hesitated for a reply. 'I do not know how you came to meet him last night, or what passed between you, for we do not share each other's confidences. I think, however, that you have read him aright. Now I have something to ask you. You had a letter from him inviting you to leave England and to come here, had you not?'
'Yes, I had.'
'Did you observe nothing on the outside?'
I thought of those two sinister words which had puzzled me so much.
'What! it was you who warned me not to come?'
'Yes, it was I. I had no other means of doing it.'
'But why did you do it?'
'Because I did not wish you to come here.'
'Did you think that I would harm you?'
She sat silent for a few seconds like one who is afraid of saying too much. When her answer came it was a very unexpected one:
'I was afraid that you would be harmed.'
'You think that I am in danger here?'
'I am sure of it.'
'You advise me to leave?'
'Without losing an instant.'
'From whom is the danger then?'
Again she hesitated, and then, with a reckless motion like one who throws prudence to the winds, she turned upon me.
'It is from my father,' said she.
'But why should he harm me?'
'That is for your sagacity to discover.'
'But I assure you, mademoiselle, that in this matter you misjudge him,' said I. 'As it happens, he interfered to save my life last night.'
'To save your life! From whom?'
'From two conspirators whose plans I had chanced to discover.'
'Conspirators!' She looked at me in surprise.
'They would have killed me if he had not intervened.'
'It is not his interest that you should be harmed yet awhile. He had reasons for wishing you to come to Castle Grosbois. But I have been very frank with you, and I wish you to be equally so with me. Does it happen—does it happen that during your youth in England you have ever—you have ever had an affair of the heart?'
Everything which this cousin of mine said appeared to me to be stranger than the last, and this question, coming at the end of so serious a conversation, was the strangest of all. But frankness begets frankness, and I did not hesitate.
'I have left the very best and truest girl in the world behind me in England,' said I. 'Eugenie in her name, Eugenie de Choiseul, the niece of the old Duke.'
My reply seemed to give my cousin great satisfaction. Her large dark eyes shone with pleasure.
'You are very attached?' she asked.
'I shall never be happy until I see her.'
'And you would not give her up?'
'Not for the Castle of Grosbois?'
'Not even for that.'
My cousin held out her hand to me with a charmingly frank impulsiveness.
'You will forgive me for my rudeness,' said she. 'I see that we are to be allies and not enemies.'
And our hands were still clasped when her father re-entered the room.