My Lady Ludlow, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter VII.

“I have told you that I heard much of this story from a friend of the Intendant of the De Crequys, whom he met with in London. Some years afterwards — the summer before my lord’s death — I was travelling with him in Devonshire, and we went to see the French prisoners of war on Dartmoor. We fell into conversation with one of them, whom I found out to be the very Pierre of whom I had heard before, as having been involved in the fatal story of Clement and Virginie, and by him I was told much of their last days, and thus I learnt how to have some sympathy with all those who were concerned in those terrible events; yes, even with the younger Morin himself, on whose behalf Pierre spoke warmly, even after so long a time had elapsed.

“For when the younger Morin called at the porter’s lodge, on the evening of the day when Virginie had gone out for the first time after so many months’ confinement to the conciergerie, he was struck with the improvement in her appearance. It seems to have hardly been that he thought her beauty greater: for, in addition to the fact that she was not beautiful, Morin had arrived at that point of being enamoured when it does not signify whether the beloved one is plain or handsome — she has enchanted one pair of eyes, which henceforward see her through their own medium. But Morin noticed the faint increase of colour and light in her countenance. It was as though she had broken through her thick cloud of hopeless sorrow, and was dawning forth into a happier life. And so, whereas during her grief, he had revered and respected it even to a point of silent sympathy, now that she was gladdened, his heart rose on the wings of strengthened hopes. Even in the dreary monotony of this existence in his Aunt Babette’s conciergerie, Time had not failed in his work, and now, perhaps, soon he might humbly strive to help Time. The very next day he returned — on some pretence of business — to the Hotel Duguesclin, and made his aunt’s room, rather than his aunt herself, a present of roses and geraniums tied up in a bouquet with a tricolor ribbon. Virginie was in the room, sitting at the coarse sewing she liked to do for Madame Babette. He saw her eyes brighten at the sight of the flowers: she asked his aunt to let her arrange them; he saw her untie the ribbon, and with a gesture of dislike, throw it on the ground, and give it a kick with her little foot, and even in this girlish manner of insulting his dearest prejudices, he found something to admire.

“As he was coming out, Pierre stopped him. The lad had been trying to arrest his cousin’s attention by futile grimaces and signs played off behind Virginie’s back: but Monsieur Morin saw nothing but Mademoiselle Cannes. However, Pierre was not to be baffled, and Monsieur Morin found him in waiting just outside the threshold. With his finger on his lips, Pierre walked on tiptoe by his companion’s side till they would have been long past sight or hearing of the conciergerie, even had the inhabitants devoted themselves to the purposes of spying or listening.

“‘Chut!’ said Pierre, at last. ‘She goes out walking.’

“‘Well?’ said Monsieur Morin, half curious, half annoyed at being disturbed in the delicious reverie of the future into which he longed to fall.

“‘Well! It is not well. It is bad.’

“‘Why? I do not ask who she is, but I have my ideas. She is an aristocrat. Do the people about here begin to suspect her?’

“‘No, no!’ said Pierre. ‘But she goes out walking. She has gone these two mornings. I have watched her. She meets a man — she is friends with him, for she talks to him as eagerly as he does to her — mamma cannot tell who he is.’

“‘Has my aunt seen him?’

“‘No, not so much as a fly’s wing of him. I myself have only seen his back. It strikes me like a familiar back, and yet I cannot think who it is. But they separate with sudden darts, like two birds who have been together to feed their young ones. One moment they are in close talk, their heads together chuckotting; the next he has turned up some bye-street, and Mademoiselle Cannes is close upon me — has almost caught me.’

“‘But she did not see you?’ inquired Monsieur Morin, in so altered a voice that Pierre gave him one of his quick penetrating looks. He was struck by the way in which his cousin’s features — always coarse and common-place — had become contracted and pinched; struck, too, by the livid look on his sallow complexion. But as if Morin was conscious of the manner in which his face belied his feelings, he made an effort, and smiled, and patted Pierre’s head, and thanked him for his intelligence, and gave him a five-franc piece, and bade him go on with his observations of Mademoiselle Cannes’ movements, and report all to him.

“Pierre returned home with a light heart, tossing up his five-franc piece as he ran. Just as he was at the conciergerie door, a great tall man bustled past him, and snatched his money away from him, looking back with a laugh, which added insult to injury. Pierre had no redress; no one had witnessed the impudent theft, and if they had, no one to be seen in the street was strong enough to give him redress. Besides, Pierre had seen enough of the state of the streets of Paris at that time to know that friends, not enemies, were required, and the man had a bad air about him. But all these considerations did not keep Pierre from bursting out into a fit of crying when he was once more under his mother’s roof; and Virginie, who was alone there (Madame Babette having gone out to make her daily purchases), might have imagined him pommeled to death by the loudness of his sobs.

“‘What is the matter?’ asked she. ‘Speak, my child. What hast thou done?’

“‘He has robbed me! he has robbed me!’ was all Pierre could gulp out.

“‘Robbed thee! and of what, my poor boy?’ said Virginie, stroking his hair gently.

“‘Of my five-franc piece — of a five-franc piece,’ said Pierre, correcting himself, and leaving out the word my, half fearful lest Virginie should inquire how he became possessed of such a sum, and for what services it had been given him. But, of course, no such idea came into her head, for it would have been impertinent, and she was gentle-born.

“‘Wait a moment, my lad,’ and going to the one small drawer in the inner apartment, which held all her few possessions, she brought back a little ring — a ring just with one ruby in it — which she had worn in the days when she cared to wear jewels. ‘Take this,’ said she, ‘and run with it to a jeweller’s. It is but a poor, valueless thing, but it will bring you in your five francs, at any rate. Go! I desire you.’

“‘But I cannot,’ said the boy, hesitating; some dim sense of honour flitting through his misty morals.

“‘Yes, you must!’ she continued, urging him with her hand to the door. ‘Run! if it brings in more than five francs, you shall return the surplus to me.’

“Thus tempted by her urgency, and, I suppose, reasoning with himself to the effect that he might as well have the money, and then see whether he thought it right to act as a spy upon her or not — the one action did not pledge him to the other, nor yet did she make any conditions with her gift — Pierre went off with her ring; and, after repaying himself his five francs, he was enabled to bring Virginie back two more, so well had he managed his affairs. But, although the whole transaction did not leave him bound, in any way, to discover or forward Virginie’s wishes, it did leave him pledged, according to his code, to act according to her advantage, and he considered himself the judge of the best course to be pursued to this end. And, moreover, this little kindness attached him to her personally. He began to think how pleasant it would be to have so kind and generous a person for a relation; how easily his troubles might be borne if he had always such a ready helper at hand; how much he should like to make her like him, and come to him for the protection of his masculine power! First of all his duties, as her self-appointed squire, came the necessity of finding out who her strange new acquaintance was. Thus, you see, he arrived at the same end, via supposed duty, that he was previously pledged to via interest. I fancy a good number of us, when any line of action will promote our own interest, can make ourselves believe that reasons exist which compel us to it as a duty.

“In the course of a very few days, Pierre had so circumvented Virginie as to have discovered that her new friend was no other than the Norman farmer in a different dress. This was a great piece of knowledge to impart to Morin. But Pierre was not prepared for the immediate physical effect it had on his cousin. Morin sat suddenly down on one of the seats in the Boulevards — it was there Pierre had met with him accidentally — when he heard who it was that Virginie met. I do not suppose the man had the faintest idea of any relationship or even previous acquaintanceship between Clement and Virginie. If he thought of anything beyond the mere fact presented to him, that his idol was in communication with another, younger, handsomer man than himself, it must have been that the Norman farmer had seen her at the conciergerie, and had been attracted by her, and, as was but natural, had tried to make her acquaintance, and had succeeded. But, from what Pierre told me, I should not think that even this much thought passed through Morin’s mind. He seems to have been a man of rare and concentrated attachments; violent, though restrained and undemonstrative passions; and, above all, a capability of jealousy, of which his dark oriental complexion must have been a type. I could fancy that if he had married Virginie, he would have coined his life-blood for luxuries to make her happy; would have watched over and petted her, at every sacrifice to himself, as long as she would have been content to live with him alone. But, as Pierre expressed it to me: ‘When I saw what my cousin was, when I learned his nature too late, I perceived that he would have strangled a bird if she whom he loved was attracted by it from him.’

“When Pierre had told Morin of his discovery, Morin sat down, as I said, quite suddenly, as if he had been shot. He found out that the first meeting between the Norman and Virginie was no accidental, isolated circumstance. Pierre was torturing him with his accounts of daily rendezvous: if but for a moment, they were seeing each other every day, sometimes twice a day. And Virginie could speak to this man, though to himself she was coy and reserved as hardly to utter a sentence. Pierre caught these broken words while his cousin’s complexion grew more and more livid, and then purple, as if some great effect were produced on his circulation by the news he had just heard. Pierre was so startled by his cousin’s wandering, senseless eyes, and otherwise disordered looks, that he rushed into a neighbouring cabaret for a glass of absinthe, which he paid for, as he recollected afterwards, with a portion of Virginie’s five francs. By-and-by Morin recovered his natural appearance; but he was gloomy and silent; and all that Pierre could get out of him was, that the Norman farmer should not sleep another night at the Hotel Duguesclin, giving him such opportunities of passing and repassing by the conciergerie door. He was too much absorbed in his own thoughts to repay Pierre the half franc he had spent on the absinthe, which Pierre perceived, and seems to have noted down in the ledger of his mind as on Virginie’s balance of favour.

“Altogether, he was much disappointed at his cousin’s mode of receiving intelligence, which the lad thought worth another five-franc piece at least; or, if not paid for in money, to be paid for in open-mouthed confidence and expression of feeling, that he was, for a time, so far a partisan of Virginie’s — unconscious Virginie — against his cousin, as to feel regret when the Norman returned no more to his night’s lodging, and when Virginie’s eager watch at the crevice of the closely-drawn blind ended only with a sigh of disappointment. If it had not been for his mother’s presence at the time, Pierre thought he should have told her all. But how far was his mother in his cousin’s confidence as regarded the dismissal of the Norman?

“In a few days, however, Pierre felt almost sure that they had established some new means of communication. Virginie went out for a short time every day; but though Pierre followed her as closely as he could without exciting her observation, he was unable to discover what kind of intercourse she held with the Norman. She went, in general, the same short round among the little shops in the neighbourhood; not entering any, but stopping at two or three. Pierre afterwards remembered that she had invariably paused at the nosegays displayed in a certain window, and studied them long: but, then, she stopped and looked at caps, hats, fashions, confectionery (all of the humble kind common in that quarter), so how should he have known that any particular attraction existed among the flowers? Morin came more regularly than ever to his aunt’s; but Virginie was apparently unconscious that she was the attraction. She looked healthier and more hopeful than she had done for months, and her manners to all were gentler and not so reserved. Almost as if she wished to manifest her gratitude to Madame Babette for her long continuance of kindness, the necessity for which was nearly ended, Virginie showed an unusual alacrity in rendering the old woman any little service in her power, and evidently tried to respond to Monsieur Morin’s civilities, he being Madame Babette’s nephew, with a soft graciousness which must have made one of her principal charms; for all who knew her speak of the fascination of her manners, so winning and attentive to others, while yet her opinions, and often her actions, were of so decided a character. For, as I have said, her beauty was by no means great; yet every man who came near her seems to have fallen into the sphere of her influence. Monsieur Morin was deeper than ever in love with her during these last few days: he was worked up into a state capable of any sacrifice, either of himself or others, so that he might obtain her at last. He sat ‘devouring her with his eyes’ (to use Pierre’s expression) whenever she could not see him; but, if she looked towards him, he looked to the ground — anywhere — away from her and almost stammered in his replies if she addressed any question to him.’

“He had been, I should think, ashamed of his extreme agitation on the Boulevards, for Pierre thought that he absolutely shunned him for these few succeeding days. He must have believed that he had driven the Norman (my poor Clement!) off the field, by banishing him from his inn; and thought that the intercourse between him and Virginie, which he had thus interrupted, was of so slight and transient a character as to be quenched by a little difficulty.

“But he appears to have felt that he had made but little way, and he awkwardly turned to Pierre for help — not yet confessing his love, though; he only tried to make friends again with the lad after their silent estrangement. And Pierre for some time did not choose to perceive his cousin’s advances. He would reply to all the roundabout questions Morin put to him respecting household conversations when he was not present, or household occupations and tone of thought, without mentioning Virginie’s name any more than his questioner did. The lad would seem to suppose, that his cousin’s strong interest in their domestic ways of going on was all on account of Madame Babette. At last he worked his cousin up to the point of making him a confidant: and then the boy was half frightened at the torrent of vehement words he had unloosed. The lava came down with a greater rush for having been pent up so long. Morin cried out his words in a hoarse, passionate voice, clenched his teeth, his fingers, and seemed almost convulsed, as he spoke out his terrible love for Virginie, which would lead him to kill her sooner than see her another’s; and if another stepped in between him and her! — and then he smiled a fierce, triumphant smile, but did not say any more.

“Pierre was, as I said, half-frightened; but also half-admiring. This was really love — a ‘grande passion,’— a really fine dramatic thing — like the plays they acted at the little theatre yonder. He had a dozen times the sympathy with his cousin now that he had had before, and readily swore by the infernal gods, for they were far too enlightened to believe in one God, or Christianity, or anything of the kind — that he would devote himself, body and soul, to forwarding his cousin’s views. Then his cousin took him to a shop, and bought him a smart second-hand watch, on which they scratched the word Fidelite, and thus was the compact sealed. Pierre settled in his own mind, that if he were a woman, he should like to be beloved as Virginie was, by his cousin, and that it would be an extremely good thing for her to be the wife of so rich a citizen as Morin Fils — and for Pierre himself, too, for doubtless their gratitude would lead them to give him rings and watches ad infinitum.

“A day or two afterwards, Virginie was taken ill. Madame Babette said it was because she had persevered in going out in all weathers, after confining herself to two warm rooms for so long; and very probably this was really the cause, for, from Pierre’s account, she must have been suffering from a feverish cold, aggravated, no doubt, by her impatience at Madame Babette’s familiar prohibitions of any more walks until she was better. Every day, in spite of her trembling, aching limbs, she would fain have arranged her dress for her walk at the usual time; but Madame Babette was fully prepared to put physical obstacles in her way, if she was not obedient in remaining tranquil on the little sofa by the side of the fire. The third day, she called Pierre to her, when his mother was not attending (having, in fact, locked up Mademoiselle Cannes’ out-of-door things).

“‘See, my child,’ said Virginie. ‘Thou must do me a great favour. Go to the gardener’s shop in the Rue des Bons–Enfans, and look at the nosegays in the window. I long for pinks; they are my favourite flower. Here are two francs. If thou seest a nosegay of pinks displayed in the window, if it be ever so faded — nay, if thou seest two or three nosegays of pinks, remember, buy them all, and bring them to me, I have so great a desire for the smell.’ She fell back weak and exhausted. Pierre hurried out. Now was the time; here was the clue to the long inspection of the nosegay in this very shop.

“Sure enough, there was a drooping nosegay of pinks in the window. Pierre went in, and, with all his impatience, he made as good a bargain as he could, urging that the flowers were faded, and good for nothing. At last he purchased them at a very moderate price. And now you will learn the bad consequences of teaching the lower orders anything beyond what is immediately necessary to enable them to earn their daily bread! The silly Count de Crequy — he who had been sent to his bloody rest, by the very canaille of whom he thought so much — he who had made Virginie (indirectly, it is true) reject such a man as her cousin Clement, by inflating her mind with his bubbles of theories — this Count de Crequy had long ago taken a fancy to Pierre, as he saw the bright sharp child playing about his court — Monsieur de Crequy had even begun to educate the boy himself to try work out certain opinions of his into practice — but the drudgery of the affair wearied him, and, beside, Babette had left his employment. Still the Count took a kind of interest in his former pupil; and made some sort of arrangement by which Pierre was to be taught reading and writing, and accounts, and Heaven knows what besides — Latin, I dare say. So Pierre, instead of being an innocent messenger, as he ought to have been —(as Mr. Horner’s little lad Gregson ought to have been this morning)— could read writing as well as either you or I. So what does he do, on obtaining the nosegay, but examine it well. The stalks of the flowers were tied up with slips of matting in wet moss. Pierre undid the strings, unwrapped the moss, and out fell a piece of wet paper, with the writing all blurred with moisture. It was but a torn piece of writing-paper, apparently, but Pierre’s wicked mischievous eyes read what was written on it — written so as to look like a fragment — ‘Ready, every and any night at nine. All is prepared. Have no fright. Trust one who, whatever hopes he might once have had, is content now to serve you as a faithful cousin;’ and a place was named, which I forget, but which Pierre did not, as it was evidently the rendezvous. After the lad had studied every word, till he could say it off by heart, he placed the paper where he had found it, enveloped it in moss, and tied the whole up again carefully. Virginie’s face coloured scarlet as she received it. She kept smelling at it, and trembling: but she did not untie it, although Pierre suggested how much fresher it would be if the stalks were immediately put into water. But once, after his back had been turned for a minute, he saw it untied when he looked round again, and Virginie was blushing, and hiding something in her bosom.

“Pierre was now all impatience to set off and find his cousin, But his mother seemed to want him for small domestic purposes even more than usual; and he had chafed over a multitude of errands connected with the Hotel before he could set off and search for his cousin at his usual haunts. At last the two met and Pierre related all the events of the morning to Morin. He said the note off word by word. (That lad this morning had something of the magpie look of Pierre — it made me shudder to see him, and hear him repeat the note by heart.) Then Morin asked him to tell him all over again. Pierre was struck by Morin’s heavy sighs as he repeated the story. When he came the second time to the note, Morin tried to write the words down; but either he was not a good, ready scholar, or his fingers trembled too much. Pierre hardly remembered, but, at any rate, the lad had to do it, with his wicked reading and writing. When this was done, Morin sat heavily silent. Pierre would have preferred the expected outburst, for this impenetrable gloom perplexed and baffled him. He had even to speak to his cousin to rouse him; and when he replied, what he said had so little apparent connection with the subject which Pierre had expected to find uppermost in his mind, that he was half afraid that his cousin had lost his wits.

“‘My Aunt Babette is out of coffee.’

“‘I am sure I do not know,’ said Pierre.

“‘Yes, she is. I heard her say so. Tell her that a friend of mine has just opened a shop in the Rue Saint Antoine, and that if she will join me there in an hour, I will supply her with a good stock of coffee, just to give my friend encouragement. His name is Antoine Meyer, Number One hundred and Fifty at the sign of the Cap of Liberty.’

“‘I could go with you now. I can carry a few pounds of coffee better than my mother,’ said Pierre, all in good faith. He told me he should never forget the look on his cousin’s face, as he turned round, and bade him begone, and give his mother the message without another word. It had evidently sent him home promptly to obey his cousins command. Morin’s message perplexed Madame Babette.

“‘How could he know I was out of coffee?’ said she. ‘I am; but I only used the last up this morning. How could Victor know about it?’

“‘I am sure I can’t tell,’ said Pierre, who by this time had recovered his usual self-possession. ‘All I know is, that monsieur is in a pretty temper, and that if you are not sharp to your time at this Antoine Meyer’s you are likely to come in for some of his black looks.’

“‘Well, it is very kind of him to offer to give me some coffee, to be sure! But how could he know I was out?’

“Pierre hurried his mother off impatiently, for he was certain that the offer of the coffee was only a blind to some hidden purpose on his cousin’s part; and he made no doubt that when his mother had been informed of what his cousin’s real intention was, he, Pierre, could extract it from her by coaxing or bullying. But he was mistaken. Madame Babette returned home, grave, depressed, silent, and loaded with the best coffee. Some time afterwards he learnt why his cousin had sought for this interview. It was to extract from her, by promises and threats, the real name of Mam’selle Cannes, which would give him a clue to the true appellation of The Faithful Cousin. He concealed the second purpose from his aunt, who had been quite unaware of his jealousy of the Norman farmer, or of his identification of him with any relation of Virginie’s. But Madame Babette instinctively shrank from giving him any information: she must have felt that, in the lowering mood in which she found him, his desire for greater knowledge of Virginie’s antecedents boded her no good. And yet he made his aunt his confidante — told her what she had only suspected before — that he was deeply enamoured of Mam’selle Cannes, and would gladly marry her. He spoke to Madame Babette of his father’s hoarded riches; and of the share which he, as partner, had in them at the present time; and of the prospect of the succession to the whole, which he had, as only child. He told his aunt of the provision for her (Madame Babette’s) life, which he would make on the day when he married Mam’selle Cannes. And yet — and yet — Babette saw that in his eye and look which made her more and more reluctant to confide in him. By-and-by he tried threats. She should leave the conciergerie, and find employment where she liked. Still silence. Then he grew angry, and swore that he would inform against her at the bureau of the Directory, for harbouring an aristocrat; an aristocrat he knew Mademoiselle was, whatever her real name might be. His aunt should have a domiciliary visit, and see how she liked that. The officers of the Government were the people for finding out secrets. In vain she reminded him that, by so doing, he would expose to imminent danger the lady whom he had professed to love. He told her, with a sullen relapse into silence after his vehement outpouring of passion, never to trouble herself about that. At last he wearied out the old woman, and, frightened alike of herself and of him, she told him all — that Mam’selle Cannes was Mademoiselle Virginie de Crequy, daughter of the Count of that name. Who was the Count? Younger brother of the Marquis. Where was the Marquis? Dead long ago, leaving a widow and child. A son? (eagerly). Yes, a son. Where was he? Parbleu! how should she know? — for her courage returned a little as the talk went away from the only person of the De Crequy family that she cared about. But, by dint of some small glasses out of a bottle of Antoine Meyer’s, she told him more about the De Crequys than she liked afterwards to remember. For the exhilaration of the brandy lasted but a very short time, and she came home, as I have said, depressed, with a presentiment of coming evil. She would not answer Pierre, but cuffed him about in a manner to which the spoilt boy was quite unaccustomed. His cousin’s short, angry words, and sudden withdrawal of confidence — his mother’s unwonted crossness and fault-finding, all made Virginie’s kind, gentle treatment, more than ever charming to the lad. He half resolved to tell her how he had been acting as a spy upon her actions, and at whose desire he had done it. But he was afraid of Morin, and of the vengeance which he was sure would fall upon him for any breach of confidence. Towards half-past eight that evening — Pierre, watching, saw Virginie arrange several little things — she was in the inner room, but he sat where he could see her through the glazed partition. His mother sat — apparently sleeping — in the great easy-chair; Virginie moved about softly, for fear of disturbing her. She made up one or two little parcels of the few things she could call her own: one packet she concealed about herself — the others she directed, and left on the shelf. ‘She is going,’ thought Pierre, and (as he said in giving me the account) his heart gave a spring, to think that he should never see her again. If either his mother or his cousin had been more kind to him, he might have endeavoured to intercept her; but as it was, he held his breath, and when she came out he pretended to read, scarcely knowing whether he wished her to succeed in the purpose which he was almost sure she entertained, or not. She stopped by him, and passed her hand over his hair. He told me that his eyes filled with tears at this caress. Then she stood for a moment looking at the sleeping Madame Babette, and stooped down and softly kissed her on the forehead. Pierre dreaded lest his mother should awake (for by this time the wayward, vacillating boy must have been quite on Virginie’s side), but the brandy she had drunk made her slumber heavily. Virginie went. Pierre’s heart beat fast. He was sure his cousin would try to intercept her; but how, he could not imagine. He longed to run out and see the catastrophe — but he had let the moment slip; he was also afraid of reawakening his mother to her unusual state of anger and violence.”

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17