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“There oft are heard the notes of infant woe,
The short thick sob, loud scream, and shriller squall.
How can you, mothers, vex your infants so?”— POPE.
“D’abord, madame, c’est impossible! — Madame ne descendra pas ici?12” said François, the footman of Mad. de Fleury, with a half expostulatory, half indignant look, as he let down the step of her carriage at the entrance of a dirty passage, that led to one of the most miserable-looking houses in Paris.
12 In the first place, my lady, it is impossible! Surely my lady will not get out of her carriage here?]
“But what can be the cause of the cries which I hear in this house?” said Mad. de Fleury.
“’Tis only some child, who is crying,” replied François: and he would have put up the step, but his lady was not satisfied.
“’Tis nothing in the world,” continued he, with a look of appeal to the coachman, “it can be nothing, but some children, who are locked up there above. The mother, the workwoman my lady wants, is not at home, that’s certain.”
“I must know the cause of these cries; I must see these children,” said Mad. de Fleury, getting out of her carriage.
François held his arm for his lady as she got out.
“Bon!” cried he, with an air of vexation. “Si madame la veut absolument, à la bonne heure! — Mais madame sera abimée. Madame verra que j’ai raison. Madame ne montera jamais ce vilain escalier. D’ailleurs c’est an cinquième. Mais, madame, c’est impossible.”13
13 To be sure it must be as my lady pleases — but my lady will find it terribly dirty! — my Lady will find I was right — my lady will never get up that shocking staircase — it is impossible!]
Notwithstanding the impossibility, Mad. de Fleury proceeded; and bidding her talkative footman wait in the entry, made her way up the dark, dirty, broken staircase, the sound of the cries increasing every instant, till, as she reached the fifth story, she heard the shrieks of one in violent pain. She hastened to the door of the room from which the cries proceeded; the door was fastened, and the noise was so great, that though she knocked as loud as she was able, she could not immediately make herself heard. At last the voice of a child from within answered, “The door is locked — mamma has the key in her pocket, and won’t be home till night; and here’s Victoire has tumbled from the top of the big press, and it is she that is shrieking so.”
Mad. de Fleury ran down the stairs which she had ascended with so much difficulty, called to her footman, who was waiting in the entry, despatched him for a surgeon, and then she returned to obtain from some people who lodged in the house assistance to force open the door of the room in which the children were confined.
On the next floor there was a smith at work, filing so earnestly that he did not hear the screams of the children. When his door was pushed open, and the bright vision of Mad. de Fleury appeared to him, his astonishment was so great that he seemed incapable of comprehending what she said. In a strong provincial accent he repeated, “Plait-il?” and stood aghast till she had explained herself three times: then suddenly exclaiming, “Ah! c’est ça!”— he collected his tools precipitately, and followed to obey her orders. The door of the room was at last forced half open, for a press that had been overturned prevented its opening entirely. The horrible smells that issued did not overcome Mad. de Fleury’s humanity: she squeezed her way into the room, and behind the fallen press saw three little children: the youngest, almost an infant, ceased roaring, and ran to a corner: the eldest, a boy of about eight years old, whose face and clothes were covered with blood, held on his knee a girl younger than himself, whom he was trying to pacify, but who struggled most violently, and screamed incessantly, regardless of Mad. de Fleury, to whose questions she made no answer.
“Where are you hurt, my dear?” repeated Mad. de Fleury in a soothing voice. “Only tell me where you feel pain?”
The boy, showing his sister’s arm, said, in a surly tone —“It is this that is hurt — but it was not I did it.”
“It was, it was,” cried the girl as loud as she could vociferate: “it was Maurice threw me down from the top of the press.”
“No — it was you that were pushing me, Victoire, and you fell backwards. — Have done screeching, and show your arm to the lady.”
“I can’t,” said the girl.
“She won’t,” said the boy.
“She cannot,” said Mad. de Fleury, kneeling down to examine it. “She cannot move it: I am afraid that it is broken.”
“Don’t touch it! don’t touch it!” cried the girl, screaming more violently.
“Ma’am, she screams that way for nothing often,” said the boy. “Her arm is no more broke than mine, I’m sure; she’ll move it well enough when she’s not cross.”
“I am afraid,” said Mad. de Fleury, “that her arm is broken.”
“Is it indeed?” said the boy, with a look of terror.
“Oh! don’t touch it — you’ll kill me, you are killing me,” screamed the poor girl, whilst Mad. de Fleury with the greatest care endeavoured to join the bones in their proper place, and resolved to hold the arm till the arrival of the surgeon.
From the feminine appearance of this lady, no stranger would have expected such resolution; but with all the natural sensibility and graceful delicacy of her sex, she had none of that weakness or affectation, which incapacitates from being useful in real distress. In most sudden accidents, and in all domestic misfortunes, female resolution and presence of mind are indispensably requisite: safety, health, and life, often depend upon the fortitude of women. Happy they, who, like Mad. de Fleury, possess strength of mind united with the utmost gentleness of manner and tenderness of disposition!
Soothed by this lady’s sweet voice, the child’s rage subsided; and no longer struggling, the poor little girl sat quietly on her lap, sometimes writhing and moaning with pain.
The surgeon at length arrived: her arm was set: and he said, “that she had probably been saved much future pain by Mad. de Fleury’s presence of mind.”
“Sir — will it soon be well?” said Maurice to the surgeon.
“Oh, yes, very soon, I dare say,” said the little girl. “To-morrow, perhaps; for now that it is tied up, it does not hurt me to signify — and after all, I do believe, Maurice, it was not you threw me down.”
As she spoke, she held up her face to kiss her brother. —“That is right,” said Mad. de Fleury; “there is a good sister.”
The little girl put out her lips, offering a second kiss, but the boy turned hastily away to rub the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand.
“I am not cross now: am I, Maurice?” said she.
“No, Victoire, I was cross myself when I said that.”
As Victoire was going to speak again, the surgeon imposed silence, observing that she must be put to bed, and should be kept quiet. Mad. de Fleury laid her upon the bed, as soon as Maurice had cleared it of the things with which it was covered; and as they were spreading the ragged blanket over the little girl, she whispered a request to Mad. de Fleury, that she would “stay till her mamma came home, to beg Maurice off from being whipped, if mamma should be angry.”
Touched by this instance of goodness, and compassionating the desolate condition of these children, Mad. de Fleury complied with Victoire’s request; resolving to remonstrate with their mother for leaving them locked up in this manner. They did not know to what part of the town their mother was gone; they could tell only, “that she was to go to a great many different places to carry back work, and to bring home more; and that she expected to be in by five.” It was now half after four.
Whilst Mad. de Fleury waited, she asked the boy to give her a full account of the manner in which the accident had happened.
“Why, ma’am,” said Maurice, twisting and untwisting a ragged handkerchief as he spoke, “the first beginning of all the mischief was, we had nothing to do; so we went to the ashes to make dirt pies: but Babet would go so close that she burnt her petticoat, and threw about all our ashes, and plagued us, and we whipped her: but all would not do, she would not be quiet; so to get out of her reach, we climbed up by this chair on the table to the top of the press, and there we were well enough for a little while, till somehow we began to quarrel about the old scissors, and we struggled hard for them till I got this cut.”
Here he unwound the handkerchief, and for the first time showed the wound, which he had never mentioned before.
“Then,” continued he, “when I got the cut, I shoved Victoire, and she pushed at me again, and I was keeping her off, and her foot slipped, and down she fell; and caught by the press-door, and pulled it and me after her, and that’s all I know.”
“It is well that you were not both killed,” said Mad. de Fleury. “Are you often left locked up in this manner by yourselves, and without any thing to do?”
“Yes, always, when mamma is abroad — except sometimes we are let out upon the stairs, or in the street; but mamma says we get into mischief there.”
This dialogue was interrupted by the return of the mother. She came up stairs slowly, much fatigued, and with a heavy bundle under her arm.
“How now! Maurice, how comes my door open? What’s all this?” cried she, in an angry voice; but seeing a lady sitting upon her child’s bed, she stopped short in great astonishment. Mad. de Fleury related what had happened, and averted her anger from Maurice, by gently expostulating upon the hardship and hazard of leaving her young children in this manner during so many hours of the day.
“Why, my lady,” replied the poor woman, wiping her forehead, “every hard-working woman in Paris does the same with her children; and what can I do else? I must earn bread for these helpless ones, and to do that I must be out backwards and forwards, and to the furthest parts of the town, often from morning till night, with those that employ me; and I cannot afford to send the children to school, or to keep any kind of a servant to look after them; and when I’m away, if I let them run about these stairs and entries, or go into the streets, they do get a little exercise and air to be sure, such as it is; on which account I do let them out sometimes; but then a deal of mischief comes of that, too — they learn all kinds of wickedness, and would grow up to be no better than pickpockets, if they were let often to consort with the little vagabonds they find in the streets. So what to do better for them I don’t know.”
The poor mother sat down upon the fallen press, looked at Victoire, and wept bitterly. Mad. de Fleury was struck with compassion: but she did not satisfy her feelings merely by words or comfort, or by the easy donation of some money — she resolved to do something more, and something better.
“Come often, then; for haply in my bow’r
Amusement, knowledge, wisdom, thou may’st gain:
If I one soul improve, I have not lived in vain.”
It is not so easy to do good as those who have never attempted it may imagine; and they who without consideration follow the mere instinct of pity, often by their imprudent generosity create evils more pernicious to society than any which they partially remedy. “Warm Charity, the general friend,” may become the general enemy, unless she consults her head as well as her heart. Whilst she pleases herself with the idea that she daily feeds hundreds of the poor, she is perhaps preparing want and famine for thousands. Whilst she delights herself with the anticipation of gratitude for her bounties, she is often exciting only unreasonable expectations, inducing habits of dependence, and submission to slavery.
Those who wish to do good should attend to experience, from whom they may receive lessons upon the largest scale that time and numbers can afford.
Mad. de Fleury was aware that neither a benevolent disposition nor a large fortune were sufficient to enable her to be of real service, without the constant exercise of her judgment. She had therefore listened with deference to the conversation of well-informed men upon those subjects on which ladies have not always the means or the wish to acquire extensive and accurate knowledge. Though a Parisian belle, she had read with attention some of those books which are generally thought too dry or too deep for her sex. Consequently her benevolence was neither wild in theory, nor precipitate nor ostentatious in practice.
Touched with compassion for a little girl, whose arm had been accidentally broken, and shocked by the discovery of the confinement and the dangers to which numbers of children in Paris were doomed, she did not make a parade of her sensibility. She did not talk of her feelings in fine sentences to a circle of opulent admirers, nor did she project for the relief of the little sufferers some magnificent establishment, which she could not execute or superintend. She was contented with attempting only what she had reasonable hopes of accomplishing.
The gift of education she believed to be more advantageous than the gift of money to the poor; as it ensures the means both of future subsistence and happiness. But the application even of this incontrovertible principle requires caution and judgment. To crowd numbers of children into a place called a school, to abandon them to the management of any person called a schoolmaster or a schoolmistress, is not sufficient to secure the blessings of a good education. Mad. de Fleury was sensible that the greatest care is necessary in the choice of the person to whom young children are to be intrusted: she knew that only a certain number can be properly directed by one superintendent; and that by attempting to do too much, she might do nothing, or worse than nothing. Her school was formed, therefore, on a small scale, which she could enlarge to any extent, if it should be found to succeed. From some of the families of poor people, who in earning their bread are obliged to spend most of the day from home, she selected twelve little girls, of whom Victoire was the eldest, and she was between six and seven.
The person under whose care Mad. de Fleury wished to place these children was a nun of the Soeurs de la Charité, with whose simplicity of character, benevolence, and mild, steady temper, she was thoroughly acquainted. Sister Frances was delighted with the plan. Any scheme that promised to be of service to her fellow-creatures was sure of meeting with her approbation; but this suited her taste peculiarly, because she was extremely fond of children. No young person had ever boarded six months at her convent without becoming attached to good Sister Frances.
The period of which we are writing was some years before convents were abolished; but the strictness of their rules had in many instances been considerably relaxed. Without much difficulty, permission was obtained from the abbess for our nun to devote her time during the day to the care of these poor children, upon condition that she should regularly return to her convent every night before evening prayers. The house which Mad. de Fleury chose for her little school was in an airy part of the town; it did not face the street, but was separated from other buildings at the back of a court, retired from noise and bustle. The two rooms intended for the occupation of the children were neat and clean, but perfectly simple, with whitewashed walls, furnished only with wooden stools and benches, and plain deal tables. The kitchen was well lighted (for light is essential to cleanliness), and it was provided with utensils; and for these appropriate places were allotted, to give the habit and the taste of order. The school-room opened into a garden larger than is usually seen in towns. The nun, who had been accustomed to purchase provisions for her convent, undertook to prepare daily for the children breakfast and dinner; they were to sup and sleep at their respective homes. Their parents were to take them to Sister Frances every morning, when they went out to work, and to call for them upon their return home every evening. By this arrangement, the natural ties of affection and intimacy between the children and their parents would not be loosened; they would be separate only at the time when their absence must be inevitable. Mad. de Fleury thought that any education which estranges children entirely from their parents must be fundamentally erroneous; that such a separation must tend to destroy that sense of filial affection and duty, and those principles of domestic subordination, on which so many of the interests, and much of the virtue and happiness, of society depend. The parents of these poor children were eager to trust them to her care, and they strenuously endeavoured to promote what they perceived to be entirely to their advantage. They promised to take their daughters to school punctually every morning — a promise which was likely to be kept, as a good breakfast was to be ready at a certain hour, and not to wait for any body. The parents looked forward with pleasure also to the idea of calling for their little girls at the end of their day’s labour, and of taking them home to their family supper. During the intermediate hours, the children were constantly to be employed, or in exercise. It was difficult to provide suitable employments for their early age; but even the youngest of those admitted could be taught to wind balls of cotton, thread, and silk, for haberdashers; or they could shell peas and beans, &c. for a neighbouring traiteur; or they could weed in a garden. The next in age could learn knitting and plain-work, reading, writing, and arithmetic. As the girls should grow up, they were to be made useful in the care of the house. Sister Frances said she could teach them to wash and iron, and that she would make them as skilful in cookery as she was herself. This last was doubtless a rash promise; for in most of the mysteries of the culinary art, especially in the medical branches of it, in making savoury messes palatable to the sick, few could hope to equal the neat-handed Sister Frances. She had a variety of other accomplishments; but her humility and good sense forbade her, upon the present occasion, to mention these. She said nothing of embroidery, or of painting, or of cutting out paper, or of carving in ivory, though in all these she excelled: her cuttings-out in paper were exquisite as the finest lace; her embroidered housewives, and her painted boxes, and her fan-mounts, and her curiously wrought ivory toys, had obtained for her the highest reputation in the convent, amongst the best judges in the world. Those only who have philosophically studied and thoroughly understand the nature of fame and vanity can justly appreciate the self-denial, or magnanimity, of Sister Frances, in forbearing to enumerate or boast of these things. She alluded to them but once, and in the slightest and most humble manner.
“These little creatures are too young for us to think of teaching them any thing but plain-work at present; but if hereafter any of them should show a superior genius, we can cultivate it properly! Heaven has been pleased to endow me with the means — at least our convent says so.”
The actions of Sister Frances showed as much moderation as her words; for though she was strongly tempted to adorn her new dwelling with those specimens of her skill, which had long been the glory of her apartment in the convent, yet she resisted the impulse, and contented herself with hanging over the chimney-piece of her school-room a Madonna of her own painting.
The day arrived when she was to receive her pupils in their new habitation. When the children entered the room for the first time, they paid the Madonna the homage of their unfeigned admiration. Involuntarily the little crowd stopped short at the sight of the picture. Some dormant emotions of human vanity were now awakened — played for a moment about the heart of Sister Frances — and may be forgiven. Her vanity was innocent and transient, her benevolence permanent and useful. Repressing the vain-glory of an artist, as she fixed her eyes upon the Madonna, her thoughts rose to higher objects, and she seized this happy moment to impress upon the minds of her young pupils their first religious ideas and feelings. There was such unaffected piety in her manner, such goodness in her countenance, such persuasion in her voice, and simplicity in her words, that the impression she made was at once serious, pleasing, and not to be effaced. Much depends upon the moment and the manner in which the first notions of religion are communicated to children: if these ideas be connected with terror, and produced when the mind is sullen or in a state of dejection, the future religious feelings are sometimes of a gloomy, dispiriting sort; but if the first impression be made when the heart is expanded by hope or touched by affection, these emotions are happily and permanently associated with religion. This should be particularly attended to by those who undertake the instruction of the children of the poor, who must lead a life of labour, and can seldom have leisure or inclination when arrived at years of discretion, to re-examine the principles early infused into their minds. They cannot in their riper age conquer by reason those superstitious terrors, or bigoted prejudices, which render their victims miserable or perhaps criminal. To attempt to rectify any errors in the foundation after an edifice has been constructed, is dangerous: the foundation, therefore, should be laid with care. The religious opinions of Sister Frances were strictly united with just rules of morality, strongly enforcing, as the essential means of obtaining present and future happiness, the practice of the social virtues; so that no good or wise persons, however they might differ from her in modes of faith, could doubt the beneficial influence of her general principles, or disapprove of the manner in which they were inculcated.
Detached from every other worldly interest, this benevolent nun devoted all her earthly thoughts to the children of whom she had undertaken the charge. She watched over them with unceasing vigilance, whilst diffidence of her own abilities was happily supported by her high opinion of Mad. de Fleury’s judgment. This lady constantly visited her pupils every week; not in the hasty, negligent manner in which fine ladies sometimes visit charitable institutions, imagining that the honour of their presence is to work miracles, and that every thing will go on rightly when they have said, “Let it be so,” or, “I must have it so.” Mad. de Fleury’s visits were not of this dictatorial or cursory nature. Not minutes, but hours, she devoted to these children — she who could charm by the grace of her manners, and delight by the elegance of her conversation, the most polished circles14 and the best-informed societies of Paris, preferred to the glory of being admired the pleasure of being useful —
“Her life, as lovely as her face,
Each duty mark’d with every grace;
Her native sense improved by reading,
Her native sweetness by good-breeding.”
14 It was of this lady that Marmontel said —“She has the art of making the most common thoughts appear new, and the most uncommon simple, by the elegance and clearness of her expressions.”]
“Ah me! how much I fear lest pride it be;
But if that pride it be, which thus inspires,
Beware, ye dames! with nice discernment see
Ye quench not too the sparks of nobler fires.”
By repeated observation, and by attending to the minute reports of Sister Frances, Mad. de Fleury soon became acquainted with the habits and temper of each individual in this little society. The most intelligent and the most amiable of these children was Victoire. Whence her superiority arose, whether her abilities were naturally more vivacious than those of her companions, or whether they had been more early developed by accidental excitation, we cannot pretend to determine, lest we should involve ourselves in the intricate question respecting natural genius — a metaphysical point, which we shall not in this place stop to discuss. Till the world has an accurate philosophical dictionary (a work not to be expected in less than half a dozen centuries), this question will never be decided to general satisfaction. In the mean time, we may proceed with our story.
Deep was the impression made on Victoire’s heart by the kindness that Mad. de Fleury showed her at the time her arm was broken; and her gratitude was expressed with all the enthusiastic fondness of childhood. Whenever she spoke or heard of Mad. de Fleury, her countenance became interested, and animated, in a degree that would have astonished a cool English spectator. Every morning her first question to Sister Frances was —“Will she come to-day?”— If Mad. de Fleury was expected, the hours and the minutes were counted, and the sand in the hourglass that stood on the school-room table was frequently shaken. The moment she appeared, Victoire ran to her, and was silent; satisfied with standing close beside her, holding her gown when unperceived, and watching, as she spoke and moved, every turn of her countenance. Delighted by these marks of sensibility, Sister Frances would have praised the child, but was warned by Mad. de Fleury to refrain from injudicious eulogiums, lest she should teach her affectation.
“If I must not praise, you will permit me at least to love her,” said Sister Frances.
Her affection for Victoire was increased by compassion: during two months the poor child’s arm hung in a sling, so that she could not venture to play with her companions. At their hours of recreation, she used to sit on the school-room steps, looking down into the garden at the scene of merriment, in which she could not partake.
For those who know how to find it, there is good in every thing. Sister Frances used to take her seat on the steps, sometimes with her work, and sometimes with a book; and Victoire, tired of being quite idle, listened with eagerness to the stories which Sister Frances read, or watched with interest the progress of her work: soon she longed to imitate what she saw done with so much pleasure, and begged to be taught to work and read. By degrees she learned her alphabet; and could soon, to the amazement of her schoolfellows, read the names of all the animals in Sister Frances’ picture-book. No matter how trifling the thing done, or the knowledge acquired, a great point is gained by giving the desire for employment. Children frequently become industrious from impatience of the pains and penalties of idleness. Count Rumford showed that he understood childish nature perfectly well, when, in his House of Industry at Munich, he compelled the young children to sit for some time idle in a gallery round the hall, where others a little older than themselves were busied at work. During Victoire’s state of idle convalescence, she acquired the desire to be employed, and she consequently soon became more industrious than her neighbours. Succeeding in her first efforts, she was praised — was pleased, and persevered till she became an example of activity to her companions. But Victoire, though now nearly seven years old, was not quite perfect. Naturally, or accidentally, she was very passionate, and not a little self-willed.
One day being mounted, horsemanlike, with whip in hand, upon the banister of the flight of stairs leading from the school-room to the garden, she called in a tone of triumph to her playfellows, desiring them to stand out of the way, and see her slide from top to bottom. At this moment Sister Frances came to the school-room door, and forbade the feat: but Victoire, regardless of all prohibition, slid down instantly, and moreover was going to repeat the glorious operation, when Sister Frances, catching hold of her arm, pointed to a heap of sharp stones that lay on the ground upon the other side of the banisters.
“I am not afraid,” said Victoire.
“But if you fall there, you may break your arm again.”
“And if I do I can bear it,” said Victoire. “Let me go, pray let me go: I must do it.”
“No; I forbid you, Victoire, to slide down again! — Babet, and all the little ones, would follow your example, and perhaps break their necks.”
The nun, as she spoke, attempted to compel Victoire to dismount: but she was so much of a heroine, that she would do nothing upon compulsion. Clinging fast to the banisters, she resisted with all her might; she kicked and screamed, and screamed and kicked; but at last her feet were taken prisoners; then grasping the railway with one hand, with the other she brandished high the little whip.
“What!” said the mild nun, “would you strike me with that arm?”
The arm dropped instantly — Victoire recollected Mad. de Fleury’s kindness the day when the arm was broken: dismounting immediately, she threw herself upon her knees in the midst of the crowd of young spectators, and begged pardon of Sister Frances. For the rest of the day she was as gentle as a lamb; nay, some assert that the effects of her contrition were visible during the remainder of the week.
Having thus found the secret of reducing the little rebel to obedience by touching her on the tender point of gratitude, the nun had recourse to this expedient in all perilous cases: but one day, when she was boasting of the infallible operation of her charm, Mad. de Fleury advised her to forbear recurring to it frequently, lest she should wear out the sensibility she so much loved. In consequence of this counsel, Victoire’s violence of temper was sometimes reduced by force, and sometimes corrected by reason; but the principle and the feeling of gratitude were not exhausted or weakened in the struggle. The hope of reward operated upon her generous mind more powerfully than the fear of punishment; and Mad. de Fleury devised rewards with as much ability as some legislators invent punishments.
Victoire’s brother Maurice, who was now of an age to earn his own bread, had a strong desire to be bound apprentice to the smith who worked in the house where his mother lodged. This most ardent wish of his soul he had imparted to his sister: and she consulted her benefactress, whom she considered as all-powerful in this, as in every other affair.
“Your brother’s wish shall be gratified,” replied Mad. de Fleury, “if you can keep your temper one month. If you are never in a passion for a whole month, I will undertake that your brother shall be bound apprentice to his friend the smith. To your companions, to Sister Frances, and above all to yourself, I trust, to make me a just report this day month.”
“You she preferr’d to all the gay resorts,
Where female vanity might wish to shine,
The pomp of cities, and the pride of courts.”
At the end of the time prescribed, the judges, including Victoire herself, who was the most severe of them all, agreed she had justly deserved her reward. Maurice obtained his wish; and Victoire’s temper never relapsed into its former bad habits — so powerful is the effect of a well-chosen motive! — Perhaps the historian may be blamed for dwelling on such trivial anecdotes; yet a lady, who was accustomed to the conversation of deep philosophers and polished courtiers, listened without disdain to these simple annals. Nothing appeared to her a trifle that could tend to form the habits of temper, truth, honesty, order, and industry; — habits which are to be early induced, not by solemn precepts, but by practical lessons. A few more examples of these shall be recorded, notwithstanding the fear of being tiresome.
One day little Babet, who was now five years old, saw, as she was coming to school, an old woman, sitting at a corner of the street, beside a large black brazier full of roasted chestnuts. Babet thought that the chestnuts looked and smelled very good; the old woman was talking earnestly to some people, who were on her other side; Babet filled her work-bag with chestnuts, and then ran after her mother and sister, who, having turned the corner of the street, had not seen what passed. When Babet came to the school-room, she opened her bag with triumph, displayed her treasure, and offered to divide it with her companions. “Here, Victoire,” said she, “here is the largest chestnut for you.”
But Victoire would not take it; for she said that Babet had no money, and that she could not have come honestly by these chestnuts. She spoke so forcibly upon this point, that even those who had the tempting morsel actually at their lips, forbore to bite; those who had bitten laid down their half-eaten prize; and those who had their hands full of chestnuts, rolled them, back again towards the bag, Babet cried with vexation.
“I burned my fingers in getting them for you, and now you won’t eat them! — And I must not eat them!” said she: then curbing her passion, she added, “But at any rate, I won’t be a thief. I am sure I did not think it was being a thief just to, take a few chestnuts from an old woman, who had such heaps and heaps: but Victoire says it is wrong, and I would not be a thief for all the chestnuts in the world — I’ll throw them all into the fire this minute!”
“No; give them back again to the old woman,” said Victoire.
“But, may be, she would scold me for having taken them,” said Babet; “or who knows but she might whip me?”
“And if she did, could not you bear it?” said Victoire: “I am sure I would rather bear twenty whippings than be a thief.”
“Twenty whippings! that’s a great many,” said Babet; “and I am so little, consider — and that woman has such a monstrous arm! — Now, if it was Sister Frances, it would be another thing. But come! if you will go with me, Victoire, you shall see how I will behave.”
“We will all go with you,” said Victoire.
“Yes, all!” said the children; “and Sister Frances, I dare say, would go, if you asked her.”
Babet ran and told her, and she readily consented to accompany the little penitent to make restitution. The chestnut woman did not whip Babet, nor even scold her; but said she was sure, that since the child was so honest as to return what she had taken, she would never steal again. This was the most glorious day of Babet’s life, and the happiest. When the circumstance was told to Mad. de Fleury, she gave the little girl a bag of the best chestnuts the old woman could select, and Babet with great delight shared her reward with her companions.
“But, alas! these chestnuts are not roasted. Oh, if we could but roast them!” said the children.
Sister Frances placed in the middle of the table, on which the chestnuts were spread, a small earthenware furnace — a delightful toy, commonly used by children in Paris to cook their little feasts.
“This can be bought for sixpence,” said she: “and if each of you twelve earn one halfpenny a-piece to-day, you can purchase it to-night, and I will put a little fire into it, and you will then he able to roast your chestnuts.”
The children ran eagerly to their work — some to wind worsted for a woman who paid them a liard for each ball, others to shell peas for a neighbouring traiteur— all rejoicing that they were able to earn something. The elder girls, under the directions and with the assistance of Sister Frances, completed making, washing, and ironing, half a dozen little caps, to supply a baby-linen warehouse. At the end of the day, when the sum of the produce of their labours was added together, they were surprised to find, that, instead of one, they could purchase two furnaces. They received and enjoyed the reward of their united industry. The success of their first efforts was fixed in their memory: for they were very happy roasting the chestnuts, and they were all (Sister Frances inclusive) unanimous in opinion that no chestnuts ever were so good, or so well roasted. Sister Frances always partook in their little innocent amusements; and it was her great delight to be the dispenser of rewards, which at once conferred present pleasure, and cherished future virtue.
“To virtue wake the pulses of the heart,
And bid the tear of emulation start.”— ROGERS.
Victoire, who gave constant exercise to the benevolent feelings of the amiable nun, became every day more dear to her. Far from having the selfishness of a favourite, Victoire loved to bring into public notice the good actions of her companions. “Stoop down your ear to me, Sister Frances,” said she, “and I will tell you a secret — I will tell you why my friend Annette is growing so thin — I found it out this morning — she does not eat above half her soup everyday. Look, there’s her porringer covered up in the corner — she carries it home to her mother, who is sick, and who has not bread to eat.”
Mad. de Fleury came in, whilst Sister Frances was yet bending down to hear this secret; it was repeated to her, and she immediately ordered that a certain allowance of bread should be given to Annette every day to carry to her mother during her illness.
“I give it in charge to you, Victoire, to remember this, and I am sure it will never be forgotten. Here is an order for you upon my baker: run and show it to Annette. This is a pleasure you deserve; I am glad that you have chosen for your friend a girl who is so good a daughter. Good daughters make good friends.”
By similar instances of goodness Victoire obtained the love and confidence of her companions, notwithstanding her manifest superiority. In their turn, they were eager to proclaim her merits; and, as Sister Frances and Mad. de Fleury administered justice with invariable impartiality, the hateful passions of envy and jealousy were never excited in this little society. No servile sycophant, no malicious detractor, could rob or defraud their little virtues of their due reward.
“Whom shall I trust to take this to Mad. de Fleury?” said Sister Frances, carrying into the garden where the children were playing a pot of fine jonquils, which she had brought from her convent. —“These are the first jonquils I have seen this year, and finer I never beheld! Whom shall I trust to take them to Mad. de Fleury this evening? — It must be some one who will not stop to stare about on the way, but who will be very, very careful — some one in whom I can place perfect dependence.”
“It must be Victoire, then,” cried every voice.
“Yes, she deserves it to-day particularly,” said Annette, eagerly; “because she was not angry with Babet, when she did what was enough to put any body in a passion. Sister Frances, you know this cherry-tree which you grafted for Victoire last year, and that was yesterday so full of blossoms — now you see, there is not a blossom left! — Babet plucked them all this morning to make a nosegay.”
“But she did not know,” said Victoire, “that pulling off the blossoms would prevent my having any cherries.”
“Oh, I am very sorry I was so foolish,” said Babet; “Victoire did not even say a cross word to me.”
“Though she was excessively anxious about the cherries,” pursued Annette, “because she intended to have given the first she had to Mad. de Fleury.”
“Victoire, take the jonquils — it is but just,” said Sister Frances. “How I do love to hear them all praise her! — I knew what she would be from the first.”
With a joyful heart Victoire took the jonquils, promised to carry them with the utmost care, and not to stop to stare on the way. She set out to Mad. de Fleury’s hotel, which was in La Place de Louis Quinze. It was late in the evening, the lamps were lighting, and as Victoire crossed the Pont de Louis Seize, she stopped to look at the reflection of the lamps in the water, which appeared in succession, as they were lighted, spreading as if by magic along the river. While Victoire leaned over the battlements of the bridge, watching the rising of these stars of fire, a sudden push from the elbow of some rude passenger precipitated her pot of jonquils into the Seine. The sound it made in the water was thunder to the ear of Victoire; she stood for an instant vainly hoping it would rise again, but the waters had closed over it for ever.
“Dans cet êtat affreux, que faire?
Victoire courageously proceeded to Mad. de Fleury’s, and desired to see her.
“D’abord c’est impossible — madame is dressing to go to a concert;” said François. “Cannot you leave your message?”
“Oh, no,” said Victoire; “it is of great consequence — I must see her myself; and she is so good, and you too, Monsieur François, that I am sure you will not refuse.”
“Well, I remember one day you found the seal of my watch, which I dropped at your school-room door — one good turn deserves another. If it is possible, it shall be done — I will inquire of madame’s woman.”—“Follow me up stairs,” said he, returning in a few minutes; “madame will see you.”
She followed him Up the large staircase, and through a suite of apartments sufficiently grand to intimidate her young imagination.
“Madame est dans son cabinet. Entrez — mais entrez done, entrez toujours.”
Mad. de Fleury was more richly dressed than usual; and her image was reflected in the large looking-glass, so that at the first moment Victoire thought she saw many fine ladies, but not one of them the lady she wanted.
“Well, Victoire, my child, what is the matter?”
“Oh, it is her voice! — I know you now, madame, and I am not afraid — not afraid even to tell you how foolish I have been. Sister Frances trusted me to carry for you, madame, a beautiful pot of jonquils, and she desired me not to stop on the way to stare; but I did stop to look at the lamps on the bridge, and I forgot the jonquils, and somebody brushed by me, and threw them into the river — and I am very sorry I was so foolish.”
“And I am very glad that you are so wise as to tell the truth, without attempting to make any paltry excuses. Go home to Sister Frances, and assure her that I am more obliged to her for making you such an honest girl than I could be for a whole bed of jonquils.”
Victoire’s heart was so full that she could not speak — she kissed Mad. de Fleury’s hand in silence, and then seemed to be lost in contemplation of her bracelet.
“Are you thinking, Victoire, that you should be much happier, if you had such bracelets as these? — Believe me, you are mistaken if you think so; many people are unhappy, who wear fine bracelets; so, my child, content yourself.”
“Myself! Oh, madam, I was not thinking of myself — I was not wishing for bracelets, I was only thinking that —”
“That it is a pity you are so very rich; you have every thing in this world that you want, and I can never be of the least use to you— all my life I shall never be able to do you any good — and what,” said Victoire, turning away to hide her tears, “what signifies the gratitude of such a poor little creature as I am?”
“Did you never hear the fable of the lion and the mouse, Victoire?”
“No, madam — never!”
“Then I will tell it to you.”
Victoire looked up with eyes of eager expectation — François opened the door to announce that the Marquis de M—— and the Comte de S—— were in the saloon; but Mad. de Fleury stayed to tell Victoire her fable — she would not lose the opportunity of making an impression upon this child’s heart.
It is whilst the mind is warm that the deepest impressions can be made. Seizing the happy moment sometimes decides the character and the fate of a child. In this respect what advantages have the rich and great in educating the children of the poor! they have the power which their rank, and all its decorations, obtain over the imagination. Their smiles are favours; their words are listened to as oracular; they are looked up to as beings of a superior order. Their powers of working good are almost as great, though not quite so wonderful, as those formerly attributed to beneficent fairies.
“Knowledge for them unlocks her useful page,
And virtue blossoms for a better age.”— BARBAULD.
A few days after Mad. de Fleury had told Victoire the fable of the lion and the mouse, she was informed by Sister Frances that Victoire had put the fable into verse. It was wonderfully well done for a child of nine years old, and Mad. de Fleury was tempted to praise the lines; but, checking the enthusiasm of the moment, she considered whether it would be advantageous to cultivate her pupil’s talent for poetry. Excellence in the poetic art cannot be obtained without a degree of application for which a girl in her situation could not have leisure. To encourage her to become a mere rhyming scribbler, without any chance of obtaining celebrity or securing subsistence, would be folly and cruelty. Early prodigies, in the lower ranks of life, are seldom permanently successful; they are cried up one day, and cried down the next. Their productions rarely have that superiority which secures a fair preference in the great literary market. Their performances are, perhaps, said to be —wonderful, all things considered, &c. Charitable allowances are made; the books are purchased by associations of complaisant friends or opulent patrons; a kind of forced demand is raised, but this can be only temporary and delusive. In spite of bounties and of all the arts of protection, nothing but what is intrinsically good will long be preferred, when it must be purchased. But granting that positive excellence is attained, there is always danger that for works of fancy the taste of the public may suddenly vary; there is a fashion in these things; and when the mode changes, the mere literary manufacturer is thrown out of employment; he is unable to turn his hand to another trade, or to any but his own peculiar branch of the business. The powers of the mind are often partially cultivated in these self-taught geniuses. We often see that one part of their understanding is nourished to the prejudice of the rest — the imagination, for instance, at the expense of the judgment: so that, whilst they have acquired talents for show, they have none for use. In the affairs of common life, they are utterly ignorant and imbecile — or worse than imbecile. Early called into public notice, probably before their moral habits are formed, they are extolled for some play of fancy or of wit, as Bacon calls it, some juggler’s trick of the intellect; they immediately take an aversion to plodding labour, they feel raised above their situation; possessed by the notion that genius exempts them, not only from labour, but from vulgar rules of prudence, they soon disgrace themselves by their conduct, are deserted by their patrons, and sink into despair, or plunge into profligacy.15
15 To these observations there are honourable exceptions.]
Convinced of these melancholy truths, Mad. de Fleury was determined not to add to the number of those imprudent or ostentatious patrons, who sacrifice to their own amusement and vanity the future happiness of their favourites. Victoire’s verses were not handed about in fashionable circles, nor was she called upon to recite them before a brilliant audience, nor was she produced in public as a prodigy; she was educated in private, and by slow and sure degrees, to be a good, useful, and happy member of society. Upon the same principles which decided Mad. de Fleury against encouraging Victoire to be a poetess, she refrained from giving any of her little pupils accomplishments unsuited to their situation. Some had a fine ear for music, others showed powers of dancing; but they were taught neither dancing nor music — talents which in their station were more likely to be dangerous than serviceable. They were not intended for actresses or opera-girls, but for shop-girls, mantua-makers, work-women, and servants of different sorts; consequently they were instructed in things which would be most necessary and useful to young women in their rank of life. Before they were ten years old, they could do all kinds of plain needlework, they could read and write well, and they were mistresses of the common rules of arithmetic. After this age, they were practised by a writing-master in drawing out bills neatly, keeping accounts, and applying to every-day use their knowledge of arithmetic. Some were taught by a laundress to wash, and get up fine linen and lace; others were instructed by a neighbouring traiteur in those culinary mysteries with which Sister Frances was unacquainted. In sweetmeats and confectionaries she yielded to no one; and she made her pupils as expert as herself. Those who were intended for ladies’ maids were taught mantua-making, and had lessons from Mad. de Fleury’s own woman in hair-dressing.
Amongst her numerous friends and acquaintances, and amongst the shopkeepers whom she was in the habit of employing, Mad. de Fleury had means of placing and establishing her pupils suitably and advantageously: of this both they and their parents were aware, so that there was a constant and great motive operating continually to induce them to exert themselves, and to behave well. This reasonable hope of reaping the fruits of their education, and of being immediately rewarded for their good conduct; this perception of the connexion between what they are taught and what they are to become, is necessary to make young people assiduous: for want of attending to these principles, many splendid establishments have failed to produce pupils answerable to the expectations which had been formed of them.
During seven years that Mad. de Fleury persevered uniformly on the same plan, only one girl forfeited her protection — a girl of the name of Manon; she was Victoire’s cousin, but totally unlike her in character.
When very young, her beautiful eyes and hair caught the fancy of a rich lady, who took her into her family as a sort of humble playfellow for her children. She was taught to dance and to sing: she soon excelled in these accomplishments, and was admired, and produced as a prodigy of talent. The lady of the house gave herself great credit for having discerned, and having brought forward, such talents. Manon’s moral character was in the mean time neglected. In this house, where there was a constant scene of hurry and dissipation, the child had frequent opportunities and temptations to be dishonest. For some time she was not detected; her caressing manners pleased her patroness, and servile compliance with the humours of the children of the family secured their good-will. Encouraged by daily petty successes in the art of deceit, she became a complete hypocrite. With culpable negligence, her mistress trusted implicitly to appearances; and without examining whether she were really honest, she suffered her to have free access to unlocked drawers and valuable cabinets. Several articles of dress were missed from time to time; but Manon managed so artfully, that she averted from herself all suspicion. Emboldened by this fatal impunity, she at last attempted depredations of more importance. She purloined a valuable, snuff-box — was detected in disposing of the broken parts of it at a pawnbroker’s, and was immediately discarded in disgrace; but by her tears and vehement expressions of remorse, she so far worked upon the weakness of the lady of the house, as to prevail upon her to conceal the circumstance that occasioned her dismissal. Some months afterwards Manon, pleading that she was thoroughly reformed, obtained from this lady a recommendation to Mad. de Fleury’s school. It is wonderful that people, who in other respects profess and practise integrity, can be so culpably weak as to give good characters to those who do not deserve them: this is really one of the worst species of forgery. Imposed upon by this treacherous recommendation, Mad. de Fleury received into the midst of her innocent young pupils one who might have corrupted their minds secretly and irrecoverably. Fortunately a discovery was made in time of Manon’s real disposition. A mere trifle led to the detection of her habits of falsehood. As she could not do any kind of needlework, she was employed in winding cotton; she was negligent, and did not in the course of the week wind the same number of balls as her companions; and to conceal this, she pretended that she had delivered the proper number to the woman, who regularly called at the end of the week for the cotton. The woman persisted in her account; the children in theirs; and Manon would not retract her assertion. The poor woman gave up the point; but she declared that she would the next time send her brother to make up the account, because he was sharper than herself, and would not be imposed upon so easily. The ensuing week the brother came, and he proved to be the very pawnbroker to whom Manon formerly offered the stolen box: he knew her immediately; it was in vain that she attempted to puzzle him, and to persuade him that she was not the same person. The man was clear and firm. Sister Frances could scarcely believe what she heard. Struck with horror, the children shrunk back from Manon, and stood in silence. Mad. de Fleury immediately wrote to the lady who had recommended this girl, and inquired into the truth of the pawnbroker’s assertions. The lady, who had given Manon a false character, could not deny the facts, and could apologize for herself only by saying, that “she believed the girl to be partly reformed, and that she hoped, under Mad. de Fleury’s judicious care, she would become an amiable and respectable woman.”
Mad. de Fleury, however, wisely judged, that the hazard of corrupting all her pupils should not be incurred for the slight chance of correcting one, whose had habits were of such long standing. Manon was expelled from this happy little community — even Sister Frances, the most mild of human beings, could never think of the danger to which they had been exposed without expressing indignation against the lady who recommended such a girl as a fit companion for her blameless and beloved pupils.
“Alas! regardless of their doom,
The little victims play:
No sense have they of ills to come,
No care beyond to-day.”— GRAY.
Good legislators always attend to the habits, and what is called the genius, of the people they have to govern. From youth to age, the taste for whatever is called une fête pervades the whole French nation. Mad. de Fleury availed herself judiciously of this powerful motive, and connected it with the feelings of affection more than with the passion for show. For instance, when any of her little people had done any thing particularly worthy of reward, she gave them leave to invite their parents to a fête prepared for them by their children, assisted by the kindness of Sister Frances.
One day — it was a holiday obtained by Victoire’s good conduct — all the children prepared in their garden a little feast for their parents. Sister Frances spread the table with a bountiful hand, the happy fathers and mothers were waited upon by their children, and each in their turn heard with delight from the benevolent nun some instance of their daughter’s improvement. Full of hope for the future, and of gratitude for the past, these honest people ate and talked, whilst in imagination they saw their children all prosperously and usefully settled in the world. They blessed Mad. de Fleury in her absence, and they wished ardently for her presence.
“The sun is setting, and Mad. de Fleury is not yet come,” cried Victoire; “she said she would be here this evening — What can be the matter?”
“Nothing is the matter, you may be sure,” said Babet; “but that she has forgotten us — she has so many things to think of.”
“Yes; but I know she never forgets us,” said Victoire; “and she loves so much to see us all happy together, that I am sure it must be something very extraordinary that detains her.”
Babet laughed at Victoire’s fears: but presently even she began to grow impatient; for they waited long after sunset, expecting every moment that Mad. de Fleury would arrive. At last she appeared, but with a dejected countenance, which seemed to justify Victoire’s foreboding. When she saw this festive company, each child sitting between her parents, and all at her entrance looking up with affectionate pleasure, a faint smile enlivened her countenance for a moment; but she did not speak to them with her usual ease. Her mind seemed pre-occupied by some disagreeable business of importance. It appeared that it had some connexion with them; for as she walked round the table with Sister Frances, she said with a voice and look of great tenderness, “Poor children! how happy they are at this moment! — Heaven only knows how soon they may be rendered, or may render themselves, miserable!”
None of the children could imagine what this meant; but their parents guessed that it had some allusion to the state of public affairs. About this time some of those discontents had broken out, which preceded the terrible days of the Revolution. As yet, most of the common people, who were honestly employed in earning their own living, neither understood what was going on, nor foresaw what was to happen. Many of their superiors were not in such happy ignorance — they had information of the intrigues that were forming; and the more penetration they possessed, the more they feared the consequences of events which they could not control. At the house of a great man, with whom she had dined this day, Mad. de Fleury had heard alarming news. Dreadful public disturbances, she saw, were inevitable; and whilst she trembled for the fate of all who were dear to her, these poor children had a share in her anxiety. She foresaw the temptations, the dangers, to which they must be exposed, whether they abandoned, or whether they abided by, the principles their education had instilled. She feared that the labour of years would perhaps be lost in an instant, or that her innocent pupils would fall victims even to their virtues.
Many of these young people were now of an age to understand and to govern themselves by reason; and with these she determined to use those preventive measures which reason affords. Without meddling with politics, in which no amiable or sensible woman can wish to interfere, the influence of ladies in the higher ranks of life may always be exerted with perfect propriety, and with essential advantage to the public, in conciliating the inferior classes of society, explaining to them their duties and their interests, and impressing upon the minds of the children of the poor, sentiments of just subordination and honest independence. How happy would it have been for France, if women of fortune and abilities had always exerted their talents and activity in this manner, instead of wasting their powers in futile declamations, or in the intrigues of party!
“E’en now the devastation is begun,
And half the business of destruction done.”
Madame de Fleury was not disappointed in her pupils. When the public disturbances began, these children were shocked by the horrible actions they saw. Instead of being seduced by bad example, they only showed anxiety to avoid companions of their own age, who were dishonest, idle, or profligate. Victoire’s cousin Manon ridiculed these absurd principles, as she called them; and endeavoured to persuade Victoire that she would be much happier if she followed the fashion.
“What! Victoire, still with your work-bag on your arm, and still going to school with your little sister, though you are but a year younger than I am, I believe! — thirteen last birthday, were not you? — Mon Dieu! Why, how long do you intend to be a child? and why don’t you leave that old nun, who keeps you in leading-strings? — I assure you, nuns, and schoolmistresses, and schools, and all that sort of thing, are out of fashion now — we have abolished all that — we are to live a life of reason now — and all soon to be equal, I can tell you; let your Mad. de Fleury look to that, and look to it yourself; for with all your wisdom, you might find yourself in the wrong box by sticking to her, and that side of the question. — Disengage yourself from her, I advise you, as soon as you can. — My dear Victoire! believe me, you may spell very well — but you know nothing of the rights of man, or the rights of woman.”
“I do not pretend to know any thing of the rights of men, or the rights of women,” cried Victoire; “but this I know, that I never can or will be ungrateful to Mad. de Fleury. Disengage myself from her! I am bound to her for ever, and I will abide by her till the last hour I breathe.”
“Well, well! there is no occasion to be in a passion — I only speak as a friend, and I have no more time to reason with you; for I must go home, and get ready my dress for the ball to-night.”
“Manon, how can you afford to buy a dress for a ball?”
“As you might, if you had common sense, Victoire — only by being a good citizen. I and a party of us denounced a milliner and a confectioner in our neighbourhood, who were horrible aristocrats; and of their goods forfeited to the nation we had, as was our just share, such delicious marangles, and charming ribands! — Oh, Victoire, believe me, you will never get such things by going to school, or saying your prayers either. You may look with as much scorn and indignation as you please, but I advise you to let it alone, for all that is out of fashion, and may moreover bring you into difficulties. Believe me, my dear Victoire, your head is not deep enough to understand these things — you know nothing of politics.”
“But I know the difference between right and wrong, Manon: politics can never alter that, you know.”
“Never alter that! — there you are quite mistaken,” said Manon: “I cannot stay to convince you now — but this I can tell you, that I know secrets that you don’t suspect.”
“I do not wish to know any of your secrets, Manon,” said Victoire, proudly.
“Your pride may be humbled, Citoyenne Victoire, sooner than you expect,” exclaimed Manon, who was now so provoked by her cousin’s contempt, that she could not refrain from boasting of her political knowledge. “I can tell you, that your fine friends will in a few days not be able to protect you. The Abbé Tracassier is in love with a dear friend of mine, and I know all the secrets of state from her — and I know what I know. Be as incredulous, as you please, but you will see that, before this week is at end, Monsieur de Fleury will be guillotined, and then what will become of you? Good morning, my proud cousin.”
Shocked by what she had just heard, Victoire could scarcely believe that Manon was in earnest; she resolved, however, to go immediately and communicate this intelligence, whether true or false, to Mad. de Fleury. It agreed but too well with other circumstances, which alarmed this lady for the safety of her husband. A man of his abilities, integrity, and fortune, could not in such times hope to escape persecution. He was inclined to brave the danger; but his lady represented that it would not be courage, but rashness and folly, to sacrifice his life to the villany of others, without probability or possibility of serving his country by his fall.
M. de Fleury, in consequence of these representations, and of Victoire’s intelligence, made his escape from Paris; and the very next day placards were put up in every street, offering a price for the head of Citoyen Fleury, suspected of incivisme.
Struck with terror and astonishment at the sight of these placards, the children read them as they returned in the evening from school; and little Babet in the vehemence of her indignation mounted a lamplighter’s ladder, and tore down one of the papers. This imprudent action did not pass unobserved: it was seen by one of the spies of Citoyen Tracassier, a man who, under the pretence of zeal pour la chose publique, gratified without scruple his private resentments and his malevolent passions. In his former character of an abbé, and a man of wit, he had gained admittance into Mad. de Fleury’s society. There he attempted to dictate both as a literary and religious despot. Accidentally discovering that Mad. de Fleury had a little school for poor children, he thought proper to be offended, because he had not been consulted respecting the regulations, and because he was not permitted, as he said, to take the charge of this little flock. He made many objections to Sister Frances, as being an improper person to have the spiritual guidance of these young people: but as he was unable to give any just reason for his dislike, Mad. de Fleury persisted in her choice, and was at last obliged to assert, in opposition to the domineering abbé, her right to judge and decide in her own affairs. With seeming politeness, he begged ten thousand pardons for his conscientious interference. No more was said upon the subject; and as he did not totally withdraw from her society till the revolution broke out, she did not suspect that she had any thing to fear from his resentment. His manners and opinions changed suddenly with the times; the mask of religion was thrown off; and now, instead of objecting to Sister Frances as not being sufficiently strict and orthodox in her tenets, he boldly declared, that a nun was not a fit person to be intrusted with the education of any of the young citizens — they should all be des élèves de la patrie. The abbé, become a member of the Committee of Public Safety, denounced Mad. de Fleury, in the strange jargon of the day, as “the fosterer of a swarm of bad citizens, who were nourished in the anticivic prejudices de l’ancien régime, and fostered in the most detestable superstitions, in defiance of the law.” He further observed, that he had good reason to believe that some of these little enemies to the constitution had contrived and abetted M. de Fleury’s escape. Of their having rejoiced at it in a most indecent manner, he said he could produce irrefragable proof. The boy who saw Babet tear down the placard was produced and solemnly examined; and the thoughtless action of this poor little girl was construed into a state crime of the most horrible nature. In a declamatory tone, Tracassier reminded his fellow-citizens, that in the ancient Grecian times of virtuous republicanism (times of which France ought to show herself emulous), an Athenian child was condemned to death for having made a plaything of a fragment of the gilding that had fallen from a public statue. The orator, for the reward of his eloquence, obtained an order to seize every thing in Mad. de Fleury’s school-house, and to throw the nun into prison.
“Who now will guard bewilder’d youth
Safe from the fierce assault of hostile rage? —
Such war can Virtue wage?”
At the very moment when this order was going to be put in execution, Mad. de Fleury was sitting in the midst of the children, listening to Babet, who was reading Æsop’s fable of The old man and his sons. Whilst her sister was reading, Victoire collected a number of twigs from the garden: she had just tied them together; and was going, by Sister Frances’ desire, to let her companions try if they could break the bundle, when the attention of the moral of the fable was interrupted by the entrance of an old woman, whose countenance expressed the utmost terror and haste, to tell what she had not breath to utter. To Mad. de Fleury she was a stranger; but the children immediately recollected her to be the chestnut woman, to whom Babet had some years ago restored certain purloined chestnuts. “Fly!” said she, the moment she had breath to speak: “Fly! — they are coming to seize every thing here — carry off what you can — make haste — make haste! — I came through a by-street. A man was eating chestnuts at my stall, and I saw him show one that was with him the order from Citoyen Tracassier. They’ll be here in five minutes — quick! — quick! — You, in particular,” continued she, turning to the nun, “else you’ll be in prison.” At these words, the children, who had clung round Sister Frances, loosed their hold, exclaiming, “Go! go quick: but where? where? — we will go with her.” “No, no!” said Madame de Fleury, “she shall come home with me — my carriage is at the door.” “Ma belle dame!” cried the chestnut woman, “your house is the worst place she can go to — let her come to my cellar — the poorest cellar in these days is safer than the grandest palace.” So saying, she seized the nun with honest roughness, and hurried her away. As soon as she was gone, the children ran different ways, each to collect some favourite thing, which they thought they could not leave behind. Victoire alone stood motionless beside Mad. de Fleury; her whole thoughts absorbed by the fear that her benefactress would be imprisoned. “Oh, madame! dear, dear Madame de Fleury, don’t stay! don’t stay!”
“Oh, children, never mind these things.”
“Don’t stay, madame, don’t stay! I will stay with them — I will stay — do you go.”
The children hearing these words, and recollecting Mad. de Fleury’s danger, abandoned all their little property, and instantly obeyed her orders to go home to their parents. Victoire at last saw Mad. de Fleury safe in her carriage. The coachman drove off at a great rate; and a few minutes afterwards Tracassier’s myrmidons arrived at the school-house. Great was their surprise, when they found only the poor children’s little books, unfinished samplers, and half-hemmed handkerchiefs. They ran into the garden to search for the nun. They were men of brutal habits; yet as they looked at every thing round them, which bespoke peace, innocence, and childish happiness, they could not help thinking it was a pity to destroy what could do the nation no great harm after all. They were even glad that the nun had made her escape, since they were not answerable for it; and they returned to their employer, satisfied for once without doing any mischief: but Citizen Tracassier was of too vindictive a temper to suffer the objects of his hatred thus to elude his vengeance. The next day Mad. de Fleury was summoned before his tribunal, and ordered to give up the nun, against whom, as a suspected person, a decree of the law had been obtained.
Mad. de Fleury refused to betray the innocent woman: the gentle firmness of this lady’s answers to a brutal interrogatory was termed insolence; she was pronounced a refractory aristocrat, dangerous to the state; and an order was made out to seal up her goods, and to keep her a prisoner in her own house.
“Alas! full oft on Guilt’s victorious car
The spoils of Virtue are in triumph borne,
While the fair captive, mark’d with many a scar,
In lone obscurity, oppress’d, forlorn,
Resigns to tears her angel form.”— BEATTIE.
A close prisoner in her own house, Mad. de Fleury was now guarded by men suddenly become soldiers, and sprung from the dregs of the people; men of brutal manners, ferocious countenances, and more ferocious minds. They seemed to delight in the insolent, display of their newly-acquired power. One of these men had formerly been convicted of some horrible crime, and had been sent to the galleys by M. de Fleury. Revenge actuated this wretch under the mask of patriotism, and he rejoiced in seeing the wife of the man he hated a prisoner in his custody. Ignorant of the facts, his associates were ready to believe him in the right, and to join in the senseless cry against all who were their superiors in fortune, birth, and education. This unfortunate lady was forbidden all intercourse with her friends, and it was in vain she attempted to obtain from her jailers intelligence of what was passing in Paris.
“Tu verras — Tout va bien — Ca ira,” were the only answers they deigned to make: frequently they continued smoking their pipes in obdurate silence. She occupied the back rooms of her house, because her guards apprehended that she might from the front windows receive intelligence from her friends. One morning she was awakened by an unusual noise in the streets; and upon her inquiring the occasion of it, her guards told her she was welcome to go to the front windows, and satisfy her curiosity. She went, and saw an immense crowd of people surrounding a guillotine, that had been erected the preceding night. Mad. de Fleury started back with horror — her guards burst into an inhuman laugh, and asked whether her curiosity was satisfied. She would have left the room; but it was now their pleasure to detain her, and to force her to continue the whole day in this apartment. When the guillotine began its work, they had even the barbarity to drag her to the window, repeating, “It is there you ought to be! — It is there your husband ought to be! — You are too happy, that your husband is not there this moment. But he will be there — the law will overtake him — he will be there in time — and you too!”
The mild fortitude of this innocent, benevolent woman made no impression upon these cruel men. When at night they saw her kneeling at her prayers, they taunted her with gross and impious mockery; and when she sunk to sleep, they would waken her by their loud and drunken orgies: if she remonstrated, they answered, “The enemies of the constitution should have no rest.”
Mad. de Fleury was not an enemy to any human being; she had never interfered in politics; her life had been passed in domestic pleasures, or employed for the good of her fellow-creatures. Even in this hour of personal danger she thought of others more than of herself: she thought of her husband, an exile in a foreign country, who might be reduced to the utmost distress, now that she was deprived of all means of remitting him money. She thought of her friends, who, she knew, would exert themselves to obtain her liberty, and whose zeal in her cause might involve them and their families in distress. She thought of the good Sister Frances, who had been exposed by her means to the unrelenting persecution of the malignant and powerful Tracassier. She thought of her poor little pupils, now thrown upon the world without a protector. Whilst these ideas were revolving in her mind, one night, as she lay awake, she heard the door of her chamber open softly, and a soldier, one of her guards, with a light in his hand, entered: he came to the foot of her bed; and, as she started up, laid his finger upon his lips.
“Don’t make the least noise,” said he in a whisper; “those without are drunk, and asleep. Don’t you know me? — Don’t you remember my face?”
“Not in the least; yet I have some recollection of your voice.”
The man took off the bonnet-rouge — still she could not guess who he was. —“You never saw me in an uniform before, nor without a black face.”
She looked again, and recollected the smith, to whom Maurice was bound apprentice, and remembered his patois accent.
“I remember you,” said he, “at any rate; and your goodness to that poor girl the day her arm was broken, and all your goodness to Maurice — But I’ve no time for talking of that now — get up, wrap this great coat round you — don’t be in a hurry, but make no noise, and follow me.”
She followed him; and he led her past the sleeping sentinels, opened a back door into the garden, hurried her, almost carried her, across the garden, to a door at the furthest end of it, which opened into Les Champs Elysées —“La voilà!” cried he, pushing her through the half-opened door. “God be praised!” answered a voice, which Mad. de Fleury knew to be Victoire’s, whose arms were thrown round her with a transport of joy.
“Softly; she is not safe yet — wait till we get her home, Victoire,” said another voice, which she knew to be that of Maurice. He produced a dark lantern, and guided Mad. de Fleury across the Champs Elysées, and across the bridge, and then through various by-streets, in perfect silence, till they arrived safely at the house where Victoire’s mother lodged, and went up those very stairs which she had ascended in such different circumstances several years before. The mother, who was sitting up waiting most anxiously for the return of her children, clasped her hands in an ecstasy, when she saw them return with Mad. de Fleury.
“Welcome, madame! Welcome, dear madame! but who would have thought of seeing you here, in such a way? Let her rest herself — let her rest; she is quite overcome. Here, madame, can you sleep on this poor bed?”
“The very same bed you laid me upon the day my arm was broken,” said Victoire.
“Ay, Lord bless her!” said the mother; “and though it’s seven good years ago, it seemed but yesterday that I saw her sitting on that bed, beside my poor child, looking like an angel. But let her rest, let her rest — we’ll not say a word more, only God bless her; thank Heaven, she’s safe with us at last!”
Mad. de Fleury expressed unwillingness to stay with these good people, lest she should expose them to danger; but they begged most earnestly that she would remain with them without scruple.
“Surely, madame,” said the mother, “you must think that we have some remembrance of all you have done for us, and some touch of gratitude.”
“And surely, madame, you can trust us, I hope,” said Maurice.
“And surely you are not too proud to let us do something for you. The lion was not too proud to be served by the poor little mouse,” said Victoire. “As to danger for us,” continued she, “there can be none; for Maurice and I have contrived a hiding-place for you, madame, that can never be found out — let them come spying here as often as they please, they will never find her out, will they, Maurice? Look, madame, into this lumber-room — you see it seems to be quite full of wood for firing; well, if you creep in behind, you can hide yourself quite snug in the loft above, and here’s a trap-door into the loft that nobody ever would think of — for we have hung these old things from the top of it, and who could guess it was a trap-door? So, you see, dear madame, you may sleep in peace here, and never fear for us.”
Though but a girl of fourteen, Victoire showed at this time all the sense and prudence of a woman of thirty. Gratitude seemed at once to develope all the powers of her mind. It was she and Maurice who had prevailed upon the smith to effect Mad. de Fleury’s escape from her own house. She had invented, she had foreseen, she had arranged every thing; she had scarcely rested night or day since the imprisonment of her benefactress; and now that her exertions had fully succeeded, her joy seemed to raise her above all feeling of fatigue; she looked as fresh and moved as briskly, her mother said, as if she were preparing to go to a ball.
“Ah! my child,” said she, “your cousin Manon, who goes to those balls every night, was never so happy as you are this minute.”
But Victoire’s happiness was not of long continuance; for the next day they were alarmed by intelligence that Tracassier was enraged beyond measure at Mad. de Fleury’s escape, that all his emissaries were at work to discover her present hiding-place, that the houses of all the parents and relations of her pupils were to be searched, and that the most severe denunciations were issued against all by whom she should be harboured. Manon was the person who gave this intelligence, but not with any benevolent design; she first came to Victoire, to display her own consequence; and to terrify her, she related all she knew from a soldier’s wife, who was M. Tracassier’s mistress. Victoire had sufficient command over herself to conceal from the inquisitive eyes of Manon the agitation of her heart; she had also the prudence not to let any one of her companions into her secret, though, when she saw their anxiety, she was much tempted to relieve them, by the assurance that Mad. de Fleury was in safety. All the day was passed in apprehension. Mad. de Fleury never stirred from her place of concealment: as the evening and the hour of the domiciliary visits approached, Victoire and Maurice were alarmed by an unforeseen difficulty. Their mother, whose health had been broken by hard work, in vain endeavoured to suppress her terror at the thoughts of this domiciliary visit; she repeated incessantly that she knew they should all be discovered, and that her children would be dragged to the guillotine before her face. She was in such a distracted state, that they dreaded she would, the moment she saw the soldiers, reveal all she knew.
“If they question me, I shall not know what to answer,” cried the terrified woman. “What can I say? — What can I do?”
Reasoning, entreaties, all were vain; she was not in a condition to understand, or even to listen to, any thing that was said. In this situation they were, when the domiciliary visitors arrived — they heard the noise of the soldiers’ feet on the stairs — the poor woman sprang from the arms of her children; but at the moment the door was opened, and she saw the glittering of the bayonets, she fell at full length in a swoon on the floor — fortunately before she had power to utter a syllable. The people of the house knew, and said, that she was subject to fits on any sudden alarm; so that her being affected in this manner did not appear surprising. They threw her on a bed, whilst they proceeded to search the house: her children stayed with her; and, wholly occupied in attending to her, they were not exposed to the danger of betraying their anxiety about Mad. de Fleury. They trembled, however, from head to foot, when they heard one of the soldiers swear that all the wood in the lumber-room must be pulled out, and that he would not leave the house till every stick was moved; the sound of each log, as it was thrown out, was heard by Victoire: her brother was now summoned to assist. How great was his terror, when one of the searchers looked up to the roof, as if expecting to find a trap-door! fortunately, however, he did not discover it. Maurice, who had seized the light, contrived to throw the shadows so as to deceive the eye. The soldiers at length retreated; and with inexpressible satisfaction Maurice lighted them down stairs, and saw them fairly out of the house. For some minutes after they were in safety, the terrified mother, who had recovered her senses, could scarcely believe that the danger was over. She embraced her children by turns with wild transport; and with tears begged Mad. de Fleury to forgive her cowardice, and not to attribute it to ingratitude, or to suspect that she had a bad heart. She protested that she was now become so courageous, since she found that she had gone through this trial successfully, and since she was sure that the hiding-place was really so secure, that she should never be alarmed at any domiciliary visit in future. Mad. de Fleury, however, did not think it either just or expedient to put her resolution to the trial. She determined to leave Paris; and, if possible, to make her escape from France. The master of one of the Paris diligences was brother to François, her footman: he was ready to assist her at all hazards, and to convey her safely to Bourdeaux, if she could disguise herself properly; and if she could obtain a pass from any friend under a feigned name.
Victoire — the indefatigable Victoire — recollected that her friend Annette had an aunt, who was nearly of Mad. de Fleury’s size, and who had just obtained a pass to go to Bourdeaux, to visit some of her relations. The pass was willingly given up to Mad. de Fleury; and upon reading it over it was found to answer tolerably well — the colour of the eyes and hair at least would do; though the words un nez gros were not precisely descriptive of this lady’s. Annette’s mother, who had always worn the provincial dress of Auvergne, furnished the high cornette, stiff stays, boddice, &c.; and equipped in these, Mad. de Fleury was so admirably well disguised, that even Victoire declared she should scarcely have known her. Money, that most necessary passport in all countries, was still wanting: as seals had been put upon all Mad. de Fleury’s effects the day she had been first imprisoned in her own house, she could not save even her jewels. She had, however, one ring on her finger of some value. How to dispose of it without exciting suspicion was the difficulty. Babet, who was resolved to have her share in assisting her benefactress, proposed to carry the ring to a colporteur— a pedlar, or sort of travelling jeweller, who had come to lay in a stock of hardware at Paris: he was related to one of Mad. de Fleury’s little pupils, and readily disposed of the ring for her: she obtained at least two-thirds of its value — a great deal in those times.
The proofs of integrity, attachment, and gratitude, which she received in these days of peril, from those whom she had obliged in her prosperity, touched her generous heart so much, that she has often since declared she could not regret having been reduced to distress. Before she quitted Paris, she wrote letters to her friends, recommending her pupils to their protection; she left these letters in the care of Victoire, who to the last moment followed her with anxious affection. She would have followed her benefactress into exile, but that she was prevented by duty and affection from leaving her mother, who was in declining health.
Mad. de Fleury successfully made her escape from Paris. Some of the municipal officers in the towns through which she passed on her road were as severe as their ignorance would permit in scrutinizing her passport. It seldom happened that more than one of these petty committees of public safety could read. One usually spelled out the passport as well as he could, whilst the others smoked their pipes, and from time to time held a light up to the lady’s face to examine whether it agreed with the description.
“Mais toi! tu n’as pas le nez gros!” said one of her judges to her. “Son nez est assez gros, et c’est moi qui le dit,” said another. The question was put to the vote; and the man who had asserted what was contrary to the evidence of his senses was so vehement in supporting his opinion, that it was carried in spite of all that could be said against it. Mad. de Fleury was suffered to proceed on her journey. She reached Bourdeaux in safety. Her husband’s friends — the good have always friends in adversity — her husband’s friends exerted themselves for her with the most prudent zeal. She was soon provided with a sum of money sufficient for her support for some time in England; and she safely reached that free and happy country, which has been the refuge of so many illustrious exiles.
“Cosi rozzo diamante appena splende
Dalla rupe natìa quand’ esce fuora,
E a poco a poco lucido se rende
Sotto l’attenta che lo lavora.”
Mad. de Fleury joined her husband, who was in London; and they both lived in the most retired and frugal manner. They had too much of the pride of independence to become burthensome to their generous English friends. Notwithstanding the variety of difficulties they had to encounter, and the number of daily privations to which they were forced to submit, yet they were happy — in a tranquil conscience, in their mutual affection, and the attachment of many poor but grateful friends. A few months after she came to England, Mad. de Fleury received, by a private hand, a packet of letters from her little pupils. Each of them, even the youngest, who had but just begun to learn joining-hand, would write a few lines in this packet.
In various hands, of various sizes, the changes were rung upon these simple words:
“MY DEAR MADAME DE FLEURY,
“I love you — I wish you were here again — I will be very very good whilst you are away. If you stay away ever so long, I shall never forget you, nor your goodness; but I hope you will soon be able to come back, and this is what I pray for every night. Sister Frances says I may tell you that I am very good, and Victoire thinks so too.”
This was the substance of several of their little letters. Victoire’s contained rather more information:—
“You will be glad to learn that dear Sister Frances is safe, and that the good chestnut woman, in whose cellar she took refuge, did not get into any difficulty. After you were gone, M. T—— said that he did not think it worth while to pursue her, as it was only you he wanted to humble. Manon, who has, I do not know how, means of knowing, told me this. Sister Frances is now with her abbess, who, as well as every body else that knows her, is very fond of her. What was a convent is no longer a convent: the nuns are turned out of it. Sister Frances’ health is not so good as it used to be, though she never complains; I am sure she suffers much; she has never been the same person since that day when we were driven from our happy school-room. It is all destroyed — the garden and every thing. It is now a dismal sight. Your absence also afflicts Sister Frances much, and she is in great anxiety about all of us. She has the six little ones with her every day, in her own apartment, and goes on teaching them as she used to do. We six eldest go to see her as often as we can. I should have begun, my dear Mad. de Fleury, by telling you, that, the day after you left Paris, I went to deliver all the letters you were so very kind to write for us in the midst of your hurry. Your friends have been exceedingly good to us, and have got places for us all. Rose is with Mad. la Grace, your mantua-maker, who says she is more handy and more expert at cutting out than girls she has had these three years. Marianne is in the service of Mad. de V—— who has lost a great part of her large fortune, and cannot afford to keep her former waiting-maid. Mad. de V—— is well pleased with Marianne, and bids me tell you that she thanks you for her. Indeed, Marianne, though she is only fourteen, can do every thing her lady wants. Susanne is with a confectioner; she gave Sister Frances a box of bonbons of her own making this morning; and Sister Frances, who is a judge, says they are excellent; she only wishes you could taste them. Annette and I (thanks to your kindness!) are in the same service, with Mad. Feuillot, the brodeuse, to whom you recommended us: she is not discontented with our work, and indeed sent a very civil message yesterday to Sister Frances on this subject; but I believe it is too flattering for me to repeat in this letter. We shall do our best to give her satisfaction. She is glad to find that we can write tolerably, and that we can make out bills and keep accounts; this being particularly convenient to her at present, as the young man she had in the shop is become an orator, and good for nothing but la chose publique: her son, who could have supplied his place, is ill; and Mad. Feuillot herself, not having had, as she says, the advantage of such a good education as we have been blessed with, writes but badly, and knows nothing of arithmetic. Dear Mad. de Fleury, how much, how very much we are obliged to you! We feel it every day more and more: in these times what would have become of us, if we could do nothing useful? Who would, who could be burdened with us? Dear madame, we owe every thing to you — and we can do nothing, not the least thing, for you! — My mother is still in bad health, and I fear will never recover: Babet is with her always, and Sister Frances is very good to her. My brother Maurice is now so good a workman that he earns a louis a week. He is very steady to his business, and never goes to the revolutionary meetings, though once he had a great mind to be an orator of the people, but never since the day that you explained to him that he knew nothing about equality and the rights of men, &c. How could I forget to tell you, that his master the smith, who was one of your guards, and who assisted you to escape, has returned without suspicion to his former trade? and he declares that he will never more meddle with public affairs. I gave him the money you left with me for him. He is very kind to my brother — yesterday Maurice mended for Annette’s mistress the lock of an English writing-desk, and he mended it so astonishingly well, that an English gentleman, who saw it, could not believe the work was done by a Frenchman; so my brother was sent for, to prove it, and they were forced to believe it. To-day he has more work than he can finish this twelvemonth — all this we owe to you. I shall never forget the day when you promised that you would grant my brother’s wish to be apprenticed to the smith, if I was not in a passion for a month — that cured me of being so passionate.
“Dear Mad. de Fleury, I have written you too long a letter, and not so well as I can write when I am not in a hurry; but I wanted to tell you every thing at once, because, may be, I shall not for a long time have so safe an opportunity of sending a letter to you.
Several months elapsed before Mad. de Fleury received another letter from Victoire: it was short, and evidently written in great distress of mind. It contained an account of her mother’s death. She was now left at the early age of sixteen an orphan. Mad. Feuillot, the brodeuse, with whom she lived, added a few lines to her letter, penned with difficulty and strangely spelled, but expressive of her being highly pleased with both the girls recommended to her by Mad. de Fleury, especially Victoire, who she said was such a treasure to her, that she would not part with her on any account, and should consider her as a daughter. “I tell her not to grieve so much; for though she has lost one mother, she has gained another for herself, who will always love her: and besides, she is so useful, and in so many ways, with her pen and her needle, in accounts, and every thing that is wanted in a family or a shop, she can never want employment or friends in the worst times; and none can be worse than these, especially for such pretty girls as she is, who have all their heads turned, and are taught to consider nothing a sin that used to be sins. Many gentlemen, who come to our shop, have found out that Victoire is very handsome, and tell her so; but she is so modest and prudent, that I am not afraid for her. I could tell you, madame, a good anecdote on this subject, but my paper will not allow, and besides, my writing is so difficult.”
Above a year elapsed before Mad. de Fleury received another letter from Victoire: this was in a parcel, of which an emigrant took charge: it contained a variety of little offerings from her pupils, instances of their ingenuity, their industry, and their affection: the last thing in the packet was a small purse labelled in this manner —
“Savings from our wages and earnings, for her who taught us all we know.”
“Dans sa pompe élégante, admirez Chantilly,
De héros en héros, d’âge en âge, embelli.”
The health of the good Sister Frances, which had suffered much from the shock her mind received at the commencement of the revolution, declined so rapidly in the course of the two succeeding years, that she was obliged to leave Paris, and she retired to a little village in the neighbourhood of Chantilly. She chose this situation, because here she was within a morning’s walk of Mad. de Fleury’s country-seat. The Château de Fleury had not yet been seized as national property, nor had it suffered from the attacks of the mob, though it was in a perilous situation, within view of the high road to Paris. The Parisian populace had not yet extended their outrages to this distance from the city; and the poor people who lived on the estate of Fleury, attached from habit, principle, and gratitude to their lord, were not disposed to take advantage of the disorder of the times, to injure the property of those from whom they had all their lives received favours and protection. A faithful old steward had the care of the castle and the grounds. Sister Frances was impatient to talk to him, and to visit the château, which she had never seen; but for some days after her arrival in the village, she was so much fatigued and so weak, that she could not attempt so long a walk. Victoire had obtained permission from her mistress to accompany the nun for a few days to the country, as Annette undertook to do all the business of the shop during the absence of her companion. Victoire was fully as eager as Sister Frances to see the faithful steward and the Château de Fleury, and the morning was now fixed for their walk: but in the middle of the night they were awakened by the shouts of a mob, who had just entered the village fresh from the destruction of a neighbouring castle. The nun and Victoire listened; but in the midst of the horrid yells of joy, no human voice, no intelligible word, could be distinguished: they looked through a chink in the window-shutter, and they saw the street below filled with a crowd of men, whose countenances were by turns illuminated by the glare of the torches which they brandished.
“Good Heavens!” whispered the nun to Victoire: “I should know the face of that man who is loading his musket — the very man whom I nursed ten years ago, when he was ill with a jail fever!”
This man, who stood in the midst of the crowd, taller by the head than the others, seemed to be the leader of the party; they were disputing whether they should proceed further, spend the remainder of the night in the village alehouse, or return to Paris. Their leader ordered spirits to be distributed to his associates, and exhorted them in a loud voice to proceed in their glorious work. Tossing his firebrand over his head, he declared that he would never return to Paris till he had razed to the ground the Château de Fleury. At these words, Victoire, forgetful of all personal danger, ran out into the midst of the mob, pressed her way up to the leader of these ruffians, caught him by the arm, exclaiming, “You will not touch a stone in the Château de Fleury — I have my reasons — I say you will not suffer a stone in the Château de Fleury to be touched.”
“And why not?” cried the man, turning astonished; “and who are you, that I should listen to you?”
“No matter who I am,” said Victoire; “follow me, and I will show you one to whom you will not refuse to listen. Here! — here she is,” continued Victoire, pointing to the nun, who had followed her in amazement; “here is one to whom you will listen — yes, look at her well: hold the light to her face.”
The nun, in a supplicating attitude, stood in speechless expectation.
“Ay, I see you have gratitude, I know you will have mercy,” cried Victoire, watching the workings in the countenance of the man; “you will save the Château de Fleury, for her sake — who saved your life.”
“I will,” cried this astonished chief of a mob, fired with sudden generosity. “By my faith you are a brave girl, and a fine girl, and know how to speak to the heart, and in the right moment. Friends, citizens! this nun, though she is a nun, is good for something. When I lay ill with a fever, and not a soul else to help me, she came and gave me medicines and food — in short, I owe my life to her. ’Tis ten years ago, but I remember it well; and now it is our turn to rule, and she shall be paid as she deserves. Not a stone of the Château de Fleury shall be touched!”
With loud acclamations, the mob joined in the generous enthusiasm of the moment, and followed their leader peaceably out of the village. All this passed with such rapidity as scarcely to leave the impression of reality upon the mind. As soon as the sun rose in the morning, Victoire looked out for the turrets of the Château de Fleury, and she saw that they were safe — safe in the midst of the surrounding devastation. Nothing remained of the superb palace of Chantilly but the white arches of its foundation!
“When thy last breath, ere Nature sank to rest,
Thy meek submission to thy God express’d;
When thy last look, ere thought and feeling fled,
A mingled gleam of hope and triumph shed;
What to thy soul its glad assurance gave —
Its hope in death, its triumph o’er the grave?
The sweet remembrance of unblemish’d youth,
Th’inspiring voice of innocence and truth!”
The good Sister Frances, though she had scarcely recovered from the shock of the preceding night, accompanied Victoire to the Château de Fleury. The gates were opened for them by the old steward and his son Basile, who welcomed them with all the eagerness with which people welcome friends in time of adversity. The old man showed them the place; and through every apartment of the castle went on, talking of former times, and with narrative fondness told anecdotes of his dear master and mistress. Here his lady used to sit and read — here was the table at which she wrote — this was the sofa on which she and the ladies sat the very last day she was at the castle, at the open windows of the hall, whilst all the tenants and people of the village were dancing on the green.
“Ay, those were happy times,” said the old man; “but they will never return.”
“Never! Oh, do not say so,” cried Victoire.
“Never during my life, at least,” said the nun in a low voice, and with a look of resignation.
Basile, as he wiped the tears from his eyes, happened to strike his arm against the chord of Mad. de Fleury’s harp, and the sound echoed through the room.
“Before this year is at an end,” cried Victoire, “perhaps that harp will be struck again in this château by Mad. de Fleury herself. Last night we could hardly have hoped to see these walls standing this morning, and yet it is safe — not a stone touched! Oh, we shall all live, I hope, to see better times!”
Sister Frances smiled, for she would not depress Victoire’s enthusiastic hope: to please her, the good nun added, that she felt better this morning than she had felt for months, and Victoire was happier than she had been since Mad. de Fleury left France. But, alas! it was only a transient gleam. Sister Frances relapsed, and declined so rapidly, that even Victoire, whose mind was almost always disposed to hope, despaired of her recovery. With placid resignation, or rather with mild confidence, this innocent and benevolent creature met the approach of death. She seemed attached to earth only by affection for those whom she was to leave in this world. Two of the youngest of the children which had formerly been placed under her care, and who were not yet able to earn their own subsistence, she kept with her, and in the last days of her life she continued her instructions to them with the fond solicitude of a parent. Her father confessor, an excellent man, who never even in these dangerous times shrunk from his duty, came to attend Sister Frances in her last moments, and relieved her mind from all anxiety, by promising to place the two little children with the lady who had been abbess of her convent, who would to the utmost of her power protect and provide for them suitably. Satisfied by this promise, the good Sister Frances smiled upon Victoire, who stood beside her bed, and with that smile upon her countenance expired. — It was some time before the little children seemed to comprehend, or to believe, that Sister Frances was dead: they had never before seen any one die; they had no idea what it was to die, and their first feeling was astonishment: they did not seem to understand why Victoire wept. But the next day when no Sister Frances spoke to them, when every hour they missed some accustomed kindness from her — when presently they saw the preparations for her funeral — when they heard that she was to be buried in the earth, and that they should never see her more — they could neither play nor eat, but sat in a corner holding each other’s hands, and watching every thing that was done for the dead by Victoire.
In those times, the funeral of a nun, with a priest attending, would not have been permitted by the populace. It was therefore performed as secretly as possible: in the middle of the night the coffin was carried to the burial-place of the Fleury family; the old steward, his son Basile, Victoire, and the good father confessor, were the only persons present. It is necessary to mention this, because the facts were afterwards misrepresented.
“The character is lost!
Her head adorn’d with lappets, pinn’d aloft,
And ribands streaming gay, superbly raised,
Indebted to some smart wig-weaver’s hand
For more than half the tresses it sustains.”
Upon her return to Paris, Victoire felt melancholy; but she exerted herself as much as possible in her usual occupation; finding that employment and the consciousness of doing her duty were the best remedies for sorrow.
One day, as she was busy settling Mad. Feuillot’s accounts, a servant came into the shop, and inquired for Mademoiselle Victoire: he presented her a note, which she found rather difficult to decipher. It was signed by her cousin Manon, who desired to see Victoire at her hotel. “Her hotel!” repeated Victoire with astonishment. The servant assured her that one of the finest hotels in Paris belonged to his lady, and that he was commissioned to show her the way to it. Victoire found her cousin in a magnificent house, which had formerly belonged to the Prince de Salms. Manon, dressed in the disgusting, indecent extreme of the mode, was seated under a richly-fringed canopy. She burst into a loud laugh as Victoire entered.
“You look just as much astonished as I expected,” cried she. “Great changes have happened since I saw you last — I always told you, Victoire, I knew the world better than you did. What has come of all your schooling, and your mighty goodness, and your gratitude truly? — Your patroness is banished and a beggar, and you a drudge in the shop of a brodeuse, who makes you work your fingers to the bone, no doubt. — Now you shall see the difference. Let me show you my house; you know it was formerly the hotel of the Prince de Salms, he that was guillotined the other day; but you know nothing, for you have been out of Paris this month, I understand. Then I must tell you, that my friend Villeneuf has acquired an immense fortune! by assignats, made in the course of a fortnight — I say an immense fortune! and has bought this fine house — Now do you begin to understand?”
“I do not clearly know whom you mean by your friend Villeneuf,” said Victoire.
“The hairdresser, who lived in our street,” said Manon; “he became a great patriot, you know, and orator; and, what with his eloquence and his luck in dealing in assignats, he has made his fortune and mine.”
“And yours! then he is your husband!”
“That does not follow — that is not necessary — but do not look so shocked — every body goes on the same way now; besides, I had no other resource — I must have starved — I could not earn my bread as you do. Besides, I was too delicate for hard work of any sort — and besides — but come, let me show you my house — you have no idea how fine it is.”
With anxious ostentation, Manon displayed all her riches, to excite Victoire’s envy.
“Confess, Victoire,” said she at last, “that you think me the happiest person you have ever known. — You do not answer; whom did you ever know that was happier?”
“Sister Frances, who died last week, appeared to be much happier,” said Victoire.
“The poor nun!” said Manon, disdainfully. “Well, and whom do you think the next happiest?”
“Madame de Fleury.”
“An exile and a beggar! — Oh, you are jesting now, Victoire — or — envious. With that sanctified face, citoyenne — perhaps I should say Mademoiselle Victoire, you would be delighted to change places with me this instant. Come, you shall stay with me a week, to try how you like it.”
“Excuse me,” said Victoire, firmly; “I cannot stay with you, Manon — you have chosen one way of life, and I another — quite another. I do not repent my choice — may you never repent yours! — Farewell!”
“Bless me! what airs! and with what dignity she looks! Repent of my choice! — a likely thing, truly. Am not I at the top of the wheel?”
“And may not the wheel turn?” said Victoire.
“Perhaps it may,” said Manon; “but till it does I will enjoy myself. Since you are of a different humour, return to Mad. Feuillot, and figure upon cambric and muslin, and make out bills, and nurse old nuns, all the days of your life. You will never persuade me, however, that you would not change places with me if you could. Stay till you are tried, Mademoiselle Victoire. Who was ever in love with you, or your virtues? — Stay till you are tried.”
“But beauty, like the fair Hesperian tree,
Laden with blooming gold, had need the guard
Of dragon watch with unenchanted eye
To save her blossoms, or defend her fruit.”
The trial was nearer than either Manon or Victoire expected. Manon had scarcely pronounced the last words, when the ci-devant hairdresser burst into the room, accompanied by several of his political associates, who met to consult measures for the good of the nation. Among these patriots was the Abbé Tracassier.
“Who is that pretty girl who is with you, Manon?” whispered he; “a friend of yours, I hope?”
Victoire left the room immediately, but not before the profligate abbé had seen enough to make him wish to see more. The next day he went to Mad. Feuillot’s, under pretence of buying some embroidered handkerchiefs; he paid Victoire a profusion of extravagant compliments, which made no impression upon her innocent heart, and which appeared ridiculous to her plain good sense. She did not know who he was, nor did Mad. Feuillot; for though she had often heard of the abbé, yet she had never seen him. Several succeeding days he returned, and addressed himself to Victoire, each time with increasing freedom. Mad. Feuillot, who had the greatest confidence in her, left her entirely to her own discretion. Victoire begged her friend Annette to do the business of the shop, and stayed at work in the back parlour. Tracassier was much disappointed by her absence; but as he thought no great ceremony necessary in his proceedings, he made his name known in a haughty manner to Mad. de Feuillot, and desired that he might be admitted into the back parlour, as he had something of consequence to say to Mlle. Victoire in private. Our readers will not require to have a detailed account of this tête-à-tête; it is sufficient to say, that the disappointed and exasperated abbé left the house muttering imprecations. The next morning a note came to Victoire, apparently from Manon: it was directed by her, but the inside was written by an unknown hand, and contained these words:—
“You are a charming, but incomprehensible girl — since you do not like compliments, you shall not be addressed with empty flattery. It is in the power of the person who dictates this, not only to make you as rich and great as your cousin Manon, but also to restore to fortune and to their country the friends for whom you are most interested. Their fate as well as your own is in your power: if you send a favourable answer to this note, the persons alluded to will, to-morrow, be struck from the list of emigrants, and reinstated in their former possessions. If your answer is decidedly unfavourable, the return of your friends to France will be thenceforward impracticable, and their château, as well as their house in Paris, will be declared national property, and sold without delay to the highest bidder. To you, who have as much understanding as beauty, it is unnecessary to say more. Consult your heart, charming Victoire! be happy, and make others happy. This moment is decisive of your fate and of theirs, for you have to answer a man of a most decided character.”
Victoire’s answer was as follows:—
“My friends would not, I am sure, accept of their fortune, or consent to return to their country, upon the conditions proposed; therefore I have no merit in rejecting them.”
Victoire had early acquired good principles, and that plain, steady, good sense, which goes straight to its object, without being dazzled or imposed upon by sophistry. She was unacquainted with the refinements of sentiment, but she distinctly knew right from wrong, and had sufficient resolution to abide by the right. Perhaps many romantic heroines might have thought it a generous self-devotion to have become in similar circumstances the mistress of Tracassier; and those who are skilled “to make the worst appear the better cause” might have made such an act of heroism the foundation of an interesting, or at least a fashionable novel. Poor Victoire had not received an education sufficiently refined to enable her to understand these mysteries of sentiment. She was even simple enough to flatter herself that this libertine patriot would not fulfil his threats, and that these had been made only with a view to terrify her into compliance. In this opinion, however, she found herself mistaken. M. Tracassier was indeed a man of the most decided character, if this term may properly be applied to those who act uniformly in consequence of their ruling passion. The Château de Fleury was seized as national property. Victoire heard this bad news from the old steward, who was turned out of the castle, along with his son, the very day after her rejection of the proposed conditions.
“I could not have believed that any human creature could be so wicked!” exclaimed Victoire, glowing with indignation: but indignation gave way to sorrow.
“And the Château de Fleury is really seized? — and you, good old man, are turned out of the place where you were born? — and you too, Basile? — and Mad. de Fleury will never come back again! — and perhaps she may be put into prison in a foreign country, and may die for want — and I might have prevented all this!”
Unable to shed a tear, Victoire stood in silent consternation, whilst Annette explained to the good steward and his son the whole transaction. Basile, who was naturally of an impetuous temper, was so transported with indignation, that he would have gone instantly with the note from Tracassier to denounce him before the whole National Convention, if he had not been restrained by his more prudent father. The old steward represented to him, that as the note was neither signed nor written by the hand of Tracassier, no proof could be brought home to him, and the attempt to convict one of so powerful a party would only bring certain destruction upon the accusers. Besides, such was at this time the general depravity of manners, that numbers would keep the guilty in countenance. There was no crime which the mask of patriotism could not cover.
“There is one comfort we have in our misfortunes, which these men can never have,” said the old man; “when their downfall comes, and come it will most certainly, they will not feel as we do, INNOCENT. Victoire, look up! and do not give way to despair — all will yet be well.”
“At all events, you have done what is right — so do not reproach yourself,” said Basile. “Every body — I mean every body who is good for any thing — must respect, admire, and love you, Victoire.”
“Ne mal cio che v’annoja,
Quello e vero gioire
Che nasce da virtude dopo il soffrire.”
Basile had not seen without emotion the various instances of goodness which Victoire showed during the illness of Sister Frances. Her conduct towards M. Tracassier increased his esteem and attachment; but he forbore to declare his affection, because he could not, consistently with prudence, or with gratitude to his father, think of marrying, now that he was not able to maintain a wife and family. The honest earnings of many years of service had been wrested from the old steward at the time the Château de Fleury was seized, and he now depended on the industry of his son for the daily support of his age. His dependence was just, and not likely to be disappointed; for he had given his son an education suitable to his condition in life. Basile was an exact arithmetician, could write an excellent hand, and was a ready draughtsman and surveyor. To bring these useful talents into action, and to find employment for them, with men by whom they would be honestly rewarded, was the only difficulty — a difficulty which Victoire’s brother Maurice soon removed. His reputation as a smith had introduced him, among his many customers, to a gentleman of worth and scientific knowledge, who was at this time employed to make models and plans of all the fortified places in Europe; he was in want of a good clerk and draughtsman, of whose integrity he could be secure. Maurice mentioned his friend Basile; and upon inquiry into his character, and upon trial of his abilities, he was found suited to the place, and was accepted. By his well-earned salary he supported himself and his father; and began, with the sanguine hopes of a young man, to flatter himself that he should soon be rich enough to marry, and that then he might declare his attachment to Victoire. Notwithstanding all his boasted prudence, he had betrayed sufficient symptoms of his passion to have rendered a declaration unnecessary to any clear-sighted observer: but Victoire was not thinking of conquests; she was wholly occupied with a scheme of earning a certain sum of money for her benefactress, who was now, as she feared, in want. All Mad. de Fleury’s former pupils contributed their share to the common stock; and the mantua-maker, the confectioner, the servants of different sorts, who had been educated at her school, had laid by, during the years of her banishment, an annual portion of their wages and savings: with the sum which Victoire now added to the fund, it amounted to ten thousand livres. The person who undertook to carry this money to Mad. de Fleury, was François, her former footman, who had procured a pass to go to England as a hairdresser. The night before he set out was a happy night for Victoire, as all her companions met, by Mad. Feuillot’s invitation, at her house; and after tea they had the pleasure of packing up the little box, in which each, besides the money, sent some token of their gratitude, and some proof of their ingenuity. They would with all their hearts have sent twice as many souvenirs as François could carry.
“D’abord c’est impossible!” cried he, when he saw the box that was prepared for him to carry to England: but his good-nature was unable to resist the entreaties of each to have her offering carried, “which would take up no room.”
He departed — arrived safe in England — found out Mad. de Fleury, who was in real distress, in obscure lodgings at Richmond. He delivered the money, and all the presents of which he had taken charge: but the person to whom she entrusted a letter, in answer to Victoire, was not so punctual, or was more unlucky; for the letter never reached her, and she and her companions were long uncertain whether their little treasure had been received. They still continued, however, with indefatigable gratitude, to lay by a portion of their earnings for their benefactress; and the pleasure they had in this perseverance made them more than amends for the loss of some little amusements, and for privations to which they submitted in consequence of their resolution.
In the mean time Basile, going on steadily with his employments, advanced every day in the favour of his master, and his salary was increased in proportion to his abilities and industry; so that he thought he could now, without any imprudence, marry. He consulted his father, who approved of his choice; he consulted Maurice as to the probability of his being accepted by Victoire; and encouraged by both his father and his friend, he was upon the eve of addressing himself to Victoire, when he was prevented by a new and unforeseen misfortune. His father was taken up, by an emissary of Tracassier’s, and brought before one of their revolutionary committees, where he was accused of various acts of incivisme. Among other things equally criminal, it was proved that one Sunday, when he went to see Le Petit Trianon, then a public-house, he exclaimed, “C’est ici que la canaille danse, et que les honnêtes gens pleurent!”
Basile was present at this mock examination of his father — he saw him on the point of being dragged to prison — when a hint was given that he might save his father by enlisting immediately, and going with the army out of France. Victoire was full in Basile’s recollection — but there was no other means of saving his father. He enlisted, and in twenty-four hours left Paris.
What appear to be the most unfortunate circumstances of life often prove ultimately the most advantageous. Indeed, those who have knowledge, activity, and integrity, can convert the apparent blanks in the lottery of fortune into prizes. Basile was recommended to his commanding officer by the gentleman who had lately employed him as a clerk — his skill in drawing plans, and in taking rapid surveys of the country through which they passed, was extremely useful to his general; and his integrity made it safe to trust him as a secretary. His commanding officer, though a brave man, was illiterate, and a secretary was to him a necessary of life. Basile was not only useful, but agreeable; without any mean arts, or servile adulation, he pleased, by simply showing the desire to oblige, and the ability to serve.
“Diable!” exclaimed the general one day, as he looked at Basile’s plan of a town, which the army was besieging. “How comes it that you are able to do all these things? But you have a genius for this sort of work, apparently.”
“No, sir,” said Basile, “these things were taught to me, when I was a child, by a good friend.”
“A good friend he was indeed! he did more for you than if he had given you a fortune; for, in these times, that might have been soon taken from you; but now you have the means of making a fortune for yourself.”
This observation of the general’s, obvious as it may seem, is deserving of the serious consideration of those who have children of their own to educate, or who have the disposal of money for public charities. In these times, no sensible person will venture to pronounce that a change of fortune and station may not await the highest and the lowest; whether we rise or fall in the scale of society, personal qualities and knowledge will be valuable. Those who fall, cannot be destitute; and those who rise, cannot be ridiculous or contemptible, if they have been prepared for their fortune by proper education. In shipwreck, those who carry their all in their minds are the most secure.
But to return to Basile. He had sense enough not to make his general jealous of him by any unseasonable display of his talents, or any officious intrusion of advice, even upon subjects which he best understood.
The talents of the warrior and the secretary were in such different lines, that there was no danger of competition; and the general, finding in his secretary the soul of all the arts, good sense, gradually acquired the habit of asking his opinion on every subject that came within his department. It happened that the general received orders from the Directory at Paris, to take a certain town, let it cost what it would, within a given time: in his perplexity, he exclaimed before Basile against the unreasonableness of these orders, and declared his belief that it was impossible he should succeed, and that this was only a scheme of his enemies to prepare his ruin. Basile had attended to the operations of the engineer who acted under the general, and perfectly recollected the model of the mines of this town, which he had seen when he was employed as draughtsman by his Parisian friend. He remembered, that there was formerly an old mine, that had been stopped up somewhere near the place where the engineer was at work; he mentioned in private his suspicions to the general, who gave orders in consequence; the old mine was discovered, cleared out, and by these means the town was taken the day before the time appointed. Basile did not arrogate to himself any of the glory of this success — he kept his general’s secret and his confidence. Upon their return to Paris, after a fortunate campaign, the general was more grateful than some others have been, perhaps because more room was given by Basile’s prudence for the exercise of this virtue.
“My friend,” said he to Basile, “you have done me a great service by your counsel, and a greater still by holding your tongue. Speak now, and tell me freely, if there is any thing I can do for you. You see, as a victorious general, I have the upper hand amongst these fellows — Tracassier’s scheme to ruin me missed — whatever I ask will at this moment he granted; speak freely, therefore.”
Basile asked what he knew Victoire most desired — that M. and Mad. de Fleury should be struck from the list of emigrants, and that their property now in the hands of the nation should be restored to them. The general promised that this should be done. A warm contest ensued upon the subject between him and Tracassier; but the general stood firm; and Tracassier, enraged, forgot his usual cunning, and quarrelling irrevocably with a party now more powerful than his own, he and his adherents were driven from that station in which they had so long tyrannized. From being the rulers of France, they in a few hours became banished men, or, in the phrase of the times, des déportés.
We must not omit to mention the wretched end of Manon. The man with whom she lived perished by the guillotine. From his splendid house she went upon the stage — did not succeed — sunk from one degree of profligacy to another; and at last died in an hospital.
In the mean time, the order for the restoration of the Fleury property, and for permission for the Fleury family to return to France, was made out in due form, and Maurice begged to be the messenger of these good tidings:— he set out for England with the order.
Victoire immediately went down to the Château de Fleury, to get every thing in readiness for the reception of the family.
Exiles are expeditious in their return to their native country. Victoire had but just time to complete her preparations, when M. and Mad. de Fleury arrived at Calais. Victoire had assembled all her companions, all Mad. de Fleury’s former pupils; and the hour when she was expected home, they with the peasants of the neighbourhood were all in their holiday clothes, and according to the custom of the country singing and dancing. Without music and dancing there is no perfect joy in France. Never was fête du village or fête du Seigneur more joyful than this.
The old steward opened the gate — the carriage drove in. Mad. de Fleury saw that home which she had little expected evermore to behold; but all other thoughts were lost in the pleasure of meeting her beloved pupils.
“My children!” cried she, as they crowded round her the moment she got out of her carriage —“My dear good children!”
It was all she could say. She leaned on Victoire’s arm as she went into the house, and by degrees recovering from the almost painful excess of pleasure, began to enjoy what she yet only confusedly felt.
Several of her pupils were so much grown and altered in their external appearance, that she could scarcely recollect them till they spoke, and then their voices and the expression of their countenances brought their childhood fully to her memory. Victoire, she thought, was changed the least, and at this she rejoiced.
The feeling and intelligent reader will imagine all the pleasure that Mad. de Fleury enjoyed this day; nor was it merely the pleasure of a day. She heard from all her friends, with prolonged satisfaction, repeated accounts of the good conduct of these young people during her absence. She learned with delight how her restoration to her country and her fortune had been effected; and is it necessary to add, that Victoire consented to marry Basile, and that she was suitably portioned, and, what is better still, that she was perfectly happy? — M. de Fleury rewarded the attachment and good conduct of Maurice, by taking him into his service; and making him his manager under the old steward at the Château de Fleury.
On Victoire’s wedding-day, Mad. de Fleury produced all the little offerings of gratitude which she had received from her and her companions during her exile. It was now her turn to confer favours, and she knew how to confer them both with grace and judgment.
“No gratitude in human nature! No gratitude in the lower classes of the people!” cried she: “how much those are mistaken who think so! I wish they could know my history and the history of these my children, and they would acknowledge their error.”
EMILIE DE COULANGES
“I am young, I am in good health.” said Emilie de Coulanges; “I am not to be pitied. But my poor mamma, who has been used all her life to such luxuries! And now to have only her Emilie to wait upon her! Her Emilie, who is but an awkward femme de chambre! But she will improve, it must be hoped; and as to the rest, things, which are now always changing, and which cannot change for the worse, must soon infallibly change for the better — and mamma will certainly recover all her property one of these days. In the mean time (if mamma is tolerably well), we shall be perfectly happy in England — that charming country, which, perhaps, we should never have seen but for this terrible revolution! — Here we shall assuredly find friends. The English are such good people! — Cold, indeed, at first — that’s their misfortune: but then the English coldness is of manner, not of heart. Time immemorial, they have been famous for making the best friends in the world; and even to us, who are their natural enemies, they are generous in our distress. I have heard innumerable instances of their hospitality to our emigrants; and mamma will certainly not be the first exception. At her Hotel de Coulanges, she always received the English with distinguished attention; and though our hotel, with half Paris, has changed its name since those days, the English have too good memories to forget it, I am sure.”
By such speeches Emilie endeavoured to revive her mother’s spirits. To a most affectionate disposition and a feeling heart she joined all the characteristic and constitutional gaiety of her nation; a gaiety which, under the pressure of misfortune, merits the name of philosophy, since it produces all the effects, and is not attended with any of the parade of stoicism.
Emilie de Coulanges was a young French emigrant, of a noble family, and heiress to a large estate; but the property of her family had been confiscated during the revolution. She and her mother, la Comtesse de Coulanges, made their escape to England. Mad. de Coulanges was in feeble health, and much dispirited by the sudden loss of rank and fortune. Mlle. de Coulanges felt the change more for her mother than for herself; she always spoke of her mother’s misfortunes, never of her own.
Upon their arrival in London, Emilie, full of life and hope, went to present some of her mother’s letters of recommendation. One of them was addressed to Mrs. Somers. Mlle. de Coulanges was particularly delighted by the manner in which she was received by this lady.
“No English coldness! — no English reserve! — So warm in her expressions of kindness! — so eager in her offers of service!” Emilie could speak of nothing for the remainder of the day, but “cette charmante Mad. Somers!” The next day, and the next, and the next, she found increasing reasons to think her charming. Mrs. Somers exerted herself, indeed, with the most benevolent activity, to procure for Mad. de Coulanges every thing that could be convenient or agreeable. She prepared apartments in her own house for the mother and daughter, which she absolutely insisted upon their occupying immediately: she assured them that they should not be treated as visitors, but as inmates and friends of the family. She pressed her invitation with such earnestness, and so politely urged her absolute right to show her remembrance of the civilities which she had received at Paris, that there was no possibility of persisting in a refusal. The pride of high birth would have revolted at the idea of becoming dependent, but all such thoughts were precluded by the manner in which Mrs. Somers spoke; and the Comtesse de Coulanges accepted of the invitation, resolving, however, not to prolong her stay, if affairs in her own country should not take a favourable turn. She expected remittances from a Paris banker, with whom she had lodged a considerable sum — all that could be saved in ready money, in jewels, &c. from the wreck of her fortune: with this sum, if she should find all schemes of returning to France and recovering her property impracticable, she determined to live, in some retired part of England, in the most economical manner possible. But, in the mean time, as economy had never been either her theory or her practice, and as she considered retreat from the world as the worst thing, next to death, that could befal a woman, she was glad to put off the evil hour. She acknowledged that ill health made her look some years older than she really was; but she could not think herself yet old enough to become devout; and, till that crisis arrived, she, of course, would not willingly be banished from society. So that, upon the whole, she was well satisfied to find herself established in Mrs. Somers’s excellent house; where, but for the want of three antechambers, and of the Parisian quantity of looking-glass on every side of every apartment, la comtesse might have fancied herself at her own Hotel de Coulanges. Emilie would have been better contented to have been lodged and treated with less magnificence; but she rejoiced to see that her mother was pleased, and that she became freer from her vapeurs noirs16. Emilie began to love Mrs. Somers for making her mother well and happy — to love her with all the fearless enthusiasm of a young, generous mind, which accepts of obligation without any idea that gratitude may become burdensome. Mrs. Somers excited not only affection — she inspired admiration. Capable of the utmost exertion and of the most noble sacrifices for her friends, the indulgence of her generosity seemed not only to be the greatest pleasure of her soul, but absolutely necessary to her nature. To attempt to restrain her liberality was to provoke her indignation, or to incur her contempt. To refuse her benefits was to forfeit her friendship. She grew extremely fond of her present guests, because, without resistance, they permitted her to load them with favours. According to her custom, she found a thousand perfections in those whom she obliged. She had considered la Comtesse de Coulanges, when she knew her at Paris, as a very well-bred woman, but as nothing more; yet now she discovered that Mad. de Coulanges had a superior understanding and great strength of mind; — and Emilie, who had pleased her when a child, only by the ingenuous sweetness of her disposition and vivacity of her manners, was now become a complete angel — no angel had ever such a variety of accomplishments — none but an angel could possess such a combination of virtues. Mrs. Somers introduced her charming and noble emigrants to all her numerous and fashionable acquaintance; and she would certainly have quarrelled with any one who did not at least appear to sympathize in her sentiments. Fortunately there was no necessity for quarrelling; these foreigners were well received in every company, and Emilie pleased universally; or, as Mad. de Coulanges expressed it, “Elle avoit des grands succès dans la société.” The French comtesse herself could hardly give more emphatic importance to the untranslateable word succès than Mrs. Somers annexed to it upon this occasion. She was proud of producing Emilie as her protégée; and the approbation of others increased her own enthusiasm: much as she did for her favourite, she longed to do more. — An opportunity soon presented itself.
16 Vapeurs noirs— vulgarly known by the name of blue devils.]
One evening, after Mad. de Coulanges had actually tired herself with talking to the crowd, which her vivacity, grace, and volubility had attracted about her sofa, she ran to entrench herself in an arm-chair by the fireside, sprinkled the floor round her with eau de senteur, drew, with her pretty foot, a line of circumvallation, and then, shaking her tiny fan at the host of assailants, she forbade them, under pain of her sovereign displeasure, to venture within the magic circle, or to torment her by one more question or compliment. It was now absolutely necessary to be serious, and to study the politics of Europe. She called for the French newspapers, which Mrs. Somers had on purpose for her; and, provided with a pinch of snuff, from the ever-ready box of a French abbé, whose arm was permitted to cross the line of demarcation, Mad. de Coulanges began to study. Silence ensued — for novelty always produces silence in the first instant of surprise. An English gentleman wrote on the back of a letter an offer to his neighbour of a wager, that the silence would be first broken by the French countess, and that it could not last above two minutes. The wager was accepted, and watches were produced. Before the two minutes had expired, the pinch of snuff dropped from the countess’s fingers, and, clasping her hands together, she exclaimed, “Ah! ciel!”— The surrounding gentlemen, who were full of their wager, and who had heard, from the lady, during the course of the evening, at least a dozen exclamations of nearly equal vehemence about the merest trifles, were more amused than alarmed at this instant: but Emilie, who knew her mother’s countenance, and who saw the sudden change in it, pressed through the circle, and just caught her mother in her arms as she fainted. Mrs. Somers, much alarmed, hastened to her assistance. The countess was carried out of the room, and every body was full of pity and of curiosity. When Mad. de Coulanges recovered from her fainting-fit, she was seized with one of her nervous attacks; so that no explanation could be obtained. Emilie and Mrs. Somers looked over the French paper, but could not find any paragraph unusually alarming. At length, more composed, the countess apologized for the disturbance which she had occasioned; thanked Mrs. Somers repeatedly for her kindness; but spoke in a hurried manner, as if she did not well know what she said. She concluded by declaring that she was subject to these nervous attacks, that she should be quite well the next morning, and that she did not wish that any one should sit up with her during the night except Emilie, who was used to her ways. With that true politeness which understands quickly the feelings and wishes of others, Mrs. Somers forbore to make any ill-timed inquiries or officious offers of assistance; but immediately retired, and ordered the attendants to leave the room, that Mad. de Coulanges and her daughter might be at perfect liberty. Early in the morning Mrs. Somers heard somebody knock softly at her door. It was Emilie.
“Mrs. Masham told me that you were awake, madam, or I should not —”
“Come in, come in, my dearest Emilie — I am awake — wide awake. Is your mother better?”
“Alas! no, madam!”
“Sit down, my dear, and do not call me madam, so coldly. — I do not deserve it.”
“My dear friend! friend of mamma! my dearest friend!” cried Emilie, bursting into tears, and seizing Mrs. Somers’ hand; “do not accuse me of coldness to you. I am always afraid that my French expressions should sound exaggerated to English ears, and that you should think I say too much to be sincere in expressing my gratitude.”
“My sweet Emilie, who could doubt your sincerity? — none but a brute or a fool: but do not talk to me of gratitude.”
“I must,” said Emilie; “for I feel it.”
“Prove it to me, then, in the manner I like best — in the only manner I like — by putting it in my power to serve you. I do not intrude upon your mother’s confidence — I make no inquiries; but do me the justice to tell me how I can be of use to her — or rather to you. From you I expect frankness. Command my fortune, my time, my credit, my utmost exertions — they are all, they ever have been, they ever shall be, whilst I have life, at the command of my friends. And are not you my friend?”
“Generous lady! — You overpower me with your goodness.”
“No praises, no speeches! — Actions for me! — Tell me how I can serve you.”
“Alas! you, even you, can do us no good in this business.”
“That I will never believe, till I know the business.”
“The worst of it is,” said Emilie, “that we must leave you.”
“Leave me! Impossible!” cried Mrs. Somers, starting up. — You shall not leave me, that I am determined upon. Why cannot you speak out at once, and tell me what is the matter, Emilie? How can I act, unless I am trusted? and who deserves to be trusted by you, if I do not?”
“Assuredly nobody deserves it better; and if it were only my affair, dear Mrs. Somers, you should have known it as soon as I knew it myself; but it is mamma’s, more than mine.”
“Madame la comtesse, then, does not think me worthy of her confidence,” said Mrs. Somers, in a haughty tone, whilst displeasure clouded her whole countenance. “Is that what I am to understand from you, Mille. de Coulanges?”
“No, no; that is not what you are to understand, dear madam — my dear friend, I should say,” cried Emilie, alarmed. “Certainly I have explained myself ill, or you could not suspect mamma for a moment of such injustice. She knows you to be most worthy of her confidence; but on this occasion her reserve, believe me, proceeds solely from motives of delicacy, of which you could not but approve.”
“Motives of delicacy, my dear Emilie,” said Mrs. Somers, softening her tone, but still with an air of dissatisfaction —“motives of delicacy, my dear Emilie, are mighty pretty sounding words; and at your age I used to think them mighty grand things; but I have long since found out that motives of delicacy are usually the excuse of weak minds for not speaking the plain truth to their friends. People quit the straight path from motives of delicacy, may be, to a worm or a beetle — vulgar souls, observe, I rank only as worms and beetles; they cross our path every instant in life; and those who fear to give them offence must deviate and deviate, till they get into a labyrinth, from which they can never extricate themselves, or be extricated. My Emilie, I am sure, will always keep the straight road — I know her strength of mind. Indeed, I did expect strength of mind from her mother; but, like all who have lived a great deal in the world, she is, I find, a slave to motives of delicacy.”
“Mamma’s delicacy is of a very different sort from what you describe, and what you dislike,” said Emilie. “But, since persisting in her reserve would, as I see, offend one whom she would be most sorry to displease, permit me to go this moment and persuade her to let me tell you the simple truth.”
“Go — run, my dear. Now I know my Emilie again. Now I shall be able to do some good.”
By the time that Emilie returned, Mrs. Somers was dressed: she had dressed in the greatest hurry imaginable, that she might be ready for action — instantaneous action — if the service of her friends, as she hoped, required it. Emilie brought the newspaper in her hand, which her mother had been reading the preceding night.
“Here is all the mystery,” said she, pointing to a paragraph which announced the failure of a Paris banker. “Mamma lodged all the money she had left in this man’s hands.”
“And is that all? — I really expected something much more terrible.”
“It is terrible to mamma; because, depending on this man’s punctuality, she has bought in London clothes and trinkets — chiefly for me, indeed — and she has no immediate means of paying these debts; but, if she will only keep her mind tranquil, all will yet be well. You flatter me that I play tolerably on the piano-forte and the harp; you will recommend me, and I can endeavour to teach music. So that, if mamma will but be well, we shall not be in any great distress — except in leaving you; that is painful, but must be done. Yes, it absolutely must. Mamma knows what is proper, and so do I. We are not people to encroach upon the generosity of our friends. I need not say more; for I am sure that Mrs. Somers, who is herself so well-born and well-educated, must understand and approve of mamma’s way of thinking.”
Mrs. Somers replied not one word, but rang her bell violently — ordered her carriage.
“Do not you breakfast, madam, before you go out?” said the servant.
“No — no.”
“Not a dish of chocolate, ma’am?”
“My carriage, I tell you. — Emilie, you have been up all night: I insist upon your going to bed this minute, and upon your sleeping till I come back again. La comtesse always breakfasts in her own room; so I have no apologies to make for leaving her. I shall be at home before her toilette is finished, and hope she will then permit me to pay my respects to her — you will tell her so, my dear. I must be gone instantly. — Why will they not let me have this carriage? — Where are those gloves of mine? — and the key of my writing-desk? — Ring again for the coach.”
Between the acting of a generous thing and the first motion, all the interim was, with Mrs. Somers, a delicious phantasma; and her ideas of time and distance were as extravagant as those of a person in a dream. She very nearly ran over Emilie in her way down stairs, and then said, “Oh! I beg pardon a thousand times, my dear! — I thought you had been in bed an hour ago.”
The toilette of Mad. de Coulanges, this morning, went on at the usual rate. Whether in adversity or prosperity, this was to la comtesse an elaborate, but never a tedious work. Long as it had lasted, it was, however, finished; and she had full leisure for a fit and a half of the vapours, before Mrs. Somers returned — she came in with a face radiant with joy.
“Fortunately, most fortunately,” cried she, “I have it in my power to repair the loss occasioned by the failure of this good-for-nothing banker! Nay, positively, Mad. de Coulanges, I must not be refused,” continued she, in a peremptory manner. “You make an enemy, if you refuse a friend.”
She laid a pocket-book on the table, and left the room instantly. The pocket-book contained notes to a very considerable amount, surpassing the sum which Mad. de Coulanges had lost by her banker; and on a scrap of paper was written in pencil “Mad. de Coulanges must never return this sum, for it is utterly useless to Mrs. Somers; as the superfluities it was appropriated to purchase are now in the possession of one who will not sell them.”
Astonished equally at the magnitude and the manner of the gift, Mad. de Coulanges repeated, a million of times, that it was “noble! très noble! une belle action!”— that she could not possibly accept of such an obligation — that she could not tell how to refuse it — that Mrs. Somers was the most generous woman upon earth — that Mrs. Somers had thrown her into a terrible embarrassment.
Then la comtesse had recourse to her smelling-bottle, consulted Emilie’s eyes, and answered them.
“Child! I have no thoughts of accepting; but I only ask you how I can refuse, after what has been said, without making Mrs. Somers my enemy? You see her humour — English humours must not be trifled with — her humour, you see, is to give. It is a shocking thing for people of our birth to be reduced to receive, but we cannot avoid it without losing Mrs. Somers’ friendship entirely; and that is what you would not wish to do, Emilie.”
“Oh, no, indeed!”
“Now we must be under obligations to our milliner and jeweller, if we do not pay them immediately; for these sort of people call it a favour to give credit for a length of time: and I really think that it is much better to be indebted to Mrs. Somers than to absolute strangers and to rude tradespeople. It is always best to have to deal with polite persons.”
“And with generous persons!” cried Emilie; “and a more generous person than Mrs. Somers, I am sure, cannot exist.”
“And then,” continued Mad. de Coulanges, “like all these rich English, she can afford to be generous. I am persuaded that this Mrs. Somers is as rich as a Russian princess; yes, as rich as the Russian princess with the superb diadem of diamonds. You remember her at Paris?”
“No, mamma, I forget her,” answered Emilie, with a look of absence of mind.
“Bon Dieu! what can you be thinking of?” exclaimed Mad. de Coulanges. “You forget the Russian princess, with the diamond diadem, that was valued at 200,000 livres! She wore it at her presentation — it was the conversation of Paris for a week: you must recollect it, Emilie?”
“Oh, yes: I recollect something about its cutting her forehead.”
“Not at all, my dear; how you exaggerate! The princess only complained, by way of something to say, that the weight of the diamonds made her head ache.
“Was that all?”
“That was all. But I will tell you what you are thinking of, Emilie — quite another thing — quite another person — broad Mad. Vanderbenbruggen: her diamonds were not worth looking at; and they were so horribly set, that she deserved all manner of misfortunes, and to be disgraced in public, as she was. For you know the bandeau slipt over her great forehead; and instead of turning to the gentlemen, and ordering some man of sense to arrange her head-dress, she kept holding her stiff neck stock still, like an idiot; she actually sat, with the patience of a martyr, two immense hours, till somebody cried, ‘Ah! madame, here is the blood coming!’ I see her before me this instant. Is it possible, my dear Emilie, that you do not remember the difference between this buche of a Mad. Vanderbenbruggen, and our charming princess? but you are as dull as Mad. Vanderbenbruggen herself, this morning.”
The vivacious countess having once seized upon the ideas of Mad. Vanderbenbruggen, the charming princess, and the fine diamonds, it was some time before Emilie could recall her to the order of the day — to the recollection of her banker’s failure, and of the necessity of giving an answer to generous Mrs. Somers. The decision of Mad. de Coulanges was probably at last influenced materially by the gay ideas of “stars and dukes, and all their sweeping train,” associated with Mad. Vanderbenbruggen’s image. The countess observed, that, after the style in which she had been used to live in the first company at Paris, it would be worse than death to be buried alive in some obscure country town in England; and that she would rather see Emilie guillotined at once, than condemned, with all her grace and talents, to work, like a galley slave, at a tambour frame for her bread all the days of her life.
Emilie assured her mother that she should cheerfully submit to much greater evils than that of working at a tambour frame; and that, as far as her own feelings were concerned, she should infinitely prefer living by labour to becoming dependent. She therefore intreated that her mother might not, from any false tenderness for her Emilie, decide contrary to her own principles or wishes.
Mad. de Coulanges, after looking in the glass, at length determined that it would be best to accept of Mrs. Somers’ generous offer; and Emilie, who usually contrived to find something agreeable in all her mother’s decisions, rejoiced that by this determination, Mrs. Somers at least would be pleased. Mrs. Somers, indeed, was highly gratified; and her expressions of satisfaction were so warm, that any body would have thought she was the person receiving, instead of conferring, a great favour. She thanked Emilie, in particular, for having vanquished her mother’s false delicacy. Emilie blushed at hearing this undeserved praise; and assured Mrs. Somers that all the merit was her mother’s.
“What!” cried Mrs. Somers hastily, “was it contrary to your opinion? — Were you treacherous — were you my enemy — Mlle. de Coulanges?”
Emilie replied that she had left the decision to her mother; that she confessed she had felt some reluctance to receive a pecuniary obligation, even from Mrs. Somers; but that she had rather be obliged to her than to any body in the world, except to her mamma.
This explanation was not perfectly satisfactory to Mrs. Somers, and there was a marked coldness in her manner towards Emilie during the remainder of the day. Her affectionate and grateful disposition made her extremely sensible to this change; and, when she retired to her own room at night, she sat down beside her bed, and shed tears for the first time since she had been in England. Mrs. Somers happened to go into Emilie’s room to leave some message for Mad. de Coulanges — she found Emilie in tears — inquired the cause — was touched and flattered by her sensibility — kissed her — blamed herself — confessed she had been extremely unreasonable — acknowledged that her temper was naturally too hasty and susceptible, especially with those she loved — but assured Emilie that this, which had been their first, should be their last quarrel; — a rash promise, considering the circumstances in which they were both placed. Those who receive and those who confer great favours are both in difficult situations; but the part of the benefactor is the most difficult to support with propriety. What a combination of rare qualities is essential for this purpose! Amongst others, sense, delicacy and temper. Mrs. Somers possessed all but the last; and, unluckily, she was not sensible of the importance of this deficiency. Confident and proud, that, upon all the grand occasions where the human heart is put to the trial, she could display superior generosity, she disdained attention to the minutiæ of kindness. This was inconvenient to her friends; because occasion for a great sacrifice of the heart occurs, perhaps, but once in a life, whilst small sacrifices of temper are requisite every day, and every hour17.
17 Since this was written, the author has seen the same thoughts so much better expressed in the following lines that she cannot forbear to quote them:
“Since trifles make the sum of human things,
And half our mis’ry from our foibles springs;
Since life’s best joys consist in peace and ease,
And few can save or serve, but all may please:
Oh! let th’ungentle spirit learn from hence,
A small unkindness is a great offence.
Large bounties to bestow we wish in vain;
But all may shun the guilt of giving pain.”
SENSIBILITY. By Mrs. H. More.]
Mrs. Somers had concealed from Mad. de Coulanges and from Emilie the full extent of their obligation: she told them, that the sum of money which she offered had become useless to her, because it had been destined to the purchase of some superfluities, which were now in the possession of another person. The fact was, that she had been in treaty for two fine pictures, a Guido and a Correggio; these pictures might have been hers, but that on the morning, when she heard of the failure of the banker of Mad. de Coulanges, she had hastened to prevent the money from being paid for them. She was extremely fond of paintings, and had long and earnestly desired to possess these celebrated pictures; so that she had really made a great sacrifice of her taste and of her vanity. For some time she was satisfied with her own self-complacent reflections: but presently she began to be displeased that Mad. de Coulanges and Emilie did not see the full extent of her sacrifice. She became provoked by their want of penetration in not discovering all that she studiously concealed; and her mind, going on rapidly from one step to another, decided that this want of penetration arose from a deficiency of sensibility.
One day, some of her visitors, who were admiring the taste with which she had newly furnished a room, inquired for what those two compartments were intended, looking at the compartments which had been prepared for the famous pictures. Mrs. Somers replied that she had not yet determined what she should put there: she glanced her eye upon Mad. de Coulanges and upon Emilie, to observe whether they felt as they ought to do. Mad. de Coulanges, imagining that an appeal was made to her taste, decidedly answered, that nothing would have so fine an effect as handsome looking-glasses: “Such,” added she, “as we have at Paris. No house is furnished without them — they are absolute necessaries of life. And, no doubt, these places were originally intended for mirrors.”
“No,” said Mrs. Somers, dryly, and with a look of great displeasure: “No, madame la comtesse, those places were not originally intended for looking-glasses.”
The countess secretly despised Mrs. Somers for her want of taste; but, being too well bred to dispute the point, she confessed that she was no judge — that she knew nothing of the matter; and then immediately turned to her abbé, and asked him if he remembered the superb mirrors in Mad. de V——‘s charming house on the Boulevards. “It is,” said she, “in my opinion one of the very best houses in Paris. There you enter the principal apartments by an antechamber, such as you ought to see in a great house, with real ottomanes, covered with buff trimmed with black velvet; and then you pass through the spacious salle à manger and the delightful saloon, hung with blue silk, to the bijou of a boudoir, that looks out upon the garden, with the windows shaded by the most beautiful flowering shrubs in summer, and in winter adorned with exotics. Then you see, through the plate-glass door of the boudoir, into the gallery of paintings — I call it a gallery, but it is, in fact, a delightful room, not a gallery — where you are not to perish in cold, whilst you admire the magnificence of the place. Not at all: it is warmed by a large stove, and you may examine the fine pictures at your ease, or, as you English would say, in comfort. This gallery must have cost M. de V—— an immense sum. The connoisseurs say that it is really the best collection of Flemish pictures in the possession of any individual in France. By-the-bye, Mrs. Somers, there is, amongst others, an excellent Van Dyck, a portrait of your Charles the First, when a boy, which I wonder that none of you rich English have purchased.”
The countenance of Mrs. Somers had clouded over more and more during this speech; but the heedless countess went on, with her usual volubility.
“Yet, no doubt, M. de V—— would not sell this Van Dyck: but he would, I am told, part with his superb collection of prints, which cost him 30,000 of your pounds. He must look for a purchaser amongst those Polish and Russian princes who have nothing to do with their riches — for instance, my friend Lewenhof, who complained that he was not able to spend half his income in Paris; that he could not contrive to give an entertainment that cost him money enough. What can he do better than commence amateur? — then he might throw away money as fast as his heart could wish. M. l’abbé, why do not you, or some man of letters, write directly, and advise him to this, for the good of his country? What a figure those prints would make in Petersburgh! — and how they would polish the Russians! But, as a good Frenchwoman, I ought to wish them to remain at Paris: they certainly cannot be better than where they are.”
“True,” cried Emilie, “they cannot be better than where they are, in the possession of those generous friends. I used to love to see Mad. de V—— in the midst of all her fine things, of which she thought so little. Her very looks are enough to make one happy — all radiant with good-humoured benevolence. I am sure one might always salute Mad. de V—— with the Chinese compliment, ‘Felicity is painted in your countenance.’”
This was a compliment which could not be paid to Mrs. Somers at the present instant; for her countenance was as little expressive of felicity as could well be imagined. Emilie, who suddenly turned and saw it, was so much struck that she became immediately silent. There was a dead pause in the conversation. Mad. de Coulanges was the only unembarrassed person in company; she was very contentedly arranging her hair upon her forehead opposite to a looking-glass. Mrs. Somers broke the silence by observing, that, in her opinion, there was no occasion for more mirrors in this room; and she added, in a voice of suppressed anger, “I did originally intend to have filled those unfortunate blanks with something more to my taste.”
Mad. de Coulanges was too much occupied with her ringlets to hear or heed this speech. Mrs. Somers fixed her indignant eyes upon Emilie, who, perceiving that she was offended, yet not knowing by what, looked embarrassed, and simply answered, “Did you?”
This reply, which seemed as neutral as words could make it, and which was uttered not only with a pacific, but with an intimidated tone, incensed Mrs. Somers beyond measure. It put the finishing stroke to the whole conversation. All that had been said about elegant houses — antechambers — mirrors — pictures — amateurs — throwing away money; and the generous Mad. de V—— who was always good-humoured, Mrs. Somers fancied was meant for her. She decided that it was absolutely impossible that Emilie could be so stupid as not to have perfectly understood that the compartments had been prepared for the Guido and Correggio, which she had so generously sacrificed; and the total want of feeling — of common civility — evinced by Emilie’s reply, was astonishing, was incomprehensible.
The more she reflected upon the words, the more of artifice, of duplicity, of ingratitude, of insult, of meanness she discovered in them. In her cold fits of ill-humour, this lady was prone to degrade, as monsters below the standard of humanity, those whom, in the warmth of her enthusiasm, she had exalted to the state of angelic perfection. Emilie, though aware that she had unwittingly offended, was not aware how low she had sunk in her friend’s opinion: she endeavoured, by playful wit and caresses, to atone for her fault, and to reinstate herself in her favour. But playful wit and caresses were aggravating crimes; they were proofs of obstinacy in deceit, of a callous conscience, and of a heart that was not to be touched by the marked displeasure of a benefactress. Three days and three nights did the displeasure of Mrs. Somers continue in full force, and manifest itself by a variety of signs, which were lost upon Mad. de Coulanges, but which were all intelligible to poor Emilie. She made several attempts to bring on an explanation, by saying, “Are you not well? — Is any thing the matter, dear Mrs. Somers?” But these questions were always coldly answered by, “I am perfectly well, I thank you, Mlle. de Coulanges — why should you imagine that any thing is the matter with me?”
At the end of the third day of reprobation, Emilie, who could no longer endure this state, resolved to take courage and to ask pardon for her unknown offence. That night she went, trembling like a real criminal, into Mrs. Somers’ dressing-room, kissed her forehead, and said, “I hope you have not such a headache as I have?”
“Have you the headache? — I am sorry for it,” said Mrs. Somers; “but you should take something for it — what will you take?”
“I will take nothing, except — your forgiveness.”
“My forgiveness! — you astonish me, Mlle. de Coulanges! I am sure that I ought to ask yours, if I have said a word that could possibly give you reason to imagine I am angry — I really am not conscious of any such thing; but if you will point it out to me —”
“You cannot imagine that I come to accuse you, dear Mrs. Somers; I do not attempt even to justify myself: I am convinced that, if you are displeased, it cannot be without reason.”
“But still you do not tell me how I have shown this violent displeasure: I have not, to the best of my recollection, said an angry or a hasty word.”
“No; but when we love people, we know when they are offended, without their saying a hasty word — your manner has been so different towards me these three days past.”
“My manner is very unfortunate. It is impossible always to keep a guard over our manners: it is sufficient, I think, to guard our words.”
“Pray do not guard either with me,” said Emilie; “for I would a thousand times rather that a friend should say or look the most angry things, than that she should conceal from me what she thought; for then, you know, I might displease her continually without knowing it, and perhaps lose her esteem and affection irretrievably, before I was aware of my danger — and with you— with you, to whom we owe so much!”
Touched by the feeling manner in which Emilie spoke, and by the artless expression of her countenance, Mrs. Somers’ anger vanished, and she exclaimed, “I have been to blame — I ask your pardon, Emilie — I have been much to blame — I have been very unjust — very ill-humoured — I see I was quite wrong — I see that I was quite mistaken in what I imagined.”
“And what did you imagine?” said Emilie.
“That you must excuse me from telling,” said Mrs. Somers; “I am too much ashamed of it — too much ashamed of myself. Besides, it was a sort of thing that I could not well explain, if I were to set about it; in short, it was the silliest trifle in the world: but I assure you that if I had not loved you very much, I should not have been so foolishly angry. You must forgive these little infirmities of temper — you know my heart is as it should be.”
Emilie embraced Mrs. Somers affectionately; and, in her joy at this reconciliation, and in the delight she felt at being relieved from the uneasiness which she had suffered for three days, loved her friend the better for this quarrel: she quite forgot the pain in the pleasure of the reconciliation; and thought that, even if Mrs. Somers had been in the wrong, the candour with which she acknowledged it more than made amends for the error.
“You must forgive these little infirmities of temper — you know my heart is as it should be.”
Emilie repeated these words, and said to herself, “Forgive them! yes, surely; I should be the most ungrateful of human beings if I did otherwise.”
Without being the most ungrateful of human beings, Emilie, however, found it very difficult to keep her resolution.
Almost every day she felt the apprehension or the certainty of having offended her benefactress: and the causes by which she gave offence were sometimes so trifling as to elude her notice; so mysterious, that they could not be discovered; or so various and anomalous, that, even when she was told in what manner she had displeased, she could not form any rule, or draw any inference, for her future conduct. Sometimes she offended by differing, sometimes by agreeing, in taste or opinion with Mrs. Somers. Sometimes she perceived that she was thought positive; at other times, too complying. A word, a look, or even silence — passive silence — was sufficient to affront this susceptible lady. Then she would go on with a string of deductions, or rather of imaginations, to prove that there must be something wrong in Emilie’s disposition; and she would insist upon it, that she knew better what was passing, or what would pass, in her mind, than Emilie could know herself. Nothing provoked Mrs. Somers more than the want of success in any of her active attempts to make others happy. She was continually angry with Emilie for not being sufficiently pleased or grateful for things which she had not the vanity to suspect were intended for her gratification, or which were not calculated to contribute to her amusement: this humility, or this difference of taste, was always considered as affectation or perversity. One day, Mrs. Somers was angry with Emilie because she did not thank her for inviting a celebrated singer to her concert; but Emilie had no idea that the singer was invited on her account: of this nothing could convince Mrs. Somers. Another day, she was excessively displeased because Emilie was not so much entertained as she had expected her to be at the installation of a knight of the garter.
“Mad. de Coulanges expressed a wish to see the ceremony of the installation; and, though I hate such things myself, I took prodigious pains to procure tickets, and to have you well placed —”
“Indeed, I was very sensible of it, dear madam.”
“May be so, my dear; but you did not look as if you were: you seemed tired to death, and said you were sleepy; and ten times repeated, ‘Ah! qu’il fait chaud!’ But this is what I am used to — what I have experienced all my life. The more pains a person takes to please and oblige, the less they can succeed, and the less gratitude they are to expect.”
Emilie reproached herself, and resolved that, upon the next similar trial, she would not complain of being sleepy or tired; and that she would take particular care not to say —“Ah! qu’il fait chaud!” A short time afterwards she was in a crowded assembly, at the house of a friend of Mrs. Somers, a rout— a species of entertainment of which she had not seen examples in her own country (it appeared to her rather a barbarous mode of amusement, to meet in vast crowds, to squeeze or to be squeezed, without a possibility of enjoying any rational conversation). Emilie was fatigued, and almost fainting, from the heat, but she bore it all with a smiling countenance, and heroic gaiety; for this night she was determined not to displease Mrs. Somers. On their return home, she was rather surprised and disappointed to find this lady in a fit of extreme ill-humour.
“I wanted to get away two hours ago,” cried she; “but you would not understand any of my hints, Mlle. de Coulanges; and when I asked you whether you did not find it very hot, you persisted in saying, ‘Not in the least — not in the least.’”
Mrs. Somers was the more angry upon this occasion, because she recollected having formerly reproached Emilie, at the installation, for complaining of the heat; and she persuaded herself, that this was an instance of perversity in Emilie’s temper, and a sly method of revenging herself for the past. Nothing could be more improbable, from a girl of such a frank, forgiving, sweet disposition; and no one would have been so ready to say so as Mrs. Somers in another mood; but the moment that she was irritated, she judged without common sense — never from general observations, but always from particular instances. It was in vain that Emilie disclaimed the motives attributed to her: she was obliged to wait the return of her friend’s reason, and in the mean time to bear her reproaches — she did with infinite patience. Unfortunately this patience soon became the source of fresh evils. Because Emilie was so gentle, and so ready to acknowledge and to believe herself to be in the wrong, Mrs. Somers became convinced that she herself was in the right in all her complaints; and she fancied that she had great merit in passing over so many defects in one whom she had so much obliged, and who professed so much gratitude. Between the fits of her ill-humour, she would, however, waken to the full sense of Emilie’s goodness, and would treat her with particular kindness, as if to make amends for the past. Then, if Emilie could not immediately resume that easy, gay familiarity of manner, which she used to have before experience had taught her the fear of offending, Mrs. Somers grew angry again and decided that Emilie had not sufficient elevation of soul to understand her character, or to forgive the little infirmities of the best of friends. When she was under the influence of this suspicion, every thing that Emilie said or looked was confirmation strong. Mrs. Somers was apt in conversation to throw out general reflections that were meant to apply to particular persons; or to speak with one meaning obvious to all the company, and another to be understood only by some individual whom she wished to reproach. This art, which she had often successfully practised upon Emilie, she, for that reason, suspected that Emilie tried upon her. And then the utmost ingenuity was employed to torture words into strange meanings: she would misinterpret the plainest expressions, or attribute to them some double, mysterious signification.
One evening Emilie had been reading a new novel, the merits of which were eagerly discussed by the company. Some said that the heroine was a fool: others, that she was a mad woman; some, that she was not either, but that she acted as if she were both; another party asserted that she was every thing that was great and good, and that it was impossible to paint in truer colours the passion of love. Mrs. Somers declared herself of this opinion; but Emilie, who happened not to be present when this declaration was made, on coming into the room and joining in the conversation, gave a diametrically opposite judgment: she said, that the author had painted the enthusiasm with which the heroine yielded to her passion, instead of the violence of the passion to which she yielded. The French abbé, to whom Emilie made this observation, repeated it triumphantly to Mrs. Somers, who immediately changed colour, and replied in a constrained voice, “Certainly that is a very apposite remark, and vastly well expressed; and I give Mlle. de Coulanges infinite credit for it.”
Emilie, who knew every inflection of Mrs. Somers’ voice, and every turn of her countenance, perceived that these words of praise were accompanied with strong feelings of displeasure. She was much embarrassed, especially as her friend fixed her eyes upon her whilst she blushed; and this made her blush ten times more: she was afraid that the company, who were silent, should take notice of her distress; and therefore she went on talking very fast about the novel, though scarcely knowing what she said. She made sundry blunders in names and characters, which were eagerly corrected by the astonished Mad. de Coulanges, who could not conceive how any body could forget the dramatis personæ of the novel of the day. Mrs. Somers, all the time, preserved silence, as if she dared not trust herself to speak; but her compressed lips showed sufficiently the constraint under which she laboured. Whilst every body else went on talking, and helping themselves to refreshments which the servants were handing about, Mrs. Somers continued leaning on the mantel-piece in a deep reverie, pulling her bracelet round and round upon her wrist, till she was roused by Mad. de Coulanges, who appealed for judgment upon her new method of preparing an orange.
“C’est à la corbeille — Tenez!” cried she, holding it by a slender handle of orange-peel; “Tenez! c’est à la corbeille!”
Mrs. Somers, with a forced smile admired the orange-basket; but said, that, for her part, her hands were not sufficiently dexterous to imitate this fashion: “I,” said she, “can only do like the king of Prussia and other people— squeeze the orange, and throw the peel away. By-the-bye, how absurd it was of Voltaire to be angry with the king of Prussia for that witty and just apologue!”
“Just!” repeated Emilie.
“Just!” reiterated Mrs. Somers, in a harsh voice: “surely you think it so. For my part, I like the king the better for avowing his principles — all the world act as he did, though few avow it.”
“What!” said Emilie, in a low voice, “do not you believe in the reality of gratitude?”
“Apparently,” cried Mad. de Coulanges, who was still busy with her orange, “apparently, madame is a disciple of our Rochefoucault, and allows of no principle but self-love. In that case, I shall have as bitter quarrels with her as I have with you, mon cher abbé; — for Rochefoucault is a man I detest, or rather, I detest his maxims — the duke himself, they say, was the most amiable man of his day. Only conceive, that such a man should ascribe all our virtues to self-love and vanity!”
“And, perhaps,” said the abbé, “it was merely vanity that made him say so — he wished to write a witty satirical book; but I will lay a wager he did not think as ill of human nature as he speaks of it.”
“He could hardly speak or think too ill of it,” said Mrs. Somers, “if he judged of human nature by such speeches as that of the king of Prussia about his friend and the orange.”
“But,” said Emilie, in a timid voice, “would it not be doing poor human nature injustice to judge of it by such words as those? I am convinced, with M. l’abbé, that some men, for the sake of appearing witty, speak more malevolently than they feel; and, perhaps, this was the case with the king of Prussia.”
“And Mlle. de Coulanges thinks, then,” said Mrs. Somers, “that it is quite allowable, for the sake of appearing witty, to speak malevolently?”
“Dear madam! dear Mrs. Somers! — no!” cried Emilie; “you quite misunderstood me.”
“Pardon me, I thought you were justifying the king of Prussia,” continued Mrs. Somers; “and I do not well see how that can be done without allowing — what many people do in practice, though not in theory — that it is right, and becoming, and prudent, to sacrifice a friend for a bon-mot.”
The angry emphasis, and pointed manner, in which Mrs. Somers spoke these words, terrified and completely abashed Emilie, who saw that something more was meant than met the ear. In her confusion she ran over a variety of thoughts; but she could not recollect any thing that she had ever said, which merited the name of a bon-mot — and a malevolent bon-mot! “Surely what I said about that foolish novel cannot have offended Mrs. Somers? — How is it possible! — She cannot be so childish as to be angry with me merely for differing with her in opinion. What I said might be bad criticism, but it could not be malevolent; it referred only to the heroine of a novel. Perhaps the author may be a friend of hers, or some person who is in distress, and whom she has generously taken under her protection. Why did not I think of this before? — I was wrong to give my opinion so decidedly: but then my opinion is of so little consequence; assuredly it can neither do good nor harm to any author. When Mrs. Somers considers this, she will be pacified; and when she is once cool again, she will feel that I could not mean to say any thing ill-natured.”
The moment Mrs. Somers saw that Emilie was sensible of her displeasure, she exerted herself to assume, during the remainder of the evening, an extraordinary appearance of gaiety and good-humour. Every body shared her smiles and kindness, except the unfortunate object of her indignation: she behaved towards Mlle. de Coulanges with the most punctilious politeness; but “all the cruel language of the eye” was sufficiently expressive of her real feelings. Emilie bore with this infirmity of temper with resolute patience: she expected that the fit would last only till she could ask for an explanation; and she followed Mrs. Somers, as was her usual custom upon such occasions, to her room at night, in order to assert her innocence. Mrs. Somers walked into her room in a reverie, without perceiving that she was followed by Emilie — threw herself into a chair — and gave a deep sigh.
“What is the matter, my dear friend?” Emilie began; but, on hearing the sound of her voice, Mrs. Somers started up with sudden anger; then, constraining herself, she said, “Pardon me, Mlle. de Coulanges, if I tell you that I really am tired to-night — body and mind — I wish to have rest for both if possible — would you be so very obliging as to pull that bell for Masham? — I wish you a very good night. — I hope Mad. de Coulanges will have her ass’s milk at the proper hour to-morrow — I have given particular orders for that purpose.”
“Your kindness to mamma, dear Mrs. Somers,” said Emilie, “has been invariable, and —”
“Spare me, I beseech you, Mlle. de Coulanges, all these grateful speeches— I really am not prepared to hear them with temper to-night. Were you so good as to ring that bell — or will you give me leave to ring it myself?”
“If you insist upon it,” said Emilie, gently withholding the tassel of the bell; “but if you would grant me five minutes — one minute — you might perhaps save yourself and me a sleepless night.”
Mrs. Somers, incapable of longer commanding her passion, made no reply, but snatched the bell-rope, and rang violently — Emilie let go the tassel and withdrew. She heard Mrs. Somers say to herself, as she left the room —“This is too much — too much — really too much! — hypocrisy I cannot endure. — Any thing but hypocrisy!”
These words hurt Emilie more than any thing Mrs. Somers had ever said: her own indignation was roused, and she was upon the point of returning to vindicate herself; but gratitude, if not prudence, conquered her resentment: she recollected her promise to bear with the temper of her benefactress; she recollected all Mrs. Somers’ kindness to her mother; and quietly retired to her room, determining to wait till morning for a more favourable opportunity to speak. — After passing a restless night, and dreaming the common dream of falling down precipices, and the uncommon circumstance of dragging Mrs. Somers after her by a bell-rope, she wakened to the confused, painful remembrance of all that had passed the preceding evening. She was anxious to obtain admittance to Mrs. Somers as soon as she was dressed; but Masham informed her that her lady had given particular orders that she should “not be disturbed.” When Mrs. Somers made her appearance late at breakfast, there was the same forced good-humour in her countenance towards the company in general, and the same punctilious politeness towards Emilie, which had before appeared. She studiously avoided all opportunity of explaining herself; and every attempt of Emilie’s towards a reconciliation, either by submissive gentleness or friendly familiarity, was disregarded, or noticed with cold disdain. Yet all this was visible only to her; for every body else observed that Mrs. Somers was in remarkably good spirits, and in the most actively obliging humour imaginable. After breakfast she proposed and arranged various parties of pleasure: she went with Mad. de Coulanges to pay several visits; a large company dined with her; and at night she went to a concert. In the midst of these apparent amusements, Emilie was made as unhappy as the marked, yet mysterious, displeasure of a benefactress could render a person of real sensibility. As she did not wish to expose herself to a second repulse, she forbore to follow Mrs. Somers to her room at night; but she sent her this note by Mrs. Masham.
“I have done or said something to offend you, dear Mrs. Somers. If you knew how much pain I have felt from your displeasure, I am sure you would explain to me what it can be. Is it possible that my differing in opinion from you about the heroine of the novel can have offended you? — Perhaps the author of the book is a friend of yours, or under your protection. Be assured, that if this be the case, I did not in the least suspect it at the time I made the criticism. Perhaps it was this to which you alluded when you said that the King of Prussia was not the only person who would not hesitate to sacrifice a friend for a bon-mot. What injustice you do me by such an idea! I will not here say one word about my gratitude or my affection, lest you should again reproach me with hypocrisy — any thing else I am able to bear. Pray write, if you will not speak to me.
When Emilie was just falling asleep, Masham came into her room with a note in her hand.
“Mademoiselle, I am sorry to waken you; but my mistress thought you would not sleep, unless you read this note to-night.”
Emilie started up in her bed, and read the following note of four pages.
“Yes I will write, because I am ashamed to speak to you, my dear Emilie. I beg your pardon for pulling the bell-cord so violently from your hand last night — you must have thought me quite ill-bred; and still more, I reproach myself for what I said about hypocracy— You have certainly the sweetest and gentlest temper imaginable — would to Heaven I had! But the strength of my feelings absolutely runs away with me. It is the doom of persons of great sensibility to be both unreasonable and unhappy; and often, alas! to involve in their misery those for whom they have the most enthusiastic affection. You see, my dear Emilie, the price you must pay for being my friend; but you have strength of mind joined to a feeling heart, and you will bear with my defects. Dissimulation is not one of them. In spite of all my efforts, I find it is impossible ever to conceal from you any of even my most unreasonable fancies — your note, which is so characteristically frank and artless, has opened my eyes to my own folly. I must show you that, when I am in my senses, I do you justice. You deserve to be treated with perfect openness; therefore, however humiliating the explanation, I will confess to you the real cause of my displeasure. When you spoke of the heroine of this foolish novel, what you said was so applicable to some part of my own history and character, that I could not help suspecting you had heard the facts from a person with whom you spent some hours lately; and I was much hurt by your alluding to them in such a severe and public manner. You will ask me, how I could conceive you to be capable of such unprovoked malevolence: and my answer is, ‘I cannot tell;’ I can only say, such is the effect of the unfortunate susceptibility of my heart, or, to speak more candidly, of my temper. I confess I cannot, in these particulars, alter my nature. Blame me as much as I blame myself; be as angry as you please, or as you can, my gentle friend: but at last you must pity and forgive me.
“Now that all this affair is off my mind, I can sleep in peace: and so, I hope, will you, my dear Emilie — Good night! If friends never quarrelled, they would never taste the joys of reconciliation. Believe me,
“Your ever sincere and affectionate
No one tasted the joys of reconciliation more than Emilie; but, after reiterated experience, she was inclined to believe that they cannot balance the evils of quarrelling. Mrs. Somers was one of those, who “confess their faults, but never mend;” and who expect, for this gratuitous candour, more applause than others would claim for the real merit of reformation. So far did this lady carry her admiration of her own candour, that she was actually upon the point of quarrelling with Emilie again, the next morning, because she did not seem sufficiently sensible of the magnanimity with which she had confessed herself to be ill-tempered. These few specimens are sufficient to give an idea of this lady’s powers of tormenting; but, to form an adequate notion of their effect upon Emilie’s spirits, we must conceive the same sort of provocations to be repeated every day, for several months. Petty torments, incessantly repeated, exhaust the most determined patience.
All this time, Mad. de Coulanges went on very smoothly with Mrs. Somers; for she had not Emilie’s sensibility; and, notwithstanding her great quickness, a hundred things might pass, and did pass, before her eyes, without her seeing them. She examined no farther than the surface; and, provided that there was not any deficiency of those little attentions to which she had been accustomed, it never occurred to her that a friend could be more or less pleased: she did not understand or study physiognomy; a smile of the lips was, to her, always a sufficient token of approbation; and, whether it were merely conventional, or whether it came from the heart, she never troubled herself to inquire. Provided that she saw at dinner the usual couverts, and that she had a sufficient number of people to converse with, or rather to talk to, she was satisfied that every thing was right. All the variations in Mrs. Somers’ temper were unmarked by her, or went under the general head, vapeurs noirs. This species of ignorance, or confidence, produced the best effects; for as Mrs. Somers could not, without passing the obvious bounds of politeness, make Mad. de Coulanges sensible of her displeasure, and as she had the utmost respect for the countess’s opinion of her good breeding, she was, to a certain degree, compelled to command her temper. Mad. de Coulanges often, without knowing it, tried it terribly, by differing from her in taste and judgment, and by supporting her own side of the question with all the enthusiastic volubility of the French language. Sometimes the English and French music were compared — sometimes the English and French painters; and every time the theatre was mentioned, Mad. de Coulanges pronounced an eulogium on her favourite French actors, and triumphed over the comparison between the elegance of the French, and the grossièreté of the English taste for comedy.
“Good Heaven!” said she, “your fashionable comedies would be too absurd to make the lowest of our audiences at the Boulevards laugh; you have excluded sentiment and wit, and what have you in their place? Characters out of drawing and out of nature; grotesque figures, such as you see in a child’s magic lantern. Then you talk of English humour — I wish I could understand it; but I cannot be diverted with seeing a tailor turned gentleman pricking his father with a needle, or a man making grimaces over a jug of sour beer.”
Mrs. Somers, piqued perhaps by the justice of some of these observations, would dryly answer, that it was impossible for a foreigner to comprehend English humour — that she believed the French, in particular, were destitute of taste for humour.
Mad. de Coulanges insisted upon it, that the French have humour; and Molière furnished her with many admirable illustrations.
Emilie, in support of her mother, read a passage from that elegant writer, M. Suard18, who has lately attacked, with much ability, the pretensions of the English to the exclusive possession of humour.
18 “Il est très-difficile de se faire une idée nette de ce que les Anglais entendent par ce mot; on a tenté plusieurs fois sans succès d’en donner une définition précise. Congreve, qui assurement a mis beaucoup d’humour dans ses comédies, dit, que c’est une manière singulière et inévitable de faire ou de dire quelque chose, qui est naturelle et propre à un homme seul, et qui distingue ses discours et ses actions des discours et des actions de tout autre.
“Cette définition, que nous traduisons littéralement, n’est pas lumineuse; elle conviendrait également à la manière dont Alexandre parle et agit dans Plutarque, et à celle dont Sancho parle et agit dans Cervantes. II y a apparence que l’humour est comme l’esprit, et que ceux qui en ont le plus ne savent pas trop bien ce que c’est.
“Nous croyons que ce genre de plaisanterie consiste surtout dans des idées ou des tournures originales, qui tiennent plus au caractère qu’à l’esprit, et qui semblent échapper à celui qui les produit.
“L’homme d’humour est un plaisant sérieux, qui dit des choses plaisantes sans avoir l’air de vouloir être plaisant. Au reste, une scene de Vanbrugh ou une satire de Swift, feront mieux sentir ce que c’est, que toutes les définitions du monde. Quant à la prétention de quelques Anglais sur la possession exclusive de l’humour, nous pensons que si ce qu’ils entendent par ce mot est un genre de plaisanterie qu’on ne trouve ni dans Aristophane, dans Plaute, et dans Lucien, chez lea anciens; ni dans l’Arioste, le Berni, le Pulci, et tant d’autres, chez les Italiens; ni dans Cervantes, chez les Espagnols; ni dans Rabener, chez les Allemands; ni dans le Pantagruel, la satire Ménippée, le Roman comique, les comédies de Molière, de Dufrèny, de Regnard etc., nous ne savons pas ce que c’est, et nous ne prendrons pas la peine de la chercher.”—Suard, Mélanges de Littérature, vol. iv. p. 366.]
Mrs. Somers then changed her ground, and inveighed against French tragedy, and the unnatural tones and attitudes of the French tragic actors.
“Your heroes on the French stage,” said she, “always look over their right shoulders, to express magnanimous disdain; and a lover, whether he be Grecian or Roman, Turk, Israelite, or American, must regularly show his passion by the pompous emphasis with which he pronounces the word MADAME! — a word which must certainly have, for a French audience, some magical charm, incomprehensible to other nations.”
What was yet more incomprehensible to Mad. de Coulanges, was the enthusiasm of the English for that bloody-minded barbarian Shakspeare, who is never satisfied till he has strewn the stage with dead bodies; who treats his audience like children, that are to be frightened out of their wits by ghosts of all sorts and sizes in their winding sheets; or by a set of old beggarmen, dressed in women’s clothes, armed with broomsticks, and dancing and howling out their nonsensical song round a black kettle.
Mrs. Somers, smiling as in scorn, would only reply, “Madame la comtesse, yours is Voltaire’s Shakspeare, not ours. — Have you read Mrs. Montagu’s essay upon Shakspeare?”
“Then positively you must read it before we say one word more upon the subject.”
Mad. de Coulanges, though unwilling to give up the pleasure of talking, took the book, which Mrs. Somers pressed upon her, with a promise to read it through some morning; but, unluckily, she chanced to open it towards the end, and happened to see some animadversions upon Racine, by which she was so astonished and disgusted that she could read no more. She threw down the book, defying any good critic to point out a single bad line in Racine. “This is a defiance I have heard made by men of letters of the highest reputation in Paris,” added la comtesse: “have not you, Mons. l’Abbé?”
The abbé, who was madame’s common voucher, acceded, with this slight emendation — that he had heard numbers defy any critic of good taste to point out a flat line in Phædre.
Mrs. Somers would, perhaps, have acknowledged the beauties of Phædre, if she had not been piqued by this defiance; but exaggeration on one side produced injustice on the other: and these disputes about Racine and Shakspeare were continually renewed, and never ended to the satisfaction of either party. Those who will not make allowances for national prejudice, and who do not consider how much all our tastes are influenced by early education, example, and the accidental association of ideas, may dispute for ever without coming to any conclusion; especially, if they avoid stating any distinct proposition; if each of the combatants sets up a standard of his own, as the universal standard of taste; and if, instead of arguments, both parties have recourse to wit and ridicule. In these skirmishes, however, Mad. de Coulanges, though apparently the most eager for victory, never seriously lost her temper — her eagerness was more of manner than of mind; after pleading the cause of Racine, as if it were a matter of life and death, as if the fate of Europe or the universe depended upon it, she would turn to discuss the merits of a riband with equal vehemence, or coolly observe that she was hoarse, and that she would quit Racine for a better thing —de l’eau sucré. Mrs. Somers, on the contrary, took the cause of Shakspeare, or any other cause that she defended, seriously to heart. The wit or raillery of her adversary, if she affected not to be hurt by it at the moment, left a sting in her mind which rankled long and sorely. Though she often failed to refute the arguments brought against her, yet she always rose from the debate precisely of her first opinion; and even her silence, which Mad. de Coulanges sometimes mistook for assent or conviction, was only the symptom of contemptuous pity — the proof that she deemed the understanding of her opponent beneath all fair competition with her own. The understanding of Mad. de Coulanges had, indeed, in the space of a few months, sunk far below the point of mediocrity, in Mrs. Somers’ estimation — she had begun by overvaluing, and she ended by underrating it. She at first had taken it for granted that Mad. de Coulanges possessed a “very superior understanding and great strength of mind;” then she discovered that la comtesse was “uncommonly superficial, even for a Frenchwoman;” and at last she decided, that “really Mad. de Coulanges was a very silly woman.”
Mrs. Somers now began to be seriously angry with Emilie for always being of her mother’s opinion: “It is really, Mlle. de Coulanges, carrying your filial affection too far. We cold-hearted English can scarcely conceive this sort of fervid passion, which French children express about every thing, the merest trifle, that relates to mamma!— Well! it is an amiable national prejudice; and one cannot help wishing that it may never, like other amiable enthusiasms, fail in the moment of serious trial.”
Emilie, touched to the quick upon a subject nearest her heart, replied with a degree of dignity and spirit which surprised Mrs. Somers, who had never seen in her any thing but the most submissive gentleness. “The affection, whether enthusiastic or not, which we French children profess for our parents, has been of late years put to some strong trials, and has not been found to fail. In many instances it has proved superior to all earthly terrors — to imprisonment — to torture — to death — to Robespierre. Daughters have sacrificed themselves for their parents. — Oh! if my life could have saved my father’s!”
Emilie clasped her hands, and looked up to heaven with the unaffected expression of filial piety in her countenance. Every body was silent. Mrs. Somers was struck with regret — with remorse — for the taunting manner in which she had spoken.
“My dearest Emilie, forgive me!” cried she; “I am shocked at what I said.”
Emilie took Mrs. Somers’ hand between hers, and endeavoured to smile. Mrs. Somers resolved that she would keep, henceforward, the strictest guard upon her own temper; and that she would never more be so ungenerous, so barbarous, as to insult one who was so gentle, so grateful, so much in her power, and so deserving of her affection. These good resolutions, formed in the moment of contrition, were, however, soon forgotten: strong emotions of the heart are transient in their power; habits of the temper permanent in their influence. — Like a child who promises to be always good, and forgets its promise in an hour, Mrs. Somers soon grew tired of keeping her temper in subjection. It did not, indeed, break out immediately towards Emilie; but, in her conversations with Mad. de Coulanges, the same feelings of irritation and contempt recurred; and Emilie, who was a clear-sighted bystander, suffered continual uneasiness upon these occasions — uneasiness, which appeared to Mad. de Coulanges perfectly causeless, and at which she frequently expressed her astonishment. Emilie’s prescient kindness often, indeed, “felt the coming storm;” while her mother’s careless eye saw not, even when the dark cloud was just ready to burst over her head. With all the innocent address of which she was mistress, Emilie tried to turn the course of the conversation whenever it tended towards dangerous subjects of discussion; but her mother, far from shunning, would often dare and provoke the war; and she would combat long after both parties were in the dark, even till her adversary quitted the field of battle, exclaiming, “Let us have peace on any terms, my dear countess! — I give up the point to you, Mad. de Coulanges.”
This last phrase Emilie particularly dreaded, as the precursor of ill-humour for some succeeding hours. Mrs. Somers at length became so conscious of her own inability to conceal her contempt or to command her temper, that she was almost as desirous as Emilie could be to avoid these arguments; and, the moment the countess prepared for the attack, she would recede, with, “Excuse me, Mad. de Coulanges: we had better not talk upon these subjects — it is of no use — really of no manner of use: let us converse upon other topics — there are subjects enough, I hope, upon which we shall always agree.”
Emilie was at first rejoiced at this arrangement, but the constraint was insupportable to her mother: indeed, the circle of proper subjects for conversation contracted daily; for not only the declared offensive topics were to be avoided, but innumerable others, bordering on or allied to them, were to be shunned with equal care — a degree of caution of which the volatile countess was utterly incapable. One day, at dinner, she asked the gentleman opposite to her, “How long this intolerable rule — of talking only upon subjects where people are of the same opinion — had been the fashion, and what time it would probably last in England? — If it continue much longer, I must fly the country,” said she. “I would almost as soon, at this rate, be a prisoner in Paris, as in your land of freedom. You value, above all things, your liberty of the press — now, to me, liberty of the tongue, which is evidently a part, if not the best part, of personal liberty, is infinitely more dear. Bon Dieu! — even in l’Abbaye one might talk of Racine!”
Mad. de Coulanges spoke this half in jest, half in earnest; but Mrs. Somers took it wholly in earnest, and was most seriously offended. Her feelings upon the occasion were strongly expressed in a letter to a friend, to whom she had, from her infancy, been in the habit of confiding all her joys and sorrows — all the histories of her loves and hates — of her quarrels and reconciliations. This friend was an elderly lady, who, besides possessing superior mental endowments which inspired admiration, and a character which commanded high respect, was blessed with an uncommonly placid, benevolent temper. This enabled her to do what no other human being had ever accomplished — to continue in peace and amity, for upwards of thirty years, with Mrs. Somers. The following is one of many hundreds of epistolary complaints or invectives, which, during the course of that time, this “much enduring lady” was doomed to read and answer.
“TO LADY LITTLETON.
“For once, my dear friend, I am secure of your sympathizing in my indignation — my long suppressed, just, virtuous indignation — yes, virtuous; for I do hold indignation to be a part of virtue: it is the natural, proper expression of a warm heart and a strong character against the cold-blooded vices of meanness and ingratitude. Would that those to whom I allude could feel it as a punishment! — but no, this is not the sort of punishment they are formed to feel. Nothing but what comes home to their interests — their paltry interests! — their pleasures — their selfish pleasures! — their amusements — their frivolous amusements! can touch souls of such a sort. To this half-formed race of worldlings, who are scarce endued with a moral sense, the generous expression of indignation always appears something incomprehensible — ridiculous; or, in their language, outré! inouï! With such beings, therefore, I always am — as much as my nature will allow me to be — upon my guard; I keep within what they call the bounds of politeness — their dear politeness! What a system of simagrée it is, after all! and how can honest human nature bear to be penned up all its days by the Chinese paling of ceremony, or that French filigree work, politesse? English human nature cannot endure this, as yet; and I am glad of it — heartily glad of it — Now to the point.
“You guess that I am going to speak of the Coulanges. Yes, my dear friend, you were quite right in advising me, when I first became acquainted with them, not to give way blindly to my enthusiasm — not to be too generous, or to expect too much gratitude. Gratitude! why should I ever expect to meet with any? — Where I have most deserved, most hoped for it, I have been always most disappointed. My life has been a life of sacrifices! — thankless and fruitless sacrifices! There is not any possible species of sacrifice of interest, pleasure, happiness, which I have not been willing to make — which I have not made — for my friends — for my enemies. Early in life, I gave up a lover I adored to a friend, who afterwards deserted me. I married a man I detested to oblige a mother, who at last refused to see me on her death-bed. What exertions I made for years to win the affection of the husband to whom I was only bound in duty! My generosity was thrown away upon him — he died — I became ambitious — I had means of gratifying my ambition — a splendid alliance was in my power. Ambition is a strong passion as well as love — but I sacrificed it without hesitation to my children — I devoted myself to the education of my two sons, one of whom has never, in any instance, since he became his own master, shown his mother tenderness or affection; and who, on some occasions, has scarcely behaved towards her with the common forms of respect and duty. Despairing, utterly despairing of gratitude from my own family and natural friends, I looked abroad, and endeavoured to form friendships with strangers, in hopes of finding more congenial tempers. I spared nothing to earn attachment — my time, my health, my money. I lavished money so, as even, notwithstanding my large income, to reduce myself frequently to the most straitened and embarrassing circumstances. And by all I have done, by all I have suffered, what have I gained? — not a single friend — except yourself. You, on whom I have never conferred the slightest favour, you are at this instant the only friend upon earth by whom I am really beloved. To you, who know my whole history, I may speak of myself as I have done, Heaven knows! not with vanity, but with deep humiliation and bitterness of heart. The experience of my whole life leaves me only the deplorable conviction that it is impossible to do good, that it is vain to hope even for friendship from those whom we oblige.
“My last disappointment has been cruel, in proportion to the fond hopes I had formed. I cannot cure myself of this credulous folly. I did form high expectations of happiness from the society and gratitude of this Mad. and Mlle. de Coulanges; but the mother turns out to be a mere frivolous French comtesse, ignorant, vain, and positive — as all ignorant people are; full of national prejudices, which she supports in the most absurd and petulant manner. Possessed with the insanity, common to all Parisians, of thinking that Paris is the whole world, and that nothing can be good taste, or good sense, or good manners, but what is à-la-mode de Paris; through all her boasted politeness, you see, even by her mode of praising, that she has a most illiberal contempt for all who are not Parisians — she considers the rest of the world as barbarians. I could give you a thousand instances; but her conversation is really so frivolous, that it is not worth reciting. I bore with it day after day for several months with a patience for which, I am sure, you would have given me credit; and I let her go on eternally with absurd observations upon Shakspeare, and extravagant nonsense about Racine. To avoid disputing with her, I gave up every point — I acquiesced in all she said — and only begged to have peace. Still she was not satisfied. You know there are tempers which never can be contented, do what you will to please them. Mad. de Coulanges actually quarrelled with me for begging that we might have peace; and that we might talk upon subjects where we should not be likely to disagree. This will seem to you incredible; but it is the nature of French caprice: and for this I ought to have been prepared. But, indeed, I never could have prepared myself for the strange manner in which this lady thought proper to manifest her anger this day at dinner, before a large company. She spoke absolutely, notwithstanding all her good-breeding, in the most brutally ungrateful manner; and, after all I have done for her, she represented me as being as great a tyrant as Robespierre, and spoke of my house as a more intolerable prison than any in Paris!!! I only state the fact to you, without making any comments — I never yet saw so thoroughly selfish and unfeeling a human being.
“The daughter has as far too much as the mother has too little sensibility. Emilie plagues me to death with her fine feelings and her sentimentality, and all her French parade of affection, and superfluity of endearing expressions, which mean nothing, and disgust English ears. She is always fancying that I am angry or displeased with her or with her mother; and then I am to have tears, and explanations, and apologies: she has not a mind large enough to understand my character: and if I were to explain to eternity, she would be as much in the dark as ever. Yet, after all, there is something so ingenuous and affectionate about this girl that I cannot help loving her, and that is what provokes me; for she does not, and never can, feel for me the affection that I have for her. My little hastiness of temper she has not strength of mind sufficient to bear — I see she is dreadfully afraid of me, and more constrained in my company than in that of any other person. Not a visitor comes, however insignificant, but Mlle. de Coulanges seems more at her ease, and converses more with them than with me — she talks to me only of gratitude, and such stuff. She is one of those feeble persons who, wanting confidence in themselves, are continually afraid that they shall not be grateful enough; and so they reproach and torment themselves, and refine and sentimentalize, till gratitude becomes burdensome (as it always does to weak minds), and the very idea of a benefactor odious. Mlle. de Coulanges was originally unwilling to accept of any obligation from me: she knew her own character better than I did. I do not deny that she has a heart; but she has no soul: I hope you understand and feel the difference. I rejoice, my dear Lady Littleton, that you are coming to town immediately. I am harassed almost to death between want of feeling and fine feeling. I really long to see you and to talk over all these things. Nobody but you, my dear friend, ever understood me. — Farewell!
To this long letter, Lady Littleton replied by the following short note.
“I hope to see you the day after to-morrow, my dear friend; in the mean time, do not decide, irrevocably, that Mlle. de Coulanges has no soul.
Mrs. Somers was rather disappointed by the calmness of this note; and she was most impatient to see Lady Littleton, that she might work up her mind to the proper pitch of indignation. She stationed a servant at her ladyship’s house to give her notice the moment of her arrival in town. The instant that she was informed of it she ordered her carriage; and the whole of her conversation during this visit was an invective against Emilie and Mad. de Coulanges. The next day, Emilie, who had heard the most enthusiastic eulogiums upon Lady Littleton, expressed much satisfaction on finding that she was come to town; and requested Mrs. Somers’ permission to accompany her on her next visit. The request was rather embarrassing; but Mrs. Somers granted it with a sort of constrained civility. It was fortunate for Emilie that she was so unsuspicious; for her manner was consequently frank, natural, and affectionate; and she appeared to the greatest advantage to Lady Littleton. Mrs. Somers threw herself back in the chair and sat silent, whilst Emilie, in hopes of pleasing her, conversed with the utmost freedom with her friend. The conversation, at last, was interrupted by an exclamation from Mrs. Somers, “Good Heavens! my dear Lady Littleton, how can you endure this smell of paint? It has made my head ache terribly — where does it come from?”
“From my bedchamber,” said Lady Littleton. “They have, unluckily, misunderstood my orders; and they have freshly painted every one in my house.”
“Then it is impossible that you should sleep here — I will not allow you — it will poison you — it will give you the palsy immediately — it is destruction — it is death. You must come home with me directly — I insist upon it — But, no,” said she, checking herself, with a look of sudden disappointment, “no, my dearest friend! I cannot invite you; for I have not a bed to offer you.”
“Yes, mine — you forget mine — dear Mrs. Somers,” cried Emilie; “you know I can sleep with mamma.”
“By no means, Mlle. de Coulanges; you cannot possibly imagine —”
“I only imagine the truth,” said Emilie, “that this arrangement would be infinitely more convenient to mamma; I know she likes to have me in the room with her. Pray, dear Mrs. Somers, let it be so.”
Mrs. Somers made many ceremonious speeches: but Lady Littleton seemed so well inclined to accept Emilie’s offered room, that she was obliged to yield. She was vexed to perceive that Emilie’s manners pleased Lady Littleton; and, after they returned home, the activity with which Emilie moved her books, her drawing-box, work, &c., furnished Mrs. Somers with fresh matter for displeasure. At night, when Lady Littleton went to take possession of her apartment, and when she observed how active and obliging Mlle. de Coulanges had been, Mrs. Somers shook her head, and replied, “All this is just a proof to me of what I asserted, Lady Littleton — and what I must irrevocably assert — that Mlle. de Coulanges has no soul. You are a new acquaintance, and I am an old friend. She exerts herself to please you; she does not care what I think or what I feel about the matter. Now this is just what I call having no soul.”
“My dear Mrs. Somers,” said Lady Littleton, “be reasonable; and you must perceive that Emilie’s eagerness to please me arises from her regard and gratitude to you: she has, I make no doubt, heard that I am your intimate friend, and your praises have disposed her to like me. — Is this a proof that she has no soul?”
“My dear Lady Littleton, we will not dispute about it — I see you are fascinated, as I was at first. Manner is a prodigious advantage — but I own I prefer solid English sincerity. Stay a little: as soon as Mlle. de Coulanges thinks herself secure of you, she will completely abandon me. I make no doubt that she will complain to you of my bad temper and ill usage; and I dare say that she will succeed in prejudicing you against me.”
“She will succeed only in prejudicing me against herself, if she attempt to injure you,” said Lady Littleton; “but, till I have some plain proof of it, I cannot believe that any person has such a base and ungrateful disposition.”
Mrs. Somers spent an hour and a quarter in explaining her causes of complaint against both mother and daughter; and she at last retired much dissatisfied, because her friend was not as angry as she was, but persisted in the resolution to see more before she decided. After passing a few days in the house with Mlle. de Coulanges, Lady Littleton frankly declared to Mrs. Somers that she thought her complaints of Emilie’s temper quite unreasonable, and that she was a most amiable and affectionate girl. Respect for Lady Littleton restrained Mrs. Somers from showing the full extent of her vexation; she contented herself with repeating, “Mlle. de Coulanges is certainly a very amiable young woman — I would by no means prejudice you against her — but when you know her as well as I do, you will find that she has no soul.”
Mrs. Somers, in the course of four-and-twenty hours, found a multitude of proofs in support of her opinion; but they were none of them absolutely satisfactory to Lady Littleton’s judgment. Whilst they were debating about her character, Emilie came into the room to show Mrs. Somers a French translation, which she had been making, of a pretty little English poem, called “The Emigrant’s Grave.” It was impossible to be displeased with the translation, or with the motive from which it was attempted; for it was done at the particular request of Mrs. Somers. This lady’s ingenuity, however, did not fail to discover some cause for dissatisfaction. Mlle. de Coulanges had adapted the words to a French, and not to an English air.
“This is a favourite air of mamma’s,” said Emilie, “and I thought that she would be pleased by my choosing it.”
“Yes,” replied Mrs. Somers, in her constrained voice, “I remember that the Countess de Coulanges and her friend — or your friend — M. de Brisac, were charmed with this air, when you sang it the other night. I found fault with it, I believe — but then you had a majority against me; and with some people that is sufficient. Few ask themselves what constitutes a majority— numbers or sense. Judgments and tastes may differ in value; but one vote is always as good as another, in the opinion of those who are decided merely by numbers.”
“I hope that I shall never be one of those,” said Emilie. “Upon the present occasion I assure you, my dear Mrs. Somers, that I was influenced by —”
“Oh! my dear Mlle. de Coulanges,” interrupted Mrs. Somers, “you need not give yourself the trouble to explain about such a trifle — the thing is perfectly clear. And nothing is more natural than that you should despise the taste of a friend when put in competition with that of a lover.”
“Of a lover!”
“Yes, of a lover. Why should Mlle. de Coulanges think it necessary to look astonished? But young ladies imagine this sort of dissimulation is becoming; and can I hope to meet with an exception, or to find one superior to the finesse of her sex? — I beg your pardon, Mlle. de Coulanges, I really forgot that Lady Littleton was present when this terrible word lover escaped — but I can assure you that frankness is not incompatible with her ideas of delicacy.”
“You are mistaken, dear Mrs. Somers; indeed you are mistaken,” said Emilie; “but you are displeased with me now, and I will take a more favourable moment to set you right. In the mean time, I will go and water the hydrangia, which I forgot, and which I reproached myself for forgetting yesterday.”
Emilie left the room.
“Are you convinced now, my dear Lady Littleton,” cried Mrs. Somers, “that this girl has no soul — and very little heart?”
“I am convinced only that she has an excellent temper,” said Lady Littleton. “I hope you do not think a good temper is incompatible with a heart or a soul.”
“I will tell you what I think, and what I am sure of,” cried Mrs. Somers, raising her voice; “that Mlle. de Coulanges will be a constant cause of dispute and uneasiness between you and me, Lady Littleton — I foresee the end of this. As a return for all I have done for her and her mother, she will rob me of the affections of one whom I love and esteem, respect and admire — as she well knows — above all other human beings. She will rob me of the affections of one who has been my friend, my best, my only constant friend, for twenty years! — Oh! why am I doomed eternally to be the victim of ingratitude?”
In spite of Lady Littleton’s efforts to stop and calm her, Mrs. Somers burst out of the room in an agony of passion. She ran up a back staircase which led to her dressing-room, but suddenly stopped when she came to the landing-place, for she found Emilie watering her plants.
“Look, dear Mrs. Somers, this hydrangia is just going to blow; though I was so careless as to forget to water it yesterday.”
“I beg, Mlle. de Coulanges, that you will not trouble yourself,” said Mrs. Somers, haughtily. “Surely there are servants enough in this house whose business it is to remember these things.”
“Yes,” said Emilie, “it is their business, but it is my pleasure. You must not, indeed you must not, take my watering-pot from me!”
“Pardon me, I must, mademoiselle — you are very condescending and polite, and I am very blunt and rude, or whatever you please to think me. But the fact is, that I am not to be flattered by what the French call des petites attentions: they are suited to little minds, but not to me. You will never know my character, Mlle. de Coulanges — I am not to be pleased by such means.”
“Teach me then better means, my dear friend, and do not bid me despair of ever pleasing you,” said Emilie, throwing her arms round Mrs. Somers to detain her.
“Excuse me — I am an Englishwoman, and do not love embrassades, which mean nothing,” said Mrs. Somers, struggling to disengage herself; and she rushed suddenly forward, without perceiving that Emilie’s foot was entangled in her train. Emilie was thrown from the top of the stairs to the bottom. Mrs. Somers screamed — Lady Littleton came out of her room.
“She is dead! — I have killed her!”— cried Mrs. Somers. Lady Littleton raised Emilie from the ground — she was quite stunned by the violence of the fall.
“Oh! speak to me! dearest Emilie, speak once more!” said Mrs. Somers.
As soon as Emilie could speak, she assured Mrs. Somers that she should be quite well in a few minutes. When she attempted, however, to walk, she found she was unable to move, for her ankle was violently sprained: she was carried into Lady Littleton’s room, and placed upon a sofa. She exerted herself to bear the pain she felt, that she might not alarm or seem to reproach Mrs. Somers; and she repeatedly blamed herself for the awkwardness with which she had occasioned her own fall. Mrs. Somers, in the greatest bustle and confusion, called every servant in the house about her, sent them different ways for all the remedies she had ever heard of for a sprain; then was sure Emilie’s skull was fractured — asked fifty times in five minutes whether she did not feel a certain sickness in her stomach, which was the infallible sign of “something wrong”— insisted upon her smelling at salts, vinegar, and various essences; and made her swallow, or at least taste, every variety of drops and cordials. By this time Mad. de Coulanges, who was at her toilet, had heard of the accident, and came running in half dressed; the hurry of Mrs. Somers’ manner, the crowd of assistants, the quantity of remedies, the sight of Emilie stretched upon a sofa, and the sound of the word fracture, which caught her ear, had such an effect upon the countess, that she was instantly seized with one of her nervous attacks; and Mrs. Somers was astonished to see Emilie spring from the sofa to assist her mother. When Mad. de Coulanges recovered, Emilie used all her powers of persuasion to calm her spirits, laughed at the idea of her skull being fractured, and said, that she had only twisted her ankle, which would merely prevent her from dancing for a few days. The countess pitied herself for having such terribly weak nerves — congratulated herself upon her daughter’s safety — declared that it was a miracle how she could have escaped, in falling down such a narrow staircase — observed, that, though the stairs in London were cleaner and better carpeted, the staircases of Paris were at least four times as broad, and, consequently, a hundred times as safe. She then reminded Emilie of an anecdote mentioned by Mad. de Genlis about a princess of France, who, when she retired to a convent, complained bitterly of the narrowness of the staircase, which, she said, she found a real misfortune to be obliged to descend. “Tell me, Emilie, what was the name of the princess?”
“The Princess Louisa of France, I believe, mamma,” replied Emilie.
Mad. de Coulanges repeated, “Ay, the Princess Louisa of France;” and then, well satisfied, returned to finish her toilette.
“You have an excellent memory, Mlle. de Coulanges,” said Mrs. Somers, looking with an air of pique at Emilie. “I really am rejoiced to see you so much yourself again — I thought you were seriously hurt.”
“I told you that I was not,” said Emilie, forcing a smile.
“Yes, but I was such a fool as to be terrified out of my senses by seeing you lie down on the sofa. I might have saved myself and you a great deal of trouble. I must have appeared ridiculously officious. I saw indeed that I was troublesome; and I seem to be too much for you now. I will leave you with Lady Littleton, to explain to her how the accident happened. Pray tell the thing just as it was — do not spare me, I beg. I do not desire that Lady Littleton, or any friend I have upon earth, should think better of me than I deserve. Remember, you have my free leave, Mlle. de Coulanges, to speak of me as you think — so don’t spare me!” cried Mrs. Somers, shutting the door with violence as she left the room.
“Lean upon me, my dear,” said Lady Littleton, who saw that Emilie turned exceedingly pale, and looked towards a chair, as if she wished to reach it, but could not.
“I thought,” said she, in a faint voice, “that this pain would go off, but it is grown more violent.” Emilie could say no more; she had borne intense pain as long as she was able: and now, quite overcome, she leaned back, and fainted. Lady Littleton threw open the window, sprinkled water upon Emilie’s face, and gave her assistance in the kindest manner, without calling any of the servants; she knew that the return of Mrs. Somers would do more harm than good. Emilie soon recovered her recollection; and, whilst Lady Littleton was rubbing the sprained ankle with ether, in hopes of lessening the pain, she asked how the accident had happened. — Emilie replied simply, that she had entangled her foot in Mrs. Somers’ gown. “I understand, from what Mrs. Somers hinted when she left the room,” said Lady Littleton, “that she was somehow in fault in this affair, and that you could blame her if you would; but I see that you will not; and I love you the better for justifying the good opinion that I had formed of you, Emilie. — But I will not talk sentiment to you now — you are in too much pain to relish it.”
“Not at all,” said Emilie: “I feel more pleasure than pain at this moment; indeed my ankle does not hurt me now that I am quite still — the pleasant cold of the ether has relieved the pain. How kind you are to me, Lady Littleton, and how much I am obliged to you for judging so favourably of my character!”
“You are not obliged to me, my dear, for I do you only justice.”
“Justice is sometimes felt as the greatest possible obligation, especially by those who have experienced the reverse. — But,” said Emilie, checking herself, “let me not blame Mrs. Somers, or incline you to blame her. I should do very wrong, indeed, if I were, in return for all she has done for us, to cause any jealousies or quarrels between her and her best friend. Oh! that is what I most dread! To prevent it, I would — it is not polite to say so — but I would, my dear Lady Littleton, even withdraw myself from your society. This very day you return to your own house. You were so good as to ask me to go often to see you: forgive me if I do not avail myself of this kind permission. You will know my reasons; and I hope they are such as you will approve of.”
A servant came in, to say that her ladyship’s carriage was at the door.
“One word more before you go, my dear Lady Littleton,” said Emilie, with a supplicating voice and countenance. “Tell me, I beseech you — for you have been her friend from her childhood, and must know better than any one living — tell me how I can please Mrs. Somers. I begin to be afraid that I shall at last be weary of my fruitless efforts, and I dread — above all things I dread — that my affection for her should be worn out. How painful it would be to sustain the continual weight of obligation without being able to feel the pleasure of gratitude!”
Lady Littleton was going to reply, but she was prevented by the sudden entrance of Mrs. Somers with her face of wrath.
“So, Lady Littleton, you are actually going, I find! — And I have not had one moment of your conversation. May I be allowed — if Mlle. de Coulanges has finished her mysteries — to say a few words to you?”
“You will give me leave, I am sure, Emilie,” said Lady Littleton, “to repeat to Mrs. Somers every word that you have said to me?”
“Yes, every word,” said Emilie, blushing, yet speaking with firmness. “I have no mysteries — I do not wish to conceal from Mrs. Somers any thing that I say or think.”
Mrs. Somers seized Lady Littleton’s arm, and left the room; but when she had entire possession of her friend’s ear, she had nothing to say, or nothing that she would say, except half sentences, reproaching her for not staying longer, and insinuating that Emilie would be the cause of their separating for ever. —“Now, as you have her permission, will you favour me with a repetition of her last conversation?”
“Not in your present humour, my dear,” said Lady Littleton: “this is not the happy moment to speak reason to you. Adieu! I give you four-and-twenty hours’ grace before I declare you a bankrupt in temper. You shall hear from me to-morrow; for, on some subjects, I have always found it better to write than to speak to you.”
Mrs. Somers continued during the remainder of the day in a desperate state of ill-humour, which was increased by finding that Mlle. de Coulanges could neither stand nor walk. Mrs. Somers was persuaded that Emilie, if she would have exerted herself, could have done both, but that she preferred exciting the pity of the whole house; and this, all circumstances considered, was a proof of total want of generosity and gratitude. The next morning, however, she was alarmed by hearing from Mrs. Masham, whom she had sent to attend upon Mlle. de Coulanges, that her ankle was violently swelled and inflamed. — Just when the full tide of her affections was beginning to flow in Emilie’s favour, Mrs. Somers received the following letter from Lady Littleton:—
“Enclosed, I have sent you, as well as I can recollect it, every word of the conversation that passed yesterday between Mlle. de Coulanges and me. If I were less anxious for your happiness, and if I had not so high an opinion of the excellence of your disposition, I should wish, my dear friend, to spare both you and myself the pain of speaking and hearing the truth. But I know that I have preserved your affection many years beyond the usual limits of female friendship, by daring to speak to you with perfect sincerity, and by trusting to the justice of your better self. Perhaps you would rather have a compliment to your generosity than to your justice; but in this I shall not indulge you, because I think you already set too high a value upon generosity. It has been the misfortune of your life, my dear friend, to believe that, by making great sacrifices, and conferring great benefits, you could ensure to yourself, in return, affection and gratitude. You mistake both the nature of obligation and the effect which it produces on the human mind. Obligations may command gratitude, but can never ensure love. If the benefit be of a pecuniary nature, it is necessarily attended with a certain sense of humiliation, which destroys the equality of friendship. Of whatever description the favour may be, it becomes burdensome, if gratitude be expected as a tribute, instead of being accepted as the free-will offering of the heart: ‘still paying still to owe’ is irksome, even to those who have nothing Satanic in their natures. A person who has received a favour is in a defenceless state with respect to a benefactor; and the benefactor who makes an improper use of the power which gratitude gives becomes an oppressor. I know your generous spirit, and I am fully sensible that no one has a more just idea than you have of the delicacy that ought to be used towards those whom you have obliged; but you must permit me to observe, that your practice is not always conformable to your theory. Temper is doubly necessary to those who love, as you do, to confer favours: it is the duty of a benefactress to command her feelings, and to refrain absolutely from every species of direct or indirect reproach; else her kindness becomes only a source of misery; and even from the benevolence of her disposition she derives the means of giving pain.
“I have said enough; and I know that you will not be offended. The moment your understanding is convinced and your heart touched, all paltry jealousies and petty irritations subside, and you are always capable of acting in a manner worthy of yourself. Adieu! — May you, my dear friend, preserve the affections of one who feels for you, I am convinced, the most sincere gratitude! You will reap a rich harvest, if you do not, with childish impatience, disturb the seeds that you have sown, to examine whether they are growing.
“Your faithful friend,
This letter had an immediate and strong effect upon the mind of Mrs. Somers: she went directly with it open in her hand to Emilie. “Here,” said she, “is the letter of a noble-minded woman, who dares to speak truth, painful truth, to her best friend. She does me justice in being convinced that I shall not be offended; she does me justice in believing that an appeal to my candour and generosity cannot be in vain, especially when it is made by her voice. Emilie, you shall see that I am worthy to have a sincere friend; you shall see that I can even command my temper, when I have what, to my own feelings and understanding, appears adequate motive. But, my dear, you are in pain — let me look at this ankle — I am absolutely afraid to see it! — Good Heavens! how it is swelled! — And I fancied, all yesterday, that you could have walked upon it! — And I thought you wanted only to excite pity! — My poor child! — I have used you barbarously — most barbarously!” cried Mrs. Somers, kneeling down beside the sofa. “And can you ever forgive me? — Yes! that sweet smile tells me that you can.”
“All I ask of you,” said Emilie, embracing Mrs. Somers, “is to believe that I am grateful, and to continue to make me love you as long as I live. This must depend upon you more than upon myself.”
“I know it, my dear,” said Mrs. Somers. “Be satisfied — I will not wear out your affections. You have dealt fairly with me. I love you for having the courage to speak as you think. — But now that it is all over, I must tell you what it was that displeased me — for I hate half reconciliations: I will tell you all that passed in my mind.”
“Pray do,” said Emilie; “for then I shall know how to avoid displeasing you another time.”
“No danger of that, my dear. You will never make me angry again; for I am sure you will now be as frank towards me as I am towards you. It was not your adapting that little poem to a French rather than to an English air that displeased me — I am not quite so childish as to be offended by such a trifle; but I own I did not like your saying that you chose it merely to comply with your mother’s taste. — And you will acknowledge, Emilie, there was a want of sincerity, a want of candour, in your affected look of astonishment, when I mentioned M. de Brisac. I do not claim your confidence as a right — God forbid! — But if the warmest desire for your happiness, the most affectionate sympathy, can merit confidence — But I will not say a word that can imply reproach. On the contrary, I will only assure you, that I have penetration sufficient always to know your wishes, and activity enough to serve you effectually, even without being your confidante. I shall this night see a friend who is in power — I will speak to him about M. de Brisac: I have hopes that his pension from our government may be doubled.”
“I wish it may, for his sake,” said Emilie; “but certainly not for my own.”
“Oh! Mlle. de Coulanges! — But I have no right to extort confidence. I will not, as I said before, utter a syllable that can imply reproach. Let me go on with what I was telling you of my intentions. As soon as the pension is doubled, I will speak to Mad. de Coulanges about M. de Brisac.”
“For Heaven’s sake, do not!” interrupted Emilie; “for you would do me the greatest possible injury. Mamma would then think it a suitable match, and she would wish me to marry him; and nothing could make me move unhappy than to be under the necessity of acting contrary to my duty — of disobeying and displeasing her for ever — or else of uniting myself to M. de Brisac, whom I can neither love nor esteem.”
“Is it possible,” exclaimed Mrs. Somers, with joyful astonishment, “is it possible that I have been under a mistake all this time? My dearest Emilie! now you are every thing I first thought you! Indeed, I could not think with patience of your making such a match; for M. de Brisac is a mere nothing — worse than a mere nothing; a coxcomb, and a peevish coxcomb.”
“And how could you suspect me of loving such a man?” said Emilie.
“I never thought you loved him, but I thought you would marry him. French marriages, you know, according to l’ancien régime, in which you were brought up, were never supposed to be affairs of the heart, but mere alliances of interest, pride, or convenience.”
“Yes —des mariages de convenance,” said Emilie. “We have suffered terribly by the revolution; but I owe to it one blessing, which, putting what mamma has felt out of the question, I should say has overbalanced all our losses: I have escaped — what must have been my fate in the ancient order of things —un mariage de convenance. I must tell you how I escaped by a happy misfortune,” continued Emilie, suddenly recovering her vivacity of manner. “The family of M. de Brisac had settled, with mine, that I was to be la Comtesse de Brisac — But we lost our property, and M. le comte his memory. Mamma was provoked and indignant — I rejoiced. When I saw how shabbily he behaved, could I do otherwise than rejoice at having escaped being his wife? M. le Comte de Brisac soon lost his hereditary honours and possessions — Heaven forgive me for not pitying him! I was only glad mamma now agreed with me that we had nothing to regret. I had hoped that we should never have heard more of him: but, lo! here he is again in my way with a commission in your English army and a pension from your generous king, which make him, amongst poor emigrants, a man of consequence. And he has taken it into his head to sigh for me, because I laugh at him; and he talks of his sentiments! — sentiments! — he who has no principles! —”
“My noble-minded Emilie!” cried Mrs. Somers; “I cannot express to you the delight I feel at this explanation. How could I be such an idiot as not sooner to see the truth! But I was misled by the solicitude that Mad. de Coulanges showed about this M. de Brisac; and I foolishly concluded that you and your mother were one. On the contrary, no two people can be more different, thank Heaven! — I beg your pardon for that thanksgiving — I see it distresses you, my dear Emilie — and believe me, I never was less disposed to give you pain — I have made you suffer too much already, both in mind and body. This terrible ankle —”
“It does not give me any pain,” said Emilie, “except when I attempt to walk; and it is no great misfortune to be obliged to be quiet for a few days.”
Mrs. Somers’ whole soul was now intent upon the means of making her young friend amends for all she had suffered: this last conversation had raised her to the highest point both of favour and esteem. Mrs. Somers was now revolving in her mind a scheme, which she had formed in the first moments of her partiality for Emilie — a scheme of marrying her to her son. She had often quarrelled with this son; but she persuaded herself that Emilie would make him every thing that was amiable and respectable, and that she would form an indissoluble bond of family union and felicity. “Then,” said she to herself, “Emilie will certainly be established according to her mother’s satisfaction. M. de Brisac cannot possibly stand in the way here; for my son has name and fortune, and every thing that Mad. de Coulanges can desire.”
Mrs. Somers wrote immediately to summon her son home. In the mean time, delighted with this new and grand project, and thinking herself sure of success, she neglected, according to her usual custom, the “little courtesies of life;” and all Lady Littleton’s excellent observations upon the nature of gratitude, and the effect produced on the mind by obligations, were entirely obliterated from her memory.
Emilie’s sprained ankle confined her to the house for some weeks; both Mad. de Coulanges and Mrs. Somers began by offering in the most eager manner, in competition with each other, to stay at home every evening to keep her company; but she found that she could not accept of the offer of one without offending the other; she knew that her mother would have les vapeurs noirs, if she were not in society; and as she had reason to apprehend that Mrs. Somers could not, with the best intentions possible, remain three hours alone, with even a dear friend, without finding or making some subject of quarrel, she wisely declined all these kind offers. In fact, these were trifling sacrifices, which it would not have suited Mrs. Somers’ temper to make: for there was no glory to be gained by them. She regularly came every evening, as soon as she was dressed, to pity Emilie — to repeat her wish that she might be allowed to stay at home — then to step into her carriage, and drive away to spend four hours in company which she professed to hate.
Lady Littleton made no complimentary speeches, but every day she contrived to spend some time with Emilie; and, by a thousand small but kind instances of attention, which asked neither for admiration nor gratitude, she contributed to Emilie’s daily happiness.
This ready sympathy, and this promptitude to oblige in trifles, became extremely agreeable to Mlle. de Coulanges: perhaps from the contrast with Mrs. Somers’ defects, Lady Littleton’s manners pleased her peculiarly. She was under no fear of giving offence, so that she could speak her sentiments or express her feelings without constraint: and, in short, she enjoyed in this lady’s society, a degree of tranquillity of mind and freedom to which she had long been a stranger. Lady Littleton had employed her excellent understanding in studying the minute circumstances which tend to make people, of different characters and tempers, agree and live happily together; and she understood and practised so successfully all the honest arts of pleasing, that she rendered herself the centre of union to a large circle of relations, many of whom she had converted into friends. This she had accomplished without any violent effort, without making any splendid sacrifices, but with that calm, gentle, persevering kindness of temper, which, when united to good sense, forms the real happiness of domestic life, and the true perfection of the female character. Those who have not traced the causes of family quarrels would not readily guess from what slight circumstances they often originate: they arise more frequently from small defects in temper than from material faults of character. People who would perhaps sacrifice their fortunes or lives for each other cannot, at certain moments, give up their will, or command their humour in the slightest degree.
Whilst Emilie was confined by her sprained ankle, she employed herself in embroidering and painting various trifles, which she intended to offer as souvenirs to her English friends. Amongst these, the prettiest was one which she called the watch of Flora.19 It was a dial plate for a pendule, on which the hours were marked by flowers — by those flowers which open or close their petals at particular times of the day. “Linnæus has enumerated forty-six flowers which possess this kind of sensibility; and has marked,” as he says, “their respective hours of rising and setting.” From these forty-six Emilie wished to select the most beautiful: she had some difficulty in finding such as would suit her purpose, especially as the observations made in the botanic gardens of Upsal could not exactly agree with our climate. She sometimes applied to Mrs. Somers for assistance; but Mrs. Somers repeatedly forgot to borrow for her the botanical books which she wanted: this was too small a service for her to remember. She was provoked at last by Emilie’s reiterated requests, and vexed by her own forgetfulness; so that Mlle. de Coulanges at last determined not to run the risk of offending, and she reluctantly laid aside her dial-plate.
19 See Botanic Garden, canto 2.]
Young people of vivacious and inventive tempers, who know what it is to be eagerly intent upon some favourite little project, will give Emilie due credit for her forbearance. Lady Littleton, though not a young person, could so far sympathize in the pursuits of youth, as to feel for Emilie’s disappointment. “No,” said she, “you must not lay aside your watch of Flora; perhaps I can help you to what you want.” She was indefatigable in the search of books and flowers; and, by assisting her in the pursuit of this slight object, she not only enabled her to spend many happy hours, but was of the most essential service to Emilie. It happened, that one morning, when Lady Littleton went to Kew Gardens to search in the hot-houses for some of the flowers, and to ascertain their hours of closing, she met with a French botanist, who had just arrived from Paris, who came to examine the arrangement of Kew Gardens, and to compare it with that of the Jardin des Plantes. He paid some deserved compliments to the superiority of Kew Gardens; and, with the ease of a Frenchman, he entered into conversation with Lady Littleton. As he inquired for several French emigrants, she mentioned the name of Mad. de Coulanges, and asked whether he knew to whom the property of her family now belonged. He said, “that it was still in the possession of that scelerat of a steward, who had, by his informations, brought his excellent master, le Comte de Coulanges, to the guillotine. But,” added the botanist, “if you, madam, are acquainted with any of the family, will you give them notice that this wretch is near his end; that he has, within a few weeks, had two strokes of apoplexy; and that his eldest son by no means resembles him; but is a worthy young man, who, to my certain knowledge, is shocked at his father’s crimes, and who might be prevailed upon, by a reasonable consideration, to restore to the family, to whom it originally belonged, the property that has been seized. I have more than once, even in the most dangerous times, heard him (in confidence) express the strongest attachment to the descendant of the good master, who loaded him in his childhood with favours. These sentiments he has been, of course, obliged to dissemble, and to profess directly the contrary principles: it can only be by such means that he can gain possession of the estate, which he wishes to restore to the rightful owners. He passes for as great a scoundrel as his father: this is not the least of his merits. But, madam, you may depend upon the correctness of my information, and of my knowledge of his character. I was once, as a man of science, under obligation to the late Comte de Coulanges, who gave me the use of his library; and most happy should I think myself, if I could by any means be instrumental in restoring his descendants to the possession of that library.”
There was such an air of truth and frankness in the countenance and manner of this gentleman, that, notwithstanding the extraordinary nature of his information, and the still more extraordinary facility with which it was communicated, Lady Littleton could not help believing him. He gave her ladyship his address; told her that he should return to Paris in a few days; and that he should be happy if he could be made, in any manner, useful to Mad. de Coulanges. Impatient to impart all this good news to her friends, Lady Littleton hastened to Mrs. Somers’; but just as she put her hand on the lock of Emilie’s door, she recollected Mrs. Somers, and determined to tell her the first, that she might have the pleasure of communicating the joyful tidings. From her knowledge of the temper of her friend, Lady Littleton thought that this would be peculiarly gratifying to her; but, contrary to all rational expectation, Mrs. Somers heard the news with an air of extreme mortification, which soon turned into anger. She got up and walked about the room, whilst Lady Littleton was speaking; and, as soon as she had finished her story, exclaimed, “Was there ever any thing so provoking!”
She continued walking, deep in reverie, whilst Lady Littleton sat looking at her in amazement. Mrs. Somers having once formed the generous scheme of enriching Emilie by a marriage with her son, was actually disappointed to find that there was a probability that Mlle. de Coulanges should recover a fortune which would make her more than a suitable match for Mr. Somers. There was another circumstance that was still more provoking — this property was likely to be recovered without the assistance of Mrs. Somers. There are people who would rather that their best friends should miss a piece of good fortune than that they should obtain it without their intervention. Mrs. Somers at length quieted her own mind by the idea that all Lady Littleton had heard might have no foundation in truth.
“I am surprised, my dear friend, that a person of your excellent judgment can, for an instant, believe such a strange story as this,” said Mrs. Somers. “I assure you, I do not give the slightest credit to it; and, in my opinion, it would be much better not to say one word about the matter, either to Emilie or Mad. de Coulanges: it will only fill their minds with false and absurd hopes. Mad. de Coulanges will torment herself and me to death with conjectures and exclamations; and we shall hear of nothing but the Hotel de Coulanges, and the Chateau de Coulanges, from morning till night; and, after all, I am convinced she will never see either of them again.”
To this assertion, which Mrs. Somers could support only by repeating that it was her conviction — that it was her unalterable conviction — Lady Littleton simply replied, that it would be improper not to mention what had happened to Mad. de Coulanges, because this would deprive her of an opportunity of judging and acting for herself in her own affairs. “This French gentleman has offered to carry letters, or to do her any service in his power; and we should not be justifiable in concealing this: the information may be false, but of that Mad. de Coulanges should at least have an opportunity of judging; she should see this botanist, and she will recollect whether what he says of the count, and his allowing him the use of his library, be true or false: from these circumstances we may obtain some farther reason to believe or disbelieve him. I should be sorry to excite hopes which must end in disappointment; but the chance of good, in this case, appears to me far greater than the chance of evil.”
“Very well, my dear Lady Littleton,” interrupted Mrs. Somers, “you will follow your judgment, and I must be allowed to follow mine, though I make no doubt that yours is superior. Manage this business as you please: I will have nothing to do with it. It is your opinion that Mad. de Coulanges and her daughter should hear this wonderfully fine story; therefore I beg you will be the relater — I must be excused — for my part, I can’t give any credit to it — no, not the slightest. But your judgment is better than mine, Lady Littleton — you will act as you think proper, and manage the whole business yourself — I am sure I wish you success with all my heart.”
Lady Littleton, by a mixture of firmness and gentleness in her manner, so far worked upon the temper of Mrs. Somers, as to prevail upon her to believe that the management of the business was not her object; and she even persuaded Mrs. Somers to be present when the intelligence was communicated to Mad. de Coulanges and Emilie. She could not, however, forbear repeating, that she did not believe the story:— this incredulity afforded her a plausible pretext for not sympathizing in the general joy. Mad. de Coulanges was alternately in ecstasy and in despair, as she listened to Lady Littleton or to Mrs. Somers: her exclamations would have been much less frequent and violent, if Mrs. Somers had not provoked them, by mixing with her hopes a large portion of fear. The next day, when she saw the French gentleman, her hopes were predominant: for she recollected perfectly having seen this gentleman, in former times, at the Hotel de Coulanges; she knew that he was un savant; and that he had, before the revolution, the reputation of being a very worthy man. Mad. de Coulanges, by Lady Littleton’s advice, determined, however, to be cautious in what she wrote to send to France by this gentleman. Emilie took the letters to Mrs. Somers, and requested her opinion; but she declined giving any.
“I have nothing to do with the business, Mlle. de Coulanges,” said she; “you will be guided by the opinion of my Lady Littleton.”
Emilie saw that it was in vain to expostulate; she retired in silence, much embarrassed as to the answer which she was to give to her mother, who was waiting to hear the opinion of Mrs. Somers. Mad. de Coulanges, impatient with Emilie, for bringing her only a reference to Lady Littleton’s opinion, went herself, with what she thought the most amiable politeness, to solicit the advice of Mrs. Somers; but she was astonished, and absolutely shocked, by the coldness and want of good breeding with which this lady persisted in a refusal to have any thing to do with the business, or even to read the letters which waited for her judgment. The countess opened her large eyes to their utmost orbicular extent; and, after a moment’s silence, the strongest possible expression that she could give of amazement, she also retired, and returned to Emilie, to demand from her an explanation of what she could not understand. The ill-humour of Mrs. Somers, now that Mad. de Coulanges was wakened to the perception of it, was not, as it had been to poor Emilie, a subject of continual anxiety and pain, but merely matter of astonishment and curiosity. She looked upon Mrs. Somers as an English oddity, as a lusus naturæ; and she alternately asked Emilie to account for these strange appearances, or shrugged up her shoulders, and submitted to the impossibility of a Frenchwoman’s ever understanding such extravagances.
“Ah que c’est bizarre! Mais, mon enfant, expliquez moi done tout ça — Mais ça ne s’explique point — Certes c’est une Anglaise qui sçait donner, mais qui ne sçait pas vivre. — Voltaire s’y connaissait mieux que moi apparemment — et heureusement.”
Content with this easy method of settling things, Mad. de Coulanges sealed and despatched her letters, appealed no more to Mrs. Somers for advice, and, when she saw any extraordinary signs of displeasure, repeated to herself —“Ah que c’est bizarre!” And this phrase was for some time a quieting charm. But as the anxiety of the countess increased, at the time when she expected to receive the decisive answer from her steward’s son, she talked with incessant and uncontrollable volubility of her hopes and fears — her conjectures and calculations — and of the Chateau and Hotel de Coulanges; and she could not endure to see that Mrs. Somers heard all this with affected coldness or real impatience.
“How is this possible, Emilie?” said she. “Here is a woman who would give me half her fortune, and who yet seems to wish that I should not recover the whole of mine! Here is a woman who would move heaven and earth to serve me in her own way; but who, nevertheless, will not give me either a word of advice or a look of sympathy, in the most important affair and the most anxious moment of my life! But this is more than bizarre— this is intolerably provoking. For my part, I would rather a friend would deny me any thing than sympathy: without sympathy, there is no society — there is no living — there is no talking. I begin to feel my obligations a burden; and, positively, with the first money I receive from my estates, I will relieve myself from my pecuniary debt to this generous but incomprehensible Englishwoman.”
Every day Emilie dreaded the arrival of the post, when her mother asked, “Are there any letters from Paris?”— Constantly the answer was —“No.”— Mrs. Somers’ look was triumphant; and Mad. de Coulanges applied regularly to her smelling-bottle or her snuff-box to conceal her emotion, which Mrs. Somers increased by indirect reflections upon the absurdity of those who listen to idle reports, and build castles in the air. Having set her opinion in opposition to Lady Littleton’s, she supported it with a degree of obstinacy, and even acrimony, which made her often transgress the bounds of that politeness which she had formerly maintained in all her differences with the comtesse.
Mad. de Coulanges could no longer consider her humour as merely bizarre, she found it insupportable; and Mrs. Somers appeared to her totally changed, and absolutely odious, now that she was roused by her own sufferings to the perception of those evils which Emilie had long borne with all the firmness of principle, and all the philosophy of gratitude. Not a day passed without her complaining to Emilie of some grossièreté from Mrs. Somers. Mad. de Coulanges suffered so much from irritation and anxiety, that her vapeurs noirs returned with tenfold violence. Emilie had loved Mrs. Somers, even when most unreasonable towards herself, as long as she behaved with kindness to her mother; but now that, instead of a source of pleasure, she became the hourly cause of pain to Mad. de Coulanges, Emilie’s affection could no farther go; and she really began to dislike this lady — to dread to see her come into the room — and to tremble at hearing her voice. Emilie could judge only by what she saw; and she could not divine that Mrs. Somers was occupied, all this time, with the generous scheme of marrying her to her son and heir, and of settling upon her a large fortune; nor could she guess, that all the ill-humour in Mrs. Somers originated in the fear that her friends should be made either rich or happy without her assistance. Her son’s delaying to return home, according to her mandate, had disappointed and vexed her extremely. Every day, when the post came in, she inquired for letters with almost as much eagerness as Mad. de Coulanges. At length a letter came from Mr. Somers, to inform his impatient mother that he should certainly be in town the beginning of the ensuing week. Delighted by this news, she could not refrain from the temptation of opening her whole mind to Emilie; though she had previously resolved not to give the slightest intimation of her scheme to any one, not even to Lady Littleton, till a definitive answer had been received from Paris, respecting the fortune of Mad. de Coulanges. Often, when Mrs. Somers was full of some magnanimous design, the merest trifle that interrupted the full display of her generosity threw her into a passion, even with those whom she was going to serve. So it happened in the present instance. She went, with her open letter in her hand, to the countess’s apartment, where unluckily she found M. de Brisac, who was going to read the French newspapers to madame. Mrs. Somers sat down beside Emilie, who was painting the last flower of her watch of Flora. Mrs. Somers wrote on a slip of paper, “Don’t ask M. de Brisac to read the papers, for I want to speak to you.” She threw down the note before Emilie, who was so intent upon what she was about, that she did not immediately see it — Mrs. Somers touched her elbow — Emilie started, and let fall her brush, which made a blot upon her dial-plate.
“Oh! what a pity! — Just as I had finished my work,” cried Emilie, “I have spoiled it!”
M. de Brisac laid down the newspaper to pour forth compliments of condolence. — Mrs. Somers tore the piece of paper as he approached the table, and said, with some asperity, “One would think this was a matter of life and death, by the terms in which it is deplored.”
M. de Brisac, who stood so that Mrs. Somers could not see him, shrugged his shoulders, and looked at Mad. de Coulanges, who answered him by another look, that plainly said, “This is English politeness!”
Emilie, who saw that her mother was displeased, endeavoured to change the course of her thoughts, by begging M. de Brisac to go on with what he was reading from the French papers. This was a fresh provocation to Mrs. Somers, who forgot that Emilie had not read the words on the slip of paper which had been torn; and consequently could not know all Mrs. Somers’ impatience for his departure. M. de Brisac read, in what this lady called his unemphatic French tone, paragraph after paragraph, and column after column, whilst her anxiety to have him go every moment increased. She moulded her son’s letter into all manner of shapes as she sat in penance. To complete her misfortunes, something in the paper put Mad. de Coulanges in mind of former times; and she began a long history of the destruction of some fine old tapestry hangings in the Chateau de Coulanges, at the beginning of the Revolution: this led to endless melancholy reflections; and at length tears began to flow from the fine eyes of the countess.
Just at this instant a butterfly flew into the room, and passed by Mad. de Coulanges, who was sitting near the open window. “Oh! the beautiful butterfly!” cried she, starting up to catch it. “Did you ever see such a charming creature? Catch it, M. de Brisac! — Catch it, Emilie! — Catch it, Mrs. Somers!”
With the tears yet upon her cheeks, Mad. de Coulanges began the chase, and M. de Brisac followed, beating the air with his perfumed handkerchief, and the butterfly fluttered round the table at which Emilie was standing.
“Eh! M. de Brisac, catch it! — Catch it, Emilie!” repeated her mother. —“Catch it, Mrs. Somers, for the love of Heaven!”
“For the love of Heaven!” repeated Mrs. Somers, who, immovably grave, and sullenly indignant, kept aloof during this chase.
“Ah! pour le coup, papillon, je te tiens!” cried la comtesse, and with eager joy she covered it with a glass, as it lighted on the table.
“Mlle. de Coulanges,” cried Mrs. Somers, “I acknowledge, now, that I was wrong in my criticism of Caroline de Lichteld. I blamed the author for representing Caroline, at fifteen, or just when she is going to be married, as running after butterflies. I said that, at that age, it was too frivolous — out of drawing — out of nature. But I should have said only, that it was out of English nature. — I stand corrected.”
Mad. de Coulanges and M. de Brisac again interchanged looks, which expressed “Est-il possible!” And la comtesse then, with an unusual degree of deliberation and dignity in her manner, walked out of the room. Emilie, who saw that her mother was extremely offended, was much embarrassed — she went on washing the blot out of her drawing. M. de Brisac stood silently looking over her, and Mrs. Somers opposite to him, wishing him fairly at the antipodes. M. de Brisac, to break the silence, which seemed to him as if it never would be broken, asked Mlle. de Coulanges if she had ever seen the stadtholder’s fine collection of butterflies, and if she did not admire them extremely? No, she never had; but she said that she admired extremely the generosity the stadtholder had shown in sacrificing, not only his fine collection of butterflies, but his most valuable pictures, to save the lives of the poor French emigrants, who were under his protection.
At the sound of the word generosity, Mrs. Somers became attentive; and Emilie was in hopes that she would recover her temper, and apologize to her mother: but at this moment a servant came to tell Mlle. de Coulanges that la comtesse wished to speak to her immediately. She found her mother in no humour to receive any apology, even if it had been offered: nothing could have hurt Mad. de Coulanges more than the imputation of being frivolous.
“Frivole! — frivole! — moi frivole!” she repeated, as soon as Emilie entered the room. “My dear Emilie! I would not live with this Mrs. Somers for the rest of my days, were she to offer me the Pitt diamond, or the whole mines of Golconda! — Bon Dieu! — neither money nor diamonds, after all, can pay for the want of kindness and politeness! — There is Lady Littleton, who has never done us any favour, but that of showing us attention and sympathy; I protest I love her a million of times better than I can love Mrs. Somers, to whom we owe so much. It is in vain, Emilie, to remind me that she is our benefactress. I have said that over and over to myself, till I am tired, and till I have absolutely lost all sense of the meaning of the word. Bitterly do I repent having accepted of such obligations from this strange woman; for, as to the idea of regaining our estate, and paying my debt to her, I have given up all hopes of it. You see that we have no letters from France. I am quite tired out. I am convinced that we shall never have any good news from Paris. And I cannot, I will not, remain longer in this house. Would you have me submit to be treated with disrespect? Mrs. Somers has affronted me before M. de Brisac, in a manner that I cannot, that I ought not, to endure — that you, Emilie, ought not to wish me to endure. I positively will not live upon the bounty of Mrs. Somers. There is but one way of extricating ourselves. M. de Brisac — Why do you turn pale, child? — M. de Brisac has this morning made me a proposal for you, and the best thing we can possibly do is to accept of it.”
“The best! — Pray don’t say the best!” cried Emilie. “Ah! dear mamma, for me the worst! Let me beseech you not to sacrifice my happiness for ever by such a marriage!”
“And what other can you expect, Emilie, in your present circumstances?”
“None,” said Emilie.
“And here is an establishment — at least an independence for you — and you call it sacrificing your happiness for ever to accept of it!”
“Yes,” said Emilie; “because it is offered to me by one whom I can neither love nor esteem. Dearest mamma! can you forget all his former meanness of conduct?”
“His present behaviour makes amends for the past,” said Mad. de Coulanges, “and entitles him to my esteem and to yours, and that is sufficient. As to love — well educated girls do not marry for love.”
“But they ought not to marry without feeling love, should they?” said Emilie.
“Emilie! Emilie!” said her mother, “these are strange ideas that have come into the heads of young women since the Revolution. If you had remained safe in your convent, I should have heard none of this nonsense.”
“Perhaps not, mamma,” said Emilie, with a deep sigh. “But should I have been happier?”
“A fine question, truly! — How can I tell? But this I can ask you — How can any girl expect to be happy, who abandons the principles in which she was bred up, and forgets her duty to the mother by whom she has been educated — the mother, whose pride, whose delight, whose darling, she has ever been? Oh, Emilie! this is to me worse than all I have ever suffered!”
Mad. de Coulanges burst into a passion of tears, and Emilie stood looking at her in silent despair.
“Emilie, you cannot deceive me,” cried her mother; “you cannot pretend that it is simply your want of esteem for M. de Brisac which renders you thus obstinately averse to the match. You are in love with another person.”
“Not in love,” said Emilie, in a faltering voice.
“You cannot deceive me, Emilie — remember all you said to me about the stranger who was our fellow prisoner at the Abbaye. You cannot deny this, Emilie.”
“Nor do I, dear mamma,” said Emilie. “I cannot deceive you, indeed I would not; and the best proof that I do not wish to deceive you — that I never attempted it — is, that I told you all I thought and felt about that stranger. I told you that his honourable, brave, and generous conduct towards us, when we were in distress, made an impression upon my heart — that I preferred him to any person I had ever seen — and I told you, my dear mamma, that —”
“You told me too much,” interrupted Mad. de Coulanges; “more than I wished to hear — more than I will have repeated, Emilie. This is romance and nonsense. The man, whoever he was — and Heaven knows who he was! — behaved very well, and was a very agreeable person: but what then? are you ever likely to see him again? Do you even know his birth — his name — his country — or any thing about him, but that he was brave and generous? — So are fifty other men, five hundred, five thousand, five million, I hope. But is this any reason that you should refuse to marry M. de Brisac? Henry the Fourth was brave and generous two hundred years ago. That is as much to the purpose. You have as much chance of establishing yourself, if you wait for Henry the Fourth to come to life again, as if you wait for this nameless nobody of a hero — who is perhaps married, after all — who knows! — Really, Emilie, this is too absurd!”
“But, dear mamma, I cannot marry one man and love another — love I did not quite mean to say. But whilst I prefer another, I cannot, in honour, marry M. de Brisac.”
“Honour! — Love! — But in France, in my time, who ever heard of a young lady’s being in love before she was married? You astonish, you frighten, you shock me, child! Recollect yourself, Emilie! Misfortune may have deprived you of the vast possessions to which you are heiress; but do not, therefore, degrade yourself and me by forgetting your principles, and all that the representative of the house of Coulanges ought to remember. And as for myself — have I no claim upon your affections, Emilie? — have not I been a fond mother?”
“Oh, yes!” said Emilie, melting into tears. “Of your kindness I think more than of any thing else! — more than of the whole house of Coulanges!”
“Do not let me see you in tears, child!” said Mad. de Coulanges, moved by Emilie’s grief. “Your tears hurt my nerves more even than Mrs. Somers’ grossièreté. You must blame Mrs. Somers, not me, for all this — her temper drives me to it — I cannot live with her. We have no alternative. Emilie, my sweet child! make me happy! — I am miserable in this house. Hitherto you have ever been the best of daughters, and you shall find me the most indulgent of mothers. One whole month I will give you to change your mind, and recollect your duty. At the end of that time, I must see you Mad. de Brisac, and in a house of your own. — In the house of Mrs. Somers I will not, I cannot longer remain.”
Poor Emilie was glad of the reprieve of one month. She retired from her mother’s presence in silent anguish, and hastened to her own apartment, that she might give way to her grief. There she found Mrs. Somers waiting for her, seated in an arm-chair, with an open letter in her hand.
“Why do you start, Emilie? You look as if you were sorry to find me here,” cried Mrs. Somers —“IF THAT be the case, Mlle. de Coulanges —”
“Oh, Mrs. Somers! do not begin to quarrel with me at this moment, for I shall not be able to bear it — I am sufficiently unhappy already!” said Emilie.
“I am extremely sorry that any thing should make you unhappy, Emilie,” said Mrs. Somers; “but I think that you had never less reason than at this moment to suspect me of an intention of quarrelling with you — I came here with a very different design. May I know the cause of your distress?”
Emilie hesitated, for she did not know how to explain the cause without imputing blame either to Mrs. Somers or to her mother — she could only say —“M. de Brisac—”
“What!” cried Mrs. Somers, “your mother wants you to marry him?”
“In one month.”
“And you have consented?”
“No — But —”
“But— Good Heavens! Emilie, what weakness of mind there is in that but—”
“Is it weakness of mind to fear to disobey my mother — to dread to offend her for ever — to render her unhappy — and to deprive her, perhaps, even of the means of subsistence?”
“The means of subsistence! my dear. This phrase, you know, can only be a figure of rhetoric,” said Mrs. Somers. “Your refusing M. de Brisac cannot deprive your mother of the means of subsistence. In the first place, she expects to recover her property in France.”
“No,” said Emilie; “she has given up these hopes — you have persuaded her that they are vain.”
“Indeed I think them so. But still you must know, my dear, that your mother can never be in want of the means of subsistence, nor any of the conveniences, and, I may add, luxuries of life, whilst I am alive.”
Emilie sighed; and when Mrs. Somers urged her more closely, she said, “Mamma has not, till lately, been accustomed to live on the bounty of others; the sense of dependence produces many painful feelings, and renders people more susceptible than perhaps they would be, were they on terms of equality.”
“To what does all this tend, my dear?” interrupted Mrs. Somers. “Is Mad. de Coulanges offended with me? — Is she tired of living with me? — Does she wish to quit my house? — And where does she intend to go? — Oh! that is a question that I need not ask! — Yes, yes — I have long foreseen it — you have arranged it admirably — you go to Lady Littleton, I presume?”
“To M. de Brisac?”
“Mamma wishes to go —”
“Then to M. de Brisac, for Heaven’s sake, let her go,” cried Mrs. Somers, bursting into a fit of laughter, which astonished Emilie beyond measure. “To M. de Brisac let her go —’tis the best thing she can possibly do, my dear; and seriously to tell you the truth, I have always thought it would be an excellent match. Since she is so much prepossessed in his favour, can she do better than marry him? and, as he is so much attached to the house of Coulanges, when he cannot have the daughter, can he do better than marry the mother? — Your mother does not look too old for him, when she is well rouged; and I am sure, if she heard me say so, she would forgive me all the rest — butterfly, frivolity, and all inclusive. Permit me, Emilie, to laugh.”
“I cannot permit any body to laugh at mamma,” said Emilie; “and Mrs. Somers is the last person whom I should have supposed would have been inclined to laugh, when I told her that I was really unhappy.”
“My dear Emilie, I forgive you for being angry, because I never saw you angry before; and that is more than you can say for me. You do me justice, however, by supposing that I should be the last person to laugh when you are in woe, unless I thought — unless I was sure — that I could remove the cause, and make you completely happy.”
“That, I fear, is impossible,” said Emilie: “for mamma’s pride and her feelings have been so much hurt, that I do not think any apology would now calm her mind.”
“Apology! — I am not in the least inclined to make any. Can I tell Mad. de Coulanges that I do not think her frivolous? — Impossible, indeed, my dear! I will do any thing else to oblige you. But I have as much pride, and as much feeling, in my own way, as any of the house of Coulanges: and if, after all I have done, madame can quarrel with me about a butterfly, I must say, not only that she is the most frivolous, but the most ungrateful woman upon earth; and, as she desires to quit my house, far from attempting to detain her, I can only wish that she may accomplish her purpose as soon as possible — as soon as it may suit her own convenience. As for you, Emilie, I do not suspect you of the ingratitude of wishing to leave me — I can make distinctions, even when I have most reason to be angry. I do not blame you, my dear — I do not ever ask you to blame your mother. I respect your filial piety — I am sure you must think her to blame, but I do not desire you to say so. Could any thing be more barbarously selfish than the plan of marrying you to this M. de Brisac, that she might have an establishment more to her taste than my house has been able to afford?”
Emilie attempted, but in vain, to say a few words for her mother. Mrs. Somers ran on with her own thoughts.
“And at what a time, at what a cruel time for me, did Mad. de Coulanges choose to express her desire to leave my house — at the moment when my whole soul was intent upon a scheme for the happiness of her daughter! Yes, Emilie, for your happiness! — and, my dear, your mother’s conduct shall change nothing in my views. You I have always found uniformly kind, gentle, grateful — I will say no more — I have found in you, Emilie, real magnanimity. I have tried your temper much — sometimes too much — but I have always found you proof against these petty trials. Your character is suited to mine. I love you, as if you were my daughter, and I wish you to be my daughter. — Now you know my whole mind, Emilie. My son — my eldest son, I should with emphasis say, if I were speaking to Mad. de Coulanges — will be here in a few days: read this letter. How happy I shall be if you find him — or if you will make him — such as you can entirely approve and love! You will have power over him — your influence will do what his mother’s never could accomplish. But whatever reasons I may have to complain of him, this is not the time to state them — you will connect him with me. At all events, he is a man of honour and a gentleman; and as he is not, thank Heaven! under the debasing necessity of considering fortune in the choice of a wife, he is, at least in this respect, worthy of my dear and high-minded Emilie.”
Mrs. Somers paused, and fixed her eyes eagerly on Emilie, impatient for her answer, and already half provoked by not seeing the sudden transition of countenance which she had pictured in her imagination. With a mixture of dignity and affectionate gratitude in her manner, Emilie was beginning to thank Mrs. Somers for the generous kindness of her intention; but this susceptible lady interrupted her, and exclaimed, “Spare me your thanks, Mlle. de Coulanges, and tell me at once what is passing in your mind; for something very extraordinary is certainly passing there, which I cannot comprehend. Surely you cannot for a moment imagine that your mother will insist upon your now accepting of M. de Brisac; or, if she does, surely you would not have the weakness to yield. I must have some proof of strength of mind from my friends. You must judge for yourself, Emilie, or you are not the person I take you for. You will have full opportunity of judging in a few days. Will you promise me that you will decide entirely for yourself, and that you will keep your mind unbiassed? Will you promise me this? And will you speak, at all events, my dear, that I may understand you?”
Emilie, who saw that even before she spoke Mrs. Somers was on the brink of anger, trembled at the idea of confessing the truth — that her heart was already biassed in favour of another: she had, however, the courage to explain to her all that passed in her mind. Mrs. Somers heard her with inexpressible disappointment. She was silent for some minutes. At last she said, in a voice of constrained passion, “Mlle. de Coulanges, I have only one question to ask of you — you will reflect before you answer it, because on your reply depends the continuance or utter dissolution of our friendship — do you, or do you not, think proper to refuse my son before you have seen him?”
“Before I have seen Mr. Somers, it surely can be no affront to you or to him,” said Emilie, “to decline an offer that I cannot accept, especially when I give as my reason, that my mind is prepossessed in favour of another. With that prepossession, I cannot unite myself to your son: I can only express to you my gratitude — my most sincere gratitude — for your kind and generous intentions, and my hopes that he will find, amongst his own countrywomen, one more suited to him than I can be. His fortune is far above —”
“Say no more, I beg, Mlle. de Coulanges — I asked only for a simple answer to a plain question. You refuse my son — you refuse to be my daughter. I am satisfied — perfectly satisfied. I suppose you have arranged to go to Lady Littleton’s. I heartily hope that she may be able to make her house more agreeable to you than I could render mine. Shake hands, Mlle. de Coulanges. You have my best wishes for your health and happiness — Here we part.”
“Oh! do not let us part in anger!” said Emilie.
“In anger! — not in the least — I never was cooler in my life. You have completely cooled me — you have shown me the folly of that warmth of friendship which can meet with no return.”
“Would it be a suitable return for your warm friendship to deceive your son?” said Emilie.
“To deceive me, I think still less suitable!” cried Mrs. Somers.
“And how have I deceived you?”
“You know best. Why was I kept in ignorance till the last moment? Why did you never confide your thoughts to me, Emilie? Why did you never till now say one word to me of this strange attachment?”
“There was no necessity for speaking till now,” said Emilie. “It is a subject I never named to any one except to mamma — a subject on which I did not think it right to speak to any one but to a parent.”
“Your notions of right and wrong, ma’am, differ widely from mine — we are not fit to live together. I have no idea of a friend’s concealing any thing from me: without entire confidence, there is no friendship — at least no friendship with me. Pray no tears. I am not fond of scenes. Nobody ever is that feels much. — Adieu! — Adieu!”
Mrs. Somers hurried out of the room, repeating, “I’ll write directly — this instant — to Lady Littleton. Mad. de Coulanges shall not be kept prisoner in my house.” Emilie stood motionless.
In a few minutes Mrs. Somers returned with an unfolded letter, which she put into Emilie’s passive hand. “Read it, ma’am, I beg — read it. I do every thing openly — every thing handsomely, I hope — whatever may be my faults.”
The letter was written with a rapid hand, which was scarcely legible, especially to a foreigner. Emilie, with her eyes full of tears, had no chance of deciphering it.
“Do not hurry yourself, ma’am,” said Mrs. Somers. “I will leave you my letter to show to madame la comtesse, and then you will be so good as to despatch it. — Mlle. de Coulanges,” cried Mrs. Somers, “you will be so obliging as to refrain from mentioning to the countess the foolish offer that I made you in my son’s name this morning. There is no necessity for mortifying my pride any farther — a refusal from you is quite decisive — so pray let there be no consultations. As to the rest, the blame of our disagreement will of course be thrown upon me.”
As Emilie moved towards the door, Mrs. Somers said, “Mlle. de Coulanges, I beg pardon for calling you back: but should you ever think of this business or of me, hereafter, you will do me the justice to remember that I made the proposal to you at a time when I was under the firm belief that you would never recover an inch of your estates in France.”
“And you, dear Mrs. Somers, if you should ever think of me hereafter,” said Emilie, “will, I hope, remember that my answer was given under the same belief.”
With a look which seemed to refuse assent, Mrs. Somers continued, “I am as well aware, ma’am, as you, or Mad. de Coulanges, can be, that if you should recover your hereditary property, the heiress of the house of Coulanges would be a person to whom my son should not presume to aspire.”
“Oh, Mrs. Somers! Is not this cruel mockery — undeserved by me — unworthy of you?”
“Mockery! — Ma’am, it is not three days since your mother was so positive in her expectations of being in the Hotel de Coulanges before next winter, that she was almost in fits because I ventured to differ on this point from her and Lady Littleton — Lady Littleton’s judgment is much better than mine, and has, of course, had its weight — very justly — But I insist upon your understanding clearly that it had no weight with me in this affair. Whatever you may imagine, I never thought of the Coulanges estate.”
“Believe me, I never could have imagined that you did. If I could suspect Mrs. Somers of interested motives,” said Emilie, with emotion so great that she could scarcely articulate the words, “I must be an unfeeling — an ungrateful idiot!”
“No, not an idiot, Mlle. de Coulanges — nobody can mistake you for an idiot: but, as I was going to say, if you inquire, Lady Littleton can tell you that I was absolutely provoked when I first heard you had a chance of recovering your property — you may smile, ma’am, but it is perfectly true. I own I might have been more prudent; but prudence, in affairs of the heart, is not one of my virtues: I own, however, it would have been more prudent to have refrained from making this proposal, till you had received a positive answer from France.”
“And why?” said Emilie. “Whatever that answer might have been, surely you must be certain that it would not have made any alteration in my conduct. — You are silent, Mrs. Somers! — You wound me to the heart! — Oh! do me justice! — Justice is all I ask.”
“I think that I do you justice — full justice — Mlle. de Coulanges; and if it wounds you to the heart, I am sorry for it; but that is not my fault.”
Emilie’s countenance suddenly changed from the expression of supplicating tenderness to haughty indignation. “You doubt my integrity!” she exclaimed: “then, indeed, Mrs. Somers, it is best that we should part!”
Mlle. de Coulanges disappeared, and Mrs. Somers shut herself up in her room, where she walked backwards and forwards for above an hour, then threw herself upon a sofa, and remained nearly another hour, till Mrs. Masham came to say that it was time to dress for dinner. She then started up, saying aloud, “I will think no more of these ungrateful people.”
“They are gone, ma’am,” said Mrs. Masham —“gone, and gave no vails! — which I don’t think on, upon my own account, God knows! for if millions were offered me, in pocket-pieces, I would not touch one from any soul that comes to the house, having enough, and more than enough, from my own generous lady, who is the only person I stoop to receive from with pleasure. But there are others in the house who are accustomed to vails, and, after staying so long, it was a little ungenteel to go without so much as offering any one any thing — and to go in such a hurry and huff — taking only a French leave, after all! I must acknowledge with you, ma’am, that they are the ungratefullest people that ever were seen in England. Why, ma’am, I went backwards and forwards often enough into their apartments, to try to make out the cause of the packings and messages to the washer-woman, that I might inform you, but nothing transpired; yet I am certain, in their hearts, they are more black and ungrateful than any that ever were born; for there! — at the last moment, when even, for old acquaintance sake, the tears stood in my eyes, there was Miss Emilie, sitting as composedly as a judge, painting a butterfly’s wing on some of her Frenchifications! Her eyes were red, to do her justice; but whether with painting or crying, I can’t pretend to be certain. But as to Mad. de Coulanges, I can answer for her that the sole thing in nature she thought of, in leaving this house, was the bad step of the hackney-coach.”
“Hackney-coach!” cried Mrs. Somers, with surprise. “Did they go away in a hackney-coach?”
“Yes, ma’am, much against the countess’ stomach, I am sure: I only wish you had seen the face she made when the glass would not come up.”
“But why did not they take my carriage, or wait for Lady Littleton’s? They were, it seems, in a violent hurry to be gone,” said Mrs. Somers.
“So it seems, indeed, ma’am — no better proof of their being the most ungratefullest people in the universe: but so it is, by all accounts, with all of their nation — the French having no constant hearts for any thing but singing, and dancing, and dressing, and making merry-andrews of themselves. Indeed, I own, till to-day, I thought Miss Emilie had less of the merry-andrew nature than any of her country; but the butterfly has satisfied me that there is no striving against climate and natural character, which conquer gratitude and every thing else.”
Mrs. Somers sighed, and told Masham that she had said enough upon this disagreeable subject. At dinner the subject was renewed by many visitors, who, as soon as they found that Mad. and Mlle. de Coulanges had left Mrs. Somers, began to find innumerable faults with the French in general, and with the countess and her daughter in particular. On the chapter of gratitude they were most severe; and Mrs. Somers was universally pitied for having so much generosity, and blamed for having had so much patience. Every body declared that they foresaw how she would be treated; and the exclamations of wonder at Lady Littleton’s inviting to her house those who had behaved so ill to her friend were unceasing. Mrs. Somers all the time denied that she had any cause of complaint against either Mad. de Coulanges or her daughter; but the company judiciously trusted more to her looks than her words. Every thing was said or hinted that could exasperate her against her former favourites: for Mad. de Coulanges had made many enemies by engrossing an unreasonable share in the conversation; and Emilie by attracting too great a portion of attention by her beauty and engaging manners. Malice often overshoots the mark: Mrs. Somers was at first glad to hear the objects of her indignation abused; but at last she began to think the profusion of blame greater than was merited, and when she retired to rest at night, and when Masham began with “Oh, ma’am! do you know that Mlle. de Coulanges —” Mrs. Somers interrupted her, and said, “Masham, I desire to hear nothing more about Mlle. de Coulanges: I have heard her and her mother abused, without ceasing, these two hours, and that is enough.”
“Lord! ma’am, I was not going to abuse them — God forbid! I was just going to tell you,” cried Masham, “that never was any thing so mistaken as all I said before dinner. Just now, ma’am, when I went into the little dressing-room, within Mad. de Coulanges’ room, and happened to open the wardrobe, I was quite struck back with shame at my own unjustice: there, ma’am, poor Miss Emilie left something — and out of her best things! — to every maid-servant in the house; all directed in her own hand, and with a good word for each; and this ring for me, which she is kind enough to say is of no value but to put me in mind of all the attentions I have shown her and her mother — which, I am sure, were scarcely worth noticing, especially at such a time when she had enough to do, and her heart full, no doubt, poor soul! — There are her little paintings and embroideries, and pretty things, that she did when she was confined with her sprain, all laid out in order —’tis my astonishment how she found time! — and directed to her friends in London, as keep-sakes:— and the very butterfly that I was so angry with her for staying to finish, is on something for you, ma’am; and here’s a packet that was with it, and that nobody saw till this minute.”
“Give it me!” cried Mrs. Somers. She tore it open, and found, in the first place, the pocketbook, full of bank notes, which she had given Mad. de Coulanges, with a few polite but haughty lines from the countess, saying that only twenty guineas had been used, which she hoped, at some future period, to be able to repay. Then came a note from Emilie, in which Mrs. Somers found her own letter to Lady Littleton. Emilie expressed herself as follows.
“Many thanks for the enclosed, but we have determined not to go to Lady Littleton’s: at least we will take care not to be the cause of quarrel between friends to whom we are so much obliged. — No, dear Mrs. Somers! we do not part in anger. Excuse me, if the last words I said to you were hasty — they were forced from me by a moment of passion — but it is past: all your generosity, all your kindness, the recollection of all that you have done, all that you have wished for my happiness, rush upon my mind; and every other thought, and every other feeling, is forgotten. Would to Heaven that I could express to you my gratitude by actions! — but words, alas! are all that I have in my power — and where shall I find words that can reach your heart? I had better be silent, and trust to time and to you. I know your generous temper — you will soon blame yourself for having judged too severely of Emilie. But do not reproach yourself — do not let this give you a moment’s uneasiness: the clouds pass away, and the blue sky remains. Think only — as I ever shall — of your goodness to mamma and to me. Adieu!
“EMILIE DE COULANGES.”
Mrs. Somers was much affected by this letter, and by the information that Emilie and her mother had declined taking refuge with Lady Littleton, lest they should occasion jealousies between her and her friend. Generous people are, of all others, the most touched by generosity of sentiment or of action. Mrs. Somers went to bed, enraged against herself — but it was now too late.
In the mean time, Emilie and her mother were in an obscure lodging, at a haberdasher’s near Golden Square. The pride of Mad. de Coulanges, at first, supported her even beyond her daughter’s expectations; she uttered no complaints, but frequently repeated, “Mais nous sommes bien ici, très bien — we cannot expect to have things as well as at the Hotel de Coulanges.” In a short time she was threatened with fits of her vapeurs noirs; but Emilie, with the assistance of her whole store of French songs, a bird-organ, a lap-dog, and a squirrel, belonging to the girl of the house, contrived to avert the danger for the present — as to the future, she trembled to think of it. M. de Brisac seemed to be continually in her mother’s thoughts; and whatever occurred, or whatever was the subject of conversation, Mad. de Coulanges always found means to end with “à propos de M. de Brisac.” Faithful to her promise, however, which Emilie, with the utmost delicacy, recalled to her mind, she declared that she would not give M. de Brisac an answer till the end of the month, which she had allowed her daughter for reflection, and that, till that period, she would not even let him know where they were to be found. Emilie thought that the time went very fast, and her mother evidently rejoiced at the idea that the month would soon be at an end. Emilie endeavoured, with all her skill, to demonstrate to her mother that it would be possible to support themselves, by her industry and ingenuity, without this marriage; and to this, Mad. de Coulanges at first replied, “Try, and you will soon be tired, child.” Emilie’s spirits rose on receiving this permission: she began by copying music for a music-shop in the neighbourhood; and her mother saw, with astonishment, that she persevered in her design, and that no fatigue or discouraging circumstances could vanquish her resolution.
“Good Heavens! my child,” said she, “you will wear yourself to a skeleton with copying music, and with painting, and embroidery, besides stooping so many hours over that tambour frame. My dear, how can you bear all this?”
“How! — Oh! dear mamma!” said Emilie, “there is no great difficulty in all this to me — the difficulty, the impossibility would be, to live happily with a man I despise.”
“I wish,” cried Mad. de Coulanges, “I wish to all the saints, that that hero of yours, that fellow-prisoner of ours at the Abbaye, with his humanity, and his generosity, and his courage, and all his fine qualities, had kept out of your way, Emilie: I wish he were fairly at the bottom of the Black Sea.”
“But you forget that he was the means of obtaining your liberty, mamma.”
“I wish I could forget it — I am always doomed to be obliged to those whom I cannot love. But, after all, you might as well think of the khan of Tartary as of this man, whom we shall never hear of more. Marry M. de Brisac, like a reasonable creature, and do not let me see you bending, as you do, for ever, over a tambour frame, wasting your fine eyes and spoiling your charming shape.”
“But, mamma,” said Emilie, “would it not be much worse to marry one man, and like another?”
“For mercy’s sake! say something new to me, Emilie; at all events, I have heard this a hundred times.”
“The simple truth, alas!” said Emilie, “must always be the same: I wish I could put it in any new light that would please you, dear mamma.”
“It never can please me, child,” cried Mad. de Coulanges, angrily; “nor can you please me, either, as you are going on. Fine heroism, truly! — you will sacrifice your duty and your mother to your obstinacy in an idle fancy. But, remember, the last days of the month are at hand — longer I will not listen to such provoking nonsense — it has half killed me already.”
Neither lap-dog, squirrel, bird-organ, nor Emilie’s whole stock of French songs, could longer support the vivacity of Mad. de Coulanges; for some days she had passed the time in watching and listening to the London cries, as she sat at her window: the figures and sounds in this busy part of the town were quite new to her; and, whilst the novelty lasted, she was, like a child, good-humoured and full of exclamations. The want of some one to listen to these exclamations was an insupportable evil; she complained terribly of her daughter’s silence, whilst she was attending to her different employments. This want of conversation, and of all the luxuries she enjoyed at the house of Mrs. Somers, her anger against that lady, her loss of all hope of hearing from France, and her fear that Emilie would at last absolutely refuse to obey and marry M. de Brisac, all together operated so powerfully upon Mad. de Coulanges, that she really felt sick, and kept her bed. Emilie now confined herself to her mother’s room, and attended her with the most affectionate care, and with a degree of anxiety, which those only can comprehend who have believed themselves to be the cause of the illness of a friend — of a parent. Mad. de Coulanges would sometimes reply, when her daughter asked her if such or such a thing had done her good, “No, my child, nothing will do me good but your obedience, which you refuse me — perhaps on my deathbed.”
Though Emilie did not apprehend that her mother was in any immediate danger, yet these continual fits of low spirits and nervous attacks excited much alarm. Emilie’s reflections on her own helpless situation contributed to magnify her fears: she considered that she was a stranger, a foreigner, without friends, without credit, almost without money, and deprived, by the necessary attendance on her sick mother, of all power to earn any by her own exertions. The bodily fatigue that she endured, even without any mental anxiety, would have been sufficient to wear out the spirits of a more robust person than Emilie. She had no human being to assist her but a young girl, a servant-maid belonging to the house, who, fortunately, was active and good-natured; but her mistress was excessively cross, vulgar, and avaricious; avarice, indeed, often seemed to conquer in her the common feelings of humanity. Once, whilst Mad. de Coulanges was extremely ill, she forced her way into her bedchamber, to insist upon changing the counterpane upon the bed, which she said was too good to be stained with coffee: another day, when she was angry with Mlle. de Coulanges, for having cracked a basin by heating some soup for her mother, she declared, in the least ceremonious terms possible, that she hated to have any of the French refugees and emigrants in the house, for that she was not accustomed to let her lodgings to folk that nobody ever came near to visit, and that lived only upon soups and salads, and such low stuff; “and who, when they were ill, never so much as called in a physician, or even a nurse, but must take up the time of people that were not bound to wait upon them.”
Mlle. de Coulanges bore all this patiently rather than run the hazard of removing to other lodgings whilst her mother was so ill. The countess had a prejudice against English physicians, as she affirmed that it was impossible that they could understand French constitutions, especially hers, which was different from that of any other human being, and which, as she said, only one medical man in France rightly understood. At last, however, she yielded to the persuasions of her daughter, and permitted Emilie to send for a physician. When she inquired what he thought of her mother, he said, that she was in a nervous fever, and that unless her mind was kept free from anxiety he could not answer for her recovery. Mad. de Coulanges looked full at her daughter, who was standing at the foot of her bed; a mist came before Emilie’s eyes, a cold dew covered her forehead, and she was forced to hold by the bed-post to support herself.
At this instant the door opened, and Lady Littleton appeared. Emilie sprang forward, and threw herself into her arms — Mad. de Coulanges started up in her bed, exclaiming “Ah Ciel!” and then all were silent — except the mistress of the house, who went on making apologies about the dirt of her stairs, and its being Friday night. But as she at length perceived that not a soul in the room knew a word she was saying, she retreated. The physician took leave — and, when they were thus left at liberty, Lady Littleton seated herself in the broken arm-chair beside the bed, and told Mad. de Coulanges that Mrs. Somers had been very unhappy, in consequence of their quarrel; and that she had been indefatigable in her inquiries and endeavours to find out the place of their retreat; that she had at last given up the search in despair. “But,” continued Lady Littleton, “it has been my good fortune to discover you by means of this flower of Emilie’s painting”—(she produced a little hand-screen, which Emilie had lately made, and which she had sent to be disposed of at the Repository for Ingenious Works). “I knew it to be yours, my dear, because it is an exact resemblance of one upon your watch of Flora, which was drawn from the flower I brought you from Kew Gardens. Now you must not be angry with me for finding you out, nor for begging of you to be reconciled to poor Mrs. Somers, who has suffered much in your absence — much from the idea of what you would endure — and more from her self-reproaches. She has, indeed, an unfortunate susceptibility of temper, which makes her sometimes forget both politeness and justice: but, as you well know, her heart is excellent. Come, you must promise me to meet her at my house, as soon as you are able to go out, my dear Mad. de Coulanges.”
“I do not know when that will be,” replied Mad. de Coulanges, in a sick voice: “I was never so ill in my life — and so the physician says. But I am revived by seeing Lady Littleton — she is, and ever has been, all goodness and politeness to us. I am ashamed that she should see us in such a miserable place. Emilie, give me my other night-riband, and the wretched little looking-glass.”
Mad. de Coulanges sat up and arranged her head-dress. At this moment, Lady Littleton took Emilie aside, and put into her hand a letter from France! —“I would not speak of it suddenly to your mother, my dear,” said she; “but you will find the proper time. I hope it contains good news — at present I will have patience. You shall see me again soon; and you must, at all events, let me take you from this miserable place. Mrs. Somers has been punished enough. — Adieu! — I long to know the news from France.”
The news from France was such as made the looking-glass drop from the hand of Mad. de Coulanges. It was a letter from the son of her old steward, to tell her that his father was dead — that he was now in possession of all the family fortune, which he was impatient to restore to the wife and daughter of his former master and friend.
“Heaven be praised!” exclaimed Mad. de Coulanges, in an ecstasy of joy —“Heaven be praised! we shall once more see dear Paris, and the Hotel de Coulanges!”
“Heaven be praised!” cried Emilie, “I shall never more see M. de Brisac. My mother, I am sure, will no longer wish me to marry him.”
“No, in truth,” said the countess, “it would now be a most unequal match, and one to which he is by no means entitled. How fortunate it is that I had not given him my promise! — After all, your aversion to him, child, was quite providential. Now you may form the most splendid alliance that your heart can desire.”
“My heart,” said Emilie, sighing, “desires no splendid alliance. But had you not better lie down, dear mamma? — You will certainly catch cold — and remember, your mind must be kept quiet.”
It was impossible to keep her mind quiet; she ran on from one subject to another with extravagant volubility; and Emilie was afraid that she would, the next day, be quite exhausted; but, on the contrary, after talking above half the night, she fell into a sound sleep; and when she wakened, after having slept fourteen hours, she declared that she would no longer be kept a prisoner in bed. The renovating effects of joy and the influence of the imagination were never more strongly displayed. “Le malheur passé n’est bon qu’à être oublié,” was la comtesse’s favourite maxim — and to do her justice, she was as ready to forget past quarrels as past misfortunes. She readily complied with Emilie’s request that she would, as soon as she was able to go out, accompany her to Lady Littleton’s, that they might meet and be reconciled to Mrs. Somers.
“She has the most tormenting temper imaginable,” said the countess; “and I would not live with her for the universe — Mais d’ailleurs c’est la meilleure femme du monde.”
If, instead of being the best woman in the world, Mrs. Somers had been the worst, and if, instead of being a benefactress, she had been an enemy, it would have been all the same thing to the countess; for, in this moment, she was, as usual, like a child, a friend to every creature of every kind.
Her volubility was interrupted by the arrival of Lady Littleton, who came to carry Mad. de Coulanges and Emilie to her house, where, as her ladyship said, Mrs. Somers was impatiently waiting for them. Lady Littleton had prevented her from coming to this poor lodging-house, because she knew that the being seen there would mortify the pride of some of the house of Coulanges.
Mrs. Somers was indeed waiting for them with inexpressible impatience. The moment she heard their voices in the hall at Lady Littleton’s, she ran down stairs to meet them; and as she embraced Emilie she could not refrain from bursting into tears.
“Tears of joy, these must be,” cried Mad. de Coulanges: “we are all happy now — perfectly happy — Are not we? — Embrace me, Mrs. Somers — Emilie shall not have all your heart — I have some gratitude as well as my daughter; and I should have none if I did not love you — especially at this moment.”
Mad. de Coulanges was, by this time, at the head of the stairs; a servant opened the drawing-room door; but something was amiss with the strings of her sandals — she would stay to adjust them — and said to Emilie, “Allez, allez — entrez.”
Emilie obeyed. An instant afterwards Mad. de Coulanges thought she heard a sudden cry, either of joy or grief, from Emilie — she hurried into the drawing-room.
“Bon Dieu! c’est notre homme de l’Abbaye!” cried she, starting back at the sight of a gentleman who had been kneeling at Emilie’s feet, and who arose as she entered.
“My son!” said Mrs. Somers, eagerly presenting him to Mad. de Coulanges —“my son! whom it is in your power to make the happiest or the most miserable of men!”
“In my power! — in Emilie’s, you mean, I suppose,” said the countess, smiling. “She is so good a girl that I cannot make her miserable; and as for you, Mrs. Somers, the honour of your alliance — and our obligations — But then I shall be miserable myself if she does not go back with me to the Hotel de Coulanges — Ah! Ciel! — And then poor M. de Brisac, he will be miserable, unless, to comfort him, I marry him myself.”— Half laughing, half crying, Mad. de Coulanges scarcely knew what she said or did.
It was some time before she was sufficiently composed to understand clearly what was said to her by any person in the room, though she asked, half a dozen times, at least, from every one present, an explanation of all that had happened.
Lady Littleton was the only person who could give an explanation. She had contrived this meeting, and even Mrs. Somers had not foreseen the event — she never suspected that her own son was the very person to whom Emilie was attached, and that it was for Emilie’s sake her son had hitherto refused to comply with her earnest desire that he should marry and settle in the world. He had no hopes that she would consent to his marrying a French girl without fortune, because she formerly quarrelled with him for refusing to marry a rich lady of quality, who happened to be, at that time, high in her favour. Upon the summons home that he received from her, he was alarmed by the apprehension that she had some new alliance in view for him, and he resolved, before he saw his mother, to trust his secret to Lady Littleton, who had always been a mediatrix and peace-maker. He declined telling the name of the object of his affections; but, from his description, and from many concomitant dates and circumstances, Lady Littleton was led to suspect that it might be Emilie de Coulanges. She consequently contrived an interview, which she knew must be decisive.
Mad. de Coulanges, whose imagination was now at Paris, felt rather disappointed at the idea of her daughter’s marrying an Englishman, who was neither a count, a marquis, nor even a baron; but Lady Littleton at length obtained that consent which she knew would be necessary to render Emilie happy, even in following the dictates of her heart, or her reason.
Some conversation passed between Lady Littleton and Mrs. Somers about a dormant title in the Somers’ family, which might be revived. This made a wonderful impression on the countess. She yielded, as she did every thing else, with a good grace.
History does not say, whether she did or did not console M. de Brisac: we are only informed that, immediately after her daughter’s marriage, she returned to Paris, and gave a splendid ball at her Hotel de Coulanges. We are further assured that Mrs. Somers never quarrelled with Emilie from the day of her marriage till the day of her death — but that is incredible.
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